Friday, December 14, 2018

The Big Christmas Post, 2018

Christmas TreeChristmas is less than two weeks away, so it's about time to get up my now annual Big Christmas Post. I've written quite a few Christmas related entries over the years, and posted various comics and memes, so I've decided to gather up links to all the best stuff into one post. I know this is recycling, but it's still good stuff, especially if you've never read it before.

 

Jolly Posts

AOPA Christmas Card A Plane Christmas Greeting
This is a poem written by my late Uncle Bud. We both shared a love of aviation. This is his version of "The Night Before Christmas" (or "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for you pedants), with an aviation twist.
  
Koch Fractal Snowflakes An Early Christmas Present - Koch Snowflake Christmas Ornament 3D Printer STL Files
Last year, I played around with making snowflake ornaments for my 3D printer. But since I'm a nerd, they couldn't be any old snowflakes. These are fractal snowflakes.
  
White Wine in the Sun Merry Secular Christmas 2018 - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Charity
I have a tradition of posting a video of this song every year around Christmas. This year was no exception. Go give it a listen, and donate to the autism charity, Aspect, while you're at it.

 

Curmudgeonly Posts

Santa in the Crosshairs War on Christmas
This was my first War on Christmas post. It covers a bit of the history of Christmas in the U.S. ("a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras"), the Pagan origins of so many modern Christmas traditions, and in general why it's silly to get upset over an imagined War on Christmas.
  
Santa is no more Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars
I've never particularly liked lying to kids about Santa Claus, nor the whole mindset around Christmas time that kids should suppress their doubts and critical thinking skills. Playing pretend with kids is one thing, but lying is something else.
  
Scrooge When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough
This was an incident a few years ago that still stands out in my mind - a Salvation Army worker getting physically punched for wishing somebody a 'happy holidays' instead of a 'merry Christmas'. I included a meme that shows the appropriate response to any holiday greeting.
  
Take that, Santa Unintentionally Hilarious War on Christmas Video
Well, this could go into Jolly or Curmudgeonly depending on how you want to take it. This was a video I came across this year from a extreme right wing website - so extreme that I had to do a double take to verify it wasn't parody. Anyway, the video was so over the top that I couldn't help chuckling over it.

 

Should I Donate to _____ Charity?

Since so many people start thinking about donating to charity around the holidays, here are a couple entries on charities.

Salvation Army? The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?
As much as they try to portray a completely wholesome image, the Salvation Army isn't without their controversies. I'm not actually going to advocate that you do or don't donate to them (but if you don't, please donate to somebody else), but you should at least understand some of the activities they engage in that you may not agree with.
  
Charity Debunking an E-mail on Charities
This was written in reply to one of those email forwards, decrying all the supposed waste from certain charities, and suggesting you donate your charity money to other, more worthwhile charities. Well, suffice it to say, since it was an email forward, it wasn't particularly reliable. Granted, it's been a few years since I've looked into each of these charities, but it still gives you a sense of how legitimate various charities are, and provides links to a few watchdog groups.

 

Christmas Memes & Comics

You may have to click to embiggen to read this one.
Calamities of Nature Comic on Charlie Brown Christmas
Source: Calamities of Nature (via the WayBack Machine)

 

Santa Jesus Meme
Source: Master Marf (no idea if that's the original creator)

 


Source: Meme Generator

 

You'll never see one of those cutout plywood nativities the same way, again:
Source: Scoopnest

 

Christmas Tree Image Source: Free christmas Tree Backgrounds

Merry Secular Christmas 2018 - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Charity

In a yearly tradition for this blog, it's time to post one of my favorite Christmas songs, White Wine in the Sun, by Tim Minchin. But more than that, this is a chance to support Aspect, an Australian charity supporting children and adults on the Autism spectrum. For the past several years, Minchin has donated all procedes from sales of the song around Christmas time to the charity (previously known as the National Autistic Society - more info). So, if you don't own a copy of the song, yet, now's a perfect time to buy it.

If you've never heard the song, there's a description on Minchin's site from 2010 which reads, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

So, with all that out of the way, here it is, White Wine in the Sun. And new for this year is a new(ish) recording of the song (new for this site, at least):

Also new for this year, I'm including the lyrics, if you want to read along (per Google, from an older recording):

I really like Christmas It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it I am hardly religious I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu To be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas
Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom
I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious it means they're worthy
I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords
But the lyrics are dodgy

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions
Are taught to externalise blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate's is just fine by me

'Cause I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun
I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You'll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won't understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You'll know what ever comes
Your brothers and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun

When Christmas comes
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, whenever you come
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Waiting

I really like Christmas
It's sentimental, I know

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Unintentionally Hilarious War on Christmas Video

Santa in the CrosshairsI was just curious if anyone was still going on about the 'War on Christmas', so I googled it, and came across an unintentionally hilarious video, from a site named, non-satirically, ChurchMilitant.com/. At first I thought something so over the top was surely a parody like Landover Baptist, but no, it has it's own Wikipedia page and everything. Anyway, I don't think I can embed the video here, so you'll have to go watch it on the site:

DECEMBER 6, 2018--WAR ON CHRISTMAS: The advance of atheism.

