One in a million

The meanings of words change over time. It was once considered an honor to be called “special”, now the word has been connected to the “intellectually disabled”, and calling someone “special” can be interpreted as an insult. Most often by someone who is intellectually disabled.

“One in a million” is one of those phrases that makes something sound unique, and it still does, but the other day I realized that unique group is fairly large, seven thousand people in the world. I noticed when a news report mentioned a disease was rare, affecting only seven thousand people in the world, and the math happened in my head immediately. “They mean it affects one person in a million”.

Seven thousand people. Fewer than the population of Wasilla, Alaska, a few more than Buharkent, Turkey. My mind wanders to thinking of those towns as mini United Nations, each person representing one million of the planet’s populace. Or every person who had this rare disease living in the same town.

We are all microcosms of larger systems, but we are not those systems. In the study of fractals, we take a set (in this illustration the infamous Mandelbrot Set) that in display is replicating self similar patterns. The patterns appear the same regardless of scale, yet any highlighted section may appear radically different from the remainder of the image. In other terms, the design is made up of itself.

 

 

The Mandelbrot set

The Mandelbrot set

 

Just because I am a Christian does not mean I am identical to other Christians. The same is true with other sets I belong to, gun advocates, conservatives, musicians, widowers,  people with multiple sclerosis, veterans, vegetarians. The very concept of diversity suggests we are different from each other, and those differences are special.

You may remember Dan Cathy, the owner of the fast food chain “Chik-fil-A”. Dan is a conservative Christian, who incorporates his beliefs into his business. His stores are not open on Sunday, and on their website they explain the policy in this way; “Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” (emphasis mine). Chik-fil-A sees operating a business as a social responsibility, and although they may not be the healthiest choice, they do make efforts towards sustainability and humane treatment of the animals used, and avoid antibiotic use in the chickens.

Chik-fil-A has been successful, passing Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in sales last year. The Cathy family has always shared their wealth, both by supplying food in times of need and by giving to various charitable foundations. One of these contributions caused some headlines a few years ago. Due to contributions to groups that promote traditional families, Chik-fil-A was portrayed as “anti-gay”.

This is a theme I will return to. The world is not black and white. It is possible to be for one thing without being against another. It is possible to be against something without hating it. The decision to donate money to charities that promote traditional families is light years away from a gay kristallnacht.

The response from some LGBT groups was to boycott Chik-fil-A. Fair enough. The response from other groups, primarily the LGBTQ factions, was to attempt to ban Chik-fil-A from being able to conduct business. The perfectly natural response to the LGBTQ groups by an overwhelming number of Americans from a wide spectrum of backgrounds was to counter protest, giving Chik-fil-A the most profitable days of its history.

Since then, Dan Cathy has decided he handled the situation improperly. He hasn’t changed his views on gay marriage, but he has decided not to pick a fight in the middle of Main street. He still contributes to “pro-family” causes, but has chosen charities that are more subtle in their approach. People on the fringes of both sides of the argument are not satisfied, but they were never going to be satisfied. In what those of us in the middle can only laugh off as irony, both the intolerant LGBTQ folks and the intolerant “Christians” were simply “born that way.” Filled with hatred for anything different from themselves.

The LGBTQ side is upset because Chik-fil-A still contributes to an athletic association which doesn’t allow transgendered athletes. The “Christian” side is upset because they feel Chik-fil-A flip-flopped, selling out its principles. Both sides itching for a fight, promising to never eat in one of their shops again. In online fora, where I have entered conversations suggesting Chik-fil-A has not flip-flopped, I have been attacked as “anti-Christian” and queer, as well as other things I won’t repeat. In fora in which I have suggested Chik-fil-A has done nothing other than donate to less than neutral organizations I have been called a bigot, homophobe, and a member of the KKK, along with some rather base suggestions for sexual practices which I am fairly sure exceed the limits of possibility. These people just want to fight, the “Christians” are not what I would recognize as Christians, and the LGBTQ representatives are most likely cranky straight kids who just want to vent their angst.

In the middle is the rest of us. We buy food because we like the way it tastes, or how convenient it is, not because we support the charities the owner of the store supports. I won’t be stopping by a Chik-fil-A anytime soon, because damn near everything they serve has chicken in it, and I’m a vegetarian. But I might buy some fries if there’s another boycott by either side, because they’re not boycotting Chik-fil-A’s principles, they’re boycotting the owner of Chik-fil-A’s  right to spend his money however he wants. They’re boycotting the right to free speech. They’re boycotting diversity.

Just because someone else is a Christian, or a vegetarian, or whatever, doesn’t mean I agree with everything they say and do. Our differences prevent us from being boring, and allow us to build beautiful things. At the simplest levels, we are all the same, and our likenesses allow us to build those beautiful things together.

 

 

 

Death and Taxes

This is the eighth chapter of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, and Seven can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided links.

We pick up with the first amendment of the twentieth century, the sixteenth to the constitution.

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

Perfect for today, wouldn’t you say? During the War of 1812, the first public proposal for an income taxwas made by the secretary of the treasury, but it was never implemented until one hundred years later, on the eve of the first world war. We tried income tax during the civil war, first a flat tax then a graduated tax, and those expired in 1872.

The sixteenth amendment came into being thanks to an attempt to tax income illegally. In 1894, an amendment was attached to the Wilson–Gorman Tariff Act that attempted to impose a federal tax of two percent on incomes over $4,000 (equal to $109,000 today). Prior to this, federal funding was through indirect taxes apportioned among the states. In Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co.(1895), the U.S. Supreme Court declared certain taxes on incomes — such as those on property under the 1894 Act — to be unconstitutionally unapportioned direct taxes.

Enter Justice John Marshall Harlan, who in his dissenting opinion in Pollock wrote “it practically decides that, without an amendment of the Constitution — two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and three-fourths of the States concurring — such property and incomes can never be made to contribute to the support of the national government.” Lacking a word processor, he was unable to further emphasize this rather obvious instruction to amend the constitution.

After another fourteen years of bouncing ideas of who to tax, the sixteenth amendment passed congress in 1909., and took four years to be ratified by three fourths of the states (thirty six required at the time). Four states, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Utah, and Virginia, rejected the amendment, and two states, Florida and Pennsylvania, never even considered the amendment.

I think this was an interesting time in American social history. During the years in which the sixteenth amendment was being ratified, the seventeenth amendment, changing the election of senators from by state legislature to popular vote, was introduced and passed congress. It was ratified only months after the sixteenth amendment.

Both of these amendments remove responsibility (and some might say control)  from the state legislatures and gives that responsibility to the individual.

The seventeenth amendment reads as follows;

“The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”

State legislatures, which had been (and in some ways still are) local centers of power (and the requisite corruption that is chained to power), were no longer as directly tied to federal funding or the election of senators. Senators are supposed to represent the state and its interests, with Members of the House representing the individuals of the state. With these two amendments America took the first steps away from being a union of states and towards being a unified republic. There are positive and negative aspects to this change of direction, and as with all things, those aspects are affected by the the climate presented by society.

In 1912, there were four popular political parties, Republican, Democratic, Progressive, and Socialist represented in the presidential election, and over 239 political parties in existence. Today we recognize two popular parties, treating other points of view as “fringe elements”. With a population of eligible voters in excess of two hundred and thirty million, how can we rationalize a “digital” or “binary” choice? I believe this is the influence of technology on society. We have moved from the “analog” spectrum of multiple points of view to the digital view of “yes/no”, “good/bad”, “black/white”. Add to that basic ego-centrism and you end up with a growing Fascist movement.

We are still growing, and will hit many bumps along the road, but the all or nothing positions that are becoming increasingly popular in every aspect of society have their roots in these attempts to spread political power. The founding fathers were either prescient or lucky in designing a republic which balanced democracy between the masses and the elite, we should keep these missteps in mind as we consider further changes.

 

 

Choosing a doctor

A few years back, while living in South Philadelphia, we decided to change primary physicians. The most surprising thisg we learned is that most people don’t give much thought to the choice.

When we first moved into the neighborhood, we just chose the closest doctor, a guy with a multiple partner practice within walking distance. He was very popular in the neighborhood, it didn’t take long to figure out why. Despite being near impossible to reach by phone to set up appointments, Doctor “A” had a thriving practice. He accepted every insurance plan, and once you were in the office, the wait in the waiting room was short. He used medical students as interns, so his time with the patient involved saying hello and writing prescriptions. He wrote a lot of prescriptions, all you had to do was ask and he would write one for anything.

We were more interested in a doctor that was interested in our health, so we started shopping. We interviewed a few, and most were shocked that we had standards we expected to be met. We expected an office staff sufficient to answer the phone when we called, or at least return a voice message within an hour. That knocked half a dozen practices off the list. We expected the staff to be polite and fluent in English. Scratch off anther three offices. We expected a clean office and waiting room. Another two down. We expected to see a doctor, a person who had graduated from medical school, for examination and diagnosis. The list of practices kept getting shorter.

Finally we got down to interviewing doctors. The shock on their faces when we answered the question “What seems to be the problem today?” with “We’re choosing a doctor, and want to get to know you” was cute at first, but by the time we got to the third candidate it was annoying. You could feel an attitude of “What right do you have to make a decision about my qualifications?”

We made a decision, Doctor “B” was right down the street, and we saw him a couple of times over the next year. The third visit I sat in the examination room waiting for him, and was able to hear every word on both sides of a conversation he was having on the speakerphone in his adjacent office. So much for confidentiality, and I was unimpressed with the way he discussed this other patient’s issues with the other doctor on the phone, making more comments about her personal life than her medical condition. Then he entered the examination room, my file in his hands. He sat down, thumbed through the pages, and said “So how is your diabetes?”

I don’t have diabetes.

I told him I didn’t have diabetes, my issue was multiple sclerosis, and he shook his head and looked closer at the file. Then he turned it right side up. Then he put on his glasses, saying “looks like I need to have my eyes checked again, haha.”

I slowly stood, maintaining eye contact with him and said “You’re fired. Your eyes didn’t get any worse while you were sitting here, so that thumbing through my file was just a show. If I wasn’t clear enough in the beginning when I told you I need a primary physician who would treat me as a person, perhaps you can remember this” and I walked out the door.

We tried our second choice, and kicked ourselves a few times for not making him our first choice.

Doctor “C” had a small storefront office on Broad street, a bit further to walk but there were a couple of different bus or subway choices available. One of his nurses would bring her dog to work, but the dog stayed in the filing room and everything was clean. Doctor “C” turned out to be one of the best doctors I’ve ever dealt with, and I had already dealt with quite a few. A few years later, when Emma developed cancer, doctor “C” went from being a good doctor to being a great doctor, I considered him a genuine friend. When she received the diagnosis, he sat with us, holding our hands, and said “Pray for God to guide your doctors,” he filled in when the specialists she was seeing made mistakes or overlooked details, and made our lives better during the very worst of times.

I realize that anyone with a passing average in medical school can become a doctor. Some doctors will be naturally better than others, some will be friendlier, and the doctor you find will be in your area. We were fortunate to find Dr. “C”, had we simply behaved like sheep and stayed with the first doctor we met our lives would have been worse.

My advice is to make the extra effort, find a doctor you trust, because when you need a superior physician, it is too late to start looking.

 

 

Verjaardag

In Flemish, the word “verjaardag” means “anniversary” or “birthday”. Flemish is one of those languages that ties together words, “Ver”in this case is like the prefix “re-” or “returning”, “jaar” is “year” and “dag” is “day”. The pronunciation is much like a background in English would suggest, except the “j” is pronounced as “y”. There are so many similarities to English I once believed learning Flemish would be easy, but three years into the project I’m still fumbling about. I’m not going to attempt to explain the word for “Happy” other than to explain “g” is pronounced like “h” and then “j” in “Gelukkige”. I take you down this road because today is my blog’s anniversary, or “vandaag is mijn blog verjaardag.”

One year ago I started this blog, with the initial goal of writing one thousand words a day. That changed to “around one thousand words, six days a week” rather quickly. Some days it is barely five hundred words, but I’ve been told that writers write, so being a writer this is what I do, moving along with whatever topic has my mind going that day. The exercise has been good for my writing skills and also has been a relief to my wife, who encouraged me to do this because I was “wasting my talent” commenting in public fora.

In global terms of popularity, readership has been small. I didn’t set unrealistic goals, so I managed to exceed them. As of this morning, there have been 10,171 unique visitors to the page, and those visitors have been based in 93 countries. Central Africa, China, and some of the former Soviet states are the only areas which haven’t produced readers, although there are many explanations for that. There are over one hundred and fifty people who receive the blog by email each day,  and others find the blog through search engines or links in other articles. Sometimes I’m surprised by the popularity of an article, the third chapter of my series on world religions picks up a view almost everyday, the last few days have been from Singapore. The article on wave-particle duality gets a couple of hits a week, and thanks to a link in an astronomy journal the article on interstellar distances gets a fair amount of attention. There are two food articles and two obituaries (one a person, the other a career) in the top ten, then one just hits a chord, like an article on hypocritical intolerance, which became the most read article of the year even though it was only published two weeks ago.

The number of comments have been disappointing, averaging two a day, but I have no basis for my expectation on that. There are comments on the websites on which I publicize the blog, and some people email me directly, but the conversations I had hoped for on the blog itself have not materialized. Yet.

