Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ethical lapses, #2

I quit my last post and realized I need to give "equal time."

In this week's The Economist, there is an article about the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joseph Biden. Talk about ethical lapses!
HIS first run for the presidency collapsed, in 1987, after a bizarre act of plagiarism. Bizarre because Joe Biden not only borrowed the words of another politician, Neil Kinnock, the leader of the British Labour Party. That is par for the course in modern politics. He borrowed his life-story, too.

He claimed that he was the first Biden to go to university and that his ancestors had worked down a coal mine, both untrue. The only thing he did not claim was to be Welsh.

I am, absolutely, sick of "politics- and politicians-as-usual."

Why can't we get someone who will speak the truth?


Sarita, a pretty solid Republican, wanted to "pile on" in behalf of Palin, and so, when I mentioned Biden, she said, "Yeah. And look at Clinton with his cheating on his wife. . . ."

"The only problem is," I replied, "if you look back through American history, it appears that many, many of our presidents were skirt-chasers and womanizers. It's just that, back then, the press didn't report on such matters."

"But it doesn't make it right!" she said. "And if they are willing to cheat on their wives . . ."

Yes. And amen.

Sarah Palin and the possible faked pregnancy

God says we need to avoid gossip.

I want to avoid gossip.

It is wise to beware of rumors. "Don't believe everything you hear." Absolutely. But/and . . . isn't there a place where you need to investigate "your own side" in the same way you would investigate "the other side"?

I have found it so common: advocates for any particular position are happy to investigate virtually every rumor or whisper of malfeasance that has to do with "the opposition." They say such investigations are necessary to "get at the truth" and/or to build any sense of possible confidence in anything "the opposition" has to say.

But when it comes to "their own," if someone raises questions, their hackles rise in high dudgeon: "How dare you ask such things!"

I ask, "But what if these things are true? Shouldn't we know that?"

So I set off to find out if, and to what extent, there may be any validity to the rumor that Sarah Palin did not bear Trig, the son she now claims as her own.

And I will say, she looks bad either way: whether she bore Trig or not. She appears either to be a liar (for "a good cause," no doubt: to save her daughter's dignity), or she lacks discernment (why else would she put her baby's life at risk?), or, perhaps, despite her avowed commitment to life, she had a secret death-wish for her son.


I find any one of these options rather disturbing for someone who intends to run our country. I want the highest ethics. And I'm afraid we're not finding them.

But I'll let you be the judge.

Having had two daughters bear children within the past five weeks, I find it impossible to believe as a completely factual account what the press reported concerning Trig's birth:
  • Mrs. Palin made a keynote luncheon address at the Republican Governor’s Energy Conference in Texas on April 17, after she noticed she had begun to leak amniotic fluid.
  • She then proceeded to the airport where she took a regularly-scheduled, eight-hour commercial flight back up to Anchorage.
  • Rather than having the baby in Anchorage, the state capital and the largest city in the state, she then proceeded to drive 44 miles from the Anchorage airport to the 74-bed Mat-Su Regional Medical Center located in a community with not even a fifth the population.
  • An hour later, she checked in with her doctor.
And then, finally,
  • Seven hours later, she had the baby.
Is this really what you would do if you had a Down syndrome baby? Is this what you would do if you had any kind of baby?

Hate to say it, but I'm skeptical.

For further discussion, see the comments at the end of the original article that brought this to my attention.


ETA (9/2/08): Reliable sources now report that Mrs. Palin's 17-year-old daughter is currently pregnant and expecting to give birth in December. So the pregnancy was not faked.

But now mom/Mrs. Prospective Vice President has two major "distractions" on her hands in the form of a very young, Down syndrome baby and an unmarried daughter who is pregnant. How can she keep up every end of all the jobs she's being called upon to fulfill?
  • Wife
  • Mom
  • Governor of Alaska
  • Vice Presidential Candidate
  • Human being

Will she be able to succeed where few--very few (any?)--men do?

And now it begins to hit the fan . . .

So I got up this morning and began to look for information about Sarah Palin.

Already, last night, I had read of her possible ethical lapse with her ex-brother-in-law.

And in the same article, I read negative comments from her own state's leading papers about her lack of experience and lack of interest or drive toward national politics:
From the editorial in the Daily News-Miner in Fairbanks:
Sen. John McCain's selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate was a stunning decision that should make Alaskans proud, even while we wonder about the actual merits of the choice.... Alaskans and Americans must ask, though, whether she should become vice president and, more importantly, be placed first in line to become president.

In fact, as the governor herself acknowledged in her acceptance speech, she never set out to be involved in public affairs. She has never publicly demonstrated the kind of interest, much less expertise, in federal issues and foreign affairs that should mark a candidate for the second-highest office in the land. Republicans rightfully have criticized the Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama, for his lack of experience, but Palin is a neophyte in comparison; how will Republicans reconcile the criticism of Obama with the obligatory cheering for Palin?

Most people would acknowledge that, regardless of her charm and good intentions, Palin is not ready for the top job. McCain seems to have put his political interests ahead of the nation's when he created the possibility that she might fill it.

And from the editorial in the Anchorage Daily News:
It's stunning that someone with so little national and international experience might be heartbeat away from the presidency.

Gov. Palin is a classic Alaska story. She is an example of the opportunity our state offers to those with talent, initiative and determination...

McCain picked Palin despite a recent blemish on her ethically pure resume. While she was governor, members of her family and staff tried to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the Alaska State Troopers. Her public safety commissioner would not do so; she forced him out, supposedly for other reasons. While she runs for vice-president, the Legislature has an investigator on the case.

For all those advantages, Palin joins the ticket with one huge weakness: She's a total beginner on national and international issues.

Gov. Palin will have to spend the next two months convincing Americans that she's ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency....
I'm afraid I'm rather naïve. Even though I say this blog mixes in "a little politics," politics is really not a major interest of mine. That I don't normally follow political races.

But reading the article I just referenced from The Huffington Post--and seeing several other articles whose titles alone oozed similar animosity--I realized, if Palin is supposed to become vice president, she is going to have to endure some pretty grueling tests.

But now to this morning.

I bump into an article that suggests Palin may have "faked" pregnancy to cover for an out-of-wedlock baby born by her daughter?

Ouch! And, Oh! And, Oh, no!

Is this "politics as usual"? Rumor-mongering? Will Sarah Palin stand up to scrutiny?

If the independent public investigator assigned to discover the facts in the case concerning Palin's ex-brother-in-law should determine she actually did overstep the bounds of propriety in his case, and/or if the rumor about a faked pregnancy proves true, not only do McCain and Palin have major ethical issues on their hands, but McCain's choice of running mate--the lack of discernment her choice shows--will become a major negative factor in McCain's election strategy. And one would have to question the entire Republican Party: are they really so short of qualified candidates that they have to choose someone with virtually no national standing to become the vice presidential candidate?

Though then, come to think of it, the same question could be asked of the Democrats concerning Obama. He has some major ethical issues of his own, doesn't he?

As Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch (JW), notes in his latest fund-raising letter, JW felt the need to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Illinois State Archives (ISA) to produce "any and all public documents . . . resulting from Illinois State Senator Barack Obama's years in office (1997-2004) that the ISA have in their possession."


Back when he was questioned about his records on Meet the Press last year, Senator Obama stated
"Well, let's be clear. In the state Senate, every single piece of information, every document related to state government was kept by the state of Illinois and has been disclosed and is available and has been gone through with a fine-toothed comb by news outlets in Illinois . . . every document related to my interactions with government is available right now."

Yet the State Archives responded to our request by telling us that they don't maintain those records, nor have they received any requests from Senator Obama to archive any of his records.

