Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Over the past year I've read several books on this theme. All too often people will ignore data and evidence that does not support their preset conclusions and opinions. Whether it's political, ideological, religious or just hard to swallow people resist accepting evidence that will require them to actually change their behaviour or way of thinking.
In Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives author and science journalist Michael Specter covers several specific areas where people do exactly that and become denialists. Whether it's the benefits of vaccines, the safety of genetically modified foods or the nonsense behind the whole vitamin and alternative medicine craze, Specter shows that time and again we ignore the data and the real evidence and in its place accept unverified personal stories from friends and co-workers. Compelling as they may be these personal allegories are just that. And they are poor substitutes for evidence.
Specter points out that denialism is an infection that knows no political restrictions. Conservatives and liberals alike are just as prone to denying overwhelming data when it doesn't support their political ideology.
One of the side effects of reading several books on the same topic is that I have a hard time distinguishing what I learned from what book. Several of the specific cases and evidences cited in this book were also cited in other books I've read. Parts of the book dragged a little for me but only because it was a re-reading of things I've already covered extensively.
One of the topics that I was surprised that Specter didn't cover in this book was global warming. He responded when interviewed on The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast and asked why he didn't devote a chapter to it. He wanted to restrict the topics he covered to areas where more people might be sitting on the fence. He wanted to only address the issues where he hopped that he could actually change peoples' minds. He went on to state that the science behind anthropogenic climate change was so conclusive that he didn't expect his book to change the opinion of anyone who still believed that it was not a reality. Even some of the most hardened skeptics have changed there mind on this topic when they just weighed the massive amount of evidence supporting it.
Denialism is a serious problem. I fear that the marginalizing of science and evidence and the demonizing of intellectualism is seriously hindering technological and social progress. If we really want to solve the major issues of the 21st Century we have to start behaving more rationally.

"If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence."
Bertrand Russell

I disagree with Russell on one slight point here. I've seen far too many times when people have clung to their beliefs even when the evidence was overwhelming.

Monday, December 28, 2009

One-Dimension in Three-Dimensions

Over the weekend our oldest two kids cajoled us into going to see James Cameron’s latest creation “Avatar”. I had planned on just passing this one over because the plot that I could work out from the trailers looked rather lame. I was convinced to go see it when several people that I trust informed me that the imagery in the film was nothing short of stunning and it would be worth my money to see it in the theatre. So here is a quick review of the movie.
Warning! There will be some spoilers.

First the good news:
As predicted the imagery was breathtaking. The CGI and the 3-D effects created a very believable and beautiful world. The variety of Pandoran landscapes and wildlife were so well done that it reminded me of a National Geographic Imax movie. Only on a few rare occasions did the graphics betray its CGI roots. This is clearly the crowning accomplishment of this movie. If for no other reason the movie is well worth the price of admission.

Now the bad news:
There really is no other reason to see this movie besides the graphics and the eye-candy I’ve already described.
The characters are profoundly one-dimensional, particularly the villains. Every preconception you make about every character turns out to be right on the money.
The plot has been recycled so many times that it is easily predictable. The story just seemed to drag along while you were waiting for the inevitable to occur. One friend of mine called it “Dances with Space Wolves”. The story follows a very similar structure. It’s hard to escape the parallel. The overdubbing, the journal entries, etc. It’s as if he just borrowed Costner’s storyboard for the first two hours of the movie.
Although I share their views, the heavy-handed environmental message was laughable in its rigid adherence to stereotype. The good guys were a bunch of self confessed tree-huggers looking for the life force of the forest and the bad guys were the mindless corporate drones driving fleets of bulldozers side by side in formation across the wilderness in order to meet a self imposed production deadline. Another friend of mine called the movie “a half billion dollar CGI remake of ‘Fern Gully’”.
I also had a hard time with the technological anachronisms in the movie. The humans had perfected near light-speed travel yet their military hardware was little more than Blackhawks with modified rotors. They had developed a way to clone human alien hybrids and transfer their thoughts from a “driver” to the hybrid, yet they still fought their battles hand to hand with flesh and blood soldiers in the field. Why? Even the bulldozers in the movie were remote controlled. So why risk the soldiers?
I really wish Cameron would hire a screenwriter for his next film. “The Abyss” was great. But ever since then he has been willing to sacrifice plot, dialogue, character definition and every other element that makes a movie great in exchange for magnificent images. Make no mistake; the images in “Avatar” are amazing. It just saddens me to see this much money spent on creating stunning three-dimensional images to tell a tired one-dimensional story.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2009 Christmas Letter

2009 was another very busy year for our little wing of the Taylor family.

Eve, AKA Evey-bug, Bugger Chugs, Evil Livia, Evey, Chuggers has had a good year. She’s enjoying school quite a lot and finally getting the hang of reading. She’s stubborn so she keeps pushing until she understands. She opted not to do girl scouts again this year and chose instead to take gymnastics. She’s very limber and very strong so it’s a good activity for her. She’s still working on her handstands but she’s getting there. She is cursed with the sarcasm gene from each side of the family and it results in a very quick and zany sense of humor. We love having her around if nothing more for the comic relief.

Noah, Noey, Noah Monster, Noah-it-all is far too smart for his own good. He now reads much faster and more often than most everybody in the family. Last week he found a book series that he enjoys and I think he’s on the fourth or fifth book already. He has a great teacher at school who really understands his quirky sense of humor. It can be tough to teach a kid who really believes that he already knows more than you do. We’re working with him on that. His fashion sense is still running on the James Dean model. He’s perfectly content to wear jeans and a white t-shirt every day of the week and he pulls it off pretty good, too.

Rachel is growing up far too fast for my comfort. I jokingly tell her that she can start dating when she’s thirty. She’s had a few growing pains getting used to Middle school. But considering she’s taking so many gifted classes I’m inclined to cut her a little slack. As with all of my kids it’s tough to be happy with B’s when I know they’re capable of A’s, but that’s something I need to work on. Recently her best friend of many years moved to Florida. They have been pretty much inseparable for quite a while so I foresee some family trips to Tampa in the next years and some increased long distance charges.

Last year Aaron passed Victoria in height and he’s less than an inch from overtaking me now. We’re gonna have to stop feeding that boy. This was his first year in high school. He’s still not quite grasping the importance of the school work. We’re really working with him on setting his sights higher. He has created a large group of friends both in school and in his seminary class. Aaron is also still active in his Boy Scout troop. Last Saturday he spent all day helping out with an Eagle project and then selling Christmas trees to help pay for our Philmont trip in July 2010. He’s only a few merit badges away from being able to start working on an Eagle project. Yesterday he was bugging me about getting his learners permit. I can’t believe I have a son that’s old enough to drive already. Where did that time go?

Victoria is still working much harder than she really should. The yearbook that she put together for the elementary school last year won mountains of praise from parents and students. It was really nice to see so many people gush over it. I know how much of her heart and soul went into every page and it felt good to see others recognize that too. She’s recently taken a few cake decorating classes and really had a good time making cakes for family birthday parties and anniversaries. As with all of her hobbies, she never does anything half way. I enjoy being the technical support and moral support behind the scenes for all her projects. Oh yeah, this is all over and above what she does just getting four kids back and forth from their numerous activities and keeping the house in running order.

