Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Did Gustave Whitehead Beat the Wright Brothers as the First To Fly

Woodcut of Whitehead's Flying MachineIn honor of Wright Brothers' Day, I figured I'd address a topic concerning their reputation as the first people to fly. There's a bit of a movement to try to bestow that honor on a different man - Gustave Whitehead.

Whitehead (born Wei├čkopf, but he changed his name when he moved to America) was an early aviation pioneer who built several unsuccessful flying machines. However, there are claims that he was successful on a few occasions prior to the Wright Brothers. These claims mostly come from a handful of sources - Whitehead's own claims, eye-witness accounts, and a report from the newspaper, the Bridgeport Herald. There's also a newly discovered photo supposedly showing Whitehead in the air. This photo was enough to convince Jane's All the World's Aircraft to officially recognize Whitehead as the first to fly, and for Connecticut to pass a bill proclaiming Whitehead as the first.

The problem is that none of these sources of evidence are particularly reliable. Whitehead himself could hardly be considered an unbiased party, so his claims can only be taken with a grain of salt without independent evidence to back it up.

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of Whitehead making flights. These do help the case, but they're still not ironclad proof. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. Just this morning I received my weekly eSkeptic newsletter, with the subject this time being about just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be (in this case, prompted by the Michael Brown affair in Ferguson). That article has many good examples, but one of my favorites that it didn't include was the Challenger Study (or a similar 911 study). When people were interviewed the day after the Challenger tragedy, they gave an account of where they were and what they were doing when they learned about the explosion. But in a follow-up interview a year later, even though the memories still seemed vivid and real, they had changed, sometimes in very big ways (e.g. hearing about it from classmates vs. watching it live). In the case of Whitehead, most of the affidavits from eyewitnesses are from decades later - more than enough time for memories to become warped.

The local newspaper in Bridgeport published an article about Whitehead and one of his supposed flights. There's some conjecture over how serious the article might have been, but the most damning aspect of it is Whitehead's account of the flight. Speaking as a private pilot and an aerospace engineer, this is not the type of description you'd expect for somebody's first time flying any aircraft, let alone a primitive airplane designed when there was less understanding of controls and stability. Read this passage about his climbout, and how Whitehead did nothing to level his climb, but just rode it out with the machine taking care of it.

When the ship had reached a height of about forty or fifty feet I began to wonder how much higher it would go. But just about that time I observed that she was sailing along easily and not raising any higher.

But this paragraph is the one that really struck me.

And while my brain was whirling with these new sensations of delight I saw ahead a clump of trees that the machine was pointed straight for. I knew that I must in some way steer around those trees or raise above them. I was a hundred yards distant from them and I knew that I could not clear them by raising higher, and also that I had no means of steering around them by using the machinery. Then like a flash a plan to escape the trees came to mind. I had watched the birds when turned out of a straight course to avoid something ahead. They changed their bodies from a horizontal plane to one slightly diagonal to the horizontal. To turn to the left the bird would lower its left wing or side of its body. The machine ought to obey the same principle and when within about fifty yards of the clump of trees I shifted my weight to the left side of the machine. It swung over a little and began to turn from the straight course. And we sailed around the trees as easy as it was to sail straight ahead.

Are we really to believe that Whitehead took off in an airplane without having given any thought beforehand to how he was to control it? It's absurd to imagine that such a flight would be successful, or would have been the leisurely affair that Whitehead described. And as the commentary in the article I linked to describes, the inferred speeds from this flight are impossibly slow. It's just not a plausible scenario.

Now it's time to examine what's actually my favorite part of this 'controversy' - the photographic evidence. There were some press reports that a photo of Whitehead in flight had been on display at the first exhibition of the Aero Club of America in 1906. Noone has been able to find this photo, but a Whitehead advocate, John Brown, thinks he's found evidence of it. The evidence comes from this photo of the exibition:

First exhibition of the Aero Club of America, January, 1906

The box and arrow were added by someone else to show the area of interest to Whitehead supporters. Brown took that region and enlarged it by several thousand percent to get this supposed image of Whitehead in flight:

Alleged photo of Gustave Whitehead in Flight

Brown has a lengthy article describing his analysis of the photo. He also has a description of it on the homepage of, that includes this side by side comparison of the photo to what he thinks it represents.

