Archive for August, 2013

Helium Shortage

August 19, 2013

We may be facing a shortage of helium in the not too distant future. This may seem like a trivial problem. We can live without balloons, right? Actually, helium is used for a number of industrial processes and a shortage, with a corresponding increase in prices could be serious. As you might expect, government has helped to create the problem. Here is the story in the Washington Post.

Earlier this spring, there was a rare bipartisan flurry of activity around something almost every legislator could agree on: Avoiding a sudden lapse in the national supply of helium.

After years of warnings about rising worldwide demand, Congress remembered that a 1996 law demanded the shutdown of the Federal Helium Reserve–a vast underground lake of gas that stretches from Texas to Kansas–just as soon as it paid off the cost of its creation. That will happen at the end of this fiscal year, October 1. If nothing changes, the rest of the 10 billion cubic feet would have to stay underground, cutting off 40 percent of U.S. consumption, while the cost goes through the roof.

In April, the House made short work of a bill that would keep the program operating. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources followed suit in June. And then: Nothing. Congress leaves for recess today, and no vote is scheduled; the Senate leadership office didn’t return calls for confirmation on whether the bill would be brought to the floor.

And that’s making the folks who run the helium reserve very nervous.

“We are contingency planning for a shutdown of the Amarillo facility,” said regional Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Donna Hummel, referring to the program’s 47-person office. “We will be providing notices to employees of Amarillo, private refiners and storage contract holders–companies that store their helium in our reservoir. If we shut this down, you can imagine some consequences there.”

Yeah, no kidding. Helium isn’t just a party gas–it’s also used in a wide range of advanced manufacturing processes, like making computer chips and optical fibers, as well as research and medical procedures, like cooling magnets for MRIs and visualizing lung tissue. That’s why corporations like Intel lined up to push for the helium reserve’s continued operation, along with private refiners that use pieces of the federal infrastructure. Then there are all the government users–scores of universities and military agencies that get a special rate on helium for things like rocket systems and chemical warfare testing. Most of us owe some piece of our daily lives to helium, without even realizing it.

That wasn’t the case in the mid-1990s, when Congress passed the Helium Privatization Act, giving the Bureau of Land Management a date certain for when it would have to get out of the business. Technically, that isn’t until 2015, but the reserve ended up selling off enough helium to pay back the $1.3 billion loan at a faster-than-anticipated clip.

“Our good work is being punished,” sighs Hummel. “We should’ve dragged our feet a little bit, because we really had two years.”

The Senate bill does solve the problem at least in the short term, allowing the Amarillo office to live off its own revenue selling helium until it gets down to 3 billion cubic feet, which will be retained for federal use. After that, Amarillo will be reduced to a skeleton staff (an earlier reduction in force got rid of most of the younger employees, so most are nearing retirement anyway). And then, the feds will manage helium extraction on government-owned land just like any other natural resource, like natural gas (of which helium is actually a byproduct).

My understanding is that by forcing the sale of so much helium, Congress has helped to push the price below market levels, encouraging increased sales and wasting. No matter what happens with the helium reserve, the price will almost certainly increase.

You might wonder why there could possibly be a shortage of helium since it is the second most common element in the universe. Helium is common throughout the universe, but not here on Earth. Hydrogen and helium have the lightest atoms and the Earth’s gravity is not strong enough to hold them, so there has been a steady leakage of these elements from the Earth’s atmosphere. Hydrogen is very reactive and its atoms combine readily with other atoms to form compounds so most of our hydrogen is still on Earth, in water, rocks, etc. Helium, on the other hand is the most noble of the noble gases. Helium atoms do not combine with any other atoms, so whatever helium was present at the Earth’s creation is mostly long gone. Most of the helium present today is the result of the alpha decay of radioactive elements like uranium, and it appears as a byproduct of natural gas.

Maybe I should start hoarding helium balloons and canisters. There is no telling how valuable each balloon will be twenty years from now.

Helium canister

It could make my fortune. (Photo credit: Get Folksy)

 

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Gun Free Zones for Politicians

August 18, 2013

Some smart-aleck petitioned the White House to eliminate armed guards for politicians, perhaps on the grounds that what is good enough for the little people is good enough for our leaders.

