Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Total eclipse

I dropped my eclipse glasses and stared up at the eclipse with my naked eyes. People started screaming and cheering and yelling all over the mountaintop. There, filling the roof of the world, hung the pupil of the moon, surrounded by a pure white ring. It was the roundest blackest black I have ever seen, a pool to the other side of the universe, surrounded by the brightest white I have ever seen, a brushed ringed gate reaching softly outwards into the grey-blue sky. I had prayed and prayed that the clouds would disappear for us to witness totality, and they had: not a single wisp dared encroach on the eclipse's territory. The sky was barren and cold and still around the pupil.  We could hear the people screaming all the way throughout the parking lot and the observation deck. The eclipsed sun was otherworldly, apocalyptic, and euphoric, but also none of those things - a partial eclipse can be totally described in words, but a total eclipse can only be partially described in words.

Out across the mountains I saw a dream in which the world had ended: the entire horizon as far in all directions was a burnt orange, with storm clouds dashed around the perimeter holding in the alien storm. I half-expected to see lightning or mushroom clouds. A few stars glittered in the sky. I darted around a car and knelt on the soft wet dirt at the edge of the mountain and stared up at the eclipse, and then through the silhouettes of burned trees at the primordial orange horizon, and then back up at the eclipse. Not night, day, dusk, or dawn - we bathed in a refined, silver light, out of time, painted onto the landscape in a wave. 

Then the corner of the sun burst out of the upper ring, and I was too soon drowned in yellow and had to put my eclipse glasses back on. The air warmed up again. 

We recovered laying in the trunk of the car, half-watching the trailing partial eclipse through the upturned, striped rear windshield. We were electrified and relaxed, ancient and reborn, new humans baptized by the shadow of the moon.

Monday, July 24, 2017

My take on the Problem of Evil

I download free podcasts from iTunes to listen to in the car. Lately I’ve been listening to some machine learning podcasts and some philosophy podcasts. Recently, I heard a philosophy podcast called “The Problem of Evil.” The person being interviewed was atheist, and had one main argument: the reason he does not believe in an all-powerful all-good God is that there is too much suffering in the world.

He cited the earthquake in Pakistan that killed hundreds of school children as an example of completely meaningless, awful suffering that was not caused by humans but rather by a spontaneous natural event which, in his mind, an all-powerful all-good God would not have allowed to occur. The underlying assumption is that an all-powerful all-good God would intervene and prevent the earthquake from happening, e.g. God would have designed an earth without tectonic plates or God would have used some magic to stop the plates from moving.

The philosopher being interviewed said that he did not see the mere existence of evil as an argument against God, but that he saw the quantity of evil as the argument. He had no problem with the existence of evil because that can be easily justified through the “free will” argument – humans have free will, and so sometimes they bring evil upon each other or upon themselves by exercising their free will poorly.  His main qualm was with (a) the sheer “quantity” of evil and (b) the fact that bad stuff happens that is outside of humanity’s control.

God's motivations

My main issue with "problem of evil" arguments in general is that they presuppose what God’s purposes were in designing the world. The real premise of this philosopher’s argument is that if an all-powerful all-good God existed, then this God would have created humans so that humans would never suffer, and instead would enjoy themselves every moment of their mortal lives. If a God’s goal for humanity really was that all humans should avoid all suffering all the time, then clearly that type of God does not exist, because everyone has experienced suffering.

However…No human can definitively “prove” what an all-powerful all-good God’s motivation would have been in creating the world. Humans can only have personal opinions on what God’s motivations would be. Thus, if we cannot prove what God’s motivations would have been in creating Earth and humans, we cannot say that the "problem of evil" provides “proof” against the existence of ANY all-powerful all-good God.

I can't think of a single religion that preaches that God's purpose in creating the world was so humans would be happy every day of their lives. Actually, most religions recognize that suffering exists and that suffering is not ideal, but that suffering is part of God's plan somehow. In Christianity specifically, the interpretation is that an all-powerful all-good God created humans on Earth so that they could develop character and “show what they’re made of.” Religions also generally come with some kind of reassurance that, after we humans have suffered through this mortal life, developed good moral characteristics, and “passed the test” we will be welcomed in to a good afterlife. Often the afterlife comes with the promise that there will be no more suffering. The existence of an all-powerful, all-good God who designed Earth as a “testing ground” for humans is an internally consistent belief that does not collapse due to the “problem of evil” and in fact actually requires the existence of  evil in order for the testing aspect to work.

Thought Experiment: What would the world actually be like without any suffering?

I will attempt to describe a world in which there is no suffering whatsoever, based on systematically eliminating common causes of suffering from the world.

