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Monday, July 29, 2013

Response to Global Warming Denialist E-mail - Volcanoes and Global Cooling

Global WarmingSomeone recently asked me to fact check an e-mail for them, so I've decided to post that response here. The e-mail was supposedly quoting Ian Plimer, a geologist and professor at the University of Melbourne, and a noted climate change denialist. For anyone interested, I've posted that e-mail in its entirety below the fold.

The lead-in to the body of the article was, "Where Does the Carbon Dioxide Really Come From?" After a bit of ranting about Priuses, CFL bulbs, and the like, it got to its main point - that volcanoes supposedly spew out far more carbon dioxide than any human contributions. It even made the claim:

...when the volcano Mt Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, it spewed out more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race had emitted in all its years on earth.

Just a bit later, the e-mail claimed that the Earth has been cooling for the last century:

It's because the planet has COOLED by 0.7 degrees in the past century and these global warming bull artists got caught with their pants down.

So, in response to the person who asked me to fact check this e-mail, I responded in three parts, as detailed below.

Correct Attribution/Credentials?

On the first level of fact-checking, I didn't find the actual source of this quote from Plimer. All I could find were reprints of this e-mail. So, I'm not sure if he actually wrote it (and given the tone, I would hope not), but it does appear consistent with claims of his I've found elsewhere. As far as his background, that's simply copied-and-pasted from Wikipedia, so it's probably correct.

Volcanic Emissions vs. Human Emissions:

Plimer is way off base here. I found many, many different sites dealing with this. Here are two of the better ones:

That first link contains these two tables, so that you can compare annual volcanic CO2 emissions to human emissions. It also contained the emissions for a couple notable eruptions, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Pinatubo. Annual human caused CO2 emissions are on the order of 134 times higher than total annual volcanic emissions (which includes submarine volcanos), and about 700 times higher than what was released by the one-time event of Mt. Pinatubo erupting.

Yearly CO2 emitters Billion metric tons per year (Gt/y)
Global volcanic emissions (highest preferred estimate) 0.26
Anthropogenic CO2 in 2010 (projected) 35
Light-duty vehicles (cars/trucks) 3
Approximately 24 1000-megawatt coal-fired power stations * 0.22
Argentina 0.2
Pakistan 0.18
Saudi Arabia 0.44
CO2 emission events  
Mount St. Helens, 18 May 1980 0.01 Gt
Mount Pinatubo, 15 June 1991 0.05 Gt
Number of Pinatubo-equivalent eruptions equal to annual anthropogenic CO2 700
Number of Mount St. Helens-equivalent eruptions equal to annual anthropogenic CO2 3500

Global Cooling?

I've seen similar claims of global cooling a few times before, but usually on shorter time scales. It almost always comes down to cherry-picking data. Here's an article dealing with a similar claim made by David Rose last year, and another article dealing with longer term trends.

Below is a good graph from the first article. It clearly shows a long term warming trend over the past several decades. But it's not a perfectly smooth line, and there are outliers both above and below the general trend. So, if you cherry-pick, as they show in the animation, and choose an appropriate (or rather, inappropriate) time period, you can say there's been cooling over that short term period, and then naively extrapolate that short term cooling to saying that it's a long term cooling trend. But when you look at the larger data set over several decades, it's clear which way the trend is going.

Global Warming Trends

The second article dealt with longer term trends, addressing the e-mail's specific claim of cooling over the last century. Below is a graph from that article, showing the temperature anomaly for the past 11,000 years. I clearly shows that the rate of change right now is much higher than it's been than at any other point in that period, and a clear warming trend for the past century.

Marcott Graph

So, this e-mail contained nothing but the bogus claims I've come to expect from the climate change denialists. I really don't understand this mindset. Problems don't disappear just because you ignore them. Burying your head in the sand won't make global warming go away. We've already had to face some consequences of a changing climate, and rather quickly, we're going to have to start dealing with the more profound effects. Why not own up to it and start working on solutions now?

For those interested, here is the full text of the e-mail I received. I cleaned up the formatting a bit, but tried to keep it pretty similar to what I received.

Ian Rutherford Plimer is an Australian geologist, professor emeritus of earth sciences at the University of Melbourne, professor of mining geology at the University of Adelaide, and the director of multiple mineral exploration and mining companies. He has published 130 scientific papers, six books and edited the Encyclopedia of Geology.

Born: 12 February 1946 (age 67)
Residence: Australia
Nationality: Australian
Fields: Earth Science, Geology, Mining Engineering
Institutions: University of New England,University of Newcastle,University of Melbourne,University of Adelaide
Alma mater: University of New South Wales,Macquarie University
Thesis: The pipe deposits of tungsten-molybdenum-bismuth in eastern Australia (1976)
Notable awards: Eureka Prize (1995, 2002),Centenary Medal (2003), Clarke Medal (2004)

Where Does the Carbon Dioxide Really Come From? Professor Ian Plimer could not have said it better! If you've read his book you will agree, this is a good summary.

PLIMER: "Okay, here's the bombshell. The volcanic eruption in Iceland. Since its first spewing of volcanic ash has, in just FOUR DAYS, NEGATED EVERY SINGLE EFFORT you have made in the past five years to control CO2 emissions on our planet - all of you. Of course, you know about this evil carbon dioxide that we are trying to suppress - it's that vital chemical compound that every plant requires to live and grow and to synthesize into oxygen for us humans and all animal life. I know....it's very disheartening to realize that all of the carbon emission savings you have accomplished while suffering the inconvenience and expense of driving Prius hybrids, buying fabric grocery bags, sitting up till midnight to finish your kids "The Green Revolution" science project, throwing out all of your non-green cleaning supplies, using only two squares of toilet paper, putting a brick in your toilet tank reservoir, selling your SUV and speedboat, vacationing at home instead of abroad, nearly getting hit every day on your bicycle, replacing all of your 50 cent light bulbs with $10.00 light bulbs.....well, all of those things you have done have all gone down the tubes in just four days. The volcanic ash emitted into the Earth's atmosphere in just four days - yes, FOUR DAYS - by that volcano in Iceland has totally erased every single effort you have made to reduce the evil beast, carbon. And there are around 200 active volcanoes on the planet spewing out this crud at any one time - EVERY DAY.

I don't really want to rain on your parade too much, but I should mention that when the volcano Mt Pinatubo erupted in the Philippines in 1991, it spewed out more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the entire human race had emitted in all its years on earth. Yes, folks, Mt Pinatubo was active for over One year - think about it. Of course, I shouldn't spoil this 'touchy-feely tree-hugging' moment and mention the effect of solar and cosmic activity and the well-recognized 800-year global heating and cooling cycle, which keeps happening despite our completely insignificant efforts to affect climate change. And I do wish I had a silver lining to this volcanic ash cloud, but the fact of the matter is that the bush fire season across the western USA and Australia this year alone will negate your efforts to reduce carbon in our world for the next two to three years. And it happens every year. Just remember that your government just tried to impose a whopping carbon tax on you, on the basis of the bogus 'human-caused' climate-change scenario. Hey, isn't it interesting how they don't mention 'Global Warming' anymore, but just 'Climate Change' - you know why? It's because the planet has COOLED by 0.7 degrees in the past century and these global warming bull artists got caught with their pants down. And, just keep in mind that you might yet have an Emissions Trading Scheme - that whopping new tax - imposed on you that will achieve absolutely nothing except make you poorer. It won't stop any volcanoes from erupting, that's for sure. But, hey, relax......give the world a hug and have a nice day!"

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - 1 Kings 1 to 1 Kings 10

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

BibleIn a similar manner to 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel, 1 Kings and 2 Kings were at one point a single book (which, as for almost every book of the Bible, was derived from multiple sources, itself). It was the Greek translation that divided the collection into two books, out of convenience to make manageable sized scrolls.

Together with Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, the Book(s) of Kings is part of the Deuteronomistic history, and so continues on with the narrative of 2 Samuel. The first ten chapters contain some well known stories & characters, such as the story of Solomon proposing to cut a baby in half, and a visit from the Queen of Sheba, as well as the construction of the First Temple.

