Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fact or Belief?

      A born again Christian once asked me if I believe in evolution. My answer was, “Evolution is not something one ‘believes in’ like one believes in a religion. I accept it as a fact because the evidence for it is overwhelming.”
      Of course, no amount of evidence could convince my questioner that evolution is a fact and “creation science” is an oxymoron. But the conversation did cause me to ponder exactly what the difference is between a fact and a belief.
      The difference can be explained in one sentence, although really understanding it can take a long time: When an event, idea, system, theory, etc. is supported by evidence, we accept it as a fact; when there is no supporting evidence we have a belief. Notice: we accept facts, we have beliefs. Here are a few examples:
(1) I do not believe that birds fly – I accept it as a fact. I have seen pictures of flying birds, I have seen them fly and I have read articles on the physics of flight. The evidence is overwhelming.
(2) I believe my neighbor is secretly keeping a unicorn in his garage. It is easy to prove or disprove my belief - one can just look in the garage. No matter how convinced I am that he is housing a unicorn, he really isn’t. When the evidence is in, I have to accept that as a fact; if I don’t, my ability to mingle with other people should, and probably will, be curtailed in the near future.
(3) In 1959, Florence Houteff's, who was the leader of the Branch Davidians faith group, prophesied that the 1260 days mentioned in Revelation 11:3 would end and the Kingdom of David would be established on April 22, 1959. Followers believed they would die, be resurrected, and transferred to Heaven. Many sold their possessions and moved to Mt. Carmel in anticipation of the "end time." It didn't happen. The group almost did not survive; only a few dozen members remained. However, most Branch Davidians did die on April 29, 1993 as a result of arson apparently ordered by their leader, David Koresh. They were not bodily resurrected - on earth at least.
(4) Karl Popper’s theory of the scientific method provides that a scientist creatively develops a theory which may be falsified by testing the theory against evidence or known facts. For example, Darwin’s theory of evolution has been tested against known facts in the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, anthropology, genetics, history, and paleontology, among others. No such tests have been found to falsify the theory. People who claim that the evidence for evolution is scarce just need to look a little deeper. Also, there is absolutely no evidence for non-evolutionary claims.
      Now don’t misunderstand me – beliefs are useful for one reason: instigating research. If one’s belief turns out to have supporting evidence, it is no longer a belief – it is a fact. This is Popper’s theory in action.
      But a belief which on its face is contrary to facts, e,g, my unicorn belief, is a pure waster of time. And because the real world goes its merry way regardless of anyone’s beliefs, such a belief can be costly. Ask any Branch Davidian, if you can find one.
      Depending upon the structure of the individual atoms, electrons can be either shared between atoms or, in some cases, moved from one atom to another. This results in the formation of molecules which, along with the basic elements, make up the physical constructs that we have discussed in previous chapters.
      Matter Matters – The Spirit Runs Through It.

The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Think About It

      At all times Americans seem to need some controversial topic on which to disagree - Heaven knows, there are certainly enough of them at the present time. I have selected three of them to discuss briefly – two of them have been around for several years, and one is current. I offer no solutions, but I have tried to boil the discussions down to questions to ask ourselves, or in one case, a metaphorical description of the topic.     
Scientists have been making us aware of global warming for several years. Most people believe it is happening, but the mechanism behind it is controversial: is it caused by manmade greenhouse gases, or is it a naturally occurring phenomenon? In either case there are some things we can do to alleviate the problems. Washington politicians have elected to argue about the cost of safety measures, as a result they do nothing. Bloggers and pundits have been asking variations of the following question: Don’t these politicians have grandchildren?
A Muslim imam wants to build Park51, a community center, including a prayer room, a couple of blocks from the spot where the World Trade Center was toppled by Muslim conservatives in 2001. There seems to be no question that such an undertaking at that site is constitutional; the controversy arises because many Americans feel that it should not be built so close to the scene of that awful tragedy. An astute reader has written a letter to the editor of the Lancaster, Pa. Intelligencer asking the following question: Because of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, should we prohibit the building of Christian churches near the site because the bombing was perpetrated by Christians?
"Trickle-down economics", “Reaganomics” and "supply-side economics" are terms of political rhetoric that refer to the policy of providing across the board tax cuts or benefits to businesses, such as tax breaks, in the belief that this will indirectly benefit the broad population. Proponents of these policies claim that if the top income earners invest more into the business infrastructure and equity markets, it will in turn lead to more goods at lower prices, and create more jobs for middle and lower class individuals. Here is a simplified explanation: Picture a horse as representative of the rich upper class. The horse is fed oats, which pass through undigested and are left on the ground for the sparrows (lower class) to eat. The more the horse is fed, the more oats the sparrows will have to eat. (It is important that no one asks why some of the oats couldn’t be fed directly to the sparrows.)
      There you have it – three controversial topics of conversation. Whichever side of the issues you land on, I hope you will do so after serious consideration. Please decide with your reasoning, not your emotions.
      Now for the hard part: The atom is 99.9…9% (13 nines after the decimal point) empty space! If you were to remove all the empty space in the atoms that make up a human being, he or she would be a lot smaller than a grain of salt!
      Matter Matters – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Climate Change and Preparedness

