Friday, November 23, 2012

The Better Of Times

‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away
   at the mid-point of my life,
you whose years endure
   throughout all generations.’ - Psalm 102:24
Today is my 47th birthday.  For the past few weeks, just that thought has put me in a serious funk.  I have no idea why, and that hasn't helped my funk.  For some reason, this particular number has made me sit up over and say to myself, "Crap, I'm getting old."  This past weekend, in a fit of the blah's, I spent quite a bit of time listening to music that was popular back when I was younger.  I watched some old movies, or at least clips from them.  What I saw and heard made me wonder if young folks today had any idea how beautiful their parents were a quarter century ago.  Not just beautiful, but talented and thoughtful.

As I told someone in a comment a few days back, I realized I was having an attack of The John McCains.  Pretty soon, I was going to be out back yelling at the clouds.  That certainly helped snap me out of the funk.

Then, I got thinking.  I realized, with something like happiness, that we in fact live in quite good times.  Oh, I know the economy still sucks, and there's always the possibility that it could all come crashing down around us.  Still, economic conditions rise and fall; I've been through a couple moderate recessions in the past twenty or so years, along with our current sluggish good times, so stuff like this happens.  If I were to measure how I thought about the times in which we live solely that way, sure, I'd probably be even more depressed than I was before.  Thankfully, I don't.

When I was 18, Ronald Reagan was President.  There was a widespread fear that the nuclear standoff between the United States and Soviet Union was far too fragile and any moment the whole thing could be gone in a hail of fire.  I remember Eddie Murphy making jokes about the first black President of the United States having to be in constant motion, dodging the missiles thrown his way.

I graduated college and started my adult life without a President of the United States acknowledging there was a virus that caused the human immune system to break down; I lived through far too many years with far too many people not caring about the millions of their fellow human beings dying horrible deaths, blaming them for their conditions.  Shoot, in the same concert film in which Eddie Murphy pictured the first black President dodging and weaving bullets and fruit, he could wonder aloud about Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton from The Honeymooners being "funny faggots" and get all sorts of laughs.  How times have changed.

Ours is a remarkably more peaceful world.  Our land is more at peace, more safe, more congenial to lived difference, than at any time in living memory.  While hardly a paradise, it would be ridiculous for me to pretend there haven't been amazing strides in the way we Americans treat those who aren't white, straight, and Christian.  While we still have more work to do, today, this day, the day I realize deeper in my gut that I am a middle-aged man, I want to celebrate that we Americans, and people around the world, live in a far more congenial place than any time in living memory.

Nations that spent centuries at one another's throats have laid down their arms.  Countries whose tyranny seemed endless are learning the habits of the democratic heart.  People around the world are standing up and demanding to be treated like human beings and they are no longer silenced or marginalized.  We aren't there yet, like I said, not by a long shot.  But we have started down the path that might well take us all to a world that has decided to be more human.  These are good things.  They need to be celebrated.

The difference at the top, here in this country, couldn't be more stark between the days of my youth and today.  Ronald Reagan versus Barack Obama?  No contest.  The President's re-election demonstrates that we might yet be getting it.  For all I have been critical of some of the things he's done, I cannot deny the many good things as well; nor can I deny that we as a people have shown that we are better than our history, better than the worst among us even now.  I am quite pleased that I cast my vote for him not once but twice.

So, I may be a middle-aged man, but I refuse to sit around and tell my kids stories that begin, "When I was your age . . ." because when I was my kids' age, the world wasn't a safe place to live for millions of people.  Whole populations were held hostage by the threat of nuclear holocaust.  Hundreds of millions lived under nightmarish tyrants and dehumanizing systems of dominance.  No, I celebrate the world in which all of us live now.  I am thrilled I have lived this long, able to see my country, this land I love, begin to live out even more fully its social and cultural creed that we are a free people.  We haven't arrived at the Promised Land.  We do know it's there, though, if we're willing to open our eyes and look around us.

Coming in time for my birthday was the 2CD+DVD set Octane Twisted from Porcupine Tree.  Recorded in Chicago at a show I attended, I am happy to report it is even better the second, third, and fourth times around.  Here's the last song from their song-cycle "The Incident", called "I Drive The Hearse".

Thursday, November 22, 2012


I find it more than a little ironic that our national day of Thanksgiving comes just after a national political campaign in which one of our major party tried to argue that we should not acknowledge the role others play in our accomplishments.  "You didn't build that", Pres. Obama's off-hand rebuke to an imagined interlocutor who insists higher marginal tax rates are a threat to his or her continued success, became a rallying cry among many on the right.  There was enough push-back against the idiocy that, I think, the President's point is clear: we all need one another, working together, for all of us and each of us, to succeed.

