Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Day lesson learned

One way to avoid growing old, I was once told, is to keep learning. There is something to learn each day, in every experience, a little lesson to take with you forever.

Here is the lesson I learned today: a 14 lb. cat can empty an 8 oz. gravy boat in 3 minutes flat.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Sufi Question

I know many UUs are fascinated by Sufi- Islamic mysticism- and my headline is the cover story of this month's Smithsonian Magazine . The teaser on the inside says, "Pakistan's Sufis Preach Faith and Ecstasy
The believers in Islamic mysticism embrace a personal approach to their faith and a different outlook on how to run their country’s government"
Definitely worth a read!

Wanting explicit sex education for kindergarteners

was the charge made against then-Senator Obama during the election. The charge was refuted... but it might have been better if it had been true. The British are about to do exactly that. Why? Because the Dutch have already tried it- and now have the lowest teen pregnancy and abortion rates in Europe. "Sex is everywhere in the Netherlands, yet the country has the lowest teenage pregnancy rate in the West and the lowest rates of sexually transmitted diseases among young people. Now Britain, with almost the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe - five times higher than the Netherlands - wants to emulate its success. ... The Government has chosen the Dutch model rather than the Nordic way of tackling the subject of sex because the Netherlands, unlike Scandinavian nations, also manages to have one of the lowest abortion rates in Europe. In Britain, the number of abortions performed on under-16s rose by 10 per cent last year to 4,376." Read more in the TimesOnline .

I know I'm getting old,

but I'm used to some things never being said by an elected official anywhere in these United States. OK, I know many a politician has thought this sentiment privately, but no matter what the stand on what issue, there was a time when it would have been unthinkable to say this aloud about any proposed law: "Who really cares about it being unconstitutional?" said Councilwoman Tonya Payne, a supporter." Details here . I've got to give the anti gay marriage crowd this much- at least they're trying to operate within the system by legally amending the Constitution. It's better to have a legal enemy than an anarchist ally.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Watch the skies!

No, that's not a reference to camp scifi of the 50s- I'm serious. Starting tonight, a spectacular three-way conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and the crescent Moon begins, peaking on December 1st. According to Sky nightly , "At the end of the day, when the horizon is turning red and the zenith is cobalt-blue, step outside and look southwest. You'll see Venus and Jupiter beaming side-by-side through the twilight. Glittering Venus is absolutely brilliant and Jupiter is nearly as bright as Venus. ... Dec. 1st is the best night of all. The now-15% crescent Moon moves in closer to form an isosceles triangle with Venus and Jupiter as opposing vertices. The three brightest objects in the night sky will be gathered so tightly together, you can hide them all behind your thumb held at arm's length.
The celestial triangle will be visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities. People in New York and Hong Kong will see it just as clearly as astronomers watching from remote mountaintops."

Is Capitalism inherently Pagan?

There is an interesting article in today's ViruteOnline, the Anglican website, Capitalism and Paganism--An Intimate Connection In it, Rev. Robert J. Sanders, a theologian and former Episcopal priest, argues that the underlying principles of Capitalism and Paganism are the same, and in many ways I tend to agree with him. (yeah, big surprise, as I'm both a Capitalist and a Pagan) Our disagreement lies in whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. He believes that the nature of Pagan assumptions leads to the excesses and sins of Capitalism; I believe the opposite.

He's correct in that most Pagan paths- be they the ancient ones, such as Native American faiths, Shinto, many other Aboriginal religions, or the modern NeoPagan ones- tend to focus on this world. Most focus on works, not beliefs, as the basis for our rewards in the afterlife (if any). Most have some concept of karma, whether they use that actual word or not. A plurality, if not a majority, believe in reincarnation. Most- both old and new- have a concept of the interconnectedness of all things.

To me, this makes Pagan paths a better business model, if one thinks deeply about one's faith, and tries to apply it in life. (And if you don't, does it matter which faith you're failing to follow properly?) It makes no sense to pollute the world if you're just going to be reincarnated right back into it! If you must pay for your sins whether you believe or not, aren't you less likely to commit them? If there are karmic consequences for your actions, (whether that's cosmic karma, or merely the certainty that the interconnectedness of all things means that every action has an equal and opposite reaction), aren't you more likely to carefully consider those actions?