Gun Free Zones are supposed to protect our children, and some politicians wish to strip us of our right to keep and bear arms. Those same politicians and their families are currently under the protection of armed Secret Service agents. If Gun Free Zones are sufficient protection for our children, then Gun Free Zones should be good enough for politicians.

If gun free zones really deter people from committing violence with guns, then we could save a lot of taxpayer money by just putting up gun free zone signs all about the White House, right? The White House doesn’t agree with that reasoning.

Thanks for your petition.

We live in a world where our elected leaders and representatives are subject to serious, persistent, and credible threats on a daily basis. Even those who are mere candidates in a national election become symbols of our country, which makes them potential targets for those seeking to do harm to the United States and its interests. In 1901, after the third assassination of a sitting President, Congress mandated that the President receive full-time protection, and that law is still in effect today. Because of it, those who are the subject of ongoing threats must receive the necessary and appropriate protection.

At the same time, all of us deserve to live in safer communities, which is why we need to take responsible, commonsense steps to reduce gun violence, even while respecting individual freedom. And let’s be clear: President Obama believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms. You can see him talk about that in a previous petition response:

But the common-sense steps the President has proposed don’t infringe in any way on our Second Amendment rights. We ought to be able to keep weapons of war off the streets. We ought to close the loopholes in the background check system that make it too easy for criminals and other dangerous people to buy guns — an idea that has the support of 90 percent of people in the United States.

That’s why the President and an overwhelming majority of Americans are calling on Congress to pass gun safety legislation that closes loopholes in the background check system and makes gun trafficking a federal crime.

A minority in the Senate is blocking this common-sense legislation to reduce gun violence, but President Obama is already taking action to protect our kids with executive actions. He is taking the steps available to him as President to strengthen the existing background check system, give law enforcement officials more tools to prevent gun violence, end the freeze on gun violence research, make schools safer, and improve access to mental health care.

I am not sure the person tasked with responding to the petition quite gets the point. The people in charge of the President’s security have a

Please start shooting here. No one will stop you.

Please start shooting here. No one will stop you.

good idea what works to keep him safe and what does not work. They must know perfectly well that declaring the White House a gun free

zone and disarming his Secret Service detail would be a disaster. Why would anyone think that declaring a place a gun free zone would work anywhere else? Isn’t that as good as telling a criminal or lunatic that he is not likely to run into much resistance?

More to the point, are any of the policies that the President proposes likely to be effective at reducing crime? There doesn’t seem to be a link between stronger gun control laws and reduced crime. Many of the jurisdictions with the strictest gun control laws seem to have the most gun crimes. On the other hand, the general liberalization of gun laws over the last decade or so doesn’t seem to have increased the crime rate. I am not sure I understand the president’s urgency on this issue, given that violent crime rates have been dropping for the last two decades. Maybe it beats talking about the economy or the mess in the Middle East.

Hey, this is my 1000th post. I didn’t think I could keep this blog going for so long.

Bronies

August 16, 2013

I was feeling a little tired today and wasn’t going to write anything at all, but I feel that it is my solemn duty to note the decline and death of Western Civilization. The existence of the strange and seemingly growing phenomenon of the Brony is surely a sign that the end is near. Read this article in The Weekly Standard and shudder.

In the near future, historians will struggle to locate the precise moment when civilization’s wheels finally, irretrievably came off. By then, there will have been too many such moments to pinpoint one with any certainty. But I’ll mark the day as having occurred on a recent August weekend when, standing in the concourse of the Baltimore Convention Center, I watch grown men with problem skin and five o’clock shadows prance around in pony ears, rainbow manes, and braided tails lashed to their belt-loops, doling out “free hugs,” starting “fun! fun! fun!” chants, and spontaneously breaking into song. “Give me a bro hoof,” says one, trying to knuckle-bump me. It’s what you might imagine heaven to be like, if your idea of heaven is hell.

I’ve come to BronyCon, where the herd gallops 8,500 strong, up from a “mare” 100 conferees (apologies, but Bronies insist on speaking in horrible horse puns) at the first BronyCon in 2011. If you’ve been lucky enough to stay off the Internet for the last three years​—​Internet-culture and culture-proper having long since become one and the same​—​you might not know that “Brony” is a portmanteau of “bro” and “pony,” used to indicate the (mostly) late teenage and adult male fans of the children’s cartoon series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. (Average age: 21, though I encounter scores of middle-aged Bronies, and even a 60-year-old.)

