28 February 2007

A chance meeting at a meeting

I've been crazy busy the past week or so at work and at home so have had absolutely no time to blog for a while. You have no deadlines for a month or so, then all of a sudden they drop a half a dozen jobs on you that need to be done by the end of the day all at once. Bastards.

Last night I went to a small conference, held in Toronto, with some of the other engineers at the office to meet with structural steel fabricators, engineers, erectors (no jokes please), and researchers. The purpose was to discuss measures to streamline design codes and make the relationship between consultant engineers and steel contractors friendlier. Looking around, I saw all the engineer stereotypes abounded: all men, save one woman who's an engineer but currently working for the steel construction institute organizing events such as these; almost exclusively middle aged; mostly white guys, but some asian and middle eastern thrown in for good measure; and ample beer. Just as I thought to myself that I was going to be the youngest one there, by a lot, I heard some young, incoherent voices across the room. Further, it was the alcoholic/druggy sounding loud voice of one of my university friends who I hadn't seen in almost a year. Relieved at no longer a) not knowing anybody there at all, and b) being the youngest person there (not only is my friend a year younger than me, he was there with a colleague that looked even younger), I immediately bounded over to them, shook his hand, and bellowed, "What the hell are you doing here?!" - for I knew he hadn't graduated yet.

Anyway, he's here because his lease ran out so he moved back home to finish writing his thesis, but got a job instead. So the last month's worth of work on his thesis will now take him another 3 years to write. News from home is that my prof's cheap ways are rubbing off on the other profs, resulting in a whole crop of grad students whose master's degrees are taking longer than they should to complete and who don't get any help from the technicians.

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21 February 2007

Big Religious Squabble on Tuesday

My wife and I had a big religion-inspired brouhaha on Tuesday the 13th that nearly managed to spill over and ruin Valentine's Day (not that it's a real holiday anyway, but still I prefer to not have it ruined).

My wife participates in a bible study group on Tuesdays. Turns out, the previous week, her group, all women and ranging in age from early 20s to early 50s, had gotten slightly off topic when a woman who works at a genetics lab (not as a scientist, though) brought up the question of evolution vs. creation. None of them being knowledgeable in such things, they had decided to research the origins debate. My wife did not have the time to do her homework, so I piped up that I know a lot about such things and gave her a quick rundown of Young-Earth, Old-Earth, Theistic Evolution, and the straight-up scientific explanation for the origins of the universe, the planet, life, and humanity. Of course I pointed out how the only consistent view was the purely scientific one, and I especially took digs at the YECs, but I didn't make too big of a deal about it.

She came back afterwards and told me what they talked about. She explained that she didn't like to use labels because her beliefs fall somewhere between theistic evolution and Old-Earth creationism. As an electrical engineer, she can't deny science; she likes science. Hence, the YEC position makes no sense. However, she also believes in the bible as more or less true, that there are omissions but what's in there is correct. Specifically, she believes that Adam and Eve were specially created, even though she accepts that evolution takes place in all other organisms - figure that one out.

Somehow during our discussion about creationism, the topic shifted and she asked me something like, "How come you don't accept God?"

My response: "Because there's no convincing evidence for God."

Ah hell, here it comes. We've jumped off the precipice and are falling into the abyss now.

Near endless bickering ensued.

I asked her why she believed, and, to sum up, it basically resolved down to personal experience and gut instinct: not very scientific, admittedly. I challenged her with the question of people from other faiths who have just as much personal experience and feeling as she does but for their own faiths, and, honestly, she struggled with it. How could she be sure that her feelings were correct and theirs were not? I think she knew she was having a hard time; eventually, she just said that religion is a personal thing and I could get no more out of her on that topic.

Moving on, sometime while talking about evidence, she claimed that science upholds the bible in general and mentioned in passing that a portion of Noah's Ark had been found. Simultaneously my jaw slumped open and my tongue lolled out. From that point on, the debate was confounded by her belief that I think she's stupid.

She then accused me of just assuming that everything in the bible was wrong, so she asked me to name some things in the bible that science and history have determined to be true. I couldn't really think of any off the top of my head other than that the descriptions of some tribes and migrations are reasonable. Man, that did not go over well at all.

