Thursday, January 3, 2019

Weight Loss Follow-Up - Keeping the Weight Off

fitnessWell, it's the start of a new year, and a lot of people are making weight loss resolutions, so I figured it was a good time to revisit a post from 2½ years ago, How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months. I've managed to keep the weight off (in fact, I met a new lower goal - 60 lbs lighter than my original weight), so I'm counting that as long term success. But I've also made a few adjustments, and had a few short term slips, so I figured I'd share what I've learned since then.

In that older entry, I made a short list of what I did to lose the weight, and then expanded on each of those items. Go read it for the details, especially if you haven't read it yet, but here's the short list:

  • Count Calories
  • Weigh Yourself Daily
  • Exercise
  • Optimize Nutrition
  • Take Days Off, but Don't Go Crazy
  • Find Ways to Make it as Easy as Possible
  • Set Reasonable Goals

I don't mean to imply that this is the optimal solution for everybody, but at least it worked for me, so some other people might find it useful. Anyway, let's go back through those items again with new updates since that old post.

Count Calories / Weigh Yourself Daily

I can't emphasize enough how useful those first two actions were for me. I set a calorie goal per weekday (I relax a bit on the weekends), and use the MyFitnessPal app to track exactly what I eat for the day to make sure I meet the goal. For one thing, I just didn't have a good sense of how many calories were in various foods before I started doing this (especially restaurant food). For another, logging the foods helps keep me from cheating. Certain foods that may just seem like little snacks can really add up if you're not careful. One cookie here (570 calories at Starbucks). A handful of sunflower seeds there (200 calories in 1/4 cup source). Maybe one or two beers with dinner (230 calories per each Sierra Nevada IPA). And before you know it, you've busted your calorie goal on just snacks without even eating anything filling or nutritious.

The scale also helps keep me on track. Now, don't stress over the numbers or fixate on weight entirely. After Thanksgiving, my weight on the scale went up 12 lbs. There's no conceivable way to gain 12 lbs of fat in a single day. But, the scale is still a good indicator, especially when you're on a normal routine. After weighing myself daily for a few years, I have a good sense of what my weekly pattern is like - a bit of a boost after my relaxed eating over the weekend, followed by a gradual decline to my target weight by Friday. If I relax too much over the weekends, as I did for a short time about a year ago when I also was lax about the daily weigh-ins, my weight will start to drift back up. Once I started weighing in daily again, it was a daily reminder of where I stood in relation to where I wanted to be, and I got back on track.

Now, I did alter my plan a bit as far as my long term daily calorie goals. My original plan was to ease my weekday calorie goal back up once I reached my target weight. But I've found that I prefer to stay strict during the weekdays, giving me a bit more cushion to relax on the weekends. It's a running joke in my family that I'm always hungry. This joke began before I ever even started on the diet (it's a big part of the reason I was so overweight to begin with). So I figure, if I'm going to be hungry, anyway, I might as well be hungry on 1250 calories a day as on 2000 calories a day. And it's a whole lot easier to be strict on weekdays when I'm eating at my desk at work or cooking a simple supper at the house, as opposed to weekends when we tend to meet up with friends.

Exercise

In that old entry, I mentioned that my wife and I were going to the gym a couple times per week. Well, it didn't last. The biggest reason was probably just the time - an hour at the gym plus time to change, shower, and drive all adds up to a decent chunk of the evening, especially with a few life changes that made us a whole lot busier. On top of that, my elbow gets aggravated when lifting weights, so my doctor recommended sticking to light weights at high reps. So, I switched to exercising with dumbbells at the house a couple mornings per week, and just recently adding in a leg day. It's still about 45 minutes per session, but I just roll out of bed to do it, and then go get the morning shower I was going to get, anyway, so I skip the extra time associated with the gym, and keep my evenings free.

During the spring & summer, I also try to jog and swim laps in our pool, but those are hard to find the time to keep up with. So, I try really hard not to slack off on my morning workouts.

And just to repeat something important from that previous entry - exercise is important for fitness, but unless you're a serious athlete, don't count on it to lose weight. You're probably not burning as many extra calories as you think you are. The best way to lose weight is to eat less.

Nutrition

I've stuck mostly with what I wrote in that old entry, but now concentrating mainly on getting enough protein and carbs even within my low calorie goals - 0.75 g of protein per pound I weigh, and 130 g of carbs. I haven't done any fad diets or specifically avoided any types of food (e.g. keto, Atkins, gluten-free), but just by default to get the protein and carbs without going over on calories, I've stuck mostly to lean white meats (chicken breast and pork loin), and baked or roasted foods. I also try to mix in different types of veggies for variety. And I usually have enough of a cushion to eat a ~50 calorie dessert with supper, which is just enough for a little treat.

I specifically mentioned Quest Bars and Muscle Milk in that old entry as supplements to try to hit my protein goals. And those are still good products, but they're not particularly cheap. So, I've switched to two protein supplements a bit easier on the bank account - Premier Protein Fiber Bars and Protein2o Protein Drinks. Like I wrote previously, those are mainly for snacks and as a post-workout drink. I still get the majority of my calories from 'real' food.

Just to put it out there, I recently wrote an entry on Good Sources of Potassium, back when I was starting to swim again but getting cramps. The surprising thing when I actually researched various foods, is that bananas aren't actually particularly good potassium sources. You're better off eating more vegetables, particularly zucchini and squash.

Take Days Off, but Don't Go Crazy

This is one of the areas I've found where I have to be pretty careful. Like I wrote up above, I'm always hungry, and certain foods are just packed with calories that can add up in a hurry. So, I can't just eat whatever I want for an entire weekend. I can relax a bit, and maybe pick one meal to splurge, but I still have to be at least somewhat disciplined.