Much has been written about the infantilization of the American male, which for a change is not media hype. The average age of video-gamers is now 37, and 2011 census data show roughly a quarter of 25-to-34-year-olds still living with their parents. By some counts, more adult-leaning superhero/comic-book movies have been made in the last couple of years than in the entire decades of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s combined.

But Bronies represent a novel variation on the theme: Like so many American men, they wish to be forever suspended in childhood. Except this time, they want to be 6-year-old girls. Bronies have, in fact, come to embody what pop sociologists call the New Sincerity Movement. The thinking goes that the smirky ironic detachment of recent decades—​pretending to embrace low-culture totems for laughs​—​has grown stale. Now that the Internet has fragmented the culture into a million pieces, helping every maladjusted shut-in to realize his natural level of eccentricity, the only way for a self-respecting hipster or a Zuckerbergian alpha-nerd (the tribe that now runs the world) to distinguish himself is to enthuse over his enthusiasms without detachment or apology. Even if that means grown men writing Twilight Sparkle fan fiction or cutting bad electronica songs with titles like, “I Might Be a Brony.” You might find it funny, but they’re not joking.

Maybe we need another major terrorist attack or a prolonged economic depression to shock people into growing up. I will say though, that I really hate that cynical, ironic, smirking attitude that some people affect, believing themselves to be more sophisticated than they really are. I am not sure whether embracing bronyhood is preferable.

To defuse a few common Brony stereotypes straightaway, despite their fascination with pastel talking ponies, there’s no evidence that Bronies are mostly gay or pedophiles. Indeed, there are hardly any children at BronyCon. When I encounter one dad who’s brought his 6- and 12-year-old daughters (the more traditional MLP demographic), the latter says she finds all the older male fans “creepy.” And Dad is heading them toward the exit, not having understood how few young kids would be making this scene.

As for accusations that the Bronyhood is some sort of equine gay cult, this is supported neither by studies nor by my three days among the string. With the musky smell of humid T-shirts and social awkwardness cultivated by spending too much time eating transfats in front of computer screens, most Bronies I speak with seem to emit a sort of nerd–drogynous sexuality. They don’t seem to have special someones of either the gay or straight variety.

One Brony study​—​yes, there’s some academic to study everything, and most of them seem to be conducting panels at BronyCon​—​says 84 percent of Bronies report being exclusively heterosexual (only 1.7 percent report being gay, while the rest are bisexual or asexual). More tellingly, 22.4 percent have no interest in dating, and 60.9 percent are interested but not dating. (There are some female Bronies, but these are often called “Pegasisters,” giving third-wave feminists a fresh inequality to whinny about.)

Not dating, go figure. I can’t imagine why women wouldn’t be impressed with a grown man who admires a cartoon for little girls. The horror is growing though, even without natural breeding.

But even if Bronies don’t seem to have an overwhelming interest in breeding, what’s clear is that, like malware, Bronydom is spreading. One terrifying “State of the Herd” survey estimates that there are as many as 12.4 million, which if true would mean that if Bronies had their own state, it would be the seventh most populous in the nation.

During three days of BronyCon, I have occasion to meet all manner of Bronies and their stable-mates. There’s Sam Miller, who teaches communications at the University of North Dakota, and who studies them. He tells a roomful of Bronies, from the dispassionate vantage of academe, that “you guys are doing something powerful. .  .  . You’re pushing the envelope of what gender is supposed to do. That’s awesome.” Then there’s Dr. Katia Perea, who teaches sociology/queer media studies at CUNY Kingsborough. A roomful of pony-ears and manes bob in agreement, as she lectures on the historic sweep of “girl cartoons” which she has extensively studied. She drops academese like “transgressing gender normative coding” and “the master/slave dialectic.” When she finally speaks English, it is to tell the Bronies, “You are a revolutionary movement in popular culture.”

Well it certainly is revolutionary.

