Monday, April 25, 2011

Clawing Her Way Up

I really must stop proofreading these posts by reading them aloud to myself. My cat keeps thinking that I'm talking to her, and takes that as a signal that it's OK to jump into my lap. Which wouldn't be so bad, except that she doesn't always judge the height of my chair accurately, and I never had her declawed. If only I were wearing some pants right now...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Inspiring Words, For a Price

While researching an idea for a potential blog post, I came across, which is intended for "pastors who want to keep up with current speaking trends." iStockSermons lets you search for sermons based on keywords such as "addiction," "balance," "celebration," and the like. Each "complete creative sermon package" includes an MP3 (audio) file of the sermon, a transcript of the sermon, and artwork (logos "in illustrator or photoshop" and JPG formats). Some packages also include "extras" like videos, additional notes, or sermons that were written but not delivered. The prices for the packages currently available on the site (which each contain at least 3 and as many as 7 sermons) range from $149 to $399. I thought at first that the site was fairly new, but the company's brochure (warning: PDF) has a copyright date of 2009. They don't have much to choose from—only 9 sermon packages—so if you need a sermon on "building campaigns" or "giving," for example, you'll have to write it yourself or look elsewhere. iStockSermons isn't the only web site that offers sermons to download, but of those that seem intended for pastors looking for creative help, iStockSermons seems to offer the most complete and polished materials.

Not everybody who's "called to the ministry" is a talented writer, I'm sure. Even for those who do write well, composing an original and stimulating sermon every week must be tough, especially with all the other stuff pastors are expected to do (counseling, administrative duties, etc.). It must be a relief to know that when inspiration fails, there's someone to turn to, but this raises interesting questions. If a pastor does buy and download one of the "creative sermon packages," does s/he pay for it personally, or does it come out of the church's budget? (Either way, the money originally came out of the parishioners' pockets.) Does the pastor indicate somehow that someone else wrote the sermon? Or is this more like Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" where you add your own touches to prepackaged items and pass the result off as your own creation?†

If pastors are open about the source of their sermons and/or if this practice is as common and acceptable as purchasing a Vacation Bible School (VBS) kit, that's fine, but to this outsider, "buying a sermon" sounds an awful lot like "buying a term paper."

† Polenta (known in these parts as "cornmeal mush" before it got all uppity and started appearing in tubes at the grocery store) and white chocolate, while both very tasty in their own right, are ingredients that really should not appear in the same recipe. Ick.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Turning A Skeptic Into A Believer

Don't you just love targeted advertising?

If I really wanted to be snarky, I would point out that the photo of the "believer" is much lighter/brighter than that of the "skeptic." Certain publications have come under fire for doing that kind of thing in the past. But I don't want to be snarky. Nope, not me.

(If you have a Yahoo account and would like to receive alerts on "atheism" or any other subject that interests you, sign into Yahoo then click here to set up keyword-based alerts. If you don't have a Yahoo account, you can create one by clicking the "Create New Account" button near the bottom of the "sign in" page.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Spinning Out of Control

Happy Earth Day!...unless you think that Catholics like Michael Voris of are the bee's knees, in which case, forget I said anything. I wouldn't want to ruin your Good Friday glow.

In the script for the April 13th episode of "The Vortex" (a daily video presentation in which "lies and falsehoods are trapped and exposed"), Mr. Voris wrote:
...the Earth Network [I think he means the Earth DAY Network] wants Catholic priests to devote their homily to the topic of Earth Day...[on] EASTER SUNDAY. Admitting in [their] letter that devoting a homily to Earth Day on Easter might be a slight problem .. the earth worshippers are perfectly happy to suggest giving a full blown homily the next Sunday .. which is DIVINE MERCY SUNDAY...They give suggestions on some material for the homilies .. like encouraging the congregation to clean up a park...Imagine .. going to Mass to hear about the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead .. only to hear instead instructions to clean up a park...If you find yourself in Mass on Easter Sunday and the priest even so much as breaths [sic] a word about Earth Day .. throw nothing in the collection plate .. finish your Sunday obligation .. and resign from that parish on Monday.
Imagine...going to church on (what I hope will be) a lovely spring day...a season when nature seems to be resurrecting itself from the hear suggestions to clean up the planet you live on...the HORROR!