I certainly learned something though. My wife nor any of the other women in the group were particularly interested in the science when discussing religion. It's not that they explicitly deny the findings of science, nor that they just aren't very interested science (though most aren't), it's that, to them, Christianity is true. That's it: it's just true. None of them have a beef with science, but they just assume that, since the bible is true, then science probably corroborates the bible pretty well. My wife never even had a second thought about it; therefore, she's never looked into it. She never had a clue that scientific consensus says that most of the bible's stories are nonsense. She just assumed that science has proven things like the great flood - and this is without listening to IRC or Answers in Genesis claptrap.

All in all, a crappy evening of bickering. I don't know if I got her to think about her faith at all or if I just made her angry. At least I learned something.

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19 February 2007

Surprise Trolling

Well, well, well, looks like I got my first anonymous drive-by trolling.

In fairness, he didn't just scream "UR GOING TO HELL!! PRAISE JEEBUS!!!" and run off, so I'll give him credit for that. He took serious offense at my screed against the Alpha Course Christmas dinner I went to in December - you see, he teaches, like, THREE Alpha Courses a year, so that makes him like an expert or something, even though the course leaders generally don't have any particular training (my apologies if you, dear anonymous, actually do have scholarly training in such matters). Unlike most trolls, he actually presented an argument, albeit an angry and sarcasm laced one. Unfortunately, he showed up a bit late to the post, ie. the post was in December and it's now February, so in order to address his comments (given here), I'll make a new post now.

In particular, he took much issue with my attack on a quote given in Alpha honcho Nicky Gumbel's Christmas lecture video. The quote was about there being as much evidence for the life and resurrection of Jesus as for any other event in human history, which I quickly demonstrated was a craptacularly false statement. How'd I do this? By contrasting the resurrection with another set of events: WW2. Specifically, I showed how contemporary documents from a variety of sources on many sides, combined with the testimony of still living people, video footage, official military records, etc. show much more proof than that which is available for the resurrection.

Now, how did he attack my argument? Here's how:

1) By stating that I didn't do my homework because there is extrabiblical evidence for Jesus, including the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius.

2) By claiming that comparing WW2 to Jesus is unfair, since there are people around today who fought in WW2 (he knows 2 personally). The balance is so great, I could equally dismiss Caesar's conquest of Gaul, for example. Also, that by my arguments I'm dumber than CS Lewis.

3) By comparing the weight of evidence between, again, Caesar's Gallic Conquest and the events in the New Testament (NT) and stating that I should have an open mind for something that has over 5000 surviving early Greek copies.

Let's look at these:

1) Okay, okay, I'll admit it. I didn't do my homework. I knew Tacitus and Josephus existed and wrote about Jesus (I'd never heard about Suetonius). In fact, I've never read any of their works, relying purely on secondary sources talking about them. In fact, ditto goes for Caesar's conquest diaries. It's not important for my argument anyway, because I was specifically talking about primary accounts of history in my comparison. Josephus (37 AD-100 AD) was born about when Jesus was to have died and his account of the life and resurrection of Jesus repeats only what he has heard about Christ from Christians. Tacitus (56 AD - 117 AD) was even later, and only mentions Christ as founder of the Christian sect, put to death by Pilate. Suetonius (~69/75 AD - >130 AD) made an ambiguous statement about a Chrestus (probably not Christ) in Rome around 49 AD. Big whoop. None of these are contemporary accounts that corroborate the existence of Jesus. If I wanted to go into full time bible scholarship I probably should read the real accounts, but I'm an engineer, so screw it. I've got more important things to do.

2) It is true that comparing WW2 to the ressurection is like comparing apples to oranges. That was the point. One is well supported, the other is not. Sorry if I threw you by choosing an event that still has eyewitnesses, or even video footage and photographs. The quote from the Alpha video didn't have that whole "No events that still have witnesses" disclaimer when it made its boast about the evidence for Jesus. Also, C.S. Lewis's arguments are generally unconvincing; a guy doing a PhD in theology dropped by and agreed with me ;-)

Ok, to make it fair, fast forward 100 years so as to take away all eyewitness accounts of WW2. Is there still proof? You betcha. A whole lot. And that's the point: in regards to the quote, all the WW2 evidence does outweigh by far the evidence for Jesus. The balance of evidence for WW2 does not mean that Jesus is false; that's not the point. My argument deals with debunking the dumbass Alpha quote, that Jesus is not as well supported as the Alpha guy says, nothing more.