(a)    No more death. Everyone is immortal; nothing can kill a person. Even if someone jumped off a cliff, they’d reach the bottom completely unharmed. Consequently, the world’s population grows VERY quickly – but overpopulation isn’t an issue because the planet magically grows in size so that everyone has plenty of space.
(b)   Nobody ever gets sick, and nobody ever gets old. Everyone is young and spry. This is a little awkward because you eventually reach “the same age” (physically) as your great-great-great-grandfather. If you’re a single person in a cafĂ© and meet someone cute, you’re not sure if they’re actually 3,000 years old and thus WAY out of your league in terms of life experience, but you’re just used to that ambiguity.
(c)    No more natural disasters, ever. No earthquakes, no tornados, no hurricanes, no tsunamis, no floods, no forest fires, no volcano eruptions. This can be implemented in one of two ways:
a.       The earth has no tectonic plates (and thus lacks a lot of nice surface features like mountains) and a really strange atmosphere and relationship with its nearby star, and possibly entirely different laws of physics, so that it’s simply impossible for nature to mess up;
b.      God actively intervenes on a regular basis to stop nature from messing up.
(d)   Nobody is selfish, lies, steals, cheats, rapes, attacks, abuses, or kills anyone else. God can’t get rid of this unless S/He also gets rid of free will. As part of the thought experiment let’s just pretend that God can magically maintain free will in the human species AND get rid of every bad thing that humans ever do to each other.
(e)   No more hunger or thirst. There is ALWAYS enough food and ALWAYS enough clean water, regardless of farming or water purification technology. Food and clean water just appear out of nowhere like manna in the wilderness, for everyone, all the time.
(f)     No more exhaustion. People just don’t get tired, and they don’t need to sleep.
(g)    No more stress. To avoid stress, all problems are taken care of – all possible technology and knowledge is available. Heck, let’s just say that everyone has a magic wand and can do magic to take care of all their wants and needs, so that they can get any item or piece of knowledge instantaneously.
(h)   No fear. There is simply nothing dangerous in this world. Partially taken care of already in that you don’t have to be afraid of dying, because you can’t die, and you also don’t have to be afraid of other people, because they can’t hurt you. We’ll go further and say you don’t have to be afraid of animals, because they’re all docile, and you don’t have to be afraid of pain, because nobody has pain receptors and it’s simply impossible to feel pain.
(i)      No more loneliness. We partially took care of this from the “nobody dies” and “nobody is mean” steps, but we’ll go further and say that everyone magically has awesome friends and awesome family, and has magical teleportation powers so that they can make anywhere your home, and visit anyone in a blink of an eye as desired.

I could probably go on, but I think this is a decent preliminary description of a world without suffering.

Can humans develop moral character in this world without suffering?

I would argue no. You can’t show compassion or empathy because there are no problems. You can’t develop resilience and determination because there is nothing that stands in your way, and there is no possibility of real failure (because real failure would lead to suffering). You can’t have courage because there is no fear. You can’t have generosity because there’s nothing to give – everyone has everything they need or want at their fingertips. You can’t have a good sense of fairness or justice because there’s never any inequality that would call for justice or a fair decision. You can’t be forgiving because nobody does you any wrong. You can’t be helpful because nobody needs help. You can’t have hope because there’s nothing left you can possibly hope for. You can’t exercise patience or self-discipline because you have everything you need all the time and everyone is pleasant to you. Yeah, you probably could still work on having humility, and you could still love people, and you would definitely struggle with moderation, but there are a TON of good human qualities which would be impossible to develop in such an environment because they would have no context.

As a somewhat related side note, if you want to bring “happiness” into this argument somehow, it is good to recognize that the relationship between suffering and happiness is quite complex. Clearly, certain kinds of suffering make it very difficult to be happy – but, there are people who face definite suffering and yet are still happy (e.g. here, here, and here.) From my own life experiences, I know that I appreciate my present blessings much more in the context of past suffering. For example, my happiness with my current relationships and social life is deeper because of the contrast with the loneliness that I experienced a few years ago when I was at a different place in life.

But why would an all-powerful all-good God test Her/His creations in the first place?

I think the testing is a necessary prerequisite for eventually allowing most humans NOT to suffer. Because humans have free will, humans are going to make mistakes. If God wants humans NOT to suffer eventually, then the humans have to learn how to stop making mistakes and instead behave kindly towards one another. Then God has to be able to send these "nice humans" to a place without suffering, away from the "mean humans." God can't just stuff a bunch of Hitlers in heaven because then those people would inflict pain on others and it wouldn't be heaven anymore. How is God going to figure out which humans are "nice"? She/He needs to put humans through some kind of test...

But there’s still TOO MUCH evil! God must have made a mistake in designing the test.

Whether or not the “amount” of evil we currently have is “adequate” for the test is really not something anyone can prove, so that is also a matter of opinion. If you do believe in God, whether you think the “amount” of evil is adequate or excessive just depends on how much you trust God’s judgement in designing a test. If you don’t believe in God, then you don’t believe that life is a test at all, and this question isn’t relevant.

It still doesn’t make sense that God would allow such an extreme amount of evil. Why can’t we have a test where God regularly intervenes to “tone down” the bad stuff that happens?

I think this would fundamentally alter the nature of the test. I do believe that divine intervention can occur, but I think that regular, worldwide demonstrations of God’s power on an epic scale (e.g. preventing an earthquake, halting a volcano eruption, parting the Red Sea every Tuesday night) would change the test completely. It’s the difference between telling a little kid, “Be nice to your sister” while their parents are standing right next to them watching them, versus telling a little kid, “Be nice to your sister” while the parents are sitting in the next room over, watching the kid through a hidden camera. I suppose you could say that God would intervene in such a clever and subtle way that nobody would ever know the intervention had happened…but that only works for natural disasters (and maybe God thinks that natural disasters are an important part of the test.) In any case, I actually think that the worst evils in the world are due to human choices, which gets back to the free will problem – if humans are to have free will, then God can’t “tone down” the bad stuff that humans do to each other without violating their free will.