"Clearly," Fitton says, "Barack Obama, just like Hillary Clinton, has a records problem. Our investigation suggests Senator Obama could have had his records archived so that they are available to the public but has chosen not to. Apparently he does not want a complete paper trail of his time in the Illinois State Senate.
So much for 'transparency' from the candidate who has made honesty and integrity his calling card!"

And then there is the matter of his relationship with Tony Rezko.
[W]e know that Senator Obama has a tangled history of personal and business dealings with one Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a naturalized American citizen who immigrated to the United States from Syria, settled in Chicago and who has long served as a political godfather to Barack Obama.

Over the years, in fact, Mr. Rezko has basically bankrolled Senator Obama's political career — beginning with Obama's first campaign for public office in 1996.
Rezko and members of his large family have contributed more than $200,000 to Obama campaigns since then. (The highly respected London Times referred to Rezko as "Mr. Obama's long-serving bagman.")

The relationship between Rezko and Senator Obama is so close that the Senator and Rezko went in on a real estate deal together! In fact, Obama's dealing with Rezko may have allowed Obama to pay $300,000 below the asking price for his $1.65 million Chicago mansion.

Obama and Rezko "walked through" the mansion together. They bought adjoining properties on the same day, and Rezko paid full freight on the deal (to the same owner Obama bought his house from).

This story gets more interesting when you consider that on June 4th in Chicago Tony Rezko was convicted in court for fraud and for a kickback scheme designed to shake down investment firms seeking Illinois state government business. . . .

Papers filed in this case show that about a month before Obama's suspicious land deal, Rezko received a wire transfer of $3.5 million from Nadhim Auchi, an Iraqi billionaire now living in Britain who made his fortune through "business dealings" with the corrupt Saddam Hussein regime. This transfer raises the question posed by the London Times — whether or not "funds from Nadhmi Auchi . . . helped Mr. Obama buy his mock Georgian mansion in Chicago."

Rezko has now been convicted for his alleged corrupt dealings with the administration of another prominent Illinois Democrat, Governor Rod Blagojevich. Over the years, Rezko also contributed generously to the Governor's campaigns...and was rewarded with appointments to state boards and commissions. . . .

Fitton concludes: "Corrupting the state government of Illinois is bad enough; but now the question is whether Tony Rezko has corrupted Barack Obama, the man who may be our next president."

And the list of scandals--or potential scandals--continues:
  • There is the matter of his long-standing relationship with the firebrand and, apparently, anti-American preacher Jeremiah Wright.

  • And his relationship with William Ayers, a founding member of the Weather Underground who set off bombs in the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. (According to Fitton, they claimed "credit" for 25 such bombs.) Ayers was quoted in the New York Times as saying "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."

    Is the quote about not having "done enough" taken out of context? I can imagine. But then having a presidential candidate associating with an unrepentant anti-government bomber?

  • Some seriously shady-looking stock deals.
    Two months after he took his Senate seat in 2005, the Senator purchased $50,000 worth of stock in highly speculative ventures, whose major investors were some of his biggest campaign contributors.

    One of the companies was a biotech concern that benefited from legislation that Senator Obama pushed just two weeks after purchasing $5,000 worth of its stock.

    When he was working to pass that legislation, just whose interest was the Senator advancing . . . his constituents', the company's, or his own?

Suddenly, in the context of all of these issues, even supposing Palin engaged in some--what well-wishers might like to call "white lying"--I sense Palin's sins probably pale in comparison.

BUT. What really bothers me: why can't the United States field some better-qualified candidates for president and vice president. Are these really the best we have?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Obama seemed unbeatable. And then . . .

I watched Obama's acceptance speech Thursday night--something I hadn't even really planned to do. But I was driving home from somewhere just before he began to speak, and I happened to be listening to NPR, something else I haven't done in months. Somehow, the excitement of the reportage got me thinking, "I really honest to listen to what the man has to say."

Based on everything I have heard or read about Obama, I am really not interested in him becoming our president. And, honestly, nor am I excited about McCain. I would prefer a true, limited-government libertarian (either big or little "L" libertarian!) in office. After eight years of a borrow-and-spend, unlimited-government Republican as president, I'm really not interested in four or more years of either more borrowing-and-spending or taxing-and-spending unlimited-government politicians in office. But I doubt my preferences are going to make much difference this election cycle!

Anyway, I listened to Obama and was impressed. (I've never heard him speak before.)

I was impressed not in terms of wanting to see him become our president, but in terms of his message. I thought, "McCain is sunk. A message of 'hope' and 'change,' even if it is empty, will tend to pull the heartstrings more than any stick-in-the-mud, reactionary, negative message of 'We can't afford it,' 'You're a socialist,' or, 'You're so naïve.'"

Beyond the appeal of the dreamy message itself ("Imagine"!), and Obama's incredibly smooth and apparently heart-felt delivery, I was astonished (though I probably ought not to have been!) at how many young people, and "people of color" there were at Invesco Field. And that the stadium was so full! And how do you get 75,000 people all to cheer so wildly at one time for a speech . . . especially when the man who is speaking makes such unbelievable claims about all "he" is going to do: how "he" is going to change the tax code, and "he" is going to make health insurance affordable for everyone, and "he" is going to transform America.

Oh, yes, and he is going to go through the budget, line by line, and locate billions of dollars to fund all of his favorite projects.

[I don't think so! Not when, as I noted a few weeks ago, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Richard W. Fisher, is able to say,
[A]ll we would have to do to fully fund our nation’s entitlement programs would be to cut discretionary spending by 97 percent . . . discretionary spending [that] includes defense and national security, education, the environment and many other areas, not just those controversial earmarks that make the evening news. All of them would have to be cut--almost eliminated, really--to tackle [the] problem [of unfunded federal government obligations] through discretionary spending. . . .

[J]ust to drive an important point home, these spending cuts or tax increases would need to be made immediately and maintained in perpetuity to solve the entitlement deficit problem. Discretionary spending would have to be reduced by 97 percent not only for our generation, but for our children and their children and every generation of children to come. And similarly on the taxation side, income tax revenue would have to rise 68 percent and remain that high forever. . . .

[Of course, whether Obama is blowing smoke or not, I wish another recent president would have shown even a glimmer of gumption to go gone through the budget line by line and cut out the fat . . . instead of increasing so many line items beyond what his political opponents had even dared to ask for!]

Oh. And the last incredible line about how "This [my candidacy] has never been about me. It's always been about you."

Right. (Not!)

But the line went down well.


So, even though I don't believe a word Obama said about what he "will" accomplish, I sensed McCain was sunk.

And then yesterday. McCain picks Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska.


[Strange: I remember having heard of her--i.e., having read of her--somewhere just a few weeks ago, in an article in some magazine we get. Just can't remember which one.


Suddenly, I thought, maybe McCain can pull this off. Having as his running mate a woman, a relatively young woman (younger than Obama!?!), mother of five, staunchly pro-life, a gun-toting hunter and outdoorsperson . . . : it sure could change the dynamics of the campaign.

Now, suddenly, I sensed, people won't be talking about Obama; they'll have to talk about Palin. And the energy and dynamism of Obama's campaign compared to McCain's: it suddenly disappears.

We're still not talking about a whole lot of substantive issues. (I phrase it that way only because I see one [very] substantive issue being addressed directly: the issue of human life. But other than that--yes, extremely important, but still "only" one among many!-- . . . Other than that, what I've just talked about is wholly personality-driven.)

Oh. But it does remind me: I was struck by Obama's comment. Something about how, "No matter where we stand on the matter of when life begins, we can all agree that there should be fewer unwanted children."


