The True Meaning of Christmas…

I should really be doing other work, but after reading the news this morning, it dawned on me that what I really wanted to do was write a short blog post about “The True Meaning of Christmas.”  (NOTE: For all the readers of my blog who are religious, this is your cue to stop reading now if you don’t want to hear me discuss the historical origins of Christmas.)

While other people have put similar ideas on paper before, I wanted something I could refer back to easily for future reference.  I also wanted to extend those ideas slightly.  So, I give you my version of the True Meaning of Christmas:

1) In pre-history, December 25th didn’t actually exist as a date, that had to await the invention of the Gregorian calendar.  Calendars were, of course, under development, but none of them had a pre-specified date for the birth of the mythical figure Jesus.

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2) By roughly 4,000 BCE pre-historic astronomers and astronomers in early Egypt developed calendars, noting that the shortest day of the year (in terms of amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere) is close to December 25th (actually Dec. 21st).  Their calendars obviously don’t include a month called December.

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3) ~648-330 BCE – Using the Egyptian calendar and basing some of their beliefs on those of the Egyptians, the Persians developed a belief in a sun god named Mithras, whose birthday fell on or around the date we would now recognize to be about December 25th.

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4) ~100 BCE to ~300 CE – Romans celebrate a winter festival called Saturnalia, which celebrates the opening of the temple of Saturn.  The festival starts out as a 1 day affair on December 17th, but eventually turns into a week-long affair, running through December 23th.  The festival is marked by giving gifts, feasts, and parties.

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5) 274 CE – A new Roman festival is introduced called “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti,” which is basically Latin for the “birthday of the unconquered sun god.”  Solis Invictus was the name of the sun god and a celebration was held in his honor on December 25th, decades before Christians began celebrating Christmas.

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6) ~200-400 CE (estimated dates; probably range much wider) – Prior to their Christianization, Germans and Scandinavians practiced polytheism (a.k.a. they were pagans).  One of their celebrations, possibly influenced by Roman celebrations, was the festival of Yule, which took place around December 25th (exact dates aren’t clear).  The festival included sacrificing animals, burning yule logs, singing yule songs, and decorating with evergreen boughs.  Other than decorating their temples and the men with the blood of the animals sacrificed, many of the traditions from Yule celebrations have been incorporated into modern Christmas celebrations (Too bad about that blood decorating thing…  I’m sensing a new holiday tradition here!).  Yule is also the root of the word “jolly.”

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7)354 CE  – Historical records make first mention of Christians celebrating Christmas as a festival, probably near December 25th and overlapping with other Roman festivities.

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8) During the 1200s CE, Christians began incorporating elements of the Roman festival Saturnalia into their new holiday, Christmas.  The festival of Saturnalia becomes the 12 Days of Christmas.

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9) During the 1500s a character is introduced into Christmas celebrations named Father Christmas.  He serves a variety of roles, but he is generally just seen as a jovial old drunk guy.

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10) In the 17th Century Protestants are disturbed by the raucous nature of Christmas celebrations (which are still similar to Yule and Saturnalia).  They ban all Christmas celebrations.  This includes Puritans in the US and religious groups in the UK.  Roman Catholics respond by trying to make Christmas celebrations more religious.  The bans are relatively short-lived.

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11) Christmas undergoes little development until the middle of the 19th Century when popular authors like Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and Clement Clarke Moore write about Christmas.  In their stories they invent many of the traditions and meanings that are now associated with Christmas – stockings, Santa Claus, family dinners, Christmas trees, gifts, etc.

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12) The creation of the new traditions by 19th Century authors also begins the commercialization of the holiday, which is quickly embraced by the rapidly developing consumerist culture of the United States.  Corporations latch on to the idea of an end of the year spending spree, which is beneficial for their bottom line.  Smartly, they wrap this in altruism – it’s always good to give, right?

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13) Also created in the middle of the 19th Century is the modern-day conception of Santa Claus, who was drawn by cartoonist Thomas Nast.  The idea is rooted in various European traditions of a gift giver, which is probably rooted in older traditions, perhaps representing the mythical magi who gave gifts to the infant Jesus and other Persian and Roman myths.