The “problem of evil” is only a problem if you believe that an all-powerful all-good God’s motivation for creating Earth and humans was for the humans to be free of suffering all the time. If you believe that God’s motivation was to provide a testing ground for humans where they could learn and grow, before they are “brought into a higher dimension”, “sent to heaven”, “advanced to the next stage of their evolution”, etc., then evil is not a problem and is actually a necessary part of the test of life.

As a final note, because suffering is definitely real and life is often hard, do something nice for somebody today. Regardless of your beliefs, we can all make the world a better place through kindness to others, and real practical hard work to solve the world's major problems.

Idea to offset global climate change

Governments are not going to fix global climate change, but companies can. Governments move too slowly and try to make everyone happy, and global climate change is (a) fast-moving on geologic time but slow-moving to humans, (b) at least in certain countries, governments are composed of people who want to be re-elected and thus try not to do anything radical, and at this point global climate change needs a radical solution. Thus I propose that the solution lies in industry. (For more details on the U.S. contribution to global climate change, see the bottom of this post.)

I propose that large companies give consumers an option to offset their carbon emissions with each purchase, by 50% or 100%. (That way if people feel guilty about not offsetting them 100% they can at least console themselves by choosing the 50% option.) In many cases especially for small items or locally-produced items it could only be a few cents increase in price, and people would be likely to do it to make themselves feel good. 

What should different companies offer?
·         Microsoft, Google, and Apple should all offer people the option to offset their travel through their Maps apps. Anyone who uses their phone for directions is being tracked by some big company which already has their travel data and has safe methods in place to pay for stuff via their app store. So, you could have a little check box as part of a Maps app where you opt in to allowing the company to deduct the money required to offset the carbon emission from your drive around the block (or, if you’re really bold, your transatlantic flight for vacation.)
·         Amazon: with every purchase you should be able to click a check box saying you want to offset the carbon emissions related to the manufacturing and shipping of your purchased item
·         Big supermarkets (e.g  Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Whole Foods) and restaurants (including fast-food chains): at every grocery shopping trip or restaurant visit, the cashier/waiter should ask whether you want to offset half or all of the carbon emissions related to growing, transporting, and/or preparing your food.
·         Stores selling other merchandise: similarly, you should have the option of paying to offset the carbon emissions created when making and transporting clothing, auto parts, equipment, toiletries, furniture, etc.
·         Electric and gas companies: in your monthly billing statement, you should be able to pay a few extra dollars to offset the carbon emissions from your electric and gas use. This option already exists in many places and at least in my experience it is only a few dollars per month. This option should exist everywhere, with all electric and gas companies.

So what happens to all of this money?

To keep companies accountable, all this money should be sent to a third party charity, which will keep track of how much money was donated by customers at each company. Then this charity will coordinate the direct use of the money for making the manufacture, shipping, and sales of that company's product more environmentally friendly. Specifically: 
(1)    If the company's buildings are in a relatively sunny climate, all the buildings should have solar panels installed to provide electricity. This has 2 benefits: (a) it visibly displays a commitment to the environment and (2) in so doing it makes people feel like their money is being put to good use, and they will become more likely to donate in the future.
(2)    Once the company's buildings all have solar panels, the money should go towards:
a.  A five-star environment charity that coordinates offsetting of carbon emissions through direct means: carbon sequestration projects, installation of more solar panels in various locations, planting trees, protecting existing forests, etc. 
c.       Switching some of the company transportation to electric vehicles
d.    Traditional things like installing motion sensors that will turn lights on only when a person is around to need them (e.g. in bathrooms)

I am confident that if major companies all got together and agreed to do this, coordinated by some newly-formed charity organization, it would result in a significant impact. Obviously some individuals will always refuse to offset their emissions, but let’s just say that that only half of the 40% of people in the U.S. who think climate change is harmful DO decide to pay consistently. That’s a 20% decrease in the United States' carbon emissions, without even requiring any huge disruption to anyone’s way of life. If this program was successful in the U.S. it could be implemented in other countries as well. 

The entire problem of climate change has arisen from small decisions that millions of people make every day, and I firmly believe that the solution also lies in hundreds of small decisions that millions of people make every day. We need to empower people to do more about climate change in their everyday lives, and industry has the flexibility and infrastructure to help.

What's the first step in making this happen? Figuring out how much carbon is emitted in the manufacture, transportation, and sale of common items. This would be an enormous undertaking and would require gathering data from hundreds of companies and factories. I am seriously considering crowdsourcing this project -- I'll post an update if I start something and you'd like to help!

Appendix: More background on the problem
The United States is the second-largest contributor to CO2 emissions after China, and is THE largest contributor per capita (as of 2011 data).

From Kockelman et al.,  the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions come from:
By General Use
Transport (28%)
Industry (29%)
Residential (17%)
Commercial (17%)
Agricultural (8%)

By End Use
34% electricity generation = 12% for household electricity + 22% for other electricity
28% transport = 19% personal transport + 9% other transport
19% industry
8% agriculture
6% commercial uses
5% residential uses

Transport and electricity generation together make up 62% of total emissions, but a significant portion of emissions come from industry as well (source). 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

How to care for bearded dragons

I have a two-year-old bearded dragon named Sunny, who is a lot of fun.

Here is some basic information about keeping bearded dragons as pets!

My bearded dragon Sunny under his hammock.
Update: Some people have expressed the opinion
that mesh hammocks can be dangerous for bearded dragons,
because if the dragon's digit gets stuck in the mesh,
the dragon could be injured. (I have never observed
this happening with Sunny, possibly because
this is a "Repti-Hammock" designed for reptiles,
 but I still feel it may be helpful to bring up that potential issue.)

