Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Hercules Misunderstands Atheists - Responding to Kevin Sorbo

Kevin SorboI forget exactly how I found it (probably following a link in some comment section on another blog/website), but I recently read an article on the Christian Post about an interview with Kevin Sorbo,
Actor Kevin Sorbo Not Too Fond of Atheists; Says They're Always 'So Angry'
. He was talking about his recent role in the film, God's Not Dead, which was panned even by Creation.com.

I don't have anything against Kevin Sorbo in particular, but he expressed a couple views that seem fairly representative of a certain segment of the population, so it makes for a good springboard for a response. For example, here's one of his complaints about atheists.

I'm a Christian myself and had to play an atheist. I see the anger of these (atheist) guys on TV and it's like 'wow, how do you get so angry at something you don't believe in?

First of all, I'd like to know which atheists on TV are so angry? Taking a loose definition of atheism as lack of belief in gods (i.e. including people who might call themselves agnostics or 'nones'), here's a short list of 12 celebrity atheists - Brad Pitt, Kari Byron, Hugh Laurie, Julianne Moore, Kathy Griffin, Daniel Radcliffe, Angelina Jolie, Richard Branson, Jodi Foster, George Clooney, Natalie Portman, and Ricky Gervais. If you've ever seen Byron on Mythbusters, or seen an inteview with Branson, I don't think you'd call them angry. Even the atheist I've heard referred to as 'shrill' the most, Richard Dawkins, hardly seems like a ball of rage when you watch him on TV.

Second, the irritation that atheists do express is not at gods, but at religion, and particularly at instances where religion causes harm, people try to push religion where it doesn't belong, or where religion is given special privelege - all things that definitely do exist. I've already written an entry that touches on this, Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion, where I listed plenty of examples with links, some horrific like fire bombings or children being persecuted for being witches, others not horrific but still troubling like schools teaching creationism or churches spending large sums of money campaigning against marriage equality. If religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, religious debates could be mainly academic and philosophical. As soon as religious people quit causing so much trouble in the world, atheists will quit getting angry about religion.

It can also get a bit personal. As I've pointed out numerous times before, atheists are among the most mistrusted groups in the U.S. Here's an article from Scientific American that discusses several polls and studies with links to the sources, In Atheists We Distrust. Only around half of Americans would vote for a qualified presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist, a similar number would disapprove of their child marrying an atheist, and 40% of Americans think that atheists don't agree with their view of American society, making atheists more distrusted than any other minority asked about (not that it's a good thing that any of the other minorities are distrusted). So yeah, we can get a bit irritated sometimes.

Here's the other quote from the interview that caught my attention.

"It's funny how they can get nativity scenes pulled down because they say it offends them but they're offended by something they don't believe in. What offends 90 percent of the country is that they take down nativity scenes but apparently the majority doesn't have a voice in the country anymore so what are you going to do?

Sorbo does realize that the only nativity scenes that defenders of the First Amendment want to see pulled down are those on government property, right? Anyone that wants to put up a nativity scene on private property is free to do so, whether it's a business or a residence. They can make it as prominent as they want. And most interpretations I've seen of the First Amendment don't even outlaw nativity scenes, just the privileging of one religion over another. So as long as a government office/location/branch allows displays from other religions, they're allowed to put up their nativity displays.

My own favorite example of this and of how petty Christians can be involves the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport a few years ago. There's an article about the incident from ABC News, Airport Christmas Trees Gone After Rabbi's Request. The 'request' referred to in the headline was not removal of the trees, but rather the addition of menorahs. As Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky himself said in an interview, "Everyone should have their spirit of the holiday. For many people, the trees are the spirit of the holidays, and adding a menorah adds light to the season." But airport officials, rather than add a little diversity to their mid-winter holiday decorations, decided to just pull down all the Christmas trees. So if Sorbo wonders why people get upset by government endorsed religious displays, this is a perfect example. Had the airport truly wanted to represent the community, they would have put up displays from various religions practiced by community members. Their refusal to put up symbols from other religions shows that they were really just trying to privilege Christianity.