The 'surely this must be parody' stuff started off from the very beginning:

Hello and welcome to The Download, live from our Church Militant studios in Detroit, Michigan. I'm Christine Niles. And, happy Feast of Saint Nicholas, the manly saint who punched the priest Arias in the face, after Arias blasphemed our Lord and rejected His divinity.

Ah, yes, manly saints punching people in the face. None of that turn the other cheek bullshit that some beatnik hippy went on about.

Then the talking head started using all the right-wing cliches you've come to expect about atheists and liberals:

The heretic Arias brought his own war against Christ by rejecting that he was God. That war on Christ continues to this day, brought by secularists who hate Christ and everything he stands for, and try to mask that hatred behind political correctness, or arguments for separation of church and state, a phrase that never actually appears in the Constitution, by the way.

Just for the record, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." while not literally using the phrase 'separation of church and state' certainly seems to be saying that government should keep its nose out of the whole business. And the phrase was coined by a U.S. president, by the way.

The segment then went on to praise Donald Trump for his support of Christmas in the face of political correctness, and showed a clip of Trump from a rally. Now I admit, I hardly ever voluntarily watch Trump, since he hardly ever has anything worthwhile (or coherent) to say. So I guess I'm just not accustomed to his mannerisms. But my goodness is he hilarious. He's like a parody. At one point while the crowd was cheering, he literally winked at someone in the crowd and then did that sleazy lounge host pointing people out move, before doing an unintentional (I hope) Elvis imitation, and then finally moving on to a brave stance in support of the single most popular holiday in the country:

Thank you. Thank you very much. And something I said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year- You know we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season, that people don't talk about anymore. They don't use the word Christmas cause it's not politically correct. You go to department stores and they'll say happy New Year. They'll say other things. And it'll be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say- Well guess what, we're saying Merry Christmas again.

Wow, what an act of heroism. I mean, it's not like 81% of non-Christians in the U.S. celebrate Christmas, including a majority of Buddhists, Hindus, religiously unaffiliated, and even a third of Jews (Pew - Christmas also celebrated by many non-Christians).

And yeah, those department stores are loathe to admit what all this 'holiday' shopping is about:

Oh, wait, I did find a page on Wal-mart called Ready, Set, Holiday!, that did have a whole bunch of 'holiday' references and not so many 'Christmas' references, at least until you actually followed any of the links or looked at any of the products being sold.

It's hard to believe this is the world we live in today - a clown like Trump in the White House, and right wing kooks making websites that are barely distinguishable from SNL skits.

Oh well, I'll take the unintentional humor as an early Christmas present. Merry Christmas everyone.

---

For a bit of an entertaining read, check out the following TV Tropes page. It's not about this site, per se, but it definitely reveals the mindset:
TV Tropes - Church Militant

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

John Gray Misrepresents New Atheists in Vox Interview

John GrayI like Vox in general, but it recently published an interview with John Gray criticizing New Atheism. Now, I'm not enamored with the label of 'New Atheism', but I suppose that if I had to choose where my views mostly align, New Atheism would be it. Now maybe I'm not as closely aligned with New Atheism as I suppose, but I have to say that many of Gray's criticisms, and those of the interviewer, Sean Illing, just don't reflect my own views at all.

I'll start by giving my own understanding of New Atheism. Because the existence of gods is an objective question, the best tool to try to determine whether or not any gods actually do exist is science 'loosely defined'* - the systematic and rational study of evidence. Despite some apologetic waffling, most people actually do approach religion looking for evidence - written scriptures, archaeological confirmation of their scriptures, miracles of the divine directly interacting in the world, etc. But I think most people fail in the systematic and rational evaluation of such evidence (and since religions are mutually contradictory, most people are necessarily wrong).

My disagreement with the Gray interview started with the headline itself, "Why science can't replace religion: John Gray on the myths the New Atheists' tell themselves." This is a theme that he repeated throughout the interview - science replacing religion. But that's not the New Atheist position. Yes, science is great at what it does - answering objective questions. It's by far the best method humanity has developed for this purpose. And that does conflict with many of the objective claims coming from religions. But, addressing objective claims is science's only purpose. Science has nothing to say on right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, awe-inspiring or mundane. For those types of concerns, we turn to other fields - ethics, philosophy, art, etc. Setting up the debate as science alone vs. religion is a false dichotomy. (I've written about this in much more detail on Quora, including some passages I lifted verbatim for this paragraph.)

Moving on to the article itself, I'll start with a quote from the introduction, from Sean Illing.

Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience -- our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can't fully understand if you don't account for that.

Illing is making the New Atheist position seem much less nuanced than it is. Of course New Atheists recognize that there are a huge variety of approaches to religion and varying beliefs among the religious. When it comes to other religions outside of theism, some New Atheists actually embrace them. There are plenty of atheists in Unitarian Universalist church pews. Some atheists even practice non-supernatural versions of more traditional religions such as Buddhism (including Sam Harris, one of the 'Four Horsemen' of New Atheism). It's simply misrepresenting the New Atheist position to say that they see religion as simply a protoscience with no other roles.

