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Monday, January 31, 2011

More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book

I'd already written my initial impressions of Left Behind after reading the first 50 pages. I mentioned in that entry that I'd started reading Slacktivist's reviews of the book, which had biased me against the story before I even started reading it. Well, I finally finished the first book. My pace reading the book outstripped my pace reading Slactivist's blog entries, so I was able to be less biased by preconceptions. That helped. The book still wasn't the greatest, but I could at least begin to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the story for what it was. In fact, I think I'll try to finish the whole series (just not all at once).

Much of what I wrote in my initial impressions hasn't changed. The two lead characters, Cameron 'Buck' Williams and Rayford Steele, aren't very sympathetic. You don't so much root for them, as just read to see what's going to happen. The two characters that readers could relate to the most were Hattie Durham, the flight attendant that Steele had led on for years, only to dump in the aftermath of the Rapture, and Chloe Steel, Rayford's daughter.

One thing I didn't mention in the first review was the lack of detail. The introduction of Hattie Durham described her as "drop dead gorgeous", but that was all the detail given. Different people have different ideas of what constitutes "drop dead gorgeous", so I was left wondering if she was beutiful in an Elle McPherson sort of way, or a Tyra Banks sort of way, or a Halle Berry sort of way, or Marilyn Monroe sort of way, or an Eva Mendes sort of way, or a Salma Hayek sort of way, or an Angelina Jolie sort of way, or, well, you get the picture. There are so many different ways a woman can be considered gorgeous, that it's not a very descriptive description. It wasn't until around 50 pages into the book that we learned Hattie weighed 115 pounds, and we didn't really get much more description after that. And this was similar to all of the main characters. I now know that Buck is blonde, and in reasonably good shape, but L&J gave so little detail that I just imagined him throughout the book to look like Kirk Cameron, the actor who played him in the movie.

I think one of the most interesting aspects of the book is what it revealed about L&J's view of the world (and by extension, those people with similar outlooks). L&J portrayed non-believers as being skeptical of religion, or just not being very interested in religion at all. But remember, they're writing about a post-Rapture world. Everybody on Earth had already witnessed the miraculous defense of Israel during the Russian attack, and the sudden disappearance of billions in one instant. These aren't miracles on the scale of seeing the Virgin Mary in a potato chip. These are the types of events that would make James Randi and Michael Shermer sit up and take notice. Given the continued skepticism of religion exhibited by many characters in the book following these miracles, I can only imagine that that's the way L&J see the world, now. They must think that evidence for the divine is obvious, and us skeptics choose not to see it. I'm not sure if they understand how much some of us have looked for that evidence, or the sincerity of our non-belief. (Or maybe they're Calvinists, and don't think it matters how much we try, since Yahweh's already decided who he's going to save and who he's going to punish for all eternity in the fiery furnace with the gnashing of teeth.)

There's a similar theme with conspiracy theorists. In the world of Left Behind, there's a global cabal pulling all the strings behind the curtains. Buck Williams knows an informant who's told him of various meetings and decisions of this group. But despite the informant being right, even on extremely unlikely events (like predicting the global economy consolidating on three currencies - dollars, marks and yen), Buck still treats the guy as a bit loony because he's a conspiracy theorist. In the real world, conspiracy theorists are mocked not just because of their outlandish ideas, but because of their lack of evidence to back them up. If any conspiracy theorists could back up their ideas the way Buck's informant did in the book, people would start taking them seriously. Again, I wonder if this comes from L&J's own experience. They're entirely convinced that their own outlandish ideas are true, yet they've been mocked repeatedly for those ideas. Is that just how L&J think the world deals with (what they consider to be) true ideas?

Left Behind wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. It wasn't, as Slacktivist said, "The Worst Book Ever Written." At the very least, it gives you some insight into the mindset of premillenial dispensationalists. If you can get past the corny dialog, unlikeable heros, and lack of detail, and then suspend your disbelief about the implausible scenarios, you can enjoy the book. I liked it enough that I'll probably read the rest of the series.

Monday, January 24, 2011


The annual Roe v. Wade protest took place the other day in D.C. A co-worker had mentioned it last week. We avoided getting into a heated debate about it in the office, but it did get me to thinking about the issue. I've mostly steared clear of talking about abortion on this blog, but I have discussed it in my entry, The Texas Republican Platform, or Why I'm Not a Republican. However, my discussion there was a bit scattershot, so I thought I'd consolidate it all into a new entry (read recycle), and add a few more thoughts.