Yet, there is a plurality out there that insists this just isn't the case.  Individual success, whether in business or the professions or the arts or the trades or what have you is just that: individual success.  Never mind the millions who came before, creating the standards by which success is measured.  Never mind the teachers and mentors, the friends and associates who gave us the tools and knowledge.  Never mind the larger society, agreeing together to abide by the rule of laws that gives to all and each certain freedoms so that we can succeed.  Never mind the local officials who work tirelessly and very often with little reward and no recognition to make sure roads and sidewalks are usable and accessible; that our children have the best possible schools, that our streets and alleys and byways don't fill with garbage and waste.  Never mind the more far-sighted in our communities who studied and proposed and pushed through building waste-water treatment facilities, recycling programs, and local ordinances regarding property maintenance so diseases and vermin don't congregate, fester, and spread.

Yeah, why should we be thankful for these things?  What do they have to do with whether or not the local grocer or pharmacist or clothier makes a living, right?

So, today, I'm thankful for everything.  Every single thing that surrounds me.  Not just my family, although Lord knows I am thankful each moment for them.  I'm thankful for the air I breathe.  The water I drink (and use to make my morning coffee!).  I'm thankful for the beautiful, homey home in which we live, surrounded by nearly an acre of beautiful land filled with trees and shrubs and berry-plants and gorgeous wildflowers that color it in spring and summer.  I'm thankful for the years I spent studying, taking tests, writing papers so I could have not one, not two, but three diplomas to hang on my wall, testament not to any great work I've done, but to the hard work and faith of the teachers, professors, and mentors who worked hard to provide a place and space where and when I and others could study.  I'm grateful for those who gave their money for scholarships, for the banks who provided student loans, without which none of that education would have been possible.

I have a wall of books I didn't write.  I read them not because I had some magic ability to read, but because first my mother then a few teachers early on were patient and persistent, giving me the best, most wonderful, most subversive gift ever granted human beings: the ability to read.

Not a thing I possess is mine.  Not a person in my life, whether professional, casual, or intimate, is there because of any grace or gift or charm I might possess.  Even my pets, a wonderful St. Bernard who is without doubt the best dog I've ever known and our glorious black cat, Casper, aren't mine; possessing these living creatures, outside the legal sense in which they are, indeed "ours", would be a moral crime.  No, they share our space, are parts of our family, enriching it immeasurably.

Most of all, I acknowledge this Thanksgiving morning that each moment of my life has been, and will continue to be, a gift from a loving, generous, prodigally loving God.  All that surrounds me, whether natural or not, human or animal or inanimate - not a lick of it is mine.  It belongs to God.  Even the skin that sits on my frame, the heart beating in my chest, the blood that keeps my tissues fed - these are all God's.  I am thankful today because all that is, this wonderful gift, had nothing at all to do with me, and I can revel in my irrelevance to everything save the God who created it all.  I own nothing, am no one of any consequence, yet God knows me, loves me, and has called me by name.

For that, I am and will continue to be thankful, as the Psalmist says, all the days of my life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Don't Believe In Global Warming

On the day I planned to write the title post in my little series, fate has delivered me the most marvelous gift, courtesy of that hotbed of anti-Americanism, The World Bank (.pdf):
Uncertainties remain in projecting the extent of both climate change and its impacts. We take a risk-based approach in which risk is defined as impact multiplied by probability: an event with low probability can still pose a high risk if it implies serious consequences.  No nation will be immune to the impacts of climate change. However, the distribution of impacts is likely to be inherently unequal and tilted against many of the world’s poorest regions, which have the least economic, institutional, scientific, and technical capacity to cope and adapt.
A world in which warming reaches 4°C above preindustrial levels (hereafter referred to as a 4°C world), would be one of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions, with serious impacts on human systems, ecosystems, and associated services. Warming of 4°C can still be avoided: numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible emissions pathways to hold warming likely below 2°C. Thus the level of impacts that developing countries and the rest of the world experience will be a result of government, private sector, and civil society decisions and choices, including, unfortunately, inaction.
The report itself isn't terribly long, at less than 100 pages of text.

Now, I am quite sure there are some folks out there who wonder why I'm entitling this post and series "I Don't Believe In Global Warming" if I quote a report on global warming.

