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Monday, December 30, 2013

@%^$#!$ Steelers, Part II

SteelersA little while back, I wrote a post called @%^$#!$ Steelers, where I complained about the team's less than stellar performance to start off the season, and resigned myself to expecting them to lose every game from then on out. Well, they couldn't just stay horrible. They had to become just good enough to get my hopes up and then dash them.

Two weeks ago, the Steelers playoff chances looked pretty long indeed. It had to be right phase of the moon with all the planets aligned - they had to win out, and multiple teams had to lose each of the last two weeks. Well, it looked like the planets were all coming together, with it all coming down to one game between the Chargers and the Chiefs. If the Chiefs won, the Steelers were going to the playoffs. But alas, it wasn't to be. I suspect it was Pluto that spoiled it all, upset about its recent demotion to 'dwarf' planet. With only a few seconds left in the game, the Chief's kicker missed a 41 yard field goal that would have put them ahead and almost surely won the game. After that, the game went to overtime, and the Chargers came out ahead. To see just how close the field goal attempt was, plus Succop's reaction, take a look at the article, The Pittsburgh Steelers missed the playoffs by *this* much.

Now, if I was bitter, I might complain about the Chargers playing their last game against a bunch of second stringers, instead of the starters like every other team in the NFL, or about the missed penalty on the last play of the game that would have given the Chiefs a second chance at winning the game, or the bizarre non-call on the fumble in overtime that would have given the Chiefs the winning touchdown, or even the spot on that play (okay, maybe I'm a little bitter). But the truth is, if your playoff chances are in the hands of fate in the final week, then you didn't do a good enough job throughout the season. The Steelers had a dismal 0-4 start to the season, and a lot of close games that they should have won if they were a championship caliber team.

On the plus side, going from 0-4 to 8-8 is a decent turnaround. At least they didn't have a losing record. And they finished out the season pretty well - a lot better than their meltdown last year. Maybe next season will be a good one, and they can climb the 'Stairway to Seven'.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Job 21 to Job 30

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). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleI apologize for being late yet again. I've been rather busy at work and cutting my lunches short, and then had a lot going on this past weekend with getting ready for the holidays and doing chores around the house. And then a few blogging opportunities popped up that drew my attention more than this series. I suspect that with Christmas being next week, I won't get up another Bible post until January 3rd or maybe even the 10th. So, I apologize in advance. Anyway...

Chapters 21 through 30 of Job continue on in much the same way as the preceding 20 chapters. Like I wrote last week, the poetry is pretty good, but it's getting pretty repetitive at this point. Job complains, his friends offer replies about why God would punish people, and Job responds that he hasn't done anything wrong.

These chapters cover most of the third cycle of speeches. The structure of this cycle is just a bit different than the first two, in that Zophar is left out of this cycle entirely, and Bildar's speech is quite a bit shorter than his previous two.

Job, Chapter 21

Chapter 21 started the third cycle with a speech from Job, again complaining about the arbitrariness of suffering, how the wicked often escape punishment, and how little recourse there is for mortals. A couple verses caught my eye. Job echoed the common sentiment that God would punish children for the sins of their parents (a theme throughout the earlier books of the Bible), but wondered why God wouldn't just punish the people committing the sins.

You say, "God stores up their iniquity for their children."
   Let it be paid back to them, so that they may know it.
Let their own eyes see their destruction,
   and let them drink of the wrath of the Almighty.

Job, Chapter 22

Eliphaz was a bit more explicit here than in the first two cycles. Previously he allowed for Job's innocence, but spoke in general of God's punishments against the wicked. Here, he's actually accusing Job of sinning, by failing to act when he should have. Other than that, it's more of the same, with a promise at the end that God will set everything straight if you just "return to the Almighty, you will be restored".

Job, Chapter 23

Job responded in his typical manner, still maintaining his innocence.

Job, Chapter 24

More of Job's response.

Job, Chapter 25

This was Bildad's third speech. It was very short - just 6 verses long. It ended on a pretty negative view of humanity:

If even the moon is not bright
   and the stars are not pure in his sight,
how much less a mortal, who is a maggot,
   and a human being, who is a worm!'

However, this might not have originally been the full extent of the speech.

Job, Chapter 26

According to the text, this was Job's response to Bildad. However, according to the NOAB, this is most likely the remainder of Bildad's speech. This would seem to flow better. The first part of the chapter is the speaker asking his audience if he'd helped those in need, which would fit Bildad interrogating Job to see if Job was as innocent as he claimed. The remainder of the chapter was mostly pointing out how powerful God is.

I've seen people use these verses to support differing views of Israelite cosmology - from anticipating geocentricism ("He stretches out Zaphon over the void, / and hangs the earth upon nothing"), to a flat earth ("The pillars of heaven tremble"). Personally, I think that no matter what the view was in that culture (probably a flat earth), what's written here could be chalked up to poetic license, and shouldn't be taken as a literal statement of the writer's cosmological beliefs.