Find Ways to Make it as Easy as Possible

This hasn't changed much. I still eat single serving microwave oatmeal for breakfast, microwave Lean Cuisines for lunch, and individually packaged afternoon snacks, and we still try to cook basically once per week, and then just heat up leftovers for the rest of the week. I just wouldn't have the dedication to make fresh, from scratch meals every day, let alone for every meal of the day. And I've already discussed how I've managed to fit in workouts the easiest way I could. It comes down to making habits you'll be able to stick with long term.

Set Reasonable Goals

This is one of the harder things to do longterm, and related to what maybe should have been its own topic - Find Motivation. My initial push was to get to a certain weight before a planned summer trip. But after reaching that goal and not having anything concrete to shoot for, it was easy to slack off a bit, which I did. But I buckled back down again for another vacation, then my 40th birthday, and then it was the holidays. Now we've got another trip planned in a few months. So, even though I've been managing, I know how hard it can be to find the motivation to keep the weight off. I've done it mainly by planning ahead for various events.

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So, I think that mostly covers the lessons I've learned over the past couple years of maintaining my weight loss. I hope that if you're reading this that it helps you out.

Related Previous Entries:

Image Source: ClipArt-Library

Monday, December 17, 2018

Happy Wright Brothers' Day, 2018

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, became the first people to achieve an accomplishment that people had been dreaming of for millenia - controlled, powered flight. Now, they weren't lone geniuses working in a vacuum. Others had had earlier limited successes, and people would have figured everything out eventually even without the Wrights (and were largely on the path to doing so, since the Wrights kept so much of their own research a secret), but the Wright brothers had a systematic, logical approach, putting them years ahead of their contemporaries. When they gave their first public demonstrations in France in 1908, crowds were awestruck. They certainly deserve the honor of being the first to flight.

To quote myself from a previous entry, "Flying has become so common place today that we take it for granted. People complain about the cramped seats, the long lines to get through security, the bad food (if you even get any) on flights. But just remember how long people have dreamt of flight, for how long people looked to the skies wanting to emulate the birds. Flying used to be the stuff of myth and legends, reserved for the gods. Now, we can all get in an airplane, and soar above the clouds. It really is something special."

Here are a few of the better aviation related pages/entries on this site that would make for good reading for Wright Brothers Day. The first entry on the last is brand new today.

So as you go about your business today, take a moment to look up and find an airplane, and marvel a little at the achievement.

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Much of the content of this entry was recycled, sometimes verbatim, from previous Wright Brothers Day entries.

Responding to a Flat-Earther Question: How Much Force Does It Take to Accelerate an Aircraft Sideways as It Flies North-South

In honor of Wright Brothers Day, I'm going to post an aviation-themed entry today. This entry started life as a comment on Quora, in response to a flat-earther. The most interesting aspect of the comment thread was a question the flat-earther raised that I'd never really thought about quantifying before.

If you think about the globe spinning, the equator has the highest velocity, going through one rotation per day. The poles have basically zero velocity, being just spinning about a point (from an earth-centric reference frame, at least).

Earth Rotation Diagram

So, if an aircraft flies directly north-south (or vice versa), in order to remain over the same line of longitude, it's sideways velocity has to change - it has to accelerate sideways*. And that means there has to be a sideways force. Just from experience, you know intuitively that it's a negligible force, but can we quantify that? How much of a force are we really talking about?

The flat-earther actually proposed a good thought experiment to think about the issue. Suppose there were a giant merry-go-round, the same diameter as the Earth, spinning at the same rate of 1 rotation per day. If you started at the center of the merry-go-round, you would have zero sideways velocity. If you walked outward on a straight line painted on the merry-go-round, your sideways velocity would start to increase, keeping matched with the merry-go-round. By the time you got to the edge, your sideways velocity would be quite high - close to 1000 mph.

So, let's actually use the merry-go-round thought experiment to determine the necessary forces. The results will be at least in the right order of magnitude, and it makes the math a whole lot simpler than trying to model all this on a globe.

So, here's a diagram of the scenario. You've got a merry-go-round spinning at some rotational velocity, ω. You have an object moving outwards on that merry-go-round at some radial velocity, Vr. That object, because it's on the merry-go-round, will also have some tangential velocity, Vt.

Figure 1

Our goal is to find tangential force, Ft, which is going to be defined by tangential acceleration, at, so we need to find changes in tangential velocity. So, let's let that object travel for some time, t. In that time, it will cover a certain radial distance, dr, which is obviously just defined by dr=Vr*t.

Figure 2

At the first point, 1, it will have a tangential velocity Vt1, where Vt1=ω*R1. And at the second point, 2, it will have a tangential velocity Vt2, where Vt2=ω*R2. Okay, I think that's got all the definitions taken care of. On to the equations:

R2 = R1 + Vr*t

ΔVt = Vt2 - Vt1
ΔVt = ω*R2 - ω*R1
ΔVt = ω*(R1+Vr*t) - ω*R1
ΔVt = ω*R1 + ω*Vr*t - ω*R1
ΔVt = ω*Vr*t

at = ΔVt/t
at = ω*Vr*t/t
at = ω*Vr

Ft = m*at
Ft = m*ω*Vr

So, things simplified quite nicely, where you don't need to worry about where exactly you are on the merry-go-round. All that matters is how fast the merry-go-round is spinning, and how fast the object is moving radially.

