Archive for June, 2006


June 30, 2006 3 comments

One of the most picturesque streets in America is Normal Avenue in Normal, Illinois.  It is lined with beautiful trees, lovely landscaped yards, and a variety of interesting, older MidWestern homes.  It is on this street that I ride my bicycle towards the university, and on which I saw someone’s driver’s license.

  • And his military ID

  • And his certification for “Light Vehicle Operation”
  • And his ID for a security-related government agency which I shall not name.  It was sealed in some very clear plastic, with a hologram, the owner’s picture, and a computer chip in it.
  • His Social Security Card (!)
  • And many, many other cards, scattered all over the street.  And there was the wallet – a big black leather job, laying face open in the middle of the street.  There were no credit cards or cash.

I stopped my bike, gathered up all the cards (which were spread over a 75-foot area) and stuffed them into the wallet.  The address on the driver’s license wasn’t far, so I abandoned my errand and rode to the house.  The doorbell was barely audible over the roar of a large and lethal-sounding dog inside.  At length, an extremely fit-looking young man came to the door.  I recognized his face from the ID picture.

He seemed happy to have the wallet.  Seems he’d put it on top of his car to pay for gasoline…

Categories: Stupidity

Gasoline politics and Seafoam

June 28, 2006 20 comments

There’s hardly anything luckier than running into a certifiable genius when you can’t figure out a problem.  I’d just bumped into a friend of mine at the lumberyard, and I was pickin’ his brain like meat from a crab-leg.

One of his many talents is a deep, engineering-level knowledge of everything automotive.  For example, he kept all the old cop cars running safely for the stunt scenes in the “Blues Brothers” movie remake.  He was a motor consultant to “Batman Begins”.  He knows all about fuel chemistry, all the way from the crude oil entering the refinery cracking tower to the deposits inside your car’s tailpipe.  So he was just the guy to ask about the fuel problem in my VW.  It turns out the problem is political…

Oil companies in the US have been unwilling to comply with environmental rules (because they’d have to charge an extra dime for their incredibly cheap gas) so they have not been building any new refineries.  Instead, they just cranked the old ones up to maximum capacity, so they have less control over the purity of what comes out each level of the towers.  This situation was not improved by the hurricanes that damaged the gulf coast last year, by the way.

It had not occurred to me to blame the fuel itself.  The gas you’re buying?  Well, it’s approximately what it’s supposed to be, but it varies a lot. They don’t have time for recracking when the tolerances are ‘off’.  Usually, this is fine.  The computer in your car can compensate and you generally don’t know about it.

But suppose your car ain’t got one o’ them thar computer dealies?  Suppose it was built when gas refineries were run as if the purity of the gas mattered, because cars had carburetors… say in about 1967?  And suppose it’s an air-cooled engine that runs thirty degrees hotter than the one in your car?  The fuel sits in the float bowl, getting nearly to boiling temperature.  Then it gets sucked down a little tube, through a tiny jet, and that’s where the impurities crystalize into ‘lacquer’.

This aligned neatly with my experience.  I’d take the carb out, thoroughly clean it with very agressive solvents, and the car would run great for about a day until the idle jet and idle trim jet (which are really the most important ones up to about 2300 RPM) would clog up.  My first thought was ‘plain old crud’, but my gas tank was fully reconditioned, there’s a fine brass screen, and two fuel filters inline before the carburator.  That should have caught any POC.

When this happens, I know it.  The car loses power at low RPM’s, it runs even hotter than normal, and it bucks and kicks.  It will idle either at high RPM’s or not at all.  It’s embarrassing, not to mention uneconomical, polluting, and unsafe.  It’s very bad for the engine itself.

I had tried various fuel system cleaners to dissolve the lacquer, but to no avail.  My friend recommended something called ‘Seafoam’, which is an old product that I would not have thought to use.  He said to start with 30% higher-than-recommended concentration, and to be prepared to swap out the fuel filters a week later (after all, despite the clean tank, the fuel line is 39 years old).  Then, use when needed at normal concentration.

