Halloween

October 31, 2014
Jack-o-lantern

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit:

The name “Halloween” is actually derived from “All Hallow’s Eve“, that is the day before “All Hallow’s Day” or All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day was and is a Christian, primarily Roman Catholic, holy day which celebrates all the saints in Heaven and includes prayers for those in Purgatory.

Halloween, however, is not a Christian holiday. It seems to have come from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was a summer’s end or harvest festival. The Celts celebrated Samhain with bonfires to ward off evil spirits and sacrificed animals and sometimes humans to their gods. This pagan heritage has made Halloween controversial among Christians at times. The Protestant Reformers in England did not like the holiday and tried to suppress it because of its pagan and Roman Catholic origins. The Scots were more lenient and Halloween is celebrated there more than in England. The Irish, of course, still celebrated it as they remained Catholic and true to their Celtic Heritage. Halloween was not much celebrated in America until large numbers of Scots and Irish immigrated here during the nineteenth century.

As for the customs which have grown up around Halloween, it would seem that carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns is an American innovation. The Scots and Irish used turnips. Pumpkins, which are native to North American, turned out to be larger and easier to carve. Trick or treating seems to be derived from the Scottish custom of guising. Guising is the custom in which children would go from door to door in costume begging for treats and performing a trick or song in return. This custom was first noted in America in the early twentieth century. Trick or treating became the custom by the 1930’s. Haunted houses have also become popular since the 1970’s.

So, Happy Halloween, or Samhain.

Plant Cruelty

October 27, 2014

 

I have to confess that I am prejudiced against vegetarians, especially vegans. It shouldn’t really matter to me what someone chooses to eat, yet the sense of self-righteous moral superiority they exude over us meat eaters is more than a little annoying. They are better than the rest of us because we enable cruelty against animals. Thus we see scenes like this.

 

Now I realize that not all vegans are like this. There are many moderate, reasonable vegans who respect the dietary choices of others and do not embarrass themselves in restaurants. Unfortunately, 90% of them make the other 10% look bad.

Well, they can stop the moral superiority. Science has discovered that plants know when they are being eaten, and they don’t like it. I learned of this from an article in Modern Farmer.

We’ve been hearing for decades about the complex intelligence of plants; last year’s excellent New Yorker piece is a good place to start, if you want to learn more about the subject. But a new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, managed to figure out one new important element: plants can tell when they’re being eaten, and they don’t like it.

The word “intelligence,” when applied to any non-human animal or plant, is imprecise and sort of meaningless; research done to determine “intelligence” mostly just aims to learn how similar the inner workings of another organism is to a human thought process. There’s certainly nothing evolutionarily important about these sorts of intelligence studies; a chimp is not superior to a chicken just because chimps can use tools the same way humans do. But these studies are fascinating, and do give us insight into how other organisms think and behave, whatever “think” might mean.

This particular study was on the ever-popular Arabidopsis, specifically the thale cress, easily the most popular plant for experimentation. It’s in the brassica family, closely related to broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and cabbage, though unlike most of its cousins it isn’t very good to eat. This particular plant is so common for experiments because it was the first plant to have its genome sequenced, so scientists understand its inner workings better than almost any other plant.

The researchers were seeking to answer an unusual question: does a plant know when it’s being eaten? To do that, the researchers had to first make a precise audio version of the vibrations that a caterpillar makes as it eats leaves. The theory is that it’s these vibrations that the plant can somehow feel or hear. In addition, the researchers also came up with vibrations to mimic other natural vibrations the plant might experience, like wind noise.

Turns out, the thale cress actually produces some mustard oils and sends them through the leaves to deter predators (the oils are mildly toxic when ingested). And the study showed that when the plants felt or heard the caterpillar-munching vibrations, they sent out extra mustard oils into the leaves. When they felt or heard other vibrations? Nothing. It’s a far more dynamic defense than scientists had realized: the plant is more aware of its surroundings and able to respond than expected.

So, there you have it. Those fruits and vegetables you are eating were once happy growing in the earth until someone came along and yanked them up and killed them. They were probably screaming in pain as they were chopped up to make your salad. How do you feel now, vegans? Are you happy to be so cruel to plants. The only way you can truly live without exploiting your fellow organisms would be to not eat at all. In fact, you shouldn’t even drink. Who knows how many microbes you are slaughtering with each drink of water?

Maybe we need to form a new organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Plants or PeTP. End plant exploitation!