I have tried some unorthodox approaches, tying music into articles in unusual ways. I attempt to remain light-hearted and even humorous when writing about difficult issues. My politics encompass the entire spectrum, so someone who absolutely loves me for my stand on one issue may end up hating me for my position on another. This is my way of expressing the concept of duality, we are all grey, very few people are completely black or white, and those folks tend to be exceptionally boring.

There are drawbacks to having a variety of topics, and a couple of people have suggested I focus on one area, or compile a group of entries into a book. I think it is likely I’ll reformat the blog, separating topics into categories and providing a separate page for each category, all joined on a home page. Compilations will require more thought, my last adventure in publishing was not a textbook experience, and would not apply to any other project. Perhaps someone will volunteer to edit a book, or perhaps I’ll just write a book instead of compiling and editing blog articles. Spring is here, the magnolias in my office should be blooming soon, and I will be able to spend more time without distractions.

Most importantly, thank you all for reading, commenting on, and sharing my articles.

Another day at the office

Another day at the office

 

 

 

“Don’t do what I did”

I smoke. I am one of those weird people who are not addicted to nicotine, are aware of the dangers of tobacco, and choose to smoke anyway. Nonetheless, I have always been impressed by Yul Brynner’s choice to make the above ad for the American Cancer Society.

Yul (Юлий Борисович Бринер) was born in Vladivostok Russia in 1920 and immigrated to America in 1940. Consider that for a moment, he was born just after the first world war and Spanish influenza, then at age twenty he traveled to the other side of the world on the eve of the second world war. Smoking was not only seen as sophisticated, it was a simple treatment for stress, even the Red Cross provided cigarettes to soldiers. Yuliy Borisovich had started smoking at age twelve, and smoked for forty years before quitting in 1971. In 1983 he found a lump on his vocal chords, and just hours before his four thousandth performance of “The King and I” received the test results informing him his vocal chords were fine, but he had inoperable lung cancer.

Yul took a break for radiation therapy and then the tour continued, with another six hundred and twenty five performances. Yul made the public service announcement, which was aired heavily on all American networks just in time for his death in October of 1985. To me, it is the most powerful statement ever.

As I watched the coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial, I felt sorry for Oscar. Not quite as sorry as I felt for Reeva Steenkamp, the woman Oscar killed, but I could see he is filled with grief. He did something that ended a human life and wishes he could undo it. Kind of like Yul.

There has been testimony about South African gun laws. Ownership of a firearm is conditional on a competency test and several other factors, including background checking of the applicant, inspection of an owner’s premises, and licensing of the weapon by the police. Oscar passed the competency test, which includes identifying the correct course of action in “shoot/don’t shoot” scenarios. The shooting of Reeva Steenkamp was clearly a “don’t shoot” situation. His remorse does not absolve his guilt. I have a friend in South Africa, and am aware of the fear many people live with. It is a scary place with scary people, arming one’s self is a rational measure. But as we know to varying extents in America, just because it is legal to possess a gun does not mean it is appropriate for everyone to possess a gun, responsibility needs to be assessed honestly by the gun owner, before he walks out of the gun store.

Oscar will most likely spend some time, perhaps the remainder of his life, incarcerated. This will not bring Reeva back, nothing will. If Oscar is sincere about his remorse, I think he should make a public service announcement. It should be aired in every country in which firearms are legally owned by civilians. Here is how I envision it:

We see a still image of Oscar as a child, after his legs had been amputated. Oscar’s voice over is the only sound. He says “Fibular hemimelia took away my freedom when I was less than a year old.” The image shifts to another still of him running in the Olympics “Technology helped me regain my freedom, allowing me to pursue life to it’s fullest.” The image shifts to stills of Oscar and Reeva at a celebrity event, then shifts to a picture of the murder scene. “My irresponsible use of technology took away the life of the woman I love,” shift to video, Oscar in a dingy cell, his prosthetic legs propped against the outside of the bars. The remainder of the video is a slow zoom in on his face as he continues “and cost my freedom as well. Some things cannot be undone, don’t let the irresponsible person with a gun be you.”

That’s my concept, I’d like to see it on the air in America as well. Maybe required viewing when purchasing a firearm.

And now, a random yahoo on the street

In the classical sense, an opinion is based on understanding a subject. We all may have differing opinions, but the subject is static, Our opinions may vary based on differing levels of understanding, or on differing priorities. If someone has differing priorities, you can reach an agreement that you both understand the issue and do not agree on the implications. If someone does not understand the subject but will not let go of their opinion, there is no point in discussion, they have nothing to teach you about the issue, and they do not care to learn anything from you.

This is why I love popular discussions. I have learned the most from people I disagree with, sometimes the enlightenment has caused me to change my opinion, sometimes it has reinforced my opinion, but I do my best to separate my opinion from “the facts”. Apparently that skill is not as appreciated as it once was, the power of opinion seems to be more valuable than the power of facts these days.

An example would be our president. I don’t like him. I find him to be a poor president, but I do not think he is a poor leader in every sense. He certainly has a fanatical strong following, I just don’t care for his methods or where he appears to be leading the country. I don’t care what race he is, or which religion if any he follows. I have had discussions about his qualities, and can acknowledge the things that he has done right. When I am in a discussion and someone brings up the “fact” that he is Muslim,  my first response is “Our constitution guarantees freedom of religion, his religion is not pertinent to his leadership”, usually followed by “and he claims not to be Muslim anyway.” If the person I am talking with is basing their opinion on false information that has something to do with what we are talking about that is one thing, if it is based on irrelevant information their opinion is even more distorted. It goes both ways. If I say “Obama is a lousy president” and the response is “you’re a racist” I attempt to enlighten my adversary to the notion that his color is unimportant, irrelevant to my opinion. If their opinion is based on the belief that any disagreement has nothing to do with the issue but is instead based on irrelevant information, their opinions are as distorted as the person who is biased against him because they believe him to be Muslim.

I have had the benefit of a wide breadth of experiences, and have also been blessed with a few intellectual tools such as curiosity and insight, so I’ve learned a lot about a variety of subjects. I am a rarity, in that I recognize the limits of my understanding and try to learn more.

We are bombarded by opinions, with few facts to be found in most conversations. Slowly there has been a shift from relevant facts to popular opinion, and while someone with no basis upon which to form their opinion might be interesting to listen to, they are not furthering the understanding of the subject.

During the search for the missing Malaysian airliner, facts have been thin so space was filled with opinion. Even Courtney Love came forward as a photo interpreter. Having spent some time with people who spent careers interpreting satellite images, I understand the intricacies involved. Courtney Love’s opinion was immediately dismissed because she was Courtney Love, but when the Prime Minister of Australia came forward he was taken seriously. Neither was a trained photo interpreter, and my friends and I all had a good laugh at the surreal nature of taking a celebrity opinion over an expert analysis. The entire world buzzed anyway.

This morning, on a web site devoted to astronomy, a woman asked where she could see the two stars in the sky. She had seen an article about it on the internet. A few people were quick to remind her that stars do not travel into different systems, and at least one person suggested she could see two suns on Tatooine. She is a regular on the site, and probably considers herself an amateur astronomer, I just hope she isn’t dispensing her opinions on astronomy to her friends as facts.

I have friends who are avidly against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food. There may be valid reasons for their beliefs, but until there is documented research showing GMOs are in any way harmful, their beliefs are based on fear of the unknown. This dovetails into Anthropogenic Climate Change (AGW). When an actual scientific study produces data indicating there is an anthropogenic element I’ll take the issue more seriously, but presently a political organization is the only source of alarms, so I have to view the issue as political. Are there perfectly good reasons to control pollution? Absolutely, but they have nothing to do with climate change. I have seen office workers treat used toner cartridges as toxic waste, because they believed they were filled with carbon. Sorry, there is no carbon in the empty container, it has been printed onto all your copies, and carbon is inert, totally safe unless you inhale it in high concentrations. You exhale more carbon than you inhale every time you breathe.

These examples bring me to food allergies. Celiac disease affects one percent of the population, and has serious consequences for those affected. Half an aisle in my supermarket is devoted to gluten free products. There is no reason to avoid gluten if you do not suffer from celiac disease, yet the products are very popular, there’s even a quinoa vodka which is advertised as gluten free. In case you were not aware, all vodka is gluten free, as gluten is cooked out during the distilling process. In the same way that a mattress made from aloe vera leaves (I have seen them) has no affect on your skin, quinoa vodka has no unique benefit if you are avoiding gluten. Someone with celiac disease would know that, which is my point. Fear of a substance is marketed to people who have nothing to fear. Their opinion on gluten has been formed based on an impression that gluten is bad for everyone. Several of my friends go out of their way to avoid gluten, but only three of them have any need to do so.

Opinions about subjects fire intelligent discussions, and I honestly believe that positive ideas bubble to the top. When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), the accepted medical opinion was stress does not exacerbate MS. I suggested to my neurologist directly, and to several others through other patients, that stress exacerbates the impact of symptoms, so from the patient’s point of view, stress does exacerbate MS. Within a few years the opinion was being discussed in medical circles, and today the link between stress and MS is widely accepted. Change is slow, but in scientific communities a rational argument goes a long way.

A reasoned, rational argument can break any barrier, an uninformed, irrational argument builds barriers where there were none. Knowledge is more powerful than you might imagine.

 

 

Blessings

The fifth chapter of Matthew begins with “The Blessings”, or “Beatitudes”.

“And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him:

And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”

 

We are blessed as we develop our relationship with God. It is not easy, and as I often say “If it was easy everyone would do it”. The path is available to everyone, and in these scriptures Jesus offers the reassurance of his understanding. He does not say “Follow me and all will be well”, but rather “You will be persecuted and hated, it has always been that way, at the end of the journey is peace.”

I know enough about trends and statistics to understand our current path may not be an indicator of calamity. It appeared we were improving, treating each other with greater respect, allowing that we are all equal under the skin, yet in the last twenty or so years evil has taken a lead again, driving the course of human behavior away from civility. This is not the end of the struggle. We may turn things around, there will be ups and downs on the graph of humanity. Satan is often referred to as “the deceiver”, it leads you to believe you have lost and might as well give up.

A few weeks ago in Southwest Philadelphia, at Bartram High School, a school with a terrible history of violence, a conflict resolution specialist who had been assigned to the school to reduce violence was knocked unconscious by a student. Alphonso Stevenson is still receiving medical treatment for multiple skull fractures, and the young man who attacked him is still roaming the halls of Bartram High (despite having been expelled). The school did not close, the conflict resolution specialists did not throw their hands in the air and give up (although the last principal quit after two weeks).

The struggle does not end next week, or next year, or even next century. The struggle is eternal. Some days we win a little, some days we lose a little, and when our part on Earth is done we will be judged. Did we hunger and thirst for righteousness? Were we merciful? Were we pure of heart? Words will be meaningless, God sees all, it sees our actions, and it sees our hearts. We might fool everyone, including ourselves, but God will know the truth.

Knowing not when I will stand spirit to spirit before God, I do my best to be a peacemaker, because I know the warrior within is searching for a way to get out. There is a lot of bad to make up for, so I keep trying to tip the balance. The reward is not Earthbound, there is no sense in seeking applause for our efforts.

My choice of music today acknowledges the tight rope many of us walk.

 

 

The horror

I’ve seen some incredibly ugly things in my life. Sadly, the video below is not the worst. You don’t need to watch it, the thumbnail tells you what you need to know, but for some reason I feel the need to document its existence.

syria

 

Warning

DO NOT view this video unless you are comfortable viewing graphic executions

Link to “LiveLeak”

I’m trying to figure out which is the most disturbing element. A crowd of men and women, most with their faces covered, stand around a group of eight or nine men who are kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, A flag, black with gold Arabic writing, is displayed as the event is recorded.

The man to the right holds his Glock a few feet from the first prisoner’s head and fires, a total of four times. The next man fires into his victim’s head twice with an AK-47. The remainder of the men take their turns shooting their victims, and the scene quickly degrades into a hail of gunfire, with scores of rounds fired into the dead bodies.

I know nothing about the victims. I know nothing about the person who posted the video. I know nothing about the shooters.

What I do know is that I was overwhelmed with a desire to exterminate all life in the Middle East after viewing this, but why stop there? God can sort them out, you don’t sift through a cancerous tumor to see if there are any healthy cells present.

I know there is no shortage of bullets, which leads me to believe it is not Syria, where a single bullet can cost a day’s wages. At least that’s how it was a year ago, maybe foreign interests have flooded the area with weaponry. I know that if the intent of recording the event was to induce fear it is only a partial success. If I lived in the area I would believe it takes a well armed crowd to build up the courage to execute an enemy, from where I sit my fear is that people like this exist. I know that if the intent of the recording was to gain support for the shooters, it is an absolute failure, I have never been so repulsed in my life. If the intent was to gain sympathy for the victims, it also fails, because I don’t know who they are. I’ve asked the person who posted this why they did so, so far no response, but the comment “surprisingly enough no media hse (sic) is reporting this” suggests he isn’t familiar with current broadcast standards.

In the last few weeks I have been disappointed by my fellow human beings, the level of “humanity” in the humans I have had to interact with has been lacking in every sense. In a country that prizes liberty the rights of the individual have been stripped bare. Corporations and Politicians abuse the public trust and play “divide and conquer” with the populace. Groups designed to increase tolerance display and teach intolerance. Individuals find rudeness preferable to civility. Organizations trying to gain acceptance insulate themselves to the point they are not accepted.

Anyway.