John Brown's Interpretation of Alleged Whitehead Flight Photo

Now, that's a pretty fanciful interpretation. And Brown appears to be very confident in his analysis despite the obvious lack of detail. But thankfully, we don't have to just wave this off as too vague to be meaningful. Carroll F. Gray has dug into this claim (and many others). Gray has pretty conclusively demonstrated that this photo is not of one of Whitehead's machines, but is rather a glider built by a John J. Montgomery. As much as I would like to steal some of Gray's photos to show in this post, he's put in so much effort that he deserves the visitors at his site. So, in case you missed the link before, here it is again, Update # 5: The Photographs - Whitehead Aloft They Are Not. I highly recommend visiting that page. Even if it's not Whitehead in the air, it's very interesting how Gray was able to track down this scene from such a blurry image and definitively identify the actual scene it's depicting.

Aside from all these poor lines of evidence put forward by the Whitehead advocates, it also helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. The Wright Brothers made their first flight in 1903. They learned their lessons from that flight, went through a few more iterations of flying machines, and by 1908 were giving public demonstations that amazed audiences (though it should be noted that by 1908, there were others flying - just not nearly as well as the Wrights). Whitehead supposedly made his first flight a year or two before the Wright brothers, and then... what? Other than that one questionable article (and many papers that picked up that single story), Whitehead never made headlines with any public flights. He never even built an airplane that could fly after that. How does someone go from being the first in flight to not being able to make another working airplane, despite several attempts?

There's really no good, strong evidence to back up the claim that Gustave Whitehead was the first person to successfully fly an airplane, and there are actually a few indicators that it never happened (like his account of the flight). I think it's possible (though still not backed up with evidece) that he did have some success, maybe even making a vehicle capable of hopping into the air and staying aloft for a few seconds. But the honor of the first in flight still belongs to the Wright Brothers.


I came across several interesting articles on these issues (some of which I might have already linked to above).

More Info:

Image Source: Wikipedia

Happy Wright Brothers' Day, 2014

Wright Brothers' First Flight, December 17, 1903

On December 17th, 1903, the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve something people had dreamt about for centuries - flying. Granted, the Wrights weren't lone geniuses working in a vaccuum. There were many pioneers before them whose work they built upon, and many contemporaries working on the problem who would have figured it out eventually. But the Wright Brothers were the first, and their systematic approach and especially their focus on controllability put them years ahead of anyone else, and fulling deserving of that honor (even if their later patent wars might have hurt the fledgling industry).

So when you're out and about today, glance up at the skies, and if you spot an airplane, marvel a little bit at what an accomplishment it is.

Related Entries:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, 2014

As has become my tradition to celebrate Christmas on this blog, every year around this time I post Tim Minchin's song, White Wine in the Sun. As described on Minchin's site, "This is a captivating song and a beautiful and intelligent exploration of why Christmas can still be meaningful even without religious beliefs. There's just the right amount of sentiment and some very gentle humour illustrating Tim's feelings about Christmas and the importance of family and home. It is a heart-warming song and may make you a little bright eyed." (that links from a few years ago.)

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

And now finally, here it is (but don't let the fact that you can listen to it from YouTube stop you from buying your own copy).

