Friday, December 28, 2007

Thoughts about Benazir Bhutto

Like millions, if not billions of others, I was saddened and depressed by the news of the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. I spoke to friends, read blogs, and dialed in to talk shows to learn what others’ reactions were, and heard many of the emotions I was feeling. I also heard many struggling to understand what the real issues behind all the Middle East violence are.

For many, it seems to me, the struggle to understand is itself the barrier to understanding. The various groups involved make no secret about what the issues are- indeed, much of the violence is intended to draw attention to their statements and demands. The problem is that many of us are psychologically incapable of accepting their words at face value.

The exact nature of the demands vary wildly from group to group- that is why so much of the violence is Muslim on Muslim. But the heart of all their demands is the same: our interpretation of scripture is the only correct one; this is the will of God and you must obey. And because they truly believe, they are not afraid to kill or die to enforce the will of God; eternal reward is theirs.

Because so many in post modern liberal churches are incapable of that depth of faith, they cannot believe that the problem is that simple and so try to force it into a template they can deal with. “It’s not really about religion,” the Marxists say, “It’s about class struggle, the haves and have nots”- and they are shocked to learn that some of the most stable regimes have the biggest gaps between rich and poor, and some of the worst violence occurred in societies that were reforming. “It’s not really about religion,” progressives say, “It’s about ignorance and want. Educate them, get them into the 20th Century, and the violence will stop”- and they are shocked to learn that many of the terrorists, including suicide bombers, are doctors and engineers. “It’s not really about religion,” the Neocons say, “It’s about disaffection. Bring in Capitalism, get them invested in their own economy, and it will be in their own interest to stop the violence.” Well, Anwar Sadat did exactly that when he cut a multi-billion dollar deal with Israel and the US- and they killed him for it.

I find myself thinking of the movie “Star Trek II”. In the opening scenes, a class of cadets are on a training mission in a simulator; they have to rescue a crippled freighter, the “Kobayashi Maru”. It turns out to be a trap; they are ambushed by Klingons and everyone “dies”. Furious, the cadet in command demands and receives permission to speak freely. “That wasn’t a fair test of our abilities,” she says, “There was no way to win.” “There was no way to win,” Admiral Kirk agrees. “Everyone at some point in their life will face a no-win scenario. This was a test of character.”

For all of humankind- including billions of nonviolent Muslims- dealing with the Jihadists may be our “Kobayashi Maru”. None of the solutions that have stopped violence are working, and we’re operating under a deadline: when will they get weapons of mass destruction? Don’t kid yourself that non-proliferation treaties and technology bans will prevent it forever.

Later in the movie we discover that just one person had beaten the no-win scenario: cadet James T. Kirk- by hacking into the simulator changing the conditions of the test. If we have time, perhaps we can change the conditions of our trial, too- but how? We can’t force peoplee to change their beliefs; that’s impossible to do and immoral to even try. Nor can we force all of mankind to abandon faith, as Dawkins and other atheists would have us do; that, too, is impossible.

But if a universal faith is impossible, a universal agreement, a covenant, may not be. Mankind must give up situational ethics, and adopt certain absolutes, certain behaviors that are never the right thing to do. There must be means that cannot be justified by any end, not even a holy one. Surely that’s an easier sell- how can holy ends come from unholy means? Of course, there will be disagreement at first over just what is and isn’t acceptable, even in vengeance- but just starting the conversation will force people to think about it. Sooner or later, surely even the hardest heart will have trouble publicly declaring the conditions under which it would be appropriate, to use an example from the book “1984”, to throw acid in a baby’s face. There must be limits somewhere that would be universally acceptable... and having found the first set, the next set will be easier.

You think an ethical covenant is impossible? Ok... let’s hear your idea.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas to all...

and God bless us, every one!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Life and death in New Mexico

My blogging has been erratic the last month because I have been busy preparing for and taking an extended trip west- The California Zephyr train to Grand Junction, Colorado, Thanksgiving with family in Cortez, Co., a ride on the Durango/Silverton honest-to-God steam engine, Arches and Mesa Verde National Parks, and return home on the Southwest Chief train. I intend to write about these experiences, and the deeper thoughts they inspired, but first I want to discuss four hours of the return trip, between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM.

We had pulled out of Albuquerque on time, 12:55 P.M., having just finished yet another wonderful meal in the dining car. Something over an hour later, the train came to a sudden stop. We thought nothing of it; this is a common occurrence, which would be followed shortly by an announcement about the slow freight or whatever ahead of us. Except it wasn’t. The lights and air shut down, and the emergency lighting came on. Then the sleeper car attendant came through, telling us we had to leave the train. No, not through our own exit downstairs; walk to the last car and then exit on the right. We started walking, confused but obedient.
The confusion deepened as we encountered crowds in cars to the rear who had either been given different instructions or had misunderstood them, and were milling around in the aisles. It eventually got through everyone’s heads that something bad had happened, and standing in the exits swapping rumors wasn’t a good idea; the train emptied in minutes. Once out of the train, the explanation became clear even before the Conductor’s briefing: perhaps a thousand feet behind us was a road crossing with wreckage in it; a few hundred feet ahead the nose of the train had wreckage wrapped around it.

The train had been evacuated because there was gasoline everywhere; it was still pouring out of the ruptured tank as we watched. Fortunately, the local Fire Department responded very quickly, and started watering the front of the train as if it were a potted plant, to dilute the gasoline. As they worked, the train crew passed out bottled water and tried to keep us herded away from either the crossing, where half the car had been sheered off on impact, or the front of the train, where the half of the car containing whatever remained of the driver was deeply imbedded into the front of the engine. It was a lost cause; those few who were interested in such ghoulish sights were impossible to herd, pulling out their cell phones to take photographs. I have no such pictures to share, thank you.

There was much clucking over people who try to beat the train through the crossing, although I later learned locals don’t believe that’s what happened . And from the victim’s life story , what they say seems reasonable.
When the gasoline had been diluted, they allowed people to re-board the train, but I stayed outside- I had been having trouble breathing at that altitude, and they had not turned the air back on inside the train. This allowed me to watch my fellow passengers react and cope, which was probably MY method of coping. Nearly all, except those who just had to get pictures, were solemn at first. But as minutes stretched into hours, many other reactions developed.

There were stabs at humor, of course. “You know what the last thing to go through his mind was? The engine!” Others talked with the Fire Dept. Chaplain, who arrived in the first fire engine. The ravens, who had showed up even faster than the Fire Dept. to orbit around both halves of the wreckage were the subject of much discussion. Some were angry, others philosophical, still others pondered the question of why ravens rather than vultures? Some just became very quiet, not initiating any conversation at all.

Eventually wreckers arrived to winch the imbedded car out of the front of the engine, replacement crewmembers arrived, and we were on our way again. Perhaps it was merely the shock of this happening in the middle of the holiday season, i don’t know... but I’m proud to say that not a single passenger complained about being late.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I'm back

from a trip to the other side of the country, via Amtrak! We got back in the wee, small hours this morning, 27 hours late, because of an incident outside Albuquerque; but I can't complain- we're not as late as the driver of the car that tried to beat our train through the crossing. More tomorrow after some recovery.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I'm still here,

I'm just being nibbled by ducks- sorry for the erratic ature of my posting lately. Thins should return to normal soon.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The best analysis

I have ever seen of the American political scene is The top US conservatives and liberals from the British newspaper Telegraph. I applaud the author, Toby Harnden, for a fair and very well presented piece.

P.S. This does not violate my moritorium as I am not expressing a political view, but drawing attention to an independent treatment of both sides. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

In honor of the day...

I offer this dramatization of a story from the first, and greatest, American master of horror.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The fear of faith

Despite- or perhaps because of- tremendous temptation, I have declared to myself a short moratorium on political or contentious entries, and will be posting only religious or philosophical entries for the near future. The first entry under this new policy is a snippet from my personal Book of Shadows, and is dedicated to Jamie over at Trivium .