To point out another problem with Sorbo's statement, he seems to be assuming that everybody against government displays of religion is also an atheist. That's simply not the case at all. They're people who take the First Amendment seriously - atheists, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, etc. The wall of separation runs both ways - not only preventing any "law respecting an establishment of religion", but also any law "prohibiting the free exercise thereof". It protects religious freedom by keeping government out of it.

And it's just laughable that Sorbo thinks "the majority doesn't have a voice in the country anymore". Speaking as a former Christian turned atheist, I never even realized just how ubiquitous Christianity was in culture while I was still a Christian, but it really jumps out at you when you no longer practice the religion - cashiers telling me to have a blessed day, PTA meetings starting off with prayers, Christmas decorations going up everywhere (besides government property) the day after Thanksgiving, someone standing at the head of the room to say grace at just about any public banquet, etc. Perhaps Sorbo's referring to a voice in the government. I'll just quote myself on this, something that I wrote back in 2008 in an entry on the War on Christmas, "Christians make up around 80% of the U.S. population. As far as representation in government, in the 109th Congress, there were 11 senators who didn't identify themselves as Christians (12 if you count Unitarians), and only 30 representatives in the House (32 if you count Unitarians). In other words, over 90% of the elected officials in the federal legislative branch are Christians." Continuing with that quote, but moving on to the highest office in the land, "You have to go back all the way to Taft to find a president who said, 'I do not believe in the divinity of Christ' (though he was still a Unitarian Christian), or all the way back to Lincoln to find a deist president, and it seems absurd to imagine a non-Christian being elected to that office anytime soon." And can you even imagine a presidential candidate who didn't end every speech by saying, "And God bless America"? So, as I finished up that passage, "Christians make up a very large segment of the population, and are actually over-represented in government. They are not an oppressed minority."


And as one last comment, this time actually a bit more personal directly at Sorbo, what type of actor can he be, to take on a role and try to perform it, when he admits flat out that he can't fathom the mindset of the character? Aren't actors supposed to have some understanding of the motivation of their characters? (Though to be honest, from what I've heard of this movie, I doubt anyone could have performed the role of the professor as written with an actual understanding of what most atheists believe.)


Like I said, I wrote this not because I have anything personal against Sorbo, but because these views seem to be fairly common, and so far off from the reality of what most atheists believe and how they act. Perhaps if enough people voice their objections to misconceptions like this, people will eventually start to realize their mistakes.

Image Source: Christian Post

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Fastest Bird

Common SwiftA recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic caught my eye. A little boy goes up to his mother to ask her what's the fastest animal, and the comic then shows four different responses from different types of people. It's the biologist's response that grabbed my attention, "a descending peregrine falcon". That's a little factoid you see all over the place. And peregrine falcons are pretty darn fast, with a reported top speed of 242 mph in a dive. But that caveat about it being in a dive is the part that makes the record suspect. Is it really fair to call a peregrine falcon the fastest bird when it's really just falling - not generating the thrust with it's own muscle power. Heck, put me in a spandex body suit and let me jump off a high enough point, and I could briefly become the world's fastest animal. In fact, that's what the sport of speed skydiving is all about, with a record top speed of 330 mph - faster than even the falcons.

So, how fast is the fastest bird that's not cheating? With the manner in which human built airplanes so drastically outperform cars, you might think it's similar in the animal kingdom. If cheetah's can clock in at 70 mph, the fastest birds must surely be in the triple digits, right? Well, maybe not. While there are claims of a few birds being recording flying (not falling) over 100 mph (such as the needle-tailed swift), those claims aren't particularly reliable, and other researchers haven't been able to make measurements to match them. The fastest reliable claim I could find was from a BBC article from a few years ago, Supercharged swifts take flight speed record. The headline was referring to the common swift, not the needle-tailed variety. According to the article:

During the study, they clocked common swifts flying at 75km/h (20.8m/s; 47mph), with one swift registering a top speed of 111.6km/h (31m/s; 69.3mph).

