Daylight Atheism Los Angeles Meetup

For all DA readers in the Los Angeles area (if any):

Three weeks from now, on the weekend of September 5, I'm going to be in California to attend a friend's wedding. The weekend is booked solid, but my flight back to New York leaves from Los Angeles on Tuesday the 8th, and I'll have that Monday free.

So, do I have any readers in or near L.A. who'll be around on Labor Day and are interested in meeting up? It would probably be later in the day, around dinnertime. If you'll be available and are interested, e-mail me (ebonmusings@gmail.com) or leave a comment below. If you know any good restaurants you'd recommend, or other interesting things to do, please feel free to mention that as well.

August 16, 2009, 9:15 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink19 comments
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Send a Blogger to Antarctica

I was asked in e-mail to pass along news of this contest, which some Daylight Atheism readers may be interested in.

Quark Expeditions is sponsoring a "Blog Your Way to Antarctica" contest. Anyone can submit a 300-word essay explaining why they should be the one to join a voyage to Antarctica scheduled for February 2010, and the entrant who gets the most votes will become the trip's official blogger and will post daily updates about their experience.

Here's the list of current entrants. (There are a lot of them; I suggest sorting by popularity.) A valid e-mail address is required to register, and you can then vote for your favorite candidate (or possibly your least favorite, depending on how you view the idea of an Antarctic voyage). You can also enter the contest yourself, although judging by the current top vote-getters, there's some stiff competition. The deadline for voting is noon on September 30.

Full disclosure: I was asked to pass this along by Devorah Bennu, a.k.a. GrrlScientist, who's currently the second highest vote-getter in the contest. As there's more than one person in the rankings whom I know, I'm not going to make an endorsement myself. But I do encourage you to read the various entrance essays and judge for yourself who's the most qualified. May the best candidate win!

July 12, 2009, 4:25 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink0 comments
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Winner of the 2009 3QD Science Prize

I'm thrilled to announce that 3 Quarks Daily has officially chosen the winners of their 2009 Science Prize, and their first-place award, the Top Quark, has gone to Daylight Atheism!

Here's what 3QD's celebrity judge, Professor Steven Pinker, had to say:

Daylight Atheism’s Bands of Iron is my top pick. He starts with an something that attracts your attention purely on aesthetic grounds – stripes in a rock. He invokes it with deep, non-obvious, yet understandable principles, at the same time illuminating one of the most interesting phenomena in science – the coevolution of early life and the planet Earth –with a nod to a current issue for good measure.

Considering the quality of the competition, I'm amazed and humbled by this award. It's truly an honor. My deepest thanks to Prof. Steven Pinker, the editors of 3 Quarks Daily, and everyone who voted for me!

June 21, 2009, 9:03 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink39 comments
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Finalist in the 3QD Science Prize

This post is purely to brag: the editors of the blog 3 Quarks Daily have selected the seven finalists for their 2009 Science Prize, and Daylight Atheism is among them!

My post "Bands of Iron" is one of the seven that will be sent to 3QD's celebrity judge, Steven Pinker, who will pick the ultimate winner in one week's time. Whether I win or not, it's an honor to have made it this far out of so many initial competitors. My deepest thanks, again, to everyone who voted for me! I'll be sure to keep you updated on what transpires.

June 13, 2009, 10:59 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink11 comments
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Vote for Daylight Atheism for the 3QD 2009 Science Prize

I'm no PZ Myers, but I've always wanted to try my hand at stuffing a ballot box, and now I have an opportunity. The science and culture blog 3 Quarks Daily has officially begun the voting for its 2009 Science Prize, and I'm pleased to announce that two posts from Daylight Atheism are in the running!

Here are my two entries:

The voting began today and closes in one week, on June 8. I'm up against some tough competition, including Carl Zimmer, Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, and the physics bloggers from Cosmic Variance. I have no illusions that I'm going to win this vote outright - but I don't need to. Either (or both) of my posts only has to be among the top twenty vote-getters; out of those twenty, the site's editors will select six finalists, and the first, second and third-place winners will be chosen from those six by a celebrity judge, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. If I can make it even as far as the final round, I'll consider it a great honor.

