Sunday, December 31, 2006

Station Break

We interrupt this program to bring you a special message from our sponsors:

Happy New Year!!!!

Friday, December 29, 2006

Part two: CDG Paris and beyond

After six agonizing hours in the air- a fortuitous jet stream cutting nearly two hours from the flight time- we landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris. If you’ve never been there, it’s hard to describe- CDG is an airport in the same huge, arrogant way that Texas is a state. It’s almost more accurate to describe Paris as the residential subdivision of CDG than the other way around. When your plane lands, you’ll taxi for 20-30 minutes, over highway overpasses and through traffic-controlled intersections before you’ll get to your gate. In our case, there was an additional 30 minute wait when we got there, as we had arrived ahead of schedule and the gate was not ready for us- which will give you an insight into a certain kind of bureaucratic mentality.

You see, no matter how big CDG is, it’s not big enough; as the world’s busiest airport, the demands on it’s facilities are huge- and so our “gate” was not a gate at all but merely a box painted on the tarmac, with an “x” for each piece of equipment... and not every piece of equipment had arrived yet. The schlepper with the stairs was there, and the bus for the 30 minute ride to the terminal was there- wasn’t that good enough? Mais non, it’s not a legal gate until everything is there; the plane may not pull into it. Well, we have customs to get through and a connecting flight- couldn’t you roll the stairs over to where we are then? Quelle idea! Passengers cannot wander willy-nilly over the tarmac! You must deplane at a proper gate! But your “gate” IS just a piece of tarmac with an outline painted on it! *Sigh* Never mind, I understand; it’s the Les Nessman of WKRP in Cincinnati school of management.

I must say, however, that once inside CDG, it’s fairly impressive and fairly well run. If you have questions, answers are available in French or English. I witnessed this myself; no matter in what language the questions were asked- Russian, Spanish, Greek- the answers were in French or English. Our connecting flight was located with only the minimal amount of nonsense that is required by customs and security.

I was horrified to learn that the last leg of the trip was another Airbus, but we got a break: our seats were in the emergency exit aisle. As there are international regulations demanding that a human body can actually fit through the exit for safety reasons, this section is twice as roomy as normal. An hour later we were in Nice. Deciding to splurge on a long taxi ride, 20 minutes later we were in Villefranche Sur Mer! We had left Indianapolis at 6:00 p.m. Friday, and it was now 3:00 p.m. Saturday- but we had arrived!

Next: Food, wonderful food!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Our Vacation in Villefranche Sur Mer

I discovered several important things during our vacation in France- it turns out that when they say “travel is broadening”, they don’t just mean the high-calorie French cooking! But the only way to tell what I learned is in context, which means describing the whole experience... so those with a low tolerance for boredom may want to bail.

Part One: getting there is half the fun

We’ll pretend that the day started with a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. It actually began by getting up at 4:00 a.m. for a last minute housecleaning to impress the catsitter, doing the laundry I was going to be wearing that day, etc., but those things belong to another story- something like “No time left for me; the life of a obsessive”, and I should be telling a therapist, not you.

But it’s easy to pretend that the day started with a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit, because all NWA flights involve changing planes in Detroit. If you fly from the International Space Station to Mars on NWA, you’ll do it via Detroit. Once in Detroit, however, there was minimal fuss in loading for the second leg of the trip, Detroit to Charles De Gaulle, Paris. This was on an Airbus 330, but the exact model number is unimportant, as there are only two basic Airbus product lines: copies of Boeing products, and copies of McDonnell Douglas products. This one was a copy of an McD wide-body jet... but it wasn’t wide everywhere.

Airbus had managed to improve profitability by running extra seats further into the tail cone than any other airliner manufacturer. Do you remember in art class how the illusion of great distance is created by having lines that should be parallel converge upon a “vanishing point”, with objects getting smaller and smaller as they approach that point? That effect is realized in real life by the aisles and seats as they are squeezed into the tail cone of the Airbus. Oddly enough, all of the overly tall or overly wide passengers (I fit both categories) were seated in this section. I’d like to think this was random chance, but then I notice this plane was manufactured in a country where they think that Jerry Lewis is funny. Seriously, how tight was it? A jagged hole was torn in my pants as I forced myself into the 17” seat- and bruising of my hips and thighs actually interfered with the rest of the vacation. I repeat: those seats are 17” wide... by comparison, the hip room a two door Volkswagen Rabbit allows- more than 52” for two people- Airbus could fit three-abreast seating into with room to spare. Not since the liberation of France in 1945 has anyone ever been more glad to see Charles De Gaulle!

Next: The Innocents (well, not guilty anyway) Abroad!

Monday, December 25, 2006

A note to a friend on Christmas day

When my beloved and I finally got home, circa 12:30 A.M. Christmas Eve after more than 24 hours in transit from France (a long story I will write about in the near future), we found a huge pile of correspondence that we were unable to get all the way through until today. In that pile, I found a Christmas card from a special category of sender- Dear Friend Whom I Have Never Met. It was like having another present to unwrap. This post is addressed to the sender of that card.

The card’s message was about the deficiencies of a man who eats fruitcake, and for most of my life I would have agreed with it- still do, in fact, for the man who eats normal fruitcake. But just about twenty years ago I found... the fruitcake. It was an experience even more profound than Sherlock Holmes’ finding the woman. Baked by Trappist monks in New York, the fruit and nuts are of the highest quality... the cake of a recipe Lucifer was thrown from Heaven for stealing... aged... soaked in fine brandy, then glazed to hold the brandy in while it ages... this is a fruitcake that is only available mail-order, and one must exercise extreme restraint in making out the order to only get what you have rationed yourself, for once it has arrived no further restraint is possible; no matter how much you have ordered, it will be only one serving. Try it if you dare, here

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Greetings to all

The reason I've been unable to post or comment the last week is that I was in the south of France- I'll be writing about it in the near future, as well as catching up with the work of my fellow bloggers. until then...

Merry Christmas to All, and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Glad for a name change

Years ago when Indianapolis formally changed the name of our World‘s largest Christmas tree to “The Circle of Lights”, ( another view ), many were upset. But after seeing what SeaTac airport has just gone through, I’m glad we acted early to “secularize” the event... could you imagine trying to put up a 284 foot tall, 4,784 light Menorah along side the “Circle of Lights”? Of course, as a Pagan, I’m perfectly happy with a tree...

P.S. the pressures of family events may prevent me from posting again until after Christmas- but this is a good thing. Merry Christmas!

P.P.S. As “Christmas” is a Federal holiday, that was a secular salutation. :)

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thoughts on food

A private response to my post on Swedish Christmas customs inspired some thoughts on food. I was told that another Yule time legacy from Sweden’s Viking past is a test of courage and stamina called “eating lutefisk”. I looked it up- this involves soaking herring in toxic, caustic lye before cooking it. But that’s not the weird part- the weird part is that we do something similar right here in America! It seems that someone- probably from Minnesota- decided that corn, too, should be soaked in caustic lye before eating; thus was born hominy. This got me to thinking- how on Earth did we think of some of the things we do to food?

Some recipes, even fairly complex ones, aren’t hard to guess how they came about. Cake, for example- I’m picturing a hung over bachelor stumbling into the pantry one morning, and finding what is in every bachelor’s pantry: two cups of dry cereal, an egg, and a half cup of milk left over from making cappuccino the night before. He shrugs, mixes it all together, throws it into the oven and goes to the bathroom for Visine and a long shower. When he returns to the kitchen he finds that he has invented cake.

Other foods are much harder to figure out. Coffee, for example- who invented that? “Hey, Bill, I got this great idea! You know those hard, red berries on the coffee bush?” “Yeah, once I made my little brother eat a handful- he barfed, then started twitching. It was hilarious!” “OK, we take some of those, roast them ‘til they’re brown and sticky, then throw them in boiling water to leach out all the poisons...” “And...?” “Then we drink it!” “Righhhhhht....”

Or take sausage. Pan sausage is easy enough to figure out; once the principle of grinding meat was established, spicing it was obvious. But link sausage? Do you KNOW what sausage skins are? How on Earth did it ever occur to someone to stuff their spiced hamburger into THOSE?

Or yogurt- who had the guts to be the first to try that? Again, I’m thinking bachelors. “Hey, guess what I found in the back of the fridge? It’s that bottle of milk we bought last year! Wanna try it?” “Dude, it’s quivering!” “C’mon, I dare ya!”

At least with the evolution of life forms we can see the intermediate steps, see the progression from one form to another; but with food, it’s often a mystery. How did we go from cucumber sandwiches to pickles? Was there ever a dish of fresh cucumbers, vinegar, and garlic that was just allowed to sit too long? The same question goes for sauerkraut. Or haggis- was it a common thing to serve your oatmeal in a sheep’s stomach before it occurred to someone to add lungs and other organ meats to it?

What foods can you not figure out?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Well, I never!

