Friday, December 19, 2014

the mind of a seat snatcher revealed, accidentally

I've always been both fascinated and disgusted by people who take up extra seats on a crowded subway. The people who feel their shopping bag needs a seat more than their fellow passengers. What kind of a person is that?

I mean, there are those weird people who put a bag on a seat and stand next to it, and while that's a waste of a seat, at least with them you can say that they just don't understand the appeal of sitting. They're happy to stand so it may just not occur to them that others like to sit.

But those people who sit next to their bag (or, as sometimes happens, between two bags) know the importance of sitting down, because they're doing it. They know that when you're on the train, it's better to sit. they just don't care that they're preventing someone else from sitting.

It drives me crazy. Inspired by "Men Taking Up Too Much Space on the Train," I've even considered creating a Tumblr called "Bags That Need a Seat More Than You Do," but that's a project for a later time.

Sometimes I just want to ask these people, what the fuck? What sort of entitled person thinks that their own comfort is all that matters?

One seat snatcher has answered that question in an article in Salon meant to be about racist white people that turned out instead to be about the writer's own narcissistic selfishness.,

The article, '“Listen when I talk to you!”: How white entitlement marred my trip to a Ferguson teach-in.', by Brittney Cooper, begins thusly:

On Friday, I was on the train to New York to do a teach-in on Ferguson at NYU. Beats headphones on, lost in thought, peering out the window, I suddenly saw a white hand shoving my work carry-on toward me. Startled, I looked up to see the hand belonged to a white guy, who was haphazardly handling my open bag, with my laptop perched just inside to make space for himself on the seat next to me.
 So, a woman sits down on a train, puts her bag next to her, puts on headphones and stares out the window.

In an empty train, I will put a bag on the seat next to me, but if I do that, I constantly monitor the train to make sure it's not getting full. If the train starts to fill up, I put my bag on the floor, or my lap, because I don't want to be an asshole. If I'm wearing my bulky winter coat, I pull it close around me so it doesn't block the other seats. I have bad feet, I have bad knees; I know how important a seat is.

Cooper acknowledges that the train was full, and says she understands why someone would want to sit. But she objects to someone picking up her bag after failing to get her attention. She says he should have tried harder to get that attention, although if she thought moving her bag was a sign of white male privilege, it's hard to believe that a tap on the shoulder or a white hand waved between her eyes and the window would have not have set her off as well.

What she never acknowledges in the article is that she had no right to take up an extra seat. No, "yes, I was in the wrong to take an extra seat on a crowded train, but it is inexcusable to grab someone's bag." Because it really is an asshole move to grab someone's bag; in spite of my bad feet I would never do that.

Cooper seems very angry that a white man did this, but it's hard to believe she would have been that much happier if a black man had grabbed her bag, or a pregnant white lady, or an elderly Korean. And that could have happened; I think we all know that pushy intrusiveness is not limited to any one race.

That's the fascinating thing about assholes; they will unselfconsciously tell you what assholes they are because they feel completely justified in all their asshole behavior. I'm sure that white guy would be willing to sit down and write an article about how he had to grab some stranger's bag and move it with the some obliviousness to his breach of social norms. Rather than being an article about white entitlement, this is simply an article about two entitled assholes facing off.

Most people in the comments section reacted as I have, with most people taking her to task for her own bad behavior. But there is the occasional comment that says, "white people just don't get it." This is a pretty common statement when discussing racism, and a true one. White people don't know what it's like to live in a society where they are considered the other, the ones to be mistrusted and watched out for. We didn't grow up in a society where a "flesh-colored" band-aid is off-white, where the white guy is the television detective and the black guy is the street-wise junkie, where a preponderance of black faces in a neighborhood makes it "bad." We totally don't understand the black experience.

But what does that have to do with being a jerk? Does it mean black people get a pass for being assholes? Is that part of reparations?

An asshole is an asshole. It is condescending to say we are not going to hold Brittney Cooper to account because she's black and upset about Ferguson. It is patronizing to say, "well, she's black,
she has a right to be an ass," and unfair to all the polite people of all races who show consideration for their fellow humans.

