Saturday, January 30, 2010

Book Preview

      Today’s blog is an excerpt from my book, The Spirit Runs Through It, which is available through my bookstore. The book is a discussion of “a spirit [that] is manifest in the laws of the universe.”
      ―ALBERT EINSTEIN, The World As I See It.

      That there are unseen actions behind visible events is a fact familiar to everyone. For example, we see leaves flying about and bushes shaking, and since we know that these events do not happen through the internal efforts of leaves or bushes, we attribute them to the action of the invisible wind.
      Likewise, when we drop an object to the ground, we know that the object did not fall of its own accord; we say it fell because of the invisible “pull of gravity.”
      Sometimes we even attribute a visible event to the action of an invisible entity when we know there is no invisible entity present. For example, we say, “It is raining.” Our senses can see, hear and feel rain, but no matter how hard we try, they cannot detect “it.”
      Of course, there are also visible actions behind many transitions. Here is a thought experiment concerning a common event:

1.) Imagine a site on which a new home is scheduled to be built. Materials and supplies have been delivered and are awaiting the arrival of the construction crew. There are stacks of lumber, piles of bricks, skids of wallboard, crates of glass, buckets of paint, kegs of nails, coils of wire, lengths of pipe, everything that will go into the new construction.

A contractor agrees to complete the building. He hires carpenters, bricklayers, painters, electricians, plumbers and any other subcontractors he needs, and eventually the building is completed.

      A new entity, a house, has been introduced into the universe. The collection of materials and supplies has been given a new structure. They would have lain there forever unless some outside creative action, supplied by the contractor and his crew, occurred that transcended and transformed them. All the materials are included in the new structure, but they now perform functions that would have been impossible for unaided nature to accomplish.
      Although Jesus used the following parable to illustrate a different point, it is particularly apropos for demonstrating how new living entities are introduced into the universe, and how entities, living and non-living, can interact with each other:

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2.) A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. (Mark 13, 3-8).

      In order to reach their full potential, seeds need to have certain essential nutrients available: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, magnesium, calcium, etc., as well as water for hydrogen and oxygen, and open access to light and air.
      For those seeds which fell upon the path, the action of completely unrelated entities, the birds, prevented access to the necessary nutrients.
      Plants acquire the necessary nutrients through their root systems. Although the rocky soil contained the necessary elements for growth, the growth of the roots was impeded by the nonliving rocks. Consequently the plants were weak and quickly succumbed to the heat of the sun.
      Seeds that landed on thorn-infested soil faced a double problem. The taller, stronger, faster growing thorns ate up most of the nutrients in the soil, and also prevented the seeds from receiving the necessary sunlight and air.
      And those seeds that fell on good soil combined with the elements therein and grew into healthy plants.
      Without the introduction of seeds, all the nutrients, sunshine, water, etc., would remain dormant forever. And as illustrated by the action of the birds, without the nutrients the seeds would just remain seeds forever.
      This begs the question: why should there be an interaction? Why do not seeds just remain seeds, nitrogen just remains nitrogen…water just remains water, etc.? What invisible creative action causes these apparently unrelated entities to transcend and transform themselves into producing something that is more than just the sum of its parts: a brand new plant? Some invisible creative activity must be at work.
      The one thing that all of our examples have in common is that individual entities were somehow transcended and transformed to create new and often different entities. Persons with a religious outlook will attribute the underlying process to God, Jehovah, Allah, etc. while those with a scientific outlook will attribute it to entropy or perhaps "tiny strings vibrating through ten or eleven dimensions." Throughout this book I will attribute this activity to the action of the Spirit. Although the term has a religious connotation, I cannot think of a more descriptive name. I hope those with a scientific bent will bear with me.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Let's Get It Done

      In his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, President Obama asked anyone with a health care plan that would cover all citizens, control costs, etc. to come to him; he wanted to hear from them.
      I am guessing he will not get many suggestions from either side of the aisle. The Democrats and the President seem to be copying an early 20th century comic strip: Alphonse and Gaston, a pair of overly polite Frenchmen, whose "After you, Alphonse.", "No, you first, my dear Gaston!" routine entertained readers for more than a decade. Nobody seems to be in charge.
      As for the Republicans, apparently the only plan they can think of consists of 2,000 pages covered with the word “No!”
      Will the real leader please stand up?
      Granted, any health care plan will be expensive, will probably cause doctors’ waiting rooms to overflow, at least temporarily, and will need to be subsidized for low-income people. But, it’s the right thing to do.
      One thing I like about the Bible is that you can always find therein a story to support whatever idea you want to sell. In this case I like the following. Jesus is talking to his disciples:

…and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left…Then they [at his left hand] will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25; 33,44–46, NRSV)

     I can't think of anything more just than to have the far right wind up on the left.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The National Anthem


      Congress adopted The Star Spangled Banner as our national anthem in 1931, although it had been recognized for official use by the Navy in 1889. For most of the 19th century, Hail Columbia was used at official government functions, and My Country, ‘Tis Of Thee was also used prior to 1931.
      Originally a poem written by Francis Scott Key after viewing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, The Star Spangled Banner was later fitted to the melody of a drinking song written for The Anacreon, a men’s social club in London. The following are the words to the first of six verses comprising the Anacreontic Song:

To Anacreon* in Heav'n, where he sat in full Glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a Petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this Answer arriv'd from the jolly old Grecian,
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
No longer be mute,
I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,
And, besides, I'll instruct you like me, to intwine
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.”


