Friday, September 28, 2007


Several decades ago the Navy built a barracks complex designed to make efficient use of the available space and to provide convenience for the troops. Recently, somebody noticed that a Google satellite map of the complex shows it to bear a vague similarity to a swastika, so the Navy has allocated $600,000 to modify or disguise the shape. Stories at and,0,2973328.story?coll=la-home-center .

The swastika has been a symbol of peace and good will for many centuries. It appears in Hindu art, Grecian urns, Navajo pottery, Inca basketry, Persian rugs, monks' robes, cathedral floors, Celtic monuments, Nordic runes, Gothic architecture, and many other places.

For a short period during the twentieth century, the swastika appeared on the flag of an oppressive regime in Germany, the only known evil use of this symbol in all recorded history. For this reason it has now become a reviled symbol of hate. We have short memories, don't we?

Somebody's symbol of good will is likely to be offensive to somebody else. A five-pointed star (with a single point on top and two on the bottom) inscribed in a circle is a good-luck symbol to a certain minor religious cult but a symbol of evil to certain gospel-gobbling Christians. Another five-pointed star (with two points on top and one on the bottom) with a goat's head fancifully inscribed in it is another such symbol. There have actually been cases of people fired from their jobs for wearing simple ordinary jewelry containing one of these symbols.

The traditional Christian cross is a shape that was first introduced as a crucifixion device in 64 AD and therefore couldn't have been used to crucify Jesus. Exactly how it came to be the standard Christian symbol, nobody knows. It may have originated as the symbol of something else. Anyhow, it's offensive to people who remember Christianity as the main oppressive ruling regime during the Middle Ages. Wear a small cross as a piece of jewelry while visiting a Muslim country and see what kind of reception you get!

I'm sure I could find, amongst my earthly possessions, at least a dozen things whose shapes are offensive to somebody. All I can say is, sorry, but go stuff it. I can't reshape all my possessions to satisfy everybody.

I see no reason for the Navy to spend so much as a nickel trying to remodel its barracks complex.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Does Christianity have foundations?

"For more than eight hundred years, the Order has preserved an ancient cache of documents that could shake Christianity to its foundations." (An excerpt from the back cover blurb of The Testament, a novel by Eric van Lustbader.)

That got me to thinking. Just what are the foundations of Christianity, and what could shake them?

The Bible, specifically the New Testament, is usually accepted as the primary foundation of Christianity. It's a hodgepodge of poorly written mythology. The Gospels (including Acts) look like sloppy fairy tales, quite likely largely plagiarized from previous man-god myths. They look nothing like credible biographies at all. The Epistles don't really add much understanding, in fact, most of them appear to have been written by people who didn't even know anything about the Gospel stories. Revelation appears to be the rantings of a madman. So much for the Bible.

Scholarship-minded Christians can find a number of other ancient Christian writings, of which an impressive collection is listed at . None of these writings are very informative.

Who was Jesus? We don't know. No contemporary mention of him has ever been found. The Gospels seem to describe him as, for the most part a nice guy, but little more than a confused dimwit whose most memorable accomplishment was to wangle twelve gullible morons to go traipsing round and about the countryside with him. Everything else written about him is pure fantasy. It's tempting to think he may be entirely fictional.

Who was Saint Paul? A Greek-speaking Jew in Tarsus? A supplier of tents to the Roman Army? A one-time student of Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem? Assigned to persecute the new cult of Christians but then experienced a mystic conversion and decided to join them?

The pieces don't fit. What sort of Jewish community was there in Tarsus? What was his role in that community? Why would the Romans, who considered the Jews to be troublemakers, buy tents from a Jew. Why would any Jew, who would have considered the Romans to be oppressors, supply tents to their army? Where's the evidence that Paul had any knowledge of anything Rabbi Gamaliel would have ever taught? Who in a position of authority, before 50 AD, would have ever bothered to assign anybody to persecute the nearly unknown cult of Christians?

Who was Saint Peter? A poorly educated fisherman in Galilee who would have been fluent and possibly slightly literate in Aramaic and may have spoken a slight bit of Greek, later somehow makes it to Rome, where he would have needed to be fluent and at least semi-literate in Latin in order to become the leader of the Roman Christians? Seems somehow unlikely.