When that guy grabbed her bag she had a choice. She could think about how her inconsiderate behavior created a situation, or she could decide that the real problem was racism. She chose the latter, and that tells me a lot about the sort of person who lets you stand so their bag can sit.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Trankey Do Transformation: How Hard Could It Be to Redub a Two-Minute Dance Video?

This is a long and detailed explanation of the process by which I re-dubbed and extended the Spirit Moves Trankey Do video. As with the video itself, it is possible that this is interesting to no one except me. The video can be viewed here.

Context: An Overview of Spirit Moves

In the 1930s, a German Immigrant dancer named Mura Dehn discovered the Savoy Ballroom, inspiring her to spend decades documenting Jazz Dance. The result is the five-hour documentary Spirit Moves.

If you watch the chunks of Spirit Moves on youtube, you'll notice that the music never quite matches the movement. Recording sound and video was not as simple as it is now, and it appears Dehn simply recorded the dance and dubbed the music in later.

One of the things Dehn captured was the Trankey Do (referred to as the "Trunky Doo" in a Spirit Moves title card, one of many alternate spellings; Wikipedia says it's Tranky Doo, for what that's worth.)

The Beginnings: Learning a Dance from Videos, and a Bright Idea

A few weeks ago, I decided I would teach myself the Trankey Do. There are a number of youtube videos where the steps are broken down and other videos that show it performed. The steps themselves are listed on Wikipedia and LindyWiki.

Everyone seems to do the routine a little differently, so I figured I'd go to the earliest recorded version in Spirit Moves, featuring Al Minns, Leon James, and Pepsi Bethel. (Pepsi is generally described as the routine's choreographer, although Frankie Manning's long-time girlfriend Judy Pritchett - who spells it Trankey Do - says it was Frankie's creation.)

Unfortunately, I couldn't dance along to the Pepsi video because the song dubbed in - The Dipsy Doodle - was one beat off. The first move, Fall off the log, traditionally starts on 8, but it was dubbed to start on 1. It felt wrong when I tried to dance along.

I decided to redub the sound to match the dance. I figured it would be easy.

A Simple Tweak: The Right Music on the Right Beat

Because of the Spirit Moves video, dancers nowadays usually do the routine to the Dipsy Doodle, but according to wikipedia and other sources it was originally danced to Erskine Hawkins' Tuxedo Junction. I figured as long as I was changing the soundtrack, I might as well be authentic.

Hawkin's version of Tuxedo Junction on youtube was too slow for the  video, so I edited them together with Vegas Pro 12, which allowed me to speed up the music. I got the speed so it matched the first few eights fairly perfectly and got the opening kick on the 8 where it belonged. I called it a success and uploaded it to youtube.

There was something strange though. While the first part of the video was close to other versions, I found that there were places where the dancers were not doing what was done in the instructional videos; for example, they were doing the knee slap on 7 instead of 8. I assumed that over the years the routine had been altered somewhat, but eventually I realized what the real issue was.

Getting Ambitious: Completing the Routine

The Spirit Moves video does not show the complete Trankey Do, fading out around the Paddles. I found a couple more old Trankey Do videos on youtube. One has only the first third of the routine, but the other, which was danced over the end credits of some old TV show, has Al Minns and Leon James doing the whole thing very fast. The quality is terrible and a big chunk shows Al and Leon in the distance behind the band, but the part missing from the Spirit Moves video is clearly filmed in spite of the credit text. I took that video and slowed it down to match the music. Then I synced it up so the Droop Boogies matched between the two videos and I dissolved there from one to the other.

When I danced along, I realized there was a bit missing from the end - there were only two shouts, instead of four, so I repeated the first shout a couple of times to fill out that section. Then I put it up on youtube, and since you can't replace youtube videos with new versions, I put a link in the first video pointing to this "better" one.

The Realization: This Isn't Right. At All.

I could now dance along to an authentic old school video of the entire Trankey Do routine. But as I did, I found there were some places where the second half seemed out of sync. I edited it again. I felt like there might be a difference between the Spirit Moves and TV Credits versions regarding where the Boogie Drops fell, and put them a couple of beats apart. I uploaded that version, then realized that if I compared the TV credits version with what I'd done, Al and Leon were on different beats entirely. I needed to start again.