War on Christmas 2014

Santa in the CrosshairsChristmas is only two weeks away. Maybe I just haven't been following the right news sources, or maybe the issue's dying out, but I haven't heard a whole lot about the War on Christmas this year. I did Google the phrase, and found that the right wing site, The Blaze, still has several War on Christmas articles (and they're written from the oblivious position you'd expect from a site like that - how dare those atheists insist my city actually follow the law, even though a majority of our residents want to break the law), but even there there were only 10 articles from this year - hardly a raging war. Thank goodness. I'm hoping the right wing types who get so bent ouf of shape over the separation of church and state or the inclusiveness of saying Happy Holidays are finally getting over themselves and that in a few more years the only mention of the War on Christmas will be people remembering curiosities from the past.

Anyway, I've written a few good 'war' posts in the past that are still interesting. The first two links below are my favorites. The first includes a historical perspective on Christmas, and how it wasn't always the warm and fuzzy holiday it is today. I especially like the quote from a historian who described Christmases past as "a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras." Actually, that sounds kinda fun. The second article is about the attitude that people have taken towards Santa Claus that I just don't understand. Why do we insist that children earnestly believe in this silly myth, even once they get old enough to start questioning its plausibility? Like I point out in the article, everybody has a good time with their kids around Halloween with ghosts, goblins, and vampires without pretending they're real. Why can't we let kids enjoy Santa Claus the same way? On the other hand, there's a meme* that's gone around about Santa that I find pretty funny.

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

I guess I rambled a bit there. Anyway, here are my previous War on Christmas posts:

But I really do like Christmas. My wife's already put up the tree in the house. I've already decorated our big tree out front. My daughter's been checking her advent calendar every day. I'm close to having more Christmas songs stored on my computer than what's actually possible to listen to on Christmas Day. And when that day finally gets here, we'll do the presents, visiting with family, a big Christmas dinner. In fact, we do pretty much everything associated with Christmas other than go to church. So, here are a few of the positive Christmas posts I've written.

And as a bonus, here are links to humorous Christmas related pages on other sites.

* I really don't like how to many people, the term, meme, has become synonymous with a picture with a catchy sarcastic saying, rather than Dawkins' original coining, but I guess that's the way language works. Speaking of, here's one I just came across from Meme Generator that's rather fitting for this entry:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for November 2014

Top 10 ListWith November over, it's time once again to go through the server logs to see what pages on this site were the most popular. The list was largely similar to previous months, with two exceptions. The entry, Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution, made the list for the first time. Granted, last month it was very close at number 11, but this is the first time it officially made it into the top 10. The other newcomer was Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 14. This was part of an in depth review of an old creationist book, and while I think it's interesting and informative, I wouldn't have thought it to be the type of page to make the top 10 list. I mean, how many people are Googling "Alfred McCann" for refutations of his 92 year old arguments (though sadly, many modern creationist arguments aren't much changed).

As far as overall traffic, it's in line with what it's been for the past year, though down a bit from last month.

Anyway, here's the list of the ten most popular pages on this site in October.

Top 10 for October 2014

  1. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  2. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Review of Ray Comfort's New Movie - Evolution vs. God, Part I
  4. Book Review - Tribulation Force
  5. Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  6. Book Review - God- or Gorilla?, Chapter 14
  7. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  8. Response to Rabbi Steven Pruzansky - Why Romney Didn't Get Enough Votes to Win
  9. Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore
  10. Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Proverbs 11 to 20

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleToday's entry continues on with Proverbs, covering chapters 11 through 20. The introductory materials from the first several chapters are now well behind me, and I'm now smack in the middle of actual proverbs.

There's not really much structure to the proverbs. Sometimes you may get three or four verses in a row dealing with the same issue, but it's mostly just unconnected sayings. The chapter divisions seem to be based simply on length, with no overall themes uniting the proverbs in each chapter. In fact, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) treats the footnotes for these chapters of proverbs differently from any other footnotes I've read so far. In every previous book I've read, the footnotes are divided up by chapter, with a short overview of the chapter before getting into specific verses. Here in Proverbs, however, the NOAB dropped the chapter divisions, and just has all the footnotes run together.

