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Thursday, December 23, 2010

My New Book Is Now Available

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI've published a book (sort of). It's the collection of essays from my Religious Essays section. The book is available through the print on demand company, Lulu, for the low, low price of $4.99 Here's the link to buy it:

Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis.

The essays are still available for free on this site, but I figured some people (okay, just me) might want a nice, professionally printed and bound copy of the essays.

I say that I only 'sort of' published the book, because it's super easy to publish on Lulu. You don't have to convince anybody that your book's good enough. You just upload it, hit the publish button, and anybody can buy it. It's the modern version of a vanity press, but without having to pay for a print run.

I've only looked over 1 review copy, and haven't actually ordered this latest version, yet. I think it should be okay, though. The review copy I got looked pretty good already, and I only made minor changes. So, if you order the book, I think you'll be safe.

Added 2011-01-12 I finally got the review copy that incorporated my revisions. It looks good. The changes did help with the layout and made the book easier to read. So, you're definitely safe if you order the book now.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lunar Eclipse on the 2010 Winter Solstice

Lunar Eclipse from 2010-12-21Last night, there was a total lunar eclipse visible to all of us in North America. It happened to fall right on the winter solstice, which is a pretty rare event. In the past 2000 years, it had only happend once, in 1638, prior to last night. It won't happen again until 2094.

Circumstances were just right for my family and me to watch it. Every year since we've moved into our new house, I've decorated the big tree out front for Christmas. It takes a while, and depending on how busy I am with work and other things, I don't always get it done as early as I'd like. So, I'd already set myself last night as the deadline to get the tree done before Christmas. Which meant - I was already going to be outside for much of the night, giving me the perfect opportunity to occasionally glance up at the moon to see when the eclipse started and how it was progressing. My wife helped out some with the tree, put up a few lights of her own, and ran out to Wal-Mart to buy a few more lights for me, so she was up, too. And since Christmas break had already started for my daughter, she was already going to be staying up late watching T.V., so she could pop out from time to time to check on the eclipse.

Once the eclipse got started, my daughter brought out the telescope so she could track the eclipse with that (I didn't break out the Celestron NexImage camera because I was so busy with the lights). My wife brought out her camera and tripod, and snapped a few pictures. She'd never tried taking pictures of the moon before, so she had to experiment with the settings a bit. Below is a composite of some of the pictures she took (you can see how they got better towards the end as she zeroed in on the right settings).

Lunar Eclipse from 2010-12-21

I couldn't decide on what resolution to provide to readers, so I gave you several choices if you want to see that image bigger:

I called my parents to let them know about the eclipse. They watched part of it, but then it got blocked by clouds. So, I guess we were lucky to have a clear night down here in Texas. I should also note the weather. We had a warm front come through, and I was doing my work wearing shorts and a t-shirt - not bad observing conditions for late December.

All in all, it was a good time, and a nice little distraction after a long night of hanging Christmas lights.

Monday, December 20, 2010

This Season, Celebrate Reason - Updates to Religious Essays Section

This Season, Celebrate ReasonI've revisited my Religious Essays section, and made a few changes. There's nothing major if you've already read that section and followed this blog. The biggest change was adding a few recent blog entries to the essays. I also made a few formatting changes. In particular, I've made the pdf version nicer, with a cover and even an index. (Actually, I'm working on getting it published on Lulu.com. I was hoping to have a link to it by now, but it's been three weeks since Lulu said they shipped the first copy to me, and I still haven't received it yet, and I'm not about to let other people order until I've had a chance to see what it looks like.) I also cleaned up the index page a bit, hopefully making it easier for people to get to the essays they want to read.

Oh, and all that stuff about celebrating reason this season, I only wrote that because of the timing of updating my religious essays. Celebrate the season however you like.

Added 2010-01-12 - My book is now available, if anyone's interested.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Happy Wright Brother's Day, 2010

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

107 years ago today, the Wright brothers became the first humans to truly fulfill the dream of flight. You can read what I wrote about the significance of this from my Wright Brother's Day, 2007 entry. On a related note, you could read my entry, Flying, from last year, where I marvel at just how cool it really is to be able to fly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars

Santa is no moreChristmas isn't here quite yet, so let me get one more Scrooge post out of the way.

With all the Christmas movies showing on TV right now, there's a frequent theme that really irritates me. It's been around a while, and is typified by the old New York Sun editorial from 1897, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, or in the more modern movie, The Polar Express. It's this idea that it's good for kids to believe in Santa Claus. It's not just that it's okay for small children to believe. It's the idea that when they get old enough to notice all the problems in the story and start questioning it, that they should put their doubts aside still try to just believe. Why?

I've already written about my feelings on these childhood myths in regards to lying to children, and I'm not even going to get into the aspect of Santa making children question their worth (I've been good, so how come Santa gave the lawyer's daughter more presents than me?), so here I'm going to focus more on that mindset of blind faith.