Rev. Sanders speaks of this worldly orientation leading to war. But concentration on the next world- be it a future worldly paradise, or an afterlife paradise- is the hallmark of totalitarianism, the real cause of war. Democracies, being focused on this world, (Hey- I could be voted out of office!) don't go to war with each other. (And don't give me any Bush/Iraq stuff- I said with each other, and Iraq was not a democracy- had it been, neither gulf war would have occurred.)

Rev. Sanders begins his summation with "In the final analysis, these problems are spiritual." I agree- but not with a spirituality that demands one "...crucify the self that frees the heart from the ,wants instincts, desires, and passions that focus on this world rather than eternal life in Christ." How about a spirituality that recognizes and deals with the wants instincts, desires, and passions that are our birthright? How about a spirituality that believes the Divine is not petty, and that if we make ourselves truly worthy of this world, we need not fear the next, whatever it might be?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A book meme

Ms. Kitty at Ms. Kitty's Saloon and Road Show has tagged me with a meme, seven random or weird book facts about myself. Hmmm...

1. I like happy endings. Or at least if not happy per se, having some redeeming feature to hold on to. I really detest the modern trend towards bleak, no hope, no good guy stories.

2. I don't believe there's been a two week span in my life since 1965 in which I haven't read at least one science fiction novel. Granted, sometimes it may have been re-reading an old favorite, but those times are balanced out by weeks in which I read three or more new ones.

3. My favorite "classic" authors are Kipling, Poe, Doyle, and Shakespeare.

4. It distresses me that I now need reading glasses. Was my mother right, when she found me draped upside down over the sofa with a book, to say, "Don't read like that, you'll ruin your eyes."?

5. Books taught me a lot about life. When I first started buying my own literature, comic books were 10 cents, and paperbacks were 50 cents. I remember well the traumas of first a price increase from 10 to 12 cents, then a sales tax being added to it... true outrages to a child on a fixed (allowance) income. I just bought a book that is actually four "graphic novels" (comic books) reprinted as a single set for $19.95. That's fifty times as much as I used to pay for four comic books. No wonder I became a conservative.

6. While still a teenager, I dated a girl who worked in a bookstore. She used to give me books for presents- books with the front cover torn off. I didn't know what that meant at the time. When I found out, I made a point of buying new copies of each of those books, even the ones I didn't like.

7. We have a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. Will we be the last generation to own a printed encyclopedia?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Change gays can't count on

"President-elect Barack Obama will not move for months, and perhaps not until 2010, to ask Congress to end the military's decades-old ban on open homosexuals in the ranks, two people who have advised the Obama transition team on this issue say." says this article in the Washington Times. "Repealing the ban was an Obama campaign promise. However, Mr. Obama first wants to confer with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his new political appointees at the Pentagon to reach a consensus and then present legislation to Congress, the advisers said.

"I think 2009 is about foundation building and reaching consensus," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. ... "What's the reality for the new administration?" he said. "Financial crisis. Economic upheaval. Health care reform. Environmental challenges. Where does 'don't ask, don't tell' fall in all this? I would say it is not in the top five priorities of national issues.""

Will it happen in 2010? I doubt it. The reason? Prop 8. Even if it gets overturned in court, it still passed- which means that not even California is ready to vote for full rights for gays. President Obama is going to need every Congressional vote he can get for his other programs, and many of those Congressmen come from districts that are very conservative socially. Gay rights is a luxury Mr.Obama simply can't afford at this time; don't look for it before 2014, after the Congretional elections. If then.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

It's not just for picnics any more

"A cold slice of watermelon has long been a Fourth of July holiday staple. But according to recent studies, the juicy fruit may be better suited for Valentine’s Day. That’s because scientists say watermelon has ingredients that deliver Viagra-like effects to the body’s blood vessels and may even increase libido.", according to this article in Science Daily.

"Scientists know that when watermelon is consumed, citrulline is converted to arginine through certain enzymes. Arginine is an amino acid that works wonders on the heart and circulation system and maintains a good immune system, Patil said.
“The citrulline-arginine relationship helps heart health, the immune system and may prove to be very helpful for those who suffer from obesity and type 2 diabetes,” said Patil. “Arginine boosts nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels, the same basic effect that Viagra has, to treat erectile dysfunction and maybe even prevent it.” ...
“Watermelon may not be as organ specific as Viagra,” Patil said, “but it’s a great way to relax blood vessels without any drug side-effects.”

But just adding a daily fruit salad to your diet may not do the trick- or at least not yet. "Citrulline, the precursor to arginine, is found in higher concentrations in the rind of watermelons than the flesh. As the rind is not commonly eaten, two of Patil’s fellow scientists, drs. Steve King and Hae Jeen Bang, are working to breed new varieties with higher concentrations in the flesh."