And then we have the Nicene Creed, based on pure imagination, not supported by any observation nor logical derivation.

And there you have it. Nothing but unsupported vapor. But Christian belief is unshakable. If an ancient document or physical object were to turn up proving that Jesus was a bigamist, married to both Mary Magdalene and Martha of Bethany, or perhaps a fraudulent camel-merchant who cheated all his customers, or maybe a Roman tax-collector in disguise, no modern-day Christian would accept it, no matter how well attested. Nobody's belief would be shaken.

Oh, but The Testament was a rather nice book anyway.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


A cassock worn by Pope John Paul II is being cut up into 100,000 pieces to be sold as relics, so says a recent news report.

I have no idea why anybody would ever pay for such a thing. But then, veneration of relics is a venerable old tradition. Every chapel, no matter how small, poor, or insignificant, has a secret treasure trove including a few small envelopes, each labeled Tertiary Relic of Saint Somebody of Somewhere (or something to that effect) and if you look inside the envelope you see a tiny fragment of some unidentifiable substance. If you should replace this fragment with a bit of dryer lint, nobody would know the difference. In fact, for all anybody knows, these fragments might actually be nothing but dryer lint.

Documentation of the Catholic Church is ambivalent as to whether these relics have magic powers. Officially they say no, a lesser (material) cause cannot have a greater (spiritual) effect. But somehow, the official wording gets twisted and obfuscated to mean yes, if you pray in the presence of a relic your prayer is answered faster. The Episcopal church closely follows Catholic practice, and the Orthodox churches appear to be even more heavily into relics. Most Protestant denominations try to downplay the importance of relics.

Now, here's the hilarious part. Apparently several fraudulent relic-mongers are all set to cut up just any old cloth and sell the pieces as relics from the late Pope's cassock, and the Catholic church is warning believers to beware of these fakes. But how can you tell of you've got a fake? Can its magical powers be scientifically tested?

Veneration of relics is not limited to religion. In the famously over-hyped Tour de France bicycle race, for instance, when a rider finishes all the water from his water bottle he flings it aside and his team's support van pulls up alongside and the support person hands him a new bottle of water. Meanwhile, the spectators pounce on the empty bottle in a mad melee and tear it to shreds (not to mention coming close to tearing each other to shreds in the process) just to possess a piece of it. I have no idea what it would be good for. Suppose somebody shows me a small unidentifiable scrap of plastic and brags, "This is a piece of Lance Armstrong's ninth water bottle from Day Seven." Am I supposed to be impressed?

Now some relics make sense. Pictures of long-dead ancestors, if you know who they are. Sports trophies that represent actual victories. Framed diplomas, if you earned them the honest way. Perhaps maybe nails and bricks, retrieved from the ashes of college buildings destroyed by fire, handed out as mementoes to alumni who have made donations for the replacement building.

But a tiny snicket of cloth alleged to be a piece of some dead pope's cassock? Come on! You'll never sell me one!

Monday, September 24, 2007


A visitor's comment to my Urban Sprawl entry has expressed concern as to how much of the earth's surface is now paved and how much the pavement causes run-off, resulting in rising sea levels and decreasing groundwater availability. That's a legitimate concern, although I think that pollution carried by the run-off is of far greater concern.

In my neighborhood, because I live less than 600 feet from the tidal zone of the Patuxent River just before it flows into the Chesapeake Bay, we have a zoning regulation that prohibits more than 25% impermeable coverage of my property. Impermeable coverage includes buildings with foundations, sidewalks, and paved driveways. It does not include non-foundationed sheds, isolated decorative rocks, and separated-brick or cobblestone walkways and driveways. That sounds, superficially, like good sense.

But is it really good sense? A family requires a certain size house and garage, and enough impermeable surface to park cars. (Most car-owners are aware of the rust problems that quickly develop on the underside of a car that's regularly parked on a permeable surface, especially grass or weeds.) This means that, in effect, you need to own at least four times the area you're going to build on. For many people, no problem, because you'd like to own that much area anyway.

But some people (non-gardeners, disabled people who can't participate in outdoor activities, etc.) could get by with less land area if the law would allow.

