Caring for loved ones

We saw a film last night, “Transcendence” with Johnny Depp. It was a thought provoking film, at least it was for me, although I’m not sure what thoughts it might provoke in others. This article contains information that may be considered “spoilers,” but I will not give anything but my interpretations away.

The film tells the story of a human consciousness loaded into a computer. Not a laptop, or even a Cray, but a massive computer using thousands of “quantum processors”, the size of a building. In the story, Depp’s character, “William”, is developing an artificial intelligence program along with several other researchers, all of them approaching the problem from different angles. An anti-technology terrorist group attacks the various facilities, killing several scientists and mortally wounding William. One of the scientists had successfully loaded a monkey’s consciousness into a computer, and Williams wife believes she can keep William alive by uploading his consciousness.

The plot takes several turns, and is open to a variety of interpretations, but one central question is “Is the consciousness expressed by the computer really William?” The answer to that question requires knowledge of who William truly is, and the extrapolation of what that person would do in the given situation. There are hints for either a positive or negative answer.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the viewers have lives of their own, and they might consider what they might do were they William. In my life, I am in the midst of a conversation about the the appropriate care for loved ones. Perhaps that colors my interpretation of the film.

Sometimes we have to make difficult choices. The choices are not difficult if viewed through a simple filter, as a machine might view the choice. What makes the decisions difficult is because as humans, we do not have the opportunity to view the world through a single filter. Every decision we make has multiple effects and consequences, and what may be right from one point of view is wrong from another. We have to balance the reality of today, the debts of the past, and the uncertainty of the future. What is the best thing we can do for a loved one, considering that a major factor is the totally unknown influence of unknown events of the future? The truth is, we have no idea what we’re doing and can only do what feels best right now.

We can only hope our loved ones know we have the best of intentions and are doing what we believe is in their best interests. We trust them to trust us. At one point the consciousness says to William’s wife “you’ve changed.” The irony of measuring change by the reaction to one’s own changes was striking.

One aspect of the film which makes it  difficult to determine if the computer consciousness is William is that William was a human being, with skin and blood and a brain limited by the boundaries of human intelligence. The computer is capable of seeing a much bigger picture, analyzing literally all the data in the world. If the person that was William was suddenly capable of doing the things the computer could, would it still really be William? Are we the same people we were twenty years ago? Any change in circumstance affects the way in which we make decisions.

In the end, we are like the loved ones for whom we make decisions. We determine, from our own prejudiced position, if the end result was William’s plan, or the effect of William’s foes plans. Was this massive intelligence benevolent, or self serving? Was the change that took place an improvement for mankind? I think it was.

The assistance we give to others is not always accepted with a smile. I am of the “Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime, give a man a fish, and he eats for one day” school. So again, my personal prejudices may have tinted my interpretation of the film, mine was certainly different than my wife’s, because at the end of the film, I felt William had been a good caregiver, providing for the survival of a species, whether they liked it or not.

I hope I have piqued your interest in this film, I would like to see it become a landmark in our cultural literacy, but the message may be too dark for those that are happy to just know where their next fish is coming from. But then, I suppose that is the point I saw in the film.

Mixed Marriages

I have a mixed marriage, by which I mean my wife is an atheist, and I am not.

I phrase it that way for a reason. The choice is not Atheism or (name a religion), the choice is Atheism or any religion.

Most folks just aren’t wired to consider a range of views. It is ever so much easier to view the world as “us” and “them”, simple binary terms of “with us” or “against us”, and I have noticed a growing insulation, “us” is turning into “me.” It does not need to be this way, with the ease of communication there is no reason for people to be less informed about the world than they were in the past.

There’s a word for people who are uninformed. It is not considered a compliment, nor should it be. Anyone can be misinformed , but to be uninformed is to be ignorant. In 2014, to be uninformed is a conscious choice. I cannot understand why anyone would choose ignorance, I would say I do not want to understand, but I would like to know. Understanding ignorance carries the danger of finding mental numbness attractive.

I have tried to understand atheism, it is a belief system, and like any religion should be evaluated by any seriously spiritual person. Yes, it is a religion. It is based on faith, a faith without evidence, no different than any other religion including my own. I believe that God speaks to me. For someone who has closed their mind to God such a claim is absurd, bordering on mental illness. The Atheist believes that God does not exist. For someone who speaks to God such a claim is absurd, bordering on blindness.

