Shameless Vultures

There has been another terrible crime committed and once again the vultures are circling overhead to take advantage of this crime to further their political objectives. I am referring to this article in the Washington Times which highlights the disgraceful push for gun control by President Obama and Senator Feinstein measures not twenty-four hours after the event occurred. It is as if they were waiting for some tragedy or crisis to take advantage of.

Just hours after the deadly shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard, gun control advocates tried to reignite the national debate over gun laws that had only just subsided.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and a longtime gun control advocate, denounced “the litany of massacres” over the past few years and asked rhetorically, “When will enough be enough?”

Mrs. Feinstein, who was first thrust into the national spotlight as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors announcing the shooting deaths of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, said, “Congress must stop shirking its responsibility and resume a thoughtful debate on gun violence in this country. We must do more to stop this endless loss of life.”

President Obama was one of the first to link Monday’s incident to the larger issue of gun violence and the legislative effort to curb it, though he did so without explicitly calling, as he has done repeatedly, for gun control measures.

“So we are confronting yet another mass shooting, and today it happened on a military installation in our nation’s capital,” Mr. Obama said as he opened an economic speech at the White House.

“Obviously, we’re going to be investigating thoroughly what happened, as we do so many of these shootings, sadly, that have happened, and do everything that we can to prevent them,” the president said.

The National Rifle Association had no comment on Monday, and pro-gun groups generally take the stance that days of particularly shocking crimes are not the time to discuss policy. Popular conservative blogger and former CNN commentator Erick Erickson admonished the rush to politicize the shooting, saying “seriously people, grow up.”

“I would not dare step in the way of America’s national pastime of bitching about the politics of everything on Twitter, but there has to be a better time for it than as the temperature of bodies on the ground in the Navy Yard are not even yet cold,” he said. “If you don’t have the judgment and good sense to understand that now is not the time to say it, you have no capacity to understand why.”

I compared these people to vultures but that is really not fair to vultures. After all, vultures play an important role in the environment. I cannot say the same for the likes of Obama and Feinstein.



Hero of Alexandria

Who invented the steam engine and when did he do it? Most people would say James Watt invented the steam engine around 1776. That is not quite true, however. Although Watt was a brilliant scientist and inventor, he really only improved an earlier design by Thomas Newcomen, who had developed a device to pump water out of mines in 1712. Should Thomas Newcomen get the credit for inventing the steam engine? He wasn’t the first person to experiment with machines powered by steam. Who was the first and when? How about Hero of Alexandria way back in the first century AD? That’s right. The first machine to use steam power was invented at around or just after the time of Christ.

Hero of Alexandria was a Greek mathematician and scientist who lived in the city of Alexandria, Egypt from around AD 10-70. He worked at the famous Library of Alexandria. This library was not just a collection of books. The library was part of a larger institution called the Musaeum (our word museum is derived from this. The Musaeum was not a museum in the modern sense, a collection of art or artifacts arranged for public viewing. Rather, it was a sort of home and workplace for scholars which was set up and subsidized by the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt. The Musaeum was the closest thing the ancient world had to a university. Here, Euclid developed the principles of geometry and Eratosthenes accurately measured the circumference of the each. Archimedes taught there, Aristarchus proposed the first heliocentric theory of the solar system, Hero of Alexandria conducted experiments in what would now be called mechanics and thermodynamics.

Hero has been credited with several inventions,including a windmill, a vending machine to distribute holy water, a syringe, and special effects for the theater. He developed a method for calculating square roots, Heron’s formula for calculating the area of a triangle from the length of its sides and was the first mathematician to explore the concept of imaginary numbers. He also invented a steam engine, or aeolipile. This device consisted of a boiler or tub of water which was heated. The steam from the water was conducted through tubes to a sphere or cylinder which has nozzles sticking out of it. As the steam escaped through the nozzles, it caused the sphere to whirl around. Here is a diagram which might better explain things.


Here is a picture of a modern reconstruction of the aeolipile.


