A perfectly good aircraft

I’ve known a number of people who choose to jump out of perfectly good aircraft. It must be fun, I’ve never heard anyone complain about a bad jump. In fact, in the sport jumping community, it is almost as if the bad jumps are what makes it worthwhile. Well, the kind of bad jumps, the really bad jumps bring everybody down.

My stepfather was a sport parachutist, we would typically visit Perris Valley or Lake Elsinore once a month. It was an interesting crowd, wild and crazy and careful all at the same time. I saw more than one “streamer”, a malfunction where the parachute does not deploy correctly. I knew the (relative) ease of releasing the main chute and opening the reserve. I never really thought “easy” was the proper term for cutting away from the only thing slowing you down as you plummet to Earth and pulling on another rip cord. Reserve chutes are packed by certified personnel, at the time the tradition was to give the person who packed your reserve a case of beer when it saved your life.

I never jumped, I went up as an observer a couple of times, and found the most amazing part the perspective. Without “landmarks”, our only measure of distance is relative size. I would sit by the door and watch the bodies get smaller as they fell away from the aircraft. The experience of falling would be intense, the air rushing by during freefall, but as an observer, it was serene, silent, they just shrank until the parachute opened. A typical jump was from twelve thousand five hundred feet, freefall lasted sixty seconds, the time it took to fall ten thousand feet, almost two miles.

There have been a few stories about skydiving in the news lately. a bad one and a not so bad one.

Mackenzie Wethington is from Johsua, TX, a small town south of Fort Worth. Mackenzie is sixteen, and the law in Texas requires skydivers be eighteen, so Mackenzie’s dad, Joe, decided to drive three hundred miles to a field in Oklahoma that allows first time jumps at sixteen with a parent’s consent. First time jumpers have a choice. If they want to experience freefall, they can jump “tandem”, strapped to an experienced skydiver. If they want to jump solo, they are attached to a static line, which pulls the rip cord automatically when they reach the end of the line, a safe distance from the aircraft.

As a parent, Joe was responsible for Mackenzie. He decided he knew better than the State of Texas, and drove almost five hours to a field in a state where sixteen year olds can jump. He felt he knew his daughter well enough to give his permission for her to take the training course and authorized her jump on a static line. Yet when her parachute didn’t fully open, and in her panic she failed to cut away and open her reserve, riding her streamer into the ground, Joe was not to be blamed. He’s blamed the skydiving company, saying they shouldn’t have let a sixteen year old jump. Maybe they wouldn’t have, if they didn’t have his permission, or if they hadn’t been in Oklahoma.

“I don’t think she should have been allowed at sixteen to go up there and perform that type of jump, no matter what I say or she says, she shouldn’t have been allowed,” Joe said at the news conference. “I find it very hard to believe that the rules and regulations in Oklahoma are that lax. I think there is a flaw there somewhere, and I don’t think it’s through the state of Oklahoma. I think it’s the company. I’m not sure.” Yes, he found himself there by accident.

He’s also blamed the other student in the aircraft. When the jump master saw Mackenzie was in trouble, he was unable to jump after her because there was another student in the craft who was now afraid to jump. Protocol is to not leave a frightened student alone in a plane with no door. So Joe has called the other student a “coward” because after seeing one parachute not open, he wasn’t excited about testing his own.

In an incident such as this, a static jump at three thousand feet, not only is Mackenzie falling towards the Earth, the aircraft is also continuing its flight perpendicular to her path. There is no way the jump master could have covered the horizontal distance in the time required to cut away her chute, open her reserve, and open his chute. It may have seemed like a lifetime watching from the ground, but a basic understanding of the laws of physics indicates a rescue wasn’t possible.

Mackenzie has survived, she’s still hospitalized and her future ability to walk is in question.

The other story is not so bad.

James Lee is twenty five. He’s been skydiving for five years, and has made over a thousand jumps. He jumps with friends, and has a camera on his helmet to record the formations, or “stars” they create. Last week, he recorded this:

You’ll notice the jolt at 0:36, when another jumper hits him in the back of the head, knocking him unconscious. Fortunately, this video does not end with the ground looming into the frame. His friends noticed he wasn’t controlling his fall, and by 0:58 approach and determine he’s unconscious. By 1:10 they have him stabilized, and then fall away from him while one remains to open his chute. He regains consciousness later and lands properly. Had he stayed unconscious he might have been hurt, but most injuries come from tensing up on landing.

He’s fine, and intends to keep jumping.

Jim is the kind of guy I used to run into with my stepfather. Above everything else, he is responsible for his own actions. That’s part of the thrill, being responsible, not jumping in fear but because you want to. Leaving a perfectly good aircraft behind and trusting your own ability to pack your own chute. Jim hasn’t blamed the guy who knocked him out, but he has thanked the people who saved him. Which brings to mind another point.

Maybe it’s something the reporters didn’t choose to record, but I didn’t see anything from Joe thanking the doctors who put his daughter back together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bill of Rights, part three

Yes, the numbering of this series is a bit confusing. This is chapter four of “Know your Constitution”. When I finish with the Bill of Rights and move into the other amendments, I’ll try to work out the titles so they make more sense.

Chapter One, Two, and Three can be viewed through those links. I’ll start here with the fourth amendment.

Despite the current state of affairs I will do my best to remain dispassionate on this subject.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized”

As with the other amendments, this was intended to limit the power of government, protecting the citizens against tyranny. You should see from the current administration of this amendment the importance of defending our Constitution.

This amendment has been stretched to support the “Right to Privacy”, although it only protects against governmental searches and seizures. The question we face in America today is “What constitutes a Warrant?”. Presently, a secret (unaccountable) government agency may apply to a secret (unaccountable) court for a secret warrant. How is this possible? Somehow, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) is being used to circumvent the warrant procedure for domestic surveillance. Perhaps this will be pursued as an investigation someday, well after 2016.

In the meantime, remember this is an amendment to the constitution, and as such does not apply to third parties, as held in United States v Jacobsen, so if you wonder why the government agencies involved in surveillance so often use third party contractors, wonder no more. As long as our leaders are lawyers, expect case law to be argued using every imaginable interpretation as they attempt to find loopholes in their limitations.

Seizures are not necessarily of property, so the fourth amendment also applies to seizures of people. An arrest is a seizure, and must be warranted (see “secrets” above). People being spirited away in the night is not supposed be possible in this country. Despite this administrations promises to uphold the Constitution as long as it’s convenient, this document was never intended to be convenient for tyrants.

While the fourth amendment protects what you may have said or written in the past from being seized, the fifth amendment protects the government from seizing our very person.

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”.

These clauses are designed to limit over zealous prosecution. It begins with a way to slow down the arrest process with Grand Juries. A “secret grand jury” is a perfect example of the letter of the law being met while the spirit is being consciously averted. The double jeopardy clause prevents the government from repeatedly charging an individual with the same crime, forcing the government to have a complete case before prosecution. Were this not in place the government could use successive prosecutions to slowly build a case, and the individual would not rest, knowing that he had never been found “Not Guilty”, just “Not Guilty so far”.

The next is the clause most are familiar with, protection from being compelled to self incriminate. This is where the protection from forced confessions comes from. Each of the clauses so far in this amendment are misused by criminals, but were they not in place, the innocent would suffer from false prosecutions, and the actual criminals would still escape prosecution. We often say it is better that criminals go free than innocents be punished.

The final clause reiterates the third and fourth amendment protections with due process provisions.

The rights of the accused continue to receive protection in the sixth amendment;

“In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence”

A speedy trial is largely protection against indefinite detainment. Pre-trial detention is punishment for a crime that has yet to be proven, and without limitations, well, there’s a reason we use Guantanamo Bay as a prison for those without constitutional rights.

Without a charge, there can be no preparation of a defense, so the prescriptions for a proper trial (impartial jury of peers, ability to confront accusing witnesses, assistance of counsel), are laid out here. The Fifth and sixth amendments make up the criminal rights made famous by  Miranda v. Arizona, in which a confession was made without the suspect being informed he had the right to not self incriminate. It should be noted that after Miranda‘s initial conviction was set aside by the supreme court, he was retried without benefit of the confession, and was still convicted. Eventually he was stabbed to death, and the only suspect the police had exercised his “Miranda Rights” and remained silent. No arrest was made.

In the next chapter, I should finish with the Bill of Rights, and summarize the significance of these first ten amendments to the Constitution. From there I’ll go over the subsequent amendments.

On being a cowboy

I’ve lived in a lot of places, both physically and mentally. I learned how to adapt very young, but I never figured out the assimilation process. I could get along, but I never surrendered my individuality.

Midway through second grade my family moved to Walnut Creek, California,  just outside of the San Francisco bay area. In addition to the shock of moving to California from Texas on the eve of the Summer of Love, the community had an odd British population (not to say there is such a thing as a normal British population). My friends had the remnants of British accents, they pronounced certain words differently and used some words I had never heard, they stopped for tea in the afternoons. They didn’t wear cowboy boots.

I did. I had just gotten a new pair for Christmas. The other kids laughed at them. I showed them what the pointy toe was for.

That didn’t go over too well with the principal.

I had never heard of “detention” before either. Kids in second grade didn’t have homework to complete during detention, so it was an exercise in boredom. When I got home, my parents were very “understanding”, and offered to take me out to get new, “acceptable” shoes.

I already had acceptable shoes. I was a cowboy, and I wasn’t going to stop wearing a perfectly acceptable pair of boots. As it worked out, you only had to kick those kids once to get them to stop making fun of you. Nobody said a word when I wore my boots the next day. Despite the sentiments of the school board, corporal punishment is effective. Some kids liked me, some didn’t, no one made fun of my boots.

I don’t know how much of my inner cowboy is genetic, and how much has developed as a response to my environments. It helped to grow up in an age devoted to self expression, “rugged individual” was replaced with “free spirit”. I find that my cowboy adapts to every situation, finding the high ground just outside of camp. Noticeable but apart. The country kid in the city, the city kid in the suburbs. I find it easier to be the “alternate but acceptable” point of view.

Stoicism is a desired quality in cowboys, the best summation of a code is “There a man’s work was to be done, and a man’s life to be lived, and when death was to be met, he met it like a man”, but there have been several “codes of the old west” and “cowboy’s creeds” popularized. James P. Owen, in his book, “Cowboy Ethics” codified thus;

  • Live each day with courage.

  • Take pride in your work.

  • Always finish what you start.

  • Do what has to be done.

  • Be tough, but fair.

  • When you make a promise, keep it.

  • Ride for the brand. (the brand is the mark on the cattle. Riding for the brand is staying loyal to your employer, and compadres)

  • Talk less and say more.

  • Remember that some things aren’t for sale.

  • Know where to draw the line.

 

When you go over those rules, you realize they all say the same thing in slightly different ways. Do what you say you will do.

What makes me shake my head is how these ideas are so foreign to so many people.

 

Is it live, or is it Memorex?