But there is a big--huge--difference in how we might achieve that end.

Will there be "fewer unwanted children" because we killed the ones whose biological parents don't want them? Or will there be "fewer unwanted children" because there has been some (God-given) change of heart on the part of parents so that the children who were, at one time, unwanted, become wanted? Do we have a government that, by policy, seems to urge citizens to give in to their basest desires . . . or do we have a government that urges citizens to buck up and rise, if not to their highest moral plane, at least to a minimally non-destructive position?

Friday, August 29, 2008

A wake-up call

I spent all day Wednesday--I mean all day--at a doctor's office. Not just any old doctor, but a doctor who specializes in what he calls "vitality and longevity."

A majority of the day was spent going over a detailed blood analysis, bone scan, and body mass/fat analysis he had done for me.

What I learned shocked me.

First, I should probably give you a sense of exactly how "detailed" these analyses were . . .
  • They tested 70 different . . . I'll call them "features" . . . of my blood.
  • They checked for seven different substances in and two different features of my urine.
  • They scanned my lower back (lumbar region) and my hips for bone density--then provided 10 specific analyses based on detailed analysis of the individual L1 through L4 vertebrae and 28 specific analyses based on detailed analysis of six different areas on each of the left and right hips.
Some of the numbers were distressing, but what really bothered me was how little I've ever heard about some of the tests that the doctor told me are extremely important. For example . . .

While my LDL (bad) cholesterol is high and my HDL (good) cholesterol is low, and both of these create what the medical profession calls a high "coronary risk ratio," my doctor told me that LDL and HDL, on their own, are not good markers or predictors for heart attack. A far more important indicator, he said, is the number of LDL cholesterol particles per unit of blood, and the particle sizes. Indeed, he said, LDL particle number is the #1 risk marker for heart attack.

Have you ever heard that before? I hadn't! And my LDL particle number is very high.

I haven't been able to learn much about this matter of particle numbers and particle sizes, but I have been able to confirm that Dr. Leonardi wasn't just blowing smoke.

There were some more surprises:
  • My fasting glucose level was high.
  • My HgbA1c (Hemoglobin A1c--glycosylated hemoglobin) was high.
  • My testosterone was low.
  • Though my hemoglobin and hematocrit levels were officially in the "normal" range, they are, said Dr. Leonardi, "low for Colorado." (When you live at relatively high altitude, as we do, your blood should have a little more hemoglobin and hematocrit then someone at sea level.)
  • I don't know that I've ever heard of osteoporosis in men, but the bone density analyses were interesting as well. I have no osteoporosis, but I do have what Dr. Leonardi called osteopenia, or moderate bone loss, in portions of my hips.
  • And then there is the matter of body fat. I have a BMI (body mass index) of 24.5 which is within the normal range. Most people when they look at me say they think I am almost on the slender side. But the fat analysis shows that my body is composed of 24.9% fat. The goal, Dr. Leonardi said, should be under 20% body fat, or 80+% of lean mass (bone and muscle). What's even more interesting is where the fat is located--hidden away in the middle of my abdomen. Dr. Leonardi says he wants me to lose 16 pounds of fat and gain 8 pounds of lean mass.
I listened to all of this and wondered why I have heard so little of it before. It's not as if I've been ignoring my health! I've been going to my doctor on a regular basis. But I've never heard most of these things before. Why? (Or, rather, why not?)

I thought Dr. Leonardi's answer to that question was rather interesting . . . and sobering. as his website says concerning medical insurance,
[I]nsurance companies typically don't pay for preventive care. Their job is not to keep you healthy. It is to provide standard care for covered illnesses in return for your monthly premium.
The traditional medical industry is all about treating illness. It is not about, as Dr. Leonardi would say, helping people to decelerate or even block our progress down the highway toward disease.

More on this stuff at a later date!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Leaders for today . . . and tomorrow

While at the Mission India conference this past weekend, they showed a bunch of pictures of Indian children. At one point, someone said, "These are not the leaders of tomorrow! They are the leaders of today!"

The speaker gave an illustration of what he meant. He told of a little 9-year-old girl who had attended one of the Children's Bible Clubs. At the end of the club, she went to the leader and asked if she might have copies of the materials they had used. "I'd like to teach these things to my friends," she said.

"I'm sorry," said the leader, "but we don't have any extras. You can't have any."

"That's okay," said the girl. "I've memorized everything, and I'll teach them on my own."

So she gathered her friends--90 of them--and has since taught them in three separate classes of 30 students apiece. Not only has she taught them, but she has gathered 50 adults as well . . . and founded a church.

So this one 9-year-old girl has made a huge impact in her community.

I got thinking: Would we Americans even begin to imagine one of our kids doing such a thing? Would we allow her? I wonder if we should expect an almost demand such responsibility on the part of our children? Quit making excuses for poor behavior or the responsibility and, instead, expect them to step up to the plate and provide leadership!

We want, so much, for our children to have a good time and enjoy their childhoods, but I wonder if we actually do them a disservice. Would they actually be better off if they knew that what they do is vital to the health and functionality of the family?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Free--no processing fee--online transactions for non-profits

I have told a couple or three non-profit organizations about this. But I am beginning to feel badly that I haven't told more. If you have influence with someone in a position of authority at a 501(c)(3), I would encourage you to make them aware of the opportunity.

It's been 11 months since Google made the offer, but there are still four months this year in which your favorite charities could benefit by moving donors toward online gift-giving: a tremendous boon for the charity and investor. (Know anyone with a credit card that offers miles or a cash back bonus or other benefit? --Now they can enjoy that benefit as well as grant their favorite charity 100% of the value of their donation.)

First, the details of the offer. From the official Google Checkout Blog:

Introducing Google Checkout for Non-Profits
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Posted by Prem Ramaswami, Product Manager

Today, I'm happy (OK, more like ecstatic) to introduce Google Checkout for Non-Profits -- with this launch, U.S. non-profit organizations (IRS-certified 501(c)(3)s) now have an easy way to accept online donations, and donors have a fast and secure way to support their favorite groups. The best part: it's completely free for the organizations. Through at least the end of 2008, non-profits will pay 0% + 0 cents in transaction fees for each donation they accept through Checkout. And that means donors can support these groups knowing that 100 percent of their donations will reach their charity.

Besides being free, Checkout for Non-Profits is designed to make the entire donation and collection process more efficient. For donors, it enables you to complete a donation with just your Google login, and it helps you track your giving in a convenient and central place (a feature that should be particularly useful for those of us who tend to start our tax returns on April 14). It also helps to drive more donations to non-profits by making it easier for donors to give, and it makes collecting funds as easy as pushing a button. With Checkout for Non-Profits, we hope to do for donations what we're currently doing for e-commerce: increase the volume of transactions by making the process as simple and secure as possible for everyone involved.

To learn more, head over to our Checkout for Non-Profits page, and take a look at non-profits like the William J. Clinton Foundation and the March of Dimes, which are already using it to drive online giving on their YouTube channels.

And then, deeper in Google's Checkout site:
Will I pay fees when I use Google Checkout to collect donations?

Verified non-profit Google Checkout merchants can collect and process donations through Google Checkout for free through December 31, 2008. After this time, all non-profit organizations will pay the low standard transaction fee when processing donations.

You may be charged transaction fees on your first several donations while our team completes an initial review of your account to verify the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status of your organization. Any fees you accrue will be credited back to your account in full within a few business days. This credit will show up as a lump sum credit adjustment under the 'Other Activity' column on the Payouts tab.
Any transactions not conforming to the Checkout donation guidelines or content policies won't qualify for free processing.

I guess I should add a couple of caveats.