They are even infiltrating the military

Then there’s 28-year-old Jacob Hughes, an Army drill sergeant at Fort Benning. I go to lunch with him after hearing him speak at a Military Bronies panel, where our soldiers, sailors, and Marines​—​in testimony that should probably end up in al Qaeda recruiting videos​—​come out about their love for all things My Little Pony. Hughes insists on wearing a stuffed Pinkie Pie plushy (his favorite pony) on his shoulder on our walk to the restaurant. When a waitress takes our order, she says, “Ooh, glad my granddaughter isn’t here. .  .  . She [has to have] soft pink things.”

At ease about his Bronydom, Hughes is an enthusiastic booster. A gregarious performer-type, Hughes says ponies helped him shed once-crippling introversion. “A good part of the appeal is that wholesomeness and innocence,” Hughes says. “And so we’re shining a light on the fact that, yes, I am a man. But at the same time, I enjoy what I enjoy.” He seems sincere and well-meaning, so I don’t want to harsh his Pinkie Pie mellow. But the Care Bears are wholesome and innocent, too. Yet you don’t see Army drill sergeants traipsing around in Funshine Bear costumes​—​at least not as of this writing.

We are doomed. At least the Roman Empire fell to invading barbarians. Thousands of years from now historians will be discussing the fall of the American Empire… to Bronies.

 

Richard Dawkins is Right

August 15, 2013
English: Richard Dawkins giving a lecture base...

Right for once (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I never thought I would write that sentence. Well, I imagine that he is right about many things in his field of expertise, evolutionary biology. It is when he abandons his field to become a spokesman for atheism that I think he is often very wrong. Still, I have to give him credit for courage for his infamous tweet about Muslim scientific accomplishments, and of course, I think he is right. It is easy enough to bash Christians. Bashing Muslims could get you killed. Here is the story as told by the Guardian.

The outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins was involved in an online Twitter row on Thursday after tweeting: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

As users piled in to criticise him, the scientist continued: “Why mention Muslim Nobels rather than any other group? Because we so often hear boasts about (a) their total numbers and (b) their science.”

His other posts included: “You can attack someone for his opinion. But for simply stating an intriguing fact? Who would guess that a single Cambridge College” and “Muslims aren’t a race. What they have in common is a religion. Rather than Trinity, would you prefer the comparison with Jews? Google it.”

With the debate escalating, Dawkins, who has more than 777,000 followers, said: “Many are asking how many Nobels have been won by atheists. Needs research. I’d love to know. I suspect the proportion is v high, and growing.”

Owen Jones, the left-leaning commentator and author of Chavs, told Dawkins: “How dare you dress your bigotry up as atheism. You are now beyond an embarrassment.” Legal blogger Jack of Kent added: “Following @RichardDawkins tweet, Trinity Cambridge has presumably also produced more Soviet-supporting traitors to the UK than Islam.”

The row also drew in historian Tom Holland and Channel 4’s economics editor Faisal Islam who commented: “I thought scientists were meant to upbraid journalists for use of spurious data points to ‘prove’ existing prejudgements”.

@jptoc chipped in: “A similar (and infuriating for Dawkins) ‘fact’ is that Islam has more recipients of Nobel Prizes than Dawkins. It’s bad scientific method.”

But some users appeared more forgiving. @Chriss_m, said: “Dawkins spent the best part of 10 years attacking Christianity and not raising an eyebrow. He now turns that same eye on Islam and uproar.”

Trinity College, Cambridge, has 32 Nobel laureates, as against 10 Muslims listed in Wikipedia. When the Guardian contacted Dawkins by email to ask whether he was surprised by the uproar, he replied: “Prompted by exasperation at hearing boasts of (a) how numerous Muslims are in the world and (b) how great is their science.

“This prompted the thought that if they are all THAT numerous, shouldn’t they have more to show for it in terms of achievement? The comparison with Trinity Cambridge I judged less offensive to Muslims than the even more dramatic comparison with Jews (who have garnered an ASTOUNDINGLY large number of Nobel Prizes).”

He continued: “Am I surprised? Only at the number of people who seem to think Islam is a race, rather than a religion. I regard that view as racist. Anything you can convert to, or convert from, is NOT a race.

Dawkins has previously been involved in acrimonious Twitter exchanges over Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan, prompting Owen Jones to comment “If atheism means being bigoted about Muslims or wanting to drive people of faith from public life, then I am not an atheist.”