Job, Chapter 27

Job began another speach by bemoaning his fate, but moved on to what seems like a different message from his previous speeches and responses. Instead of the utter hopelessness of some of his previous statements, pointing out that God allows the wicked to escape punishment, in this chapter he seems to be saying that God will punish the wicked. Consider the following verses (which like several passages I pointed out last week equate godlessness with wickedness).

'May my enemy be like the wicked,
   and may my opponent be like the unrighteous.
For what is the hope of the godless when God cuts them off,
   when God takes away their lives?

After reading the footnotes of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB), it seems that this change in message may be due to portions of the book of Job getting a bit mixed up. Given the structure of the previous cycles and the message given here, it seems more likely that most of this chapter should be ascribed to a speaker besides Job, perhaps Zophar who is otherwise left out of the third cycle.

Job, Chapter 28

Taking the text of the Bible at face value, this is supposedly a continuation of Job's speech from Chapter 27. But again, it's out of character for what Job has said throughout the rest of the book. It's largely praising God, and pointing out the limitations of human knowledge. The NOAB notes two likely alternatives - that it's the conclusion of Elihu's speech (who I'll get to next week), or an independent poem that wasn't originally associated with any of the characters from the story.

In fact, the beginning of the chapter is very different from anything so far in Job.

Job, Chapter 29

Chapter 29 begins another speech of Job, and this one appears to be correctly ascribed to him. This chapter was devoted to looking back on Job's life before tragedy struck - how good he had it, and how revered he was in the community.

Job, Chapter 30

Chapter 30 moves on to looking at Job's condition now, how he is mocked by society, and how he has seemingly been abandoned by God.


Like I've written several times now, Job has some pretty good poetry, but it's very repetitious. Chapters 21 through 30 of Job were very similar in theme and message to the previous chapters. However, there were a few breaks in continuity pointing to some sort of scribal error some time in the history of the book.

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.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough

ScroogeI've written about the Salvation Army before, in the appropriately named entry, The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?. Now, I have reservations about that organization, and I've personally decided to donate to other, more deserving groups, but as I wrote in that entry, "I do think the Salvation Army does much more good than harm. So, if the only way you would donate would be to drop your change into one of their kettles, then don't hold back! Most of your money will go to helping people, and it's better than doing nothing at all." I certainly wouldn't advocate hostility towards the group, but here's an example of a Christian who was none too happy with one of the bell ringers, Salvation Army bell ringer says 'Happy Holidays' led to assault. Yes, you read the headline correctly. The bell ringer was wishing people 'happy holidays', and was assaulted because of it. Here's how she put it.

"The lady looked at me," said Vindiola. "I thought she was going to put money in the kettle. She came up to me and said, 'Do you believe in God?' And she says, 'You're supposed to say Merry Christmas,' and that's when she hit me."

How petty and small minded can you get? Here's a person volunteering their own time to collect money for a Christian organization helping the poor, and another person is angered to the point of violence over their choice of wording in well wishing? It's absurd. And it's not even like saying 'happy holidays' is always (or even usually) a deliberate downplay of Christmas. I remember when it used to be the standard greeting on Christmas cards in lieu of wishing 'Merry Christmas and a happy New Year' simply because it was shorter. Or do these people hate New Year's so much that only Christmas should be mentioned in holiday greetings?

Granted, some people do say 'happy holidays' deliberately to avoid only Christmas wishes, because there are other holidays that people celebrate around this time of year. But that's meant to be more inclusive to those other people, not as some sort of hostility towards Christians. What type of person does it take to get upset at somebody extending good will towards a larger group of people?

It's kind of ugly, but here's a good chart I came across showing the proper response to different holiday greetings depending on the particular affiliation of the people involved.

Holiday wishes flow chart

If you can't read it, the appropriate response in every case is:

"Thank you! You too!"

...because honestly, if you can't see past the words of the wish to its good intent, then it's not the holiday well-wisher who's broken, it's you.

So, happy holidays to everyone out there who's celebrating some sort of holiday right around now. And if you're not celebrating anything, then just have a nice day.

Image Source: Imgur

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Happy Wright Brothers Day, 2013

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

110 years ago today, the Wright brothers became the first humans to fulfill the dream of flight. I've written about this before, and rather than repeat myself, I'll just link to those previous entries.

So happy Wright Brothers Day. And find a little wonder in the fact that you can go out and do something that our ancestors could only dream about for thousands and thousands of years.

Yes, this is copied nearly verbatim from my most recent Wright Brothers Day entry. For a short summary linking to other articles, I didn't see the need to rewrite it.

God vs. Supervillains

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI've written along these lines before, but here's a slightly different version that's been rattling around in my head.

