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.