Tom Pittman's WebLog

Next year's blog

2010 December 22 -- Illogical Atheists, Part 3

Actually this guy -- let's call him "Sam" -- denied being an atheist, but the rants on his website (at least where it made sense, which was not often) were indistinguishable from similar rants by admitted atheists, and his supporting links were generally to atheist sites.

Sam introduced himself to me as a "deconvert" from Evangelical Christianity. I have been reading about the loss of young people from the churches, so I was very interested in why. Sam pointed to his website, which appears to be aimed at being supportive to deconverts, and has a page explicitly discussing his spiritual journey; but in a subsequent message Sam said "if you really want to know the situation that initially forced my deconversion"  and pointed instead to a page consisting almost entirely of hostility against the educational establishment (no fault of Christianity) and against anybody suggesting sexual restraint. In other words, his answer to my question consisted in sloth and testosterone, and is unrelated to any reason or logic or science that might be inferred from his primary page.

We went back and forth a couple times, but like other anti-Christians -- and sadly, far too many Christians -- Sam had too much vested interest in maintaining his prejudice against Christianity as idiots to allow himself to carefully consider any evidence or possibility of an exception. He had nothing of substance to bring. I was getting tired of being accused of ideas I do not hold about the same time he grew weary of dodging the facts. In other words, we both grew tired of the caricature of me he invented. The more I think about it, the more clearly I realize Sam is smart enough to recognize that his vague generalities are no match for the specifics I brought to the discussion; he got out because the only alternative would be defeat. Not that I care about winning: I want him to win by being Right.

If there are any anti-Christians out there willing to explore common ground with mutual respect, I still try to keep an open mind. However, unless and until that happens, I have an unbroken record of illogic on their part. My experience is that people seething with hostility (atheists and Christians alike) will not seek reconciliation, nor even consider it, unless it is forced on them by outside circumstances. I generally keep trying whenever it makes sense. I used to consider this policy to be inherent in the "P" component of my MBTI personality, but Sam claimed to be INTP, so maybe it's something else. Or maybe he lied about his type. Without dialog, who can know?

2010 December 21 -- Eclipse

I don't have much access to the news media -- maybe that makes me "olds." I inherited my late mother's TV, but they no longer broadcast anything it can receive. Not that the left-wing media bias is worth watching anyway. For many years I would read the news "two weeks later" when TIME magazine arrived, but they eventually stopped printing news (only left-wing opinion) and subsequently stopped offering to renew my subscription. WORLD magazine has filled the gap somewhat, but they also have replaced much of their news reporting with (right-wing) opinion. This town has a twice-a-week local paper filled with news about the PTA and city hall and how the grass is growing. It is not delivered.

So I didn't know about the eclipse until the Pastor casually mentioned it after church Sunday night. On his information, I set my alarm to wake up ten minutes before it was to start at 2:30 the following morning -- and woke up in dismay to daylight. The alarm clock that faithfully awakened me for college and work and church all my life still keeps time, but its setting knobs have grown stiff, and its oft-repaired buzzer long since silent again. But the cell phone has an alarm, and it was that which I only thought I set Sunday night. The phone is one of those "Lowest Grade" units designed by a Chinese monkey to make you want to upgrade to a pricier model, so my setting did not take.

I went on the internet to see what I missed, and what I had missed was the date and time. But the NOAA weather page promised overcast and drizzle. I stayed up anyway, just in case, and there it was! I watched the last sliver of brightness dwindle down to a slightly brighter glow on the right side than the left. The shadow was not deep red as promised, but more of a pale tan. Nobody else was out, it was late and getting chilly, so I went to bed. My big whoop for the solstice.

2010 December 13 -- Creating Wealth

Friday the 13th comes on Monday this month. In celebration of that fact, I decided to discuss that unlucky topic everybody seems to care about: money. The love of money, we are told, is the root of every form of evil, and Friday the 13th (and the same day in October with the digits reversed) represent evil in our culture -- at least in the movies. But money is not fiction.

I keep getting into these debates with people who do not understand the depths of human selfishness. They seem to think that if they do not rob banks or take candy from children, they are not money lovers. I once watched a marriage break up over money. He did not care about money (his selfishness expressed itself in other ways), but she did. There was no possible reconciliation. I collected some of my insights into an essay, "The Love of Money".

There seems to be a seminar going about the country preying on the love of money. The presenters of course love money too (they want yours). Like Larken Rose (another monetary snake oil vendor now serving time for his misdeeds), they rely on artificial complexity to hide the folly of their arguments. This seminar apparently tells people how to make money in the stock market by buying and selling options. I say "apparently" because (so I am told) they require their customers to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) preventing them from repeating elsewhere what they learned in the seminar. If they loved truth rather than money, they would not need any NDA to protect it. So unlike Larken Rose, I cannot tell you precisely why they are wrong. In fact if you apply their methods today, you probably will make money -- for a while. Read more in Risk Management.

The important thing to understand about the stock market is that all the money going into the market comes from investors buying stocks or other stuff (called "derivatives") like options, and all the money coming out of the stock market and making the investors rich went in somewhere else. The market does not "create wealth," it only moves money around. Except for the brokerage fees (and dividends, which do not go through the market at all), the stock market is a zero-sum game. Every dollar an investor takes out of the market in profit, some other investor put in (and did not get back out) as loss. It only works because some people's idea of a good investment is different from somebody else's idea: you need both buyers who think this stock is worth more than the listed price and sellers who think it's worth less; otherwise there are no trades and no profits (and losses). Trading in options and other derivatives may obscure or obfuscate that fundamental fact, but it does not change it.

Read more about Wealth.

2010 December 10 -- JavaScript in JavaScript

People keep asking me how to learn programming. Before Steve Jobs killed it, Apple's HyperCard was by far the best way to learn programming. There never has been anything like it before nor since, but it only ran on classic Macs. Before Microsoft killed VisualBasic(v6) and replaced it with a completely different (and incompatible) product with the same name, VB6 was a reasonable second for people with lesser computers. Both of those are gone now, and they can't run on current computers anyway.

A distant third place is JavaScript.There are numerous free JavaScript tutorials, but their focus is on making web pages interactive. So I wrote my own JavaScript tutorial. It's still a work in process, but I very quickly learned that the JavaScript interpreter in your everyday web browser is not very friendly to programmers. So I wrote my own JavaScript interpreter -- in JavaScript. That's always my litmus test of a programming language: can I write a compiler or interpreter in the same language, so it compiles (or interprets, as the case may be) itself? I wrote a TinyBasic compiler in TinyBasic. I wrote a HyperCard compiler in HyperCard. I wrote a Modula-2 compiler in Modula-2. I wrote my Turk/2 compilers in Turk/2. I even tried to write a Fortran compiler in Fortran, but I didn't know what I was doing back then (that's why I went to grad school, to learn how).

Anyway, it works. It even interprets itself, but very slowly (25 minutes to do the factorial of 3). I seem to write a lot of programs that take forever to run. I uploaded it as part of my tutorial.

2010 December 7 -- EMP Risk Assessment

Today 69 years ago, the USA was attacked from outside. Japan got its comeuppance for all the world to see -- while we were also taking out Germany at the same time -- and no sane national government has dared to try it again. Could it happen today? The Taliban wasn't (and still isn't) a country, with all the hassle and resource drain that entails (they also can hide better), and religious nutcakes don't always qualify as sane.

So what is the chance of somebody taking out the whole USA economy with a few well-placed EMP nukes? Should I lie awake at night worrying about it? I don't think so.

First you must realize that it takes a megaton bomb for EMP to do anything as serious as blowing streetlight breakers 900 miles away. Electronics inside metal boxes (like a car hood or a computer case) not connected to long outside wires will not be damaged, even at that level of EMP. While EMP is different from lightning, travelling over a long distance through wires attenuates the pulse and slows it down, so that ordinary surge protectors can activate in time. Computers safe from lightning are also safe from megaton EMP more than a couple hundred miles away.

Three countries in the world have megaton nukes at this time: the USA, Russia, and China. England had them at one time, but apparently no longer. China depends on the American economy to provide cash flow into their own; they are not foolish enough to destroy that (and half their own cities in retaliation). Russia does not have that economic dependency, but they proved themselves smart enough not to go beyond saber rattling during the Cold War when they were a superpower; they don't have that status now, and nuking the USA would not return it to them.