 

Obama is Not Mussolini

October 27, 2014

We really need to stop comparing American politicians to dictators. No one in contemporary American politics, including President Obama is anything like Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini and making such comparisons is not only ridiculous, but a disgrace to the memory of those who have suffered under real dictators. What brings this on is a recent statement by Mark Levin that Obama will go “full Mussolini” after the upcoming election. I understand what Mark Levin means. Faced with a hostile Congress controlled by the Republicans, it is likely that Obama will make extensive use of executive orders to enact the policies he wants. He does not have to face another election so he need not concern himself with the political consequences of his actions. He could very well attempt to complete the fundamental transformation of this country in the last half of his second term.

 


A young Mussolini in his early years in power.

Not Barack Obama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

But, taking all of that into consideration, Barack Obama will still not be Benito Mussolini. Mussolini gained control of Italy by force and he aspired to have total control over the country. He really was a dictator and there were no formal checks or balances on the power he could wield in Italy. Mussolini never really had the sort of control that Hitler had in Germany or the Communists in Russia or China, partly because the Italians are less given to marching in ranks than others and partly because he had to contend with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian monarchy. Still, for eighteen years, Mussolini controlled the destiny of Italy. No matter how many executive orders he writes, Barack Obama will not have that kind of control over the United States. Italy was a one party state under Mussolini. We still have two opposing parties here, as well as a mostly free press and freedom of speech, for now. If anything, it is likely that the next two years will prove to be intensely frustrating for Obama. He will be a lame duck. After six years, the people will be tired of him and ready to move on. The 2016 election will attract more and more of the nation’s attention and of Obama’s popularity continues to drop, the candidates may prefer not to be seen with him. I predict he will be playing a lot more golf over the next two years.

 

English: Cropped version of File:Official port...

Not Benito Mussolini (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist

October 25, 2014

I was not certain I wanted to read The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist by J P Holding. I do not have any plans to begin a career as a Christian apologist, although I very occasionally write what might be considered apologetics on my blog. Also, when deciding whether to get a book on a controversial subject such as politics or religion, I generally look first at the one-starred reviews at Amazon. If I find a large number of such reviews written by people who have obvious not read the book and have an agenda opposed to that of the writer, I know it is worth reading. This may seem a strange criterion, but I haven’t been disappointed yet. Unfortunately, The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist has only recently come out and there is only one review. I decided to take a chance and I can say I wasn’t disappointed.

81g8sHmQBuL._SL1500_

The Inside Guide to Becoming a Christian Apologist is a short book, only 68 pages if it were in a print edition, yet it is full of information for anyone considering a career as an apologist. In the first chapter, Holding discusses the education needed to becoming an apologist. This is not something you can just start doing. If you want to be an effective defender of the Christian faith, you had better be prepared to learn the trade. Fortunately, this does not necessarily require a PhD in theology. There are several paths you can take and Holding discusses which might be best. He moves on to learning the lost art of doing research in the following chapter.

The real nuts and bolts of a career in apologetics are dealt with in the next three chapters. Holding discusses possible career paths, whether working for someone else or striking out on your own. This section is perhaps the most important for anyone considering a ministry involving apologetics. Even the most knowledgeable academic who knows the best arguments in defense of the Christian faith will come to grief if he lacks the knowledge to set up a nonprofit ministry or is unable to share his knowledge using the Internet or other resources.

Finally, in the last chapter, Holding discusses the pitfalls of being an apologist. These include some obvious things as pride and sin, as well as some problems that might not occur to one just starting out, fundraising and making time for family.

There is no discussion of specific arguments or apologetic techniques in this book. That is beyond its scope and would perhaps take hundreds of pages. This book is not everything you need to know to defend the faith. It tells you how to get started and where to go for information. You will have to do the rest of the work.

Radical Honesty

October 20, 2014

A. J. Jacobs is a writer and journalist with a rather unusual method of getting his stories. He is not content just to research whatever subject he happens to be writing about. He immerses himself in the subject, actually living out his project to the point of obsession. As it turns out, while doubtless a lot of trouble to his wife and friends, this approach does lead to his writing books both interesting and humorous. His first such book, The Know-It-All chronicled his quest to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, while his second book, The Year of Living Biblically, told of his attempt to live his life according to all of the rules of the Bible for a year.  These aren’t the only experiments that A. J. Jacobs has conducted upon himself. He has compiled some of his minor projects in a book titled The Guinea Pig Diaries.

Cover of "The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life...

Cover via Amazon

One of these projects, and the subject of this post, is a concept called “Radical Honesty“. Radical Honesty is a technique developed by a psychotherapist named Brad Blanton. Radical Honesty is just what the name might implies. Dr.Blanton teaches that we should always be completely honest with one another. This might not seem to be a particularly new or radical concept, sages and moral teachers have been telling for centuries that we ought not to tell lies. Dr. Blanton takes the idea further, however, by insisted that we should always be honest. We shouldn’t tell those little white lies that help to smooth our relationships with others. If your wife asks if the dress she is wearing makes her look fat, say, “yes”. If you don’t want to go out to dinner with a friend, say so and don’t make up, “other plans” or imaginary headaches. If you find yourself desiring your friend’s wife, say so. In fact, Dr. Blanton believes in simply removing the filter between what we think and what we say and do.