Abortion is a difficult topic, not easily reduced to slogans. Anybody considering it shouldn't take the decision lightly. But there are legitimate reasons for people to get abortions, so they shouldn't be banned outright.

A few years ago, I used to think it was simple. I thought that life began at the moment of conception, and that all humans were worthy of protection, so it followed quite simply that abortion was bad, and should only have been performed under the most dire of circumstances (such as a pregnancy endangering the life of the mother).

Now, I realize that even my first assumption was wrong. Life doesn't begin at the moment of conception. Life began a few billion years ago, and has been continuous ever since. There's no point at which the egg or sperm are dead before coming together for fertilization. Every organism you see is part of an unbroken chain of life stretching back to the first cells. (Even if you don't accept evolution, the same point still holds for individual species, including us, going back to the first breeding pair in whatever creation myth you happen to believe). Plus, there's no 'moment' of conception. Like most things, it's a process. A sperm enters an egg, then has to release its genetic material, which must then find its way to the nucleus of the egg, enter the nucleus, and finally fuse with the DNA from the egg.

I know some people wouldn't care about my semantics of 'life' in the above paragraph. They're more interested in the soul, and think that's what makes us human. In this country, with a population of around 80% Christians, I think it's safe to assume that most people get these ideas from Christianity. I'm really not going to bother with trying to figure this out. First, as is probably clear from the rest of this site, I'm not a Christian. And, at this point, I really doubt that souls even exist. But even if I were to give the concept the benefit of the doubt and assume that they did, I wouldn't see any reason to think that it was only humans who had souls. Other animals besides us certainly seem to think and experience emotional lives. A few, such as elephants and cetaceans, seem to be nearly as smart as us, just not technologically inclined. (I do think that we're the smartest species on this planet to date, but just like some animals can approach the speed of a cheetah, I'd bet that other animals can approach our intelligence.) So, if it's okay to kill, say, a pig, even though it would presumably have a soul if souls existed, what would be the justification for saying it was wrong to kill a human embryo? In fact, I think souls are rather extraneous to this question. Assuming that other animals besides us think and experience emotions, how can we say it's okay to kill intelligent non-human animals, but not an undeveloped individual that just happens to have human DNA? Additionally, if organisms did have souls, death wouldn't be nearly as big of a deal - it would just be a transition from one type of existence to another. It's only if we don't have souls that death becomes the ultimate end.

The other problem with the soul idea is determining when ensoulment actually occurs. I'm not going to get into this very much, since I doubt the whole concept, anyway. But, this page has a good discussion of the issue. For example, if ensoulment occured during the process of conception, what would happen if the embryo split into twins? Does the soul split, do two bodies share the same soul, or does one body end up a soulless automaton? It seems that Christians have been debating the moment of ensoulment for centuries. So, until there's some type of evidence, these debates will just keep going around and around in circles.

I disagree with considering a fertilized egg to be a full human being with all the legal rights that entails. Just because a collection of cells has human DNA doesn't make it a human being. I doubt anybody would argue that it's murder to kill a HeLa cell. In a way, trying to grant that status to a zygote cheapens the status of actual humans.

My brother has suggested (and I've heard others make this suggestion, as well) using brain activity as the legal definition for when people should be considered human. At the end of life, it's when brain activity ceases that we say it's okay to pull life support. Likewise, when brain activity starts is when we should say that the fetus becomes a human who should get appropriate protection. There's definitely a grey area when the fetus begins to develop a nervous system (the physical structure of the brain starts coming together around the start of the second trimester, and measurable brain wave activity begins around 25 weeks, near the start of the third trimester*), but before there's a functioning brain, what type of experiences can a fetus have? And even when brain activity begins, the rights of the developing baby need to be balanced against those of the pregnant woman. If the pregnancy is endangering the life of the woman, I would think that the woman's life takes precedence.

Still, it's not as if making abortion legal is the same thing as making it mandatory. It's only an option for those who choose it. A woman could continue with a life endangering pregnancy if she wanted to. And any woman that wanted to put her baby up for adoption would also be free to do so.

