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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part II

In Part I of this review, I introduced what this book was about (an attempt by creationists to justify a young earth through radiometric dating), gave a few general comments, and described what I considered to be the most serious flaw with their hypothesis - not accounting for the heat that would be created through accelerated nuclear decay.

In this part of the review, I will address additional points from the book. It's a bit longer than the first part, but that's because I preferred to keep Part I short and to the point, and not distract from such a glaringly obvious flaw. The points here are more details.

Rather than go through chapter by chapter, I'll jump straight to the last chapter, where they summarized their most important points. I'll list those points here, followed by my commentary.

As a note, I've relied rather heavily on the Talk Origins site for references. In many cases, I'll provide several links for more information. The 'Index to Creationist Claims' links are usually short and succinct, while the articles are much more detailed. Note that both the Index to Creationist Claims and the Talk Origins articles list their references, allowing the reader to research these points even further, if they want.

Since Talk Origins covers most of these points so well already, there's little need for me to repeat everything here, so my commentary will be rather short.

1. For some years there has been a growing realization that carbon-14 atoms are found where they are not expected. With a half-life of 5,730 years, C-14 should no longer exist within "ancient" fossils, carbonate rocks, or coal. Yet small quantities of C-14 are indeed found in such examples on a worldwide scale. The RATE work extends this information with carbon-14 measurements in additional coal samples and also in diamonds. The RATE carbon-14 experiments on diamonds are the first ever reported in the literature. Measurable levels of C-14 are found in every case for both coal and diamond samples. This evidence supports a limited age for the earth. There is a widely held misconception that carbon-14 dating is in direct conflict with creation and the young-earth view. Instead, however, the carbon-14 findings strongly support a recent supernatural creation.

In Part I, I mentioned that this book ignored all of the other evidence for an ancient Earth. That point is especially significant here. Carbon-14 dating is very reliable. We know this by comparing Carbon-14 dates to other dating methods, such as, to quote from Wikipedia, "tree growth rings (dendrochronology), deep ocean sediment cores, lake sediment varves, coral samples, and speleothems (cave deposits)." In fact, since the forces responsible for creating atmospheric C-14 haven't remained strictly constant, causing slightly varying levels of C-14 throughout history, these other independent dating methods can be used to create calibration tables for C-14, making C-14 dating even more accurate.

But, the above doesn't explain the findings of the RATE team. How did C-14 end up in ancient rocks? Well, there are several possible sources. Any types of fissures that would expose the rock, either directly to the atmosphere, through ground water that carried dissolved carbon, or biological sources, could account for the C-14. But even for completely isolated rocks, there's another source. Remember that although cosmic rays are primarily responsible for C-14 in the atmosphere, that's not the only way that C-14 can be created. Underground, the radioactive decay of the uranium-thorium isotope series releases neutron and alpha particles, which in turn can create C-14, and are probably the main source of C-14 in ancient rocks and minerals. And remember, we're talking about trace amounts of C-14 - not enough to significantly affect dates for younger samples with much higher concentrations. Contamination and poor procedures can also be a source, which is discussed in detail in the third link below.

More info:

2. Zircons play a prominent part in the RATE studies. These are tiny crystals which often occur in granite, one of the most abundant rock types on earth. Within their crystal structures, many zircons hold helium atoms which result from the decay of internal uranium atoms. Zircons brought to the surface from deep underground are assumed to be ancient. The New Mexico zircons studied by the RATE team have a radioisotope age of 1.5 billion years. If this were true, then the internal helium atoms should long ago have escaped from the zircons. Instead, however, the RATE scientists and others find high concentrations of helium still present inside the zircon crystals.

RATE research obtained some of the first high-precision data on helium diffusion in zircon. A theoretical model based on this data gives an age for the earth of about 6,000 years. The presence of helium in zircons is a serious challenge to the concept of deep time. The helium also represents compelling evidence of accelerated nuclear decay in the past.

Reading the section of the book that dealt with this, I was struck by their lack of mention of pressure in calculating the helium diffusion rate in zircon. I would imagine that high pressure would have a significant effect - compressing the zircon and reducing the size of passages that helium could migrate through. Without including pressure in their experiments, I don't put much stock in those numbers representing what's actually going on under ground. In other words, if you don't know what the helium diffusion rate is in the conditions a rock experienced, you can't know how much helium should be in the rock.

As with all radiometric dating, the possibility of contamination is always a concern, as well.

According to the article provided in the second link below, it turns out that there are far more errors in the RATE study than I could list in a short review such as this. These include mistakes in math, misidentifying minerals, and probable helium contamination from nearby helium deposits, to name just a few.

More info:

3. Radiohalos are tiny spherical defects in rocks. They result from the decay of clusters of radioactive atoms, mainly uranium and polonium. The frequent occurrence of these halos in rocks is evidence for widespread nuclear decay. Halos are present in abundance in granites whose formation accompanied the Genesis flood. This indicates that a large-scale acceleration of nuclear decay occurred during the year-long flood event.

There is a longstanding mystery concerning radiohalos. Many of them appear to have formed during the decay of short-lived polonium radioisotopes. These transient isotopes must in turn be supplied by the decay of other isotopes with much longer half-lives. However, evidence for the long-life parents is often missing. These halo-forming isotopes include the polonium isotopes 210, 214, and 218. To explore this mystery and other questions, many thousands of radiohalos were measured in rocks worldwide. This was perhaps one of the largest-scale radiohalo studies ever undertaken.

The RATE research suggests that the polonium isotopes are derived from uranium via accelerated decay. The polonium atoms then were rapidly removed and transported away from their uranium sources by underground hydrothermal fluids. The polonium atoms accumulated at new sites and formed secondary radiohalos near their uranium parent halos. Thus, the short-lived isotopes are not parentless after all, but instead were physically removed from their point of origin.

I don't have much to say on this, other than directing readers to the links below. From studies done by others, it appears that the biggest problem with the RATE research is that polonium probably wasn't responsible for the halos. It seems most likely that a radon isotope (a decay product of uranium) was their source. Given that radon is a gas that can diffuse through the minerals, there is no problem with the halos being separated from the uranium. In fact, when others have looked for halos, they've found them clustered around cracks in the minerals, which is exactly where you'd expect to find them if it was due to gas diffusion.

More Info:

4. Many rock units worldwide were analyzed by radioisotope dating techniques. These experiments include the parent-daughter isotopes potassium-argon, rubidium-strontium, samarium-neodynium, and also the lead-lead method. The efforts gave fresh data on apparent age and their consistency. Some examples of concordance, or agreement in age were found, while many other examples showed discordance, or disagreement. In fact, both extremes often occurred in the same rock unit.

Great trust is traditionally placed in the results from isochron plots. These are graphs which are thought to give valid information on initial conditions, possible sample contamination, and sample age. The RATE results raise serious cautions concerning the interpretation of isochrons. Even when an isocrhon plot of data appears to produce a straight line with excellent statistical support, the calculated sample age is often in conflict with other results. The conclusion is that no isochron age can be trusted with confidence.

Once again, this result appears to be due to bad methodology on the part of the RATE team. Read the first link provided below. Depending on what samples are dated and what methods are used, there can be quite a bit of variation, but this is already known by geochronologists. For example, if you take samples of a metamorphic rock, then you're bound to get different dates from different minerals in the rocks. Also, if you use a dating method that relies on a certain element, such as potassium, but the mineral you're dating doesn't have much potassium in it, then you're not going to get very reliable results. When researchers take appropriate samples, and use appropriate methods, they do get consistent dates.