Let's calculate one more value, tangential load factor, nt, which is the g's the object will experience in the tangential direction, and is simply the tangential acceleration, at, divided by the regular acceleration due to gravity on Earth, g. Note that this is only dependent on speeds, not masses.

nt = at/g
nt = ω*Vr/g

Now, let's plug in some numbers, going through an example step-by-step. Let's consider a 200 lb person walking briskly at 5 mph (I'm an engineer in the U.S., so I usually stick with ft, lb, seconds, and the like). So first, rotational velocity, ω, will be one revolution per day, which works out to 6.94e-4 rpm, or 7.272e-5 rad/s. The person's mass is found by converting pounds to slugs, and since m = W/g, we get 200 lb / 32.2 ft/s² = 6.21 slugs. And their speed is 5 mph * 5280 / 3600 = 7.33 ft/s. So, we just plug those into the equations:

Ft = m*ω*Vr
Ft = (6.21 slugs)*(7.272e-5 rad/s)*(7.33 ft/s)
Ft = 0.0033 lbs

nt = ω*Vr/g
nt = (7.272e-5 rad/s)*(7.33 ft/s)/(32.2 ft/s²)
nt = 1.656e-5

To summarize, for a 200 lb person walking briskly at 5 mph, the tangential force required to accelerate them as they walk outwards is only 0.0033 lbs, or 1.656e-5 g's. That force is about equivalent to the weight of 5 staples (according to this discussion, at least). That's really, really negligible.

Let's add a few more cases, but instead of going through all the math step by step, again, let's just put the results into a table.

Person, 5 mph Car, 60 mph 747, 570 mph
ω, rev/day 1 1 1
ω, rpm 0.000694 0.000694 0.000694
ω, rad/s 7.27E-05 7.27E-05 7.27E-05
Vr, mph 5 60 570
Vr, ft/s 7.333333 88 836
Wt, lbs 200 4000 735,000
m, slugs 6.21118 124.2236 22,826.09
at, ft/s² 0.000533 0.0064 0.060796
Ft, lbs 0.003312 0.794974 1387.726
nt 1.66E-05 0.000199 0.001888


Those are all small accelerations, and correspondingly small forces (at least in relation to the size objects). Obviously, the acceleration goes up as tangential velocity goes up, but even at the 570 mph speed of a 747, the radial acceleration is still less than a hundredth of a g.

Granted, the actual magnitude of the force on the 747 looks big enough to be somewhat appreciable, but remember to keep it in comparison to size of the aircraft - 1388 lbs of side force on a 735,000 lb aircraft. To further put the force in perspective, keep in mind that if the aircraft weighs 735,000 lbs, the wings have to create that much lift. So, to get 1388 lbs of side force, the aircraft would have to be banked just 0.11°, since arctan(1388 lbs / 735,000 lbs) = 0.11°. Another way to look at it is in comparison to the engine thrust. Since a 747 has an L/D of around 15.5, that means a drag of around 47,400 lbs, and an equal thrust from the engines to counter that. Even if you completely ignored aerodynamic means of accomplishing the side force, it would mean skewing the thrust just 1.7° off of the flight path. These are very small numbers.

And, keep in mind, we simplified things with a giant merry-go-round, which is actually worse than everywhere on Earth except 2 precise locations. The only locations matching this are at the poles, where the surface actually is perpendicular to the rotation axis. Everywhere else, the surface is more angled relative to the rotation axis. Right at the equator, this force/acceleration drops to zero. All latitudes in between will have force/acceleration values somewhere in between this worst case and zero.

So, an object traveling north-south on a spinning globe does indeed have to have some side force to account for the changing tangential velocity. And while we may know intuitively that the force has to be negligible, it's nice to be able to break out the math to calculate what it would need to be.

Spinning globe image source: zaleta.pbworks.com
All other diagrams by author

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*All this actually applies any time traveling north-south, not just directly north-south along a line of longitude. I was just keeping things simple for the sake of discussion.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Big Christmas Post, 2018

Christmas TreeChristmas is less than two weeks away, so it's about time to get up my now annual Big Christmas Post. I've written quite a few Christmas related entries over the years, and posted various comics and memes, so I've decided to gather up links to all the best stuff into one post. I know this is recycling, but it's still good stuff, especially if you've never read it before.

 

Jolly Posts

AOPA Christmas Card A Plane Christmas Greeting
This is a poem written by my late Uncle Bud. We both shared a love of aviation. This is his version of "The Night Before Christmas" (or "A Visit from St. Nicholas" for you pedants), with an aviation twist.
  
Koch Fractal Snowflakes An Early Christmas Present - Koch Snowflake Christmas Ornament 3D Printer STL Files
Last year, I played around with making snowflake ornaments for my 3D printer. But since I'm a nerd, they couldn't be any old snowflakes. These are fractal snowflakes.
  
White Wine in the Sun Merry Secular Christmas 2018 - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Charity
I have a tradition of posting a video of this song every year around Christmas. This year was no exception. Go give it a listen, and donate to the autism charity, Aspect, while you're at it.

 

Curmudgeonly Posts

Santa in the Crosshairs War on Christmas
This was my first War on Christmas post. It covers a bit of the history of Christmas in the U.S. ("a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras"), the Pagan origins of so many modern Christmas traditions, and in general why it's silly to get upset over an imagined War on Christmas.
  
Santa is no more Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars
I've never particularly liked lying to kids about Santa Claus, nor the whole mindset around Christmas time that kids should suppress their doubts and critical thinking skills. Playing pretend with kids is one thing, but lying is something else.
  
Scrooge When Happy Holidays Isn't Good Enough
This was an incident a few years ago that still stands out in my mind - a Salvation Army worker getting physically punched for wishing somebody a 'happy holidays' instead of a 'merry Christmas'. I included a meme that shows the appropriate response to any holiday greeting.
  
