Thursday, May 28, 2015

Web comics that I like

I have always enjoyed reading comics, some more than others, but I haven't had a regular newspaper to get my comics for several years. But I was overjoyed when I found that I could read the daily comics online which I have been doing for a few years now.

Somewhere along the way I branched out and got into reading a few web comics. These are comics that do not (typically) appear in a newspaper, but are published online. Someone I know once mentioned that if I like the work of a particular author then I should share their work with people I know so that they can continue to write. So on that note, I present this incomplete list of the web comics that I read (in no particular order). I say "incomplete" because there are several (~30-40) that I read in addition to the ones listed here but they don't rise to the level of "I would definitely recommend this." There are a few others that I would recommend but they have been on hiatus for more than a year and may never come back.

Schlock Mercenary
I stumbled across this web comic about three years ago when someone made a reference to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Pirates (now known as The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries), I looked it up and discovered Schlock Mercenary. The comic is written and drawn by Howard Tayler, and has been running daily since June 12th 2000. It is not your typical daily comic strip where you can start at any point and just pick it up as you go along. It actually has a (rather complex) story with many characters. Because of this it is described as a comic "space opera" (think "soap opera", but a lot less cheese and more space, and interesting characters). Even though this web comic started out as a side job it has since become the author's full time job, which means he is good enough at it that people are willing to pay him for it. That right there says something about the comic. Following this comic is like reading a long novel that only comes in daily doses. But it is interesting enough to make me want to keep reading it. It is also peppered with my style of humor.

This is actually a collection of related stories. Each one can be read independently, but there is a central story to them all. It is set in a world with magic in a mostly 1800's type world. The story has humor and action and interesting characters that are very likable.

This is another comic that I randomly came across. This one is drawn in black and white in graphic novel format, and updates about once a week. The tag line is "Life. Love. Hyperspace." and it mostly lives up to that by being a rather mellow drama set in space (that's mellow drama, not melodrama, as in it's mellow and it is a drama). I'm not one to read romance anything so that should be some indication as to how much "Love" there really is in this comic (i.e. very little relative to the rest of the story). When I first came across the comic I actually didn't read very much of it before I lost interest. But about two weeks later I came across it again and I read a little more and it hit just the right spot so I went back and read the whole thing from the beginning.

One on the things that I like about this comic is the artwork. The artist does a very good job with her characters. I find them to be very unique (both visually and character wise) and I think that is what got me reading this comic in the first place. The style of art is very distinct, but very expressive. The other thing is that the characters actually look like normal people, that is, they are average height and weight, unlike so many other comics (especially manga and anime) where the people are impossibly thin or super-model-ish. I think that helps make the story more believable.

PhD Comics
What can I say. I'm in grad school so of course I read PhD comics. It's one of the basic requirements to get into grad school. I first saw this comic years ago as an undergrad. At the time it didn't make any sense and I didn't think it was funny. But as I got closer to going to grad school it got funnier and funnier (and not because the comics changed, but because I actually stated to understand. I started to actually have that stuff happen to me.). Now that I am in grad school every time there is a new comic I have to resist the urge to print it out and go tape it to the door of my office since I know that there is already someone somewhere in the department doing just that. Just about every other office door has a print out of a PhD comic on it (that or xkcd, which is next).

xkcd is drawn by Randall Munroe, and it is perhaps the most famous webcomic in the world. It especially became well known after the Japan earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster when Randall posted a radiation dose chart to explain the radiation levels around the reactors. This got him noticed beyond the science/geek/engineer/slashdot crowd. His stuff is mostly stick figures with many references to science and computers. He also includes some strong language and *ahem* questionable content occasionally, so not for everyone. The comic comes with the following warning at the bottom:
Warning: this comic occasionally contains strong language (which may be unsuitable for children), unusual humor (which may be unsuitable for adults), and advanced mathematics (which may be unsuitable for liberal-arts majors).
Girl Genius
In terms of online web comics this one sets a high standard. It has won the Hugo award several times. This was perhaps the second web comic that I started reading. It updates three times a week with a full page color spread. It a fantasy/steam-punk comic with some humor thrown in. The story is complex with a rather large cast of characters. The only one who has them beat in terms of number of characters and extent of story is Schlock Mercenary.

Snow by Night
Snow by Night is set in a world that is like an alternate reality of colonial America. It involves magic, spirits, colonial powers, natives and an extensive back story not entirely contained in the comic. The story has been going for five years and shows no sign of slowing down.

This is a new comic. So I don't know where it's going yet, but I read a web comic/graphic novel called reMIND by the same artist and liked it. The artist is also associated with a Bible videos project and has done the art for one of their videos. It's quite good, check it out.