More Info:

5. There are three important assumptions made in radioisotope dating. Each has been addressed by RATE research and found to be subject to failure. The first assumption is that the initial conditions of rock samples can be determined accurately. This is challenged by the many discordant isochron dates. Also, ancient dates are often obtained for volcanic rocks known to be very recent in origin. The second assumption is that the open or closed nature of rock samples can be determined and quantified. However, there are frequent indications of the mixing of mantle and crustal isotopes with rock samples. Also, polonium radiohalos show the movement of isotopes through rocks and minerals by hydrothermal transport. The third assumption is that nuclear half-lives have remained constant throughout history. This assumption is countered by the unexpected helium found in "ancient" zircons. also, there are abundant radiohalos and fission tracks in rocks which were rapidly deposited during the Flood.

Most of the points raised above are dealt with elsewhere in this review, so here I'll only deal with one - the claim of ancient dates for recent volcanic eruptions. To be fair, the book didn't deal much with dating of recent volcanic eruptions. It was only discussed in a few paragraphs. However, since they used it as a point of evidence, it's still worth discussing.

The main thing I was most struck by was how this 'fact' was discussed, which points to a larger problem with the book. The RATE team did date some rocks from a volcano named Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, but then simply stated matter of factly that other recent volcanic rocks had also been given ancient dates, without any reference. In fact, the book only had a grand total of 16 references at the end. Compare that to any good science book, such as Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, which has around that many recommendations for further reading (or more) at the end of each chapter, and literally hundreds of references in the back of the book. Even on this blog, I try to use references as much as possible. Granted, mine usually aren't to primary sources like peer reviewed journal articles, but at least it lets the reader know where my information came from, and gives them a starting point to research it further.

Moving on, here's the quote where the volcanos dated by others were mentioned the first time.

The RATE radioisotope studies reveal large-scale errors for volcanic rocks known to be less than a century old. Similar results have been previously published for many other modern lavas which yield exceedingly old ages. This is particularly true of basaltic lavas on ocean islands such as Hawaii. These young rocks commonly carry "ancient" radioisotope signatures inherited from their mantle sources.

It seems that there is a study of Hawaiin lava that this could be referring to -
J. G. Funkhouser and J. J. Naughton, "He and Ar in ultramafic inclusions", Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 73, 1968, pp. 4601-4607. However, the creationists are either misinterpreting or misrepresenting what the study actually says. The study was specifically looking at xenoliths, or inclusions, which are recognizable material that's been embedded in the flow, and not part of the magma that came up from deep underground. So the researchers knew that the inclusions were going to be older than the lava. What's more, when they dated what was recognizable as the magma from the eruption, they found that, "The matrix rock of the Hualalai nodules was erupted during 1801-1802 [Richter and Murata, 1961] and, indeed, can be said to contain no measurable radiogenic argon within experimental error." So they did correctly date the eruption as very recent.

More Info:

6. The concept of accelerated decay arises many times in the RATE work. It is the logical inference of placing millions or billions of year's worth of nuclear decay, at present rates, into a short time frame. The episodes of increased nuclear activity appear to have occurred during the creation week and also during the flood of Noah's day.

The evidences for vast amounts of decay include the abundance of nuclear decay products, high concentrations of helium atoms residing in zircon crystals, radiohalos, and fission tracks. Theoretical RATE studies suggest several possible ways by which nuclear decay could have been accelerated. Of special interest are large changes in decay rates that can result from a temporary adjustment of various physical constants and parameters. The ideas are rather complex and involve nuclear forces, higher dimensions, and string theory. This theoretical RATE work provides possible mechanisms for accelerated nuclear decay.

I know this is a smart alec answer, but I would have thought that the "logical inference of ... millions or billions of year's worth of nuclear decay" would be millions or billions of year's worth of time for it to happen in.

Obviously, the biggest flaw in arguing for accelerated decay is the point I made in Part I - you must also account for the accelerated release of energy. Seeing as how the Earth isn't vaporized, I seriously doubt a period of accelerated decay such as what has been proposed by RATE.

RATE has proposed that the accelerated decay occurred universe-wide. Luckily, we can study the past for our universe. In fact, that's all we can study, given the huge distances involved and the time it takes light to reach us (this in itself is another indication of an ancient universe, given that some observed galaxies are billions of light years away). Nothing we see in studying the universe (and especially relevant for this discussion are supernovae) indicates that radioactive decay has ever been any different than it is now.

They also mentioned a "temporary adjustment of various physical constants and parameters." These constants control more than just radioactive decay. In fact, the whole point of fine tuning arguments so often used by creationists is that the universe would be very different if those constants were even slightly different.

There is even more discussion of how we know the decay rates have been constant in the links below.

More Info:

7. The RATE radioisotope dating measurements also contribute information regarding accelerated nuclear decay. These measurements reveal two distinct trends. First, the isotopes which decay by alpha particle emission tend to give older dates than the isotopes which undergo beta decay. Second, heavier isotopes tend to give older dates than lighter isotopes. Neither of these trends should exist if the radioisotopes have had constant half-lives and accurately measure the ages of rocks. This decay information may provide useful clues to understanding the mechanisms responsible for accelerated nuclear decay.

Given all the problems discussed above about the RATE team not producing accurate dates, I don't see any reason to even address this point. The effect they're mentioning isn't seen by other researchers.

8. The linguistic studies of Genesis 1:1-2:3 likewise support a recent creation. This research shows that biblical texts may be identified as either narrative or poetry with a high degree of confidence, based on the Hebrew verb forms used by the authors. The distributions of finite verbs in numerous Old Testament narrative and poetic passages were analyzed. The Genesis creation story is found to be a narrative account describing literal historical events. This conclusion challenges all efforts to explain away the early chapters of Genesis as non-literal poetry, metaphor, or allegory. The research also contradicts the currently popular idea that the Genesis account describes the big-bang theory in pre-scientific terms.

When I was still a Christian, and assumed the Bible had to match up with reality, I interpreted Genesis figuratively. Now that I'm no longer a Christian, and don't have to force the Bible to be an accurate book, I can take it for what it is. And, to be honest, I tend to agree that the writers of the first book of Genesis did believe it was a literal story. Actually, I'll take it a bit further. I think the writers believed in the same cosmology as other nearby cultures, that the earth was a flat disc with a dome - the firmament - above it. It would certainly explain Genesis 1:6-8.

More Info:

Throughout the book, the author mentioned Noah's Flood several times. It was actually a bit surreal to see someone seriously discussing the Flood as a legitimate topic. The author didn't go into detail about the Flood, so I won't discuss it in detail here. Rather, I'll simply direct interested readers to the appropriate page on Talk Origins. In particular, I like section 7 of that article, discussing how a global flood is completely inconsistent with the geological record.