Imagine a supervillain bent on taking over the world, building a secret society of supporters to help him achieve his ends. He's very charismatic and likeable in person, and very generous in rewarding his supporters. But he's absolutely brutal with his enemies. Once he gets his hands on them, he'll torture them mercilessly, putting them through unimaginable pain, using methods that keep them alive and prolong the pain as long as possible. He's trying to build up his base of supporters as large as he can, so one of the tasks of existing supporters is to find new people to join their secret society. And of course, they focus on the rewards part, but once the potential converts learn of the society, there's also the threat of torture. In a sense, it's kind of like the mob - as long as you're not involved at all, you can steer clear of the whole thing. But once you get caught up in it personally, you have to either go along with them, or face some type of punishment. But unlike the mob, this is a megalomaniacal supervillain, so if he gets his way, eventually there will be no possibility of avoiding his influence. Once he gets enough supporters, he'll be ruler of the whole world, and then he'll be able to put all his resources to bear on finding and torturing his enemies.

Now in real life, this would be a difficult situation to deal with. On the one hand, you'd like to imagine yourself being a hero, and standing up against the villain. But on the other hand, as long as he's not punishing you, you may just keep your head down and do the minimum he asks of you. Just look at the drug cartels in Mexico right now. If a cartel demanded use of your house for a drug smuggling operation, would you stand up to them and face being tortured and killed, or would you just go along, knowing you were cooperating with an evil force, but saving your own hide, and probably your family's as well. And when you throw in the bribes and rewards, it gets even more tempting.

Now, instead of a supervillain bent on taking over the world, imagine a god already in control of the universe, who merely keeps his presence a bit of a secret on this world in an effort to find his most faithful supporters. Otherwise, the situation's mostly the same. Suck up to him and do as he wishes and you'll be rewarded. Oppose him and you'll be punished. Only unlike the mortal supervillain, this god has the ability to make the punishment last for eternity.

Now, I know that most Christians believe God is good, and the source of love and morality and all that. But look at the methods. They're not the methods of heroes, but rather of supervillains. Eternal torture as the punishment for any finite action, and particularly for not giving blind obedience, is evil. I'm just glad that God isn't real, or I'd be faced with the decision of going along with it all to save my own hide, or opposing it but damning myself to eternal torment. Imagining the God of the Bible to be real is a pretty bleak scenario.

I know, I know. Not all Christians believe God is like this. Even if the vast majority of Christians believe accepting Christ is one of the requirements of avoiding Hell, more liberal Christians believe that God will reward good people and only punish bad people, and the more liberal yet don't believe in eternal punishment, or don't even believe in a literal Hell. If God were like those more liberal Christians imagined, then it wouldn't be such a bleak scenario. But that's not the God of the Bible, nor the God believed in by the majority of Americans. I'm still in the Old Testament in my task of re-reading the entire Bible, but the God presented there is not particularly lenient. He demands obedience, and punishes people harshly if they fail to give it to him.

Edited 2015-04-22 to fix some typos in the post script.

Monday, December 9, 2013

War on Christmas 2013

Santa in the CrosshairsChristmas is only two weeks away, so it's time to ramp up my efforts in the War on Christmas. To tell the truth, the whole idea of the war is a bit silly, considering all the ways Christmas has been dealt with in this country's past, from the Puritans outlawing it, to some cities treating it "like a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras" (see first link below). I've written a few blog entries on Christmas over the years, so I'll just provide links to those below. The first three are especially good for actually being informative.

My previous War on Christmas posts:

But I really do like Christmas. We've already put up the tree, decorated the front yard, and gotten most of the decorations up in the house, and we'll visit with family, excange presents, and celebrate on Christmas Day. We do pretty much all the normal traditions other than go to church. So, ignoring the 'war', here are a couple more Christmas posts.

My positive Christmas posts:

And as has become my annual tradition for this site, here is Tim Minchin singing his secular Christmas carol, White Wine In the Sun. And just in case you missed the link above, if you buy the song from iTunes this month, the proceeds will go to the National Autistic Society.

Related Links to Other Sites (the first is serious, the rest are humorous):

Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, Again

Cover Art - White Wine in the SunI have a tradition of posting Tim Minchin's song, White Wine in the Sun, every year around Christmas (I'll be posting it shortly this year). As described on Minchin's site, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

Tim Minchin has his own tradition - donating all the proceeds from the sale of the song in the months of December and January to the National Autistic Society, a tradition that he's keeping this year. So if you don't already own it, go buy the song and help support a good cause.

More Info:

Friday, December 6, 2013

Friday Bible Blogging - Job 11 to Job 20

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). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleChapters 11 through 20 of Job continue on in much the same vein as chapters 3 through 10. Job continues to lament his position, while his friends continue to offer different perspectives.

Job, Chapter 11

This is the first chance for Zophar to respond to Job. He's the least sympathetic of Job's friends, implying that Job really must be guilty of something that none of them know about, "Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves." Other than that, Zophar's message is similar to previous ones - be faithful to God, and he will set things right.