North Korea's bombs are in the small kiloton range, about the same size we set off over Japan. Instead of blowing breakers at 900 miles, they'd do little more than set off alarms at 100 miles from ground zero. North Korea may have an insane leader, but they have neither the nukes nor the delivery systems to destroy more than a city or two -- certainly leaving enough American manufacturing and war-making power to reduce the entire Korean peninsula to a green glow. I suspect Kim Jong Il (and anybody who follows him) understands that. That's not the sort of legacy a megalomaniac wants to leave to history.

We officially don't know about the size of India's and Pakistan's bombs, but it's doubtful that their first efforts are much bigger than anybody else's first efforts. Iran (with North Korea's help) might soon have a bomb, but why would the Koreans help them make bigger bombs than the Koreans themselves have? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may qualify as crazy, but not crazy enough to go after the 800-pound American gorilla when Israel is much closer and looks far more tempting. Besides, Israel has the technology and the motivation to prevent Iran from getting their own nukes.

Israel has more PhDs per capita than any other nation in the world, and while they are not admitting it, they almost certainly have nukes. How many and how big nobody else knows, but they are aimed at Iran and Syria, not the USA.

The Taliban and Al-Qaeda and other certifiable crazies do exist out there, and they might actually get their hands on a small nuclear bomb or two, but everybody -- including other Islamic countries -- is afraid of the militants, so they don't have much liberty to pull that off. Even if they did, and even if they successfully detonated one or more of them high above the USA, they might take out a city or two, but the rest of the country would still be very much functional and the economic devastation described in Forstchen's One Second After would remain fiction. North Korea and Iran and perhaps western Pakistan would still glow in the dark.

Rather than 90% mortality as suggested by Forstchen, a successful EMP strike against the USA might kill off as many as 5% nationwide. It's not a pretty picture, but at least it's not as horrible as Forstchen would have us believe. People living in New York, Washington, and perhaps Los Angeles are at risk. The rest of us are more likely to die in a car accident.


2010 December 4 -- One Second After

The library has it tagged with the little blue sticker they put on the spine of sci-fi books. It's an unreliable label.

Science fiction typically imagines a future world that mostly obeys the present known laws of physics, with exceptions made for interstellar travel by some kind of hyper-drive not yet understood, and artificially intelligent robots. A related genre, fantasy, imagines a world in the distant past or future where the laws of physics do not apply -- typically through the use of magic and/or fantastic creatures. In the case of future, the boundary is somewhat nebulous, so you can hardly blame the librarian for tagging some works by an author as sci-fi and others -- often in the same series of sequels -- as fantasy. One look at the cover clearly betrays the fantastic quality of the plot line, and I put it back on the shelf. Any more, if I see both spine stickers next to each other by the same author, I don't even look.

Anyway, I'm working my way through the fiction, which is shelved alphabetically by author. I never heard of William Forstchen, but then there are a lot of new sci-fi authors since I last went through the whole library (several decades ago, different library).

One Second After is mistagged. It's not really set in the future so much as an alternate version of today, with no intended violations of any physics. It imagines what would happen to the USA economy if a terrorist (think: Iran or North Korea) were to detonate three nukes a 100 miles above continental USA. It's not a pretty scene. Unlike typical sci-fi, there are no deus ex machina scientific solutions that overcome the inevitable chaos. Instead, Forstchen kills off 90% of the population from disease and starvation and bullying, basically setting the economy back 500 years. His heroes have better than average survival -- their town lost only 80% -- and there is a lot of "we are Americans" flag waving, but it's still a pretty depressing story.

The problem is, it's not really fiction. That destruction could really happen from EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) delivered by high-altitude nuclear detonation.

The author is no scientist, and I don't think he understands the inverse square law for electromagnetic propagation, but even if EMP only took out half of the country's electronics and power grid, the economy would be devastated. His big preachy sermon is "Why are we not prepared?" I suspect the answer is the same as it was for New Orleans: It hasn't happened before, so nobody has reason to believe the Chicken Little cries. We survived Y2K, didn't we? At least, as Forstchen points out, the risk and the downside of EMP is far greater than so-called Global Warming. He did not say so, but the remedy is also rather less harmful to the economy. But neither one has happened, so we don't know that for sure, do we?

The book gave a web link that does not have any technical data I could find, but Google turned up one useful link in a general search. I'm no expert in radio propagation, and most of the material related to conduction by nearby control cables (not available in an air burst), but the numbers seem to suggest that more than a couple hundred miles away from an air burst would produce "detectable" radiation, but not necessarily crippling currents. They did atmospheric tests during the 50s and 60s, and that half of the world -- notably Hawaii, only 900 miles away and well within line-of-sight -- did not stop functioning (some Honolulu streetlight breakers were blown). One diagram showed a 1.4V/m pulse at 1000 miles; later they reported tests applying 50 kV/m to transistor radios, which knocked out sets with extended antennas, but not the fully enclosed set. That's 2000 times stronger than the pulse of a 1kT air burst 50 miles away, according to the distance diagrams, and 20,000 times stronger than shown for 1000 miles. Obviously there are some non-linearities.

Bottom line: there is a risk of major damage near the blast location, but probably not enough to wipe out the entire economy.


2010 November 26 -- Illogical Atheists, Part 2

Another critic replied (indirectly) to my essay on Atheism and Ethics, this time invited by a mutual acquaintance. Like the first critic, this fellow got hung up on a peripheral issue, in which he was too lazy to check out my supporting links, and never addressed the core thesis. You see the same effect in the published works of atheists attacking Christians.

I'm beginning to see a pattern here. The Christian message is a fortress too strong for the gates of Hell (see Jesus' comment), but for them to say nothing at all amounts to an admission of defeat. So they focus their assault on some peripheral issue that looks superficially weaker.

Today's critic "Joe", by neglecting to follow my links, convinced himself that I was redefining the term "ethics" in the tactic I sometimes refer to as "He who writes the dictionary wins the debate." That is (ahem) unethical, and I was not doing it. Joe elected not to engage me directly, thereby to reach a mutually acceptable definition, because truth and accuracy is not on his real agenda. At this point I have seen no reason to believe any atheist really cares about the truth, but I would eagerly be convinced otherwise.

2010 November 22 -- Roots

The movie itself was forgetable, a politically correct (meaning: it paints Europeans as Bad Guys) re-imagining of the founding of Jamestown in 1607, but it had a substantial "The Making Of" mockumentary and I had some time (Sunday not being a work day), so I watched it. The producer went to considerable effort and expense to use (mostly) authentic materials in their sets and native Americans to play the "naturals" (Indian) parts. They of course could not use authentic tribal people from that area, because they are all gone, so it was fun looking at the tribal credits for each person they interviewed.

The female lead, Q'orianka Kilcher, was particularly rivetting for me because it said she was "Huachipaeri/Quechua" which is South American (Peru), where I spent 8 years of my early life. The surname was obviously European, but Huachipaeri is a tiny tribe in the Amazon jungle of eastern Peru far from the high-altitude domain of the Quechuas descended from the original Incas. I know this because my father was a missionary to what we called the Wachis (pronounced "watch-ee" as short for "watch-ee-PIE-dee") and her grandfather could have been one of my playmates. I'm guessing (Wikipedia mentions only Quechua) that her grandfather left the jungle for the urban job opportunities of the mountains and perhaps intermarried with a Quechua woman (partly confirmed here). Although saying she is estranged from her Peruvian father (retaining the surname of her Swiss mother), the Wiki article does mention Q'orianka going back to Peru to demonstrate against petroleum exploitation in a single Amazon province, Bagua. Bagua, however, is in the Andes mountains of northern Peru; the Huachipaeri tribe was confined to the southeastern rain forest (see small brown oval #33 on this map). The Huachipaeri Language page of includes the English spelling of the language name I recall (Wachipairi) and says only 200 people speak it. An Indian Country Today article lists tribal membership at 500 and mentions my father's estate Keros -- he borrowed the name from Ezra 2:44, but it's now spelled Queros with its own website (in Spanish). Apparently there's nothing left of his efforts. The website says they "escaped" from the Baptist mission teaching in the 70s.

So I don't know much, but it was fun looking at what is public knowledge of where I grew up, and probably as close as I'll ever get to a celeb.