In the science fiction series Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton plays helmsman Geordi La Forge (his assignment changes to Chief Engineer after the first season, odd career path).

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The allegory of a blind man as helmsman provides infinite opportunities to address the meaning of “vision”, story lines touching on perception were the mainstay of the La Forge character. He may have been inspired by the Frank Herbert’s Guild Navigators in the “Dune” novels, or the Fafa-kitahi, the “Feelers of the Sea”, Tongan navigators who were blind. Roddenberry named the character for a fan of the original series, George La Forge, who was quadriplegic.

The purpose of science is to see the unseen.

Applied sciences exploit our understanding of the universe, but it is “pure” science, the desire to understand, that sparks great minds. In the real world our La Forge is the real life helmsman of understanding the universe, Stephen Hawking.

For those of you not familiar with Professor Hawking, he is a brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist, whose greatest contribution has been his personality. Dr. Hawking didn’t invent black holes, but without him you would have never heard of them. Professor Hawking has made theoretical physics accessible. From his wheelchair. Professor Hawking was diagnosed with a form of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) at the age of twenty one, and his physical abilities have deteriorated to the point that he now controls devices with the muscles in his cheeks.

Curiosity - Is there a creator

Professor Stephen Hawking CH CBE FRS FRSA

You’ve heard his “voice“, which despite being generated synthetically is still recognizable as belonging to him. He has appeared in countless interviews and guest appearances, including a role on “The Simpsons“. His first popular book, “A Brief History of Time”, sold over ten million copies since its publication in 1988, and spent five years on the London Sunday Times’ best seller list. The New York Metropolitan Opera has commissioned an operatic adaptation.

Very few people know what exactly Professor Hawking did that made him so famous. He presented a theory that black holes aren’t really black. Hawking radiation, an emission at the event horizon of a black hole, was a pretty radical idea in 1974. In a micro black hole, more energy could escape than is consumed, causing “black hole evaporation”. Maybe it is the romanticism, the Geordi La Forge effect, that comes when a man whose personal universe is collapsing  sees the omega of the universe has an escape hatch, that has made Professor Hawking so popular.

A great deal of understanding physics involves the ability to see through the veneer of “reality” and into the way things really work. In the same way that it is difficult to draw a four-dimensional object on a two-dimensional canvass, it is difficult to explain theoretical physics with words. The idea of a black hole, an object so massive that its gravitational field can trap light, seems simple. It’s when you get down to the “How can that exist within the known laws of the universe?” part when descriptions fall into mathematics. We “prove” the existence of things we cannot see through mathematics, electrons do not orbit nuclei in orderly solar systems, they exist in a probability cloud. The picture of an atom is an equation of probabilities.

The boundary of the gravitational field, the points in space at which the field is so intense that light cannot escape, is called the event horizon. Because light does not escape that boundary we call it a black hole. But if you’re picturing a non-reflective sphere, or some point at which a gravity well can be presumed to exist due to the flux in visual perception, you’re trying to draw two-dimensional tesseracts.

I’m trying to avoid the math and just stay with the concepts. Professor Hawking made the universe of cosmology approachable, but what he “showed” us can only be imagined. We see what we can imagine, which presents our limiting factor. If we can’t imagine it, we can’t understand it.

Recently the professor has published a new view of the invisible. In “Information preservation and weather forecasting for black holes”, Professor Hawking addresses the conflicts between general relativity and quantum theory as they explain black holes (he also indicates, by the title, he is still has an awesome sense of humor). This has been popularized as “Hawking now claims black holes don’t exist”.

Language zero, Physics one.

In the classic sense, black holes as we envision them do not exist. If anything that enters the event horizon is lost to the universe forever, there is no way for them to fit our classical measures of existence. What Professor Hawking has formulated is an explanation for the existence of something that can’t exist. Professor Hawking is suggesting is that event horizons do not exist, and replaces the term with “apparent horizons”, a fuzzy zone in which the super gravity of the black hole wrecks havoc with the laws of physics; he summarizes “The absence of event horizons mean that there are no black holes — in the sense of regimes from which light can’t escape to infi nity. There are however apparent horizons which persist for a period of time”. That period of time may be billions of years.

Our impressions of the universe are experienced with our minds. What we see is only the photons that have traveled to our optic nerve, what our mind sees is the photons that could never reach us. When we look at the stars, we see them as they were thousands of years ago. We see constellations with no sense of depth, as if the stars were laid out upon a canvas, yet from another angle, the brightness and relationships would form different pictures.

What is “real”? The answer rests on what we understand to be possible. And of course, there’s always the wisdom of the Rockman…

 

Morals

Morals are typically defined as rules or habits of conduct, with reference to standards of right and wrong. “Having” morals means possessing a set of rules or habits which have been developed based on standards of right and wrong.

“Right” is defined as that which is morally correct, just, or honorable.

You can see the circle in logic, an assumption of a universal “Right” and “Moral”.

So what are the odds that someone would have no morals? I’ve been accused of having no morals, because my morals were different from those of the accusers. The accusation not only taught me about the differences in cultures, it taught me about the thought process of the people who make such accusations. In the world of absolutes, there is no room for discussion.

When we judge others, we’re really judging ourselves. We are comparing ourselves, and finding one of us (typically the other person) lacking.

When we fear judgement, we have already found ourselves lacking, and are uncomfortable sharing what we’ve found.

So let me share with you my personal philosophy. Be a cowboy.

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It doesn’t matter what people think. What other people think takes place in their minds. It is the result of their lifetime of experiences and their culture, and it more than likely has very little to do with you. Their judgement will not change your life, only theirs.

From that, and knowing just a bit about me, you can figure out the next part.

What I think isn’t important. At least, not important to you. I share my point of view, and try to explain it. It may resonate with you, causing you to explore the ideas further. It may not resonate with you, in which case you may choose to fortify your opinion by exploring the ideas further. Either way, we both “win”.

There is no absolute “Right” and “Wrong” in our world, only the right and wrong we choose for ourselves. We may share these morals with other people, in whole or in part. I find the people I share the least with the most interesting, we both have more to learn than people who have identical viewpoints. I’ve learned a lot about being a Christian from talking with Atheists. I’ve learned a lot about human rights from talking with people focused on animal rights.

The loss occurs when an opportunity to learn is wasted. If nothing else, we can learn something about ourselves from how we respond to a situation. Of course we make judgements, the conversation ends when we pass judgements.

Carry on the conversation, share your passions. Win by helping others win.

Today’s inspiration is the fourteenth chapter of Romans, summarized in the fourteenth verse. “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”

Stress

For those of us without grey hair, sometimes it seems we should add a little touch of grey to enhance our character.

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Data does his skunk impression

It doesn’t always work, the natural progression of grey is interesting, a self applied grey streak can miss the mark.

I’ve always found grey hair fascinating on women, a willingness to embrace natural beauty. Women are more likely to develop grey hair earlier, oddly due to the use of hair dye.

I had always thought it was stress, and how that stress is internalized. I had a friend in the Air Force, the man I named my youngest son after, who suddenly developed a stripe of grey on the back of his head. It only got stranger when the hair fell out. Looked like he had been struck with an ax. But none of the rest of us turned grey early, and it seems most of us haven’t turned grey at all.

I know some men dye their hair, but at a class reunion last year I was amazed at how many of my friends had turned grey so young (mid fifties). There were a few exceptions other than myself, “Thor”, the star athlete and all around great human being, and a few other friends who happened to have intersecting career paths.

Stress does not cause grey hair, a build up of hydrogen peroxide in the follicle, combined with an absence of melanin and the decrease of certain hormones is the medical equation, what I found interesting was that those of us who did not turn grey had worked in what are often considered high stress jobs. Maybe the reason we did well in those jobs was because we could handle, even embrace, stress.

My facial hair did turn grey, so I grew a little stripe so my clients would recognize my seniority, I was starting to be mistaken for a kid because my lighthearted approach did not convey that I took the situation seriously. It was nice when people were surprised when I came up with solutions, but “surprise” was not the response I was looking for.

My best shot at "mature"

My best shot at “mature

 

Lately I’ve let the full beard come in, so I’m working on that Santa Claus look.  Once it fills in I’ll probably cut it back to the little stripe again, who knows.

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With Leroy after a day in the snow

The stress just isn’t hitting me. My thought is stress is the result of unrealistic expectations, the recognition that one does not control the universe. I may have played the universe like a violin, but I knew it could one day turn into an instrument for which I have no talent. I’ve enjoyed the ride so far, and look forward to the remainder.

I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and realize it means I won’t be in a tunnel anymore. I’m neither excited or dreadful, just comfortable with a sense of completion. I shake the sand from my sandals and move on to the next adventure. This isn’t goodbye, I’ve written my “goodbye” article and you’ll know it when you see it ;~)

 

Hypocrisy

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This post contains one obscenity, which has been whited out. You may mouse over it to read it, or just skip it. And for some reason the paragraphs have run together.
I’m having some difficulty with the proper application of this word. Most people use this definition of hypocrisy; “Hypocrisy is the state of falsely claiming to possess virtuous characteristics that one lacks. Hypocrisy involves the deception of others and is thus a kind of lie. Hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches”
I find one flaw in that definition, the term “virtuous characteristics”. I’ve seen a lot of what I’m calling hypocrisy lately, and I would change that phrase to “perceived virtuous characteristics”,  or simply “characteristics”. As worded by “Freedictionary”:
hy·poc·ri·sy
/hiˈpäkrisē/
noun
noun: hypocrisy; plural noun: hypocrisies
1.
the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.
But that’s still not quite it. People are no longer claiming to possess characteristics, they’re just disparaging others for not possessing them. “They’re supposed to be good Christians (Conservatives, Liberals, Muslim, Atheist, whatever)”. Such a statement infers that the speaker is in a position to know what a “good”  whatever is supposed to be, which infers that the speaker might have some background with that group.
 It’s the “I’m not a follower in whatever, but you aren’t either” form of hypocrisy. If there’s a better word for that situation (hoofwanking bunglecunt doesn’t count) , let me know.
While it is not true in every instance, let me use “Christians” as an example.
If you are not a Christian, you have no basis to determine if another person is or is not a Christian.
If  you are a Christian, you would know that one of the tenets of your faith is not to judge others standing as Christians.
My point is the very act of calling someone a hypocrite is often a hypocritical act in itself.
If you’re a Conservative, how do you measure a Liberal? If you’re a Liberal, how do you measure a Conservative? It’s like asking a dog what makes a good cat. “Runs just fast enough to make the chase interesting” is not a Cat’s idea of a good cat.
 The cat really doesn’t care what kind of cat you think he is, as long as you don’t think he’s lunch.
I’m  a Republican, these new people are RINOs (Republican In Name Only)“. I have been registered as a Republican for the majority of my years as a voter. At no time have I received a membership card or rule book. I’m not sure what a Republican (or Democrat, or Libertarian, or any political group) is supposed to “be” other than intellectually involved in the discussion, and physically involved in voting.
Maybe it comes from my basic distaste for labels. If I pick up a can in the grocery store labeled “Beans”, I expect to find nothing other than beans inside the can. If I meet a person and his skin is black, I don’t expect to know anything about him. At one point in my life I thought it meant “He doesn’t like to lay out in the sun to tan”, but I’ve discovered even that is incorrect. I’ve known black folks who enjoy tanning, so the label of appearance doesn’t tell me anything.
I have a friend who claims to be a Christian. He also follows Buddhism, which is not contradictory, as I have mentioned before. I am in no position to determine his personal relationship with God, I would say that of all people I am least qualified, and although his path is similar to mine, there remain radical differences. I would never say “You’re not really a Christian” to him, although I often point out “Practicing Christians might choose a different approach, based on this particular scripture”. It leads to some interesting discussions.
I have another friend who is an atheist. Actually, quite a few, but this one enjoys honest conversations about stupid things Christians do as well as stupid things atheists do. None of us would dream of calling the other a hypocrite, yet friends have entered conversations and decided that one of us is being hypocritical. Typically one of their friends who doesn’t know me, or one of my friends that doesn’t know them.
If you don’t know someone, and aren’t part of the conversation, what kind of idiocy are you displaying by jumping in defending your friend who wasn’t arguing? You don’t think they can speak for themselves? Forget about embarrassing yourself, you’re embarrassing your friend.
It appears it would be productive to stop wasting our energy trying to make people fit into boxes, and use that energy to see inside those boxes.