New Atheists do tend to focus their criticisms on more literal forms of Christianity, but that's because a) New Atheists tend to live in places where Christianity is the dominant religion, and b) literal forms of Christianity tend to be the more harmful versions in those places (other brands of harmful religion just don't have the same influence in those places). Paraphrasing what I've said before, if religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, New Atheists wouldn't have nearly as much to get worked up about.

Moreover, it's the fundamentalist religionists who are making "a set of claims about the world", so of course New Atheists are going to respond. And to be clear, fundamentalist Christians aren't some fringe group. Somewhere around 38% of Americans are creationists, and many of them push to get creationism taught in schools. So, with only so many hours in a day, of course I'm going to focus my criticisms on those types of religion, rather than more innocuous or nebulous religions that don't so clearly contradict reality or cause as much harm in society.


Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can't really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal -- all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.

This seems to be a standard complaint from religiously sympathetic philosophers - New Atheists don't take religion seriously enough. If we did, we'd grapple with the profundity of it all. But yes, smart people from the past really can be mistaken, no matter how much serious thought they've given to problems. Geocentricism was respectable up until the Copernican Revolution in the 1500s. That's millennia of serious, very intelligent philosophers having such a profound mistake about something as simple as the motion of celestial bodies. So I don't think it's hard to imagine they could be wrong about religion, as well, considering the societal pressure and the motivated reasoning of wanting to avoid Hell, and especially considering trying to make sense of the world in a pre-scientific age.


These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.

Now, maybe Gray is comparing New Atheists to PhD philosophers, but New Atheists tend to be more knowledgeable of religion than the general public. Here's an article describing a poll from a few years ago, Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious. Atheists on average knew more about the diversity of religions than believers (e.g Christians knew very little about Buddhism), and atheists even had better knowledge of the Bible than Christians as a whole (but not quite as good as white evangelicals).


I can't resist quoting this statement. It's not wrong, per se, but it does seem like a stereotype of an overly-wordy philosopher:

If Darwinism is right, and I think it's the best approximation we have to the truth about how humans came into the world, then all aspects of the human animal are shaped by the imperatives of survival.

That's like calling heliocentricism the best approximation we have to the truth about how celestial bodies move in our solar system, or a NASA created globe the best approximation we have to the truth about the geography of Earth. I mean, sure, everything we know about the universe is an approximation at some level, but in normal conversation, can't we simply say that certain things are just true? Couldn't he have just said something like, "Since we evolved..."


A bit later, he was making arguments in line with the headline.

There's this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can't address.

And then this:

Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.

That's where religion steps in.

But why religion? Why not secular philosophy? Or ethics? Just because people claim that religion addresses these other issues doesn't mean that it addresses them adequately or gives good answers. Heck, there's no guarantee that there even are satisfying answers to some of these questions no matter how you want to address them.


For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.

Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It's not obsolete, primitive science. It's not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn't like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

I get a bit tired of hearing this style of argument, let's call it the Philosopher's Religion, that religious believers of the past were all these sophisticated philosopher types who 'obviously' didn't take their scriptures seriously on a literal level, and that it's only modern day simpletons who corrupt scripture and take Genesis at its word, or even New Atheists misrepresenting the religious to try to make them look more primitive.

Let's take a look at what Saint Augustine had to say about some of the claims of Genesis - one of those 'clever' deep thinkers Gray mentioned earlier in the interview.

They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.

He also wrote extensively about Adam and Eve in formulating his views on Original Sin. And he clearly saw Adam and Eve as two real-life people. (more info - Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin and Augustine's Literal Adam)

So, it seems that Saint Augustine was taking the general history from Genesis pretty seriously. Granted, he thought the seven days were metaphorical, but only because he believed God created the universe in an instant. And yes, ancient theologians did have varying views of the degree of metaphor vs. literalism in interpreting the Bible (and not necessarily mutually contradictory, if they thought the Bible could be interpreted on multiple levels), but it's not like theologians who took the Bible as literal truth were a rarity. (I actually cover a bit about the age of the universe and how many theologians accepted a 6,000 - 8,000 year age in a Quora answer.)

The point is, plenty of very smart people throughout history have interpreted the Bible fairly literally, as an actual history of Earth and civilization. Without outside context, there's no obvious reason not to. I wish people like Gray would quit insisting that the 'Philosopher's' interpretation was the original, widely agreed upon view.


There's no doubt that religions have contained many ideas that have caused humans harm. There's not the slightest doubt about that. All human institutions cast a shadow which comes from the evil they carry within themselves.

[skipping ahead a bit]

At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.

Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times.

So ideas do have consequences. All we can do is try to embody these traditions as much as possible. There isn't some form of life, not even an imaginary type of pure liberalism, that is free of these terrible consequences.

Gray's point about 'secular religions' is a good one, but also one that New Atheists would agree with. When looking at the example of Soviet Russia, the problem was the authoritarianism and forced dogma. Lysenkoism is an oft-cited example of how rejection of evidence can lead to horrible outcomes. So yes, New Atheists promote critical thinking and following evidence. They tend to be skeptics first, and the atheism is just fallout from following the evidence. If you merely reject gods but don't follow the critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, you may be an atheist, but not really part of New Atheism.