One big difficulty in coming out of the “broom closet” is a societal problem with religion in general, not Wicca or Paganism in particular; certain strata of society are deeply contemptuous of any religious faith. Among such people, “faith” is synonymous with “ignorance”- they are truly astonished when they meet anyone of faith who has an IQ in triple digits. It’s hard enough to announce as a Christian if one has such aggressive skeptics in one’s important circles; fear of being seen as a New Age weirdo by them can be unbearable.

That fear is not completely misplaced; I have seen people become born-again Christians as adults and be treated by friends and family as if they were brain damaged. With each passing day such abuse becomes more public and more acceptable; books ridiculing the very concept of religion are best sellers, feeding the normal fear of ridicule. Fear of ridicule is terrible indeed- I have read that the prayer of test pilots and astronauts is not “God, don’t let me die”, but “God, don’t let me screw up!” Such deep seated fear can make it difficult to admit faith even to yourself, let alone others.

How is this fear overcome? By remembering what brought you to your faith in the first place. People don’t come to faith by logical syllogism; nobody draws a Venn diagram encircling both themselves and God and says, “It is proven!” People have faith because at some time in their lives, they felt the presence of the Divine. It may have happened in a church, or a forest, or a hospital waiting room... but at one point you felt, and you knew. Faith is not “belief”- it is inexpressible knowledge.

It has been argued that one cannot believe that Jesus was a good man, but not God, because his words would make him either a liar or a lunatic. But even the most devout Christian will agree that whether or not he was God, he was also a man- and so this must be true for all people of faith, all faiths. Either we have felt the presence of the Divine, or we are liars and lunatics. Billions have felt the touch, have direct knowledge of the Divine. It is not our burden to prove the ineffable to the atheist; our burden is to live the kind of lives we know we should, and not hide our light under a bushel.

So do not fear to declare your faith. And if your religion seems strange to others, what of it? Religions are not faith, they are merely how we choose to express the faith our hearts already knew to be true, the truth we have already experienced.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Now this is Sicko

It seems the British National Health Service is so short of dentists that people are treating themselves . From the CNN Europe article: "LONDON, England (CNN) -- Some English people have resorted to pulling out their own teeth because they cannot find -- or cannot afford -- a dentist, a major study has revealed. Six percent of those questioned in a survey of 5,000 patients admitted they had resorted to self-treatment using pliers and glue, the UK's Press Association reported."

Funny... national health care sounded so much better when Michael Moore talked about it.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Are there cats in your house: a quiz

Five points for each phrase you have heard or uttered in your house:

There's a mouse in the bed!

Who barfed on the checkbook?

There's half a mouse in the bed!

Have you seen my earrings? I could have sworn they were on the dresser.

Better look in your shoes before you put them on.

There's hair in the butter!

Eww, I stepped on a bird!

Why are there a dozen old cigarette wrappers under the bed?

Wow, look at the holes in the window screen!

Honey, your pantyhose are on the stairs again.


10 points, there is a cat in your house.
20 points, there are several cats in your house.
30 points, you are probably a Unitarian.
40 points, you are probably a Wiccan.
50 points, you are probably a member of my family.

Friday, October 12, 2007

No Loose Change here

I spoke to an acquaintance (not a friend- I don't know what it would do to me to learn that someone I liked and trusted was this big a moonbat) recently who is a "truther", one of those who believes that 911 was a Bush administration conspiracy. He thought that as I had written against the conspiracy nuts, I should, in the interest of fairness, I should adress his side. He challenged me to link to the movie "Loose Change", the "documentary" that "connects the dots" and "conclusively proves" that the towers were brought down by demolition charges.

I've decided to do them one better, by linking to the documentary
Screw Loose Change . This contains every word, every image of the original, without alteration- but adds the answers to all their charges, half truths, and outright lies. It's long, I warn you; it takes longer to give explanations than merely make accusations. But it's well worth the time viewing.

Comments are on, but don't give me any conspiracy stuff unless you've watched Screw Loose Change.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A sobering thought

for the debate on Darfur, Burma, and even Iraq is hidden within Peacebang's post, Panzi Hospital in which she referrences a New York Time article, Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War . She is quite right to use terms such as "evil" and "Satan": "BUKAVU, Congo — Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair... Eastern Congo is going through another one of its convulsions of violence, and this time it seems that women are being systematically attacked on a scale never before seen here. According to the United Nations, 27,000 sexual assaults were reported in 2006 in South Kivu Province alone, and that may be just a fraction of the total number across the country."

What does this have to do with Darfur, Burma, and Iraq? This quote: "The attacks go on despite the presence of the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world, with more than 17,000 troops."

We are already on record calling for UN intervention in Darfur, and many are calling for the same in Burma. The more responsible of the "Get out of Iraq now, not another dollar, not another life" crowd propose having the UN intervene to stop the certain bloodbath that would follow such a precipitous withdrawl. (Rev. Sinkford doesn't mention it in his fax to our congressmen, nor does it appear in the petition he asks us to sign- I guess he isn't worried about the aftermath) The situation in Congo shows just how realistic these calls are; if the largest UN force in the world can't stop mass rape in the Congo, how are they going to do anything in all these other situations? Do our calls for UN intervention really accomplish anything other than making us feel good for having "done something"?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


We went to the Ohio Renaissance
festival over the weekend and saw a lot of amazing things. Given the weather- brutally hot, in the 90s- (and 2 days later it was in the 70s, and today in the 50s, welcome to Miami Valley weather), the most amazing thing was a troupe of Irish step dancers in furs!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I saw a new plant today

in the backyard, something wild- I didn’t plant it. Probably a weed; it’s kind of scraggly. But it has dozens and dozens of tiny, purplely-white flowers, and it’s growing over the grave of our cat Tommyknocker. I think I’ll keep it.

Of Britney Spears, Middle Class, and “Voices of a Liberal Faith”

You may well ask what Ms. Spears has to do with our recent discussion of UUism and the middle class and the new short film available as DVD or download from the UUA, Voices of a Liberal Religion-Unitarian Universalists . The explanation will make the most sense if you first go watch the film.

Back? Ok... What was missing in that film? They mentioned that we welcome everyone, good, that’s our biggest draw. They mentioned that we’re big on social activism, fine, and they mentioned our sex ed classes for kids. All good things, especially the OWL program- that’s a huge draw for us; many come to us only to enroll their kids in our RE classes, and leave as soon as they’re old enough. So what’s missing? Personal ministry... how to live, day by day; how to be good (other than marching in Selma), how we can help you survive the daily grind, and be righteous in the face of temptation.

As was noted by Doug Muder in his UU World article that kicked off the discussion of our “Middle Class Problem, Not my father‘s religion , these are not UU issues, or sermons. His point was that UUs are almost universally professional class people, and so we no longer need that kind of ministry- “I felt smug that morning because I knew that Ed would have been so much better off in my church. We talk about real life, his real life. He didn’t need to be told not to be bad. His issue wasn’t Good versus Evil; it was Good versus another Good versus a third kind of Good. And that’s the issue in my life and in the lives of all my professional-class friends. The primary spiritual challenge of the professional class is discernment. There are so many good things we could do with our lives. How do we choose?
That’s the kind of issue a UU sermon talks about.

Doug is quite correct about the kind of issue a UU sermon talks about, but quite incorrect that this is the kind of sermon the professional class- or indeed, any class- needs. This is where Ms. Spears comes in. Her personal self destruction continues; she has now lost custody or her children. A multimillionaire before she was old enough to vote, she is perfectly able to take the God’s eye view above the maze of success that Doug spoke of, and she had even more choices than the usual professional- she could have taken her singing career in any direction she chose; she could have turned to acting, modeling, become a professional celebrity on the talk show circuit, or gotten her own talk show for that matter. Or even retired; she need not work another day in her life if she so chooses. But she seems bent on destroying her life. She needs help.

People in that situation most often turn to their church. Despite the growth in the therapy industry, and the lessening of any stigma attached to going to counseling, the church remains the counselor of first choice for most people. It’s not that hard to figure out why- you can go every week for free and without question, and the mainline (or “working class”) denominations teach “... the road to success is self-control. That’s what you want to teach your children: Resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.”- the way out of your problems, and the way to avoid them in the future. Would Britney hear these sermons in a Unitarian church? No- as Doug says, those are not our issues.