The Bill of Rights, part two

This is part three of the “Know your Constitution” series.

The previous parts, “Constitutional Rights“, and “The Bill of Rights” may be viewed by clicking those links.

I don’t expect that every amendment to require an article of its own, we’ll see how it goes.

We pick up with the second amendment, “The right to bear arms”. This amendment is short and simple.

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”. (emphasis on comma mine)

That comma has been the centerpiece of many arguments, which is why I emphasized it. For such a short, simple statement, it has probably been argued more than any other amendment to the constitution. The simplest explanation I can give you goes back to the core of understanding why this document was written, which is limit the powers of the federal government. The Constitution itself is written defining the construction of government, maintaining a system of equal representation and allowing checks and balances to prevent any branch of government from becoming too powerful. The first amendment is yet another check allowing avenues of redress and protest. The second amendment is the ultimate balance, the availability of armed revolt.

Yep, that’s what it’s about. It has nothing to do with hunting, not even for survival. It’s about the survival of the union.

My reading, based on the way the other amendments are written within the Bill of rights, is that militias, the right to keep arms, and the right to bear arms should not be infringed. Without the comma, militias don’t enter the equation.

So what is a militia? It is an independent military force. The Militia Act of 1792 allowed the President to call upon militias to support federal troops, indicating they are independent. The second Militia Act of 1792, passed just six days later, provides for the organization of militias, and conscription of all able bodied men, age 18 to 45. Not for a couple of years, but for the period of twenty seven years, from age 18 to 45. It also provides that each man “provide himself with a good musket or firelock, a sufficient bayonet and belt, two spare flints, and a knapsack, a pouch, with a box therein, to contain not less than twenty four cartridges, suited to the bore of his musket or firelock, each cartridge to contain a proper quantity of powder and ball; or with a good rifle, knapsack, shot-pouch, and powder-horn, twenty balls suited to the bore of his rifle, and a quarter of a pound of powder”.

Based on 25 grains of powder per round, that’s enough powder for seventy rounds, required by law to be maintained by every man. Considering a guerrilla tactic of free fire rather than controlled fire ranks, a well trained rifleman could get off four rounds a minute maximum.  So that’s enough powder to keep shooting for almost twenty minutes.

Can you imagine if someone were to arm themselves with sufficient ammunition to fire for a solid twenty minutes today? I couldn’t maintain a rate of one aimed shot a second for twenty minutes, but I could certainly use that rate to describe suppressing fire. That would be twelve hundred rounds, filling forty standard thirty round magazines. Just to put things into perspective.

When we consider the reasons firearms are banned, it is because they fit the requirements set forth by the second amendment. Hunting rifles and handguns are not what the amendment addresses. Arms suitable for military use are what are prescribed.

Moving on to the third amendment.

“No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law”.

In the colonial era, the practice of billeting British troops in private homes was a widespread. One of the complaints against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was “for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us”. Keeping in mind the Constitution is designed to limit federal powers, this is one more instance in which the federal government is likened to an enemy of the people.

There have been very few third amendment arguments, most recently a man in Nevada refused to allow local police to use his home in a surveillance operation,  was subsequently arrested, and is using the third amendment as his defense. It should be interesting to see how that case goes, as local Police Officers are not quite federal “Soldiers”. In Griswold v Connecticut (1965), the third amendment was cited as protecting against government intrusion in a “Right to privacy” defense. The closest case I can find that comes close to a violation is Engblom v. Carey (1982), in which National Guardsmen, fitting the description of soldiers under the Militia act of 1792 (see above) in which a state militia member can be called to federal service, were quartered in homes. In this case, the homes were owned by the State of New York, and were compensation for prison guards. The guards went on strike and the state called in the National Guard to fill in, housing the replacements in the striking guards homes. If you’re on strike do you still receive compensation? The state won the case on a technicality (Immunity of State officials from suit from unknowing violation of the law) so the third amendment complaint is not satisfactorily addressed.

Next we’ll pick up with the fourth amendment, which fits nicely with the fifth. See you then

The big news

There was a shooting at a school in Philadelphia. As I write this first draft, it happened just two hours ago.

It is the only story being covered on the ABC outlet right now, I’ve had the TV on for about twenty minutes and have learned the following important facts;

(1) Two fifteen year old children are in the hospital with gunshot wounds.

(2) The firearm has not been recovered.

(3) Three “suspects” were involved, one is in custody, the others remain at large.

(4) Without a script, dead air is more informative than the news media.

Seven different reporters, five locations, interview with parents, a registered nurse, and the chief of police and the most surprising thing was how many stupid comments were made.

Let’s start with, “We don’t know if the gun went off intentionally or not”. Guns don’t have intentions. Guns don’t just “go off”. It is illegal for people under the age of twenty one to possess a handgun, and illegal for anyone to carry a gun inside a Philadelphia school. So what we know that someone intentionally committed the crime of possessing a handgun, and intentionally committed the crime of bringing that firearm to a school. Anything that happened at the school with that firearm happened intentionally.

From a parent, “What am I concerned about? I’m concerned if my kid was shot, if it’s not my kid, I’m not concerned”. Okay, maybe not stupid. Honest and insensitive most assuredly. Stupid was asking a parent what their concerns are outside a school where a shooting has taken place.

From Police Commissioner  Charles “The pointy end of the bullet goes in first, right?” Ramsey, “Kids aren’t supposed to have guns at school”. I’ve written about Commissioner Ramsey before. His last job was Chief of Police in Washington DC, so he doesn’t really understand much about gun laws. Kids aren’t supposed to have guns at all, Chuck.

From the reporter at the home of the suspect in custody, “We don’t know how he got from the school (at 5201 Old York Road)  to his home in the 2200 block of Bucknell”. My guess? He walked a block to the Logan subway station, took it to Snyder Ave, caught the 79 bus to 24th St, and walked a block home. The bigger question might be how a kid from South Philly came to be enrolled in a school in the Logan section, but the route is obvious to me, and I haven’t lived in Philly for three years (when I did, I lived off Snyder Avenue).

From the Registered Nurse, “Both children were wounded in the arm, and while hospital officials have said they are not life threatening injuries, they could still be life changing injuries”. I just got back from Philly, we were at a concert today, but I was tempted to drive back just so I could strangle this idiot on camera. Yes, it could be good, or it could be bad. Flipping a coin would tell me as much. Life changing? That depends on the victim, but assuming the child is moderately sensitive, yes, their life has been changed.

The important part of the story is that two children, in the gymnasium after school, suddenly found themselves in the hospital, which was fortunately only two blocks away, being treated for gunshot wounds. Secondary to that is whether the shooter and gun are in custody. After that I’d like to know what the weather will be tomorrow. Unless anything else important happened in the fifth largest city in the United States, you can tell me about that. But hours on end covering a one minute story? Seriously?

As the evening progressed we found that one of the “children”, an eighteen (not fifteen) year old  female student, had been wounded in the bicep and released from the hospital three hours after the incident. The other victim, her seventeen (not fifteen) year old boyfriend, had taken the bullet in his shoulder and as of Sunday (the shooting occurred at 1530 on Friday) was still hospitalized.

The shooter was identified as a seventeen year old student and was charged as an adult. He surrendered to Police with his attorney at 1300 Saturday.  His attorney said “I’m saying it’s not intentional and we’re not admitting any fault on his part, he’s a good solid kid and you’ll see he has no prior record. He stays out of trouble and he’s been cooperating with police. Thank you very much”. Because, you know, for a seventeen year old to not have a record just indicates how exemplary a student he is, don’t most people have a record by the time they’re seventeen? I can understand the unintentional part, the illegal handgun loaded itself and chambered a bullet before it crawled into his backpack and then jumped into his hand. Shocked by its sudden appearance, the young man just had enough time to say “what is this?” before the gun released its own safety and pulled it’s own trigger. </sarcasm>

The suspect who had been arrested in South Philadelphia was cleared, he had been misidentified (by the same school security officers who missed a gun entering the school) and had been in another part of the school at the time of the shooting.

The other students who had been sought had been cleared of any involvement.

And now, Monday evening, the plot thickens. Another person is being sought by police. The eighteen year old who sold the shooter the gun. So this “good solid kid” didn’t bring a gun to school, he was buying a gun. From an eighteen year old, at school in the gymnasium. The transaction was apparently caught on tape.

So instead of answers, I have questions. If two kids hadn’t been shot, would anyone have ever followed up on the sale of a handgun between teenagers on school grounds? Maybe the same security officers who identified a fifteen year old who had been in a different part of the building and missed the gun entering the school would put down their doughnuts and suddenly do their jobs?

There is still no information about the gun being recovered. Maybe it was, and the less than competent media has failed to report it, or maybe it’s still floating around, waiting for an opportunity to accidentally shoot a few more people.

Guns are not nearly as dangerous as stupid people. We do not need more gun laws, we need to enforce the ones we already have, and fire the people who fail to do so.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He would have been eighty five years old.

This most unique man is celebrated with a most unique holiday. Where most holidays are considered a day off, President Clinton altered Dr. King’s Holiday, which had been signed into existence by President Reagan ten years earlier. It is universally recognized as a day “on”, a day of service.

You’ve probably been inundated with “little known facts” about Dr. King, Much like the label “New and Improved” it seems the phrase “little known facts” should be removed after a dozen websites have listed the facts for a decade. Of the three individuals currently recognized with national holidays, Dr. King is only person born in the United States (George Washington was born before the United States existed).