Now, here's the effect of requiring a certain minimum property size. Houses and businesses need to be farther apart. Driving distances are increased, thus increasing the need for more (and sometimes wider) paved roads. Fewer trips can be made by walking. More families need two or more cars, thus further increasing their own need for room to park them. Businesses need larger parking lots because higher percentages of their customers arrive by car. So, the total per-capita pavement area of the community is increased.

So it looks to me like the impermeable-surface restriction has backfired.

Here's another problem: over-dependence on cars for personal transportation and trucks for commercial long-haul. This demands paved roads. Even if semi-permeable pavement (far more expensive and shorter-lasting than conventional pavement) is used, the total impermeability of the pavement could be greatly decreased if as much as possible of our transportation could be done by railroads, which require very little impermeable surface for the railbeds.

What's the answer? Opinions, anybody?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Is a church really a charity?

When we do our income taxes, we can deduct charitable giving, including giving to our church, and the church itself pays no taxes. But is a church really a charity? Does it really do anything for the community, or is it merely a self-indulgent social club?

Right now I have before me our church's budget summary for Fiscal Year 2007, trying to ascertain how much of it is actually used for charitable benefit to the community.

47.70% of the budget is for salaries and benefits to a full-time preacher, a part-time assistant preacher, an organist, and an office manager.

What do the preachers do? Primarily, they put on a grandiose show for us. They lead the Sunday morning services, attend our social events, and may perform some administrative duties. Nobody outside of the church sees any of this. It's all for the benefit of the church members. The preachers also serve as figureheads for the church in our dealings with our community, but for the most part, the people outside of the church barely know that the preachers exist. Hardly any charity here.

The organist greatly enhances our enjoyment of the church service, but that has no impact on anybody outside the church. No charity here.

The office manager is necessary for the administration of the church, but does nothing except help keep the church in existence. No charity here.

36.20% of the budget is for operating expense. It's just to keep the church in existence. No charity here.

12.47% of the budget is for buildings and grounds. Two chapels, a parish hall, a graveyard, and about eleven acres of land to do maintenance on. No charity here.

2.42% of the budget is for insurance. A necessary expense, to be sure, but it's not charity.

0.83% of the budget is for ministries support. That serves certain special needs of the congregation members, so I suppose that, by some stretch of the definition, it could be called charity, but it's only for church members, not the community at large.

0.37% of the budget is for outreach. This could be construed as charity of sorts, but it's primarily intended to extend invitations to folks to join the church, not to actually do much good. Charity? Well, maybe.

(I think the remaining 0.01% is the result of arithmetical rounding.)

In addition, some church members participate in a charity called SMILE which is run by a consortium of several of the churches of the community. None of the churches' budgets contribute anything to SMILE, however.

My conclusion is that our church is an almost purely self-indulgent social club, and we've done a masterful con job into hoodwinking the IRS into exempting the church from taxes. The tax break is actually an outright gift from the state to the church, thus constituting a breach in the traditional separation of church and state. Personally, I feel a bit guilty participating in this blatant fraud.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Urban Sprawl

Waldorf, Maryland is an extreme example of urban sprawl. It began as a few widely spaced truck stops, motels, and sleazy bars along several miles of U.S. 301. Then in 1949, slot machines were legalized and all the sleazy bars put them in. Land speculators, seeing the influx of visitors attracted by the slot machines, immediately gobbled up the vast tracts of vacant land between the sparsely spaced businesses.

No sidewalks or crosswalks were ever built, so walking anywhere was difficult, and driving everywhere was necessary. Traffic got congested. More businesses were built, and they all had to have huge parking lots because all their customers arrived by car, none by walking.

The combination of rampant land speculation and the need for huge parking lots forced the businesses to be far apart, thus increasing driving distances and congesting traffic even further. The city planners in their wondrous wisdom built wider roads instead of sidewalks and crosswalks.

The increased width of the roads used up land that would have otherwise been useful for businesses, thus forcing businesses even farther apart, thus increasing everyone's driving needs even further. Traffic became even more congested. Land speculators made a killing.

The city planners in their wondrous wisdom thought the slot machines were to blame, so they banned all public gambling in 1968. That made no difference whatsoever.

U.S. 301 is now up to ten lanes wide in some places. Many businesses were relocated in the process of widening it. The businesses had to be rebuilt even farther out, increasing driving time for everybody even further, and the vicious circle continues.