There's a very touching article on this subject, and if you only follow one link from this blog entry, follow this one. It's written by a woman who found out during the second trimester that her baby had severe hydrocephalus and spina bifida, and that if it had survived at all, it would have experienced severe suffering. Following her story is that of another woman who's baby girl had anencephaly - no brain or any chance of life. Both women had what could be termed 'partial birth abortions' to terminate the pregnancies.
Real Life: Why I Chose Abortion

Another story that greatly affected my views on abortion is that of Jonny Kennedy. He had a rare skin disorder known as dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa which caused him horrible suffering. In a documentary on his life, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, he was asked what he would do if he had a child, and it was discovered while the child was still in utero that the child had the same condition. Without hesitation, he said that he would want the woman to have an abortion. For those of us who have been lucky enough to live comfortable lives, it's easy to say that every potential life should be given a chance, even if there are circumstances that might not be perfect. But to hear someone who had suffered their entire life basically say that no one else should have to experience that suffering is pretty powerful.

Not too many people are actually pro-abortion. Most would prefer that the unfortunate circumstances that lead to a woman choosing abortion never happened in the first place. This leads into a related topic, which I'll only mention here, which is one of the more frustrating when dealing with many from the anti-choice crowd. We know that one of the best ways to avoid unintended pregnancies is through comprehensive sex education. So, if you really want to reduce the number of abortions, teach kids the ABC's - abstinence, birth control, and contraception. Don't stop at just the A part, because abstinence only programs have been demonstrated not to work.

Hardly anybody likes abortion. Most people who go through with the procedure take it very seriously. Read the articles I linked to above. They present very good reasons to get an abortion, and they're not the only ones. Rather than banning abortions, we as a society should do what we can do eliminate the conditions that lead to them, and give women the choice to get abortions for those times when they are justified**.

*Even a newborn's brain is still pretty undeveloped. Babies don't have much self awareness at all. In fact, most children don't 'pass' the spot test until around a year and a half to two years old.

**As far as when abortions are and aren't justified, I'd rather err on the side of freedom, and leave that choice up to individuals, rather than let the government legislate it. However, I think Roe V. Wade was a reasonable, if not perfect, compromise.

Updated 2013-04-19: Fixed a few broken links, either pointing to their Wayback Machine version when available, or their new location if they were moved.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind

I've written before about the dangers of not knowing enough about a book when you begin reading it - it may end up being a completely different type of story from the type you usually enjoy reading. I've also written about the danger of knowing too much about a book before you start - it might bias your perception of the book. I recently began reading Left Behind, and I think it might be a case of the latter.

Specifically, I've been reading some of the blog posts from Slacktivist (as I write this, page 32 is the start of his (her?) Left Behind posts, but newer entries get added to the beginning, pushing older posts back, so there may be more pages if you're reading this a while after I first posted it). Slacktivist really, really doesn't like the Left Behind series, and frequently calls them the Worst Books Ever Written. As an evangelical Christian himself (herself), Slacktivist disagrees with LaHaye and Jenkins' interpretation of the Bible. But, worse than that from a story telling perspective, Slacktivist thinks the books are written badly. To put it in his (her) own words, "they're so consistently awful in so many different ways: theologically, politically, ethically, stylistically, all presented along with howling errors of continuity, logic and even basic geography. All of which combines to make these books not merely bad, but instructively bad." (Here's another example of one of my favorite posts from Slacktivist.)

After reading a few of Slacktivist's entries reviewing the books, I'm already biased against them. So far, I'm around 50 pages into the story, and while I can accept the religious aspects, it's been hard not to focus on the corny dialog, the lack of empathy of the main characters, and some of the simply unrealistic aspects.

Consider a few examples. One of the main characters, ace reporter, Buck Williams, flew into Chicago O'hare airport immediately after the Rapture. The book described a scene of utter destruction, with crashed planes strewn about the airport. Even if it weren't for the taxiways being blocked, all the terminals were full, anyway. So, after our heroes had landed, they had to walk back to the airport, through the wreckage. The book says that Buck Williams was "the first passenger from his flight to reach the terminal at O'Hare." Stop and think about that, keeping in mind how most people reacted after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Buck didn't stop to help a single one of the people in distress on the airfield. Instead, he rushed past every one of them in his hurry to get back to the terminal. Now, maybe Buck's supposed to be shown as a callous jerk in these early chapters, so that we can see him become a better person once he's born again (like Scrooge after being visited by Marley and the three spirits). I hope so, because right now, he's not a very sympathetic character.

On his way out of the plane, Buck had banged his head at the bottom of the emergency slide. Once back in the terminal, a doctor noticed his wound, and offered to stitch it up for him (why the doctor wasn't out on the airfield helping people is a bit of a mystery). But, just read what the doctor said when he was stitching Buck back up, "Be a big boy there, stud. This'll hurt less than the infection you'd get otherwise." Who talks like that? Was the doctor Olivia Newton John?