But they should be. Social activism is well and good- but as the airline safety lecture goes, “Secure your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.” We need to teach how and why to believe in something larger than yourself. (other than the Democratic party, I mean) It doesn’t have to be an angry Jehovah- you can speak only in terms of the harm evil does to the interdependent web, as I do here . But we need to talk about good and evil. We need to make judgments. The professional and ruling classes need these lessons just as much as the working class. Moreover, they want these lessons- that’s why we’re not any better at recruiting the professional class than the working class.

How can I say that? Look at the numbers. There are more than 2.6 million millionaires in this country. What would you call the professional class- would knocking down $100,000 a year be a safe definition? According to the US Census Bureau, 17,803,000 households make 100k or above. Counting non-working spouses and children, that’s many tens of millions of people in “our class”- but there are only 200,000 regularly attending UUs. There are probably more red haired left handed professionals than UU professionals. We are not the church of the professional class, we are the church of those who are sufficiently satisfied with our lives as to have the illusion that we don’t need judgements and hard lessons- it’s just that that happens more often in the professional class.

I do not believe that this new advertising campaign will work in the long run. Oh, it will get people in the doors, no doubt about that- but we won’t retain them until we have a message that speaks to the real lives of more than one half of one percent of the populace. We can be as welcoming as we like, but Gays and Lesbians and Transgendered and African Americans and Semites and Asians and Atheists and Buddhists and Pagans and Red Haired Left Handed Professionals all want a church with a coherent message that speaks to simple human issues.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Words that have lost their original meaning

Words change their meanings over the years; sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. Examples of accidental change include "tissue" (or, as we called them when I was a kid, snot-rags) becoming "Kleenex", or "reproduction" becoming "Xerox"- those brands had such a huge market share that the specific became the generic.

Examples of deliberate change include "Gay", "African American", and "Native American"; they were chosen because the previous terms had become pejorative. The first two mentioned have actually had several generations of change, and may change again in the future.

None of those changes matter very much to the common comprehension required for communication- if I say, "Hand me a Kleenex", my meaning is clear. A person who was unfamiliar with the term "Native American" could easily figure it out, and the only people I've known who were genuinely confused by the term "African American" were the young children of a white immigrant from South Africa. Other words that have changed, however, are becoming a true hindrance to clear communication. Here are a few:

Literally The way the word is used today, one would think that people literally do not know what it means.

God At one time, "God(s)" meant a supernatural being or beings. Discussions of "God" were limited to the quantity (Unity? Trinity? Poly?) of these beings, and the attributes thereof. Today, people speak of God being love, or the interdependent web, or some such. Of course, we know why these circumlocutions were invented- to allow Catholic and Anglican bishops who had lost their faith to continue to draw their stipends. But it has resulted in much miscommunication.

Liberal and Conserative, and to a large extent Democrat and Republican One small example among many: originally it was Liberal Democrat Kennedy who championed massive tax cuts to stimulate the economy, and Conservative Republicans who opposed it as a risky scheme. This was not a deliberate change, but merely reflects the fact that most politicians are not leaders but weathervanes. Nonetheless, it is rendering true communication difficult.

Socialist, Fascist, Nazi The original dictionary definitions of these words are no longer used outside of a polysci doctoral thesis; today they merely mean "Someone I don't like". The only difference remaining is in who is speaking: Democrats call those they hate "Nazi"; Republicans call them "Socialist", and conspiracy nuts call both of them "Fascist".

What words would you add?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don’t bring the Peace Petition to me

and expect to get a signature. I think I’m being extremely generous in calling the petition, and Rev. Sinkford’s fax to our congressmen childishly naive. Of course, Rev. Sinkford must believe us to be equally naive when he promises “On October 10 we will be walking into your representatives' offices to tell them to end the war...” in his message asking for our signatures. All 435 representatives’ offices, Rev.? Do they allow roller skates in the congressional office building?

Don’t talk to me about whether we should have invaded or not; that ship has sailed. Nor is this about whether the war has been bungled; that dock too is empty. The question here is whether we should cut and run- and that is exactly what Rev. Sinkford demands: “Not another dollar. Not another life.” That position is so deeply immoral that I find it difficult to understand how a highly educated man of the cloth could hold it; I can only hope he’s playing the “ask for the Moon, and they’ll compromise on what you really wanted” game- but I fear, given his history, that he’s serious.

Yes, progress in Iraq is a fraction of what we had hoped for by now. Yes, the government of Iraq has, by their failures, betrayed their courageous countrymen who risked so much by cooperating with the soldiers to root out resistance cells, in going to vote despite the threats. Every person who cooperated- and their families, even the children- lives in danger; every day some are assassinated. Because of the failures of their government, their only security lies in our presence. What are these brave lives worth? Are you willing to answer “Not another dollar. Not another life.”?

There’s nothing new about this situation. Brave Cubans rose up in response to American promises and revolted against Castro... and America lost its nerve at the last moment and withdrew the promised support; they were slaughtered to a man at the Bay of Pigs. Fourteen years after that we left allies behind in our hasty retreat from Vietnam, and again there was slaughter- and our absence as a credible regional threat allowed Pol Pot to slaughter millions in the “killing fields”. Fifteen years after that we encouraged the Kurds to revolt in Iraq, then stood back and allowed them to be slaughtered. Ironically, some of these very victims of our sins of omission were part of the proof that Saddam had once had weapons of mass destruction, as their villages had been gassed. With this history, it is no surprise at all that sixteen years later some are once again declaring our national symbol to be the mark of Cain, our national motto “We are not our brothers’ keepers”- it is just disappointing seeing the President of the UUA chanting that motto.

When mistakes are made, they must be paid for. You can’t just say “Sorry ‘bout that, chief!” and walk away with a clear conscience. You must apologize, yes- but you must also make good what you have destroyed. We have not yet done that; we have barely made a good start. Yes, the cost is dear, but the failure to pay it will be dearer still. We can follow the tradition of the last fifty years- “When the going gets tough, America gets going- in the opposite direction”; or we can at least pretend we’re the men and women our predecessors were and do the right thing by the people who befriended us. It would be so easy to say, as I heard someone around here (not a Unitarian, thank God) say when told that without us, there would be civil war: “So what? The whole damn country isn’t worth a single American life. They’re not even Christian- Hell, they’re just barely white!” Easy- but immoral.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

I have an axcuse this time...

for not posting recently- as you will have gathered if you've read the Chaliceblog, my beloved and I have been in Washington DC- a second mini-honeymoon to celebrate our tenth anniversary!

It was a wonderful trip all the way around. The flight, both in and out, was fine; clear weather and smooth, and as I had been warned ahead of time, I didn't think the pilot was drunk when we weaved around the Potomac and dodged the Washington monument before landing. As we landed in the middle of the afternoon, the shuttle to the Metro and the Metro itself were not crowded. We had dinner that night at Stars, which I highly reccomend.

We spent a day at the International Spy Museum, and I am now drinking tea from my new Smithsonian mug. (which I got a discount on- you are members, right?) We had our anniversary dinner at Zola's.

We spent a delightful Saturday evening at the Brickskeller with CC and the CSO. If you haven't met them, they speak exactly like they write- we both look forward to the next time we meet. GA, anyone?

I had some deep thoughts at the Spy Museum, but I'll share them later; today is a day for laundry, mail, and other return tasks. Oops- there's the dryer buzzer. Later!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There are no experts on Islam

These are thoughts I’ve had for some time, but were recently jumpstarted by a discussion of the compatibility of Islam and UU on CRAPonSundays . In the course of this discussion, Will says, “In the years since, I’ve tried to learn more about Islam, but to be honest, I’m no expert.” Of course not, Will- there are no experts.