Job, Chapter 12

Chapter 12 begins what is commonly known as the second cycle of speeches. There are three cycles in the book. The cycles all begin with a speech from Job, and then alternate between speeches from his friends and Job's responses to them.

Job gets a little more explicit in his criticism of God in this speech. It's almost a lament that we are all at the mercy of God, no matter what he decides to do, good or bad. Consider verse 14:

If he tears down, no one can rebuild;
   if he shuts someone in, no one can open up.

or verses 24 and 25:

He strips understanding from the leaders of the earth,
   and makes them wander in a pathless waste.
They grope in the dark without light;
   he makes them stagger like a drunkard.

Job also points out that the wicked aren't always punished for their crimes, a theme he'll return to in later chapters.

The tents of robbers are at peace,
   and those who provoke God are secure,
   who bring their god in their hands.

Job, Chapter 13

Job continues his speech in much the same way. One interesting thing mentioned in the translation notes of the NRSV and the footnotes of the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) is that the traditional translation of verse 15 is not the best one. For example, the King James Version (KJV) translates it as "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him...", the New International Version (NIV) has "Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him...", and the New Living Translation (NLT) has "God might kill me, but I have no other hope." The NRSV has a much bleaker translation, "See, he will kill me; I have no hope." This is one of those times when I wish I knew enough to not be at the mercy of the translation of others.

Job, Chapter 14

Chapter 14 is yet more of the same from Job - not bad reading, but not much else for me to write in reviewing it.

Job, Chapter 15

This is Eliphaz's second speech. He chastizes Job for all that he has said against God, pointing out that Job wasn't the first person to ever suffer. He also repeated the theme that God is just. There was one passage that caught my eye, being an atheist. It wasn't the first time 'the godless' were mentioned in this book, but it was a pretty explicit insult against them.

For the company of the godless is barren,
   and fire consumes the tents of bribery.
They conceive mischief and bring forth evil
   and their heart prepares deceit.

Job, Chapter 16

Job responded to Eliphaz, in much the way he's responded throughout this book. I did particularly like verse 3:

Have windy words no limit?
   Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?

There was also a verse where Job was calling on the earth itself to give some justice to Yahweh.

O earth, do not cover my blood;
   let my outcry find no resting-place.

Job, Chapter 17

More of the same from Job, so not much more for me to say, other than pointing out another set of verses that I liked.

If I look for Sheol as my house,
   if I spread my couch in darkness,
if I say to the Pit, "You are my father",
   and to the worm, "My mother", or "My sister",
where then is my hope?
   Who will see my hope?

I'll also note that there was a bit more denigration of 'the godless' in this chapter, though not as explicit as in other places:

The upright are appalled at this,
   and the innocent stir themselves up against the godless.

Job, Chapter 18

Chapter 18 was Bildad's second speech. There was one part of this that caught my attention, thanks to the footnotes in the NOAB. Verses 13 and 14 state:

By disease their skin is consumed,
   the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.
They are torn from the tent in which they trusted,
   and are brought to the king of terrors.

The 'king of terrors', or Death, was apparently the king of the underworld. And like any king, his kingdom would pass on to his 'firstborn'. And, to quote the NOAB, "the terrors are his agents who drag people from life down into his kingdom." This really does seem to be, if not outright polytheism, at least very, very different from the Christian conception of Hell being ruled by an immortal devil Satan (and not 'the Accuser' Satan from the opening chapter of this book).

Job, Chapter 19

This is yet more of the same from Job, but there are a few verses worth pointing out. Verse 20 is the source of a very common saying:

My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh,
   and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.

The NOAB has a rather graphic description of what this verse is supposed to mean, "Escaped by the skin of my teeth, or rather, with the skin of my teeth, means that Job feels he has been flayed alive, his skin being stripped from every part of his body except his teeth, which of course have no skin."

The NOAB also notes that in Verse 25, " For I know that my Redeemer lives, / and that at the last he will stand upon the earth...", that 'Redeemer' should not be capitalized, since God is not going to be Job's champion, as God is the very one causing all of Job's problems.

Job, Chapter 20

This is Zophar's second speech to Job. It's largely of the same theme as all the other speeches from Job's friends, but this time it wasn't just the wicked, but also the godless who were badmouthed. It began with a verse that equated 'godless' with 'wicked':

Do you not know this from of old,
   ever since mortals were placed on earth,
that the exulting of the wicked is short,
   and the joy of the godless is but for a moment?

And then there was an extended section criticizing the godless, and detailing the fates they can expect, with such lovely sentiments as "they will perish for ever like their own dung", "Their children will seek the favour of the poor" (because as elsewhere in the Bible, children deserve to suffer for the actions of their parents), "They swallow down riches and vomit them up again", etc. This goes on for over 20 verses.


