Friday, July 28, 2006

Warning: low humor

I had lunch with a dear friend and fellow gourmand today, and afterwards we went to a "world cuisine" supermarket she had been telling me about for a long time. It is a fabulous place, big as a Walmart, with food from places I've never even heard of, and I did well in geography.

Naturally in such a place you'll see many poor translations and misspellings on labels, and normally they're an innocent source of amusement, but I'll admit my mind went straight to the gutter when I saw a packet of seasoning labeled "Cock Flavor". Of course, I immediately thought of friends I could send it to- and was so intent on the mental list that it took me a moment to understand why my friend started laughing when I said it would be a great gag gift.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The problem with saying “God is love”

You hear this phrase all the time. Whether the speaker means that God is all loving, or that love itself is God, it’s a comforting sentiment. The kind of person who would say that is not the kind who would worship a vengeful God, a God who could condemn frail mankind to everlasting damnation- that’s why we hear it said at UU churches so often.

The problem is that the kind of person who would say that frequently cannot understand the type of person who worships the vengeful God. They cannot believe that anyone really, down deep, believes it. They all too often tend to think that a person espousing hatred in the name of God is only using religion for their own ends, that a true religion could not advocate violence. They are wrong. It’s gratifying that so many people cannot believe that sincere, profound religious faith could possibly lead to violence, mass murder, genocide, but they are wrong. This misunderstanding leads to mishandling any situation that involves it.

This misunderstanding caused the tragedy in Waco. The “experts” in the Justice Dept. advised Janet Reno that nobody could really believe that stuff- the gullible Branch Davidian followers, perhaps, but their leader couldn’t possibly actually believe it. They believed that David Koresh was just another religious scam artist, and if they hit them hard he would fold. Big mistake- one that resulted in a holocaust that cost a lot of innocent lives.

I hear the same misunderstanding frequently in any discussion of the troubles in the Middle East. When one points outs that the charter of Hamas calls for the obliteration of Israel, otherwise sensible people say “They don’t really mean that- they’re practical people; give them the right deal and they’ll accept it.” No, they won’t. Or rather, they will accept concessions, then go on killing anyway... because they really do believe it. They really do believe the existence of a Jewish state is an insult to Islam. The reason for the attacks is not the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, or the exact borders of Israel; the problem is the existence of Israel. They do not want a restoration of the 1967 borders, they want the 1947 borders.

There are other Muslims who believe in the World Caliphate. They call the United States “The Great Satan” not because the US supports Israel, or because of economic injustice, or because of environmental concerns; the oppose the U.S. because it is committed to secular government. To someone like Osama Bin Laden, the greatest tragedy in human history was when Turkey stripped the Caliphate of secular power and became a secular state. This is why Al Queida started targeting Iraqis instead of US soldiers after the elections; the concept of a secualar Iraq is anathema to them. They really do believe that there are only three things a Muslim can do when meeting an unbeliever: convert him, subjugate him, or kill him.

Yes, I hear you screaming at me, “Islam is a religion of peace! You’re misinterpreting those passages, it’s a bad translation!”. Fine, I believe you- but I’m not the one you have to convince. I’m not the one slowly sawing a man’s head off, drowning out his screams with shouts of “God is great!”. It’s not gentiles you must convince that Islam is a religion of peace- it’s Muslims who need to be convinced of that. And yes, it’s a minority of Muslims who believe in violence- but it’s a much larger minority than the “God is love” crowd believes it is. To field a soldier- any soldier, be it American, Israeli, or Hezbollah- a huge support staff is required. That soldier must be trained, equipped, fed, clothed, housed, and paid. His weapons must be paid for, maintenanced, stored in good condition. Heavy weapons, such as the Katyusha rockets Hezbollah is firing off at such a prodigious rate, require large crews, equally well trained. And when you have 13,000 such rockets, you also need a huge building and maintenance staff just to store them.