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14) Christmas became a federal holiday in the U.S. in 1870.  It wasn’t until the late 20th Century, however, that religious fundamentalists in the U.S. began to decontextualize Christmas and turn it into a part of their culture war.  “Decontextualize” means they removed the context of the holiday.  The context is everything outlined above – the fact that it is based on various other holidays stolen or co-opted from other religious groups.  Once you remove the context of something you get to assert that it has only one meaning – a celebration of the birth of Jesus.  This is actually a very clever ploy by religious fundamentalists and political pundits to monopolize the meaning of a term and then use it against moderate Christians in their culture war.  It makes moderately religious people feel guilty.  My thought here is that religious fundamentalists want to use this to attract more moderate thinkers to their way of thinking, building their armies of followers.

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15) Several years ago a group of atheists, agnostics, and humanists decided they didn’t like the consumerism associated with Christmas.  They also decided they didn’t like the religious themes now attached to Christmas. They created a new holiday that falls between the Winter Solstice and December 25th called Human Light Day. It is a celebration of humanity.  Some give gifts; some decorate in ways very similar to Christmas.  Some sing songs.  It’s basically a secular version of Christmas.  In a sense, December 25th has come full circle – it started out as just another day, became an important date for a bunch of mythological deities, and has now been returned to just another day.

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16) So, do you want to know the true meaning of Christmas?  It can be summarized in one word: “syncretism.”  Syncretism is the combining, adoption, or co-opting of beliefs of one group by a new group.  Religious history is full of syncretism.  For instance, when Roman Catholicism came to the Americas, particularly Latin America, they forced the Native Americans to convert to Roman Catholicism.  As part of this process, many of the Native Americans carried their old religious views into their new religion.  At the same time, Roman Catholicism, learning from its thousands of years of forcing conversion of other groups, realized it is easier to co-opt the beliefs of a group than destroy them.  To facilitate this, Roman Catholics built churches over Native American temples, overlayed Native American gods onto saints, and co-opted holidays, like Dia de los Muertos.  As a result, Roman Catholicism in Latin America is quite different from Roman Catholicism in Europe, the US, etc.  It is a syncretism between Native American religions and European Roman Catholicism.

Syncretism is the key to understanding Christmas.  Christmas did not just pop out of thin air the day Jesus was born.  No one knows about Jesus’s childhood nor when he was actually born.  So, the holiday couldn’t just spring up to celebrate Jesus’s birthday given all the unknowns.  Also, the evidence suggesting Christians slowly pieced together a holiday out of prior religious festivals is quite compelling.  You can thank Scandinavian and Germanic pagans for: yule logs, Christmas songs, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus.  You can thank pagan Romans for gift giving, feasts, and parties.  And you can thank 19th Century authors and profit seeking corporations for: Santa Claus, gift giving, modern decorations, and the rampant consumerism of the season.

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Now, for my contribution.  Given the fact that Christmas has been constructed, reconstructed, and even deconstructed by various groups over the years, that means the meaning of the holiday is fluid.  The claims of religious fundamentalists and political pundits trying to boost their ratings aside, the true meaning of Christmas is not the birth of the mythical Jesus.  The true meaning of Christmas is whatever you want it to be; religious, secular, whatever.  It’s your life; you get to give it whatever meaning you want.  No one has a monopoly on what Christmas can or does mean.  Yes, the word historically refers to “Christ’s Mass,” but there is no reason it has to in your own mind.  After all, how many Christians associate “Yule” with Odin?  You can turn Christmas into a purely secular holiday that includes no thought of the mythical Jesus, or Mithras, or Odin, or Solis Invictus, or any other god whose birthday has been celebrated on that day.

I think the true meaning of Christmas should be more akin to that created by secular humanists: A day to remember that we are all humans, to celebrate our relationships, both immediate and distant, and to reflect on our common goal to see our species survive.  That, to me, is what any holiday should mean.  But, the beauty of understanding that a holiday’s meaning is fluid is that you get to decide for you. I hope you have a happy holiday season, whatever that means to you.

Here’s the complete history of Christmas in a single chart:

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I created the chart in Powerpoint (1 and 2).