Moving past secular religions, Gray's observation that secular institutions have done bad things is entirely unremarkable. That's human nature. The question is not whether all the ills of the world are attributable to religion, because they're obviously not. The question is whether religion is a positive or negative influence on balance, remembering that it will depend on the particular religion. (And even this would only a consideration for how vigorously atheists should criticize different religions - it doesn't change whether or not they're true.)

Let me put it another way. Many secular pursuits are a blank slate as far as morality. They'll take on the morality of the society around them, but they're morally neutral. Religions propose to define morality. They're not neutral. They don't just take on the morality of the surrounding society, but also shape that morality. And when you have a set of scriptures like the Bible, there are a lot of distasteful moral lessons. I mean, do you really think there would be anywhere near as much discrimination against the LGBT+ community without Christian 'morals'?

So yes, as humanity increasingly leaves behind traditional religion (e.g. 5 key findings about the changing U.S. religious landscape), members of society will have to ensure that we don't simply let religion be replaced by non-supernatural alternatives. But given the numerous studies on the topic (e.g. Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies, I don't think that's something we need to be overly concerned about.


I think you've put it very closely to the way I put it in the book. Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it's a flight from a genuinely godless world.

I'm most interested in the atheists who've seriously asked what it's like to live in a godless world. Not to construct some alternative God, like reimagining humanity as some collective agent that manifests itself through history or science or some other redemptive force.

I'm not really sure how Gray thinks atheists should be responding to a godless world. Are we supposed to be more solemn once we realize there's no god running the universe and looking out for us? Going around in a funk because we're on our own and there's no cosmic justice? Or are we supposed to be happy once we realize there's no cosmic tyrant who can condemn souls to Hell on a whim, or for the crime of doubt? It really all depends on your viewpoint and which conception of god(s) you're considering.

And what about that last sentence? Many people I know would like for all people to work together to try to make a better society. It's a goal, an aspiration we hope to accomplish. And yes, we often talk about 'society' as a collective, and we'll use collective terms like 'zeitgeist' in our discussions of society. Are New Atheists supposed to ignore these social aspects of humanity and become misanthropes, and leave all that social cooperation to the religious? You can recognize that groups have collective behaviors and emergent properties without pretending there's anything mystical or 'redemptive' about it.

I don't know what more of a reaction there should be to a godless world other than saying that the universe is what it is, and it's in our own hands to fashion society how we want it to be.


I think we should regard religions as great works of the human imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true. Any atheism that fails to do this will invariably miss what is most essential and enduring about religion, and probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.

I would challenge Gray to visit First Baptist Church here in Wichita Falls on a Sunday morning and poll the parishioners about their religious beliefs. Would they be okay with describing Jesus as merely a 'great work of the human imagination'? Does it matter to them whether the crucifixion and resurrection were 'empirically true', or would it be fine if those were metaphorical myths built up over the years? I'm willing to bet a very large sum of money that these religious people actually do care a great deal about the empirical truth of their religion.


I think we have to own up to it, because the danger of thinking that science can provide values has been demonstrated many times. What often happens is that science simply validates the ruling values of the time, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, those were racist values.

Refer, again, to what I quoted from myself up above. Science neither defines nor validate values. It's an attempt to determine objective truth. Values come from other parts of humanity outside science.


Aside from the many mischaracterizations of New Atheism in this interview, what always gets me about views like these is the conception of what religion should be, the Philosopher's Religion as I termed it up above. Gray's not just criticizing New Atheists, he also seems to be implying the 'right' way to be religious. Granted, there are plenty of people who view religion in this more metaphorical, values-only way, but it's not the mainstream view of the masses. Most religious people actually do literally believe in gods and spirits and all the other supernatural elements. Sure there are emotional reasons that motivate people to accept religion, but people aren't accepting the purely emotional reasons and then rejecting all the empirical claims. They take their holy books at least somewhat at face value. They don't see the claims as 'as great works of the human imagination'. They really, honestly believe that many of the events described did indeed literally happen.

But even then, the emotional answers that religion gives aren't always the best answers available. As I've said numerous times throughout this response, there are better approaches than religion to these more subjective aspects of our lives, such as philosophy, ethics, and art. Do you really want people getting their ethics from books written thousands of years ago by anonymous authors with unknown motivations? Or would you rather they did a little bit more applied thinking on the issues?

Image Source: BBC

---

*That definition comes from the evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne. Speaking of which, he's written his own response to this interview. I purposely avoided reading it, though, until I was done with this response, to make sure I wouldn't be biased by what he had to say. But if you want to ready what Coyne had to say, you can follow this link:
John Gray and Sean Illing go after New Atheism for the bazillionth time, but offer no new (or incisive) arguments

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Where Have I Been

Quora LogoIt's been a while since I've posted anything on here. For a while, there, my goal was a post per week, and I was doing pretty good at it. Then, I discovered Quora, a high-quality question-and-answer site. It's kind of like social media for nerds. Basically, people post questions, and then other people write answers. Users can upvote or downvote the various answers. There's a 'feed' where you can browse through and read answers. You can choose topics you're interested in, or particular users you want to follow. The feed algorithm also uses your past Quora browsing history to choose answers you might be interested in.