I’m now a planner at the phone factory, AT&T. It wasn’t technically a promotion, but it moved me into a group that’s a little up the food chain, which makes it comforting when they announce some lower level layoffs like they did a few months ago. I enjoy the work and it keeps the bills paid.
I’ve taken Victoria’s lead and I’m doing my best to stay in shape. We recently moved offices to another building and I’ve used that as an excuse to walk everyday on my lunch hours. Weather permitting I’ve been doing between 12 and 20 miles each week. But with all the rain lately it’s only been about 10 miles a week.
Victoria bought me a really nice Breedlove guitar for my birthday. I’m still lousy, but I enjoy it and it helps me to relax a little bit while trying to get pretty sounds to come out of it.

On a sad note, we had to say good bye to Jasper a few months ago. Five years ago when we found a stray ferret I never dreamed he would have such an impact on our family. His silly personality was good for all of us. He really helped Aaron deal with years of home-school. He’s probably the primary impact on Eve’s future as a vet. We all miss him terribly, but we’re comforted by the idea that he and Gracie are giving each other a hard time where ever they are.

December 8th, 2009 is the twentieth anniversary of the best decision I’ve made in my entire life. I surprised Victoria by kidnapping her and taking her to a cute little bed and breakfast in Hot Springs North Carolina. It was a great weekend away from the stresses of the world. We’ll probably head back there for our 30th, 40th, 50th etc. I seriously question her sanity every day that she still thinks I’m a good catch, but I hope she never wises up. I truly love her and the family that we have created together.

For more complete details as to what we’ve been up to check out my blog, Victoria’s blog, and Rachel’s blog. And we’re all available on Facebook.com too.

I wish you all Peace on Earth. Goodwill t’ward men.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Emotional Awareness

I have long been a fan of the Dalai Lama. Even though I don’t accept the deeper doctrines of Buddhism, like karma and reincarnation, I really admire the efforts that he has put in to teaching people to live more peaceably with each other. His optimism is infectious. I’ve also been a fan of the work of Dr. Paul Ekman. So it has been really enjoyable to have my commutes filled with their voices as I’ve been listening to Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion: A Conversation Between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman.
Ekman and the Dalai Lama both have the same goals but they are approaching them from different perspectives. Ekman is the scientist who is studying emotion scientifically with the goal of trying to make people’s lives better. The Dalai Lama is a spiritual leader who is also trying to make people’s lives better. Both have found a very common ground in the study of emotion and how to respond to our emotions.
I have so many things to take away from this book that I don’t really know where to start.
Much of the conversation focuses on just being aware of our own emotions and controlling what we feel and how we respond to that emotion. The Buddhist principles of compassion and mindfulness come into play quite a bit in this area.
Ekman refuses to classify emotions as positive or negative. It is only our response to that emotion that can receive such a value judgment. Fear that prompts us to get out of the way of an oncoming train can be good. But fear used to intimidate is bad. Similarly pride and anger can also have similar positive effects if channeled constructively. The only emotion that both the Dalai Lama and Ekman agree has no positive effects is contempt.
Moods are a different issue and both men agree. Moods poison the well and last longer than emotion. Most emotions only last for a relatively short time. Moods however skew you perception and are never constructive. A cranky mood will cause you to misinterpret the actions of others to fit your preconceptions. Even a good mood can be destructive if it causes you to gloss over and not give due attention to a stimulus. I found it very interesting that The Dalai Lama agreed that being overly optimistic can have similar negative effects to being overly pessimistic.
The biggest take away I have found from this book is simply an awareness. I’ve been trying to identify my feelings as emotions or as moods and then trying to consciously decide how to respond. I have a bad habit of taking tidbits that I’ve learned and educating my family. That I believe is good but I tend to sound like I’m lecturing them. I hope that as I learn better emotional awareness I will also become better at sharing with my family.

Anonymous Comments

I have had to change my comments settings to restrict anonymous comments. I started getting so many spammed comments that this was the easiest way to handle it. I hope this doesnt scare anybody away from commenting. I do appreciate any and all comments that are related to the post and not just trying to get me to send money to Nigeria or buying Mona Vea water, etc, etc.

Friday, December 11, 2009


So the trick to keeping a secret from my wife seems to be to tell everybody else. But they all have to believe that they are the only ones you’ve confided in. Just to make sure nobody freaked out and to get all of our responsibilities taken care of ahead of time I had to tell the kids, the babysitter and our substitute nursery teachers for Sunday. And they all kept the secret so Victoria was completely surprised.

Friday after I dropped Aaron off for Sunday I kidnapped Victoria and took her off to a cute little bed and breakfast in Hot Springs NC. The drive up was relaxing and very pretty. The last hour was a bit curvy and I though we might have to pull over so Victoria could toss her cookies but she made it.

The folks at the inn upgraded us to the best room in the house since they knew it was a special occasion for us. The inn was very nice and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who just needs a little getaway. The food alone would be worth another trip up that way. Seriously, I haven’t eaten that well for quite some time.

We took a nice walking tour of the town. I could move there in a heartbeat. The Appalachian Trail runs right down the main drag. It was cold but we made the best of it and enjoyed each other’s company. See her blog for a bunch of pictures.

Saturday we took a trip in to Asheville and toured the Grove Park Inn and saw the really cool gingerbread houses. Then we headed down to Biltmore House. In hindsight we could have passed on seeing Biltmore House. I don’t think Victoria and I could have been more underwhelmed. That has to be the single ugliest building I’ve every been in in my life. There was a lot of hype about the house being really done up for Christmas. Honestly I didn’t even notice besides the Christmas tree in the dining room. And even then I wasn’t too impressed with the tree. I was just curious how they got the tree into the house. At one point during the tour Victoria told me, “You know it’s really a shame that somebody with this much money didn’t have better taste.” The only rooms we enjoyed were those in the basement. I thought the pool, the kitchen and the servant’s quarters were really cool. The bowling alley was neat, but I just felt sorry for whoever had to set up the pins each time.

We spent the rest of our trip primarily sitting around the inn taking it easy. Victoria whipped me 4 out of 5 games of chess. We each were able to get quite a lot of reading done as well. Then after another amazing breakfast Sunday we headed home to the family.

Thanks to all innkeepers, the sitters, substitutes and everybody else who helped me surprise Victoria for our 20th anniversary.