1) As we discovered with our company, some people feel an almost moral revulsion against the use of credit cards no matter how responsibly someone else may be able to use them. Your nonprofit may need to take this into account, depending on your specific audience. Maybe you want to make a comment, as I seem to recall I did when we first added credit card capabilities in our company, that it was not our intent, in any way, to encourage debt, let, as we had found in our family, a judicious use of credit cards that we pay off at the end of each month can make life very much simpler both for the credit card holder and the recipient of the payments.

2) It has been my experience that it takes awhile to get used to new technology. It seems to me, even if you have no intention of continuing with Google and/or with credit card online transactions (you may intend to implement online checking, for example), it makes great sense to get some experience under your belt, especially if someone else is willing to help underwrite the expense!

When our company first went online, those almost-3% transaction fees for accepting credit cards seemed quite severe. But then, when we began to realize how much more smoothly our entire operation became when we no longer had to handle all that paper associated with the check payments we had been receiving, we decided it was well worth it to us to bite the bullet and pay the fees.

Of course, to maximize the benefits of online giving all the way around, you should probably make extremely visible to your donors the real costs associated with the various methods of transaction processing and, therefore, your agency's preferences:
  • When we process a paper check, it costs us _____ in terms of processing time by various staff members, plus ____ in bank fees, etc. Therefore, . . .
  • When we receive an online donation via credit card, we ______, and, therefore, save all the associated staff processing and handling time. The bank, however, of course, charges us a ___% processing fee. Therefore, . . .
  • When we receive an online donation via electronic check . . .
  • Etc.

How to Not Mess Up the Great Commission Too Much

Shocking. Depressing. And then thought-provoking and, frankly, almost exhilarating.

A staff member of Mission India shared a video with us over the weekend. It may be one of the most useful investments of 5 minutes and 22 seconds of your life: How to Not Mess Up the Great Commission Too Much.

Its primary messages: "Aim lower." "Think smaller." "Give up." And, "Go have a cup of coffee."

Yep. Do those things and maybe we won't mess up so badly.

Depressing, isn't it?

Or maybe not.

I want to think about it some more.

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Amazing deal . . .

Just got this from my brother, the computer guru:
The best quality, best performance, best warranty external hard drive is available for an amazing low price right now.

* Seagate FreeAgent Pro 750GB drive
* All three interfaces: eSATA (fastest), Firewire (fast), USB (compatible)
* 5 year warranty on the drive AND the whole box
* $129 with free shipping at

We use these (actually the eSATA/USB version) for our primary backups these days. $0.17 per Gigabyte is a great price no matter what. To get that on the best quality equipment is phenomenal.

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . . ".

[Back to Sonya, Johan, and their Dutch friends from Texas.]

"I thought all the Dutch immigrants settled in western Michigan and Iowa," I said. ". . . And then, of course, the central valley in California."

"Those are the rich Dutch," said our companions. "We're the poor Dutch. We settled in Texas."

[Well, they're not so poor anymore. I forget how many cows they said they milk every day or how many acres they own. Sonya commented about their house that has 12 external doors. --It was sadly neglected when they bought it, but/and/so they had to purchase 12 external door handles to replace those that were falling off. . . .]

I asked, as I often do, how each couple first met. And, as is usual, they told their stories from first meeting until they got married.

For Sonya and Johan, their story included a close call with the INS [U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service, now U.S. Citizenship and Naturalization Service] who were trying to deport the illegal Dutch immigrants.

"Yes," Johan admitted, "I was an illegal."

"We were all illegals," affirmed his friend, sitting to my left.

Somehow it had never occurred to me that these fine, upstanding, God-fearing, America-loving, young Dutch immigrants could have been illegals.

Sarita's parents weren't illegals. My parents and grandparents and great-grandparents weren't illegals. They wouldn't have imagined coming in illegally.

But, yet, here they were: self-acknowledged former illegals, one of them, at least, a full U.S. citizen, now.

Why? Why illegals?

I wonder what the United States would be like today if its immigration policies were more the way they were prior to the Immigration Act of 1917 or, even, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882?

What happened to the open door policy expressed so evocatively on the base of the Statue of Liberty which, itself, was erected and dedicated in 1886:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset-gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome, her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore;
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Monday, August 25, 2008

Do I know you from somewhere?

Sarita and I spent the last few days (Thursday evening through Sunday morning) on Mackinac Island just off the tip of the lower peninsula in Michigan. We were there for a Mission India meeting.

Saturday evening we were supposed to be the hosts at a dinner table for eight. Except, by the time the prayer is about to be said, no one has come to join us. All the other tables are full. Ours is empty . . . except for us!

Talk about feeling weird! I mean, they are all full, and our table is empty.

And then a couple sits down just as the prayer begins.

We are just making introductions after the prayer when another couple shows up . . .

The first couple, who sit on our right, are from Texas. The second couple, on our left, are from Texas, too.

They make a couple of jokes across the table to one another that seem to indicate they know each other.

I ask.

"No. We just met last night," says one of the husbands.

One of the men is an intellectual property attorney, the other says he slops cow barns, wrestles hay, and so forth: "All the heavy, dirty work that cow farmers don't want to do."

"Yah," says his wife, "and sometimes I do that work, too."

Then the third couple shows up and sits across the table from us. I can barely hear what they are saying, but I get the impression the husband has a foreign accent.

I shake his hand. "I'm John," I say.

"I'm Johan [YO-hahn]," says the husband. His wife's name is Sonya. They, too, are from Texas.

I make some comment about three couples from Texas, only one from Colorado . . . and we're all at a meeting in Michigan.

As the talk continues, we discover that Johan and Sonya don't know the first couple at all, but they and the second couple are very good friends. Indeed, the second couple do quite a bit of work for Johan and Sonya. And the four of them go to the same church.

As is still fairly common (though slowly becoming less so), many of the participants at Mission India meetings are of Dutch extraction. Sarita is. The second and third couple are. I and the first couple are not.

So we get talking about "things Dutch." It turns out, both of the husbands, guys in their low to mid-30s, are actually fairly recent immigrants from Holland. The guy to my left is from Groningen, the northeastern-most province of Holland, the other from Friesland [pronounced FREESS-lahnd], the province immediately to the west of Groningen.

"The Fries [FREESS] don't get along with anyone," someone jokes. [I'm sorry. I can't remember who said what.]

"Yeah. You never date or mix or do anything together," they joke. "If a group of bicyclists from Groningen and a group from Friesland meet, they will either bicycle in their own groups side-by-side, or one will fall in behind the other. But they will not intermix. Even if they go to the same school together. . . ."

The wives' backgrounds aren't quite so clear. I get the sense they were both born in the United States, but the one who sits next to me has stronger, perhaps first-generation, Dutch immigrant roots, while Sonya says something about having been born in the San Francisco Bay Area but then spent many years--from the time she was 11 until she was 19--in the Netherlands.

A little bit later, Sonya says something about having spent those years in Drenthe, the province immediately below Groningen. ("Wait," I am about to say to Sarita, "isn't that where your parents are from?" when Sonya continues . . . ) "in a little town called Dwingeloo.

"Dwingeloo!" Sarita exclaims. "My father came from Dwingeloo!"

"Oh?" says Sonya. "What is his family name?"

"Hessels," says Sarita.

"My grandmother's name was Hessels," says Sonya. "She had two brothers . . ." and she mentions their names.

"Actually," Sarita corrects her, now, "she had three brothers. The third was named Tienus. And he was my father."

"Ah! You are right! I think I have heard about him," says Sonya. "But he was not mentioned much."

"That's because he left Holland back in 1951," Sarita explains.

Sonya acknowledges she has heard something about that fact.