Like I wrote last week, the book of Job is actually one of the better books of the Bible I've read so far. To quote that entry, "The poetry is actually pretty good, and there are some moving passages." However, as I feared, it is becoming repetitious. To give an idea of how bad this can be, here's a quick anecdote. I usually do most of my initial reading on my phone, and then follow up later in the NOAB with the footnotes and translation notes. Usually, whenever I start the browser on the phone, it goes right to where I left off, acting as a good bookmark. But sometimes the phone browser will reset and go back a few chapters. This happened last week, and it took me two or three chapters before I was positive that I was re-reading passages I'd already read. That's how similar Job is from chapter to chapter.

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.

Books, A Year in Review - 2013, Part II

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia Commons It's taken me a little longer than I'd hoped to get this done, but here is the second part of my review of the books I read in the last year, just in time to click a link to pick up a Christmas present for the booklover in your life. (More precisely - these are books I read from October 2012 through October 2013). Part I was an analysis of my reading habits, while this entry will give a brief review for each book.

I've made it a tradition to use this space to list my favorite books from the year. And like many years, it's tough to pick my favorites again this year. As far as fiction, I really liked both The Kronos Chronicles and The Uglies Series. If you're interested in the Bible, I can't recommend the New Oxford Annotated Bible highly enough. The Around Pottstown (Postcard History Series) and Wichita Falls (Images of America) books were both very interesting. I actually have a couple more books from that series on my nightstand that I'm looking forward to reading. I also really liked Feynman and Primates, but I guess I'd rank them just a little behind the rest of my favorites. As far as regular non-fiction, I really liked Night, The Darwin Experience, and Pterosaurs.

But I can't just list every book I read as a favorite, so if I have to narrow down that list, I think I can limit it to The Uglies Series, Around Pottstown, Wichita Falls, and Pterosaurs.

Here's a list of all the books reviewed below. Click on any title to jump to that review.

Children's & Young Adult Fiction

Adult Fiction


Light Non-Fiction


Wild Jack
by John Christopher

This book was set in an advanced future, where most people lived luxuriously in cities. The cities were pretty well isolated from the wilderness, mainly to reduce the environmental impact that had been such a problem in previous generations. However, the utopia isn't quite so utopic as it first appears, as our young hero learns, while also discovering a rag tag band of 'rebels' living off the land outside of the cities.

I read this book shortly after The Hunger Games, and it struck me as similar, but from the point of view of one of the rich, privileged citizens, rather than one of the down trodden masses. It's a decent story that won't take too long to read, so if you like dystopia stories, and you happen to come across this book, it's worth picking up.

On a personal note, this was a book that I've been meaning to read for decades now. I bought it at a library book sale back when I was in elementary school, but now I finally get to check it off the list. I still have a few more of those types of books to go.


by Neil Gaiman

My family loves the movie, Stardust. As the tagline on IMDB describes it, "In a countryside town bordering on a magical land, a young man makes a promise to his beloved that he'll retrieve a fallen star by venturing into the magical realm." The first time I saw it, I didn't know beforehand that it was based on a book, but it just had that feel that it was. So when I learned that it was based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same name, I was excited to read it. All the parts of the movie that seemed a bit rushed would be expanded. Characters I liked would be fleshed out even further. However, I was very surprised reading the book, in that it was very different than the movie. Yes, there were some obvious similarities - Tristran (with a slightly different spelling than the movie), Yvaine, Victoria, Lord Septimus, Lady Una, The Witch-Queen, Ditchwater Sal - they were all in the book. But the pace of the story was much different, there were different plot lines, different endings, and just a generally different feeling. Perhaps most disappointing to fans of the movie is that the big plot line with Captain Shakespeare (Robert Deniro) was missing from the book.

Anyway, the book should be judged on its own merits, and in that regard, it's very good. I don't think I've been disappointed yet by a Neil Gaiman book.


The Hobbit
by J. R. R. Tolkien

As nearly every knows, The Hobbit was J.R.R. Tolkien's first book based in the Lord of the Rings world of Middle Earth. Tolkien wrote it, and the story itself takes place, before the events in Tolkien's masterpiece Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, Tolkien didn't have the whole story arc in mind when he wrote The Hobbit, though he had been toying with Elven languages and the concept of Middle Earth. But that means, unlike something like the Harry Potter series, where J.K. Rowling had planned it all out in advance, the continuity between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings seems a bit forced. Tolkien even went back and changed some parts of the originally published book to better match his sequel. The Hobbit was written for a different audience, as well. While The Lord of the Rings is more of an adult book that can still be read by young adults, The Hobbit is more of a children's book that can still be read by adults.

Perhaps it's not fair to compare The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings or to a fully formed series like Harry Potter. It was, after all, originally published on its own as a standalone book. And in that sense, it is very good. I still remember the first time I read The Hobbit. I was home from school on a snow day, and we had it laying around the house, so I picked it up to start on it. And I couldn't put it down. I read the whole thing in one sitting that day. It follows the adventures of the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, as he joins with a group of dwarves and a wizard on a trek to recover the dwarves' family treasure that had been stolen by the dragon, Smaug. It's been cited by many people as the book that started the modern fantasy genre, and it's the sixth best selling book of all time (excluding religious texts). It's definitely worth reading if you've never read it.