That is the highest confirmed speed achieved by a bird in level flight, the researchers say.

69.3 mph - that's right around what cheetahs can do. And while it's not as blistering as the 242 mph attributed to the peregrine falcon, it's still pretty darn fast. And swifts also happen to be my favorite of all dinosaurs - not just for their high speed, but also for the fact that they spend practically their entire lives on the wing - eating, mating, and even sleeping in the air, only coming down to lay their eggs and raise their young. In fact, that means that young swifts spend their first few years completely in the air until they're old enough to mate.

So the next time someone asks you what the fastest animal is, instead of giving credit to that cheating falcon, you can give dual credit to cheetahs and swifts, while also mentioning the vagaries of determining the fastest animal when they don't exactly willingly participate in races.

More Info on the Awesomeness of Swifts:

Image Source: Wikipedia

Monday, July 28, 2014

OK vs. Okay

A-OKThere are four common ways I've seen to spell the term referenced in the title of this post - O.K., OK, ok, or okay. Apparently, three of those are accepted spellings, - O.K., OK, and okay, are all okay, but ok isn't.

There are a whole host of proposed etymologies for the term, but the one that seems most likely is actually similar to a popular trend right now. The same way people now use LOL, TLDR, or WTF, people back in the 1800s were using their own acronyms. But the added twist back then was to intentionally misspell the words. So, 'all correct' became 'oll korrect' became 'O.K.' and 'OK'. The 'okay' spelling doesn't appear until around 60 years later.

Different style guides recommend the different spellings, but I definitely prefer 'okay'. It may not be the original spelling, but it just looks better, and with the way the meaning of the term has morphed so much, I don't mind the spelling morphing a bit. And especially with the convention of using all caps to signify shouting, I can't read 'OK' without hearing it in my head as someone shouting the word, instead of just 'okay', which sounds like someone just saying it in a normal voice.

Anyway, not a terribly important subject nor a particularly long post, but there you go.

More Info:

Image Source: Wikipedia

Monday, July 21, 2014

Comparing Platforms - One More Strike Against the Current Republican Party

PoliticsWith my recent posts on politics prompted by the latest Texas GOP platform (see the entry, The 2014 Texas Republican Platform, and the Follow-Up), I've spent a little time looking at political party platforms.

I pulled a few planks from two different platforms for a comparison. Below is a table comparing them. See if you can guess who the parties are.

Party A Party B
We support this and his further offer of United States participation in an international fund for economic development financed from the savings brought by true disarmament. We support United States withdrawal from the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank.
To meet the immense demands of our expanding economy, we have initiated the largest highway, air and maritime programs in history, each soundly financed. We call for all transportation and fuel taxes collected to be used for road construction, improvement, and maintenance only. We resolve that tax revenue derived from gasoline taxes and all other taxes/fees on our vehicles (including vehicle sales tax) should only be used for highway construction, and not be diverted to any other use, including mass transit, rail, and bicycle paths.
We shall continue vigorously to support the United Nations. We support the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations and the removal of United Nations headquarters from United States soil.
Clarify and strengthen the eight-hour laws for the benefit of workers who are subject to federal wage standards on Federal and Federally-assisted construction, and maintain and continue the vigorous administration of the Federal prevailing minimum wage law for public supply contracts; We urge Congress to repeal the Prevailing Wage Law and the Davis Bacon Act.
Extend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible and practicable; We believe the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed.

It's actually a bit of a trick question. Party A is the 1956 national Republican Party (avaiable at The American Presidency Project). Party B is the 2014 Texas Republican Party (available at TexasGOP.org). Man, what a difference 58 years can make.