Most of these sayings are good - be honest, be hardworking, don't gossip, etc. But with as much general advice as is given, I'm not going to try to summarize all of it. I'm just going to focus on a few of the verses that caught my eye. And instead of calling it out every time I see it, since it occurs quite often, I'll note up here that there's too much language about God being the only source of knowledge, and indicating that those that don't believe in God are fools. Of course, this is to be expected in a book of the Bible, but it's still irritating, nonetheless. Any book that would classify Einstein, Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama as fools is probably a little extreme in its definition of a fool.

Proverbs, Chapter 11

I thought this following verse was pretty funny. I just really like the imagery.

Like a gold ring in a pig's snout
   is a beautiful woman without good sense.

This next one jumped out because of the movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial. It's always a bit interesting to come across these types of passages that are a part of pop culture.

Those who trouble their households will inherit wind,
   and the fool will be servant to the wise.

Proverbs, Chapter 12

I already mentioned this last week, but there's definitely an overriding sense of sexism in this book. Just consider this passage.

A good wife is the crown of her husband,
   but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones.

It's all about how the utility of the woman to the man.

Proverbs, Chapter 13

I always enjoy sayings like this one. I've heard quite a few modern variations, but this is obviously one of the older versions.

Those who guard their mouths preserve their lives;
   those who open wide their lips come to ruin.

My favorite variation on this theme is a Spanish saying, "En boca cerrada, no entran moscas", sometimes appended with "ni salen estupideces". The main part loosely translates to "A shut mouth gathers no flies", with the addition meaning "nor says stupid things".

I also rather liked this saying.

Wealth hastily gained will dwindle,
   but those who gather little by little will increase it.

That certainly seems to be the case even today. Look how many lottery winners or professional athletes end up squandering their fortunes.

Proverbs, Chapter 14

The verse that caught my eye in this chapter was this one.

The simple believe everything,
   but the clever consider their steps.

Granted, there are other parts of the Bible (particularly the New Testament) that have teachings somewhat counter to this, but it's certainly nice to see a proverb that cautions against gullibility and promoting skepticism.

Proverbs, Chapter 15

This verse mentions a part of the afterlife that isn't discussed much in the Bible, with the focus usually being on Sheol.

Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord,
   how much more human hearts!

The NOAB had this to say about that verse, "Sheol, the underworld; Abaddon (lit. "Destruction") is an alternative abode for the place and state of the dead..."

Proverbs, Chapter 16

Consider this verse.

Inspired decisions are on the lips of a king;
   his mouth does not sin in judgement.

But just two verses later was this proverb.

It is an abomination to kings to do evil,
   for the throne is established by righteousness.

Taken in isolation, that first proverb would be very troubling, almost like a blanket endorsement of monarchs (understandably if monarchs funded the compilation of this book). That second proverb at least helps to temper it somewhat, instructing kings to behave righteously.

Proverbs, Chapter 17

I liked the imagery in this verse. It's a rather graphic warning.

One who loves transgression loves strife;
   one who builds a high threshold invites broken bones.

This next proverb is similar to the one I already quoted from chapter 13, but I still like it.

Even fools who keep silent are considered wise;

   when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.

Proverbs, Chapter 18

Here's another skeptic-themed proverb. It's nice to see passages like this.

The one who first states a case seems right,
   until the other comes and cross-examines.

Proverbs, Chapter 19

This proverb is actually kind of sad. And I think it's meant that way, since there are many proverbs instructing the reader to be kind to the poor.

Wealth brings many friends,
   but the poor are left friendless.

While I've mentioned the problems in the society that wrote Proverbs relating to sexism, this verse reveals another one.

It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury,
   much less for a slave to rule over princes.

Obviously, the writers didn't have the modern American idea of every man being created equal. It's rather jarring to see it so starkly stated that slaves don't deserve the same as others, or the implication that princes have a right to rule, and weren't just lucky to be born into it.

But lest you forget about the sexism, just a few verses later came this.