      In my opinion, Congress chose the wrong song, and I know I am not alone in this. An octave and a half in range, there is no key in which to write it that is comfortable for most singers. If it is in a decent range for the sopranos, the basses can easily hurt themselves on the high notes, and if it’s OK for the basses, the sopranos have to be suffering from laryngitis to hit the low notes.
      One song that has been suggested as being “better” is God Bless America. There are several reasons why this is not a good choice, but the primary one is that it does not fit the definition: Anthem, n. a song, as of praise, devotion, or patriotism. (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary.)
      God Bless America does not fit that definition - it is more of a prayer than an anthem. Besides, what is the meaning of the phrase “…and guide her, through the night with a light from above?”
      My personal choice is America, The Beautiful. It fits the definition, it is a reverent poem of praise set to beautiful music, and above all, it is easy to sing. It’s range is only a ninth, four notes shorter than the Star Spangled Banner.
      But that’s just my opinion.

*Anacreon (Greek Ἀνακρέων) (570 BC – 488 BC) was a Greek lyric poet, notable for his drinking songs and hymns.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why Has My Social Security Check Not Increased Along With Everything Else?

      In spite of the fact that we have been in a recession since early in 2008, it is apparent that the cost-of-living for post-youths has been increasing over this period. So why is my Social Security check less this year than it was last year?
      Actually, the amount received for Social Security has not changed because of the way the Social Security Administration computes it, but the deduction for Medicare has increased.
      In order to measure general price increases, the Bureau of Labor Statistics constructs an imaginary "market basket" of goods that an average family needs to lead an average life. The market basket includes specific items relating to housing, food, transportation, medical care (not including health care premiums paid by the employer), clothing, entertainment, education and communication. Currently, there are approximately 80,000 items in the "basket."
      The final price is actually a weighted sum, the weights reflecting the proportion that the average family spends on various categories and population of the geographic area.
      The CPI is the index number created from the "price" of the entire market basket. Currently, the base "year" for the CPI is 1982-84. This means that the average of the CPI over the three years 1982, 1983, and 1984 is set equal to 100.
      The Bureau of Labor Statistics actually publishes two CPI's, the CPI-U (All Urban Consumers) and the CPI-W (Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers). For calculating Social Security benefit payments, the Social Security Administration uses the CPI-W, which is based on the expenditures of urban households more than half of whose income comes from clerical or wage occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that it represents about 32% of the US population.
      The CPI completely ignores important changes in taxes, health care other than out-of-pocket costs, water and air quality, crime levels, consumer safety, and educational quality.
      It is important to note that the CPI-W is based on costs of working households. Costs of retired persons normally differ substantially from those of working people. Studies indicate that seniors spend more on health care (no surprise there), and housing (primarily due to the cost of retirement facilities). Both of these categories have experienced higher than average inflation rates.
      Some years ago the Federal Reserve Bank conducted a study (CPI-E) of the relative weighting of the various categories. The following table lists their findings:


Category                                    CPI-W                CPI-E
Food                                          16.30                  14.32
Housing                                     39.60                   45.94
Apparel                                      4.90                      2.77
Transportation                        17.60                  13.81
Medical care                              5.60                   10.24
Recreation                                  6.10                     4.36
Education                                   5.50                     2.98
Other                                         4.30                     5.59

      The study indicated that the CPI-E averaged 3.8% higher than the CPI-W. For the years 1984 – 2001, if the CPI-E had been used to calculate benefits, seniors would have received an average of $408 more per year.
      Because medical expenses and housing (for seniors) have not seen the mitigating effects of the 2008 recession, actual cost-of-living has gone up for seniors. But because they are substantially underweighted in the formula, Social Security benefits have not kept pace.
      Contact your representative about using the CPI-E for calculating benefits.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Today's Republic

      Republic: n. a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them. (Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary.)
      That sounds very much like what we are supposed to have in the United States. It is also in keeping with the response of Benjamin Franklin to the question asked by a Mrs. Powell on the last day of the Constitutional Convention in 1787: "Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?"
      “A republic if you can keep it," responded a prescient Franklin.
      In order to keep a republic, it is important to have a “body of citizens,” or electorate, that has access to all available information concerning any event to be decided by their representatives. The electorate need not be particularly sophisticated or super-intelligent – it just needs to be informed.
      Unfortunately, that “available information” has been subverted by another pillar of American strength: unbridled capitalism. Capitalism: n. an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.
      To the extent that capitalism has confined itself to wealth as created by the flow of material goods, there is no denying its value. It has created the greatest and most productive manufacturing system the world has ever known.
      But problems arose when it branched out into the production, distribution, and exchange of information. And the post-industrial information society has resulted in a quantum leap in capitalism’s ability to control and subvert our republic.
      For example, Fox News is believed to make more money than CNN, MSNBC and the evening newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS combined. Headed by Roger Ailes, Fox uses its tremendous resources to disseminate Ailes’ conservative agenda through its anchors: Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity.
      Because of his tremendous resources, Ailes is able to maintain significant control over legislators by two methods: 1.) control of campaign funds, and 2.) control of the content and bias of information presented to the “body of citizens entitled to vote.” His agenda is not to do what is right for America, but to get the Democrats in general, and Barack Obama specifically, out of power. In order to achieve that goal, Ailes and his cohorts are willing to distort the facts and tell whatever lies are necessary to defeat any legislation which has a Democratic taint.
      But I don’t wish to give the impression that Ailes and Fox are the only bad guys around. Capitalism is concerned with the control of wealth. Capitalists are human, and greed is a human failing. I believe that almost anyone with the power to control his own wealth would do anything in his power to maintain that control. What Ailes and his ilk are doing is nurturing a human failing, greed, which they are able to do because of their ability to decide exactly what the body of citizens needs, or doesn’t need, to know.
      So much for an informed electorate.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