What makes Quora so much better than a site like Yahoo Answers is the quality of the users and the subsequent content they create. There's a NASA instructor and flight controller, Robert Frost, who's very prolific about answering technical questions about space travel or the workings of NASA. There are actual astronauts like Clayton Anderson. There are former fighter pilots like John Chesire to answer with a first person perspective on flying military and commercial jets. There are best-selling authors like Mercedes Lackey, Helena Schrader, and Orson Scott Card. There's the actual founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. From time to time, they'll get well known experts in various fields to participate in answer sessions, such as Bart Ehrman and even Barack Obama. And then there are tons of intelligent and knowledgeable people, whose names you may not recognize, but who make great contributions.

Besides the community of contributors, Quora has a few things going for it that I don't have on my personal blog. Perhaps the two biggest are the built-in reader base and the built-in infrastructure. Even at my blog's peak popularity a few years ago, I didn't have many regulars. I would write an entry, and hope that people found it to read it. On Quora, I know there's a somewhat guaranteed audience. There are the people following whatever question I'm answering, the people following me in particular, and then any larger group the answer might get forwarded on to if it turns out to be popular. My most popular Quora answer has been viewed by over 250,000 people, and my next most popular, which I actually like better, has been viewed by just under 50,000 people. And compared to the page views on my personal website stats, I think the Quora stats tend more towards real people as opposed to spammers and bots. Quora has the readership and infrastructure to ensure that what I write actually gets read.

Another advantage is that it's highly interactive. It's not just me posting my own views. It's seamless to read what other people are writing. On days when I'm bored and only feel like being passive, I can just go and read other people's answers on Quora. And those answers can be quite educational. And if I come across something I'm actually interested in responding to, I can tag it for later. In fact, that brings up another advantage - a ready made pool of material to write about. Plus, because somebody had to post the question to begin with, I know that there's at least some interest in the topic.

So, I haven't abandoned this blog or website entirely, but I only have so much time per day to write. And right now, my main focus has shifted to writing on Quora. I'll still post more blog-appropriate posts from time to time, and just maybe reincarnate my Friday Bible Blogging series. But for now, if you're interested in reading things I write, go check out my profile on Quora. If you really like it, sign up for the site and 'follow' me.

Jeff Lewis's Profile on Quora

 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Good Sources of Potassium

FoodSo I wrote an entry about two years ago about how I lost 40 lbs in 6 months. For the most part, I've managed to maintain my new weight, creeping up a few pounds every so often before focusing again to recover. I've also been kind of off again on again as far as exercise. A lot of that is due to breaking my foot and severely twisting my ankle last summer, along with a nagging case of tennis elbow that gets aggravated if I work out too intensely (which both sound better than attributing it to laziness).

Anyway, right now I'm in the midst of one of my 'recoveries' (for the record, I am currently lighter than my last weigh-in in that 2 year old entry - that entry was before I'd reach my target weight), and I'm also trying to get back in the routine of exercising, but I've been getting more leg cramps than normal. So, I figured I'd try to get a bit more potassium in my diet. And my first thought was, obviously, bananas. They seem to be everyone's go to food source for potassium. But, I decided to do a bit of research, first, and was surprised that there are actually quite a few foods that are better sources of potassium.

So, here's a list comparing the potassium levels in various foods, sorted by the most mg of potassium per calorie.

Food Serving Size, g Serving Size, oz Calories per Serving K per serving, mg K per cal, mg/cal
Zucchini 196 6.91 33 512 15.52
Asparagus 100 3.53 20 202 10.10
Broccoli 148 5.22 50 468 9.36
Brussels Sprouts 88 3.10 38 342 9.00
Green Bean 100 3.53 31 209 6.74
Potato 213 7.51 163 897 5.50
Strawberry 100 3.53 33 153 4.64
Black Bean 100 3.53 339 1500 4.42
Kidney Bean 100 3.53 333 1406 4.22
Banana 118 4.16 105 422 4.02
Pinto Bean 100 3.53 347 1393 4.01
Pineapple 100 3.53 50 109 2.18
Granny Smith Apple 100 3.53 58 120 2.07

Since I did this research for myself, those are all foods that I like and tend to eat fairly regularly - in other words, lots of savory vegetables, not so many sweet fruits*. I'm rather glad. I'd much rather eat a bit more asparagus, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts than have to eat a banana every day. And I'm really excited that potatoes have more potassium than bananas.

Anyway, I just thought this was interesting, and worth sharing with anyone else looking to get a bit more potassium in their diets.


*I actually do eat a Granny Smith apple almost every day, but obviously, they're a lot more tart than most fruits. I also like strawberries and pineapples from time to time, but again, they're more tart than typical fruits.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Annoyed at Headlines - Star Trek Wasn't Prophetic on Brain Death

Starfleet LogoI know that science reporting ain't what it used to be. And even in the 'old days', when newspapers had decent sized science departments, headlines could be misleading. Still, the reporting on a recent study has irked me enough to become a cranky old man and call it out here on my blog.