About 95% of the land area in Waldorf is now roads, parking lots, and giant weed patches owned by land speculators. Only about 5% is available for homes and businesses. Widening the roads even more is no longer possible because there's no available land to widen them onto.

There seems to be two things nobody has ever thought of. First, adjust real estate taxes to bear more heavily on location value of the land and more lightly (if at all) on the buildings, thus putting the land speculators out of their nefarious trade. Second, build sidewalks and crosswalks.

Do you know of any community suffering from urban sprawl? Would these same two solutions be applicable to your community?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Absolute Truth

Is there such a thing as Absolute Truth? I'm inclined to think there probably is. I'm also inclined to think that logic is probably valid and that the validity of logic is probably part of Absolute Truth.

I realize that mathematicians have been unable to prove logically that logic is valid. Every proof of the validity of logic that's ever been published in peer-reviewed mathematics journals has at least one non-rigorous step. However, we have an immense body of empirical experience showing that logic always works, and it appears that the most reasonable explanation is that logic is valid.

If logic is valid, then everything that can be proven using the principles of logic as premises must be necessarily true in all possible realms of reality, and therefore must be part of Absolute Truth.

The ancient Greeks presented the concept of the Logos, a body of truth so absolute that even the gods, if they exist, must be bound by it. They can't do anything that's logically impossible. Anyone bound by anything cannot be a Supreme Being. The Logos itself cannot be a Supreme Being either, because it must remain forever unchanged, and must do only what its nature destines it to do.

Early Christian theologians were very displeased at the thought that a Supreme Being is impossible. Therefore, they invented a new form of Logos, the Word of Truth spoken by God. This means that the Logos is dependent on God, instead of God dependent on the Logos.

The ancient Chinese presented the concept of the Tao, the Way of All Things. All things must conform to the Tao. Ancient Chinese thought appears not to possess any well-defined concept of God, therefore the relationship between God and the Tao is not a part of Chinese Philosophy.

The Tao appears to have had little or no impact on Christian theology. Christian thought, in general, regards the Tao as quaint and amusing, but unimportant.

Physicists have noticed that most of the laws of physics appear to be based on a strikingly small number of mathematical formulations. You can see this readily in Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics. Whereas most physics textbooks have separate chapters on static forces, dynamic motion, optics, acoustics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, quantum theory, etc., Richard Feynman jumps back and forth amongst these various topics to show that the same mathematical constructs, with different window-dressing, appear at the root of all the laws of these various topics in physics. Therefore, these few mathematical constructs must describe the basic dimensionality of the entire universe.

Now, just who or what could have created such a universe? Could the universe be the necessary result of a body of Absolute Truth? Could the universe exist because its nonexistence would be logically self-contradictory? I find this a very intriguing possibility.

A few junior wanna-be theologians have suggested that God is Absolute Truth, but that idea has apparently not met with much favor in the general theological community. It would imply a powerless God who is incapable of making any decisions, but is absolutely constrained to create what must be created. Such a God would not be anything to whom congregations would sing hymns and recite prayers.

But the existence of Absolute Truth, at the present state of human knowledge, has not been proven. As Richard Feynman has said, our current knowledge of the universe is still not sufficient to determine whether a conscious decision-making God was needed for its creation. (Richard Feynman was Jewish, but he didn't let his religion get in the way of his intelligence.)

So that leaves us all free to believe that the universe was arbitrarily zapped into existence by the capricious whimsy of a conscious decision-making God. Personally, I have trouble believing any such thing.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Property taxes

September is property tax month in my county. I just paid mine. It has gone up substantially since I had my new garage built about a year and a half ago. The garage replaced a decrepit shack that was a neighborhood eyesore and possibly somewhat of a safety hazard, thus ripping it out and replacing it with a decent building was a service to the neighborhood, so I get rewarded with a tax increase.

We're all accustomed to property taxes. The more property you own, the more tax you pay. Fair? Well, perhaps not. The commodity we call "property" is actually two separate things: land and buildings. I don't truly "own" land. I only possess the privilege of putting my house, garage, and garden on it. It's right that I should pay taxes for this privilege, even if I didn't actually exercise the privilege.

It's much better for the community if I keep my buildings in good shape and replace them when they become decrepit, but if I'm penalized with higher taxes for doing so, that rather decreases my incentive, doesn't it?