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update on Signing for Something website

Not that I’m excited to post on here about Mormonism again, but I do think this turn of events is interesting.  One of the key people who set up the website “Signing for Something” opposing the LDS Church’s attempts to ban gay marriage in California is now being excommunicated for expressing his dissenting views.  He has put together a couple of videos on YouTube for people to see what’s going on (video 1, video 2).  He’s definitely an eccentric dude, but you have to admire his courage and gall.  Comments welcome!

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Colorado City and Home

Our trip to Southern Utah was pretty short, just 3 days.  My in-laws wanted to see the Shakespearean festival (though Cyrano de Bergerac is not by Shakespeare), Zion National Park, and Les Miserables.  I suggested Mountain Meadows and one other stop: Colorado City.  For those not familiar with Colorado City, Arizona, it’s a town literally on the border between Utah and Arizona (strategically placed to avoid authorities when required).  It’s also the base of operations for The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the increasingly well-known polygamist group, some of the members of which were the residents of the ranch in El Dorado Texas that was raided in April.  Debi and I recently wrote book chapters on the FLDS (the bookshould be coming out in the next 6 months or so), and I’ve heard lots of stories about the FLDS, so I figured stopping by Colorado City might be fun.  We originally planned to stop there after Zion National Park, but we spent more time in the park than originally planned, so we moved it to Wednesday and stopped there on our way home.

We didn’t really know what we wanted to see or what we could see in Colorado City, but we figured we’d drive around and see whatever we could and then hopefully stop for lunch somewhere.  Often Colorado City is referred to as Colorado City/Hilldale, as the town is kind of split right on the border – Colorado City is in Arizona and Hilldale is in Utah.  Since we were driving south from Utah, we passed through Hilldale first. Hilldale is, well, pretty much non-existent.  The majority of the city is in Arizona.  Only the very northern edge of the settlement is in Utah.  So, it really is more accurate to say Colorado City.

Without a particular plan of attack, we simply turned down a street and started driving around randomly.  As luck would have it, the best part of our trip happened at the very first house on the very first street we drove down.  I had heard stories that people in Colorado City are very distrustful of outsiders and that they will stop and stare at you if you drive into town.  I wasn’t sure if that was true, but it really is.  As we turned down the first street, we saw a woman dressed in the standard FLDS dress with her kids working on the lawn outside.  All of the kids stopped what they were doing and stared at us as we drove by.  We tried to get a picture that first time, but didn’t get a good one and felt pretty awkward doing so anyway.  So, we snuck up on them later and snapped this shot:

You can see the mother to the right, hoeing away.  The kids are all dressed in the standard outfits: girls in full-length dresses, boys in jeans and long sleeve shirts.  As we passed them this time, we waved.  Only the youngest kids waved back while all the others simply stared.  I’m not surprised by their response, but I am fascinated: the FLDS are definitely secretive and wary of outsiders.  I would kind of feel bad for my voyeurism, but I really am interested in them from a sociological perspective, so I can kind of justify snapping these photos.

We drove around the town for another 30 to 45 minutes, just seeing what we could see.  I don’t think anyone has written an article on this yet, but someone should definitely write an article on the architecture/urban planning of a secretive polygamist sect.  I was absolutely fascinated by what we saw.  If someone is interested in writing this paper, maybe the following will give you a good start (and then we can collaborate on an actual article).  I’ll begin with the most common house type we saw, something like the house in this picture:

It’s a very large home, which makes sense considering the sizes of families among the FLDS.  But there are several things that are noteworthy about these homes.  First, unlike homes for monogamous couples, they aren’t necessarily built for the aesthetic value but to maximize space.  This is particularly apparent in some of the other homes we photographed (see below), but also apparent in the above home – the more rooms the better.  Also, while you can’t see it very well in this low-resolution photo, the exterior of the house isn’t finished stucco but rather wooden particle board painted gray, which is pretty common among the homes we saw.  Second, notice the additions: the small building to the left is an addition to this home and there is a trailer to the right.  Neither of the two additions fit, aesthetically, with the larger home, reinforcing the idea that construction in the FLDS community is more about space than about architectural appeal.  I have to wonder if that is unique in residential communities.