Here are a few examples of the coverage. Pay attention to what those headlines are implying.

Here's how Vice summarized the findings of the study.

[Jans] Dreier works at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, one of Germany's leading university hospitals. In February, the 52-year-old and his colleague, Jed Hartings, published a study that details what happens to our brain at the point of death. It describes how the brain's neurons transmit electrical signals with full force one last time before they completely die off. Though this phenomenon, popularly known in the medical community as a "brain tsunami," had previously only been seen in animals, Dreier and Hartings were able to show it in humans as they died. Their work goes on to suggest that in certain circumstances, the process could be stopped entirely, theorizing that it could be done if enough oxygen is supplied to the brain before the cells are destroyed.

About 2/3 of the way through that Vice article, you find the following interview question and answer with the study author.

So how did you find out that an episode of Star Trek had predicted your findings 30 years ago?

My colleague, Jed Hartings, brought it to my attention after watching the scene and noticing how similar it is to our work. My best guess is that the creators of Star Trek must have found research at the time that detailed a similar process in animals. The first person to research these sort of brain waves was a Brazilian neurophysiologist who conducted studies on rabbits in the 1940s. All we've done is show it in humans, which has taken this long because medical research in general is an incredibly slow process.

So in reality, this is a process first studied in the 1940s. The big innovation in this study is that it was done on human subjects, rather that non-human animals, but it shouldn't be a shock at all that human brains function the same as other mammal brains. So, Star Trek's writers back in the '80s were just using an already known phenomenon in their script. You could praise the writers for getting the science right (because they didn't always), but it's not like they made some profound prediction that science is only now catching up with.

All this isn't to say that the new study isn't fascinating. Of course it's interesting to do this study on actual people instead of other animals. But it doesn't sound like it found anything that wasn't already expected.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 27, 2018

Friday Trump & Politics Roundup - 22

Donald TrumpThis is my semi-regular feature to post links to articles about Donald Trump along with excerpts from those articles. Trump has the potential to cause so much damage to our country and the world that it's every citizen's responsibility to keep pressure on him and our other elected officials to try to minimize the damage. To read previous entries in this series and other Trump related posts, check out my Trump archives.

Like I wrote the last time I did one of these updates a few months ago, I haven't been posting in this series super regularly, because of just how depressing it is. I see all the damage Trump's doing to the country, but that his approval rating remains at 40%. I shouldn't be surprised. I predicted as much back at the end of 2016. I just wish I'd been wrong, and that there were more real patriots who gave a damn about what this country was supposed to stand for, and didn't support such a dangerous president who stands against practically every noble America ideal. It may not have been Sinclair Lewis who said so, but it certainly seems that "when fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross".

Anyway, on to the links. I'm only going to do my normal excerpts for a few newer links. After that, I've got a long list of articles I'd been saving up but never got around to posting until now.

Time - The Impact of President Trump's 'Global Gag Rule' on Women's Health is Becoming Clear

In just one year, health care workers say the policy has had disastrous effect; as expected, clinics are shutting down, unsafe abortions are predicted to rise sharply and families are losing critical services across the globe.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation, which operates in more than 150 countries, faces setbacks not only in family planning but also in HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis services for both men and women. IPPF says that for $100 million in lost funding, the organization could have prevented 20,000 maternal deaths in 29 countries affected by the ban. Marie Stopes International, a London-based abortion and contraception provider that operates in 37 countries, estimates that more than 2 million women it serves will lose their access to contraception. This could lead to a further 6,900 maternal deaths. Just those two organizations' loss in funding could lead to a combined total of about 7.5 million unwanted pregnancies and 2.5 million unsafe abortions. [emphasis mine - Trump is directly responsible for all of those preventable deaths]


Scientific American Blogs - The Health and Safety of America's Workers Is at Risk: We've made great progress, but the Trump administration is intent on rolling back protections and favoring industry interests over the public interest

There are numerous indications that this progress will be slowed or even reversed by a Trump administration intent on rolling back public protections and prioritizing industry interests over the public interest.
The Trump administration makes no bones about its (de)regulatory agenda. The president boasts about cutting public safeguards and protections, and his agency heads are falling right in line. Our working men and women are the economic backbone of our nation. They produce the goods and services we all enjoy, depend on and often take for granted. They are our loved ones, our friends, and our colleagues. They deserve to come home from work safe and healthy.

Worker Memorial Day is a time to pause and remember workers who have given and lost so much in the course of doing their jobs. It is also a time to renew our vigilance and be ready to use our voices, votes and collective power to demand and defend rules, standards, policies and science-based safeguards that protect our loved ones at work. Let's hold our elected leaders and their appointees accountable for the actions they take--or don't take--to protect this most precious national resource.