This sounds silly at first blush- there are millions of experts on Islam; we see them everywhere. Even if you limit it to only Imams who speak the language of the Prophet and were raised in that culture, there are many, ready to talk on any subject. Modesty? Here’s an expert saying that many women went topless back in the day- what the Prophet meant was “Put your shirt on.” No, here’s an expert saying scarf and veil are needed... now here’s one saying she has to wear a full Hazmat suit, complete with respirator. Women’s rights? Here’s an expert saying that Islam has full equality between the sexes... but this one says their rights are equal, but different, like she can’t be an Imam... and this one says that they do not have rights, but protections. War? This one says that he’s seeking Conscientious Objector status, as Islam is a religion of peace... that one is declaring Holy War.

If there’s one thing I learned in the pointless forest, it’s that a point in every direction is the same as no point at all. There is no Islamic scholar so well renowned that there isn’t some other equally qualified scholar willing to call him a silver plated idiot. There’s no “Pope” of Islam, no central authority to get the definitive answers from. There’s no agreement on anything but the Five Pillars. No, wait, don’t the Shi’a have eight? So if by “expert”, you mean someone who knows what Muslims believe, then no, there are no experts on Islam.

So what, one might ask- UUs don’t agree on anything, either. But then, UUs don’t claim to believe anything as a creedal test of membership. UUs don’t demand that non-UUs dress and act as if they were. UUs don’t call for the arrest of cartoonists for blasphemy, as the government of Bangladesh just did , let alone calling for their death, as some Imams have. UUs don’t strap bombs to their bellies and blow up teenagers in pizza parlors. And yes, some Imams say that those who call for violence are not “real” Muslims- but who’s to say? There are no experts. How are we to know?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Intellectual rigor?

When debating the existence of God, the illogic of theism is always one of the first things to be brought up. Science, which has given us all the modern wonders is completely logical, internally consistent, and deals only with reality as we see it, not as we imagine it; faith, in the words of our own Davidson Loehr , (who is much, much kinder than many famous atheists), “lacks intellectual rigor”. Any discussion of the supernatural- that which is indefinable, undetectable, unprovable, and yet can still affect the real world- is simply irrational. To actually have theological debates- the classic (though apocryphal) example is “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”- is just mental masturbation.

Or so it seemed for decades, until the Hubble Space Telescope was orbited. We could now see regions of space we had only imagined before... and that revealed a problem. The real Universe was not arranged the way our infallible math- the logic that traced reality and existence from the Big Bang to the present day- said it should be. The distribution of Galaxies was all wrong; the real Universe had betrayed us. How could this be reconciled?

A solution was found- “Dark Matter”. Dark Matter has gravity, we decided, so it can account for the flawed distribution of matter, but has no other attributes; we can’t see it, it doesn’t block our view of anything else, it doesn’t register on instruments, and in fact we can’t prove it exists at all- we only infer it must be there to make our theology- oh, excuse me!- astronomy work out right. How could I possibly have made a slip like that; it has much more intellectual rigor to it than theism!

Of course, as we are so certain dark matter exists, we can describe it perfectly. Dark Matter is cold, being made of slow, dense neutralinos; it sparked the creation of stars and galaxies in clumps, or “litters“... No, wait, it’s warm and zippy, it formed stars like pearls on a string... some of the debate can be seen here . That’s a lot of stew to make from meat that’s only inferred- I wonder how much Dark Matter will fit on the head of a pin?

But the problematical distribution of matter wasn’t the only shock Hubble had for them; the velocity of wandering stars and galaxies was off, too- way off. They are just moving too fast for the available energy to explain; there must be... wait for it... Dark Energy! Dark Energy is, yes, energy that shines on everything except the instruments that might detect it. It’s undetectable and unproveable, but it’s the only thing that makes the math work out right, so it must exist. Along with the other undetectable stuff. In fact, they might be one and the same!

Of course, these hypothetical constructs must only affect our understanding of the Universe around the edges, right? I mean, we couldn’t base all our understanding of physics on things that are, for all intents and purposes, supernatural, could we? Uh... “Dark matter and dark energy are two of the most vexing problems in science today. Together they dominate the universe, comprising some 96 percent of all mass and energy.”, according to Robert Roy Britt, senior science writer at . So evidently we have a firm understanding of... 4% of the Universe.

Or do we? Matter is made of atoms, which are composed of subatomic particles such as Protons, Neutrons, etc. And those particles can be broken into yet smaller particles... and in this world, normal physics no longer works; a new math called “Quantum Physics” had to be invented to explain it. The smallest of the theoretical particles are called strings , at 10 -35th meters. How small is that? If an electron were the size of our solar system, a string would be the size of a tree... strings have 10, or maybe 11, or possibly 26 dimensions. Yes, yes, we have no proof or even evidence of more than three physical dimensions, but it makes the math work out right; work with us! Why do I bring these up? because “Exotic but widely popular "string theories" of the universe explain dark matter as "supersymmetric particles" that bear no relationship to dark energy,” says Mario Livio, senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, here .
My point? Only that the layman whose knowledge of science comes from the odd course taken to fulfill the requirements of a liberal arts degree are the ones most likely to believe that science has all the answers, and that it lacks “intellectual rigor” to believe the unproven and unproveable, and then ridicule others for believing something else that’s unproven and unproveable. Theists have no corner on the “something must be out there” market, and science has no corner on truth.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sweetheart deal for bought a full page ad in the New York Times questioning the integrity of General Petraeus, accusing him of lying in a report he had not yet even given when the ad was written with the headline, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us? (I think a new word has to be invented here- we have “chicken hawk” for those who call for war, but never fought themselves; we need a word for those who loathe the military, and yet believe they know more about war than those who have put their bodies in harm’s way to defend them) Now it appears that “The Paper of Record” gave a 65% discount on the standard advertising rates for such an ad.

According to ABC News , Moveon paid $65,000 for the ad- but the New York Post quotes Abbe Serphos, director of public relations for the Times as saying "the open rate for an ad of that size and type is $181,692." The Post continues , “A spokesman for confirmed to The Post that the liberal activist group had paid only $65,000 for the ad - a reduction of more than $116,000 from the stated rate.

A Post reporter who called the Times advertising department yesterday without identifying himself was quoted a price of $167,000 for a full-page black-and-white ad on a Monday.”

I’m sure there is some simple explanation for this other than that Moveon got a discount because the NYTimes was sympathetic to their position. That just couldn’t be; we all know there’s no such thing as media bias, or that if there is, it happens only at Fox News.


September 24 I quote from this article : “After two weeks of denials, the New York Times acknowledged that it should not have given a discount to MoveOn.Orgfor a full-page advertisement General David H. Petraeus.”

“The liberal advocacy group should have paid $142,000 for the ad calling the U.S. commander in Iraq "General Betray Us," not $65,000, the paper's public editor wrote yesterday.

Clark Hoyt said in his column that MoveOn was not entitled to the cheaper "standby" rate for advertising that can run any time over the following week because the Times did promise that the ad would run Sept. 10, the day Petraeus began his congressional testimony. "We made a mistake," Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis was quoted as saying.

The Times also violated its own advertising policy, which bars "attacks of a personal nature," Hoyt reported.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Movie reviews: Moliere and Stardust

Moliere is a comedy-drama, and a fine example of a genre of book and film I quite enjoy: a tale in the life of a famous historical figure, set in a period of his life about which nothing is known; no “suspension of disbelief” is required. This story “explains” why Moliere was out of the public eye for a time when he already had a reputation as an actor, but was not yet known as a playwright.
Moliere is portrayed as an intense and witty young man, a superb comedic actor who despises his own success because he loves and respects only “serious” theater; this makes him manic and capricious, played with almost a touch of Jack Sparrow. (or as Ginger corrected me, “Jacque Piaf”) This is not the random dissonance of Sparrow, however, but the result of his devotion to his craft.

I cannot come up with a single complaint about this film. The story, though at times fantastic, is well written and well paced; combined with the best ensemble cast I’ve seen in a foreign film it can make you laugh and cry within a span of minutes. As one might expect of a period piece shot in the actual locations, set in a time of elaborate dress and decoration, the visuals are wonderful. Yes, it is a French-language film, but the subtitles were translated colloquially, not word for word, so you get the flavor as well as the content. So even if you don’t speak French, you should see this film before it disappears from your local art theater- but if you do speak French, run out and see it right now!