As compassionate as I attempt to be with the raggedy mobs, they get under my skin from time to time. I snap back at the guy who loves everyone except the person who disagrees with him. But the level of verbal violence is disturbing, because it starts with a word and moves to road rage in a heartbeat.

So please. The next time you find yourself slipping into hyperbole, saying “they ought to be shot,” come back to this article and watch the video. Is that really what you want? If not, hold your tongue, don’t say what you don’t mean.

 

 

Obfuscation

I dig words. Words are like paint, you can paint a beautiful picture, or you can paint over a beautiful picture.

What you paint on top of the beautiful picture might be beautiful as well, or it might be a clever and artistic camouflage of the original. It might be a solid color, or it might be a facsimile of feces. What it will never be is the original picture.

I found the word “obfuscation” interesting when I first heard it, because I like the sound of it, and because not knowing what it meant I had to look it up. It is the concept of concealing the meaning of a communication by making it more confusing and harder to interpret by adding extraneous information. Talking more in order to say less. This is why I can appreciate politicians (whose job requirements include mastering obfuscation) even when I do not agree with them. An artist is an artist, whether or not you like the subject of the painting.

Obfuscation may have noble purposes, as when used in medical writing. In a 1976 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, Michael Crichton said medical writing is “actually a highly skilled, calculated attempt to confuse the reader.” and B.F Skinner had called medical notation a form of multiple audience control, which allows the doctor to communicate to the pharmacist things which might be opposed by the patient if they could understand it. Information Technology uses obfuscation in an attempt to conceal information, making the work appear more complicated than it is. The cable that connects your computer to a network jack (assuming you connect by cable) has about five different names. Do you know which to buy? The technician knows they all refer to the same cable. The acronym TWAIN has been deciphered to mean “Technology Without An Interesting Name,” because “scan interpreter” was just too pedestrian.

Just as there are masters in the world of art, there are also craft stores in which anyone can purchase a brush and pigments. Owning a paintbrush makes you a painter, not an artist. Good obfuscation can be entertaining, poor obfuscation can be frustrating. The use of alternate words to avoid reality can be transparent, causing the reader (or listener) to realize not only what is being hidden but also that a clumsy attempt to hide it is being made. An example is Gweneth Paltrow’s divorce, which she described as “conscious uncoupling”. It still says “divorce” on the paperwork, and the choice of words brought more attention, not less. The motives of people who survive on a diet of publicity are always a mystery, but this feels like an obfuscation failure.

Appreciating good obfuscation removes some of the stress of being lied to. So I should be a very happy guy, right? The “Affordable Care Act” does not provide any care, nor does it make care affordable. This is where obfuscation works best. If what you say sounds like what your audience wants to hear, you own them.

The problem is, when people get used to lying, they don’t know when to stop, and when people realize they have been lied to, they stop trusting you. Obfuscation is like anything else, acceptable in moderation, lethal in excess.

 

C is NOT for “cookie”

On the odd chance you are not aware, there is a disease called cancer. It can take many forms and affect any part of your body. Some forms are curable, some are not, but if left untreated it is always lethal.

Yeah. I thought you might have heard about it. There are over one and one half million new cases every year, and a little over half a million deaths in the population of roughly three hundred sixteen million Americans. That’s about 0.5% of the population newly affected each year, someone’s parent, spouse, sibling, child, or all of the above. You know at least one and possibly several people directly affected, survivors and fatalities.

This is why I really do not understand Cancer Awareness programs. What disturbs me even more deeply are secret cancer awareness games. The oxymoron title does not seem to sink in to the people involved.

The first of these I noticed a few years ago. One day a number of my female friends posted status updates consisting of a color. A few weeks later a few posted suggestive sounding status updates such as “I like it on the kitchen table” which was part of a game in which you posted where you liked to place your handbag. You were not supposed to explain, but a few people did privately. This was all supposed to raise awareness about breast cancer. How being part of a secret raises awareness is beyond me. How people who have suffered from breast cancer, or lost a loved one to breast cancer, could be a part of this astounds me.

More recently there was a group posting “selfies”, pictures one takes of oneself, without makeup. A few people mentioned it was for “cancer awareness” and fewer still provided a link to a cancer research association. While this might have had more impact on cancer research than any previous game, it was also the most revealing exercise. It was not easy to participate in. It took the courage to reveal yourself without makeup, so it was not quite as widespread as previous campaigns. Despite the narcissism of a society that has actually coined a bastardized word for self worship (selfie), the idea of being seen at less than your cosmetically enhanced “best” lacked appeal. Asked to contribute so much as a morsel of vanity the movement crashed, despite national news coverage of celebrities without make up (although possibly still Photoshopped).

Maybe the point of cancer awareness is self awareness. Cancer avoidance begins with self awareness, diagnosis begins with self awareness. The path to that self awareness is discussion and openness, so cute little secret games could never be the answer, in fact they are the antithesis of awareness.

Today (1 April 2014) would have been my fifteenth wedding anniversary with Emma. It is a day on which I am acutely aware of cancer, as are the dates of her birth and death, which is not to say it ever slips out of my mind. During the thirteen months she (we) struggled with cancer I learned quite a bit about cancer and its effects. I learned about the human spirit, hope, and loss. I have lost other friends to cancer, and know quite a few that have survived cancer, so losing my wife does not make me special or unique in any way.

You do not have to lose a loved one to be aware of cancer, in fact I honestly believe you would need to live in a remote cave to not be aware. If you are unaware of the signs of cancer, playing games will not make you, or anyone else, aware. Talk with your friends who have survived (you must have at least one) or visit the website of the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society does wonderful work in all aspects of cancer awareness, and provides services to not only patients but families of patients. They fund research investigating avoidance, treatments, and cures as well as providing counseling for those who lose loved ones to the disease.

If you want to raise awareness, talk. Discuss avoidance with your loved ones. Donate money or time to charities like but not limited to the American Cancer Society. Share your story if you are a survivor, or the stories of others that did not survive. Share this article, or something written by someone else about their journey with cancer (maybe a short book, I leave them on airplanes and in hotel rooms). If it has not already, cancer will affect you in some way in the future. Be prepared.

One other thought I would like to share with you. Cancer is a random event. There are circumstances which make it more likely such as exposure to carcinogens (sunlight, smoking, certain chemicals), but there is no way to completely prevent cancer. In the same way you would not blame a rape victim for the actions of a violent criminal, never blame a cancer patient for their disease. Blame has no place in treatment other than as a footnote among things that have a negative effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sailing

The earliest depictions of sailing vessels are on ceramics from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of South Eastern Europe, dating back to 6000 BC. Several thousands of years later the characters of Daedalus and Icarus appeared in Greek mythology, crafting wings to sail in the air. a few thousand years after that Marco Polo told of Chinese kites that could carry a man skyward (often used as a punishment). Ballooning and other lighter than air forms of flight became common beginning in the eighteenth century, and following advancements in the design of gliders in the nineteenth century (learning to sculpt the air with the design of the the airfoil, in other words trimming the sails), powered, controlled flight traveled from dream to reality at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Understanding the connection between sailing on the seas and sailing in the skies helps to open the mind to the subtle difference between Naval Aviators and their brothers who fly in Air Force, Army, or civilian craft. It is indescribable, but in civilian clothes having a picnic in the park, you can tell the origins of each. They all have an aura about them, but the ones who use floating runways stand out.

intruder-off-deck

A-6 intruder taking off from carrier

On 18 July 1965, attack squadron 75 took off from the USS Independence for a bombing mission over Vietnam. Leading the twenty eight craft in an A-6A Intruder was the squadron commander, Jeremiah Denton, and Lieutenant Bill Tschudy, his navigator/bombardier. As the squadron neared their target of Thanh Hoa, Commander Denton’s craft was struck by anti-aircraft fire, and he ejected along with Lieutenant Tschudy. They were taken prisoner, and incarcerated at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. I do not understand why prisoners of war are tortured, I suspect the anger of a weak mind is easier to express when the enemy is in chains. The treatment of prisoners of war in Vietnam set a new low, so depraved I will not attempt to describe it here.

Ten months into his captivity he was selected to be part of a propaganda broadcast (the least of Geneva Protocol violations). Commander Denton used the opportunity to send a message. As he provided the required answers, he blinked repeatedly from the camera lights. At least that is what the Vietnamese captors believed. Watch this forty two second video to see if you can pick up a pattern:

 

He is blinking Morse code. T-O-R-T-U-R-E. At the end of the interview, he states he still supports the actions of his government, earning him a transfer to another prison camp. After the segment was broadcast on American television his messages was decoded, and in Vietnam Commander Denton received an all night beating. He spent most of the remainder of his stay in isolation, as his captors found his presence increased resistance among the other prisoners he was exposed to.

He was released on 12 February, 1973, and returned to service stateside. Promotions led to his retirement in 1977 at the rank of Rear Admiral. In 1976 his book “When Hell was in Session” was published, which some of you may remember as the TV film of the same name starring Hal Holbrook as Denton. In 1980 he was elected as Senator by his home state of Alabama.

Admiral Denton’s details of the treatment of Prisoners of War were required reading when I was in the Air Force, and have been used in training at the survival schools of the various military branches. Let it suffice “When Hell was in Session” is a watered down treatment of the actual events, and the novel is more than some people can stomach.

Admiral Denton died last week at age 89. He was under hospice care for a heart ailment.

I have personally known only one Prisoner of War, my grandfather emeritus Captain Fred Turnbull. Fred was also a Naval Aviator. Both men displayed amazing grace under pressure, continuing the struggle against the enemy while captives. Both men saw themselves as just ordinary guys. Fred would say “Well, what would you have done?”, because he believed he was not extraordinary. By that he displayed his faith in humanity. Both men illustrated the ultimate struggle is fought with strong wills more than strong weapons.

 

Love

A common refrain by atheists is “If God is so loving, why do bad things happen?”

It is similar to the insolent child, who says “If you really loved me…”

Defining “love” is the domain of the lover, the one giving love. Love can take many forms, and most parents understand “love” does not mean providing everything the loved one desires. For many people, love means supporting, caring, and providing a positive example. The love we give is not always what the person we give our love to desires in the immediate sense, but inspired by our love we sometimes do things that makes our loved ones better people, capable of expressing love of their own some day.

God expects us to grow. Growth requires challenges. So bad things happen, innocent people suffer, and we are given the opportunity to show our love to people who sometimes may only deserve it because they are our brothers and sisters, fellow children of God. If we are the one suffering, we learn to accept love, which I am discovering is much more difficult for most folks than I had thought.

Simply giving people what they want is not love. It may bring peace to the moment, but it does not bring peace to life. We know simply giving a child candy will stop them from crying, but on several levels it is not the healthy solution.

Our loving God does not condemn souls to hell, they condemn themselves. God is always willing to accept the repentant soul. This is what we call unconditional love. It is not allowing the pain to continue in the name of love, but allowing the pain to end. At one point in my life, my relationship with my mother required that I break contact with her. It was not healthy for either of us to simply gloss over our conflicts, and after a fair amount of soul searching I determined that the best way I could display my love would be to avoid arguments, and the only way to avoid arguments was to break contact. This lasted for several years, and eventually we found each other again. We both grew, and had we argued all those years we probably would have said things we would regret which would have caused more damage than we could repair. I remained in touch with her other son, but eventually that relationship became so painful I had to remove him from my life completely. I’m not certain I could ever forgive the things he has done, but then he is not asking for forgiveness so I have been spared that dilemma.

Unconditional love is difficult. We are not God. We expect something in return for our efforts and sacrifices. I lived with a woman during the eighties who had been hurt so often she could no longer love, and though I did love her, she didn’t want to hear the word. At the time, the Tina Turner song “What’s Love Got to do With It?” was popular, and LuAnn was fond of the line “What’s love but a second hand emotion?” I hope she healed, and found a way to love, because it isn’t a second hand emotion. Loving someone is not dependent on the return of love, but the lack of a two way relationship can be exhausting. I gave up on LuAnn back then, but the experience helped me in understanding other wounded souls. In return, God has placed plenty of wounded souls in my path, some more lovable than others.

I have not been the best teacher, but in my defense I have not been the only voice teaching. There are people I have loved that have learned to hate, but rather than give up I just move on to the next case. Because unlike any material wealth with which we have been blessed, the capacity to love is endless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hate in the name of love

It might have been during the “Political Correctness” phase that American society found itself losing tolerance for all things not sanctioned by the arbitrary gods of popularity. We seemed to be doing fairly well breaking away from prejudices based on stereotypes, and then bigotry made a comeback in some twisted vision of being intolerant of intolerance. We went from being proud of ourselves to being disdainful of everything outside our selves.

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There seems a race to be the first identify and denounce anyone who doesn’t share the acceptable views. It is not even an analog approach, in which acceptance is based on a percentage of shared ideas. Zero tolerance became the buzz word for the thought police, any variation means being labeled an outcast.

Who behaves like this? Insecure, shallow fools. But the very point of this article is to avoid hatred, so don’t get me wrong. I love insecure shallow fools. I’ve even been married to a few. I love dogs, I just don’t like being snarled at.

Maybe it is just too much to ask people to be better than that which they despise. Jesus tried and for his efforts was nailed to a tree.

A bill recently introduced in Tennessee, HR 1547, is titled ” The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act”. Apparently, the fact it is from Tennessee automatically makes it racist and homophobic. An article published on “The New Civil Rights Movement” website carries the headline “Tennessee Passes Bill Allowing LGBT Students To Be Bullied In The Name Of ‘Religious Freedom’.”