Stand Still. Stay Silent.
This story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a mysterious illness has killed almost everyone. The last vestiges of civilization are found only in the Nordic countries. The artist is from Sweden, has lived in Finland and mixes in many elements of Nordic mythology. The characters are real and engaging. I think that if a Hollywood executive was forced to turn this story into a movie or TV show they would royally mess it up because the characters and monsters don't fit the standard archetypes. That is probably why I like it. It also has perhaps the scariest monsters I have ever seen in a story, and that is saying something since there have only been two of them in the almost 2 years since the comic started. The first monster didn't show up until chapter 3, and that is probably what made it so scary.

This one is special since it is one of the very few that I am actually considering buying the comic in book form. Perhaps in the future when I have gobs of money (ha!) I'll buy the books. The story is set in a world unlike any other I have ever seen. The world, and all the different races, are extremely unique. The story is much more complex than almost any other that I ever read in web comic or book. It is not straight forward and does not do what you would expect. I still remember the exact page where I decided I wanted to buy the books because the character development went from good to exceptional. There are very few stories that can achieve this level of character complexity.

Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether
I don't know how to describe this one. It is a mixture of scifi, fantasy, steam punk, western, and pirate adventure. It's been going for four years and it has kept me interested.

This is actually a collection of short stories. They tell less well known stories from the Grimm brothers. They are short and classic. None of the Disney rewrites here. People do get killed and not everything works out by the final song comes around. Sometimes they just end, because, well, that's how the original story is.

This comic is firmly in the magic and fantasy camp. There are wizards, some dragons, people with swords, staffs and horses. The visuals are good and there is enough complexity in the story that it doesn't feel cliche. If it weren't so complex then I probably wouldn't keep reading it.

As the name implies this is about paranormal activity. The story centers on a boy who moves into a town and finds out that he can see ghosts. It is more humorous than scary. It is also shamelessly self referential and poking fun of its more serious aspects. The characters also occasionally critique the artwork of the comic itself which adds an interesting touch.

Chicken Wings
This is a comic in the style of the classic newspaper strip. It is all about airplanes (and some helicopters) so the humor is all flight related. The comic appears in several aviation magazines.

Let me know if you know of any others that are good to read since I am always looking for new and interesting stories.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

When a year is not a year: Calendars and such in the Book of Mormon.

In my previous post I quoted Deuteronomy 16:21 and showed how not knowing the context of the verse could lead us to incorrect conclusions. The example I used was deliberately simple and easy to refute. On Facebook I described it as the scriptural equivalent of a block being pushed across a frictionless surface, which is typical example used in introductory physics classes. A block sliding across a frictionless surface is an idealized case that you would never see in reality, but we use it because it is useful to introduce ideas and to teach certain concepts.

At the end I mentioned another simple misconception from scripture and mentioned that there are others, but I did not elaborate. The thing is, as we move into real examples they get more complex and difficult to analyze. Whenever I am teaching physics there invariable comes the moment when a student actually gets curious and starts asking questions, not because they want to know what will be on the test, but they genuinely want to know how things work. When that happens we have to move into real world examples, and that is when things get complex because all the simplifications and assumptions we made previously now are invalid. Now there is friction. Strings, springs and pulleys have mass. Density is not uniform, gravity is not constant, and we suddenly start talking about things like the Lagrangian, probabilities and distributions.

On that note, this example is a little more complex but still on the simple side.

One criticism of the Book of Mormon is that it gets certain dates wrong. It is very clear that there were 600 years between when Lehi left Jerusalem (during the first year of king Zedekiah) and the birth of Christ. This accounting was not approximate but exact. But as critics of the Book of Mormon like to point out Zedekiah became king in 597 BC and Christ was born in 4 BC (±1), which comes to 593±1 years, not 600.

But here's the thing, calenders are funny things. Not all calenders have 365 days per year. The Jewish lunar calender has 354±1 days per year. And the Mayan calender (the Mayans, and their neighbors, are the closest culturally to the people of the Book of Mormon that we know of, if not the actual people of the Book of Mormon), has 360 days per year. So if we take 600 years according to the Mayan calender we get:
360*600 = 216000 days
Which translates to:
216000/365 = 591.8 solar years
Still not an exact match with 593±1 years but it does line up a lot better. If we use the Jewish calender it comes to 581.9 solar years. But as I pointed out calenders are funny things and how calenders are kept is particular to each culture and people. The problems only arise when we assume that everyone uses a solar calender. We just have to keep in mind that a year may not be year depending on which calender you use.

As an interesting side note, the mesoamerican long count calender is very interesting. The first day on the long count calender is denoted as Mayans use a base 20 counting system. So after 20 days ( it rolls over to the next digit ( The second digit is funny since it only goes up to 18. So follows That means that = 360 days, hence the 360 days per year according to the Mayans. So as we go to higher dates, = 7,200 days and = 144,000 days.