Dawkins is obviously thinking more clearly than his detractors. Of course Muslims do not constitute a race. These people are panicking and throwing whatever they can at Dawkins and hoping it sticks.

Actually, I am not sure whether I would give the Muslims, as such, much credit for any scientific accomplishments during the middle ages. When the armies of Islam burst forth from the Arabian peninsula, their first waves of conquest included most of what we now call the Middle East. This region includes Egypt and Mesopotamia, the sites of two of the oldest civilizations in the world and both prosperous and advanced regions. It should be no surprise that the momentum continued for several centuries. Also, many of the scholars and scientists of the Arab Empire were Christians, Jews, or heterodox Muslims, including the sect of the Mutazilites. As the people ruled by the Arabs converted more and more to Islam and the societies became more Islamized, scientific progress slowed and then stopped. These days, the Middle East is one of the poorest and most backward regions in the world. This is a testimony of the influence of 1300 years of Islamic rule.

The thing that bothers me about people like Dawkins, though, is that they are determined to erase the influence of Christianity in the West. You can’t fight something with nothing and thoroughly secularized societies, like Western Europe seem to be increasingly unable to defend themselves against their enemies. They don’t even seem to want to reproduce. If Dawkins is concerned about the growing influence of Islam in Britain and the West, perhaps he ought to encourage belief in Christianity, or something. As it is, I fear he is unwittingly helping the enemies of civilization.

 

In Enemy Occupied Territory

August 15, 2013

Lately, for perhaps the last five or so years, I have had the oddest feeling that I have been living in a country occupied by an implacable enemy bent on demoralizing and fundamentally changing this country as much as possible. It’s silly, I know, but Sarah Hoyt has been having somewhat similar thoughts.

We’ve talked about this before, but in fact, I don’t think there has ever been a country like ours, where our elites are deliberately taught – in our best schools – to hate and despise everything that we are, everything that makes us unique.  I don’t think there has ever been another country where our elites are taught to be ashamed to call themselves by our national name.

Or rather, there have been countries like that – but they were countries who’d lost a war, and where the governing elite were in fact puppets of their erstwhile enemy, sent in to utterly destroy what the country used to be and to make sure that it did not rise again and (maybe) next time win the war.

Did we lose the cold war?  Well, of course not.  Of course we didn’t. The Sov Union fell apart.  Their internal economy was a shambles – communism does that – and they are suffering the fate of the defeated in a material and obvious way.  The name for prostitute in most of Europe (and the Arab countries) is Natasha. Their population is crashing.  Their men are dying of alcoholism and internally they are being taken over by a hostile minority.  Ignore the invasion of Georgia, those are the spasms of the dying bear.  It’s inevitable, in material terms to be aware that when it comes to the si devant Sov union  the applicable Latin phrase is Vae Victis.

But here’s the thing – long before communism had lost the cold war, it had won the propaganda war.

Part of this was their saber rattling and the craven and raw nature of our intellectual classes.  Craven because they know themselves to be weak.  Dueling with your mind might be an exciting sport – it is, I know, I do it – but it avails nothing when confronted by thugs with hobnail boots.  Most of those who labor in the vineyard of words find themselves utterly naked and defenseless in even the most minor physical confrontation.  (Note, I said most, not all.  I would not advise you to pick a fight with most of Baen.  Even myself and Dave Freer who are relatively mild put bite into any fight – he, because he’s a devious bastage and I say that in the most profound affection [if I ever govern anything he’ll be my secretary of dirty tricks.  The man has no bounds.] and I because I’m built like a tank and I berserk.)  So they both turn coward – and justify it in big words – by cleaving to the people they think are going to invade and kick their butts.  Now it’s Islam, but once upon a time it was communism; and they glorify and have a sort of hard on for violent sorts.  Hence, their worship of that despicable, blood tinged psychopath, Che.

And they were really scared of communism.  It also made sense in their minds – communism, I mean – as it can only make sense in the minds of people who live in the sheltered world of academia or the irrational world of art.  And so… they turned.

