Saturday, February 22, 2014

Atheism - what it is, and what it ain't

Think you might be an atheist? Well, there's all sorts of advice out there as to how to tell your friends and family, but let me give you a bit of advice that I don't hear very often:

Get ready to have people tell you what you think.

Honestly, I have to wonder if there is any other viewpoint I have that has people feel as though they understand what I'm thinking better than I do. When I say that I prefer beer over wine, for instance, I don't get people making all kinds of assumptions about what other foods and beverages I like.

I suppose that people of various religious beliefs run into similar situations. I know that I have some Christian friends who get annoyed when, for instance, people assume that they're against gay rights just because they're Christian. That's a pretty lame thing to do, and I try to avoid assuming anything about a Christian other than the fact that he or she accepts the basic doctrine of Jesus dying for our sins.

Perhaps a cool response to this blog, if there are any Christians/Muslims/Hindus/etc. out there reading it, is to write some sort of an equivalent where you dispel the common misconceptions about you. This can be all in the name of improving communication.

So, here's my little guide as to what being an atheist IS and what it ISN'T.


An atheist doesn't believe in any gods. They don't believe in a single, capital-G God. They don't believe in multiple gods. They don't believe in a deistic god or even a pantheistic god. For whatever reason, they simply don't believe in one, and they don't feel the need to call out to one in times of stress. (And yes, there are atheists in foxholes. Sorry folks, but not every aphorism is true.)

That's pretty much it.


Being angry at God - We don't believe. We're about as angry at God as you're angry at Superman for not helping you when you need him.

A choice - You can't believe what you don't believe, just as you can't not believe what you do believe. Perhaps a person makes a choice to not be open-minded or to not hear the other side of the story, but you believe things because they make sense to you, not because you've made some kind of willful decision.

Us being stubborn - While it might make you feel better to think that somehow, deep down inside, we really DO believe in a god, we don't. Get over it.

An indicator of intelligence - Sorry, fellow atheists, but being an atheist doesn't make us smart. (I realize that most of us already agree on this point.) While it's true that there seems to be a correlation between higher education levels and a lack of belief, I've known plenty of atheists who were pretty slow on the draw. (And I'm sure that's true for most of us.)


The following reasons MAY be true for some atheists, as they don't cancel out the "WHAT IT IS" part of this, but don't assume it's true for every atheist you meet. This means that you might have to actually talk to them and listen.

A world-view - It can very well be a part of a person's world view, but it's not one all by itself. Keep reading, and hopefully the following examples will help to illustrate this idea.

A presupposition - This is my current pet-peeve. I often hear from believers that the main difference between us is that we both start off with different conclusions. To this, I must retort: NO, NO, NO and NO. My starting point is as follows: don't start with a conclusion. Draw your conclusion from the evidence and be ready to change it as new evidence comes to you. While starting with a conclusion might very well be what a lot of theists do (notice how I didn't make the same mistake and say "all" of them?) that has got to be the most dishonest way of investigating the truth of anything.

Mutually exclusive with agnosticism - Agnosticism deals with what you know; atheism deals with what you believe. I don't claim to "know" that there isn't a God, and I'll give you a hundred bucks if you can find one instance of me EVER claiming that. But I also don't "know" that there are no Frost Giants. In both cases, I feel comfortable enough with the lack of evidence for either of them to continue living my life as though they don't exist though.

Cynicism/Nihilism - Do some atheists believe that everything is pointless and therefore "don't believe in anything"? Sure. That sure as hell doesn't describe me though - or any other atheist I know.

Skepticism - There are atheists out there who believe in ghosts, psychics, astrology, etc. While certainly some of us (myself included) came to atheism through skepticism, it doesn't necessarily follow that an atheist is a skeptic.

A response born out of emotion - I've had both positive and negative experiences with religion. Neither one is a factor in my thought process. Do some people become atheists simply because they are rejecting an abusing religious experience? I suppose, but don't assume it about all of us.

A flat-out refusal - Most atheists I know can list off a number of things that would convince them that a God exists. I think that many of them would agree with me that if there IS one, then what we "believe" doesn't mean much of anything. Show me verifiable evidence, and by "evidence" I mean the sort of thing that you'd accept as proof no matter what we're talking about. Oftentimes what gets submitted to me as "evidence" is something that the believer thinks is a compelling reason to believe what he/she believes, yet this same person would reject the same argument for a faith that contradicted his/her own.

That's all I've got. Fellow non-believers - have I missed anything?

All grain brewing

After several years of homebrewing, I have entered a new, more advanced, phase: all-grain brewing. I was lucky enough to receive the equipment for it from a friend who was moving across the country and was looking to lighten his load (along with finding excuse to upgrade his gear).