A stupid child is ruin to a father,
   and a wife's quarrelling is a continual dripping of rain.
House and wealth are inherited from parents,
   but a prudent wife is from the Lord.

It really is strange (and disturbing from a modern viewpoint) to see everything put into terms of how it affects the man of the family, as if that's the only important part. It's especially disturbing to see a wife included as part of the man's property.

Anyway, enough of the bad verses for a bit. Here's another good one.

What is desirable in a person is loyalty,
   and it is better to be poor than a liar.

I especially like the second line, since I put such a high value on honesty.

Proverbs, Chapter 20

It was the last verse of this chapter that caught my attention, but not in a good way.

Blows that wound cleanse away evil;
   beatings make clean the innermost parts.

This is pretty vicious, and doesn't even make sense. Why would beating a person so hard that it wounded them 'cleanse away evil'? It might instill a bit of fear in them, or maybe instill bitterness to where they'd want vengeance, but I certainly don't see how the act of beating someone would make them a better person.


I know I called out a lot of the bad proverbs, but most of them range from neutral to good (neutral would be all the stuff about God, since from an atheist perspective, they're focusing on a make-believe being). And I did try to include proverbs that caught my eye for positive reasons. This is a decent book of the Bible to read.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 1 - Evolution

Ben CarsonPrompted by a recent political discussion with someone I know who's a big fan of Ben Carson, I've decided to take a closer look at this potential politician. I've written about him a few times before on this blog, for his opposition to marriage equality, his anti-science position in denying evolution (both covered here - Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address), and his mangled interpretation of the Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state in response to a minor controversy over Bibles in Navy hotel rooms (A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle). With those three strikes against him, I wasn't all that interested in digging into his positions on other issues, but that discussion prompted me to do so. I figured that maybe by basing my impression of him on only three issues, I'd been being overly critical.

I went to his official website,, where he puts links to articles he's written and had published elsewhere. To get a decent sampling of his opinions, I read each of the articles featured on the home page (at least the articles when I first went there - it's taken me a little while to put together this response, so he's put up more articles since then). While there were some points he made that I agreed with, I found myself in disagreement with him over many issues. I'd started to write up responses to the articles that I was going to send as an e-mail to my friend, but my responses were getting too long for an e-mail. So instead, I sent a shorter reply and decided to turn my responses into blog entries. In the coming weeks, I plan to post those entries as I complete them.

For today, I'll focus on just one issue, one of the first issues I'd ever heard about him and one that I've already discussed before - his rejection of evolution. This is a huge red flag to me. First, there're the obvious reasons - evolution is one of the most well supported concepts in science, and it's been known of for over 150 years, so for a reasonably intelligent person to reject evolution must mean they're either ignorant of science, and/or willing to put ideology ahead of evidence. Ignorance can be cured with education, but putting ideology ahead of evidence is a huge problem for a political figure.

A perhaps less obvious problem, but which seems to be the case given Carson's answers, is arrogance. This comes in two ways - first, thinking that he knows more than the countless scientists and researchers who have devoted their careers to this topic (see the related entry, The Economy & Expertise ). The second is that he spoke so confidently about a subject about which he obviously knows so very little. In fact, this is my main issue with his rejection of evolution - not that he's merely ignorant of the science, but rather that he's so sure of himself when he's so obviously wrong. Elected officials don't need to know everything, but they do need to recognize the limits of their knowledge, and know when to defer to the experts in various fields.

(The full portion of the interview regarding Carson's views on evolution is available here, Adventist Review - Evolution? No. And if you're interested, here's a degreed biologist's response to Carson's comments on evolution, showing just how misinformed those comments were - Afarensis - Stupid Creationist Quote of the Week: Ben Carson on Evolution.)

Anyway, from his articles and what I'd heard of Carson before, although I agree with him on some things, I find myself in disagreement with him over many, many other issues, and have seen a few red flags to make me question his credibility. I have no doubt he's a very talented surgeon, but his political views leave something to be desired.