Funny Christmas Memory

My mother recently asked me to write a memory about my favorite Christmas. This is not neccesarily my favorite Christmas but it's just a funny story that I wanted to share.
December of 1996 Victoria and I were at a mall in Salt Lake and after buying stuff for Aaron and a few other family members together we went our separate ways for a few minutes to pick up gifts for each other. When we met back together in front of ZCMI Victoria could barely carry the gift she'd bought for me. She refused to let me help her since she didn't want me to figure it out. A few minutes later she resorted to just dragging the bag through the mall. For about fifteen minutes she dragged soemthing along that appeared to wiegh around 40 pounds. Yet she still refused to let me help her. So a few weeks later I was not the least bit surprised to find a large 12" deep dish cast iron Dutch oven under the tree. I still use it quite frequently. And I get this image of her dragging it through the mall every time I use it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Give Life

I’ve blogged about this before but I just felt the urge to do it again.
Every two weeks I go to the Red Cross and donate platelets. The process is called apheresis. First step is to stick a needle into each arm. Then they pull the blood out of one arm and centrifuge it to remove the platelets and a few other blood products. Then my red blood cells are mixed with saline and pumped back into my other arm. I’ve been donating pretty regularly for about ten years. The whole process takes about two hours. Just long enough to watch a movie. I’ve done it over a hundred times and I’ve gotten to the point that they all know my face and I know most of the folks at the donor center by name. I look forward to my bi-weekly appointment and an excuse to really help somebody out who needs help. And any time I can save somebody’s life by just sitting on my butt and watching a movie, sign me up. I really enjoy the feeling that I get when I walk away, knowing that I’ve done my small part to help relieve the suffering of a fellow human being.
Over time my body has compensated for loosing so many platelets every month and my normal count has gotten higher. Now they are able to take three different products from me in one sitting with no ill effects. And they have recently gotten a few new machines that only require one needle. This is a plus if you’d like to read or if just having both arms immobile for two hours is a little claustrophobic for you.
The last few times have been a little bittersweet for me. There really hasn’t been a lot of other folks donating. I’m not sure what the cause is. Perhaps with the downturn in the economy folks haven’t been feeling as charitable as they used to. Perhaps they’re just working too hard to make ends meet. Both of those situations I completely understand. However, the sick folks who need these products still need help.
I just got a reminder call. I have an appointment tomorrow after work so she was reminding me not to take anything with aspirin in it. I encourage the six people that read this blog to take a look at your schedule and see if you too can help out. If you can’t spare the two hours they just find a local blood drive and donate whole blood. As an uncle to wonderful niece whose life was saved by platelet donations I sincerely thank all those who have given and encourage those who haven’t to consider it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


I've just discovered this guy and I love his work. Far too much of what we call entertainment is about stuff that really doesn't matter. This guy is not.
He could have done with out the potty mouth on the last line but I wouldn't suggest he change it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

... On a Much Less Serious Note...

Not again...

Take a second to read this article. It's good to see someone finaly give a skeptical report of facilitated comunication. FC is a cruel farce that just will not go away. In test after test after test it has been shown that the patient cannot answer simple questions when the facilitator does not know the answers. Show a patient a card with a word and a picture on it and even spell out the word for them and they can re-type the word with the facilitator’s assistance. Then take the facilitator out of the room, when another card is shown and the word spelled. Bring the facilitator back in and the patient cannot spell the word. The only reasonable conclusion here is the most obvious one, the facilitator is just using the patient’s hand like a Ouija board pointer and typing the word herself, not the patient. Since she didn’t see or hear the word she can’t answer the question.

This is a particular thorn in my side because as I’ve said before, my brother-in-law is severely autistic and primarily non-verbal. No single medical breakthrough would trill me more than the ability to sit down with him and have a meaningful conversation. Unfortunately, FC is not that breakthrough. I believe that most facilitators are self-deceived, but some of them know full well it is a scam and are selling parent’s false hope in order to make a buck. It really chaps my hide to see once again some idiot reporter give a totally credulous report of a non-medical breakthrough. An eight year old can look at what is going on here and see right past it, but somehow reporters at MSNBC who call themselves "Dr" are completely taken in.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Lie To Me

So I’m typically well behind the curve when it comes to television I simply don’t watch enough to stay up to date. I typically prefer reading over TV hands down. On the rare occasion that I get some free time that I want to blow in front of the tube I am reminded of the Bruce Springsteen song “57 Channels and Nothing On.” Being so colossally underwhelmed by what I’ve found on TV hasn’t really inspired me to give it much of a second chance.
At my lovely bride’s behest I sat down and watched a couple episodes of Lie To Me. I have always been a fan of the work of Dr. Paul Ekman. I think his analysis of facial expressions and human emotion is absolutely amazing. Years ago I read his book Emotions Revealed. I found the universal nature of human expression to be highly fascinating. I didn’t realize it at the time but the lead character in Lie To Me was deliberately modeled after Ekman. In fact, the entire premise of the show revolves around Ekman’s research.
The characters and story are, of course, fictionalized but I think this is a very effective way to put real science out in front of a popular audience. In the few episodes I’ve seen I’ve found the characters to be very deep and relatable. Without this any story would get boring quickly no matter how accurate the science. I’ve blogged before about how real science is truly marketable and how irritated I get when bad science is used as a lazy excuse to tell a story. I’ve truly been impressed with how this series has stuck to real science to tell their story in a very entertaining way.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Last week I was taking my lunch hour walk and listening to podcasts just like I do every day that the weather will allow. I came across an interesting scene that at first I didn’t know what to make of it. A white car was pulled off to the side of the road and an elderly lady was standing in the sidewalk. A man in overalls was doing something to the front of her car. Parked across the street was a small pickup truck with some appliances and tools in the back. The truck had some minor damage to the rear bumper. The scene was kinda odd. That’s when it hit me what had happened any why I thought it was so abnormal.
From what I could piece together the truck and the elderly lady were at the same light and she rear-ended him as he was turning and she was going straight. Both car had a little bit of damage but the truck driver apparently didn’t think his damage was bad enough to get upset about. On top of that he seemed to have to tools in his truck to help the lady fix her car. He was hammering out the bumper and even had some kind of buffing compound to clean up where the plastic bumper cover had been discoloured.
All too often, we hear on the news and the radio about how this world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket. It was very refreshing to see that human decency and civility can still exist in a situation. All it takes if for cooler heads to prevail and people to treat each other the way they would like to be treated. I hope to see more of these type situations. I will consciously look for opportunities where I can help to create them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

"There is no place for dogma in science. The scinetist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any error."
J. Robert Openheimer

Junk Science

I think science is very cool. I’m not talking about technology or any of the applications of what science has discovered. Sure airplanes are cool. MRI machines are cool and on and on, but what I’m talking about is the process of science. I’m fascinated by the fact that human beings have developed a process that we can learn test and get answers to things that we didn’t understand before we started.
I reject the popular concept of scientists as just a bunch of know-it -alls sitting around gloating about everything that they already know. As Tyson said in my post the other day, “If you aren’t at the drawing board every day you aren’t in the game!” Science isn’t the list of facts that we collect it’s the process for learning those facts.
In Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us By Dan Agin Ph. D., Agin shows many of the ways that science gets perverted by politicians, the media, religious leaders and the scientists themselves. The book is very thorough and covers many of the recent popular scientific discoveries and media controversies. Agin gives his take on what real science is behind the discoveries and then explains where and when those involved went from real science to bad science and then to junk science.
He make clear distinctions too. In order for it to be called real science it has to follow all of the rules. It puts away presuppositions, uses strict controls to avoid unintentionally biasing the results, is open and encourages others to duplicate their process and find any mistakes, and many other things. Bad science is frequently just when some of those protocols and procedures get sloppy. If the input gets sloppy the output can no longer be trusted.
Most of the book focused on the last category, junk science. All too frequently people with agendas other than honest discovery use a process that some observers mistake for science. My daughter gets a kick out of these so-called Ghost Hunters who walk around with insterments they don't really know how to use and then when something, anything happens that they don't understand they call it, "something significant". Sometimes these people have financial motives for going to the dark side(Andrew Wakefield and the Anti-vaccination movement) sometimes religious motives (Michael Behe and the Discovery Institiute) and frequently political motives (the Global Warming denialists). But regardless of their motives they all too frequently start with their conclusion and then look for evidence to prove it. This is backwards. With this attitude they are no longer doing science. They are doing junk science.
Again believes as I do that science deserves more respect than it gets in the public perception. I worry that in many ways we are going backwards. We are allowing religion and politics to define and even to trump science. I think that all three can have a place in a civilized society. I have no problem with a civilized debate on how to respond to a scientific discovery. But let’s not corrupt the science or deny it just because it may not be morally or politically what we’d like to do.
Science is just now starting to understand some processes that may have profound impacts on humanity. Stem cell research, for instance. Now I understand many of the ethic and moral concerns that have been raised by those opposing it. I agree that this should be the subject of vigorous debate. But leave the science alone. It stands outside the debate and should not be a part of it. Years ago doctors discovered a link to testosterone and hair loss. Identical twins where one had been castrated and the other had not the intact twin lost his hair and the castrated twin did not. Now is anybody recommending castration as a way to stop hair loss? Not that I’m aware of. You see in that case we had the science and we understood it. But we simply chose not to act upon it for social, political, or ethical reasons. But the science was not corrupted to make the arguments. In my opinion we need to have similar respect for the science behind many of the issues that are happening today. We can’t even begin to have a decent political discussion on global warming because so much effort is being spent on denying the science. The same goes for stem cells and several other top hot button issues. Let’s take the first step and accept the science as valid. Then we can have an honest discussion about how to react to the discoveries or even if we need to react at all.
It took me a while to get through this book, primarily because it is so thorough. I have no criticism at all of his points or his logic. If you’d like to read more on this subject I’d recommend reading Voodoo Science by Robert Park first. It isn’t quite as though but it’s easier to read and covers many of the same themes. Then come back and read Junk Science.