2010 November 18 -- The Trigger

It was an interesting idea, in an academic sort of way, but poorly executed. I guess that's why Arthur C Clarke chose a different co-author (obviously still a ghostwriter, the writing style is much different) for subsequent books. The hostility to all things religious is shared, but comes out differently. Two short incidents of writer's bigotry were so egregious near the beginning of Trigger that I almost closed it and took it back to the library unfinished. But my basic forgiving nature prevailed, and there were minimal further assaults until the penultimate chapter.

Like Crichton's Case of Need, Clarke's Trigger is moralistic and preachy. Unlike Case of Need, I happen to agree with the author's agenda. But he seems so wrapped up in his agenda that his justifications and argumentation fall flat, often just plain wrong.

The author(s) imagine a technological device that neutralizes gunpowder, and weave a story around the political ramifications surrounding the nullification of firearms. He credibly divides the American population into two camps, the pacifists and the gunslingers (my terms):

On the one side are those who saw guns as the greater danger... The key value that unified them was the importance they placed on community.

On the other side... But the true unifying value ... was the community of one -- one man, one family, one color, one creed.

Thus, in the author's thinking, the Good Guys were socialists and the Bad Guys were racist religious bigots.

I don't fit into his black-and-white model. I'm no socialist, but I also don't believe the 2nd Amendment was intended to facilitate bullying. Trigger rightly paints [some of] the gun wielders as bullies. I don't like being coerced and I certainly don't fit into most people's ideas of "community" (nor do they fit into mine); bullies exercise their bullying by coercion, and using a gun (except for increasingly rare target practice as sport, or hunting animals in the wild to eat or display on the mantle) is about coersion. Coercion is evil, and one of the two God-given functions of government is the restraint of evil. In Trigger, even the citizens could protect themselves using the device, which was a comic turn-about on those arguing their right to shoot people.

Later the author's inconsistency -- which almost always accompanies a political agenda like gun control -- showed the foolishness of his generalization:

But however many such collective affirmations could be found, in the end change depended on individual acts of courage and commitment.
The biggest problem with the author's preachy moralizing is that it's so bogus. The human heart is "desperately wicked" and if nitrate-based gunpowder no longer works, bullies will find other ways to force their will on people. These repeatedly came out in the story. It seems all the more strange that the atheists (including here also Asimov's Foundation series, which ended with humanity turning into a telepathic hive) seem to value community, but it always turns out to be their own coercive (that is, bullying) version. We see the same effect in left-wing politics today, including our little socialist experiment earlier this year. The human heart is desperately wicked.

And finally, [spoiler alert] when the somewhat unwilling hero sought to defeat also biological and chemical weapons, all he succeeded in doing was to create a new weapon. It's fiction, of course, and sci-fi at that, but true to life. Which the religiosity of his villains was not.

2010 November 15 -- Dialog and Honesty

It is the nature of dialog that each party must accept what the other says as honestly representing what they think. Once one of the parties stops believing it is mostly true, that person has no way of really knowing what the other person believes or knows, because most of our guesses are off-target. Otherwise we would already be in full agreement with no need for dialog.

So the ultimate dialog stopper is to accuse the other person of dishonesty. Such ad hominem accusations are forbidden in formal debate (frex, "Smith's Rules for Debates") with good reason: they are unethical.

I have been through this termination many times. The one time I invoked it, I specifically listed for him the contradictions in his messages that led to my conclusion, and invited him to rectify the discrepancies. He apparently had some other other agenda than truth.

On one other occasion, the other guy was apparently confused about the mutual requirement for respecting the other person's truthfulness, because he still wanted to continue the dialog. He came around, and is now my best friend (with no accusations).

Everybody else apparently understood the connection, and explicitly terminated the discussion with the accusation.

Elsewhere in my blog I explained my default interpretation of false accusations. I always first make a substantial effort to determine if an accusation is true -- occasionally it is, and I am morally bound to correct the fault in those cases -- but repeated false accusations is a tiresome burden on my time. It makes more sense (after due diligence) to assume that an unfounded accusation of dishonesty is in fact an admission of the same. The dialog is over in either case.

I carry no guilt away, only pity.

2010 November 11 -- Knowing the Difference

The current issue of ChristianityToday has an article by Philip Yancey, apparently a speech he gave in Afghanistan to encourage the Christians there. Relevant to my recent thinking is a remark,
People instinctively know the difference between something done with a profit motive and something done with a love motive.
Yup, all of us can tell. I had a recent interaction -- I hesitate to call it dialog, because he apparently just wanted to get his licks in then skeedaddle before I might say something to make his chosen religion look bad -- with one of those atheists who like to think their ethics are every bit as good as the Christians. I don't go looking for these guys, they come to me.

I am convinced that there are moral absolutes, and that most of us -- including the atheists -- know what they are. We can (if we so choose) live up to those absolutes, but all of us at one time or another, and most of us most of the time, choose otherwise. Those moral absolutes can be (and by Jesus, were) summarized in Two Great Commandments: Love God, and Love your neighbor. The antithesis of this ethical system is selfishness (also known as sin), and we all know it when we see it. That was Yancey's point.

I am prepared to agree that the atheists can be as ethical and moral as any Christian, but the vocal ones, the ones whose lifestyle comes to my attention so I can evaluate their ethics, are substantially lower on the scale than the Christians I see at church every week. Why is this? I think it is because the atheists (all of them I know about) believe in and praise selfishness, while the Christians praise love. You get what you measure.

2010 November 4 -- Illogical Atheists

The editor of WIRED magazine obviously imagines himself to be an intelligent atheist. I guess all atheists do, nevermind that it's illogical. The editor keeps running these absurd puff pieces about some prominent atheist. This month it's Sam Harris, and his remarks are providentially relevant to my recent thinking.

Harris correctly believes that some things are moral absolutes, but he's wrong about what they are. His example, which he mistakenly calls "science" as if his belief makes it so, includes stopping climate change as one of these "good for everybody and bad for nobody" absolutes. That was last year's news. This year the "science" of global warming is different, which is normal for politics as usual.

While we here in the USA might agree generally with his categorical claim that "the Taliban is really wrong," Harris's reasons are also wrong. He claims, "Any conception of human well-being you could possibly have, the Taliban patently fails to maximize it," completely neglecting the conception of human well-being that most non-atheists hold hold in reputed highest esteem, which is that eternity is a lot longer than our threescore-and-ten here on earth, so the greatest human well-being is what determines our eternal destiny. The numerical majority of Americans might still disagree with the Taliban's evaluation of that equation, but there are many Muslims around the world who publicly agree with them. Nineteen of them willingly gave up their lives to achieve that maximized well-being on September 11 nine years ago. They did possibly have a conception different from what Harris is able to imagine.

His problem is that atheists have no conception of any reality that extends beyond their materialism, so his "science" cannot make moral claims that speak for the majority of human beings. There are moral absolutes, and he might be persuaded to agree with what some of those moral absolutes might be (albeit for the wrong reasons), but Christians and atheists cannot meaningfully discuss morals built on such disparate foundations -- except perhaps to agree to outlaw murder and theft and rape. That's better than nothing.

For another good critique of Harris, see "Good Without God? Sam Harris has a Moral Dilemma."

2010 November 1 -- Logical Atheists

This being the traditional (Roman Catholic) celebration of All Saints, the evening before which the Satanists and their unwitting followers have adopted for unholy tricking and demanding of treats, I decided to take up a theological topic. It's a simple one, because

There are no logical atheists. A wise man more than 3000 years ago said so succinctly:

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." -- Psa.14:1 (NIV)
But there is a also simple syllogism to prove it logically, a mathematical proof by contradiction. To know for sure that there is no god, you must search the whole universe all at once (so that any god who might be hiding over yonder while you search here, doesn't move to here while you search yonder), and if you could do that, you would be god, thus disproving the hypothesis.

So the more intelligent atheists -- obviously not including any of the so-called "new atheists" -- refer to themselves as "agnostic" meaning they don't know. Which if it were true, they would be morally bound to make an effort to find out. They don't really want to do that, because then they would have no excuse for their disbelief. As if it made any difference.

If God really is the Creator of the universe and everything in it, then all we His creatures have a moral obligation to do as God demands, because as Creator He has the right of ownership. Most of us don't want to do that.

In a separate essay I also explore whether and why atheists can be ethical, despite their illogic.

2010 October 30 -- Truth in Labeling

It's a moral issue: Does a person have the right to control what other people say about them?

There's no simple answer.

Yes, it's a free country, and you can choose (with God's help) what kind of person you will be, and therefore what people can truthfully say about you.