The Kronos Chronicles
by Marie Rutkoski

This series was recommended to me by my daughter, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is definitely a children's book, and there are scenes that seem a bit cartoonish because of it, but that just goes with the territory. It's interesting in that it mixes real historical details into a fantasy world the author has created. The story begins in late 16th-century Bohemia. After a brief prologue with a man who could communicate telepathically with horses, we were introduced to the protagonist, a girl named Petra Kronos, and her pet/companion mechanical spider, Astrophil. After a few pages of background, Petra's father is returned from Prague, where he had gone to build an extravagant clock for the prince, Rodolfo. But the cruel prince, rather than pay Petra's father at the completion of the project, instead removed Mikal Kronos's eyes (magically so that the prince could use them himself) and sent Mikal back to his hometown tied up in the back of a wagon. From there, Petra's adventure begins, traveling to distant lands, meeting exotic foreigners, training to develop her untapped magical abilities, and of course working her way out of tight scrapes.

I know it's cheating a bit to just point to other people's reviews of books, but I found a really good one for this book on Amazon, La Vie Boheme. It reveals a few more plot spoilers than I would do, but it's very informative.

Like I wrote in the introduction to this entry, this series wasn't my favorite one I read this year, but it was close to it. I'd definitely recommend it.


The Uglies Series
by Scott Westerfeld

If you haven't already done so, read the first paragraph to the review of Wild Jack.

This book was set in an advanced future, where most people lived luxuriously in cities. The cities were pretty well isolated from the wilderness, mainly to reduce the environmental impact that had been such a problem in previous generations. However, the utopia isn't quite so utopic as it first appears, as our young hero learns, while also discovering a rag tag band of 'rebels' living off the land outside of the cities... That's actually about where the similarity ends. The Uglies is a bit more sophisticated than Wild Jack. It's a series, so there's more time to tell a more involved story and explore more themes.

In the future world of the Uglies, society is organized a bit differently than it is now. Children, or 'littlies', live with their parents when they're first born and until they turn 12. At that age and the start of the next school year, they move into dormitories to be raised by the state. Now known as 'uglies', they live there and finish out their primary education until they turn 16. Right after their birthday, they undergo extensive surgery which is partly cosmetic and partly 'upgrading'. This ensures that everyone is healthy and beautiful, ostensibly to eliminate discrimination based on appearance and other differences. After they're turned into 'Pretties', they go through a several year hedonistic stage, full of partying and drinking and fun, until the next surgery that turns them into 'middle pretties', when they become responsible adults, find jobs, and get married. The final stage of this progression comes when they retire, and are then known as 'crumblies'.

The original trilogy follows the adventures of Tally Youngblood, a 15 year old ugly who begins the story eagerly awaiting her 16th birthday, having watched most of her friends who were slightly older get the Operation and move to New Pretty Town ahead of her. But in those last lonely weeks before the big day, Tally befriended a girl in a similar situation, Shay, who made her begin to question everything she thought she'd known about her world.

The fourth book, Extras is a kind of sequel to the trilogy, following Aya Fuse in the aftermath of all that happened in the first three books, but I can't really say what without spoiling the story.

This was a very good series, and I'm glad my daughter recommended it to me. I hear there are even plans to turn it into a movie, so you better hurry up and read it so that you can say you knew about it before it went all Hollywood.


Tribulation Force
by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins

I've already posted a full review of this book. I'll just quote two of the paragraphs from that review here (the second of which was nearly quoting what I wrote for Left Behind).

"Let me start off this review by saying that I was entertained by this book, enough that I'll probably continue reading the series (though not straight through without breaks for other books). And let me also preface this review by admitting that when I first saw the Left Behind movie while I was still a Christian, it seemed reasonably plausible, if not particularly likely to occur any time soon. It wasn't until I abandoned Christianity, read the actual book, and discovered Slacktivist's Left Behind reviews that I realized just how implausible the story is (thanks for making me feel so gullible, Slacktivist)...

"Since my impressions of Tribulation Force are so similar to those I had for Left Behind, I'll end this review by adapting what I'd already written in my brief review of Left Behind. Tribulation Force wasn't great, but it wasn't horrible, either. The series so far isn't, as Slacktivist said, "The Worst Books 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 heroes, and lack of detail, and then suspend your disbelief about the implausible scenarios, you can enjoy the books. Like I wrote above, I liked Tribulation Force well enough that I'll probably try to finish out the series."