This next photo does a better job illustrating the pragmatism of the FLDS.  Similar to the above home, but even more simplistic and less stylistic, this home is basically an enormous box with virtualy no adornments.  Also like the above home, the exterior is wooden particle board, this time painted brown, with no attempt at adding a finished exterior, like stucco or brick.  This is about the most utilitarian home you can get: it’s a massive box with tons of space for wives and kids.

Though slightly less common than traditional foundation homes, a fairly common sight was trailer homes like the one in the photo below.  There are hundreds of these homes scattered throughout Colorado City.  Again, this is probably a simple matter of utilitarianism: If you run out of space for your wives and kids, you buy a trailer and set it up in a field near your home.

The three homes above also illustrate the lack of interest in maintaining one’s yard, which was also very common in Colorado City.  Of the several hundred homes we saw, very few had any significant landscaping.  This is reaffirmed when you visit the town’s cemetery (which doubles as a monument to Prophet Leroy S. Johnson):

While we were in the cemetery there were sprinklers on and it was apparent some minor attempts at landscaping the cemetery had taken place.  But it remained mostly sandy soil and weeds.  There was virtually no grass and no clear lines demarcating sand from grass or walking areas from viewing areas.  I have a rather cynical theory to explain this that goes along with my assertions of pragmatism: The community wants to give the veneer of been clean, tidy, and well-kept, but the time required in simply handling the hundreds of kids is too much.  Additionally, while there are weak attempts at landscaping, the real interests of the community lie in maintaining their lifestyle and earning money, neither of which require nice landscaping.  Finally, maintaining a nice lawn in a desert area like Colorado City is probably both prohibitively expensive and time consuming.  It would require making that a priority, which is clearly not of interest in the community.  As a result, there is virtually no landscaping of note in the community.

Another point of architectural interest is the preponderance of abandoned homes like this one:

We probably saw one to two dozen homes just like this – framed up, but missing windows and inhabitants.  I don’t know what the explanation is for these homes, so I’m just going to propose a couple of possibilities.  First, the trust that holds the communal funds for the FLDS is now in receivership by the State of Arizona.  With limited access to the hundreds of millions in the fund, construction may have ceased on new projects.  Another explanation may be the reign of Warren Jeffs.  Once he took control of the religion he kicked out a number of men who were seen as threats.  These homes may stand as tributes to and reminders of the importance of obedience to the prophet.  I really am just guessing here, so if anyone reading this has a better explanation, I’d love to hear it.

Another element of the architecture of the community that is of interest is the preponderance of large privacy walls.  Of course you see privacy fences in cities and towns all over, but rarely do you see walls as imposing as this:

Walls like this were pretty common, though they weren’t all as tall as this one.  The walls are also pragmatic – to keep people like me from seeing what is going on behind them.

Despite having everything in common (supposedly), there are also clear class differences in the community, which are also apparent in the architecture.  Compare the home in the photo below to the homes shown earlier:

I’m guessing the quality of the homes reflects the religious hierarchy as well.

Another strange architectural feature is the lack of signage on most buildings.  By far the largest building in town, this massive white building, had no sign indicating its function.  From its architecture I’m inclined to believe this is the main church for the FLDS in the community:

The lack of signage is pretty common.  Again, I’m guessing this is a privacy thing: If you don’t know what the functions of buildings are, it’s hard to find people doing things in those buildings.  The lack of signage was also apparent on the restaurant/cafe where we ate lunch (which was the second most interesting thing we saw) – Vermillion Restaurant:

The sign is under the awning and not facing the street but between this building and another.  You really have to look for it to find it.

I knew they had a restaurant or two in town and was hoping to eat in town just to get a little bit of the experience.  We found this cafe near the center of town.  On the door was a sign that said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”  Next to that sign was a sign that said, “Absolutely no cameras or video equipment permitted inside.”  As I was really interested in seeing how things functioned in the community, I didn’t take my camera in, though I would have loved to have gotten a photo of the inside of the cafe.  Inside was basically one large room with a counter at one end and restrooms at the other.  There were no booths, just very long tables with chairs.  It was completely open with no pillars, so you could see everyone inside.  You wrote your order on a slip of paper at the counter, they rang you up, then delivered it to your table.  The food selection was pretty interesting as much of it was simply frozen prepared food that they would heat up and deliver (e.g., mozzarella sticks, pizza sticks, chicken sticks, fish sticks, etc.).  We placed our orders and headed to a table to wait for them.