It worked.  I spent the last few days hotrodding around town on various errands and the car idled and performed exactly the way it is supposed to.  In fact, as it never has since I built that engine.  Yea, Seafoam!

UPDATE: I have consolidated this post and all the other fuel and carburetion related posts into one: 34PICT-3 Carburetor Final.  That post will also be updated when new information comes in.

Correct jetting of 34PICT-3 carburetor
Correcting fuel pressure problems in VW type 1

Categories: Personal, VW

Elemental beauty

June 26, 2006 1 comment

Hu – the human element

This commercial was so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw it.  As the 90 seconds ticked by, and the company’s name would clearly not be revealed at the very last moment, I thought to myself; “Please, don’t be a car commercial.  And please, don’t be Microsoft.”

Then the corporate logo came onscreen.  It was Dow chemical: the wonderful company that brought us Napalm and Agent Orange

There is a deep, emotional response to beauty.  Advertising companies know this.  I have seen Nike, Toyota, and Hyundai use the same technique.  Maybe in advertising, beauty is the new sex.

Categories: business

A cold and broken alleluia

June 24, 2006 28 comments

Is everyone able to have faith?  Are there some people who, try as they might, cannot believe in the supernatural, and finally give up?  The answer is ‘yes’, and for an example, here is my own story.

The Question

Over a delightful dinner some months ago, a friend asked me; “So you used to be a minister?”

Yes, briefly, a long time ago.

She had been reading my blog.  “But now you’re like,” she paused, “almost like an atheist?  How did that happen?”

Not ‘almost’ an atheist; I don’t believe in God.  I can’t remember exactly what I told her, though.


It now seems amazing to me that I really believed in God.  But there is a state of mind in which one is trying to believe.  To that end I studied history and bible at a good college in Tennessee, with a psychology minor.

It now seems to me that many people enter the ministry as part of an effort to bolster their faith.  It may partially explain why such a high percentage of aspiring ministers end up selling insurance.  (Other reasons include the well-known tendency of the Christian army to shoot their own wounded).

In college, I studied hard, and struggled with doubts.  Eventually I filled a pastoral internship, and then filled in temporarily for an empty pulpit.  When I married MrsDoF (adopting her infant son) the church quickly terminated my employment.  Effective on the date of the wedding, my services would no longer be required.

In itself, their action didn’t undermine my faith.  I was well aware that not all Christians put the same weight on grace or compassion; it had no bearing on the truth or falsity of God.

I could have looked for another pulpit, or gone into divinity school, but I didn’t.  Instead I attended another church, volunteered to be on committees, taught Sunday school, preached the occasional sermon, and helped out where I could.  I worked various jobs.

Doubt and denial

It could be that somewhere inside, I knew that I could only be a minister by an unrelenting self-deception.  I kept this realization off the table.  But my lifelong fascination with science began to pull up questions I’d been avoiding.

The Earth, I knew, was billions of years old.  I had dug up dinosaur fossils myself, and studied stratigraphy.  Yet many of my fellow Christians insisted our world was 6,000 years old.  This, I knew to be false, but it could be reconciled as metaphor.  On that and many other things I told myself; the Bible is a book of moral and spiritual, not scientific truth.  About that time, I moved to Illinois and began attending a less fundamentalist church.

It worked for a few years.  The bigger problem occurred when I began to read about cosmology.  I’d understood the scale of the universe in very general terms, but when I really started trying to get a clear idea of the proportion of our world to the universe around it… something broke.  And that something was the notion that our world, and specifically one species within it, our species, was monumentally special in all of creation, that God had ONE son, who came to this planet to redeem…

Wait.  Redeem what?  Most of the people I know are really quite decent.  Nineteen out of twenty of them would chase you down the street to hand you a dollar they’d seen you drop.  This is the ‘utterly depraved’ human nature I’d heard so much about?  Yes, people are somewhat self-centered, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Enlightened self-interest calls for a better world, after all.

But the Bible itself was problematic.  Having spent endless hours studying it, researching it in external sources, learning its history, and even translating some of the New Testament from the original Greek, I knew the pretzel logic that was required to say; “No contradiction.”

