Tom Pittman's WebLog

(or something like that)

2008 August 30 -- The Great American Novel (Part 2)

OK, I kept back one John Grisham novel, The Client. It's much better than The Chamber, with suspense and life-and-death risk and a plucky hero. There was suspense in Chamber too, but it felt formulary.

That got me to thinking again about what makes a novel "good". You need suspense and risk to drive the plot. You need to talk about some field you know, so that the descriptions won't come off lame, like so many of Crichton's computer technology scenes. My new insight today is religion. Religion is what you believe so strongly that you don't want to be confused by facts. It gets in the way of a good story. If you put religious themes into your novel, they draw attention away from the story and annoy the people who don't care about those themes -- like me and the death penalty in Chamber.It's even more annoying to people who strongly disagree, like me and abortion in Case of Need. And since the people who agree with your religion don't need persuasion, I suspect it's boring to them too.

Unrelated, but still prompted by Client, is the moral dilemma of being compelled to testify against the Mafia. Grisham keeps reminding his readers that "the Mafia never forgets." He seems to believe you cannot invoke the Fifth Amendment if you are merely an innocent bystander who happens to know something that the Mafia does not want revealed. It only happens in fiction, of course, but suppose I found myself on the stand:

"Do you swear to tell the whole truth?"

"No" [Matt.5:14]

"Tell the court what you saw."

"Let me see if I understand your question correctly. You want me dead. You are threatening my life by coercing me to answer this question. Let the record show that the questioner wants the witness to suffer a cruel death, and is intent on bringing it about by compelling testimony. This is what I saw..."

That looks a lot like the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment to me, where the witness is being deprived of life, liberty, and/or property without due process. You still have to answer (and die), but your heirs and family could bring suit against the government for conspiracy to commit wrongful death. The moral issue here resonates, and the press would eat it up. Even their witness protection program would be no help in my case, because who is going to maintain BibleTrans?

2008 August 26 -- Half Are Below Average

Some of Michael Crichton's novels were real page-turners, others were duds. I didn't think about it until today, when I finished a dud of a John Grisham novel, but half of anything you experience is going to be "below average". The best of Grisham's novels -- I'm thinking of The Firm and The Pelican Brief, the first two I read -- are not as compelling as a good Crichton novel. I have three more I got out of the library, but I think I will take them back and look at Tom Clancy for a while.

John Grisham is opposed to the death penalty, and his arguments in The Chamber are repetitious to the point of being political. This makes the book tiresome to anyone with an opposing view, or even with no opinion at all. Maybe his other books are better, but I won't know. At least not for a while.

2008 August 25 -- FrankenPeanuts (Part 2)

About a month ago my sister came for a visit. She brought with her a freezer chest full of culinary delights.

When I was in California, a couple hours drive away, I would often go over to her place and come home with a shopping bag full of "TV dinners", small containers full of frozen leftovers. She is a very good cook, and her culinary arts far excel the $1 specials I buy in Wal-Mart or the occasional can of beans I can warm up for myself. Now that she is in another state, we see each other much less often.

Among the other goodies was a partly-used bag of store-bought breaded somethings, which she just threw in as a filler. I recently got around to looking at it: "Not designed for microwave preparation" the label said. I was supposed to deep-fry it.

Being, as I imagine myself, a clever sort of person, I thought about a pint of peanut oil in the fridge, accumulated from being poured off each jar of peanut butter. I would fry them in peanut oil.

Big Mistake. "Too clever by half," as one colleague once used to say. In other words, not smart at all.

The oil got nicely hot, and I dropped some of these nuggets into the hot fat, and it started to foam up. That's normal, I thought, the water is boiling off. I lifted the pan off the burner, but the foam kept rising. I took it all the way off the stove and onto the absorbant papers I has set up for draining the fried goods -- but not before it boiled over onto the burner and the stove and everything.

Maybe there is a natural surfactant in peanut oil. I told my sister about it, and she said "You can't use peanut butter oil for frying." Now she tells me. "Just put them into the toaster oven," she  said. I tried that. They were awful. The ones I successfully fried in the peanut foam tasted much better. I guess I will make a trip to the grocery for some cooking oil.

PS, with store-bought soy oil, they cooked up fine: bubbled vigorously as normal for fat hotter than 212, but no foam. And tasted great.

2008 August 21 -- Micro-Gardening

As usual, WIRED runs articles that sound credible -- until you do the math. This month Clive Thompson is promoting back-yard and window-sill veggie gardens. He said "The blueberries I had for lunch came from halfway around the world, in the process burning tons of CO2." I don't think so.

Let's suppose they indeed came from Chile or New Zealand, both common sources of winter fruits in the USA. CO2 doesn't burn at all, but let's assume he meant "burning carbon to make tons of CO2." To make one ton of CO2 requires some 700 pounds of refined fuel -- probably jet fuel, since the blueberries would not survive the weeks a trip by sea takes -- but even the cheapest petro-fuel , at 6.84 pounds per gallon (jet fuel) which sells for about $2, each ton of CO2 "burned" would add $200 to the price of his blueberry lunch. I don't think so. No grocer in the country would sell blueberries costing more than $200 per serving.

The rest of his rant exhibits the same innumeracy.

20 years ago I grew some of my own vegetables in my backyard. One tomato plant produced far more tomatoes than I could possibly eat, during the one- or two-month harvest season. The rest of the summer it produced nothing but large green caterpillars, which if I didn't pick them off every day, I got no tomatoes at all. The income I could (but did not) earn because I was out watering and removing caterpillars and weeds came to something like $100 per week, $2000 each year. Now I buy tomatoes all year long, and spend less than $50 for the whole year. Pound for pound of tomatoes on my plate, even after paying income tax on the extra money I earn instead of tilling the garden, I pay less than 1% for my store-bought produce than the net cost of growing my own. And I get them all year. Why bother with the garden?

Tomatoes were the only successful crop I ever had out of that garden. I tried celery (no edible celery, but after it grew to over 6 feet tall, I got a quarter cup of celery seed to liven up my celery-less salads), lettuce (snails got to it before I did), cabbage (open leaves, no head), corn (a dozen kernels on each of three ears), beans (about five pods), zucchini (took over the whole back yard, but did yield a couple 5-pound squashes), and so on.

I guess it was fun, but not worth the time.

2008 August 19 -- Is Heaven Our Houston?

The Radio Bible Class has been around for many years. My mother listened to Dr.DeHaan when I was in high school. Usually their stuff is pretty good, but I saw one of their tracts today that isn't. It was titled "Listening" (the online version looks like it may not have a permanent link; I Googled the subtitle words "Is Heaven Our Houston?" in quotes to find it).

The current generation of DeHaan (son? grandson? I don't know) tries to make a false distinction between listening and obeying, as if somehow listening is a good thing, but acting on what you hear is not. He even admits that it's the same word in Greek. Obeying God is not possible without listening to what God is saying, but it is conceivable that you could listen and hear, and then like looking in the James 1:24 mirror, go away with no change in your behavior.

Most evangelical Christians in America -- perhaps including DeHaan, although he did not use the word in this tract -- call that "relationship". The notion of "relationship" as used by them has nothing at all to do with Biblical Christianity.