The owners of the restaurant are clearly FLDS – the woman who took our order was wearing the traditional dress and had the hairstyle that is common among the FLDS.  There were a couple of other tables occupied.  One was occupied by several men, all of whom were wearing long-sleeve shirts, jeans, and hats.  They all had cell phones and frequently made calls.  The other table was occupied by a mother with four kids, all girls and all under the age of about 8.  We were the only non-FLDS in the cafe.  It was fascinating to see the young girls respond to our presence.  There was one girl, probably around 4 or 5, who clearly recognized us as outsiders.  We were just as novel to her as she was to us.  She couldn’t stop staring at us.  She and her older sister kept running around our table to get a better look at us.  We smiled and waved and said hello, but she was reticent to respond.  We tried to be as cordial as possible, but the adults, who did glance at us furtively, didn’t really respond at all.

I did ask the person who took our order one thing about the community: I asked her if there was a monument to the 1953 Short Creek Raid.  The community used to be called Short Creek, but changed its name after it was raided by the State of Arizona in 1953 (very similar to the raid on the ranch in Texas).  If you read the entry on Wikipedia you’ll see that the polygamists in the town had forewarning about the raid and gathered in the local school to sing patriotic songs while the kids played around the flagpole outside.  I thought there would be a monument to the raid, as it was a defining moment in the community.  So, I asked her where it was.  She told us, but it was a good thing I asked or we never would have found it.  If it is a monument to the earlier raid, it is pretty neglected at this point.  Here’s a photo of the school:

The yard, like the rest of the community, is unkempt, but now it is also littered with trash and junk.  There is a sign indicating it is a historic location, but whoever is in charge of keeping it up is literally letting it die:

Debi and I got a picture at the famed flagpole, which was about the only area that seemed to be slighty well kept.  The rest of the place was really going down hill.

This was our last stop in the community before we headed back to Salt Lake City.  On our way home I asked my in-laws what there favorite part of the trip was.  Rosemary liked Les Miserables.  Gary, who didn’t understand initially why were going to visit a town on the border, said his favorite part was Colorado City.  I have to admit it was probably my favorite part, too.  It’s not every day that you get to visit a town in the heart of America that is inhabited by a people with a culture so foreign to regular Americans that you literally feel like are in a foreign country and are experiencing culture shock.  It was a fascinating chance to peek inside a reclusive, secretive sect and get a glimpse of the lifestyle that makes them so unique.

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the latest Steve…

In case you’ve never heard of “Project Steve” of the National Center for Science Education, here’s a quick recap:

NCSE’s “Project Steve” is a tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of “scientists who doubt evolution” or “scientists who dissent from Darwinism.” (For examples of such lists, see the FAQs.)

Creationists draw up these lists to convince the public that evolution is somehow being rejected by scientists, that it is a “theory in crisis.” Most members of the public lack sufficient contact with the scientific community to know that this claim is totally unfounded. NCSE has been exhorted by its members to compile a list of thousands of scientists affirming the validity of the theory of evolution, but although we easily could have done so, we have resisted such pressure. We did not wish to mislead the public into thinking that scientific issues are decided by who has the longer list of scientists!

Project Steve mocks this practice with a bit of humor, and because “Steves” are only about 1% of scientists, it incidentally makes the point that tens of thousands of scientists support evolution. And it honors the late Stephen Jay Gould, NCSE supporter and friend.

We’d like to think that after Project Steve, we’ll have seen the last of bogus “scientists doubting evolution” lists, but it’s probably too much to ask. We do hope that at least when such lists are proposed, reporters and other citizens will ask, “but how many Steves are on your list!?”

Well, if you hurry and check, the latest Steve on the list is non other than Steven Wayne Morgan, Debi’s brother.  That page is regularly updated with the latest Steve, so catch it before it goes away.  Below is a screenshot for when another Steve is added to the list.

Steve joins the ranks of the elite!

Very cool!

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Workers of the World Unite! (on Sunday… in Church?)