My bearded dragon Sunny sitting
on his hammock (Note: his back is
not actually curved like that normally;
he had just climbed up in a weird position.)

Key Points:
  • Juvenile bearded dragons (< 1 year old) must be fed multiple times per day, and eat primarily insects. Adult bearded dragons (1 year - 14 years old) can be fed once a day, and eat primarily plant matter and vegetables. 
  • Bearded dragons absolutely require adequate ultraviolet light (to prevent metabolic bone disease) and adequate heat (so that they can digest their food).
  • Bearded dragons can grow to be almost 2 feet long including the length of their tail, which means they need a large enclosure. 

What age of bearded dragon should I get?

If your schedule prevents you from being able to feed a baby bearded dragon insects three times per day, you can consider getting an adult bearded dragon. There are many reptile rescues around the country that sell adult bearded dragons, and there are plenty of adult beardies for sale on Craigslist. On Craigslist usually all of the supplies are included, so it can save you a lot of money. That is where I got Sunny. The only risk of buying a bearded dragon from Craigslist is that its former owners may not have cared for the dragon properly, so the dragon may have some health issues that you would need to address. You can also buy bearded dragons at reptile shows, though these tend to be baby dragons, and you can buy bearded dragons online from reputable breeders. Bearded dragons from mainstream pet stores may not have the best health.

How much space does my bearded dragon need?

You should give your beardie as much space as you can. The minimum recommended amount of space is 4 feet x 2 feet. You can buy a used or new glass tank of this size, or you can build a custom melamine enclosure for your beardie. My husband and I built a 4 foot x 3 foot melamine enclosure for our bearded dragon and waterproofed the joints with silicone, so he has plenty of space. It also cost only $100, which a lot less than it would have cost to get a glass tank of equivalent size.

View of part of Sunny's custom melamine enclosure.

You can build a custom enclosure out of wood, but be careful when choosing the type of wood, as certain woods can release aromatic oils that are harmful to the bearded dragon's lungs.

Regardless of what type of enclosure you choose, it is also nice to allow your bearded dragon out of his or her enclosure occasionally to explore --  with supervision! Bearded dragons can move quickly, and can also hide themselves very thoroughly under furniture and in small spaces, so if you are not keeping an eye on them, they may be hard to find when you're ready to put them back in their enclosure. You should probably not leave your bearded dragon out of their enclosure for more than an hour, because their body temperature will start to drop too low.

You bearded dragon should also have items to climb (e.g. wood, fake logs, reptile hammock), and should have places to hide. My bearded dragon has three hides - one in his basking spot, one in the middle of the tank, and one on the cool side of the tank. The dragon should be able to fit comfortably in his hide(s).

You should also use reptile carpet (basically thick felt; that's the brown cloth in the image above) or tiles as the floor of the enclosure. Avoid using sand, crushed walnut shells, or other powdered substrates, because dragons can accidentally eat those substrates and become impacted.

Can I take my bearded dragon outside?

Yes, you can. Many of them love natural sunlight. However, be cautious: you should either put your bearded dragon in a reptile leash, or put them in an outdoor enclosure. If a bearded dragon is loose outdoors and gets spooked, the dragon can and will stand up on their hind legs and run away at over nine miles per hour, and you may lose your dragon. This happened to me once when Sunny got spooked by a shadow and sprinted off towards the forest, but thankfully I was able to catch him. If you put your beardie in an outdoor enclosure make sure there is a cold spot in that enclosure so they can properly thermoregulate and don't overheat.

(This is not my bearded dragon.)

What do I feed my bearded dragon?

For a comprehensive list of what bearded dragons can eat, see this website

NEVER feed a bearded dragon a firefly: it will kill them! More generally, do not feed your bearded dragon bugs that you catch outside, because they could give your beardie parasites.

I would strongly recommend NOT feeding your bearded dragons crickets as their protein source. Crickets are loud, smelly, fast, and can jump, so no matter how careful you are some crickets WILL get away and you'll find them in your house unexpectedly, probably dead in the corner of a room. Dubia roaches and various "worms" (e.g. superworms or Phoenix worms) are much easier to manage than crickets, and can provide excellent nutrition.

Blaptica dubia., i.e. Dubia roaches of
different ages.

"Superworms" - not actually worms,
but rather the larvae of the darkling beetle.

Should I breed dubia roaches?

Dubia roaches are a very popular feeder insect for bearded dragons, because they can't fly, they can't jump, they move slowly, they provide good nutrition, and bearded dragons like to eat them. I actually bred dubia roaches for about six months with great success.

However, before you decide to breed them, you should consider their allergenic potential. Cockroaches produce some of the most powerful allergens known, so if you tend to have allergies, either (a) do not breed them at all or (b) make sure you have a sequestered indoor area that you can keep the colony, and wear a mask while dealing with them. My allergies to the dubias meant that I eventually had to stop my breeding program and sell all of the dubias I had.

Tips for breeding dubias:
  • They need to be kept warm to breed. If you live in a cold climate, you cannot keep them outside, unless you have a setup that will provide them with adequate heat.
  • If you keep them inside your house somewhere, be very cognizant of the potential allergy issue. I ended up having to make the small room I kept their container in "off-limits" due to my allergies to them.  
  • To house the dubias, you can use a large Rubbermaid container, with stacked egg crates that provide hiding spots. 
  • To dramatically speed up the beginnings of your colony by several months, invest in some adult breeding dubias, and get more females than males. You can also buy some "mid-age" dubias which will likely finish maturing by the time you have a lot of babies from your already-breeding adults, and then the population will truly take off. 
  • For more details on how to care for dubia roaches, see this website.
  • If you decide you no longer want to breed dubias and you have too many of them to feed your reptiles, you can make quite a bit of money selling your extra Dubias on Craigslist. 