All of my neighbors except one have had new garages built in the last fifteen years. All except that one have gotten their property taxes increased. The one neighbor who hasn't done so is thinking about it, but his budget is tight and he's not very eager for a tax increase on top of the building cost.

My property sits on a whopping five eighths of an acre, about twice as much as I really need. I suppose I could subdivide half of it off and sell it, but why bother? The legal manipulation would eat up most of the profit and the decrease in my property tax would be insignificant. Besides, it'll probably be worth more next year anyhow.

Just think of what would happen if my neighbors and I paid much higher taxes on our land and little or none on the buildings! We'd all have more incentive to upgrade our houses, garages, and gardens to the max, thus improving the appearance of the community. Those of us with large lots would have more incentive to sell off the excess, allowing a more densely built community with less urban sprawl.

Opinions, anybody? What do you think is fair?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Science versus Religion

Are science and religion compatible? That question seems to be all the rage this year, so I thought I'd speak up and prove that I don't have the answer.

Anybody who claims that science and religion are compatible probably doesn't understand science. Anybody who claims that science and religion are incompatible probably doesn't understand religion. I don't understand religion.

Stephen Jay Gould once claimed that science and religion address non-overlapping magisteria, therefore compatibility between them is irrelevant. I think I can probably agree with that. Science addresses reality. I don't know what religion addresses.

At a banquet that my wife and I attended a few years ago, we were seated at a table with several clergy people and other religious leaders of several denominations. The conversation turned to the philosophical implications of the difference between the two versions of the Nicene Creed, whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, or only the Father and not the Son.

I, in my ignorance, asked, "Has anybody ever conducted an observation to watch the Holy Spirit proceeding, so we'd know which is true?"

One of the clergymen tried to explain, "The proceeding of the Holy Spirit isn't something you observe, it's derived from the equilateral symmetry of the Trinity."

I asked, "But how was the equilateral symmetry of the Trinity measured?"

Another clergyman answered, "The equilateral symmetry of the Trinity isn't measured, it's deduced by means of faith."

I asked, "But how do you do that?"

Another clergyman then tried to explain, "First you must believe, so that you may experience the Trinity in action, then you'll understand the sacred mystery. Read the works of Saint Anselm, who explained it all quite clearly."

At this point, my wife knew what I was about to ask next, so she began poking me under the table, so I figured it was time to drop this utterly futile line of questioning.

I thought, what's this? I'm supposed to believe before I can understand? I thought I had to understand before belief was justified.

Before Galileo could get people to believe that Jupiter had moons, he had to help them understand that a telescope was a tool to extend human vision, not an implement of satanic delusion.

Before Alfred Wegener could get people to believe that continents drift around, he had to help them understand that there was a lot more to it than the coincidental similarity of the shapes of the Atlantic coastlines of Africa and South America.

Before Einstein could get anybody to believe the Theory of Relativity, he had a tremendous amount of explaining to do. The Theory of Relativity still appears to have some holes in it.

And before Saint Anselm can get me to believe anything, well, he can't. He couldn't explain anything in a logically coherent manner when he was alive, and I doubt he'll do it now that he's dead.

Religion is an utterly alien world to me. I only participate because the natural progress of my life has placed me in the Episcopal Church social crowd and it would be needlessly hateful of me to refuse to participate.

So, am I a hypocrite for going through the motions of a religion in which I hold not the slightest belief whatsoever?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering 9/11

Does anybody really know what happened on September 11, 2001? I don't, and I doubt that anybody else has the straight story either.

I don't believe any of the conspiracy conjectures, but I don't believe any official reports I've ever heard either. All I believe is that the official investigation was inexcusably sloppy and crude, and that the official explanation is miserably incomplete.

There are too many inadequately answered questions. How could a mostly aluminum airplane, built no more heavily than absolutely necessary, cause the total collapse of a massive steel and concrete building intended to withstand every imaginable onslaught for centuries? What caused the upper parts of the collapsing buildings to fall almost as rapidly as if the lower parts were not there? Why do photographs of the wreckage show material breakage patterns of a sort that would result from explosives?