3) Now, on to the other point regarding the historicity of the NT compared to other historic documents. It's funny he mentions Caesar's Gallic War. I remember the first document my wife received from her Alpha Course: a handout photocopied from the course manual talking about the historicity of Jesus. It included a handy table that I fortuitously recalled seeing (speaking of that, if I were religious, I would use that freak remembrance as evidence for God's work in my life; however, seeing as this special occurence is helping me attack religion, I'll put it down as a fluke). As I said, funny he would mention that if he wasn't just regurgitating his Alpha course. Anyway, here it is, sorry for the formatting:

Work, When Written, Earliest Copies, Time Span (yrs), No of Copies

Herodotus, 488-428 BC, 900 AD, 1300, 8
Thucydides, 460-400 BC, 900 AD, 1300, 8
Tacitus, 100 AD, 1100 AD, 1000, 20
Caesar's Gallic War, 58-50 BC, 900 AD, 950, 9-10
Livy's Roman History, 59 BC - 17AD, 900 AD, 950, 20
New Testament, 40-100AD, 130 AD in part 250 AD full, 300, 5000 Greek 10000 Latin, 9300 other

Now, at first glance, I'll admit I was impressed, but something was wrong with this that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Then it hit me: it doesn't matter how many copies exist, how early the copies were made, etc. All that matters is if we can take the writing inside as accurate. No one is disputing that the New Testament was written (I think those numbers above prove very well that it was) but it was written starting at least 6 years after the events described (according to the above table) by people who weren't firsthand witnesses. Likewise, we don't doubt Herodotus wrote his histories, but that doesn't mean the contents are true. In fact, we now think that a substantial portion of his accounts were credulous BS.

Now it comes to the other unsettling part: the huge number of copies of the NT. As the Alpha book suggests, the other entries are considered history, while the bible has skeptics. Alpha presents the huge number of copies suggesting that, if eight copies is history, we'd be foolish to not consider 24300 copies as even better history. I have another query: why does the bible have so many copies when the real histories have so few? Something is amiss, and it's because the NT is pushing a religious agenda, not content to let the facts speak for themselves. In other words, the NT has so many copies because it is not history.

My troll also makes a few other arguments:

He writes, "Anyhow, if the Christians did do a sharp pen job on the New Testament they sure did a crap job. It makes all the apostles look like morons for half the time." But it's not that surprising. Arthur Conan Doyle made Dr. Watson into a complete dolt half the time as well, and he's supposed to be a doctor, not some illiterate fisherman. Why do it? To make your hero smarter and even more impressive, probably.

He classily finishes off with "You however look like your wife has pissed you off, you started popping the happy pills then started typing out of your arsehole!" Thanks for veiling the vulgarity. Now, normally I do get a teenie bit cheesed at my wife when dragged to a church thing, but I do appreciate that, rightly or wrongly, she is concerned about my welfare and, hell, there was food so I wasn't complaining. I was just getting at the arguments presented. You could deal with my arguments instead of strawmen, if you please. Either that or a little reading comprehension would be appreciated.

Did Jesus exist? And, if so, was he resurrected? I say a definite no on the second, but I really don't know for the first. It wouldn't surprise me either way if he was a real itinerant radical rabbi or if he was fictional character, or even if he was parts of both: a real rabbi with fables superimposed. Kinda like Davy Crockett, without the rabbi part.

Please see this FAQ on the historicity of Jesus from Internet Infidels for more.

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12 February 2007

Sad Day

Things got very sad and depressed in the office late Friday afternoon. One of our veteran admin assistants suffered a massive heart attack and passed away, despite CPR being administered right away. Paramedics took a surprisingly long time to arrive, about 20 minutes, and they didn't even have a defibrillator. It's unlikely that even a lightning-fast response would have helped; the attack was just too quick and severe.

She was actually in the cubicle diagonal to mine, talking with someone, when it happened. I wasn't there at the time; I was in a meeting in the other side of the building. As the meeting was wrapping up, an announcement came over the PA seeking people trained in CPR. I'm actually 8 years out of practice but I did rush over only to find that she was already being taken care of.