In the coming weeks, I will post responses to his articles, and maybe a few other things if I get particularly ambitious.

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Monday, November 17, 2014

Website Update - Top 10 Page List for October 2014

Top 10 ListIt's over halfway through November, so I'm a little late in getting to this this month, but here's the list of the ten most popular pages on this site last month. Mostly, they're very similar to last month, including some pages that have only very recently surged in popularity. There were two pages making first time appearances in the list - Book Review - Tribulation Force and Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries. That second page was the last in a series where I'd posted about my interactions with a creationist in the comments section of his blog. In that last entry, I wrote about how I discovered he'd plagiarized nearly the entirety of the blog entry that got me visiting his site in the first place. I do wish, however, that a related entry, Response to Kent Hovind Video - Bird Evolution would make the list one of these days. Hovind's video was the source material for the plagiarized page, and that entry of mine actually dealt in detail with many of the claims. And as long as I'm talking about bird evolution, I'll mention that the page that came in 11th place and just missed out on the top 10 list was Book Review - Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution, a book that I quite liked.

Overall traffic is similar to previous months, up just a bit by most measures including unique visitors, numbers of visits, and bandwidth. However, page views and hits were both the highest they've ever been. I'm going to keep on pretending that these are all real visitors and not spammers (though if assuming that most spammers are trying to leave comments, and judging by the amount of hits the blog commenting script received, spam is only about 1/4 of the traffic).

Anyway, here's the list of the ten most popular pages on this site in October.

Top 10 for October 2014

  1. Where's My Flying Car?
  2. Aviation Books
  3. A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  4. When Will There Be an Aircraft in Every Garage?
  5. Debunking a Columbus Myth
  6. More on Origin of Species
  7. Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  8. Book Review - Tribulation Force
  9. Creationist Dishonesty and a Follow Up to Previous Entries
  10. Blog - Golden Compass - A Surprise at the Bookstore

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Proverbs 1 to 10

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleOkay, so I fell behind again in this series. Part of it was that I got a little busy at work and cut my lunchbreaks short. But for the main reason, I have to admit that the title of this blog isn't entirely accurate. While I try to do most of the writing during my lunch breaks, for this series, I'd been doing a lot of catching up on my laptop at home on weekends. Unfortunately, my laptop crashed a few weeks ago and I haven't fixed it yet, so I haven't been able to catch up like normal. Oh well, I'll do my best to keep up to date in the future, or this project will end up dragging on for way to long.

Today's entry marks the start of a new book - Proverbs. While the book is traditionally credited to Solomon, this almost certainly isn't the case (not least of which for the reason that Solomon might not have even existed). As the New Oxford Annotated Bible puts it, "The book of Proverbs is a composite, consisting of several different collections dating from different periods and most likely with different authors." This week's entry covers the first ten chapters, which are mostly introduction without many actual of the book's namesake proverbs.

Proverbs, Chapter 1

The first seven verses are an overall introduction, talking about all the wisdom and knowledge the reader will get from this collection. The seventh verse caught my.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
   fools despise wisdom and instruction.

It's a theme I've read in previous books, but it still rubs me the wrong way. The juxtaposition certainly implies that people who don't believe in god are the 'fools' who 'despise wisdom and instruction'.

The next several verses were a petition for the reader to pay attention to these lessons. Actually, it was mostly a warning against following sinners and their sinful ways. There was very little nuance, implying that all sinners 'run to evil' and 'hurry to shed blood'.

Verse 12 was interesting in the fact that it appears to be borrowing from another mythology. Here's the verse from the Bible.

like Sheol let us swallow them alive
   and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.

The footnotes of New Oxford Annotated Bible (NOAB) described the passage this way, "Sheol...the Pit, the abode of the dead (see also...). Cf. the depiction in Ugaritic mythology of Mot, the god of death, with a vast throat stretching from earth to heaven into which he swallows his victims whole and alive."