So, you know what to do. If you like either of the posts I've linked above and consider them worthy contenders, please go to the voting page now and cast your ballot. (Right now DA is erroneously listed as "Daily Atheism" - I'll see if I can get that corrected —fixed - thanks, Abbas!). Let's see if we can put Daylight Atheism on the map!

UPDATE: Both of my nominated posts have made the semifinals. Thanks to everyone who voted!

June 1, 2009, 4:14 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink12 comments
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New Post on Dangerous Intersection

I've put up a new post on Dangerous Intersection, a review of The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

This is an open thread. Comments and discussion are welcome.

December 23, 2008, 6:39 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink24 comments
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Open Thread: Shameless Self-Promotion Day

Since I've just wrapped up my series on blogging, it seemed appropriate to do this. This is an open thread purely for the purposes of self-promotion.

If you keep a blog or other site that you want us to know about, then now's the time! Feel free to leave a comment below telling us about yourself and your site: who you are, what you write about, and why we should be interested. (No commercial sites, please: this is not an invitation to spammers, obviously.) Both new and established bloggers are welcome to join in. You can do this however you like, but of course creativity will help you stand out from the pack. Show off your writing talent and hook us in!

November 22, 2008, 5:37 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink48 comments
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On Blogging II

Growing a Community

Yesterday's post offered advice to potential writers about starting a weblog of your own. This post addresses the next question: once your site is established, how do you get noticed and build up a readership?

Be a good citizen of the blogosphere. To make yourself known, it's essential to participate in the blogosphere at large. Leave intelligent comments on other sites; contribute to and host carnivals; and don't be afraid to e-mail popular bloggers when you've written something they may be interested in. By reaching out beyond your site to participate in others', you establish yourself as someone who's involved with the community and worth listening to.

Social bookmarking sites are your friends. In my experience, blog directories and post aggregators don't contribute much to your traffic. But social bookmarking sites like Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon do help, a lot, and they're an essential way for curious visitors to find your site and become regular readers. Submit to them often, and provide links so that your readers can do so as well.

Build a corpus of work. Although social bookmarking sites help your site grow, I think that in the long run, your greatest friends are the search engines. They're the most reliable source of organic growth, rather than transient spikes. Of course, this means that you have to build up a substantial archive of written material so that search engine queries have a greater chance of coming across your site.

This also helps in another way: whenever writing something new, you can link to your own past posts discussing other aspects of the same issue. Anecdotally, I can say that this improves the "stickiness" of your site and encourages chance visitors to stay around and keep reading.

Nourish your commenting community. Comments make your site a thriving community rather than a monologue, and the presence of a friendly, insightful group of commenters can be the key factor in encouraging occasional visitors to become regular readers. Comments are your blog's lifeblood, and you want to encourage them as much as possible.

With that in mind, I think it's important to remove as many barriers to commenting as possible. If you require new commenters to register or solve convoluted CAPTCHAs, or hold up all comments for moderation, you'll stifle your own site's growth. (There are several minimally burdensome alternatives to keep out the scourge of all blogs, comment spammers.) You want commenting to be as open as possible so that anyone who might be tempted to leave a comment can do so. And be sure to join in your own comment threads! Answer questions, elaborate on your points, and address objections.

Be in control of the discussion. Of course, every site eventually has to deal with trolls and troublemakers. I see it as like maintaining a garden. On the whole it does best if left to itself, but every so often, you have to pull up some weeds. But it pays to have a light touch: be too zealous in your weeding and you'll pull up the good plants with the bad; be too lax and the weeds will strangle everything else.

On Daylight Atheism, I institute moderation for all first-time commenters. Once you've had one comment approved, you can comment freely in the future. This keeps out people whose only goal is to preach or stir up trouble. For troublemakers who do get past that hurdle, the next line of defense is to close down threads that turn into pointless flame wars. If the same people are repeatedly provoking fights and dragging threads off-topic, I give them a warning, and if that's not enough, I require all their comments to pass manual moderation. Only when people refuse to stop their bad behavior do I ban them. As a blog owner, banning is your ultimate weapon, and I advise against heavy-handed or indiscriminate use. It's harmful to your site's community and your wider reputation to give the impression that you ban people simply for disagreeing with you. It's best to institute a clear comment policy that sets out what is and is not allowed, and then stick to those rules.