My point? If there are 100,000 terrorists worldwide, (remember that attacks aren’t limited to the ME; it occurs in Africa, India, Malaysia, Russia, the Philippines, other places), then there are millions of Muslims directly supporting them, and there are tens of millions more who know exactly what’s going on but will never tell the authorities. Still a minority of Islam, to be sure- but big enough to ensure that there will never be peace. And no solution can be found until everyone- Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Pagan or Atheist understands what the problem is. Until you understand that millions of people really do believe that God calls for innocent (in western eyes) men, women, and children to be killed on a daily basis, you are part of the problem.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

U.S. energy use

This is an update of an essay I had posted on CFUU four years ago, and brought to mind by the new troubles in the Middle East. Naturally, our dependence on foreign energy supplies has been a big part of the debate, and once again I am hearing a factoid that’s been a part of that discussion for years, and is published in UUA documents concerning energy: the U.S., with 5% of the world's population, uses 25% of the world's energy resources. This is an interesting statement; it's accurate without being true, and it's deeper meaning is the exact opposite of it's surface implication.

While it's true that the U.S. uses 25% of the world's coal, natural gas, and petroleum products, those are not the only fuels burned in the world today. In fact the fuels of choice in the homes and small businesses of the Third World are wood, dried dung, and industrial waste such as old tires, construction site debris, and solvents. When I heat my home with my 94% efficient gas furnace, every liter of gas is metered and recorded in the U.S. totals; when a Mexican pottery company fires it's kiln with old truck tires, that isn't counted against the Mexican total because tires are not an official energy source being tracked. Nor is it counted against their Kyoto carbon allowance, for the same reason. Another confusing point is that the U.S. is also a huge energy producer- and that energy is counted as part of the world total. Thus when an Indiana power company burns Kentucky coal, it's using "the world's energy resources". While technically true, the phrase is very- deliberately, in my opinion- misleading.

Even if the 25% figure were accurate, it still would reflect well on the U.S.- we are, after all, more than one third of the world's economy. By their own figures, American industry is more energy efficient than the rest of the world. Those industries aren't just making luxuries for rich Americans, either; we are the world's leading food producer- and agriculture is one of the most energy intensive industries there is. Nor does the American consumer waste more energy than the rest of the world does; he does, however, have large energy expenditures that the Third World does not. The first of these, and the biggest energy bill for the average American, is home heating. Look at a map of where the world population is densest- Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Indonesia- and you'll find they're all in the tropics. Two-thirds of the human race has never experienced what we would call winter; a resident of buffalo, NY, burns more energy just living through the night in January than many Third-Worlders will use in a year. Home cooling is another vast energy consumption, and before you say that Americans are effete, let me assure you that air-conditioning is not mere luxury- in the 2003 heat wave, 15,000 Parisians died while in all of America combined the death toll was under a hundred.

Water is another of the large energy expenditures. Most of mankind has no reliable source of clean fresh water; this was highlighted in a recent U.N. initiative. It takes a fantastic amount of power to pump billions of gallons of water to 300 million people daily- in a second hand way, you're using electricity when you turn on a faucet or flush a toilet. Treating that water after it’s been flushed takes a lot of energy, too, and that’s something the Third World does very little of. Heating that water is another large energy use, and hot water is not just luxury, either; it’s a public health measure. Remember also that it takes power to keep utilities on standby, 24/7, ready for your use. Many places in the world that have power, water, and telephones have them for only a few carefully rationed hours a day.

When you really study that "5%/25%" statement, the inescapable conclusion is not that the U.S. uses too much energy, but that the rest of the world uses too little- not even enough to maintain civilization in many cases. When all the peoples of the world have a roof over their heads, access to schools and hospitals, clean plentiful water, and sewers that lead to treatment plants rather than ditches or streams, they will be using as much energy as the people of the U.S. That is why we must be pushing as hard as we can right now to develop new technologies and new energy sources, so that the whole world can have a decent way of life without causing ecological or economic disaster.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Guess who said this

Who is it “...that believes that seventh-century Islam is not fit for 21st-century challenges. That women do not have to look like walking black tents. That men do not have to wear beards and robes, act like lunatics, and run around blowing themselves up in order to enjoy 72 virgins in paradise. And that secular laws, not Islamic Shariah, should rule...”? Who is it that refers to “...Neanderthal Muslim imams who have never read a book in their dim, miserable lives.”, or “...little men with head wraps and disheveled beards can run amok in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq...”? Think it was George Bush? The silent majority in the red states, perhaps? No- it was “... we, the silent Arab majority,...”! Read what Youseff Ibrahim says in the NY Sun Arab Majority May Not Stay Forever Silent

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A request for my fellow bloggers

The biggest problem I have with some blogs is not their positions or the quality of their writing- it's their legibility. I can no longer read small type, or type in low-contrast colors without reading glasses, which give me headaches to use with the computer. Have pity on those of us who are not getting any younger, please.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Salary or graft?