To illustrate the worldwide extent of the Rapture, the book described a newscast. There was a clip of a pregnant woman, whose baby was raptured in the middle of the delivery. Here's how the book described it, "CNN reran the footage in superslow motion, showing the woman going from very pregnant to nearly flat stomached, as if she had instantaneously delivered." This sounded a bit fishy to me. My wife just so happens to be a nurse who spent several years working in labor and delivery, so I asked her how long after delivery it took for a woman to be 'nearly flat stomached'. She said around a week or two for most people, but maybe one or two days if the woman had kept in really good shape during the pregnancy. It certainly wasn't immediately after the birth - the uterus was still enlarged. My wife did suggest that maybe the magic of the Rapture accelerated this woman's recovery.

I still have over 300 pages to go in the book, and possibly a whole lot more if I continue with the rest of the series. So, I'm going to do my best to quit being so critical, and try to just enjoy the story. It is better than Twilight, at least.

Added 2011-01-20 - I had another thought cross my mind when reading these books, and I'm pretty sure it's not the one LaHaye and Jenkins (L & J) want people to walk away with. Once people figure out who was responsible for all the suffering, death, and destruction caused by the Rapture, you'd think many of them might be out for vengeance. Consider that when L & J described Russia and her allies attacking Israel and showed God intervening to destroy the entire invading military force, He made sure that every piece of debris and crashed jet fighter that hit the ground didn't injure a single Israeli. He showed it was in his power. But in their description of the aftermath of the Rapture, L & J describe a catastrophe, where pilotless airliners had flown themselves into the ground, taking all their passengers with them, and where driverless cars had rammed head on into cars full of unfortunate non-believers. L & J haven't dwelt much on the consequences of all these accidents, but you have to assume that they left many survivors injured, maimed, and suffering.

If any human terrorist had caused the type of suffering and destruction that occured because of L & J's Rapture, people would be screaming for his blood. It would be similar to Americans' hatred for Osama bin Laden, but where practically everyone had been personally affected, everywhere in the world. If they were to discover that this Carpathia fellow were the enemey of the being that was responsible for their wife becoming paralyzed, or their husband losing a leg, or their father being in a coma, or their son being blinded, or their daughter being disfigured by burns, I can imagine people joining Carpathia's forces in droves to get revenge, resulting in a final battle like Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, attempting to dethrone God to set up a Republic of Heaven. I wonder if this is part of how the story line will play out? (From reading ahead in Slacktivist's reviews, it doesn't look like it. Instead, Carpathia's trying to bring about world peace. Damned liberal hippy.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Does the Bible Really Say Pi = 3

PiI spend much more time on this site debunking religious arguments than atheist arguments, but I've just been reminded of one of the stupider arguments that some atheists use, so I thought I'd deal with it. Obviously, if you've read the rest of this blog, you know I'm an atheist myself, but I think that stupid arguments are bad no matter who's making them.

In 1 Kings 7:23, discussing Solomon's Temple, the Bible describes some of the furnishings thusly:

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.

Now, as everyone should remember from elementary school, circumference and diameter are related by the formula:

Circumference = Pi * Diameter

Or, to rearrange that equation a bit to solve for Pi:

Pi = Circumference / Diameter

Using the passage, we could then calculate Pi as follows:

Pi = 30 / 10


Pi = 3

Again, thinking back to elementary school days, everybody should at least know a 3 digit approximation of Pi as 3.14. And so the argument goes, since the Bible gives such an erroneous value for Pi, it obviously can't be the inspired word of God. Here's one example of someone trying to use this argument, but I've seen it many other places.

In short, I think this is a rather stupid argument.

Pi is an irrational number. In other words, it doesn't matter how many decimal places you want to carry it out to, you'll only ever be able to write it as an approximation, and never an exact value. If you're still not following what that means, if you say that Pi is approximately 3.14, I could say - true, but it's really a bit closer to 3.142. But if you use 3.142, then I could say it's actually a bit closer to 3.1416. But if you use 3.1416, I could counter with 3.14159, and on and on forever. There's just no way to write pi as an exact value*. What this also means, is that even if you know the diameter exactly, you won't be able to write the circumference exactly, and vice versa.

So, when a scribe was describing Solomon's Temple, and wanted to give measurements of furnishings, there's no possible way he could have given exact values for the circumference and diameter of circular objects. It wasn't a limitation because the ancients didn't know enough. Even today, we couldn't do it. It's just a physical impossibility. So, the scribe rounded off his numbers.