      The disagreement between climatologists and deniers goes on. In a 2009 survey, 97% of respondents who listed climate science as their area of expertise, and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change, agree that human activity is "a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures."
      In a recent CNN poll of the general public, when the question “. . . from what you have heard or read, do you believe increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century are due more to the effects of pollution from human activities, or natural changes in the environment that are not due to human activities?", 50% replied human activities, 46% said natural causes, and 4% were unsure.
      There seems to be a general mistrust of the findings of science, which I believe is due primarily to the constant barrage of false information put out by organizations with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the energy business. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that Exxon-Mobil spent $16 million from 1998 to 2005 to “manufacture uncertainty” about global warming.
      This is just one case. Another is the daily garbage output spewed by experts (read “entertainers”) such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Thomas Sowell, et al.
      Secondly, I believe that some of that mistrust is due to the failure of our educational system to emphasize the importance of science. According to a National Science Foundation report, science ranks behind ten other subjects in terms of people’s interest, a bad situation in view of the fact that approximately 50 percent of all legislation in the U.S. government has some aspects of science in it (NPR 2002). So much for a well-informed electorate.
      Unfortunately our representatives in Washington have fallen for the disinformation laid on them by the highly-paid lobbyists of the energy system. Even worse, some of them actually have a vested interest in the system. And of course, they are all products of an educational system which has let us down in so many ways.
      A recent series of calamitous natural events has given some people second thoughts about climate change: the fury of hurricane Katrina; super heat waves in Russia, the United States and Africa; and flooding which has affected some 20 million people in Pakistan, has people asking, “Is this due to the predicted climate change?” And science’s answer: “Probably.”
      Keeping in mind the statistical axiom that “correlation is not causation,” a good scientist will not state something as a fact until there is a proven connection. But because the above phenomena fit so closely into the pattern predicted by climate change science, neither will he rule it out.
      But I digress. Most people agree that climate change is happening, and real consequences, most of them dire, will result. The cause is immaterial for the point I wish to make: We can prepare for and mitigate the bad effects.
      (1) 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) Using the information assembled through step 1, 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) 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) 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) In conjunction with public utilities, a system of micro-grids should be created that 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.
      A major advantage of such a program is that it would be available to mitigate the effects of any disaster, natural or man-made. I know it will be expensive, but it will be even more expensive if we wait until disaster strikes.
      . . . is a little trickier; here I am thinking of a mental or instinctive construct. It could be a plan, say for a business or invention, or it could be a concept, e.g., a political ideal, free will, consciousness, etc., or it could be a thought experiment or a scientific theory, or it could be the recipe for mother’s chicken soup. It could also be the idea behind the behavior of a sea otter when he cracks an oyster shell on a stone on his chest, or the reason gray whales migrate to a Mexican cove for mating. It includes any “thing” we can conceive but not hold, touch or otherwise detect by the use of the senses or other instruments.
      Constructs – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in  paperback or on Kindle.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Do We Need A Mosque To Test The First Amendment?