I'm not sure how many Catholics take Voris seriously. Marywood University and the Diocese of Scranton canceled presentations that he was scheduled to give earlier this month after they learned that Voris has "caused 'a number of controversies' and that his programs are not endorsed by his home archdiocese." Really? Suggesting that democracy should be replaced with a benevolent Catholic dictatorship is controversial? The video for the "Vortex" episode in which Voris made this comment has been taken down, but on the Internet, nothing can be completely deleted. PZ at Pharyngula and RationalWiki both quoted from the video, and Voris himself later tried to "clarify" that what he'd really meant was a benevolent Catholic monarchy, not a dictatorship. "Yea. That’s the ticket. A Catholic monarchy."

I suppose every religious group of any significant size has members on the fringes. Islam has the Taliban, Fred Phelps and the rest of the Westboro wackies consider themselves Baptists, mainstream Mormons distance themselves from their polygamist ancestors and contemporary fundamentalist offshoots. Would it be insensitive of me, on Good Friday, to make a crack about Voris being the Catholics' cross to bear?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Selling a Bill of Goods

Catholics aren't the only ones who can use iPhone apps to manage their spiritual lives, it seems. With Pesach (Passover) coming up, observant Jews are exhorted to rid their homes of leavened grain products (chametz; I've also seen it spelled hametz or hametz)...only a lot of them don't actually discard grain-based foods; that could get expensive if you just stocked up on cereal or beer! What some do instead is "sell" their chametz to a non-Jew then "buy it back" after Passover. Apparently no products actually need to change hands; the "seller" is supposed to lock up all the forbidden foods in a designated area in his/her home, such as a cupboard or a room, and not enter that area until Passover ends. (I can't tell from the bit of research I did whether money actually has to be exchanged or not.) The buying/selling part is managed by a rabbi, and because it's considered a legally binding transaction, there are forms to fill out...unless you've got the app for that. With the i$ellChametz iPhone app (there's also an Android version), you can "let Rabbi Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue sell your chametz for Pesach!" (I found a different but similar app called "No Chametz" from RustyBrick on iTunes.)

I've got no problem with believers who use technology to help them honor their commitments; I use electronic calendars and to-do lists to help me remember and fulfill my own commitments, after all. I don't take issue with believers who choose to give up particular foods for religious purposes, whether it's chametz for Jews during Passover, favorite foods for Catholics during Lent, all food during daylight hours for Muslims during Ramadan, or whatever. Business owners can decide for themselves whether they want believers' trade enough to comply with religious rules like putting cows on a chametz-free diet so the milk will be kosher for Passover.

What does irritate me is believers asking members of other religions (or no religion) to keep them from violating their own rules. A rabbi in the Isaeli city of Akko has asked a Muslim imam to instruct Arab business owners (especially bakery owners) not to sell chametz to Jews during Passover. WTF? If someone doesn't believe that there's a good purpose for the restrictions that a religion imposes on its believers, then why bother following that religion? I'm with the bakery owner who responded, "I'm not going to ask every person if he's Jewish or Arab...It's their religion, not mine, and I will sell pita bread."

H/T to Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wishing Hubble a Happy 21st Birthday!

I've been an armchair astronomer since my late teens or early twenties; that's what comes of reading and watching tons of science fiction. I've never owned a telescope or even a decent pair of binoculars; I barely know the major constellations (although I'm oddly fond of Orion, maybe because its "belt" is so easy to spot in my part of the world). Aside from one Science and Engineering Club field trip in college, I've never driven out to the country (away from all the light pollution in town) to get a decent look at the sky. I get my astronomy "fix" from photos like the ones taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which was launched into space 21 years ago this month. Here's one of my all-time favorite HST shots, of the "Tadpole" galaxy (officially known as "UGC 10214" or "Arp 188"):

The Tadpole probably got its long "tail" as a result of a collision with another, smaller galaxy. What beauty can come of intergalactic violence! What really gets me about this picture, though, is the huge number of more distant galaxies that it shows...galaxies that could be just as big and complex and diverse as our own (the Milky Way). When I see a picture like this, I imagine myself being about as important in the grand scheme of things as a microbe living on a chip of rock in a pile of rubble in a valley in some barren, windswept mountain range. Even if I was doing all the things that a microbe is supposed to do—eating, growing, excreting, making lots of little baby microbes, etc.—you'd never know it from the top of the mountain range. Anyone who can look at a photo like the one above, grasp the vastness and complexity that it represents (of just one tiny bit of our universe, mind you), and still believe that s/he was deliberately, "intelligently" designed to occupy one particular spot on an insignificant planet in "the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy" has a far more vivid imagination than I do.