John Derbyshire of “National Review”, (am I safe in assuming that I am in the minority as a UU blogger who reads National Review?), reports on a game they’re playing at the London Daily Telegraph in which you confess to things you have never done. Quoting John, “The trick is that the things you confess to never having done are things that — and this is of course highly life-context-dependent — you ought to have done, or feel you ought to have; or things of which the omission is surprising in some other way — e.g. lived your whole life in London but never seen the Thames. Things that hardly anyone does (“never been on safari”) don’t count.”

Ok... I have never:

Made it through an entire episode of Seinfeld.

Been to Disneyland. Or Florida, for that matter.

Attended a professional Baseball game.

Gone to a bar, unless invited to meet someone there.

Done “Trick or Treat for UNICEF”

Successfully pulled a tune out of a musical instrument.

Successfully negotiated a dance without incident.

Attempted to ski (snow or water) or surf. Or managed to swim without looking like a paddlewheel boat.

Gone two weeks without chocolate.

Gotten all Christmas or birthday cards out on time in any year.

Voted Democrat for President.

Sent a text message, or used any cell phone feature other than making a telephone call.

Had a haircut without thinking of David Crosby’s song “Almost Cut My Hair”.

Worn a pair of tennis shoes that cost more than $25.

Saved anything, music or data, onto a CD.

What have you never?

Monday, December 04, 2006

The “Christmas Wars” heat up

Much has been made here in America the last couple years of “the war against Christmas”, as some people call every instance of someone saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”, or “Holiday Tree” rather than “Christmas Tree”. Of course, there are those who love to point out that there’s nothing Christian about the “Christmas Tree”- it’s really a pagan tradition. But for a real mix of Christian and Pagan, with resulting fireworks, (literally!) look to Sweden!

You see, in Sweden, Christmas gifts for the boys and girls are brought by the dwarf Jultomten, in a sleigh drawn by the Christmas Goat, Julbok. What, you’ve never heard of the Julbok? It evolved from medieval Sweden, when Thor, the Norse god of thunder, rode in a wagon pulled by goats to deliver Christmas presents, and is a favorite Christmas ornament The city of Gavle celebrates this tradition every year by building an enormous Julbok downtown. Unfortunately, vandals burn it down every year.

But not this year! After last year’s vandalism- conducted by Santa Claus and the Gingerbread Man- Gavle turned to the aviation industry for fireproofing expertise, and swear that not even napalm could take down this year’s Julbok! Hail Thor, Happy Yule!

Nostalgia lost

It’s pledge time for the local Public Television, and of course that means we’ve been seeing special dinosaur-rock reunion concerts. Generally I watch only to see if the coots can still hit the notes- and it’s amazing how often they can after all those years. But another thought struck me while watching the Doo-wop special.

Doo-wop is before my time; this special was octogenarians on stage singing to septuagenarians in the audience. But it was kind of sweet, actually, with silver-hairs holding hands and singing along, sometimes with tears in their eyes, remembering their salad days. By the end, there was dancing in the aisles. Suddenly it occurred to me that this was another thing denied to the Hip-hop generation. That they’ve been denied a positive, uplifting cultural experience in the present is pretty clear- but they’ve also been denied in the future the kind of societal-binding nostalgia their parents have, the camaraderie of shared cultural experience the oldies induce.

Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps fifty years from now a silver-haired Marshall Mathers will be up on the PBS stage, making eyes glisten with an obscenely delivered fantasy of raping and killing his mother; perhaps those future septuagenarians will be lost in memory of their salad days as Public Enemy barks out a classic about killing cops, or maybe Ludicris’ rant about ho’s will move them to one last dance, with grandmama bending over and sticking her booty out so grandpaw can grind his pelvis against it. Perhaps those rappers who have not killed each other at award shows by then will be able to generate the same emotions in their fans that those Doo-woppers did. It could happen, I guess.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Cars and blogs

Over the Thanksgiving weekend we rented the animated film “Cars”, which, like all Pixar productions, was excellent. Something about the emotional feel of the movie, however, has had me pondering about many a political and/or blog discussion.

Central to the plot of “Cars” is the story of the small towns on Route 66 that became ghost towns overnight when the Interstates opened. As one character says, “Bypassed to save ten minutes.” The movie, and even more the director’s commentary, spoke of an entire lifestyle lost.
The interviews of the people who lived along Rte. 66 were poignant- but it struck me that they were oblivious to the fact that Rte. 66 and her sisters had themselves been the death knell of another way of life, the passenger railroad.
“Good morning America, how are you?
Don’t you know me- I’m you’re native son.
I am the train they call the City of New Orleans;
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done.”

A further bit of irony is that Arlo Guthrie and all the others (like my wife) who lamented the passing of the railroads were just as oblivious to the fact that they, too, had destroyed a way of life- the Stagecoach lines. The first generation of ghost towns in America were created by the railroads who didn’t need to stop for food and water as often as the stagecoach; wide-spot-in-the-road towns were “Bypassed to save ten minutes.”

It struck me that this was a basic principle to many an argument. Don’t like WalMart because it drives under the local supermarket and department store? Well, that same supermarket had shed no tears for the single purpose green grocer, butcher and baker it had driven out; the department store had no pity for the single purpose haberdasher, tailor, toy store and appliance dealer it replaced. Worried about losing the manufacturing base? Those factories didn’t worry about the smithies and cottage industries they ruined. Shedding a tear for that historic downtown theater, restaurant or bar that’s closing? I’ll bet you don’t know or care what had been bulldozed before to build it. Worried about the “browning” of America, because our immigrants no longer come from Northern Europe? You’re probably not as worried as the Native Americans had been about the “Whitening” of America.

We cannot allow public policy to be driven by this generation’s nostalgia; change has occurred in the past and will happen again. It’s only natural to fear the future- as both Shakespeare and Captain Kirk have said, it is “The Undiscovered Country.” Ways of life will in fact be lost; we must face that- as our forefather had to. If we allow ourselves to be guided by any principle other than the greater good, we betray mankind for nothing more than a very temporary extension of our current comfort zone.

P.S. If anyone is keeping track, this is my 100th blog entry!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

As others see us

A few posts back I asked “Can you write a definition of “religion” that would include the UUA as presently constituted, and not also include a Star Trek club with a socially conscious membership?”. Well, it appears that I was not the first to see an analogy between the UUA and Star Trek- the truly hilarious web comic strip Oh my Gods! likens us to the Borg- the race that was trying to conquer the Universe by absorbing all cultures into their own. Like most humor, it’s funny because it’s so close to true- we have discussed the UU throw-all-theologies-into-the-cuisanart system of spirituality before. CC might want to pay special attention to this episode within the “Borg” sequence, as it confirms her worst fears about how the world sees us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tis the season

for tacky Christmas specials on TV. But there was a magic moment, nearly thirty years ago, when this duet really reached me.

Monday, November 27, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore et al predicted that 2006 would be a disastrous year for hurricanes- 15 named storms, 9 or 10 being hurricane strength, 3 or 4 or those being major. There is an extensive article from last May here . These predictions had major economic impact, sending gasoline prices over $3.00/gallon as energy experts expected damage to the refining and distributions systems, which were still recovering from Katrina. The Inconvenient Truth? Number of named storms: 9. Number of category 4 or 5: 0. Number of storms formed in the month of October: 0- for the first time in years.

It’s interesting to peruse the NOAA hurricane statistics ; they paint quite a different picture than Al Gore does. You’d scarcely think from the former Vice President’s diatribes that the rate of major hurricane formation was 50% higher in the first half of the century than in the second half, but this chart shows it clearly: number of major storms, 1900-1950: 42; number of major storms 1950-2000: 28. How can this be? After all, there been a major increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes since the 1970s- the same time frame in which temperature increases accelerated- open and shut case, right?

Not exactly. Why is it that the all the figures are based on the period from 1970-1980, rather than any other recent decade? By pure coincidence- surely no one from the Global Warming crowd would try to massage the figures- the decade of the 70s had the lowest hurricane production, both in total number and in number of majors (see the above chart), in a century; returning to normality would be a dramatic increase. Ok, but what about those temperature increases? Warm water fuels hurricanes, so obviously higher temperatures make for more violent hurricanes, right? True enough, according to Mr. Landsea of the National Hurricane Center. From the first article referenced above: “"Models show a 2- to 4-degree temperature increase by the end of the 21st century, and hurricanes will get about 4 percent stronger for every 2-degree increase," he said, citing Princeton's Geophysical Fluid Dynamic Laboratory and Tom Knutson for the research in this area. In other words, the 1-degree water temperature increase off the coast of Africa could fuel a Category 3 hurricane at landfall, like Katrina, with 130-mph winds, to increase by about 2 percent. Two or three miles per hour of Katrina's winds could have been the result of global warming, Mr. Landsea said.”