Now many of these people, from the president on down seem to be running things. I wonder again, where do all of these people who seem to hate their own country really come from? Why do they have such hatred for one of the freest and most prosperous countries the world has ever known while idolizing the cruelest, most blood thirsty tyrants. Are they really cowards, or simply fools? Maybe there should be some sort of psychological study done of this phenomena.

 

Calling Them Out

August 14, 2013

Ivan Frishberg sent me another e-mail asking me to call out the climate change deniers in Congress.

David —

Today, all across the country, people are telling members of Congress that it’s not OK to deny the science behind climate change.

There are 135 climate change deniers in Congress — elected officials who refuse to believe that climate change is real, manmade, and dangerous. Today, we want everyone pointing and laughing at these folks.

It’s easy to join in. Can you help by sharing something on Twitter or Facebook?

Tweet at Speaker John Boehner, the lead climate denier in Congress — and call out the climate denial.


Or share this graphic on Facebook:

Call on Speaker Boehner to stop denying the science behind climate change.
Share on Facebook

It only takes a second — but if we do our jobs, it’ll be fun to watch these climate change deniers try to explain themselves.

Keep it up and tweet right now:

http://my.barackobama.com/Do-One-Thing-for-Climate-Change-Twitter

Or share the shame of climate change deniers on Facebook:

http://my.barackobama.com/Do-One-Thing-for-Climate-Change-Facebook

Thanks,

Ivan

Ivan Frishberg
Climate Campaign Manager
Organizing for Action

It seems to me that an important part of science is observation. For instance, I have observed that the high temperature on the day I write this is about 75°. This is unusually cool for Indiana in the middle of August. I am aware, of course, that one unusually cool summer does not disprove the theory of global warming, but then, if we were having an unusually hot summer, the climate change alarmists would be taking that as proof that the Earth was getting dangerously warmer.

I wonder why we are having such a cool summer. I am a little concerned. I believe I’ve said before that I would be a lot more worried if there were a worldwide cooling trend than a warming. It really wouldn’t take much of a decrease in global average temperature to affect agriculture adversely. Of course, this is only one year and I am sure next year will be more normal. In the meantime, I will enjoy the pleasant weather.

What is the Truth?

August 13, 2013

I suppose in the broadest philosophical sense none of us can really know what the truth is. Still, as far as specific facts go, it is sometimes easy enough to discover the truth. For example, the sequence of events that occurred on the evening of February 26, 2012 at Sanford, Florida are easy enough to learn. The question is whether some people care to know what the truth is. Consider this mural shown at the Florida State Capital building, along with these comments by Robert Laurie at Caintv.

1cc632248cDream-Defenders-Trayvon-mural

 

This weekend, a new mural entitled “We are all Trayvon Martin” was unveiled inside Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee.  It’s a lovely piece of work, featuring a man shooting a hooded figure in the back of the head.  At 10 feet long, there’s also room for the bleeding visage of Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “we are all Trayvon Martin” in multiple languages.

Apparently, that’s supposed to bring together the peoples of many nations. …or something.

Many have speculated that the shooter is supposed to resemble George Zimmerman. That seems unlikely though, since Zimmerman would have been portaryed with a broken nose, and a head that was bleeding after being repeatedly slammed into the pavement. Clearly, this is a high-quality work of art, and the painter would not have overlooked those important details.

In place of Trayvon’s face, Miami artist Huong has inserted a mirror, so you can see what it would look like if you were being shot by an unnamed assailant who you had not physically attacked in any way whatsoever.

That this was unveiled in the State’s Capitol building?  Simply unbelievable.

This mural is simply a lie. George Zimmerman did not shoot a fleeing Trayvon Martin in the back. Either the artist couldn’t be bothered to make the minimal effort required to learn what actually happened or simply doesn’t care what the facts are so long as the narrative is pushed. It seems to me that an awful lot of trouble could have been averted if the media had done their job and reported the facts instead of trying to fabricate a morality play on the state of race relations in America.

What’s In a Name

August 13, 2013

Here is another picture I saw on Facebook.

download

The sentiment here is that all of the various religions are essentially the same and therefore we shouldn’t fight over religious differences because they are not really very important. Well, we shouldn’t fight over religious differences not because they are unimportant, but because no one has ever discovered the truth or been convinced by people shouting past one another.