The world is full of religions; I was practiced at disbelieving all of them except one.  I fought the sense that Christianity resembled the others.

Dishonesty and realization

Trying harder, I dragged my suffering family through the agony of helping a new church congregation get started.  This was whistling in the dark.  If I could have been honest with myself, I would have saved them a lot of heartache.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish”, says Proverbs.  But I just couldn’t see it.  This was not a painless realization.  I’d pray, and nothing came back.  Not ‘occasionally’, but for years at a time.  It’s basic psychology that unreinforced behavior eventually undergoes extinction.  I would sing but it was, in the words of the songwriter Jeff Buckley; “a cold and broken alleluia”.

Back at our regular church, I helped out with cleanup days, and led a sermon-response group.  I was on the Peace And Justice committee, which sought to promote what I still believe.  (You want peace?  Work for justice.)

About this time, I developed a chronic muscle condition that meant I was frequently exhausted.  My energy level became unpredictable.  Occasionally, I missed church.  I mean, I really did miss church, because I was very fond of the people there.  But rest became (and remains) something I can’t pass up when it’s available.  And finally, I realized months had gone by without attending.  Sunday really had become a day of rest.


“Agnosticism”.  For me, it was the semi-acceptable label for my doubts.  I didn’t want to cut off the hand that clung to faith.  My two youngest sons were more honest, both with themselves and with me.  They were atheists.

Like my friend at dinner, I tasted the word, “atheist” carefully, weighing its implications.  At length I realized that unlike the position of faith, I actually felt quite comfortable with the notion that there was no God.  The universe made better sense on its own.


Ironically it was C.S. Lewis who provided the key I needed.  In his book Screwtape Letters the elder demon suggests his nephew direct his ‘patient’ to a status of “Christianity and”.  In other words, Christianity not for its own sake, but because it is a means to something else.

“You see the little rift?,” asks Screwtape; “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”

The key turns, and the lock falls open.  I should not believe Christianity because of its promise to ‘redeem’ me, or really for any other reason but if it were true.  And it wasn’t true.

Christianity was a large collection of claims which, taken one at a time, just didn’t hold up.  Every single one turned out to be the product of some logical fallacy applied through a lens of wishful thinking, to carefully selected scriptures and anecdotes.  It was true only as long as I made it true.  If I stopped, it went away, unlike things that are true, like physics, or mathematics or biology.

Speaking up

I clammed up entirely on religious issues for a couple years.  I certainly didn’t want to undermine anyone else’s faith; what difference did it make?  Other than increasing the amount of pain in the world.  But slowly I realized that in our society people who do not believe in God are subject to a number of rather ugly stereotypes.  In short, we’re evil.

About this time I also became aware of the campaign to demonize gays; to make them responsible for many of the evils of our society.  None of the gay people I knew fit the stereotypes, though.  Many of them had to hide their true selves in order to live peaceful lives – a cruel outcome resulting from a supposed religion of love.

What if they all ‘came out’ at once?  If every perfectly normal, decent gay person just walked down the street holding hands with their partners and just started living openly?  It would be a revolution.  Straight people would see them in a new light, and bigotry falls dead at the feet of familiarity.  The same would apply if atheists spoke up, “came out of the closet”.

“OK, atheists are evil, but not this guy, or that guy.  I know them and they’re atheists and they’re OK.  So not all atheists are evil.  Wait – what about that other guy?  I always thought he was a pretty good fellow and just found out he doesn’t believe in God. Maybe that whole thing about atheists being evil is just a prejudice, unfounded in fact.”

But for that to happen, atheists have to speak up.  So I am speaking up.

What lies ahead

There is a moral and ethical discussion to be had.  Yes, an atheist might come to a different conclusion about sex or abortion or war: this is not a lack of morals but the result of starting from different assumptions.  No real exchange is possible as long as the atheist stays hidden in the closet.

There is a national discussion to be had.  A desire to make our country live up to the secular nature of its constitution is not lack of patriotism; exactly the opposite.  Nor does it mean that atheists should want to interfere with individual religious freedom, for the constitution guarantees that very thing.  It does mean that tax funding of religion must stop, for that too is a logical consequence of the guarantee.