Let me offer a humble conjecture. From having spent thirty-two years working in various sorts of office buildings and helping to install systems in some of them, I know a bit of how they're built. They have easily removable lift-out floor plates, quick-drop ceiling tiles, and often easily removable wall panels, all for the purpose of facilitating easy installation and maintenance of phone systems, computer networks, interoffice communication systems, security camera systems, and whatever.

Installation and maintenance technicians are always around the building somewhere, doing something to one system or another. The office workers pay them little mind for the most part, and sometimes even lend them a hand.

Suppose, in the weeks before the 9/11 disaster, a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives showed up disguised as installation technicians, bearing forged credentials and a believable story about what they were going to install. They could easily bring in explosive devices disguised as system components. No one would question them. They would be free to plant the explosives in full view of everybody, and no one would ever insist on double-checking what's inside of the black boxes.

Could this be what happened? I don't know. I have no evidence. But at least I think it's believable. Opinions, anyone? What do you believe?

Monday, September 10, 2007


Is recycling worthwhile?

Since my community lacks reliable trash collection service, we take our trash to the local trash depository. In addition to the large compactor for non-recyclable general trash, there are also bins for various types of recyclable materials.

One huge bin is for mixed metal cans, glass bottles, and plastic containers, all mixed together. Does that make any sense? Is somebody going to sort through it, piece by piece? If they don't, what in the world could they use the mixture for?

Perhaps the job might be eased slightly, but not much, with an array of magnets. Then in one pile they'd have mixed stainless steel cans, tin-plate cans, zinc-plate cans, nickel-plate cans, and stray miscellaneous hardware in one pile, and mixed aluminum cans, clear glass, brown glass, green glass, milk glass, lead-crystal glass, and six formulations of plastic in the other pile. Nope! All the magnets in the world won't do much.

I'd almost be willing to bet that they simply weigh the mixed materials, apply for a federal grant of some sort based on percentage of total trash recycled, write a letter to send out to the public praising us for the great job of recycling we're doing, and send the mixed materials on to the landfill along with the non-recyclable trash.

Another huge bin is for mixed paper and cardboard of all types. Newspapers, magazines, books, catalogs, phone directories, cardboard boxes, all together. Actually, it's imaginable that there may be a few industrial uses for that mix without sorting, since all paper and cardboard products are more or less similar in chemical composition, so paper recycling might not be a total loss.

There's a large receptacle for used but still wearable old clothing for donation to charity. Now that would make sense, in principle, except that sorting items by size and style and getting them to needy people is very time-consuming. It probably is done by volunteers.

There is a large drum for used motor oil. Now that makes good sense, I think. I'm not sure what they refine used oil into, but at least it's possible to dispose of it without contaminating soil or water, even if actual recycling is not feasible.

There's a place in the landfill to dump bulky yard waste, but there's a dumping charge for that. Why? I don't know. It's compostable, whereas most other trash is not. In fact, I compost my own yard waste, and throw kitchen scraps in with it. Better than paying good money for garden fertilizer!

Used cooking oil can be cheaply converted into high-quality diesel fuel, and some estimates have been made that as much as one eighth of our nation's diesel fuel cosumption could be supplied by the used cooking oil from fast-fooderies. However, collecting the stuff would be prohibitively expensive. The typical American community has one or two fast-fooderies every three or four blocks, and each fast-foodery throws out only a gallon or two a few times a day. It would be a monumentally costly to have a collection truck loop around the circuit of fast-fooderies, collecting only a small trickle each stop. No wonder it isn't done except by a few diehard individuals out to prove something!

Now, back to metal, glass, and plastic. If none of it is ever recycled, we'll soon be mining our landfills. I really don't see how that would be bad at all. If all of it is recycled, we'll be mining our landfills almost as soon. For the most part, I think we ought to invest in landfill-mining technology instead of wasting time recycling.

Maybe recycling is just a feel-good thing, to make us feel patriotic.

How do you stand? Opinions, anybody?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

Since I've just spent the morning in a church-sponsored Bible-reading seminar and the afternoon in a presentation by the Washington Area Secular Humanists on the twin topics of religious freedom and separation of church and state, it's a perfect evening to bring up the topic of Cognitive Dissonance, the disparity between what you can see is true and what you're expected to believe.