H/T to Phil "Bad Astronomer" Plait...even though he initially got the HST's launch date wrong. (He's fixed it now.) I actually started writing this post without realizing that this is Hubble's birthday month, before Phil said anything about it on his blog. When I read his post, I realized that I'd accidentally managed to time my thoughts really well!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nosing Around

The latest email from my neighborhood association reports two recent break-ins within a few blocks of my house, and specifically asks me to be a "nosy neighbor" to deter future criminal activity. If I see a person or vehicle that "doesn't seem to belong in the neighborhood," the email recommends "slowing down and acting interested," getting a description (e.g., noting cars' license plate numbers) and passing that info along to the neighborhood association, and/or calling the police department's non-emergency number.

I'm all for "acting interested" in what's going on in my neighborhood (that's just being neighborly), and I help law enforcement in any way I can, but now I'm torn between...
  • my desire (if not my tendency) to think the best of others, and my desire to protect my property (and that of my neighbors);
  • my dismay over the idea of targeting people based on race and/or perceived economic class, and the knowledge that recent thefts—and one I personally witnessed last summer—involved black men (some driving older, beat-up vehicles);
  • my commitment to behaving as a law-abiding citizen (apart from a slight tendency to regard speed limits as "suggestions"), and my resentment of scrutiny from my fellow citizens and from law enforcement.
Is there such a thing as "situationally induced multiple personality disorder"?

The neighborhood association is meeting tonight, and I plan to attend. A representative from the police department is scheduled to give a presentation, which I hope will include some tips on "how to protect your neighborhood without feeling like a government informant."


I'm home from the meeting, which had a generally upbeat tone and was well-attended (in comparison to previous meetings I've been to in my five years in the neighborhood). The recurring theme was "get to know your neighbors so you'll know who belongs in the neighborhood and who doesn't." The police officer who attended didn't offer much specific advice other than "do your own research" (on alarm systems, the pros and cons of gun ownership, etc.), and the few specifics he did share—about the recent and upcoming decreases in the number of officers on the force—were depressing. But he did say that the neighborhood isn't being specifically targeted by criminals, and he repeatedly encouraged us to report any suspicious behavior, as that kind of reporting has helped solve cases in the past. The phrase "racial profiling" was used by a resident, but the officer dismissed it, saying "we don't do that."

There are no immediate answers to the neighborhood's problems, but after tonight's meeting, I feel reassured that even though I bought my house based primarily on its price and location, I chose my neighbors well.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Answering As An Atheist (Part 2)

Following up from last week's Ask An Atheist Day, some additional questions and my responses to them:

Q. "Why are you an atheist?"
A. "Because I'm unaware of solid, objective evidence that supports any claims for the existence of god(s)."

Q. "Can you prove that God doesn't exist?"
A. "No, and I don't have to. In science and law, the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim, not on those who question or deny the claim. If I said there was an invisible pink unicorn living in my back yard, it would be my job to provide evidence of that, not your job to search my back yard and demonstrate the lack of hoof prints or unicorn droppings. My only assertion is that 'I have no belief in any gods,' and I'm the only person who's qualified to speak on what I do or don't believe."

Q. "Why not accept Jesus just as 'insurance'?"
A. "Ah, good ol' Pascal's Wager, or what I call the 'CYA' (Cover Your Ass) argument. French philosopher Blaise Pascal, a Christian, suggested that even we atheists should act as though God exists. If He doesn't, Pascal argued, no harm done, but if He does, we 'gain all.' There are plenty of good arguments against Pascal's Wager that I won't bother listing here since the Wikipedia article I linked to above has an extensive criticism section. But of those who advance this stale old argument, I ask: Do you find Pascal's Wager convincing enough to take the bet yourself? Have you covered your ass by acting as though you believe in all the concepts of God that compete with your own and all the religions that threaten dire, eternal consequences for those who make the wrong choice?"

Q. "Why are atheists so arrogant?"
A. "LOL! We atheists often wonder why some (not all) believers seem so arrogant. Anyone who defends their position firmly may appear 'arrogant' to someone with an opposing viewpoint. A speaker or writer's 'tone' can affect whether, or how long, we'll pay attention to them, but what matters in the end is whether their words are true or not."

atheist arrogance

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Entering Hell

On the heels of Rob Bell's new book that discusses hell (its existence or lack thereof), Time offers a new "Brief History of Hell" photo gallery:

Enter Hell

I'm tickled by the Enter link that you're supposed to click to start the slide show. I wonder how many believers will hesitate to "enter hell"?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Celebrating Easter Bargains

As a holiday, Easter does nothing for me. (Duh.) It's a great time of year for finding chocolate on sale, though, which gladdens the heart of this chocolate-loving cheapskate. I'm a fan of dark (not milk) chocolate so I don't care for most of the made-for-Easter stuff (cute as some of it is), but happily, non-seasonal chocolate is on sale too.