A local “scandal” in the news demonstrates how emotional responses overpower logic to produce a system designed for failure. The “scandal” is that the Marion County Sheriff here in Indiana received a $50,000 bonus during a period in which the City of Indianapolis and State of Indiana are tightening their belts for lack of funds. The news stories telling how the sheriff makes as much money as the President of the United States have generated political fallout so bad the sheriff just announced he’s giving the bonus back. I think he should have told them what Babe Ruth said when asked why a baseball player should make more than the President: “I had a better year.” The reason the sheriff makes so much is that both he and the Dept. get a percentage of the delinquent taxes they collect- his $50,000 bonus came from tracking down $9,000,000 in back taxes. The people complaining seem to think it’s pure coincidence that Marion County has the lowest uncollected delinquency rate of any major metropolitan district.

America is schizophrenic in this regard- no other people on Earth are more entrepreneurial, and yet nowhere else on Earth are the words “profit” and “rich” more despised. Performance bonuses and commissions work. No other method of maximizing results in the history of mankind has ever worked better than a simple piece of the action- not even commissars and bullets. It even tends to guarantee honesty; it’s hard to bribe someone who has an easier way of getting rich, just by doing his job- the sheriff’s dept. mentioned above also has the lowest rate of lawsuits filed against it of any major metropolitan police dept. (who would risk losing that kind of money by tolerating brutality or incompetence in his deputies?)

The foundation of the floodwall that failed in New Orleans was only half as deep as specified- had it been built to code, there would have been no disaster. Had the politicians supervising it been given a piece of the action legally, instead of depending on the graft and bribes, would they have missed this little detail? Would the Big Dig have been billions over budget and decades behind schedule and built so shoddily that the first parts built are already failing before the last bits are finished if there had been any incentive to see that it was done right? How many projects have been as bad or worse but not made the news because they were quietly fixed before a life was lost- at tremendous public cost?

I believe that both lives and money- both in large numbers- could be saved by offering our elected officials performance based pay wherever applicable. They’re going to get the money anyway- virtually everyone who spends their entire career in public service at the state or federal levels retires a millionaire. I’ll bet that if the President and Congress were paid a multiple of the national average wage rather than a fixed sum, we’d be a whole lot better off, and Congressmen wouldn’t keep money in their freezers... and the war would probably be over a lot faster, too.


It now seems that the Marion County Republican Party is shosked- shocked!- to learn the sheriff makes that much money, (evidently, they hadn't asked the previous Republican sheriff what he made), and are making hay over it- proposing new laws to prevent the sheriff from making more than the prosecutor, etc. And they wonder why I (and many others) left the party to become Libertarians the last two election cycles.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Things we can do about Global Warming

I believe the real issues in the Global Warming debate is not the science of the debate itself, but the proposed solution- the Kyoto Accords. Kyoto would have little or no effect on Global Warming while crippling the American economy- this is not a conservative or Republican position; when presented to the Senate during the Clinton years it was voted down 99-0. But there are things we could do that would actually lower greenhouse gasses while simultaneously bringing us closer to energy independence- a win-win!

Passive Solar:

Everyone knows that black things absorb heat more readily than white or reflective surfaces; what is possibly less well known is that black also radiates heat away more efficiently- that’s why the radiator in your car is painted black. What’s my point? Look at every house you pass- three quarters of them have black roofs! Not only are these houses absorbing heat in the summer sun, they radiate the heat away in the winter nights! Tests were conducted back in the Carter years, during the first energy crisis- identical row houses were given brand new roofs; one white, one black. The White roof had lower heating and cooling bills- up to 25% lower. Business after business has confirmed this experience in the 30 years since then. This is why you’re now seeing white roofs on school buses; this is why sports domes have white roofs, no matter what the team colors are. Why not give a huge tax incentive to homeowners to replace their black roofs with white ones? There may be a few holdouts who think a white roof is weird- but if the incentive is large enough, almost everyone will comply. That alone would save enough air conditioning demands on the electric grid to stop those summer rolling blackouts and brownouts. That alone would save enough heating oil and natural gas in the winter to stop those annual price spikes. The average American’s greatest energy expenditure is home heating and cooling; this is also true for most small businesses- the savings will be huge.