The rest of the chapter personified Wisdom as a woman. The NOAB also pointed out how much of the language used to describe Wisdom is similar to that used to describe prophets (e.g. "Wisdom cries out in the street; / in the squares she raises her voice. / At the busiest corner she cries out; / at the entrance of the city gates she speaks").

Proverbs, Chapter 2

This chapter consists of 22 verses. The NOAB notes that that's the same as the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, but doesn't say whether or not it's acrostic (each verse starting with the next letter of the alphabet).

This chapter carried on with the introduction, extolling the virtues of wisdom and warning against going against these lessons. One verse caught my eye in much the same way as the verse I quoted from chapter 1.

For the Lord gives wisdom;
   from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;

This again seems to be saying that knowledge is only possible through God, implying that those who reject God don't get that knowledge. This is certainly an effective way of insulating the faithful against any criticisms of their religion - you don't even need to pay attention to those critics because obviously, they're not getting their wisdom from Yahweh.

This chapter also introduced a few images/themes that will come up a few more times in Proverbs. One was comparing wisdom to valuable earthly treasures.

if you seek it like silver,
   and search for it as for hidden treasures--

The other was a warning against following a 'loose woman' who will lead you to your doom.

You will be saved from the loose woman,
   from the adulteress with her smooth words,
who forsakes the partner of her youth
   and forgets her sacred covenant;
for her way* leads down to death,
   and her paths to the shades;
those who go to her never come back,
   nor do they regain the paths of life.

The NOAB notes that 'adulteress' might also be translated as 'alien' or 'foreign woman', going back to a theme from earlier books where Hebrews were to be especially careful of marrying foreign women and being tempted to follow their gods.

Proverbs, Chapter 3

The first part of this chapter was more of the same - telling the reader to heed these lessons, promising of the benefits they'll bring, and warning of the dangers of not following them. There was even more 'treasure' imagery.

One verse caught my eye in a negative light.

Do not be wise in your own eyes;
   'fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.

The NOAB claims this isn't anti-intellectualism, but rather a warning against arrogance. But it certainly seems to me that it's ripe for the anti-intellectual interpretation.

Verse 13 begins with 'Happy are those who...' The NOAB noted that this is a "characteristic wisdom formula... often called a beatitude", and pointed out numerous other places where this formula appears in Proverbs. It certainly makes Jesus's beatitudes seem a little less revolutionary, knowing that they're just using a formula common to already existing literature.

This chapter contained another verse that appears to be borrowing from other mythology.

Long life is in her right hand;
   in her left hand are riches and honour.

According to the NOAB, "The imagery echoes that of the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, who represents right order. She was portrayed with the symbols of life in one hand and wealth and prestige in the other." The NOAB also noted how the 'tree of life' from verse 18 "is also an Egyptian motif, associated with the sycamore tree."

Starting with verse 27, the chapter began to give some actual beneficial advice, mostly on being helpful and avoiding violence.

Proverbs, Chapter 4

This chapter is more of the same.

I'll also add, like I hinted at when writing about Chapter 1, that proverbs presents a very black and white view of the world. Even the NOAB stated (in reference to verses 18 & 19), "In keeping with the binary way of understanding reality common in Proverbs, the ways of righteous and wicked are compared to light and dark." There's very little nuance or shades of grey in this book.

Proverbs, Chapter 5

And more of the same, bringing back the loose woman imagery. I found one of the footnotes in the NOAB a bit humorous (in reference to verse 10), "Probably a reference to loos of earnings; prostitutes are expensive!" It's the exclamation point that really does it for me.

There was one passage that stuck out. It's not exactly salacious, but it is more explicit than most parts of the Bible.

Let your fountain be blessed,
   and rejoice in the wife of your youth,
   a lovely deer, a graceful doe.
May her breasts satisfy you at all times;
   may you be intoxicated always by her love.