Stardust is another comedy, a fantasy. There’s nothing serious about this film, nor does it take itself seriously; it’s pure mind candy. but it’s good candy. It’s the kind of film where you just know the cast had a hoot shooting it. For example, from the first second Robert De Niro appears on screen, you know he’s playing a parody of a De Niro character... but as the parody gets more and more over the top, you begin to wonder if he paid the studio to be allowed to play this character. Supposedly a minor character, he should have been arrested for Grand Theft Movie. Michelle Pfeiffer is fantastic as the witch Lamia.

Yes, the plot turning points are all telegraphed; yes, there are holes in the story. Who cares? We’re not talking Shakespeare here, (unless you mean De Niro’s character), we’re talking a couple hours of pure entertainment. Go see it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I had thought to post about my memories of 9/11, my feelings as I watched it unfold live on television that horrific day, but more eloquent writers have done it better. so I thought instead that I would write of lessons that need remembering. I don’t quite hold with Santayana's quote about those who don’t remember their history are doomed to repeat it, but I do believe that those who don’t learn from history will face preventable tragedy.

For example, we had plenty of chances to learn that terrorism cannot be treated as ordinary crime. We could have learned that from the Munich Olympics, or the failure of Israeli police to stop their bombings, or from our own experiences with embassy bombings and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing... but we didn’t. When our nation was founded, in the days when a musket got off one round every thirty seconds, one could merely react to crime- but today that’s not good enough; we have to stop them before they strike. One can well argue about the exact provisions of the Patriot Act, but something like it had to be passed; we are way beyond the stage where it’s possible to have intelligence and law enforcement agencies forbidden by law to talk to each other, as they were before 9/11. Complaining about warrantless wiretaps is all well and good- but having the ability to place an overseas call to Osama Bin Laden without being intercepted is not liberty but insanity.

There is an old military aphorism that any resolution short of total victory is a defeat. That lesson is well proven by the killing fields of Southeast Asia, and our current troubles with North Korea, and our current predicament in Iraq is a direct result of Bush the elder forgetting that lesson. Maybe it was politically impossible for him to overthrow Hussein in the first gulf war as claimed, but at the end of WW II we were able to leave the Emperor of Japan in place without leaving a dangerously militaristic government behind as a threat- a way could and should have been found to do the same in Iraq while we had the good will of governments in the Middle East.

Another military aphorism is that absolute, overwhelming force is just barely enough; anything less than a total effort wastes men and material even if you win. Had Bush the younger remembered that lesson, all of his other mistakes in Iraq would have been meaningless. A soldier on every street corner, and non-stop reconnaissance and strike sorties would have closed the border and stopped the flow of men and equipment that are now fueling the insurgency. One must either fight a war or not fight a war- never half-fight it! Any leader who fears cries of “disproportionate response” at the expense of lives- both ours and theirs- is unworthy of leading.

One lesson we, as a people, must learn is to finish what we start; the losses in the long run are often higher for quitting than for continuing. Osama Bin Laden himself said that the reason for the 9/11 strike was that since we had cut our losses and run from Somalia, he believed a really big strike would make us run from the whole of the Middle East. There is precedent for this: we know from captured records that the reason for the Pearl Harbor strike was that Japanese military leaders believed that because of our foreign policy record and level of political rhetoric in the 1930’s that we were afraid of war- one debilitating strike and we would be too cowed to enter the war. Even if no future dictator or terrorist attacks because he believes us too weak willed for a long fight, what about our own future Presidents? What if the next President is afraid to go into Darfur because he or she believes that if it turns nasty, we haven’t the will to continue?

Other lessons have been learned. One of President Bush’s few laudable actions was to say early and often that Islam as a religion was not to blame; this helped defuse the xenophobia that normally accompanies a war. There has been no wave of anti-Islam hysteria; those attacks that have occurred are no greater in number than “ordinary” hate crime- in fact, in the last six years more Christian churches have been burned than mosques attacked. When I heard a man I knew who forty years ago called anyone of even vaguely Asiatic appearance “gook” differentiate between “regular Muslims” and terrorists, I smiled.

Another lesson learned is that we, as a people, can no longer go about our business and allow the government to run things unsupervised. I believe that a lot of the viciousness of politics today stems from deep feelings of guilt, that we allowed things to get to this state. My hope is that in future, the tone of political blogs and organizations will moderate as participation increases.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How we pick our Presidents

I’ve come to believe that most of what’s wrong with our country today stems from how we pick our politicians, from Mayor to President- and I don’t mean the electoral process, I mean how we, the voters, choose who we’ll vote for. To demonstrate this, I’m asking you to tell me the qualifications of your favorite candidates for President, within the following parameters:

Don’t tell me their positions. There are three reasons for this- first, positions are not qualifications; if they were, and you share those positions, you’d be equally qualified, wouldn’t you?

The second reason is that positions don’t tell you they can do, or will do, but only what they want. After all, Chamberlain wanted peace, and he didn’t get it. The lowliest Congressman has more say about whether a given position will be implemented than the President does; at least he can vote on it.

The third reason positions don’t matter is that no one knows what the issues will be during the next term, much less what the right position is. Notice that neither Gore nor Bush told us back in 2000 what they would do about the Patriot Act, or the Iraq War, or Hurricane Katrina.

Don’t tell me about their education. Contrary to popular belief, education does not impart wisdom- if it did, President Bush’s combined GPA and post-graduate degree would place him near the top in this century, ahead of Reagan, Eisenhower, and miles ahead of Truman. Don’t even speak to me to me about intelligence; again, contrary to popular belief, IQ doesn’t impart wisdom, either- according to this article recommended by Snopes , President Bush’s IQ is equal to JFK’s.

Do tell me about their character. George Washington said that character was the only important issue... but he didn’t mean “Does he go to church”, or “Is he a good husband”, or any of the other things that phrase has been twisted to mean in recent decades. He meant “How will the candidate react to the unexpected”, or as a modern politician once phrased it, “I am the most qualified to wing it.” The great challenges of almost any presidency are totally unexpected and cannot be prepared for; what in your candidate’s life leads you to believe that he/she will have the wisdom and courage to do the right thing in the face of an unexpected world class emergency?

Do tell me about his/her accomplishments. If in the legislature, what laws have they written and gotten passed? What positions of trust or leadership within Congress have they won? If in an executive position, how have they shown the type of character I described above? What do their careers in the private sector, if any, tell you?

Frankly, by the standards outlined above, the bullpens of both parties look pretty thin to me. I see several with charisma, which is a sort of qualification, I guess... but not necessarily a good one. I see some executive experience, but no governors from any state large enough to equate to a country. No one with any foreign affairs experience at a decision-level grade; no one who’s been a diplomat, or State Department head.

Nothing better displays the pitiful state of politics in America today than that with the Presidency wide open, no incumbent, no groomed for the job VP, no old war horse in waiting, we could have a list of candidates this long with no clear leaders on it. Never in the course of U.S. history have so many had so little to bring to so important a moment.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Has the Federal Government done enough in New Orleans?

I hear many people say no; but when pressed for details, few seem to know what actually has been done so far, or how much has been spent- just not enough.
So how much have we spent to date? Quite a bit, actually, according to the Washington Times : “The flow of federal dollars to the Gulf Coast two years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the region already exceeds what the U.S. spent on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. President Bush and Congress have committed more than $127 billion in resources and tax relief for the region — significantly more than inflation-adjusted $107.6 billion directed to 16 countries in Europe between 1947 and 1951.” Thank goodness Ray Nagin wasn’t president of France back then!

Monday, August 27, 2007

I wonder,

Now that Michael Vick has pled guilty, and says that he now realises he did wrong, and has found Jesus... I have to wonder if he is aware of the irony that the only place he will get unreserved forgiveness, acceptance, and a second chance is from a dog?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Well, Duh...