Changing the subject, I ran across an old relish recipe I'd like to share. It sounds bizarre, but I'm assured it's an old Southern delicacy: Pickled Watermelon Rind

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Christmas video

This is worth 2:39 of your time:

I wish we could have done this. But hey, we have gotten a lot of good faxes sent to Washington.

Conspiracy index

Do you believe the whole world is out to get you, but have trouble keeping the players straight? For your convenience, The Telegraph has provided this handy index to the top 30 conspiracies.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More religious archeology in Turkey

"Archaeologists in southeastern Turkey have discovered an Iron Age chiseled stone slab that provides the first written evidence in the region that people believed the soul was separate from the body... The Neubauer Expedition of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago found the 800-pound basalt stele, 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide, at Zincirli (pronounced “Zin-jeer-lee”), the site of the ancient city of Sam’al. Once the capital of a prosperous kingdom, it is now one of the most important Iron Age sites under excavation.

The stele is the first of its kind to be found intact in its original location, enabling scholars to learn about funerary customs and life in the eighth century B.C. At the time, vast empires emerged in the ancient Middle East, and cultures such as the Israelites and Phoenicians became part of a vibrant mix.

The man featured on the stele was probably cremated, a practice that Jewish and other cultures shun because of a belief in the unity of body and soul. According to the inscription, the soul of the deceased resided in the stele." Read more at Newswise .

P.S.- This is my 400th post!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Hiring illegal aliens

If I told you someone was knowingly hiring illegal aliens, and providing them with fake Social Security numbers to put them on the payroll, who would you think I was talking about? A chicken processing plant, a factory, a farm, a hotel chain hiring cleaning staff? How about the public school system?

"Years after being advised by a state agency to stop, the Dallas Independent School District continued to provide foreign citizens with fake Social Security numbers to get them on the payroll quickly.", says the Dalls Morning News . "The practice was described in an internal report issued in September by the district's investigative office, which looked into the matter after receiving a tip. The report said the Texas Education Agency learned of the fake numbers in 2004 and told DISD then that the practice "was illegal.""

I had always thought the schools should set an example for their students. Come to think of it, I guess, in a way, they did.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

An Inconvenient Blunder

From the Telegraph : "A surreal scientific blunder last week raised a huge question mark about the temperature records that underpin the worldwide alarm over global warming. On Monday, Nasa's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), which is run by Al Gore's chief scientific ally, Dr James Hansen, and is one of four bodies responsible for monitoring global temperatures, announced that last month was the hottest October on record.

This was startling. Across the world there were reports of unseasonal snow and plummeting temperatures last month, from the American Great Plains to China, and from the Alps to New Zealand. China's official news agency reported that Tibet had suffered its "worst snowstorm ever". In the US, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration registered 63 local snowfall records and 115 lowest-ever temperatures for the month, and ranked it as only the 70th-warmest October in 114 years.

So what explained the anomaly? GISS's computerised temperature maps seemed to show readings across a large part of Russia had been up to 10 degrees higher than normal... The reason for the freak figures was that scores of temperature records from Russia and elsewhere were not based on October readings at all. Figures from the previous month had simply been carried over and repeated two months running."

It actually gets worse from there- a riveting read.

By the way, yet another hurricane season has come and gone without living up to Gore's predictions as well.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Where it all began

Important new archeological digs in the fertile crescent may have uncovered the origins of both organized religion and civilization itself. "It's more than twice as old as the Pyramids, or even the written word. When it was built, saber-toothed tigers and woolly mammoths still roamed, and the Ice Age had just ended.

The elaborate temple at Gobelki Tepe in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, is staggeringly ancient: 11,500 years old, from a time just before humans learned to farm grains and domesticate animals. ... This is the first human-built holy place," Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute says in the November issue of Smithsonian magazine."

Here are stories from Fox News , and The Smithsonian .

Friday, November 14, 2008

Emotions still rising over Prop 8

Now there's a new blacklist . The sooner this goes to SCOTUS, the better.

A spiritual response to the economic crisis

While politicians debate bailouts, this pastor has advice to help the rest of us cope.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A curious incident on the stoop

This morning I opened the back door to get a breath of air, and to feel the temperature and sniff the air to check the likelihood of rain. (Yes, I have the weather gadget on my desktop, but it connects to the weather service and I don't trust meteorologists) I looked down and saw a robin standing there on the stoop not a foot in front of me, unmoving. I thought it must have died on its feet, but then I saw it blink- but it still didn't move, much less fly away.