Before closing this review, I'll take one last chance to put this in perspective (bordering on an argument from authority combined with an ad hominem). A handful of researchers, who have admitted that they already believe in a young Earth because of scripture, and that they will 'channel' data to fit that perspective, have done a few studies that they say indicate the Earth is only a few thousand years old. The scientific community, composed of people from multiple religious backgrounds, have performed thousands and thousands of experiments over more than a century, and reached a consensus that the Earth is around 4 1/2 billion years old. I mentioned Charles Lyell in Part I of this review. He was the man who popularized uniformitarianism when he published Principles of Geology, before Darwin even got aboard the Beagle. Lyell was a Christian. He struggled with the theory of evolution because he thought it went against his religious beliefs. Most of his contemporaries who were convinced by his book and the other science being done at the time were also Christians. Obviously, they thought the evidence for an ancient Earth was irrefutable, and didn't come up with the explanation simply because they wanted one that didn't include God. The point is, when people aren't blinded by preconceptions, they tend to agree with the scientific consensus.

So, I've now read a modern 'scientific' book on creationism. Obviously, I wasn't convinced by the arguments it contained. If anything, it's reinforced my view that creationism is nonsense. But, I suppose it was worth reading to see an opposing point of view. It's also prodded me to learn more about geology and physics, and learning more is always a good thing.

I usually end my reviews with a recommendation for or against reading the book. In this case, I definitely recommend against, unless you already know enough about the science, or are willing to put in the effort to research the claims. Otherwise, the arguments can sound convincing, and could mislead most of the people who read the book. If you don't know about these topics already, go read a real science book on geology.

I'll leave this challenge open. If anybody wants to recommend a better book that argues for creationism, I will read it and evaluate the arguments.

Monday, November 29, 2010

War on Christmas 2010

Santa in the CrosshairsWith Thanksgiving out of the way, the Christmas Season is now officially upon us, which also means that the War on Christmas has officially started for the year. I've already written an entry all about this - War on Christmas - where I discuss a bit the true history of Christmas in this country (hint: the Puritans really, really didn't like it), the origins of some of our traditions, along with some of the other nonsense people think of as part of the war (Xmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings, etc.).

I don't have much to add over what I wrote two years ago, so instead I'll link to what others have come up with for Christmas. First, is a poem from The Digital Cuttlefish, The Night Before (The War On) Christmas. I've only included the first 3 verses below. Follow the link to read the rest. (It's also worth going to the Digital Cuttlefish home page to read the rest of their poetry.)

The Night Before (The War On) Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas; the Christians all hunkered
In basements of buildings they’d armored and bunkered.
They huddled in silence; they huddled in fear,
With thoughts that the atheists soon would draw near

The War Against Christmas had started on Fox—
Just a couple of fools on the idiot-box
Who were looking for noise to give ratings a boost—
But lately, those chickens have come home to roost:

Believers are frightened; they’re panicked; they’re scared,
And not one among them will go unprepared;
They’ve heard that the atheists roam, Christmas night,
So Christians stay hidden, and safe out of sight.

Read the rest at the Digital Cuttlefish

To be honest, I really do like Christmas - the decorations, the getting together with family, the celebrating. Here's a song from Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun, that fairly well echoes my views.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I Hate Black Friday

TurkeyI hate Black Friday. It ruins a good holiday, and contributes to the crass commercialization of another.

Thanksgiving Day should be a day to pause and reflect on all that's good in your life, to take a day to appreciate what you have. It's a day to be with your family. You should be able to stay up to the wee hours of the morning talking and reminiscing.

Thanksgiving Day should not be the eve of a shopping spree. We shouldn't worry about cutting Thanksgiving short so that we can wake up early enough to go buy that new plasma TV, or spend Thanksgiving night waiting in line. Or even worse, as happened to us this year, we shouldn't skip visiting family because the stores in their town don't have as good of sales as the stores in another town.

I don't foresee there being any change to Black Friday anytime soon, but damn I wish it would just go away.

Oh well, enough complaining. I'll spend some time reflecting tomorrow, and I will enjoy the time I'll spend with my family and friends.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review - Thousands, Not Billions, Part I

A few months ago, I asked for a recommendation of the best book creationism had to offer. A friend of mine suggested Thousands... Not Billions: Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth. So, I bought it and read it.

The book is a summary of a research project known as Radioisotopes and the Age of the Earth (RATE), associated with The Institute for Creation Research (ICR). The book was written by one of the Researchers, Dr. Don DeYoung.

The subtitle of the book, "Challenging an Icon of Evolution, Questioning the Age of the Earth", might lead you to think that there'd be a bit of discussion of evolution. There wasn't. The book looked only at the age of the Earth, and focused entirely on radiometric dating.

Now, I realize that books can only have a finite scope. This book's focus was radiometric dating. Fine. Just don't expect that pointing out a few anomolies in this one field is enough to overturn the diverse forms of evidence from other fields for an ancient Earth (particularly if your anomolies are down to bad methodology). Keep in mind that radioactivity wasn't discovered until 1896 by Henri Becquerel, and radiometric dating wasn't attempted until the early 1900s. When you consdier that Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, it's obvious that radiometric dating didn't form one of the pillars of the theory. In fact, it was already known that the earth was ancient, though with less certainty of the exact age, from other sources. Uniformitarianism was first proposed in the 18th century by James Hutton, and later popularized by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology in 1830. These geologists were looking to other forms evidence, such as the layers of sediment that had built up in different areas, and comparing those to known forms of deposition in the present. Just look at the White Cliffs of Dover for a formation that took countless years to form.

There was one passage that didn't come until near the end of the book, on page 169. However, I'm going to include it here at the beginning of the review, because it clearly shows the mindset of those involved.

Furthermore, the unchanging Scripture message has priority over all transient models of earth history. The RATE team concludes that Scripture is the standard to which interpretations of scientific data must conform. This does not imply the rejection of any data whatsoever. However, it does call for the positive channeling of data interpretation in a proper biblical perspective.

This is exactly the wrong way to do science. They've already decided on their conclusion, based on their interpretation of scripture, which, as they made clear elsewhere, is definitely a young earth. From that stance, there is no evidence at all that could convince them of an ancient universe, because they would just 'channel' that evidence to fit with their preconceived notions. They even hinted at this in the book, that where they run into a roadblock that isn't explainable by any other means, they can just invoke divine intervention. This is hardly any better than Last Thursdayism.

Throughout the book, the author indicated that accelerated nuclear decay was responsible for their findings. This hypothesis was mentioned many times throughout the book. Obviously, this raised some serious red flags. When I think of accelerated nuclear decay, I think of this:

Mushroom Cloud from Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plumbbob_Fizeau.jpg

Now, depending on just how accelerated the decay might have been, it might not necessarily have set off an explosive chain reaction. But, it would still release huge amounts of energy. This, to me, is the biggest flaw in the whole hypothesis presented in the book, and is the reason why I've addressed it first, before getting to any of their other points. You simply can't propose that there was accelerated nuclear decay without accounting for the energy it would have created.

Given how huge of a problem this is for the hypothesis, I would have expected that they would have devoted considerable space to addressing it - a chapter, at the least. Instead, it received 3 paragraphs. Here, quoted in full, is their attempt at addressing the heat problem associated with accelerated nuclear decay, and in fact, since the first describes the problem, only the latter two attempt to address it.


The heat energy given off during nuclear decay raises an important question. What prevented the earth from melting completely during the rapid decay which amounted to millions of year's worth at present rates? Calculations show that this much decay of uranium and thorium atoms within a typical rock mass would raise the rock temperature as high as 22,000ºC. This temperature is nearly four times hotter than the surface of the sun and would likely vaporize entire rock masses in explosive events, but the crust of the earth did not melt during the Flood period. In fact, the presence of radiohalos and fission tracks in many rocks shows that rock temperatures remained below about 150ºC during the formation of the halos and tracks. Otherwise, these crystal defects would be thermally erased. Also, zircons in many rocks still contain helium atoms resulting from accelerated decay, yet the zircon crystals themselves were not melted during the nuclear decay process.