As we observe the universe, we perceive regularity at the most basic level. All electrons (as far as we know) have the same unit charge, the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, physical laws appear to be unchanging, logic always works, and so forth. This strongly suggests, to me at least, that the universe must be the result of a body of absolute truth of some sort, of which only a small portion is currently known.

But in the Christian religion, we are asked to ignore all this, and accept the utterly preposterous and totally unsupportable contention that the universe was just magically zapped into existence by the capricious whimsy of some sort of invisible sky-zombie named God. The method used by this God is held to be a sacred mystery we're not supposed to ask about.

Without the slightest evidence that such a God even exists, we've conjectured his detailed anatomy. He's presumed to have the form of an impossibly convoluted three-headed mini-pantheon called a "Holy Trinity" consisting of a "Father", a "Son", and a "Holy Spirit". The precise arrangement of these parts is disputed. Some denominations insist that the Holy Spirit "proceeds" from both the Father and the Son, and others say no, only from the Father and not the Son. Nobody has ever conducted an observation to watch the Holy Spirit proceeding so we'd know which is true. And then there are controversies over whether the "Substances" of the Father and the Son are alike, the same, similar, or different. No one has been able to analyze these "substances" so we'd know which is true. There are many other controversies over even more trivial and utterly unprovable details.

From this point on, the doctrine just gets weirder and weirder. Since nobody has ever detected the slightest evidence of this unlikely monstrosity, we've conjectured that he must live in some unchartable yonder realm called "Heaven" but he's really omnipresent. He's also omnipotent except that we can pretend to boss him around by reciting mystic incantations at our own belly buttons in a strangely useless ritual called "Prayer".

Different denominations have different attitudes toward the combination of careful observation and rigorous logic generally referred to as the Scientific Method, but all agree on insisting that there is a Higher Truth that's beyond the scope of mere science, and that higher truth can only be perceived by standing in ranks and chanting mystic incantations in four-part harmony while merrily vestmented dignitaries stroll down the aisle carrying awkward ceremonial gadgets.

Is it any wonder that our religion has never contributed anything of major value to the world?

To me, religion has only two saving graces. First, we at least pay lip service to the Golden Rule, although most of us have no idea that we plagiarized it from non-religious moral philosophies of about the eleventh or twelfth century BC or earlier. Second, we have a nice fellowship of friendly people as long as you're careful to avoid participating in the crybaby contests sponsored by the resident drama queens of the congregation.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Book review: The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw

Copyright 1998, Random House, ISBN 0-375-50202-5

This is a book from my parents' vast collection of books, which I obtained soon after my mother passed away and my father is divesting himself of many of his earthly possessions as he moves from their home of more than 45 years into an assisted living home.

This book is about the generation of people who lived their teenage years during the Great Depression and arrived at adulthood during World War II. This is my parents' generation. Although one might argue rhetorically whether any generation can rightfully be called greater than any other, it's obvious that the unique crucibles of depression and war shaped the attitudes and characters of the people of this generation, sometimes for the good, and sometimes otherwise.

Living during the depression can affect a person any of several ways. It can instill a lifelong attitude of frugality, or it can condemn a person to a lifetime of defeatism. The frugal survived, the defeatists didn't.

World War II was a war we had to win. Had we lost, we'd probably all be speaking a German-Japanese pidgin dialect of some sort and living under unspeakable tyranny. The people fighting this war and contributing to the war effort, both on and off the battlefield, learned dedication to duty. That sounds trite, but Tom Brokaw does an excellent job of explaining how this dedication built character.

The people described in the book are, of course, exceptional people. They're the people who later became politicians and industry leaders. But the same forces that shaped their lives also shaped the lives of the whole generation of plain ordinary folks nobody will ever remember.

Reading the book has given me a better understanding of why my parents were like they were, and why they raised me like they did.

They insisted on frugality, for instance. Why pay extra for a double-dip cone when a single-dip satisfies, even if you've got the money? Why throw a tantrum demanding fancy toys when a few pieces of scrap wood nailed together, supplemented by the fertile imagination that every kid has got, will do just fine?

They taught devotion to duty. Get that geography lesson learned, not because there's any immediate tangible reward, but because it's the right thing to do. Go help Grandma do her grocery shopping, not because she'll give you a candy bar, but because she needs help.

Many people of this generation have built up substantial pots of savings, which their children (my generation) will inherit. Do I deserve to inherit anything? Of course not! I feel like a vulture even thinking about it. I hope my father uses his money for his own enjoyment during his remaining years. He inherited absolutely nothing whatsoever from his parents, and he's already given me everything a parent rightfully owes his children. I've got no right to ask for more.

Tom Brokaw has, in my opinion, somewhat whitewashed the descriptions of several of the political and industry leaders. He's glossed over the miserable failings of several politicians who, as we've read in newspaper articles, messed up scandalously. But that's okay. He's provided me with an understanding of how societal forces can shape people.

Perhaps I'm unduly arrogant, but I think I'm a bit smarter for having read the book.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A sermon on poverty and hunger

At a recent church service, the sermon topic was poverty and hunger. After the obligatory weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the amount of poverty and hunger in the world, the preacher presented a comparison between Herbert Spencer and Jesus Christ. Naturally, in accordance with the Christian Party Line, the conclusion was that Jesus Christ had the True Answer. We must increase our charitable giving.

Herbert Spencer was a nineteenth-century English philosopher and political theorist who, upon reading Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, concluded that natural selection leading to the survival of the fittest applied just as well to human society. Give the poor nothing, he said. They're poor because they're less fit. Allow them to starve, and the next generation will be stronger and wealthier because the weaker members will have died without leaving descendents.

Spencer was, in principle, correct, except for one problem. The laws of his time, like the laws of our own time, grant certain people unnatural advantages because they've been born into positions of special privilege, or had the good luck to move into positions of special privilege. If fitness were the primary determining factor of wealth, Paris Hilton would probably be a homeless waif sleeping on steam grates and begging crumbs.

So I think we can safely dismiss Herbert Spencer's proposed solution. But did Jesus Christ really do any better?

We Christians love to think that Jesus was the Supreme Humanitarian. Unfortunately, there isn't much in any of the Gospels to support that view. Although he was a pretty nice guy in most of the Gospel stories, he really doesn't appear to have been particularly intelligent. He appears to have had no idea that poverty is caused primarily by legally enforced special privileges, leading to inequality of opportunity. Charitable giving was all he could think of, utterly ignoring the underlying injustice.

There is one thing that all human activities, without exception, require, and that is a location, a place to be while you are doing it. You can just about hear the real estate salesperson in the background, whispering, "Location, location, location." Food can be grown more easily on land near where strong people live to till the land, and near where hungry people live to eat the food, and people move around for various reasons and their needs and wants change with the seasons.

Our present laws treat land, that is, locations, as property. It doesn't work that way. A location is part of the world, not manufactured by any person, and its value is determined by the activities going on around it, not by anything the owner does. The law of supply and demand simply drives the price up to the point where land is difficult to buy and sell, but easy to own on a long-term basis. We can't just build another factory to make more land and ship it to anywhere we need it, the way we do with automobiles or refrigerators or whatever.

When a piece of land is very expensive to purchase initially but very cheap to hang onto once you've got it, it changes hands very slowly. However, the need for dynamic usage of land is very great. It must change hands frequently as society's needs change.

Therefore, we've got to think of some way to make land very cheap to purchase initially but very expensive to hang onto, in order to dump currently unused, underused, misused, and inappropriately used land onto the market priced for a quick sale. A variety of methods have been proposed, but the simplest approach appears to be to adjust real estate taxes to bear more heavily on the value of the location and more lightly, if at all, on the buildings. Perhaps other taxes, such as income taxes and sales taxes, can also be reduced.

But would our religious leaders ever think of anything like that? Well, it's been about two thousand years and they haven't thought of it yet.

Now, don't get me wrong. Charitable giving and welfare programs will still be needed. But the fundamental justice provided by dynamic land usage patterns is a prerequisite for any sort of charity to be effective.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Welcome to my new blog. In this blog I hope to post lengthier and deeper opinions than would be appropriate in my frivolous Demented Diary over at DiaryLand. I really don't expect my DiaryLand buddies to spend much time over here, nor any of the readers of this blog to have much interest in the silliness over on the Demented Diary.

Oh by the way, does anybody know why the Opera browser can't be used to post here? I've resorted to Microsoft Internet Explorer and it works fine. Opera, my favorite for most of my web surfing, runs into a variety of errors.