Monday, November 02, 2009


As a father I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the inherent paradox of compelled self-motivation. I want my kids to perform well in all of their pursuits. However I don’t want to have to hound them constantly in order for them to do that. The goal is that doing good and feeling good about their own accomplishments becomes the goal and not just keeping me off of their backs. If the latter is the goal what can they expect if I’m not there to encourage them? Yet if former is the goal they will just be good for goodness sake. The accomplishment remains the goal and not just fear of dad’s reprisals if they don’t accomplish the goal.
I have a problem with being more than a little too introspective. I personalize the problem and try to see where I might have set, or am setting a bad example for them. Not to deflect responsibility from my kids for their grades, however I feel that I may have been setting a bad example for them. Specifically in the area of completing a task and not giving excuses I think I’ve been setting the wrong example.
A few years ago we started a project to remodel the house. It needed an awful lot of work. The largest of the projects was to replace the siding and redo the kitchen cabinets. For the most part we got the tasks completed and they look nice. But we quickly ran out of money and time. The deck is still unfinished. The front of the house could use some shutters. The stairs are still carpeted in spite of the fact that the rest of the house has been replaced with hardwood floors. I still need to fix a new top on some bookcases installed a couple months ago and there are several little picky problems throughout the house, a power outlet that doesn’t work, a dripping faucet, a door handle that falls off, etc. etc.
I have good excuses for most of the problems. We ran out of money. I don’t have the right tool. The weather is too wet, to hot or too cold. I’m too busy this weekend. I don’t have enough room to work. Just to name a few. But these are all just excuses. I’m a hypocrite. I wouldn’t allow my kids to give me a line of excuses to justify their performance in school, scouts, or any of their activities. Yet I have my own litany of reasons and excuses to justify my shortcomings. And to top it off they live in a house that reminds them every day of the many things that I have failed to complete.
I don’t have a reasonable ETA for getting all of these tasks completed but I need to hold myself to the same expectations that I require of the kids. I’ll start with the ones that present a safety concern. Follow those with the ones that cost the least amount of money to remedy and work up to the ones that with take more time and effort. However I’ve put off correcting them for too long and now I fear that it is more than just my house that is suffering.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Take a second and read this speech.
If this is Oaks’ interpretation of the First Amendment I'm glad he isn't still practicing law. He seems to think that it's OK for a church to criticize but that they should be immune from criticism. We can't have it both ways. If we demand that other groups keep quiet when it come to criticizing us then perhaps we should afford them the same courtesy and stay out of politics. If you feel, as I do, that churches should have every right to make political statements, then we need to accept the flip-side of that same coin we toss and stop whining about being criticized.
I'd like to know which article in any constitution protects a church from criticism. He needs to pick up a history book. Freedom to criticize the dominant churches was also a main tenant of our founders. Most of the religious colonists were looking for both, freedom of their religion and freedom from the one they were fleeing. This church wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Joseph's right to go against what others felt should stand beyond criticism. But the laws of this country allowed him to continue.
I agree with the advice given in the speech as far as how to respond when confronted with people with whom we disagree. I just disagree with his notion that religious organizations are due a certain respect and should stand immune from criticism even after they throw their two cents in to an already very heated political argument.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


So shortly after I got back from lunch I decided to check a couple of news. I’ve made it no secret that I’ve been very disillusioned with the crap that masquerades around as news lately. But I still feel some pathological need to check in with the big sites periodically just to see if I’m missing something important. Well what do I find today at 12:15pm? CNN.com has a front page, biggest font and a picture and story with video of the fashion accuracy behind the series “Mad Men”. MSNBC.com has an article about the 10 day old non-news event about Falcon Heene AKA“balloon boy”. And FOXNEWS.com has a story about another hoax, the Latvian meteorite.

This is just sad. Did nothing important happen today? Or have they just completely forgotten what classifies as news? The top stories on three of the biggest news sites today had nothing to do with news at all. Who cares about any of these events?

This first story, “Mad Men” fashion accuracy, are you serious CNN? Who cares? Shouldn’t reporting of this calibre be reserved to a fan site on AMC.com? How in any measurable way will the accuracy of inaccuracy of the suits these actors wear affect my life? It won’t.

Next we have two hoaxes that wouldn’t have existed at all if the media didn’t have a predisposition to air anything at all without checking the facts first. Even the local authorities played the media to help gain the trust of the Heene family and get them to slip up and admit the story was a hoax. What does that say about the condition of the media in this country when law enforcement can bank on the fact that they won’t try to follow up on the story and do any kind of accuracy check at all before running the story? Even a cursory check with anyone who had taken 8th grade physics would be able to tell a critical thinking reporter that there was no way in the world a balloon that small could have lifted itself and 37 pound Falcon Heene. But who cares right? They pay good money for that news helicopter so let’s air the stupid footage without any kind of critical review. And 10 days later we can still talk about it as if something new has happened even though it really hasn’t. Give it a rest. The sooner the Heene family falls back into obscurity the better.

I haven’t read much on the whole Latvian Meteor yet. The one picture I saw was obviously created with buried explosives and not the relatively slow moving mass of a meteor. I’ll wait for the scientist to debunk this story completely. Until then I’m sure all the media is perfectly content to continue giving the attention that was planned from the beginning to this complete non-event.

I’ve just finished reading It’s Not News it’s Fark is written by the creator of the website fark.com. The author, Drew Curtis has spent a decade running a website that makes fun of the crap that we continue to call news. The book is a riot. It’s irreverent and frequently potty-mouthed, but always right on the mark. Each chapter is dedicated to one of the many ways that the media puts crap in print, online or on the air.