Each of these digits has a name in Mayan. As explained on Wikipedia,
"The Maya name for a day was k'in. Twenty of these k'ins are known as a winal or uinal. Eighteen winals make one tun. Twenty tuns are known as a k'atun. Twenty k'atuns make a b'ak'tun."
So if we wanted to express something like "it's been 420 years since such and such happened", for some strange reason, we would say "it's been one b'ak'tun and one k'atun since such and such happened". Or put another way, = 400 Mayan years + = 20 Mayan years -> = 420 Mayan years. But I should point out that these are Mayan years so according to our calender it has only been 414 solar years.

So when Moroni said that "more than four hundred and twenty years have passed away" what he most likely said was "it's been more than one b'ak'tun and one k'atun". Which could mean that it has been exactly one b'ak'tun one k'atun ( or it could mean that it was anywhere between one b'ak'tun one k'atun ( and one b'ak'tun two k'atun ( depending on how exact Moroni was being. So it could range from 420 Mayan years to 439 Mayan years, which would translate to between 414 and 433 solar years. So even though the Church has tried to be helpful by including the years on the bottoms of the pages in the Book of Mormon, they may be off by several years depending, because we unconsciously assumed that the Nephites used a solar year for their calender.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Should there be no trees on temple grounds?

"Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees near unto the altar of the Lord thy God" 
-- Deuteronomy 16:21
Imagine that you are visiting some random Sunday School class somewhere in the world. The lesson is on the temple and *that guy* raises his hand, quotes Deuteronomy 16:21, and casually mentions that there are some commandments we as a church aren't keeping since there are still trees around the temple. The lesson is derailed and a discussion ensues that rivals in intensity and lack of understanding the debates about whether or not it rained before the flood.

I do not know of anyone yet who has used Deuteronomy 16:21 to argue that there should be no trees on temple (or church) grounds. But if we were to read that verse literally we may come to the conclusion that we should not plant trees anywhere near the temple. There may even be squabbles about how many trees are allowed (because one or two trees is not a grove so that may be OK). But it would not make any difference since the whole argument rests on a misunderstanding of the actual text of that verse.

The problem is there is one word in that verse which the KJV renders as "grove" but in reality is much more complex. Let us use another translation to illuminate the true meaning of that verse. The New International Version renders it as:
"Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God"
When the KJV translators were doing their work they had no idea what the word "אֲשֵׁרָה" meant, but from the context it seemed to refer to a grove of trees. So they translated it as "grove" and left it at that. It was not until hundreds of years later that Biblical scholars learned that "אֲשֵׁרָה" is the name of a Middle Eastern female deity commonly worshiped at the time the Bible was being written. Thus more modern translations (and a footnote in the LDS version of the KJV) translate "אֲשֵׁרָה" as Asherah and note the background and context.

Because we have easy access to the history surrounding Asherah we can avoid some of the possible misinterpretations of verses such as Deuteronomy 16:21, which is why we don't have people suggesting that the trees around the temple should be cut down. But if we had no other information about Asherah and all we had to go on was the KJV translation then it would be possible for us to misunderstand that verse and use it as justification for cutting down the trees on temple grounds. This potential misunderstanding is easily resolved but there are others in the scriptures that are not so obvious.

For example the phrase "his hand is stretched out still" which appears several times in Isaiah is sometimes used as a comforting phrase to show the love and mercy of God. But if we consider the phrase in context we quickly see that it does not refer to a merciful, "extended helping hand" but rather to a fist ready to smite in anger. That misunderstanding is rather benign since it won't lead us to go about chopping down trees. At most it will make us think about being kind to others so it's not really a big deal.

But there are other more subtle misunderstandings of scriptural passages which over the years have come to supplant the original meaning. And sometimes ideas that do not come from scripture work their way into our thinking and we mistake them for doctrine even when the scriptures say the exact opposite. That is why it is advantageous to study the scriptures in the context they were written as much as possible. This approach will help us see and understand any misconceptions we may have that we never knew we had.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A Knotty Vine

I found this wild wisteria bush near where I live today. That whole tangled mass in the middle are the twisted trunks of wisteria. It appears that a wisteria vine descended from a tree, now long since gone, put down roots, and then had other wisteria plants grow up around it. You can see the old trunk of the original wisteria vine at the bottom of the most twisted part. Almost everything you see in this picture is part of a wisteria vine, except for the oak tree just left of center. All the other branches and "trees" you see, including the one cutting across in front, and the thick on at an angle on the right is part of one massive wisteria vine. It was an impressive sight to see.
For reference this is a picture of the spot I was standing when I took the picture of the wisteria. You can see the tangled wisteria on the left side.