"Well, nice to meet you, cousin!" Sarita fairly shouts with apparent pleasure.

There is a slight pause. Then Sonya continues, "When I was preparing to come up here, my Aunt Allie [AHL-ee] told me I should look up the Michigan relatives, but I thought, 'No way! I don't know these people!' --And then, here you are!"

Out of the blue.

And a new-old family contact.

At the end of the meal, Sonya and I exchange names, addresses and phone numbers.

But I wonder: how do we establish--or re-establish--a family relationship that has been so long neglected?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Getting the most out of an interview subject

I bumped into some angry blog posts about an Olympics interview conducted by Chris Collinsworth of NBC with Kobe Bryant of the American basketball team.

Bryant was telling Collinsworth about what he did when he first received his Olympics jacket. He said he laid it on his bed and just sat there looking at it for a long time.

Collinsworth asked, "Where does the patriotism come from inside of you? Historically, what is it?"

And Bryant answered, "Well, you know, it's just . . . Our country is . . . We believe it's the greatest country in the world. It has given us so many great opportunities, and it's just a sense of pride that you have: that you say, 'You know what? Our country is the best!'"

Collinsworth followed up, "Is that a 'cool' thing to say, in this day and age--that you love your country, and that you’re fighting for the red, white and blue? It seems sort of like a day gone by."

Bryant came back, "No. It's a cool thing for me to say. I feel great about it, and I'm not ashamed to say it. I mean, this is a tremendous honor."

Warner Todd Huston of Stop the ACLU wrote in NBC Questions Kobe Bryant’s Pride of Being on Team USA,
Kobe began to say how thrilled he was to get his Team USA uniform and that he “just stared at it” for a while in awe. Collinsworth followed that heartwarming display of patriotism with a jaw dropping series of questions. Worse, he asked these questions with an absurd smirk stealing across his face, seeming to think that he was about to join Kobe in cynicism over the evil America with his doubting Thomas questions. . . .

Apparently Collinsworth was shocked that a black man could be at all patriotic and proud of being a representative of his country. But the real question here isn’t if Kobe is proud to wear the Team USA uniform, but why Chris Collinsowrth so automatically thought it wasn’t “cool” to be proud of being an American “in this day and age”?

I mean, what the heck was this “historically, what is it” question? Is Collinsworth saying that it is impossible for a black man to be patriotic? Apparently so.

I replied:
Let me note that I don't watch TV. I have never seen Mr. Collinsworth before. I know nothing about him or about his political or cultural views. . . .

I would like to think that Collinsworth was asking in a friendly way what, sadly, too many left-leaning Americans would ask of any patriotic American if given the opportunity (but which they would ask with far less finesse and far greater vehemence).

I, personally, am not a member of the professional press corp. HOWEVER, I am often called upon to get people’s direct and real opinions on different subjects. And I have found one of the best techniques to elicit passionate and heartfelt comments is to ask questions in a somewhat adversarial tone--even if and as I may fully agree with [what I expect] the speaker [to say].

If I merely nod my head and agree, I get no passionate statement from my interviewee. If, however, I "come at them" a bit and feign some form of mild astonishment or shock at what they say, I elicit a much more robust and passionate statement-–exactly what Mr. Collinsworth elicited from Mr. Bryant.

Imagine what the world would be like if reporters were only permitted to ask softball questions that never force an interviewee to "dig down deep" and come up with a passionate reply. How uneducational. How boring!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lex Talionis

John Bouvier in his A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States says lex talionis is "the Law of Retaliation." And, he suggests, it's based on "the law of Moses, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, &c."

But here comes Herb Titus in his "God, Man & Law" lecture series, Lecture #8: "Restitution." Titus says "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" has nothing to do with retaliation and everything to do with restitution.

Here are the verses in question:
Exodus 21:22-25: "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise."

Leviticus 24:17-20: "If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death. Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution—life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured."

Deuteronomy 19:19 & 21: "You must purge the evil from among you. . . . Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."
Focused in like this, it sure sounds like retaliation! But look at the context of the "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" verses, Titus says. When you do, you see something else.

In the case of Exodus 21, we find "If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he . . . is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow . . . must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed" (vv. 18-19).

And, "If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows" (v. 22).

And, "If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth" (vv. 26-27).

"Clearly, from context, we are not to take the 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' passage literally," says Titus. "It's a matter of proportionality. You must not let the courts assigned absolutely any judgment they can come up with. The punishment must be in proportion to the crime."

Same thing in the Deuteronomy passage. In verses 16 to 19 we read, "If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse a man of a crime, the two men involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against his brother, then do to him as he intended to do to his brother."

"'Do to him as he intended to do to his brother'--that is the point of the 'eye for eye, tooth for tooth' command," Titus says.

The Leviticus passage, probably, is the hardest to see Titus's point. When we read, "If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured," it's pretty hard to see that as anything but retaliation. However, in the broader context of the Jewish law, as we have already seen, the proportionality of restitution idea--rather than retaliation--does come out.

He who kills a man must die. But, "Whoever kills an animal must make restitution" (v. 21). The Scripture does not say, "Whoever kills an animal must have one of his animals killed." Rather, he must make restitution--in proportion to the injury he caused.

In sum, Titus says, rather than mocking Scripture for its supposedly "backward" "retrograde" teachings, modern society could learn quite a bit from Scripture about wise jurisprudence and proportionality in judgment.

I think he may have a point!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The climate disaster hockey stick

How do you explain what seems to be obscured too much by technical jargon and high mathematics?

Finally, a good bishop in the Anglican Church grants us an explanation of the other side of the climate controversy in terms most of us, I expect, can understand.

"Bishop Hill, a dissentient afflicted with the malady of thought," speaks of Caspar and the Jesus paper--the former referring to Caspar Amman and Eugene Wahl, associates of Michael Mann, the chief architect of the "hockey stick" graph that Al Gore used to "prove" and dismay "Inconvenient Truth" audiences about the climatic disaster we all face.

And the "Jesus Paper"? That's a supposedly scientific paper that wouldn't die. Or, rather, that kept "coming back to life" even though it really was dead. (Someone suggested Bishop Hill might have better called it the "Lazarus Paper," since "[m]iraculous risings from the dead don't always start with crucifixion.")

See how scientific that Lazarus paper is . . . and how scientific all the other papers that are dependent upon it really are.

I encourage you to read the article. It's a bit long, but well worth the minor slog--especially considering that both of the leading presidential candidates seem committed to establishing a trillion-dollar, government-sponsored march toward freedom from dependence on hydrocarbon-based energy production.

Oh. And, y'know, Gore says, the climate situation has "not improved" since his film in 2006. But if you look here, you find that he seems to have cherry-picked his data to make the situation look worse than it is. --So maybe he is telling the truth this time: it really wasn't all that bad when he first warned us. And it's no better than the "not bad" that it was when he told us about the "inconvenient truth."

--The graph Gore used "conveniently" ended in 1999 and, as the authors of the Gore Lied blog note, the creator of the graph, Dr. Spencer,
highlighted the Mt. Pinatubo cooling and the 1998 El Nino warming, and our graphics department added the release date of Al Gore's science fiction movie. Much to our amusement, it shows that the temperature has dropped approximately .58 degrees Celsius (1.04 degrees Fahrenheit) since his movie's release.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Entering the "connected" age . . .

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Sarita and I have owned cell phones for years, but we hardly ever use them. Why? Because we never carry them around with us!

But then we were driving up to visit Amy and Phil on the birth of Jonadab and we wished--once more--that we had a different habit with phones. We had promised to bring some pie as a kind of celebratory gift. But Amy only eats wheat-free food, so we needed to buy our pie at Whole Foods. The local Whole Foods is several miles away . . . in the wrong direction.