To hear conservative talk show host lambaste the modern media you’d think that they were controlled by the some liberal conspiracy organization. I’ve been personally analysing the news for several years looking for the liberal bias that is so frequently trumpeted. The only way you could get a liberal bias out of the crap that gets aired is if you define anything that isn’t conservative bias as a liberal bias. But in fact much of what make headlines is neither. It doesn’t even deserve to be called news.

Who cares about John and Kate? It’s only news to about 12 people on the whole planet. It’s just entertainment to some of the rest of us. And most of the country couldn’t’ care less. The fashion accuracy of “Mad Men”? Puhleeze. How about a story about the math accuracy of the latest spending bill? That would be news that really affects me.

My only criticism of the book as that I wish he would have dedicated a whole chapter to the media’s impotence. Michael Eisner has gone on record that he didn’t think it would be appropriate for ABC news to report on any of Disney’s business dealings. He doesn’t mind, however, an ABC news report about the technology behind the latest Disney movie. So self reporting is okay if it’s positive. You just can’t bite the hand that feeds you. Well considering the size and depth of most of the media conglomerates today playing by Eisner’s rules it becomes very hard to say anything at all. So what are you left with? A news media that is pretty impotent.

I’d really recommend reading It’s Not News It’s Fark. Don’t dismiss it as satire. His critique is right on the mark.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Future pilots?

Yesterday a friend of mine took us down to tour his office. Jeff is a Delta mechanic. Aaron is working on his aviation merit badge and has been talking a lot lately about becoming a pilot. We invited all the kids to come along but Eve was the only one who took us up on the offer. We got to go all over inside several different airplanes and the they kids both had a great time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Get Outta Town

I need to get out and backpack more often. It just really felt good to get several miles away from the car and well into the backcountry. The air just tasted different than it does around here.
Last Friday was a teacher work day for our county. In spite of the fact that I had passed a kidney stone the week before I really needed to “get outta Dodge” just to return to sanity. Aaron still needed to hike one 20 mile hike in a day in order to earn his Hiking Merit Badge. Most boys just do this as a day hike and don’t carry a pack. It didn’t take much convincing and Aaron agreed that we should do something bigger than that.
We broke out the maps and found several nice loop trails that would accomplish his goal. We eventually choose a 24 mile loop in the Smokies that covered about 6 miles of the Appalachian Trail on a very pretty section that I did in 1992.
We got an early start on Friday and made it up to the trail head around 10:00am. We started out at Smokemont Campground at about 2400’. The first 4 miles of the trail ascended gradually and hiked along the Bradley Fork River. The trail was wide and the river gave us constant great views of rapids and waterfalls.
A little after the 4 mile mark the trail left the river started climbing steeply for the next 4 miles ‘til it reached the Appalachian Trail at around 5700’. We weren’t quite making as good a time as we had planned but were still going pretty fast considering the terrain. In spite of the constant drizzle and overcast skies this was the prettiest section of the trail. The AT walks right along the Tennessee and North Carolina border on a knife edge ridge. At times you have drops of several hundred feet on each side of you. Yet the ridge itself doesn’t gain or loose much altitude. When the clouds would break Aaron would stop for several minutes just to admire the view.
Since we were going as little slower than we expected we stopped and made camp at Peck’s Corner shelter. The shelter was full so we set up our tent a little ways away. We had to put the food in a bear bag and it rained pretty hard on us all night. We stayed pretty dry but the gear was wet so our packs weighed a few pounds more than when we started.
We got up pretty early on Saturday and started hiking out in the dark. We wanted to make sure that we got to the 20 mile make before 10:00am so we could honestly say that we did 20 miles in one 24 hour period. Considering that the whole day was pretty much down hill we were able to get that done in spades. We were back at the car around 1:00pm and had 24 tough miles in the Smokies under our belts.
I really enjoyed just spending time with Aaron. At times when the trail was wide enough we were able to have some deep philosophical discussions. He’s a good kid and I can’t express how proud I was of him for sticking it out and finishing this merit badge the way he did. Most scouts do their 20 miler on much easier terrain and they do it without a backpack. I did mine in 8 hours just walking from my house to Stone Mountain and back.
The whole event inspired me to get outside with my family more often. Eve has been really bugging me to go camping too. I need to make this more of a priority than I have been. I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed just being around the mountains and the trees.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

another Kewl quote

"Be not the slave of your own past. Plunge into the sublime seas, dive deep and swim far, so you shall come back with self-respect, with new power, with an advanced experience that shall explain and overlook the old."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Kewl Quote

"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn."
Henry David Thoreau

Friday, October 09, 2009

Kewl Quote

"In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness."
Carl Sagan

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jesus Interupted

Whenever my dad used to catch me reading as a kid he would tell me, sarcastically, to “Stop doing that. It’ll corrupt your mind.” At first it was typically a comic book or a Mad Magazine that provoked his response but later on I realized that he was referring to any book. I’m sure most, if not all, of the books that I’ve reviewed on this blog would fit Rog’s definition of corruptible reading material.
The latest book that I’ve been using to corrupting my mind is Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them) by Bart D. Ehrman. I’ve reviewed several of Ehrman’s books in the past and except for one found them all to be very enjoyable. I’m only half way finished, but this one too has not disappointed.
Ehrman examines the countless contradictions in the Bible and he is uniquely qualified to write a book on this topic. He starts with a few relatively simple contradictions that really don’t amount to much but then build up to some serious differences that have some pretty serious theological implications. He reminds his reader that the Bible was written by several different people with different perspectives, opinions and ideas. The original authors never imagined that their writings would be complied into one volume. And I’m sure they would be quite surprised to find out that millions of people refer to this volume by saying, “The Bible is the inerrant word of God.”
Ehrman goes a step further than just pointing out the problems and contradictions. He also details a brilliant way to change your perspective as you read the Bible. He calls it horizontal reading. This is where you take a certain event in the Bible and then read what each author has to say about it. If you just read the Bible as you would a novel, vertically, then you might not notice the many inconsistencies and contradictions. However if you read a little background information on the author and then reread his letter or gospel you can also make a little more sense as to why he would emphasis certain events over others or even change certain details. If an author was addressing his letter to a group who wanted to know if Jesus’ life fulfilled any prophecies then its would surprise you that he would quote the Old Testament and possibly even tweak some of the details to make it fit reality a little better than it actually did.
I’ve always been rather critical of people who try to use scripture for things that it was not meant to do. I know people who try to use the Bible, the Koran, The Book of Mormon, etc. as science or history books. Not only does that give you incorrect history and science it also completely misses the point. Had the authors known they were writing history books or science books they would have taken and entirely different route and included different details all together. The analogy I use is the difference between a phone book and a map. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either one as long as they are used in the proper context. You wouldn’t look for the number to Domino’s on a map and the driver probably wouldn’t be able to find your house with just a phonebook. But if you switch that around everything works out just fine.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Lost Symbol: My Review

Dan Brown is somehow able to put nicotine into print. His books are just like cigarettes, repetitive, predictable, bad for your brain and yet somehow incredibly addicting. His latest book The Lost Symbol continues this theme. If you’ve read any of his books you’ve read them all. He just changes a few of the specific details and sticks the same plot onto each new scene. Just like The Magnificent Seven was just a remake of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai all of Brown’s books are just remakes of the previous in slightly different settings.
Here are few of the details that you need to write a Dan Brown book:
1. A gorgeous and brilliant lead female. It is also important that she be single and have suffered a serious family loss at the expense of another character in the story. She must be deeply involved in a fringe scientific pursuit.
2. A professorial type male lead character to run around and explain what’s going on to the female lead. Once he describes this character in his turtleneck, chinos and Harris tweed flip to the dust jacket and look at the picture of Brown in his turtleneck, chinos and Harris tweed.
3. A loner psychopathic killer who has some disturbing physical characteristics, full body tattoos, self mutilations albinism, etc.
4. A fatherly mentor to the main characters who has some serious skeletons in his closet.
5. A treasure hunt that involves running around a famous city while being chased by government entities that do not quite agree with each other.
6. An obligatory page at the front stating a few things about the book that are fact. It helps if you imply that even more things are fact. So you could say that a group called The Flat Earth Society actually exists and then push the bounds of this statement my insinuating that their claims are also true.
7. Throw in a couple horrendous torture scenes of old men. This is a very common theme too.