Just then, our three younger cats rushed through my legs onto the stoop. I quickly said "Play nice!" (code language in our household to stop rumbles- they know the next step is the Dreaded Squirt Gun) They froze, in an interesting tableau- unmoving robin, seemingly oblivious to being surrounded by 40 lbs. of savage carnivores. I thought surely it must be paralyzed, but when Monica leaned in to sniff at it, it turned its head to face her. I quickly shooed the cats off the stoop, and the robin remained unmoved by my voice or their movements, like a feathered Bartleby who would prefer not to notice them.

"Great", I thought to myself with just a twinge of self pity, "It's dying on its feet, and I have to do something about it to prevent the kitties from playing badminton with it." I wrapped a plastic bag around my hand and bent over to pick it up- but when I touched it, it leaped through to railings and flew off, strong and fast, over the neighbor's house and out of sight.

Why didn't it move earlier, when it clearly was strong and coordinated enough to do so? Maybe it had no reason to fear me, but why didn't it show any fear of a clowder that had slaughtered so many of its peers? I don't know. Hell, I don't even know why my own species does the things it does.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A new kind of outsourcing

Indianapolis' own Wellpoint health insurance company has approved a new program to save money and provide better care for its patients through outsourcing to India. No, they're not outsourcing the forms processing or telephone centers... they're outsourcing the actual medical care itself! From the Indianapolis Star : "Are you in need of a new knee?
WellPoint is testing the concept of arranging and paying for you and a companion to travel to India for a joint-replacement procedure that could cost a fraction of what it would at your local hospital. Think of it as a form of medical outsourcing. Indianapolis-based health insurance giant WellPoint is jumping into the emerging world of "medical tourism" -- the practice in which U.S. patients cross international borders in search of cheaper medical care."

There's no catches or hidden costs to the patient- "Under the pilot program, a patient heading to India for surgery would pay no out-of-pocket expenses, including the cost of travel for the patient and a companion." A local TV story, with an interview with one of the first patients, confirmed this- the whole things was completely covered. And we're not talking about some fly-by-night clinic, either: "WellPoint said the hospitals it is working with in India are accredited by the Joint Commission International. The company said its test program also complies with the American Medical Association's guidelines for medical tourism." The benefits for Wellpoint are clear: "Hashmi said a knee replacement in the U.S. could have a price tag of $60,000 to $70,000 for the procedure, initial rehabilitation and other costs. In India, total medical costs might run $8,000 to $10,000 for a 15-day stay."

Medical tourism itself is not new- "An estimated 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007, according to a report on medical tourism by consulting and advising company Deloitte. The report noted that care in countries such as India, Thailand and Singapore can cost as little as 10 percent of comparable care in the U.S." What is new is an insurance company the size of Wellpoint paying for it.
Contrary to the natural assumption, a doctor interviewed on the TV news story said that the difference is not in doctors and nurses' salaries, but in legal and administrative costs. It will be interesting to see the fallout from this.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Clues to how Obama will govern

can be found in todays' Telegraph story, Barack Obama: The 50 facts you might not know .

Things that give me hope:
1. He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics.
2. He has read every Harry Potter book.
3. His favourite films are Casablanca and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
4. His speciality as a cook is chilli.
5. He hates the youth trend for trousers which sag beneath the backside.

(These things prove his good taste, and give good insight into his character. I'll take Peter Parker and Rick Blaine over any professional philosopher or moralist I know. And I've always held that orange grease is one of the basic food groups.)
6. While on the campaign trail he refused to watch CNN and had sports channels on instead. (This shows his common sense. Friends don't let friends watch CNN.)
7. As a teenager he took drugs including marijuana and cocaine. (If he can outgrow these, perhaps he can also get over the last of the debilitating crutches that distort the thought processes- liberalism.)

Things that give me pause:
1. He can bench press an impressive 200lbs. (Does this mean he indulges in exercise for its own sake? I don't trust people who do exercises that aren't also fun, like sports. What other masochistic habits do they have?)
2. He doesn't drink coffee and rarely drinks alcohol. (How can anyone get their act together before noon without coffee? Is he only going to work half days? And how could anyone listen to Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid without getting half-sloshed first?)
3. He uses an Apple Mac laptop. (This isn't a fault, exactly, but there is something weird about Applemaniacs.)
4. His late father was a senior economist for the Kenyan government. (How could anyone who has an economist in their family make fun of Nancy Reagan's astrology?)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Why Barack matters to the rest of the world

When we read how important so much of the world found our Presidentail election, when we see foreign eyes crying with joy over President Elect Obama's victory, I'm sure most of us believed it was because of American foreign policy the last eight years. Well, there was a lot more to it than that.