History Repeats Itself (Sometimes)

      Last night Barbara and I watched the 1960 movie Inherit The Wind starring Spender Tracy, Fredric March and Gene Kelly. Although based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, names and some of the plot were changed somewhat from the original event. But we enjoyed it – as we expected, the acting was superb.
      The original case was sparked by the ACLU, which wanted to test the constitutionality of the state’s Butler Act, which decreed "That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals."
      A further contention was that while the Butler Act prohibited the teaching of the theory of evolution, the state required teachers to use a textbook which explicitly described and endorsed the theory, and that teachers were therefore effectively required to break the law.
      Dayton was chosen for the trial after George Rappleyea, a local manager of several mines, convinced a group of businessmen that the controversy of such a trial would give the town of 1,756 some much needed publicity.
      The trial drew nationwide attention when the prosecution was joined by three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, who had not tried a case in over 30 years, and the defense was joined by famed attorney Clarence Darrow.
      John Scopes, the local school’s football coach, had substituted in a science class. Scopes did not remember whether he had taught evolution, but he had gone over the evolution chapter in the textbook with the class.
      He was nominally arrested, but his $100 bail was paid by the publisher of The Baltimore Sun, who was also paying part of the defense costs. The famed H. L. Mencken covered the trial for the paper. Other papers from around the world also sent reporters. Mencken labeled it the “Monkey trial” of “the infidel Scopes.” As expected, the trial was quite heated, and was the first ever to be broadcast on national radio.
      At the conclusion of the trial Scopes was found guilty, and the judge sentenced him to pay a fine of $100. The sentence was later overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court on the grounds that under the state constitution, fines of more than $50 had to be set by the jury – not by the judge.
      I think it is a crying shame that this controversy is still going on after 85 years. If it must be taught in schools, do it in social studies or Bible literature class – not in science class. I have never heard of a scientist demanding that chemistry be taught in Sunday School. I think it is a good idea not to teach religion in science class.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Adventures While Eating Out