Apparently I'm way behind the curve on news from the confectionery world; I hadn't realized that Willy Wonka (a Nestlé brand) has been making chocolate for grownups for over a year now. (Darn, I missed the "Golden Ticket" promotion!) And I didn't notice it until the cashier pointed it out, but Wonka has a unique spin on something as mundane as the Universal Product Code (UPC, or "bar code") on the package:

(Sorry the picture's not better; it's hard to get a good shot of a shiny foil bag.) Cute, huh? And it scanned just like a "normal" UPC, which for comparison, would look like this:

How boring.

The chocolate itself (Wonka Exceptionals Domed Dark Chocolate Pieces, described on the package as "velvety dark chocolate with milk chocolate medallions") isn't bad. I'd missed the part about the "milk chocolate medallions," but a dime-sized "button" of milk chocolate on top of a bite-sized piece of dark chocolate doesn't affect the taste noticeably for me. I think I still prefer Dove's dark chocolate "Promises" to meet my bite-size chocolate needs, but extensive side-by-side taste testing will be required for a final decision.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Answering As An Atheist

In honor of yesterday's Ask An Atheist Day, here are a few of the questions and comments that I've received online and in real life (some from people who obviously didn't know whether I was religious or not):

Q. "Do you know Jesus as your lord and savior?" (Asked of me as I walked past a church's booth at a state fair.)
A. "No." (Said in a matter-of-fact tone as I kept walking, much to the amusement of the friend I was with.)

Q. "Why do you hate God?"
A. "I don't. I wouldn't know how to go about hating something I don't believe in. Do you hate leprechauns or unicorns, assuming that you don't believe in them?"

(Most atheists I know would probably respond in a similar fashion, but Roger Scott Jackson, who created and portrays the character of "Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist," wrote in Patriarchs and Penises: A Comedy in Two Acts: "Some atheists say they can't be angry at God because God is not real. I say the fact that God is fictitious doesn't stop more than half the people on earth from believing in him, so why should it stop me from being mad at him?")

Q. "Aren't you worried that you'll go to hell?" (I've gotten this one from family members but it's usually phrased gently and obliquely, not as a question but rather as a comment like, "I worry that people who don't accept Jesus as their savior will go to hell.")
A. "No. I don't think I've ever been told directly, face-to-face, that I'm going to hell, but that idea was certainly endorsed by the culture I was raised in—as were ideas that behaviors like smoking and discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual preference are acceptable. I rejected all those concepts on intellectual grounds in my teens or twenties. It took me a couple more decades to get past the emotional indoctrination, but now I when I think about hell, what comes to mind are scenes from cartoons and movies. It's hard for me to do anything but chuckle over the version of hell portrayed in, say, the 1970 version of 'Scrooge' (my favorite of the many film adaptations of Dickens' A Christmas Carol)."

Q. "Are you saved?"
A. "No, but I'm looking for an external hard drive big and fast enough to back me up entirely in under 8 hours."

OK, I haven't had a chance to actually use that last response on anyone yet, but I've got it ready and waiting!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Siding with DarkSyde

Don't forget; today's Ask An Atheist Day, so if there's some aspect of atheism that you just don't get, feel free to post your question here as a comment, and I'll do my best to answer it.

Via a group discussion on LinkedIn (in, oddly enough, one of the Mensa groups rather than the Freethinkers group), I came across a link to What It's Like to be an Atheist by "DarkSyde," who asks you to "[i]magine that you live in a world where 90% of the people around you sincerely believe in something that appears to you to be downright whacky, if perhaps relatively pleasant on the surface in many respects. Say they believe in Santa Claus; beard, the big red suit, the flying reindeer, the sled loaded with a billion gifts, the North Pole Workshop, Mrs. Claus and the elves; all of it."

My mild dyslexia caused me to misread "Santa" as "Satan" several times as I went through the essay, which was a bit jarring, but the metaphor is a good one. DarkSyde cautions, though: "If you've recently lost someone or are about to lose someone and religion is the one thread you're hanging onto to keep from going bonkers, don't read this; If you need to feel that humans have some kind of special place in the universe and without that special dispensation, it's all 'for nothing', don't read this; If you're easily offended and/or intolerant, don't read this."