I’m adding this sentence from a paper to my list of memorable student quotes,

The religious affiliations of the United States as a whole are that 77% of people are Christian (which includes Catholics, Baptists, Protestants, Methodists, Lutherans, Christians, Proletarians, Episcopalians, Mormons, and others), 1% are Jewish, 1% are Muslim, 1% are Buddhist, less than 1% are Hindu, 1% have other affiliations, 14% have no religious affiliation, and 5% refuse to disclose their affiliation.

I highlighted the mix-up for those who aren’t reading it closely enough to catch it. I’m sure Marx would roll over in his grade if “proletarians” were considered a religion, but, then again, maybe Proletarians would bring a much-needed focus on social stratification to religious practice.  The creed of the proletarian,

There is no god, but our masters, the bourgeoisie, are demon spawn from hell. 

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Fort de Soto; Expelled

We had our first familial visitor last weekend. My Dad was in Orlando for a carwash convention and made a side trip out to Tampa (about 1 1/2 hours away). He and a colleague of his spent the night then we took them out to Fort de Soto. Debi and I had never been but had heard a lot of good things about it. Fort de Soto’s North Beach was recently chosen as the #1 beach in the U.S. Unfortunately I forgot to take my camera, so this borrowed photo will have to do:

fort de soto It’s an amazing beach, and that’s not all there is to see/do there. There is, in fact, a Fort, too, along with a great bike trail. The best part – the only cost is the tolls to get there – about $0.85. The sand is remarkably fine and there is a lot of it. We’ll definitely be going back.

On a different note, if you’ve been following Ben Stein’s movie-making efforts with his anti-evolution flick, Expelled, you should check out this NYTimes review, which I think does a great job of summarizing the film. (Update: eSkeptic has even better reviews.)

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Now playing: ABBA – Take A Chance On Me
via FoxyTunes

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I’m not alone; peas, wonderful peas

I’ve been buried in classes and haven’t been doing much of anything other than school related stuff as of late, so not much to post. Here’s my round up of the last few weeks:

funny pic of the dayI just received an email from a friend with this link rating Bank of America as the worst bank in America. In case you don’t recall, I predicted this several months ago when they took my money and days of my life away, all because they screwed up multiple times! I knew I wasn’t alone in cursing Bank of America.

Peas, wonderful peas… We have a garden! I don’t think I mentioned on here that back in February we planted snow peas, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The snow peas grew like pubescent teenagers, so we’ve spent the last couple of weeks harvesting snow peas for salads and Chinese dishes. Unfortunately they are starting to die (we think it’s the heat – yes, it’s already 80 degrees here daily), so they may be a short-lived crop, but we’ll replace them with something else. We also have zucchini, watermelon, and basil growing too. We’re hoping to have quite the little harvest this summer.

Finally, in case you haven’t heard, the presidential hopefuls (Obama, Clinton, and McCain) turned down a chance to debate science and instead opted to “debate” faith (read: see who can claim to have the most faith). What a sad day for America… Judge a candidate not for the faith she wears on her sleeve but for the prowess of her intellect and her grasp of the issues facing the world. Alas, no, it’s not to be. America is more interested in a divine pissing match than real issues… 🙁

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Now playing: Gheorghe Zamfir – Stranger On The Shore
via FoxyTunes

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Tampa in the News

I’ve found since I started teaching Sociology that being up-to-date on local news can be useful (though it is less useful at my new school where many of the students are from other cities). This leads me to read the local paper, which is often relatively quotidian – thefts, car accidents, political debates, etc. Occasionally, however, I hear about stuff in the national media happening in my local area. There are two big stories (from the last couple of days) that have made national news. First up, the Cuban under 21 men’s soccer team came to Tampa to play for an Olympic qualifier and 7 of the players and an assistant coach defected. This isn’t all that uncommon and there isn’t anything particularly special about Tampa in this case, but it is big news and a commentary on Cuba. The second story didn’t make national headlines in the major papers, but it was picked up by a tech website that has a particular beef with Scientology: Slashdot noted the recent denial by a local judge of an injunction against protests at Scientology’s headquarters in Clearwater (which makes up part of the big three cities here: Tampa, St. Pete, and Clearwater). Again, this probably isn’t a “Clearwater/St. Pete/Tampa” news item so much as a Scientology news item, but I am always interested in things happening locally. (Also, there are supposed to be big protests this weekend at the headquarters… If I had time I’d go watch.)