But atheism is not a block, a single set of beliefs, anymore than any other religion. Within Christianity there are two major sects, Catholicism and Protestantism, and within those sects thousands of divisions. There are probably a hundred groups calling themselves “Baptists”, many of whom would not care to be in the same room with each other. Atheism is similar, because there is nothing uniting about rebellion, and often rebellion is the root of atheism.

Choosing not to believe in God is not quite as simple as it might sound. Which God? By definition, atheism is the belief that no God exists, not the Christian’s Gods, or the Muslim’s Gods, or the Hindu’s Gods (I use the term “Gods” when referring to monotheistic religions because the different sects within the religion define God differently). Most if not all atheists stopped at the first God they ran into, the God of their family religion.

Richard Dawkins, who presents himself as a professional atheist and “rationalist”, suggests in his book “The God Delusion” that “a supernatural creator almost certainly does not exist and that religious faith is a delusion” which is fairly astray from rational if he actually is an atheist. “Almost certainly does not exist” is not quite the same as “does not exist”, so it would appear the one who is deluded is the wanker who paid twenty six dollars for a book about atheism. Dawkins has argued against creation, and intelligent design, for decades, yet he admits the existence of a creator. He just refuses to call him “God”. He is in this way no different from the people who call themselves “Baptists” and spread hate. They both have defined God to suit their own ungodly interests. They both serve their own egos, swindling other confused souls to provide them with a living.

 

 

If you have watched the video, you may find yourself uncomfortable with someone who refers to himself as a scientist claiming “no one knows how the creation of the universe began.” I’m pretty sure everyone knows how it began, we’re just quibbling over who pushed the “Start Universe Here” button. To hear him state the universe didn’t just “pop into existence” must be confusing not only to all the religious people of the world, but also to those who subscribe to a creator-less “big bang”. It thoroughly baffles a person like me who believes that the big bang was God’s method of creation. But then, con men rarely make sense if you actually listen to them.

There are as many ways to not believe in a God as there are to believe in a God, and the arguments all come to the same point. We all believe something, what we believe is between us and eternity.

 

Something wrong with that story

There are plenty of times when a story just doesn’t sound right. If it is an important story, you investigate further, like when you got that letter saying your house had been scheduled for demolition. When it is an unimportant story, you tend to say “Hmmm, that’s odd” and move on. Usually.

A couple of days ago, a teenager stowed away on an aircraft by climbing into the wheel well. Apparently he wasn’t aware the craft was on its way to Hawaii. The flight is about five and a half hours long, and there is no inflight movie in the wheel well. Or Oxygen. Surviving the flight was pretty much a miracle, at 38,000 feet the temperature drops to levels that won’t support human life, somewhere between forty and eighty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. He was wearing a t-shirt. Incredible. What’s the weather for tomorrow?

News outlets have hung onto this story for days now. Initially, despite security footage of the kid climbing out of the wheel well in Hawaii, “experts” declared the story to be a hoax. Because, you know, it’s much more likely the kid had teleported from his home in San Jose California. He was in Hawaii, he didn’t have a ticket or any identification, how else might he have gotten there? So the finest medical minds in the world were tasked with coming up with an explanation. Those minds were apparently not needed in the search for a cure for cancer, so they were able to focus on this incredibly unimportant story. The theory is the kid went into hibernation. Wonderful. Can we move on now?

Not yet. It seems the reason the story is still a headline is because the public needed an explanation. Not an explanation of why the kid survived, but an explanation of why the “experts” could be wrong. Okay, I got it, they made a mistake. Is there any time left to tell us about what is happening in Ukraine? No, but you can squeeze in a story about the kid’s social life?

A story that did crowd its way into the broadcast this morning was about a shooting in Utah. In the last eight hours this story has been diminished from any prominence, it may still make the evening news but I wouldn’t be shocked if it disappeared.