"Let's just pick one up when we get to Boulder," Sarita said.

But we never thought to find out where Whole Foods might exist in Boulder. So we're on our way and have no clue where we should go.

"Boy!" (I think I was the one who brought it up.) "If only we had an iPhone, we could look it up online and get directions. Or call Amy and Phil and find out. . . ."

And then it struck me: Sarita and I don't need a cell phone too much for day-to-day communication; what we need it for is all the other stuff of life: PDA (I've carried my PalmPilot Professional around with me for something like 11 years--ever since it first came out), camera, electronic voice note-taker, . . . And then, if I used it for those "additional" functions, I might have it available for phone calls as well.

So--it doesn't take me long once I really become committed to a project--we got home and I began doing my serious research.

I didn't want an iPhone. But what would replace it?

The Samsung Instinct?

The more I looked into it, the more confused I became. Too many plans, too many options, and no clear, obvious winner.

I finally went down to the local Sprint store, with Justin and his girlfriend, Jaclyn, along, to get a first-hand look at the phones . . . And then, suddenly, it all seemed to become clear: Sarita had already declared that she wanted a BlackBerry Pearl . . . and with that decision made, I would get a BlackBerry Curve.

Sadly (?) we walked into the store at 8:40 pm, just minutes before they were closing. I had no idea how complex such a decision and application process it could be. So we walked out at closing with no phones and no agreements.

And, after finding negative reviews about Sprint's customer service, and then other sources for phones and phone plans at potentially better prices, it took almost one more day for me to come to terms with actually placing an order online with Sprint--at an unadvertised savings of another $50 per phone via online chat help that popped up when I visited their site.

So we received our phones last Friday.

And I spent all the rest of Friday evening and all day Saturday getting my data out of my PalmPilot and into my BlackBerry.

I've still got a long way to go learning about this modern marvel of connectedness.

Justin taught me about Cha-cha (text:242-242) in order to get a 160-character-limit answer to virtually any question I might have.

I actually even used it Sunday evening to find out whatever the "180 isotope of oxygen" is. --I had been unable to find the answer online myself. So I Cha-cha'd. I got a partial answer, but they actually seemed as stumped as I was.

Still, I have now seen Justin use the service. And I've used it. I'm pretty excited. . . .

Oh. --We never did get the pie for Amy & Phil. --What a bummer!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


[That title is supposed to mean "Rest in Peace," not "rip a CD."]

Image via Wikipedia I had a question about grammar and I went to my old favorite grammar website, Charles Darling's The Guide to Grammar and Writing--otherwise fondly remembered by me as Ask Grammar (including a hacked picture of Whistler's mother in a rocking chair).

I was shocked to see a notice at the top of the home page:
Dedicated to the memory of Dr. Charles Darling.


I wrote to Dr. Darling several times over the years to ask him detailed questions of grammar. He always responded with grace and kindness.

And now he's dead.

Indeed, he's been dead for over a year, based on a blog post I found on memorializing his passing on July 31, 2007!

I guess it's "just" so shocking partially because I counted Dr. Darling as a kind of friend, even though we never met. And here this acquaintance of mine is dead . . . and has been dead for so long . . . and I didn't know.

There's something that feels hollow about that. As if I should have known, though I don't know why.

What bums me out even more: I have been unable to find out anything more about him. Not even the date of his death or, really, the cause. (The author of the blog article notes, "At one point an announcement asked for patience [in answering questions] as Dr. Darling was recovering from surgery. During my last visit, a new page announced his passing.")

I thought the web is supposed to be so useful for finding out just about anything. But not so. Some events and some people go unremarked . . . though they are truly significant.

I would like to echo the sentiments of Carla, the author of the blog post on "Rest in peace, Charles Darling. And thank you."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Master craftsman

Marco Facciola, a 16-year-old high school student, constructed this bicycle completely out of wood.My artist son-in-law sent me a link to an article about Marco Facciola, a 16-year-old high school student who built a working bicycle--including, most significantly, a free-wheeling gear-and-chain drive system--completely out of wood.


"This project came to mind as I was reflecting on the many stories my opa, Case Vandersluis, told me about his adventures in Holland during World War II," Facciola writes. "Opa was roughly the age I am now when he had to build wooden wheels for his bicycle, as rubber was scarce during the war."

People who only saw a brief summary of the original story made rather disparaging remarks about the entire project, some of them suggesting the chain must be impossibly weak.

But, says Facciola, "I quickly realized the first pieces of the puzzle I needed to figure out were the chain and the sprockets (gears), since the design of all the other components depended on these.

The bicycle is built solely of wood and glue--all the way down to the drive chain . . . that works!"I was mostly concerned that the wooden chain would break. I researched the strength of different types of wood and built jigs to test the stresses that each of the chain's components would undergo during use. First, I used my weight (150 lbs) to see if the wood could endure this amount of force. Then, my father would stand on the jig. I calculated that my dad's weight would be twice the force each chain component would need to withstand. I made the specs high to ensure the chain and sprockets would work even if the wood had imperfections. During testing, I made adjustments to the chain's components, and once I had it figured out, I realized that completing the project was within my grasp."

Facciola says he spent almost 40% of all the time he invested in the project on the chain alone. Drilling the spacers took the better part of a day. "It didn't help that I made a small miscalculation and drilled nearly 1.5 times as many pieces as I needed!"

And then there's that great free-wheeling system Facciola created so he wouldn't have to pedal even while rolling downhill. (Of course, when you're riding a bike like Facciola's that has no brakes, it might be nice to have a direct-drive system when rolling downhill!)

Still, I am impressed that he not only thought of the mechanism, but was able to fashion it out of wood.

"I was unsure how many fingers . . . it should have and how strong they should be."

After Facciola put the contraption together, he found it was much too difficult to turn, so "I weakened each piece using [a] Dremel® [rotary tool], sanding off a thin layer of wood from each finger. Even after doing this, the system was still too difficult to turn, so I cut every second finger down.

"Afterwards, it turned smoothly, just as I wanted it to."


Monday, August 18, 2008

"Disaster!" --Really?!?

Variations in CO2, temperature and dust from...Image via Wikipedia While preparing my previous post, I bumped into1 the image at right of "CO2 (Green graph), temperature (Blue graph), and dust concentration (Red graph) measured [or surmised!--JAH] from the Vostok, Antarctica ice core" (according to "Petit et al., 1999").

420,000 years of ice core data from Vostok, An...Image via Wikipedia And I was just about to comment on that graph when I acquired another, described as "From bottom to top: Solar variation at 65°N due to Milankovitch cycles (connected to 18O [isotope of oxygen]). 18O isotope of oxygen. Levels of methane (CH4). Relative temperature. Levels of carbon dioxide (CO2)."

The description for this second set of graphs says it includes "420,000 years of ice core data from Vostok." Note that the current period is at the left.

I implore you: take a look at those graphs. Carefully. Whether you believe the science is accurate surrounding how many years the ice core data really include, consider what these core readings say about the earth's temperature today . . . and compared to times in the past.

We keep reading and hearing about the climate "disaster" and "crisis" we face and how it is all humankind's fault--our terrible hydrocarbon-based lifestyle, you know.

Well--whose fault was it in all those previous cycles in which temperatures seem to have matched or, even, possibly, exceeded the temperatures we seem to be experiencing today? Where did all those high CO2 values come from?

Somehow, looking at these kinds of data, I get the impression we really are faced with a bunch of wild-eyed, hysterical crazies when it comes to the suggestion that global warming is all "our" (humans') fault. The arrogance on both sides--to think we have been able to cause all the warming or to imagine, as soon as temperatures begin to fall, that it was, somehow, our efforts that brought the earth's temperatures back down.