Scientific American Blogs - Speaking Science to Power: A statement released by 317 National Academy of Sciences members challenges the widespread dismissal of science and scientific understanding by the Trump administration

In the aftermath of the last U.S. presidential election, many of the negative consequences mentioned in the September 2016 open letter are now unfolding. The Trump administration has initiated the process of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and continues to cast doubt on the reality and seriousness of human-caused climate change. Negative consequences are now affecting many areas of science--not just climate science. The administration has shown a systematic disregard for using sound scientific information in public policymaking. Science inconsistent with the administration's ideological goals is ignored, suppressed, portrayed as too uncertain, and dismissed as politically and financially motivated.


Scientific American Blogs - Scott Pruitt Will Restrict the EPA's Use of Legitimate Science: The administrator's "transparency" proposal is a fundamentally flawed Trojan horse

The EPA is reportedly on the verge of restricting the science that EPA can use in decisionmaking and I'm livid. This is a move that serves no purpose other than to prevent the EPA from carrying out its mission of protecting public health and the environment. If Pruitt's proposal looks anything like House Science Committee Chairman's HONEST Act or its predecessor the Secret Science Act, we know it will be nonsensical and dangerous for our nation's ability to use science to protect people.


The Nation - Under Trump, ICE Has Become a Vast, Cruel Bureaucracy: Children seeking asylum are being separated from their parents for no good reason.

Over the past few years, the enforcement of immigration policy in this country has slowly shifted from the corrective to the punitive, and now to the abusive. We see this with the construction of walls around border cities, which has resulted in a shift of migratory trails to deserts and mountains and a rise in migrant deaths. We see this in the raids and arrests that ICE has conducted outside schools, places of worship, and soccer fields. We see this in the effort by Attorney General Jeff Sessions--previously a staunch advocate of states' rights--to stop places like California from declaring themselves sanctuary states. And we are now seeing this in the practice of breaking up asylum-seeking families. None of it has worked. But it has created a vast, cruel bureaucracy that has, step by step, diminished our collective humanity.


MySanAntonio.com - ICE, Trump and the bitter fruit of dehumanization

ICE's 40 percent increase in arrests within the country after Trump took office is now closely associated with the president's political priorities. His sweeping executive orders on immigration broadened the focus of enforcement beyond serious threats to public order. Arrests of immigrants without criminal convictions have spiked dramatically. Routine "check-ins" with ICE officials can end with handcuffs and deportation. "Sanctuary cities" -- a recurring presidential political obsession -- are being targeted with additional personnel. Hundreds of children have been removed from parents seeking asylum and detained separately -- compounding their terrible ordeal of persecution and flight. ICE recently announced a new policy that makes it easier to detain pregnant women. Asylum seekers have often been denied "humanitarian parole" while their cases are decided, effectively jailing them without due process.
ICE is not currently an agency famous for its care and discernment. In releasing an immigration activist detained by ICE early this year, U.S. District Judge Katherine B. Forrest said, "It ought not to be -- and it has never before been -- that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust. ... We are not that country."


Vox - Never-Trump Republicans face an obvious choice. They're not going to like it.: If they believe Donald Trump is a threat to America, they should vote Democrat.

The first thing to understand is that lots of popular conceptions of Trump -- that he's an anomaly, an aberration, an outsider who's hijacked and split the party -- are just wrong. Taylor cites this recent paper from political scientist Larry Bartels, which shows in great detail that, for all intents and purposes, there is no anti-Trump faction of the GOP. The party is united behind Trump, which is why Congress has provided no meaningful check on his power or corruption.
Here's Taylor:
Let's remember what's at stake. The Republican Party is slowly becoming comfortable with the authoritarian, blood and soil politics of Marine Le Pen's National Front. A competitive, proto-fascist party (let's not mince words) in a two-party system would be an existential threat to American democracy.

There you have it: an existential threat. A party that is not meaningfully restrained by shared norms of conduct cannot long be legally or democratically restrained either. And the GOP has grown more lawless with each passing administration.

It may sound faintly absurd to think that the US could see widespread political violence or openly rigged elections, but lots of things that are currently happening sound faintly absurd too. Norms and expectations that were once considered sacrosanct have dissolved like tissue paper, one after the other. Who's to say where it could lead?

Which is to say, an existential threat is a serious thing.

And here are the links from my backlog. And even this is just a small sample of what I read practically every time I read the news. Man, times are depressing. Trump and Republicans are doing so much damage to the country and the rest of the world.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Real Story of the Resurrection (maybe)

For Easter weekend, I'm going to recycle a relevant answer I recently wrote on Quora. The question was, If Jesus wasn't resurrected, where did his physical body go? Below is my answer, with a few edits.

---

I just finished reading Bart Ehrman's book, How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, and Ehrman makes a good case for the empty tomb story being invented in the decades after Jesus's death, not one of the earliest Christian beliefs. In other words, there's no need to explain a mystery of what happened to Jesus's body, because there's no credible story of it ever going missing.

The earliest Christian writings in the New Testament are the seven authentic letters of Paul. Paul doesn't discuss an empty tomb in any of his writings, nor make any mention of Joseph of Arimathea. The empty tomb story doesn't show up until the gospel of Mark, which was written decades later.