New Oxford Annotated Bible
by Michael D. Coogan, Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom and Pheme Perkins

I can't recommend the New Oxford Annotated Bible highly enough. I'm currently in the process of reading the entire Bible cover to cover for my Friday Bible Blogging series, and this is the print version of the Bible I'm using for that project. It includes thorough and informative introductions to each of the traditional collections, and then each of the books in those collections, and then extremely informative footnotes throughout the text. And at the end of the book, there is an entire series of appendices with yet more information. Keeping up with the notes in the NOAB while reading the text of the Bible adds a whole additional level of understanding and comprehension. Additionally, it uses the New Revised Standard Version translation, which as I discussed in Friday Bible Blogging - Introduction and Picking a Translation, is just about the best translation currently available.


Around Pottstown (Postcard History Series)
by Patricia Wanger Smith

If you haven't seen any of the books from Arcadia Publishing, you really have to make the effort to find some. They're not terribly in depth and don't take too long to read, but they're incredibly fascinating. This one is from the Postcard History Series, which, as the title suggests, is a collection of postcards all from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. A few of the oldest postcards are engravings - not photographs, and many of them pre-date automobiles. Each postcard is accompanied by a short caption explaining the image. Taken together, the postcards and captions cover the history of the Pottstown region from the late 1700s on up to nearly the present day. Having grown up in that area, it's interesting to see some of the early history of the region, as well as a bit of a trip down memory lane (hey, I recognize that church, and that's the house my parents lived in for a while, etc.). Arcadia makes similar books for cities, towns, and regions all throughout the country, so you'll likely be able to find one for the locale you're interested in.


Wichita Falls (Images of America)
by Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr.

This is another book from Arcadia Publishing, this one from the Images of America series. This book is very similar in format to Around Pottstown, except focusing on Wichita Falls, Texas, and being composed mainly of photographs rather than solely postcards. It covers a span of history from the late 1800s on to the present. Being a Texas city, some of those pictures cover the latter days of the Wild West. On a personal note, I recognized the name of the author as a guy I used to play with in a tennis league. Wichita Falls really is an oversized small town.


by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

My daughter went to a big book fair last year down in the DFW area (the Dallas International Book Fair, maybe?). There were lots of publishers giving away free books to generate a bit of publicity, and a good deal of authors present to sign their books. My daughter saw this book and the one reviewed below, and figured I'd like them, so she picked them up, and got Jim Ottaviani to sign them for me. (She came home with 20 or 30 books that day, a bunch of them review copies that weren't even available at bookstores, yet.)

This particular book was a comic book biography of Richard Feynman. If you've ever read Feynman's own books, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think, then you'll already be familiar with many of the stories. However there's still a bit from some other sources that will be new to you. I was particularly interested in the portions on quantum electrodynamics. Also if you've read those books, you'll be familiar with Feynman's way of just jumping from story to story, without much of a larger overall narrative to tie it all together. Ottaviani matched Feynman's style in this book, so it's really just a collection of isolated episodes and lectures with Feynman being the only common point.

If you've never read Feynman's other books, this is a very entertaining short introduction. Give this book a shot, and if you like it, then go and invest the time in the longer text only source material. I'm thinking I might just have to go and read the Feynman lectures myself, now.


Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas
by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

This book came from the same book fair as described above. Unlike the book above, this one is much more coherent. As the subtitle indicates, it follows the careers of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, three very prominent primate researchers. All three of them are united by having been sponsored by the famous archaeologist, Louis Leakey, and have since been given the nickname of Leakey's Angels. Goodall was the first of Leakey's Angels, studying chimpanzees in in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Her unprecedented discoveries have made her a household name. After her success, Leakey sponsored Fossey to study gorillas in the Virunga Volcanoes of Rwanda, and then Galdikas to study orangutans in Borneo. Of course, Fossey's death at the hands of poachers is well known and the subject of the movie, Gorillas in the Mist. Ottaviani covered this tragic event in a sensitive manner, without turning the book into a tragedy. Overall, this was a very interesting book, and well worth the time to read it.


by Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel is a survivor of the Holocaust. He grew up in Sighet, which had been part of Romania, but was ceded to Hungary in 1940. In 1944, when Wiesel was 15, his family (and the entire Jewish community of Sighet) was deported to the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. Since the camps were segregated by sex, Elie and his father were separated from Elie's mother and sisters. He never saw his mother again. The book, Night, is Wiesel's telling of his experiences just prior to and during his internment, along with the liberation. To quote Wikipedia, the book is "just over 100 pages of sparse and fragmented narrative", but it is very powerful. In some respects, it's exactly what you would expect of a book about the Holocaust, describing the suffering, death, and torment that occurred. But the perspective of someone who lived through it is very enlightening, and not necessarily the emotions you might have suspected. This is a very sober book, but one that everybody should read.


Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man
by Norah Vincent

This book had an interesting premise. The author, Norah Vincent, decided to disguise herself as a man, and then put herself into different situations to see how she would be treated, and how that was different than the way she had been treated as a woman. Most of these situations were for at least somewhat extended periods, such as joining a bowling league, getting a sales job, attending a monastery, and joining up with a men's support group. The shorter term situations were when she entered the dating scene. At a certain level, this does seem dishonest, and Vincent noted this herself in the book. In fact, the constant deceit led to her having a mental breakdown at the end of the project.