1 Kings, Chapter 1

The opening story of 1 Kings had a subtext that I didn't recognize until I read the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB). King David was old, and like many of the elderly, was having a hard time keeping warm. His advisors suggested that he get a young virgin to snuggle up with, but "the king did not know her sexually." According to the NOAB, virility went hand in hand with the authority to rule, so this act of getting David a young virgin was an attempt to restore his virility. But by failing to have sex with her, it was clear that David was no longer fit for the throne.

With David old and decrepit, his oldest son, Adonijah, decided it was time to take the throne for himself. He consolidated his supporters (including Joab and Abiathar), and then threw a feast (with obligatory animal sacrificing) to cement his position. Meanwhile, Bathsheba and Nathan approach David, to let him know what was happening, and remind him of his promise (not mentioned previously) that Solomon would succeed him. David reaffirmed his promise, and gave instructions for Solomon's coronation. He was to ride David's own mule to Gihon, where the priests, Nathan and Zadok, would "anoint him king over Israel". So Solomon was crowned king, and there was much rejoicing in the streets.

When Adonijah and his companions heard the commotion, they learned what had happened, and became afraid for their lives. In what will be a mini theme in coming chapters, "Adonijah, fearing Solomon, got up and went to grasp the horns of the altar." Apparently, this was a form of asylum. When Solomon heard of this, he sent word that Adonijah would be spared, so long as he was good, "but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die." So for now, at least, Adonijah was safe.

There was a point of discontinuity when Bathsheba and Nathan approached David, regarding whether Bathsheba was in the room or not - just one more instance of a seam left behind from joining multiple prior sources.

1 Kings, Chapter 2

David's days were numbered, and he knew it, so he called Solomon to give him his last words of advice and requests. The advice was of the generic sort you'd expect - be good and follow the Lord. And some of his requests were expected as well - to deal well with people who had been good to David. But some of his other requests were surprising. One had to do with Joab. Joab had been portrayed as a ruthless man in 1 and 2 Samuel, but David hadn't punished him at all for it. But now that David was dying, he was putting that responsibility on Solomon, "Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his grey head go down to Sheol in peace." Considering that Joab had supported Adonijah, this may have been simply a justification for Solomon to eliminate a rival. There was also Shimei son of Gera, who had cursed David on his way to Mahanaim, but whom David had pardoned and promised, "I will not put you to death with the sword" (another story that I don't recognize from previously in the Bible). However, David took that promise very literally. David couldn't kill Shimei with the sword, but Solomon could. And so David instructed Solomon, "you must bring his grey head down with blood to Sheol." With his final words spoken, David died a peaceful death.

Adonijah approached Bathsheba, and asked her to ask Solomon for a favor. Adonijah wanted to marry Abishag, the young virgin who had been brought to David in Chapter 1. Bathsheba passed on the request to Solomon, and he was furious. Given the role of concubines in that culture, if Adonijah had married and slept with the previous king's concubine, it would have given him a legitimate claim to rule. So Solomon sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada to strike down and kill Adonijah.

Next it was time to deal with Abiathar, the priest who had supported Adonijah. Solomon spared his life, but basically put him on house arrest, never to leave his estate.

When Joab learned of Adonijah's death, "Joab fled to the tent of the Lord and grasped the horns of the altar." But Solomon didn't spare him, and sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada to kill Joab.

With Joab dead and Abiathar banished, Joab replaced them with Benaiah and Zadok, respectively.

Now, it was time to deal with Shimei. Solomon commanded him to build a house for himself in Jerusalem, and to never leave the city. If he ever did, then he would be put to death. Well, a few years later, his slaves ran away, and he chased them down to Gath. Word got out to Solomon, and so he had Benaiah strike down Shimei, as well.

1 Kings, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 opened with a story of Solomon marrying the Egyptian Pharaoh's daughter, forming an alliance. The NOAB notes that there's no record of this outside the Bible.

Solomon was good and loved the Lord, but it was pointed out that he committed the sin of "he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places." Still, he had a good relationship with God, and on one of his trips to the principal high place at Gibeon, God visited him in a dream. This is the rather well known story where God offered Solomon a gift, and Solomon asked for wisdom to lead his people. This noble request demonstrated his worth, and was granted by the Lord, along with "both riches and honour all your life". Upon waking up, Solomon returned to Jerusalem and offered up sacrifices before the ark of the covenant.

Next came probably the most famous story involving Solomon. Two prostitutes came to him to settle a dispute. They had both had newborn babies, but one of the babies had died. The one prostitute claimed that the other had laid on her own baby and killed him, and then had swapped the babies in the middle of the night while the other prostitute was asleep, stealing the live baby for her own. Of course, the other prostitute denied this. To settle the dispute, Solomon called for his sword, to cut the baby in half to give each prostitute a half of the baby. One prostitute was fine with that verdict, but the other insisted that the baby go to the other prostitute, so long as it wasn't killed. With that, Solomon knew that the true mother was the one willing to give up the baby to save its life.

The story concluded with a bit of hyperbole, "All Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice." It was a clever story, but nothing that would make people stand "in awe of the king".

The NOAB noted that Solomon's name was never actually mentioned throughout the story - he was referred to merely as "the king". This is an indication that the story may have originated as an independent folk tale, and then later been incorporated into the legend of Solomon.

1 Kings, Chapter 4

Chapter 4 was almost a bookkeeping chapter. It started off listing his highest officials. Notably, Abiathar was still listed as a priest (possibly suggesting an alternate source to the story of Abiathar being exiled). There were also 12 officials in charge of the different regions of Israel, almost like governors, though the regions didn't match exactly with the tribes. Next came a listing of Solomon's provisions.

The chapter closed with a bit of hyperbole about Solomon that was so over the top that it seemed more like fawning than anything believable - "Solomon's wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else..." and a bit later, "People came from all the nations to hear the wisdom of Solomon; they came from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom."

1 Kings, Chapter 5

King Hiram of Tyre had been an ally of David's, so he sent a good-will envoy to Solomon and they reaffirmed their friendship. Solomon said that he intended to finally build a temple for the Lord (which had been denied David), and asked Hiram to provide cedar in exchange for wheat and oil.

There was a phrase I noted in a previous book, but which still sounds barbaric to me, "You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet." It reminds me of images from Mesoamerican art where victors would stand on the heads of their enemies.

Verse 13 stated that "King Solomon conscripted forced labour out of all Israel..." to build the temple, and the remainder of the chapter described the beginnings of the work.

1 Kings, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 was all about the construction of the temple. It went into great detail on the dimensions and details, though thankfully, not as repetitiously or in as much detail as Exodus gave for the Tent of Meeting. It took just over seven years to build. It's worth noting that the temple wasn't really a temple in the sense of people going to worship there - it was an earthly abode for the Lord, and so wasn't particularly large.

Verse 7 caught my eye, "The house was built with stone finished at the quarry, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron was heard in the temple while it was being built." If you recall from Exodus 20:25 and Deuteronomy 27:5, God had already given instructions that iron tools weren't to be used in making altars. Also recall from Judges 1:19 that God couldn't "drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron." It almost makes it seem like iron is God's kryptonite. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it. I've seen other interpretations that the ban on tools at the work site was to maintain peace and quiet, to maintain the holiness of the site. I also read that the ban on iron tools in general was to keep people from carving idols.

1 Kings, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 contained more construction details, from Solomon's own house, the House of the Forest of the Lebanon, to other buildings on the site, including the Hall of Pillars and the Hall of the Throne. The chapter also detailed many of the adornments, including mentioning the master craftsman by name, Hiram from Tyre (not the king).

There was one passage here that some overzealous skeptics like to use to indicate that the Bible indicates that Pi is equal to three, "Then he made the cast sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely." I've discussed this interpretation before in the entry, Does the Bible Really Say Pi = 3. In short, I think it's one of the weakest arguments against the Bible that somebody could come up with.

With all the buildings completed, Solomon transferred his treasuries to their new locations.