      Barbara and I just got back from lunch at a new restaurant with a busload of people from Luther Acres. It got me to thinking back over various adventures I have had while eating out. They were not all fun when they happened, but thinking about them now brings up a bunch of pleasant memories. I hope you will also get some enjoyment out of them.
      My earliest experience with restaurant meals occurred just before I moved back to Manheim in 1940. Until that time I was living with my grandparents while my parents were trying to find work. They had found an apartment, and not wishing to transfer me to a new school during the school year, they had me stay with them on weekends.
      Since my father had finally obtained a permanent full time job, we could afford to walk to Scheaffer's restaurant on Saturday nights for dinner. The depression was still going on, so the three of us could eat for about a dollar. The meal included meat, two vegetables, bread and butter, and dessert.
      When I started in the Manheim school system the next fall, my mother was working part time as a waitress at a local restaurant. I walked the two blocks to the restaurant for lunch, which cost about a quarter. Again, it was a full meal.
      A long time fixture on the Manheim Square, at least on Fridays and Saturdays, was Bill Shiffer's hot dog and hamburger stand. Bill had his enclosed trailer towed to the square on Friday morning, and proceeded to sell his wares through Saturday night. And they were the most delicious hot dogs and hamburgers imaginable. Costing a whole dime, they were worth every penny of it. A group of us made a habit of stopping in for a snack after the basketball games on Friday nights. Of course, the more time that goes by, the better they tasted.
      When Bill passed away, his son, Paul, continued to operate the stand as before until the early 1950s, although by that time the price had escalated to twenty cents. I do not recall anyone ever getting sick from either Bill's or Paul's products, but at that time a local doctor decided that the trailer was unsanitary, and the stand was closed down.
      After I went into the army, restaurant meals didn't happen very often, and after I got married the first time, money was not plentiful enough to enable much eating out.
      However, after Barbara and I moved to California, we managed to eat out on a fairly regular basis. One of our favorite dishes was Chateaubriand at the Steer and Stein restaurant in Fullerton. It was delicious.
      There was also a Steer and Stein in Orange, and one Saturday night we went there with friends to try it out. It was a disaster! First there was a terrible calamity: they ran out of wine! They resolved that problem by going to a nearby liquor store to replenish their supply, then the power went off and we had to eat almost in the dark.
      We also liked to frequent Walt's Wharf in Seal Beach. Of course, the main attraction there was seafood, which they cooked over large charcoal grills in a glass-enclosed room. One night the power went off there, and the exhaust fans over the grills stopped operating. We had to eat while fighting back the tears in the smoke-filled restaurant.
      One time while visiting Barbara's parents, we all decided to visit Williamsburg, Virginia. We tried to get dinner at one restaurant, but my father-in-law was wearing shorts, so they wouldn't let us in.
      Someone suggested a seafood restaurant just outside of town. It was actually an old warehouse, and the cooking was done behind a curtain strung across one end of the room. But the food was delicious. It was there that Barbara introduced me to steamed clams, and that soon became my favorite seafood. I have often been thankful that her father was not wearing long pants that night.
      At one time there was a chain of California restaurants called Reubens, and our favorite dish there was the Plank Steak for two. Again the power went off while we were there one night. (By this time we were beginning to think that our presence had an adverse effect on the power supply). We had already received our meal, and the emergency power supply was sufficient for lighting, but not for operating the cash registers. Apparently the help was not too good at addition, because we were told they didn't know how much the bill was. I told them it looked like about $30 to me, and they said that looked OK. I was honest with my estimate, but I suppose I could have shaved it considerably, and they would have accepted it.
      There was also another occasion at a different Reubens location where there was a problem with one of their circuit breakers, so that they could not make any deep fried foods. Fortunately we had not ordered French Fries, so we had no problem that time.
      Barbara's parents were visiting us when friends of ours took the four of us to a Chinese restaurant. Barbara's mother had left her open purse on the floor next to her chair. During the course of the meal, the food server accidentally dropped a tray full of food on the floor; a portion of it went right into my mother-in-law's purse. She was picking snow peas out of her purse for the remaining week she was with us.
      Some time ago Barbara had some pizza left over, and the waiter said he would box it for her to take home. We waited and waited, and finally had to remind him that we were still waiting. He apologized, and brought her a complete fresh pizza, and in addition, he poured each of us a free glass of wine. Apparently her leftover had been thrown out by mistake.
      Nowadays when we have leftovers, we ask that the "doggie" bag be brought to the table so that we may fill it ourselves. Why? Because one night Barbara got a bag full of leftovers from a meal which no one at the table had ordered.
      There is no question about it, if one eats out often enough, he will encounter his share of "incidents." With us, it seems to be power outages more than anything else. I suppose we will have more adventures in the future, at least, I hope so. Not all the spice is in the food.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

If You Want Your Plan To Work, You Have Got To Work Your Plan

      In 1951 the Manheim Central football team was picked by the local pundits to soundly defeat the team from Manheim Township. The game was to be played at the old Stumpf Field on the Fruitville Pike in Lancaster. The local newspapers played it up big.
      Manheim Central lost – 51 to 7. Numerous clichés come to mind: Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched, there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and so on ad nauseum. The point is that things don’t always work out according to plan.
      Fast forward to 2010. Republican Scott Brown is running against Martha Coakley for the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat representing Massachusetts. Kennedy held the seat for 46 years. As a Democrat, Coakley was a shoo-in, or was she?
      For starters, she ran a somewhat lackadaisical campaign: not advertising on TV until the last weeks of the race, refusing to go out and meet voters because it was too cold, taking a vacation in the midst of the campaign, etc.
      Even with all these blunders she would probably have won the election, but for one thing: voters are distrustful of the Washington politicians in general, and the Obama administration in particular. Fed-up voters vetoed federal healthcare plans, bank bailouts, executive bonuses in the financial industry and over-the-top government spending.
      And until way to late, the Democrats did not recognize there was a problem. They now hold a 59 to 41 majority in the Senate – not enough to shut off filibusters.
      All of the old saws I mentioned above apply in this case. In addition, the Will Rogers’ quip applies: “I don’t belong to any organized political party – I’m a Democrat.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Think About It

      On January 16 I listed alternate definitions of the word “theory”:
1.) A coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena.
2.) A proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of fact.

      At that time I suggested that Joe Sixpack distrusts scientists because certain interests have inundated him with the second definition, and downplayed the first. Actually, with a caveat, both definitions apply to the scientific mindset.
     Every scientific “theory,” e.g., theory of gravity, theory of relativity, etc., is understood to be conditionally covered under the first definition. The caveat is that thousands of scientists all over the world are diligently trying to disprove any such theory. In the event that an example can be found that is contrary to the theory, the theory must be either adjusted or replaced.
      That is why “science says” different things at different times; new information is continually coming to light. That is also the beauty and strength of science – its main activity is trying to disprove, and thereby improve, itself. Scientists ask questions that may never be answered – [some] religions give answers that may never be questioned.
      Science is a monolith, i.e., the whole structure is built upon a strong foundation. No one can deny that the theory of nuclear physics works. Even ignoring the nuclear bomb, it is proved daily by countless PET, CT and other scans, radiation treatments and other medical advances. Nuclear clocks control cell phone towers, electric power grids and global positioning systems.
     The mathematics involved is accurate enough to locate a coin on the road from New York to Los Angeles. Nuclear physics is a solid base, even though, as with any other scientific theory, it is subject to adjustment or replacement in the event that new discoveries come to light.
      One of the underpinnings of nuclear physics is that of radioactive decay. It is basic to the entire structure of physics, and has been observed and studied millions of times. It has also been verified by such activities as counting tree rings, historical records, examining ice cores, etc.
      But it is controversial insofar as it indicates that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old rather than the 6,000 years as reckoned by the Bible. As a result, some Christians consider that radioactive dating is unreliable beyond the age of written history.
      But consider this: If radioactive dating is not true, the entire structure of atomic physics is wrong. Radio, television, even electricity itself – all disappear. Chemistry, which brought us metallurgy, plastics, modern medicine – all gone. The entire subject of biology goes next. With biology goes psychology. Life as we know it no longer exists.
      I could go on, but you get the picture. In rejecting scientists, Joe Sixpack rejects the world. Little did he know.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Ever Became Of Common Sense?