“For a Man in the Middle on Iraq, Church Provides No Sanctuary

By Dana Milbank
Friday, August 24, 2007; Page A02

The sign outside Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church in Burke announces that it is a "liberal, welcoming religious community." For Rep. Tom Davis yesterday, it was more liberal than welcoming.” The rest of the story is here . I’m surprised at rep. Davis’ naiveté- surely he didn’t expect a Republican to get a polite reception at a UU church. He must be a masochist.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Playing Bob Dylan...

In the new movie “I’m Not There” is... guess. I’m serious; take three guesses before looking here . I would never have believed it, but then I couldn’t see Tom Cruise as a vampire, either- I guess that’s why casting directors make the big bucks.

On “Not My Father’s Religion”

Doug Muder has expanded his sermon on classism within the UUA that first appeared in his blog some months back, (I commented on it here ), into an essay that now appears in the latest UU World . It is an excellent read, and has expanded my thoughts on the subject as well, but I think he is still missing the mark. Let me try to put it together by pieces, as he did.

Piece one: Doug uses the analogy of a maze, with the working class having more barriers and twists and turns to negotiate to reach the prize- but he never actually says what the prize is. It can’t be wealth, because he speaks of the professionals who seek wealth in negative terms- “There’s also a dark way out, for those professionals who are driven by fear and greed rather than pulled by love. They sell their time and energy for a lot more money than factory workers—and a lot more than many idealistic professionals—but they can get just as alienated.” No the prize is happiness- “following your bliss”.

Piece two: Doug says that the professional class does what they want to do, and the working class does what they have to do. He is wrong. As Jamie points out , the working class is driven by job satisfaction just as much as the professional class; they (we) too take “war stories” home, reminisce, look forward to the next day- doctors and lawyers have no exclusive claim to enjoying what they do. Nor do they have immunity from unhappiness. My father was a professional, lived and breathed his job, wrote articles for trade journals about it, and kept dabbling after retirement... and was bitterly unhappy for most of the time I knew him; many of my earliest memories are of my parents fighting- the kind that damages body, property, and psyche.

Piece three: Doug says, “We sometimes describe conservative churches as otherworldly because they talk about supernatural realms. Their harsh theology, we worry, can justify harshness in this world. But the connection between harsh theology and a harsh world goes both ways. If you live in a harsh world, a church with a harsh theology is talking about your life. The church with the easy theology is the otherworldly one.” He is absolutely right except for one thing: we all live in a harsh world. The working class, living somewhat closer to the edge, knows this without forcing fate to prove it to them; the professional classes, with more creature comforts at their disposal, can often fool themselves about the nature of this world for a long time- but as they say, “Nobody gets out of here alive.” History shows that education and money alone cannot protect you from addiction, despair, domestic abuse, or any other human failing. Which leads us to...

Piece four: “In the working class, the road to success is self-control. That’s what you want to teach your children: Resist temptation. Walk the narrow path. Do the hard thing you don’t want to do, so that you and the people who are counting on you won’t be punished.” He makes the same mistake here that I pointed out above; this is true for everyone. Don’t ask me, ask Michael Vick, or Lindsay Lohan, or Brittney Spears, or...

When I put these pieces together, I get this picture: The “working class” seeker knows that what he needs comes to individuals, not “classes”. Spiritual happiness- whether you mean capitol “S” spirit, salvation of the soul, or lower case, contentment in your life- comes only retail, not wholesale; anyone saying different is selling snake oil. Doug seeks “To understand why people might choose not to be with us even though we’re trying to be for them,...” Easy enough- because we talk like politicians, not theologians. Because instead of talking to people, we say things like “But we also have a problem with the working class, particularly the ones suffering from what Marx called alienation.” The working class seeker doesn’t need a church to ask “Why can’t the minimum wage be higher? Why can’t the government hire the unemployed? Why can’t college be free?”- he has politicians to ask- and answer- those questions. Why would he want to join a church so that part of his pledge can be sent to Boston to hire someone to fax his congressman when he can do it himself?

Doug asks, “Can we speak in words that make sense everywhere, from the high place to the darkest, trickiest passages of the maze? Can we teach both subtle discernment and making yourself do the obvious hard thing? Inspiration and self-control?” No, I don’t believe we can. To teach the life lessons that those we want to reach need, and are asking for, would involve things like making judgments, talking about right and wrong, and addressing spirituality. I’ll quote Doug one more time: “That almost sounds like a theology. But not a UU theology.”

Friday, August 17, 2007

Emergency Clergy

KSLA TV, Shreveport, LA, reports reports that Homeland Security is recruiting clergy to help pacify the country if it ever becomes necessary to declare martial law. Just from reading that headline, my first thought was that I couldn’t imagine any UU clergy cooperating with this.

But as I read the body of the story, I had second thoughts. Specifically mentioned as something that would need such help was the confiscation of all guns, as was done in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. I have read some pretty strong gun control opinions from UUs, including the position that only police and officialdom should have guns. So my question for any UU clergy or seminarian who cares to answer is this: Would you, officially or unofficially, assist with the confiscation of guns in a national emergency?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Canadian model?

Those touting the “single payer” system for national health care, as Canada uses, should watch this short film on “You Tube”.

Another update to “An Inconvenient Truth”

It is a little known fact that most of the annual temperatures reported are not raw data from weather stations, but are corrected by a computer program to adjust for many factors that could affect the raw data. It is now being said that the temperatures NASA reported that indicated Global Warming, and that Global Warming is accelerating due to man-made greenhouse gasses were erroneous, that a Y2K related bug in the adjustment program made things look much worse than they are. What right wing-nut Exxon sucking mouth breathing Neanderthal is saying this? NASA itself!

In a quiet correction (no press conferences, no handouts to the media), NASA has changed all the corrected temperatures for the last century, almost all of them from recent decades corrected downwards, admitting that previous graphs had been in error. You can search NASA or NOAA websites, and/or read about it here , here , and here .

Does this mean we should stop looking for alternative energy supplies? NO. We still have to worry about little things like pollution, trade imbalance, terrorism, etc. But it does mean that what facts (as opposed to conjectures) Al Gore reported in “An Inconvenient Truth” that had not been debunked already (as I did to the hurricane data here ) have now been shown to be in error. Will future generations look at “An Inconvenient Truth” the way we look at “Reefer Madness”?

P.S. This is also an argument in favor of patronizing newspapers; I have not found a single story in any broadcast network about this- evidently their editors consider this less newsworthy than Lindsay Lohan entering rehab once again.

P.P.S. Sorry about the erratic nature of my posting lately- I’ve been making major progress on other writing projects, neglecting this one. Someday I’ll achieve balance.

Washington Post headline: "Arctic Ocean Getting Warm; Seals Vanish and Icebergs Melt." Interestingly enough, it's from 1922! details here

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sex slavery in America

In recent years enough news stories have broken about the sexual enslavement of women worldwide to make the public demand action, and the administration, in concert with Congress, acted. Sort of.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was asked for, passed, and signed into law, providing funds for the prosecution of pimps and sex slave traders, and funds for treatment for the victims.... *IF* the victims are foreign citizens. Turns out we have no funding for, and apparently interest in, U.S. citizens who were beaten or drugged into sexual slavery! I quote from this article: “...The recent attorney general’s report states that TVPA funds are dedicated to non-U.S. citizen victims. Therefore, if you are a victim of sex trafficking in the U.S. from Mexico or Ukraine, there is money for immediate services ($1300 a month), but there are no funds similarly available for an American victim.

This denial of services to U.S. victims has real consequences. An FBI agent recently told me he found a 12-year-old American girl while investigating a sex-trafficking case. Because of lack of resources, he had nowhere to put her and had to send her home. (The biggest reason girls run away and get picked up by pimps is because they are abused or neglected at home.)”

Is there anything at all the government does right?

A poll

I have been doing some informal research- informal in that is not a controlled university study, but still serious- for some years now, and I would greatly appreciate the input from the UU blogging community. I will explain after there has been time for a useful number of results.