If none of those warnings apply to you, I urge you to read DarkSyde's whole post for yourself. It's a few years old (posted in 2005) and it'll take you a little while to read, but it's worth it. Here's a teaser, a paragraph that resonates with me:
You are under a barrage of Santa believers from the cradle to grave who act everything from shocked to disgusted that you don't believe in Santa, they're getting increasingly militant, yet not a one of them has the slightest bit of evidence that an entity called Santa really exists; not one of them is willing to explain why the North Pole is nothing but a barren, frozen wasteland, except maybe to vaguely explain that the "Workshop" is incorporeal or not meant to be taken "literally"; a claim which other Santa believers disagree with vigorously. Not one of them offers up the slightest tidbit of convincing scientific rationale for how reindeer fly and tow an arial [sic] sled, or how Santa reads the minds and keeps tabs on 2 billion kids, and visits them in a single 24 hour period once a year to deliver toys built at his workshop by magic miniature toymakers. Not one of them can offer any compelling real-world reasoning for why Santa would want to do this anyway, what he gets out of it, how he obtains supplies, feeds himself and his workers, treats disease, avoids old age and death, or how they all came to play this role in the first place. And yet you are portrayed as an imbecile and one chip short of Adolph Hitler for not believing it.
Yup, that's how it feels.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Inviting You to Ask an Atheist

Tomorrow (Wednesday, April 13th) is National Ask An Atheist Day 2011. The event, which is sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), is targeted primarily at secular groups on high school and college campuses, but hey, I consider myself a lifelong student—I'm always up for learning something new!—so if you have a question for an atheist but there are no freethinking high school or college kids handy, try me. Just post your question using the "comments" option below this post. (If you're not comfortable posting your question publicly, you can contact me privately. I use the service whose name starts with a Y, and my login name there is the same as my screen name on this blog. I promise not to publish your name or any other identifying details if I answer your question here.) If there are no questions from the audience, I'll post some questions that I've been asked in real life, and my answers to them, in the next few days.

I'm not a theologian or any variety of scientist, and I don't pretend to be; questions on subjects of which I have little or no personal knowledge will be probably be answered with a link to a Wikipedia article. What I can talk about is my opinions and experiences as a reasonably normal, intelligent person who happens to be a member of "the most distrusted minority in America." Trust is based on honesty and openness, and that's what I'm offering. Interested?


Monday, April 11, 2011

Parodying the Ridiculous

I've never watched Glen Beck's show (from which Beck will be "transition[ing] off later this year"), and now thanks to Jon Stewart, I don't have to!

I'd also managed to avoid watching the "Friday" music video by Rebecca Black that went viral earlier this year, but finally gave in after Hemant posted the "Sunday" parody video that was produced by a Christian church near him. I thought at first that the parody must be a really horrible knockoff of the original, but after watching at least a full minute of each of them (about as much as I could stand), I'd say they're equally bad. Would somebody please tell me why anybody needs Auto-Tune for a song with a range of about 4 notes? If you can't manage to sing that much on-key without electronic aids, please confine your performances to your own shower.

H/T to Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars and Hemant at Friendly Atheist

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Exchanging Ideas

More freethought billboards are going up. The latest one I've heard about, in Indianapolis, is sponsored by the Center For Inquiry (CFI) and bears the message, "You don't need God — to hope, to care, to love, to live." I know I'm biased, but I don't see anything even remotely controversial in that message. There are plenty of nonbelievers, including me, who do hope/care/love/live, so the message is obviously true. The word "God" is even capitalized, perhaps out of respect for the sensibilities of believers, or maybe as an attempt to appease potential vandals (similar billboards have been defaced).† Nonetheless, some Christians in Indianapolis are upset about the signs and have erected one of their own that claims "You need me. - God." (God apparently needs human agents to get his message across for him these days; I guess burning bushes and pillars of cloud or fire don't cut it in the 21st century. And billboards popping into existence without human agents would eliminate the need for faith, which to some is more highly prized than evidence.)

As annoyed as I get with people like Pastor Bill Jenkins of the Church of Acts, who insists that we atheists really do "need"†† his god, I believe that the free exchange of ideas, even—or especially—conflicting ideas, is a good thing. As a lifelong resident of the Bible Belt, it's hard for me to imagine anybody getting past second grade without hearing "the message of salvation," but Pastor Bill and his fellow believers are still welcome to publicize it. Those who've never been told that atheism is a viable option should likewise have the right to see the messages from CFI, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the Coalition for Reason, and other such groups.