I've pulled a few more highlights out below the fold, if anyone's interested in reading them. By and large, it's a platform that I wouldn't mind supporting. Sure, there are some areas of disagreement, but it's a rational platform with reasonable approaches to addressing issues. It's nothing like the current Texas GOP platform, which as I described in another entry, "seems like the type of ranting you'd hear from your crazy uncle at family reunions, not the official platform of what's supposed to be a respected political party."

Man do I wish the Republicans would return to something like what this 1956 platform represents, so that there could be sensible discussions on politics, and that elements like the Tea Party would retreat back to the fringes where they belong.

Continue reading "Comparing Platforms - One More Strike Against the Current Republican Party" »

Friday, July 18, 2014

The 2014 Texas Republican Platform - Follow-Up

Republican ElephantI'd originally posted my entry on the latest Texas GOP platform based on a draft version of the platform. Now that the official platform has been released, I went and updated a few of the quotes to match the final version, and tweaked a bit of my own commentary. If you want to read this updated version, you can find it at the same place as before, The 2014 Texas Republican Platform.

To add a bit more to this post to make it somewhat worthwhile, I did some word counts on the platform to see how often religious themes came up, since it seemed like quite a bit when I was reading it. The count was nothing fancy - just typing a word into the search box in Adobe Reader and counting how many times Adobe found it. And for comparison, I did the same thing with the Democratic Party platform. Below is the table of how often each term appeared. For reference, there are 37-38 pages of content in the Republican platform (depending on if you consolidate the pages that were only half full), and 61 pages of content in the Democratic platform.

# Appearances of Terms in Party Platforms
Term Republican Democratic
judeo-christian 4 0
christian 5 0
faith 7 2*
faith based 5 1
god 12 1
bible 3 0
church 4 2
religious 19 9
religion 2 8
*Technically, faith was in the Democratic platform 3 times, and faithfully once, but only two of those instances were in a religious sense.

For the Republicans, that's an awful lot of religion squeezed into a political party's platform for what's supposed to be a secular government with separation of church and state. The Democratic Party platform has much less overtly religious language, which is an even starker contrast considering their platform is 1.7 times longer. And the context was different, as well. The Democrats mostly wanted to protect religious freedom, while keeping government and religion separate. The vast majority of the references in the Democratic platform were in the section, 'Religious Freedom', where you'd expect them to be, not interspersed throughout the platform in unrelated sections like foreign policy.

I've come across a few good articles from other sources addressing this platform. They're much shorter that what I wrote, which is probably a good thing since they're the right length to keep people interested. Having reviewed the platform myself, I can say that the selection of planks in those articles isn't cherry picking, but representative of the overall craziness and extremism. So, if you think my post is overwhelmingly long, or you want to see what other people have to say, here are the links. The first one from the New Yorker is my favorite.

Updated 2014-07-18: Added the Democratic Party column to the table and the related commentary.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Foreshadowing of More Shenanigans from the Texas SBOE (Social Studies Textbook Review Panels)

TEA LogoWell, the Texas State Board of Education looks like it might be preparing for another foray into the culture wars rather than just focusing on sound education. According to a recent release from the Texas Freedom Network, SBOE Politics as Usual: Textbook Review Once Again Plagued by Lack of Expertise, a few of the board members have appointed idealogues to the Social Studies and economics textbook review panels, rather than qualified academics or historians. To quote from the release:

TFN analyzed panels assigned to review textbooks for courses such as U.S. and world history, geography and economics. Out of more than 140 individuals appointed to the panels, only three are current faculty members at Texas colleges and universities. TFN has identified more than a dozen other Texas academics including the chair of the History Department at Southern Methodist University as well as faculty at the University of Texas at Austin who applied to serve but did not get appointments to the panels.

But the TFN analysis found that political activists and individuals without social studies degrees or teaching experience got places on the panels. One reviewer, Mark Keough, a Republican nominee for the Texas House District 15 seat, got an appointment to a U.S. History panel after being nominated by SBOE chair Barbara Cargill. Keough, a pastor with degrees in theology, has no teaching experience listed on his application form. Keough recently told the Montgomery County Tea Party that he does not "believe that there is a separation of church and state in the Constitution."