1 Kings, Chapter 8

Now it was time to bring the ark of the covenant to the temple. There was great fanfare and ritual, and of course, animal sacrifices, "so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered". There was a verse that stated, "There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses had placed there at Horeb...". This was apparently to counter the belief that God resided in the ark, itself. Once the priests had put the ark in the inner sanctuary and then left the building, "a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord." This presence as a cloud is another indication of Yahweh as a storm god.

Solomon gave a speech to all those assembled at the temple, exalting God, instructing the people on how to pray, etc.. He did note that the temple wasn't God's actual dwelling, but merely symbolic, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!" I wonder about the evolution of this belief. Did the Israelites see the temple as an actual dwelling when it was first built, and then modify the story as their religion evolved? Or was their understanding of God already of an incorporeal being by the time the temple was constructed? Given some of the passages I've noted in other portions of the Bible, even in my entry last week on 2 Samuel, I suspect the former.

With Solomon's prayer/speech over, it was time to get to the sacrificing - "twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred and twenty thousand sheep." Just imagine the slaughter if it were true.

The festival lasted for seven days, after which everybody went back home.

1 Kings, Chapter 9

God visited Solomon again, reaffirming their covenant, and reminding Solomon that it was conditional on him and the Israelites remaining faithful to God.

In reward for his faithfulness, Solomon gave King Hiram a gift of twenty cities. But Hiram wasn't very impressed with them, "So they are called the land of Cabul to this day," where Cabul means 'a land good for nothing'. Still, Hiram sent gold back to Solomon.

Next came a listing of all the forced labor - the peoples and cities that had been enslaved. In contradiction to Verse 13 of Chapter 5, Verse 22 of this chapter stated that, "But of the Israelites Solomon made no slaves; they were the soldiers, they were his officials, his commanders, his captains, and the commanders of his chariotry and cavalry.".

After that listing came a listing of officers, then a note about the house Solomon had built for his daughter, Solomon's practice of offering sacrifices three times a year, and finally a short note about a fleet of sheeps that he had built.

1 Kings, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 contains the story of the famous Queen of Sheba. She came to Israel bearing all manner of gifts for Solomon, including around 4 tons of gold. In return, "King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed, as well as what he gave her out of Solomon's royal bounty." They discussed various topics that weren't detailed, and the Queen praised Solomon for his wisdom. And when her visit was over, the Queen of Sheba returned to her own land.

Verse 14 noted that Solomon received 666 talents of gold per year. Besides being the mark of the beast, that's a lot of gold. Going by what Wikipedia tells me, the ancient Israelite talent was about 67 lbs, meaning 666 talents would be about 22 tons. With all that gold, Solomon made a variety of items for his palace and the temple, not to mention using it for overlay.

There was some more hyperbole on Solomon, "Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. The whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind."

The chapter closed with a listing of all the horses and chariots he had.


From a skeptical perspective, I find it interesting that there are all these descriptions of Solomon being the wisest and most revered king to have ever lived, with people coming from far and wide just to hear him, while there's just about zero evidence of Solomon outside the Bible. I mean, everybody's heard of Ramses (aka Rameses or Ramesses). That was a famous king, known to people outside his kingdom, and who we can find plenty of evidence for. But Solomon, supposedly the greatest king of all time, left behind just about zero archaeological evidence or historical records. I mean, Josephus cited records for when King Hiram was supposed to have sent materials to Solomon, but Josephus was around almost 1000 years after Solomon's supposed rule. To put that in perspective, that's about the same separation in time as the present day and the Norman invasion of England.

The hyperbole also makes it hard to take these writers too seriously. It's hard to imagine people actually reacting the way the writers describe it.

All in all, though, this book, so far, is very similar to 1 and 2 Samuel (as should probably be expected). It carries on the narrative in much the same way, with enough detail to keep the stories interesting, only getting bogged down a bit by detailed descriptions of the temple complex.

For those interested, the following link contains a great drawing of what the temple might have looked like:
The Knights of Templar - Temple of Solomon

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

National Hot Dog Day

Chili DogToday is National Hot Dog Day. In fact, all of July is National Hot Dog Month, but I forgot to post about that earlier. So far this month, I've had a bacon cheese dog from Five Guys (very good) and a cheesy bacon pretzel dog from Sonic (also very good), not to mention numerous hot dogs at the house and at my parents during our vacation with various toppings from onions to chili to sauerkraut. Since hot dogs haven't changed much in the past year, I'll just quote a portion of the entry I wrote last year for National Hot Dog Month.

There are tons of different toppings for hot dogs, but here's one of my favorite combinations, which also happens to be just a little out of the ordinary. Ellicott Dining Hall at University of Maryland used to serve them this way, but it's the only place I've ever seen that did, and they've since remodeled, so I doubt even they make these hot dogs anymore. Really, the recipe's pretty simple - a hot dog on a bun, covered with sauteed potatoes and onions, with a bit of spicy brown mustard. The potatoes have to be diced pretty small. Simple, like I said, but very good.

And if you really want good hot dogs, make sure you buy good hot dogs. You can't beat hot dogs in a natural casing for the little bit of crispiness when you bite into it. Here in Wichita Falls, I can find the Boar's Head brand with natural casings, which are pretty good, but they're all beef. Back up in the northeast, Dietz and Watson makes natural casing hot dogs, too, and theirs have pork mixed in (I'd buy those if I could find them down here). Of course, if you know of a good local butcher, go there.

...Probably my favorite hot dog joint is The O in Pittsburgh. Natural casings, plenty of toppings, and a mountain of fresh cut fries to go with it. When I had my internship back in college, there used to be a guy with a hot dog cart that would pull up to our building every day. I didn't go there for every lunch, but it got to the point where I didn't have to order - once he saw my face, he'd just start preparing my regular. I've never seen a guy work so fast with toppings.

Anyway, there's no deeper meaning to this post. It's kind of frivolous, but I really like hot dogs, almost as much as potatoes, so I couldn't resist the opportunity to write about a whole month dedicated to them.

So go out and get your hot dogs today. Sonic is selling $1 hot dogs all day today, and 7-Eleven is giving them away for free, if you download a certain mobile phone app (alternate source for when those sites change).

Monday, July 22, 2013

Sketching Art Masterpieces from Memory

Some of my fellow engineers and I watch the show, Brain Games, on the National Geographic Channel (I highly recommend watching the show if you haven't seen it, yet). On one episode, they performed an experiment based on the study, The Science of Cycology, by Rebecca Lawson. Subjects were given a basic, incomplete layout of a bicycle, showing just part of the frame, the wheels, the seat, and the handlebars, and then asked to fill in the rest of the drawing with the pedals, chain, and completing the frame. Below is a copy of the basic layout that they were given.

Cycology Skeletal Layout

This may at first appear to be a simple task, but it turns out to be surprisingly difficult for a large number of people. If you want to see what types of drawings Lawson got from the test subjects, follow that link above to read her paper (it's not terribly long, and you can jump ahead to the interesting parts, anyway). If you really want to play along, try it for yourself before following the link.

The study listed errors in frame, pedals, and chain independently, so I'm sure there was some overlap in the errors, and I'm unsure what that overlap was, but nearly half of the drawings had the chain drawn incorrectly to where the bike wouldn't work. In other words, at least around half of the drawings were wrong. If some people got the chain right but made mistakes in other parts, then the number is even higher.

The hypothesized reason is that our memories really aren't as good as we think they are. While we all know a bicycle when we see one, and think we have a good memory of just what a bicycle looks like, the truth is that many of us remember only just enough to recognize the bicycle, but not much detail.

Of course, us engineers in the office had no problem drawing a bicycle from memory. In fact, we didn't even need the skeletal layout to start off with. We could all just draw it from a blank sheet. But I didn't think this was exactly representative. For one, we're all mechanical engineers (if you count aero as a subset of mechanical), so this is exactly the type of thing we pay attention to. For another, with our bent towards mechanical design, we don't actually have to remember what the bike looks like. We can just remember a few details, and then fill in the rest as we go to make a functioning product. That's the type of thing we do on a daily basis.