Some people view opposing opinions as "divisive," and the controversy has caused at least one advertiser to ban all messages pertaining to religion. That's unfortunate, in my opinion. Anybody with sufficient intellectual maturity to understand these religious/freethought ads should also be mature enough to understand the principle of "live and let live." It isn't biblical, but it's still good advice.

† And as my inner English teacher reminds me, a noun that's used as a name is properly capitalized. For example, you'd use lowercase in a sentence like "My mom has brown hair" but uppercase in a sentence like, "What time is dinner, Mom?"

†† "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Scents-ing a Setup

I love my iPad, but our relationship is an emotional and intellectual one—not carnal—so watching this video was a little disturbing:

The news anchor who got roped in by the joke stormed off the set, but did so with a sense of humor, which is a nice change.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Setting the Curve

One of my fondest memories from high school is the Humanities course I took as an elective my junior year. Our instructor (who we called "Madame" because she was also the French teacher) didn't just introduce us to classic works of literature, art, and music; she gave us new ways to think about the world. One of her assignments seemed simple, maybe even silly, but it's had a lasting influence on my personal and professional life.

Our task was to write down the steps for assembling a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, in correct order and complete detail. On the date the paper was due, we arrived in class to find a table laid out with a loaf of bread, jars of peanut butter and jelly, plastic knives, and paper towels. Madame stood at the table and precisely followed the instructions as they were read aloud from each student's paper. Most 6-year-olds can assemble a sandwich, but when the job is broken down in such detail, it proves to be amazingly complicated. If you forget something as basic as removing a jar lid or the twist tie/tag that holds the bread bag closed, you go hungry. Student after student failed the task, but at least one succeeded. It was the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I have had in my entire life.

The true measure of a person's understanding of a process or idea is how well they can explain it to someone else. If you claim to know a song, you should be able to sing or play it for others. If you genuinely know what a word means, you should be able to define it clearly. If you really know how to operate a piece of machinery, you should be able to teach someone else to use it properly. Ideally, our beliefs would work the same way. If I'm asked why I believe in a given proposition, I should either be able to provide evidence for it or be prepared to change my mind when I'm presented with solid, objective evidence that supports a different position.

What's your most cherished belief, and could you explain it to someone who'd never heard of it before? If aliens landed on Earth, understanding science and logic and English and eager to grasp our culture, could you make a rational case for your ideas, or would you have to resort to appeals to authority and phrases like "That's just the way it is"? If the aliens didn't grasp your best explanations, where would the blame lie—with them, or with you? If you can examine your views as though they're completely new to you and still make sense of them, you've passed the test. If you tried but found your mind retreating to old and familiar territory, give yourself partial credit for the attempt. And if you tried and found that you had to discard a pet theory that hasn't stood the test of time, you've gone to the head of the class.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dining For a Dollar (Part 3)

I've been thinking about ways to use cheap ($1 or less) food items to create healthy meals. If I were forced to live on such inexpensive items (for financial reasons, or because I couldn't get to stores with healthier options), I think I'd mostly just prepare things like cereal, sandwiches, and pasta with canned/jarred sauce and/or veggies, but there could be a few opportunities for real, from-scratch cooking.

Here's an actual recipe based on items I've purchased for $1 or less. Depending on the seasonings you add and the garnishes you use, this could potentially be vegan, low in fat, and low in sodium. (Jarred salsa is usually quite salty, but a cup or so in a whole potful of beans isn't going to raise the sodium level by too much.)

Black Beans and Rice
  • 1-lb. bag black beans (dry, uncooked)†
  • 1 cup (or more) salsa, jarred†
  • 1-1/2 cups rice (dry, uncooked)††
  • seasonings (salt, pepper, chili powder, cumin, etc.) to taste†
  • any desired garnishes: sour cream, shredded cheese, diced onion, chopped cilantro, crumbled corn chips, etc.
  1. Prepare black beans according to package directions (e.g., sort, rinse, cover with water, soak overnight, drain, rinse, cover with fresh hot water, and simmer gently until tender, about 1-1/2 hours). (I don't add salt to beans as they cook; I've read this makes the beans tough.) Let the beans cool a while so they'll be easier to handle.
  2. Drain the beans, reserving a few cups of the cooking liquid.
  3. (Optional) To slightly thicken the dish, puree about 1 cup of the cooked beans with a little of the cooking liquid. (I use a "stick" type blender for this.)
  4. Combine the beans (whole and pureed) with the salsa. Add enough of the reserved bean cooking liquid to achieve the consistency you like. Taste, and adjust seasonings. Depending on the brand and heat level of the salsa you used, spices like cayenne pepper and cumin may work well. (You could stop at this point and refrigerate the beans for a day or two, then reheat when needed.)
  5. Cook 1-1/2 cups rice according to package directions. As the rice is cooking, reheat the bean mixture.
  6. Spoon hot cooked rice into a bowl, top with the bean mixture, and garnish as desired.
Serves 6.