No, it's a free country, and people can say most anything they want (within limits), including about other people, especially (but unfortunately not necessarily) if it happens to be true. Court records are littered with cases where a person was denied the right to choose his own name.

The case in point is one line from my review of Mary Eberstadt's Loser Letters which one reader took exception to:

Good Darwinism approves of racial genocide (eugenics)
He had three numbered objections, the first and most vigorously argued being the label "Darwinism".

In American law, I did not apply the label to him, so he has no standing. In Christian ethics, the strong are morally obligated to defend the weak, but since he apparently considers himself to be one of the class of people to whom the label applies, he could be either strong or weak, but not both. He does not want to admit to being weak, and the strong do not need my protection.

If the label were to misrepresent the people to whom it is explicitly applied, it would be wrong on the basis of libel. However, the term is both accurate and not applied to any specific persons.

His sole objection lies in the fact that the people to whom it might apply prefer to call themselves "evolutionists".

The problem with that, and the reason I instead use the name of their patron saint, is that the defenders of that religion do so on the basis of slippery or ambiguous definitions. Many arguments are won by redefining a term with a common understanding to have some other, significantly different definition, then (partway through the debate) switching back to the common sense unannounced, so it looks like you are still referring to the same thing, when you are not. It is this dishonest relabelling that offends me, and I refuse to continue using the ambiguous word at all.

The Darwinist defenders argue that "evolution is merely change" or "descent with modification." Everybody knows that things change, and it doesn't take much (repeatable, therefore scientific) study to learn that the descendants of an organism are not identical to it in every way. Using either of these two definitions literally, I am an evolutionist. That is exactly their intent, to define the word so that it describes repeatable, irrefutable scientific observations so everybody can buy into the label -- and then change the meaning to refer to the unobserved alleged continuous change from the first prokaryotes and protozoa millions or billions of years ago through to and including humans today, nevermind that it is this alleged line of descent that is unscientific, unrepeatable, and without supporting evidence. You can see this transition happen in one page on the TalkOrigins website, which incidentally complains that we noticed. The Berkeley website spreads the transition over multiple pages of engaging pictures and text, so it's harder to see it happen. Every one of the defenders does exactly the same thing, varying only the details of the presentation.


2010 October 25 -- The Joy of Farming

The church I attend is in a rural community where the family farm is among the highest of personal values. Many church members (including the pastor) work their own farm. There is no money in small farming, so every one of them also has a full-time day job or is retired from one.

The patriarch of one of these farm families was telling me yesterday about his mother, who holds title to the farm. She is in declining health, so they had put her in a nursing home for care. I did that for my mother too (see "Don't fight the nurses"). Medicare pays for 100 days or until there is no further progress, whichever comes first. Both mothers hit the limit, but mine had liquid assets to continue payment ($3000/month "self-pay") from; his does not. So she's going home.

Here's the clincher: She could stay in the care facility on state aid (as I had planned but did not need for my mother), but when she dies, the state sells the family farm and recovers their cost from the proceeds. They don't let the family sell part of the farm, they sell the whole property and the family is dispossessed with their greatest value destroyed.

Moral of the story: If you have a personal value higher than serving God, be it the joy of farming or family or money or self or whatever, you need to get your ducks lined up. God can still take it away, but this family could have -- and perhaps still can -- postpone the inevitable by transferring title to the next generation before they need to avail themselves of "free health care" from the government.

There you have it again: Health insurance -- especially the impending ObamaCare and its present forebears like Medicare and Medicaid -- is the problem, not the solution. I don't want to go there myself, but the government is trying to take that choice away from me.

2010 October 23 -- Unregulated Monopoly

Somebody hacked into my web site last week and stole some space on a couple of pages. I shouldn't have been surprised, the ISP host has it on a Linux server, and I'm not overly impressed with anything Linux. I complained to the host, and they told me about their protection software, which limits access to particular ranges of IP addresses. I would have preferred the limits being restricted to particular MAC addresses, because those are unique to the computer hardware doing the access; IP addresses are dynamically assigned every time I connect. But this is Linux. Linux never gets anything right.

The host FAQ gave a link to find out your IP number. I disconnected and tried again, and it was the same. Another tool told me it was Bolivar. So I called the phone company to ask what range of IP numbers I could expect, and after getting hung up on numerous times, each time after their robot proudly announced that their support people were in the USA, I finally got through to a live person who did not understand the question and refused to answer it. I hung up and tried again and got some equally ignorant person who after some hassle claimed the range was "1 to 254". IP addresses consist of four numbers in that range; I still needed the rest of the information, but guessed -- wrongly, it turned out -- that the first three numbers were fixed. So I uploaded the resulting range to my web site.

The next time I connected, I had a different third number in the IP address. However, I had bungled the upload, so it let me on anyway. I stretched the range to include the new variability and uploaded the result to the proper directory.

Today my IP address is different all the way across, and I can't get in to update my own web site.

I fiddled around with numbers around the two sets of numbers on the "WhoIs By IP Address" site (which gave me the ranges the phone company refused to disclose), and learned that the phone company seems to have a couple thousand IP numbers allocated for each town where they do business, then a huge block of numbers for their home office in North Carolina. Maybe they have another block too, but I have not seen evidence of it. I'm guessing that the local IP numbers are assigned first-come until they are used up, then they start in with the corporate numbers. Weekends are heavier usage, so the local numbers are gone by the time I connect.

The problem with telephone service (including DSL) is that the phone company is a local monopoly. They can treat you like dirt with impunity, because there is no competition to go to. Cable companies (also a monopoly) sometimes offer internet access, but the local cable service is handled by the phone company. In California there is a Public Utilities Commission that I can complain to, but the State of Misery seems to be anti-government. There are some things you need a government for. This is one of them.

At least they don't say "Thank you for choosing Windstream." Because of course I didn't choose them. I have no choice if I want internet access.

By the way, the web host company was very helpful, and I'm back up. They have competition.

There is (dwindling) competition among the medical service providers today. That goes away under ObamaCare, and because the government would then be the monopoly, there is no independent government regulator.

2010 October 18 -- Tempting God

Last month's issue of ChristianityToday features an essay exploring the author's grief at the loss of his brother. We commonly see in Christian magazines essays like this one, asking "Where was God when Kelly was freezing to death Mount Hood?" Frank James is not asking a novel question, nor is his answer particularly insightful, he just happens to be provost at a prominent seminary, so he has a public forum to present it.

It's the wrong question.

Frank James got his current job by being a good seminary professor, and he probably got that by being a good pastor. And virtually all good pastors in the USA are Relationshipists. Their top value is unconditional affirmation, and God was not unconditionally affirming Kelly in the blizzard on top of Mount Hood in December, and by letting his brother freeze to death that way, God was also not unconditionally affirming Frank. That's a problem Relationshipists rarely get over. God is not a Relationshipist, nevermind what the Relationshipists prefer to think about Him.

The question Frank should have been asking -- maybe he did ask it, but not in this essay -- is: "Why is Kelly on top of Mount Hood in December in the first place?" Mount Hood is the only year-around ski resort in the lower 48 states. I was at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood for a conference in balmy August some years ago. The snow stopped a couple hundred yards above the hotel, but the lifts were running up to the ski slopes. Kelly, we are told in a sidebar, was preparing for an attempt on Everest. According to, the death percentage on Everest is currently around 5%. People die climbing mountains. It's more dangerous than crossing the street or teaching seminary, or even jumping off a tall building. One of my seminary professors died climbing Mt.Fuji in Japan. People die climbing mountains.

Satan invited Jesus to jump off the tallest building in Jerusalem, because (as he reminded him) there was no danger. Jesus declined. People in our time with more dollars than sense like to do dangerous things. Sometimes they die or become disabled in the process. The question is not "Where is God? but rather "Why are you trying to tempt God with this behavior?" Kelly got what he asked for. God is not our genie, to protect us from our own folly. God is God. We don't set the rules, God does.

The wages of sin is death, the Bible tells us. There are other consequences, too. It is the nature of sin that innocent people get hurt. When we engage in selfish behavior -- that's what sin is, selfishness -- then we (in this case Kelly) can die from it, and other people (in this case Frank and his family) get hurt. Don't do that.

Sometimes unselfish acts are fatal, too, but climbing Everest or Mount Hood is not one of them. I think Frank's essay would have been more compelling if Kelly had died doing something virtuous, like trying to reach savage Aucas in Ecuador. Of course somebody else already did that in Ecuador, but there are other places in the world today where carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ is dangerous. But the people are not going there for selfish reasons. It's a big difference.

