I’m Feeling Much Better

I just returned from several days of R&R with my girlfriend and all four of our kids. Last year the logistics of the larger crowd were somewhat overwhelming, but this year things seem to be running dead smooth. That is to say that it’s no longer just the sisters picking on each other or the brothers picking on each other. They all pick on one another pretty evenly, and frequently gang up on their parents en force. This explains the squadron of ducks in my back seat the other night on the way back to the hotel. All four of them were quacking and honking like crazy. I’m glad we were near the city or I’d still be picking birdshot out of my fenders. How that migrated into a “who could make the most authentic juicy drawer filling fart sound” is still a bit of a mystery. But I think they’ve figured out how to have a good time together nonetheless.

I’m also glad to see nothing changed in the news while I was gone. The President finally explained the Iraqi War, making something like 8 references to 9/11 last night. He asserted yet again why he has sacrificed 1750 Americans and $180 billion to avenge the deaths of 3000 people and the loss of $50 billion. That’s showin’ ’em George. And we are committed to staying there and continuing to show them regardless of whether the end is imminent (as Cheney says) or takes 12 years (as Rumsfeld says). We will be there as handy targets and terrorist recruiting posters, spending hard earned American dollars collected in taxes from the middle class, sacrificing the lives of the lower economic classes, until the upper crust of American society feels its spleen is sufficiently vented. And Osama couldn’t be happier. Now that Osama has declared Iraq the new front of the war, G.W. is taking credit for showing up for the fight. He should also be taking credit for setting up the venue and paying for all the marketing.

I’m going back to the pool with the kids. My spleen feels better there.

Guest Rant

I’ve been away for a bit, but fortunately faithful reader Chuck is picking up the slack. He submits:

I’m sure it has been said earlier, but I first heard the quote “…humans, above all else, crave power…” from “Lord of the Rings” – so I give credit to J.R.R. Tolkien. (Thank God for Hobbitt’s…)

This was certainly evident in the recent village of Brockport political elections – which are over, thankfully. Perhaps some of the candidates were motivated by frustration at what they perceive as ineptitude by the current office holders, but it seemed to me that a number of those seeking office were coveting the spotlight and looking for an opportunity to puff out their chests. Leading (be it a church or country) and advancing an agenda is one thing, wielding power for personal gain is absolutely another.

I was thinking the recent ‘Eminent Domain’ decision by the US Supreme Court granting public entities the authority to essentially sieze private property (for fair market value…) where the public benefits might have made an appearance in your Blog. Being the naïve sort that I am, I felt the argument that increasing the property tax base (by building strip malls or office buildings in place of private residences) in and of itself formed a public benefit was tenuous at best. One of my co-workers (a staunch Republican…) used the “re-distribution of wealth” theory – being able to collect more tax dollars and re-distribute them to the masses in the form of public services is a public benefit. I still think it is kind of weak, but the authority has been granted/upheld by 5 out of 9 brighter minds than mine. I believe the decision not only grants the local municipalities the authority to make this decision, it also gives them the power to write legislation regulating this practice, so I guess it isn’t quite so Draconian, but whenever private property ownership rights take a hit it catches my attention. I’ll have to research this one more.

We started to ponder the ramifications. What are some of the other low tax rate properties? Churches, synagogues, cemeteries…

I would like to think that the officials that would permit (not to mention those that would even suggest, much less propose) replacing a place of worship with an office park wouldn’t be elected to a second term, but the damage would already be done…

Why Is God So Angry?

And why are all my recent posts titled with questions? I guess both are mysteries.

“But wait!” you say. “God is kind and gentle. He is a forgiving God, a God of hope and promise. Why do you think he’s angry?”

Arguably the above assertions about God are pretty universal. They transcend religions. The theologians of most any religion from Longhouse, to Christianity, through Islam pretty much agree on the basic existence of a benevolent god or gods. So why then are theocracies so inherently violent? With the exception of Vatican City (we’ll ignore the Crusades and focus on recent times), most every government I can think of which is ruled by people who openly claim they are guided by God or religion has a track record or violence, oppression, and intolerance.

Yes, yes… I am talking about Muslim countries, but I’m also throwing the U.S. in the mix. Let’s face it, we are currently living in a theocracy. The Republicans pretty much own the federal government, and the right-wing conservative Christian base pretty much owns the Republicans. And the U.S. is on a path to be every bit as violent, intolerant, and even as oppressive as openly theocratic regimes. We just have more need to maintain the facade of democracy.

So is God really such a tyrannical ruler? No, of course not. Rather the concept of God is being co-opted by power hungry people in search of an emotional lever with which to lead people to do things their rational selves would not otherwise allow. After all, God is not about rationality per se. In fact, religion by definition is an attempt to fill in the irrational bits of life with some explanation the rational mind can cling to. Why do babies die? Well, God has a plan. We just don’t and can’t understand it. This makes it okay. It lets the mind rationalize what would otherwise be a completely irrational situation. And this is precisely why religion and God are such powerful constructs in politics. They provide a way for a government or person to acceptably and irrefutably rationalize irrational policies using pathways already paved through the minds of the people.

Further, those who point out the irrationalities are labeled as heretics. They are persecuted as assailing God or religion, when in fact this is just a clever deflection by the actual targets. It is very difficult to attack someone who is perceived as doing God’s work and representing God’s position without appearing to attack God.

This is why secular governments are so very important. They separate the motivations of policy and at least allow for truly rational decisions to be made in the political arena. Any position is assailable and has to survive on its own merits. That is not to say that public policy can’t be coincident with theological doctrine. Certainly there is much of any theological dogma that is goodness and light. But we have to stop allowing politicians to cloak themselves in God. As a population, we clearly do not have the ability to see through these charlatans. We vote in support of our religions and not our interests. This inexorably weakens the notion of democracy to the point that it truly is a façade. And since the notion of “democracy” is a part of our national identity, what does that make us?

What Have We Done to Our Kids?

The good news is that the 11-year old scout who was lost in the woods for four days was found and is just fine. It sounds like he used pretty good judgment for a young boy and apparently kept his wits about him. But one thing troubles me.

The boy said he frequently saw men on ATVs and horses while he was wandering the woods alone, but he hid from them for fear of being stolen. In other words, he might have been found, likely would have been found, days earlier if he had run to a rescuer rather than hiding from them. Further, a typical rescue team uses search techniques which assume the person wants to be found. They don’t conduct a search like a fugitive manhunt when looking for a little boy who’s lost.

I can’t really fault the kid here. His parents told him not to talk to strangers, and instilled in him a fear of being snatched. He did what they said. In a different environment, those would have been tactics which might have saved his life. But in this one, those tactics could have easily cost him his life. And at 11, I doubt he was mature enough to make good choices about when to hide from and when to run to strangers.

I’m glad he’s okay. But it does make me think twice about trying to balance the lessons I instill in my children.

Boring Dorks?

While I do enjoy Ted Rall’s uninhibited rants against the Bush Administration, that in no way means that he is not also a flaming idiot. In his most recent column he asserts that we are losing the science and engineering base of this country because students are realizing that engineers and scientists are social dorks (and who wants to be around them?) and because all the jobs have a moralistically repulsive military angle to them. In short, he thinks the jobs suck. Have I mentioned the term “flaming idiot” yet? He clearly has some unresolved issues on this topic.

The point we all agree on is that students are shying away from the once heavily demanded technical majors at colleges. This is producing a projected shortage of domestic engineers and scientists. Over time, this has to serve to erode the innovative technical creativity which in many ways is the bread & butter of our country’s economic success. Where we disagree is why this is happening.

People go into science-based fields for two reasons. One is the money, or at least it was. When I graduated, companies were competing over graduates. The question for us was which offer will you take, not do you have a job? That landscape has changed. A friend’s son graduated 3 years ago with a Chemical Engineering degree from a good school, and is now working a blue-collar job in a repair shop because he can’t find work in his field. Outsourcing has moved many entry-level positions overseas. And downsizing has simply removed many positions. Further, the government has all but abandoned science funding, so many of the research positions are gone as well. This means that many of the borderline geeks (defined as kids with aptitude, but not the underlying passion or compulsion for science) will opt out for other majors. And they are. I do think schools are under-preparing and under-motivating kids toward technical careers, but I’m not sure how much that matters unless we find a way to turn the jobs situation around. That’s the ultimate carrot. It’s not so much that the jobs suck as they don’t exist.

As for being boring dorks and being ethically challenged as well as illiterate, that’s a stereotypic view. Like all stereotypes, it’s not without merit, but it’s a broad net to cast on us all. Could scientists, as a lot, benefit from a more well rounded liberal arts educational foundation? Sure. The trouble is, that the science part is a heavy course load all by itself. Adding on all the liberal-arts stuff would mean that most science majors would need 6 years to get a B.S. degree. That’s probably not feasible. It also may be pointless, at least for those of us who are inexorably drawn to these sorts of fields. You see, it’s not enough to just be exposed to ideas, you have to care. And science geeks care about different things. Our passions are elsewhere.

Being a science geek is not so much a career as it is simply the way your mind works. You think about things in ways others do not. You have to know how things work, and I do mean that you “have” to, not just that you’re curious. This leads you to a different set of interests and passions than many others. This is perhaps why you find us boring dorks. If it’s any consolation, we are frequently bored senseless in your company too. We just don’t feel a need to make fun of you. But realize that anyone who is stuck in a group with dissimilar interests is likely to find that group boring.

And as for being ethically challenged, this is a source of concern for scientists as well. The cruel reality is that the toys and tools of science are expensive. The money to do the really cool stuff tends to come from the government, and in this country, the government seems most interested in funding technology which can be used to kick butt militarily. As I said above, science geeks are compelled to do this work. Having a guy say that he’ll fund your project makes most science-types do some fancy rationalization to justify why it’s okay just so you have the opportunity to do the work. (A friend who used to design torpedo guidance systems rationalized that they could be used to deliver inter-island mail.) It’s hard to resist the candy. But realize that it is the government driving the objectives here, not the scientists. Scientists would be just as happy building power sources as bombs. The underlying science is the same. And in a country where the government is allegedly “by the people”, you have to ask yourself why “the people” are so determined to build things that go BOOM!? After all, it’s pretty clear that the majority of “the people” are not the science geeks. If we were, you can bet a network called “The Learning Channel” would broadcast something other than home decorating shows.