Lastly, and most importantly of all...

Have patience and dedication. There's no royal road to popularity, and in blogging, as in anything else, acclaim never comes overnight. If you want a truly popular site, you have to expect that it can take anywhere from several months to several years to establish yourself. The internet is a crowded place, which means that new sites take time to gain a following. But it's not so crowded that merit doesn't win out! On the contrary, the uniquely open and democratic nature of the medium make it more of a level playing field than any other form of communication. If you routinely produce insightful, high-quality writing, your site will flourish and grow.

November 21, 2008, 7:50 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink4 comments
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On Blogging I

Starting Your Site

Several bloggers I follow regularly, including Atheist Revolution, A Load of Bright, and Greta Christina, have written posts about blogging in the past several months. Since October was my best month to date, I thought it was about time for me to follow suit. Here follows a two-post series with my personal opinions and advice. Today's post is aimed primarily at those who may be considering starting up a blog of their own, while tomorrow's will address the question of how you can build a community and help your site grow. I hope both new and established writers will find something worthwhile here.

Choose your topic. The most important question for any potential writer is why you want to keep a blog. Ask yourself: What is my purpose in writing this? What thoughts do I want to share with the world? It's best to make sure you have clear answers in mind to these questions before starting out. In my observation, blogs whose authors don't have this tend to fizzle out in short order.

A blog with a consistent theme is more likely to attract a stable readership, because people who are interested in the same topic will keep coming back for more. My advice is to choose a topic that you're personally interested in and that you know something about. You don't need to be an authority on the subject or have a formal education in it, but it should be something that you can speak about knowledgeably and with familiarity, and something that you're passionate about. In my case, I chose to write about atheism because that's what I am, because it's a subject that means a great deal to me, and because I feel I've read enough books by atheists and about atheists that I can say something insightful on the subject.

Your topic can be anything that you're interested in - the range of choices is virtually limitless. Be aware, however, that if your topic is "you," then you should be prepared to only attract people who are personally interested in you, which probably won't be many. (I don't write about my personal life very often because, truthfully, I don't think it's all that interesting.) By the same token, and paradoxical though it seems, a blog on a niche topic can attract more attention than one on a popular topic. Subjects like politics, celebrities, and personal finance are saturated, which doesn't mean that a new blog on those topics can't succeed, only that it's much more difficult to stand out from the crowd. In topics of more specialized interest, it's easier to make your mark. In my case, although there are other good atheist blogs, I felt there was plenty of room for another one.

Choose your angle. Once you've settled on a topic, next you need to decide: why am I the one to write about this? What will set my site apart from the crowd? What's the "hook" that will draw readers in, the unique perspective that I'm more qualified than anyone else in the world to provide? There are endless variations that can be played around a theme. If you can find a niche that no one currently occupies but that will strike a chord with the reading public, so much the better.

In my case, I chose an angle that I think is underserved and that has tremendous potential: the perspective of positive atheism and humanism. Blog posts criticizing the harms of religion are a dime a dozen, which is why I wanted to focus more on atheism as a purposeful and fulfilling worldview in its own right, one that offers happiness and consolation to match or exceed anything offered by religion.

Keep things lively. Although a theme is vital, it's also a good idea to have variety. No matter how talented a writer you are, if you continually beat on the same topic you'll soon run out of original things to say. Keep your site fresh and interesting by writing about subtopics that you can tie back to your central theme. In my case, I divided my site into categories that reflect these subtopics: science and skepticism (the Observatory), history and philosophy (the Library), media and politics (the Rotunda), positive atheism and secular humanism (the Garden), and miscellaneous meditations and thought experiments (the Loft).