2010 October 15 -- TMI

My niece regularly accuses me of "TMI = Too Much Information" by which she means that she has no interest in what is going on in my life. What goes around comes around. There is a large portion of her life I can't much get into. But let's not get into that. I mention her mostly by way of introducing yet another TLA* after last week's CDD.

It turns out that "TMI" seems to be a frequently convenient way to abdicate moral responsibility.

Case in point: Like most states, California has a substantial sales tax on tangible goods sold within the state. Mail-order businesses selling out of state and not doing business in the state where their product is sold are not subject to local sales tax (because it is interstate commerce, which only Congress is allowed to tax), nor are they liable to the recipient's state (because they are not there to be collected from). As a result there is a substantial cost benefit for out-of-state buyers, and the mail-order vendors depend on that tax difference to offset the costs of shipping while remaining competitive with more convenient brick-and-mortar stores. For a while the states were agitating the Federal government to allow them to impose a sales tax on imports from out-of-state vendors, but I guess the Constitutional lawyers told them it was a losing battle. Instead the states imposed a "use tax" that applied to everything otherwise taxable under the sales tax, but paying the sales tax on a product was held to be a credit offsetting that tax, so it amounted to the same thing as a sales tax imposed on interstate commerce, except it was levied on the consumers for first "using" the product within the state; used goods carried into the state in person were first "used" in the state of purchase, and thus still exempt. I don't pay much attention to politics, so I don't know when exactly the law took effect, but I became aware of it while I was still in California and, like everybody else, buying things mail-order to save on the tax. So I immediately took it upon myself to figure out how to comply with the new law? Not. Clearly a case of TMI. Eventually my conscience got the better of me and I stopped buying mail-order. Now I see that California has a place on their state income tax form to declare (and pay) the use tax. Too many people were depending on TMI as an excuse not to pay. Now that's not an excuse.

More recently, I was invited into an email discussion centered around an attempt to harmonize the time frames of atheistic pseudo-science (also known as Darwinism, see my essay "Biological Evolution: Did It Happen?") with the historical timeline given in the Bible. Apparently some (Jewish, not Christian) technologist cared enough about the problems to come up with a clever way to interpret the relativistic effects of the presumed expansion of the universe shortly after the Big Bang so as to claim that both accounts are true within their own framework. He wrote a book, which was the featured topic in this discussion group. The author was operating outside his field of expertise, and to make his alignment work he had to tweak the numbers somewhat -- actually they were wrong by a factor of several thousand, but when you are dealing with fifteen zeros, what's three or four more or less? But it was a clever fiction, and the book has quite a following among technologists who are also Christians -- the order is significant: in the inevitable cases of conflict, they deconstruct the Bible by the claims of atheistic pseudo-science, rather than the other way around. Anyway, this discussion leader is enamored by the book's thesis, so when I pointed out to him that it is neither good theology nor good science, he discovered that he was too busy to study the matter further (and thus prove me wrong). TMI. That was more than a year ago. He sincerely wants to believe that the book is correct, and that the Bible is inerrant, and that secular science is also reliable, but to study the matter carefully enough to know for sure runs the risk of needing to choose between his employment (as a technologist) and his "fire insurance" (Christianity), so it's easier to assume it's a matter of TMI.

* TLA = Three-Letter Acronym, a self-referential definition.

2010 October 5 -- Clue Deficit Disorder

WIRED is the trade magazine of Athens. The people in Athens, as you recall from the Bible, spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to "some new thing." For a while the WorldWideWeb was the latest "new thing" but it got old. Now their cover breathlessly tells us "The Web is dead." They prove this with a chart showing that web traffic on the net has declined from a high of about 50% in 2000 to less than a quarter this year.

As the saying goes, "figures don't lie, but liars figure." According to Wikipedia, the total internet traffic went from 95PB to more than 21,000PB in the same period. In other words, the web component of that traffic actually grew more than 100 times (10,000% growth) in the period that WIRED shows as "decline."

The whole article is deceptive and/or simply wrong.

Editor in chief Chris Anderson -- you know, the fellow who chose to print all the irresponsible pseudo-scientific articles of the past (see blog posts "The Language Barrier" "The New Old Socialism" "Micro-Gardening" "Publication Polemics" "Good, Beautiful, True" "Red-Handed Pseudo-Science" and others I don't have space to list or didn't bother to comment on) -- wrote one of two so-called explanations for this alleged decline. "The story of industrial revolutions ... is a story of battles over control." Maybe that's what some of the participants were thinking, and maybe it's what the self-styled victims (including author Anderson) would like to think, but it's nonsense.

The compelling meta-story here is greed and selfishness. People -- just about everybody, as near as I can tell, with very few exceptions -- want something for nothing, or failing that, for as little effort and cost as they can get away with. Some people (we call them entrepeneurs and CEOs) are clever enough to recognize that they can produce a product for less than the rest of the people are willing to pay for it, so they exhibit their greed by making those other people happy in their own greed. These entrepeneurs get rich making other people happy. Steve Jobs (featured in this article as one of the villains) is one of them. The world is a better place because of them.

The rest of us (including the entrepeneurs in other contexts) look for better products at lower prices. In a free market -- that's what the current President-Trainee and his lapdogs in Congress are trying their hardest to shut down -- inventive people work hard to figure out how to make better products and services that we want to pay for, and for less than whatever the alternatives might cost us.

For example, FaceBook (also featured in this article) gives people relatively easy access to their relationships. It's far better than the telephone because you can also see pictures, and (more importantly) you can consume the information at your own speed instead of waiting and wading through long and tedious real-time talk. And it costs less. Don't forget the price. For most of us, there are no per/minute charges for internet access any more, not even to look at data from people in distant states or countries.

If people did not perceive a benefit, they wouldn't pay for it. Unless the government forced it on them, like ObamaCare. But the government now admits ObamaCare is a tax, not a benefit.

2010 October 2 -- Religious Novels

Two in a row. Both set in the future, both trying to convert the reader (who probably already sings in the choir) to the author's religion, and in both cases the sermon -- or rather the altar call -- could have been omitted to the betterment of the story. Both assume (probably incorrectly) the truth of politically correct prognostications popular at the time of writing. And both bungled their own religion. I was left in both cases thinking that if I ever read another novel by this author, it would be too soon. Other than that, the stories were told well enough that it kept me up past midnight in both cases to read the last quarter of the book.

Retrovirus was written by a Christian. I had never before read a "Christian" novel with an explicit altar call woven into the story, but apparently it's obligatory in the genre. The title describes the way genetic therapy is supposed to work, which it explained as a metaphor for how Jesus saves. Being of feminine persuasion and evangelical theology (either sufficient in itself), the religion promoted by author T.L.Higley is Relationshipism, pure and simple. Maybe that was what made it so off-putting. Higley assumes that so-called therapeutic cloning and embrionic research actually results in cures for things like cancer. Her argument against it is strictly moralizing, and is as lame as the atheists paint such moralizing in their novels.

The title Precipice apparently refers to what atheist author Ben Bova repeatedly calls "the greenhouse cliff," the supposition that man-made global warming will take off and suddenly flood the world and destroy crops causing mass starvation. Of course if global warming raises the sea level and makes current grain belts too hot to support those crops, then other areas presently too cold to grow the same crops will become productive. People can travel faster than rising seawater, so if a few hundred die because they choose to live below sea level in New Orleans or Holland, many more will stay alive by simply moving to the new shoreline -- or away from the coast entirely. This story is explicitly the first of a trilogy; Saturn (the novel I read last month) is an implicit sequel and depends on it for much of its backstory. There are hints that even this has backstory in earlier novels. That's rather frustrating for those of us picking books off a library shelf.