I'm guessing that this is partly, and even perhaps mainly, a spillover from religion. Most branches of Christianity make it a virtue to believe even without evidence. The story of doubting Thomas is probably the worst example of this (“You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”). And obviously, there are some big similarities between Santa and God. He knows what you're doing even though you can't see him, and he rewards or punishes you based on how naughty or nice you've been. So, perhaps this religious motivation to believe in something unseen is being carried over to Santa.

But at least religious people believe their God actually exists. What sane adult actually believes in Santa? I mean, as a parent, it's pretty hard to ignore who's actually putting the presents under the tree. It's not just insisting that children believe in something without evidence. It's insisting that they believe in something without evidence that we know isn't true.

I would argue that believing anything without evidence is bad. Skepticism is a good thing. It's what keeps most people from buying time shares, responding to those e-mails saying they've won the British Lottery, or sending their credit card number to the princess from Nigeria who needs help getting out of the country. If people were a little more skeptical, we wouldn't need Snopes, and I wouldn't have to write so much debunking stupid chain mails. Skepticism and critical thinking are the methods we use to figure out how the world really is, and they're skills that should be cherished and nurtured. We shouldn't promote practices that require children to suspend their skepticism. Gullibility and blind faith are not virtues.

I've read articles where people say that Santa gives children a sense of wonder. You want wonder? Just go look up in the sky some night. One of those stars is so big that if it took the place of the Sun, it would swallow up all the planets out to Jupiter. Most of them are hundreds or thousands of light years away. If you know where to look, you can see a group of stars 2.5 million light years away. Or, since it's Christmas time, you could catch a snowflake, squint your eyes, and take a good close look. They're beautiful. Or how about watching geese on their migration, gliding in for a landing on a smooth lake, wings outstretched, feet planing the water just before settling in at the last. The universe is full of so many things that are beautiful and awe-inspiring, that I don't see why anyone would have to resort to myths to try to give children a sense of wonder.

I'm not saying to get rid of Santa from the holidays. I think he's a great tradition (even if he was invented mostly by one poem, some comics, and Coke advertising), and a fun one. I just don't see the need to lie to children and insist that they believe he's actually real. Just look to another holiday for an example - Halloween. Everyone has fun pretending about monsters at Halloween. Kids enjoy getting in on the act, decorating houses, getting scared, and obviously dressing up themselves. But no one insists that you have to believe in werewolves to enjoy that holiday.

I don't even mind movies with Santa Claus. I just hate the subplots of believing vs. not believing. When we watch Santa movies, we know he's not real, so we accept that we're watching a fantasy. We suspend our disbelief, and pretend that the movie world is one in which there is a toy factory at the North Pole and a jolly old elf who delivers toys on Christmas Eve. And in that fantasy world, of course everyone would believe, because how else would they explain where those toys came from. It would be like watching The Lord of the Rings and getting upset about the magic, or expecting that the characters in the movie would be skeptical about magic. Just make a consistent fantasy world where Santa exists and everyone knows it.

So, no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. He's no more real than fairies. But love and generosity and devotion certainly exist, and there are still wonders unseen and maybe even unseeable in this world. And if you want to play make believe and pretend there's a Santa, well, that's fine, too.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Another Attack in the War on Christmas

Santa in the CrosshairsI don't often simply post links to news stories, and this one was already mentioned on Pharyngula, but it happened close to home, so I figured I'd include it here.

The latest attack by militant atheists in the war on Christmas has been carried out in Bryan, Texas. The Atheist Vuvuzela Marching Band had the gall to participate in a Christmas parade, playing Christmas carols on their horns, wishing people a 'Merry Christmas', 'Happy Hanukkah', or 'Merry Kwanzaa'.

Some residents were upset by this:

"Wasn't exactly happy about the Christmas Parade this year, I spent many years teaching my children to love and respect other people and to love the fact that they were children of God and I don't feel that they should be influenced in any other way especially not at a Christmas parade," said Tina Corgey, who is a lifelong Bryan resident.

Corgey brings her three kids to the B/CS [Bryan/College Station] Christmas Parade every year.

She said she was disgusted by what she saw on Sunday.

"If you have younger children they weren't going to understand but I have older children, a teenager, 8-year-old and they were curious and they asked questions and it was hard for them to believe and understand that there are actually people out there that don't believe in God," Corgey said.

And from a little later in the article:

Tina Corgey believes the paraders performed in bad taste.

"It just, I think it could have been done somewhere else," Corgey said.

Apparently, some people are offended just by the very existence of atheists.

Oh well, a bit of perspective is needed. The article only quoted one resident who didn't like the atheists participating in the parade. So, there's no way of knowing just how controversial it was. My guess is that most people didn't really care too much (except for the fact that they were playing freakin' vuvuzelas), and this was just a reporter trying to make a story.