There are many stories (and legends) about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the civil rights leader, but the greatness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the man is why he is commemorated with a national holiday. One of the simplest is the observation that there are very few images of Dr. King smoking a cigarette. There was a stigma within he church at the time, but the reason he expressed to others was that he didn’t want to set a bad example for his son. One of the most influential men of our time was concerned about the example smoking might have for his son.

Dr. King was brilliant, having skipped both ninth and twelfth grades and entering Morehouse College at the age of fifteen, an impressive achievement, particularly for a young black man in 1944 Atlanta Georgia. He graduated in 1948 and enrolled in Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester Pennsylvania. I’ve been to Crozer several times and never noticed any markers commemorating Dr. King. He received a Ph. D. in Systematic Theology from Boston University in 1955, having already accepted a position as Pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. In December, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white man, and Dr. King was thrust into the limelight as the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted over a year.

In his address to the NAACP on 1 January 1957, Dr. King spoke to the challenges addressing civil rights within a political framework. “Actually, the Negro has been betrayed by both the Republican and the Democratic party. The Democrats have betrayed him by capitulating to the whims and caprices of the Southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed him by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of reactionary right wing northern Republicans. And this coalition of southern Dixiecrats and right wing reactionary northern Republicans defeats every bill and every move towards liberal legislation in the area of civil rights”.

Dr King was an admirer of Mohandis Gandhi, citing his use of non-violence in his 1964 Nobel acceptance speech “a magnificent way by Mohandas K. Gandhi to Challenge the might of the British Empire…he struggled only with the weapons of truth, soul force, non-injury and courage”.

Knowing these things about Dr. King, knowing the depth of his commitments to his beliefs, it confuses me when people use his image to further goals that he quite obviously would not only not endorse, but most probably rail against.

On the evening of 4 April 1968, Dr. King stepped out onto the balcony of the Lorraine motel in Memphis Tennessee for a cigarette.

From the ballistic evidence, Dr. King was leaning downward, possibly tying his shoe, when a .30-06 bullet struck his cheek, breaking his jaw, then ran down his neck, severing his jugular vein and breaking several vertebrae as it traveled down his spinal cord.

James Earl Ray, who had escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary the year before and had in the interim traveled extensively about North America, confessed to firing that shot after he was captured at London’s Heathrow Airport on his way to Rhodesia, where he intended to live under Ian Smith’s white minority regime.

Ray entered a plea of guilty in order to avoid a death sentence and received a sentence of ninety nine years in prison. Days later he recanted his plea, and began his story of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King. He stated he had believed that George Wallace would be elected President and would pardon him. He spent the remainder of his life unsuccessfully attempting to withdraw his guilty plea. He died in 1998, after escaping and being recaptured in 1977.

In 1997, almost thirty years after Dr. King’s death, his son Dexter, who had been seven years old when Dr. King was assassinated, met with Ray in Prison. Dexter was convinced of Ray’s innocence, and supported his efforts to obtain a retrial. Loyd Jowers, the owner of Jim’s Grill in Memphis, had been alluding to a conspiracy to kill Dr. King since the early 1990s, and after Ray’s death, the King family brought a wrongful death suit against Jowers and “other unknown co-conspirators”. Despite the main witness being taped admitting the story as false, and Jowers’ sister testifying she had participated in creating the false story in order to make money selling the story, The civil jury found Jowers and “others, including government agencies” participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Dr. King in 1999. Jowers died in May 2000.

The Memphis county prosecutor had said on several occasions that Jowers’ claims were without merit, but to be fair, they could have been co-conspirators. No government agencies were specified in the verdict, nor was the level (local, state or federal) of the agencies specified. A 2000 Department of Justice report concluded that Jower’s claims  were not substantiated nor credible and that they found significant evidence to refute them. Nonetheless, the King family prefers to believe that James Earl Ray did not kill Dr. King.

Following this sequence of events, there remains the pervasive story of a “hidden truth“, that a jury found the United States Federal Government guilty of murdering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That such a story exists detracts from the truths of Dr. King’s life, a life dedicated to truth and justice. Perpetuating the story eradicates any shadow of credibility the person spreading it may have had. Dr. King would not approve of such a grotesque misinterpretation of the truth, and I believe he would be appalled that it is connected to his memory.

I think he’d be more troubled by that than by all the people who can’t bring themselves to speak his name, and call him MLK. He and his father are named for the reformer, Martin Luther, and his name is Doctor Martin Luther King, junior. He was an American who changed the world.

“Religious” violence

In every discussion about religion, the issue of religious violence comes up. Typically it is the “atheists” who will say “More people have died over religion than for any other reason”

Ahem

I am unaware of the part religion plays in heart disease, or malaria, or AIDS. In fact, there is evidence indicating a relationship between being religious and better health. Certainly most religious practices guide the follower towards healthier lifestyle choices, yet thirteen million people died of heart disease and stroke in the last year for which statistics are available.

As it is, only one out of ten deaths can be attributed to violence.

So then the anti-religious person responds, “Well, what I meant was that more violent deaths are caused by religion”.

Really?

So the majority of the 1.3 million people who died in traffic accidents were driving to Church?

There are a number of ways to quantify causes of death, my favorite report (I’m a guy who used to subscribe to the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) is called “Deaths by mass unpleasantness“, but a more conservative measure by the World Health Organization suggests that of the one in ten deaths caused by violence, one in ten of those is homicide, and I’m fairly sure that not all of those were religiously motivated.

You could certainly factor in such things as “Death by oppression”, but there is no evidence that a significant number of people have died because of religion. Not even when you include historical atrocities.

“But really” he pleads, trying to vindicate his position in the face of factual evidence, “More wars have been fought over religion than any other reason”.

Guess again

According to the Encyclopedia of Wars, of the 1,763 major conflicts in recorded history, only 123 of them can be classified as having been fought over religious differences. That’s less than 7 percent.

It was funny when George Carlin said “More people have been killed in the name of God than for any other reason”, but that was the seventies, and we’ve had forty years to check the facts. And George taught me to question everything, including him. The people who run around quoting him weren’t really listening to him.

Judaism wasn’t a threat to Germany, but Adolf Hitler exploited religious prejudices into a unifying hatred, from which he propelled his thousand year Reich into a twelve year suicidal spiral. Wars are fought over real estate, religion is often used as an excuse or incitement.

Our most current experience with “religious wars” are not religious in nature at all. They are power struggles between greedy leaders, and greed is a sin in every religion I know of. Exploiting a largely illiterate and uninformed populace, claims of religious righteousness are made. Any student of the religions involved knows that murder is not the prescribed remedy for conflicts within or without the church.

Which brings me to my summation. “Fewer people have died due to Religion than any other cause”. Immediately you know the statement is false, more people have died due to religion than have been trampled by elephants. When we consider the violence caused by religion, we need to quantify the statement. I’m not even going to argue the balance of good spirituality has provided to mankind, damage is not undone by good works. I will argue that of the violence inflicted in the name of religion, very little has been caused in the active and prescribed practice of religions.

Heroes

I have known people who are bona fide heroes. Depending on your definition, I might be a hero. It’s a title I don’t desire, as it waters down the impact of those I consider to be real heroes.

These days there are so many heroes that it is the unusual person who is not a hero.

The kid with cancer who wants to be Batman for a day is a “hero”. Any cancer survivor is a hero. Oddly, dying of cancer is less heroic, and treating cancer gets no mention at all.

Right now, as far as I’m concerned, the guys from the water company who worked through the night to repair the water main break out front, allowing me to take my first hot shower in days, are heroes.

Edward Snowden is not a hero. Neither is “Chelsea” (Bradley) Manning, or Julian Assange. Heroism requires more than being on the right side of an issue, and I’m still not certain which side of their issue is the “right” side. I do know that heroism involves “doing the right thing”, a fairly fuzzy definition, and that none of these men chose the “right thing” that was available, turning instead to illegal avenues that endangered the lives of others. Heroes don’t put people in danger, so yeah, I’m sure these guys aren’t heroes.

Most of you have never heard of Aaron Swartz, but a lot of people think he was a hero. He was certainly a genius, developing the RSS standard when he was only fourteen. He left public school in the tenth grade, enrolling in the local college, and was later admitted to Stanford University. He dropped out of Stanford after a year, because he “didn’t find it intellectually stimulating”.

What he did find intellectually stimulating was exploiting the internet, developing ways to make it accessible in more ways to more people. Among his cooperative developments are Markdown, Infogami (which became Reddit),  and Jottit, among a multitude of web shattering collaborations. Aaron became quite wealthy from his creative efforts, and invested his money and intellect into social causes. He believed the internet should be free, and that all the content on the internet should be free. Not a very popular position among artists, but big with consumers.

Aaron was, as most “creative types” are, prone to depression. Real, clinical depression. Being a genius and being able to accomplish anything he applied himself to made him feel invincible, the praise and hero worship justified his impression of moral superiority. When he “liberated” millions of documents from the MIT JSTOR library, he was indicted on 13 counts of wire fraud, computer intrusion and reckless damage.

The reality of a world regulated with “stupid” laws that applied to everyone, including him, was more than Aaron could handle. He hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment last year, three months before his trial date, at age twenty six.

I can empathize with his turmoil, his aspirations, the frustrations of living in a world of masters and slaves.

Was he a hero? Maybe. Was he a criminal? Probably. Was he a gift of genius and insight to the human race? Certainly.

Life is a complex equation, human beings are a mash of variables. Very few things are black or white.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia recently ruled on the issue of “net neutrality“, allowing providers to regulate content. What this means on the surface is Verizon can charge Netflix for the amount of bandwidth it uses, and that cost will be forwarded to end users. What it means to some people is that internet providers have the ability to charge for and control what content they deem to provide. Will it be abused and used for censorship? Probably, in the way that Walmart, the largest retailer of hardcopy music, has the ability to control what it sells. If you want a CD with a parental advisory, it’s not at Walmart. That would only be censorship if you also couldn’t get the CD at Target, or a neighborhood record store (a few still exist), due to Walmart’s influence.

If internet providers were capable of censorship, I would certainly hope the first thing they shut down are child pornography sites, I will give a second thought to whether or not they might censor speech sometime after that happens. In the meantime, I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that copyrights still apply to the internet, as an author my work is protected, as artists my friends works are protected.

There are a lot of heroes out there. They make the world a beautiful place. Celebrate them.

The Bill of Rights

This is the second part of a series of articles called “Know your constitution”. The first part may be viewed here

The Bill of Rights is the name applied to the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Created a year after the ratification of the Constitution, and ratified two years after that, the Bill of Rights, along with the remaining seventeen amendments that have been ratified, address individual citizens rights. Where the Constitution laid out the foundation upon which the government was built, the amendments provide the barriers to government actions affecting individuals. These are what we commonly refer to as our “Constitutional Rights”.

The preamble to the Bill of Rights reads as follows;

“The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

These rights are recognized by the government’s prohibitions on infringement of them. That in itself is the very first level of interpretation. The tool for interpreting what our “rights” are is the knowledge of why the infringements were prohibited, in other words, “Why isn’t the government allowed to do these things?”. The answer comes from the reasons for the amendments, the Constitution, and the revolution itself. The writers had been oppressed by a tyrannical government, had risked thier lives and fortunes to free themselves from tyranny, and were not about to create another tyrannical government.