1 I've been using Zemanta for some time. It provides some interesting public-domain photo-illustration suggestions as well as related articles for almost anything I blog about these days. Both sets of graphs came to my attention from Zemanta.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

For the lack of an editor . . .

One thing

. . . leads to

. . . another

. . . and this morning I bump into a page on the Discovery Channel website

that says HDTVs are speeding up climate change due to the Nitrogen Trifluoride used in their production:
According to University of California researchers, the gas flat-panel displays exhaust is 17,200 worse for the planet than carbon dioxide.

That's because the gas in question - Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3) - is 17,200 better at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a hundred-year period than the much-maligned and best-known greenhouse gas, CO2.

Well, the lack of a unit of measure for that number--17,200--made me pause. Did the author mean 17,200 TIMES or 17,200 PERCENT? There's a 10,000 percent (or 100 times) difference between those two units!

As it turned out, the author offered readers a clue later on:
Today, researchers say production of NF3 has reached 4,000 tonnes a year. If this year's entire output was released into the atmosphere, it would have a warming effect equivalent to 67 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

I posted a comment on the page:
Where's the editor for this article? "17,200 worse" doesn't make sense! Is that "17,200 TIMES worse"? "17,200 PERCENT worse"? . . . I guess I can calculate it. 67,000,000/4,000 = 16,750. So the missing word is "times."

But it is too bad no editor was there to catch the grammatical error (repeated twice) that left out the vital word.

On the other hand, then, too, it would have been nice if the author and/or an editor would have done a FACT-check to determine if "16,750 times" is really the correct number (rather than the [apparently] "17,200 times" reported), or whether the idea that 4,000 tonnes of NF3 produces the same warming effect as 67 million tonnes of carbon dioxide is really accurate.

I wonder where that 17,200 number really came from? And why it doesn't match the 67 million tonnes/4,000 tonnes comparison?

I'll be curious to see how Discovery Channel handles my query and comment. Are they going to quietly correct the error(s) and leave my comment unpublished? Or . . . ???

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Freedom of speech dies when no one is willing to defend it

Just heard about "the latest" surrender of freedom without so much as a whimper . . . much less a fight.

Forget "the land of the free and the home of the brave." Forget the attitude and commitment attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Apparently, Americans are now more inclined, simply, to turn tail and walk away.

And so our vaunted right to free speech is, I'm afraid, quickly disappearing. . . . And I think few Americans want to hear about it.
The Jewel of Medina, a debut novel by journalist Sherry Jones, 46, was due to be published [August 12] and an eight-city publicity tour had been scheduled. . . .

[However,] Jones said that she was shocked to learn in May, that publication would be postponed indefinitely.

Want to guess why it was postponed?

Yep. It touches on Mohammed.
The novel traces the life of A'isha from her engagement to Mohammed, when she was six, until the prophet's death. . . .

"I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed ... I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder," said Jones.

[But] Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received "cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, [and] also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment."

He added: "In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel."

Jones, who has just completed a sequel to the novel examining her heroine's later life, is free to sell her book to other publishers, Perry said.

Random House is so nice, isn't it?

But then I find some additional articles.

The book is by no means "high literature" (fancy that!). But it appears well-structured. (You can read the prologue here.)

Some claim it is a trashy bodice-ripper. I do not know. I saw no "bodice-ripping" tendencies in the prologue. It is written in the style of most modern fiction: lots of real or implicit conflict and tension. Rather florid descriptions. But, if anything, Muhammad is portrayed as an astonishingly sensitive and considerate man--far more saintly and ready to offer grace and forgiveness than one might expect of a powerful man married to a wayward child bride.

But the real story, it seems to me, is all about the publishing process . . . and how the book came to be "postponed" in the first place.

It seems there was a certain professor from the University of Texas, a Denise Spellberg, associate professor of Islamic history, who had something to do with what happened. As Asra Q. Nomani wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg. . . . Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg's book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of 'A'isha Bint Abi Bakr.

But Ms. Spellberg wasn't a fan of Ms. Jones's book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg's classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. "She was upset," Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel "made fun of Muslims and their history," and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a "very ugly, stupid piece of work." The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: "the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion's sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life."

Says Ms. Spellberg: "I walked through a metal detector to see 'Last Temptation of Christ,'" the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. "I don't have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can't play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography." . . .

Sorry. I have to stop the narrative, here, for a moment.

Spellberg says she herself "walked through a metal detector" in order to ensure she took the opportunity to watch a "soft core porn" depiction of Christian sacred history, but she feels the need to warn Muslims of potential offense before they can judge a similar work [or, based on what little I know of either the movie or the book, a potentially less offensive work] on its own merits?

Sorry. Something seems rather hypocritical, here, to me.

But back to the narrative.

We're told Spellberg doesn't have a problem with historical fiction, but, somehow (perhaps following a conversion at or shortly after having viewed "The Last Temptation of Christ"?), she does have a problem with the "deliberate misinterpretation of history" in the form of "play[ing] with a sacred history and turn[ing] it into soft core pornography."

And so, according to Nomani, . . .
After he got the call from Ms. Spellberg, Mr. Amanullah dashed off an email to a listserv of Middle East and Islamic studies graduate students, acknowledging he didn't "know anything about it [the book]," but telling them, "Just got a frantic call from a professor who got an advance copy of the forthcoming novel, 'Jewel of Medina' -- she said she found it incredibly offensive." He added a write-up about the book from the Publishers Marketplace, an industry publication.

The next day, a blogger known as Shahid Pradhan posted Mr. Amanullah's email on a Web site for Shiite Muslims -- "Hussaini Youth" -- under a headline, "upcoming book, 'Jewel of Medina': A new attempt to slander the Prophet of Islam." Two hours and 28 minutes after that, another person by the name of Ali Hemani proposed a seven-point strategy to ensure "the writer withdraws this book from the stores and apologise all the muslims across the world."

Meanwhile back in New York City, Jane Garrett, an editor at Random House's Knopf imprint, dispatched an email on May 1 to Knopf executives, telling them she got a phone call the evening before from Ms. Spellberg (who happens to be under contract with Knopf to write "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an.")

"She thinks there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence," Ms. Garrett wrote.

Sorry. Feel the need to interrupt once more.

Let's see. Why would Spellberg think there is such a real possibility of major danger? Is this just a "feeling"? Or . . . could she herself have played an integral role in spreading the flames?
"Denise says it is 'a declaration of war . . . explosive stuff . . . a national security issue.' Thinks it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons. Does not know if the author and Ballantine folks are clueless or calculating, but thinks the book should be withdrawn ASAP." ("The Jewel of Medina" was to be published by Random House's Ballantine Books.)

That day, the email spread like wildfire through Random House, which also received a letter from Ms. Spellberg and her attorney, saying she would sue the publisher if her name was associated with the novel. On May 2, a Ballantine editor told Ms. Jones's agent the company decided to possibly postpone publication of the book.

On a May 21 conference call, Random House executive Elizabeth McGuire told the author and her agent that the publishing house had decided to indefinitely postpone publication of the novel for "fear of a possible terrorist threat from extremist Muslims" and concern for "the safety and security of the Random House building and employees."

And now, with that as background, Spellberg writes in a subsequent Wall Street Journal letter, "I Didn't Kill 'The Jewel of Medina.'"

No. I'm sure not! [Sarcasm.]
There is a long history of anti-Islamic polemic that uses sex and violence to attack the Prophet and his faith. This novel follows in that oft-trodden path, one first pioneered in medieval Christian writings.