I could go on for quite a while but I think you get the point. His books are hardly original from one to the next. I was barely introduced to the bad guy in this book before I’d figured out who he was and what his motivation was. The rest of the book was just an exercise to get it over and see if I was correct. I really enjoyed reading the first couple of his books but now they have gotten so repetitive that I just don’t want to bother with them anymore. I’m actually upset with myself for taking so much time out to read it. I’ve put other, much better books on the back burner to get this one back to the library sooner and I wish I hadn’t.
Brown did manage to throw in a few things to annoy me even more than normal. The factual and continuity errors were completely over the top in The Lost Symbol.
Most glaring was his full moon. As an astronomy geek this was particularly annoying. He describes the full moon as being directly overhead and shining straight down through a window in the middle of a ceiling and lighting up an alter in the middle of the floor. This can only happen if that building were in the tropics or very close to it, not in Washington D.C. Then he describes the same thing happening three weeks later. Never in history has a full moon followed the previous one by only three weeks. This takes, by definition one month.
In another scene he describes how the light from the moon breaks into a dark room and was so bright it was about to reveal a characters position to the enemy. Yet when they get outside a few seconds later he describes how dark it is and the difficulties they have even walking across a parking lot. Which is it Dan? Is it bright or not?
Brown takes a whole chapter to describe the construction of a special lab that is electrically, magnetically and every other possible way shielded from outside energy sources so they could study Noetic science. Yet countless times characters make and receive cell phone calls in the same lab. Go figure. I thought all the talk about shielding was foreshadowing and building up suspense for a later scene when the cell phones wouldn’t work, but he seems to have forgotten about shielding the lab. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I had a hard time enjoying a book that has science as a major theme if he wasn’t even going to try to get the science correct.
I recently heard a lecture given by Jennifer Ouellette. She is a science advisor to Hollywood. She acts as a liason between script writers and the actual science that they are writing about. I find it very refreshing that with the success of show like NCIS, Bones and House that actual fact-based science is marketable. Getting the science right actually sells better than having to make things up or rely on psudeoscience. Its too bad that Brown hasn't caught on to this trend yet and makes no attempt to understand how our universe really operates and yet has to rely on Noetic science and other hocus pocus to tell his story.

The Lost Symbol was a disappointment. Brown has gotten lazy. He knows that people will buy and read it either way so why take the effort to make it a really good book. He just pasted his standard plot onto a new city and a different secret society.

Monday, September 21, 2009

More Flood Pictures

Here are a few more flood pictures. I talked to a few bus drivers. After they got all the buses pulled out of the lot they were one short. Then they found that a bus had been washed half a mile down the creek and was sitting upside down.
And the best part is it's coming down in buckets again and the flood warning has been extended through Tuesday.

The Great Flood of 2009

Victoria is out of town for a funeral. We had a little bit of rain last night so school was canceled today. Here's why. These photos were taken by friends of mine and are all within a mile of my house. Most, like the bus photos and the soccer fields, are only a hundred yards from my backyard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

DragonCon with Aaron

Last Saturday, Aaron and I went down to DragonCon. It’s a science-fiction, fantasy and pop culture convention. As I grow older I don’t enjoy crowds nearly as much as I used to. So I have avoided these types of scenes for quite sometime. (I’ve been more claustrophobic at a movie theater than I’ve ever been in a cave.) However, a few years ago I got involved with an online community of skeptics, critical thinkers and rationalists. Piggybacked with all the actor autograph sessions, how to make cool costume classes and Dungeons and Dragons game sessions they a have a science and skepticism track too. This is only the second year for it and I wanted to get a chance to meet and talk with some of the folks I’ve been emailing, blog commenting, facebooking, listen to their podcasts and otherwise internet stalking for the last several years. So I braved the crowds and the chaos and Aaron and I went down.

I could only manage to squeeze in one day of the lectures so we were running back and forth to make sure that we saw the ones I wanted but I also had to make sure that Aaron didn’t feel like I was forcing him to sit through something he felt was boring. So I had to throw in several hours of shopping for costumes and looking at mangas and comic books. That was actually very fun too, but I was pleasantly surprised that Aaron had such a good time hanging out with me at the skeptical events and lectures.

The first lecture that we attended was Seth Shostak from the SETI institute. I’ve been listening to his podcast, Are We Alone for a few years. I’ve seen him on Colbert Report and so I knew that he’d be entertaining. Seth did a great job of explaining the “real” search for aliens and really showed that science and reality can but just if not even more interesting than the science fiction being show in neighboring rooms of the same hotel.

Next we saw Richard Saunders do a great little presentation targeted at teaching kids how to be critical thinkers. They did a live dowsing experiment and Aaron actually got to participate. I was very impressed with the relatively simple way that they showed the importance of making sure that any tests and experiments are blinded. Then they showed the added layer of making the test double blind. Saunders did a great job of making skepticism seem fun. All too often skeptics get portrayed as being cynics. Saunders and everybody else did a great job of debunking that notion.

Between lectures I was able to talk to the folks at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. I would have loved to have stayed through Sunday to have seen their live taping of their podcast but I just couldn’t fit it into my already hectic schedule. I thanked them for saving me from talk radio. I like listening to news and information rather than just listing to music while I work and years ago their podcast was one of the first that I found to fill the void after I started boycotting the noise, illogic and repetition coming from talk radio.

The last lecture before we heeded home was a panel discussion With Seth Shostak, Joe Nichol, and Phil Plait that was moderated by Pamela Gay. Each panelist talked for about ten minutes about their own area of expertise and then opened the floor for questions. The questions were the most enjoyable part of the discussion. A few folks from the regular DragonCon crowd had wandered in and I’m not sure it was exactly what they expected. The phrase “alien hunter” was in the lecture description. All the members of the panel did a great job of explaining that it’s not that we don’t believe, belief has nothing to do with it. We just haven’t seen enough evidence to convince us that flying saucers are real.

Shostak made the comparison of aliens visiting Earth to Spaniards visiting America. 50 years after the Columbus everybody in America had mounds of evidence that Spaniards were here. It’s been 50 years since the first flying saucer and alien abduction stories jumping into the culture. Why don’t we have a comparable body of evidence? I thought the analogy was perfect and actually rather funny.