Let me make a prediction of my own, one that will be proven or disproven within a just a few years: Given that the 95-0 Senate vote against the Kyoto accords during the Clinton administration showed that the Democratic party was no more interested in it than the Republicans, if the next President of the US is a Democrat, Global Warming stories will drop right off the radar screen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Holiday musings from an Earth centered perspective

Why does someone with solid nerd-cred (I still own and still occasionally use a slide rule, complete with leather sheath) follow an Earth centered religion, celebrate Earth centered holidays? Because I came to learn that there are eternal verities we are missing by being so separated from nature, and lessons we can learn from the holidays associated with it.

We know Thanksgiving as a secular (or at least non-denominational) harvest festival, and rarely think deeper than that. We get it that the summer’s hard labor is over, and there’s a ton of fresh food to party down with, and yes, they’d want to give thanks for the bounty. But did it ever occur to you that for most of mankind’s existence, it wasn’t until that final harvest and accounting that he knew for sure he’d live ‘til spring? A bad crop, and he’d have to slaughter his animals; a worse crop and... did you ever wonder what kind of stupid, fanatic zealot would volunteer to be a human sacrifice? Look deep into your children’s eyes tonight, and say to yourself, “We’ll never make it through winter- there just isn’t enough. But if I died tonight, these two could make it to Spring...” Feeling like a stupid, fanatic zealot yet?

So, are you giving thanks that those days are gone? Don’t. Yes, it’s been centuries since there was a truly major rust or blight epidemic; but then it had been centuries since the black Death when AIDS struck. Ask a botanist; while unlikely, it’s not impossible that an entire continent could lose a crop. The Wicker Man might yet return- and if he doesn’t, it’s important to remember why he was ever here.

Then Thanksgiving will be closely followed by Yule. Ok, we get it; despite all the promises of his Gods, early man didn’t know, really know that Spring would return until the solstice passed and the days started getting longer again. Of course, he didn’t understand Celestial mechanics; today we can predict Spring to the very hour; we don’t need God’s promises or the evidence of the longer days.

Or do we? The Sun is a raging nuclear inferno, and we need every erg it’s pumping out to maintain our steady seasons. One microscopic fraction of one percent of reduction in that output and we have another Ice Age. We don’t have the interior of the Sun mapped out, we cannot predict exactly what it will do at any given moment... it’s well within the realm of possibility that even as I write this, a shift is occurring deep inside the Sun, and Spring will never come next year. We need just as much faith today to believe that Spring will come as our ancestors did; the only difference is that modern man places his faith in science instead of Mithras- usually without realizing that science, in this case, deals only with probabilities, not certainties...

Now do you get why a nerd would follow an Earth centered religion? By studying nature’s rhythms, I regain my humanity; by studying my ancestors’ mythologies, I understand my own. When I understand how much I have in common with a malnourished primitive in a mud hut, I understand how much I have in common with all men, everywhere today.

How important are your dreams?

Do they mean as much as this kiwi‘s?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A modest proposal

A rich tradition of both religion and politics has been lost over the years: the formal debate. Yes, we have what are called “debates” in the presidential races, but they are not actually debates; they are joint press conferences. Most denominations have “debates” over doctrine and practices at their General Assemblies, but once again they are not truly debates- a few arguments are made- often heatedly- with no formal citation, no rebuttal, and none of the rigorous logic and rhetoric of debates past.

I offer the services of CUUmbaya to reclaim the great tradition of religious debate for UUs. I propose that people send to me various topics of interest to the UUA for debate, be they GA statements of past or present, or issues likely to come up. It shouldn’t take that much discussion to frame the “resolveds”, and get volunteers to argue the sides. If there are no volunteers to argue an unpopular position, I will take it on- I’ve done “devil’s advocate” before.

The two champions would then email me their arguments, which I would post on CUUmbaya for comment. I propose each side go a maximum of four specific points, to a maximum of 250 words each, formatted thusly: the first post would be the two opening points. The second post would be the rebuttals, then another point, etc., until done. The champions may answer comments if they wish- but it will count against their 250 words for the post.

When all points have been made and rebutted, readers would vote a winner in the comments section. In order for the vote to count, they must score each point as either made, rebutted, or a value judgment not subject to rebuttal, and then declare a winner. I would require this because I have seen arguments in which each and every point made by one side was completely rebutted, and yet that side was still declared winner because they or their position were more popular; that would keep it honest.

So what do you think? Anyone ready to put their logic and rhetoric where their hearts are? Ready to show that UU is really where reason and religion

Monday, November 13, 2006

Catchup potpouri

Item 1: Dem victory not all good.
The first issue to be tackled by Indiana's new Speaker of the House, Pat Bauer, will be the repeal of Daylight Savings Time! After a brief sojourn into the 21st Century, Pat will lead Indiana back to a time when nobody changed their clocks. *Sigh* Fair warning, Pat- nobody brought it up during the campaign, but if you're planning to make Indiana the butt of every late-night comedian once again, be prepared for jokes about that nylon carpet remnant stapled to the top of your head.

Item 2: Happy Cindy's
TV Meme

Do you have cable? No.

Do you have a television in more than one room? Yes- a newer one in the front room, an antique that refuses to die in the kitchen, and a portable in the computer room.

Do you watch television on your computer? No, my one-lung Emachine isn't up to it.

What are your favorite shows? Nova, Secrets of the Dead, McLaughlin Group, Week in Review- and, of course, Football.

What old[er] shows do you love to watch in re-run? Simpsons. (the new episodes, except for Treehouse of Horror, are getting lame.) I would watch any generation of Star Trek, but without cable they're unavailable.

What are favorite shows you hate to admit to? After Mclaughlin Group and Week in Review on Friday night, I watch the second hour of WWE.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Quo Vadis

The election is over, the people have spoken- so where do we go from here?

Democrats: Time to ashcan the following words and phrases: racist, fascist, Hitler, nazi, war criminal, selected not elected, cronyism, moron. Two reasons: A. It will be a new slate you’ll be running against in two years, and Bush won’t be there to kick around; you need to learn how to run a positive campaign. B. You have a diamond opportunity to prove to the American people that you can govern, and so consolidate your victory and gain the White House in two years, but you don’t have a filibuster proof majority; don’t push the Republicans into a corner where they’ll feel that they’ve nothing left to loose. By the way, add “culture of corruption” to the list of banned words; the Republicans managed to eliminate most of their problems in the act of losing, but you reelected someone who keeps $100,000 bribes in the freezer.

Republicans: You lost. Don’t blame the media- they were just as biased when you were winning. Don’t blame Bush alone- he’s the same Bush that was there when you were gaining seats rather than losing them. It’s disingenuous to spend money like a drunken sailor, than try to blame Bush for it because he didn’t veto it. It’s disingenuous to blame Bush alone for the way the war has been handled, when you’ve punted your oversight duties. Face the truth- you had lousy candidates, you didn’t govern well, and you didn’t campaign well. Ashcan the following words and phrases: Ten Commandments, gay marriage, flag burning, Christian Nation, prayer in school, abortion on demand. Tell the Religious Right the same thing the Democrats always tell African Americans: we sympathize with you, but we can’t afford your issues right now- it’s not like you’ll get anywhere voting for the other party.

Democrats: you have earned the right to change the agenda, and the country expects you to act quickly. But don’t make enemies in the process; although the cumulative victory was huge, each seat was narrowly run, and will be precariously held.

Republicans: life exacts a price for incompetence, and you’re paying it now. Be generous in defeat- make the transition smooth, don’t whine about how committees are organized, don’t play parliamentary games to needlessly hinder the Democratic agenda.

Both parties, new members and old: understand that most of the votes cast this election were against either Bush or Pelosi, not for you; all of you are on probation. In 2008 the voters are going to want to hear arguments over who gets the credit for things done, not who gets the blame for things not done. If there was ever in your lives a time for compromise, this is it. Yes, force a change in the way things are done in Iraq, but remember that if Iraq is allowed to fall the victorious terrorists will flood into Afghanistan and Pakistan, creating bloodbaths that will make the killing fields of Cambodia pale in comparison. Yes, reform the Patriot Act, but realize that we cannot return to the days when agencies couldn’t talk to each other and no one could “connect the dots.” Yes, make comprehensive emigration reforms, but realize that we must also gain control of our borders in the process- not for fear of terrorists, but simply to screen for drug lords and to give inoculations; we are starting to see outbreaks of diseases we had thought eliminated in America, such as polio and whooping cough. It's a rare thing to have a major election without any real, specific campaign promises; you have a free hand to do almost anything- use this opportunity well.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Important discovery

I spent the second half of the day with family matters, and could not watch any election results all night; and as a result, I have made an important discovery: the world still goes around even if I'm not cranking.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Nice quote

"When I was told that my lost pearl necklace had been turned in, my first thought was that I must be living right. It occured to me later that the person who found my necklace and turned it in was the one who was living right."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The best explanation

of the difference between Theists, Atheists, and Mystics I’ve ever seen. Lots of other cool stuff there, too.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The question of evil

CC posed a fascinating question for this month’s UU Carnival : Can people be evil? If so, what are the theological implications? If not, how can we account for all the evil that some people commit? My answer is yes, people can be evil- but first we must discus what evil is.