      While we Americans may not be the most prudish people on earth, recent news stories indicate that we have gone far beyond the “tsk, tsk“ stage of disapproval of some forms of behavior. Legislatures, school districts and law enforcement officials have been very active in trying to curb inappropriate or dangerous behavior. Unfortunately, there have been cases which, while punishable under the letter of the regulations, seem to be way outside its spirit. Let me give you a few examples:

1.) School officials in Washington County, Maryland have written up a student for sexually harassing a little girl by pinching her buttocks. He was five years of age – she was four. The boy's father, who received a written notice about the incident, said he's at a loss to explain to his son what sexual harassment means.

"He knows nothing about sex," the father said. "There's no way to explain what he's been written up for. He knows it as playing around. He doesn't know it as anything sexual at all."

The incident report will remain in the boy’s file until he reaches middle school. Maryland records report that 15 kindergarten students were suspended for sexual harassment in 2005. Don’t play “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” in Maryland.

2.) School administrators in Waco, Texas, recently gave a 4-year-old pre-kindergarten student an in-school suspension for allegedly rubbing his face in the chest of a female teacher's aide while hugging her.

After the boy's father filed a complaint with school officials, they changed the report language to "inappropriate physical contact," removing references to sexual contact and sexual harassment.

3.) They were neighbors, aged 13 and 10, who played together in a toy fort at the older boy's home. But one summer afternoon, the teen began talking about masturbation, then performed oral sex on the younger boy. He said they should do it again the next day. And they did.

Soon after, two sheriff's deputies arrived at the adolescent's Eastside home to read the seventh-grader his rights. Within two months, he was a registered sex offender, convicted of first-degree child rape. He is now 23, and cannot become a doctor, teacher, coach or any other professional who has contact with children. He has never committed any other sexual offense.

4.) Utah Supreme Court justices acknowledged that they were struggling to wrap their minds around the concept that a 13-year-old girl could be both an offender and a victim for the same act - in this case, having consensual sex with her 12-year-old boyfriend.

The Ogden, Utah, girl was put in this odd position because she was found guilty of violating a state law that prohibits sex with someone under age 14. She also was the victim in the case against her boyfriend, who was found guilty of the same violation by engaging in sexual activity with her.

"The only thing that comes close to this is dueling," said Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins, noting that two people who take 20 paces and then shoot could each be considered both victim and offender.

5.) Last year, a Cincinnati public schools kindergartner went to the nurse's office with a scraped knee and ended up getting suspended and nearly expelled, according to the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati. Legal Aid lawyers say the girl was left alone in the nurse's office, where she found a bottle that resembled her mother's perfume and sprayed it. It turned out to be pepper spray.

The fire department was called, and the school sent the girl home. It also recommended expulsion for up to 80 days in accordance with the district's zero-tolerance policy regarding possession of a weapon, Legal Aid lawyer Elaine Fink says.

      The prosecutorial zeal also runs to adult cases, as illustrated by the following story out of Boulder, Colorado:
6.) BOULDER, Colo. - This city has always taken pride in its liberal-to-the-point-of-loony reputation. But this Halloween (2009), one of its wackiest traditions is under siege: the Naked Pumpkin Run.


The event is exactly what its name implies. Scores of men and women pour into downtown streets for a late-night jog, wearing not a stitch between the jack-o'-lanterns on their heads and the sneakers on their feet.

For nearly a decade, naked pumpkin runners did their thing unmolested, stampeding through the frigid dark past crowds of admirers who hooted, hollered and tossed candy. But last year the run attracted more than 150 participants, and Police Chief Mark Beckner fears things are getting out of hand. "It's a free-for-all," he says. So he intends to stop it.

He will station more than 40 officers on the traditional four-block route tonight, with two SWAT teams patrolling nearby. All have orders to arrest gourd-topped streakers as sex offenders.

Police acknowledge they have not been flooded with pumpkin-run-related complaints, but say that's beside the point. A throng of naked people with jack-o-lanterns on their heads is, by definition, an alarming sight, Chief Beckner says. Therefore, it's illegal.

Those convicted of indecent exposure rarely get jail time, but they must register as sex offenders, just as rapists do. Which seems a bit excessive to Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett.

"A lot of times," he says with a sigh, "these people are just being idiots."

Still, Mr. Garnett says he will back up the police, adding, "We will take the cases they give us."