Is this a good idea? Well, we should be honest in our dealings with others. As a matter of justice and charity, we ought not to take advantage of people by deceiving them. Honesty, by itself, is not necessarily always necessary or desirable. Honesty is a virtue when it serves the greater virtues I mentioned. It is not necessary to be honest if being honest leads to an evil outcome. It is not necessary to tell the Nazis that you are hiding a family of Jews in the attic, or to tell the robber where you have hidden your money. Even Dr Blanton agrees with this. It is also not necessary to tell the truth if doing so will lead to hurt feelings.You do not have to tell your wife she looks fat and you probably shouldn’t tell your friend you desire his wife. No good can come of such confessions.

There is a subtle line here, though. A. J. Jacobs wrote of an old widower who sent him some poetry he had written and asked Jacobs for his opinion of his writing. Jacobs didn’t think the poems were very good, but wrote an encouraging reply. He could not bring himself to tell the man he though the poems were badly written. Ought he have told the truth about his Opinion. Dr. Brad Blanton thought he should have. He argued that he was not, in fact, doing the man a kindness by lying to him. If his poems weren’t much good, he ought to be told the truth so he wouldn’t waste his time trying to get them published. I sort of agree with Dr. Blanton. Back when Simon Cowell was on American Idol, he was generally disliked  for his cutting criticism of the contestants’ singing, especially during the tryouts. This seemed to be very cruel, yet perhaps he was doing them a kindness by showing them that they lacked the talent to sing professionally, and that they would be well advised to try something else. Perhaps the real cruelty would be to encourage someone to follow a path you know they have no ability to complete simply to spare your own feelings. Perhaps.

I cannot help but feel that what Dr. Blanton has really done is that he has discovered a way to be obnoxious to his neighbors and to have avoided the usual consequences by pleading that he was just being honest. In any event, I am not convinced that getting rid of the filter between the brain and the mouth is such a good idea.A. J. Jacobs was not convinced either, as he explained while describing his life as George Washington.

That was another one of his projects. Jacobs did not go about dressed in a colonial costume. Instead, he decided to try to live up to George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. The thing that most impressed Jacobs while studying the life of Washington was the tremendous restraint the Founding Father displayed over his emotions. By nature, Washington was a passionate man with a fierce temper. In his youth, he was a rather arrogant, entitled aristocrat who flattered his superiors in person while undermining them behind their backs. Yet, Washington possessed the strength of will to remake himself into a model of decorum and decency. George Washington was supposed to be unable to tell a lie in the famous legend, but I somehow doubt he would think much of Radical Honesty. If Dr. Blanton advises us to remove the filter, Washington spent much of his life creating the filter and making it stronger.

I think the idea behind Radical Honesty is that we ought to be “authentic” or “natural”. Washington would disagree. If he had acted authentically and according to his basic nature, Washington would have remained just another Virginia planter and we would still be a colony of Great Britain. The simple truth is that civilization depends on people restraining their impulses and not doing and saying whatever comes naturally. I said civilization, but I shouldn’t have. The members of any society of human beings, no matter how primitive, must learn to restrain their more selfish feelings and work with the other members of their group. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s ideas about “noble savages” who lived entirely with nature were myths. If anything, a tribe of primitive hunter-gatherers would have to have even less tolerance for individual eccentricities than a modern society. I think we are losing this idea of restraint. Any impulse felt must be acted upon and someone else will clean up the mess. I wonder where it will lead us. Nowhere good, I imagine.

I guess the only thing I can say about Radical Honesty is that being honest is a good thing, being radically honest may not be.

Hey, Christian, Have You Read the Bible

October 17, 2014

Not too long ago, I finished reading the Bible. This is an undertaking I have completed numerous times, to the point where I honestly don’t know how many times I have read the Bible all the way through. I became curious about how many people have actually read the Bible all the way through, I doubt there are many even among devout Christians and Jews, so I asked that fount of all knowledge and wisdom, Google.