In a superficial sense, the sentiment expressed by this picture is true. Most of the great religions have rather similar expectations on how people ought to be behave. They all preach variations on statements like, “do not kill”, “do not steal”, “treat others as you would want to be treated”, and others. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. If right and wrong really exist and are not merely social conventions then you might expect people all over the world to have similar rules, even if they seldom follow them. As the apostle Paul stated,

14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) 16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.                (Romans 2:14-16)

Actually, religion is not really about morality. You can be a moral person of any faith or of no faith at all, if the law is truly written on human hearts. Religion is about approaching or coming to know God, again as Paul says,

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring. (Acts 17:22-28)

This is another way in which the sentiment expressed in the picture is superficially true. All of the great religions teach that there is something more than the material world that we sense. In most cases they teach that there is a god or gods or some divine principle that rules the universe and is the source of all goodness.

In the more profound sense, however, the sentiment that all religions are essentially the same is simply not true. Every religious tradition makes claims about the nature of the divine principle and these claims tend to be exclusive ones. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all believe in one God, but Jews and Muslims are uncompromising monotheists with a simple view of God as One. The Christian view is more complicated involving three Persons in one Godhood, with one of the Persons becoming a man named Jesus. Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet but deny his divinity. Jews reject both Jesus and Mohammed as prophets. Muslims also regard the Christians and Jews as having corrupted their holy texts while their Koran is the true Word of God. Many Hindus believe in many gods but also believe that the many are one universal spirit. Many Hindus believe otherwise as it it is a diverse religion. Buddhists are unconcerned about gods seeking to liberate themselves from the cycle of rebirth and suffering, but many Buddhists worship traditional deities. There are many other beliefs. They cannot all be true.

Do these differences matter? I think they do. If religion is a means of coming to know the creator of the universe, then we had better have accurate information about Him. If I decided to travel to California, I had better go west. If I go north or south or east, I’ll never get there. If I decide to fly to California, I’ll get there quickly. Driving will take a little longer. Walking would take a very long time, weeks or months, assuming I manage to get there at all. If I decide to go to Australia, I am going to have to fly in an airplane, or go by boat. I cannot drive or walk to Australia, no matter how much I might want to.  In like fashion, if I want to know about God, I should try to go in the right direction and take the right means of travel. Some might say that is doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere. Well, I could sincerely believe that I could get to Australia by walking north. I would be sincerely wrong and never reach Australia.

So, does God care what name we call Him? Perhaps not, but He does want us to know Him and He does want to save us from our own sins and bad decisions. If the Christian beliefs are correct, then God is good, infinitely good, and we humans are not. By our nature and our actions, we have estranged ourselves from God and there is nothing we can do to reconcile ourselves with him. Fortunately, He has provided a means by which we can be reconciled by the sacrifice of His Son. The problem with all the other religions as well as that vague sentiment that all religions are equal is that by following their precepts, we may come to believe that we can approach God and be saved by our own efforts, through rituals, good deeds and the like. God is infinitely good however, and He is not likely to be impressed by anything we do. As Isaiah wrote,

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; (Isaiah 64:6)

Or, to put it a little less dramatically, no matter how good we think we are, next to God we aren’t really very good at all. We cannot save ourselves. We have to trust in God to save us.

The Violinist’s Thumb

August 12, 2013

It seems that not a day passes without DNA being in the news somewhere. This molecule can determine guilt or innocence, identify bodies, reveal the possibility of having many diseases, and can reveal the past histories of organisms, including human beings. The progress that science has made in studying genetics and that molecule that keeps our genetic information is all the more remarkable when you consider that only a century ago, little was known about the subject and biology was in a state of disorder, trying to reconcile the concepts of Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s discoveries of inheritable characteristic called genes.

Sam Kean tells the story of DNA in his book The Violinist’s Thumb with the same skill and flair as he did with the periodic table in The Disappearing Spoon. This is no dry text on biochemistry, but a fascinating history of the discovery of DNA and its role in genetics, meeting many interesting, and some eccentric characters along the way. The story begins with the Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and his experiments with pea plants. He did more than gardening and was something of an embarrassment to the monastery he was to serve as abbot. At about the same time, there was Johannes Friedrich Miescher who discovered DNA in pus soaked bandages and salmon semen. There was Thomas Hunt Morgan who studied the heredity of fruit flies in his “fly room” and discovered that genes are carried on chromosomes. There is even a mad scientist, Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, who sought to create a human-chimpanzee hybrid with the help of the Soviet government.