The novel provides no new reading of Aisha's life, but actually expands upon provocative themes regarding Muhammad's wives first found in an earlier novel by Salman Rushdie, "The Satanic Verses," which I teach. I do not espouse censorship of any kind, but I do value my right to critique those who abuse the past without regard for its richness or resonance in the present.

The combination of sex and violence sells novels. When combined with falsification of the Islamic past, it exploits Americans who know nothing about Aisha or her seventh-century world and counts on stirring up controversy to increase sales. If Ms. Nomani and readers of the Journal wish to allow literature to "move civilization forward," then they should read a novel that gets history right.

What's this about a "right to critique"?

I think "Artemis," in response to the post Clueless Dhimmitude and Denise Spellberg, on the Stop the ACLU blog, has it about right:
Production on a book takes up to or over a year. This book was going to press and would be released in two months.

Spellberg was not asked for a critique, or to give advice on whether to publish or whether the book was factual enough to be deemed worthy of publication. She was sent an ARC (advanced reader copy) in the hopes of an endorsement for the cover.

Random House was committed. It had paid an advance, edited the book, designed the cover and sold it to booksellers by the time the ARC was sent to her. That is how a publishing timeline works. The text had been set in type already, or there would not have even been an ARC yet. The investments had all been made.

Random House had already decided whether the book was worthy of publication on the basis of style or whatever else might qualify under critiques like "trashy" or "literary" or even "historically accurate." They did not need Dr. Spellberg to advise them on that part of their job and it was too late in the process for them to request it of her. Since Dr. Spellberg has a book undergoing the same timeline, she knew this.

Dr. Spellberg says in her letter to the WSJ today that she merely critiqued. Hardly. She played the trump card of potential violence to get her way and to sidetrack this book.

She did not care for the book’s style or content? Fine. She should have declined to endorse and left it at that, and saved her true critique for reviews once it was published. But she did not want it published, so she pulled out the stops.

She continues to speak of the book presenting the history of Islam incorrectly, but she has not in any way itemized incorrect facts. The bottom line seems to be that she does not care for the author’s interpretation and presentation of history because it does not fit with her own view of how it should be seen. It does not, in her opinion, get history "right"--an odd concept coming from a professional historian. She deems it too trashy, not literary enough for such an important subject in the least. Or, I suspect, at most.

So now we are going to have people stopping the presses, speaking darkly of potential violence, marshalling intimidation tactics, based on dislike of an author’s vision and style?

And we will have [various commentators] basically saying "don’t get your knickers in a twist over this because the book is not well written and looks to me to be a bodice-ripper and popular fiction is less worthy of protection. Now if it were to MY literary taste, THEN you should have some concerns."

. . . And that, ultimately, is the real issue, isn't it?

It is the whole matter of how far a society will go in, as the title of a certain book I own says, Defending the Undefendable.

Are Americans willing to defend the principle of freedom of speech--which, obviously, only needs a real defense when the speech involved is offensive to some person (or group of persons) or another and not when it is wholly uncontroversial-- . . . or are we unwilling to defend it?

Friday, August 15, 2008

RFID Tags: one more thing to worry about . . .

An EPC RFID tag used by Wal-Mart.Image via Wikipedia In case you didn't realize it from what I write, I'm a pretty big fan of most technology. When I first heard about RFID [radio-frequency identification], I thought it sounded pretty good. Expensive. But pretty good. It just required a few years of investment for the price to come down. Once Wal-Mart established it as a standard, I figured its future is assured.

While I am still pretty excited about the technology, I read an article in the latest NewsMax magazine that has gotten me thinking.
"Most people don't realize that there's no law against who can read an RFID tag, and no limit on what can be placed on the tag," Democratic California state Sen. Joe Simitian told the Los Angeles Times.
Not that a law against something will preclude a criminal from doing what's wrong! But still, if, indeed, anyone can read the RFID, what real mischief can anyone do?

Calgary Libertarian J. C. Hester suggested one use that got my attention:
"Future burglars could canvass alleys with RFID detectors, looking for RFID tags on discarded packaging that indicates expensive electronic gear is nearby."
It requires someone with a good imagination to come up with scenarios like this! And yet . . . as someone has said, "If it can be conceived, it can be achieved." And it appears that criminal minds conceive an awful lot!

Still, I want to dismiss this idea. Who needs RFID? Hester suggested the burglars would look for "RFID tags on discarded packaging." Obviously, if they can find at the packaging, they can read it. They don't need RFID tags to determine what was in the box!

But then, on second thought, isn't the whole point of RFID tags to increase efficiency? In the same way that the tags improve throughput for stores that have them inserted in their products, so they can improve "throughput" for criminals. With advanced enough technology, the criminals can "read" a whole slew of packages all at one time. Suddenly, they don't have to use their eyes. Or, they can "search" a whole dumpster in the middle of the night without causing any noise and without having to bring a bright light.



I had never thought of that.

Anyone care to suggest some solutions?

[On the same page where Hester suggests the problem, a few respondents hinted at some possible solutions. An anonymous poster suggested

"Or if you want to take out all within a certain (rather large) radius. kill anything like that instantly."]

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Let's see . . . what was that Amendment?

Last I knew, the United States had a Constitution--a Constitution that wasn't ratified by the founding states until they were assured there would be a certain set of Amendments appended to it--Amendments we call The Bill of Rights.

And . . . what was that Amendment? . . . Oh, yes! Number IV: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

And so now we read about new policies of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service:
CBP . . . officers may examine documents, books, pamphlets, and other printed material, as well as computers, disks, hard drives, and other electronic or digital storage devices. . . .

In the course of a border search, and absent individualized suspicion, officers can review and analyze the information transported by any individual attempting to enter, reenter, depart, pass through, or reside in the United States, subject to the requirements and limitations provided herein. . . .

Officers may detain documents and electronic devices, or copies thereof, for a reasonable period of time to perform a thorough border search. The search may take place on-site or at an off-site location. . . .

Officers may encounter information in documents or electronic devices that is . . . encrypted. To assist CBP in determining the meaning of such information, CBP may seek . . . decryption assistance from other Federal agencies or entities. Officers may seek such assistance absent individualized suspicion. . . .

--What part of being "secure in their . . . papers and effects" does the CBP not understand? (I'm talking, here, about U.S. citizens, not foreigners!)

I guess we should take comfort:
Unless otherwise approved by the principal field official such as the Director, Field Operations or Chief Patrol Agent, responses should be received within fifteen (15) days. This timeframe is to be explained in the request for assistance. If the assisting agency is unable to respond in that period of time, CBP may permit extensions in increments of seven (7) days. . . .

Officers encountering business or commercial information in documents and electronic devices shall treat such information as business confidential information and shall take all reasonable measures to protect that information from unauthorized disclosure. . . .

That should give you some reassurance, shouldn't it? The U.S. government and government agents would never engage in politically-motivated or self-aggrandizing (corrupt) behavior, would they? They are all above reproach, aren't they?

As the person who wrote the original article that alerted me to these policies noted,
The policies [a]ffect anyone entering the United States, including US citizens. Civil liberties and business travel groups have been pressing for months to have the government disclose publicly these policies, after receiving complaint after complaint from international and US travelers that have had their laptops, iPods and even cell phones taken, sometimes for months at a time.


It seems the American people have forgotten the heritage they were granted by their country's forefathers.

On the other hand, during periods of major political, economic, and social unrest, it sure seems nice--in theory, at least--that our government might protect us from sudden terror.

Is that what the U.S. government is able to do if and when it is given maximal authority over our lives? . . . Or does the government itself become, more and more, a--if not the--primary source of terror itself?