At this point I decided to make a basic assumption; regardless of how the routine might have changed over the years, Al Minns and Leon James would be doing the same routine on TV that they did for Mura Dehn. Therefore, both routines should have the Eagle Slide happen on the same count in the same place in the music, and my goal was to make that happen in my video.

But while Al and Leon kicked on 8 on TV, Pepsi was kicking on 2, even though he synced up beautifully in the beginning of the video. So I began to look very carefully at where things went off.

First, there's a cutaway during the second of the Apple Jacks, and I realized that when the video goes back to a long shot, things are no longer in sync. I cut the video there and slid it forward a few tenths of a second until it matched, then stretched the cutaway, which doesn't really sync up well anyway, so it looked fairly seamless.

But that wasn't enough. It seemed as though the dancers were no longer dancing at the same speed. Did the cutaway represent a transition between two different takes?

I tried changing the speed of the dancers, and it got better, but it was still off.

The Realization: I Have Embarked on a Fool's Errand

Then I began to think about the music, and I realized I had been making the foolish assumption that Erskine and the dancers were both keeping the beat with machine-like accuracy.

Was this likely? What were the dancers listening to anyway? A 78 record? A friend with a harmonica?

I got a metronome and checked its beat against Hawkins' song, and sure enough, there is no steady beat that will consistently match that song. It speeds up and slows down, varying by as much as 10 bpm. I found the same thing when comparing the soundless Spirit Moves video against that metronome.

I started watching the Spirit Moves without sound, just counting the steps, and going by the number of steps while ignoring the music, the Eagle Slide appeared to happen on 8. But it wasn't working with the music. For some reason, the dancers rush right before that Eagle Slide, as though that guy with a harmonica sped up or skipped a note and the dancers just kept with him.

At this point I decided to do something extreme. If I counted the dance (as I was editing, I was counting everything outloud), the Crazy Legs after the jump starts on 1. There was no way to make that happen with minor speed shifts. I made a cut in the middle of the jump and slid the whole thing over around half a second, leaving a moment of blank video in its place. Now everything was where it should be - more or less.

I needed to get the TV credits part in better shape. At least here I had the original music as a guide to when they did what step, but once again, beats weren't accurate, and I had to fiddle with some chunks to get things synced up. Not perfectly synced , but enough so that I could dance along without getting totally thrown off.

While I had previously been uploading a new version to youtube every time I completed one, this time I decided to spend some time dancing along with this one to make sure that I finally had what I wanted. This was good, because I kept thinking of further tweaks.

First off, I realized I shouldn't leave Pepsi hanging in the air for 4 beats. I put the jump back together and took a clip of the landing and stretched it out so that Pepsi is simply crouched and waiting for a while. Later I decided it would be better to slow down the section before the jump a little so I didn't have to pad the pause as long, although this created an obvious slow motion quality to the jump.

The jump into the Crazy Legs was still an issue, because I couldn't jump that slow. Studying the video some more, I concluded that it would make sense if he jumped so that he landed on 5 (without the padding he would land on 3 in my edit), then jumped into the squat on 7. I moved thing around until he was making a very slow jump turn on 3 and 4. It was still unrealistic, and it seemed more likely he would start the jump after the 3.  I stretched the first three beats so that instead of putting his foot down on 2 before the jump it doesn't come down until 3. That seemed to make sense, looked more-or-less right, and I could dance along.

And That's It ... I Hope

At this point the Spirit Moves video was as close as I thought I could get it. Oh, I could get it closer if I were to break the video into tiny pieces and stretch and contract each of them to perfectly match the music, and every time I see something that's a little off I'm tempted to move it into place, but I've already sunk hours and hours into this "simple" project and I just can't take much more. It also occurred to me that it might have made more sense - since my focus was on the dance - to edit the music to fit the dance rather than vice versa, but I'll leave that experiment to someone else.

Was it worth it? Perhaps. Breaking the dance down so finely, and doing the steps on the right beat and on the wrong beat (I still think the knee slaps on 7 works really well) means I have an unusually strong sense of how Trankey Do is constructed. But if I knew it was going to take the five or six hours I spent on video editing rather than expected half hour, this video would not exist.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

explaining the explicable: why white people shouldn't wear blackface

On facebook, a friend posted an amusing flowchart called Should I Wear Blackface on Halloween? This flowchart is a response to yet another year of pictures of people wearing blackface at parties.