An important part of Bova's story line in both of his novels is nanotechnology, the supposition that we will eventually invent microscopic artificial life machines that can do anything. I first met this idea in Crichton's Prey, where the grey goo fictionally begins evolving on its own. In Bova's novels that is the fear of the religious bigots who are the pervasive Bad Guys in his stories, but people there mostly fear humans engineering them to do evil things, like eat people or crops, which (given the assumption that grey goo is possible at all) is much more credible. Bova's nanobots are not without incredible excesses, however. In Precipice he has them making up the functional part of an invisibility cloak, which figures importantly in the story. It's plausible enough on the surface, but the physics is wrong, for the same reason the colored images on Crichton's bot swarms are physically impossible: it requires too much communications bandwidth. But Bova's are much worse: Crichton's nanobots only displayed one spot of color; Bova's have a complete projector transmitting a different color in every direction to match what the camera on the opposite side of the suit sees. For this to be truly invisible, the bot on your left fingertip needs to send straight forward the color seen by your left shoulder straight back, but the color projected slightly left of that must come from the right shoulder, and the color projected up toward the ceiling must come from the bottom of your foot, where it is illuminated by a projector repeating the light shining on the top of your head, and so on. Then there is the physics of the image projected through the outgoing lens, which is limited by the wavelength of light itself. If the projectors are spaced 1mm apart on the fabric surface, each 1mm image needs to resolve millions of illuminated, colored, separately controlled pixels. Less than that, and the observer would see details blurred as the cloaked person walked by. Even a bot size of 1mm is too big if the cloaked person is very close to the observer: at a foot away the reprojected details would start to look grainy and pixelated, the way modern digital TV appears during fast action. Each projector needs a fisheye lens able to project in every direction -- including along the surface of the fabric nearby, for otherwise observers would see a dark outline on the invisible (in this case) woman, the same way velvet outlines differ from straight-on. And as the person moves and the fabric bends and folds, the signals must reconnect dynamically, depending on which way the fabric normal is pointing and which part of the garment happens to be behind each particular bot, billions of these reconnections in tiny fractions of a second. Not possible, not even plausible.

Both Bova and Higley made exactly the same security bungle in their stories: the hero(ine) by virtue of his(her) musical skills memorized the beeps emanating when an authorized person entered the password to a computer-controlled door, then later rekeyed that number from the memorized sound. No competent security system designer would ever let that happen, for exactly that reason. Password pads always emit the same beep for every key.

2010 September 28 -- Practicing Contentment

As my mother neared the end of her life, she became more and more irritable -- that's a euphemism for anger -- and as is my custom, I looked on and thought, "I need to avoid that in my own declining years." I decided to conscientiously practice contentment. Whatever situation I may find myself in, God is bigger than the circumstances, and God is Good.

Today I had a chance to do it Right.

As I mentioned in August, I sometimes drink orange MonkeyDoo to keep me alert and functioning at the keyboard. I recently ran out, so while I was out today I looked at the price at the local grocer: $3.99 for a 12-pack. Wal-Mart sold the same product for something like $4.35, so I picked up a couple at the grocer. It wasn't until I got home that I noticed that they had charged me $4.59 each. No wonder I had so little change. I had walked home, and the load was very tiring, so I ate lunch and rested before returning to the store. I seriously considered not wasting the time for $1.20+tax, but I decided I really wanted to know how I got bamboozled into thinking they were only $3.99, at least so as not to make the same mistake again.

Walking back to the store, I passed a couple children playing in their yard. Maybe "playing" us a little too strong: one was carrying a large ball, and her little sister was following behind, crying her head off. I thought about how all of us are selfish. If we don't look after our own interests -- the larger child by taking the ball, and the smaller one by crying bloody murder -- who will? God will. I am not going to demand my money back, I reminded myself, I'm just trying to understand what happened, so I can be a better steward of the dwindling resources God has entrusted to my care.

The label under the orange boxes clearly said $3.99, but the fine print said "Code Red" (the red box, which tastes as bad as the green). All the other flavors of MountainDew had labels with the same $3.99, but I didn't see one for the orange flavor I had bought. So I asked the lady at the service desk to explain the pricing to me, especially the exception for orange. While she was looking at my receipt and the shelf labels, I noticed that the tag under a different product gave the same price for the orange variety; the shelf labels were eight inches to the left of their products all the way up and down the shelf.

She went back to the computer at the service desk and fiddled with it for a long time, then had me sign her paper, and handed me $5 and some coins. I was befuddled. Since it was their error, she said, I got one of them free, and the other one at the shelf price.

All told, it was a lousy wage for my time, but it was a reminder that God is still in control. And God is Good.

2010 September 27 -- Trumpeting Mediocrity

Many, perhaps most, of the videos I check out of the library fill the first five or ten minutes of the tape with commercials for other movies (and sometimes video games), which I normally fast-forward over: it's easy to tell, because the scenes flicker on and off very rapidly (several scene changes per second at FF speed), then end with two very slow "commercials" which are the producer's logo. Often I just continue FF-ing through the opening credits and hitting Play when the director credit comes up (the director is always last), unless it opens with an actual scene.

Today's flic had only one commercial in front, a promo for the movie itself, announcing in repetitive detail how many awards it won. Excuse me, but if we are already watching it, why do we need the sales job? In my experience, the only people to bore you with their own praise are the ones who failed to earn anybody else's praise. The only software with burdensome copy protection is so mediocre nobody would want to steal it.

This flic was a little of both. Every couple minutes a huge warning message would cover a major part of the screen, announcing how illegal it is to sell this video. If it is unlawful to sell or rent it, then how could anybody watch it? In my case the library loaned it to me. The latest copyright law I read forbids renting or lending videos and sound recordings, but makes an exception for libraries; it does not -- and cannot -- forbid resale. If you bought something, you own it and can do any lawful thing you wish with what you paid for. Making another copy of a work of art is protected by copyright, so you can't legally duplicate the movie (except for "fair use" such as the temporary copy on your screen while watching it).

As a consequence, I cannot recommend this nor anything else HBO pretends to sell to the public under false pretenses.

Between the obnoxious warning labels it seemed to be a reasonable story. Maybe somebody else will do a less abusive production I could recommend more enthusiastically.

2010 September 22 -- Ayn Rand Again

By remarkable coincidence (we Christians spell that P-r-o-v-i-d-e-n-c-e), I happened upon an article in ChristianityToday "Ayn Rand: Goddess of the Great Recession" [Sept 2010, p.37] just after forming my own opinion of her philosophy. Author Gary Moore comes to a very similar conclusion as I (that Rand is more like Karl Marx than she is different), but more eloquently, and from a position of economic expertise. You should read the article, it's that good.

"As an investment counselor," he tells us, "I have probably seen more financial opportunities missed by clients due to libertarianism than any other thought system." That's an amazing insight. I see financial reward as a reasonable (but imperfect) metric for evaluating my success at implementing the Second Great Commandment or Golden Rule (2C). It breaks down when you consider that thieves and market swindlers also may profit (for a while, but morality tends to catch up to them eventually), and also that missionaries and most heroes do not get rich off their virtue, but most activity intended to benefit other people is reasonably rewarded by its beneficiaries in the open market. Perhaps Gary Moore is seeing another side of the same coin as I, that selfishness (the prime virtue of libertarians) is not rewarded for its own sake in the market.

He takes so-called Christian investment counselors like Austin Pryor and the late Larry Burkett to task for their Randian philosophy. I suspect that Moore is too generous with them, perhaps out of professional courtesy. As I pointed out elsewhere, the purpose of most investors in the stock market is to make money at the expense of others. Just being in the business of investment counselling is inherently to facilitate immoral activity.

There is a place for moral investment, which author Moore recommends. Because money has its own market value, investments and loans for the benefit of the borrower are in turn profitable to the lender or investor. That's a 2C (win-win) transaction. Seeking to exceed a reasonable return on your investment is the selfish and anti-social behavior that led us to the recession in the title of his article and the foolish election of socialists like our current President-Trainee, which the libertarians hope to correct six weeks from now. I hope they succeed, not because their economic ideas are better (disproved earlier this decade), but because we are stuck with Obama for another two years, and Washington deadlock seems to be the best thing that can happen to this country.

2010 September 20 -- Trivia, Bible and Otherwise

For as yet they knew not the Scripture -- John 20:9
Some 30 years ago I arranged my workday so I ate supper about 8-9pm, when the local Christian radio station broadcast Focus on the Family (which included a lot of good Christian values not directly related to raising families), followed by an eclectic selection of brilliant sermons they called "Conference Echoes". After that, if I dawdled, came a call-in talk show featuring the station owner Harold Camping. I understand his theology became rather more bizarre in subsequent years (after I stopped listening), but at the time I was impressed by his knowledge of the Bible. He could take a caller, who would say something like, "I don't know where it is, but somewhere in the Bible there is this prophet who did..." and before she finished asking her question, Camping was reading the text to her from his Bible. I thought, "I would like to know my Bible like that." I'm lousy at memorizing, but being able to find it in a minute or two would be awesome.