Life is always a balance, for man or nature; balancing the demands of the individual with the demands of the race. It’s a far more complex equation than merely quoting Spock: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few- or the one. It’s more complicated because you must assess the intensity of the need, and the intensity of the harm. Just how complicated the social algebra can be can be seen in some Eminent Domain cases- I recall a case where the state’s case for immediate eviction was quite compelling: every month delay cost the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and interest. But so was the homeowner’s case for staying: he had only six months to live (cancer), and he wanted to die in the bed his children had been born in and his wife had died in. How do you balance the relative harm?

Evil lies in the deliberate upsetting of this balance for your gratification. Great wealth is not evil, if you earned it; Sir Paul McCartney may have more money than God, but he received that money from millions of people who paid it in exchange for the hours of entertainment he gave them. On the other hand, a single dollar is evil if it’s stolen for any reason other than the support of life. A petty evil, granted... but then, serial killers often begin by pulling the wings off flies.

So far, I can’t imagine many UUs disagreeing with me. Where I differ with many is that I believe there are absolute evils, acts that no ‘situational ethic” can whitewash. I can start with an example from the book 1984: Winston was asked by the revolutionary (or so he thought) if he would be willing to throw acid in the face of a baby, if that would win the war. He answered “Yes”... and that answer cost him his soul, for he was forced to admit later that he had the same morals as “Big Brother”. I do not, can not believe in “situational ethics” if that means answering the question above “Yes.”

I do believe that there are evil people- those for whom personal gratification is dependent on the suffering of others. Many rapists don’t do it for the physical satisfaction (evil enough in itself), but just to see that look on the victims face. Schoolyard bullies (the kind who grow up to have careers in gangbanging) beat their victims for the same reason. A large percentage of dictators are like that; there is reason to believe Saddam Hussein is one of those- certainly his eldest son, who watched torture sessions as a kind of cabaret entertainment, was.

The theological implications, for me, are few. The Divinity I believe in does not compel, She only persuades, and any human occasionally allows mundane distractions to drown out that voice we hear with our souls rather than our ears. But the evil person is totally deaf to Her. Although a mental defect rather than a physical one, being deaf to the Divine’s pleas and the victims’ alike is a birth defect as surely as if he had been born without eardrums. My Divinity does not inflict birth defects as a test, or punishment unto the seventh generation; neither does she use evil people to inflict punishment upon sinners. To me, the only theological implication is whether the victims will listen to Her whispers and forgive evil, acting only to safeguard mankind and not to gain revenge.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Tragedy of Robin Edgar

If this is the first UU blog you’ve ever read, you will be wondering what this is about; have faith- you will soon learn, as he is one of the most prolific posters in the religious world. If you are a veteran of any UU blogs or forums, you are already well acquainted with Robin, for I’m unaware of a single UU venue he hasn’t posted on. He has made it difficult to follow many a thread on most forums for years by hijacking them for his own agenda, a habit that has resulted in a great many of his posts being deleted and made him persona non grata in many venues. But this is not the tragedy of Robin Edgar.

Robin is a man of considerable intelligence and command of the language, capable of finely reasoned argument- but for years he has been using this talent for a single purpose, to attack. Rather than eagerly reading his posts as people once did, they now skip over them as there will be nothing new, and even the old news will be stated in such savage terms as to be either maddening or just sad. But this is not the tragedy of Robin Edgar.

Robin has divided the world into two camps: those who will take up his cause and attack people they don’t know from Adam just on his say-so, and those he considers his enemies. He even treats those who sympathize with him and wish him well, as I do despite his recent behavior and personal insults, in the same harsh manner. But this is not the tragedy of Robin Edgar.

Robin claims to have been treated unfairly by his home UU congregation, and you know what? Despite not knowing any of the principals in the fight, I believe he probably was- at least in the beginning, before descending to their level and below. The attitudes and language he (endlessly) complains of actually ring true for a certain strain of secular humanist I’ve witnessed in action myself. But even this is not the tragedy of Robin Edgar.

The tragedy of Robin Edgar is that he has forsaken his vision. Robin was granted a profound religious vision, and mission. This is something the Divine does not do lightly, or for no reason- there are those who spend their lives seeking such a revelation, who pray that they be given such a mission. He did make an attempt to follow this mission... but after being rejected by a single congregation of a single denomination, his purpose changed. Instead of spreading the word, his pain demanded that he punish the denomination that rejected him. Instead of spreading the good news of the Divine, he decided to spread the bad news of the UUA. His hurt led him to abandon his vision in favor of punishing anyone who will not march to Boston to protest his rejection.

He has squandered an entire decade on this mission of pride, rather than the mission of God he was granted. He spent that precious time seeking allies in his quest to punish those who rejected him rather than seeking those who would accept his vision. That time could have been spent writing books or pamphlets about God’s Eye- but when Googling to write this post, all I could find written in detail about his vision was a 1997 short article in a CUUPS newsletter. During that decade, Wicca grew from a few thousand to a couple million, (many times the size of the UUA), Falun Gong entranced millions, and legions of seekers have wandered from Pagan sect to metaphysical bookstore, looking for that vision. And where was Robin? Hanging out in UU forums, blasting the minister at his first congregation.

Robin is still a relatively young man; there is still time for him to fulfill the mission God gave him. There is still time for the Emerson Avenger to realize that vengeance belongs to God, and I pray to all I hold sacred that he does so... but I fear he will not. He is in Denial about his own role in his marginalization... Ignorant of how many out there are ready to receive the vision he has stopped offering them... and Minimizing the damage he is doing to his own soul by forsaking his mission.

That is the real tragedy.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The new Cuumbaya Code of Conduct

Recent events in various blogs and forums I frequent have made me aware of the necessity for a code of conduct for those who will comment here. At this moment, it’s a moot point- those few readers I have, have higher standards than I do. Nonetheless, the day may come when this code of conduct is needed, so I wanted to be prepared. The act of posting here will be considered as acceptance of this Code of Conduct.

I. Pseudonyms are sacred.
A. Thou shalt not blow someone’s cover. I don’t care how thinly veiled their disguise is, I don‘t care how many people “know“- you do not reveal it on my blog. You have no way of knowing how much damage may be done, or to whom; some people adopt pseudonyms to protect family or employer, not themselves. I don’t care what your reasons are- don’t do it. First offense: if you publicly apologize, and if your victim pleads your case on your behalf: suspension of posting rights until I cool off. Without the apology: my driving over there and punching you out is unlikely, but not impossible.
B. One pseudonym per customer. If you change pseudonyms, announce the fact. If you feel you cannot announce it publicly, email me.

II. Language is sacred.
A. We do not use George Carlin’s seven words. Yes, everybody uses them today. Yes, I have used them myself. But I’m a stiff-necked old coot, and those are my standards on my blog. Offenders risk my editing their post until I like it.
B. We do not use netspeak here. Reason: see above.

III. No spamming.
A. No advertising of products or websites, including the flogging of a story on your own blog, unless it is directly pertinent to the thread.
B. No referencing of other blogs- positive or negative- unless what they’re saying is pertinent to the thread.
C. No repeated posting of the same story, even if you can find a way to tie it in to the current thread- once is enough for any tale to be told.

IV. Unblogsmanlike conduct. The catch-all for incivility below and beyond what was called for in context, for Googlebombing or other techie assaults (including ones not yet invented), for anything that I just don’t feel fits the tone of CUUmbaya. Penalty: whatever seems appropriate at the time.

V. Environmentally responsible blogging. This blog uses only 100% recycled electrons; I ask all others to do the same.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reason in religion

I number of thoughts ran through my head while preparing for my presentation on Paganism in America for our small groups meeting yesterday. I’m frequently asked how I can believe that stuff, when I’m otherwise so rational... which reminded me of Spinoza, who laid out his philosophy as theorems and proofs, like geometry class... which reminded me of an incident in high school that can help explain “how I can believe that stuff.”

There’s a classic theorem algebra teachers spring on a class that’s getting cocky (which I have to admit we were, hard as that may be to believe), that proves that two equals one. The obvious assignment is to identify the erroneous step. The catch is that there is no error- when you examine one step at a time. It’s an exercise in seeing the big picture; you’re supposed to realize that one step creates a situation in which another step, which would ordinarily be perfectly valid, is rendered indeterminate. Most of the class did not catch it.

But my point is not the math skills of my classmates- the important point is that despite their finding no error in the logic, none of them were convinced that two equals one. Their intuition was that the conclusion of flawless logic was still wrong. When you look at the history of science, it’s a continuous story of not understanding where your logic breaks down, and taking an intuitive leap instead. Socrates believed that heavy objects fall faster than light ones- and why shouldn’t he? A rock does indeed fall faster than a feather; the technology of the day had not produced conditions which would belie that conclusion. Galileo realized that air resistance skewed the results, but his figures broke down when artillerymen started wondering why doubling the charge of gunpowder didn’t double the speed of the cannonball- they had come up against the totally unexpected sound barrier. Newton’s physics were so convincing that even after Hiroshima there were scientists who said it just couldn’t be- it violated the laws of the conservation of energy. And even Einstein’s logic couldn’t explain the quantum world- and now some of the proponents of string theory are calling into question the Big Bang as the beginning of the universe.