Why do bearded dragons need UV lamps?

UV lamps are absolutely critical for preventing metabolic bone disease, which looks like this:

caused by inadequate UV lighting and 
inadequate vitamin supplementation. 
(Note: this is NOT my dragon)

Due to calcium imbalance, the dragons' bones become soft and deformed. If MBD is untreated, the dragon will start twitching, having seizures, and then die.

You can prevent this horrible disease by providing your dragon with a tank-long UV light. Do NOT use a localized dome UV light because that will not disperse UV throughout the whole tank, and in some cases can damage dragons' eyes. Do NOT use a "tanning bed" light because that will be way too much UV and will harm your dragon. You should only use long tubular UV lamps that are specifically made for reptiles, such as the ReptiSun 10.0 UVB

You should also dust your dragon's food with a powdered calcium and Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) supplement designed for reptiles. You can dust both insects and vegetables lightly with the supplement once per week, and more frequently if the dragon is a juvenile.

Frequency of vitamin supplementation
according to age, from beardeddragonlady.com

Why do bearded dragons need heat?

Because bearded dragons are reptiles, they get roughly 2/3rds of their energy from the heat of the sun in the wild. As I like to think, they're partially solar powered! This means they eat less food by volume than a mammal of similar size, and it also means that heat is very important for their health. One key reason bearded dragons need heat is to properly digest their food.

To achieve appropriate temperatures in the enclosure, you need to use reptile-specific heat lamps, or an adequate number of incandescent (NOT fluorescent) bulbs. The heat lamps should be about a foot away from the dragon so that there is no risk that the dragon will touch the lamps by accident and get burned.

Dragons need a "basking side" of the tank kept at 100 - 110 degrees Farenheit, and a "cooler side" of the tank kept around 80 degrees. You should get one thermometer for the hot side and one for the cold side of the tank so that you know what the temperatures are. You should never use "heat rocks" or "ceramic heaters" that go underneath the dragon, because dragons cannot sense heat from underneath very well and can get severely burned. Furthermore, the hotter side of your enclosure should also be the brighter side, because dragons will assume that more light indicates more heat.

One sign that a bearded dragon has reached optimal basking temperature is that he or she will sit with their mouth slightly gaped open, like this:

My bearded dragon Sunny with his mouth slightly
open, indicating he is at his optimal 
basking temperature.

How do I keep my bearded dragon hydrated?

Bearded dragons get water from the insects and plants they eat. There is some debate about whether to put a water dish in their tanks or not -- if they sit in the water dish, they can hydrate through their vents, but if the water dish raises the humidity significantly it can increase the risk of respiratory illness.

An alternative hydration method is to bathe the bearded dragon in warm (not hot) water every one or two weeks. The water should be deep enough to cover the bearded dragon's vent but shallow enough that the bearded dragon can stand and hold his or her head above the water easily. You can make the water deeper as long as there is some place for the dragons to stand, and you keep a very close eye on them. Here's a cute video of bearded dragons swimming in a bathtub (notice how the people are paying close attention to the dragons and keeping their hands in the water so that the dragons can climb onto them as needed).

What should my dragon's poop look like?

It should be well-formed, with a brown part and a white part. The white part of the waste is the urates, produced by the kidneys, and is basically a solid equivalent of mammal pee. If the dragon's poop is very runny or smelly, the dragon may have a parasitic infection, and you should take the dragon to a certified exotic animal veterinarian for a fecal test. Be warned that if you go to a veterinarian who is not familiar with bearded dragons, they may not be able to offer your dragon appropriate care. I've heard some horror stories of dog and cat vets mis-prescribing medications to bearded dragons and accidentally killing them. So make sure you go to an exotics vet who sees reptiles!

If the dragon goes more than about 3 days without pooping, the dragon is likely constipated, and you can give your dragon a bath or feed your dragon some pumpkin. I have found that for mild constipation, a few bites of pureed canned pumpkin works wonders. Letting them run around outside the tank can also help, but this has the risk that they will poop on the floor.

If your dragon is constipation, keep a lookout for the more serious signs of impaction, a kind of severe constipation that can lead to death. 

Do bearded dragons change color?

They do not change color as dramatically as chameleons, but they can darken or lighten specific parts of their bodies for various purposes. They can darken spots on their skin to absorb more heat. They can also make their beards entirely black, and can form stripes on their underbellies, which are both signs of stress. If a dragon is extremely stressed, the dragon can puff his beard out and run away on his hind legs. 

Stress marks in a bearded dragon (Note: this is NOT my dragon

Black beard (sign of stress) in a bearded dragon.
(Note: this is NOT my dragon)

Do bearded dragons carry diseases?

Bearded dragons can carry salmonella, so they should not be allowed in the kitchen, and you should always wash your hands after handling a bearded dragon. You should also closely supervise any small children around bearded dragons, since small children generally have pretty bad hygiene and you do not want to risk infecting the child with salmonella. If you have a crawling child, the bearded dragon should not be allowed to roam on any surfaces that the child crawls on.