DeHaan focusses on this distinction he is trying to make. He wants to get people out of "authority-based thinking" (where you obey God because He is God), and instead you just listen. The distinction is false. Listening is good, but only if it leads to accepting the authority of God. DeHaan doesn't like that idea. He calls it "self-righteous" -- nevermind that the righteousness of the obedient servant of God flows from God, not ourselves.

Jesus said that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. You cannot obey God grudgingly. Either you accept God's absolute authority to be Lord over everything, or He is not Lord at all. Maybe DeHaan's objection is not so much against obedience as it is against the "grudging compliance" (his words) in a few superficial areas that people can see. If so, he is really complaining against hypocrisy. He should say so, rather than misleading people into thinking obedience is unnecessary or unimportant.

2008 August 18 -- Next

Michael Crichton is losing it.

The farther he ranges from his core competence (science), the lousier his "novel" is.

Next is his most recent novel, published in 2006. It's a loose collection of barely connected mini-plots organized around a paranoid and completely ignorant misunderstanding of the law and a political agenda for changing it. Crichton is a scientist (actually a medical doctor), not a lawyer, and his ignorance shows. Even the Amazon reviews were large negative.

Crichton's other novels are far more readable. If you want to understand Next, don't bother reading the 95-chapter story, just skip to the "Author's Note" at the end and read that.

Here follows a summary of the five points in his Note, and why they are bogus:

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2008 August 16 -- The Great American Novel

It's been more than a couple months since I downloaded and watched the last of the movies they would let me get. Most of their recent posts are high-resolution files several hundred megabytes in size, and the site now aborts downloads after 2 hours. The local DSL here could do some of those big files in less, but their servers are Linux and therefore can't perform.

Before that I was picking up multi-movie DVD albums in Wal-Mart's $5 bin. Those are all gone too. They had some $1 DVDs for a while, but no more. Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives out good."

Then I learned that the local library lends out DVDs, two per week. This artificial bottleneck will only postpone the day when I have seen everything on their meager shelf.

So what to do in the evenings when my eyes are too bleary from programming to focus on the computer screen? I'm back to reading fiction. I've long since finished off the novels in my own library, but the public library does not bottleneck books. Today I started on the last of the Crichton novels in their collection, after a slight hiatus reading a couple Grisham thrillers. I got to thinking, I wonder if I could write?

It was a dark and stormy night...
These words by Edward Bulwer-Lytton were immortalized by Charles Schultz' Snoopy, trying to become the next great novelist. I'm a lot like Snoopy. I think I can do it, but I'm probably only deceiving myself.

Both Michael Crichton and John Grisham are excellent story tellers. There are several factors working in their favor. Each writes about a context where they are professionally competent. Crichton studied medicine -- earned an MD, but dropped out of residency to write novels -- so he knows science. When his stories stray from his core expertise, they become less credible. Grisham dropped out of being a lawyer to write novels -- see a pattern here? -- so his core competence is the practice of law, and that's what he writes well about. I know computers, I could write about that.

All of the novels I have read so far are about money and power and corruption and life-and-death crises. "The love of money is the root of all evil," the Good Book tells us, and everybody seems to love it. I guess my romance is recent enough I might could write credibly about the love of money -- hey, why would I even consider trying, if it weren't for the fact that these authors sell millions of books. That's money. I have a bigger problem understanding how people think about the trade-off between power and death. I have never cared much about either one. If I cannot understand people here, I can't write a story they would want to empathize with.

Unlike Snoopy, I'm honest enough to admit when I can't succeed, and not waste a lot of time trying.

2008 August 14 -- Unintended Consequences

He's a deacon at church, and he was trying to encourage me. "They can't say anything negative about you," he confidently assured me. He's in middle management, so he knows what employers are and are not allowed to say about somebody they fired.

I'm not encouraged.

When nobody is permitted to tell the truth about a firing, then anybody considering this guy for future employment must assume the worst. The law -- if that's what it is -- might have good intentions, but the road to someplace is proverbially paved with good intentions. The unintended consequence is that nobody wants to hire a guy they cannot find out what happened. I can (and will) tell them the truth, but they can't verify anything.

The facts are pretty clear that I was unlawfully terminated. The law says you cannot fire a person in retaliation for filing certain kinds of complaints. Silly me! I believed them. Of course they can fire you. They can fire you for any reason they want. They just can't tell you about some reasons. They refused to tell me. The administrator with hiring and firing responsibility was very good at not telling me, but some of his colleagues up and down the chain let enough facts slip through that I know why. A lawyer once told me we could win in court, but I'm not into suing people. Suppose I did? Who would hire somebody known to sue his employer? For that matter, who would hire somebody fired "for reasons unspecified"? I asked the administrator if he would, and he didn't answer. He knows what the consequences of his action are, even if the legislators didn't.

Unintended consequences.

A few years ago the environmentalists got an "Endangered Species" law passed. The unintended consequence of that foolish law is that it greatly increased the extinction of endangered species. Everybody now knows about "The Three S's: Shoot, Shovel, and Shut up." Spotted owls don't have a chance.

I wish the lawmakers would just go home.

Gridlock is a good second best, but that doesn't look too promising this year. sigh

Everybody wants "change" and they will get it. Just not the kind of change they want. I suspect they would vote against it if a certain senator told them the truth about his political agenda, but what can I say? This is the state where the voters voted government-funded human cloning into their state constitution.

Unintended consequences.

2008 August 7 -- What Would MacGyver Do?

MacGyver the TV program -- at least the ones I watched: my sister bought the whole 7-season series on DVD, but I've only seen the first four seasons -- is about cleverly adapting the laws of physics + some quick thinking + several unlikely odds and ends, to solve an immediate problem and save the day. OK, the physics is mostly bogus -- credible, the way Darwinism is credible, but not much more likely to actually work. Like a match-head size dab of sodium packing enough energy to blow a 2-foot hole in a concrete wall, or a poster-sized map duct-taped by its four corners to the side of a hot-air balloon stopping the leakage of hot air from a bullet hole three feet from the huge opening over the burner -- a piece of duct tape over the hole would actually seal it, or he could just ignore it because the amount of hot air that would leak out of a 1-inch hole is insignificant compared to the 10-foot hole three feet away, but the story was about all the things he could do with the map.

There was lots of faked physics. Water is not the only substance that expands when it freezes, it's just the most common. Lead does too, which is why they use it in printer's type and in solder. A tiny dribble of melted ice will refreeze long before it reaches the hole in the back of the freezer door lock four feet away, and even if it arrived still liquid, it's not enough to break the lock. Stuff like that.

Security issues were even more flagrant. One early show had MacGyver fashioning a lock-pick out of the steel filament supports in a light bulb. That was credible. In most of the later shows he just used one of the blades in his ubiquitous Swiss army knife, which is absurd. Maybe they do it on purpose to prevent people from copying what they see and breaking into places, but no TV show ever accurately shows how hard it is to disable alarm systems (not even close: I used to program them, so I know); MacGyver was no different.

But the TV show was jolly good fun to watch, because it was about a smart guy doing smart things. The good guy(s) win by the hero being good, not just by dumb luck. Well, lots of dumb luck too, but MacGyver had to be smart to take advantage of it.