The answer is simple: That global warming is happening, and happening because of human activity, is not subject to "belief", however that particular word is understood.  I do not "subscribe" to the "belief" that the earth is getting warmer.  It is getting warmer.  I do not "believe" that human action, specifically the burning of billions of tons of fossil fuels, has ejected more and more CO2 to the atmosphere.  I can see for myself:
 Whether it's evolution or climate science or particle physics or heat exchange in chemistry, I neither believe nor disbelieve in any of these things.  Precisely because, however one defines the word "belief", or describe the human activity of "believing", to say one "believes" in any particular scientific theory already demonstrates an ignorance about what science is and how it works.
To those who might insist I've never ever said anything about science before, just check it out for yourself. I have defined, repeated that definition, given examples, talked about what isn't science - many, many times over the six years I've been writing here.  If you missed it, or don't know how easy it is to find out what I've talked about numerous times, at the very least I've provided a handy link here for you to check it out for yourself.

I don't believe in global warming for the same reason I don't believe World War II ended on May 8, 1945.  I don't believe my daughter was born on June 7, 2001.  I don't believe that elementary particles behave both as particles and as wave functions.  I don't believe any of these things because "belief", however one chooses to define that word, just doesn't enter in to it.  At all.  Ever.

I don't believe in global warming because I accept the scientific evidence.  That isn't a matter either of belief or common sense.  It is, rather, a matter of knowing how science works.  Those people who insist otherwise demonstrate by that very insistence they have no idea what they're talking about.

For far too long, time and energy has been wasted trying to tell people who are either too ignorant to know better, or know perfectly well what they're doing and don't care, how wrong they are.  It is far better to continue to discuss these topics without reference to creationists, global warming deniers, and any other person or group who is little more than contemporary alchemists and astrologers.  Call them out for who and what they are, then just carry on, letting them have their hissy fits and tantrums while folks who understand, at the very least, what a strange, complicated world we live in and, for all its flaws, the only way to make sense of that world is scientific understanding.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Yawn: My Response To Creationists

I've been putting off writing about the phony "evolution versus creationism" debate in this little series mostly because wading in to the cesspool of creationism makes me feel stupid.  I suppose I could link to the "Institute for Creation Science" or the Creationism museum in Kentucky, which is supposed to have a display of primitive human beings living cheek by jowl with dinosaurs (who, apparently, didn't get Noah's memo to show up at the ark?).

Instead I decided to link to this guy.  In a post entitled "Science Already Recognizes Intelligent Design" we read:
It has for a long, long time.  As Greg Koukl notes, consider archaeology, forensics and the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. All infer, with good reason, that you can detect whether something happened without being caused by another agent or whether there was an intelligent being behind the creation of something.
The movie “Contact” was a shining example of the self-parody of materialists.  While mocking those who believe in Intelligent Design, their litmus test for extraterrestrial life was whether patterns they viewed had evidence of design.
Forensics is all about looking for evidence of design. And archaeology correctly infers design.
Earlier today, a friend of mine posted a link to a "Surrealist Letter To The Rectors of European Universities".   In comments, someone wrote the following: "How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?  Answer: Fish!"  That makes far more sense than the preceding, while standing as a model of logic compared to what follows.
We agree there is a gap in understanding some things about the universe. The Darwinists plug it with the “naturalism of the gaps.”  They don’t know what caused it, but it definitely wasn’t an intelligent designer. They have no argument other than blind faith.  We don’t have the same gap.  We logically infer from the evidence that some things — such as life and the indescribable complexity and design of the universe — had to have come from a powerful designer.  Even atheists like Richard Dawkins concede that the universe appears to be designed.
There are some folks who take the time to deconstruct nonsense like this.  I refuse, preferring to treat people who write this way much the same way one professor invited to "debate" the issue responded to his interlocutors.
Academic debate on controversial topics is fine, but those topics
need to have a basis in reality. I would not invite a creationist
to a debate on campus for the same reason that I would not invite
an alchemist, a flat-earther, an astrologer, a psychic, or a
Holocaust revisionist. These ideas have no scientific support, and
that is why they have all been discarded by credible scholars.
Creationism is in the same category.
Instead of spending time on public debates, why aren’t members of
your institute publishing their ideas in prominent peer-reviewed
journals such as Science, Nature, or the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences? If you want to be taken seriously by
scientists and scholars, this is where you need to publish.
Academic publishing is an intellectual free market, where ideas
that have credible empirical support are carefully and thoroughly
explored. Nothing could possibly be more exciting and electrifying
to biology than scientific disproof of evolutionary theory or
scientific proof of the existence of a god. That would be Nobel
Prize winning work, and it would be eagerly published by any of the
prominent mainstream journals.
“Conspiracy” is the predictable response by Ben Stein and the
frustrated creationists. But conspiracy theories are a joke,
because science places a high premium on intellectual honesty and
on new empirical studies that overturn previously established
principles. Creationism doesn’t live up to these standards, so its
proponents are relegated to the sidelines, publishing in books,
blogs, websites, and obscure journals that don’t maintain
scientific standards.
Now, the person to whom I linked will probably cry "Foul!" because he writes about Intelligent Design, rather than creationism.  To which I will only copy and paste what Federal District Court Judge John Jones wrote in his opinion tossing out the Dover Area, PA School Board's requirement to teach Intelligent Design alongside evolution:
The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory. 
You can call it "creationism" or "creation science" or "Intelligent Design", but it all comes down to the same thing: demonstrating not only a magisterial ignorance both of the creation stories in Genesis as well as the traditional Doctrine of Creation alongside an almost comical ignorance about what science is and how it works.  There is no need to "respond" or "rebut" what are not "arguments".  The constant demand from creationists for attention should be met with silence broken only occasionally by the laughter from those who understand that every time a creationist writes something, they again demonstrate exactly why they aren't taken seriously.