Bearded dragons can become infected with parasites or mites. If you notice symptoms of parasite or mite infection, you should take your dragon to an exotic animal veterinarian experienced in working with reptiles, to get the appropriate medicines. 

How should I handle my bearded dragon?

When you pick up your bearded dragon, scoop him up from the front, never from the top, because if you try to grab him from above he may think you are a predator and become frightened. Make sure you provide support to his tail otherwise he may think he is falling and flail around. If your dragon struggles, gently do not allow him to escape until he has calmed down - otherwise you will teach your dragon that by squirming, he can get away. Once he has calmed down, then you can put him back in his enclosure. Make sure not to squeeze or injure your bearded dragon. Always be gentle. Over time, dragons will become familiarized with being held, and can become quite tame. If your dragon has sharp claws, you may want to put stone or other rough surfaces in his enclosure to wear them down, and if that doesn't work you may want to handle your bearded dragon with kitchen gloves (to avoid getting scratched).

How can I tell if my dragon is male or female?

Male and female dragons are roughly the same size, so size is not a great indicator. Males sometimes have thicker tails than females. One good method is to look at their underbellies. If you see two clearly separate bulges on their underbelly, you have a male. If you see only one bulge you have a female. This article has more details and photos about sexing a bearded dragon with a visual inspection.

I also recently came across the flashlight method, which I thought was very clever. All it takes is a bright flashlight, and voila: 

Two bumps are visible for male dragons,
and one bump is visible for female dragons.

Should I keep more than one bearded dragon in the same enclosure?

This is generally a bad idea. In the wild, bearded dragons are solitary and territorial, so it is best to allow them to be solitary and territorial in captivity. Keeping multiple bearded dragons together can cause stress. Bearded dragons may fight each other and even bite off each other's limbs or tails. If you put a baby bearded dragon with an adult, the baby may be eaten. If you put a female with a male, the male may repeatedly mate with the female, and she will have nowhere to go to escape, so this can cause severe stress. Sometimes people have multiple bearded dragons housed together and observe "cute" behaviors like dragons laying on top of one another. This is not "cute" -- it is dangerous. The dragons on the bottom cannot get enough heat or light, and have a hard time breathing. In general, if you want to care for multiple bearded dragons, get them each their own enclosure.

My bearded dragon is sitting with his leg stuck out weirdly. Is something wrong?

If nothing has recently changed, there is no possibility that they injured themselves, and they do not appear stressed, then seeing them sticking their limbs out in weird positions is no cause to worry. Sunny sometimes sits in weird positions for no reason, e.g.:

My bearded dragon Sunny sitting with his
leg in a strange position. 

What is brumation?

Brumation is the reptile equivalent of hibernation. It can take place any time of year though often will happen in the winter, and typically only in dragons that are older than one year. During brumation the dragon's metabolism slows considerably, and he may entirely lose his appetite and spend all day hiding and sleeping. For a nice discussion of brumation and how the symptoms can vary among dragons, see this article (it has multiple pages - you should read all of it.)

That's all!

There is still a lot more information I could include about bearded dragons, but I hope this was a helpful overview. There are a ton of articles available online, and multiple websites dedicated to proper care for bearded dragons. Bearded dragons make excellent pets that are low-maintenance and fun to watch and interact with. For more information, you should read "The Bearded Dragon Manual" by Philippe De Vosjoli

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Leaving Mormonism felt like a tragedy, but has been a godsend

What this post is: something that I wish I had been able to read five years ago. It describes my faith crisis, what I did about it, and where I am today.

What this post is NOT: a huge list of reasons why I left Mormonism. If you are curious, many of them are discussed here.

This post is mainly directed at two types of Mormons:
(a)    Mormons who are completely happy with their religion and believe it’s impossible to be a Christian after leaving Mormonism (point: I am one now),
(b)   Mormons who no longer believe the Mormon Church is true, are consequently completely heartbroken, and need reassurance that it’s possible for them to be okay again someday. 

You will likely also relate to this post if you’ve had any kind of faith crisis.

Birth to second year of college: hard-core Mormon
When I say “hard-core,” I mean it. I genuinely believed all of Latter-Day Saint teaching, everything from Jesus in the Americas to God living near Kolob. To convince Mormon readers of my sincerity, here is a description of my prior "Mormon-ness" (warning to non-Mormons: here comes jargon.) 
  • I went to the full 3 hours of church every Sunday, even when I was sick with a cold, even on vacation, even if I had just gotten in to a bike accident – the only reason to miss church would be active vomiting due to the flu. 
  • I read the entire Book of Mormon several times, the entire D&C several times, the entire King James Old Testament once (and sections of it several times), and the entire New Testament three times. I annotated and highlighted all of them repeatedly. I read numerous books by General Authorities.
  • I completed all of “Personal Progress” by age 13 (the Mormon female equivalent of an Eagle Scout). 
  • I went to all four years of Seminary and graduated with nearly-perfect attendance (this is a 6 AM – 7 AM Mormonism class every weekday for all four years of high school.) I memorized all the “scripture masteries” (~50 Mormon scripture passages) verbatim. 
  • I took notes on all 8 hours of the semi-annual Mormon General Conference every time it happened.
  • I gave “talks” (mini sermons) in church on a regular basis, and “bore my testimony” (got up and told everyone I knew the church was true) on a regular basis. 
  • I was a Young Women “Laurel’s” president and YSA president
  • I did my visiting teaching.
  • I played the organ in sacrament meeting and played the piano in Young Women’s and Relief Society.  
  • I sang in the choir for about seven years. Choir practice was one hour long every week.
  • I went to Young Women’s activities on Wednesday nights, and in college I went to YSA activities on Tuesday nights. 
  • I volunteered at the Mormon temple.
  • I paid 10% of my income to the church in tithing.
  • Overall, for decades, I spent a bare minimum of 4 hours per week doing church activities, and when I was a teenager and older it was more like 10 – 15 hours per week. 
  • I was so convinced of the truthfulness of Mormonism that I gave away copies of the Book of Mormon to a few people, and genuinely felt like I had to convert everyone otherwise they would be spiritually doomed and it would be my fault. 
  • I religiously avoided anything “anti-Mormon” and I was terrified of “anti-Mormon literature” or “anti-Mormon websites” or even just talking to “anti-Mormons,” because I knew that stuff was basically straight from the mouth of Satan and would crush me like a possum on the freeway.  