So, we got to talking about another way to test Lawson's hypothesis. Was there something else that we should be familiar with, that we would recognize instantly, to try drawing from memory. And we decided that art masterpieces were the perfect objects. These are things you see repeatedly throughout your life. And we couldn't use our mechanical aptitude to fill in details. We had to rely on memory.

Before I go on, I'll list the pieces that we attempted to draw. If you want to have some fun, try drawing them for yourself before you scroll on further (or before you click on the links).

[Intentional blank lines to leave some space so that you don't accidentally see the real versions if you want to draw them yourself.]





How did we do? Pretty poorly, and not just on artistic merit. I don't have copies of every sketch that we did, since the other engineer who was trying it was doing his sketches on a white board and had to erase each one to have a clean canvas for the next masterpiece. But I was doing mine by pencil on scratch paper, so I at least have all of mine. Below are my sketches and one of his, followed by the real masterpiece.

The Mona Lisa

Jeff's Mona Lisa Sketch The Real Mona Lisa

The Scream

Jeff's The Scream Sketch The Real The Scream

The Persistence of Memory

Jeff's The Persistence of Memory Sketch
Martin's The Persistence of Memory Sketch
The Real The Persistence of Memory

We may have gotten a few of the big details right, but we really missed a lot when it came to filling it in. We both missed many details in the Mona Lisa, even something as prominent as her hands. Neither of us had the extra people or the sailboats in The Scream. And my Persistence of Memory was particularly dismal (the other engineer's was pretty good, but he admitted to having painted a copy of it in an art class).

I can think of another permutation on this, actually similar to what Lawson did in another section of her study - multiple choice. How many of us would be able to pick the correct version of a masterpiece given multiple similar choices (either through alterations, or probably even more difficult, through the time honored tradition of hand painted reproductions).

Anyway, while this post is nominally related to Rebecca Lawson's study, and our anecdotes fall in line with what she's proposing, the real reason I posted this was because it was fun. Get together with some friends and try doing this for yourself. Pick a masterpiece, try sketching it from memory, and then compare your sketches to each other and to the real thing. If you're like us, you'll be surprised at how little you can remember, but you'll have fun doing it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Samuel 11 to 2 Samuel 24

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

BibleChapters 11 through 24 were the final chapters of 2 Samuel. They continued on with the themes of civil war and fighting over who was the rightful king of Israel. Of course, David came out on top.

2 Samuel, Chapter 11

Chapter 11 opened with a verse that treats war and violence very casually, "In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah." The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) gives another translation, though, that isn't so bad, "A year after the kings had gone out to battle...".

While the armies were out fighting, David stayed behind in Jerusalem, and one afternoon while strolling about atop the roof of his palace, he saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing. So he had her brought to him so that he could sleep with her. Unfortunately, she was already married. David sent for her husband, Uriah, calling him back from the rest of the troops. This was mainly a ploy to give Uriah a chance to sleep with his wife so that if she became pregnant, there wouldn't be any suspicion on David. David also tried giving Uriah gifts, apparently to ease his own conscience. But Uriah showed his worth and loyalty by refusing to return to his own house to sleep in a comfortable bed with his wife while all of the other troops were still out in the fields, even a second night went David got him drunk. David sent Uriah back to the front lines, and instructed his commander, Joab, to put Uriah in a position where the enemy would strike him down. Before he could follow through on the king's wishes, Joab made a tactical mistake in a battle, but Uriah died in that skirmish. So, Joab was able to cover up his mistake, and David got to see Uriah killed in battle. And of course, Bathsheba became pregnant.

When Bathsheba was done with her period of mourning, David brought her to his house and made her his wife, "But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord".

2 Samuel, Chapter 12

God sent the prophet Nathan to David. And Nathan told David a story about a rich man who "had very many flocks and herds", and a poor man who only had "one little ewe lamb". One day, when a guest came to the rich man's house, instead of killing one of his own flock, he took the only lamb from the poor man to slaughter and prepare a meal. Upon hearing this story, David was furious at the rich man. And of course, Nathan told him that the story was really about him, and what he had done to Uriah. Further, the Lord was mad at David, and was going to punish him, " I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun."

And David's first punishment was the death of the child bore by Bathsheba. But it wasn't an instant death. No, first God made the innocent infant suffer with illness for a week while David pleaded with God for the baby's life, before the baby finally died.

After consoling Bathsheba, David and her conceived another baby, Solomon, who was also called Jedidiah, or 'Beloved of the Lord'.

The chapter closed with Joab bringing Rabbah's royal city to the brink of capture, and calling on David to be there for the actual conquering. And when they did, "He brought out the people who were in it, and set them to work with saws and iron picks and iron axes, or sent them to the brickworks. Thus he did to all the cities of the Ammonites." So apparently, the only reason slavery was horrible way back in Exodus was because it was the Hebrews being enslaved. Now that the Hebrews were powerful, it was just fine for them to enslave other people.

2 Samuel, Chapter 13

One of David's sons, Amnon, became smitten with his half sister, Tamar. He pretended to be sick so that she would come tend to him, and while she was there he raped her. But once he had done that, he became disgusted with her and sent her away in shame. According to the NOAB, not marrying her after what he'd done was an even greater dishonor than raping her in the first place. So, as a sign of her disgrace, she tore her garments and put ashes on her head.

Tamar's full brother, Absalom, was furious with Amnon, but bid his time. Two years later, when it came time for the sheep shearing, Absalom threw a great feast for all of his brothers. It should be noted that Amnon was the eldest living brother (the actual first born had died), and so was next in line for the throne, followed by Absalom. When Amnon was getting tipsy off of wine, Absalom had him killed by his servants, in revenge for what he'd done to Tamar. The rest of the brothers scattered in fear, thinking this might have been a political assassination rather than a revenge kiling. Absalom fled to Geshur, where he would end up staying for three years. Upon the first report to David, he feared that all of his sons were dead, but eventually learned the truth.

In the final verse of the chapter, the NOAB notes a discrepancy in the translation of that verse that greatly alters the meaning of the story. The NRSV translated the verse as, "And the heart of the king went out, yearning for Absalom; for he was now consoled over the death of Amnon." According to the NOAB, the first part of that verse is better translated as, "The king's spirit for marching out against Absalom was exhausted." David wasn't yearning for Absalom - he was trying to capture him. This alternate translation given in the NOAB fits much better with the rest of the story, particularly considering what transpires in the next chapter.

2 Samuel, Chapter 14

Chapter 14 contained another setup like the one from Nathan in Chapter 12. This time, it was David's commander, Joab, who found a woman and put her up to the task. She had an audience with David, and told a story of how her husband had died, and then one day her two sons got into a fight and the one killed the other. Now, people were calling for her to turn over the living son so that he could be put to death, but she couldn't bear to lose her last son. When David said that the son should be able to return and be forgiven, the woman turned the tables on him and asked why he wouldn't allow Absalom to return. It came out that Joab was behind the whole thing, so David went to Joab and told him to go get Absalom and bring him back home. But it was still two years before David would actually meet with Absalom. And even then, it took Absalom lighting Joab's barley fields on fire to get the attention of the king to gain an audience. But in the end, David forgave Absalom.

2 Samuel, Chapter 15

Absalom began to undercut David's authority. Absalom would wait out near the gate of the city, and when people came intending to talk to the king about their problems, Absalom would intercept them and hear their problems, instead, "Thus Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgement; so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel."

After four years of Absalom building up his own power, he staged a coup, and David had to flee Jerusalem along with all those still loyal to him, save for ten concubines who he left to look after the house, and a few spies to keep him informed of Absalom's plans. David had the priests keep the ark of the covenant in Jerusalem. If David were to "find favour in the eyes of the Lord", then he would return and see the ark again.

2 Samuel, Chapter 16

Ziba, Saul's servant who was taking care of Mephibosheth's lands, joined the refugees. He claimed that Mephibosheth stayed behind in Jerusalem, saying "Today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather's kingdom." So David gave to Ziba "All that belonged to Mephibosheth".