Other people seem to have seen some of the same theme. Along comes this book, What Would MacGyver Do? It purports to give real-life examples of MacGyverisms, people cleverly doing something to save the day, the way MacGyver would. Unfortunately, the physics in MacGyver is bogus, and the availability of suitable fortuitous bits of junk that would solve the problem at hand is more theatrical than real. It doesn't happen that way in real life because it cannot. So only a tiny fraction of the anecdotes actually do something with bits of stuff, and most of them are pretty simple and obvious with a single component, like holding pants cuffs in place with paper clips, or using a garden hose to siphon some water out of a swimming pool. One jerry-rigged air conditioning unit involved several unobvious parts and enough complexity to deserve the name MacGyver.

Everything else was about clever ways to say things. That's not MacGyver. He had a distinctively modest way of saying things, but that wasn't MacGyverism, it was the physics and the contraptions that made the show what it was. I was also put off by the way the book wallowed in debauchery. I can't recommend the book. Watch the show. It's fiction, but without even a hint of bad morals. Which is more than I can say for some other books (also fiction) I have been reading lately.

2008 August 2 -- Timeline

The science in Timeline is probably no better than Prey, but at least it doesn't have the religious underpinnings of Darwinism. Quantum physics is indeed very hard to understand, but explaining single-photon interference patterns by multiple parallel universes has some testability problems. However, precisely because it is so hard to understand, it's therefore much harder to find somebody -- like me in the case of Prey and Jurassic Park -- who knows the science well enough to prove that it's bogus.

In Timeline the inconsistencies prove the science is bogus. Crichton is at pains to tell us that tunnelling through quantum foam jumps to a parallel universe; it is not true time travel -- and then his whole story hinges on the fact that it really is time travel (jumping to an earlier time in this same universe and leaving artifacts for the modern people to find) that he is telling about. If it were merely a parallel universe, then leaving artifacts there would affect that universe's many parallel futures, but it could never merge back into our own present.

So Crichton wrote a time-travel novel, then added some arcane quantum pseudo-science to make it plausible. It's still a great novel. Crichton did his historical homework more thoroughly than his science. Or maybe he was able to do his history homework.

There are some good historical insights unbecoming a good evolutionist. In the stream of consciousness of one of his principle characters, he rejects the "unconscious assumption that men of the past were weaker or slower or less imaginative than he was, as a modern man." This is fully consistent with the real world predicted by a creationist perspective. The rejected assumption is Darwinistic and popular. The real-world perspective makes his novel much more compelling.

Crichton also tackles the classic time-travel conundrum, going back and killing your own grandfather. He says it's not possible. "You remain what you always were, a spectator. A single person can do little to alter events in any meaningful way. Of course great masses of people can 'change the course of history.' But one person? No." The same conclusion I came to a month ago in "The Worse Villain".

For all the effort Crichton put into studying medieval languages for this story, he failed rule #1 in polylinguistic stories: Puns don't translate. Our hero has travelled back to 1357AD and is already a master of the culture and knows the local language, which with a little sci-fi tech help he can now speak fluently. A few pages ago he has been introduced to the beginnings of tennis, and now the Abbot complains that "So many soldiers ruin the game." The reader is expected to follow our hero in wondering "What game is that?" Tennis? How could large numbers of soldiers ruin tennis? But this is a pun on the modern English word "game" which can refer either to rule-based sports, or to animals you hunt to eat. In other languages those are two completely different words, so there would be no confusion. Earlier in the book Crichton goes to great lengths to show the differences between the Occitan (olde Englishe) of the period and modern English. Now he simply ignores it where it would be most significant. The story wins over the facts.

But a jolly good story it is, anyway.

2008 July 28 -- No Case of Need

It was an ugly novel. The author himself, by using a pseudonym, acknowledged that it was ugly. Published a year before the best-seller Andromeda Strain convinced Michael Crichton to give up medicine and become a full-time writer, he obviously was unwilling to let his chauvinistic beliefs about abortion destroy a future medical practice.

Abortion is ugly. The only people who believe in it are the "male chauvinist pigs" who want to exercise their misogynist libido without fear of consequences -- and some of their victims, usually before the fact. Men want abortions, women do not. That was just as true in 1968 as it is today. The male-dominated media does not report the facts, not in 1968 when Crichton published Case of Need, and not today. Case of Need was written by a man, and most of the characters in it who favor abortion are men. That part is accurate. Most of the people I know who vocally favor abortion (or oppose pro-life activism) are men, and most of the people I know who vocally favor life are women.

"The trouble with this country," he said, "is that the women have no guts.They'd rather slink off ... than change the laws. The legislators are all men, and men don't bear babies; they can afford to be moralistic." [p.126]
That's still true today. Women have a God-given desire to protect their children. Men are different.

In 1968, five years before the all-male King SCOTUS legislated a right that more than three quarters of the USA population never wanted, most of the Christians had fallen asleep on the job. Crichton correctly associated the vocal pro-life attitude in his novel with Roman Catholics. I am ashamed I and my protestant colleagues were not among those voices at that time. Francis Schaeffer did not serve us a wake-up call for more than a decade.

We did wake up. There are more pro-life people in the USA today than when the dastardly deed was done. Young people are reportedly 53% pro-life. Only a tiny minority ever wanted what SCOTUS gave us, but a growing majority now want what they took away.

Barack Obama, are you listening? We care.

It is not enough to make abortions "safe, legal, and rare." Hillary's team gave us that -- well, one out of three ain't so bad, is it? Hillary is out of the game now, but it seems to be Obama's agenda too. We want to see some change. Start by fixing the racist genocide started in 1973.

2008 July 21 -- Neo-Gnosticism

The sermon topic was the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. I am in wholehearted agreement with that theme. I disagree with the way he chose to argue it. It reminded me of another misplaced rant from the same pulpit (different preacher) a few years ago, which criticized as "legalism" (salvation by works) the dress code in another congregation. Neither that legalist critic, nor his victims in the other church, believe that salvation is other than by the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross alone. That is also true of the recent complainant.

The violators he chose to pick on believe that the science of psychology can offer some useful insights into human behavior. They are conservative Christians, and they do not believe that psychology contributes in any way to a person's salvation from sin or admission into heaven. They agree with this pastor's insistence on the all-sufficiency of Christ for eternal life. To argue otherwise is at least a reckless disregard for the truth.

Let's look more closely at the specifics of this claim. I'm going to start with the remarks made to me the previous week by "Sidney" in what I understand to be an unrelated discussion. Sidney's main point to me was that psychology is, in its essence, an attempt to explain sinful behavior apart from sin. I am not a psychologist, but I did take a couple of psych courses in college. From his description, I have to believe that Sidney's sole contact with psychology must have been in its demonization by proponents of Biblical counseling. It's simply not a fair and honest characterization. It misrepresents the honest work of honest people, many of them Christians who believe in the Biblical teaching of salvation by faith through grace alone. I tried to say so, but Sidney wouldn't hear it.