Some of her observations are to be expected - being able to walk down the street without being ogled, having a car dealer treat you as an equal, seeing that men really do cuss and drink and spit in each other's company. But some of her observations surprised her - how welcoming and open men could be in their own way with each other, even if there wasn't a lot of explicit talking about feelings like happened with her female friends. Vincent also saw how society's gender stereotypes for men can limit them in a similar way to how they limit women. In fact, in an interview with ABC News, A Self-Made Man, Vincent noted, "Men are suffering. They have different problems than women have, but they don't have it better. They need our sympathy. They need our love, and maybe they need each other more than anything else. They need to be together."

Many of Vincent's surprises were understandable, but one in particular struck me as something she should have already known - how difficult it can be for men to try to pick up women in public. In that same ABC interview, she had the revelation, "In fact, we sit there and we just with one word, 'no,' will crush someone. We don't have to do the part where you cross the room and you go up to a stranger that you've never met in the middle of a room full of people and say the first words. And those first words are so hard to say without sounding like a cheeseball or sounding like a jerk."

Being a man myself, I don't quite agree with everything Vincent said. As the most obvious reason, all people regardless of gender are individuals, and stereotyping is still stereotyping even when you're trying to be helpful. And while I think there are societal expectations that put some limits on 'acceptable' male behavior, I also think she went a bit far in playing up men as victims. Really, not too many people through history have had it as good as us white males in the modern day U.S. But overall, it was a very interesting book with many thought provoking observations.


Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature
by Brian Switek

I read (past tense) Brian Switek's old blog, Dinosaur Tracking Blog, and follow him currently at his new blog, Laelaps, so I had high hopes for this book. And while it was a good, solid effort, it wasn't a masterpiece. It covered evolution in more of a narrative format, explaining the stories and people involved in discoveries and new theories. And while books like that can be very entertaining (see Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh), it just didn't work as well as it could have in this book. There are plenty of introductions to evolution out there, and there are two in particular that I would recommend before this one. The first is Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, which is probably the best all around introduction to evolution I've yet read. The second is Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters by Donald Prothero, which is probably the best introduction to the fossil evidence for evolution I've read. A third recommendation would be The Tangled Bank by Carl Zimmer, marketed as a textbook for non-biology majors (with a price to match) that gets into the theory a bit more.

But like I said, this was a solid effort. If you've read Coyne's and Prothero's books and are looking for another introductory book to round out your reading but without getting as technical as Zimmer's textbook, this would be a good addition.


The Darwin Experience: The Story of the Man and His Theory of Evolution
by John Van Wyhe

This is one of those books that came out to celebrate the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of On the Origin of Species. It's almost like a pop-up book for adults. It was full of little fold outs and inserts, which, to quote an Amazon review, were "reproductions of Darwin's letters, pages from his journals, maps or illustrations from his books, and other sundry documents such as a Chilean passport or a ticket to his funeral." With its emphasis on visuals and presentation, the text isn't too terribly in depth, but it was enough to teach me things I hadn't known before. The book focused much more on Darwin himself rather than 'His Theory of Evolution'. If you're looking for an introduction to evolution, this isn't it. But if you're interested in Darwin the man, this is an interesting book to read and experience.


Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy
by Mark P. Witton

This book is awesome! However, you have to be a fairly well educated layman with a keen interest in pterosaurs to really appreciate it. This isn't a book to give to your 10 year old nephew who likes dinosaurs. And in fact, if you think pterosaurs were dinosaurs, then this book may be a little over your head. (It reminds me very much of Peter Wellnhofer's Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution in regards to the expected knowledge of the reader.)

The book starts off with a short introduction dispelling some of the popular misconceptions of Pterosaurs (they were weak, they could only take off from cliffs, they were predominantly ocean going creatures and many were skim feeders, etc.) It then jumped right into the science, starting with evolutionary relationships, then moving on to anatomy, and then proposed behavior. The final 3/5 of the book focused on individual pterosaur groups.

One of the best parts of the book was the artwork. In addition to being a doctored paleontologist, Mark Witton is a renowned paleoartist. The book is full of creative illustrations of pterosaurs. It's not just a bunch of pictures of the creatures on the wing, but in various situations that would have occured in their real ives, such as foraging, competing for mates, or even swimming for some that were likely aquatic. And of course, there were plenty of photos and drawings of actual fossils.

There were also moments of humor sprinkled throughout the book. Granted, it was of a type that takes a certain mindset to appreciate. I found myself chuckling out loud a few times, but when I would read those passage to my wife, she'd just roll her eyes at me.

There are a few excerpts available online with illustrations and text to see what to expect. Two pages that make these availabe are MarkWitton.com - PUP Pterosaurs and Princeton University Press - Pterosaurs.

While not necessarily for the casual reader, this book is a great resource for anyone with an interest in Pterosaurs.

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