Okay, there are hack writers of every stripe, and fanning the flames of prejudice is always a money making proposition. What makes this article so astounding is the link to the actual bill within the hate speech. The bill actually empowers LGBT students in their rights to free speech in the schools, but the article implies allowing any speech without prejudice is allowing bullying.

The extrapolation of the effects of the bill continues with “At a basic level, a student could merely write “God” on a chemistry test as the answer to a question asking to where water comes from.” Why yes, a student could write that today. He would be wrong. The summary of the bill states “This bill requires an LEA (Local Education Authority) to treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject.” which means that the expression of a viewpoint is allowed, not judged as correct, and only on otherwise permissible subjects, science (with the exception of AGW) is not about opinions. That’s just not good enough for the muckraker who wrote this, or the drooling hordes who chimed in with their learned views. “Bartdrom” commented “Congratulation to the people of Tennessee. You have now set the new standard, lowered the bar, for civility, intellect, and education of your young. Now states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas have a new low to aim for. Until then, they’ll be able to say: “Yes, we’re backward 3rd world states too, to whom education, reason, tolerance and civility are largely eschewed …but at least we aren’t Tennessee.”.” No, no prejudice or intolerance there.

I’m not suggesting that so called liberals are the only source of intolerance, there are closed minded people of every creed. It is the hypocrisy that astounds me. One friend uses the sarcastic phrase “Kill all fanatics”, and is joined with a chorus of fanatics who cannot see the sarcasm. I suppose it is to be expected, seeing yourself is a trait associated with critical thinking, not angry mobs.

So I try. I try not to treat all of Islam based the acts of the Taliban. I try not treat all LGBT people based on the acts of queer nation. I try not treat all Christians based the acts of the Westboro Baptist Church. I try not to treat all liberals based the acts of a few uneducated children. But then, I’m one of those Christian Conservative Republicans from Texas, so my opinion doesn’t count anyway.

Every belief system teaches to treat others with the respect you wish to receive. That does not mean treat others the way they treat you, it means prove you are worthy of the treatment you desire by treating others in that fashion. Don’t damage your cause by acting in the way the people you don’t like act. Or the way you think they act. Or the way you think they acted one hundred years ago. If we all tried to be better than the people we don’t agree with rather than the same as them, the world would pretty much have to be a better place.

 

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Papers please

A recent survey  by Rasmussen indicates 78% of Americans want voters to prove citizenship in order to register to vote. Sounds like a no-brainer, but oddly enough, voter registration forms do not ask for proof of citizenship.

This isn’t a voter identification question in the sense which has been debated previously, in fact, this measure might put an end to voter identification debates. You could not register without having shown adequate identification to prove you are a citizen of the United States of America, not just a driver’s license but a birth certificate or naturalization papers. The bigger question is, how would it work?

We often express a desire for legislation that has unintended consequences, so think for a moment how you might prove you are a citizen. We can talk about aliens being required to carry papers, but where are yours? It used to be that we didn’t routinely carry identification. After years in law enforcement, it continues to amaze me that people don’t habitually carry some form of ID with them at all times. Although almost no one writes checks for purchases anymore, you probably remember waiting in line when someone wrote a check, and didn’t have a driver’s license or other form of ID with them. At the mall or grocery store, to which they had driven a car.

A national ID card, or some form of government issued ID, could certify citizenship. It’s done in every other country in the world. Otherwise, we would need to carry our passports with us. That would be a problem, as there are only 109 million U.S. passports in circulation. That number is based on data attributed to the Department of State in several articles, however they all use the same link which directs to a 404 “page not found”. At any rate, 35% of Americans with passports is an all time high.

If we expect to be capable of asking aliens to identify themselves, we have to be capable of identifying ourselves. Otherwise how do I know you’re not an alien? Because you say so? That wasn’t good enough for them. In a country based on Free Speech, by which I mean it is second only to religion in the Bill of Rights, the most popular right when asked to identify is the right to remain silent. People are happy to share their points of view on the internet, but prefer to remain anonymous. There are no statistics available for aliases vs actual identities on the internet, but even on social media sites where the idea is to be yourself, it’s fairly common for people to use an alias.

In the last national elections, there was a push for voters to provide identification when voting. You’re voting, the wonderful right to choose your leaders and for some reason you don’t think you should have to identify yourself? You provide identification in order to enter a building, but balk when it’s time to vote? We associate being asked for our papers with a police state, and the ACLU has abundant advice on what to avoid providing if asked by the police. We cling to an illusion of privacy yet expect everyone to accept who and what we are on merely our word.

This may be the root of several social ills. “Bobby869″ is more likely to respond with a string of obscenities than a rational debate, and while “Blake Cash” may be an alias (technically it is, my parents named me Kenneth), I use my own name because I believe in standing behind what I say. If you don’t feel safe identifying yourself with your actions, maybe you should consider the witness protection program. If what you have to say is unpopular with your friends, you have the wrong friends. If you can’t be proud of yourself, who can you be proud of? When you start by lying about who you are, when do the lies stop?

The positive effects of a national ID card outweigh the negatives, because I can’t think of a single negative effect. Maybe I’m over confident in the empowerment being yourself gives you, it’s working for me, but that is just anecdotal evidence. Are we as a nation ready to identify ourselves? If not, how can we ask anyone else to prove who they are?

 

 

 

Writing styles

A friend once told me she did not care to be corrected, and asked me to not comment on her conversations. I see a radical difference between commenting in a conversation and correcting someone. It turned out she had a variety of insecurities, and we have since parted ways. In my thoughts, differences are the fertilizer for the growth of mature opinions. I continue to grow.

I attended a seminar on writing last night, it was intellectually invigorating. I can see several flaws in my writing style, some of which are  grammatical and some simply stylistic. Some things I will change, others I will keep.

One thing I have not been doing is indenting paragraphs, a habit from the military. I am an author (a title I prefer over “writer”) and writing is formal, so I should write more formally. I can call myself an author because I have a published book, in case you didn’t know. “Surviving” is the story of my last wife’s struggle with pancreatic cancer. In an attempt to lose formality, I have been using contractions, which is also not correct form. I even plan to place periods within quotation marks, although to my eye it appears odd. I can not criticize the damage others do to language if I am not following standards myself.

I also use hyperlinks, which are wonderful shortcuts for those of you reading my articles. Hyperlinks do not work on paper, so printed copies of my articles lack the credibility provided by the sources which have been linked to a statement. I would enjoy having my work picked up and possibly printed somewhere, so going forward I will at least identify sources and references within the text of an article.

There are certain stylistic issues which I would never change, you are, after all, reading this at least in part because these are my words, so there should be an element of Blake included. I cannot stand that argument in most cases, but if there were not some hypocritical elements to me I might lose my “human” badge. I may have to back down on the “no contractions” rule as well, in just these few paragraphs it has made me slightly uncomfortable.

My writing influences have been Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King, although a recent software analysis of my writing indicated a similarity to Kurt Vonnegut Jr. My background in writing is mostly technical, intelligence assessment in the military, incident reports in law enforcement, and technical reports when I was an electronics technician. From that and my desire to be precise there is a certain rigidity present, which I consciously attempt to avoid, but perhaps I have gotten too conversational. Most importantly, I want to communicate, so no one should ever hesitate to comment on my writing if they find a concept poorly expressed, but it is my job to express myself clearly enough you will not find the need to do so.

So here we go, always growing, trying to do my best. Please tell me if I am not.

 

It appears WordPress doesn’t allow for indentations, automatically “correcting” to right alignment. I’ll look into that.


			

The price of Education

A variety of subjects have been gathering like a snowball, the common threads being financing and higher education.

College is expensive, with tuition costs rising sharply in recent years, as much as a 77% increase in some states. The college board estimates the average yearly tuition for a four year private school at $29,000, public four year schools are estimated at $8,655 (. There must be some incredibly cheap schools out there, the private schools my step daughter has been looking at have all been over $45,000, our state university (Rutgers) is $13,499. That’s just tuition and fees, extras like books or living expenses can cross into five digit territory. On the other hand yearly expenses (total) at KU Leuven in Belgium runs about €9973, or $13,779.

One question I’m hearing for the first time in decades is “Is a college degree worth it?”, as the value of a degree suffers similarly to a currency based on wishful thinking, the expense of college is being weighed against the monetary impact of a degree in the job market. That Liberal Arts major is making the same minimum wage the High School dropout next to him is making at McDonald’s, despite the subtle nuances he applies while flipping burgers. Additionally, many art degrees are superfluous, there is more to be gained by practicing your art for four years than sitting in a classroom. One friend dropped out of college and started working off Broadway in his desired field of stage dressing. Two years in, he was earning more than college graduates (he was talented). Then he cut his hand in half while cutting scenery, and left the field entirely. He went back to school and got an MBA.

There are of course benefits that are measured in other ways than dollars, but as parents are asked for more dollars, less and less is being returned. More questions are being asked about what schools are doing with those dollars, but the answers are far from satisfying. It’s a sellers market, and if you really loved your kid you wouldn’t ask, would you? Well, maybe if you loved your kid enough to teach them something about economics.

One path for paying for college is scholarships, but the market is flooded and it’s not as easy as it once was. My second wife payed the majority of her tuition with scholarships, she spent most her senior year of High School hunting down and applying for scholarships and grants, some as small as $100. It all added up, and her student loan was only $10,000 after four years of private music schools. Not bad for a degree that landed her a job delivering singing telegrams upon graduation.

Sports scholarships are as trustworthy as a career in sports.  One friend in High School, an exceptional athlete who carried the school to a state championship, chose his college based on academics, he knew a career in sports was like chasing lightning. Today’s generation is raising the question of whether college athletes should be paid, and I’m not sure the answer is “no”. Big athletic schools rake in millions from sports, as does the surrounding community. Student athletes at such schools are athletes first, students second, so maybe they should have their risks covered in the same fashion as professional athletes (or maybe they should just drop the charade of being students altogether). The highest paid public employee in the state of New Jersey is the basketball coach at Rutgers.  The issue surely needs to be addressed, if an athlete is injured and can no longer play, he loses his future along with his scholarship, and while student athletes represent a fraction of students, the issues of college athletic programs muddy the financial field of all parties involved. My personal preference is to abolish college sports altogether, and focus on academics, but that will never be a popular idea.

You might think paying a premium tuition results in a premium education by tenured professors, but such is not the case. Adjuncts and teacher assistants are carrying the workload in most schools. When my sister in law was a grad student, she spent as much time teaching students who were only a few years behind her in their studies as she spent on her studies. This certainly affected the quality of the education she was paying for, but in this instance I believe her students got more than they paid for. In some community colleges, adjuncts teach two thirds of the classes, and across the board there are no figures for teaching assistants who are simply unpaid student teachers. In my sister in law’s case, she was working on a doctorate in biochemistry, not teaching, so the fact she is a natural instructor worked to her students’ benefit. To expect students to perform well as teachers is unrealistic in the overwhelming majority of situations, if it wasn’t, there would be no need for degrees in education or teaching certificates.

So we work our way through the expense of going to college and the value of the education received, and find ourselves looking at career value again. How do we expect our kids to pay off their student loans? The point of the education is to enrich the mind and soul of the student, but many people choose a career path based on expected income. Are there jobs available for which the education provides a benefit?

As I mentioned earlier, a career based in professional sports is a long shot. So are performing arts, not everyone delivering singing telegrams is an operatically trained vocalist, there just aren’t that many jobs for musicians and actors, or for that matter writers or production engineers. Despite laws addressing internships, we are at a point in our economy when well educated people will grasp at whatever straw is offered. Internships may provide valuable experience, or they may teach the intern how to make coffee just like her manager likes it. An internship may result in a permanent position, but probably not at the firm where you were an intern. An internship will never help pay off a student loan. Being an intern is in most cases one point five steps above slavery, without the glamorous fighting of lions.

The price of education is not the same as its cost or value, and all three need to be reevaluated on a case by case basis.

 

 

 

 

Equality

The field of equality (yes, it’s something of a business) was a cottage industry for most of human history. It has had ups and downs, but stripped down to its basics it appears in the teachings of most major religions.

In America, slavery was abolished in 1863, and during the following one hundred years, the definition of slavery continued to be examined. Without equal rights, slavery is only watered down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 demonstrated there was still room for improvement in the laws and practices in America, and while it was not a complete solution, it at least pointed out some of the remaining problems.

The issues that slow human progress are typically rooted in ignorance. Both the lack of intelligence among the masses and the ability of those in power to manipulate that lack of intelligence. Well meaning movements have been perverted, and programs that interfere with equal rights have prospered due to clever marketing. I face the frustration of the situation with the attitude of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”, You want utopia? You can’t handle utopia.  I have no doubt we’ll get there, but it will be a slow laborious journey.

In America, we fumbled “Equal Rights” into “Equality”. It seems like such a subtle difference, but it isn’t.

All men are created equal sounds very nice, the actual phrase is just a little more complex “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness“. We know we are not equal. I am tall, others are short. “Equality” refers to the rights, in this case “negative rights” provided by the government. Negative rights are sometimes called preventative rights, a right which restrains the power of authorities. The right to free speech is the right to not be prosecuted for your speech, thus it is a negative right.