On their way out of the city, one man, Abishai son of Zeruiah, began throwing stones at David, cursing him, and calling him a murderer and a scoundrel. Some of David's men wanted to kill Abishai, but David spared him.

In the final verses of the chapter, Absalom marched into Jerusalem, and then, on the advice of Ahithophel, who had remained in Jerusalem and switched allegiance to Absalom, he set up a tent on the roof of the palace and "went in to his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel."

2 Samuel, Chapter 17

Ahithophel asked Absalom to give him (Ahithophel) 12,000 men, so that they could chase down and kill David. Everybody seemed to like that course of action, but Absalom asked Hushai for a second opinion. Hushai was one of those that had stayed behind in the city, but who was still loyal to David. Hushai convinced Abasalom to wait to attack David until he had built up a bigger army.

Hushai sent word to David through a small network of loyalists, and after a bit of cloak and dagger type stuff (including two men hiding in a well), they got the message through. David and his followers crossed the Jordan that very night, putting enough distance between themselves and Absalom to be safe.

Ahithophel, who had been very well respected before, realized that he had lost his reputation. So, "he saddled his donkey and went off home to his own city. He set his house in order, and hanged himself."

The final verses detailed the movements of Absalom and his troops, and David and his troops, including a mention of some of the people who helped provision David's forces.

2 Samuel, Chapter 18

David organized his forces in preparation for battle. He had originally intended to go out with them, but the men convinced David to stay behind and not go into battle. His parting orders were to "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom."

With Absalom's and David's forces assembled, the showdown took place, and of course David's forces were victorious. Interestingly, one verse stated that "the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword."

Absalom's personal defeat would almost have been comical, if it hadn't ended so violently. "Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on." When this was reported to Joab, Joab ordered one of his men to kill Absalom. But the man wouldn't do it, because of the king's orders. So, "He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak." And then, for good measure, ten of Joab's armor bearers surrounded Absalom and finished the job. They then took the body, buried it in a pit in the woods, and covered it with a pile of stones, which, according to the NOAB, was a form of burial reserved for "a cursed person".

Two messengers went to deliver the news to David - one who only knew of the victory, and one who knew of Absalom's death. When David learned what had happened, he went to his chamber to weep for Absalom.

2 Samuel, Chapter 19

When Joab got back and learned that David was sulking, he would have none of it, "for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased." Joab convinced David to go back out in the sight of the people.

The rest of the chapter was mostly politics - who wanted David back as the king, who had been faithful to him, who was rewarded and with what, etc. One that stuck out to me was Joab losing his command to Amasa. Another was going back to Saul's servant, Ziba, and Saul's crippled son, Mephibosheth. Ziba started off the chapter kissing up to the king. Later on, Mephibosheth came to meet the king, and explained that he hadn't been disloyal. He'd wanted to go with David the whole time, but Ziba abandoned him. As proof of his loyalty, "he had not taken care of his feet, or trimmed his beard, or washed his clothes, from the day the king left until the day he came back in safety." In the end, Mephibosheth allowed Ziba to keep all of his property. Mephibosheth was just happy that David was safe.

The chapter closed with a conflict between the people of Judah and those of Israel.

2 Samuel, Chapter 20

Not everyone was happy that David was back. One man in particular, Sheba son of Bichri, spoke out against him. He left Jerusalem and the Israelites followed him, though the people of Judah remained faithful to David.

The poor concubines who had been 'entered' by Absalom were now unfit for David. So, he locked them up in a house under guard. And while he provided for them, he no longer visited them. "So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood."

David asked his new commander, Amasa, to assemble an army to pursue Sheba. Joab took his men, too. Somewhere along the way, Joab caught up to Amasa. And, being the ruthless man that he his, Joab approached Amasa in a friendly manner, but then sneakily drew his sword and "struck him in the belly so that his entrails poured out on the ground, and he died." Since everyone was stopping to look at Amasa who "lay wallowing in his blood on the highway", Joab had his body moved off the road and covered. With Amasa out of the way, Joab was back to being commander of the army.

Sheba found his way to Abel of Beth-maacah, and when Joab and his forces arrived there, they set up a siege. A 'wise woman' in the city contacted Joab, and they made a deal that Joab would not destroy the city if they gave up Sheba. So, the woman went back to the city and convinced the inhabitants to follow the plan, "And they cut off the head of Sheba son of Bichri, and threw it out to Joab." And with that, the siege was over.

2 Samuel, Chapter 21

The NOAB notes that these chapters may be out of order from the way they were originally collected. Many of these stories seem to fit better chronolically earlier in the books of Samuel. For instance, the story related below probably originally occurred before Absalom's attempted coup - explaining why, in Chapter 16, Abishai son of Zeruiah called David a murderer. And the introduction to the song of praise in Chapter 22 makes it appear either out of place or like it was tacked on later, "David spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul."

There was a famine in Israel, and it turned out to be Saul's fault, for the Lord himself said, "There is blood-guilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death" (even though this action of Saul's wasn't mentioned elsewhere in the Bible). In other words, all of Israel was being punished for what Saul had done, even though Saul was already dead. David went to the Gibeonites to see how to make it right with them, and all they wanted was to "let seven of his sons be handed over to us, and we will impale them before the Lord at Gibeon on the mountain of the Lord." So David went along with their request, sparing only Mephibosheth (that is, the Mephibosheth that was the son of Jonathon - verse 8 had another Mephiboseth being handed over). And the Gibeonites "impaled them on the mountain before the Lord". Their bones were gathered up, along with those of Saul and Jonathan, and they were all buried. And with all that barbarity completed, "After that, God heeded supplications for the land."

There was another battle with Philistines. This time, David was so old that he got tired in the midst of fighting. He was rescued by Abishai, but the people convinced him to never go out to battle again.

And then there was more fighting with Philistines. There was a brief mention here that probably came from an earlier version of the slaying of Goliath, "Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver's beam."

2 Samuel, Chapter 22

Chapter 22 was a song of praise from David to God. As discussed above, it appears out of place in its current location. Anyway, it was a fairly typical song of praise from the Bible. It was a little interesting to see how God was portrayed as basically a super-human, not the fuzzy, non-corporeal God that many Christians now believe in:

9 Smoke went up from his nostrils,
   and devouring fire from his mouth;
   glowing coals flamed forth from him.
10 He bowed the heavens, and came down;
   thick darkness was under his feet.
11 He rode on a cherub, and flew;
   he was seen upon the wings of the wind.

The description of Yahweh also seemed to fit with him as a storm god, as was probably his original role in the Canaanite pantheon.

I was also struck by how many allusions were made to war and fighting. The ancient Hebrews must have had a pretty violent culture to perceive their god this way.

2 Samuel, Chapter 23

Chapter 23 supposedly gives "the last words of David" in "The oracle of David", even though David doesn't die until the next book of the Bible. This was another typical praise given to God.

The bulk of the chapter was a list of notable warriors who served under David, and brief mentions of some of their exploits.

2 Samuel, Chapter 24

For some reason not given, "Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel". He incited David to perform a census. And for some reason I still don't understand, there was a horrible taboo against counting people back then (the NOAB notes that it may have been the implication of taxes or conscription), so Joab tried to persuade David to not go through with it. But David insisted, and the census was performed, "in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand."

Immediately afterwards, though, it was noted that "David was stricken to the heart because he had numbered the people." So he prayed to God to "take away the guilt of your servant; for I have done very foolishly," even though it was God who had incited him to count the people to begin with. So, God gave David three choices for penance - three years of famine, three months of being chased by his foes, or three days of pestilence in the land. David, too proud to allow his enemies to chase him, chose the third of those choices. God sent a pestilence that killed 70,000 people before the angel had reached Jerusalem. God had the angel spare that city, but it moved on and was at the threshing-floor of Araunah the Jebusite. David was distraught that God's angel was killing so many people, "I alone have sinned, and I alone have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, be against me and against my father's house." So the prophet Gad told David to go and build an altar at Araunah's threshing floor. And David did, along with sacrificing an oxen, of course, not to mention burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being. All these sacrifices apparently softened God's heart, "So the Lord answered his supplication for the land, and the plague was averted from Israel."