Ehrman also points out that it would have been very unusual for the Roman authorities to allow a criminal who had been crucified to have a decent, private burial. The "exception that proves the rule" was that crucified criminals were allowed to be taken down during celebrations for the emperor. The author who documented this (I believe it was Philo) made a point to say that it was an unusual occurrence for such celebrations, implying that it was very uncommon, otherwise. And Passover was a Jewish holiday, and one associated with Jewish unrest towards Roman authorities, so it seems unlikely that Pilate would have made an exception in Jesus's case.

Ehrman thinks that the resurrection came to be believed originally because a few disciples and apostles had visions of Jesus after his crucifixion. Ehrman makes some attempts to stay neutral on whether or not the visions were true, but he also cited some studies showing that somewhere around 1 in 10 people claim to have had visions of deceased loved ones. Such visions aren't uncommon. In fact, doing some research on my own, I found an article about these "post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences" (PBHEs). Per the headline, Six in ten grieving people 'see or hear dead loved ones'*. (Just to be clear, these visions of the disciples were likely private visions by a few individuals, not the extensive interactions of the gospels.)

So, a plausible scenario is that Jesus was arrested and crucified in Jerusalem by the Roman governor, Pilate, because of Jesus's claims to be king (whether Jesus was talking literally or implying something more heavenly wouldn't have made much difference to Pilate). His corpse was likely treated like any other crucified criminal's - possibly left up for a period as an example, possibly with his final remains going into a mass grave. Jesus's closest followers, meanwhile, would have fled back to Galilee, and not been in Jerusalem to see the ultimate fate of Jesus's body. In Galilee, a few had visions of Jesus, and became convinced he had been resurrected. From there, legends grew up around Jesus, including the story of a specific grave subsequently found empty.

Of course, not all scholars agree with Ehrman, even among non-Christian scholars. Personally, I find Ehrman's arguments persuasive, but we're talking about an event 2000 years ago, that wouldn't have been particularly noteworthy to most people when it happened, and where the people for whom it was significant would have been illiterate and not making written records of what they saw (those written records wouldn't come for at least a few years later with Paul, and many years later with the gospels). I doubt we'll ever know for certain the exact details of what happened.

---

I'll add that Ehrman's interpretation makes Jesus's story incredibly heart breaking, which is especially poignant nearing Good Friday when the crucifixion is commemorated. At least in the orthodox version, Jesus was fulfilling his destiny and doing what he'd come to Earth to do. And in the mythical Jesus hypotheses, the whole crucifixion story may be made up, anyway. But thinking about an actual human preacher, arrested, tortured, and crucified, while his followers fled in fear back to their hometowns, is a very, very sad story.


*If you have access (I don't), here's the study that article was about:
Post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences: A critical overview of population and clinical studies.

For a good bit more detail, but still far short of reading the book, here's an article on Huffington Post:
How Jesus Became God

And here's an interview with Ehrman on NPR:
If Jesus Never Called Himself God, How Did He Become One?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Fastnacht Day 2018

I'm actually remembering to make this post the day before Fastnach Day this year, as a reminder for people to stop at the grocery store on the way home to pick up what they'll need to make fastnachts tomorrow morning.

Now, there's a good chance you don't know what fastnachts are. Since I'm lazy and have already written about fastnachts before, I'm just going to straight up copy my post from last year (well, with a handful of tiny edits).

You may call Fastnacht Day something else like Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, but if you grew up in the same part of Pennsylvania as me, it's definitely Fastnacht Day (pronounced foss-not*). Fastnachts are more or less a potato based donut. They're a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition** (meaning it was originally a German tradition) to use up all the fat and sugar and before starting the Lenten fast. We even got them in school lunches when I was in elementary school (and I'd suspect they still do). Well, I don't do the traditional fast anymore, but I definitely keep up with a tradition of making good food.

If you want to try making them yourself, just stop on the way home from work to buy the ingredients you'll need (because I'm guessing you don't keep buttermilk in the fridge), and make a batch. Here's the recipe my family uses:

Here are a couple pictures from when my daughter and I made them last year (we had to wake up pretty early). Since we were running a little late, everybody was grabbing fastnachts to take with them before they were all done, so I didn't get a picture of the entire completed double batch.

Alex Cutting the Fastnachts Frying Up the Fastnachts

And to give an idea of how popular fastnachts are in that part of Pennsylvania, here are a few articles from local newspapers up that way, along with the Wikipedia entry.

So go get yourself a fastnact tomorrow. If you're not near Pennsylvania Dutch country and don't feel like making them yourself, at least go buy yourself a cake donut and pretend it's a fastnacht.


*The original German is a bit different. In fact, a German coworker said they were called fasnachtküchle where he was from in Germany, but I couldn't pronounce it. Though I have other German friends from a different part of Germany, and they'd never heard of the tradition. So I guess it's regional in Germany, too.

**Just to be clear, Pennsylvania Dutch is not synonymous with Amish and Mennonite. Granted, the Amish and Mennonites still stick to Pennsylvania Dutch traditions the strongest, especially in still speaking the language, but there were/are lots of other Pennsylvania Dutch people.

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