Removing the carbon from the air:

Many people don’t realize it, but the trees get their mass from the air, not the ground; the ground provides only an anchor and trace minerals- the plant equivalent of vitamins. Every tree planted removes hundreds or even thousands of pounds of carbon from the air, every ten square yards of leaf provide enough oxygen for one person. There are literally hundreds of thousands of square miles of grassland and prairie in America that could become planted forests. Areas that cannot support trees can still be used in this program-
Look at all the empty buildings where businesses have gone under; every one has a huge parking lot. Some of them sit idle for years... and all that expanse of empty unused paving, thousands of acres worth, is nothing but a massive heat sink in the hot sun, raising the temperature of the entire city. You can actually see the heat roiling off them in the summer.

Why not roll turf over the parking lot until the place is rented again? Converting those parking lots into temporary lawns will dramatically reduce the surface temperature of all the surrounding properties, beautify an eyesore, and give children a safe place to play. When handed lemons- a business going under- make lemonade; turn the parking lot into a public park! Park? The eastside of Indianapolis has so many businesses closed we could turn it into a prairie!

Turning it back into a place of business when the time comes will not be difficult- the blacktop is still there, just under a couple inches of turf; a front loader or bobcat will turn it back into a parking lot in no time. If you think no one would be willing to pay for the turf, try having a donation box to check on the state tax forms, like the presidential matching funds box on the federal forms. I’d donate, and I bet a lot of other people would, too.

These and many similar proposals have been around for decades; why has there been no action? Because they aren’t big exciting vote-getters? Because activists are motivated more by hatred of multinational corporations than love of the Earth? I don’t know.

Monday, July 10, 2006

How do we know God loves us?

Peacebang actually asks this question- I urge you to check it out: How Do You Know God Loves You? I have a very personal answer for her, but it is far to long to post as a comment on her blog, so I’m posting it on my own- hope you like it, PB!

This is from my personal Book of Shadows, which I’m thinking of editing and publishing; please respect my copywrite.

The flowering of Spring is when we come to realize that the Divine is a hedonist, a sybarite, a sensualist; she pours out joys and pleasure in inexhaustible abundance. These sensual pleasures are true Religious Magic; they are unexplainable by biology or evolution.

A sense of taste need only identify nutrients and toxins to satisfy the demands of evolution- and a random sampling of dog food will tell you how little subtlety is required to accomplish that. How can the materialist explain the fact that many chemical compounds are both non-toxic and indigestible- a biological null value- and yet are some of our favorite foods? Many highly nutritious foods taste so bad that children must be coerced into eating them- and then there is the very long list of things that taste good, but are quite toxic; that’s why they make “Mr. Yuck” labels. Clearly evolution cannot have produced the exquisitely sensitive human palate: there is no rational explanation for the infinite complexity of our sense of taste other than The Divine’s desire to give us daily pleasure.

When we look at a sunset, we can see the approximate hour, and possibly predict the morning’s weather- “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning; red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”. Valuable information, to be sure- but what biological value is there in noting the beauty of it?

A sense of smell can separate friend from foe, or a dainty morsel from a rotten egg. But why should we enjoy the smell of a rose any more than that of any other edible plant? Why should the smell of flowers be erotic, when a flower is not a sex object for anyone but a bee?
How does evolution explain music? A sense of timing and rhythm would be useful in tracking prey; combining that with our communication instincts easily explains poetry, and perhaps songs… but what about instrumental music? Why should we be moved to tears by a piano or violin, when these sounds never occurred in nature? What possible evolutionary explanation is there for the frisson we feel at the opening chords of the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor?

Taste, touch, sight, sound, and scent- each is a source of endless joy rather than the mundane gathering of information they might have been. What better proof do you need that The Divine loves you, and wants you to be happy?