During a trial in Federal court, the defendant (who was supposed to be handcuffed) lunged at a witness. Some, but not all, reports suggest he may have armed himself with a pencil. Fortunately Federal Marshalls were on hand to assassinate subdue the assailant. The story doesn’t make sense for a couple of reasons, unless you believe in a conspiracy to avoid trial by murdering the defendant, and then it makes perfect sense.

Interviews with witnesses (more  than one) describe two sets of gunfire. Four rounds fired slowly, by which I mean over the course of two seconds, a pause, and then five rounds fired rapidly. All wounds were to the defendant’s chest. If just that description isn’t painting a picture in your mind, one of the witnesses used his hands while speaking. Arms horizontal in an isosceles stance “Boom, boom, boom…boom” then the witness lowers his arms, as if aiming at something on the ground, delays about two seconds and says rapidly “boom boom boom boom boom.” I don’t know how credible this witness is, but the two verbal descriptions were identical, and remembering the cadence and playing it back is how I was trained to count the number of rounds fired. The subject was stopped, and then finished off.

Something about this story doesn’t make sense. Unless, of course, you consider a sinister motive. That alone makes this an important story. One that would ordinarily require more investigation. The amount of subsequent investigation will suggest just how sinister the motivation is, whether there are people who would prefer you not know the answers to questions you might have. Sometimes the real story is in which stories are not told.

But by all means, we need to know how the kid survived the flight to Hawaii. That should be allotted at least four minutes of airtime every broadcast until all the experts who called it a hoax can hold their noses high again.

 

Easter Sunday

easteregg5

The birth of the Easter Bunny

On the odd chance you are from some far away, heathen culture, say England perhaps, I’ll be sharing the story of Easter today.

Matthew tells the story like this, in his twenty eight chapter:

 “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word.And as they went to tell his disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him.10 Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done.12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.14 And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.16 Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.17 And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted.18 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
If you are just coming in to the story, in the previous chapter Jesus had been put to death, and sealed in the sepulchre, so finding him walking down to Galilee was rather amazing. The “other Mary” is Jesus’ mother. There are no eggs or hares in the story (or bells, which is a European version of the egg story, in which bells fly from Rome to deliver Easter eggs).
Easter Bells

Easter Bells

This is the story as told in the Bible. A recent survey of English schoolchildren found over one in four (25%) believe Aesop’s Tortoise and Hare are featured in the story. That’s pretty good, because over four in ten English schoolchildren (40%) are not Christian, which means more than  one in three non-Christians (13% 0f the total children, assuming that 100% of the Christians got the question right) are aware Aesop didn’t write the Bible. How much do you know about other religions? If you are a Christian, were you aware that Jesus’ mother was so unimportant after giving birth to him she is referred to only as “the other Mary”? How much of your own religion do you believe only because you have heard about it?
Easter is the most celebrated of Christian holidays, in that more Christians recognize the holy significance of their savior rising from the dead than his birth. Consider that. Easter is a celebration of life, life following death. Eggs represent life, so they have become intertwined with this holiday. A final parable if you will.
The product of a mixed marriage, rabbits and bells

The product of a mixed marriage, rabbits and bells

If you search the internet for “Easter”, the first page of results is unlikely to refer to the Bible at all. You will find references to favorite candies and how many calories they contain, egg hunts, and I came across one story about PETA protesting the use of eggs at the White House. A lot of stories, but somehow the guy who came back from the dead didn’t make the news.
Toady is Easter Sunday, the day we celebrate Life in the message from a man who died and returned. Perhaps we can honor his last wish, one so important he crossed the void to deliver it in person, “observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Observe (in the sense of “analyze” and “discover”) your religion, read your holy book. Maybe you will find the things you took issue with are not even in there. Maybe you will find new reasons to follow more closely.In the spirit of Christ rising from the grave, bring your faith back to life today.

One in a million

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Mandelbrot set

The Mandelbrot set

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Death and Taxes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seventeenth amendment reads as follows;

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

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

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

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

 

 

Choosing a doctor

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t have diabetes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Verjaardag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another day at the office

Another day at the office

 

 

 

“Don’t do what I did”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, a random yahoo on the street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Blessings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The horror

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

syria

 

Warning

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

Link to “LiveLeak”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway.

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

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

 

 

Obfuscation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

C is NOT for “cookie”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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