Reason is our most important tool in understanding our world- but it is not our only tool. Sometimes, it is not even the right tool... sometimes, a transcendent leap is required; linear logic is no longer capable of explaining what is going on. Two does not equal one. The human heart is one such situation- and that’s how I can believe all that stuff.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Our most intractable sin

That was the subject of Rev. Clear’s sermon of a week ago , one that really intrigued me, and so I thought I’d give it a wider audience. While you’re there, you ought to look at all his sermons- we are truly fortunate to have him here in Indy.

I wonder

Our oldest cat, Laurie, has entered her winter depressive phase. She is the feral who chose to be a housecat when the universe betrayed her by turning cold and nasty . Every year, when the climate turns cold 24/7 instead of just the momentary burst of weather, she gets depressed and needy. She only goes out to potty, then dashes back in as if afraid she’ll be caught out there. She starts becoming very clingy, needing reassurance that we really love her, that we didn’t allow the weather to become nasty as a punishment.

It can get very trying being loved so intensely. She starts sleeping in the bed with us- not at the foot, but worming her way up to the pillows and trying to get full-body contact across my head, or climbing onto my chest. As she’s a two foot long kitty, 18 lbs., this means that I lose a lot of sleep during this period. I tell her, “Can’t you see what this is doing to me? I’m a zombie all day from lack of sleep. Yes, yes, I love you, but this is very annoying!”

Then suddenly I wonder if God ever feels that way.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Is the UUA a secular organization?

Peacebang’s latest post, Cancelling Sunday Morning Worship At GA: Not A "Cultural Shift" -- A Mistake , raises an interesting question about the “cultural shift” Ms. McGregor refers to when she says, “We are not a secular organization.” Is it possible that Peacebang is wrong, and that the GA planners are “culturally shifting” into the truth when they change the emphasis of the meeting to business rather than spirituality... that they have realized, if only unconsciously, that we have in fact become a secular organization?

Let’s take the “Man from Mars” test- forget history and tradition, and examine what is in front of you. Pick a dictionary- here’s Merriam-Webster Online: 1 a : the state of a “religious”- a nun in her 20th year of religion b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) : commitment or devotion to “religious” faith or observance 2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of “religious” attitudes, beliefs, and practices 3 archaic : scrupulous conformity 4 : a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Is there a single one of those definitions that we fit as a denomination? No; in fact many organizations that do not claim to be churches, and are legally and culturally fraternal organizations that fit that dictionary definition better than we do- the Boy Scouts and the Masons, to name just two, require their members to believe in something (pick a God, any God)- we do not.

Is there any rite or practice that we are privileged or required to do that only a religion may perform? No. Weddings may be performed by J.P.s; in many states you’re married when the license is signed, and a priest only witnesses the fact anyway. Many fraternal organizations perform funerals; the Masons (along with Rev. Clear) spoke at my father’s. We do not perform or require baptisms or any other rites.

Do we perform any social services that a secular organization may not do? No. Many secular organizations engage in disaster relief, or work with the poor, or lobby Washington. The DeMolay chapter I belonged to as a kid regularly donated to the Wheeler Mission (a homeless shelter); the Star Trek fan club I used to belong to chartered and filled an entire semi full of goods for Hurricane Hugo relief. Contrariwise, there are many fraternal organizations that perform social services that we do not do as a denomination- the Masons, for example, run retirement homes and cemeteries.

The Indiana State House of Representatives has been fighting a court battle recently over their opening prayers- the ACLU objected to the use of “Jesus”. The judge gave a definition of acceptable secular prayers they could use- and I find nothing in the “WorshipWeb online resources for worship” on the official UUA website that would violate the judge’s guidelines. Surely that’s an odd position for a “religion” to be in. We call ourselves a “faith”, and talk of worshipping together- but we are also proud of welcoming those who eschew both faith and worship.

Let me put it this way: can you write a definition of “religion” that would include the UUA as presently constituted, and not also include a Star Trek club with a socially conscious membership?


Chalicechick , in the comments to her post referrencing me and Philo, gives the best definition (useable as an "elevator speech") I have seen to date.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Book Meme

Ms. Kitty has tagged me on the book meme, (well, she said, “Okay, I'm tagging anyone named Joel.”), so here are my answers:

1. One book that changed your life? Revolt in 2100, by Robert Heinlein. This book changed my life because I read it at a pivotal point in my life, during an early teenage crisis of faith. It introduced me to the dark underside of religion, and to the concept that a person could develop their own personal credo- that you didn’t have to decide between the package offered and atheism. I would not be UU today without this book.

2. One book you have read more than once? I have a lot of old friends between covers, from authors such as Kipling, Heinlein, Clavell, Clarke, Herbert... but the one book I have reread more than any other is The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. This is not just a book on religion; it is a practical guide to human psychology. Every time I read it, I get something new out of it.

3. One book you would want on a desert island? My own journals, the ones with lots of blank pages left. I made a very bad decision early in life- rather than following my muse, writing, I decided to be “pragmatic” and concentrate on business. I was young, I wanted to get married, and didn’t want to spend years as a starving artist, waiting for my work to take off (if it ever did- I knew the odds). My intent was to work hard, get my own business going, and then retire early to concentrate on my writing. I had no idea that even if I succeeded in business, it could all be taken away by events outside my control- so I spent half a lifetime doing something other than what I loved for a living, and wound up no better off for it in the end. A desert island, a blank book, and a pen are looking pretty good right now.

4. One book that made you laugh? The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, by Will Cuppy. Imagine your high school world history textbook written by Stephen Colbert. For any history buff, this book is coffee-out-your-nose funny.

5. One book that made you cry? I can think of a couple- Podkayne of Mars, Robert Heinlein; and The Man Who Fell To Earth, Walter Tevis. Although both are good, solid efforts, neither is a masterpiece... and yet, they both managed to touch me somehow.

6. One book you wish had been written? An Idiot’s Guide To Your Life, an owner’s manual. Man, did I ever need that book!

7. One book you wish had never been written? If we are speaking of the good of mankind, I would say either the Communist Manifesto or Protocols of the Elders of Zion... if you mean for me personally, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Perhaps I was too young when I read it, but it gave me a case of psychic dyspepsia severe enough that I’ve never reread it, not even when it was assigned.

8. One book you are currently reading? Freakonomics, Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner.

9. One book you have been meaning to read? Something by Bishop Spong, just to see if he makes more sense in his own words than what I’ve read about him does.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Does UU have a center?

I’ve been neglecting the ole blog lately, (dontcha hate it when real life intrudes into your net time?), but I have been following my favorite blogs, and Shawn Anthony’s “My Adieu to the UU Path“ struck hard from two different directions. The first was his tipping point, which he explains in Elizabeth‘s Little Blog :”"The above" I was criticizing is the senseless act of recklessly smashing together three or four different traditions and naming it something else. I have no problem with a Pagan, Native American Flute Music, and/or Egyptian/Greek/ Christian Labyrinths. When they are all combined it is religiously ridiculous and screams of a lack of a personal center. The dissolution of a center is the tipping point I was point toward.”

This is something I have noticed before in some UU services. There is often an air of spiritual tourism to our acceptance of different paths, an “isn’t that precious” attitude rather than genuine respect. “Sampler” services such as Shawn described are common- but have you ever seen one in which people are invited to kneel to the East on prayer rugs, then offered the wafers and wine of Holy Communion, while a cantor sings? No- and you never will. UU’s take those faiths seriously, while the idea that a Pagan can actually believe what s/he says and is devout never sinks in to gut level. Speaking as a UU seeker and Pagan, we genuinely appreciate the welcome and acceptance, but respect would be nice as well.

His complaint of the lack of a center is something I have noticed as well. My congregation just finished it’s first six-month experiment in small groups, and is now organizing a new batch of small groups. In the first batch, there were many different interests; spirituality, social justice, politics, etc. Over the course of the first six months most of those groups failed to hold their members- except for the spirituality groups. Now there are twice as many, with waiting lists. Church members who had stopped coming to church have now come back- for the spirituality small groups, not for Sunday services. The hunger for this kind of discussion is palpable.

It has been said that there is a God shaped hole in the human heart that must be filled with something, and the longer I live the more I tend to believe it. Some feel that hole as a call to public service, not needing a God... but I believe that for most people the hole is indeed God shaped. I believe that the UUA’s highest purpose should be to help people fill that hole. A creedless faith is uniquely well suited to helping it’s members find their personal credo, and would do more good for mankind in that role than it ever could as just another political action committee. Showing the world that all different faiths can share the same pew is something the world desperately needs, and only we can provide.