      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .
United States Constitution – Amendment I

      Is religious freedom passé in the United States? No, but it is facing a crucial test. First, a little history lesson.
      Religious freedom had a rocky start in the early colonies. The Pilgrims arrived in 1620, and settled the town of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Denying the Scriptures was punishable by a public whipping. Failing to attend church, traveling or laboring on Sunday, or harboring a Quaker were punishable by fines.
      During the 1630s the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and set up a form of government based on the Old Testament. Included were laws against worshipping a God other than the God of the Old Testament, or cursing God. Both infractions were punishable by death. A Puritan woman, Anne Hutchinson, was banished from the colony merely for reevaluating and reinterpreting the preacher’s sermon.
      Maryland was founded by Catholics, and religious tolerance for all Christians who believed in the trinity was guaranteed. Denying the trinity or the divinity of Jesus Christ, e.g. Judaism or Unitarianism, was punishable by death, although no one was ever executed. When Protestants took control, Catholicism was outlawed.
      In Virginia the Church of England was the official state church, and non-attendance was punishable by a fine. While other Protestants denominations were tolerated, they were not welcomed.
      Religious freedom as we know it arrived in all states with the War for Independence, and was codified in Amendment I of the Constitution.
      The September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center was carried out by radical followers of Islam; as a result many U.S. citizens who are followers of that faith have faced de facto discrimination. But most Americans realize that just as very conservative Christians do not speak for all of Christianity, so very conservative Muslims do not speak for all of Islam.
      Because of the enormity of the event which occurred on September 11th the spot where the attacks took place has become hallowed ground. No one, at least no American, who watched the planes crash into the buildings can feel anything but sadness and sorrow when viewing the enormous scar where the buildings stood.
      Now imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wants to build a mosque two blocks from the site of the tragedy. Rauf’s stated goal behind building the Islamic center in lower Manhattan is to “recapture the spirit of mutual respect between Judaism, Christianity and Islam that existed in Cordoba, Spain, from 700 - 1200 AD.”
      The imam has a long history of preaching tolerance and religious diversity. He has been imam of Masjid al-Farah, a New York City mosque since 1983. He has written three books on Islam and its place in contemporary Western society, including What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America. Abdul Rauf founded two non-profit organizations whose stated missions are to enhance the discourse on Islam in society. He has condemned the 9/11 attacks as un-Islamic and called on the U.S. government to reduce the threat of terrorism by altering its Middle Eastern foreign policy. Presently the U.S. State Department is sponsoring Abdul Rauf on a visit to Qatar, Bahrain and the UAR, where he will discuss Muslim life in America, and promote religious tolerance.
      Understandably many relatives of persons killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as many others, are upset about the idea of a mosque being built so close to the site. Personally, I think that regardless of any good works the imam has in mind, he shows an extreme lack of sensitivity to initiate such a project at that site.
      That said, I also believe that if he wants to go forward with this project, he has an inalienable right to do so. His right is spelled out in the Constitution, and in 220 years of upholding that right.
      To deny Abdul Rauf the right to build his mosque would be contrary to the rule of law and the Constitution. The more extreme or distasteful the confrontation, the more strongly we need to defend our principles. Either we do so, or we lose the long struggle for religious freedom, a rare commodity in today’s world.
      If the imam is serious about his goal to “recapture the spirit of mutual respect between Judaism, Christianity and Islam that existed in Cordoba, Spain, from 700 - 1200 AD,” he will select a less controversial site for his mosque.
      It is obvious that constructs change over time. In the very early days of the human race, if caveman Alley Oop wanted to warn his friend Foozy that Dinny the dinosaur was about to attack, all he could do was yell or make some other noise to call Foozy’s attention to the impending disaster. It took a long, long time to develop a sophisticated form of communication such as language.
      Constructs – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Comic Strips - 2