Another friend, one who is smart and generally well informed, wrote to say, what’s the big deal with blackface? Suprisingly, he was not familiar with the history of minstrel shows, and seemingly unfamiliar with the controversy in general. And while yet another facebook friend’s reply was basically to say, “don’t do it, just don’t, because you shouldn’t,” that didn’t seem to completely satisfy him.

For a lot of people, the rule that white people shouldn’t wear blackface is self-evident, but actually, very little in life is self-evident. Self-evident is when an alien came from a distant galaxy and you told him something people do and he says, oh, that makes total sense. And I don’t think an alien would instantly grasp the blackface issue, because it’s contextual and historical.

So I wanted to try and answer the question. In fact, I’m going to give three answers: the answer that’s generally given, a consideration of what blackface implies, and finally a personal, why-I-wouldn’t-do-it-answer. I was originally just going to post an answer in the facebook thread, but then another friend posted his contention that it’s okay to use makeup to match skin tone for the sake of veracity, and since my middle answer is concerned with that, I figured I’d put this on my blog and tag them both.

My Three Answers to Why Shouldn't White People Wear Blackface

Most of the objection to blackface are contextual, of course. It started out in the minstrel shows, and in early Hollywood, blacks (and Asians, and Native Americans) were generally played (and defamed) by whites. Even some black stars were required to darken themselves, like Lena Horne, whose fair skin was considered too confusing for white audiences who wanted their blacks black and their whites white.

But I feel there’s a further issue with blackface. Consider, for a moment, the reverse; black people in whiteface. It’s not especially common, and I have a theory as to why. It’s because black people aren’t defining characters entirely according to their skin tone. If a black person dresses as Superman, are they going to put on white make-up, thus making an explicit statement that Superman is a white guy and black people can’t be Super Men? I doubt it. I think most black people who think nothing of dressing as a leprechaun or a Viking or a Pilgrim without whitening their skin. Darkening your skin to reflect a character’s skin is, ultimately, a way of saying that race is a defining characteristic of who we are. Even that it's the defining characteristic.

So the question becomes, is it really necessary to have dark skin to make the costume right? If I want to be, say, Martin Luther King, should I wear blackface?

Well, no, both because that would be the ultimate slap in the face for African Americans and because even with blackface, no one would know who I was. White guy in a suit or black guy in a suit, I’m still going to have to explain my costume to everyone, which to my mind makes it a kind of crappy costume. On the other hand, if I go as Flava Flav, do I need dark skin? If I wear a giant freaking clock around my neck, is anyone not going to know who I am if I’ve got white skin?

Would I look more like Flava with darkened skin? First, no, because we look nothing alike, and second, who cares, because I’m not an actor playing him in a movie. It’s a freaking Halloween costume. It’s supposed to be fun and clever and entertain other people; it’s not supposed to allow me to walk into his house and have his wife say, “Honey, so glad you’re home.”

And yes, it does seem like a double standard that no one would make a big deal out of if someone wore whiteface. But the reason no one would make a big deal out of it is white people don’t care. There’s no history of us being denigrated by whiteface. We would all just go, hey, cool makeup.

I wrote a while back about the oddity of murder jokes being far more acceptable in modern society than rape jokes. I don’t make rape jokes, and I don’t wear blackface, because right now, these are both open wounds in our society, and why would I want to pick at an open wound? Blackface pisses off a lot of black people. I’m not black, so I’m not going to say, dude, get over it, grow a sense of humor.

I’m not saying you should never offend people. Lenny Bruce used offending people to great effect. I’m saying offending people shouldn’t be done cavalierly. If you’re a satirist who has a statement to make involving blackface, I could see that. If you’re a drunk guy at a costume party dressed like Little Black Sambo, you’re just an asshole.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Boehner Vows to Continue Mouthing Hollow Statements for Duration of Shutdown

In a press conference, Speaker John A. Boehner vowed to continue a series of vague, hallow sound bites until the budget crisis gripping the nation is resolved.

“The American people don’t want their government shut down, and neither do I. All we’re asking for is to sit down and have a discussion. We ought to do something about our spending problem and the lack of economic growth in our country. “Our goal here was to bring fairness to the American people under Obamacare.”