Shawn is right; the UUA needs to find it’s center. It needs to reclaim it’s Christian roots, as well as welcoming other faiths- and honoring the atheist’s devotion to mankind. Render unto politics that which is political; let us discuss morality and ethics instead. Let there be an end to both Shawn’s complaint, and complaints such as this one from “Beliefnet“ “Its been a while since I posted here. Our congregation seems to have taken a turn for the worse. The sermons etc. now seem to be strictly political and the spirituality seems to have gone out the door.I am so disappointed as I firmly believe that we need to feed the spirit as well as the conscience.

Any tips?


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Microsoft misogyny?

I was just typing an essay, and my Works Word Processor underlined "demonization". I hit the spellchecker, and the first suggested replacement was "feminization"! Just what are they implying?

Some Foley-inspired thoughts

I’m not going to speak about the Foley case itself, as at this stage all the facts are not known and the early stage “voice of reason” ground has already been staked out by Chalicechick (as usual- thanks, CC) But there are some general points that I think should be made about the politics game itself.

The public perception of politics is that it’s a dirty game, full of nasty players. But consider- adding the House and Senate together, there are 535 elected legislators; add in the exectutive branch, the cabinet, etc., and you have over 600 powerbrokers, nearly all of them millionaires- some gazillionaires. Name me an industry where the top 600 has a better record of personal integrity and decorum- Hell, if you put the top 600 rappers in the same room with emotions flying as high as they do in politics, you’d have dozens of murders by now.

Yes, politics sound nasty in a network sound-bite, but consider... statiscally, you’d expect a group of 600 to include 60-120 gays; how many legislators are out? Two, is it? (I’m not sure) That’s a lot of people in the public closet- (they can hardly hide it well from each other). Foley was known to be gay to Washington insiders for a decade... yet as long as it was *his* secret, they kept it. Nobody tried to blackmail him into a vote by threatening to out him; nobody punished him for a vote by outing him. In other words, despite the high stakes, his colleagues behaved like ladies and gentlemen. As soon as he was known to have stepped over the line, however, he was out on his ear- a higher standard of behavior than held by the Catholic church!

We have a much better political class than we deserve. For all our talk, the average American doesn’t vote on a regular basis. Fewer still have volunteered to work even a single campaign; the number who routinely work an election is statistically insignificant- there’s not a single state in the union where every poll position is fully manned in any election. Too much money in politics? Neither party spends as much on a Presidential campaign as Coke or Pepsi spends in advertising on a four-year cycle! Fewer people attend political conventions than Star Trek conventions.

I suggest anyone about to make a cynical blog entry about the state of politics in America ask the guy in the mirror if they’re qualified to do so.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Theism: irrational ghost story?

Theological debates are a feature of UU blogs, (more so, it seems, than of UU churches), and a Jim-Dandy is going on over at Philocrites, here and here . Fausto, if you’re reading this, your post was truly awesome!

One repeating feature of such debates, indeed the central issue of all of them at the end of the day, is the claim that the belief in a clockwork universe that denies the possibility of the supernatural is the only rational position. Rational people don’t believe in ghost stories; if you can’t detect it on the multitester from Radio Shack, it doesn’t exist... in the words of the Humanist Manifesto, “We are convinced that the time has passed for theism, deism, modernism, and the several varieties of "new thought".”, and “We assume that humanism will take the path of social and mental hygiene and discourage sentimental and unreal hopes and wishful thinking.”. In other words, faith is a form of mental illness, even though literally billions of people claim to have felt the presence of the Divine, and/or had a personal transcendental experience (including Rev. Sinkford). One poster once told me that if a billion people catch cold, that does not make having a cold a natural or healthy state.

Pondering that thought, I wrote the following in my own personal Book of Shadows around 3:00 one insomniac morning; I plan on cleaning it up for inclusion in a book later. It proves nothing, except that there is room to doubt the clockwork universe.

Too many compartmentalize their religion- they think religion does not respond to reason, so that part of their lives they will simply not think about too deeply. This is true of many faiths; it is not a pagan phenomenon. They are afraid that material science and mystical religion are incompatible and cannot coexist, so to avoid following that logic to its natural conclusion and becoming atheistic, they consciously avoid the subject altogether.
Well, they shouldn’t! It’s a false choice, one they are led to by faulty logic in their internal debate.

Most people use either-or logic: it is, or it isn’t; it’s A or it’s B. More advanced thinkers use multi-value logic: it’s A or it’s B or it’s C (for as many choices as they list). This isn’t really much better than the two value logic- you still have the kind of absolute statements that lead people to say that material science refutes the possibility of the Divine. I say that better than multi-value logic is something I call “X value logic”: it’s A, or it’s B, or it’s X- the thing you haven’t thought of yet!

Let me demonstrate. Some say that Cosmology has refuted the possibility of the existence of God/dess. The Big Bang was the origin of not only the universe, but even space and time itself- there was no “before” the Big Bang because time did not exist. Time, after all, is the interval between two events- and there was no other event. We pretty much know the mechanics of the Universe after it’s creation, and if there was no before, then that leaves God/dess out altogether. Either you believe in the Big Bang- which all our math and science call for- or you believe in God… it’s A or B. Or is it? Perhaps I can show you the “X”… that maybe the two concepts are not incompatible after all.

To do this, we need to first address several seemingly unrelated lesser questions, the first of which is the nature of the mind. I’m not speaking of the brain- that is a physical organ, and it’s no more your mind than your computer’s chips are the programs. The only things that are granted you genetically are capacity- the equivalent of chips and hard drive- and a few simple instincts, the equivalent of the simple machine logic on the mother board that allows for keyboard input. You spend the first couple years of life inputting an operating system, just like the computer booting up- the process starts in the womb with the first sensory inputs, and continues after birth as you absorb everything said and done around you. All that you consciously are- your personality, your thoughts and memories, are all formed long after conception, and stored in your brain as they are in a computer, as electrical potentials... that which is “you”, and not just your physical body, is a complex system of electrical interactions.

The second question is how this developmental system began; the origin of sentience in humans and higher animals. How did simple chemical tropisms- reflexes like seeking or avoiding the sun- become the complex life cycles that even the simplest of animals such as worms have? How did the robotically clever behavior of the lowest animals become the cunning of the higher animals, the first glimmering of self awareness? Even more importantly, how did the simple self awareness of dogs and cats become the higher intelligence of man? We don’t know how that happened, either, but many speculate that once the brain became sufficiently complex it happened more or less automatically; it’s a question of how many billions of connections in the neural net. Assume for the sake of argument that this is so. Now add the factor that life forms generate electrical fields and respond to outside electrical fields- birds and insects navigating their migrations by using the Earth’s magnetic fields like living compasses, for example. Some can detect the electrical fields of other animals; some sharks, for example, can even hunt by tracking the electrical fields of their prey. Consider also the possibility that living tissue can detect or generate fields in spectra other than the electrical spectrum, spectra that we know exist, but our instruments detect poorly or not at all- gravity waves, neutrinos, weak atomic forces, dark energy, etc.

Ok... now let’s return to that Big Bang. In that first split second, all that we know was formed- Galaxies upon Galaxies, matter and energy exploding and recombining and expanding- infinite complexity in an infinitely small space bursting into a Universe. Surely if a few billion field interactions within your skull can produce a sentient persona, isn’t it conceivable that trillions upon trillions upon trillions of new and unknown energies bursting into existence all at once in a space so small that they must interact- a Universe in a teacup- could produce a sentient system? If thought and intelligence are the result of immensely complex energy interactions, then surely the Big Bang could have produced just such an intelligence. No matter how vast the odds against this happening, the possibilities are greater still- they are infinite.

This intelligence would be part of space/time itself... would have been integral with creation itself... and would be of infinite complexity. Do you know a better definition of Divine? A scientist would say that this is mere speculation, and that it is only philosophy, as it’s not testable... but neither does it violate the laws of physics as we know them! It is an explanation of the origin of God that does not offend logic or rationality. Is it the only explanation? No, of course not- there’s still “X”, the thing that I haven’t thought of. But it could explain a great many things.

Consider the field of physics called Quantum Mechanics. This is the world of the infinitely small- not merely subatomic, but smaller even than the particles Atoms are made of, the warp and woof of the fabric of space/time. How small? In the branch called String Theory, they estimate that if an electron were the size of the Solar system, then strings would be the size of a tree! In the quantum world, there are probabilities only, no certainties- where you are, your energy state, even your very existence is uncertain. You might spontaneously pop out of existence, and reappear in another part of the Universe- anything is possible.

Although universally accepted today, Albert Einstein could not accept a world without certainties; “God does not play at dice with the Universe,” he said in a letter to a colleague. Perhaps Albert was closer in that statement than he realized... What if the quantum world is where God operates? What if the very reason for that uncertainty was that it was being manipulated? It seems only natural that the closer you get to the basic nature of existence itself, the closer you come to the Divine, and the less able you are to understand or predict it.