I believe in Biblical counseling. Where the Bible has something to say, it should be our primary guide to truth. I let the Bible be my guide in ways that most of the people in this pastor's own church -- including some of his deacons -- do not. That does not make his deacons heretics or neo-Gnostics or legalists. They still believe in salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone, just as their pastor and I -- and also the Christian psychologists and the members of that church with the silly dress code -- all do. If I have a better understanding of Biblical teaching, it is only because I work harder at it. The pastor is probably farther along than I am, but he's paid to work at it full time, while I spend much or most of my time doing computer stuff.

Gnosticism is an interesting criticism in its own right. It's an early Christian (possibly pre-Christian, according to some sources) heresy which attaches virtue (read: salvation, eternal life in heaven) to special inside knowledge not generally available. Classic Christianity is not gnostic, because the Bible is public information. The same is true of psychology. It's also not Gnostic for a different reason. One blogger accurately described Gnosticism as "Spirituality without religion, [which] is the seeking of a special knowledge without commitment." Psychology is the opposite fault. If anything -- and certainly to the extent that Sidney is right -- psychology wants the practical reality without the spirituality. This is not Gnosticism in any sense of the word.

The early church condemned Gnosticism as heresy, and the term seems to have graduated to the status of undifferentiated pejorative. If we don't like what somebody teaches, we can demonize it as Gnostic, without bothering to determine whether this teaching really promotes a secret knowledge necessary for eternal life, or just urges people to get an education because it's useful for this life.

As a semanticist, the devaluation of words offends me.

When we start using words in senses other than what they mean -- whether in ignorance, as I suppose of Sidney and this pastor, or in malicious mistrepresentation of the truth, or even the unavoidable semantic drift of 397 years, the effect is the same -- we lose the fundamental ability to understand what those words mean in other contexts, such as the Bible itself. That's a serious problem in every church in America, including this pastor's own church.

2008 July 16 -- Artificial Life

One of the things that keeps me coming back for more Michael Crichton novels is that they tend to have good science. Prey is not one of those. There are two kinds of science described in this 2002 novel, and Crichton bungled both.

First, this is about computers -- very tiny computers, but Crichton is at pains to show us some of their programming. The code he shows is not in any common industrial programming language like Lisp (which might be appropriate for the artificial intelligence of this story) or C++; perhaps his computer consultant invented it, or maybe it's a conflation of several older languages.

I know something about computers. My degree is in computer science. Recall also that the weakest link in Jurassic Park was his description of the computer operations; if it had not been for less than credible descriptions of computer bugs, I would have had trouble believing the dinosaurs never happened. Prey has serious computational flaws from the beginning. My guess is that few people understand the technology well enough to notice the flaws, so that they have no personal basis for rejecting it. And those who do understand it, they are so enthusiastic in their agreement with Crichton on the other scientific flaw as to give this one a pass.

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2008 July 9 -- Confirmation

It doesn't necessarily prove me right, but it's always encouraging when I think up some idea and post it here in my blog or in an essay, and then subsequently see other people more influential than I say the same thing.

Michael Crichton is a best-seller novelist. He has a scientific education (actually MD, all but residency), and he thinks through the implications of his science. Global warming was one of those encounters where his novel supported a position I previously took. Actually he wrote the novel before I got onto it, but I didn't know about his book at the time.

The library has several of his novels. Now that I've seen all the movies I can download from, I'm back to reading fiction for relaxation after a long day of programming. Of one of the more dislikable characters in Rising Sun, which I just finished, he says (p.170) "Like most dishonest people, the Weasel believed the worst about everybody." Almost the spitting image of my remarks four years ago.

2008 July 7 -- Pseudo-Science

Pseudo-scientific ideas like evolution and global warming have an unique quality that distinguishes them from real science. The scientific method is based on the falsification of hypotheses. In other words, you devise experiments which would prove your idea false; if you succeed, you throw that idea away and try another. If you fail, then you publish your results, and other scientists devise experiments to falsify it.

Although Darwin didn't actually run any experiments that I know of, it is rumored that he thought of some. Those experiments were eventually run in subsequent years, and (so I hear, but not in the mainstream press) proved the Darwinian hypothesis false. One of those experiments involved finding intermediate fossils showing gradual evolution from species to species all up and down the alleged evolutionary tree. 150 years ago there were relatively few fossils actually unearthed and seen; that is no longer true today. The falsification resulted in the term "missing link" popular when I was in school. The links were indeed missing. There is no evidence of gradual evolution. But the idea did not get thrown away, it was already too popular. You don't hear about missing links very much any more -- except now and then some novel forgery comes out of some scientific backwater like China.

So Darwinism is like the mythical universal solvent: it eats everything it comes in contact with. Fossil links will prove Darwin correct. But if there are no links, the lack of fossil links "proves" Darwin correct. Darwin explains the existence of ethics -- unless you happen to believe there is no such thing as ethics and altruism, in which case Darwin explains the lack of ethics.

Now global warming has acquired the same mystical zen. It explains all phenomena and is proved by all evidence, for or against, everything proves global warming. Summers too hot? Global warming. Winters too cold? By some fluke, that is also the result of global warming.

Not known for the caliber of their science reporting, WIRED magazine has jumped into the fray with an article praising artificial acid rain for halting global warming when Kyoto fails. At least they (indirectly) admit that Kyoto is useless. But acid rain? That was formerly thought to be associated with the cause of GW.

WIRED repeated the oft-quoted statistic that if all the ice in Greenland were to melt, it would raise the ocean water levels 20 feet. I did the calcs. There is that much water frozen into the Greenland icecap. But if it were all to melt as a result of global warming, then the earth's atmosphere would be warmer -- that's what warming means, isn't it? -- and the warm air would hold more evaporated water. So maybe the ocean levels might go down instead of up. Nobody knows.

But everybody has a jolly good time pretending to know and getting lots of government grant money to run their computer simulations. Simulations are like video games, where the programmers invent rules for the simulation to run by, and maybe those rules work the same as God's nature, and maybe not. Nobody knows.

2008 July 5 -- It's a Joke

I see Al Franken is running for Senate from Minnesota. They get all the jokers, first sham wrestler Jesse Ventura, now the real joke. Maybe the voters there will wise up, but I doubt it. I'm glad he doesn't presume to represent me.

What most annoyed me about Frankenstein -- I mean Franken -- was his dithering response when criticized for the lies in his book by that name. The book subtitled itself "Fair and Balanced" but it's not. The book accused his victims as liars, but when his own accuracy was questioned, Franken did not argue the truth of what he said, but instead insisted that he's a commedian. I don't think he honestly expected his readers to consider his barbs untrue. Franken himself said "I do take politics very seriously even though I'm a comedian." Insults do not become less hurtful by calling them jokes, and I think Franken knows that.

There's got to be something wrong with hostility masquerading as a joke. God seems to think so:

Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows
is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, "I was only joking!" -- Prov.26:18,19
There is a place for ridicule. It's what God does to His enemies:
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. -- Psalm 2:4
I guess that's what Franken does to his enemies, too. God's judgments are true, but Franken's were indefensible.

2008 July 3 -- Google Rocks

My sister's announcement on her voicemail tells us why she doesn't like rocky road ice cream: it's too much like real life, where she is constantly stumbling on the nuts and the marshmallows, the rocks in the road. I have a certain sympathy for her plight. My friend in Texas seems to take a certain pleasure in pointing these rocks in my road out to me.