Transition: second and third years of college

Reading, Part I
Warning: if you are Mormon and happy with that, you may want to skip this section.

As I stated earlier, I won’t go into great detail about why I left, but I will mention my starting point: the Book of Abraham, which is a lesser-known volume of Mormon scripture that Mormons believe was translated from Egyptian papyrus by Joseph Smith, and contains various stories about (guess who) Abraham.

My smack in the face was learning that the LDS Church still has the papyrus that Joseph Smith used to obtain the Book of Abraham. However, the problem is that nowadays – unlike in Joseph Smith’s time – Egyptologists know how to read hieroglyphics. Long story short, this piece of papyrus with Joseph Smith’s annotations is actually just a standard copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and has nothing to do with Abraham. Furthermore, Joseph Smith obtains whole paragraphs of Abraham-related material out of single hieroglyphic characters, which is fairly damning evidence that he did not translate anything directly from that papyrus as he claimed. For a full discussion of the Book of Abraham, you can read the MormonThink article on the subject, or read the book "By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus" by Charles M. Larson. 

From there, in a nauseated state, I went digging. I learned about Joseph Smith marrying teenage girls and marrying women who were already married; I learned about Joseph Smith writing multiple conflicting accounts of the famous “First Vision”; I learned about blood oaths and Masonic elements in the Mormon temple ceremony…etcetera. I read a lot, online and in print, and my new knowledge destroyed my old faith. 

At this point I was totally lost. I had spent my entire life as far back as I could remember KNOWING that “the church is true.” But now I was convinced that the church had misrepresented a great deal of its history, and that Joseph Smith was a fraud. I became depressed and atheist. I felt that my life was entirely meaningless because I was just going to cease to exist when I died, and there was no greater purpose for me or the universe. Every morning when I woke up, I had a brief moment of peace and clarity when my brain wasn’t fully awake, and then it felt like someone dropped a block of cement on my chest as I remembered the disaster that was going on in my own head.

I took a lot of walks around the nearby lake, talked a lot on the phone with my family (who, thankfully, were in the same situation as I was), wrote a lot, and ranted a lot (including some rude yelling at the god(s) who I wasn’t convinced were there to hear me yell). I forced myself on a lot of very long runs that were way out of my normal distance range so that physical pain and exhaustion would drown out my mental pain and exhaustion.

I decided to start with the question of God: did I believe there was a God, or not? At the time, I was studying a lot of biology, and I actually found the wonder of life to be the most compelling reason to believe in God. My runs became a way to connect with nature, and the beauty of nature became my primary reason to hope that there was a divine being. My completely secular, atheistic university biology classes ironically provided me with another foothold in spirituality. (E.g., watch "The Inner Life of the Cell." It's a scientifically-inspired animation of a cell that I found so beautiful it brought me to tears the first time I watched it.)

Around this time I had an interesting experience. I was running through a park near campus, and started crying (sad tears...), because I felt very depressed, lonely, and philosophically lost. I prayed to the air, stating that I wanted to know if god(s) existed and if she/he/it/they cared about me at all. I was struck with the strange urge to run across the field into the forest. This was the middle of winter, with two feet of snow on the ground, so I did not like the thought of abandoning the plowed trail and freezing my running shoes in the slush. Still, I felt compelled to run into the forest, so I left the trail and lolloped awkwardly through the snow. Once in the forest, something on the nearest tree immediately caught my eye. 

It was a heart. Someone had carved a heart into the tree that I was staring at. You can interpret this however you want, but I took it as a direct answer to my question.

A Divine Being "hearts" me.

This experience was encouraging, but most of my worldview was still shattered on the floor, and I needed answers to the rest of my questions. The beginnings of many of those answers came through an atheist-turned-Christian friend. 

I had started attending a nondenominational Christian church. I had chosen it because it was a five-minute walk from the Mormon meetinghouse, so I could easily attend both churches (a lifelong habit of attending church every Sunday carries a lot of inertia, and at that point the Mormon meetings were familiar but irritating, so I added on an extra church.) I became friends with one of the members in the new church. After telling him what was going on with me, he recommended some reading, which had originally helped him at an earlier point in his own life. 