“I could do this all day,” Boehner added.

While the speaker is convinced that a steady stream of vague platitudes will lead to a budget settlement on Republican terms, a confident President Obama, noting that a majority of the American public blames Republicans for the shutdown, has doubled down on his rhetoric, saying yesterday that he would make the GOP “drop to its knees and squeal like a pig.”

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

what articles about what the Miley Cyrus VMA performance says about our culture say about our culture

Miley Cyrus was on the 2013 VMAs, and stuck her tongue out, and wore very few clothes, and did something called "twerking" that is apparently a dance move that is so much a part of black culture that Miley's doing it, and having black background dancers, makes her a racist. And her desperate need for attention makes her a slut, and maybe crazy, and saying that is slut shaming, and part of the way society oppresses women's expression of their sexuality. And everyone - everyone - is horrified by Cyrus's performance, so horrified for so many different reasons that they have to watch it over and over again and write articles about it that link to the video of her dancing so other people can see it and be horrified and write their own articles about how terrible Cyrus is and how she made a horrible mistake by doing something that has upped her fame level by about 1000% (at last when I hear the names Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift I'll be able to remember which one is which).

Is the Miley Cyrus performance the most egregious overuse of sex in a song in the history of mankind? Is it the most horrific example of naked racism? Is it something shocking that we will never forget?

I'm going to say no.

So why is this getting so much attention? Well, first off, it was on the VMAs, which apparently a lot of people watch (honestly, my only objection to the Cyrus performance is it made me pay attention to the VMAs for once). It was a little (purposefully) over the top, and people started talking about it.

And then bloggers and columnists all over the world said, oh my god if I wrote something about this that puts a spin on it then I'll get a billion blog hits. And when they got their billion hits, more people wrote about it.

And that's it. The truth is, the Miley Cyrus performance is not especially important, except for being a textbook example of how the blogosphere, and modern journalism, which now takes its cue from the blogosphere, operates. Writers are sharks, and when first blood is spilled, there is a feeding frenzy.

It is understandable. Even though I am not linking to the video, because if you haven't seen it already it's probably a conscious decision, just the fact that this article contains the phrases "miley cyrus" and "VMAs" means it will probably get more hits than anything I've written since I wrote an article about Kate Beckinsale's breasts. That still won't be a lot of hits - maybe a few hundred over the next year - but for serious bloggers, a popular article about the thing everyone is talking about can get them as much attention - almost - as Miley.

Miley Cyrus tried to get attention, and succeeded, and while her performance is being lambasted everywhere, a whole slew of singers are already trying to figure out how they can get this much attention. And when they figure it out, expect much joyous wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Monday, April 29, 2013

How comment spammers create dissimilar posts

As the editor/guide for's Wii Games channel, one of my duties is to check comments to my blog to see if they are spam. Spam comments are generally generic comments along the lines of, "This is a very interesting piece, I look forward to other things you will right." The English is generally at least as awkward as that. Comments are often quite similar, but rarely identical. The user's name will generally then be linked to some website selling something.
Today I found something interesting in the comments of a post. Instead of the usual little comment, there was this strange, long piece of text with brackets indicating sections that could be swapped in and out.  There is paragraph after paragraph. So it is apparent that there is some sort of program that is supposed to grab a random paragraph from this text and then randomly choose a word or phrase from within each bracket in order to create a spam comment that cannot be kept out with a simple text filter because it will never be quite the same.
I don't know if anyone will find that interesting besides me, but  here is the entire thing. I realize aspiring spammers might find this a useful tool, but I think they probably all already know how to do this, so us non-spammers might as well understand how it works.