Take for instance my blog post from last week, "Consensus in Science" where I commented on how hard it is to find things in Google. "Tex" fired back an email with the subject "Google rocks - if you know how to use it" and pointed out that his first attempt to find the Michael Crichton quote was successful. Obviously he is using the word "rocks" with a different meaning that I did in today's title. And that's just the point.

Google is a computerized popularity contest, and Tex probably thinks like the mainstream Google is aiming for. I don't. That means the search words I choose are different from the search words the mainstream populace (including Tex) choose, so I hit nothing of interest, while he hits exactly what he -- and everybody else -- is looking for.

I looked for a direct quote. That's logical, isn't it? I want to see the original document, so I quote a unique phrase in it. Zip. Nada. Tex uses a couple words that don't even occur in the document -- well, marginally -- and hits it bang on. Google has gone to great efforts to make their search engine more "relevant", which apparently means better results for illogical search terms. Whatever.

It's not just me. A year ago (August 2007) Computer magazine reported that "50% of all search sessions fail to find any relevant results for the searcher." Trying to locate this quote today, I Googled it. Nothing like it came up in the first 80 hits. But I did find a couple of similar findings. One survey randomly polled the users of 13 major search engines (including Google) in 2000, and the respondents reported "most of the time" or "every time" satisfaction rates of 81%. This self-reporting is different from the Computer data, which counted the actual click-throughs. In other words, many people came away from their search having never clicked through to a single hit, but still reported it as satisfactory.

The other hit cited a study by Convera. Out of 1000 business users, "a mere 10 percent found critical information on the first try in general search engines." That matches the Computer magazine data, which pointed out that after failing the first try, users often refine their search terms -- and then reach the 50% success level. I suspect business users tend to think more logically than the mainstream, so Google's clever ranking algorithms don't work for the Convera set any better than for me.

Oh by the way, the full text of the Michael Crichton speech is on his web site here. At least it was there this morning. Apparently he wrote the 2004 novel based on the same research that went into his 2003 speech. Maybe the editorial that set me off on this search cited the book (which does not contain the quote) because it was related. Whatever.

PS, "Tex" was understandably offended at "an anonymous put down" in my blog (somehow I don't think he wanted to be mentioned by name ;-) Perhaps he prefers I don't return his blows. Maybe I shouldn't, but I did want to share my insights.

2008 June 30 -- What Would Jesus Drive?

They had forgotten that what Jesus would drive is the false prophets and fearmongers out of the temple.
State of Fear, p.457

I borrowed Jurassic Park from my father back when it was fresh, read two pages, and realized that I was not going to set this down. So I closed it and waited until the weekend. I picked it up after lunch, and finally turned the last page at 2am. My first thought as I set it down was, "Did this really happen?" Michael Crichton is that good. His science is good. Over the next couple weeks I began to recognize flaws in his computer technology, which proved to me it was fiction. Computer programmers don't make those kinds of bugs. As the joke goes, "I are one," so I know.

Crichton is still good.

State of Fear was in the library. Four years old, it had passed its prime and was just sitting on the shelf. I did not find the consensus line I was looking for in it, but there were a couple other memorable items.

On page 200 Crichton ridiculed published Science articles, where "even though the authors gave lip service to the threat of global warming, their data seemed to suggest the opposite of what they were saying in the text." Throughout the book -- especially after page 200, the novel is filled with footnotes to actual journal articles demolishing any supposed threat of global warming (GW). In his appendix, Crichton mentions another pseudo-science which suffered from the same group-think foolishness for a half-century as present-day GW: eugenics. Vast sums of money and prestigious scientists and leaders threw their support into it. Eventually the center of research moved from the USA to Germany and became the death camps we are so horrified over now. All without any serious scientific support.

Crighton could have said the same thing about Darwinism -- except that he happens to believe that piece of baloney.

Which brings me to the next observation, on page 247, where the hero of the story, the guy whose facts are always right and whose technical and combat skills make Indiana Jones look like a punk on crack, is arguing that a certain prediction of temperature increase made in 1988 was wrong by 300% (actual data), and therefore the whole notion of temperature prediction is bogus.

That may actually be true -- long-term readers of my blog know I am no friend of the GW hysterics -- but I tend to look at any strongly-held opinions with skepticism. The counter argument raised there in the book is that the actual Mars Rover landing time was within 25 minutes of the prediction given eight months earlier, less than 0.01% percent error. As I often say, "figures don't lie, but liars figure." These are different kinds of predictions, different categories of error: the one a guess about effects we acknowledge we don't understand, the other the result of careful "rocket science" physics which need that kind of precision to even get it there. Crichton acknowledges the weakness of his claim on the next page, but the damage is done.

I'm not particularly fond of conspiracy theories (see my essay "After-the-Fact Conspiracy Theories Are Always Wrong"), so I found the central theme of this story rather less credible than Jurassic Park. Crichton wants us to suspend disbelief in a vast well-funded conspiracy to trigger catastrophic weather events (with large-scale human casualties) in order to make the GW theory more marketable. That part is fiction, of course. Crichton himself in his appendix admits to believing in the basic goodness of mankind (which belief I do not share), so this is even inconsistent with his own philosophy. But conspiracies sell books, and that is his income. He does it well.

The title of his novel, The State of Fear, refers to a substitute for the Cold War as a motivator for controlling the populace. When the Big Bad Commies were threatening nuclear holocaust, that was a perpetual cause for fear and alarm. That's now gone, so they need to fabricate other threats. GW is a crummy substitute, and Crichton does not develop that theme beyond the single chapter where he explained it.

If Christians really believed what they say, fear would be no motivator at all -- at least for us. It didn't stop me from doing the kind of thing no sane employee would do for fear of getting fired. When I watch crime movies, I often imagine myself in those violent situations, conditioning myself to react without fear. Of course like most Americans, I'm not in those situations, and maybe my conditioning would fail. But I still want to believe "perfect love casts out fear." I have nothing to fear in getting killed, it just gets me to heaven quicker.

Maybe that's why (as one friend told me), I'm "a tough negotiator." With nothing (except God) to fear, I cannot be intimidated. That's not a bad thing.

2008 June 27 -- Consensus in Science

The editorial quoted Michael Crichton, apparently from his novel State of Fear,
If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus.
As a creationist, I thought this was an interesting observation, because consensus is fundamentally the argument the Darwinists use in support of their dogma. In the past three decades, everybody I ask The Question ("What in your peer-reviewed research supports the descent from a common ancestor hypothesis over the alternative?") always points to somebody else. Nobody's own research supports it, it is only a "consensus" of other people's findings. The problem is, there are no other people, only this vague undefined "consensus" without any actual members in the group.

So I wanted to go to the source of this amazing quote. I Googled it, and turned up a lot of bloggers commenting on it -- mostly agreeing -- but not the quote itself. A couple of them had links to some page in Michael Crichton's web site, but that resolved immediately to his home page. It's like he realized, "Oh my goodness, what have I unleashed?" and pulled the quote (the whole page) off. It doesn't exist any more. In Orwellian logic, it never did.