Some people might still want to argue that the Bible would at least have been more accurate if it had used 31 cubits for the circumference of a 10 cubit diameter circle. I say - who cares? It's necessarily an approximation, so the scribe only used a single significant figure. Besides, there are plenty of sillier passages from the Bible, such as Genesis 30:37-43 or Judges 1:19, that skeptics can use in these types of arguments.

*This reminds me of the nerd obsession with knowing as many digits of Pi as possible. While this is certainly interesting for a variety of reasons, it's not really terribly practical. For example, if you use an approximation of Pi out to 10 decimal places (3.141 592 653 6), for a sphere the size of the Earth (diameter = 7917.5 miles), your calculation of the circumference would be off by less than 0.006 inches. And that's assuming you knew the diameter exactly. In reality, the uncertainty in your measurement would swamp the discrepancy from using your approximation of Pi.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thoughts on the Arizona Shooting & Violent Rhetoric from the Right

Right Wing PropagandaMany, many people have already written about this incident, and I've even read some articles that very closely match my thoughts (such as this one and this one from the Digital Cuttlefish), but I still thought I'd share my opinion.

First of all, it's heart wrenching. I read about that little girl that was shot, and don't even want to imagine what it would be like for that to happen to my daughter. I feel for all of the victims and their families.

Many people were too quick to assume that the right wing's violent rhetoric influenced Loughner. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but too many people assumed it did just because it was at a Democratic political rally. By way of comparison, John Hinckley's assassination attempt of President Reagan wasn't politically motivated - it was driven by his obsession with Jodie Foster. So, until all the facts are in, people shouldn't make any assumptions about Loughner's motives.

The problem of attribution is also a bit analagous to storms and global warming. Just like no single hurricane can be attributed to global warming because hurricanes are going to happen, anyway, no single assassination attempt can be linked to the political climate, because, sadly, assassination attempts are also going to happen, anyway. There's a violent lunatic fringe that always exists, which could strike out at any time.

However, this tragedy has focused the spotlight on the right wing's current rhetoric. For a bit of a scary look at the extreme right wing, go read this Insurrectionism Timeline. The events listed in that timeline are a combination of several things - individual acts of crime, organized acts of crime, quotes from politicians, quotes from activists, quotes from pundits, etc. Some have been spun a bit, but the overall picture is one of the extreme right wing being driven towards violence (on a side note, it's people like these that illustrate the dangers of profiling for Muslims when it comes to terrorist threats - we have plenty of homegrown white Christian terrorist threats to worry about, not to mention groups like the Animal Liberation Front).

Looking to just politicians, radio hosts, and television hosts (i.e. those people with real audiences, as opposed to just bloggers), here are a few examples of the most explicitly violent rhetoric.

I am convinced that the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will.

-Joyce Kaufman, then Chief of Staff for representative elect Allen West

We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that's the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.

-Catherine Crabill, GOP Candidate for Virginia House of Delegates

I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

-Sharron Angle, GOP Candidate for Senate to represent Nevada

My children? We're not getting the flu vaccine. No. The state comes and says my kids have to have the flu -- go to hell. Go to hell. Get off my porch. You want to take my kids because of that? Meet Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson. Get off my land. Period.

-Glen Beck, discussing a hypothetical scenario
source (Go read that site for Beck's bizarre stance on medical neglect not being child abuse)

To keep this final quote in perspective, I debated whether to include it, since, as stated above, my intent was to include more mainstream voices as opposed to just the radical fringe. Turner is the most radical of all the sources I've included here. To get a better idea of his place in the political spectrum, go read this article.

While filing a lawsuit is quaint and the 'decent' way to handle things, we at TRN (Turner Radio Network) believe that being decent to a group of tyrannical scumbags is the wrong approach. It's too soft. Thankfully, the Founding Fathers gave us the tools necessary to resolve tyranny: The Second Amendment. TRN advocates Catholics in Connecticut take up arms and put down this tyranny by force ... If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they're going to get uppity with us about this, I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down, too.

-Harold Turner, Radio Host and Blogger

Those are just a few examples, but I think they make it clear that there is a fair amount of violent rhetoric coming from the right. I'm not saying that all, or even most, conservatives condone this type of language (in fact, some Republicans have resigned due to threats from the Tea Party), but consider the sources. Among those people from the quotes above are candidates popular enough to have won their primary election, and a host on a national TV network. They're a lot less fringe and a lot more mainstream than many would like to think.