† Purchased from my local dollar store.

†† My local dollar stores carry only white rice. I prefer brown rice, which I've never found at a dollar store, but 1-lb. packages of store-brand brown rice are sometimes available on sale for a dollar at my regular grocery store. Keep uncooked brown rice in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice, but Alton Brown's recipe for Baked Brown Rice is super-easy and yields consistently great results. If you're a vegan, just substitute vegetable oil for the butter that the recipe calls for.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Reliving My Youth

The Commodore 64, with its iconic beige case and built-in keyboard, is coming back. If—like me—you're a geek of a certain age, the thought makes your heart beat a little faster; you almost certainly remember the C64 and might have had one yourself. I still have mine, although it's been sitting out in the garage for years now and is probably infested with spiders.

I remember bringing it home from Target (the one I still shop at) on a Saturday evening. I felt like a new parent bringing the baby home from the hospital. I started out small, just the basic unit and the standalone floppy disk drive, but the Commodore-brand monitor soon followed (no more hooking up to the TV set!), then the 300-baud modem. When Quantum Link (the precursor to America Online) became available, I upgraded to a 1200-baud modem and felt like I was flying. I'd used CompuServe a few times but QLink was different, cooler. I participated in some of the user forums (known collectively as "People Connection") and exchanged emails with folks I met there, although I don't think I knew anybody IRL (in real life) who used the service. In the age before emoticons ("smilies") were common, I discovered how easily hastily-typed messages can be misinterpreted, and I learned to read and write more thoughtfully. I spent a memorable, though largely sleepless, couple of weeks playing my way through the Neuromancer video game from Interplay...the first and last time I allowed myself to become that thoroughly engrossed in any game. I can hear the soundtrack (by Devo) in my head now.

The CNET article says that "Commodore doesn't seem to have given any clues as to when it will release the new computer." Damn, I've been overcome by a wave of nostalgia but I hate waiting. Does anybody know how to get spiders out of a floppy disk drive?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dining For a Dollar (Part 2)

In response to a $1 cookbook that was no bargain (it's the first book in a long, long time that I've actually been tempted to just throw away, instead of donating it or passing it along to someone else), here's a list of dollar-store foodstuffs that will nourish your body without emptying your wallet. Unfortunately, the dollar stores in my area don't stock any refrigerated or frozen foods other than cold drinks and ice cream novelties, but I think I could get by a few days a week with ingredients like these:
  • Beans, dry and canned (you get more for your money and can control sodium levels by cooking dry beans yourself)
  • Dairy foods and substitutes, like soy milk or small containers of reduced-fat UHT ("Ultra High Temperature" pasteurized, shelf-stable) cow's milk
  • Fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, etc.) in tins or pouches
  • Fruits in many forms: canned or jarred, in single-serving containers (like applesauce), dried (raisins), and juice; look for no-sugar-added varieties
  • Nuts (including peanut butter) and "soy nuts" (roasted soybeans); look for no-salt-added varieties
  • Vegetables in cans or jars, and don't forget salsa (it's usually non-fat and loaded with healthy veggies); look for low-sodium varieties
  • Whole-grain breads and snack foods like corn tortillas, 100% whole-wheat bread and crackers, and popcorn
  • Whole-grain cereals like oatmeal, oat rings, and shredded wheat
I prefer whole-grain flour, flour tortillas, rice, and pasta (which I've never found at dollar stores) to their refined counterparts. Whole-grain versions do sometimes show up on sale for $1 at regular grocery stores, but if I were limited to just dollar-store items, I'd go ahead and buy white rice, etc. Almost anything that I cook myself from basic ingredients, even if they're not whole-grain, is going to be healthier than something prepared from a mix or purchased from a fast-food restaurant.

(It's important to read labels, though. That cutesy plastic "honey" bear probably contains yellow-tinted corn syrup, not honey. And I should point out that dollar stores aren't necessarily the cheapest source of a given product; you might find the same item for a bit less than a dollar at a "regular" store.)