Maybe it will also be gone by the time you read this, but a big piece of the the quote in context is posted on this blog. A smaller piece is in this blog. [As of 2009 July 6, the full text is now up on Crichton's web site, here]

You see, the only consensus permitted by the Establishment is Darwinism. Big Brother is watching.

I wonder if the book is in the library? Maybe it got pulled too.

2008 June 24 -- The Worse Villain

It was a brand-new DVD I bought from the $5 bin at Wal-Mart, but I got to watch maybe 5 or 10 minutes of the beginning of my flic before the computer froze. The next hour and a half I spent alternating between frozen screen shots and the Mac equivalent of the infamous "blue screen of death". The DVD player is the only program that ever crashes this robust computer, and it crashes only because it is illegal to develop quality software to do the job.

You read that correctly: it is unlawful for competent programmers to go in and fix the bugs in software protected by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), so we are stuck with crummy programs that crash all the time.

Linux has been earning a lot of my ire lately, because its broken business model prevents competent programmers from getting paid for their work in making the system operable. As a consequence, Linux is inoperable.

But surely there is a lower level of Hell reserved for the Hollywood jerks who bought the Congressmen who voted the DMCA into law, and for the idiots these jerks hired to program the trash that crashes my computer. The English language has a fine set of 4-letter expletives to describe them and their software, and if Congress were into doing their legislative duty, I would advise them of their folly.

Alas, this is not a democracy -- nor even a proper republic -- we live in. It's the next best thing to a monarchy, the same kind of corrupt oligarchy that afflicts every other country in the world. Your opinion and mine don't count. All that counts are the highly-paid lobbyists who buy the Congresspeople, who then use that money to construct an entertaining pack of lies to maximize the number of unthinking people of voting age to succumb to it and keep them in office. If you believe otherwise, just try voting for somebody else. Did they get elected? Did your 0.000003% contribution to the ballots have any effect at all?

None. Zip. Zero.

All the media can tell us is how much money the Dam-ocrats and re-Puke-blicans have raised to buy their votes with. Positions mean nothing, both major Presidential contenders have virtually identical platforms (anything but Bush). Did somebody say this is an election year? Who cares?

As a Christian I have an obligation to submit to the governing authorities. That means I don't get to watch this movie I paid for. I could fix it, but that would be unlawful. My friend tried to tell me "we are the government." What nonsense. When I run a business, and a product my business produced fails (it happens), I am the business, and I fix the product. Government doesn't work that way, not in the USA, not anywhere. My friend grudgingly agreed.


2008 June 21 -- Buster Keaton at his Best

Most of the Buster Keaton flics you see these days are from the public domain era, which came to an end 56 years before the 1976 copyright law was changed to replace the 28-year (renewable once) period with 75 years + the lifetime of the author. The films I've been watching are mostly from the public domain era, including also those whose owners failed to renew their copyright, or else were released to the public because they were too lousy to protect. In the latter category are some recent horror and political flics like The Corporation and Shock, both mentioned earlier in this blog.

With a few notable exceptions, the really good movies are preserved for their cash value by remarketing them as videos. Buster Keaton's "Parlor, Bedroom & Bath" is one of those. I borrowed it from the local library. Dated 1931, it just missed the public domain cutoff, which coincidentally also turns out to be about the beginning of sound flics. Keaton is getting older, but every bit as nimble as ever. Or maybe he's now using doubles for the stunt work. The IMB reviewer thought this was contrary to Keaton's preferred style; perhaps so, but his many years in silents made him very good at the slapstick. In the silents, the slapstick often gets tiresome, but here it was quite funny. I suspect that's because it was credible, not merely making people out to be stupid. Stupid people are not entertaining.

I notice BK showing up in a number of supporting roles in later movies, like a has-been no longer good enough to rate top billing, but too good to just ignore. I guess more of the discerning audience recognized that what he was best at is often not good entertainment. sigh Here's to you, Buster!

2008 June 19 -- No News

I read an aside in one of the (dead-tree) newsletters I get each month, about "when Ann Coulter made her famous remarks last year about 'perfecting' Jews..."

Famous? I never heard of it. Of course I don't spend 150 hours/year watching the boob tube news shows. I spend closer to 50 hours each year reading news magazines, but they have mostly abdicated their title responsibility and replaced it with large quantities of groundless opinion. So I spend even less time now. Sometimes the news is nothing more than an off-hand reference, like "After Clinton's gaffe..." which leaves me guessing at what Clinton actually did. Oh well.

But if it's famous, maybe I should know of it. I tried Google. As we all know, Google is at least half the time completely worthless for finding useful information. I should think "famous" would help. Not much.

The first three pages of hits were nothing but venomous diatribes by bloggers against the kind of hostility best exemplified in the short tag lines Google shows of their venom directed instead at Coulter. Obviously not even worth clicking through to. None of the first three pages were a direct link to her comment, whatever it was.

Finally, toward the end of the third page of hits, I found one that didn't exude bile. It also quoted her in context.

The venom was completely unjustified. First, she's in a real-time interview, so her comments are not carefully composed to accurately reflect what Christianity teaches. She's shooting from the hip -- that's her trademark -- and some of her remarks don't even make sense. The rest of it is not anti-Semitic at all.

Christianity teaches that the Christian faith makes better Germans than Naziism did, better Brits than paganism did, better Mexicans than Mayanism did, and better Chinese than Shinto did. It also teaches that Christian faith is the completion or fulfillment of everything Judaism taught. This is ancient Christian doctrine, not new with Ann Coulter. It is not anti-Semitic the way Iran is anti-Semitic. Iran's leader wants to wipe Israel off the map; we want Israel to prosper and come to experience all that God has promised the heirs of Abraham, because in Abraham "all the nations of the world will be blessed." I suspect that is what Coulter meant by "perfecting" and it's a good thing she wishes on them.

Anyway, seeing this in the news just doesn't happen much for me any more. sigh

2008 June 17 -- CrippleCam

I've been postponing buying a digital camera for years now. Finally the ChickenShack ad moved me off my duff. $50 for a 7MP number "for Father's Day." Except they didn't have it. So I went over to the Persecuted Christians importer (also known as Wal-Mart) and found an interesting stair-step in price/performance: (counting the non-existant RadioShack model), every $10 more got you double the resolution. So I settled for $40/4MP. The price is a lie, you need to spend another $12+ on an SD memory chip, plus batteries. With tax the bottom line was closer to $60.

It actually costs them about the same to make a 4MP camera as a 7MP or 1MP, so I figure they probably need to add extra features to cripple the low-end models. This one has them. I'm guessing it's probably some kind of embedded Linux operating system inside, which crashes all the time. The only way to make it work is to pop out the batteries and push them back in. Then when I want to connect it to my computer, pop out the batteries again. Each time I want to change mode, from taking to uploading or back, pop out the batteries. It took me a lot of fiddling around to figure out that it when it's as dead as a Linux system, you need to reboot.

You can't really expect better from corrupt Chinese politicians and slave labor. sigh

2008 June 16 -- Persecuted Christians

I have a much higher respect for magazines that honestly publish "Cancel my subscription" and other detractor letters, than for the happy-face rags -- I'm thinking here of TIME, which occasionally publishes detractor letters, but only from obvious buffoons and nutcakes.