This is a poll of how you came to UU. If you are old enough to have joined one of the individual “U”s, consider it UU for the purposes of the poll. If none of the categories I’ve supplied exactly fit your situation, go with the one closest and explain in your comment.

A. I still practice the faith I was raised in as well as UU.
B. I had left my childhood church long before I found UU.
C. I left the church I was raised in for UU.
D. UU *IS* the church I was raised in.

New: For those answering "E"; yes, I should have included a separate entry for "I wasn't raised with a specific church"- but since I didn't in the previous places I have conducted this poll, I will consider it a subset of "B" for the sake of consistency, as I had "unchurched" in mind anyway.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Thank you, Robert Heinlein

I suddenly realized that with all that has been going on around here, I missed marking the centenary of the birth of Robert Heinlein, (It was two weeks ago) arguably the most influential writer in the history of science fiction. I have particular reason to thank him, because in my teen years, when I was having crises of faith, a couple of his books gave me not answers, but more importantly, the questions to ask.

One piece of his- a very short essay for the radio show, This I Believe - was a powerful influence for me and millions of others. Reading it will help you understand me a bit better, for I agree with everything in it except the opening sentence: “I am not going to talk about religious beliefs...” I believe this essay to be one of the most profoundly religious pieces I’ve ever read.

Basketball betting scandal

As I have mentioned, I am not a basketball fan... but I DO live in the state of Indiana, and it’s not possible to converse with any other Hoosier for months at a time unless you know something about Bball; one is forced to pick up a bit of the lore to avoid de facto shunning. That is why I was so shocked by the news that a referee was betting on games he was officiating .

The worst part is not the thought that an NBA referee could be involved in such things; the worst part is what NBA official David Stern said: “Stern said he believed no other officials or players would be implicated in the betting scandal.” The thought that NBA refereeing could honestly be as bad as it is was stunning.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

8 random things meme

I was tagged by Earthbound Spirit for the “8 random facts about myself” meme- so here goes. Those tagged are supposed to post this first:

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

I’m going to violate rules 4 & 5; most of those I’d have tagged have already posted, and if we go by powers of eight, we’ll have tagged the known universe by Thursday. So anyway...

1. I have no talent for languages whatsoever. I had a year of Spanish in grade school, and never learned more than how to say “My name is...”- and have forgotten even that. I had three years of French, actually visited France several times, brushing up before each visit, and attend my wife’s Alliance Francaise club meetings, and still can do little more than order dinner or follow French television news. Oh, and I was also able to follow French coverage of a Colts game, (they were playing “les tetes de fromage”) and “Pimp My Ride” in French, but that’s about it.

2. Possibly related to the above, I have never been able to master a musical instrument, nor read music, despite my love of music. (There was a time when I would have sold my soul to be able to sing like Chuck Negron or Harry Nilson) In grade school I was able to memorize the finger positions on the recorder corresponding to written notes, but was never able to read music and hum the tune- I just seem to have some kind of mental block in those arenas. Does anyone know if music and language skills are related?

3. I was born in the same year that “Rock Around The Clock”- the beginning of rock and Roll, according to historians- was released; Rock and I have grown up together.

4. I have the unusual artistic talent of being able to convert photographs into line drawings for easy reproduction using just a ballpoint pen. I used to pick up cigarette and beer money doing that for newsletters, etc., before computers and improved photocopiers rendered that skill obsolete.

5. Because I’m fat, I have very few lines and wrinkles; I fear that as I lose weight, I’ll appear to age suddenly. Which is kind of funny, as I’d never considered myself vain before.

6. Despite being a six-foot male natural born Hoosier, I’ve never really liked basketball, watching or playing. If you know anything about Indiana, you’ll know how suspect- possibly even treasonous- that is.

7. I continually surprise myself discovering how much my tastes- in food, art, everything- have changed over the years. Yes, that’s a standard observation- I remember a comedian talking about this, saying, “...for example, when I was a kid, I hated being spanked.” I guess the real surprise is finding out that cliches apply to me, too- i used to think myself unique. Which is probably another cliche.

8. One cliche that doesn’t apply- I love my in-laws, including (especially) my mother in law, whom I don’t see as often as I’d like because she lives on the other side of the continent. I also love my in-laws who live only half a continent away, in various parts of the west, which realistically is no easier to get to despite technically being closer. An extended family reunion would rack up enough frequent-flier miles to earn a trip into space on Virgin Galactic.

Tag: Anyone who has never participated in a meme before!

Harry Potter review

The best review I have seen of the latest Harry Potter book, one I agree with, and cannot state better, is here .

Monday, July 23, 2007

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us...

To see oursels as others see us.* And how do others see us- that is, UUs and liberal Christians? A glimpse can be gotten in this review of a new book, The Sum of All Christian Fears . The book paints a future for America that all conservative Christians fear- “Imagine a world where children are taken from their families in order to stop them from turning their children into terrorists. Now imagine that on the list of potential terrorists whose children must be taken or re-educated are home schoolers, active pro-lifers, and many other average Evangelical Christians. This is the all-too-believable plot behind Jodi Cowles novel, “The Minor Protection Act” (TMPA) in which a President of the United States, with help from a slick attorney, gets a bill passed through Congress that has federal agents remove children from their traditionalist Christian homes and families to stop the children from learning “intolerance” that leads to “hate crimes” and “terrorism.””

Judging only from the book review, this novel is not one of those that fulminates wildly, but rather sets the situation up in a believable manner. “One thing Cowles can't be accused of is demonizing political opponents. Even the lesbian couples that are charged by the state with raising kidnapped Christian Children are portrayed as fairly decent folks. Each character who plays their part in the President's plot has understandable, even sympathetic motives...If pro-lifers are basically terrorists, if Christian fundamentalism is harmful to our world, if disapproval of homosexuality is the same as racism, why on Earth shouldn't the government take away these children? Thoughts and ideas have consequences, and for me, TMPA brought this point home.”

What reason could Christians possibly have for these fears? For one thing, one of the top sellers in religious books of recent history is Richard Dawkins; he has been the topic of more interviews and blog entries than any other religious writer of late... and he is quoted in this review: “Recently, Richard Dawkins pondered taking away other people's children, "It's one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society to be stepping in? What about bringing up children to believe manifest falsehoods?”” Of course, that’s one man’s opinion, but he also quotes blogs: “Those fighting words. Terms like “The Religious Reich,” “The American Taliban,” and “Christian Sharia Law” are throw away lines on leftist blogs.” How many of us here in the UU blogosphere can truthfully say we are free of such fighting words? I can- (though I have used different fighting words about different people), and a few others... but I sure see them a lot. When even the official websites can get snarky about conservative Christians, is it really paranoid for those Christians to fear us?

Even if you conclude that conservative Christians ARE paranoid to think this way about us, the simple fact is that they do, and their fears did not spring from whole cloth. Really, can’t liberals- both religious and political- tone down the rhetoric a bit? And yes, I know I will receive 3, 267 emails saying “But they say terrible things about us; just yesterday, Rush Limbaugh said...” Well, here’s my answer: if you think you’re better than they are, (and you do, admit it), why don’t you act like it?

P.S. Coming soon: my “8 random things” meme entry.

P.P.S. * Proof that I don’t belong in the mental ward; I belong in the Burns unit!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Joel the prankster

CC posted her results fromThe 3 Variable Funny Test
- so I had to run off and take it, too.

Your Score: the Prankster

(23% dark, 30% spontaneous, 10% vulgar)

your humor style:

Your humor has an intellectual, even conceptual slant to it. You're not pretentious, but you're not into what some would call 'low humor' either. You'll laugh at a good dirty joke, but you definitely prefer something clever to something moist.

You probably like well-thought-out pranks and/or spoofs and it's highly likely you've tried one of these things yourself. In a lot of ways, yours is the most entertaining type of humor because it's smart without being mean-spirited.