The first thing I noticed from the results is that there seems to be a prevailing idea that few Christians have read much  of the Bible. Only Atheists have actually read and studied the Bible in any sort of rigorous fashion and they are uniformly appalled by the ignorance and atrocities found in the “Good Book”. This line of thought goes on with the corollary that anyone who does actually read the Bible will, if he is honest and  intelligent immediately convert to Atheism.  This, Isaac Asimov said, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”, and we get these sort of graphics.

atheists and the bible piechart

 

 

and

reading-bible

 

I don’t find that to be the case myself. In fact, I do not think I could be an honest atheist. The best I could manage might be a sort of Deism, but that is a subject for another post. I also find that the Bible “grows” on me, even the less interesting books. I find, in a curious sort of way, that I get more out of the Bible every time I read it and this appreciation grows even greater when I study the historical and cultural background in which the Bible was written. It is a grave mistake to read your Bible as though you were reading a newspaper or a contemporary novel. While the truths of the Bible may be eternal, they are expressed from the viewpoint of  cultures very different than our own, ones closer to the edge than our comfortable modern, Western world. For this reason, I suspect that a reader from the Third World must have a much easier time understanding the motives and actions of the people in the Bible than a middle class American ever could. I can also see why an ignorant and superficial reading of scripture may lead to many very wrong ideas, including Atheism.

One of the results of the Google search was an article from the website Atheism Resource titled, “Hey, Christian, Have You Read the Bible.”, written by a fifteen year old Atheist named Cassie Huye.

I have read the bible from cover to cover. How many people can actually say that? I will admit that I have forgotten many of the small details and even some of the major events, but at one time my eyes did glaze over the entire thing.

At school, I once had a girl in my class ask why I knew so much about Christianity. When I told her, she was astounded that an Atheist knew anything about her precious little religion, and could not bring herself to find any reason at all that I could be capable of not believing in her god, had I read all of his wondrous miracles in the bible.

What is considered a wondrous miracle anyway? I’ll admit that the ability to turn water into wine is pretty cool, but it seems like that should be a magical spell in some Harry Potter type book with an alcoholic wizard.

I think we have the next great Atheist apologist here. With snarky comments like “her precious little religion”, and generally deriding her classmates, she could be the next Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

And then there is Kings 2: 23-24 “And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.”

I guess if you are the bald man, the death of those who made fun of you for something you can’t help is a miracle, but it really isn’t fair to the kids. The reason we cannot even legally drink until we 21 is because children’s brains are not even totally developed until they are 21. God made us right? He is all knowing… so doesn’t he know they were just using their underdeveloped child brains to make the stupid decision of making fun of a chosen one of God? I mean, if anything, it is God’s fault that they made fun of the man. He made them to have underdeveloped brains!

Do I even have to note that the word translated as “children”, נצר na’ar could also mean young man, adolescent or even servant and that “little” קטנ qaton means little, small, insignificant?  Keep in mind, also, that the city of Bethel was a center of worship for the Kingdom of Israel and thus was a rival to the Temple in Jerusalem and to the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha.

25 Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel.

26 Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David.27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

31 Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. 32 He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. 33 On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:25-31)

It is possible, then that the “little children” were actually a mob of young men intent on insulting and even attacking Elisha. You may still find the incident with the bears disturbing, but a closer investigation shows that the incident is not what it seems to be based on a superficial reading based on ignorance of the historical conditions of the time.

Cassie continues.

This is just one example of the many absolutely insane things that are written in the bible. I promise you that the language the bible is written in was made to bore, but if you want a violent story or just a little comedy, you can find it in your bible.

She is right here. You can find action, comedy, romance, even zombies in the Bible if you know where to look.If you find the language boring, try another translation. But as for insane, again a knowledge of the background of the times will lead to a greater understanding. Dismissing things you do not understand as insane is simply pride in remaining ignorant.

But back to the original question of how I can read about the wondrous miracles of God and be an Atheist. It’s easy, all I had to do was actually read the miracles, and after reading them I don’t know how anyone could be Christian knowing what they say they think is true.

So I encourage you to go out, whoever you are, whatever religion you are: read about your own religion, and read about someone else’s too. Maybe you will realize that you have wasted years listening to someone scam for your money, or maybe you become convinced that you have found the true answer. But at the very least, you will know a little more about the world. As the motto goes, knowledge is power.

Actually, she assumed that miracles cannot happen and that any account of miracles must therefore be false. This assumption that miracles cannot occur is a reasonable assumption given that we do not ordinarily witness miracles, but it is only an assumption. The fact that the Bible contains miracles in its narratives does not prove that the narratives are completely false. They could be reliable history with some exaggerations included. The Bible could be literature, like Homer or Virgil, with a grain of true history at the core, or the miracles could have actually happened. Some of the stories in the Bible may seem strange to us. They did not seem strange to the people who wrote the Bible. As I have indicated, a knowledge of the culture and history of ancient times good serve to make the “insane” stories of the Bible less insane.Cassie Huys dismisses the Bible and Christianity at the age of fifteen after reading the Bible without even trying to understand it. She should take her own advice.