For those of you who aren't familiar with the process, most homebrewers usually start out with extract kits. With those, you mix malted barley syrup with boiling water (along with hops and sometimes other ingredients) to create the pre-fermented beer.

All-grain brewing is just what it sounds like - instead of buying syrup, I'm buying 10+ pounds of milled malted barley. I'm not going to go into the entire rundown of the process, mostly because others have already done so. If you're a homebrewer or homebrewer-curious, then check out this link. If you're just mildly interested in the same way that I find wine production interesting even though I'm not a big fan of wine, then here are some general thoughts:

1. It's a lot more work. Extract brewing is like cooking, and it turns into a science project when you ferment it. All-grain brewing is more of a science project at the start, then you're cooking, and then it's a science project again. 

There are many more steps, which means that there are more places to go wrong. The trickiest part involves keeping the "mash" (the grain sitting in hot water) within a certain temperature range.

2. It takes longer. Set aside the better part of the day if you're going to all-grain. I suppose I'll start to go faster once I get the hang of it, but I found myself having to "fix" my mistakes more than once. Still, even if I get it down perfectly, the very nature of the process adds a few extra hours.

3. Even though I screwed up a bit, I still got some really good beer. The first one I made was a pale ale, and that was good. The second was a brown ale (and a slight modification of a recipe from The Complete Joy of Homebrewing - the book that my sister-in-law bought me years ago which prompted me to start this hobby). That one is downright excellent. In both cases, the alcohol level was a bit lower than it ought to be, but I don't think that anybody can complain about the taste.

4. In both cases, my beers look more "professional". I don't know if this is a coincidence, but most of my extract beers tend to have a decent amount of yeast at the bottom of each bottle. It's not off-putting, but it's noticeable, and my beers are rarely as "clean" looking as the kinds you can buy at the store. In the case of these two all-grain batches, there's hardly any yeast at the bottom of the bottle - just about as much as you see on the bottom of a Sierra Nevada. (They carbonate their beers in the bottle, don't you know.)

5.  Kits are cheaper. The Pale Ale kit I got was eight bucks less than its extract equivalent.

5.  Essentially, the process is a lot of work, a bit frustrating, and slightly maddening. I can't wait to do it again.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Me and the pros

Batman by Jim Lee
I don't get a chance to blog as often as I'd like even though I probably have about five different post ideas that are currently swimming around in my head. For this one, I'll combine three of them into one, as they all fall under the category of comic book professionals whom I've had the pleasure of meeting within the last few months. I'd have four to write about if I included Stan Lee, but I wrote about that in my summer wrap-up post.

The first one was on September 14th when Jim Lee came to my local comic book shop, Flying Colors Comics and Other Cool Stuff in Concord, California. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Lee is the current co-publisher of DC Comics, but he's probably better known by fans for his artwork. He got started at Marvel in the late eighties and rose to fame in the early nineties while drawing characters like The Punisher and The X-Men. He later broke off with a bunch of other popular creators to form Image Comics and draw his own creation, WildC.A.T.s. More recently, he's worked for DC, even selling his creations to them, and working on iconic characters like Batman, Superman, and the Justice League.

I've been following most Lee's work ever since he drew The Punisher War Journal back when I was in middle school. I remember approaching him for a signature at WonderCon, and I was able to walk right up to him. Just a couple of years later, he would have lines that would circle the entire event hall. I already had several of his comics signed by him, but I didn't have any of his more recent stuff from DC. I figured that it would be worth checking out, and I got a pretty good variety of books signed by him, including an issue of Strangers in Paradise where he drew the cover and the first five pages. It was cool because I also had that one signed by series creator Terry Moore, who drew the alternate "flip" cover. I even got a photo with him, which you can see below. Right below that is an interview he did with Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors.

Me and Jim Lee

Batman by Neal Adams
My next meetup with a pro was on January 17 when Neal Adams came to Flying Colors. Mr. Adams has been in the business for a long time, and he's probably influenced every artist who came after him either directly or indirectly. He's also one of the artists responsible for making Batman more of a dark, scary-looking vigilante again rather than the campy, Adam West version.

I figured that I didn't want to pass up an opportunity to meet a guy who's had such an influence on an art form that I love. I was also excited that I was able to find an old reprint of a Green Lantern/Green Arrow comic book of his that I had received when I was in elementary school. A friend of mine gave it to me, and it's a bit battered but still perfectly readable. I know that some people, particularly those who are older than me, have a hard time considering comic books to be anything other than kiddie fare. I can tell you that as a kid, I certainly didn't think that this stuff was aimed at me. This was serious stuff, with one of the stories dealing with Black Canary getting taken in by a cult. I don't think that I even knew what a cult was back then.