Take that, Santa Unintentionally Hilarious War on Christmas Video
Well, this could go into Jolly or Curmudgeonly depending on how you want to take it. This was a video I came across this year from a extreme right wing website - so extreme that I had to do a double take to verify it wasn't parody. Anyway, the video was so over the top that I couldn't help chuckling over it.

 

Should I Donate to _____ Charity?

Since so many people start thinking about donating to charity around the holidays, here are a couple entries on charities.

Salvation Army? The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?
As much as they try to portray a completely wholesome image, the Salvation Army isn't without their controversies. I'm not actually going to advocate that you do or don't donate to them (but if you don't, please donate to somebody else), but you should at least understand some of the activities they engage in that you may not agree with.
  
Charity Debunking an E-mail on Charities
This was written in reply to one of those email forwards, decrying all the supposed waste from certain charities, and suggesting you donate your charity money to other, more worthwhile charities. Well, suffice it to say, since it was an email forward, it wasn't particularly reliable. Granted, it's been a few years since I've looked into each of these charities, but it still gives you a sense of how legitimate various charities are, and provides links to a few watchdog groups.

 

Christmas Memes & Comics

You may have to click to embiggen to read this one.
Calamities of Nature Comic on Charlie Brown Christmas
Source: Calamities of Nature (via the WayBack Machine)

 

Santa Jesus Meme
Source: Master Marf (no idea if that's the original creator)

 


Source: Meme Generator

 

You'll never see one of those cutout plywood nativities the same way, again:
Source: Scoopnest

 

Christmas Tree Image Source: Free christmas Tree Backgrounds

Merry Secular Christmas 2018 - Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Charity

In a yearly tradition for this blog, it's time to post one of my favorite Christmas songs, White Wine in the Sun, by Tim Minchin. But more than that, this is a chance to support Aspect, an Australian charity supporting children and adults on the Autism spectrum. For the past several years, Minchin has donated all procedes from sales of the song around Christmas time to the charity (previously known as the National Autistic Society - more info). So, if you don't own a copy of the song, yet, now's a perfect time to buy it.

If you've never heard the song, there's a description on Minchin's site from 2010 which reads, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed."

So, with all that out of the way, here it is, White Wine in the Sun. And new for this year is a new(ish) recording of the song (new for this site, at least):

Also new for this year, I'm including the lyrics, if you want to read along (per Google, from an older recording):

I really like Christmas It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it I am hardly religious I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu To be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas
Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I don't go in for ancient wisdom
I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious it means they're worthy
I get freaked out by churches
Some of the hymns that they sing have nice chords
But the lyrics are dodgy

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To the mis-education of children who, in tax-exempt institutions
Are taught to externalise blame
And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
But I quite like the songs

I'm not expecting big presents
The old combination of socks, jocks and chocolate's is just fine by me

'Cause I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun
I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you, my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You'll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a primary school
And you won't understand
But you will learn someday
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

And if my baby girl
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You'll know what ever comes
Your brothers and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun

When Christmas comes
Your brothers and sisters, your aunts and your uncles
Your grandparents, cousins and me and your mum
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Darling, whenever you come
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Drinking white wine in the sun
Waiting for you in the sun
Darling, when Christmas comes
We'll be waiting for you in the sun
Waiting

I really like Christmas
It's sentimental, I know

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Unintentionally Hilarious War on Christmas Video

Santa in the CrosshairsI was just curious if anyone was still going on about the 'War on Christmas', so I googled it, and came across an unintentionally hilarious video, from a site named, non-satirically, ChurchMilitant.com/. At first I thought something so over the top was surely a parody like Landover Baptist, but no, it has it's own Wikipedia page and everything. Anyway, I don't think I can embed the video here, so you'll have to go watch it on the site:

DECEMBER 6, 2018--WAR ON CHRISTMAS: The advance of atheism.

The 'surely this must be parody' stuff started off from the very beginning:

Hello and welcome to The Download, live from our Church Militant studios in Detroit, Michigan. I'm Christine Niles. And, happy Feast of Saint Nicholas, the manly saint who punched the priest Arias in the face, after Arias blasphemed our Lord and rejected His divinity.

Ah, yes, manly saints punching people in the face. None of that turn the other cheek bullshit that some beatnik hippy went on about.

Then the talking head started using all the right-wing cliches you've come to expect about atheists and liberals:

The heretic Arias brought his own war against Christ by rejecting that he was God. That war on Christ continues to this day, brought by secularists who hate Christ and everything he stands for, and try to mask that hatred behind political correctness, or arguments for separation of church and state, a phrase that never actually appears in the Constitution, by the way.

Just for the record, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." while not literally using the phrase 'separation of church and state' certainly seems to be saying that government should keep its nose out of the whole business. And the phrase was coined by a U.S. president, by the way.

The segment then went on to praise Donald Trump for his support of Christmas in the face of political correctness, and showed a clip of Trump from a rally. Now I admit, I hardly ever voluntarily watch Trump, since he hardly ever has anything worthwhile (or coherent) to say. So I guess I'm just not accustomed to his mannerisms. But my goodness is he hilarious. He's like a parody. At one point while the crowd was cheering, he literally winked at someone in the crowd and then did that sleazy lounge host pointing people out move, before doing an unintentional (I hope) Elvis imitation, and then finally moving on to a brave stance in support of the single most popular holiday in the country:

Thank you. Thank you very much. And something I said so much during the last two years, but I'll say it again as we approach the end of the year- You know we're getting near that beautiful Christmas season, that people don't talk about anymore. They don't use the word Christmas cause it's not politically correct. You go to department stores and they'll say happy New Year. They'll say other things. And it'll be red, they'll have it painted, but they don't say- Well guess what, we're saying Merry Christmas again.