The Home Lie Detector

October 16, 2014

I have mentioned before that I am on the mailing list of Hammacher Schemmer, the store that has sold the best, the only, the unexpected,and the absurdly expensive for the last 166 years. In a recent catalog, I spotted a must have item, the home lie detector.

This is the USB lie detector kit with digital pulse and skin monitors for conducting a polygraph test at home. Using sensors applied to a subject’s fingers, the system takes baseline readings of the pulse rate and the skin’s electrical resistance and measures any changes in response to questioning. Data is graphed and stored in real time using free software, so testers can assess whether the subject’s pulse accelerates or the conductivity of their skin begins to change—the same physiological signs that professional polygraph examiners use to determine whether a suspect is lying. Although results are not legally binding, they may provoke a teenager’s confession about sneaking in after curfew or simply elicit laughs at a party. The system connects to a computer using the included USB cable. For Windows 8,7, Vista, XP, and Mac OSX. Box: 8″ L x 6″ W x 4″ D. (2 lbs.)

HLD

 

This can be yours for only $399.95.

There is, of course, not really any such thing as a lie detector, at least not in the sense that there is actually a machine that can determine if a given statement is truthful or not. What is often called a lie detector is, in fact, a device called a polygraph.

A polygraph operates by measuring various physiological processes, such as pulse rate or the skin’s electrical resistance, as mentioned in the catalog, and perhaps respiration and blood pressure depending on the device. The theory is that these measurements change when the subject is telling a lie.The extent to which this theory is valid is unknown since there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on how effective the device actually is. Professional polygraphers and their trade associations claim a better than 90 % effectiveness. Others, including the American Psychological Association are skeptical about whether the device is effective at all.

It is not quite true that the results of a polygraph test are not legally binding. That actually varies by state in the United States. Something like nineteen states do admit polygraph results as evidence, depending on circumstances. Polygraph evidence may also be admitted in a Federal trial, if the presiding judge at a court permits it. In general the results of a polygraph test can only be used in court if both the prosecutor and the defendant have no objections.

Since every individual responds to stress or lying in a different way physiologically. no polygraph device can determine if a person is definitely lying or telling the truth. No such device has a button that lights up or a alarm that sounds if a lie is told. The results of a polygraph examination must be interpreted by the examiner, and this is why there is so much uncertainty concerning the effectiveness of the polygraph is at detecting lies. The usual procedure is for the examiner to ask a series of innocuous questions to the subject being tested in order to establish a baseline for the various physiological processes being measured. Once that is done, the examiner can proceed with the actual interrogation of the subject. Even then, the results are far from being unambiguous and determining whether a subject is being honest is more an art than a science. A good many polygraph examinations end up being simply inconclusive. I suspect that in the cases in which a polygraph examination is effective at detecting lies, it may be more because the subject believes the polygraph to be effective and is more nervous about lying than he otherwise should be.

It occurs to me that a person who is knowledgeable about the workings and actual effectiveness of a polygraph would be more able to cheat the device than someone who really believes it can detect lies. I would also imagine that an experienced liar or criminal would display less of the reactions tested than a person who is naturally honest. It may well be that the honest, law abiding citizen, or the inexperienced and perhaps guilt ridden criminal would have more to fear from a lie detector test than the career criminal used to lying, or the sociopath who believes there is nothing especially wrong with lying. It should be noted that the notorious traitor and spy Aldrich Ames passed two polygraph examinations with flying colors while he was passing information to the Soviets, as did Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. There have been suspects who have failed polygraph examinations only to be exonerated by actual evidence.

If you are ever asked to submit to a polygraph test as part of a criminal investigation, you should refuse unless your attorney is present. The police cannot force you to submit to a lie detector under any circumstances and you should not be certain that the results of such a test will show you to be innocent. You also cannot be required to take a polygraph test as a condition of employment by most private employers, the exception would employers who work with the government and have access to classified materials. If you apply for a job and are asked to submit to a polygraph test or if your employer asks you to take an exam as a condition of continued employment, chances are they are breaking the law. You might want to consider whether you want to continue working for someone who obviously mistrusts you.

So, if you want to have fun at parties, by all means buy the Home Lie Detector. I wouldn’t recommend you use it on your teenager or anyone else. If even people who administer polygraph tests professionally can sometimes find the results difficult to interpret, you might not want to be too confident of your own, or the computer’s interpretations. And, forcing your child to submit to a polygraph test might not be the best way to build trust in a relationship.

Dying at 75

October 13, 2014

Ezekiel Emanuel has written a somewhat controversial piece in The Atlantic on his hopes to die at the age of seventy-five. He doesn’t hope to be able to live to that age. He hopes he won’t live much past it.

Seventy-five.

That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.