There is a spiritual discussion to be had.  Atheism is not a theory about the soul; it is only a lack of belief in god.  But one might believe that a human ‘soul’ exists, without believing that it outlives the brain.  This is all the more reason to handle with care and compassion the one life we have.  No afterlife will balance the scales: we are responsible now.  This is not a test.

I know some of my Christian friends are rather vexed by the revelation that I no longer believe in God.  This is easy to understand: they’re naturally compassionate friends and they don’t want to see me suffering for all eternity.  I have no way of relieving their anxiety, because it is based on what I believe to be a phantom.

So that’s what happened, friend.  If faith is a gift, I never received it.  If it is a state of mind, I never reached it.  If it is a question, I believe the answer is technically sense-free.  It would be hard to say I didn’t give Christianity a fair shot.

And so

Long habit prompts me to end a sermon or a parable with an altar call, so here it is.  If you’re a Christian, and you’re comfortable in your faith, that’s fine – please try not to let the stereotype of ‘atheist’ get between you and the atheists around you.  Above all, give the US Constitution another read without trying to read religion into it, because it is a secular document.

If you’re not comfortable in your faith, ask yourself; are you doing anyone any favors by faking it?  There’s nobody you need to confess to, no ‘church of atheism’ asking for your donations, but at least try to be honest with yourself.  As Shakespeare said, “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Imagine a combination of honesty and tolerance.  It is a sturdy foundation of a better world for everyone.


Categories: Religion

When he’s right, he’s right!

June 24, 2006 1 comment

Our ‘credit where credit is due’ department notes that President Bush has called on Congress to give him the authority of line-item veto.  It was a good idea when Bill “balanced budget” Clinton signed it into law in 1996, and it’s still a good idea. 

Of course both sides of the aisle opposed the law; they’re the ones tacking unrelated spending onto everything under the sun.  My personal favorite was a provision for increased old-growth logging in the Pacific Northwest, sneaked into a relief bill for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.  A lot of Congressional corruption and cowardace is hidden that way.  I really like the idea of a president forcing it out into the spotlight for Congress to vote on separately and publically. 

Categories: Politics

Bad Astronomy

June 22, 2006 3 comments

Philip Plait wants to punch holes in all the ‘Bad Astronomy’ out there, from myths about the coriolis effect to the astronomical aspects of creationism to UFO’s and the moon-landing hoax.  To that end he’s created a website,, he lectures at schools and research centers, and he’s written a book named, appropriately enough, “Bad Astronomy”.  I just finished reading it.

Plait is a solid scientist, an astronomer for the physics and astronomy department for Sonoma State University.  He’s very good with explanations…

‘Anything with mass has gravity.  You do, I do, planets do, a feather does.  I can exact a minute amount of revenge on Earth’s gravity knowing that I am pulling back on the Earth as well.  The amount I am pulling is pretty small, sure, but it’s there.  The more massive the object, the more it pulls.  The Earth has a lot more mass than I do (something like 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as much, but who’s counting?), so it pulls on me a lot harder than I do on it.

If I were to get farther away from the Earth, that force would weaken.  As a matter of fact, the force drops with the square of my distance; that is, if I double my distance, it drops by 2×2=4.  If I triple my distance, it drops by 3×3=9, and so on.

That does not mean that I feel one-quarter of the gravity if I climb a ladder to twice my height, though!  We don’t measure distance from the surface of the Earth, we measure it from its center.  A few hundred years ago, Sir Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist, showed mathematically that as far as distance is concerned, you can imagine that all the mass of the Earth is concentrated into a tiny point at its center, so it’s from there that we measure distance…”
- Philip Plait, Bad Astronomy

Not to say I didn’t enjoy reading the book; I did.  But I do have a few quibbles over style.

First, he should remove remove the exclamation-point key from his computer, and give it to his wife under instructions to return it only when he can provide a good rationale for using it in the current sentence.  He tends to use exclamation points in places which are not points of exclamation.  I found it annoying, but then I am rather grouchy.