Somehow the enormous amount of heat resulting from isotope decay must have dissipated quickly. One tentative, rather novel proposal is called cosmological cooling (Humphreys, 2000). It is highly theoretical in nature and involves general relativity, higher dimensions, and a rapid expansion of space. Consider a kitchen refrigerator which is cooled by the expansion of a confined, compressed gas. In somewhat analagous fashion, an expansion of space would result in cooling on a universal scale. In this explanation, the heat energy generated by the nuclear decay goes into the expansion of the fabric of space itself. The key is to have accelerated decay simultaneously accompanied by a temporary, large-scale stretching of the space surrounding earth. Since there is evidence of much radioactive decay throughout the solar system and in space beyond, the expansion must be universal in its extent. There are definite hints in Scripture of an expansion of space during the Genesis flood (Humphreys, 2000). It is proposed that an enormous expansion of space, 20-fold times or greater, occured during the Flood event.

Big-bang enthusiasts also propose an inflationary stretching of space. However, their inflationary big bang occurs at the very beginning of time, within the first second, and only increases the universe from atom size to that of approximately a marble. In contrast, the cosmological cooling model places its expansion in the time frame of the Flood. Such an extreme alteration of the physical universe actually might drop the temperature too far and cause the reverse problem of over-heating, that is, a frozen earth. Further theoretical work is ongoing regarding the amount of heat produced by nuclear decay and the possible mechanisms for its removal. The RATE team views the extreme heat generation associated with accelerated decay as a serious issue, but not an insurmountable problem. (page 152)

Just to be thorough, here is the only other mention of the problem, from the Challenges for the Future section of the conclusion.

1. Accelerated nuclear decay involves millions or billions of years worth of decay occuring in just days or months of time. Even at present rates, considerable heat is produced by radioactive nuclear decay. An acceleration of this process will multiply the heat output greatly. This heat, which is produced within rocks, must be removed, or it could melt or even vaporize the earth's crust. This clearly did not happen to the earth. In fact, the existence of zircons with helium, radiohalos, and fission tracks shows that the host rocks and minerals have not experienced excessive heating. These physical records of nuclear decay would rapidly disappear if temperatures increased to hundreds of degrees. Possible mechanisms have been explored that could safeguard the earth from severe overheating during accelerated decay events. One of these involves cosmological or volume cooling, the result of a rapid expansion of space. Many details remain to be filled in for this and other proposed processes of heat removal. (page 179)

So, their response to the problem of all this energy is to propose that the very fabric of space time itself expanded! You don't just have a functioning universe, expand space 20 fold, and then expect the universe to keep on functioning just like it was before. And unlike the Big Bang, there's no physical evidence at all for this expansion (and I'm curious just what type of scriptural evidence there is). The only reason they're proposing it is as a post hoc rationalization to maintain their preconceived notions.

More Info:

To tell the truth, with such a gaping hole in their hypothesis, I don't think there's any real need to even address the rest of the book. This is a fatal flaw if there ever was one.

Still, I have fun debunking bad science, and I suspect the type of people who read my blog have fun reading those debunkings, so I'll take a look at their other points. But for that, you'll have to wait for Part II.

Update Part II is now online.

Updated 2010-11-29 Added a link to the entry where I requested creationist literature, and slightly reworded the opening paragraph.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review - The God Delusion

While reviewing unfinished blog entries, I came across this one. I'd originally intended to write a very in depth review of this book, but never quite got around to doing it, and it's now been years since I read the book. Still, what I'd already written wasn't bad, so I figured it was worth cleaning up a bit and posting on the blog.

After putting it off for over a year and a half, I finally read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. There were a couple reasons I put it off so long. First, when the book first came out, I was just coming to grips with non-belief, and I was still too embarassed to take the book to the cashier. Second, even as I did become more comfortable with atheism, I thought that the book would just be a lot of preaching to the choir. However, thanks to the urging of a few people, I decided to go pick up the book, and I'm glad I did.

To be honest, for me, a good portion of the book was preaching to the choir, but not quite as much as I'd feared. I anticipated 420 pages of dissecting arguments for the existence of gods, pointing out inconsistencies in religious doctrines, and reasons why non-belief is the more rational choice. And while a good part of the book does address those points, that's only about half of it. The rest of the book deals with different but related issues, such as the roots of religion, the basis for morality, and reasons for speaking out against religion.

I have read several unfounded complaints of the book. Just consider the first editorial review on the book's Amazon page by Publisher's Weekly.

For a scientist who criticizes religion for its intolerance, Dawkins has written a surprisingly intolerant book, full of scorn for religion and those who believe...

While Dawkins can be witty, even confirmed atheists who agree with his advocacy of science and vigorous rationalism may have trouble stomaching some of the rhetoric: the biblical Yahweh is "psychotic," Aquinas's proofs of God's existence are "fatuous" and religion generally is "nonsense..."

He insists that religion is a divisive and oppressive force, but he is less convincing in arguing that the world would be better and more peaceful without it.

Admittedly, some sections use strong language, particularly introductions to chapters, but I never read anything as scornful, nor particularly intolerant. Yes, Dawkins described Yahweh as "psychotic," but that was in the context of the atrocities of the Old Testament (such as Jephthah and his daughter from Judges 11). And after re-reading the section on Aquinas, I think Dawkins was justified in calling it like he saw it - Aquinas's arguments weren't all that good.

The last part of this review is something I've seen used as the sole argument of some reviews. It has nothing to do with the proposition of whether or not a god exists, only the consequences of belief in a god. And personally, I think Dawkins did address that aspect fairly well, though I guess that's a matter of personal opinion.

I don't entirely agree with all of Dawkins' arguments, but I still recommend this book.

Added 2010-11-23 Thinking about The God Delusion again, I recall a certain passage that I found really funny (just about the only humorous passage from the book). As luck would have it, it was one of the parts available from Google Books. I'll included the lead in for context. So, here's the passge, from page 86:

More recently, the physicist Russell Stannard (one of Britain's three well-known religious scientists, as we shall see) has thrown his weight behind an inititiative, funded by - of course - the Templeton Foundation, to test experimentally the proposition that praying for sick patients improves their health.

Such experiments, if done properly, have to be double blind, and this standard was strictly observed. The patients were assigned, strictly at random, to an experimental group (received prayers) or a control group (received no prayers). Neither the patients, nor their doctors or caregivers, nor the experimenters were allowed to know which patients were being prayed for and which patients were controls. Those who did the experimental praying had to know the names of the individuals for whom they were praying - otherwise, in what sense would they be praying for them rather than for somebody else? But care was taken to tell them only the first name and initial letter of the surname. Apparently thta would be enough to enable God to pinpoint the right hospital bed.

The very idea of doing such experiments is open to a generous amount of ridicule, and the project duly received it. As far as I know, Bob Newhart didn't do a sketch about it, but I can distinctly hear his voice:

What's that you say, Lord? You can't cure me because I'm a member of the control group?... Oh I see, my aunt's prayers aren't enough. But Lord, Mr Evans in the next-door bed... What as that, Lord?... Mr Evans received a thousand prayers per day? But Lord, Mr Evans doesn't know a thousand people... Oh, they just referred to him as John E. But Lord, how did you know they didn't mean John Ellsworthy?... Oh, right, you used your omniscience to work out with John E they meant. But Lord...