This preference drives my daughters crazy. It drives my brothers crazy. My loving friends think I am crazy. They think that I can’t mean what I say; that I haven’t thought clearly about this, because there is so much in the world to see and do. To convince me of my errors, they enumerate the myriad people I know who are over 75 and doing quite well. They are certain that as I get closer to 75, I will push the desired age back to 80, then 85, maybe even 90.

I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.

But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.

 

He does not intent to commit suicide on his seventy-fifth birthday, to be sure.

Let me be clear about my wish. I’m neither asking for more time than is likely nor foreshortening my life. Today I am, as far as my physician and I know, very healthy, with no chronic illness. I just climbed Kilimanjaro with two of my nephews. So I am not talking about bargaining with God to live to 75 because I have a terminal illness. Nor am I talking about waking up one morning 18 years from now and ending my life through euthanasia or suicide. Since the 1990s, I have actively opposed legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. People who want to die in one of these ways tend to suffer not from unremitting pain but from depression, hopelessness, and fear of losing their dignity and control. The people they leave behind inevitably feel they have somehow failed. The answer to these symptoms is not ending a life but getting help. I have long argued that we should focus on giving all terminally ill people a good, compassionate death—not euthanasia or assisted suicide for a tiny minority.

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75. Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

He will not take any active means to extend his life any further.

Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either. Today, when the doctor recommends a test or treatment, especially one that will extend our lives, it becomes incumbent upon us to give a good reason why we don’t want it. The momentum of medicine and family means we will almost invariably get it.

I must say that I am at least somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one growing older into senescence and decay must wonder if longevity is really something to be desired. What good is it to live to be ninety if the last decade is spent chronically ill and miserable? There is also something unseemly and even futile about this quest we have to live ever longer. We cannot be immortal. No matter how healthy our lives, we will die eventually.

If I eat the right sorts of foods and get the right amount of exercise, perhaps I will live to be eighty rather than seventy. So what? Compared to eternity, ten or twenty years is an infinitesimal amount of time. If I ate a diet of bean curd, perhaps I might live to be one hundred. What good is that if I am miserable every day because I am eating food I hate? Of course, I am being a fool. Living in a healthy body is more pleasant than living in an unhealthy body. But, then this is a matter of quality of live as opposed to quantity of life.

For a Christian, it is especially unseemly to cling to this life. We believe, in theory, that this life is only a prelude to a greater life to come. Why cling to the shadow when we can have the substance? Perhaps our attitude should be that of Pope Pius IX on his deathbed. When told that people around the world were praying for his recovery, he jokingly rebuked his advisors saying, “Why do you want to stop me from going to Heaven?”. Why are we determined to stay out of Heaven? Many other religions have similar views.

I don’t quite agree with Ezekiel Emanuel’s position, all the same. For one thing, I do not have the authority to choose the time of my death any more than I had to choose the time of my birth. It is common to say that this is “my body” or “my life”, but it really isn’t. None of us created ourselves. It would take a PhD in several fields to even begin to understand the processes that keep us alive. If any of us were given conscious control of every biological and chemical reaction in our bodies, we would die within seconds. Properly speaking, my body and my life belongs to the One who made them.

Perhaps Mr. Emanuel might agree with me, although I have no idea what his religious views are. As I noted, he does not plan to actively seek death.

This means colonoscopies and other cancer-screening tests are out—and before 75. If I were diagnosed with cancer now, at 57, I would probably be treated, unless the prognosis was very poor. But 65 will be my last colonoscopy. No screening for prostate cancer at any age. (When a urologist gave me a PSA test even after I said I wasn’t interested and called me with the results, I hung up before he could tell me. He ordered the test for himself, I told him, not for me.) After 75, if I develop cancer, I will refuse treatment. Similarly, no cardiac stress test. No pacemaker and certainly no implantable defibrillator. No heart-valve replacement or bypass surgery. If I develop emphysema or some similar disease that involves frequent exacerbations that would, normally, land me in the hospital, I will accept treatment to ameliorate the discomfort caused by the feeling of suffocation, but will refuse to be hauled off.

Surely there is something to be said for this attitude. Yet again, I do not quite agree with him. I do not and cannot know what my ultimate fate will be and it seems presumptuous to decide that after a certain age I am finished. For all I know the plan might be for me to live to ninety-five in reasonably good health. It would be foolish not to take reasonable steps to keep myself well. If one must accept Mr. Emanuel’s reasoning, surely a consideration of overall health and quality of life is a better basis for deciding when to stop getting checkups, etc, than an arbitrarily chosen age. In any case, I will simply take what comes.

Ezekiel Emanuel states that he is opposed to euthanasia or physician assisted suicide, and I see no reason to doubt his word. He does not even recommend that every one agree to his ideas.