There is no significance applied to the order of the amendments, although to me it appears that the first few were indeed listed in order of importance. The first amendment reads;

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”

From this we get the concepts “Separation of Church and State”, “Freedom of Speech”, “Freedoms of the Press” including censorship protections, and “The right to protest (or picket)”. The essential tools of revolution are protected in the very first amendment.

Looking for a moment at the interpretations of these rights, we can see some disparities between what is written, and what is interpreted. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is generally interpreted to mean there should be no state religion, no “Church of America” or official religion as in other theocracies. Followed by “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, is taken to mean the government can not only not establish its own church, it cannot exercise any control of churches. It cannot control what religion you choose to follow, or how you follow it (as long as you do not harm anyone or break any other laws in the practice of your religion).

This is our first “problem”. Conflicting rights. What to do when your right to practice your religion conflicts with the governments right to pass laws restricting other behavior?  A good case is Employment Division v Smith, in which an American Indian argued (and won) his position that the use of peyote was a sacrament of his religious beliefs. This opened the door for a number of frivolous cases attempting to protect otherwise illegal behavior as sacrament, which required a violation of the first portion of the amendment. Congress would have to make a law respecting the establishment of religion.

Supreme Court Justice Black observed for the majority of the Court in Everson v Board of Education, that “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church.” It should be self-evident that the exercise of federal power to define a church is equivalent to the federal establishment of a church.

It remains a sensitive area, which is why we have a Supreme Court, to judge individual cases. For most practical purposes, the court has deferred to the Internal Revenue Service in defining religions. The Internal Revenue Code makes no distinction among religions on its face, if it is administered or applied in such a way as to make sectarian discriminations among religions, the application would violate the Establishment Clause. Consequently, the statute must be interpreted so as to avoid an unconstitutional result. Thus the IRS definitions serve as a safe starting point in determining what is and is not a religion.

The preferred direction is to err towards freedom, using the simple rule from Kindergarten “Your rights end where my nose begins”

With the second right, “Freedom of Speech”, restrictions are easier to understand. “Falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater” is a metaphor for speech or actions made for the principal purpose of creating unnecessary panic. First stated in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.‘s opinion in the United States Supreme Court case Schenck v. United States in 1919, which held that the defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Slander and other defamatory remarks are obviously not protected speech.

“Freedom of the press” faces the same restrictions, libel is an infringement on the rights of the libeled. Just this week charges against Courtney Love have made the news, as we test the limits of free speech in the age of Twitter.

“The right of the people peaceably to assemble” is tested every election year. Again, note the word “peaceably”. This does not mean throwing rocks at the police. Having survived the 2002 Republican National Convention, I might argue that “peaceably” should include “bathed”, I didn’t mind when the protesters blocked traffic as much as I minded having to smell them in the subway. The Federal government is walking a fine line with HR 347, which opened (or closed) a new area in a post 9/11 world. Prohibiting access to any area protected by the Secret Service is open to vague interpretations of prohibiting protest, which will no doubt be argued before the Supreme Court in the future. The argument will remain, “was assembly prohibited, or just assembly in a particular place?”

The last section, “the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”, is the very function of the Supreme Court. It is our opportunity to address misinterpretation of the law by the government and abuses of power.

This is our first set of freedoms, the right to believe as we wish, to talk and write about those beliefs, to join together and discuss our beliefs, and to have an avenue of redress if any of these rights are abridged. The essential tools in fighting oppression.

The next section covers the second and third amendments.

 

Know Nukes

I always find the phrase “Nuclear family” rather funny.  Even though my parents divorced when I was twelve, I still think of my childhood as nuclear, just a different kind of nuclear. Dad worked in the scientific instrument field, so we had radioactive supplies around the house quite often.

I did the “Duck and cover” drills in elementary school, I grew up with the knowledge that a fission device could end the lives of everyone I knew at any moment, and that liquid scintillation counters used radiation for life saving research. I knew some forms of radiation were safe and some were not. I learned that some chemicals keep us alive while others are toxic. I learned that some plants are natural medicines, and some are natural poisons. I learned when to be afraid, and when not to. I used a cooler that my father had carried radioactive isotopes in to carry beer to concerts. There was no residual radioactivity, but I would joke about it and say “I didn’t want to have kids anyway”. It was a joke, okay? I’ve got four kids now.

Back then, all that information was in books. It still is, but it is supplemented, and sometimes supplanted by the internet.

The internet is a social forum. It is not a font of knowledge, it is a sewer of information. Sure, there may be a discarded gold watch in there, but it’s covered with feces.

There is a reason why scientists are respected. Because they are trained in critical thinking, and have studied their respective fields. When Emma had cancer, we didn’t seek the advice of a nuclear physicist, we were fortunate enough to find a premiere oncologist, Dr. Charles Yeo. When I’m looking for information on Global Warming, I don’t call Dr. Yeo, I check peer reviewed studies from respectable institutions. The resources available on the internet are amazing, and so is some of the garbage.

There is a lot of fuzzy logic out there. People who have no idea how to apply critical thinking are unlikely to apply any critical thinking to their sources. It’s maddening that people who say they don’t believe anything will believe anything, as long as it has no connection to actual research. For some reason fear mongering is popular. Maybe it’s the release of frustration, maybe it’s the need to control other people. Look at the various theories floating around, is there one that is based on a positive event?

Usually the false information is harmless. If people want to get worked up over issues that don’t exist that’s fine, just don’t try to get me worked up about it. Don’t come to my  door (this actually happened a few years ago) and insult me because I don’t believe your bullshit. If you don’t want there to be fracking, or a pipeline, or offshore drilling, then drive your SUV off a cliff. If you want to eat, drink, and breathe asparagus to cure your cancer, go right ahead. I’ll be pursuing therapies that actually have positive results. I don’t see a problem with genetically modified organisms. Gregor Mendels began the research in 1856, we’ve been modifying plants and animals at a genetic level for one hundred and fifty years. Suddenly it’s the end of the world?

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There is stuff to worry about, and insufficient time to worry about things that don’t matter.

The Fukushima disaster has caused a great deal of wringing of hands. Radiation can be scary, especially in the country where it brought Godzilla to life. I’ve read a lot about it, but actual verifiable information is being crowded out by fear mongering. If you’re afraid of nuclear power, fine, turn off your computer. Nuclear power has caused fewer deaths than any other source of power, when compared on a watt to death ratio. What that means is that more people die generating one hundred gigawatts of electricity in coal based generation, petroleum based generation, hydro-electric generation, and even solar generation than in nuclear generation. Wind power costs twice as many lives as nuclear per watt, while providing one seventeenth as much of the world’s electricity (I know that statistic could be claimed to be misleading as I’m using two different measures, read it carefully).

Fukushima survived one of the largest earthquakes in history. Measuring 9.0 on the Richter magnitude scale, with an epicenter less than one hundred miles away, it is not the kind of event that can be factored into safety engineering. The Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant, even closer to the epicenter, survived undamaged. Eight gas fired power plants and two refineries were damaged. Nearly sixteen thousand people died, but no deaths are tied to exposure to radioactivity, although several people died due to the evacuation around Fukushima.

There has been a good deal of speculation and outright lies in the reporting of the impact of the earthquake. When people don’t understand that there is a level of background radiation that occurs naturally everywhere on Earth, they are easily fooled into a  post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning when shown background radiation in an area they don’t expect to see it. This is similar to the concern over radiation in the waste water from fracking. Uranium is a naturally occurring element, if it is in the soil where fracking is taking place, it will be in the waste water. It is no different than the cognitive dissonance which takes place when people see a bear in a semi rural neighborhood such as my own, and ask “where did it come from?”. We move to the woods to be closer to nature, yet are surprised by its presence.

One of the reasons we need to be aware of our surroundings is so we’ll know the difference between normal and abnormal occurrences. This way we know when to be afraid, and when not to be.

Know nukes. No fear.

 

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Watching the skies

The night sky always fills me with wonder, contemplating the distances involved, considering the journey each photon makes, from a hydrogen fusion reaction on a star light years away to my retina.

Screenshot, Stellarium

Screenshot, Stellarium

The weather doesn’t always cooperate and sometimes the light pollution makes it difficult to pick out feint objects, so a few years ago I started using Stellarium. Unlike other star charts, Stellarium is personalized to your exact position.  And perhaps the most incredible part is, it’s free.

Once you download the software, you input your location. This can be as simple as your town, or as precise as your latitude and longitude. Input your elevation and the default view (North, East etc.) and you will be shown the view as it exists. At one point, I matched the view on my screen to the view through my window, so I could look back and forth and identify objects.

The chart is in real time, so as the stars move in the sky they move on your screen. You can fast forward, reverse, and stop, allowing you to find any point in time. Know Jupiter is supposed to be visible tonight, and you’ll be looking around 2130? Fast forward to 2130 and find Jupiter, and you’ll know right where to look. You can also see satellite paths, so if you’re using binoculars you can plot when and where to look.

The features are incredible, allowing you to overlay constellation lines or pictures (A bear for Ursa Major and Minor) making it a nice teaching tool for family stargazing. Navigation is easy, you drag the view to turn or look at a different angle, zoom in and out with the scroll on your mouse. Click on an object for its name and info. One thing that takes a little getting used to is it is in real time, so when you zoom in to look at Messier 31, it will move across your screen, because the world is turning. Just click pause.

You can simulate light pollution to match whatever you’re dealing with, or you can look at a pristine sky to see whet you’re missing. I use it a lot on nights when it is cloudy or too cold to go out, or when there’s an alignment that will be happening when I’d rather be asleep. You can also change the location to get a feel for events that are not visible from where you are, or to match your location when you travel.

Did I mention that it’s free?

Another nice application, also free, is available from NASA. “Spot the Station” sends you an email (or text) with the coordinates for the next flyover of the International Space Station. A typical email reads “Time: Sun Jan 12 5:31 AM, Visible: 3 min, Max Height: 63 degrees, Appears: NNE, Disappears: NE”, in this case the next morning at 0531, the station was visible for three minutes as it passed on a short arc reaching an altitude of 63° (straight up is 90º) traveling from North Northeast to Northeast. I’ve seen arcs that were anywhere from one to six minutes, typically pre-dawn or late evening. I usually get a preview on Stellarium to give myself a feel for which stars to orient with.

The International Space Station is about 260 miles from Earth. The average distance to Mars is 140 million miles, with the closest approach being 33.9 million miles. Jupiter gets as close as 390 million miles. The closest star (other than the Sun), Alpha Centauri, is 4.2 light years (24.6 trillion miles) away, but that can only be seen from the Southern hemisphere. Barnard’s star, the closest visible (with a telescope, it’s a red dwarf) star in the Northern hemisphere, is 5.9 light years away. That’s over 34 trillion miles, or more precisely 34,683,890,693,365 miles, or 133,399,579,589 times as far away as the International Space Station.