Ugh. I hope that in the end it's no worse than the science textbook review process, where the idealogues only had minor influence in the process, and in the end, the textbook manufacturers didn't capitulate to unfounded objections. And the current SBOE isn't quite as crazy as it was a few years ago, so maybe that'll be the case, but their past performance still has me worried.

If you want to do something about this, you can go visit the TFN page to sign their petition, or of course, write your representative on the SBOE.


For background, and why I'm so worried about this news, here are my previous blog entries dealing with Texas education issues (in chronological order, with the newest at the top). Like I've probably said before, there are a lot of good things about Texas, but the politics can be infuriating sometimes.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Homepage Facelift

Face LiftI gave my home page a minor facelift, creating icon links to the major sections, and moving some of the text to the About page to make the home page cleaner. The previous version is still available for comparison, if you're interested. So, if you haven't seen it yet, go take a look:

jefflewis.net Homepage

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for June 2014

Top 10 ListWell, with another month come and gone, it's time again to take a look to see what pages on this site were the most popular. Eight of the ten pages have made the list previously, but two were newcomers - Response to E-mail - Are America's Hunters the World's Largest Army? and Happy Fastnach Day 2014. I'm actually really happy to see fastnachts making the list (though my Fastnacht Recipe did make the list once before).

I've slightly changed one aspect of the way I do this list. Previously, I'd prefaced all blog entries with 'Blog - ', and just listed my static pages with their title. I'd started off that way because I used to think of my blog as a separate little side project for the site, and it was interesting to distinguish the few blog entries that made the list. But in recent years, the blog has come to dominate the site, both in terms of the effort I put in, and the amount of traffic it generates. It had gotten to the point where practically every entry in this top 10 list had the 'Blog - ' designation. So, I decided to just drop that distinction.

As far as overall traffic, June was down just a little bit compared to May, but still the third busiest month for the site as measured by unique visitors.

Anyway, here's the top 10 list for last month.

Top 10 for June 2014

  1. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. A Skeptical Look at Bio-Identical Hormone Replacement Therapy
  3. Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  4. Response to E-mail - Are America's Hunters the World's Largest Army?
  5. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  6. Gamera II Human Powered Helicopter Sets New Record
  7. Happy Fastnach Day 2014
  8. Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Chronicles 31 to 2 Chronicles 36
  9. Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  10. Email Debunking - Tips on Pumping Gas

Friday, June 27, 2014

Whiskey Blind Taste Test

I like whiskey. I don't drink it nearly as often as beer or wine, but I enjoy it when I do. And I've been slowly accumulating a small collection of different types of whiskey - 9 bottles as of right now*. These range from Evan Williams Kentucky Bourbon at the low end, to 15 year old The Macallan Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky at the top end (price-wise, not necessarily taste-wise, as you're about to read - and yes, it's The Macallan).

My Current Whiskey Collection

With my daughter and I being the nerds we are, we decided to do a blind taste test to see how they all compared. Just how good were the more expensive whiskeys? Were they worth the price and reputation? Granted, these are different varieties of whiskey, so it's not really a straight comparison, but it's still interesting (plus a good excuse to sip on some whiskey).

We weren't super scientific in our methodology, but we tried to be fair. My daughter put a little bit of each whiskey into a shot glass while I was in the other room, writing down which whiskey was in each glass, and then I came back in and tasted them all and ranked them. It was only a little per glass and only taking sips, or else by the end of 9 full shots in a few minutes, I wouldn't have cared about rankings. We repeated the same routine a few nights later for comparison.

It's pretty obvious that all the different whiskeys have their own unique flavors, but it's hard to actually rank them in order of preference (maybe I just have an underdeveloped whiskey palate). There were basically three standouts that were my favorites, one that was a standout in the other direction that I didn't particularly like, and then the rest that were all good but that I had a hard time favoring any over the others.