Wow, what an act of heroism. I mean, it's not like 81% of non-Christians in the U.S. celebrate Christmas, including a majority of Buddhists, Hindus, religiously unaffiliated, and even a third of Jews (Pew - Christmas also celebrated by many non-Christians).

And yeah, those department stores are loathe to admit what all this 'holiday' shopping is about:

Oh, wait, I did find a page on Wal-mart called Ready, Set, Holiday!, that did have a whole bunch of 'holiday' references and not so many 'Christmas' references, at least until you actually followed any of the links or looked at any of the products being sold.

It's hard to believe this is the world we live in today - a clown like Trump in the White House, and right wing kooks making websites that are barely distinguishable from SNL skits.

Oh well, I'll take the unintentional humor as an early Christmas present. Merry Christmas everyone.

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For a bit of an entertaining read, check out the following TV Tropes page. It's not about this site, per se, but it definitely reveals the mindset:
TV Tropes - Church Militant

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

John Gray Misrepresents New Atheists in Vox Interview

John GrayI like Vox in general, but it recently published an interview with John Gray criticizing New Atheism. Now, I'm not enamored with the label of 'New Atheism', but I suppose that if I had to choose where my views mostly align, New Atheism would be it. Now maybe I'm not as closely aligned with New Atheism as I suppose, but I have to say that many of Gray's criticisms, and those of the interviewer, Sean Illing, just don't reflect my own views at all.

I'll start by giving my own understanding of New Atheism. Because the existence of gods is an objective question, the best tool to try to determine whether or not any gods actually do exist is science 'loosely defined'* - the systematic and rational study of evidence. Despite some apologetic waffling, most people actually do approach religion looking for evidence - written scriptures, archaeological confirmation of their scriptures, miracles of the divine directly interacting in the world, etc. But I think most people fail in the systematic and rational evaluation of such evidence (and since religions are mutually contradictory, most people are necessarily wrong).

My disagreement with the Gray interview started with the headline itself, "Why science can't replace religion: John Gray on the myths the New Atheists' tell themselves." This is a theme that he repeated throughout the interview - science replacing religion. But that's not the New Atheist position. Yes, science is great at what it does - answering objective questions. It's by far the best method humanity has developed for this purpose. And that does conflict with many of the objective claims coming from religions. But, addressing objective claims is science's only purpose. Science has nothing to say on right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, awe-inspiring or mundane. For those types of concerns, we turn to other fields - ethics, philosophy, art, etc. Setting up the debate as science alone vs. religion is a false dichotomy. (I've written about this in much more detail on Quora, including some passages I lifted verbatim for this paragraph.)

Moving on to the article itself, I'll start with a quote from the introduction, from Sean Illing.

Although they were right about a lot of things, the New Atheists missed something essential about the role of religion. For them, religion was just a protoscience -- our first attempt at biology and history and physics. But religion is so much more than a set of claims about the world, and you can't fully understand if you don't account for that.

Illing is making the New Atheist position seem much less nuanced than it is. Of course New Atheists recognize that there are a huge variety of approaches to religion and varying beliefs among the religious. When it comes to other religions outside of theism, some New Atheists actually embrace them. There are plenty of atheists in Unitarian Universalist church pews. Some atheists even practice non-supernatural versions of more traditional religions such as Buddhism (including Sam Harris, one of the 'Four Horsemen' of New Atheism). It's simply misrepresenting the New Atheist position to say that they see religion as simply a protoscience with no other roles.

New Atheists do tend to focus their criticisms on more literal forms of Christianity, but that's because a) New Atheists tend to live in places where Christianity is the dominant religion, and b) literal forms of Christianity tend to be the more harmful versions in those places (other brands of harmful religion just don't have the same influence in those places). Paraphrasing what I've said before, if religion was all soup kitchens and homeless shelters, or even just spaghetti dinners and Christmas bazaars, New Atheists wouldn't have nearly as much to get worked up about.

Moreover, it's the fundamentalist religionists who are making "a set of claims about the world", so of course New Atheists are going to respond. And to be clear, fundamentalist Christians aren't some fringe group. Somewhere around 38% of Americans are creationists, and many of them push to get creationism taught in schools. So, with only so many hours in a day, of course I'm going to focus my criticisms on those types of religion, rather than more innocuous or nebulous religions that don't so clearly contradict reality or cause as much harm in society.


Something as ancient, as profound, as inexhaustibly rich as religion or religions can't really be written off as an intellectual error by clever people. Most of these clever people are not that clever when compared with really clever people like Wittgenstein or Saint Augustine or Pascal -- all philosophers of the past who seriously engaged the religious perspective.

This seems to be a standard complaint from religiously sympathetic philosophers - New Atheists don't take religion seriously enough. If we did, we'd grapple with the profundity of it all. But yes, smart people from the past really can be mistaken, no matter how much serious thought they've given to problems. Geocentricism was respectable up until the Copernican Revolution in the 1500s. That's millennia of serious, very intelligent philosophers having such a profound mistake about something as simple as the motion of celestial bodies. So I don't think it's hard to imagine they could be wrong about religion, as well, considering the societal pressure and the motivated reasoning of wanting to avoid Hell, and especially considering trying to make sense of the world in a pre-scientific age.


These New Atheists are mostly ignorant of religion, and only really concerned with a particular kind of monotheism, which is a narrow segment of the broader religious world.