By confusing (or allowing confusion about) the meaning of equality, the quest for equal rights is hampered. Nothing hurts sympathy for a good cause as much as bad representation. Well, one thing. Bad implementation. Affirmative action, the process of discriminating against qualified applicants in order to balance employee diversity, is still discrimination. White people who can’t get a job are not feeling racial harmony when a less qualified black applicant gets the job, they feel justified in their bigotry against black people. Forcing accommodation of minority groups ensures continued resentment.

Not all discrimination is equal. Ask your Jewish friends how they feel about every mass murder being compared to the holocaust, ask a black person over fifty how they feel about every fringe group comparing their “struggle” to the civil rights movement. The Equal Rights Amendment, designed to protect the rights of women, was written in 1923. It was introduced to congress in every session until it passed in 1972. It has failed to be ratified, and has been reintroduced since reaching its ratification deadline. As the amendment addresses the rights of a specific group rather than humans in general, it has little chance of ever being ratified, as the argument it is redundant at this point in time is valid. We don’t each need an amendment for our group in order to be equal.

We can pass volumes of laws, but true equality cannot be legislated. It comes from within, it is determined in the immediate reaction to another. Can we accept someone who is different as having equal rights? It requires a change within ourselves, as we cannot be expected to see others until we can see ourselves. Am I to accept the repugnant as beautiful? That would depend on whether I see myself as beautiful or repugnant. When we are able to appreciate the balance brought by diversity, we will be far more willing to embrace it than we do now, the ability to see the beauty in the differences rather than conformance to a standard.

Equality is horrifying. A universe occupied by perfectly equal elements has no growth. A lack of growth is equivalent to death, or perhaps I have not evolved to the point I can appreciate it. I often envision the afterlife as a state of entropy, so perhaps that is the direction in which I am traveling.

In his 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. investigated a society based on legally enforced equality. Strong people had to wear weights to slow them. Intelligent people wore earphones that produced disturbing noises to protect them from coherent thoughts. The beautiful were forced to wear masks. The story is thought provoking (as long as we take our earphones off) and has been produced as a feature length film which strays wildly from the original, and a short film which is more faithful. The audiobook, below, is only twelve minutes long, I highly recommend it as a starting point in exploring the various productions. If anyone knows how I can obtain a copy of the 2006 short film please let me know.

We can do better than we are doing now, but I do not believe we are currently on the path to that better future.

The Bible

When you hear “The Bible”, what comes to mind? A big book with a jewel encrusted gold cover that is open on the table on an alter with a man wearing robes and speaking in Latin? The 5 X 7 book with a worn leather cover your grandfather carries to church each week? That pristine dust cover on your bookshelf with a binding that has never been stressed?

Regardless of your beliefs, the idea included Christianity. The Christian Bible holds an unregistered trademark on the title, although the word is derived from the Greek “biblion” which translates to “scroll” or “paper”. By the second century Jewish groups had stared calling “Bible” books “holy”, and as Christianity grew and overwhelmed its Jewish roots “The Holy Bible” came to mean the sixty six books of the Protestant Christan Bible, broken into two sections named “The old testament” and “The new testament”. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s bible consists of eighty-one books.

The Old Testament contains, at minimum, the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible divided into thirty-nine books and ordered differently from the Hebrew Bible, and the Catholic Church and Eastern Christian churches also hold certain deuterocanonical books and passages to be part of the Old Testament. The New Testament, contains twenty-seven books, the four Canonical gospels, Acts of the Apostles, twenty-one Epistles or letters, and the Book of Revelation.

Christians include the Hebrew Bible within the Old Testament, it is the history leading to the New Testament, not the core beliefs of Christianity.

As the Bible spread throughout the world, it was translated into all the languages of mankind, and with the passage of time re-translated as those languages changed. For better or worse, these translations are referred to as “versions”, as the differences in translation can be seen as a difference in interpretation. For believers in Christianity, it is taken that translators have been divinely inspired, so that the meaning remains as intended. This is not always true, versions have been written to fit the interpretations of the translator, most notably “The New World Translation” (NWT) written by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which varies from the commonly accepted meanings and omits and replaces so much information that it is not accepted as a valid translation by most biblical scholars.

In the Book of Revelation, near the very end, chapter 22 verses 18 and 19, it is said “18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book”.

I own two Bibles, the Revised Standard Version, given to me on my eighth Christmas, and my grandfather’s King James Version (complete with his margin notes and bookmarks). In writing articles for these blog entries I use BibleGateway.com, which has more than one hundred and eighty versions in over seventy languages for cross referencing scripture, when I quote or link to scripture I always use the King James Version (KJV) for consistency.

With all these resources available, two things about mankind’s relationship with the Bible irk me on a nearly daily basis. The first is non-believers misquoting and mis-interpreting scripture. Often I can easily forgive ignorance of a subject, but if you have chosen not to believe, at least know what it is you don’t believe in. The second is believers misquoting and mis-interpreting scripture. If you have chosen to believe, shouldn’t you know what you believe in? As Fred Phelps is discovering this week, spreading your own variant of God’s word is not spreading God’s word.

I’ve said it thousands of times, and will certainly say it thousands more, it is not a difficult book to read. It is shorter than some Stephen King novels, and there is a version written in a language you will understand. That’s what “divinely inspired” means to me, God wants you to read his word and is doing everything possible to make it accessible. “The Word on the street” version translates Genesis 1:1-3 “First off, nothing. No light, no time, no substance, no matter. Second off, God starts it all up and WHAP! Stuff everywhere! The cosmos in chaos: no shape, no form, no function– just darkness … total. And floating above it all, God’s Holy Spirit, ready to play. Day one: Then God’s voice booms out, ‘Lights!’ and, from nowhere, light floods the skies and ‘night’ is swept off the scene”.

It’s easy.

Harboring fugitives

There was a discussion about immigration yesterday, or more precisely the harboring of fugitives. Because that is what it is. If someone has broken the law, they are a criminal. Until they are brought to justice, they are a fugitive. The gentleman today was speaking about how unjust it is to bring fugitives to justice.

We can use whatever terms we wish, and just like the toilet scrubber who believes they should be paid as much as the CEO, a criminal who is insulted by being called “illegal” is living in a fantasy. In my mind it would be best to start these conversation with “We are going to provide you with the same treatment your government would provide to me were I to overstay my welcome in your country”. If you are required to have documents which prove you have the right to be here, and you don’t have those documents, you have no right to be here.

But no, they say. You need us.

We really don’t. We don’t need eleven million people making up their own minds about what is and is not legal.  We abolished slavery one hundred and fifty years ago, but with a class of workers who dare not identify themselves to the Internal Revenue Service, slavery is once again a temptation for some people. The list of people who have been caught keeping slaves is populated mostly by Democrats, who had never wanted to get rid of slavery in the first place, but Republicans may just have enough sense to clean up before they make it to Washington. Here in lovely Princeton New Jersey, police have been instructed on how to not enforce the laws, because we wouldn’t want to leave a lawn without a cheap manicure, or distress a family by forcing them to seek a housekeeper or nanny who was trustworthy enough to have followed the immigration laws. Losing slave labor might cut into the boating budget.

Without slaves, we might have to hire Americans, and they would want to be paid minimum wage, and we would have to extend to them the protection of our labor laws. That could be expensive.

Which was, in effect, the argument put forward this morning. The cost involved in enforcing laws. In this case we were given the example of a man from Guatemala who had lived illegally in America for twenty two years. He was married and had children. He had a catering business (no information on how he managed to operate without legal tax documentation). And then the big bad immigration police scooped him up and deported him. “They didn’t even allow him to pack a bag and retrieve his favorite watch”.

He was shipped back to Guatemala, at an expense in time and resources of $12,500. Sounds like a deal. But wait, that’s not all it cost us, because if the polo club is going to have to go without sandwiches, you need to realize how much this will cost you. Not only did we have to pay for law enforcement officers, facilities, and passage to Guatemala, now you are stuck with supporting this criminal’s family. They’ve been left with nothing and are on public assistance now. They’ve lost their home, and now the American taxpayer has to support them because the family breadwinner was deported. Were you to apply the same story to another person it would be a tragedy, but this wasn’t another person, this was a criminal who was finally captured. I see no tears shed for murderers or drug smugglers who had their personal lives destroyed by being brought to justice. We used to say “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”. At least Tony Soprano hid money in the bird feeder to help his family were he ever arrested.

A woman spoke up with her situation. She identified herself as “undocumented” but claimed she wasn’t a criminal. She acknowledged the programs that have been put in place to assist immigrants in obtaining legal status, but stated she chose not to participate in them for fear once she was identified, were she unable to achieve citizenship she would be deported.

Just a moment while all the gun owners who are called paranoid because they fear registering their guns might result in those guns being confiscated laugh at the irony. She came all this way to live under a government she doesn’t trust.

She went on to say how much America needed cheap labor.

Just a moment while those McDonald’s workers demanding $15.00 per hour storm the podium. She came all this way to take one of those minimum wage jobs.

She spoke about her rights and the life she had built in America. Illegally. I couldn’t help but remember the kid arrested with a gram of cocaine complaining he had been punished enough with jail and fines so he should be given his drugs back.

You can call illegal immigrants “dreamers”, invoking the quest for the American dream, but that dream has been fulfilled for the generations of those who came to this country legally. If your dream is to start by violating immigration laws, you do not have the “American Dream”, your dream is of unearned benefits, a lifestyle you saw on television and assumed was reality.

If by odd chance you actually care about the welfare of an illegal immigrant, send them home. The DREAM act was designed to collect taxes from people who have little chance of ever obtaining citizenship (estimated length of time to citizenship after illegal entry, thirteen to twenty years; length of time for immigrants with legal entry, five to seven years). It applies to young people who will pay taxes and purchase health insurance, not to older people who might be relying on government assistance. It is a cold-hearted cynical approach to people who won’t realize they have been lied to until the liars are long out of office.

Allowing illegal aliens to infiltrate our society is more expensive than we acknowledge. The undermining of our faith in law enforcement is only the beginning. But if it can’t be measured in dollars, more importantly your dollars, you’re not likely to be upset. So you’re willing to “help out” the poor immigrant by paying him less than you would an American. Is that really help? Is looking the other way when an employer exploits illegal aliens helping the millions of Americans who depend on government assistance because they can’t find a job? Let’s not even go into the people who are not looking to enjoy our lifestyle, but rather destroy it. Terrorists love countries with lax immigration enforcement.

So today my wife and I travel to Elizabeth New Jersey, so she can be fingerprinted (again) to be sure she’s the same person she was when she applied for her green card, as she follows the path to citizenship that my ancestors followed in the past, and almost seven hundred thousand followed just last year. It’s not that difficult to play by the rules.

immigration-flowchart

The path to citizenship

It’s not easy, if it was easy everyone would do it. It’s a hassle, it’s time consuming, but when it is completed you get to be an American. And if you think rednecks and conservatives are the only folks who dislike illegal immigration, ask a legal immigrant about it. That’s why most employees at Immigration are immigrants. They’re not letting anyone sneak through.

 

Reconstruction

This is the seventh chapter of the “Know your Constitution” series. Chapters One, Two, Three, Four, Five, and Six can be viewed by clicking on each of those provided links.

We pick up with the fourteenth amendment. When we look at countries torn by civil war, we often fail to empathize. We were there ourselves, and the effects on society are devastating. Look around you at how passionate people can be about their beliefs, and imagine if the passion increased to the point they were killing each other rather than making snarky comments. Now imagine they’ve been killing each other for four years, taking the lives of three out of ten of your neighbors. Just because someone signed a treaty doesn’t mean it all goes away.

Following the Civil War, the United States went through a period called reconstruction, literally rebuilding the union. The thirteenth amendment was the first step, abolishing slavery, six months later the fourteenth amendment was submitted for ratification. In order to abolish slavery, definitions would be required for some people. The amendment also addresses those involved in the civil war or any future insurrection. It reads as follows;

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 2. Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Section 3. No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may, by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article

The first section is one of the more litigated parts of the constitution, containing clauses establishing Citizenship, Privileges or Immunities, Due Process, and Equal Protection. These clauses form the basis for such diverse cases as Roe v Wade and Bush v Gore. When you compare it to the amendments of the Bill of Rights, there’s nothing new here other than the force of the idea of reconstruction, these rules apply to everyone.

Sections two and three address counting of people as people, apportioning representatives based on population of all people rather than all white people, and requiring representatives to have not been involved in insurrection.

Section four is rather interesting. It basically states that the expenses of the the Civil War incurred by the Union will be paid by the newly reunited states, but the expenses of the Confederacy will not, with the allowance any debts incurred by the Confederacy are invalid. The words “The validity of the public debt…shall not be questioned” took me by surprise only because it is established in the amendment. How many times have you heard people refer to some democratization of the budget, as in “I only want to pay taxes if they pay for what I want”. Forty years later in the sixteenth amendment this concept takes force.

The next amendment of the reconstruction era was submitted for ratification just six months after the fourteenth amendment was ratified. During those six months, the first presidential election since the War was held, in which twenty three electoral votes from formerly Confederate states were discarded and only eight Northern states allowed blacks to vote. The fifteenth amendment was determined necessary despite section two of the fourteenth. It reads;

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

While Northerners had assumed allowing former slaves to vote would maintain a Republican majority, they had wished to preserve restrictions denying the right to vote to foreign-born citizens, as did Representatives from the West, where Chinese Americans were banned from voting. The amendment passed with voting defined by party lines, not a single Democrat voting for the amendment.