Monday, November 15, 2010

Books, A Year in Review - 2010, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons Here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year. Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

I've always tried to point out my favorite books in these posts. Like last year, though, I had quite a few favorites this year. From kids fiction, it would be Treasure Island and The Higher Power of Lucky (with Night of the Twisters being borderline for making the favorites list). In adult fiction, it would be The Count of Monte Cristo and Flat Land. In non-fiction, it would be Guns, Germs, and Steel, Misquoting Jesus, The Tangled Bank, and Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. So, out of 20 books read, 8 are my favorites (with a 9th almost making it).

You can jump directly to the review of any of the books by using the links below.

Treasure Island
by Robert Louis Stevenson

This is a great adventure book. I'm really not sure, though, what I could write about it that hasn't already been written (such as the Wikipedia entry). It's a classic for a reason. But, just for anybody who hasn't heard of the book, it focuses on a boy, Jim Hawkins, who gets caught up in a trip to go find a pirate's buried treasure. This is the story that gave us the stereotype of the pirate with a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder, and the familiar 'X' marks the spot on treasure maps.

The story was originally published in Young Folks magazine, and it has the type of morality lessons you'd expect from children's fiction - contrasting the immoral pirates with the moral heroes. But the story also throws in a character with a bit of ambiguity - Long John Silver. You're never quite sure what to make of him, and you find yourself cheering for him right until the end of the story.

A big part of why I like stories like these are the historical details. Treasure Island is well known for its accuracy in its depiction of life at sea. And the life it depicts is something we just don't have anymore. Sure, there are still people who sail across the ocean, but now it's for pleasure, and often with LORAN or GPS.

As an aside, the edition of Treasure Island I read was different than the one I've linked to with the Amazon banner above. The edition I read was illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I picked it up in the bookstore for $12. When I started on this review, it was going for $50 used, and $200 new! Double checking those prices, at least now there are some reasonably priced used versions - $17 plus shipping. It really is a nice edition. The illustrations are wonderful, but probably not $200 wonderful.

The Higher Power of Lucky
by Susan Patron

The plot of this book doesn't sound terribly exciting, but it was a nice story to read. It follows a day in the life of a little girl named Lucky. She lives in a small town in the desert of California with only 43 residents. She's staying with Brigitte, her father's ex-wife, who he called to take care of Lucky after her mother died. Fearing that Brigitte is going to leave, Lucky decides to runaway. To avoid major spoilers, I'll leave the plot at that.

The book won the Newberry Award in 2007. I don't know what the competition was like, but I'd certainly say that The Higher Power of Lucky was a worthy winner. All the little details added up to a touching story.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding this book when it was released. The first chapter had a description of a dog getting bitten on the scrotum by a rattlesnake, and some people were upset by the use of the word 'scrotum'. After having actually read the book, I think the controversy was much ado about nothing - merely prudes being prudish. For the target age for which this book is intended, the way it was presented was perfectly appropriate.

When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
by Kimberly Willis Holt

My daughter read this book in school, and liked it so much that she insisted I read it before she had to return the book to the library. The story takes place in a small town in Texas during summer vacation. It focuses mainly on a boy named Toby, along with his friend Cal. One day, a sideshow act rolled into town, with Zachary Beaver billed as the world's fattest boy. Toby and Cal eventually got to know Zachary. Side plots included Toby's mom going to Nashville to follow her dream of becoming a country singer, and Cal's brother being off in Vietnam fighting the war. It was a nice coming of age story, and won the 1999 National Book Award.

Night of the Twisters
by Ivy Ruckman

This was another book my daughter had to read for school. By the time her class read it, the copies were so tattered that the teacher decided to throw them out at the end of the year. Since my daughter had liked the book so much, she found the best copy and saved it from the trash heap.

The book was a fictionalized account of a real event, the 1980 Grand Island Tornado Outbreak, when 7 tornadoes hit the Grand Island, Nebraska in one night. Ruckman's story was told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Danny Hatch. Danny, his baby brother, Ryan, and his best friend, Arthur, were trapped alone in Danny's house when a tornado hit. The tornado strike was actually over pretty early in the book, and most of the story focused on the immediate aftermath - getting out of the house, finding loved ones, and finding shelter. The story was riveting. Granted, it's a children's book, and only 160 pages long, but I finished it in one night. I couldn't put it down. It really makes you appreciate what tornado victims go through.

by Tony Abbott

This was another of the books recommended to me by my daughter. It won the 2006 Golden Kite Award for fiction. The main character, Tom, is a seventh grader at St. Catherine's. He's slightly overweight, and not very popular. When a new girl shows up to school who's been severely burned, Jessica Feeney, the children are afraid of her because of her appearance, and even spread rumors about how it might have happened. One day when Jessica misses school, Tom's asked to take her her homework because he lives nearby. From that initial meeting, Tom begins to get to know Jessica a bit better.

One nice aspect was that the characters and scenes were realistic. There were times when you really wanted Tom to act in a certain way or do a certain thing, but he acted like a middle school kid - not in a bad way, just not in an unrealistic Hallmark Channel type way.

Obviously, the major theme of the story is judging people on appearances. Along with other side stories, it deals with friendship and the general difficulties faced by adolescents.

Lyra's Oxford
by Philip Pullman

This book is a mini sequel to Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The bulk of the book is the short story, Lyra and the Birds, which centers on Lyra Silvertongue, a couple years after the end of the third book of the trilogy. The story begins with Lyra and her daemon, Pan, noticing a flock of birds attacking a witch's daemon. Lyra and Pan rescue the daemon, find out what it was doing in Oxford, and agree to help it.

Aside from the short story, there were a few 'extras' - a postcard of our Oxford sent from Mary Malone, a map of Lyra's Oxford, a fold-out map of "Oxford by Train, River and Zeppelin", some advertisements for books and travellers' catalogues, two pages from a Baedeker published in Lyra's world, and a brochure for the cruise ship Zenobia. These extras are interesting, but it didn't take long to look them over.

If you really liked the His Dark Materials trilogy, then you'll probably like this book. Otherwise, it's so short, that it just doesn't stand on its own.

(If you've paid attention to this blog for a few years, you may remember my surprise at the bookstore the first time I looked at this book - it had some religious insert from Ray Comfort's Living Waters Ministries.)

The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread
by Kate DiCamillo

I'd already seen the movie for this, and didn't really like the movie all that much, but figured I'd give the book a chance, since books usually are better than movies. I'm glad I did.

The book is broken up into four sections called books. Each is told from the point of view of a different character. 'Book the First' focuses on the hero, Despereaux. He's a mouse living in a castle. But he's not like the other mice - he doesn't scurry and run and hide; he's not afraid. Plus, he likes to read. After breaking mouse society rules, he's exiled to the castle dungeon.

'Book the Second' follows the rat, Roscuro, while 'Book the Third' follows a girl named Miggery Sow. The first three books all take place at slightly different times, but their story lines finally intersect for the conclusion in 'Book the Fourth'.