Life and death can hit you suddenly. It's not exactly a sad atmosphere in the office, but you can definitely feel that everyone is a little more contemplative today.

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Darwin "Go ahead, make my" Day

Today, February 12, 2007, is the 198th birthday of one Mr. Charles Darwin - Darwin Day. You may know him as a pioneering biologist, father of our current understanding of evolution and much beat upon whipping boy of religious nutjobs. All in all, he's handled all the abuse rather well, so today is a day we celebrate the great man.

But did you know that Darwin was a cold, calculating mass murderer?

Well, not exactly, but one thing that amazed me was, for someone so interested in studying wildlife, he certainly blew away a lot of it. Darwin was an avid hunter, spending the last few days in England before the Beagle voyage hunting partridges with his uncle. His first specimen recovered on the Beagle came when the ship was waiting in quarantine off the coast of the island of Tenerife, where he took his pistols on deck and blew away a black-backed gull to get at its stomach contents, eventually preserving a cuttlefish from the endeavor. During the Beagle's voyage, he enjoyed hunting a variety of new and exotic species, often revelling in discovering how each tasted (apparently, the dome-backed Galapagos tortoises tasted better than the saddle-backed ones). Oftentimes this was for survival - the ship needed meat for the crew - however, the impression was definitely gained that, while appreciating the beauty of life, he also appreciated being able to just up and whack it as well.

Darwin hunted rheas in Patagonia; slaughtered countless boobies and noddies on St. Paul's Rock; shot a large lizard in Bahia; shot bearded monkeys, a crotophaga, and some parrots and toucans in Rio; a condor near Port St. Julian; capybara in Montevideo; and various birds on the Galapagos, just to name a few.

Darwin was an interesting fellow. In addition to filling all manner of beasties full of lead, as a youth he also spent much time examining and collecting wildlife of all sorts. At 16, he took a microscope off with him to medical school - not for classes or labs, but for fun. During university he collected beetles. At 17, he was playing with cuttlefish. He would grab and torture sea mice just to see how they reacted. At 18, he was seriously studying zoophytes.

In fact, his somewhat sadistic bent resulted in this essay from the Institute for Creation Research (as loathe as I am to link to them). It is kinda funny. (They quickly go from the defensible position that Darwin was a little too gun-happy, even for his era, to the weird position that his eagerness to hunt things directly resulted in his theory of natural selection.)

I've been reading two books recently about Charles Darwin's life and adventures on the way to coming up with the theory of evolution through natural selection. The first is Fossils, Finches, and Feugians by Richard Darwin Keynes, about Darwin's time on the Beagle, and the second is Darwin and the Barnacle, about his zoological pursuits that helped come up with the common descent part, specifically the 8 or so years in which he became the world leader in barnacle research.

Dubious enjoyment of killing aside - society has changed such that gratuitous animal killings are no longer acceptable - these books give a sense of what's missing in our education and childhoods today. We're missing that hands on element - science is taught purely out of textbooks these days. How many of us as kids were encouraged to run around and torture little animals to see for ourselves how they worked? Darwin did a lot of it. Some kids still do it today but it's getting more rare; my niece will chase after little snakes, and it's a wonder to behold, but it's not too common. Inquisitiveness like that, like what Darwin showed, is the greatest gift a person can have.

Links: Darwin's account of the Voyage of the Beagle.

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From PZ Myers:

Your results:
You are Apocalypse

You believe in survival of the fittest and you believe that you are the fittest.

Dr. Doom
The Joker
Mr. Freeze
Lex Luthor
Poison Ivy
Dark Phoenix
Green Goblin

Click here to take the "Which Super Villain am I?" quiz...

I believe I can live with that ;-)


05 February 2007

Ultimate Bible Quiz

You know the Bible 87%!

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

I really don't know the bible that well. The quiz was kinda easy, a lot of joke answers, etc. I haven't read much of the bible in general and what I did read was back in highschool. Still, that's not too bad. I'll bet most devout Christians wouldn't know much more than that. Up until this past year when she started reading the bible in earnest, I'd bet my wife, who is pretty devout, would only get around 60%.