Reading, Part II

So, I transitioned from reading “all the disturbing things I never knew about Mormon church history” to “all the things I never learned about Christianity or religion in general.” Some books I found particularly helpful were:

(quick read but very impactful)

(many hundreds of pages of Christian apologetics)

(concise introduction to numerous religions)

(a neurosurgeon's intriguing near-death experience)

(Five-star book. My summary of it: God set off the Big Bang, thereby creating the universe and all life within it. There is no need for a “God of the Gaps.” There is nothing anti-Christian about being convinced that the theory of evolution is accurate, because nothing in the Bible even attempts to specifically describe God’s creation method. We don’t need to excessively over-interpret “from dust thou art” to mean that God molded us out of mud, fired us in a kiln, and then waved a magic wand to bring us to life.)

Slowly, through this new focus in my reading, continued thought, conversations with friends and family, and taking a couple philosophy classes in my senior year of college, my baseline state shifted from lost and angry to curious and intellectually exhilarated. I was no longer afraid that ideas could destroy me, because I’d experienced having all my ideas destroyed and I was still standing and actively forming new ideas.

Officially an ex-Mormon Christian
After I graduated college, I moved. In the new city I attended a couple Mormon meetings, and then finally extricated myself completely: I removed my name from the Mormon Church member roster by contacting the central office, and I stopped attending Mormon meetings. I decided to consider myself a nondenominational Christian with my own personal interpretations on many issues. Currently, I attend a Methodist church down the street, because I like having someone remind me on a weekly basis to be a better human being.

I chose Christianity because I want to follow Jesus’ teachings, because I have hope that Jesus was telling the truth when He said He was divine, and (I have to admit) partially because it is most familiar to me. I also decided that I believe in the broad themes of the Bible (e.g. love your neighbor), and I do NOT believe in highly narrow interpretations of isolated words or phrases in the Bible.

"What They Said Would Happen At This Point"
Now I will mention what Mormons are taught will happen to them if they leave Mormonism, and contrast that with what actually has happened to me in my subsequent years as an ex-Mormon.
·         You will become a chain-smoking alcoholic drug addict. (Reality: I don’t use any substances that have any addictive potential whatsoever, including coffee, energy drinks, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and refined sugar, because I care about my health and my mental state.)
·         You will become sexually promiscuous, probably with really creepy partners. (Reality: I’m married to an amazing man, in a stable monogamous relationship. It actually would have been a terrible tragedy if I had been Mormon when I met him, because then we never could have gotten married!)
·         You will become a vile, repulsive, nasty person, because you have been misled by the devil and are now incapable of “choosing the right.” (Reality: I still believe in moral absolutes, and still try to follow the exact same moral life principles that I did previously. I think I’m actually a nicer person now than I used to be, because I’m no longer smugly certain that I have the One Truth.)
·         You may even become a Satan-worshiper (Reality: definitely not)
·         And of course, when you finally die after your miserable life, you’ll burn in hell – or should I say, get thrown into “Outer Darkness” which is basically hell on steroids, reserved only for ex-Mormons and possibly Hitler. (Reality: I haven’t died yet, so I’ll get back to you on this one, though if I thought this was going to happen to me I wouldn’t have left Mormonism.)

How leaving Mormonism has helped me

When I was Mormon, I was 100% sure that Mormonism was true. Now, I’m not 100% sure that my beliefs are true, but as I put it the other day to a friend, I’m willing to bet on Christianity. I also appreciate many of the wonderful aspects of other religions, and think that it’s beneficial for people to learn from many different traditions. I’ve also learned that there are a lot more similarities across religions than there are differences.

Similarly, when I was Mormon, I knew I was incapable of being philosophically mistaken, because I was a member of the One True Church. Now I realize that just like everybody else, I’m perfectly capable of believing in something that is false, and I need to be willing to consider all angles of a question before I assemble any answer to it. Furthermore, people from all religions and traditions have pieces of truth and valuable spiritual insights, so it is important to talk to a diverse array of people and learn from them.

When I was Mormon, I was terrified of hearing anything that could be even remotely considered “anti-Mormon.” Now, I’m not afraid of hearing criticism of god(s)/religions/Christianity because I’ve heard or looked up pretty much all of it already.

When I was Mormon, I was mentally much more judgmental when I observed other people making life choices I disapproved of. I assumed that their bad choice made them a "bad person." (Of course at the time, I didn't consider myself harmfully judgmental at all.) Now, I still classify various actions as "good" or "bad" but I don't automatically classify people I barely know as "good" or "bad" on the basis of observing a single action. I realize that only an omnipotent Being can be a fair judge, because they can consider a person’s actions in the context of that person's entire life, upbringing, and inner motivations, whereas I certainly do not have that context.

Since leaving Mormonism, I have received answers to prayers and experienced divine intervention in my life. I am relieved to believe in a God who cares for all people and reveals truths to all people, rather than sequestering truth in an infinitesimal fraction of the population. I do miss the familiarity of Mormonism, but I am never going back, and I am happy with the place I have come to in my life.

If you are struggling with your faith, I hope this post has been helpful, and has reassured you that even if everything feels like a total disaster, there are ways to heal. Don't give up hope. Even though you may feel betrayed and angry, don't give up on God, because She/He will find you eventually if you allow it.

I am reading a book of Dylan Thomas' poetry, and a few days ago I came across this poem, “Within his head revolved a little world” (also called "Out of the pit"). It was actually the inspiration for me to write this blog post. The poem does an excellent job of summing up my experience leaving the "One True Church." Thomas’ work is still under copyright but I was able to find this poem freely available online here, as part of a Google Books preview for“The Poems of Dylan Thomas.”  So, here is the poem from that source. You have to read the poem all the way through. 

By Dylan Thomas: