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If our lives are to have any meaning

August 4, 2008 10 comments

I’ve posted various mixes of Sagan’s meditation “You Are Here” from his book Pale Blue Dot.  Each one adds something to the unique perspective of our world against the cosmic vastness.  This moving and beautiful remix uses scenes from movies – the storytellers of our culture – as illustrations for Sagan’s words, and a haunting instrumental from Mogwai as its emotional frame. 

Hat tip to Iconoclasts Anonymous, who asks “Who inspires you?”

Religions insist that only by believing in a transcendent being can our lives have any meaning, any purpose.  But it is in the nature of our species to see sentience everywhere; spirits in the clouds, purpose in random events, the face of Mary in a cheese sandwich. For those not able to believe – if the universe suggests to us the existence of no such benevolent overseer – then any meaning derived from that belief is also a phantom.  It is not clear to me how any comfort can be derived from a known illusion, a quirk of our neurological evolution. 

Nor why it is necessary.  The reality in which we find ourselves is a spatial and temporal enormity, in which we are imperceptible points.  Our lifespans are nine places to the right of the decimal point against the age of the universe so far.  The universe will not give meaning to us; rather we must, in whatever small way we we can, give meaning to the universe.  Just this; despite our temporality, we did not give in to despair or nihilism.  We found our own joy, and made room for the joy of others while we were alive.  For such future generations as there might be, we left behind the best world we could – that is our responsibility and our meaning, if we have the courage to face it.

One might ask; at the other end of many more billions of years, when the cosmos is growing cold, what would it matter?  Who would know?  As if we somehow deserved eternity by virtue of having thought up the word.

We will know.  And if no one else knows, that will have to be enough.

Categories: observations

Drilling

August 3, 2008 4 comments

The gold color of the drill bit is its titanium nitride coating.  The curly plastic is some translucent PVC, I think.  And the gray ‘floor’ is the cast-iron platform of my drill press.  But the result was something I just had to share with you…

(Picture field of view 2.25 inches wide)

Categories: observations

In the lives of two children

August 3, 2008 1 comment

There’s lots of good stuff in this month’s Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards, handled with self-congratulatory hilarity this month by PZ Myers.  Here’s the send-off he gave to GrrlScientist in her touching story, Living The Thinking Life (Evolution of an atheist).

Myers: “GrrlScientist had a fine start in life, shouting “Goddamn you to hell!” at the age of four. I have to say that this piece approaches perfect elitist bastardry, but what can I say? She likes birds. Birds just aren’t badass enough.”

Hardly gives any inkling of the pathos and depth in her story.  Let’s look at what happened when the little girl made that humorous announcement:

GrrlScientist: “Except for one minor detail: god never fried my errant sibling just as god never fried me all those times I had been damned to hell. But the fallout generated by uttering this one oft-heard phrase was absolutely spectacular. I might have been a sweet little three- or four-year-old (although the parents would tell you otherwise), but my parents nearly killed me, and I mean they really nearly killed me. So I learned a very valuable lesson regarding the power of words…”

Go check out the rest of it, including the role played by her relationships to animals.  And while we’re on children and their interactions with animals and with the adult world, here’s something I didn’t know about zoologist Alan Rabinowitz: as a child he stuttered so badly he could not talk at all to people.  But he could talk to animals.  Go check out where he tells Stephen Colbert about meeting with world dictators to save tigers and leopards, and remember him next time you see a child who struggles with some serious handicap.

We don’t know, I mean we really don’t know what happens in reel 2 of the movie that is our child’s life. Or even necessarily what’s happening in reel 1.

Categories: observations

Memed!

July 17, 2008 6 comments

Doh!  VW Bug memed me.  Not a terribly difficult one, so here we go.  The rules are:

  1. Write the title to your own memoir using exactly six words.
  2. Post it on your blog.
  3. Link to the person who tagged you.
  4. Tag five other bloggers.

Well here’s mine:

He liked bikes
Better than cars

Hmm… who to tag with this literary launch?.  I prefer self-selected taggage:

He tagged only
readers who volunteered

Categories: Humor, observations

The lacerating moment

July 14, 2008 8 comments

…the one you wish you could take back; would give anything to take back, or a least could have spent alone

Memoir

Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
If I wrote that story now—
radioactive to the end of time—
people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn’t peel
the gloves fast enough
from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
to see me weeping in my room
or boring the tall blonde to death.
Once I accused the innocent.
Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
whose blackened pods were falling and making
illuminating patterns on the pathway,
I was seized by joy,
and someone saw me there,
and that was the worst of all,
lacerating and unforgettable.

By Vijay Seshadri

Tip of the hat to Benjamin Cohen at The World’s Fair.

Categories: observations

I’m starting to worry

July 1, 2008 2 comments

What if the Large Hadron Collider fails to produce the black hole we’ve all been promised, and we actually have to go on and solve our problems?

(C’mon, it’s not that different from hoping the Second Coming will put an end to all this.  Maybe we should just get busy on solving our problems.)

Update: Lucas sends a link that proposes another source of hope

Categories: Humor, observations

Quote of theweek: Donald Kaul

June 30, 2008 2 comments

From a column on sexism and the Hillary Clinton campaign:

“I blame religion. Religion is the great machine societies have for passing on values and one of the chief values religions pass on is that women are second-class citizens, useful in their way but not to be entrusted with leadership. And the more orthodox the religion, the more likely to be hostile to the idea that women are the equals of men.”
Donald Kaul, The American Way

Categories: observations

Repeal the Second Amendment?  UPDATE

June 28, 2008 10 comments

The Chicago Tribune editorializes; “Repeal the Second Amendment”.  My first reaction is quite negative – we’re talking about one of the rights guaranteed in the constitution here.  It’s late, and I’ll have more to say about this on Sunday but I’d love to hear what you think. 


As promised, below the fold are some updates on this subject.  The Chicago Tribune editorial had many, many comments and I will base my responses on those.  Many were slogans that we’ve all heard before, and they deserve a response:

“If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”
This is a real problem for gun-ban advocates: criminals don’t obey laws.  But it isn’t a problem for gun-control advocates, which is a very different thing.
“Concealed-carry will result in more crime, more shootings.”
Hasn’t happened, in places where concealed carry is allowed.  I bow to experimental results.
“Why don’t you just repeal the First Amendment!  The Second is the one that protects the first!”
This is not supported by the record of oppressive countries with armed populations.  Nearly every family in Saddam’s Iraq had a gun, and there were certainly people who wanted him dead.  But his government kept the people in line with torture and threats to family.
“The Nazis confiscated all the guns!”
Again, the idea that owning a gun is somehow a hedge against governmental oppression.  Sorry, but it isn’t.  There are lots of ways of controlling a population that are not fixed by bullets.  Propaganda, censorship, and terror all apply; no single amendment is sufficient or there would only have been one of them.  And while we’re at it, forget holding off the government with your trusty rifle; that’s just delusional.  You just might, however, keep it from ever getting that bad if the press isn’t a presidential lapdog.
“Washington DC has the strictest gun laws in the country, but it’s also the country’s murder capitol.”
Again, a simplistic explanation for a complex problem.  Part of our national psyche seems fixated on the last line of defense.  We like diet pills but we don’t like to count calories.  We like levees but we don’t like wetlands’ protection laws.  We enjoy excellent emergency medicine but had to be forced by law to wear our seat belts and they’ll have to pry the cell phone out of our cold, dead hands.  Our answer to safe streets is more cops, more guns, more violence.  It never occurs to us to do something about drug laws that impoverish inner-city neighborhoods while empowering criminals.  Or to put national resources behind inner-city schools and do something about hungry kids and ignorance.  We need to start applying long-term solutions to long-term problems.
“The Left has had its social experimentations with gun control for years now.”
It’s an experiment doomed to failure in a country awash in guns.  About all we’ve learned is; it doesn’t work to draw a line around a certain area and say; “No guns here”.  And here’s a related objection:
“Every single shooting has been in a ‘gun-free zone’”
Not true, and not meaningful.
“I have a right to self-defense!” (variations thereof)
Then you better get serious training.  The likelihood of your gun protecting you or your family has to be balanced against the greater likelihood of the opposite outcome. That said, many people do have training, and should update their training throughout life if they use a gun for defense.  And even then, recognize that a gun can give tragic force to your most irrational moments.
“The Second Amendment refers to a ‘well-regulated militia’, not to individual rights to own arms”
Admittedly this is one of the great historical puzzles.  The framers of the Constitution usually wrote in excruciatingly clear language, so we have to assume that this language was clear to them.  But for reasons of cultural change, it is far from clear to us.  A couple commenters even said that that armed citizens would regulate the militia – but they may have been joking.  See what happens if you pull up to the National Guard depot with your rifle and start telling them what they’re doing wrong.  I’m afraid we’re going to have to figure this one out ourselves.

There was much more; this is just a sample.  So let’s try to figure it out here.  I’m going to say what I’m in favor of, and ask you to poke holes in it.

In many ways this is more a rural/urban problem than a conservative/liberal problem.  If you live in a rural area, it’s difficult to appreciate the constant slaughter that parades through urban emergency rooms.  As the saying goes, “all politics is local.”

But it can be a problem even in rural areas.  When I was doing a pastoral internship in NC, there was a feud between two local families.  Now this is back ‘up the hollows’ and they called the ‘young rev’rund’ to officiate.  I was sitting in the living room of one of the families listening to ‘maw-maw’ when the ‘young buck’ walked into the living room carrying a nickel-plated .38 revolver.  His index finger was comfortably ensconced inside the trigger guard.

“Where you going with that?” I asked.  I felt pretty safe, because he was not mad at me.

“Uh, nowhere.  I just had it out,” he answered.

You have every right to believe that you are superior and more rational than that young man, and you might be.  But laws aren’t written for you; they’re written for everyone.  And there are lots of different kinds of irrationality.

I’m in favor of controlling criminals, and to do that we need gun control.  If you have a record of violent crime, such as assault, then no gun license for you, period.  And just as there are different kinds of drivers’ licenses (motorcycle, day-only, car, truck, etc) there should be different kinds of gun licenses.  All of them should require training, testing, recertification and liability.  A gun license should place very strict obligations on the gun owner.  And once you have licensure in place, it’s a lot easier to identify an illegal gun and more importantly, an illegal gun owner.

You might wonder, since criminals break laws, what good a licensing scheme would be?  With laws in place you can come down harder on a criminal caught with a gun – some laws already go there. And you would have law-abiding citizens with guns, which would give the criminals something to think about.

The first-level license would be approximately like the current Illinois FOID card.  You can own them, buy ammo, etc.  But every gun needs to be registered and a ballistic sample taken.  You need to have a locking enclosure and a homeowner’s liability insurance rider.

The second-level license would be a concealed-carry license.  You have to pass rigorous training and you get to carry one, specific registered weapon of limited type. You leave it home when you fly.  And you’re legally liable if the gun is stolen so load up on the insurance, baby.

The third-level license would allow you to carry your gun pretty much anywhere, even on an airplane.  License applications should be reviewed by a citizen’s jury like a trial, to limit political clout.  Most third-level licenses would answer some demonstrable professional need.

That’s the legal stuff.  Now for some practical stuff.  People who live in “nice” neighborhoods may not recognize that some homes do need defense.  But defending one’s home against criminals is NOT a simple problem.  The scenario in most people’s minds is this: you are sleeping and you hear someone break in.  You get your gun and force them to flee, or shoot them.  That’s a small minority of home invasions.  Odds are good you won’t have a chance to get to your gun.

I grew up in a house full of guns, so I have handled and fired most of the common types.  Handguns are a poor choice for home defense – they require a lot of skill and if they are stolen, are easy to conceal for crimes.  For most homes, a shotgun is probably better – easy to use, effective, and so intimidating it may not be needed.  And it won’t go through your wall and across the street and kill your neighbor.  Me, I keep an old golf club around, somewhere.  I live in a neighborhood that is quiet enough for a gun to be a bigger hazard, statistically, than the likelihood of a home invasion (which has to be further divided by the likehood that I could effectively use a gun to counter one).

I don’t know why Americans are so gol-durned het-up on guns; we just are.  There’s no one-size fits all solution to it either.  Switzerland is awash in guns too, but their murder rate is far below ours.  But they have a lot less poverty and racial strife than we have.  Maybe that’s the big difference?  But criticisms of American culture reinforce my point that we need long-term solutions, meaning structural, even foundational changes in American society.  Until then, we need improved gun control, much improved criminal control, some government control (stop the war on drugs and stop treating drug users like criminals), and ever-better emergency medicine. 