On an interesting side note, how many of you, my faithful readers, have ever heard of the Dvorak keyboard? I’d heard about it quite a few times and had only ever heard that it was far more efficient and ergonomic than the traditional QWERTY keyboard. In my never-ending attempt to make typing easier on my hands (since I spend a large portion of my days in front of computers), I started practicing on a Dvorak keyboard (you can change your settings on your computer to get it working), only to get frustrated, think things through a bit, and begin to wonder how much of a difference Dvorak could really make. Turns out, not much, if at all. The Dvorak keyboard is often used to illustrate the idea that vested interests can overcome practicality and pragmatism when it comes to the adoption of inventions (in fact, Jared Diamond mentions Dvorak in this sense in Guns, Germs, and Steel). Having heard only that side of the argument dozens of times, I started repeating it (sorry to anyone who heard that from me; I was wrong and am now admitting it). But the frustration of trying to adopt the Dvorak keyboard eventually led me to search out criticisms and I ended up finding the one linked above in an economics journal (I know, it’s an economics journal…). Turns out, most of the “research” indicating Dvorak is (1) faster and (2) more ergonomic was done by… Guess who? August Dvorak, the person who developed it, patented it, and profited from it. Impartial studies indicate minor speed benefits (maybe 2% to 5%) and no difference in ergonomics. Additionally, the time required to retrain an accomplished typist (I type about 110 wpm on QWERTY) won’t ever be recouped in faster typing times – you’re better off spending more time training yourself on the QWERTY as you can actually get faster with additional training. So, if you’ve ever considered switching to Dvorak after already becoming proficient with QWERTY, don’t bother. If, however, you really think the 2%-5% speed advantage is worth it, I guess you could train your kids using Dvorak (though they’ll have a hell of time moving from keyboard to keyboard and changing settings on computers). One final note, I did buy a couple ergonomic keyboards (where the keys are split) and have noticed a substantial improvement in the pain I experience as a result of typing – the angles make a lot of sense and I highly recommend ergonomic keyboards.

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Now playing: Dave Matthews Band – Some Devil
via FoxyTunes

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the current zeitgeist – “Zeitgeist, The Movie”

A student of mine recently asked me my opinion on a movie making the circuits online called “Zeitgeist, The Movie”. He was smart enough to recognize that most of it is conspiracy theory (the movie mostly focuses on 9/11 conspiracies, which are crap, and banking conspiracies, which are also crap), but was interested in the religion components. I watched just the religion segment so I could give him some feedback. Here are my thoughts on that segment of the video:

I just watched the movie you suggested. It is accurate in some ways and speculative in others. I recognize a lot of the connections between Jesus and the other historical deities from a book I read by Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth), who documented many of these similarities. Thus, I’m fairly certain based on his work that the similarities between ancient deities are accurate.

I’m less familiar, however, with the idea of the cross (crux) and three kings (orion’s belt). A cursory examination seems to indicate that this interpretation is probably not accurate. The Crux was, until the 16th Century, considered part of Centaurus. No one prior to that would have called that constellation “the cross.” Whether or not you accept the historicity of Jesus, the stories claiming he was crucified on a cross pre-date the naming of the Crux constellation by well over 1,000 years (beginning somewhere around 100 to 150 CE). In short, even though the sun may be in the area of the Crux during that time of year, ancient writers didn’t consider the crux a separate constellation and would not have made this connection.

Also, there is book among the list of references that I have read that I know is complete bullshit (by an author named Acharya S; Joseph Campbell is also referenced). The motives and accuracy of anyone referencing that author are always going to be suspect to me given how horrendously inaccurate that book was (my review is available upon request). The author was not and is not a reputable scholar but a conspiracy theorist.

In short, I’d say what you have is a mixture of accurate statements, half-truths, speculation, and contortions. Maybe 50% of that video on religion is accurate; the balance is speculative, conspiracy-theory driven drivel. It’s entertaining and seems compelling, but it’s not accurate.

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