The tone of the book was very nice. It was written like a story teller was actually talking to you directly. There were even a few asides where the narrator directed the reader to do certain things.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I didn't like it quite as much as those I listed as my favorites, but I still liked it quite a bit, and would definitely recommend it. I suppose it's also worth mentioning that it won the Newberry Medal in 2004.

The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide)
by Rick Riordan

This is a companion book to the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Its primary content is three short stories about the main characters from the series. It also has a few illustrations of the main characters, a map of Camp Half-Blood, and a few other extras. To quote Publishers Weekly, "Bland illustrations depicting the contents of Annabeth's trunk, a map of Camp Half-Blood and a short "sneak peek" at The Last Olympian pad the contents (barely) to book length; the inclusion of a crossword puzzle and a word search makes the book difficult to share. Not a must-read-but try telling that to rabid fans."

To give an idea of how much I liked this book, I completely forgot about it when I first wrote Part I of this Year in Review. The book wasn't bad, it just wasn't terribly great. If you have kids that are big fans of the series, they'll probably like it. For adults, at least it's short enough to read in a day. (For full disclosure, I guess I should add that I wasn't a huge fan of the original series. I liked it well enough, but it's definitely not one of the stories that I'll go back and read a second time.)

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexandre Dumas

As I already wrote in Part I, I didn't actually read an unabridged translation of this book. I read the Lowell Blair translation. After reading how some of the 'abridged' translations of this book were actually censored versions, I can at least say that the translation I read included plot lines that were excluded from those other versions.

I enjoyed this book very much. It takes place in 19th century France, after Napolean had been exiled to Elba. The basic plot summary is that Edmond Dantes was wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and imprisoned for 14 years in the Château d'If. During his imprisonment, he secretly befriended an old priest and learned of a secret treasure from him. Once Dantes escaped the prison, he found the treasure, and returned to his home town to take his vengeance on those who had wronged him. At 1300 pages for the book (and even 500 pages for the abridged version), his revenge was intricate and drawn out.

With so many characters and plot lines, the story can become a bit confusing, but it's worth it. (I watched the Jim Caviezel movie shortly after reading the book. The movie has some resemblance to the actual story, but not much. There's no way to compress most books into the shortened movie format, but it's especially true for books as long as this one.)

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
by Edwin Abbott

Come for the math. Stay for the social commentary. (Or vice versa.)

This is the third time I've read this book, and it probably won't be the last. The story is told by a square (literally - a four sided figure), living in a two dimensional world. The first part of the book is an explanation of his world. Many aspects of this description are a biting satire of Victorian society, which was the part I enjoyed most this time reading the book. In the latter part of the book, the square first has a dream of a 1 dimensional world (Line Land), and then a 0 dimensional world (Point Land). Then, the square is visited by a sphere from a three dimensional world, who takes the square into that universe. Through these analogies, the reader is introduced into the concept of multi-dimensionality, and can begin to imagine (if not truly comprehend) ways that our universe could curve in a 4th dimension. This may sound like an advanced concept of modern physics, but keep in mind that the story was first published in 1884.

Considering how old this story is, you can find it on many websites for free (such as Project Gutenberg). I happen to like the edition I have, which includes a relatively modern sequel, Sphereland, written in 1965. Sphereland is much more about the math, with little of the social commentary.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4
by Sue Townsend

I picked this book up at a garage sale without ever having heard of it. To tell the truth, the quirky title intrigued me. I've come to find out that it was based on a BBC radio program, and was actually quite popular. It even spawned a series of sequels, the most recent of which was published last year.

As the title suggests, the book is written in a diary format, that of teenager Adrian Mole. It follows approximately a year of his life, with his parents going through a breakup, his first girlfriend, trying to get his poetry published, and several other aspects of his personal life. He also related current events, such as the Falkland War and the wedding of Charles and Dianna (the book was written in the early 80s).

The book was intended to be humorous. It was, but not laugh-out-loud funny. The humor came from the stories being told from a teenager's perspective - the over-inflated importance of some aspects of life, and the complete misinterpretation of other aspects.

Overall, the book wasn't bad, but I wouldn't recommend people to rush out and buy it.

As an aside, I read a bit of information about the sequels, and I don't plan to read them. It sounds like much of the charm would be lost. In this book, with everything being told through the eyes of a teenager, you could imagine him growing out of his views and maturing into an adult. But from what I've read of the later stories, he doesn't grow out of it. His naivety is no longer a cute aspect of his being a teenager, but just because he's kind of a loser.

Animal Farm
by George Orwell

This is George Orwell's classical allegory of the early Soviet Union, particularly the Stalin era. The basic premise is that the animals on a farm revolt, take over the farm, and rename it 'Animal Farm'. Led by two pigs, Napoleon and Snowball, the animals are initially all treated equally, and live by the ideals of communism. However, as time wears on, the living conditions on the farm deteriorate, and inequality begins to creep in. The latter part of the book gives us the now famous line, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

The symbolism overlapped somewhat. For example, Old Major, the pig who inspired the revolution, was a symbol for Marx and Lenin (his skull was even put on display after his death). However, some other aspects of Lenin were symbolized in Snowball.

The book is sometimes misinterpreted as an attack on communism and socialism in general. In fact, Orwell himself was a supporter of democratic socialism. His problem, particularly after his experiences with the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs during the Spanish Civil War, was with the way the Soviet Union was implementing socialism. Orwell saw the USSR's totalitarian government and abuses of power as a corruption of socialist ideals.

Overall, this was a very interesting book to read. And it's not particularly long, to boot. It may not have been my favorite book that I read this year, but I'd definitely recommend it to anyone that hasn't read it, yet.

The Android's Dream
by John Scalzi

This is another book that I got for cheap ($1 on clearance), and I'm glad I did (got it, that is, not that it was cheap, although I am glad about that, too). The book can best be described as a sci-fi action comedy. The story took place on Earth some time in the future - humans were a space faring species, and aliens had been living on Earth for several generations, but society wasn't much different than it is, now, and the technology wasn't super advanced. The story was nothing too deep - after a diplomatic incident following already strained relations, a species from another planet is threatening war against Earth, unless the hero and heroine can find a special ceremonial object before the deadline. But the telling of the story made the book worth reading. I actually did laugh out loud a few times reading the book, and in some places, it even reminded me of the better parts of Douglas Adams.

Unfortunately, the book wasn't without a few minor flaws. As I wrote, it was an action comedy. A few of the action scenes were quite graphic in their descriptions of the violence, which is a bit jarring in a non-serious book. The opening chapter wasn't particularly good, either. It was one long fart joke. In fact, the opening chapter resulted in one false start for me reading the book. I got through the first two pages, thought to myself that it all seemed pretty stupid, and set the book aside. It wasn't until a while later that I picked the book back up again, got through the first chapter, and then made it into the good parts of the book. The lead character was also a bit of a Gary Stu. He was a war hero with incredible combat skills, who also happened to be a computer genius. But, given that the book wasn't particularly serious, the hero's over the top character wasn't too bad.