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Atheism Defined

From Dan Barker and the blog Reason and Rhyme, we get this handy-dandy article on the definition of atheism. Good to know.

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02 February 2007

5 Things Meme

I've been tagged by Big Heathen Mike at Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant to do the "5 interesting things about you" meme that's been making the rounds. I'll try to live up to his lofty list, so here it goes:

1. I used to be a competitive swimmer in my youth. I did that for about 8 years, with all the stuff that high level competitive swimming entails. Ie. early morning practices, reeking of chlorine all day, and Speedos.

Scarring thing: I still wear Speedos now. Not usually on the outside, mind you - I have more sense than that. I usually wear them underneath my trunks. As I told someone from my department at university (and her boyfriend, also a competitive swimmer, agreed) once you're used to that level of support, there's no going back.

So how was I? I was a backstroker and, when I was 14, I was 13th in the province in my age category. That's not bad. However, my small town team of only about 40 swimmers managed to produce two other swimmers who each went to the Commonwealth Games - both of them backstrokers - making me look a lot crappier than I actually was.

2. Like fellow taggee of the meme, Paul, I had braces as a kid. Wore them for 2.5 years. Hurt like hell whenever they were adjusted. My already complete lack of a social life as a kid was amplified into a mind-boggling trough of geekdom. No regrets though. Remember that classic Simpson's episode with the nuclear workers striking about Burns's attempt to remove their dental plan? Remember the simulation of Lisa if she didn't get braces? Yeah, that was me.

3. I love little fluffy dogs. The stupider looking and the smaller, the better. It doesn't really matter the breed. And I'll also accept miniature dachshunds. My wife calls me a "girly boy" because of it, but so what? They make me happy. However, I would never consider buying one. I like variety in my little dogs, and I'm far to busy to look after a little useless thing that isn't related by blood. Also, dogs are axpensive. I'll just continue to live vicariously through other people's dogs.

4. I'm half asian-half generic white guy. I also grew up in an area with practically no asian people around, so half asians were real oddities.

There is a weird possibility in this heritage though. My mom, who's asian, is mostly Chinese, but her family immigrated to Indonesia generations ago, in one case marrying into the local tribe of Dayaks. The Dayaks were notorious headhunter. My dad, who's white, has some Dutch ancestry. The Dutch colonized Indonesia. You do the math - We have no proof of anything happening, but there is a chance that some of my ancestors could have been killed by some of my other ancestors.

5. I'll probably post something about this in the near future, but my first job out of university was to design shit tanks. I shit you not. I don't mean little tiny septic tanks; I mean big, honking tanks that are part of sewage treatment plants. The largest tanks I've designed were over 30 m (~100 ft) in diameter and 10 m (~30 ft) tall in the case of the aerobic digester tanks (the ones that let the solids, ie. bacteria from your poop, burn themselves out and become inert), or 65 m (~210 ft) by 56 m (~185 ft) in the case of the aeration tanks (these provide oxygen to the microorganisms in the liquid waste stream to destroy any nasties in there).

Fortunately, I've moved on to other design projects since. It got a little annoying visiting with other grads of my program and hearing "I'm designing bridges," or "I'm designing parking garages," when I have to respond with "I'm designing shit tanks."

Ok, that's it, I'm done. I hope the Speedo thing didn't scar anybody too much. Thanks to Mike for tagging me. I would tag someone else, but I see that practically everyone else whose blogs I frequent have already gotten this meme. Oh well. If anybody wants, they can link their list of 5 things in the comments.


Nerdly Link Dump

From Pharygula, I've collected a small sampling of DnD funny stuff:

Scholars and Students: a Compendium of Professorial Magic

Wizard vs. Cat

The second one is interesting; there's a lot of argument over which rules to apply, but generally, unless the 1st level wizard has spells left, the cat will win 60-70% of the time.


I'm back

No broken bones or anything. The west coast was great; other than a little drizzle in Vancouver, the weather was good. I learned to ski in Whistler without getting myself killed in the slightest, and ate way too much seafood. More stories later when I have the time to write them down.

All I can say is, southern Ontario looks really, really, boringly flat in comparison to the west coast. I miss the mountains already.

Oh, and my monster jet lag combined with plane and baggage delays resulted in me being 5.5 hours late for work when I got back on Wednesday.

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