      Today’s blog again takes a look at some of the popular comic strips of the 1930s, 1940s and later. If you are a member of the post-youth set, see how many you can remember. If you belong to the younger set, perhaps you will enjoy seeing what your parents and grandparents thought was funny. Please keep in mind that those who remember these strips were struggling through the great depression. We took our humor where we could find it.
      If you missed our first comic strip review, check the July 25th blog.
      Blondie (1930 - ) was originally a flapper named Blondie Boopadoop. In 1933 she married Dagwood Bumstead, who was immediately disowned by his well-to-do family for marrying beneath his class. Almost overnight Blondie settled into the role of a housewife.
      In 1934 Alexander, nee Baby Dumpling, was born, and a daughter, Cookie, was born in 1941. Both children were allowed to grow into their teens, but in the 1960s they apparently hit the same time warp as their parents; both have been teenagers ever since.
      Gradually Blondie has become the sensible one in the family; she is presently in a partnership with her next door neighbor, Tootsie Woodley, in a catering business, while Dagwood has become somewhat of a clown.
      The recurring gags are Dagwood’s skyscraper sandwiches, his battles with J. C. Dithers, his boss, and his collisions with his mailman, Mr. Beasley, who looks exactly like Tootsie’s husband, Herb. Also occasionally in the strip are Lou, proprietor of the diner where Dagwood usually eats lunch, and Elmo, a little neighborhood kid who often pesters Dagwood when he is trying to take a nap.
      The strip features up-to-date technology: the kids have cell phones, and Dithers’ employees have flat computer screens on their desks.
      Along the way Blondie has spawned a series of movies and a radio show. She is still going strong.
      The Family Circus (1960 - ) debuted on February 29, Leap Year Day, as The Family Circle, but the name was changed because of objections from the magazine of the same name. The daily panel is still presented inside a circle.
      The central characters are Bil and Thelma and their four children: Billy, Dolly, Jeffy, and P.J. Bil is a cartoonist, and when he is on “vacation,” Billy sometimes draws the strip, illustrating the outlook and grammar of a seven-year-old.
      Other more or less regulars in the strip are the family dogs, Barfy and Sam, the cat, Kittycat, and Bil’s mother, Grandma. Grandpa is dead, but usually appears during the Christmas holidays as a spirit watching over the family.
      The strip is Christian oriented - the family often appears in church - and the children’s remarks to the pastor illustrate the cartoonist’s obvious understanding of a child’s worldview.
      Another theme that appears from time to time is a dotted line which traces the path, usually Billy’s, through the neighborhood: over fences, examining flowers, and all sorts of little side trips and detours.
      The strip appears in over 1,500 newspapers world wide.
      Dennis, the Menace (1951 - ) is an active, curious, innocent, five-and-a-half-year-old boy who keeps getting into mischief without trying. His parents, Henry and Alice Mitchell, have their hands full keeping their boisterous son out of trouble; one of their problems is getting babysitters – none will ever stay with Dennis a second time.
      Mr. Wilson, the Mitchell’s retired neighbor is the most common recipient of Dennis’s attempts at friendliness. As far as Dennis knows, Mr. Wilson is his best friend, while to Mr. Wilson, Dennis is nothing but trouble. Meanwhile Mrs. Wilson treats Dennis as her grandson, plying him with cookies and special treats at every opportunity.
      In addition to Joey - a younger friend of Dennis - two girls, Margaret and Gina share in some of Dennis’s adventures. To Dennis, Margaret is a smart-alecky know-it-all who keeps trying to educate him. Gina is a tomboy, with an independent frame of mind that matches that of Dennis. He secretly has a crush on her.
      Other characters are Alice’s father, Grampa, who spoils Dennis at every chance he gets, which is not often because he apparently does not live nearby. The two have matching personalities: independent and active. Also featured is the faithful family dog, Ruff, who shares in most of Dennis’s adventures.
      The strip has led to both live-action and animated sitcoms, as well as two movies and a DVD.
      Of all the constructs we humans use, the most common is one that we seldom recognize: our language. While we realize that “the word is not the thing,” we implicitly assume that there is some correspondence between the word and the thing. We rarely realize that we are partners in a strict agreement to cut up our view of the world in ways over which we have no control. This agreement was entered into by our remote ancestors, and we have been stuck with it ever since.
      Constructs – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Brave(?) New World

      A Commerce Department report Friday showed that the economy grew at an annual rate of 2.4% after reporting 5.0% at the end of 2009, and 3.7% in the first quarter of the year. Meanwhile the Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting that there are five applicants for every job opening. Obviously the economy is slowing down.
      But if that is true, manufacturers apparently are not aware of it. For the quarter, industrial spending for buildings, equipment and software increased at an annual rate of 17.0% compared with a 7.8% increase in the first quarter. If businesses are investing at an increasing rate, why are no more jobs available? There are several reasons why this is happening.