PEOPLE LIKE YOU: Conan O'Brian - Ashton Kutcher

The 3-Variable Funny Test!
- it rules -

If you're interested, try my best friend's best test: The Genghis Khan Genetic Fitness Masterpiece

Link: The 3 Variable Funny Test written by jason_bateman on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Evidence for the existence of God

Dawkins-style evangelical atheists frequently say that it’s up to the theist to prove the existence of the Divine- “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof.” Fair enough- but the most plentiful form of evidence is always dismissed out of hand, usually without discussion- or, at least without polite discussion: direct personal experience, also known (in the clinical, analytical language UUs love to use in discussion) as Unverified Personal Gnosis.

UPG comes in many forms; the shaking and quaking of the Shakers and the Quakers; the speaking in tongues of Pentecostals and others; being taken by the spirit in many Baptist and other Protestant congregations; drawing down the Moon for Wiccans; channeling a Loa for Voodoo. Sometimes it is an adrenaline rush of the soul, which leaves in it’s wake not words, exactly, but a sure and certain knowledge: “She will survive this”, or “You are loved”. Foxchild gives a wonderful description of such an experience in her blog The Unveiling Of A Pagan Spirit : “At the moment that realization took hold, it was as if something in my being shifted. It made room for something that had not been able to find its way in before. Somewhere deep in the core of me it spread. It was a fiery caress deep in the marrow of my bones that roared through me in a liquid burn. It was as if I were feeling every powerful emotion in that fire. Passion, hate, anger, ecstasy, fury, lust, desire, love. Not the sweet tender kind of love. It was the kind that could rip you apart if you tried to harness it instead of letting it run free. All were felt for what they are, neither positive nor negative, but gifts from the Universe.
Call it Goddess, God, Universe. Whatever “it” was, it was the flow of understanding what it means to let go and trust the Universe.”

Such evidence is rarely brought up in debate anymore as it is- at best- an invitation to ridicule. I have been told on more than one occasion that the proper term for this experience was “a psychotic break”. Such contempt for mankind the speakers of those words must feel; hundreds of millions of people have felt the Divine presence- and not just the “snake handling trailer trash” one of them mentioned, but some of the finest intellects to have ever walked this Earth, from Thomas Aquinas to our own Rev. Sinkford. Does the fact that this evidence cannot be weighed on a triple beam balance or register on a Radio Shack Multitester mean that it’s not real evidence? If so, I would argue that human intelligence does not exist- the evidence for it is every bit as subjective.

The problem may be the words we use- “faith”, and “belief.” I don’t believe the Divine exists- I know it. I know the Earth exists, I can touch it; I know the Divine exists, I have felt her touch.

Why get married?

Hadfidha Sofia has a fine entry on her blog entitled “Getting married phase 2: Why am I doing this? , in which she explores her feelings about the impending wedding. It occurred to me while reading it that there’s a principle involved that applies to another marriage issue we’ve been debating in the UU blogosphere.

One of the reasons for getting married that’s seldom mentioned is that there is a profound psychological difference between making a promise and taking a vow or swearing an oath. An oath or vow plays into your deepest ego, your image of who and what you are... nearly all people- even hardened criminals- hold themselves to certain standards, things they simply will not do because that’s not who they are, they’re not that kind of person- and we know down deep that “oath breaker” is one of the oldest and vilest pejoratives. A public wedding evokes that kind of imagery in most people, even if only subconsciously. This psychological effect is what makes marriage, as challenged as it is, the most stable of relationships. Even absent children, married people are statistically less likely to go to prison, die in traffic accidents, get fired, etc., and more likely to save, invest, and have insurance. This is true for both sexes, all ages and demographic groups, and as near as I can find out, all cultures.

This is an important reason why gays and polyamorists should have the right to solemnize their relationships in formal public weddings. Given our society, they will have more stresses on their relationships than “normal“- shouldn’t they have every help they can get in holding their relationship together? Isn’t it better for all of society that they have “normal” marriages, allowing them- and us!- to reap the benefits there from?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

An inconvenient toothfish

Al Gore- the poster boy for “Do as I say, not as I do”- is being criticized by the Humane Society for serving an endangered species at his daughter‘s wedding . “Gore and his guests at the weekend ceremony dined on Chilean sea bass - arguably one of the world's most threatened fish species. Also known as Patagonian toothfish, the species is under pressure from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities in the Southern Ocean, jeopardising the sustainability of remaining stocks.”

Actually, it seems his environmental sin is a two-for: “For many years HSI has expressed concern over the huge numbers of seabirds that die each year on the hooks of illegally set demersal longlines, threatening the long-term viability of those populations.” Way to go Al- even the illegal tuna fishers who still kill dolphins are only killing one species- you’re working both sides of the net!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Why isn’t this news?

I found this article in the Telegraph (am I the only nerd here who reads foreign newspapers? I find the Telegraph and Le Monde fascinating): “Addressing a gathering of atheists in his home state of Minnesota, Keith Ellison, a Democrat, compared the 9/11 atrocities to the destruction of the Reichstag, the German parliament, in 1933. This was probably burned down by the Nazis in order to justify Hitler's later seizure of emergency powers.
"It's almost like the Reichstag fire, kind of reminds me of that," Mr. Ellison said. "After the Reichstag was burned, they blamed the Communists for it, and it put the leader [Hitler] of that country in a position where he could basically have authority to do whatever he wanted."

The thing I found most interesting about this story is that it wasn’t news in America- not even on Fox. Why was this story not considered newsworthy? I see several possibilities:
1. It happens so often that it’s no longer news when important elected Democratic officials compare Republicans to Nazis.
2. As Mr. Ellison is the first Muslim in Congress, he will never be criticized by mainstream media because they are afraid of being seen as judgmental or bigoted.
3. His remarks were seen by editors as so obvious and true as to not be controversial.

I’m not sure which explanation would be worse.

Movie reviews

I’m now able to get out and do things, and used part of that freedom to catch a couple flicks, so I thought I’d review them for you!

Ratatouille The best Pixar movie yet! I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about it- the story is an excellent mixture of comedy and pathos, never allowing either slapstick or tear-jerking to dominate. The visuals are stunning- although most of the human characters resemble Sims characters, all of the sets and backgrounds feel three dimensional, are perfectly lighted and shadowed, and so realistic that they actually had to include in the credits a disclaimer that the movie was 100% animated; there were no retouched photographs or Rotoscoping. Like all Pixar projects, there was plenty to please children and adults alike, and the story could be appreciated at several levels

Harry Potter: The Order of the Phoenix I have mixed feelings about this one. It had the usual Harry Potter quality effects and acting, but moved so quickly and with so little explanation that I’m afraid that if you didn’t already know what was going on, you’d likely get lost. But this effect was unavoidable. I have a number of TV and movie scripts, along with the studio format instructions- page layout, type fonts and sizes, etc.- and they are designed so that it averages one page per minute of finished show. (this makes early directorial decisions easier) This means that the average movie is 100-150 pages long... and “The Order of the Phoenix” is an 870 page novel! Remember that little detail before complaining about how many story lines were deleted or compressed to a single line of dialogue. I think they did the best they could without converting it into a miniseries.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A victory for women’s health

A fashion show in Rome has carried out it’s early threats, and banned 15 models for being too skinny . When one looks at these models, the following quote is hardly surprising: "One girl fainted during the trials," he said, adding, "I had to give her a ham sandwich.” The only question is whether even the Roman standards are enough- there is every reason to believe that even the “healthy” weights are too skinny:
1. I used to sell life insurance, and was surprised to learn that the insurance industry has it’s own “ideal weight” charts- and they average 20% heavier than the doctor’s charts! The instructor in the licensing class said, “I’m not permitted to say that people are healthier at these weights- I’m not licensed to practice medicine. But we do know that they live longer; we know, we write the checks.”
2. Following a tip from my wife, I did a little research of the medical industry’s numbers. They may have changed them in the last couple years since I did the research, but at the time I found this: if you take an average woman at the “ideal” weight, and use their formulae for the daily calorie count needed for maintenance, and spend those calories according to their food pyramid, it’s impossible for that woman to get the minimum RDA of several vitamins and minerals without taking supplements!
I can only hope the Roman example becomes an industry trend.