Anyway, the ticket that I bought afforded me two signatures. I was all set to bring in that one and a collection of his various Batman comics.

And then something occurred to me.

I received my first comic books when I was three years old and in the hospital for open-heart surgery. A kid with the same first name as me gave them to me. Sharing a hospital room with another kid named Lance is remarkable enough, because I probably can still count all the Lances that I've known in my forty years on this planet on both of my hands with maybe a pinky and a thumb left over.

Turns out that I still have one of those comics - an oversized Batman published in 1976. It collected various stories by some classic Batman artists, and the final story was drawn by Neal Adams. It's funny how it came to me. I was getting ready for bed, and I was going to read the aforementioned Batman collection when it suddenly hit me that one of those stories might have been drawn by Neal Adams. I then went out into the garage and dug it up.

Me and Neal Adams
I don't have a lot of vivid memories of my hospital experience, and I'm fairly certain that it was more of a trauma on my parents than it ever was on me. But when I confirmed that he drew one of those stories, something came crawling out of my deep subconscious. You can ask my wife - I just sat there at the edge of my bed, crying. I didn't have a total breakdown, but I just couldn't stop the tears from flowing.

What's probably obvious is that I decided that particular comic was one that I needed to get signed by him, as old and beat-up as it is. Since I wanted to get at least one nice-looking book signed by him, I opted for a Green Lantern collection that I owned which collected the entire Green Lantern/Green Arrow run, including the one that I had received when I was a kid. I also got a third signature when I bought one of his art prints, which is now framed and hanging on the wall near my son's room.

What was cool about that event is that he really took the time to talk to all of the fans. It made the line move a little slower (not too much of a problem since my ticket got me priority placement) but it was worth it, as it was enjoyable to listen to him talk and tell stories to the people in front of me. What was also nice was that I got a chance to tell him about how I got that particular comic book. (That's me telling him about it in the picture.)

He's also kind of a salty guy, to say the least. You can check out the video with Joe Field interviewing him. (Field is a former radio guy, so he knows how to conduct an interview. It's definitely worth watching if you're a fan.)

George O'Connor signing what may
or may not have been my copy of Zeus.
The most recent meeting with a professional took me out of my neighborhood and into San Francisco on the 6th of February. By some random chance, I stumbled across the fact that George O'Connor was going to be doing a signing at Isotope Comics. O'Connor has been doing an excellent series of books entitled Olympians where in each one, he focuses on a specific Greek god or goddess. So far, he has released volumes for: Zeus, Athena, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. They've all been really great, as it's clear that while his focus is on making the stories fun and accessible, he's also done his homework and knows the material. Each volume has been pretty good, with Hera probably being my favorite one so far (and his too, as I found out when I got to meet him).

While I had to go out of my way to this signing, it was definitely worth the trip. Isotope is a pretty cool comic book store, as it's basically set up as a lounge where customers are encouraged to kick back, read, and hang out a bit. There's even an upstairs area with a bunch of underground ashcan comics and a couch. Another cool thing is the wall of toilet lids with drawings by various artists and writers who have visited the store, including: Jim Lee and Warren Ellis (off the top of my head).

O'Connor's rendition of Aphrodite
There wasn't a very big crowd for this one, so it was nice that I got to take the time to talk with O'Connor about mythology and his creative process. I felt like I was getting a bit of an education while I was there.

One of the more interesting twists to the stories he's retold include the notion that perhaps Persephone wasn't entirely unwilling when she went down to the Underworld to serve as the Queen of Hades. Another was that the rivalry between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite in the "Judgment of Paris" wasn't just about a beauty contest.

Both of these interpretations are grounded in a careful study of the available sources, and O'Connor also manages to crystallize some aspects of these myths that seem pretty obvious when they're pointed out but may not have occurred to you otherwise. One of these is the fact that Hera is cool because she's the only being who scares Zeus. Another one is that the reason why Heracles' name means "the glory of Hera" is because if it wasn't for her working so hard to completely ruin his life, he wouldn't have had an existence filled with challenges - and this wouldn't have given him a reason to show how great he is. It's one of those "God(dess) works in mysterious ways" sorts of things. (I still feel bad for the guy.)

The really cool thing about meeting O'Connor is not just that he signed all six volumes of the series for me, but he also drew a sketch on each one of them. Even better, for each volume, he'd give you a choice between a few different characters. Needless to say, these books, which were already pretty important to my collection of not only comics but works on mythology, have become even greater prized possessions. Check out the sketches:

Aphrodite for her eponymous volume.

Cronus for the Son of Cronus

Beastiality is bad - The Minotaur for the Poseidon volume.

She's my favorite of all the deities, so I went for Athena.

Persephone and her Pomegranate from Hades

The Glory of Hera - Heracles (Hercules to you rubes out there.)