The first known black voter after the amendment’s adoption was Thomas Mundy Peterson, who cast his ballot on March 31, 1870 in the Perth Amboy, New Jersey mayoral election. Although Blacks had been elected and appointed to local and state offices previously, following the ratification of the fifteenth amendment it would still be one hundred and twenty years before a black governor was elected, Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1990.

When we consider the difficulties of our own reconstruction, the wounds that still haven’t healed, perhaps we can find some sympathy for nations that have civil wars continuing for centuries. We’re all growing, sometimes it takes a while to heal so growth can continue.

It took another forty years before another amendment was submitted, we’ll pick up there next time.

Climate science

I have some background in science, enough to know when I have to hit the books rather than depend on instinct or “the buzz”. Some issues are obvious, others less so. The trouble is, most folks don’t know when something isn’t obvious. The ability to analyze and interpret data is a skill no longer taught in schools as a part of general education. We teach young people they have a right to speak, a right to their own opinions, yet we don’t teach them how to form intelligent opinions.

At our fingertips is access to all the information of the world, but without the ability to discern fact from fantasy, how do we really know to discard the web page from Elvis’ lover from outer space? In a large number of cases, we trust certain sources to be accurate, but there remains massive amounts of people who will believe anything, and once they believe, their faith cannot be shaken.

You may or may not believe in what is now called “Anthropogenic Climate Change”. It was previously called Climate Change, and before that Global Warming, and before that Weather. One clue an idea is without merit is when it keeps changing its name.

The idea of Anthropogenic Climate Change became popular after Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” was published in 1962. Carson’s focus was the use of pesticides, notably DDT, which could be directly linked to genetic damage in wildlife. Her book launched the environmental movement, which at the time was warning air pollution would cause a decrease in planetary temperatures by blocking sunlight, bringing on an ice age.

There are wondrous benefits to humanity to be gained by realizing where “away” is when we throw something away. Archeology provides several examples of societies that polluted their environments, and either moved on to pollute new locations or found themselves trapped in an environment that could no longer sustain them. There is no question that we can foul our immediate surroundings, or consume all of the locally available resources. Today we see ourselves as a global community, we realize we might actually be able to use all the resources on the planet, the pollution we ship off to someplace we can’t see can wash back up on our doorstep.

Somewhere in there is the break in logic. Maybe if we compare the issue to physics, where we recognize the rules change with scale, we may be better served. The thin crust of humans on this planet can destroy individual species, and in some cases those species may be keystones in the environment. We can do a lot of damage, and might even be able to make the entire planet hostile to human life. What is far more likely is we will find our pattern unsustainable, and due either to wisdom or necessity reduce the number of humans on the planet. Fewer humans, fewer resources consumed and polluted, the environment heals. If we do manage to drive our own species to extinction, should we shed a tear?

Everything works in cycles, we might mourn the loss of the Snail Darter, but is anyone campaigning to bring back Tyrannosaurus Rex? Part of our minds accepts, even embraces the cycles of lives, another insists on controlling them. Perhaps Homo Post Sapiens will do better.

For me, the issue of  “Climate Change” boils down to a few critical points.

First, “Is it happening?”. Despite what either camp is shouting, the answer is “The jury is still out on that one”. There is adequate data to indicate we are following natural cycles, and there is adequate speculation extrapolation of that data to indicate the trend might be towards unnatural warming.

Second, “Is there anything that should be done about it?”. Note that before even questioning if how or if we can, the question is “should”. The questions that arise here are “Is this a natural process?” and “Is there some reason to believe altering a global process could have positive results?”. We put on sunscreen before going out in the sun, and carry an umbrella in the rain, but is it a good idea to stop the sun or the rain? If it does turn out that humans have caused Climate Change, are not humans part of the ecosystem? Everything humans do is by definition natural, so should we consciously attempt to alter the climate of the entire planet?

Third, “What can be done about it?”. If there is climate change (Anthropogenic or not) and we determine we should attempt to alter it, what should we do? How precisely will allowing some countries to pollute more, and assigning fines to countries that have been arbitrarily chosen to pollute less, affect the climate in any possible way? If the problem is carbon in the atmosphere, and the problem is a global one, why is it a solution to allow Russia to buy India’s capacity to produce atmospheric carbon? Wouldn’t the solution be closer to eliminating atmospheric carbon production altogether rather than transferring currency?

My skepticism on the subject is not assuaged by the fanatics that claim humans are responsible for climate change. Starting from the beginning, are not weathermen the least trusted when the question is accuracy? Maybe they can forecast today’s weather, but next week? Next century? Ten thousand years from now? These are people who can’t remember not to wear green in front of a green screen, their only interaction with technology each day.

Chroma key at work

Chroma key at work

Our local weatherman mentioned today the wind chill temperatures would be lower in a certain area because they had more snow on the ground.  There is more snow on the ground there because it snowed there yesterday. Wind chill is determined by air temperature and wind speed, snow on the ground does not factor at all.

A fake petition was passed around at a global warming rally (I’m just guessing they’re against, and not for, global warming) requesting the United States government to lower the temperature of the sun. Stupid followers do not enhance your public image. People claiming that global warming “deniers” are ignoring science might want to check where that thermostat on the sun might be, and share with us why they think Americans have access to it.

Gallup recently presented the results from a poll, indicating “More than four in 10 Americans say the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, while one in three say it is generally underestimated and about one in four say it is generally correct”. Despite the odd presentation (4/10 + 1/3 + 1/4 = 1) the poll was not about the science, or even about the scientists, but about public opinion, what people thought the scientists (more precisely the media) were saying. And this is my point. People are arguing about their opinions, with no knowledge of the facts. Despite the fact public opinion has nothing to do with the validity of data, it is interesting that even though more people believe scientists believe in global warming, more people than ever believe that global warming claims are exaggerated in the media.

Climate change deserves your attention. I have seen nothing that convinces me it is not a totally natural process, but regardless of your beliefs, seek out facts to support them. Don’t listen to wankers, they’re on both sides of the issue.

My friend the suicide bomber

The Ides of March were last week, a date that stands in my mind as the birthday of an old friend. I haven’t heard from John in years, but I remember him because of his birthday, and because he was a suicide bomber. John wasn’t crazy (well yes, by some standards he was). John had served in the United States Army, and while posted in what was called West Germany he was the human link in the chain nuclear deterrence. John controlled access to tactical nuclear weapons.

You may not be familiar with tactical nukes. Unlike the big, city leveling nuclear weapons most people had the sense to avoid, tactical nukes were smaller (in the sense they are only a few times as powerful as the weapons we used in Japan), and were intended for use within the theater of combat. Beyond artillery, tactical nuclear weapons were used in short-range missiles, land mines, depth charges, and torpedoes for anti-submarine warfare. In several applications, the distance to the target was less than the radius of lethal effects, thus John’s term “suicide bomb”.

There are a variety of factors in the effects of nuclear weapons. First there is the explosive blast, the shock wave that destroys buildings and less stable structures such as human beings. You can see the effects by using this application. Enter your address, and the explosive yield of the weapon in question. Tactical nukes ranged from 0.04 Kt (rifle fired projectile) to 40 Kt (155mm shells). Tank projectiles were in the 15 Kt range (similar to the Hiroshima weapon), as were several anti submarine weapons.  The various radii represent the different component effects of a detonation, and while one might survive inside the area affected due to precautionary sheltering, going on the assumption more than one weapon would be used creates multiple zones, overlapping in both area and time of effects.

Also in the category of tactical nukes are low (less than one megaton, or one thousand Kt) missiles and bombs, and “atomic demolition munitions”, bombs designed for the purpose of destroying structures or geography like bunkers, mountain passes, or tunnels, preventing enemy supply, escape, or evasion.

The experience of contemplating mortality, for not only himself but also his friends and possibly the world, left a mark on John. It is one thing for people to sit in an office one hundred feet below Omaha Nebraska and plan nuclear wars based on reconnaissance imagery and written reports from assets they’ll rarely meet face to face, and quite another to spend your tour living in  your target zone, looking at faces that will cease to exist if you ever have to do your job. Sanity lurks in a forest of rationalizations, the belief that the threat prevented the reality. It alters the way you interact with people, the way you respond to authority, the elements of life you choose to value.

John was a loving and caring man, who felt a need to care for the weak, and a need for primal screams. He would be gentle with his wife when she was sick, doing all he could to protect her from the dangers of her disease (diabetes) which she would or could not monitor on her own. We would meet in biker bars, because he felt safe there knowing we wouldn’t run into anyone from “the real world” of work. Neither of us weighed more than 140 lbs, he was maybe 5’6″, and we were obviously out of place, but somehow we fit right in.

It takes all kinds to make a world. Just because someone seems a little odd doesn’t mean your way of life hasn’t depended on them. More goes on under the surface than you might ever suspect.

 

 

The company we keep

A couple of very nice people have asked me to start writing again. I thought a good place to start would be by reaffirming my beliefs and the direction of this blog.

My points of view cover several spectra. So do my friends and readers. I write to suggest ideas you may not have considered, or to reinforce ideas you thought no one but you believed.

God passes judgement, I observe behavior.

I’m against abortion, but not against it being legal. I just would never have one myself, even if I were a woman.

I have nothing against homosexuals, but my understanding of statistics prevents me from referring to something six percent of the population is involved in as “normal”. I belong to groups that are smaller than six percent of the population, so I understand the effects of prejudice. I belong to groups that represent well more than fifty percent of the population, so I appreciate the respect afforded a majority in a democratic community, without thinking “might makes right”.

I believe strongly in the second amendment and responsible gun ownership, the word “responsible” is the big red flag indicating I don’t believe everyone should be issued a gun with their birth certificate. Rights carry responsibilities.

I believe God created the universe, and that evolution was one of the tools God used to create the various form of life.

I am a Christian, capital C. If you don’t understand Christianity, I’ll be happy to enlighten you. I do understand Christianity, so please don’t tell me what I believe. Tell me what you believe.

I’m a conservative, lower case c. I don’t believe that something is automatically wrong because it was suggested by a liberal. Nor do I believe that something is automatically right because it was suggested by a conservative.

I don’t trust people who want to be in positions of power. If their ideas were so good they wouldn’t have to force them on people.

I believe in a basic goodness in humanity, but not a basic intelligence.

As you may imagine, some people find these views contradictory. I understand. I understand we are are born with equal opportunities but not equal abilities.

Learn English before thinking about a second language

Learn English before thinking about a second language

I may agree with a point of view, but not with the wanker shouting about it. I may disagree with a point of view, but still applaud the eloquence with which it is stated.

I don’t think people are stupid because they don’t understand something. I think people are stupid when they refuse to understand something. Not knowing something is not stupid, claiming to know what you don’t is. Signing a petition to lower the temperature of the sun is stupid, but that doesn’t mean everyone who believes in global warming is stupid.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with people less talented than I am, I am less talented than a lot of people. I have a sliding scale of respect for people who refuse to accept their limitations, the more specialized your talent, the more responsible you are to recognize your limits. A bus driver who thinks he could drive Grand Prix receives a great deal more respect than an attorney who believes he is an astrophysicist. Unless he really is an astrophysicist. Because I am aware that some people are capable of being many things, although most people are hard pressed to be one.

Just because you don’t happen to be an expert doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong opinion. If it’s your opinion you should be able to explain it, and explain why it is your opinion. Not with a video or a meme, but with your own words.

I have a real problem with people who lie. If you repeat something you know not to be true, you are lying. If you have lied about something, how am I supposed to know when you’re telling the truth?

I love the sciences. I despise people who worship a God named “science”. Science is a discipline that garners a level of respect due to its complexity. Blind faith in anything is blind faith, it’s bad in religion, it’s bad in science.

I will sound condescending. Slap me. I want to extend every courtesy I intend to extend, but I would never claim to be perfect and can barely keep my composure in order to type “I would never claim to be dispassionate”. I’m straightforward with my resources and qualifications, if you think I’m out of line, say so. I would love to see conversations evolve, just play nice and be prepared to document any claims about “facts”. Irrelevant ad hominem attacks will not be tolerated, note the word irrelevant.

Someone asked me the other day “What do you have?”. I have myself, my understanding of the workings of the universe. With that comes “the universe”. These articles represent nothing more than my desire to share my thoughts. Perhaps inspire yours.

So if you can deal with an honest independent viewpoint, maybe read something you don’t agree with without feeling threatened, feel welcome in this company.

Redemption

Redemption is a very appealing concept to most people, it infers rising above one’s current state, acceptance despite failure. Recognizing the difficulty most humans have with forgiving each other, Luke relates three parables about redemption, focusing on the joy of the redeemer rather than the redeemed. I believe this is an attempt to say “You might not quite understand this, but God still loves you”.

The first parable, “The parable of the lost sheep”, appears in both Luke and Matthew.  In this parable, a shepherd with one hundred sheep loses one,  and leaves the other ninety nine while he searches for the missing sheep. When he finds it he is filled with joy.

In case one might think there was something special about that individual sheep, Luke follows with the parable of the lost coin,  in which the subject sheep are replaced with coins, ten pieces of silver, of which one is lost.

Luke completes the series with the most popular parable, “The prodigal son“, possibly because it is more complete in its explanation, and possibly because while many of us might not own one hundred sheep or even ten pieces of silver, we can all understand the concept of a stray child.