The article also plays a bit fast and loose with its quotations. The actual quotes by Corgey don't put her in the best light, but they're not too horrible. The statements that she was disgusted, and that she thought the performance was in bad taste, weren't direct quotes. So, was that really a paraphrase of what she said, or the reporter's interpretation?

So, it is disappointing to see someone with the views of Corgey, but to quote a single resident of a town who's upset about something isn't really all that shocking.

Added 2010-12-10 Well, I just happened across another article on the parade from the local newspaper, The Eagle. There's a short mention of the atheists in that one, and it doesn't indicate that there was a lot of controversy over their participation. There are a few negative remarks in the comment section of the article, but that's what people have come to expect in a comments section. So, just like the whole War on Christmas, this appears to be mostly a manufactured controversy.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

5 Years of Blogging

5th Blog BirthdayToday marks the 5th anniversary of this blog. It's hard to believe I've been doing it this long, and writing something new most those many weeks. So, I think I'll take a moment and reflect on the last half decade.

The blog has definitely grown to more than what I'd thought it was going to be. I'd originally intended for it to be a place where I could post short entries without doing any real research on what I was writing about, a place to rant and rave without soiling my main site, which I'd intended to keep updating regularly. It hasn't really worked out that way. The blog has pretty much taken over the site. My entries range from the short rants I'd originally intended, to multi-page, well researched articles. Now I'm doing good if I update the old static portion of this site once per year. (It's official - my blog is more important than my static pages. The Google PageRank for the home page of the static site is 3, while the PageRank for the blog home page is 4.)

If there's one overarching theme that I think I've focused on the most, I'd have to say that it's skepticism. Whether discussing religion, politics, or debunking urban legends, my main focus has been trying to determine the truth about those issues. I haven't been entirely dispassionate, but I haven't really ranted and raved as much as I'd expected I was going to (maybe that's why my blog isn't as popular as certain other sites, or, at least, that's what I'll keep telling myself).

If I may say so, I think the weekly practice has improved my writing somewhat. I'm still a little rushed posting some entries, so there are still plenty of typos and places where my wording could have been better. But looking back over some of my older entries, I see a lot of places where I'd change them if I were to post them today.

Actually, looking over the past entries, I'm a little surprised at the quantity of output. I thought it might be kind of neat to throw together a compendium of all my entries and publish it through Lulu (even if noone else wanted to buy it, at least I'd have a nice printed and bound copy). So, I started copying and pasting all of my entries into a book, and it ended up being over 800 pages long (10 point Times New Roman on 5.5" x 8.5" pages with 0.5" margins). Granted, some of that is comments left by others, but I hadn't realized I'd written so much.

So, let's do some quick tallies. My total number of blog entries (excluding this one) is 332. As of today, I've received 351 legitimate comments and 1 legitimate trackback (assuming I haven't missed deleting any spam). Someone like PZ Myers may post more entries than that in a single month, and get more comments than that for a single entry, but I'm pretty happy with it. I still get excited every time I get an e-mail telling me that a new comment's been posted (though with the amount of spam comments, I don't get super excited until I can tell the comment's legitimate). I even have at least one semi-regular reader who's not my mom.

I suppose I ought to list a few highlights from the past five years worth of entries. So, in chronological order, here are a few posts that either I like quite a bit myself, or that have gotten quite a bit of traffic (or both).

As to where the blog's going in the future, I think I've pretty much found my rhythm, so I don't expect there to be much change. I'll keep on looking skeptically at religion, debunking urban legends, and spending more time than I should on the creation/evolution controversy. Hopefully I'll come up with some new posts that can educate some people, and maybe if I'm lucky, I'll even pick up a few more regulars.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for November 2010

Top 10 ListIt's that time of the month again, when I look over the server logs to see what pages have been the most popular on this site. There was one new addition to the top ten list this month - my blog entry, The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican, which I wrote back in August.

There's been a continuation of a trend in that my blog is becoming more popular than the old static portion of this site. The first month I compiled one of these top 10 lists, back in November of 2007 (at the bottom of this archive), 9 of the pages on the list were from the static portion of the site, and only 1 was a blog entry. The following two months after that, all of the pages on this list were from the static portion. In the following months, the blog entries began making the list more often. This month, they were up to 7 out of the 10.

My overall traffic (which I don't report here, but which the logs obviously keep track of), has also been increasing significantly. November was my site's most popular month ever. Ignoring the preceding three months where the traffic was ramping up, my site got more than 20% more traffic than the previous most popular month. Although I suspect that a good portion of that traffic is spam, considering that my spam filter junked 679 comments in the past 24 hours (I wonder just how much spam really popular sites get).

Anyway, here's the list, for anybody that's interested.

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Programming
  5. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  6. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64
  7. Blog - The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican
  8. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  9. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  10. Factoids Debunked & Verified

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