Of course, there are still euphemisms in there, coming from a whole series of water/sex euphemisms leading up to those verses. 'Fountain', at least according the NOAB, is supposed to represent the woman's "sexual organs, seen as the property of her husband, and possibly to the offspring that will ensue."

And just pausing to reflect on this for a minute, the sexism in the Bible is so pervasive that I almost missed how sexist this whole chapter is (and actually, much of this book so far). It's all directed at men, not as advice for women.

Proverbs, Chapter 6

Chapter 6 is mostly practical advice - money issues with neighbors, laziness, lying, adultery, etc. It's mostly good advice.

Proverbs, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 is back to the imagery with the loose woman.

Proverbs, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 returns to describing Wisdom as a woman, contrasting with the loose woman from the previous chapter. And Wisdom really is personified here, speaking in the first person, being "created me at the beginning of his work, / the first of his acts of long ago", being present during acts of creation, "When he established the heavens, I was there...", and even reacting to the Lord. In fact, this last example is worth quoting on its own.

when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
   rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.

Once again, this appears like part of Proverbs that might have been borrowed from other mythology. According to the NOAB, "Comparisons have been made with the Egyptian goddess Ma'at, daughter of the creator god Amun Re, who is sometimes depicted as a little child playing on his lap."

It's also worth noting that some of the rewards for following Wisdom were rather worldly, "endowing with wealth those who love me, / and filling their treasuries."

Proverbs, Chapter 9

Chapter 9 continued on with the two women. They're each throwing a banquet, and it's shown to be much better to be invited to Wisdom's banquet. The first couple verses stood out to me.

Wisdom has built her house,
   she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
   she has also set her table.

Proverbs, Chapter 10

Chapter 10 finally moves past the introduction into actual proverbs and advice. These are all presented as two-line sayings, and use many of the same parallel structures that were used in Psalms.

These proverbs cover a variety of topics - divine reward and punishment, laziness, power of speech, wealth, poverty, etc.

It's worth noting the contradictory messages on reward and punishment. As the NOAB states, and which I can certainly agree with having read Job not too long ago, "Affirmation of the doctrine of divine retribution whereby the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished... Other proverbs complicate this doctrine of divine reward and punishment (e.g. 15.16; 16.8), and the books of Job and Ecclesiastes challenge it profoundly."


I'm glad to be into a new book and past the book of Psalms. The personification of Wisdom as a woman was especially interesting. I was also struck by how much these chapters borrowed from other mythologies. Now that I'm through with the sort of introductory chapters, I suspect the remainder of this book will be mostly the namesake proverbs. I just hope that they don't get too repetitive like Psalms did. But even if they do, this book is only 31 chapters long.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Results 2014

Sad Uncle SamUgh. I'm not terribly surprised, given then way the polls were going, but this is still dispiriting, and especially disappointing that the polls appeared to have a slight Democratic bias this year that gave the Republicans a few more races than predicted (this bias goes back and forth, sometimes favoring one party, sometimes the other - more info: FiveThirtyEight Blog).

As far as the Texas SBOE elections, the best news is that reasonable candidates held their ground and didn't lose to new ideologues. The bad news is that incumbent ideologues held their seats, too, so there's not going to be any change in how the board conducts itself anytime soon. For results, the Texas Tribune has a good page, but I can't link directly to the SBOE results. You'll have to click on the SBOE tab:
2014 Elections Scoreboard

Anyway, I'm not up to writing a whole lot about this, so I'll just provide links to what other people have written.

About the only consolation is that voting trends can change rapidly every two years, so I can only hope that 2016 will reverse the current state, and get Democrats back into the majority. Like I've mentioned before, I'm not a huge supporter of Democrats, but Republican policies are just so horrible that Democrats get my support by default. Anyway, here's a graph I stole from an article on FiveThirtyEight Blog, Is 2014 A Republican Wave?.

Trends on Popular Vote for U.S. House of Representatives

So, two more years of nothing getting done. Two more years to wait until hopefully better results.

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