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One of the greatest scientific accomplishments of recent years is the Human Genome Project, the ambitious project to sequence the entire human genome. As Sam Kean shows, this was not a model of scientific and rational work, but an intense competition or race between two teams, one financed by the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, the other a private venture led by Craig Venter. With the competition between the two teams, the project was finished well ahead of schedule, but biologists are still sorting out what it all means. Among the more unexpected discoveries is that a certain percentage of our DNA was actually contributed by viruses.

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, and some personal notes by Mr. Kean, the book ends. The story of DNA in ongoing and who can tell where the latest discoveries will lead us. Perhaps Kean will be able to write a sequel or second edition in about ten years or so.

Increasing Diversity

August 11, 2013

The Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to measure how diverse every neighborhood in America is with the intention of increasing diversity. I have seen this story all over but here is Fox News’s account.

In a move some claim is tantamount to social engineering, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is imposing a new rule that would allow the feds to track diversity in America’s neighborhoods and then push policies to change those it deems discriminatory.

The policy is called, “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.” It will require HUD to gather data on segregation and discrimination in every single neighborhood and try to remedy it.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan unveiled the federal rule at the NAACP convention in July.

“Unfortunately, in too many of our hardest hit communities, no matter how hard a child or her parents work, the life chances of that child, even her lifespan, is determined by the zip code she grows up in. This is simply wrong,” he said.

I already know what the results of this survey will be. They will discover that most people tend to live near people who look and think like them. This will attributed to the continuing effects of discrimination and segregation despite the fact that such discrimination has been illegal since 1968. No doubt they will also discover that realtors have been using racist dog whistles such as “nice neighborhood”, “low crime”, and “good local schools”; all known to be codes for white supremacy.

People do tend to prefer to live near people like them. That may not be a good thing, but it is human nature. In general, most Whites would prefer to live near Whites, most Black prefer to live near Blacks, etc. I suspect that the people living in more integrated neighborhoods feel they have something in common more important than race. Zip code alone does not account for poverty. There are many factors involved. Rich people tend to live near rich people, and poor near poor. This is because not every place is equally desirable to live in. More desirable areas are going to be more expensive to reside in. A child who grows up with poorer parents in an impoverished part of the country is not going to have the same opportunities as a child growing up in a more affluent area. This is not fair. It is life, though. It is simply not possible to give every child precisely the same opportunities, especially with utopian schemes.

What will happen to communities that are deemed not diverse enough?

Data from this discrimination database would be used with zoning laws, housing finance policy, infrastructure planning and transportation to alleviate alleged discrimination and segregation.

Specifics of the proposed rule are lacking. Now published in the Federal Register and undergoing a 60-day comment period, the rule, “does not prescribe or enforce specific” policies.

My hometown of Madison Indiana is not very diverse. We are 93.5% White, 2.8% Black, 1.2% Asian, 0.2% Native American and 1.7% Hispanic of any race. Am I wrong in guessing that the federal government is going to actively discourage any businesses from locating here, unless we have acceptable levels of diversity. Madison is a nice place, but there are not many economic opportunities, especially for young people. To be honest, there is no particular reason why many non-Whites would want to move here. Who would want to move to a town where they would be a member of a small minority unless there were some compelling reason, such as a good job, to do so? What is Madison supposed to do to get a more diverse population? Should bankers offer cheaper mortgages to minorities? Should they be exempt from local taxes? How is that even remotely fair?
I can’t help but observe that the people who profess to be most against racism and discrimination seem to always be proposing discriminatory policies. The people who claim to want better race relations always seem to be trying to incite more trouble between people. Maybe the solution to our problems with race relations is to stop making race such a big deal. Maybe, instead of having the national conversation about race the liberals always say they want, we should all just shut up about the matter. Maybe we should just treat people like people and not worry about minor things like skin color. Maybe we should just let people live where ever they want to live and not try yet another utopian scheme that is sure to cause a lot of trouble and misery and not solve anything.

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