Now, maybe Gray is comparing New Atheists to PhD philosophers, but New Atheists tend to be more knowledgeable of religion than the general public. Here's an article describing a poll from a few years ago, Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious. Atheists on average knew more about the diversity of religions than believers (e.g Christians knew very little about Buddhism), and atheists even had better knowledge of the Bible than Christians as a whole (but not quite as good as white evangelicals).


I can't resist quoting this statement. It's not wrong, per se, but it does seem like a stereotype of an overly-wordy philosopher:

If Darwinism is right, and I think it's the best approximation we have to the truth about how humans came into the world, then all aspects of the human animal are shaped by the imperatives of survival.

That's like calling heliocentricism the best approximation we have to the truth about how celestial bodies move in our solar system, or a NASA created globe the best approximation we have to the truth about the geography of Earth. I mean, sure, everything we know about the universe is an approximation at some level, but in normal conversation, can't we simply say that certain things are just true? Couldn't he have just said something like, "Since we evolved..."


A bit later, he was making arguments in line with the headline.

There's this silly idea that we have no need for religion anymore because we have science, but this is an incredibly foolish notion, since religion addresses different needs than science, needs that science can't address.

And then this:

Even if everything in the world were suddenly explained by science, we would still be asking what it all means.

That's where religion steps in.

But why religion? Why not secular philosophy? Or ethics? Just because people claim that religion addresses these other issues doesn't mean that it addresses them adequately or gives good answers. Heck, there's no guarantee that there even are satisfying answers to some of these questions no matter how you want to address them.


For example, there are still people who treat the myths of religion, like the Genesis story, as some kind of literal truth, even though they were understood by Jewish thinkers and theologians of the time as parables.

Genesis is not a theory of the origins of the world. It's not obsolete, primitive science. It's not a solution to the problem of knowledge. Religion isn't like that. Religion is a body of practices, of stories and images, whereby humans create or find meanings in their lives.

I get a bit tired of hearing this style of argument, let's call it the Philosopher's Religion, that religious believers of the past were all these sophisticated philosopher types who 'obviously' didn't take their scriptures seriously on a literal level, and that it's only modern day simpletons who corrupt scripture and take Genesis at its word, or even New Atheists misrepresenting the religious to try to make them look more primitive.

Let's take a look at what Saint Augustine had to say about some of the claims of Genesis - one of those 'clever' deep thinkers Gray mentioned earlier in the interview.

They are deceived, too, by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though, reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed.

He also wrote extensively about Adam and Eve in formulating his views on Original Sin. And he clearly saw Adam and Eve as two real-life people. (more info - Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas on Original Sin and Augustine's Literal Adam)

So, it seems that Saint Augustine was taking the general history from Genesis pretty seriously. Granted, he thought the seven days were metaphorical, but only because he believed God created the universe in an instant. And yes, ancient theologians did have varying views of the degree of metaphor vs. literalism in interpreting the Bible (and not necessarily mutually contradictory, if they thought the Bible could be interpreted on multiple levels), but it's not like theologians who took the Bible as literal truth were a rarity. (I actually cover a bit about the age of the universe and how many theologians accepted a 6,000 - 8,000 year age in a Quora answer.)

The point is, plenty of very smart people throughout history have interpreted the Bible fairly literally, as an actual history of Earth and civilization. Without outside context, there's no obvious reason not to. I wish people like Gray would quit insisting that the 'Philosopher's' interpretation was the original, widely agreed upon view.


There's no doubt that religions have contained many ideas that have caused humans harm. There's not the slightest doubt about that. All human institutions cast a shadow which comes from the evil they carry within themselves.

[skipping ahead a bit]

At the same time, we should remember that many of the secular religions of the 20th century condemned gay people, for example.

Homosexuality was illegal for most of the time that the Soviet Union existed. Doctors who performed abortions in communist Romania could be sent to prison, and in some cases even subjected to capital punishment. Many of the worst features or the worst human harms inflicted by monotheism have been paralleled in the secular religions of modern times.

So ideas do have consequences. All we can do is try to embody these traditions as much as possible. There isn't some form of life, not even an imaginary type of pure liberalism, that is free of these terrible consequences.

Gray's point about 'secular religions' is a good one, but also one that New Atheists would agree with. When looking at the example of Soviet Russia, the problem was the authoritarianism and forced dogma. Lysenkoism is an oft-cited example of how rejection of evidence can lead to horrible outcomes. So yes, New Atheists promote critical thinking and following evidence. They tend to be skeptics first, and the atheism is just fallout from following the evidence. If you merely reject gods but don't follow the critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, you may be an atheist, but not really part of New Atheism.

Moving past secular religions, Gray's observation that secular institutions have done bad things is entirely unremarkable. That's human nature. The question is not whether all the ills of the world are attributable to religion, because they're obviously not. The question is whether religion is a positive or negative influence on balance, remembering that it will depend on the particular religion. (And even this would only a consideration for how vigorously atheists should criticize different religions - it doesn't change whether or not they're true.)

Let me put it another way. Many secular pursuits are a blank slate as far as morality. They'll take on the morality of the society around them, but they're morally neutral. Religions propose to define morality. They're not neutral. They don't just take on the morality of the surrounding society, but also shape that morality. And when you have a set of scriptures like the Bible, there are a lot of distasteful moral lessons. I mean, do you really think there would be anywhere near as much discrimination against the LGBT+ community without Christian 'morals'?

So yes, as humanity increasingly leaves behind traditional religion (e.g. 5 key findings about the changing U.S. religious landscape), members of society will have to ensure that we don't simply let religion be replaced by non-supernatural alternatives. But given the numerous studies on the topic (e.g. Secular Societies Fare Better Than Religious Societies, I don't think that's something we need to be overly concerned about.