If the Divine exists in the quantum world, what does that imply? Such a divinity would not be creating natural disasters to punish, nor save you from a natural disaster as a reward; such things are not part of the quantum world, even the laws of nature are different... but... suppose the Divine were to manipulate a single electron, just one particle of one atom among the billions of atoms existing in your body? Remember what I said about the nature of the mind? Our thoughts are electrical impulses; changing the energy state of an electron could alter the way we think... do it enough times, and entirely new thoughts, beliefs, experiences could be generated... quite literally, God talking to you!

Such a Divine could explain the existence of life itself. Science still does not have an explanation for life, only presumptions of what “must” have happened. They have mixed primordial chemicals, zapped them with artificial lightning, and only produced foul-smelling soup... at our current state of knowledge, it is still true that “life comes only from life”; we cannot show a mechanism that will animate inanimate matter. Suppose that what was necessary to turn amino acids into living proteins was to make that odd electron turn left instead of right as it “should” have done? Such a Divinity could have even influenced the course of evolution by influencing desires, by making some ugly bug think this ugly bug is sexier than that ugly bug. It would be the only explanation for some marriages I’ve seen.

So is all of this true? Well, it does fit the rules of logic laid down by Sir William of Occam: it explains the existence and nature of God without violating Cosmology as we know it; it explains why bad things happen to good people, (the “bad” things are not of Her world); it demonstrates how She could speak to us; it even explains the origins of life. In the end, it is still, after all, only speculation- but it is proof that a belief in the “supernatural” does not have to conflict with logic and rational science. It proves that your “rational” mind does not have to be ashamed of what your soul knows to be true. Stop compartmentalizing and wear your faith proudly; it is as rational and logical as anything in this world can be!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Banned Book Week

I’m surprised that so far The Happy Feminist is the only blog I see listed in UUpdate writing about Banned Book Week. IN PRAISE OF BANNED BOOKS
I've always thought Banned Books Week was about politics, not about the principal of free speech. There is no such thing as a "banned" book in America today, unless that book contains photographic child pornography or defense secrets. Save for those two things, no author has been jailed for writing a book, no publisher jailed for printing a book, no book is illegal to possess. Ask Salman Rushdie about real banned books.

What we have instead is a debate about what books are to be carried in specific schools' libraries. Are we to call every book not carried in a grade school library "banned"? If not, then it boils down to the question of who gets to choose which books are stocked. Since most states require by law that children go to school, and most parents cannot afford private schools, then de facto most children are required by law to go to government schools. If, therefore, the parents are not allowed to choose those books through their elected school boards, then what we have is the government denying parents by force of law the right to decide what their child is exposed to- is anyone prepared to argue that the first amendment gives government the right to force parents at gunpoint to have their children read books the parents consider obscene? If not, then why grouse about what books the school boards do decide to stock- or not?

Government should only intervene in the parents’ handling of their children when there is a compelling interest, such as the child’s health and safety. If a loonytune parent were to object to the math book on the grounds that their religion says that 2+2=5, one could argue that the resulting education would be so inadequate as to amount to no education at all, therefore a compelling interest in the child’s welfare. The same argument can of course be made for science books- but once you leave the realm of the objective, that argument goes away. Are we really going to argue that the failure to have read “Heather Has Two Mommies” will so damage a child as to amount to abuse requiring government intervention? Gee, I, and tens of millions of others, managed to grow up into an adult that believes in sexual equality without having read that particular book. I would have no problem with a child of mine reading any of the books on the “banned” list... but that’s *MY* choice. I certainly would not try to force any parent to have them have their child read them, however- that’s *THEIR* choice.

The issue is not whether those books are “banned”, for they are not- every one of them is available at Barnes & Noble, and any parent can buy them for their children if they so desire. The issue is whether the state has the right to indoctrinate children in morals and values against the parents’ wishes... and anyone arguing for that should look at what other countries are doing with that right. If that’s not what you are arguing for, stop throwing around loaded terms such as “banned books”.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

What is to be the UUA’s role in the world?

In my last post I proposed the elimination of the UUA Washington Advocacy Office. Does this mean I want the UUA to stop being a political action committee? Anyone who has read my posts here, or my comments on the Chaliceblog or CFUU or Beliefnet knows my answer is *YES* When our constituent denominations were formed, churches were the only advocates the poor and the powerless had. But times change, and we must change with them. Today there is no issue that doesn’t have its own advocacy group, and almost invariably with more power than the church spokesmen. There’s a saying in football that when a team claims to have two running backs, they have none. What this means is that if they had a star, he’d be the running back... is there any issue at all in which we are the advocates? Be honest- is there any political issue in which we even make a difference? Then why are we wasting our time, money, and moral capital?

So if we’re shouldn’t be lobbyists, what is our mission? We could speak out. I don’t mean “speaking truth to power”- the catchphrase of the day- everybody and his grandmother is doing that, although nine times out of ten it merely means calling the President a nazi. In fact, so many are doing it that ours is a lost voice in the cacophony. I mean speaking truth to the people.

The Religious Right is right about one thing: our culture is sick. We religious liberals tend to dismiss that message because we disagree with the RR on so many issues- but anbody can stumble into the truth, and that is indeed a truth. Instead of calling the President a nazi, why don’t we call Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas a slut? It’s just as true, but it’s a truth none dare speak. In a communications class twenty years ago I saw a public service commercial that was never aired because it was controversial. I forget the exact numbers, but it went something like this: “Last year three African Americans were killed by the Klu Klux Klan. One was killed by the American Nazi Party. And 11,000 were killed by gangs. If you’re a gangbanger, you’re not hip- you’re a TRAITOR!” THAT was speaking truth to the people. If we can, as a denomination, denounce the Republican party for wanting to change the filibuster rule, why do we find it so difficult to denounce gansta rappers for degrading women and deadening the human spirit?

Government and laws simply cannot solve the ills of society; only a higher awareness within that society can- and who is better suited to lead a drive to social consciousness and personal responsibility than a church already known for fighting for equality? We have abdicated the fight for public morality to the Religious Right- and that was the biggest mistake the religious liberal ever made. We should be the ones out there teaching that choices have consequences, but we’re too terrified of being called “judgemental”. I believe we concentrate on politics just to avoid directly confronting situations involving “judgements”. There are so many “inconvenient truths”... that it’s far more true that crime causes poverty than the other way around... that the number one cause of poverty and indeed nearly all human misery is bad choices and bad lifestyles... that one consequence of the interconnected web is that we all have to pay for your sins.

Of course, first we’d have to have a debate within ourselves on what morality is. I don’t believe that having no creeds means having no morals, but we’re afraid to have the debate for fear of offending members and having some leave. That’s a strange one to me, for we have no fear of offending people over political issues and driving them from the church. I say we should leave politics to the politicians, and return to the issues people turn to churches for: philosophy, spirituality, and morality. I believe that even in the short term we’d have far more impact by trying to get people to do the right thing than by sending out yet another flurry of hot faxes from the Washington Advocacy Office.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How UU can grow...

... and what the UUA can do to help. There’s a story, no doubt apocryphal, from the early days of the air war over Europe in WWII. Bomber losses were intolerably high, and a crash program was initiated to make the planes more survivable. Boeing engineers were taken to a badly shot up B-17, and were told to improve the armor on all the places most heavily damaged. “No,” the engineers said, “We should armor the places that weren’t hit- after all, this plane came back!” Using that logic, I think the best way to figure out what changes are needed to grow the UUA is not to guess why people that “should” be joining in higher numbers aren‘t, ( see this discussion ), but to look at those who did join, and try to get more like them. After all, they (we) are the ones who are here, whatever the UUA’s faults.

So why do people join the UUA? One classic reason from the past is that UUs were willing to marry mixed couples when no one else would- my in-laws joined for that reason. Now, however, liberal Christian denominations are willing to marry almost as many people as we are, so that’s much less an advantage than once it was. Oh, well, our lost advantage is society’s gain.

A big reason- perhaps the biggest- today is our RE program. As this is one of the very few things that every congregation I know of actually does, it would be something the UUA could run national advertising for. I could easily see a campaign along the lines of “For parents who want their kids educated, not indoctrinated!” Run the ads on Sundays during the news and analysis programming- any parent seeing the ad will feel guilty for sitting there watching the show instead of taking their kids to Sunday School.

Another reason people go to a new church is that they haven’t been since they were a kid, it’s Christmas or Easter, and they’re lonely. We should make sure to have services on the major Christian and Jewish holidays, Islamic and Pagan, too, if you have any local experts, and run national advertising for it. I’m sure a clever copywriter could play on nostalgia and spiritual homesickness, while simultaneously reassuring people that we’re more welcoming even than the childhood services they’re missing.

The reason I joined was that Rev Clear’s sermons were intriguing, and discussions with him were like auditing a college comparative religion class. I was able to reexamine my beliefs and look at new ones. I think an adult level RE class, perhaps on weekday evenings, would be very attractive to just that set of people we would most like as new members anyway. As this would pose an intolerable burden on most ministers, I think the UUA should do it as broadcast classes, on satellite or public access or the like.