If you happen to find this book, go ahead and give it a try. And give it at least until the second chapter before you decide if you want to keep reading it or not.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I enjoyed this book, but I think it was more in spite of the zombie additions, not because of them. I read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. For anyone not familiar, Pride and Prejudice is set in 19th century England. To quote Wikipedia, "The story follows the main character Elizabeth Bennet as she deals with issues of manners, upbringing, morality, education and marriage in the landed gentry society of early 19th-century England." The main focus is on the relationship between Elizabeth and the aristocrat, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Darcy is not very personable, giving the impression of pride. Elizabeth is also misled about Darcy's character through an unscrupulous character. However, as the story progresses and the Bennet family goes through their trials and tribulations, Miss Bennet comes to see Darcy in a new light.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes that story (it's in the public domain), and adds zombies. The author also made a few other changes to fit that theme, such as having the Bennet girls having been trained in martial arts in China, and having a dojo on their estate to practice those 'deadly arts'.

When reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, some of the zombie scenes did add some humor, but usually when I got to a scene with zombie mayhem, I found myself wishing that the book would just hurry up and get back to the main story. Some of the scenes were a bit grisly, as well. After hearing the name of the book, my daughter wanted to read it. But now that I've read it myself, I don't think it's appropriate for an 11 year old.

I'll give this book a tepid recommendation. If you already read a lot, then go ahead and add this book to the stack on your night stand. But if you don't read very much, then save your reading time for something a little more deserving.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
by Jared Diamond

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

To quote the introduction and conclusion of that review, "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Jared Diamond. To quote from the book itself, it is 'A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years.' Diamond has attempted to explain why world history has taken the course it has. But he's more interested in large scale trends and causes, as opposed to battle by battle or even war by war tracking of history. Or, to put it another way, he was taking a more scientific approach to history, as opposed to just stamp collecting... Overall, I thought the book was very interesting, and that Diamond did a good job of presenting his case. I'd definitely recommend it."

Myths and Legends from Ancient Greece and Around the World
Various Authors

This is another book that I picked up at a garage sale (the same house where we happened to find a certain Bender Bus). The book is exactly what it says it is - a collection of myths and legends from around the world, focusing mainly on Greek mythology. The myths are written as short stories, which makes it more enjoyable to read than some of the reference books I've seen on mythology. Different authors wrote different myths, so there's a variety of styles, some better than others.

If you happen to come across this book, it's worth reading, but it's not worth going out of your way to find.

Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition
by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti

Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition, Cover
Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition
by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti
I picked this book up in the dollar rack at Target. It's a shortened version of the full Catholicism for Dummies. It wasn't bad. For me, having been an altar boy, plus being the type of kid who paid attention during CCD, I didn't really learn much from the book. It was the type of stuff that all Catholics should know. However, talking to some of my friends now who are Catholics, I realize that not everybody paid attention during Sunday school like I did. This book is a good short summary of Catholic dogma for those people, or anyone who just wants to understand Catholicism a little better.

I did notice a bit of bias in some areas. This wasn't simply an objective description of one of the world's religions. It was written by priests, who sometimes let their beliefs override their objectivity, but never too badly.

If you want to understand Catholicism better, and you can manage to find this book, it's a pretty good summary that you can read in an afternoon.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
by Bart Ehrman

As the title suggests, this book discusses the history of the Bible. Actually, the title's a bit misleading in that it really only discusses the New Testament, not the Old. It is actually an introduction to the field of textual criticism of the Bible for lay readers. Textual criticism is the field whereby scholars try to determine how a text or manuscript has been changed. There are actually many methods open to scholars, such as studying the structure of passages, or comparing surviving copies of a text (I was struck by how similar it is to cladistics in biology).

Ehrman started off the book with a bit of description of his own religious journey. In high school, he became a born again Christian, fully convinced of the Bible's inerrancy. In an effort to better understand what he believed to be God's word, he went on to study the Bible in college and further in graduate school. As I'm sure will come as no surprise to anybody but Biblical literalists, Ehrman's studies convinced him that the Bible had been changed over time.

In addition to describing the methods used by textual critics to determine what changes have been made to the New Testament, Ehrman discussed the motivations that might have driven those changes. Many, obviously, were unintentional, simple copying errors. Others were misguided attempts to fix what scribes mistakenly thought were copying errors. The most interesting, though, in my opinion, were those that were ideologically driven. Remember that the early Christian church wasn't monolithic. There were many different sects, with very different beliefs about Christianity, such as gnosticism, adoptionism, and docetism, to name just a few. These sects, in a sense, were all competing. Early Christians most probably altered scriptures to emphasize points in favor of their brand of belief, or to contradict other brands of belief. Keep in mind that in the first couple centuries of Christianity, the scriptures weren't yet considered canonical, especially the letters, so making changes wasn't as big of a deal as it would be today. Also keep in mind that history is written by the victors, so we're left mostly with the scriptures that go along with what is now considered mainline Christianity.

One disappointing fact I learned is that my favorite story from the Bible is, in fact, a later addition. The famous story from John 8:3-11, where Jesus saves a woman accused of adultery by telling the crowd to "let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!", wasn't included in the earliest versions of John's Gospel. Oh well, it's still not a bad story.

My biggest complaint is that Ehrman didn't use enough specific examples. However, for an introductory book to such a broad field, that's only to be expected.

This book was very interesting, and very informative. I'd recommend it to any Christian, or anybody who's interested in the history of the New Testament.

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
by A.J. Jacobs

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

To quote the introduction and conclusion of that review, "As the name suggests, for a year, he attempted to live his life by following the Bible literally, from observing the Sabbath, to not wearing mixed fiber clothes, to stoning an adulterer (he threw a pebble), to all the other myriad rules. The first 3/4 of the year were dedicated to just the Old Testament, since Jacobs is (nominally) Jewish (he described himself as 'Jewish in the same way the Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant. Which is to say: not very.'), and the latter part of the year to adding in the New Testament rules... Overall, it's an interesting look at just what it takes to follow the Bible literally, along with some thoughtful discussion on religion in general."

The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution
by Carl Zimmer

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

The book is described as a textbook on evolution for non-biology majors. To quote my conclusion from my previous review, "All in all, The Tangled Bank was very good. It was a nice broad introduction to many of the theories and mechanisms of evolution, but without getting too technical for those of us that don't plan to go into careers in biology. Unfortunately, being a textbook, it's a bit pricey. You may try going to your library to check it out, find it used, or maybe be lucky enough to be able to borrow it from a friend. However you manage to get your hands on a copy, I definitely recommend this book."

Quoting another section of that review, "If you'd like to get more of a taste of the book, I've found two excerpts available for download online. Chapter 1, Evolution: An Introduction is availabe from Carl Zimmer's own site. Chapter 10, Radiations and Extinctions is available from the National Center for Science Education. You can also read Zimmer's announcement of the book on his blog, to hear his intentions in his own words."

Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution
by Peter Wellnhofer

I already wrote a full review of this book previously.

To quote from that review, "The book was divided into several sections. The first was a short description of the locale where the fossils were found, the Solnhofen region of Bavaria, in Germany... Next came a brief description of the geology of the Solnhofen region, and what this tells us about the ancient environment of the area... After that came a discussion of the history of fossil discovery in the Solnhofen... Next came the heart of the book - 83 pages discussing the known archaeopteryx specimens in detail. If you think 83 pages of discussion sounds like a lot - it was, and it was a bit dry... The remaining four chapters were all related - discussing early bird evolution, and the role of archaeopteryx in understanding that story...

"Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution was a very interesting book. It's very informative and detailed, and I learned quite a bit from it. I wouldn't recommend it for everybody, though. The target audience is quite a bit higher than the general layperson. Although some sections would probably be interesting to many people, if you only have a passing interest in archaeopteryx, maybe Wikipedia is a better choice. But if you happen to have a really strong interest in avian evolution, and don't mind reading technical jargon, then this is the book for you."

Update 2010-11-18 Moved the index to near the top of this entry.

Official Commenting Policy

No SpamI periodically have to clean up spam comments. Usually it's only a handful per week, but every once in a while, it's a few dozen per day. So, I figured I would come up an official commenting policy. As usual for any blog, I reserve the right to do anything I want. However, I try to remain fairly open. I don't usually delete comments, even if they're not particularly constructive (for example, the first comment on the entry where I acknowledged my atheism, or the numerous comments disagreeing with my stance on MBT shoes or politics). However, there are a few things that will make me delete comments. Threats or extremely vile comments will obviously be deleted, but I've yet to have any problems with that. The biggest problem I have had is with spam & advertisements. I've had such a problem with this that I tend to err on the side of caution. Links to commercial sites are allowed, but if it seems like nothing more than an advertisement, the comment will be deleted. If the comment linking to a commercial site doesn't add anything constructive, it will be deleted. If the comment is nothing but a short compliment about how great my writing is, with a link to a commercial site, it will be deleted. I've noticed a trend of spammers parroting part of my original entry, and then giving links to commercial sites with no relevance at all to the entry. Deleted.

In short, comments are welcome, even (especially) comments disagreeing with me. Just please, leave comments that further the discussion at hand. Spam will be deleted, as will any comments in the grey area between spam and legitimate comments.

On a side note, let me just add that I love the canned meat product, Spam. So, don't confuse the image in this entry as being in any way against that delicacy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Celestial Videos

Astroscan TelescopeEvery year, I get an Amazon gift card from my mom for my birthday. This year, I used it (along with some of my own money) to buy the Celestron NexImage Solar System Imager - an attachment for a telescope that lets you digitally capture what you would normally see through the eyepiece. It also comes with software that lets you 'stack' frames from a recorded video, and then the software will clean that up to give you a good still image.

I took it out to play with for the first time last night. I still have a lot of learning left to do, but at least I could see on the monitor something resembling what I saw through the eyepiece. Just for the hell of it, I decided to post two of the videos I captured last night. The cool thing these videos show is just how fast the Earth is moving. I wasn't moving my telescope at all (except for the big jumps and the one change of focus). The motion of the objects across the frame is due solely to the Earth's rotation.

In case you haven't figured it out, what you're seeing in the two videos above is Jupiter and some of its moons. The second video is with the NexImage directly where the eyepiece would normally go. The first is with a 2x barlow lens. For reference, I'm using an Astroscan telescope (which explains the jumpy movement when I have to re-aim).

Like I said, I still have some learning to do. Those videos are definitely overexposed - through the eye piece, I could just make out one of the bands on Jupiter, and I could make out the overall color better. I've found some info on websites with some helpful tips. So, one of these nights, I'll get out there and try them out, and hopefully get some better video. Once I have that, then I'll start playing around with the video processing software to see how good of a still I can get.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Books, A Year in Review - 2010, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsWell, it's that time of year again, when I look back over my reading habits for the past 12 months*. I've been doing this for several years, now (see previous reviews for 2007, 2008, and 2009). It all started with an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. (Yes, this is the second time I've copied that sentence verbatim).

Like in the past two years, I'm breaking this up into two entries. In the first, I'll reflect on my reading habits (which means it probably won't interest many people), and in the second, I'll give a brief review of each book.

So, here are all the books I read in the last year, sorted by topic instead of by the order in which I read them.

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

  1. Treasure Island
  2. The Higher Power of Lucky
  3. When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  4. Night of the Twisters
  5. Firegirl
  6. Lyra's Oxford
  7. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread
  8. The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide)

Adult Fiction

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo
  2. Flatland/Sphereland (Everyday Handbook)
  3. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4
  4. Animal Farm: Centennial Edition
  5. The Android's Dream
  6. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance - Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!


  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
  2. Myths and Legends From Ancient Greece and Around the World
  3. Catholicism for Dummies, Pocket Edition**
  4. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
  5. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible
  6. The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution
  7. Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

So, that's 21 books altogether - pretty close to what I've read the past two years.

I guess I might as well get used to it - I like kids books. Three of those kids books I read because my daughter read them and recommended them to me, but the other five I read entirely of my own volition.

I did read a bit more adult fiction this year than in years past. I've got a few books I want to read next year that should continue that trend.

I have to admit to not reading the full version of The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a paper back we had laying around the house, and I never took a close look at the cover. I was halfway into the book before I actually studied the cover and read "Translated and Abridged by Lowell Bair". At that point, I was too caught up in the story to put it down and wait until I had the full version. So, I went online and read about the translations. Many of the 'abridged' versions of The Count of Monte Cristo were actually censored versions - they left out parts that were unbecoming to Victorian sensibilities. The book I read included those parts, at least, but I have no idea how it compares to the full unabridged story.

My non-fiction books weren't so heavily biased towards biology this year. I only read two books on evolution. The first, The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution), was one that I'd specifically mentioned last year as being on my wish list. The other, Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution, fulfilled one of my stated goals from last year, of getting "away from general evolutionary books, and more into those on specific topics." I still want to read Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom) and Why Evolution Is True. Maybe I'll get to them next year.

I did get into religious books a bit more this year than other years, although the pocket edition of Catholicism for Dummies hardly counts as a book (I almost left it off this list). I'll try to read at least one or two books on religion each year, but I don't know if I'll keep on reading as many as I did this year.

I'm still working on knocking out this list. I knocked out a few more this year, which only leaves 89 left to go.

All in all, I think my reading was pretty balanced this year, but I could probably add a little more history and philosophy in there.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I'll post my reviews for each book.

Update 2010-11-15 Part II is now online.

* Okay, I'm a little late this year. I usually do this post in October. To keep the comparison fair, I only included the books I read up until around the middle of October, and left off the books I've read since then.

** I found the pocket edition of Catholicism for Dummies in the dollar rack at Target. I haven't been able to find it online, yet, but I'll link to it if I ever do.

Updated 2010-11-10 I completely forgot about one of the books I'd read last year, The Demigod Files (A Percy Jackson and the Olympians Guide), so I added it, and updated the counts.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Website Update - Shoo-Fly Pie Recipe

Shoe-Fly PieI've added a new recipe to my How To page - Shoo-Fly Pie. It's a Pennsylvania Dutch dessert made with molasses. I grew up eating store bought shoo-fly pie all the time, but you just can't find it even a couple hours outside of the Pennsylvania Dutch region. This recipe is my great-grandmother's. My mom brought it with her when she came to visit this past weekend. (She also baked a few.)

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for October 2010

Top 10 ListWell, it's a new month, so it's time to go looking through the server logs again. Most of my most popular pages stayed popular, with a little shuffling in the rankings. One of my old blog entries from 3 years ago, though, for some reason got a lot of traffic. It was the Crazy E-mail - Cash for Clunkers one. I have no idea why people would start looking into that one now.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Crazy E-mail - Cash for Clunkers
  4. Programming
  5. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  6. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  7. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  8. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  9. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency
  10. Blog - Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Get Out and Vote 2010

I Voted Today

Now any of you that haven't voted yet, go out and do it.

Image Source: Whirlwend

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