I think you've put it very closely to the way I put it in the book. Most forms of organized atheism are attempts to fashion God surrogates. In other words, one of the paradoxes of contemporary atheism is that it's a flight from a genuinely godless world.

I'm most interested in the atheists who've seriously asked what it's like to live in a godless world. Not to construct some alternative God, like reimagining humanity as some collective agent that manifests itself through history or science or some other redemptive force.

I'm not really sure how Gray thinks atheists should be responding to a godless world. Are we supposed to be more solemn once we realize there's no god running the universe and looking out for us? Going around in a funk because we're on our own and there's no cosmic justice? Or are we supposed to be happy once we realize there's no cosmic tyrant who can condemn souls to Hell on a whim, or for the crime of doubt? It really all depends on your viewpoint and which conception of god(s) you're considering.

And what about that last sentence? Many people I know would like for all people to work together to try to make a better society. It's a goal, an aspiration we hope to accomplish. And yes, we often talk about 'society' as a collective, and we'll use collective terms like 'zeitgeist' in our discussions of society. Are New Atheists supposed to ignore these social aspects of humanity and become misanthropes, and leave all that social cooperation to the religious? You can recognize that groups have collective behaviors and emergent properties without pretending there's anything mystical or 'redemptive' about it.

I don't know what more of a reaction there should be to a godless world other than saying that the universe is what it is, and it's in our own hands to fashion society how we want it to be.


I think we should regard religions as great works of the human imagination rather than pictures of the world intended to capture what is empirically true. Any atheism that fails to do this will invariably miss what is most essential and enduring about religion, and probably make the mistake of smuggling religious assumptions into their secular alternative to religion.

I would challenge Gray to visit First Baptist Church here in Wichita Falls on a Sunday morning and poll the parishioners about their religious beliefs. Would they be okay with describing Jesus as merely a 'great work of the human imagination'? Does it matter to them whether the crucifixion and resurrection were 'empirically true', or would it be fine if those were metaphorical myths built up over the years? I'm willing to bet a very large sum of money that these religious people actually do care a great deal about the empirical truth of their religion.


I think we have to own up to it, because the danger of thinking that science can provide values has been demonstrated many times. What often happens is that science simply validates the ruling values of the time, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, those were racist values.

Refer, again, to what I quoted from myself up above. Science neither defines nor validate values. It's an attempt to determine objective truth. Values come from other parts of humanity outside science.


Aside from the many mischaracterizations of New Atheism in this interview, what always gets me about views like these is the conception of what religion should be, the Philosopher's Religion as I termed it up above. Gray's not just criticizing New Atheists, he also seems to be implying the 'right' way to be religious. Granted, there are plenty of people who view religion in this more metaphorical, values-only way, but it's not the mainstream view of the masses. Most religious people actually do literally believe in gods and spirits and all the other supernatural elements. Sure there are emotional reasons that motivate people to accept religion, but people aren't accepting the purely emotional reasons and then rejecting all the empirical claims. They take their holy books at least somewhat at face value. They don't see the claims as 'as great works of the human imagination'. They really, honestly believe that many of the events described did indeed literally happen.

But even then, the emotional answers that religion gives aren't always the best answers available. As I've said numerous times throughout this response, there are better approaches than religion to these more subjective aspects of our lives, such as philosophy, ethics, and art. Do you really want people getting their ethics from books written thousands of years ago by anonymous authors with unknown motivations? Or would you rather they did a little bit more applied thinking on the issues?

Image Source: BBC

---

*That definition comes from the evolutionary biologist, Jerry Coyne. Speaking of which, he's written his own response to this interview. I purposely avoided reading it, though, until I was done with this response, to make sure I wouldn't be biased by what he had to say. But if you want to ready what Coyne had to say, you can follow this link:
John Gray and Sean Illing go after New Atheism for the bazillionth time, but offer no new (or incisive) arguments

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Where Have I Been

Quora LogoIt's been a while since I've posted anything on here. For a while, there, my goal was a post per week, and I was doing pretty good at it. Then, I discovered Quora, a high-quality question-and-answer site. It's kind of like social media for nerds. Basically, people post questions, and then other people write answers. Users can upvote or downvote the various answers. There's a 'feed' where you can browse through and read answers. You can choose topics you're interested in, or particular users you want to follow. The feed algorithm also uses your past Quora browsing history to choose answers you might be interested in.

What makes Quora so much better than a site like Yahoo Answers is the quality of the users and the subsequent content they create. There's a NASA instructor and flight controller, Robert Frost, who's very prolific about answering technical questions about space travel or the workings of NASA. There are actual astronauts like Clayton Anderson. There are former fighter pilots like John Chesire to answer with a first person perspective on flying military and commercial jets. There are best-selling authors like Mercedes Lackey, Helena Schrader, and Orson Scott Card. There's the actual founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales. From time to time, they'll get well known experts in various fields to participate in answer sessions, such as Bart Ehrman and even Barack Obama. And then there are tons of intelligent and knowledgeable people, whose names you may not recognize, but who make great contributions.

Besides the community of contributors, Quora has a few things going for it that I don't have on my personal blog. Perhaps the two biggest are the built-in reader base and the built-in infrastructure. Even at my blog's peak popularity a few years ago, I didn't have many regulars. I would write an entry, and hope that people found it to read it. On Quora, I know there's a somewhat guaranteed audience. There are the people following whatever question I'm answering, the people following me in particular, and then any larger group the answer might get forwarded on to if it turns out to be popular. My most popular Quora answer has been viewed by over 250,000 people, and my next most popular, which I actually like better, has been viewed by just under 50,000 people. And compared to the page views on my personal website stats, I think the Quora stats tend more towards real people as opposed to spammers and bots. Quora has the readership and infrastructure to ensure that what I write actually gets read.