Second, he should hire an editor who isn’t in love with him.  When he says, “something like 78,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times as much” it’s distracting and conveys less information (due to the difficulty in reading it) than saying “something like 7.8×1022 times as much” or “something like 78 sextillion times as much.”

Or when he says; “a few hundred years ago, Isaac Newton, the seventeenth-century philosopher-scientist” he should eliminate either “a few hundred years ago” or “seventeenth-century”. 

Third, and most important, he tends to go on for multiple paragraphs about how ridiculous some huckster’s fakery is, before explaining why it’s ridiculous.  He knows a lot of synonyms for “absurd”, and it just gets old. OK, Phil, you’re mad at the guy for being such a flim-flam; we get it.  Would you mind getting on with the debunking?

He writes exactly as one might lecture: “Let’s stay at the North Pole for a while (I hope you’re dressed warmly)”, “as a matter of fact”, etc.  There are lots of worse ways to write (and he is reputed to be an outstanding lecturer) and no style will appeal to everyone,  but what works in a lecture is often cumbersome on the printed page.

OK, so he isn’t Shakespeare; no one will confuse me with the Bard, either.  You shouldn’t let my stylistic natterings stop you from enjoying the book.  The two best things about the book are the infectious! enthusiasm! of its author, and the correctness of the explanations.  I’d like some of that fever to infect a few school boards.  After all, if you aren’t going to get the kids worked up about learning the truth, why have school?  Teachers, especially, should read the book, and better yet, invite Plait to speak or take a class full of kids to one of his events.

Categories: Books, Reviews

Movie Review: The DaVinci Code

June 20, 2006 12 comments

On Father’s Day my youngest Son (now 21 years old) and I went to see the DaVinci Code.  Having seen quite a lot of negative press about the movie, I was prepared for mediocrity.

The movie absolutely kicked ass.  I was surprised by the suspense, the fast pace, the sense of mystery, and the cold horror of the bad guys and their agents (many of whom were good people with good intentions).  I was very pleased that they didn’t derail the story with some implausable romance between Hanks’ and Tautou’s characters.  There were a number of clever escapes.  The French actor who played the police investigator is not widely known in the US, but I loved him in Les Visiteurs.

I won’t bother rehashing the storyline as you surely know it by now, but I thought it was a great suspense thriller; a genre that I do not normally enjoy.  In retrospect, this is hardly a surprise, since the movie is based on a best-selling novel, stuffed with top actors, and is directed by one of the best in the business, Ron Howard.  So why did it receive so much negative press?

The answer was in the movie itself: “The mind sees what it wants to see”.  To many viewers, the movie is blasphemous, an attack on their most deeply held beliefs.  It’s pretty hard to pull “great story” through that filter. 

Since I am not troubled by the notion of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as lovers or spouses, and the Catholic church pretty much strikes me as a gigantic money changer in the temple, I felt no obstruction to just enjoying the story and how it was presented.

The social context of the story is another matter. 

Suppose you were an author with a yen for history, and you wanted to debunk the Catholic church.  You could write a boring historical book, with a lot of documentation, didactically exposing the roots of the institution and making a case for apostasy.  Or, you could write a work of fiction.  Sprinkle in some obvious historical inaccuracies and say; “Hey, it’s a work of fiction; whaddya want from me?”  Make the work compelling and let one of your almost-sympathetic fictional characters do the heavy polemical lifting.  Not saying that was Dan Brown’s motive, but it’s a possible scenario.

Now suppose you’re an ancient church (not a person, like Dan Brown, but an institution comprised of many powerful individuals, a vast hierarchy led by one person).  You could systematically debunk the historical inaccuracies of the book and movie, and they’re doing that.  But it won’t help, because it’s already labelled fiction.  In the end, as Tom Hanks told Audrey Tautou, “What matters is what you believe” and belief is very much a matter of affection.  A good story beats dry facts every time, and the production values of The DaVinci Code are right up there.

The church can also stage boycotts (and look lame) or try to get the book/movie banned (and look even lamer).  It’s a no-win situation for the Catholic church, and the best they can do is to give the movie bad reviews through various channels, and hope a lot of people forget to rent it when it comes out on video.