Recall as well, that Byron Williams, who was stopped in a shootout on his way to attack the Tides Foundation and the ACLU, specifically cited right wing pundits, including Glen Beck and David Horowitz, as inspiring his actions.

Now, with this in mind, consider Sarah Palin's latest public statement, her video denial of any wrongdoing in relation to the Arizona tragedy. First, to concede a few points to Palin, like I said above, it is premature to say that Loughner was motivated by right wing rhetoric. And even if it turns out that he was, Palin's rhetoric hasn't been the worst there is. Her cross hair map, while certainly not in the best taste, wasn't a specific call to violence, and was nowhere near on the same level as Neal Horsely's Nuremberg Files. She also made a good point about Representative Robert Brady's overreaction in wanting a law that would restrict free speech.

However, I disagreed with most of the rest of the video. The one point that's made some of the most headlines, her use of the term, blood libel, was rather tasteless and insulting, but it wasn't the worst part of her video.

Palin's overall message is where I strongly disagree with her. Consider her statement:

Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state.

The easy point here is to show Palin's hypocrisy, considering her opposition to the Ground Zero mosque. If the responsibility for all crimes is shouldered solely by those who committed them, what possible reason could she have to oppose the mosque?

Ignoring her hypocrisy and looking at the actual sentiment, I disagree. Noone is an island. We're all connected to our society, and are shaped and influenced by it. Similarly, we all have an impact on our surroundings, as well. One very obvious example is parenting. Us parents are held accountable for our children, because everyone knows how much influence parents have over our children. Moving past that child parent relationship, we influence all of those around us, from simple interactions like smiling at them, to giving them advice about issues.

People in the public spotlight, whether they like it or not, do have a bigger sphere of influence than the rest of us. Their words and actions are observed by a great many people, and so they do need to be careful of what they say in the public light. A very important consideration here is that not everybody is well balanced. If a public figure knows there's a chance that using certain language could inspire some of those unbalanced people to act out in bad ways, then they ought to reconsider using that language.

Individuals need to take responsibility for their actions. Byron Williams ultimately pulled the trigger, and so carries the bulk of the responsibility for his shootout with the police. But, had the pundits who spread misinformation and violent rhetoric not done so, Williams may not have committed his crimes, and so those people share some of the responsibility for what he did, and they should own up to it.

Palin tried to paint the extreme right's rhetoric as 'heated' debate. Consider the following two quotes from her speech.

And they claim political debate has somehow gotten more heated, just recently. But when was it less heated? Back in those calm days when political figures literally settled their differences with dueling pistols? In an ideal world, all discourse would be civil, and all disagreements cordial, but our founding fathers knew they weren't designing a system for perfect men and women. If men and women were angels, there would be no need for government. Our founders' genius was to design a system that helped settle the inevitable conflicts caused by our imperfect passions in civil ways. So we must condemn violence if our republic is to endure.
When we take up our arms, we're talking about our vote. Yes, our debates are full of passion, but we settle our political differences respectfully, at the ballot box.

I'm not really old enough to have a feel for how the political climate now compares to that of the past. I know it certainly seems more heated right now, but I can't be sure if that's simply because I've started paying more attention to politics. However, I have had a few discussions with people older than me, and many of them do feel that politics is more divided now than it has been for a while.

Her statements about heated debate seem disingenious. I'm glad she at least paid lip service to non-violence, but she's acting as if right wing politicians have only argued passionately, never suggesting any violent actions, and that any supposedly violent language was merely metaphor. Refer back to those quotes I included up above. When a candidate refers to fighting "at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box", another refers to "Second Amendment remedies", and a chief of staff shouts that "if ballots don’t work, bullets will", I don't think it's hard to take those as threats. If they were intended as metaphors, they were very irresponsible ones, considering how they could be interpreted by many of their constituents.

Before assigning any blame for this particular incident outside of Loughner himself (and even then, he still has the right to a trial), people should wait until they have all the facts. However, the extreme right's rhetoric is dangerously violent, and has in fact been cited as the reason for criminal actions in other recent events. Rather than pretending that this violent rhetoric doesn't exist, political leaders should step up and take some responsibility for their political party, apologizing for what has already been said, and strongly denouncing this type of language in the future.

Updated 2011-01-17 - I moved Turner's quote to the last, and added the explanation of his place in politics - he really is less mainstream than the other examples I used.

Violent Rhetoric from the Left?