Some people look at the sky and see pretty lights. I see the universe, and the perspective of our place within the universe. One pretty light among billions.

No respect

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There are various levels of respect, ranging from praise to civility. Everyone wants to be appreciated, some folks don’t deserve it, but no one deserves to be insulted. I may not agree with you, but my intelligence is not displayed in insulting yours. We may have opposite goals, but your efforts may still be worthy of my respect.

Twice in the last few days, and on the same subject, men worthy of praise have been publicly insulted.

There is a film about operation RED WINGS, called “The Lone Survivor”, based on the book written by the lone survivor, Petty Officer 2nd Class Marcus Luttrell. The accuracy of his story has been questioned, but the valorous service of SEAL team 10 has not. Despite the various opinions about the war in Afghanistan, and war in general, the understanding that Navy SEALs represent the very best of human qualities is nearly unanimous.

Which is why I was shocked when listening to John Hockenberry’s interview with Donna Axelson, mother of Sonar Technician 2nd Class Matthew Gene Axelson (deceased).

He opened the segment by saying that our society is divided by those that have served in the military and those that have not. He said the majority, those who have not served, do not understand the world of the minority, and that one of the few places those worlds intersect is in a movie theater. From there he introduced the film, and then Donna Axelson, whose son was among the casualties of RED WINGS.

Donna was obviously proud of her son and his service. She spoke of his strengths and dedication. She spoke of the camaraderie of his BUD/S, how they had all visited after her loss. She spoke of how the actor Ben Foster, who plays her son in the film, continues to stay in touch with her, on Christmas and Matthew’s birthday, and her voice broke as she began to cry.

Then Hockenberry, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since age twenty, asked “Is this a story about the power of the movies, or is this a story about, no matter what we think of the Stars and Stripes, this is such a waste, to have lost, this much?”

I’ve been a fan of John Hockenberry for over twenty years, from before I knew he was confined to a wheelchair. I don’t believe I will ever listen to him again. I had long admired his quiet perseverance, working in radio is a natural for someone with a disability, society judges on appearance more than talent, but Hockenberry worked in television also, reporting from Somalia, where once his chair was stuck in the sand. His insensitivity to the mother of a deceased child absolutely disgusted me, more so than his lack of respect for the sacrifice of a Navy SEAL.

So okay, there are wankers out there, and sometimes they end up in broadcast media. Life goes on.

Imagine my astonishment when the next morning I receive an email about Jake Tapper, who has made some money with his book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor”, and is currently a correspondent for CNN following a long run at ABC. During an interview with Marcus Luttrell, Tapper made similar comments. Lutrell is not a bereaved grey haired woman. He walked out of a hell that his brothers did not. Tapper received the appropriate response.

The film must be excellent, as it was capable of stripping away the professional veneers of these two journalists.

The value of service is not measured in the result of a single operation. Bad things happen, that’s why our military is there in the first place. Our men and women prepare for the worst of situations, recognizing the price of mistakes, and trusting their lives to their comrades and superiors. John Hockenberry and Jake Tapper are more than welcome to discuss the outcome of the Superbowl with the losing quarterback, but neither are qualified to (d)evaluate military service.

What would Jesus do?

There will be those among you who find this irreverent. That, I believe, is the point.

We are all too familiar with the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35 “Jesus wept”. There is no counterpoint, no scripture that reads “Jesus laughed”, but are we to believe that he delivered all of his parables without jest? Many stories invoke a sarcasm that must have been delivered with a smile, and I can’t see rejoicing, which Jesus often did, without a smile. As children flocked to him were they attracted by a scowl?

There are many individual moments in the Life of Jesus that are not recorded. There is a gap of eighteen years in the gospel, and much speculation as to what he might have done in that time. The purpose of the gospel is to reveal the critical moments in Jesus’ life, the intervening years summed up in Luke 2:52 “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man”.

Some Anglicans believe that Jesus traveled to England, there are Buddhists who believe he traveled to India. There is one story that he traveled to what is now Texas, where the crowds were fed with the meat of a pig that had been anointed with the holy trinity of spices, garlic, chili, and cumin, after which its skin was passed the length of assembly, often one hundred yards, the members of the crowd raising their hands to the sky each time the pigskin reached its goals. This theory is backed by the Mormons, who believe Jesus returned to North America after his crucifixion, on a Thursday in November, where he met with disciples from the UTA and A&M. Following this meeting the sunrise was marked with a maroon sky, and sunset skies were burnt orange. Meetings continue to this day, with groups of eleven men to signify the absence of Judas, led by a Messiah (or “Coach” in English) gathering every Sunday.

Interpreting an untold story can take you anywhere.

Which brings me to another untold story, what Jesus had to say about homosexuality.

Nothing.

Anything we attribute to Jesus on the subject is by inference. Maybe he didn’t mention it because it was obvious, like some of the other things he didn’t mention (bestiality, pedophilia). Maybe he didn’t mention it because it wasn’t important. What he did speak against was infidelity, and as same sex marriage was not mentioned, any homosexual acts would be outside of marriage.

So how did he treat those who committed the sin of adultery? In the eighth chapter of John, he comes across a woman accused of adultery, and is asked “Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?” to which he replies He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her“, and then finding himself alone with her says “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more“.

From this I infer Jesus’ teachings focus on that which is important. While adultery is a sin, judgement is reserved for God. Homosexuality may or may not be a sin, but judgement is reserved for God.

We are faced with many lessons on what we should and should not do, from following the Gospels it appears the more important a lesson, the more often it is repeated. Loving our enemies is mentioned repeatedly, forgiving transgressions is mentioned several times, and admonishments to reserve judgements to God number in the scores. Homosexuality, zero. So if we’re keeping score, it appears Jesus was much more concerned with what we should do than what we shouldn’t.

This is not to say our actions are unimportant, just that our positive actions are likely to be found more worthy of God’s grace than our negative actions would be of his retribution. But that all remains up to God.

 

 

College radio

When I was young, “College radio” meant a low power station operated by students. The music was often local unsigned acts that provided cassette tapes recorded in garages. It wasn’t unusual to have a minute of dead air a couple of times a day. DJs made horrendous mistakes, often providing unintended humor.

The methods have changed over the years, the first station I was involved with didn’t technically “broadcast”, it was just a channel on the school’s public address system. Lieve worked at a “pirate” radio station, which is still around but has gone legit. A friend does a weekly “radio” program (92.1, Brussels) but I’m able to listen to it here as it streams over the internet.

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A handbill for Lieve’s old radio station we found in Leuven

In Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania’s radio station is removed from the college entirely. WXPN pretends to be a college station, but its employees aren’t college students. Its leading host (David Dye) is nationally syndicated, and I believe his grandchildren have graduated from college. From his initial project with NPR, “World Cafe”, a small empire has risen.

World Cafe Live” is the name of two restaurants/concert venues. They are connected to WXPN in ways I can’t determine, weaving in and out of each others operations. WXPN is officially a National Public Radio station, and as such a non-profit organization. World Cafe Live is quite obviously a profit driven enterprise. I don’t know how they do it, but I’m glad they do.

Every Summer WXPN hosts the “XPN festival”, a three day concert with multiple stages, and acts ranging from local favorites to world class headliners. Tickets run about $25 a day, and access to the artists is incredible. Not only did I stand about twenty feet from Citizen Cope and Booker T, and within an arms length of Dar Williams and Gary Clarke Jr. on “stage”, there are meet and greet tents after every performance.

World Cafe Live hosts a variety of local and national acts in a theater with a capacity that ranges from 300 to 650 depending on whether there are tables or SRO. One miserable night in the middle of a storm we saw Martha Davis play a full set to about fifty people. Tickets are rarely more than $30, and every Friday there is a free mid-day concert, “Free at Noon”, which is broadcast live on WXPN. Next week we’re going to see Suzanne Vega. Free.

When we attend the evening concerts, we usually sit in the mezzanine, which is closer to the stage than most seats at large venues, and has comfy couch seats and cafe service. Having the band play in your home wouldn’t be quite as comfortable. We recorded this from our favorite seats.

Upstairs is the main restaurant, which also has a stage although I’ve never heard a band I liked there, mostly because the acoustics are suited to acoustic instruments, and the bands are usually amplified.

The food is good, innovative, and interesting. There aren’t near enough vegetarian options, which I found rather surprising considering the target clientele. The beer selection is robust, although they stopped carrying Stella Artois last year.

World Cafe Live also has charity events, and because of the odd relationship between World Cafe Live and WXPN, the charitable donation made to attend an event ends up paying for a membership to WXPN. We attend the “Musicians on Call” event every year, a fund raising concert for musicians who perform for patients in hospitals.

Being a member of WXPN has benefits, we get a discount at the Princeton Record Exchange and for the XPN festival, and early entry for the free at noon concerts.

This merging of enterprises, profit and non-profit, may not fit what we expect of the tax code, but I think it fulfills the intention of “non-profit”. It certainly fits the spirit of radio.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are fascinating. To me, they indicate a variety of things.

The first is essentially insecurity, there are monsters under the bed. The other is a feeling of helplessness, the monsters are everywhere. Yet another is actually a belief in basic human goodness, this can’t be the work of one man, it must be a conspiracy.

The JFK theories persist because we’re uncomfortable believing that one person, acting alone, could kill the President of the United States. It was easier for Hillary Clinton to put forward the idea of a “vast right wing conspiracy” than to acknowledge that her husband had a history of marital infidelity. Conspiracy theorists create a conspiracy of their own, a denial of rational thought, and anyone who disagrees with them is simply a member of the antagonistic conspiracy. Global Warming, a theory allegedly based in science, uses as its argument that people who don’t “believe” are “deniers”. There is no discussion of actual facts, just an argument of faith. Despite claims of a consensus being proven fraudulent, believers still invoke the claims. Doesn’t sound too scientific.

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Studies of people who believe in conspiracies show that the leading indicator of whether a person will believe in a conspiracy theory is if they believe in other conspiracy theories. That is not to say they’re gullible, there are just no other commonalities. We used to consider these people “foil hat wearing lunatics”, but as more and more people feel life is beyond their control, they are more likely to believe they are being controlled by evil cartels and a bad turn of fortune. We can call an uneducated Arab a fanatic terrorist and then justify torturing him without acknowledging our own fanaticism. People can praise the “Affordable Care Act”, embracing the name “Obamacare” and attacking the “evil conservatives” for fighting against it, but once it has taken effect the same people claim that the entire program was developed by the conservatives and pushed through congress by Republicans.

Subscribing to conspiracy theories requires a suspension of rational thought. Attempting to have a rational discussion on a topic with someone who has abandoned rational thought only results in frustration for both parties. It is not a question of logic, it is a question of faith. Global Warming has caused increased ice packs. The NSA has developed energy beams which they control you with through your computer. Vaccinations cause autism. The Illuminati are poisoning us with with chemicals sprayed by aircraft. There is an invisible planet that is streaking towards the Earth. Anything can be evidence, it doesn’t have to make sense.