And what of the joy that combines all five senses- sex? Pleasure isn’t necessary for reproduction; instinct alone would have sufficed for that- it does for trillions of other animals. Nor is sexual pleasure necessary for emotional bonding; there are platonic unions as strong as any between lovers. In fact, the divorce rate argues that mere sex cannot cement a bond. There is no material explanation for sex being the transcendental experience that it is.

All these things She gives us for no reason other than to bring us joy. And here is the depth of Her love for us- these gifts are unconditional. The wicked and the saintly are given the same sunset and sunrise; the rich and the poor can smell the same flowers- every second of your life She is trying to fill you with joy in a hundred ways. Each of these joys is a sacrament. Do not demean them by taking them for granted or rushing through the experience.

Seek the sensual in all that you do. As I write these words, I savor the feel of the pen in my hand; the faint scratching of the nib delights my ears and tingles my fingertips. I watch in fascination as the wet ink glitters in the lights, then fades to black as it dries.

You should make time as often as possible to savor at least one sensual pleasure in detail as a ritual. Pick someone or something you truly love, or something new you wish to experience. If you choose food, it needn’t be Chateaubriand- a combo pizza will do as well, if that’s the way your tastes run. If you choose a scent, it doesn’t matter if it’s rose or well-oiled leather.

The preparation for this ritual need not be time consuming, but it does need to be genuine. Gather what you need. Prepare the meal, or place the comfy chair in front of the stereo, or whatever is necessary for the sacrament you chose.

Light a candle to remind you of who you are honoring. Say a prayer to clear your mind of any distractions that might come between you and the gift of The Divine.
Do not be rushed. If it’s a meal, inhale the aroma before you start. Chew slowly; feel the textures, taste each herb and spice before they harmonize together. If it was a recording, savor each instrument before the melody demands attention.

There will come a moment- it may be when that perfectly aged piece of cheese melts on your tongue; it may be when you find a deeper meaning in a poem you thought you knew; it may be when a flute soars freely above the strings- there will come a moment when your senses peak, a moment when nothing else exists in the universe but that one perfect note. At that moment you have touched The Divine.

When you are finished, give thanks. Thank not only The Divine, but all who collaborated in your joy. Thank the cook- and also the being, person, plant or animal, that gave you pleasure. Thank the artist, the performer, the author. It doesn’t matter that they cannot hear your thanks; it matters that you offer them. Those thanks are a reminder that all we do touches lives we will never see.
*To deny yourself joy is a sin; you are wasting the gifts of The Divine. Conduct your life in such a way as to maximize the gifts The Divine so freely pours into your life. The Divine wants you to live, not merely exist.

*To deny others joy is a blasphemy; you are attempting to thwart the will of The Divine. This is the most negative of sins. If you steal a man’s money, you are enriched (even though your soul is impoverished); but if you steal his happiness, nothing is gained, and the whole world loses.

*To give joy is a virtue; you are assisting The Divine. When you are feeling sad, summon the will to produce a smile and a kind word for those around you; the effort will be rewarded. Don’t imagine that you’re being hypocritical because you don’t feel the cheerfulness you’re projecting- as a gift to another, it has a purity in its own right.

A closer look at Global Warming

The major problem with “The” Global Warming debate is that it is actually six debates- and each side seems to assume that “proving” any one issues settles all six. This is the sort of argument that the UFO crowd uses- if I cannot prove that the strange light was a balloon or Venus, then “obviously” it is the mother ship of Grays, sending Reptoids to phase through the walls to collect our precious bodily fluids. The six debates I refer to are:
1. Are current global temperatures and weather patterns outside of the expected normal variance in the weather?
2. Assuming they are, is this a permanent upwards trend, or a change in normal cycles of ups and downs?
3. Assuming a permanent warming trend, is it caused by the actions of Man?
4. Assuming that it is, is the result a net negative?
5. Assuming that it is caused by Man, is it reversible by Man?
6. Assuming that it is, is the Kyoto accord the best method of doing so?

The usual Global Warming debate consists of “proving” or “disproving” point one, then assuming the other five- this is what Al Gore does in his movie. My own opinions are:
1. Probably, but not proven.
2. Insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion.
3. Unlikely, but not proven.
4. Insufficient evidence to draw a conclusion.
5. Yes.
6. No.
I’m quite willing to debate any of these points- but one at a time. In a future post I will list some things we can and should do, because they are worthwhile for energy independence, but would help the hypothetical Global Warming as well.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Great Divide?