I will stipulate, however, that the very notion that scientists "believe" something demonstrates how little allegedly faithful Christians think of their own faith, willing as they seem to be to strip the word belief of any real meaning this way.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Say The Magic Words

I'm quite sure a whole lot of oxygen will be wasted on the Sunday blather hours about Benghazi.

I'm still trying to figure out what, precisely, has John McCain's and Lindsey Graham's panties in such a bunch.  My impressing is they are really really mad that UN Ambassador Susan Rice didn't go on television the Sunday following the attacks and screech, "RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!  AL QAEDA!!!"

That's the scandal.

On Friday, former CIA Director David Petraeus went to Congress and said that the main points Rice hit in her explanation were vetted not just by his agency, but all the intelligence agencies investigating what happened.  While there was a growing consensus that the events of September 11 were more than just a spontaneous demonstration, there wasn't evidence enough to make any conclusive statement one way or another.

The President came out the day after the attacks and called them . . . acts of terror.

The US and Libyan law enforcement were working to find out who carried out the attacks, with an arrest made in Tunisia in October.

As actual events unfolded, and more definitive evidence came to light, it became clear that, whatever else was going on around the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, there was a concerted effort by a cell of terrorists working in that city to wreak havoc.  No one, as far as I know, is saying otherwise.

So, still, I wonder.

Do any of those carrying on about Benghazi actually read news papers or pay attention to what officials are telling the American people?  Because everything I just wrote is and has been out there for anyone to read.  It all came out before the election, so it isn't like it only emerged after so the news wouldn't hurt Pres. Obama.  And, since we're talking about that, how does an event that demonstrates a big intelligence failure as well as a lack of appropriate security for our officials, regardless of the specifics of the event, somehow help the President?  Even if no terrorist group had been involved, perhaps especially so, the killing of four Americans in this manner isn't exactly proof that the Obama Administration had it going on in a very dangerous part of the world.  Which isn't to say that the President, or anyone else, is directly responsible for their deaths, either.  All I'm saying is . . . well, there may be a scandal here, but it's more along the lines of allocation of resources and communication among intelligence agencies, rather than going on TV after the event and telling the world what we know based on evidence.

There has been a whole lot of talk that the President, or someone associated with him or his office, directly intervened to prevent some kind of military response.  Now, I have no idea if this is true, or if it is, why it's important because, honestly, I can imagine all sorts of reasons that might have occurred.  The thing is, there is nothing more than a bunch of unsubstantiated claims made by people who either cannot have any such knowledge or are not providing all the details.  The thing is - there's no real evidence that a military response was even planned.  There's no evidence that the people on the ground in Benghazi called for assistance, and if they did, none was sent.

I seem to be returning to a theme here: no evidence.

There's been a whole lot of speculation and questions usually beginning, "Isn't it possible . . .?"  To repeat myself: Even Santa Claus is possible.  Most such questions, however, are either unanswerable or contrary to available facts.

So, what this boils down to, again, is Ambassador Rice went on TV, saying things she was given by our intelligence agencies.

And that's wrong.  Unlike John McCain screaming that he doesn't have any information while missing a meeting at which he could ask questions of people directly involved so he could get answers.  And getting made at reporters who point this out to him.

As soon as actual evidence emerges that anyone in a position of authority did something wrong, I don't see a scandal or a cover-up.  All I see are morons who lost an election stomping their feet because they didn't get their own way.

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