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{I love|I really like|I enjoy|I like|Everyone loves} what you guys {are|are usually|tend to be} up too. {This sort of|This type of|Such|This kind of} clever work and {exposure|coverage|reporting}! Keep up the {superb|terrific|very good|great|good|awesome|fantastic|excellent|amazing|wonderful} works guys I’ve {incorporated|added|included}
you guys to {|my|our|my personal|my own} blogroll.|
{Howdy|Hi there|Hey there|Hi|Hello|Hey} would you mind {stating|sharing} which blog platform you’re {working with|using}? I’m
{looking|planning|going} to start my own blog {in the near future|soon} but I’m having a {tough|difficult|hard} time {making a decision|selecting|choosing|deciding} between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your {design and style|design|layout} seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something {completely
unique|unique}. P.S {My apologies|Apologies|Sorry} for {getting|being} off-topic but I had to ask!
{Howdy|Hi there|Hi|Hey there|Hello|Hey} would you mind letting me know which {webhost|hosting company|web host} you’re {utilizing|working with|using}? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 {completely different|different} {internet browsers|web browsers|browsers} and I must
say this blog loads a lot {quicker|faster} then most.
Can you {suggest|recommend} a good {internet hosting|web hosting|hosting} provider at a {honest|reasonable|fair} price?
{Thanks a lot|Kudos|Cheers|Thank you|Many thanks|Thanks}, I appreciate it!
{I love|I really like|I like|Everyone loves} it {when people|when individuals|when folks|whenever people} {come together|get together} and share {opinions|thoughts|views|ideas}.
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Thank you for the {auspicious|good} writeup. It in fact was a amusement
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{By the way|However}, how {can|could} we communicate?
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a quick heads up. The {text|words} in your {content|post|article} seem to be running off
the screen in {Ie|Internet explorer|Chrome|Firefox|Safari|Opera}.
I’m not sure if this is a {format|formatting} issue or something to do with {web browser|internet browser|browser} compatibility but I {thought|figured} I’d post to let
you know. The {style and design|design and style|layout|design} look great though!
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This is a topic {that is|that’s|which is} {close to|near to} my heart… {Cheers|Many thanks|Best wishes|Take care|Thank you}! {Where|Exactly where} are your contact details though?|
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Monday, December 24, 2012

faith sucks, belief rules

I’ve been thinking about the concept of faith a lot lately. This is due to my recent Bart Ehrman kick. Erhman is a biblical scholar focussed on the New Testament who specializes in textual criticism, which is the art of figuring out how much of the original ancient texts are reflected in the versions we have now. I never thought about this, but back in the days of hand copying mistakes were common, and some copyists would also purposely change texts.  This means we don’t truly know exactly what was written by Plato or Confucius or, as Ehrman points out in books like Misquoting Jesus, the authors of the Christian bible.

Misquoting Jesus is a fascinating book that describes the attempts to figure out what parts of the New Testament are authentic. At times it reads like a detective novel, as he explains how textual critics compare writing styles and check other sources to figure out what is original and what was added later. Sometimes things were added long after the original documents were created - that “let he without sin cast the first stone” story is an example of that. Sometimes words were miscopied by barely literate copyists. Sometimes minor changes were made to, for example, deemphasize the role of women in the Christian religion or to deride the beliefs of competing Christian groups like the Gnostics (an interesting group who I learned about in another Ehrman book, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. They believed that the God of the Jews was a crazy asshole and that there is another, better, higher God to worship).

Ehrman was brought up an evangelical Christian who considered the Bible the literal word of God, but he eventually concluded the book was very much man made, and that its authors each had their own points to make. He points out that Jesus is portrayed quite differently in each gospel; he says we must respect the authors by reading each story on its own, rather than doing a Jesus Christ Superstar-style mashup.

Misquoting Jesus made me wonder if Ehrman was still a Christian after coming to understand what a mish masch the New Testament is. And in the book I’m reading now, God’s Problem, I learned that Ehrman is, in fact, an agnostic. But not, apparently, because of the conclusions that lead him to write Misquoting Jesus.

Erman begins God’s Problem by saying that he has “lost his faith,” and I found that an interesting statement. He makes it sound as though he lost an appendage, like his hand, and he still misses it. And as I thought about it I realized that while he had faith, when I believed in God as a child, I only had belief. Which is a very different thing.

I believed in the existence of God when I was young. I also believed in the existence of Santa Claus. In both cases my belief was based on the information I had been given. My parents, who I considered a reliable source, told me there was a Santa Claus. They would take on any questions I had; when I asked how he could get down our skinny chimney, they would say they left the back door open for him.

But then I discovered that not everyone believed in Santa Claus, I found the illogic of the Santa myth increasingly difficult to overlook. I expressed my doubts to my parents and they eventually admitted there was no Santa Claus.