I am not quite as good as Camping seemed to be, and I depend rather more heavily on a concordance than I might wish, but I achieved my goal. When I hear a phrase from the Bible, I almost always recognize it and can place it in some book or section of the Bible, although I usually cannot pinpoint the chapter and verse without help. Conversely, I also generally recognize when a pious-sounding phrase is not in the Bible. This is not so much to brag as to wish the skill on everybody.

A deacon in the church I attend has been a Christian a lot less time than I, but he does not seem to have this burning desire to know his Bible, at least not the way he knows Mustang cars. Which is more important? OK, I know computer science about as well as the Bible, but that's what I was paid for, the work God gave me to do.

Saturday evening one of the church ladies called and invited me to a fundraiser for the local crisis pregnancy center. Longtime readers of my blog know "I am pro-choice" -- meaning I believe every woman should have the right to choose what happens to her body, especially including the women too young to speak for themselves yet. So although I can't make big donations like I could when I was gainfully employed, I came along to be supportive.

The activity of the evening was a trivia contest, 100 questions mostly about celebrities, almost all of whom I'd never consciously heard their names. Except the last page (ten questions) were Bible trivia, and I knew all those answers. Other than three Bible and/or Latin-based questions, I was no help at all to the team for the rest of them. We did not win, but an official told us we were in the upper 30%. Why is that? The young women at that table knew all kinds of facts about people in current events.

Everybody has the same number of brain cells. Everybody has the same intellectual capacity. You can fill your brain with who sang in what rock music album and who made the most strike-outs in baseball and faces of famous people, or you can fill it up with what's really important in life. I made my choice more than 30 years ago, and I have not regretted it.

Filling my mind with the Bible has had an importance consequence for me, that I almost always can think of a specific Biblical principle or example to guide any moral decision. Sometimes -- like when I ceased to be gainfully employed -- I am able to muddle through a difficult situation on Biblical principles before I really understand what's going on. I only wish I could have done it earlier. Fortunately, God does not hold the past against us. What counts is getting it right today, which takes planning ahead. 30 years ahead in my case.

2010 September 17 -- Peer Pressure

When I recently started reading science fiction again, most of the stories I was reading were written in the 60s and 70s. Like the lemming architects in Ayn Rand's Fountainhead, they all herded together and placed their action in a radioactive wasteland, the presumed future aftermath of post-atomic war. The local library does not have many old classics in sci-fi, so I'm seeing more recent works. The authors are still lemmings, but after the fall of the Soviet Union they can't credibly posit nuclear destruction, so instead they all set their stories in the radioactive wasteland of religious despotism. I guess the positive influence of the Christian church in the fall of the iron curtain is undeniable, and -- especially after 9/11 -- Islamic terrorism is on everybody's mind.

I just finished my first Ben Bova novel. I'd never heard of him until I saw the sci-fi sticker on the spine of his books on the library shelf above Ray Bradbury. Bova writes a good story, but his physics has more mistakes than Michael Crichton. Perhaps in deference to the scientism of his genre and/or readership, he is hostile to the obligatory religious bigots who run the home planet Earth (the story is about a community of misfits and atheistic scientists who left), but writing in 2003 he is historically inaccurate in predicting the eventual acceptance of abortion "once the Catholics got an American Pope, even the Vatican caved in." Opposition to killing unborn babies has been growing in the USA since I think the mid-90s (it recently became a majority at 51% but after Bova's book was published), and the American bishops in the Catholic church are still the leaders in the fight for life here. An American Pope is unlikely to be pro-death any time soon. If Bova really believed his Darwinist dogma (mostly subdued in this novel, unlike some of the others I recently read) and thought about how it's supposed to work, he would realize that people who kill their offspring do not pass their genes on to the next generation, while those opposed to such murder tend to have a higher birthrate, so pro-life people have a higher survival "fitness" and must eventually win out.

To write novels people want to read (the dust jacket credits him with more than a hundred books), Bova needs to accurately portray human nature. Despite his modernistic (feminist) egalitarianism and free-sexism, he understands enough about the nature of feminine psychology to make his three main female characters unhappy to discover that the stud hero has been in all of their beds. Women tend to be more monogamous than men, and Bova knows it.

2010 September 13 -- Against Socialism, but Also Wrong

I hope I never have to read the novel. The author Ayn Rand also wrote the screenplay, and according to the mini-documentary at the end, insisted that they use her dialog unchanged. As that was the recurring theme throughout the movie, I have no reason to believe the movie misrepresents her ideas.

Ayn Rand escaped from the Soviet Union in 1926, so she lived and knows the evils of socialism (which I also denounce elsewhere). The Fountainhead is essentially an attack on the coercive nature of Soviet collectivism, which according to the story pervades American architecture (it's fiction, of course; almost all modern artists -- including architects -- tend to be anarchists). The novel is portrayed in the mini-doc as a libertarian manifesto, but it completely neglects to deal with the fallen nature of humanity (also known as sin), probably because (according to Wikipedia) Rand was a life-long atheist. It's a fatal flaw in the story.

Libertarian theology works in a fictional atheist world where only socialist expressions of greed oppress other people. In the real world everybody is greedy, and only the blood of Jesus Christ redeems us from it. Greed is sin, and it is the nature of all sin that it harms other people. Libertarians are not exempt, if only because they cannot live up to their own ideals.

The movie hero Howard Roark expressed no greed nor corruption at all, but only the desire to do his own thing without interference. It opens with him being expelled from architecture school for nonconformity. There are colleges today that expel students for philosophical (read: religious) nonconformity, but architecture is not among them.

Roark's expulsion from school has another and far more damning implication. Unlike painting or writing novels and screenplays, architecture is more than pure art. The buildings an architect designs must conform to the laws of physics. If they fall down and kill people, the architect has failed. Nothing is said of this requirement in the story. Like it or not, Roark must conform to those limitations and restrictions. If he did not finish architecture school, he probably did not learn of those requirements; Rand certainly shows no awareness of them. Building codes are social rules that codify both the laws of physics in construction, and also such other social rules as the local and state governments choose to enforce. As I recall, Jerusalem has an artistic rule in their building code that all buildings must display only the local pink limestone. That's an artistic restriction that Rand/Roark would have found intolerable. But you don't build if you are unwilling to conform to the laws of physics and the law of the land.

The law is another social construct misrepresented in the story. Libertarians (including Rand) favor limited government, and largely I agree. The hero engages in an act of destruction when the contractor fails to comply with the contract to build it as designed. In American law that is breach of contract and you lose in civil court. In the movie, he is accused of conspicuously unspecified charges in criminal court, and wins on the basis of his long soliloquy on the nature of individualism. "Jury Nullification" is the absolute right of every jury to completely ignore the law and find for or against the defendant on whatever basis they choose, but lawyers and judges alike try to exclude jurors aware of that right, so most juries make their decision on the basis of applicable law; if Roark were guilty of violating some law, the history of individualism down through the ages would be no defense in court.

The biggest flaw in this manifesto, however, is the presumed dichotomy between socialism's coersion of "self-sacrifice" and the libertarian refusal to comply. According to Roark, "The man who works for others without payment is a slave." That is utterly false. The man coerced to work for others -- with or without payment -- is the slave. It is the coersion, not the lack of payment that makes it slavery. It's not self-sacrifice at all, if coerced. The libertarian ideal of a free market where each person freely works for others in exchange for just payment, is a good ideal, but the Christian idea of each person voluntarily choosing (without coersion) to give of himself for the benefit of others is even better. The libertarian individualism expressed by Roark actually fails when it neglects to consider the benefit of other people in its equation. In his courtroom soliloquy Roark tells us of innovators, that "he served nothing and no one; he lived for himself. Only by living for himself was he able to achieve the things which are the glory of mankind." Some obvious counterexamples come to mind: Henry VIII lived for himself, and is only known for his obeisity and his serial polygamy; that's hardly any "glory of mankind." Serial killers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Charles Manson lived for themselves.

Living for yourself is an inadequate and misleading measure of greatness. True greatness comes from serving other people, intentionally or otherwise. Ayn Rand herself was probably not explicitly thinking about helping people to overcome the socialist deception, but she contributed value to society only when her alleged self-serving also conformed to the rules of publication and her novel got printed, and her screenplay was made into a movie. She achieved fame and wealth by serving others.