A great many religious liberals seem to think that racial problems are a uniquely American phenomenon; I can't count how many times I've heard or read in blogs the phrases "America's original sin" and "the most racist nation on Earth". This is, of course, nonsense; it is a human problem, and the world is full of people. Every nation on Earth has to deal with institutional racism- and for all those nations in which the institution is white, Obama's victory is a shock and a thrill. From the essay, "Black and middle class: now there’s a threat" in The TimesOnline : "Being black and middle class is part of the reason white people voted for him: his skin may be brown but he is a recognisable quantity, with his suits and his Harvard degree and the fact (probably) that his children eat pesto. The black middle class is sizeable in America; that isn’t yet true of Britain, where it seems invisible. ... For some of the 47% of people who didn’t vote Democrat, I would guess his middle-classness stuck in the craw even more than the colour of his skin. Nevertheless: the brown middle class has a visible champion at last and he is the leader of the free world."

Nuclear power to the people

"Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb.", according to this article from The Guardian. "The US government has licensed the technology to Hyperion , a New Mexico-based company which said last week that it has taken its first firm orders and plans to start mass production within five years. 'Our goal is to generate electricity for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world,' said John Deal, chief executive of Hyperion. 'They will cost approximately $25m [£13m] each. For a community with 10,000 households, that is a very affordable $250 per home.'"

Hyperion is not the only company producing min-power plants. Toshiba has a 200KW reactor that is only 20' x 6' in size, is self sustaining, and can produce electricity at 5 cents/ KW for 40 years.

Neither system contains weapons grade material. With no internal moving parts, both are sealed in concrete for their entire service life, making them highly resistant to disaster, natural or man made. (Not that it will make any difference to the ecofreaks, of course)

Just as only Nixon could go to China, only a Democrat dare defy the environmental lobby... I hope the new President will dare do so, on behalf of this and many other technologies that can assist both Global Warming and the energy situation.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Eighth Wonder of the World

Many of you who know me were probably surprised by my lack of posts during this historic election. The reason is that I was away from home. The Friday before the election we packed up, voted early, then headed off to what was, for decades, the Eighth Wonder of the World- the hotel at West Baden Springs, Indiana.

The story of this attraction stinks- literally. Back in the 1800's they discovered mineral springs there that produce something they call "Pluto Water"- meaning it smells like what Satan would pass after a three day bender. This stuff is so awful that I saw somebody spill some, and several flies leapt from a pile of doggy-doody, shouting, "Hey- we're trying to eat here!" Naturally, it was immediately touted as a cure-all. A hotel/spa was built, a railroad track laid, and celebrities flocked from around the world to be purged. This hotel burned to the ground in 1901, and what rose from those ashes a year later was like nothing ever seen before.

Approaching the front door...

The lobby at the check-in desk...

The view from check-in to the interior atrium lobby

Entering the atrium... you can just see a huge fireplace where 14-ft logs are burned in the winter on the other side- more than 200 feet away!

The atrium skylight- the largest freespan dome on Earth until 1913, and still the largest that is not a sports arena...

It did my soul a world of good to spend several days before and after the election reminding myself the world is full of beautiful things.
There is more information about West Baden here

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

11:04 PM, Election night...

All polls closed, ethical to call the election now- Obama. By a landslide. He may well pass Eisenhower to have the largest popular vote total of any non-incumbent in American history.

I'm proud of my country, but not surprised. To my misanthropic colleagues, those UU bloggers who keep saying race is *THE* issue "coloring" everything, I give a Nelson Muntz "Ha-ha, told you so". And yes, I know their response- "He would have had 97.78% of the vote if he'd been white!" Well, ppbbbbbbt! I'm near tears.

I'll also confess to fear for my country. Will the President elect have the power- or desire- to rein in Reid and Pelosi? Will we become another European-style democratic-socialist state, with institutional double-digit unemployment, a fractional growth rate, passing the torch of world leadership to China or some other up-and-comer? I don't know.

As I was typing this, Senator McCain gave his concession speech. Another proud moment.

It was for nights like this that God gave us alcohol.