My path with God was very similar. I believed there was an all powerful supernatural being who had created everything and was in charge of the world. I used to talk to him, either asking him for a better life or, when I was in a more charitable frame of mind, asking him to end suffering throughout the world.

By the time I was in Junior HighI discovered that not everyone believed in God, and just knowing that made me think about whether the whole God thing made sense. I concluded that it did not. I did ask the minister questions, but was unsatisfied with the answers.

Just as with Santa, I had a belief, I became more intellectually sophisticated, analyzed my belief and found it wanting, and decided to believe something different.

Erman became an agnostic not because the evidence for the existence of a savior was insufficient, but because he ultimately found he could not reconcile his faith in an all-powerful, all-loving God with the horrors of the world, both man-made horrors like war and natural horrors like disease and disaster.

I couldn’t help wonder though, why just the fact that the texts upon which his beliefs were based were an inaccurately copied set of documents written and chosen to fortify one of many competing views of Jesus.

And I realized it all came down to faith. Because faith is not contingent on anything. Once you have faith, you don’t need proof. Proof is irrelevant. Ehrman could see that the New Testament was not the literal word of God but still believed in God and Jesus, because that’s what faith is; believing regardless of everything.

Ehrman’s problem was he had faith in a very specific God. I believed in God as a child, but I wasn’t that clear on what he did. I didn’t really think about the issues of being loving and all powerful yet allowing suffering, because I was not a sophisticated nine-year old. By the time I could think about these things, I was done with God.

God’s Problem is a book about how the bible deals with suffering, and he apparently found nothing in it that fit with his faith. His faith wasn’t, seemingly, in the God that tortured Job to win a bet with Satan, killing his family in the process, or the God who punished children for the sins of their parents. I still don’t understand why it  took him so long to reach that point, but faith is a powerful thing.

Beliefs can be changed with new evidence; faith cannot be. Yet, insisting on proof for what you believe is considered somehow petty and mean.  If you don’t believe in God, or ghosts, or psychics,  or astrology, many people will see you as a cynic with no sense of childlike wonder, as though unquestioning belief is far more admirable than trying to really understand the world through careful study and a rational exploration of factual evidence. Instead, we admire what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness”; believing in something there is no proof for because you feel it in your gut.

People love the famous editorial in which a newspaper man tells a little girl that yes, there is a Santa Claus, even if there’s no proof, a piece wonderfully rewritten by Greta Christina as No Virginia, There is No Santa Claus, a paean to rational thought I found through a lovely post on the allure of irrational belief by my friend Tim Martin.

I don’t have faith. I don’t believe I have ever had faith. I have believed wrongly, but only because I was lacking information, or was trusting the wrong sources, or was too lazy to really consider all sides of an issue. But I can’t recall ever having blind faith in anything; I remain open to information refuting what I believe, and the model of the world I keep in my head is still constantly changing as new information arrives.

Certainly I have opinions I will not release. For example, I believe the world should devote more resources to feeding those who starve than building weapons. This is not based on fact. Starvation is not inherently wrong, it is a natural part of nature. But I don’t think you could really talk me out of this belief - you can’t use facts to persuade me I shouldn’t worry about people starving to death. Even then, you could, if you martialed your facts, possibly persuade me that starvation is inherently unsolvable, and that attempts to feed the world would ultimately just make things worse. I haven’t heard such an argument, but I feel certain someone out there is ready to make it. And if a good case could be made, I would adjust my beliefs accordingly.

Faith is not as easy to adjust. It isn’t based on proof, so it cannot be disproved. Asking for proof is not faith, and in fact those with faith would say wanting proof demains faith.As Kris Kringle explains in Miracle on 34th Street, "Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to."

Thomas Paine once wrote that it would make no sense for God to give man the ability to reason and then insist that he not use that gift. It’s exactly the sort of reasonable statement that faith easily discounts.

While faith is portrayed as beautiful, it actually an example of man at his most primitive, the confused cave man fearfully offering chickens to unseen spirits because he just doesn’t know any better. For centuries, man has been creating something beyond faith, something much, much better, based on rational thought and experimentation. I believe that is a good thing. But I have no faith in anything.