     (1) Efficiency. If machines or computers can do the job that a human being was doing, that is one less worker for the same amount of production. The machine does not require a salary, payroll taxes (in many cases the manufacturer gets a tax break for installing the new equipment), unemployment insurance or close supervision. The job problem is compounded if the equipment does the work of dozens, or even hundreds of humans. Workers are becoming obsolete!
      In the past, increased efficiency was shared with the workers through incentives such as piece work or other bonuses. Not any more – with five applicants for every job, employers have the muscle to decree no more raises, more layoffs of unneeded employees, and less hours for those workers remaining on the job.
      (2) Inventory. Many producers have stockpiled inventory while demand was low. They are not likely to be hiring new employees as long as their warehouses are full of finished products.
      (3) Outsourcing. Many jobs have been outsourced overseas, where labor is cheap; this is especially true of jobs that are labor intensive. Manufacturers have no particular obligation to their employees; if they can hire employees for $5.00 per day in Indonesia, why would they pay workers $20.00 per hour in the United States?
      (4) Distance is irrelevant. Distance does not matter any more – an employee sitting at the telephone in India will cost much less than an American worker doing the same job. And foreign workers have been quick to recognize the opportunity – in India there are classes to teach people how to speak with an American middle western accent. Foreign workers are competing with each other for jobs that were formerly done by domestic workers. India is now subcontracting some jobs to Peru and other very low income areas.
      It’s a new world out there, and we need to adapt to it.
      In lock-step with the rapid expansion of concepts, the actions of the believers were also affected by the Spirit. New concepts were accompanied by new human activities.
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It.

      The book or a free download is available in paperback or on Kindle.

Monday, August 2, 2010

You Can't Get Away With Nothin' Nohow

      With 165 security TV cameras blanketing their streets, the people of Lancaster are the most closely watched group of citizens in the country, perhaps in the entire world.
      However, this is just one example of how authorities are using technology to crack down on those who think they can ignore the law. A couple of examples follow:
      The Associated Press reports that, as in most cities, Riverhead, NY requires citizens to get the usual inspections, permits, etc. before installing a backyard swimming pool. And also as in most cities, some people just don’t like to bother with all that red tape.
    Now along comes Google Earth with its photographs of every hamlet, town or city imaginable. And the potential is not lost upon the city fathers. To date the town has located about 250 swimming pools whose owners have not filled out the required paperwork. As a result the city coffers have been enriched to the tune of $75,000.
      Riverhead’s chief building inspector says that pools without inspections of the plumbing, electrical work and fencing constitute a safety hazard.
      FYI - So does sneaking an uninspected pool into your backyard, at least in Riverhead. Look for the practice to spread.
      According to the New York Times, the city of New Delhi, India suffers humongous traffic problems as a result of aggressive drivers who barrel through red lights, ignore crosswalks, and all those other habits which can cause extreme agitation to those who try to drive carefully and lawfully.
      So two months ago the traffic police started a Facebook page as ” . . . a forum where people could express their views and suggest changes.” There was no mention of photos.
      As of this past Saturday, 17,000 people have signed on to the page and posted almost 3,000 photographs and dozens of videos of driving scofflaws. Using the license plate numbers recognizable in the photos, police have issued 665 traffic tickets.
      This takes “Smile, you’re on candid camera” to a new level.
      While there are privacy issues in both these cases, I think that if you are breaking the law in a public place, you can whine all you want, but you should expect to get caught.
      I can’t verify this, but Barbara just told me she saw a news item on TV about a parking garage authority who decided to do something about those patrons who wait until the attendant goes off duty to get their car. If they can’t get there in time to pay the attendant, they can use a credit card. If they don’t have one, they will have to wait until morning to pick up the car.
      I hope that if someone is from out of town, he has his hiking shoes with him.
      Through the use of language, man has always attempted to control real world events by the expansion of concepts.
      Man Takes Control – The Spirit Runs Through It

      The book or a free download is available in  paperback or on Kindle.