There is no common background in people who believe in conspiracies. They come from the Left, Right, and Middle. Well educated people are as susceptible as the illiterate, because it has nothing to do with intelligence, although the “believers” almost uniformly accuse the “deniers” of inferior intelligence. Because it’s obvious to them. It isn’t a conspiracy theory to the people who believe it, it’s the truth. To them, the truth is the propaganda.

There is a lot of money to be made by manipulating who believe in conspiracies. “Secret documents” available only through the mail, “research” funding, and millions of website hits. Heroes of the cause, brave crusader’s who need your five dollar donation to continue spreading the “truth”. The twisted logic of the believer supports the crusader, who has been shunned by his colleagues due to his “refusal to bow to the establishment”. And that’s only the “wacky” conspiracies. The really big conspiracies thrive on the wealth of entire nations. Choose a conflict in the Middle East and one side is blaming the other of taking part in a multinational conspiracy.

Why do I mention all this? Because it hampers free thought. It masquerades as critical thinking while it is anything but. It can happen to anyone, and it can also be avoided by anyone.

It is healthy to question everything, including yourself. That’s what science is all about. Being able to accept and evaluate new data is how growth takes place. Being able to say “Well, that’s what I used to think, but I was wrong” is evidence of growth.

 

 

Gifts from my Grandmother

I have two objects that my grandmother Cash left to me. They may seem like an odd pair of things, but to me they are perfect in the way they keep her alive for me.

The first is a china cup. It appears to be from a collection, this one is decorated with chrysanthemums and says “November”

November cup

November cup

It was marked “BC” on the bottom, she had chosen a number of articles and marked them for distribution before her death. Many people in the family were born in November, but she chose to give this to me. I’m told that as a child I was fascinated with the cup, although it is so delicate I can’t imagine allowing a child to handle it.

My grandmother was a physically small woman, but I would never describe her as “frail”. She worked in her garden every day, and that might give the wrong impression also. Her garden consisted of several terraces descending from her home to the lake, hundreds of square feet, in addition to her vegetable garden, which was easily half an acre. She also had fruit trees and a small pecan grove.

She canned what she and my grandfather didn’t eat or trade, there wasn’t much that she purchased at the grocery store. What she didn’t grow someone else did, and she traded for eggs and other things as well. Most of their meat was from my grandfather’s hunting and fishing, I don’t think they kept any beef from his cattle. The freezer was always full, and there are probably still preserves in the garage, which was lined with shelves.

She was always working, and always smiling. When her health started to decline, it was initiated by a fall in which she broke her hip. She had osteoporosis and her bones were brittle, but she didn’t bother with doctors so even if she had known it wouldn’t have slowed her down. The inactivity of her convalescence is what I think really killed her.

The other item I have from her is a cast iron pan for corn bread rolls.

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Grand mommies cornbread pan

I loved my grandmother’s cornbread, although the closest I ever came to cooking with her was making Malt-o-meal. She taught me how to cook, and that might sound strange since we didn’t cook together. She taught me what Emma taught me and Carla Hall taught me. The most important ingredient is love. I’ve made cornbread in this pan a few times, most recently for my step son. He rarely pays compliments, so I was surprised when he spoke about it. She imparted so much love into that pan it still affects the cornbread, I had only used a mix that night.

The pan is heavy, and it reminds me of my grandmother’s strength. The cup is delicate and it reminds me of her soul. The fact that two simple objects could convey so much of her speaks to her simplicity. Grand daddy was the story teller, grand mommy was a woman of few words, they both touched many lives deeply.

Constitutional Rights

This is going to be part one of “Know your constitution” series. I intend to address the amendments sequentially, and tie the various articles together with links so that once completed the series will be easy to follow. In the meantime, the series will be published sporadically, at least one article a week, which I hope will not be too confusing. There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding out there, what the Constitution guarantees and what it does not.

First and foremost, the Constitution does not empower the government. It limits federal power. It is, essentially, a list of things the government cannot do. Continuing that thought, it does not address the public’s ability to do things. The right to free speech prohibits government censorship, if the newspaper won’t print your letter they are not violating your rights, they are using theirs.

That was one of the first lessons on freedom we learned in school. “Your rights end where my nose begins” was the phrase in Kindergarten. Kindergarten. Yet for some reason some college graduates don’t understand individual rights.

Many rights have been interpreted from the constitution. There is no “Right to Privacy”, however the Declaration of Independence says “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“, the fourth amendment reads “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”, and the fourteenth amendment states “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” from which has been derived the concept of a right to privacy. This does not apply to Facebook, only to the government. What you say in public is public. You have no right to privacy when you post your life story on the internet.

You have the right to pursue happiness, you do not have the right to happiness. Rights are not entitlements. This country was founded by people who went to war over a tax on their favorite breakfast beverage, the Constitution was written as a weapon against government, not as government social program. Each amendment limits government, it does not require the government to provide anything.

The Constitution does not become irrelevant when it is successful in holding down oppression any more than jails become irrelevant when they’re full of criminals. Just because homes haven’t been seized to house troops recently (to your knowledge) does not mean we need to eliminate the third amendment, it means the third amendment is working.

The Constitution remains a work in progress, the most recently ratified amendment, the twenty seventh, took effect in 1992. It was proposed in 1789. One amendment has been repealed, the eighteenth, only fourteen years after it was ratified. It is a document that lays out the limits and purposes of government, amended with the “Bill of Rights” which is the first ten amendments. You can read the Constitution by clicking here.

Next time I’ll start on the Bill of rights.

Special delivery

James Farley Post Office, Zip Code 10001

James Farley Post Office, Zip Code 10001

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds”. This is not the motto of the United States Postal Service, it is taken from an ancient Greek work of Herodotus describing the Persian system of mounted postal carriers c. 500 BC, the United States Postal Service doesn’t have a motto, if it did, it might be “That’s not in my contract”.

My house is not visible from the road, but it has been here for over one hundred years. United Parcel Service, Federal Express, and several pizza, curry, and Chinese restaurants manage to make sporadic deliveries. Our regular mailman finds us ninety nine percent of the time (I think some days he just doesn’t feel like driving up to the house).  When our regular mailman goes on vacation, his replacement can’t find us. Unfortunately, our regular mailman takes off a few weeks around Christmas every year in addition to his other holidays. So if you’re one of the many people who received the Christmas card you sent to us marked “No Such Address”, now you know why.

I’ve worked with people who thought their perceptions were indisputable. One technician I was training took a dirty roller out of a machine, and then, looking at the replacement part which was clean said “This part doesn’t go anywhere in this machine” because it didn’t look like the other part. It was clean. So I understand how a mailman might think an address didn’t exist because he couldn’t find it. But at least my technician asked me about the part before sending it back to the manufacturer. And my guy was pretty freaking stupid.

After I was notified by the first sender that my package had been returned, I tried to contact the Postal Service. This took just about two hours online, during which time I also listened to hold music waiting for someone at the post office to answer the phone. After going through an intricate maze of questions to email a complaint (including such relevant questions as “How much do you spend on postage each year”) I requested a response by email. I was then asked if I would like to take a survey about the postal service.

There is a reason we call violent outbursts “going postal”.

I have yet to receive a response to my complaint, but I did receive the survey, and a call from my mother verifying my address because her package to me had been returned. My mailman is back from his vacation so I’ve started receiving mail again, although in today’s snowstorm I’m sure there will be none. I’m not going out, and I don’t expect him to come in.

Lacking an interactive component, the survey was laughable. If I’ve answered that I did not receive a response to my complaint, do you expect me to be satisfied with the response? Am I supposed to be satisfied with this method of contact with the postal service? And again, two questions about how much money I spend at the post office. Maybe those questions should have been worded “After this experience, do you still intend to choose the United States Postal Service for your needs?”.

The answer is no. I already avoid the post office whenever possible, and I’ve registered complaints with other carriers who are now using the “ship to post office” option. A few years ago our wedding rings were shipped by Federal Express. In one day they traveled from the jeweler in Colorado to our local post office. Five days later they arrived at my door. When I complained to the post office they said they were only contracting for Federal Express. When I complained to Federal Express they said “Sorry, but we did our part”. I complained to the jeweler and they reluctantly refunded the extra I had paid for two day shipping. I had received the rings the day before the wedding, hadn’t I?

A few months ago we sent a legal package registered mail. It never arrived, the case was continued until the defendant could be notified. The tracking number was traced to a mail handling facility, and the trail ended there. “Sorry”. We had to contact the post office after the court told us we hadn’t contacted the defendant. Just assuming something will be delivered at all is apparently foolish. Registering a package just allows you to find out where the postal employees last saw it.

How do you know if the post office is doing it’s job? For me, if nothing arrives for a week I know something is wrong, but how do I know what I didn’t receive? All of my bills are online, but sometimes good news arrives in the mail. But now I have to consider that “No good news” just means that it may have been lost in the mail.

Update later this morning.

Not to be left out, Federal Express delivered a package this morning. A cardboard box, left in the rain on my entryway, addressed to the Drumthwacket organization. It was addressed correctly, to my next door neighbor (the Governor). Somehow the driver missed his house, with the big sign out front that says “Drumthwacket”, and was confused by the historical markers up and down the road. He found his way up my drive, and missed the enormous mansion next door.

They missed this for my house?

They missed this for my house?

The wonder of creation

I give you Colossians 1:16, “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him”

Outside my window this Sunday morning it is 30°F, with freezing rain on top of the ten inches of snow that fell the other day. Forecasts call for roller coaster temperatures this week, up to 45°F tomorrow then back to single digits. At first I thought it was going to be really cold, then I realized I was looking at Celsius temperatures rather than Fahrenheit.

All the people who had complained about the heat in Summer are now complaining about the cold, counting the days until Spring.

I have a coat and hat and gloves, when the weather warms I have a closet to keep them in.

If you’ve never seen an ice storm, where the rain freezes on contact with every surface, you’ve missed a beautiful event.

Our ice storm of 2/2/11

Our ice storm of 2/2/11

Beautiful and dangerous, as nature usually is. The weight of the ice can take down branches an entire trees, power lines come down, walking is requires your full attention and driving should wait until the roads have been salted, and then approached slowly and carefully. A word about salt while I’m here, various salts can be used to de-ice, but all salts do is lower the freezing point. Rock Salt lowers the freezing point to 15ºF which means this week it’s going to be as useful as sand. Calcium Chloride lowers the freezing point to -20°F, but at temps below 0°F it attracts moisture, creating a slippery surface of water on top of ice. This is the infamous “black ice” you’ve heard Northerners talk about.

As the weeks pass the crisp white blanket will turn brown, although sometimes the crocuses arrive before the snow leaves.

Crocuses poking through the snow

Crocuses poking through the snow

 

All this beauty surrounds us. Regardless of the temperature or our location, there are beautiful things to be seen everywhere. We just need to slow down and look, appreciate the gift of creation.