      Are these cases of overkill? I think so. Are they unusual? Not in the least. Check it out on line.
      I agree that sexual offenders should be punished, for life in egregious cases. But for cases of childhood naivety there has to be some wiggle room for judges. Unless a minor commits a heinous crime, in which case he could be tried as an adult, I think his record should be sealed when he reaches the age of 18, just as in any non-sexual crime.
      What do you think? Let’s have some comments.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Defining "Old"


      Millions of years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, i.e. high school in the 1940s, I developed my first concept of the word “old.” Old people were those who were slightly older than I was. When I was a freshman, seniors were old, and when I became a senior, college students were old, or at least older.
      The idea hardened at the annual alumni banquet, an institution which has long since been discontinued. At our banquet, three members of the class which had graduated 50 years previously were in attendance. We all decided they were “really old fuddy duddies” (ROFDs). Over the years I haven’t thought much more about the subject.
      Now however, I am nearly ten years older than those ROFDs were when they attended our banquet, so I have decided to rethink my definition. In addition, for several years my class has been having monthly breakfasts at a local restaurant, and I have found that my long-time (I almost said old) friends are knowledgeable, thinking and articulate people.
       I admit that sometimes one of the regulars fails to show up because of a hip replacement or gall bladder surgery, but those are only physical problems. While they are related to aging, they in no way relegate the persons to my ROFD category.
     Neither have I noticed any iPods or X-boxes at breakfast, although someone did bring in a cell phone a few months ago, and we used it to call an out-of-state member of the class in honor of her birthday.
      I once heard a little poem on the subject:
I don’t mind that I’m old and gray,
For I’ve been around for many a day.
But one thing really makes me weep:
My mind makes appointments my body can’t keep.

       Notice, the problem is with the body – not the mind.
      I can approach this definition problem from several angles. I could erase the ROFD concept, although I have carried it around for so many years that I hate to let it go completely.
      I could redefine “old” to be say, 15 years older than any age I happen to be, although I know some people in that age group who also don’t fit the category.
      I have noticed lately that young people do not speak the same language as those of us who have lived a few more years. Perhaps if we post-youths spoke their language, we would not be considered “old.” For example, suppose after one of my contemporaries says, “Have you heard what those idiots in Harrisburg are planning?” Then I go, “Hey dude, it’s like, you know, whatever.”
      Or perhaps not.



Sunday, January 17, 2010

Priorities

      Along with many others, I am beginning to lose faith in the ability of the U.S. Government to solve the nation’s problems. As long as politicians and their constituents continue to wage a war between the major parties, effective action remains at a stalemate.
      I was hoping the 2008 election would overcome this problem, but if anything, it seems to have exacerbated it. Prior to the election of Ronald Regan, democratic and republican liberals would vote together on a given program, as would democratic and republican conservatives. A given program passed or failed because its followers thought it would be good or bad for the country.
      But those days seem to have passed, for the electorate as well as for the politicians. If a given program is sponsored by a democrat, the republicans will vote against it, and vice versa.
      And I believe it has grown worse since Barack Obama’s election. For example, Senator Jim DeMint said, “If we’re able to stop Obama on this [health care] it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.” Notice there is no consideration as to whether the health care bill per se is good or bad for the country.
      Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio commentator, said on his program this week, “Everything this president [Barack Obama] sees is a political opportunity, including Haiti, and he will use it to burnish his credentials with minorities in this country and around the world, and to accuse Republicans of having no compassion.
      “… if you paid your income taxes, that's how you donate to government for aid, and sure enough, here comes Obama announcing $100 million from the government for aid to Haiti, fine and dandy. But, you paid for it, it's your taxes. All I said was if you're going to donate do it outside the government, pure and simple.”
      Immediately the democrats began ranting that Rush said “don’t send your donations to the White House.” Admittedly Rush slammed the President in the first paragraph, but his second seemed reasonable enough, especially in view of the government’s record in handling disaster relief. “Divide and conquer” is a motto seemingly embraced by both parties.
      Yes, it’s a two-way street, with pundits from left and right all shrieking out at once.
      In the past six weeks we in the U.S. have been spending news and debate space on “big” events such as Tiger Woods’ amorous adventures, Leno vs. O’Brien and whether Senator Harry Reid was right or wrong to say that Barack Obama is “light-skinned” and has “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one” (which happens to be true). Fortunately we were able to ignore the “small” problems such as joblessness, recession, war in Afghanistan, nation building in Iraq, and health care reform. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.
      But of course, these things are relative. Just as we were beginning to pay attention to some of our problems, along came an earthquake in Haiti. The saying, “I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet,” comes to mind.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The...