Another advantage is that it's highly interactive. It's not just me posting my own views. It's seamless to read what other people are writing. On days when I'm bored and only feel like being passive, I can just go and read other people's answers on Quora. And those answers can be quite educational. And if I come across something I'm actually interested in responding to, I can tag it for later. In fact, that brings up another advantage - a ready made pool of material to write about. Plus, because somebody had to post the question to begin with, I know that there's at least some interest in the topic.

So, I haven't abandoned this blog or website entirely, but I only have so much time per day to write. And right now, my main focus has shifted to writing on Quora. I'll still post more blog-appropriate posts from time to time, and just maybe reincarnate my Friday Bible Blogging series. But for now, if you're interested in reading things I write, go check out my profile on Quora. If you really like it, sign up for the site and 'follow' me.

Jeff Lewis's Profile on Quora

 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Good Sources of Potassium

FoodSo I wrote an entry about two years ago about how I lost 40 lbs in 6 months. For the most part, I've managed to maintain my new weight, creeping up a few pounds every so often before focusing again to recover. I've also been kind of off again on again as far as exercise. A lot of that is due to breaking my foot and severely twisting my ankle last summer, along with a nagging case of tennis elbow that gets aggravated if I work out too intensely (which both sound better than attributing it to laziness).

Anyway, right now I'm in the midst of one of my 'recoveries' (for the record, I am currently lighter than my last weigh-in in that 2 year old entry - that entry was before I'd reach my target weight), and I'm also trying to get back in the routine of exercising, but I've been getting more leg cramps than normal. So, I figured I'd try to get a bit more potassium in my diet. And my first thought was, obviously, bananas. They seem to be everyone's go to food source for potassium. But, I decided to do a bit of research, first, and was surprised that there are actually quite a few foods that are better sources of potassium.

So, here's a list comparing the potassium levels in various foods, sorted by the most mg of potassium per calorie.

Food Serving Size, g Serving Size, oz Calories per Serving K per serving, mg K per cal, mg/cal
Zucchini 196 6.91 33 512 15.52
Asparagus 100 3.53 20 202 10.10
Broccoli 148 5.22 50 468 9.36
Brussels Sprouts 88 3.10 38 342 9.00
Green Bean 100 3.53 31 209 6.74
Potato 213 7.51 163 897 5.50
Strawberry 100 3.53 33 153 4.64
Black Bean 100 3.53 339 1500 4.42
Kidney Bean 100 3.53 333 1406 4.22
Banana 118 4.16 105 422 4.02
Pinto Bean 100 3.53 347 1393 4.01
Pineapple 100 3.53 50 109 2.18
Granny Smith Apple 100 3.53 58 120 2.07

Since I did this research for myself, those are all foods that I like and tend to eat fairly regularly - in other words, lots of savory vegetables, not so many sweet fruits*. I'm rather glad. I'd much rather eat a bit more asparagus, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts than have to eat a banana every day. And I'm really excited that potatoes have more potassium than bananas.

Anyway, I just thought this was interesting, and worth sharing with anyone else looking to get a bit more potassium in their diets.


*I actually do eat a Granny Smith apple almost every day, but obviously, they're a lot more tart than most fruits. I also like strawberries and pineapples from time to time, but again, they're more tart than typical fruits.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Annoyed at Headlines - Star Trek Wasn't Prophetic on Brain Death

Starfleet LogoI know that science reporting ain't what it used to be. And even in the 'old days', when newspapers had decent sized science departments, headlines could be misleading. Still, the reporting on a recent study has irked me enough to become a cranky old man and call it out here on my blog.

Here are a few examples of the coverage. Pay attention to what those headlines are implying.

Here's how Vice summarized the findings of the study.

[Jans] Dreier works at the Charité Hospital in Berlin, one of Germany's leading university hospitals. In February, the 52-year-old and his colleague, Jed Hartings, published a study that details what happens to our brain at the point of death. It describes how the brain's neurons transmit electrical signals with full force one last time before they completely die off. Though this phenomenon, popularly known in the medical community as a "brain tsunami," had previously only been seen in animals, Dreier and Hartings were able to show it in humans as they died. Their work goes on to suggest that in certain circumstances, the process could be stopped entirely, theorizing that it could be done if enough oxygen is supplied to the brain before the cells are destroyed.

About 2/3 of the way through that Vice article, you find the following interview question and answer with the study author.

So how did you find out that an episode of Star Trek had predicted your findings 30 years ago?

My colleague, Jed Hartings, brought it to my attention after watching the scene and noticing how similar it is to our work. My best guess is that the creators of Star Trek must have found research at the time that detailed a similar process in animals. The first person to research these sort of brain waves was a Brazilian neurophysiologist who conducted studies on rabbits in the 1940s. All we've done is show it in humans, which has taken this long because medical research in general is an incredibly slow process.

So in reality, this is a process first studied in the 1940s. The big innovation in this study is that it was done on human subjects, rather that non-human animals, but it shouldn't be a shock at all that human brains function the same as other mammal brains. So, Star Trek's writers back in the '80s were just using an already known phenomenon in their script. You could praise the writers for getting the science right (because they didn't always), but it's not like they made some profound prediction that science is only now catching up with.

All this isn't to say that the new study isn't fascinating. Of course it's interesting to do this study on actual people instead of other animals. But it doesn't sound like it found anything that wasn't already expected.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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