This whole story, if you imagine it to be true, paints such a horrible picture of Yahweh. He incited David to do something, and something pretty innocuous at that. But then, because David actually did it, God started punishing all of Israel. And then, after David sacrificed a few innocent animals, Yahweh decided to change his mind.


1 and 2 Samuel were actually fairly good, by Biblical standards, at least. There was a good narrative to follow, with a decent amount of character development. From the standpoint of seeing the Bible just like any other mythology, the books were pretty interesting. However, from the standpoint of seeing the Bible as something that people believe to be the actual divinely inspired word of God, the stories weren't so good. While I recognize that David was shown to have good and bad traits, some of the things he did that the authors intended to be good weren't so good by modern standards. And God himself certainly didn't act very good, especially in those last few chapters.

Perhaps my favorite character from 2 Samuel is Joab. His role changes depending on your viewpoint. If taking the Bible at face value, he's merely a ruthless commander who has no problem killing others to advance his position (and he'll be punished accordingly in 1 Kings). But, if you try to imagine these stories as being based on some kernel of truth, with the writers presenting a sanitized version of David's exploits meant to make David look better, then Joab takes on a new role. He's basically David's enforcer. Almost every time Joab killed someone personally (rather than in battle), it was taking out one of David's political rivals, benefiting David. It's as if David had Joab do all his dirty work, so that David could keep his own hands clean and not tarnish his public reputation.

This theme of David masking his motives wasn't limited to Joab - the story of handing over Saul's sons to the Gibeonites was another example. While couched in language of blood-guilt, it's also rather convenient to eliminate all of your potential rivals to the throne. And it's also worth noting that the only descendant of Saul's that was spared was Mephibosheth, who due to his disability posed no threat to David. In fact, the NOAB notes that perhaps a real historical David might have spared Mephibosheth, and a later writer might have invented the story of friendship between David and Jonathan to explain this behavior.

Of course, it's hard to tell just how much of these stories might be true. Given the discrepancies and still visible signs of combining multiple, disparate sources (such as the multiple deaths of Goliath), it's clear that these books aren't historically accurate in any modern sense. But whether they're nearly entirely legendary and the writers were trying to push their version of the legend, or whether they have kernels of truth and the writers were trying to glorify real people, is still open to debate.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Updated 2013-07-24: My normal approach to these entries is to first read the passages in the Bible (usually through this page since I can access that on my cell phone), and then to read all the footnotes in the New Oxford Annotated Bible to gain insights I might have missed when reading on my own, and then to write these entries. Well, I was running a little behind in keeping up with the footnotes, so I wrote this entry before I'd read them all. Now, that's not the first time I've done that, but this time I did miss a few big points. So, it was worth going back and updating a few sections. I also expanded the wrap-up.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God

The Atheist's Worst NightmareIt's been a couple years since I wrote anything about Ray Comfort, but he's at it again (see the end of this entry for a list of articles I've written about Comfort - a CD of his was even the impetus that made me start this blog). He has a new movie out titled Evolution vs. God. To quote the synopsis from the order page:

Millions believe that Darwinian evolution is a scientific fact. This DVD shows it's unscientific, by interviewing evolutionary scientists from UCLA and UCS, as well as biology majors.

The movie is currently only available for a $20 download, but will be available for free on YouTube come August 7th. Needless to say, I can wait three weeks to avoid giving Comfort any money, at which point I may watch the whole thing and write a review. But in the meantime, I can say that I don't have high hopes. One of my more popular blog entries is Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution. I wrote it a few years ago when Comfort released a copy of Darwin's Origin of Species where he (Comfort) had written his own introduction. The release of that book created a bit of a controversy (similar to this movie), and Comfort ended up in a written debate with Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. In that debate, Comfort revealed a staggering ignorance of evolution. But it wasn't the first time. That CD I alluded to above was just as bad. And in the bits and pieces I've seen from Comfort since, it doesn't appear that he's really learned anything new. So, my suspicion is that Comfort is still wildly ignorant of evolution, and that this new movie will simply be full if misinformation.

Another relevant previous entry of mine is Ray Comfort: Quote Miner Extraordinaire. 'Quote mining' is the process of using a direct quote, but taking it out of context to present something contrary to what the person being quoted intended. A rather well known example of this (which I discussed in that entry), is people quoting Darwin from Origin of Species writing, "To suppose that the eye ... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree," while ignoring the remainder of the chapter where Darwin detailed all the evidence backing up how the eye could have evolved. It was merely a rhetorical method of Darwin's. And Comfort is well-known for his quote-mining, so I'm suspicious that he would do the same thing here through selective editing of interviews (an entry by PZ Myers on Pharyngula suggests that this is exactly what happened).

As part of the press coverage over this movie, there was an article on The Blaze (the Glen Beck site), Evolution vs. God: Famed Evangelist Says His New Film Exposes 'Embarrassingly Stupid' Ideas Behind Darwinian Theory (Get a Sneak Peek). The article wasn't particularly in depth on what was in the movie, but it did have a few quotes from Comfort. Here's one that caught my eye.

"I've listened to him [Richard Dawkins] say things to thousands of university students that are just not true," Comfort said. "Many times over the years I've been accused by atheists of not understanding evolution. I've read every page of the world's most boring book, 'The Origin of Species.' "

Seriously, "the world's most boring book"? That seems like a petty, childish insult, and not even an accurate one, at that. I've read The Origin of Species (see my review), and while Victorian prose may be a little difficult for modern readers, I thought the book was very interesting. Besides, it's no longer the best introduction to evolution. Darwin didn't even know of Mendel's experiments with pea plants, let alone our modern understand of genetics and DNA. And many, many fossils have been discovered since then (interestingly, Darwin barely discussed fossils in The Origin of Species). Comfort would be well served by looking to a modern introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.

Here's another passage from the article that caught my eye.

Comfort noted that even the most intelligent scientist on the face of the earth "can't make a grain of sand from anything," nor can he or she create animals that are able to reproduce. At the heart of the matter is his argument that the creation surrounding us couldn't have come from an explosion of nothing. This idea of spontaneous creation -- one that is touted by many Darwinian theorists -- he called "embarrassingly stupid" (he also gave the same label to atheism).

It's almost amazing how many bad arguments can be crammed into so short a space. First of all, evolution has nothing to do with the creation of the universe. Evolution is only about what happens once you have self-replicating chemistry. Nobody asks meteorologists where the atmosphere came from. Why do evolutionary biologists need to explain where atoms came from? And it always amazes me that creationists can scoff at our ignorance of where the universe came from, but then ignore the question of where God came from. The question of why there's something rather than nothing bothered me just as much when I was a Christian as it does now that I'm an atheist.

And finally, there's the personal insult, calling atheism "embarrassingly stupid". Now, I'm very confident in my atheism, but I recognize there's some small chance I may be wrong. But even if I did turn out to be wrong, I've given religion a lot of thought, and don't consider anything about my atheism to be "embarrassingly stupid". And of course, given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, there's nothing embarrassing about that subject, either.

Finally, I couldn't help but look at the comments to the Blaze article. Man, they're worse than YouTube comments. There were two particularly bad ones I noticed before I just had to quit looking.

Leopold Jun. 28, 2013 at 5:51pm

Perhaps over time the peni$ became long enough to reach into the woman's vag!na to mingle with her eggs.

Only evolution knows how the eggs came to be. All from one original cell.

And when or why did evolution stop? I haven't heard of anything that crawled out of water to become something, lately.

Well, There you have it, evolution: The survival of the fittest.

I am sure one day evolution will explain all this. After all the fact that we exist is proof of that it happened.

Why oh why are we Christians so stubborn and don't think that all this is perfectly reasonable.

I thank my heavenly Father that he gave me common sense to see the ridiculousness of evolution.

It is absolutely stunning that atheists, especially those who claim to be so educated, believe this nonsense. That is at least what they "claim" to believe.