“Prodigal” does not refer “Prodigy”, its meaning translates to “wasteful” in modern English. The prodigal son is the younger of two, and requests his inheritance while his father is still alive. In a world in which actions had deeper meanings, asking your parent to just go ahead and give you your inheritance is similar to saying “You’re dead to me”. Back when words had deeper meanings, that was as severe an insult as you might hear.

The elder son stayed with the father and family, working the land, and the younger son took his inheritance to a foreign land, where he wasted his money on “riotous” living.  Some translations mention prostitutes. After he had spent all he had, the land fell on hard times and famine, keeping in mind this is a parable, it is possible to translate this to mean the younger son himself was the source of “wealth” in his self imposed exile.  The young son found himself working as a swineherd (remembering the Jewish aversion to pork, this is an incredibly low position) and envying the pigs their food. He decides to return home and repent to his father, asking only that he be allowed to work for him, because his father’s servants had never gone hungry. But his father saw him approaching.

The father ran to him, embraced him, and clothed him in a fine robe and sandals, and called for a feast to celebrate his son’s return, killing the fatted calf for the feast. And here, the most important verse.

24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found”.

Take this point. When the son requested his inheritance, not only had he removed his father’s presence from his life, he had ended his own life in his father’s eyes. This was not an issue of the father’s anger, but of the grace the father displayed by letting the son go.

The older son wasn’t quite as understanding, and upon returning from the fields refused to enter the feast, so that his father had to invite him in, and the son was still reluctant to enter, “29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:30 But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf”.

Humorous aside. While checking various translations, one read “You never gave me a goat to party with friends”. Just places a strange image in the mind.

The father responds to the elder son that he (the son) is always with him (the father), and all the father has is the son’s, going on to reprise “32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found”.

The idea that the “righteous” might be jealous of those that strayed and returned is also reflected in Matthew, chapter 20, verses 1-16, in which a man promises to pay workers to harvest grapes, and as the day passes he hires more workers, offering higher wages. At the end of the day those that had worked the longest received the least, and those workers who had worked all day complained, but the man responded “did I not pay you what I promised?”.

Heaven is all the reward waiting. There are no first class suites, no steerage compartments, and our father is happy to bring us on board anytime before the boat sails. None of us are more valuable to him than any other, our works are either good or they are not, we either enter heaven, or we do not. “Purgatory” is not a Christian concept, and seeing that the idea predates Christ its absence from the New Testament is telling.

Life is purgatory. Be the best you are capable of, your time here is fleeting and without schedule.

 

 

 

 

Changing weather

When I lived in Omaha, Nebraska, there was a saying, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait fifteen minutes”.

Most of my life has been like that. Sometimes I find it difficult to follow all the events, so I’m not terribly surprised when other people lose track. It’s been a good run, and of all the places I thought I would find myself, this may be the last I might have imagined.

I still think I deserve something.

I don’t know what it might be, I just know this isn’t it.

I had plans, they changed with the wind, I adapted. It got to be something of a game, “well then adapt to this” life would say, I would just laugh and carry on.

I never felt I had a great deal of support, so I supported others. I never wanted anyone to feel the way I felt, an outsider trying to make others feel they belong. I did a lot of good things, and at least my share of bad things.

I just always suspected the most interesting thing about me was my unique point of view. I could see what escaped everyone else, the butterfly flapping its wings, creating a wave in the air that would alter the weather in another hemisphere. I was never famous and told myself I didn’t want to be. As much as I hate lies that may have been one.

I do like attention, but was always able to be satisfied with the attention of one person. I spent a big chunk of my life finding that person, and was left with nothing but a jar of ashes and memories. I just laughed and carried on. That’s not true you know, there wasn’t much laughter, the balance had swung to the other side. I still tried to make everyone else laugh.

Some folks don’t want to. That’s “outside my purview”, as one kindly old chief once told me.  They have their path, I have mine.

And mine appears to be winding to an end. My ability to roll with the changes is wearing thin, I’m feeling my age and remembering I never wanted to be this old. I want something to call my own and I’m realizing I’ve given everything away. The little bits and pieces that are left are not adequate to represent a life. Certainly not a life that always managed to be at the right place at the right time. That talent evades me now.

Rejection is only devastating when you have nothing left to hold on to, which is where I find myself this morning. An anchor rather than a buoy. I had hoped to at least carry this blog for a year, an arbitrary span of time tied to an orbit, close enough to another anniversary to derive some sense of accomplishment. But in the end meaningless vanity.

The weight is just more than I can carry right now, someone else will have to do it.

 

 

 

Responsibilities

By and large, humans shun responsibility. Responsibility infers blame, and although positive and negative events are fairly evenly distributed, the fear of being held responsible for a negative event overrides the desire to be recognized for positive ones.

From Luke, chapter 10 verses 30-37, “30 Then Jesus answered and said: A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. 33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 On the next day, when he departed,[a] he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 36 So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?37 And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.”Then Jesus said to him, Go and do likewise.

Since 1959, every state in America has adopted some form of “good Samaritan” statute, protecting those that provide aid from being held liable for injuries sustained, but the laws vary by jurisdiction and are often so ambiguous that neither the injured or more importantly the person capable of providing aid do not understand what protections exist. In other countries, the law reaches further, with Germany going so far as to criminalize non-action, and indemnifying the person providing aid even if their actions made matters worse.

Why do we need laws to tell us to show mercy to our neighbors? Because we have a problem with responsibility. In this precise case, it had become so common for the injured to bring suit against their rescuers those that could provide assistance learned to stay away. This would suggest that anecdotes of rescuers being sued for “damages” are not rare but in fact normal.

We are reminded of a higher responsibility in II Corinthians chapter 5, verse 1o “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad”.

Personally, I believe this is the root of atheism. The desire to avoid responsibility for our actions in life. A fear that our choices have not been worthy of redemption, and we in turn may be judged to be lacking.

One who knows God may be confident in his actions. One who does not know God lives in fear, because he does not only not understand which actions will be judged as bad, he also does not know which actions will not be judged as bad, and because he does not understand the mercy and love that is God, he cannot understand which actions will be forgiven.

In believing in God, one also believes in Satan, and when one knows (that which can be known about) God, one also knows Satan. The only strength Satan possesses is to deceive, to mislead. So he spreads untruths about God, allowing fear to rise from ignorance.

In today’s parable, we see the priest and the Levite as doctors and laypeople afraid to provide assistance out of fear of Earthly consequences, and the Samaritan as a Godly person who realizes the only consequences that are important occur beyond this world.

This concept is universal, it applies not only to the physically wounded but also the emotionally wounded, and certainly the spiritually wounded.

Be nice. Let it flow through you. It’s contagious.

 

Holding the world hostage

In 1867, in the Russian city of Warsaw, Maria Skłodowska was born. Her parents, both teachers, had lost their wealth and property due to involvement in Polish nationalist movements. Maria and her siblings worked together to put each other through schools, Maria working as a governess. In 1891 she moved to Paris, where she was known as Marie, and pursued studies in science, earning a degree in physics in 1893, and continuing under a fellowship at the University of Paris to a second degree in 1894.

She began her career with a grant from Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale studying the magnetic properties of various steels. A friend introduced her to an instructor at  École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris, because she was looking for more laboratory space. Though Pierre Curie did not have a large laboratory, he was able to find some space for Marie where she was able to begin work. You know where this story is going. They married on 26 July 1895.

In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the existence of X-rays, though the mechanism behind their production was not yet understood. In 1896, while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts, Henri Becquerel found the salts emitted particles with penetrating properties similar to X-rays, and named the property “Radioactivity”. The next year,  J. J. Thomson isolated the electron and in doing so developed the “Plum Pudding Model”, which although precisely wrong, is a much better description than the Bohr model most people visualize when thinking of subatomic particles.

In December 1903, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Pierre Curie, Marie Curie, and Henri Becquerel the Nobel Prize in Physics, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel”. Warsaw was now in Germany.

Albert Einstein formulated the idea of mass–energy equivalence in 1905, known in shorthand as E=mc². Following Pierre’s death in 1906, Marie went on to isolate radium as an element, and defined an international standard for radioactive emissions that was eventually named for her and Pierre, the curie. Despite her acceptance in French academia, she was still largely shunned because she was a woman, and in 1911 the French Academy of Sciences did not elect her to be a member. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded her with her second Nobel Prize, this time in Chemistry, later that year. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and to this day is the only person other than Linus Pauling to be awarded Prizes in more than one field. There was at this time a nation called Poland, and another called Ukraine.

During the first world war, she shifted her focus to medicine, developing mobile radiography units known as “petites Curies”. She also produced hollow needles containing ‘radium emanation’, a colorless, radioactive gas given off by radium, later identified as radon, to be used for sterilizing infected tissue.

On 4 July 1934, she died at the Sancellemoz Sanatorium in Passy from aplastic anemia believed to have been contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation. She had carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pocket, and was also exposed to X-rays from unshielded equipment while serving as a radiologist in field hospitals during the war. Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never really acknowledged the health risks of radiation exposure. Because of their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle and even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.

About the time of Marie’s death, Leó Szilárd realized the concept of the nuclear chain reaction, and patented his concept of an atomic bomb (British patent 630,726). By 1939, Szilárd and Einstein wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Germany was developing atomic bombs and suggesting that America secure its own research in the field. Roosevelt’s reaction was to initiate the Manhattan Project. The study of radioactive isotopes had moved from curiosity to medical applications to weapons development in only forty years. On 16 July 1945 the first controlled atomic detonation was conducted at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in New Mexico. Twenty one days later the second controlled detonation was conducted over Hiroshima Japan followed by the third three days later over Nagasaki Japan.

By 1963, the first treaty banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons (the fusion device, which was conceptualized in 1941 by Enrico Fermi and was developed in a sub-group of the Manhattan Project was detonated by America in 1951, the Soviet Union had detonated the first fusion device in 1949) was signed by the nuclear nations of the time, America, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. By 1968, those countries created the first Non Proliferation Treaty, in an attempt to curtail the spread of nuclear weapon technology, disarm nations possessing nuclear weapons, and redirect research towards peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Fail, Fail, and Fail, as indicated by the growing number of signatories to the treaty. There are presently eight nations overtly declaring themselves as “Nuclear powers” (U.S.A, U.K., the Russian Federation, France, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). Israel has claimed “strategic ambiguity”, saying it would not be the first country to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region, but refusing to otherwise confirm or deny a nuclear weapons program or arsenal. Nuclear weapons were “shared” with NATO countries Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Greece, and Canada. South Africa and Libya claim to have dismantled their nuclear weapons, and the weapons existing in former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine returned their warheads to Russia and those countries have signed non-proliferation agreements. Iran was a party to the treaty but was found in violation in 2003, its status as a nuclear power remains in dispute.

Nuclear deterrence began with the Szilárd Einstein letter to Roosevelt. It continues today with the threats from North Korea and Iran. It also continues with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine relinquished its nuclear weapons in 1994 as part of the Budapest memorandum (Budapest was under the control of the Soviet Union after an invasion in 1956). The first article of the memorandum reads “…the Russian Federation…reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine…to respect the Independence and Sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”(emphasis mine). There are no Russians in Ukraine, they are all Ukrainian.

Within nations, a government disarms citizens before enslaving them. Between nations, one government disarms the other before invading it. There has been talk this blatant aggression by a former KGB colonel may lead to another cold war, let’s hope so. The alternative, a ground war that expands over Europe, is a prospect no one wants to consider.

The Ukraine is being held hostage by Vladimir Putin, a hot conflict would immediately effect natural gas supplies to Europe (although a recent report by Morgan Stanley indicating Belarus, Finland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria each receives more than 100% of their natural gas from Russia throws all data into question), long term affects would be contaminated by regional conflicts. The latest attempts at appeasement have been an international re-framing of the invasion, now referred to as an invasion of Crimea, which would allow Putin to stop without moving further into Ukraine. This week.

Vladimir doesn’t care. The only effective strike against Russia would be nuclear, and if that were to ever happen, it would be the last event in the history of what we continue to call “civilization”. On the other hand, maybe we’ve already missed our shot at being civilized, when we were presented with the power of nuclear physics, and chose to make bombs with it.

The news

A body was found on the street. The police investigated, cause of death was obvious, a fall from the adjacent parking garage. Surveillance footage showed the young man entered the garage alone, he left some personal belongings behind, climbed up the wall on the edge of the garage, and jumped. Police interviewed the family and found he had been having “mental health issues” lately, and had researched suicide. He left no note.

If you knew him, you know. If you didn’t know him, you now know all you need to know.

Suicide doesn’t solve problems, it is an escape for the person choosing to take the exit, and places the problems in the hands of those left behind. Some psychiatrists have said that suicide is an act of violence towards the survivors. I can only imagine the horror of losing a child, losing one to suicide is beyond my imagination.

This young man’s family requested the police not release his name. The police tried to honor the family’s request, but being public officials, their work and records are public, so they advised a public records request could be filed to obtain the identity of the young man. One local paper made enough of a fuss that the police backed down and released the name. Say that again, out loud. The police department, standing firmly on a legal procedure, backed down to pressure from a local newspaper in a matter of hours rather than respect the family of a citizen.

A town of 28,000 people has two free newspapers, one commercial newspaper, and one internet local news source in addition to the major media outlets of the state and the two actual cultural centers , Philadelphia and Manhattan. There’s a lot of talking, not a lot of thinking, and almost no “doing”. The answer to the question “What are we going to do about this?” is most often “Talk about it”.