None of the things I’m proposing require us to adopt new beliefs, use the language of reverence, or change in any way- except to actually do something rather than just pass a resolution about it. And where would the UUA get the funding to do all this advertising and broadcasting I’m proposing? Well, never once in my entire life have I ever met anyone who ever said that the reason they joined their church was its first-rate Washington lobbying office. I propose shutting down the entire Washington Advocacy office, and transferring its funding to this cause. If that's not enough, I'm sure others could come up with other offices that could be "sacrificed" for the effort. I think it'd be worth it.

Here is the kind of program I was speaking of above. If Yale can do it, surely the UUA can do it. Maybe even attach a forum to it- get people hooked, then direct them to their nearest UU church. Why not?

Friday, September 15, 2006

Humanist Vs. Theist redux

Well, the old battle between the UU Humanists and UU Theists hasn’t ended yet. Thanks to The Wild Hunt and WitchVox for pointing out these articles about an event at a UU church in Rhode Island. Pagan Pride Day event and Unitarians spark controversy with Pagan Pride Day .

In this case, it isn’t the Pagans stirring up the controversy as much as the UU’s; it seems that this congregation hosts a CUUPS chapter who has organized a “Pagan Pride” day, and the Humanists aren’t happy about it. They quote a letter being circulated, but any UU Theist already knows what it says without having to read it; we’ve heard it so very many times before- “superstition”, “flakey spirituality”, “occult practices”, “the God myth”... the only one they missed is “psychotic break”. And actually, even that may be in there; they didn’t print the full text. It’s good that UU is such a welcoming religion.

I’ll tell you old-school UU Humanists out there something: you should thank Bertrand Russell that you don’t always get what you wish for... if all the UU Christians and UU Pagans left, the average age of the average congregation would approach triple digits, and the membership list would drop down to double digits- and half of them would be Buddhist. We irrational, superstitious psychotics are keeping your doors open; the least you can do is sneer at us behind our backs instead of right in our faces.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

This I believe, part 1

Public radio has been reprising a program from the 1950s, “This I Believe”, in which people are invited to send in essays about what they believe. I have decided to post mine here from time to time- here is the first such entry.

I believe that President Bush is a decent, honorable man who believes that he is doing the right thing.

I believe that Al Quieda members were the only ones involved in the events of 9/11.

I believe that those white things following airplanes are ConTrails, not ChemTrails.

I believe that Apollo 11 went to the Moon and returned.

I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and that all shots were fired by him.

I believe that the greatest threat to America is posed by the increasing cynicism, despair, and disengagement among the American people.

I believe that truth cannot be determined by a poll.

I believe that aside from literature, the arts went into decline with the first world war, and that since then the finest poetry is to be found amongst singer/songwriters, not poet laureates; the finest visual arts are found on album covers and posters, not in museums, and the finest of the plastic arts are found in industrial design and neighborhood craft fairs.

I believe that hunger and want can be ended within the lifetimes of some of the people readings these words if we have the will to do so.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Vindication for CC

Chalicechick has written a lot about WalMart lately, both in her own blog The ChaliceBlog: How being anti-Walmart is hurting the Democrats , and as comments in others. Hers seems to be a minority opinion in the UU blogosphere. This morning’s Indianapolis Star has an editorial, It's not Wal-Mart, stupid; how about important issues?
, that echoes everything CC has ever said about WalMart, including its use as a campaign issue. Interestingly, the author is the Efroymson Professor of Economics at Butler University- and Efroymson was a UU!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Update to 9/11 conspiracies

On this fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, the talk shows are still full of the conspiracy theorists. Although I have tackled the subject before, CUUMBAYA: 9/11 Conspiracies I thought I would take one more stab at getting those who still believe in those conspiracies to see reason.

The central issue is “Would the buildings really have collapsed in the manner we all witnessed?” All else hinges on this; if the buildings really were brought down by the aircraft that hit them rather than by demolition charges, all the other silly claims fall like the buildings themselves did. As all the explanations as to why they couldn’t have been brought down in the manner explained by the 9/11 commission are based on misunderstandings of physics and construction techniques, I thought I’d try to explain it in lay terms. Disclaimer: I am not a working engineer, but I did start in engineering at Purdue before changing to another trade- I feel that may be an advantage as unlike a graduate engineer, I still speak English rather than technobabble.

Most materials are much stronger under tension (pulling on it, like a rope) or compression (just what it sounds like) than any other type of stress. For example, an arrow is strong enough under compression to punch all the way through a large animal like a deer- but has so little strength under a bending load that you can easily bend and break it with your bare hands. In fact, the impact energy that arrow shaft withstands is probably greater than your weight, unless you’re as fat as I am. So could we use an arrow as the shaft of a bar stool?
No- because that arrow is only so strong when all the forces acting on it are perfectly aligned along the shaft, as in flight. In fact, even then if it doesn’t hit straight, it will shatter- ask any bow hunter. There is no possibility that you could sit on it without causing it to bend, which will cause it to shatter. Suppose we were to use a dozen arrow shafts, spaced evenly, so that the stool resembles a bird cage, making it twelve times as strong- would that work? No- strength wasn’t the issue in the first place; bending was. Each of those twelve shafts would be just as likely to bend and break as a single shaft would; there is nothing to prevent this flexing. Now suppose we put several shelves inside the birdcage, rigidly attached to the arrow shafts- they are no longer permitted to flex or bend, and we now have an enormously strong, lightweight stool. This is how the Trade Center towers were built.

Suppose while you’re sitting on the stool somebody kicks it and breaks some of those shafts- does your stool break in half and fall over to the broken side? No- because those rigid shelves prevent the shafts from bending, so the force is distributed to the remaining shafts... but the stress on them is enormous. Now break one of those shelves- what happens? The remaining shafts will instantly shatter at the point where they are now allowed to flex- it will happen so fast that your butt will still be centered over the base. There is simply no time for the weight to fall over sideways; the shafts will go with explosive force and you’ll fall vertically.

There is actually an experiment you can do at home to demonstrate this phenomenon; it requires an empty beer can and two pencils. Stand the can up on end, kneel down, and place one foot on the can. You can put quite a bit of weight on it- in fact, if you use two people (one to steady the other) the can will support the weight of a small adult... as long as that weight is PERFECTLY centered. Now reach down with the pencils and poke both sides of the can. (we poke both sides so that the metal will bend rather than pushing the can sideways) The can will instantly collapse, completely vertically, leaving a flat disk! This is also, by the way, what happened to the plane that struck the Pentagon, and why there is such a small hole- an airplane is a nearly empty hollow aluminum tube, just like that beer can, 99% air.

But back to the building. I can hear the conspiracy nuts now- “Yes, yes, I get it- the floors of the Tower were like the shelves in your bar stool; once one or two went, the structural members shattered and the towers dropped vertically... but it’s a scientific fact that jet fuel does not burn hot enough to have melted those floors! get around that one, smart guy!” Never- with the possible exception of Paris Hilton’s attempt to prove herself an actress- has so much bandwidth been spent trying to prove a non-issue. Nobody ever claimed the floors melted! Metal begins to loose strength at temperatures far below their melting point; jet fuel burns at a temperature high enough to weaken structural steel by nearly half- but the real damage was done by temperatures even lower than that. Hot metal expands- look at any steel highway bridge and you’ll find it sits on rollers or pivots, to allow for several inches of expansion; you’ll also find expansion joints where the steel meets the road, and in-between two steel sections... and that’s just for a hot summer day! At hundreds of degrees, those floors would have expanded a couple feet or more, and probably twisted and bowed as well- instead of preventing the structural shafts from flexing, they were introducing flex where none had been before, while simultaneously those structural members were carrying a greater load than they had been designed for. Of course they went bang- the forces concentrated on those points were greater than the energy contained in the demolition charges normally used to raze a building.

“But look at the cleanup,” the conspiracy nuts say, “weeks later, girders pulled from the hole were still cherry-red and dripping! Jet fuel couldn’t have burned hot enough for them to still be cherry weeks later; it must have been thermite charges used to melt the floors!” As I said before, the jet fuel didn’t melt the floors; in fact, it would have burned itself out within minutes- the fuel merely served as lighter fluid. And yes, thermite could have melted the girders- but a thermite charge burns out in seconds, perhaps minutes if it were a really big one. For the steel to still be hot weeks later merely proves that the fire was still raging under the rubble! Those building were filled with things that are not normally particularly flammable, but if adequately fueled would have burned long and hot- and adequate fuel there was in abundance. The many lower levels of the building contained many machines with flammable fuels and greases; large gas and diesel tanks for emergency generators; natural gas lines- and, of course, a hundred stories of carpets, paneling, and furniture. There are coal-mine fires that burned for decades underground, and a used tire fire burned for nine months - these fires are nothing in comparison.

So come on, people, do a little research before you call the talk shows or write your chicken-little blogs or- God save the mark!- teach a college class . The Dixie Chicks are embarrassed that Bush is from Texas? I’m embarrassed that a third of my countrymen can swallow a camel of a conspiracy theory and strain at a gnat of logic.