Finally, I am extremely uneasy with removing anything from the Bill Of Rights.  Our country is what it is; let’s start thinking up ways to live with ourselves.

OK folks, hit me with it: what do you think?  Let’s see if we can figure something out that isn’t just rhetoric.

Categories: Issues, observations

I read the news today, oh boy

June 22, 2008 5 comments

Three news stories have raced by me this week, while I’ve been both busy and not feeling very well. But fortunately they’ve been excellently covered by some of my favorite bloggers:

Did you hear about John Freshwater?  He’s the creationist science teacher in a public school in Mount Vernon, Ohio, who constantly proselytized his students and burned crosses onto the arms of a few of them.  Of course when he got fired, he tried to spin it as “they fired me for having a bible on my desk” but as Paul at Cafe Philos explains in The firing of John Freshwater, there so much more to it than that.

My prediction; he’ll be teaching at some Christian academy in the fall, and be a popular hero in the fundamentalist circuit.

The other story that just floored me was the House pretty much giving the telecoms a free pass on illegal wiretapping for the Bush administration.  This is how far we’ve come, folks; the Nixon administration was brought down by a cover-up of one office being wiretapped, but the Bush administration brags about wiretapping the whole damn country and the house backs them up 293 to 129.  ***Dave at ***Dave Does The Blog says he’s too ticked off to write rationally about it, but he still covered it a lot more calmly than I would have in “I Have A Note From My Mom”.  And he has some excellent external links.  Me, I’m still at the incoherent spitting-mad stage.

My prediction; none of the Bush administration will ever be brought to justice for anything.  Not the gigantic deficit, not the wiretapping, not the lying to get us into a war that didn’t have to happen, not the torture, not the gutting of science-driven policy, not the illegal “faith-based” funding, none of it.  They’ll all be popular heroes on FOX news as they spin their un-American misdeeds as “patriotism”.  (I’m not going very far out on a limb here – that’s been the fate of pretty much the entire Reagan administration)

War with Iran anybody?  The next big story is already on Dana’s radar at En Tequila Es Verdad with yesterday’s Happy Hour Discurso, along with some good links to contact your representatives.  Because, anyone who doesn’t realize that President Bush wants to go to war with Iran is just being naive.  Shrub wants to leave a nice hot steaming pile of war on the chair in the oval office for our next president.  It’s his warped sense of “destiny”; he really believes he’s on a Mission From God to bring Democracy-by-force to the MidEast.  All he’s missing is the dark sunglasses and the charcoal Fedora.

I offer no prediction on this story, only hope that idiocy will not carry the day and that for once, we’ll act like real conservatives and not get another one of our limbs stuck in yet another foreign wood-chipper.  Unfortunately much of the idiocy in question is the “let’s bring on Armageddon so the Lord can return” variety.  There’s no reasoning with it, there’s only exposing it for what it is and hoping the majority will go the other way.

UPDATE:

  • Mike The Mad Biologist serves up excellent post-game analysis with Democrats Cave On FISA And The Rule Of Law, including an interview with constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley from George Washington University on “Reverse Engineering”, or changing the law to allow past conduct.

  • The question I have not heard addressed by anyone is: how many congressmen and senators received campaign contributions from telecoms?
  • In Paul’s post on Freshwater, Ed Darrell from Millard Filmore’s Bathtub left in a comment an outstanding summation of separation of church and state.
Categories: News, observations

The Big Picture

June 17, 2008 2 comments

Boston Globe’s The Big Picture is an awesome feature I’ve been meaning to post about.  Check it out – the top story right now is the closest picture of a tornado that I have ever seen.  Scroll down the page and if you click on a picture, it opens up to a gallery of pictures on that subject.  Current stories include Midwest flooding, California fires, Soaked soccer, Faces of Sudan, Sidoarjo’s man-made mud volcano, Water everywhere, The Sky From Above, and much more.

Beautiful, informative, terrifying, amazing.  I’ll put a permanent link in my news sources section on the sidebar. Enjoy!

Categories: News, observations