If more people would actually know what they have to believe in order to believe in evolution they will very quickly come to the realization that evolution is absolute nonsense.

And people like Dawkins and all the rest of them actually hate God. That is their true motivation for misleading people.

But ignorance should not be an excuse. Especially ignorance out of laziness in studying what ones own believes are.

That first line about penises and vaginas has to do with a weird creationist belief that males and females must evolve independently (I'm not kidding). Then there's more misunderstanding of evolution, and the insistence that atheists aren't actually atheists, but really just hate God. But the part that made this worth quoting was the last paragraph. After spouting so many ignorant comments on evolution, this commenter had the chutzpah to write that "ignorance should not be an excuse". Why do people feel so confident to comment on something they know so little about?

This comment caught my eye, too.

jblaze Jun. 30, 2013 at 12:51pm

"We both know Genesis is flawed so what do you believe happened? what explains the millions if not billions of new species that have been introduced on earth throughout the past billion years?"

How can you possible know that Genesis is flawed when you do not have that which only God gives to the human mind to understand the things of God? That being the Holy Spirit! God does not give godly knowledge to the unrepentant, unbaptized godless. And further more, what proof can you give that "millions if not billions of new species that have been introduced on earth throughout the past billion years?" Have you lived and record every species creates since the earth was created million and or billions of years ago?

What a way to insulate yourself - only Christians are right, and only Christians have the ability to know that they're right. It doesn't matter what a non-Christian says, because they lack the gift of knowledge from God.

I know that this entry is a bit rambling, but there's just so much wrong associated with Ray Comfort. I'll probably at least take a look at his movie when it comes out. Whether or not I can get through more than five minutes of it is an open question.

Previous Entries Concerning Ray Comfort:

Monday, July 15, 2013

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?Jerry Coyne recently started a thread on his website in the entry, The Eternal Question, asking his readers to weigh in on the question, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?'. Some of his commenters left answers I largely agreed with, and I even added my own two cents in response to one comment, but I thought I'd leave my full thoughts here.

The short answer is that evolution is a gradual process that occurs among entire populations, and species are such a fuzzy concept, that it doesn't even make sense to think of a first chicken or a first chicken egg*.

One of Coyne's commenters suggested that even if the line is arbitrary, you should be able to draw it somewhere. What if you set up your dividing line such that there was a single last mutation responsible to shift a genome from an almost-but-not-quite-chicken to a true chicken? And that mutation finally appears in one organism, so presto, it's a chicken. But if you think about this threshold a bit more, it doesn't make sense. Imagine that your first chicken grows up, finds a mate, and reproduces. Since the chicks get half of their genetic material from each parent, and the division is random, somewhere around half of the 'first chicken's' offspring will get the mutation that defined it as a chicken, and around half will have the old version of that gene. So only half of its offspring would be 'true chickens' - there would be brothers and sisters that were different species! And then all those chicks would grow up and have their offspring, and on and on, and you'd end up with a breeding population composed of a mix of almost-but-not-quite-chickens and true chickens. That's just silly, and doesn't even meet the biological definition of a species.

In reality, species is a very fuzzy concept. The biological species concept is the one most used for sexually reproducing animals. Wikipedia gives a definition for it as follows.

A biological species is a group of individuals which can breed together (panmixia). However, they cannot breed with other groups. In other words, the group is reproductively isolated from other groups.

So, any organism will always necessarily be the same species as its parent. It's only after generations of reproductive isolation that two groups will gradually change to be sufficiently different that they won't be able to interbreed.

There are some interesting modern examples that show how even the biological definition of species can be difficult. One is polar bears and grizzly bears. They can, in fact, interbreed to create fertile offspring. But they don't usually do so naturally. So, it's not that the reproductive isolation has to be complete. It just has to happen little enough that the gene pools don't do too much mixing. How much is too much? Who knows. That's one of the grey areas.

A very interesting case is what's known as a ring species. These are animals that have a range that encircles some type of barrier. A classic example is the Larus gull, which lives in a band around the Arctic Ocean. If you start with the European Herring Gull which lives mainly in Great Britain, it can mate with the American Herring Gull to the west. And they do this often enough that their gene pools mix, which indicates that they're merely subspecies, not completely different species. And if you go west from there, the American Herring Gull can mate with the East Siberian Herring Gull. And you can keep going west, with the groups being able to interbreed, all the way until you get to Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which live mainly in Europe but which also stray into Great Britain. But guess what, the Lesser Black-backed Gulls in Great Britain don't mate with the European Herring Gulls on the same island. So how do these animals get classified as a species? There's one large interbreeding population right now, which would indicate one species. But what if all of the subspecies were to go extinct except for Lesser Black-backed Gulls and European Herring Gulls? Would they instantly become two new species?

Perhaps a more familiar example is dogs. Everybody knows that dogs can interbreed. That's where muts come from. But what if some super-villain were to come along and kill every breed of dog except for Chihuahuas and great Danes? Now, I know that technically you could probably give them a hand to do the deed and make puppies, and they might even be fertile. But, if left to their own devices, they'd be two pretty effectively isolated breeding populations. (I suspect this page is either a joke or an urban legend, but it still reveals the difficulties that would be involved). So, given the current dog population, chihuahuas and great Danes are part of the same species. But there's no way they would be considered the same species if they were the only dogs left in existence.

Given that species is such a fuzzy concept to begin with, it makes no sense to think of a 'first' of any species. There are gradually changing populations, and there's no point where you can pick one organism as being a different species from its parent.

So, the next time you hear someone ask, 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?', you can tell them to go learn some biology before asking such a silly question that doesn't have an answer.

Image Source: Brain Pickings

*I'm assuming that the question implies it's a chicken egg. It doesn't make much sense to ask which came first, the chicken or the dinosaur egg, because then there's no conundrum at all.

Updated 2015-02-26: Slightly reworded 3rd paragraph for better flow.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - 2 Samuel 1 to 2 Samuel 10

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

Bible2 Samuel continues on with the narrative from 1 Samuel. According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), at one point 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were one book (which of course was the result of combining several previous sources), and were only split into two books with the Greek translation for spacing purposes. Recall that 1 Samuel ended with the death of Saul, so 2 Samuel picks up the story with David's rise to power.

2 Samuel, Chapter 1

Saul had just been killed at the end of 1 Samuel, so this chapter focused on David's reaction. He actually learned about Saul's death from an Amalekite warrior. The Amalekite claimed to have found Saul wounded on the battlefield, that Saul asked the Amalekite to kill him to put him out of his misery, and that the Amalekite then obliged. He took Saul's crown and armlet to deliver to David, presumably hoping to get a reward. Instead, David was furious that the Amalekite would have lifted his hand against the Lord's anointed, and had him killed.

There are two different ways to interpret this story. My first thought was that it came from a different tradition where Saul didn't kill himself. But the NOAB suggested another possibility, that the Amalekite was lying about the whole situation, and had merely plundered Saul's dead body. In the first interpretation, David's reaction would seem particularly harsh, since Saul himself had asked the Amalekite for the mercy of death. In the second interpretation, David's reaction wouldn't be too far out of line with the sort of standards I've come to expect from the Bible.

The chapter ended with a long song of lamentation that David sang for Saul.

2 Samuel, Chapter 2

On the Lord's advice, David settled in Hebron. There he was made king over Judah. One of his first acts was to reward the people of Jabesh-gilead who had recovered Saul's body from the wall of Beth-shan.

Abner, the commander of Saul's army, set up Saul's son, Ishbaal, as king over Israel. This set up the beginning of a conflict that would be the subject of the next few chapters, over who would become the ruler over all of Egypt. There was a rather odd passage about a conflict between Ishbaal's men and David's men.

14 Abner said to Joab, 'Let the young men come forward and have a contest before us.' Joab said, 'Let them come forward.' 15 So they came forward and were counted as they passed by, twelve for Benjamin and Ishbaal son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. 16 Each grasped his opponent by the head, and thrust his sword in his opponent's side; so they fell down together.