These foods can be combined into reasonably healthy meals: whole-grain cereal with milk and fruit for breakfast, peanut butter or tuna sandwiches on whole-wheat bread and fruit for lunch, bean soup or pasta with veggies for dinner, nuts and/or popcorn as snacks, etc. If you eat like this most of the time, you don't have to feel guilty about occasionally splurging on a chocolate-covered ice cream cone from the freezer case by the checkout counter!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Sleeping Furiously

Philosopher Anthony Grayling is less well known in the US than he is in Britain (where he seems to be as renowned for his hair as he is his ideas), but he's definitely got my attention. In an interview that appeared in yesterday's Guardian, Grayling discusses his new work, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible,† and responds to charges that some in the atheist movement have adopted a "militant" tone:
Well, firstly, I think the charges of militancy and fundamentalism of course come from our opponents, the theists. My rejoinder is to say when the boot was on their foot they burned us at the stake. All we're doing is speaking very frankly and bluntly and they don't like it...But we're not burning them at the stake. They've got to remember that when it was the other way around it was a much more serious matter. And besides, really, how can you be a militant atheist? How can you be militant non-stamp collector? This is really what it comes down to. You just don't collect stamps. So how can you be a fundamentalist non-stamp collector? It's like sleeping furiously. It's just wrong.
I shall have to add his book to my reading list!

H/T to Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True

† In the Guardian article, the book's title is given as The Good Book: A Secular Bible, but shows the title as "A Humanist Bible." I assume this means that the British and American versions have slightly different titles, in the same way that the first "Harry Potter" novel is known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in the U.K. but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Redding Up†

Criticism is easy. Praise may take a bit more effort but is so much more satisfying for everybody:

The young lady in the video seems to be handling the unexpected attention very gracefully. I'd have gone as red as the caps that the flash-mobbers wore.

† For those who aren't from Pennsylvania and haven't seen the "Law & Order: CI" episode in which the phrase "redd up" is explained, see

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dining For a Dollar

I'm cheap but I adore shopping, so naturally I love dollar stores. I've found some surprisingly wonderful things there, like a great case for my 2nd-generation iPod touch. The case originally sold for $30 but was rendered obsolete by the release of the 3rd-generation "iTouch," so lucky me!

Of course, most dollar-store items really are worth only a dollar, or less. Every once in a while I try new items even if I suspect their true value falls in the "or less" category. I can usually steer clear of the junk food (I try to not shop when I'm hungry), but I'm a sucker for books, cookbooks in particular. On a recent trip to the dollar store, I came across a cookbook by a woman who loves dollar stores as much as I do, so all the recipes were based on inexpensive ingredients: dollar-store items, foods available for $1 or less (every day or during sales) at "regular" stores, or staple items like seasonings. I flipped through the book briefly and decided to buy it, even though I didn't immediately see any recipes that appealed to me.

Nor did I find any recipes I wanted to try after reading the book (somewhat) more thoroughly. I don't own a deep-fryer, and I don't care for refrigerated biscuit dough, no matter how much it's dressed up with cheese or cinnamon-sugar. (The author admits that "This cookbook should be called 1,000,001 ways to use refrigerated biscuits.") The whole book made me uncomfortable. I found myself irritated by the author's frequent references to her church and religious beliefs, but decided that it's her book, after all, and she's allowed to express her opinions and personality. (And a lot of good food does show up at church potluck I'm told!) But I couldn't get past the lack of proofreading, the overabundance of exclamation marks, the indistinct black-and-white photos, and most of all the (lack of) nutritional value of the recipes. The premise of the book is "to provide delicious affordable meals," but unfortunately in our culture, that often means food that's loaded with fat, salt, and refined carbohydrates.

A dollar store doesn't offer a lot of healthy options, but there are some. I don't think I could come up with a book's worth of healthy recipes using just dollar-store items, but I could probably manage a pamphlet, or at least a few blog posts. I shall have to think on this...

Friday, April 1, 2011

Fooling Around (Not)

I briefly toyed with the idea of posting something April-Foolish today, but I chickened out. Maybe I'm humor-impaired. I just couldn't come up with anything that would initially seem reasonable but would still be identifiable as a joke after a moment's reflection, and I don't feel like kidding about something important like breaking my new (and beloved) iPad 2 or finally succumbing to Ray Comfort's passionate but proofless pleas to accept Christianity.

So instead, I'll just wish my stepdad a very happy 80th birthday! Jack, thank you for many years of great stepfatherhood (especially those first few...several...years during which I was a less-than-stellar stepchild). And thank you also for arranging to be born on a day that's so easy to remember!