Today I'm looking at The Voice of the Martyrs, which offers services and supplies to persecuted Christians around the world. A recent issue of their montly mailer ran (among others) two letters. One of them, brave enough to give his real name, insisted that "there is no such thing as Christian persecution" and argues that VoM is just another predatory business. The other one, with a signature line replaced by the editor's "[Profane email address]" -- he is too cowardly and ashamed of his opinions to give his real name -- admits that there is persecution, but demands that we "respect them as they themselves wish to be respected." He obviously has not read much of VoM, because that's exactly what VoM does.

It occurs to me that these two people exemplify in a very mild form, what Christian persecution is all about. Their hostility is not the worst experienced by Christians here in the USA, one of the most free countries in the world, but when people of that persuasion become rulers (as in VietNam and China and Sudan), the hostility quickly turns into torture.

That's why I support VoM. If I'm forced to buy products manufactured in abusive countries, the least I can do is help out their victims in equal measure. VoM does that.

2008 June 6 -- Insecure Electronic Filing

For the last few years my mother went to the local Senior Center to have her taxes done "free". Free is generally worth what you paid for it, and last year it became more so as they converted over to electronic filing. Bye and bye she got a letter from the IRS informing her that they had her money (sent by reliable U.S.Snail) but no tax filing to go with it. She has a printout of the forms, apparently created by the filing software, but there is no record of transmission nor receipt. How can there be? It's only volatile electrons, here today and gone the next microsecond.

Such is the nature of electronic filing. As a computer professional with a PhD in such stuff, I know that electronic transmission is inherently insecure. I never file electronicly, nor will I so long as there is a better alternative (also known as dead trees). Seeing stuff like this is a reminder of the prudence of such caution when dealing with the world's largest terrorist organization. I did her taxes this year on my computer and filed by good old certified mail.

2008 May 31 -- "Book It" Remarks

I got a response to my previous post on this topic, which pointed to a whole web page devoted to the term -- mostly folks asking (like me) where it came from, or announcing where and when they first heard it. Some of them as early as the "late '60s Boston" and "it was in wide use in California in the 60s." Others first heard it in the 80s or 90s.

Apparently it was very localized, jumping from one tight culture or clan to another only when somebody physically moved or visited. I would guess there are still large parts of the country where the term is never used. Other terms make it into wide usage by the influence of television, but this one never got broadcast.


One of the reports in that same web page blames Google as I did, but for a different reason:

"Google fails me because of how common the word book is."
This link was at the top of the search: <"book it" etymology> I had asked for a definition. Maybe some day the inventive Google programmers will cross-link failed definitions to etymology. They do a lot of clever stuff there.

2008 May 28 -- "Book It"

My sister was in for the weekend to help move a family member. A confirmed resident of La-La-Land (Los Angeles area), she tends to use "valley talk" -- I think that's supposed to be San Fernando Valley, an upscale LA suburb. One of the neologisms she used regularly was "book it" as an intransitive verb meaning "move quickly". Being somewhat of a semanticist by profession, I was curious about its etymology. She had no idea, just assuming everybody knew the phrase.

I asked Google for a definition. They had no clue either, but offered to search for the phrase. One paid site -- a few commentary sites also referred to it -- was the "Pizza Hut BOOK IT! Reading Incentive Programs", obviously unrelated to the valley talk neologism. Many of the Google links had "book" at the end of one sentence and the next starting with "It", clearly irrelevant. Google is like that.

The top paid site on every page of results was a travel agency titled "Travel Specials: Discounted Hotels, Resorts & Vacation Deals" but the logo (the only thing visible on the unscrolled linked page besides a member log-in) said "you know what to do". Well, not really, that's why I'm here. Web designers need to be more careful with their designs. Their loss, not my problem. This did, however, give me a clue for my quest.

About half of the site links in Google promoted other travel opportunities. The sample text Google offered for them did not even contain the search term, but I suppose it was a nearby link offering a (JavaScript) virus to book the trip. I don't do viruses on this computer.

One link actually used the term in the sense my sister used it. The Onion, a fictional satire online rag, had an article titled "Nationals Book It After Foul Ball Accidentally Smashes Capitol Rotunda". The body of this ridiculous piece did not mention the phrase, but clearly described the team players leaving the scene very quickly.

This leads me to believe that "book it" is derived from taking the first step in preparing for a trip, and originally meant "get started" with possible connotations of haste. Does anybody know better? Tell me.

2008 May 18 -- Anger Management

Blogs are about dialog. I don't often get much interaction, but this fellow took exception to my Monday post "The best way to respond to venting is to ignore it." In his opinion,
Wrong. As a manager, husband, and father, I can assure you this is not just wrong, but *utterly* wrong. Ignoring someone who is venting just escalates the problem.
He did not offer any viable alternative.

My experience is different from his. Attempting to reason with a person (including this fellow) who has lost control of his faculties is an utter waste of time, and usually escalates the problem. Ignoring him gives him space to regain the Biblical virtue of self-control, without rewarding his bad manners. It is also indirectly encouraged in the Bible:

Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared. -- Prov.22:24

A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control. An angry man stirs up dissension, and a hot-tempered one commits many sins. -- Prov.29:11,22

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. -- Eph.4:31

My respondent did offer one advantage to listening to the angry vent, which I myself have previously observed. Many people, including most of the dishonest people in the churches, cannot be trusted to tell you the truth until they have completely lost control to rage. In the incident which prompted Monday's post, I did not attribute to the other guy that kind of dishonesty. Perhaps he thinks I was wrong to give him so much credit.

I still think I made the best, most charitable choice. Does anybody know of a better, more Biblical way? Tell me.

2008 May 16 -- Christian Market Economy

The current issue of ChristianityToday cover story features Chinese urban Christians. These new Christians are not in the so-called underground church, but are much more open about their faith. They are also very influential.

I was impressed by Zhao Xiao, an "influential economist" who before coming to faith was already observing "Market Economies With Churches and Market Economies Without Churches". Nevermind what the first-generation atheists in American and England think, Christianity is an important foundation not only for modern science, but also for our market economy, and that is apparent to any honest observer -- including Zhao Xiao.

In his short paper "A Free Economy Without Corresponding Moral System is Subject to Abuse" Zhao Xiao gives a carefully reasoned explanation of the necessity of a Christian moral base for a fully developed Chinese economy. It's not an absolute requirement -- he points to Japan's "warrior mentality" as an exception -- but the correlation is significant.


2008 May 14 -- Wrong Ideas

The movie "Youth on Parole" was depressing. It was fiction, of course, but much too close to where I live. Two strangers stop to look in the same jewelry window when a thief throws a brick through the window. He dumps some of the jewels in their pockets and disappears with the rest. They got arrested and sent to jail. After they get out, they find themselves unemployable. Nobody wants to know nor believe the truth.

That's how I feel. Also unemployable for the same kinds of reasons. Not exactly the same (the only time I spent in jail was for Matt.25:36 visitation), but getting fired for [false] "reasons unspecified" has the same effect as getting framed for a crime you didn't commit. A local lawyer offered to go after them for me, but I'm not into suing people who don't want me -- even if they are mistaken and the termination was unlawful.