Again, let me be clear: I am not saying that those who want to live as long as possible are unethical or wrong. I am certainly not scorning or dismissing people who want to live on despite their physical and mental limitations. I’m not even trying to convince anyone I’m right. Indeed, I often advise people in this age group on how to get the best medical care available in the United States for their ailments. That is their choice, and I want to support them.

And I am not advocating 75 as the official statistic of a complete, good life in order to save resources, ration health care, or address public-policy issues arising from the increases in life expectancy. What I am trying to do is delineate my views for a good life and make my friends and others think about how they want to live as they grow older. I want them to think of an alternative to succumbing to that slow constriction of activities and aspirations imperceptibly imposed by aging. Are we to embrace the “American immortal” or my “75 and no more” view?

He wants medical research to focus on better treatments for the diseases of old age rather than simply prolonging life or extending the process of dying. But, does he not see that he is actually making some very good arguments for euthanasia? He spends the middle part of his article noting that creativity tends to decline with age, even when there is no dementia. The minds of the elderly no longer work as well, just as their bodies no longer function as well.

Even if we aren’t demented, our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older. Age-associated declines in mental-processing speed, working and long-term memory, and problem-solving are well established. Conversely, distractibility increases. We cannot focus and stay with a project as well as we could when we were young. As we move slower with age, we also think slower.

It is not just mental slowing. We literally lose our creativity. About a decade ago, I began working with a prominent health economist who was about to turn 80. Our collaboration was incredibly productive. We published numerous papers that influenced the evolving debates around health-care reform. My colleague is brilliant and continues to be a major contributor, and he celebrated his 90th birthday this year. But he is an outlier—a very rare individual.

American immortals operate on the assumption that they will be precisely such outliers. But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us. Einstein famously said, “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so.” He was extreme in his assessment. And wrong. Dean Keith Simonton, at the University of California at Davis, a luminary among researchers on age and creativity, synthesized numerous studies to demonstrate a typical age-creativity curve: creativity rises rapidly as a career commences, peaks about 20 years into the career, at about age 40 or 45, and then enters a slow, age-related decline. There are some, but not huge, variations among disciplines. Currently, the average age at which Nobel Prize–winning physicists make their discovery—not get the prize—is 48. Theoretical chemists and physicists make their major contribution slightly earlier than empirical researchers do. Similarly, poets tend to peak earlier than novelists do. Simonton’s own study of classical composers shows that the typical composer writes his first major work at age 26, peaks at about age 40 with both his best work and maximum output, and then declines, writing his last significant musical composition at 52. (All the composers studied were male.)

Perhaps he does not intend it, but this is dangerously close to valuing individuals not as human beings created in the image of God but on a utilitarian basis according to what they can be expected to contribute to society. If we are going in that direction, we might as well open up the death panels right now. We had also better be honest enough to admit that most of us are not going to contribute very much to the arts and sciences and might be fair game for such a panel at any age.

As for me, I will take whatever comes

 

 

I wonder if a lot of the conservatives who written about his article have actually read it.

Columbus Day

October 13, 2014
Christopher Columbus, the subject of the book,...

 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Columbus day in the United States, celebrating the day that Christopher Columbus reached the New World. In Berkeley and some other Leftist enclaves it is Indigenous People’s Day, in which Western Civilization is condemned for its many crimes against humanity. Columbus Day is no big deal, just a three day weekend for banks and such. Still, should we honor Christopher Columbus with a day?

I think we can absolve Columbus of the destruction of many Native American cultures and peoples. That was inevitable. Europe’s sailing and navigation techniques were advancing rapidly and it was only a matter of time before someone stumbled across the Americas. Since the natives were millenia behind in technology, they were doomed. They weren’t entirely helpless victims though. One of the first things that any Indian tribe did when they were contacted by Europeans was to arrange to trade for firearms to use against their traditional enemies. It does not seem to have occurred to them to form alliances against the European invaders until it was too late.

Still, Columbus did set the pattern by enslaving the natives of the islands he discovered.From the Wikipedia article there is this excerpt from his log.

From the 12 October 1492 entry in his journal he wrote of them, “Many of the men I have seen have scars on their bodies, and when I made signs to them to find out how this happened, they indicated that people from other nearby islands come to San Salvador to capture them; they defend themselves the best they can. I believe that people from the mainland come here to take them as slaves. They ought to make good and skilled servants, for they repeat very quickly whatever we say to them. I think they can very easily be made Christians, for they seem to have no religion. If it pleases our Lord, I will take six of them to Your Highnesses when I depart, in order that they may learn our language.”[39] He remarked that their lack of modern weaponry and even metal-forged swords or pikes was a tactical vulnerability, writing, “I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.”[40

He seems not to have been a very good governor of Isabella, the first Spanish colony in the New World. He was charged with excessive cruelty and sent back to Spain in chains. These charges might be false though, since Ferdinand and Isabella felt they had promised him too much reward for his discoveries. Before he set out, they had promised him governorship of the lands he discovered. As it became obvious to everyone but Columbus that he had discovered a whole continent, the king and queen wanted a bigger share.