My top three were Ledaig, Oban, and Evan Williams, in that order. The one I didn't like much at all was Jim Beam. And then in the middle were all the others. And even though my preferences weren't huge, I did my best to rank them in order - 12 year old Glenlivet, The Macallan, Black Velvet, Jack Daniel's Old No. 7, and Jim Beam Devil's Cut. Keep in mind that The Macallan was the most expensive bottle I had, and it ended up in that middle group. And the funny thing is, up till that point I'd been touting The Macallan as so much smoother than the normal whiskeys, and the Evan Williams as rubbing alcohol. It's amazing how much of an influence labels and expectations can have on our perceptions. Though somewhat in my defense, I'd said all along that the Oban and Ledaig were my favorites, so my non-blind perceptions weren't completely off base. But Ledaig and Oban both also have very distinct peaty flavors, so I wonder if they'd still be my favorites if I found cheaper peaty whiskeys.

...

Originally, this entry was going to stop with the above paragraph, but like I said, I'm a nerd. I couldn't just leave it at that, so I decided to plot up these results and see if there were any noticeable trends. So, here are three different graphs. First is each whiskey with the price per bottle, in the order that I ranked them. The three groups are distinguished by color.

Whiskey Prices
Whiskey prices per 750 ml bottle, based on Spec's Texas Superstore - Red: My favorites, Blue: Still taste really good, but hard to rank compared to each other, Grey: Not so good

Next, I did a very simple plot of price vs. rank, and had Excel draw in a trend line.

Whiskey Price Trends

Third, I broke it down by groupd described above, averaged the price per group, and had Excel draw a trend line for that. Group 1 were my 3 favorites. Group 2 included the whiskeys that I liked but didn't have too strong of a preference of any over the others, and Group 3 was really only one whiskey, not a group, the Jim Beam that I didn't particularly like.

Whiskey Prices

So, there does appear to be a trend where I do like more expensive whiskey better than less expensive whiskey on average, but there's a lot of scatter in that plot. In fact, my third favorite whiskey, in my standout group (Group 1), was the second cheapest. Those rankings are also very subjective. I wouldn't be surprised if I did this test on another day and came out with slightly different results. Plus, it's not like a sample size of 9 is particularly big.

Like I said, I like whiskey, but I don't drink it a lot, so take these results for what they are. Still, I found it interesting that even if there was some correlation between cost and my personal preferences, how much variation there was around that trend.

---

*I always say that it's not people with large alcohol collections that you have to worry about, but rather the ones who drink it too fast to build up a collection.

Friday Bible Blogging - Hiatus

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleI hate to do this, but I'm going to announce another hiatus on this series. But let me offer a bit more explanation this time. There are three main time sinks to write the normal Friday Bible Blogging entries:

  1. Reading the Bible
  2. Reading the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB)
  3. Writing the entry

The first of those isn't actually too bad. Ten Bible chapters are usually pretty short, and I can access the NRSV on my mobile phone from practically anywhere, so I can usually find the time to get that part done. The last two hiatus announcements were mostly about the third one of those. As the name implies, this blog is mostly written during my lunch breaks, and I was just so busy there for a while that I was working through lunch breaks. If you've been paying attention, you might have noticed that I've been posting other entries more regularly here recently, so it should be clear that I've gotten my lunch breaks back.

The problem now is that second item - finding time to read the footnotes in the NOAB. The NOAB's a pretty bulky book, so I don't carry it around with me like my phone. I pretty much have to read it at home. But we've tackled some huge renovation projects around the house, and we're having a get together in a little over a month, with family flying in from out of town, so we have to get the projects done. What had been my routine of reading the NOAB on weekend mornings before everybody else got up just doesn't work right now. We've all been getting up earlier, along with some local family members who've spent a few weekends helping out. And even if I do wake up before everybody else, I get right to work. There's no time for spending an hour or two reading Bible footnotes.

Anyway, the get together is in the beginning of August, so whether we're done or not, the pressure will be gone after that, and I'll be able to get back into my Bible reading routine and start these posts again.

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