 

 

 

Flowers between the cobblestones, Gloucester 2010

Flowers between the cobblestones, Gloucester 2010

True Believers

I learned a new word today. “Takfirism“. Takfirism is an internal conflict within Islam, in which a “Takfiri” accuses another Muslim of failing to follow true Islam. 

Oddly enough, this morning I was reading an old email from a Muslim friend, in which she said “some Arabic words need 3 or 4 English words describe just one complete meaning of an Arabic word”. Learning about Takfirism, I realized we have the same concept in Christianity. I’m not certain that Catholics are Christians. How many time have you heard one person claim that another is not following the teachings of their church. In English, we use six words. “The pot calling the kettle black”. Typically Christians don’t kill Catholics except in Northern Ireland, but it hasn’t been unusual for Christians to uphold their belief in the right to life by depriving a doctor of his.

The word came up as I was going over some information from Iran. While the worldwide population of Muslims is about 90% Sunni and 10% Shia, in Iran that proportion is reversed. Takfiri is a term usually applied to fundamentalist Sunnis, and Iran is now using the term to blame all conflicts in Muslim countries on Takfirism, funded by Saudi Arabians and “other regional monarchies”. Apparently, geography and political science are not very popular disciplines in Iran, because the United States and Israel are often referred to as being among those regional monarchies.

I was following a story about the mourning for the eighth Imam of Shia Islam, Imam Reza, who had been poisoned in the year 818 on this date. I was a little confused, it was my understanding that martyrs went to paradise, shouldn’t they be happy for him? Yes, the cynical “I guess that’s how long 72 virgins last” crossed my mind, but after going over a couple of translations of verse o56.036 and it appears that the reward is perpetual virgins. Unlike suicide bombers who defy the Muslim prohibition against suicide, Iman Reza was a true martyr and should be seen as residing in paradise.

As I read further, it turns out the person who poisoned Imam Reza was the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun, a Muslim whose goal was to end the fighting between Shia and Sunni, an anti-Takfiri. So I’m not sure why he poisoned Reza and how Reza was a martyr for Islam if he was executed in accordance with Sharia. What is obvious is that Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun, though remembered as a judicious sovereign, failed miserably in joining the Sunnis and Shias.

So takfirism prevails, only today it’s the Shias claiming the Sunnis are not true to Islam, and claiming it is Sunni takfiris that are causing conflict.

Do you have a headache yet? I do.

My Muslim friend, a practicing Muslim, has difficulty interpreting the Qur’an. How am I supposed to understand Islam? I understand this much. Believers know that God will pass judgement after we leave this state of being. Non-believers think it is their job to pass judgement. Politicians blame unrest on the segment of the religion they don’t agree with. In those ways, Islam is like every other religion on the planet.

Happy Health Insurance Hotline

I don’t have health insurance. I don’t want to have health insurance. I don’t trust doctors, they have caused me more pain than relief.

Nonetheless, as an American citizen, I am required by law to sign up for health insurance. Were I single, it wouldn’t be a problem, I have no income and thus don’t file income tax, which is the only way the government can prosecute me for exercising my freedom of choice. That’s the funny thing about this administration. You have the right to choose as long as you choose what they tell you to choose.

My wife does file an income tax return, so unless we can figure out a way to declare me as a dependent so she can file as “Head of Household”, we’ll have to file a joint return or face a tax rate penalty.

So I went to the Wonderful Worldwide Web healthcare site, and although Healthcare.gov is linked to every government data base, they couldn’t get the NSA to verify who I was, even though they were watching me as I typed. Instead, they wanted a more trustworthy institution, The New Jersey department of motor vehicles. The New Jersey department of motor vehicles is a stickler for proper identification. After we married, they wouldn’t change Lieve’s name on her driver’s license, even after Social Security had changed her name to mine. They wanted it officiated by the Department of Homeland Security. I’ve never felt as safe as I do living in New Jersey.

The nice folks at Healthcare.gov gave me a bar code to print out, which would identify my documents with my healthcare file. I was amazed how clever this was. So I made photocopies of my drivers license and mailed them off with the bar code.

Two months later when I was hearing about how healthcare.gov had been fixed, I went back to the website. They still didn’t know who I was. They were able to accept digital copies of documents, so I uploaded my drivers license and social security card. Still nothing.

Now it’s January, and being the good citizen I am I gave it another try. I’ve been accused of having a dissociative personality thanks to parents who graced me with an unacceptable name, so I tried using a couple of different variations. It appears I do not exist. I may need healthcare to cover the emotional damage this episode has caused.

Today the website said I had exhausted the allowance of attempts to verify my identity online, so if I wanted I could upload my documents again. Wouldn’t that be on line? I tried to upload anyway, but it wouldn’t take the documents. Then a box popped up and asked if I’d like online chat assistance. Why not?

BrianaC was there to help me! I explained the problem. A few minutes later I asked if she was still there. She responded that this was an online chat and I would need to call the 800 number. I’m not sure what we were supposed to chat about, apparently something other than healthcare. At least she didn’t give me a 900 number to call.

I called the 800 number, and the most pleasant young man with a Southern accent answered. I thought maybe the NSA would be listening in and would just verify my identity, but they didn’t want to break cover.

First he wanted my ID number, but wasn’t sure where it would be on the website. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I stayed on the phone with him while he accessed my account. After trying everything he could think of, he said “Oh, I just got a message, we’re having trouble with the website”.

He must have hung up, he wasn’t there when I picked the phone off the floor. I was laughing so hard I just dropped it.

I am not worried. How can they prosecute me if I don’t exist?

Hoax hoaxes

‘Tis the season to be gullible.

By “season” I mean geologic age.

For all our talk about “the information age”, people are, by and large, more uninformed than at any other point in history. You read this on a computer screen, one web page among billions you could choose. You are bombarded with information, but unless you know how to sift through it, you are no more informed than an encyclopedia. Less so, because an encyclopedia rarely contains opinions.

This is the point I’ll start from, the difference between an opinion and a fact. The difference seems to evade many people, who use “opinion” and “fact” as interchangeable terms.

If you use Facebook, you may have noticed recently “related articles” following posted links. A friend posted an article lately, one that I have seen several times before. The article purports to be a “Cancer Update” from Johns Hopkins Hospital. It contains a number of “new age” ideas about curing cancer, and states that traditional therapies do not work. Having lost a loved one to cancer I was intrigued the first time I saw this a few years ago, but after reading a paragraph or two it was obvious that no one in the medical field would have ever written it. It is a dangerous hoax, possibly steering people away from life saving therapies, at best it only blames the dying for causing their own condition.

So I commented on her post, leaving a link to the snopes page debunking the “update”. I then noticed two related articles Facebook had attached to her post. One was a page from Johns Hopkins, declaring her post to be a hoax, the second was the snopes page. Anyone who came across this post would see the disclaimers and not be fooled right? Wrong. Another friend of my friend came along and posted “The article seems very accurate, even though it may not have been published by Johns Hopkins”. “May not”, with a denial from Johns Hopkins attached. He went on “Although snopes can also be accurate it has been known to ” sway” a story, years ago I checked on snopes about BPA in plastics. At the time snopes said the cancer reports were false”.

I offered to him that his ability to discriminate between facts and opinion was skewed. There is no evidence that BPA causes cancer. There is a great deal of speculation, which has spurred hundreds of studies, and still no causal link. But because he believed the rumor, he discredited snopes, which justified discrediting Johns Hopkins distancing themselves from the hoax. To this he replied “Thanks for your opinion”. The facts were my opinion, his opinions were the facts.

This is the environment that allows hoaxes to flourish. The Johns Hopkins Cancer Update hoax has been going strong since 2007. The BPA hoax has been alive since 2004. The correct information is available, buried under opinions.

Speaking of the environment…

The Global Warming Hoax continues, fueled (with the greenist of energies) by the best of self loathing intentions. The other day, it popped up within another hoax. Julian Lennon was publicizing the “anti-gravity moment”, now set for 4 January 2014 at 0947. This hoax has been around for almost forty years, dating from a 1976 April Fools joke. A reading of the article should shake one’s faith immediately, even if you didn’t know that British astronomer Patrick Moore died in 2012. Referring to a gravitational effect of “the planet Pluto aligned with the Planet Jupiter” might make anyone who is aware that Pluto has not been referred to as a planet since 2006 take pause. Of course, anyone who understood why Pluto is no longer referred to as a planet, because its mass is so insignificant, would know its gravitational effect on objects on Earth is ZERO. Nonetheless, numerous comments asked which time zone 0947 referred to, and one person said “Enjoy it while you can! With what we’re doing to this planet it won’t happen again!”.

Deep breath.

Yes, our pollution of the planet will cause it to change its orbit. Wow, if only our minds were as powerful as carbon emissions.

The next one would sound like a hoax, but isn’t. Despite the physical evidence, a group of free lance researchers (ironically offering a “warm feeling” in return for a $5 donation) headed into Antarctica to, among other things, collect data on Global Warming. They didn’t make it to their base camp on the Antarctic coast, their ship got stuck in the increasing polar ice cap. Not only that, but the rescue ship got stuck as well. You can’t make stuff like this up. Real scientists, on the other hand, acknowledge the Earth is actually in a cooling trend. Not that facts matter.

Sometimes just the source brings an article into question. That’s one reason I avoid linking to stories in FOX News, which is unfortunate. If the same information is published in multiple sources, why do I prevent FOX getting credit? Because almost half the population dismisses them out of hand. I caught a story the other day from the Iranian press. It was a marginally believable story about the pope. The Iranian press listed their source, so I checked it, and found it was a satire blog. It started as a joke, and a major outlet repeated it, and some people didn’t look any deeper, so it became the truth to seventy six million Iranians, and millions of others around the world who believe it, saying “The Western Press doesn’t report these stories”.

The silver lining to that episode is the person who initially publicized the story didn’t delete it, she edited it to indicate the story was a hoax, helping to slow its spread, and allowing the laughter the original satire piece deserved. In other situations I’ve frequently seen people say “It doesn’t matter, it sounds like something he’d say”, allowing the opinion to run over the fact.

We live in a world where a college football player plays into his own hoax of a dead girlfriend, continuing to “mourn” for her after he finds she’s not real. Millions of people say “What an idiot” and send money to a waitress who claims she wasn’t tipped because she’s gay. Turns out she was tipped, but she needs those donations because now she’s out of a job for lying. The biggest hoax of the year, the “Affordable Care Act”, continues to be spread, by people claiming how much help they have received. An amazing feat of time travel, as the act only takes effect today.

So I am clear, I am not suggesting you shouldn’t believe anything, I’m saying you shouldn’t believe everything. You should verify everything, even when it sounds believable, because that’s how hoaxes start. The believable lie, repeated over and over again, creates its own verification, popular support. If you don’t know that it is true, don’t repeat it.

Don’t be insulted when people question you, be happy you have intelligent friends. Show them how intelligent you are by backing up your words with facts. Real facts, not just opinions.