ChaliceChick has brought to our general attention a thread on Beliefnet concerning the rift between the old-guard Humanists and the Theists in the UUA: The ChaliceBlog: And now it is the Humanists who aren't feeling the love. I think this issue is more serious than CC appears to believe. I don't think this is just a “who’s the biggest victim” contest; I think this is part of the ever-growing identity crisis the UUA will be forced at some point to deal with.

This is not a question of tolerating different belief systems- the lead poster in the discussion in question doesn't believe that his beliefs ARE "beliefs". He says it is a question of reality and mental illness- he divides the world into the mentally stable, and the irrational who cannot cope with reality. He is not alone- we heard this in large numbers during the “language of reverence” debate, and at other discussion in the past. I don't really see how there can be amicable coexistence with hard-atheist (anti-theist) Humanists of his stripe... where he is in the majority, "irrational supernaturalists" like me and Rev. Sinkford have to live in an atmosphere of sneering, lip curling contempt, listening to sermons about how we are the problem, holding back mankind. If he is in the minority, he will feel himself surrounded by the mentally ill. (I've heard it expressed in those exact words) This may be a gulf that no covenant and no principals can bridge. To paraphrase Lincoln, this church cannot long survive half sane and half irrational.

If this were the only such rift, I’d say the solution is obvious; the lead poster himself suggested it- the anti-theists could switch allegiances and affiliations to the Ethical Culture (AEU). We’re scarcely in any position to loose any members, but better that than bitter infighting. The problem is that the Humanist/Theist problem is not the only such problem! There are political divides just as great, congregations where certain political positions have taken on the power of creed, including the most basic political question of all: should a church be taking political positions in the first place?

I have heard Pagans speak enviously of the advantage mainstream religions have, of a church in every town. When one is on the road, it is a comfort to be able to step inside a church and be amongst your own, to have a home away from home. Pagans have only their home coven or circle or grove... and more and more, this is becoming true of UUs. I cannot count on having my spirits lifted or even feeling welcome at a strange UU congregation. I have stopped my early practice of looking up the local UU church wherever I go... it’s no fun being sneered at and attacked when you’re a thousand miles from home.

We have debated ad nauseum whether UU is a religion- more and more I see that we should have been debating whether we are a denomination. Baptists have congregational polity just as we do, and come in all political stripes- both Jerry Fallwell and Bill Clinton are Baptist... but underlying all of that, they have John 3:16. Catholics range from the Bush supporters to Revolutionary Theology... but a Catholic can walk into any Catholic church on Earth and receive communion. I envy them- I have no such assurances from my denomination.

Addendum- the thought occurs that one solution might be to disolve the UUA, and have the individual member congregations buy Starbuck's franchises! We'd still be creedless, still have the coffee and the non-stop discussions- plus high speed internet access! They probably have a more effective Washington lobbying office, too.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Random thoughts on a random weekend

Just returned late last night from a road trip, taking my father in law's ashes to his family plot. We said Kaddish as requested- in English; none of us were willing to attempt Hebrew or Yiddish. It wasn't the same. I found myself wondering if the difference was merely that I understood the words in English, or if there was actually something about the sound combinations in Hebrew that evoke emotions the words alone do not? Is there a prayer equivalent to scat singing?

I thought of the public memorial a month ago. Following his wishes, we did not have a Navy honor guard, nor list the many, many honors and honorifics he earned over the years, military, academic, and professional. I thought of that again on the way back to the highway, seeing gang sign spraypainted on a wall we drove past, and thought of how strange the ways of man can be. Phil, who did so much for so many for so long, enforced his modesty in his last wishes; while others, whose highest sacrifice for their fellow man to date has been to breath, and possibly trap some pollutants that were fouling the air, need recognition so badly.

We attended another memorial this weekend- for a horse. If you think that's silly, I feel sorry for you. There were more than fifty people there; Bask Elect touched many lives very deeply.

Enough for thoughtful and introspective- I'll be back to obnoxious by tomorrow.