The rest of the chapter was fighting between David's supporters and Ishbaal's supporters. One point that will be important later on was when Asahel chased Abner. Abner tried to get Asahel to stop chasing him, but Asahel wouldn't stop. "So Abner struck him in the stomach with the butt of his spear, so that the spear came out at his back. He fell there, and died where he lay."

2 Samuel, Chapter 3

The fighting between the two sides continued. Abner, even though technically a servant of Ishbaal, was building up his own power. The tension came to a head when Ishbaal accused him of sleeping with one of his concubines. After that, Abner sent word to David that he was willing to work with him, and David agreed so long as Abner brought him his wife, Michal (who had been remarried in the mean time). The NOAB points out that this may not have been for a deep affection between David and Michal, but for political purposes, maintaining his marriage with the daughter of the king to give himself a legitimate claim to rule. After that, Abner began convincing the rest of Israel to side with David.

When Abner came to visit David in person, David threw a feast for him, but given their history, some of David's servants were suspicious of Abner's true motivation. In particular, Asahel's brother Joab was out for revenge. Joab sent messengers to bring Abner to him, and then "took him aside in the gateway to speak with him privately, and there he stabbed him in the stomach." David was aghast at this assassination, cursed Joab and all his descendents ("May the guilt fall on the head of Joab, and on all his father's house; and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge, or who is leprous, or who holds a spindle, or who falls by the sword, or who lacks food!"), and gave Abner a full burial and mourned for him. This collective guilt aspect of the Bible is one of the stranger aspects for a modern reader - cursing a man's whole line of descent for his actions.

The NOAB noted that this may have been another case of protesting too much, where perhaps the writers were trying to separate David from the death of Abner because others believed he had something to do with it.

2 Samuel, Chapter 4

Ishbaal's power was crumbling. Two of his captains decided that he was a lost cause, snuck into his house, and killed him. They then beheaded him and took the head to David, hoping to get a reward for killing his enemy. But David retold the story of the Amalekite that had claimed to kill Saul, and told the two captains that their actions were even worse because it was in the man's own house. So he had them killed, their hands and feet cut off, and their bodies hung up for display.

2 Samuel, Chapter 5

Now that he had no rival, David was the undisputed ruler of Israel, and consolidated his power with all the different tribes. His first campaign that's described (briefly) in the book was the conquering of Jerusalem. After that, King Hiram of Tyre sent David gifts, and had his carpenters and masons build a house for David. Then David took more concubines and wives. The chapter ended with a couple battles with the Philistines, where David first inquired of the Lord what to do, and followed Gods' instructions to ensure victory. It was notable that David and his men captured the Philistine's idols. I wonder if this is a relic from before Judaism was completely monotheistic, and if the writers thought that enemy idols still contained some type of power.

There was one strange aspect of the story of David taking Jerusalem. The king had said to him, "You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back." On the day he conquered the city, David had said, "Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates." And then the very next sentence read, "Therefore it is said, 'The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.' " It just seemed like odd details to include in the story.

2 Samuel, Chapter 6

David went to go get the ark of God. There was a big procession with dancers, lyre & harp players, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals. But when they hit a bump in the road, a man named Uzzah reached out his hand to stop the ark from falling. God showed Uzzah his appreciation for saving the ark, "The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God." This angered and scared David, so he left the ark at the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.

After three months when it was apparent that Obed-edom was being blessed by God for housing the ark, David went to get the ark for himself to take back to Jerusalem. There was another big procession, along with animal sacrifices.

Michal saw David dancing in the streets and was disgusted with him. Apparently, his clothing was rather scant, "How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants' maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!" David responded that he was dancing before the Lord, so there was nothing wrong with what he did. In a slightly ambiguous statement, it was revealed that Michal had no children till the day of her death. It's unclear if this was a punishment from God, or because David never slept with her again.

2 Samuel, Chapter 7

Once David was settled into his house, he saw that "the ark of God stays in a tent." So, he was going to build a permanent house for God, as well. But God visited the prophet, Nathan, and gave him a message for David. David, himself, was not to build the house for God. God would establish a house of David, and one of David's descendants would be the one to build God's house. He also made a promise to David, " I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you." David spent the second half of the chapter praising and thanking God.

2 Samuel, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 was all about David's military conquests - the Philistines, Metheg-ammah, the Moabites, King Hadadezer, the Arameans of Damascus, Betah and Berothai, the Edomites, etc. David also received tributes from King Toi of Hamath. The end of the chapter listed some of David's officers and officials, and mentioned that his sons were priests.

2 Samuel, Chapter 9

David decided to look for any remaining heirs of Saul "to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan's sake". There was one, mentioned briefly in Chapter 4, Mephibosheth. He had been dropped as a toddler when, after his father had been killed, his nurse tried to flee with him into hiding. Now, in Chapter 9, David restored to Mephibosheth the lands that had belonged to Saul, and had Mephibosheth eat at the king's table always. David summoned Saul's old servant, Ziba, and made Ziba and his family a servant to Mephibosheth, to work the fields and provide for Mephibosheth.

2 Samuel, Chapter 10

After a time, the Ammonite king, Nahash, died, and his son, Hanun, succeeded him. Based on the good way Nahash had dealed with him, David sent emissaries to Hanun to deliver his condolences. Hanun's advisors convinced Hanun that David had actually sent the emissaries as spies, "So Hanun seized David's envoys, shaved off half the beard of each, cut off their garments in the middle at their hips, and sent them away." This was apparently a grave insult to the Israelites. The Ammonites, fearing Israelite retaliation, assembled an army. David, seeing the newly formed army, sent an army of his own to confront them, led by Joab. With the Lord on their side, Joab and his forces were victorious, but the Arameans regrouped at Helam. Now, David himself led an army of even more Israelites, defeated the Arameans, and killed the commander of the their army, Shobach.


2 Samuel continues on in the same way as 1 Samuel. The hints of multiple prior sources are there, but it's still a more coherent book than some of the previous books of the Bible. And the narrative structure and stories are more entertaining than some of the previous books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for June 2013

Top 10 ListJune's done, so it's time again to look at the server logs. There were no surprises this week. Everything on the list had made it before, and the order of the rankings wasn't really a big mix-up, either. I still have to admit that I'm glad to see the entry Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution making the list. That's one of my favorite blog posts.

As far as overall traffic, everthing's pretty similar to last month. Up a bit on some measures, down a bit on others, but not by a huge amount in any of them except for one - bandwidth. Bandwidth was up more than 20% from last month, which had already been my most bandwidth ever. I may need to take a look into that or upgrade my hosting account, as I'm getting pretty close to my monthly bandwidth allowance.

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

Top 10 for June 2013

  1. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  2. Autogyro History & Theory
  3. Blog - Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards
  4. Blog - Obamacare Lives (A Discussion of the Individual Mandate)
  5. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  6. Blog - Creation Museum/2nd Law of Thermodynamics
  7. Blog - Book Review - The Tangled Bank
  8. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  9. Blog - Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  10. Blog - Running AutoCAD R14 in XP Pro 64

And Now Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Blogging

IntermissionIt seems I've been apologizing a lot recently for not keeping up with the blog, and this particular apology is nearly identical to one I made before, but it's time to do it again. I just got back from a week's worth of vacation. And as much as I like writing for this blog, it just can't compete with strolling the sand dunes in Assateague looking for wild ponies, or spending time catching up with family I haven't seen in years. And since I was busy wrapping up projects here at work right before I left, I fell behind (again) on the Friday Bible Blogging.

Anyway, I'm back now, with no big projects on the horizon, and no big trips planned, so expect blogging to be back to normal. Really.

P.S. I'll post pictures of my trip as soon as I can. It was a combination family reunion/normal vacation. We spent a few days with my parents, then drove around Virginia, stopping by a friend's house before going on to Virginia Beach and then up to Assateague. Then it was on up through Delaware toward my aunt and uncle's house in Pennsylvania for a family reunion on my mom's side (they do it every year, but with me being down in Texas, I don't make it up very often). Then it was one more night with my parents before getting on the plane and back to Texas.

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