If it was just this one incident, I'd just chalk it up and move on. But I seem to have this recurring problem. People want to believe false and evil and foolish things about me. In the movie the hero and heroine were able to sucker the thief into a compromising situation and thus redeemed their name, and then they lived happily ever after. Like I said, it was fiction. In the real world all the happy endings come in the sweet bye and bye.


2008 May 12 -- Dialog

All communication is dialog.

At first blush it might appear that there is also such a thing as one-way communication. Let's look at the candidates for this category. I know of three:

Publication and public speaking appear on the surface to be one-way, the writer to his reader, the speaker to his audience, but as every good writer and orator will tell you, that is not the case. By its nature, the speaker and writer cannot accept meaningful dialog from every person in the audience, but without feedback they cannot know whether their message is getting through. If it's not getting through, then they are by definition, not a "good" writer or speaker. So what they look for is a limited form of dialog, a small number of critics who can meaningfully represent the entire audience, plus incidentals like whether the audience is watching or yawning.

Similarly, advertizing appears to be one-way, the vendor to his customer base, but again the vendor is very much interested in feedback -- only in dollars, not words. Actually, good market research also looks for representative verbal feedback too, the same as the public speaker. They call it "focus groups" and coupons.

The only other alternative is when the speaker does not care what the other party thinks or has to say. And if he does not care, then why speak (or write) at all? It makes no sense, and intelligent people don't waste time on it. Sometimes otherwise intelligent people act in foolish and incoherent ways. This is usually called "anger" and their tirades are typically called "venting". The best way to respond to venting is to ignore it, preferably not even to listen to or read it. Thus any message in the vent is completely lost, so this ends up being zero-way communication. In other words, not communication at all.

A sometime former friend informed me today of his intention to end dialog, and thus to become again a "former" friend. The essence of friendship is dialog, as Jesus himself taught [John 15:15]. Fortunately this fellow had the courtesy to announce his intention at the beginning of his message, so I did not have to waste any more time reading his vent. Maybe some day he will get over whatever it is making him angry and change his mind about friendship. Again. Or not. Whatever.


2008 May 8 -- The Corporation

Some of the "free" movies I download are shills for some corporate agenda -- often long gone. There were promos for refrigeration and tobacco that I didn't bother to watch. One was a fake cross-country travelog over a thinly disguised promotion of Greyhound bus travel; another praised small-business ownership with special emphasis on selling Coca-Cola. One particularly memorable flic told the story of "The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair" and could best be described as an infomercial for the Westinghouse pavilion at the 1939 Fair. 79 years ago Westinghouse guessed right about world economics and the advantages of capitalism over Marxism.

Marx is long dead, and the evils he promoted are mostly gone, but a few people continue to be bamboozled by his foolish ideas. One recent example is a 2-reel mockumentary called "The Corporation" blaming all the evils of the world (real or imagined) on corporations. They don't bother to tell you that the film itself was produced by a corporation no more virtuous than their colleagues whom they criticize. They also conveniently neglect to mention that much of the blame should be shared with (or completely borne by) participating governments and individuals. It's a slick video packaging job that depends on the rapid juxtaposition of unrelated visual elements to convey a guilt by association.

Unlike Middleton, history has already proved this fabrication wrong. While corporations may in fact be responsible for much of the pollution in modern America, if there were no such thing as corporations, individual people running businesses would do the same thing. It's not the fault of the corporations as such. More importantly -- and the film does not mention this -- back when there was such a thing as the Soviet Union, the worst polluters in the world were not western corporations but the corporation-free countries under the Soviet thumb. There it was solely the government at fault; there were no corporations to blame. That kind of economy simply cannot survive, and it did not survive. This movie does not say anything like that. At least with the adversarial nature of government versus the corporations, there is some checks and balances. Absent the corporations, there was none.

They list a baffling array of multi-million-dollar criminal fines paid by corporations, barely mentioning how those puny fines compare to the annual profits of the corporations. That's like whining about $50 "criminal" (in the same sense!) speeding fines so many people pay. If you want people to stop speeding, confiscate their cars. That fine would be a substantial part of people's annual income, and therefore an effective deterrent. $50 now and then is just noise. It slows some people down, but not all of them. If you want the corporations to be more careful with the environment, make it painful. That's the government's fault, not the speeders'. People do not demand that kind of oversight from their government because the alternative is unacceptable. This movie neglects to make that point. It's easier to point the finger at somebody other than ourselves and scream and yell and stamp our feet.

They also give an incomplete and misleading picture of what the corporations they report on are doing. The admitted to pulling some Nike documents out of the dump. These documents showed that the labor costs in some third-world country for one particular product were 0.3% of the retail price. While complaining about the low wages there, they nonetheless were forced to admit that the alternative would be starvation. The corporations were actually raising the standard of living in those countries. If those higher wages are still too low for people to live on, their own governments are perfectly capable of setting minimum wage laws. They don't do that for good reason, because it does not serve the people. It tends to drive the industry out of the country and into places where the government is more enlightened. Like communist China. Oh wait, China has figured out the corporations are a Good Thing, so they are now allowed in China too. And the standard of living in China is far better today than it was under Mao (with no corporations allowed). Funny thing about that.

There is a very simple and easy way to force corporations to behave responsibly -- without the governments doing anything at all. Just stop buying their products. Some upscale companies have already succumbed to customer pressure to pay living wages overseas. A few decades ago people stopped buying table grapes grown in California -- until the corporate farmers agreed to pay decent wages. You see, it's not solely the corporations at fault, they are just meeting the demands of their customers. Most customers are unwilling to pay the higher prices. That greed is reflected -- it does not originate -- in the corporations.

Among the ills decried is the 1980 U.S.Supreme Court (a government agency, not a for-profit corporation) decision to permit Ananda Chakrabarty (a person, mind you, not a corporation) to patent a genetic modification to bacteria so it can clean up oil spills. This new bacterium does not and did not exist in nature, it was Chakrabarty's invention. The decision does not generally allow anybody to patent "life" nor any existing organism, as its detractors consistently misrepresent it, but only Chakrabarty's actual novel invention, which was a modification to a pre-existing structure he did not invent. It was a good invention, serving a useful social benefit, and the corporation that paid for this research and development is morally entitled to reap some profit from their investment. Besides, the patent has already expired. Patents are only for 20 years; after that the invention reverts to the public domain. It's a good law and a good patent and a good decision. It's not even about corporations.

The harangue got tiresome and I stopped watching.

Corporations serve a valuable social good in two ways. First, they provide a mechanism for sharing the capitalization cost of doing business among many investors, so more capital is available for product development. This makes the standard of living in the USA the highest in the world and the highest in all of history. Corporations make that possible. Second, they provide limited liability for those investors, so they cannot lose more than their actual investment for "acts of God" or other circumstances beyond their control. In today's litigious environment, nobody would be willing to invest in any business if their entire life savings was continually at risk. The executive officers and agents of the company are still liable for their own immoral acts on behalf of the company -- that's called "piercing the corporate veil" -- but they and the investors are not liable for catastrophes and lottery judgments they cannot prevent. The system works because it is a good system. Maybe the film said all that in the part I didn't watch, but I doubt it.

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