Despite having one of the nations highest ranked private universities in its backyard, Princeton is still just another small town. Its local government and police department wouldn’t be out of place in Mississippi (okay, the police would be eaten alive day one), all the weaknesses borne out of inbreeding are present and even celebrated in a perverse local pride.

After another news outlet in town (Planet Princeton, operated by Krystal Knapp) firmly stated they would not publish the deceased name, the Princeton Packet decided they didn’t want to be the “jerk” in “jerkwater town” and chose not to publish the name either, proving that no matter how evil a managing editor’s parents may have been in naming their child, he won’t take it out on other parents. Had he not made that decision, you would have been reading his name, phone number, and email address in this paragraph. Ethics in journalism may be dying, but it’s still kicking.

Of the seven billion people on Earth, one million will commit suicide this year. America rates as 33rd in the world at 12 per 100,000 (2009), below the world average of 16 per 100,000. Worldwide, a life ends due to suicide every forty seconds, and that rate has risen sixty percent in the last forty five years with no indications of slowing. The important story is not who the person is, it is not why the person chose to escape, the important story is what the alternatives are. Option one, keep talking.

I know that privacy is an antiquated, foolish notion, but decency doesn’t have to be.

Ethnicity

I’ve been involved in a couple of conversations lately about ethnicity, race, and nationalism. Not that the other people in the conversation realized the topics.

Ethnicity, according to Miriam Webster, relates to “a particular ethnic affiliation or group”, with “ethnic” being defined as “of or relating to races or large groups of people who have the same customs, religion, origin, etc. or associated with or belonging to a particular race or group of people who have a culture that is different from the main culture of a country”.

Race, on the other hand, is “a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock or a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristic”. Race is what you look like, your phenotype.

Nationalism is “a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries or a desire by a large group of people (such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.) to form a separate and independent nation of their own”. Nationalism is not equal to Nationality. Nationality is the name of the country on your passport. Should I ever become a citizen of Belgium, I would be a Belgian national, but I will remain an American nationalist. Unless Texas secedes, in which case I will be a Texas national.

Nationalism gets a bad name, fanatic nationalism was the genesis of the NAZI party. “Fanatic” is the key word there, anything that drives you to kill people is a bad thing.

In other words, your race is determined by your genes (ancestors), your ethnicity is determined by your upbringing (parents, peers, and self), your nationality by the geography of your birth, and your nationalism by your self.

We see the definitions being misused and confused more and more, both intentionally and out of ignorance.

If you have filled out a census form or survey lately, you will have noticed that racial and ethnic groups are arbitrarily recognized. We put a great emphasis on defining who we are, and the squeaky wheels get their own designations.  At one point, you had two choices, white or black. The book “Racial and Ethnics Groups” is now in its thirteenth edition, ironically there are two versions, I’m guessing one is in color because the other is listed as “black and white”.

Today in the United States, you can identify yourself as White (the term “Caucasian” isn’t used much), Black (“African-American” is an option, one look at Oscar Pistorius reminds you not everyone from Africa has dark skin), American Indian or Native Alaskan (note the lack of “Native American” as an option), Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (note overlap with “Asian”), Other, or “Two or more races” as your racial identity. You may choose to be identified ethnically as Hispanic or non-Hispanic.

In many surveys I’ve taken lately, the Asian/Pacific Islander category is broken down into a growing number of categories, and Hispanic (or “Hispanic or Latino”) is listed as both a race and an Ethnic group, divided in one or both questions into several categories that denote national origin. Although most former Spanish colonies are considered Hispanic, most Mexicans I know detest the term as it applies to the people who conquered their ancestors. People from Portugal, Brazil, Uruguay, Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and São Tomé, Príncipe and East Timor are not Hispanic, they are Lusitanians, descended from Portugese.

Some white people are a little jealous.

If you are Arabic, you are white. Don’t look in the mirror. You are the same race and ethnicity as someone from Sweden in the eyes of the United States census. If you are from India, you would be Asian. If you are from Japan or Indonesia, you could choose to identify as either Asian or Pacific Islander. These don’t appear to fit the definitions of racial groups. If you are from Israel, Iraq, or Italy you are non-Hispanic, because there are only two ethnic choices.

Nationalism gets a little confusing. As Russians invade Ukraine, claiming they are protecting ethnic Russians, sovereignty disappears. Over the last few hundred years, the land we call the Ukraine has been called several other things. I’m proud to be American, proud of our unique strengths, proud of our growth, and proud of our ability to rise above the mess we have presently created in our society. We can do better, and I have faith we will.

My background is white. There is no category for “Anglo-Saxon”, which is a fair description. The majority of my friends are white, although they represent a wide spectrum of physical characteristics provided by their genes, and non-Hispanic, although they come from  a wide variety of cultural influences provided by their experiences. If we were to break up “White” into the various phenotypes and “non-Hispanic” into the multitude of cultures, I probably wouldn’t know three people who had the same label.

Nationalism has taken the place of race and ethnicity in our culture, and the overwhelming number of people are ignored. If we are going to make distinctions based on race we need to grow up and realize there are three. Caucasian, Negroid, and Mongolian (some anthropologists recognize the aboriginal peoples of Australia as a fourth race). If we’re going to make distinctions based on Ethnicity we need to grow up and realize there are hundreds, not just two. If we are going to make distinctions based on nationality, we need to decide when. Many flags have flown over the land we inhabit, Texas has seen six, how many tribes have inhabited modern day Palestine?

We talk about being world citizens, “color blind”, and equal. Step one is to stop using labels for things they were not meant for. Race identifies a body, not a person. If we are to celebrate multiculturalism, we need to accept all ethnic groups as equal. By that I mean that we should treat ethnic groups the same way we treat football teams, we may have a favorite, but each has strengths and weaknesses, and without a variety there would be no one to play with; to the essential point, the players change from season to season, the Dallas Cowboys of 2013 are not the Dallas Cowboys of 1973.

There is no denying we are different. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But what makes one of us better than another lays only in the quality being measured, and varies between individuals of every race, ethic group, and nationality.

Living in two time zones

One of the fundamental laws of physics can be reduced to “you can only be in one place at a time”.  The greatest challenges in quantum physics have been in trying to explain “action at a distance”, even when you flip a light switch, it doesn’t get dark until the circuit that was broken by flipping the switch no longer provides electricity to the light bulb and the light that had already been produced passes beyond you. You may not be capable of measuring that short interval of time, because the electricity and light are traveling at the speed of light over very short distances, but the light is not affected instantaneously.

Yeah, give me a challenge.

I am living in two worlds. Well, from some vantage points it may look like fourteen, but from an Earthbound observation it appears to be two.

My wife is fluent in two languages, Flemish and English, she is comfortable in French (I’m working on breaking her of that nasty habit), and can get by in German and Spanish. It is fairly normal for Europeans to speak more than one language. I have a talent for languages, but at 55 I’m having a little trouble picking up Flemish. I thought it would take three months, it’s been three years and I am far from fluent. I type mostly by sight, so getting used to the keyboards means my typing will slow down, but my spelling won’t be affected. The layout is called AZERTY instead of QWERTY.

Azerty keyboard

AZERTY keyboard

But language is not the only thing I need to know in duplex in order to survive in Belgium, so I have started making other conversions in my daily life as I prepare to infiltrate Flanders. Fortunately I will not be the only stranger in a strange land. When Lieve left Belgium, Baudouin was king and the currency was Belgian Francs. She moved to England so she missed the conversion to the Euro and Albert II’s entire reign.

I’ve been comfortable with the metric system most of my life, in fact I prefer it. Lieve has always stayed with Celsius temperatures, so I’ve been adapting to thinking in both measurements, and finding my lag time in converting annoying only in that I forget which measurement I’m using. Following the weather on my computer, set to Celsius, and then watching the evening news weather forecast isn’t a problem, but during a cold spell if I check the long term forecast on the computer I have to remember those sub zero temperatures are sub freezing, less than 32°F, and not below  0°F which is -18°C.

Measures of volume are easier in metric, I still have trouble remembering when an ounce is a measure of weight or volume, so working in grams and liters is much more comfortable. Unfortunately, we have cookbooks in several languages, with the ones from England being the most difficult to translate as they use imperial units, based on an ounce of 0.96076 American ounces, and pints of twenty imperial ounces or 1.2009 American pints. Temperatures are often expressed as gas marks, which can be be a number or a phrase. 350°F equals 177°C, which is gas mark “4″ or “moderate/medium”. I was totally lost the first time I came across the line, “set oven to 4″.

I don’t have any issues with the Euro, the coins make as much sense as American coins, which are still beyond Lieve’s comprehension (she can’t follow why the relative size of coins don’t reflect their value, why a dime is smaller than a nickel, although that holds  true in every currency). She still calls dollars “pounds”. Coin values in Euros follow the decimal system that we use here and Britain adopted in 1971, and one and two Euro coins are common in use, meaning a handful of change may turn out to be worth 20€. The notes are much more interesting, and denominations are not only different sizes, they are different colors. What she has pointed out is we need to learn the value of a Euro, what should a loaf of bread cost, or a kilo potatoes?

I’ve been bi-coastal most of my life, my mother lives in the Pacific time zone and my father has stayed in the central time zone for the most part, while I’ve been in the Eastern time zone for most of the last thirty years. Belgium is in Central European Time zone, GMT (now called UTC) plus one hour. They use daylight savings, or “Summer time”, but the dates time changes is different. My mom will be nine hours “earlier” than we are, which means if I call her at noon it will be 0300 for her. The latitude is 50°N, making the daylight hours different, Philly is 39°N and Dallas 32°N.

At least they drive on the right, as in correct, right hand side of the road. Trying to get used to left side driving while living in the states could be disastrous. Although I did enjoy driving a left steer vehicle back in the 70s, easier to parallel park being on the curb side. Although with the price of Gasoline (Petrol for the English, Benzine in Flemish) will likely curtail my driving more than anything else. The average price today (4 March) is 1.53€ per liter. That’s 5.78€ per gallon, or $7.96 per gallon, well over twice the price in New Jersey today. On the other hand, I don’t recall a single pot hole during my time in Belgium.

There are a number of adjustments to be made, some can wait until I get there, some have to, and some I can make while I wait. Trying to place my mind in both locations is a healthy exercise, but it can be dizzying.

Tamales

speedy_gonzalesYes, my tamales turned out well, and since you didn’t show up for dinner, I’ll share the process with you here.

Tamales (singular Tamal, thank you Lin Robinson) is a traditional Mexican dish, I always think of the vendors selling them at the border as we waited to cross back into America, the corn husk wrapper makes them great street food. The history of tamales goes back to the Mayan and Aztec cultures. The essential dish, a steamed masa dough stuffed with a filling and wrapped in a corn husk, is open to interpretation, the stuffing can be sweet or savory, based on meats, cheeses, fruits, or vegetables. Aztec variations included  turkey, flamingo, frog,  pocket gopher, rabbit, turkey eggs, bees, honey, fruits, squash, and beans, today tamales are typically beef or pork, although the Mexican place across the street in South Philadelphia also made them with nopales, or prickly pear cactus. The filling in this recipe is vegetarian, but you can adapt any filling you prefer.

Preparation is time consuming but not difficult, expect to spend three hours putting this together. There are a few unusual ingredients so you’ll want to shop ahead of time, and if you don’t have a large steamer you can make one with a large dutch oven and a colander. Using a food processor to make the dough makes life easier.

Corn Husks

Corn Husks in the dutch oven that will become the base of the steamer

Ingredients~

2 cups masa flour

2 sticks of butter, cubed

1/2 cup broth (I use a diluted mole (sauce, not the rodent) instead of broth)

1 tsp baking powder

2 1/2 cups corn (thawed frozen corn works)

1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I use Queso Fresco, but Ricotta salata or even cheddar can be used)

4 ounces (and to taste) diced Roasted chiles (I used a mix of canned chipotles in adobo and a pablano I roasted myself)

2 tomatoes, skinned, seeded and sliced

2 portobello mushrooms, gills removed and diced to 1/4 inch cubes

1 small red onion diced

Corn husks

Preparation~

Soak the corn husks in water, they should be soft and pliable. They’re a little like working with phyllo dough in that they dry quickly.

In a food processor, blend the corn and 1 cup of cheese until it is a rough meal consistency. Add the butter, masa, and baking powder, process to a crumbly dough. Add the broth and mix until smooth.

In a bowl, mix the remaining cheese, chiles, tomatoes, mushrooms and onion.

Forming patties of dough, filling in bowl to the left

Forming patties of dough, filling in bowl to the left

Building tamales~

Make a patty of dough about the size of your hand. Place the patty on a corn husk then put about a tablespoon of filling on the patty, and fold the patty around the filling. Roll the corn husk over the dough and fold in the ends. Tear strips from one corn husk to use as ties to hold tamales closed. Place tamales in steamer for thirty minutes or freeze them for later.

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Completed tamales ready for steamer

Serving~

A large dish or bowl with wrapped tamales is a festive presentation, serve remaining chiles and mole as condiments, as well as your favorite salsas. Good side dishes are yellow rice (add 3/4 tsp tumeric, 1/4 tsp cumin. and a dash of cinnamon for each cup of dry rice to the water when making rice) and refried beans (we prefer black beans, adding whole beans to refried beans gives a heartier texture). A dark beer works well with this meal, Modelo Negro would be authentic, we had a chocolate stout last night that went with this very well.