Right Wing PropagandaI was listening to NPR late last night during my drive home, and they were having a discussion on the violent rhetoric coming from the right wing. My drive home was short, so I only caught a few minutes, and I haven't been able to find it on the NPR site, yet. But, relying on memory, they were quoting some of the more violent language to come from people like Glen Beck. The conservative spokesman got all hot and bothered about nobody discussing the violent rhetoric coming from Pelosi, MSNBC, Olbermann, etc. The moderator (at least, I think he was the moderator) said something to the effect of, "I don't think Olbermann has ever said anything as outrageous as Beck." To which the conservative spokesman replied that he'd do his research and get back to him with some quotes.

What? You've got to know going into a discussion like this that people are going to start quoting violent rhetoric from the right. If your defense is going to be, 'Yeah, but the other guys are doing it, too', you should at least be prepared with a few examples of the other guys doing it. Saying you'll have the evidence later sounds like a cop out, and really weakens your position.

As another example, take a look at this page showing violence from the left (the second result I got from Google). His first example was the best - a pretty bad remark from the blogger, Kos. His next two examples were peaceful protests. Then he listed an attack by anarchists who'd also attacked the local Democratic headquarters. After that was a fire that was suspicious, but that investigators hadn't yet determined the cause of. And last were riots from over a decade ago.

I'm not saying the left is completely free of violent rhetoric, but it's mostly from the radical fringe that doesn't have real political power. As I'll discuss in an upcoming entry, the violent rhetoric from the right is much more prevalent in their mainstream voices.

Update 2011-01-17 - I tracked down the show I'd been listening to. It was the January 13th episode of To The Point. If you download the mp3 from that link, the general discussion I was listening to started at around 35:05, and the exchange I brought up started around 38:25. The moderator was Warren Olney, and the conservative spokesman was Frank Luntz. Olney's exact quote was, "Excepting I don't think that Keith Olbermann has said anything as outrageous, if I can use that term, as Glen Beck, when he says he wants to kill somebody with a shovel, and hopes that somebody else will burst into flames." The rest of the exchange took place as I'd remembered.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Update

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI'm copying this in the original entry where I announced my book, but I figured I'd give it its own entry as well. My self-published book, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis, is now available through the print on demand company, Lulu, for the low, low price of $4.99. What makes this announcement different than the first, is that I've finally received my copy of the book to review, and it looks good. The few changes I'd made from the first review copy did help a lot with the layout. I'm not planning on making any changes to it for a while, so you're safe if you order the book now.

As a reminder, the book contains the essays from my Religious Essays section. You can still read the essays for free by following that link, but if you particularly like them, or want to share them with someone, you may want the book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Website Update - Blogroll Changes

Parchment RollI've updated my blogroll. A few of the sites that haven't updated for a while, or that only update very irregularly, were moved to a new inactive section (I didn't want to delete them completely in case they ever start posting regularly again). These blogs include TerrapinTables, Greg Richter's Idea Dumpster, Pooflingers Anonymous, and Confessions of an Anonymous Coward.

Mostly offsetting those deletions, there are a few new blogs I've started reading regularly, so I've added them. These blogs include The Digital Cuttlefish, Dinosaur Tracking Blog, and Sandwalk.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


iPhoneWell, I finally upgraded my phone. I was extremely happy with my old phone when I first got it, but technology has advanced quite a bit in that time. So, my wife and I decided to get each other early Christmas presents. We'd already pretty much decided to stick with AT&T (I won't get into the details of that decision). So, my debate was over the iPhone 4 (which I've blogged about previously) or one of the Android phones. I played around with all of them at the store, and they seemed really close in capabilities, so I decided to just go with the one that most of my friends already had so that I could ask them how to use it - the iPhone.

So far, I really like it. It does a lot of things really well. I browse the web a lot more than I ever did on my old phone, and the games are more fun, too. But it's definitely not perfect. And, since this is my blog, it's my duty to gripe about it here. Granted, I knew about some of these issues before getting the phone, and some I would have realized if I'd given it a bit of thought, but they're things Apple could change to make the phone even better.