Content is king. This is a point I can't stress enough. More than anything else, the way you build a readership is by producing original, insightful content on a regular basis. Posts that consist of nothing but links to other sites; posts that are too short to say anything meaningful; posts that are search-engine bait but have little else to recommend them - these things bore and annoy readers and don't contribute to return visits. If you want people to be interested in your site, make it worth their while to visit. You don't have to write long posts - just long enough to make your point and defend it!

I also find that consistent posting is a big help in building a readership. You don't have to post something new every day, but new posts should appear at least on a semi-regular schedule, and not erratically, so readers know what to expect. There's nothing I dislike more than the "sorry I'm not writing new posts" post. If you intend to be away for a while, say so. In my case, I try to update Daylight Atheism with new content three to four times a week, roughly every other day.

Design your site to be open and accessible. I don't think that flashy graphics or whiz-bang themes make a site popular - in fact, they can often be a distraction and an annoyance - but it is important to design your site so that readers can easily navigate it and find what they're looking for. Many's the time I've searched a blog for that one post I vaguely remember and want to cite, but couldn't find it!

My recommendations, all of which you'll notice that Daylight Atheism follows, are to have good archives (ones that list post names, dates and quick summaries, rather than forcing readers to trawl through the text of every past posting), categories/tags, and a keyword search feature. I also think it's a good idea to have recent comment listings, to encourage readers to join ongoing conversations, and listings of your best or most popular posts, so that new visitors can quickly get a taste of what your site is all about. Last but not least, I strongly recommend human-readable permalinks. If the permanent links to your posts are either meaningless strings of numbers, or strings of text so long that people won't want to retype them, then you'll discourage people from linking to your posts. Make your permalinks short and memorable.

Coming up: Once you've created your site, how do you get noticed, and how do you build a community of regular readers and active commenters? Part II will address these questions.

November 20, 2008, 8:55 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink15 comments
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A Clarification on the Theist's Guide

I feel as though I need to clarify something.

In my Ebon Musings essay, "The Theist's Guide to Converting Atheists", I wrote that I would link to any theist who was willing to post a list of things they would accept as proof that atheism is true. That offer has been open since I first posted the essay in 2001; it is still open now and will remain open as long as practical.

However, for me to consider your essay a valid answer to that challenge, it must answer the question I actually posed: What argument or observation could convince you to not believe in God? If what your essay argues is, "You could never persuade me to not believe in God and here's why," then you are not answering the question that I asked. I will not link to responses that do not give a legitimate answer to this question.

In fact, responses of this nature emphasize my point rather than contradict it: for most theists, belief in God is an unfalsifiable construct bearing no relation to the facts of the world. That is what I wrote at the beginning of the Theist's Guide:

Many theists, by their own admission, structure their beliefs so that no evidence could possibly disprove them. In short, they are closed-minded, and have been taught to be closed-minded.

What this means is that, for me to account your answer valid, it must consist of something that we could, at least in principle, either agree upon or discover to be true. This rules out logical impossibilities, such as "I would become an atheist if I died and then discovered that there was no consciousness after death." (I've heard that one.) It also rules out counterfactual statements - saying that you would cease to believe in God only if the world was different than it is, for example, that you would become an atheist if there were no such thing as love or goodness. (I've heard both of those as well.)

If all the items that would drive you to atheism are counterfactuals, i.e., things that we already know not to be true, then what you're essentially saying is that there are no possible discoveries that would make you an atheist, and you have again failed to respond to the point of the challenge. This would be like me saying, "The only possible thing that would make me believe in God would be if the world was a perfect paradise that contained no death, evil or suffering." I think most theists would consider this unfair, and rightfully so. I'm ruling out their answer from the start by making my belief contingent on something that we already know is not true.

Now, if you're arguing that you would cease to believe in God if some particular, widely held proposition were falsified, that is a different matter. But in that case, I'd expect that you would supplement this answer by explaining what evidence would falsify the proposition in question. On the other hand, when someone says they'd be an atheist only if there was no love in the world, that's clearly not their intent. They're not imagining a discovery that might be made in this world, but speculating that they'd be an atheist in a different world altogether. I trust that the difference between those two things is clear.

November 15, 2008, 12:57 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink127 comments
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