I knew that I would enjoy the skeptic events, but I was again, really surprised how much Aaron enjoyed them. Victoria and I have always been science geeks. We hardly watch any TV and the shows the kids really like are educational stuff on PBS. We check out Nova videos from the library. Even the few fiction series that we watch have a high level of science and rationality to them. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised that Aaron would enjoy it. After all he’s been hanging out with me for the last 15 years. I guess I just didn’t realize that so much was rubbing off.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Quote of the Day

"No matter what side of the argument you are on, you always find people on your side that you wish were on the other."
Jascha Heifetz

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shifted Burden of Proof

I’ve been having a little struggle at work. A local government is insisting that there’s a piece of equipment in a ditch that belongs to us that we need to move. Well we are not in the business of placing this particular type of equipment and so I politely told her that it was not ours. To which she responded, “Well somebody must have put it there!” I agree 100%. Somebody must have put it there. I gave her a few suggestions as to who else may have done it but she wouldn’t let it drop so easily. She didn’t seem to want to hang up until I solved her problem for her. I was as polite as possible but just ended up telling her that I had no idea whose it was but it wasn’t ours.
I’m not sure what you’d call it, a logical fallacy, a debating tactic or just a rhetorical device. But what she was attempting to do is to shift the burden of proof. I see this technique used all the time. You see in any discussion the burden of proof lies with the person who has the most extreme claim. For instance if I claim that grass is green and you were to claim that grass is really blue but there is a yellow haze that always hovers directly between the viewer and the grass that just makes it appear green, your claim is clearly the more extreme. Your claim may in fact be correct, but it just requires more proof than my claim. If I challenged your claim you couldn’t counter by just asking me to prove that the yellow haze doesn’t exist. That would be shifting the burden of proof. In my real life situation it shouldn’t be my job to prove that the equipment isn’t ours. That burden still lies with this government organization to prove that it is ours. It’s almost as if I was presumed guilty until I could prove my innocence.
My situation at work is a minor issue and I don’t expect it to go any further, but I see the same tactics invoked in political discussions all the time. One side will come up with an extremely farfetched scenario and expect the other side to take the Herculean task of proving that their opponent is wrong. But the burden should remain with the person making the extreme claim not the accused.
A key example of this is the whole “birthers” phenomenon. These people have found a few inconsistencies with Obama’s early life history and from that have deduced that there is a conspiracy involving all levels of government, doctors and two local newspapers to conceal his birth location all the way back to the day he was born. They would also have us believe that even Hillary Clinton knows these details but didn’t bring them up during the primaries even though it would mean that she would have had a much better shot at the Presidency with him discredited and out of the way. It is my opinion taht the “birthers” and those that believe this idea are trying to shift the burden of proof. They want the President to go out of the way to deny and prove that their claims are false. Nope. That’s not how it works. They have the more extreme claim. It is up to them to make their case and present their evidence.
Now I didn’t vote for Obama and I’m not particularly enamored with some of his policies so far. But if anybody wants me to believe that he was born in Kenya it’s their job to prove it to me. Before you ask, yes, UI have seen the DVD "A question of Eligibility" and I see nothing in there strong enough to counter the evidnece that he was born in Hawaii, but all that is irrelavent. It’s not Obama’s job to disprove your conspiracy theory. And likewise if this local government official wants me to remove this equipment from the ditch it’s up to them to prove to me that it is ours. It’s not my job to prove it isn’t ours.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Current Reading List

I had a friend tell me that he gets his reading list from books that I've read so I've decided to post my reading list again just for giggles.

Junk science : how politicians, corporations, and other hucksters betray us
by Agin, D. P.

I've always been intrigued by how science gets abused and distorted by those who should have the public trust.

Spook : science tackles the afterlife
by Roach, Mary

I heard a podcast interview with Roach discussing her new book about sex. When I went to the library to check it out I found this which seemed even more interesting.

The secret life of dust : from the cosmos to the kitchen counter, the big consequences of little things
by Holmes, Hannah

Victoria has already told me so much about this book I feel I need to get the rest of the picture.

Jesus, interrupted : revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don't know about them)
by Ehrman, Bart D.

I've really enjoyed Ehrman's books with only one exception. I really enjoy the way he puts you in the position of the original author and makes you look at what the scripture actually says in the correct context.

The luck factor : changing your luck, changing your life: the four essential principles
by Wiseman, Richard.

Not what you may think. This isn't a hocus pocus self-help book.

Plan B 2.0 : rescuing a planet under stress and a civilization in trouble
by Brown, Lester Russell

I saw that my boss was reading Plan B 3.0 and it looked interesting so I'm reading the series.

Eco-economy : building an economy for the Earth
by Brown, Lester Russell

The age of American unreason
by Jacoby, Susan

I moved this down the list a little just because it seemed rather similar to American Idiot and I didn't want the two to blend in together in my head.

Guitar all-in-one for dummies
by Chappell, Jon

I think this was the only guitar book or DVD at the library that I hadn't yet checked out.

Freethinkers : a history of American secularism
by Jacoby, Susan

Just another topic that fascinates me.

It's not news, it's fark : how mass media tries to pass off crap as news
by Curtis, Drew

Marcus recommended this to me when I went on a facebook rant about how lame the media has become.

The Lost Symbol
by Brown, Dan

I've read a bunch about the masons in the last few years so it'll be fun to see how Brown twists the facts to tell his story like he has on so many other topics.

Ender in Exile
by Card, Orson Scott

This is loaded on my iPhone and I listen while I walk on my lunch hours.

The wilderness warrior : Theodore Roosevelt and the crusade for America
by Brinkley, Douglas

John Stewart gave a great interview with Brinkley on The Daily Show.

I'm accepting suggestions for my next reads, but for now I've committed not to check out anything else until I finish all of these.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