      In Shakespeare’s play, King Henry VI, Dick the Butcher says, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” In the play Dick was a follower of Jack Cade, who planned to overthrow the government and install himself as king. Taken out of context the quote appears to denigrate lawyers; coming from disreputable characters such as Dick and Jack, the quote is actually a compliment to those who are the first line of defense against disorder in society.
      But over the past few decades the same sort of attitude seems to have become popular about scientists, and it comes from people who should know better. One of the drawbacks of the information explosion is that everyone thinks his or her personal opinion is as good as the next person’s. And perhaps it would be if not for two problems: 1.) Not all the information received over the internet is accurate, or even true, and 2.) Not everyone is trained to correctly or logically process the information received.
      It would seem obvious that Joe Sixpack’s opinion on a subject about which he knows only what he gets from the internet, is not as good as the opinion of a scientist who has spent half a life-time studying the subject. But Joe Sixpack thinks it is, and there are a lot of Joes out there. And the more dubious opinions that are floating around, the more likely it is that the reliable information gets lost in the shuffle.
      Of course, there are always people who have an agenda, and the more their agenda flies in the face of true science, the more faulty is the information they spread.
      For example, currently there is a discussion among scientists regarding some of the detailed workings of evolution, but very few legitimate scientists doubt that evolution is the way the biological world works. Nevertheless creation scientists (an oxymoron) are preaching that scientists “disagree” on evolution. And rightly or wrongly, most scientists refuse to stoop to arguing about a “disagreement” that doesn’t exist.
      Perhaps some of the problem stems from the definitions of “theory.” According to Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, the definition of a scientific theory is, “A coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena.” But there is also a non-scientific definition which says, “A proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural, in contrast to well-established propositions that are regarded as reporting matters of fact.”
      Persons with an anti-science agenda argue that “Evolution is just a theory,” thereby applying the second definition to the first situation.
      And because Joe Sixpack does not have the experience or training to evaluate the overwhelming amount of information he receives, he believes them. Thus the distrustful attitude toward scientists.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

There Are Good People Out There


     My late mother-in-law used to say, “Nothing surprises me anymore.” Having been exposed to continuous, random, gratuitous acts of violence in the headlines and on television, she, along with most Americans had grown blasé. Insensitivity to violence seems to have permeated society.      
      But lately a new phenomenon has been quietly appearing: the random, gratuitous act of generosity. Let me give you a couple of examples that I am familiar with:
The writer of a letter to the editor of the local newspaper wanted to thank the person ahead of him in the checkout line at a local supermarket. The writer noticed that the leading person was buying a gift card. When the writer went to pay his bill, the cashier handed him the gift card and told him that the preceding customer had asked her to pass it to the next person in line.

The second incident happened to Barbara and me last Saturday at a restaurant where we had gone for breakfast. When we asked for our check, the server told us that our bill had been paid, tip and all, by someone who said they didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. We were free to go.

      To show the prevailing attitude, when I repeated this story to friends, their first question was, “Were you dressed like a homeless person?” Well, I didn’t think so, but I suppose appearance can be relative. It's more likely that most people, including me, have trouble accepting the idea that a stranger would go out of his way to do something generous for another person
      If this insidious practice spreads, who knows what societal upheavals might result?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Climate Change and Natural Disasters

      Deniers to the contrary, there is no rational doubt that the globe is getting warmer. Dramatic pictures of cracking and shrinking polar ice caps at both poles, the poleward migration of warm water animal and vegetable species, and the gradual submersion of islands testify to the fact. Already natives of Papua New Guinea's Carteret island are being moved to Bougainville island as their homeland disappears under rising seas.
      No one can say for sure how long the seas will continue to rise, but it is estimated that a rise of 50 centimeters, about 19 inches, would overflow the heavily populated coasts of countries such as Bangladesh, and cause low-lying island states like the Indian Ocean's Maldives and South Pacific's Kiribati and Tuvalu to disappear. Two uninhabited Kiribati islands, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, were engulfed in 1999, according to the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, and the island of Tepuka Savilivili no longer has any coconut trees due to salination. Some communities in low-lying areas of the United States may eventually be forced to move inland if the rising seas continue at the current rate.
      Many people are convinced that the phenomenon is caused by man-made concentrations of certain “greenhouse” gases, notably carbon dioxide, given off by the burning of fossil fuel. Others feel that it is due to an act of nature or God. If this is the case, there is little we can do to reverse it. And if warming is due to acts of man, assuming we decide to do something tangible about it (which is doubtful), it is already too late to reverse it before a vast amount of damage ensues. In either case public debate should shift from questioning the basic science of global warming to getting on with reducing the impact that climate change will have on the safety and security of our economy and society
      So what should we do? If people living in hurricane areas hear of a big one coming, do they sit on the front porch to watch it? Upon learning of an approaching tornado, do Kansans stand in front of the house so they don’t miss the action? Or do they board up the windows and head for higher ground or the storm cellar in advance of the storm?
      Whether an act of man or an act of God, we are in that position with regard to global warming. The following list of preparations was originally suggested in a paper by Bracken Hendricks in a 2006 paper:

1.) Map vulnerabilities via a National Global Warming Community Impact Assessment. The federal government should invest in a solid foundation of information for decision-makers and establish a national program to assist states and localities in undertaking formal assessment and disclosure of climate risk and potential regional impacts.

2.) Develop state-level global warming preparedness plans. Using the information assembled through the National Community Impact Assessment, state and regional planning agencies, in conjunction with FEMA, should develop improved management plans for emergency preparedness in the event of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, exacerbated by global warming.

3.) Set financial disclosure requirements for documented threats. Global warming hazards should be incorporated into public disclosure requirements for property owners and managers of publicly traded companies on environmental risks and liabilities, similar to requirements governing flood plains and earthquake zones.

4.) Establish a national fund for critical infrastructure investment. Building on the example of the National Highway Trust Fund, a dedicated resource should be established to meet new and growing threats to homeland security at both the national and community level from climate change.