The other half of libertarian dogma is freedom. It's a lofty ideal, but broken. Early in Fountainhead the heroine Dominique is asked what she wants. Her answer: "Freedom; to want nothing, depend on nothing, serve nothing." And then she takes a puff from her cancer stick, which as we now know (and the Christians already knew back then), is slavery to the demon god of nicotine. The Wiki portrait of Ayn Rand shows her "holding a cigarette". Some freedom!  As daughter of a rich architect, Dominique may be in a position to exercise her desire, but not in conformity with the libertarian ideal of independence. She did not earn her wealth, it was given to her. Nobody achieves wealth by living for themselves independent of others, they achieve it by serving other people's desires in a manner those other people are willing to pay for in vast numbers, or else by gift from the generosity of their parents -- who, if snubbed, are more likely to find other recipients for their bounty.

Some socialistic coersion is good: we pay taxes to support an army which protects us by taking over to the Middle East wars started in New York. Copyright and patent law protects creative people -- including Ayn Rand -- by allowing them to benefit from the fruits of their labors, and the court system (also supported in part by taxes) enforces those rights. Those socialist taxes also pay for fire engines and libraries (without which I would never have seen this flick) and jails to contain and restrain people who take the libertarian ideal too literally -- by living it instead of (like Ayn Rand) only writing about it. And because far too many people in this country are trained by the media to really live the freedom fiction, we have more people in jail than any other country. Or maybe it's only because we actually do put them in jail instead of letting them run free as they do in other countries, and as they once did in our own "Wild West" and in 1930s Chicago.

Socialist excesses (such as ObamaCare and MediCare and probably also SocialSecurity) are rightly condemned by the libertarians. When those excesses exceed the economy's ability to work around their cost to society, the country disintegrates, as did the (now former) Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Fortunately, the American people are collectively smarter than Ayn Rand and the country she was born in, and (hopefully starting a couple months from now) we can throw the bums out lawfully.

2010 September 11 -- Terrorist Act(s)

I guess there has to be some poetic justice in the flick that came up today.  It was modelled on the Timothy McVeigh bombing, but only by allusion -- one fleeting shot of his face among other snapshots, but the description (placed in another city with very slightly different details -- and essentially made the case that it could not have been a single guy acting alone.

The movie is fiction of course, and they always say so at the very end. That way they can make any kind of crazy statement they want, and show how it might be plausible, with complete deniability when pressed. Like that guy that ran for Senate from Minnesota, who said outlandish crazy things that people were expected to believe, and dismissed it as "humor" when challenged. I guess enough people believed him, he got elected by the same "poor, uneducated, and easily led" people who elected our current President-Trainee.

Screen writers are not experts in terrorism, and there were mistakes (possibly on purpose, to deter copy-cats). Timothy McVeigh did his damage with readily available materials that can be purchased in bulk from any farm supply store; the bombs in this movie were C4, which is unavailable except to the military and very well-connected criminals. McVeigh could have acted alone, but there's no way a competent investigation would have made the same determination in the case of the movie detonation, nevermind that they said so.

One thing struck me, that I would have done differently, if I were in the hero's place. If they played the bad guys as a team of terrorists, they had the hero try to stop them alone. My thought, looking at it, was "this is too big for one person, get help." Sure, the cops didn't believe him. That's a given. It's also a given that the hostages are going to die. Anybody willing to kill many people with a bomb is also willing to lie about their intentions. So not telling the cops will not save any lives, but if telling them doesn't get immediate action, at least it puts them on notice that there is a conspiracy to uncover.

As I pointed out on another occasion, conspiracies are exceedingly hard to cover up after the fact. This movie made the subtle hint that the "acting alone" bombers were merely dupes for a vast hidden conspiracy. The story is as old as the Kennedy assassination, and just as wrong.

2010 September 6 -- Cheap Imitations by the Same Name

Many of the classic comic strips were taken over by hack artists after their creators died or retired. The new story lines are pallid imitations with no character. A few others -- Charles Schultz' Peanuts made the news at a time when I was looking -- were wisely refused by the artist's estate. You get the same effect with literary classics, especially as they are adapted to movies or TV. I'm thinking today of Catherine Marshall's Christy.

I'm not much into "chic lit" except as a way to explore how women think. I had pretty much figured out that I didn't have the proverbial snowball's chance of success in that arena, so I don't know what came over me when I pulled the 4-DVD set Christy off the library shelf last week. Dorothy Sayers, another female Christian author, has done very well with her fiction, maybe I was hoping. I was disappointed.

First, it wasn't really Catherine Marshall's story, but rewritten for the series by one Patricia Green and only "based on" Catherine Marshall's characters. Later in the series the credit changed to "Developed by Patricia Green". In other words, the screenplays were actually written by some nameless Hollywood hack who had no idea what they were writing about. It showed. Like MacGyver, the later episodes lacked credibility.

Here, for example, we have an evil rich industrialist -- already a Marxist oxymoron perpetuated in movies, but with little truth in reality -- trying to buy up the local people's land for the timber (there were no old-growth trees in the background shots, only young trees less than a foot in diameter, and far too small for a viable lumber market) and send the people off to live in city slums. The only real alternative offered in this ridiculous story line is staying in the woods to die of malnutrition. The title character becomes -- or perhaps always was -- a perfect Relationshipist, rejecting the man's donations to her mission with her rejection of his business offer. Don't expect a Hollywood screenwriter to think of it, but an honest and creative Christian, unblinded by money and Relationshipism, would have noticed a much better middle ground, where the hillbillies get to keep their land, and the timber barons buy the trees at a mutually agreeable price.

Even the missionary pastor in this series has completely lost sight of why he is there, and admits it. The purpose of a Christian mission is not to make the lives of the people "better" in some moralistic or financial way, but to offer them the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, who rescues them from selfishness and feuding. The title character is a teacher, who (they at least got this right) teaches them to read the Bible. It is in the Bible we learn who Jesus is and why we need him, but the bigots in Hollywood don't have a clue.

According to Wikipedia, the novel is based "75%" on Catherine Marshall's mother. I have not read the book (and probably never will), and while it is conceivable that Marshall herself lost sight of the evangelistic goal of missions, in the light of her other writings it seems to me far more likely that it was lost in the screenwriting. It's a pity that her estate was not as wise as Charles Schultz's in watching over the truth in licensing out her writings.

2010 September 2 -- Fiction about Religion

I have noticed over the years that people who achieve a truly brilliant insight generally write only one book in their life. It gets published many times with many different (and sometimes not so different) titles, but it's the same book inside, with minor variations. Today's insight is that the author's idea so replicated doesn't even need to be brilliant or true.

Take Isaac Asimov's award-winning Foundation novel trilogy-turned-series. The chief "insight" that pervades the story line is that religion consists of a corrupt, dishonest, power-mad priesthood which is necessary to preserve civilization through times of chaos, but eventually to be replaced by (true, virtuous, heroic) science in the social Darwinism that atheists bow to. It is said that Asimov was inspired by the role of the Catholic church after the fall of the Roman empire (see Religious Villainy last month), but as an atheist he was totally unable to see religion as other than a fraud and a power trip.

His later novel (with a co-author who probably did most of the writing, as seems to be common for aging famous authors) Nightfall carries the same theme wrapped around the tiny idea that society cannot survive an event that occurs only once every couple thousand years without devolving into chaos. The annoying thing about his fraudulent treatment of religion is that he apparently knows what he is doing. Several of the important characters in this story at different times make totally unwarranted assumptions about what is going on without bothering to investigate the actual evidence, and babble on continuously so that people with a better understanding (right or wrong) cannot present contrary evidence. I get the impression that Asimov and/or co-author Silverberg recognize that they are doing the same with religion as their heroes in the story did. In the story (as in Foundation) we are eventually told that the religion is indeed a fraud, but atheists mostly never bother to investigate the true nature of what they detest. I suspect they are afraid that it might actually be true, and nobody seems to want to live under enforced morality -- except they need it imposed on other people.

Quite a conundrum, isn't it? Religion keeps people from killing each other -- and especially from killing me -- but I don't want religion telling me what to do or no do. At least that seems to be how the atheists see it.

The fact is, people eventually see through a fraud, and religion wouldn't survive at all if it weren't based on truth. Neither would science. People seem to tolerate a modest amount of fraud around the edges because of the central core of truth. We see that in both (Christian) religion and (Darwinist) science.

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