Maybe the biggest reason not to celebrate is that he was wrong. The popular view is of Columbus bravely asserting that the Earth is round against the scholars and intellectuals of his time who “knew” the Earth was flat. Of course everyone knew the Earth was round. The scholars and intellectuals knew about how large the Earth actually was and they knew perfectly well that Columbus was fudging his calculations to make his voyage seem feasible. If the Americas hadn’t been in the way, his voyage would have ended in disaster.

For all that though, I like Christopher Columbus. Despite his flaws, and he was only a man of his time, he was brave and he had vision, two qualities that are rare enough in any time, especially our own. So, by all means, let’s celebrate this man and his deeds.

Open Carry Follies

October 11, 2014

I happen to be a staunch supporter of the second amendment right to bear arms, and naturally I oppose strict gun control laws. This is not because I have a great love of guns. I have never owned a gun of any sort and I don’t have any plans to acquire any sort of firearm. I have never even shot a gun in my entire life. I am certain that if I did happen to have a gun, I would be more dangerous to myself than to any potential enemy. My support for the second amendment is entirely on libertarian grounds. If you want to own and carry a gun, that’s your right and I wouldn’t want to stop you. I have no use for guns, but I respect your right to have one.

Having said all that, I must confess that I find that the thinking of some of the more enthusiastic gun lovers to be a bit, well, dumb. What I mean is the idea some of them seem to have that they will happen upon the scene of a crime in progress or will be confronted by a mugger and they will whip out their trusty sidearm and take care of the situation. I think they must have a scene rather like this one playing in the theater of their minds.

I wish I could have found that clip without the commentary. Anyway, this story relates a somewhat more likely outcome.

A Gresham, Oregon open carry enthusiast was robbed of his weapon on Saturday by another man with a gun.

According to KOIN Channel 6, 21-year-old William Coleman III of Gresham was standing and talking to his cousin shortly after 2:00 a.m. on Saturday when another man approached him and asked for a cigarette.

The other man — described as a black male around 6 feet tall with a lean build and wavy hair — asked Coleman about his weapon, a Walther P22 pistol.

He then pulled a pistol from the waistband of his pants, pointed it at Coleman and said, “I like your gun. Give it to me.”

Coleman did as he was told and the man then fled on foot. He was reportedly wearing gray sweatpants, flip flop sandals and a white t-shirt and had a small patch of facial hair on his chin.

Coleman told police the suspect appeared to be between 19 and 23 years of age.

Now, concealed carry makes sense in that if the bad guy doesn’t know you are armed, you can give him a nasty surprise. That element of uncertainly whether a potential victim is armed may act as a deterrent to a criminal. Openly carrying a gun makes less sense, since a criminal can see that you are armed and take precautions, such as pointing his own weapon at you and disarming you, or even deciding to shoot first.

But the real lesson in this particular story is that it is easy to concoct fantasies about what you might do in a dangerous situation but the simple truth is that none of us can possibly know what we might do until the situation is actually occurring. Unless you are specially trained or have actual experience, chances are that you will not engage in a shootout with a criminal. You will not stop a madman shooting up a shopping mall. You will be running and hiding like all the other people. Carry a gun, either openly or concealed if you wish, but don’t take for granted that you will be a hero when the time comes.

I should say that I am likely to prove a bigger coward than most if I were confronted with an armed attacker. Since this is not something that occurs in my environment, I would have no idea how to react and would probably freeze and stand looking at the shooter stupidly, not even being able to panic. I say this in case anyone reading the previous paragraph might imagine that I am trying to make myself look braver or smarter than others. I know myself better than to imagine that would be the case. (Although, the one time I was robbed while working the night shift at a convenience store, I was not afraid but irritated. I do not know whether they were actually armed. One of them had his hand in his jacket pocket as if he were holding a hand gun, but I think he was bluffing. They tried to open the cash register but it locked and when they told me to open it, I told them I couldn’t because they had messed it up. A customer entered the store and they fled with nothing for their trouble. I cannot say I was especially brave, just irritated because they really had messed up the cash register.)

I should also say that looking over the comments of this story is a really depressing experience. I don’t know whether the ignorant and the vindictive are drawn to the comments section of stories like this, or commenting on such stories brings out the worst aspects of human nature. Either way it is depressing.


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