Will the movie shake anyone’s faith?  Sure. If enough people see it, a few will walk out of the theatre saying; “Hey… yeah!  Why didn’t I ever see that before?!”  But the church shouldn’t worry, because a lot of people say the same thing after walking out of church services.  Even after walking out of a theatre and saying it.

Oh, and one more thing:  Audrey Tautou, if you are reading this… have you ever considered the advantages of romance with a middle-aged American blogger?  Think about it.  :coolsmile:

Categories: Movies, Reviews

Father’s day posts

June 18, 2006 2 comments

I wrote about my father a few months ago, so I’ll follow MrsDoF’s lead and link to a couple great Father’s Day posts that I found:

On UTI, Campeador Diem, the origin of fatherhood.  As you might expect from Darksyde, it’s a billion years ago.  Of course, the invention of fatherhood also implies the invention of sex, so this is a very, very good day.

Also from Florida, on Charming, Just Charming, GUYK recalls his dad’s pioneer spirit, and the lessons he learned and passed on.

Every good parent knows they would fight demons to protect and provide for their family.  Terry at I See Invisible People describes how her father did just that:  her father’s poetic nature, his struggle with bipolar disorder, and heroic devotion to his family.  And a few flowers, at just the right time.

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Artifacts of the long-gone-man

June 17, 2006 6 comments

“He was a carpenter and contractor,” said the man running the estate sale at the little ranch-style house.  “He died about 15 years ago and she just passed away this year.”

Indeed, the house looked as if about 20 years had passed since it had any serious maintenance.  But it was so well-built in the first place, that it had weathered the time without much loss.

I went into the garage.  The organized, productive mind of the long-gone-man reflected clearly in cleverly designed cabinets, drawers, and shelves for every imaginable tool, fastener, or part.  Many of the power-tools had been custom-made.  He could measure and calculate.  His mind had already travelled the length of every process by the time his hands opened its beginning.

Most people came into the garage, cast a quick glance, and went into the house to look for silverware and jewelry, and to wonder at the purpose of kitchen and craft implements left behind by the woman who survived him for a decade and a half.

I bought a little reference calculator, “Key to the STEEL SQUARE”.  When it was designed and marketed, two world wars lay in the future, and vast expanses of what is now suburban America were not even yet pressed into service as farmland.  Reference calculators like this one are a wonder to contemplate.  The typography and design present a standard of clarity that few modern devices can claim.  Its creator would probably work for Google today.

I also bought a pencil box, because I wanted one of the pencils in it:


The pencil has a string connected to the back, with a little screw eyelet so it can be affixed to a voting booth shelf.  It was used in a method of voting that produced a paper record of each vote cast.  This is the pencil of Democracy.

Election fraud was still possible with that anachronistic system, but it required the cooperation of very large groups of people and could be easily prevented by proper poll management and supervision.  Certainly it was not possible for one person seated at a console and armed with a code or two, to sway the outcome. 

I can’t guess at the politics of the long-gone-man.  He may not have been one to talk much.  But our town is probably a veritable showplace of his work, and will be for the next century or so.

Categories: Artifacts

They don’t call them ‘bird-brains’ for nothing

June 15, 2006 1 comment

Neither of our cats are very smart, but they’re accomplished hunters.  So when this one (Oscar) is lounging near the nest of a pair of cardinals (no coincidence, that) you’d think the cardinal would try to practice “The Art Of Not Being Seen”.

But nooooooo!  The daddy cardinal, shown at left, positions himself up on the clothesline, on the lawnmower handle, the treebranch, the guy wire to the phone pole… and peeps at the cat:  “Go away!  We have babies hatching soon!  You are not welcome here!”  Cat lays about on the warm pavement, dreamily anticipating the fun he’ll have devouring the interesting little bird.

MrsDoF has also written about this charming domestic scene: “The birds and the cat

Update: 16 June 06… Oscar was walking through the cardinal’s territory, minding his own little furry business, when the cardinal landed on the ground about two feet behind him and started hopping along cheeping loudly at him, (I suppose) warning him to go away.

Man, no wonder they’re endangered…

Categories: Nature, observations