5.) Build smart micro-grids for emergency energy security. To reduce costs and improve system reliability and reaction times in the event of blackouts and service disruptions from natural disasters, it is essential to invest in smart and secure micro-grids. These would include on-site generation of renewable electricity sources that can withstand interruptions in flows of natural gas and electricity, while continuing to ensure critical services like traffic signals, pumping stations, emergency response services, and other critical energy needs.

      In the event that the whole climate change scenario should turn out to be overblown, implementation of these procedures would be helpful in the event of any natural emergencies. If they had been in place when Hurricane Katrina occurred, much of the human and economic damage would have been mitigated.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Healthcare Payment System

      It seems to be the popular opinion that the U.S. medical system is broken. Try as I might, I can’t seem to find anything wrong with it. We have the most advanced equipment – ultrasound and MRI machines, PET and CT scanners, x-ray machines, monitors, ventilators, etc. – the finest medical schools, and world-renowned doctors. But the medical payment system is in sad shape.
      Medical insurance companies have two functions which are opposed to each other: 1.) pay medical bills for insured customers, and 2.) pay high salaries to executives and return maximum dividends to shareholders. Both functions are supposed to be paid out of premiums.
      The question arises: Why is function two necessary in order in order to perform function one? The simple answer: It’s not.
      If I perform a service under the assumption that I will be reimbursed, I don’t care who writes the check as long as I can cash it, and I am sure my doctor doesn’t care who pays his bill as long as someone does. What is magical about having it paid by an insurance company?
      Suppose it were paid by a central, non-profit agency, such as the government; an agency that pays neither seven figure salaries nor dividends. Quite a few more people could be covered for the same total premium, which would be paid to the government in the form of taxes (the dreaded T word). And as with all systems, some adjustments would be necessary.
      But no one would die because they couldn’t afford to go the doctor. I know – free clinics are available. Yes, if you happen to live in a city. Good luck finding a free clinic in a rural area.
      But wait a minute – wouldn’t that mean that the government would control my medical treatment? Well, most likely it would be controlled by doctors, actuaries and accountants who work for the government instead of insurance companies; the same professionals who now control your treatment.
      But that would be socialism. OK – let’s cut out all socialism. Let Blackwater take over the armed forces. All highway planning and construction would be done by the myriad of private highway construction companies. Social Security would be eliminated. The list goes on.
      Yes, but government run programs such as the post office and social security are both losers. First, the post office is not run by the government – it is a separate organization, and we have probably the most efficient and least expensive mail delivery system in the world. And Social Security may require tinkering and adjusting, but ask the recipients how they feel about giving it up.
      Suppose everyone got free medical care – we do not have enough doctors to handle all those patients. True, at least temporarily, but this is a problem which can be solved. Incentives, e.g. low or no interest loans for medical students, and subsidies for moving to low density areas come to mind, and I am sure there are others. Besides, it is an economic principle that if a demand exists, supply will eventually expand to fill it.
      What about all those people who work for health insurance companies – they would add to the already lengthy list of unemployed persons. Not really; except for the ones who devote their time to extracting huge salaries and calculating dividends, the rest could continue performing their current functions, only they would work for the government.
      As I said up front, this is the simple answer. But politics and greed can take the simplest problem and reduce it to its most complex form. If this doesn’t work, I am sure there is something that will, if we try hard enough.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Year's Celebrations - Plan B

      Although nothing went the way we had planned, we had very good New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day celebrations. We had planned to go to Tony’s Mining Company with Barbara’s sister, Cathy, and her husband, Tom, for our Eve celebration, but the weather forecast called for a winter mix of rain and snow, so we decided to call it off.
      Fortunately we had a plan B: a few weeks ago we decided to get the free tickets to the celebration at the Muhlenberg in the event we couldn’t go to Tony’s. We had a good time with friends there.
      If the New Year would have rung in at 11:00 pm, we could have had the toasts, hugs and all that stuff; as it was, by midnight we probably snored through it.
      We had also planned to go to Cathy and Tom’s house for the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch New Year good luck meal of Pork and Sauerkraut. About 10:00 am Tom called and told us Cathy had got sick with flu, bad food, whatever, and we would have to call that off too. Our plan B this time consisted of going to the fridge and getting out the Cornish Game Hen. Actually we formulated plan B after Tom called.
      Shortly afterwards we got another call offering to prepare a care package of P & S, Mashed Potatoes, etc., and bring it to us. Of course we protested, sort of.
      Sometime later Tom and their son, Kyle, showed up with the above plus Rolls and Pecan Pie. Needless to say, we enjoyed it very much.
      I got to thinking afterwards how lucky I am to have married into such a thoughtful family. Only the best would think of preparing a carryout dinner, and driving five miles to deliver it.
      As I mentioned, P & S is the traditional New Year’s dish in this area, but other sections of the country have their own traditions. I have heard of good luck meals of Black-eyed Peas and Corn Bread, Sow-belly and Collard Greens, and I am sure there are others.
      Looking back at the state of the world during 2009, we can all use all the luck we can get. Hopefully all these lucky meals work. Wait a minute, we ate these same meals last year, and look how that turned out!