An Unlikely Disciple: a review

I guess one of the silver linings in having a nasty head cold is that I get to catch up a little bit on my reading. I’ve been reading The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holist University by Kevin Roose. Roose got the idea to enroll for a semester at Liberty Univerty while he was interning for A.J. Jacobs during his “year of living Biblically".
Lately I’ve been running into a common theme in my reading, discussions with friends and online discussions. Nothing is really black and white. In spite of parties on every side of an issue trying to over simplify the world the world just keeps refusing to cooperate. More than any other theme, this book seemed to reinforce this. Perhaps it’s just the state of mind that I’ve been in lately, but that’s what I took from this reading.
Roose, a very liberal Quaker, attending Brown University went into the situation fully prepared to be exposed to the stereotypical extreme right-wing, evangelical students that his liberal family had warned him about. And he did meet a few of them. However, the overwhelming majority of the students that he lived with and learned to love did not fall into the extremes of the stereotype. In fact the one student who did meet the stereotype was ostracized by the rest of the guys in his dorm because his views were so extreme. Most of the students at Liberty had much more nuanced views on religion, morality and politics than he expected.
Roose’s outside perspective gives an interesting view of a lot of evangelical doctrines and behavior. Roose is a white, heterosexual, protestant male and hence has the benefit of being the ideal demographic for a Liberty student. Aware of this Roose decided to seek out what it would be like to not fit so neatly into this special demographic. He talks at length with a black friend about the school’s and Rev. Falwell’s history of opposing civil rights. When he tries to meet some closeted homosexuals on campus to discuss their views on the school he gets accidentally roped into the school’s homosexual reform counseling. Rather than push the issue that he isn’t really gay he rides it out for a while to see how it must feel for those at Liberty who are.
As part of his General Education curriculum Roose has to take a course called GNED 102. In that course they learn about the inerrancy of the Bible, that the world is literally only 6000 years old, they learn about the evils of the homosexual agenda and the proper place of women in the home. Roose points out that in many ways this is the stereotypical class that most non-Liberty students envision when they speculate about the curriculum at Liberty. It’s the counter-point to how most Liberty students feel about secular education. As if they are required to attend a class that teaches you how to smoke pot, have gay sex and become an atheist. No such class actually exists at Brown University and the sad reality is that GNED 102 does exist at Liberty.
Roose also stumbled across a fundamental irony at Liberty University. You see most evangelical Christians are anti-intellectual. They actually think that gaining too much worldly knowledge can drive one away from God. So why does the University exist in the first place? A very good question and one that isn’t completely resolved in this book. Roose finds that in spite of the school’s criticism of doubt and the trumpeting of religious certainty that, in practice, there actually is a health amount of doubt and open-minded questioning of belief among the students and the faculty.
By some odd twist of fate Jerry Falwell ends up granting his final print interview before his death to Roose. Despite the fact that he disagreed with him on most major issues Roose grew to understand even like Dr. Falwell. Not wanting to blow his undercover status Roose primarily asked softball questions but those questions ended up putting a very human and likable face on Falwell. Despite the political differences of opinion, I thought the interview was a charitable eulogy for one of America’s most controversial religious figures.
After his semester at Liberty Roose comes back to come clean about the fact that the was essentially a mole. All of his friends accept him and look forward to reading the book. However, many have issues with the fact that he isn’t saved. Being so indoctrinated into a black or white, heaven or hell, saved or damned culture they have a hard time with the fact that here is a good person that they have prayer with and for and yet he doesn’t fit into the neat little boxes that the culture has told them that all people have to fit into.
I really identified with this book on many levels. I too feel that much of religion is anti-intellectual. I too feel that churches need to act move like churches and less like political action campaigns. And I too have a hard time fitting into a religious culture that looks upon doubt as a weakness and stresses certainty and “knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt”.
I’m putting this book down as one more piece of evidence that the world is rarely, if ever, as black and white as some try to paint it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rational Quote of the Day

"To find real answers we need to understand the real problems, not sensationalized caricatures of the problems spread on the internet."
Brian Dunning

Brian was specifcally speaking about the internet myth that there is a large island of floating trash in the middle of the Pacific. However I find this advice applies to just about any issue lately. Obama's death panels, global climate change, torture, etc. etc.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More on Confirmation Bias

For a few months I’ve been doing my best to lose a little bit of weight. I’ve basically just been eating smaller potions and walking on my lunch hours. The biggest motivator that I have is that my new office has a small workout room with a scale. I’ve made it a habit of starting the day off by checking my weight and recording it. In order to make sure that my results are meaningful I always measure under the same conditions. It’s always dressed for work at 6:45am and having only had a small breakfast. I even make sure that I don’t have my phone or any change in my pockets to be sure that the results aren’t artificially skewed.

Tuesday I had something to do after work and I didn’t want to show up in my AT&T uniform so I wore a nicer shirt and some different shoes. As I walked to the scale I realized that the results may not be accurate. I didn’t know if my outfit was heavier or lighter than what I usually wear. Just before I stepped on the scale I recognized that I was about to fall victim to my own confirmation bias. If the scale had read a little lighter than the day before I was ready to accept that as evidence of my diet and exercise was working. However, I was also fully ready to accept that if I was a little heavier that it was not my fault, it’s the differences in my wardrobe. As soon as I realized this I refused to step on the scale.

I bring this up again because lately I’ve seen far too many examples of people accepting information that supports their opinions and then wholesale rejecting any evidence that goes against it. Comments on blogs that accuse the blogger of a political bias while ignoring posts on the same blog that are highly critical of the same party. Family members who accept that a quack treatment works based on one example while ignoring the multiple times the same treatment did not make them feel better. Church friends using archaeological evidence to support their belief in the Book of Mormon but refusing to even read counter evidence.

It’s natural to cling to what makes us comfortable. Unfortunately it may not be the best thing to do. You’re not going to get accurate results if you can’t accept all of the evidence. If that’s the attitude that you have when you approach an issue just do as I did. Don’t even step on the scale. Same holds true on any other issue. Be aware of your biases and do your best to make sure they don’t influence your decisions.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Gonna kick the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight."

Paul Hewson, Irish Philosopher and Humanitarian

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Idiot America

Well I finally finished reading Charlie Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free. Life got in the way of my reading schedule and in spite of how good the book was I had a hard time fitting it into my schedule.
After the first introductory chapters Pierce really got in stride and set aside much of the humor in favor of just a realistic portrayal of several different examples of America surrendering to emotion and what feels right rather than what actually was right. Whether it’s a dinosaur museum with saddles on the dinosaurs so they would be Biblically correct, a room full of terrorism experts whose opinion on Iraq was completely ignored because it didn’t fit the politics, an Island in Alaska that is literally disappearing because of global warming, a Supreme Court Justice referencing a fictitious T.V. character as evidence to support his position on torture, etc, etc, Pierce shows that somehow we’ve gotten things all screwed up. We’ve been mistaking religion for science, science for politics, and politics for entertainment.
This book really hit a nerve with me because I like to look at all issues objectively. I try to look at both sides of the issue before I take position. And even once I take a position I try stay flexible enough to change that position if more evidence arises. Lately I’ve been in a few internet and email discussions about politics and in every case the hardest people to have a rational discussion with were those that had put things in the wrong order. Just like in any conversation you have o at least agree on which language we are going to speak. You can’t have a science discussion is one party wants to use the language of religion, on the language of politics and the other the language of science. It would be just as hard if the three parties were speaking French German and Japanese. Yet time and time again you see exactly these arguments being made. Pierce effectively demonstrates the problem with this type of reasoning.
The scariest parts of the book are when experts in a certain field are called in for initial consultation and then quickly ignored when their advice conflicts with the conclusion that they had already made. The most dramatic example of this was when Al Qaeda experts we asked to provide justification for invading Iraq and they told the Pentagon that Iraq would be the wrong target. They were dismissed and their opinion was not sought again.
My biggest criticism with the book was that it did have a strong liberal slant. Much of this was unavoidable since any critique of government would be dominated by the party that is in charge. Although I do believe that the Republicans have been most guilty of forcing the evidence to fit their pre-drawn conclusion there is also plenty of blame to throw around. I can think of several examples of politicians on the other side of the aisle making similar errors in reasoning, many times on the same issues that Pierce describes. Anytime an author comes across overly sympathetic for one side and overly critical of the other he looses a little bit of credibility in my opinion. To be fair he did criticize some liberals, Jesse Jackson for instance, but the bulk of the criticism was at conservatives. I would have also liked for him to have examined the cult of the celebrety. Jenny McCarthy is a prime example. Her autism activism is seriously diverting attention away from those who really do know what they're talking about and peolpe are dying becasue of it.
I’d recommend this book to anybody who wants to better understand some of the flawed decision making that goes on in our country. Parts of it will have you laughing, parts will have you crying, and parts will have you fuming made. And sometimes all this happens in the same paragraph.