Hardware Issues

  1. No Keyboard I really hate typing on the iPhone. Touch screen keyboards don't have any tactile feedback, so you have to go really slowly to make sure you position your fingers just right before pressing the screen (and the autocorrect is no help – it changes things I meant to type more often than it fixes mistakes). I don't know how easy it would be to make an iPhone available with a keyboard, but I'd definitely have bought that one if they'd offered it as an option.
  2. No Stylus It's nice that Apple made the iPhone to be able to do so much with just your fingers, but every once in a while, fingers are just too bulky. Even if you're not going to include an actual stylus with the phone, at least make the screen sensitive to where I can use my own stylus (which was usually the back of my mechanical pencil with the Tilt).
  3. No Phone Button This is a phone. Give me a button that I can press that takes me directly to the phone function without having to go through all the menus to get there, and that I can just tap again to call the last number dialed. Every phone I had before the iPhone did that. It's such a simple thing, and lets me dial my wife while I'm driving without having to take my eyes off the road. Another button to cycle through a quick-dial would be nice, too. For a cell phone that people will use while driving, you really should be able to dial common numbers by feel without having to look at the phone.
  4. #*&! Proprietary Plug The universal serial bus was designed more than a decade ago. Practically every device I buy for my computer now hooks up through one of the standard USB plugs. Except the iPhone. Apparently, Apple thinks they're too good to follow industry standards. So if I ever lose the damn cable to hook up the phone to my computer, I have to go buy a new one from Apple, instead of just grabbing one of the regular USB cables I have lying around.

Software Issues

  1. iTunes Practically every other device I own, I can just plug into my computer, and Windows treats it like a removeable drive, from camcorders to other phones to the Kindle. I use the standard Windows interface to just drag and drop files between the device and the computer. Apple forces me to use a bloated media player (that I don't use for anything else except occasionally buying music, then immediately burning it to a CD that I can rip with Media Player), that doesn't even run properly on my work computer because they don't support XP 64.
  2. No Real WMA Support I have a pretty sizeable music collection - around 10 GB worth. I'm sure other people have more, but that's still a decent chunk out of my hard drive. Most of that is in wma format, from when I ripped my CD collection onto my computer. But the iPhone doesn't play wma files. iTunes can convert wma files to a format the phone can use, but that basically doubles the size of my music library on my hard drive. Plus, it means a second round of compression, resulting in a loss of quality. It shouldn’t be hard to play wma files – the CD player I got for my RX-7 seven years ago could do it.
  3. No Auto-Complete when Dialing This is such a simple thing to do. My three year old Tilt did it. When I start dialing a number, the phone should give me a list of numbers that could be the one I'm dialing, sorted by how often I call them. It's so much quicker to just type in a couple numbers and then pick the autocomplete, than to go to the contacts folder and search for the person I want to call.
  4. No Arrow Keys It's bad enough typing without a real keyboard, but Apple doesn't even provide arrow keys on the soft keyboard. Just imagine that you're well into a text message, when you notice a mistake back towards the beginning. Remember my complaint about not having a stylus? It's a pain to try to 'click' onto the right spot with a fingertip to put the cursor where you want to make the change (the magnifying glass makes it a little better, but it's still cumbersome). Four little arrow keys would make revising text so much easier.

Social Issues

  1. Apple's just really not all that nice of a company. From their lack of charitable contributions, to their overreaction to leaks, to their censorship of apps, to their sneaky installation of software, Apple's a pretty sleazy company. Now, I know that a lot of companies are sleazy to some level - it just goes along with capitalism - but Apple seems particularly bad. Here are a few articles to give you an idea of just how bad.

So, after a few weeks with the phone, those are my biggest complaints. Maybe I'll find work-arounds for some of these issues as I use the phone more, and maybe I'll get more accustomed to things like the touch screen keyboard. On the other hand, I may find more things to complain about.

Remember, though, that this was a one sided review. I really do like the phone, and I use it a lot. However, when it comes time to upgrade again in another few years, I'm sure there will be a phone that fixes all these problems (well, at least the hardware and software issues), and that's the one I'll probably buy. If they're smart, Apple will make sure it's their's.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for December 2010

Top 10 ListFor the last time for 2010, I've had a look over the server logs. The only new addition to the list is the Book Review of the Voyage of the Beagle. It's actually a pretty old entry, and I'm not exactly sure what could have catapulted it up into the top 10 list.

The trend of my blog becoming more popular than the old static portion of this site continued - up to 8 out of the 10 entries this time. My overall traffic appears to have plateaued, being 99.9% of what it was the month before.

One of the top ten entries this month is actually a little bit depressing, the review of the Casio EX-F1. The reason it's depressing is because Casio quit making the camera, and the newer models that replace it don't shoot nearly as good of high speed video. And no other manufacturers have released cameras with comparable high speed video. So, we're now in a period where you either have to shell out big bucks for good high speed video, or buy a used camera for decent high speed video (and now that Casio doesn't make the cameras anymore, they cost more used than they used to new). I guess it means we have to be extra careful with the cameras we have now.

Anyway, here were the most popular pages on this site during December:

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

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