The aeolipile wasn’t really much more than a toy and couldn’t be used for any practical purpose. Still, I have to wonder, why wasn’t the device further developed until someone invented a working steam engine 1600 years before Watt and Newcomen? Why wasn’t there an scientific and industrial revolution in the time of the Roman Empire? Was it because the large number of slaves discouraged the invention of labor saving devices? Was the Greco-Roman intellectual elite averse to getting their hands dirty with experiments and practical inventing? Was work like Hero’s too uncomfortably close to being the sort of work the lower classes did? There is no way to know. For that matter, why did the scientific revolution only occur in Western Europe around 1500? Why did the industrial revolution begin in England in the late 1700s and no where else? Europeans are not noticeably more intelligent than people from other regions, so why?

Africa,the Americas, and Australia are easy to explain. The largest landmass on Earth is Eurasia, or the continents of Europe and Asia. This is where the great majority of the people on Earth have lived. Most of what we consider to be history has occurred in Eurasia, especially in a band roughly between 30 and 50 degrees of latitude. Northern Europe and Britain is a bit north of this and India extends to the south but it is close enough. According to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, this band has a roughly similar climate, length of growing season, etc and travel and trade is relatively easy along this band.  The Americas and Australia are separated from this landmass by ocean and Africa by the Sahara Desert. Tropical Africa is not very conducive for the development of advanced civilization because of its climate and ecology. This still leaves about four centers of civilization, Europe, the Middle East, India, and China. Each of these centers had certain advantages and disadvantages, yet only Europe developed modern science and technology. This isn’t a case of Europe happening to be first. None of the other centers were even beginning the process. If some plague had wiped out the entire population of Europe, perhaps a more virulent form of the Black Death, it is likely that we would still be at a medieval level of technology. Why?

The Chinese were gifted inventors and observers of the natural world. The records of Chinese astrologers are more complete than anything in the West and modern astronomers find their records useful. The Chinese invented the printing press, paper, gunpowder, the compass, and many other things. Yet, somehow, they never managed to develop a continuous scientific tradition. Chinese history has examples of scientist discovering things, only to be forgotten and rediscovered centuries later. They invented the printing press, but this invention didn’t have the sort of disruptive effect it had in the West. Was Chinese culture too conservative? Did the existence of a centralized state for much of Chinese history discourage innovation?

The Indians were great mathematicians. They invented the zero and “Arabic numerals”. Their achievements in practical technology were somewhat less impressive. Why? Did Hindu pantheism and the concept of the material world being an illusion discourage investigation into the natural world? The Moslems were also good mathematicians and made some progress in the sciences of chemistry and optics. They had the advantage of controlling the trade routes of Eurasia and could benefit most from the achievements of other cultures. They also had the heritage of Greek philosophy in the lands they conquered. Yet ultimately their progress slowed and from being among the most advanced civilization in the world, they slipped to being among the most backward. Did Islamic contempt for secular philosophy play a role?

These questions are unanswerable. It is interesting to speculate on what might have happened and alternative history is one of most favorite sub-genres of science fiction. Perhaps it is just as well the industrial revolution didn’t occur in Roman times. The Romans were not a kindly people and it might be better than they didn’t have guns or nukes.


Internet Bible Reading

I wrote about the growing use of digital Bibles in Church and for private reading about a year ago but this article in the Washington Examiner caught my eye.


God is still great in the eyes of Americans, even on the internet. While an amazing 88 percent of the nation’s homes own a Bible, more and more are switching to the internet, cell phones and iPad for their weekly inspiration, according to a sweeping new survey of Bible use.

In their latest survey of Bible use, the American Bible Society finds that 41 percent of Americans used the internet to read the good book on a computer. Some 29 percent said they searched Bible verses on a cell phone and 17 percent said they read an electronic version of the Bible on a Kindle or iPad.

The trend is similar in the news business, with the readers shifting to digital over paper.

“The data shows a continual shift to digital content. The number of Bible readers who use their smart phone or cell phone to search for Bible content has increased each year, with a 6 percent increase in the use of this format from 2012,” said the Society. “Use of internet to find Bible content has also increased, up 4 percent from 2011,” they added.


William Tyndale said that he wanted the scriptures to be known even by an uneducated plow boy. Printing was a relatively recent invention in his day and books were still fairly rare and expensive. Many people, especially among the poor were illiterate and the age of mass education and mass literacy was still in the future. Imagine what Tyndale might make of an age in which almost everyone can read the scriptures at almost any time or place they want.

English: William Tyndale, Protestant reformer ...
He would be amazed, and pleased. Portrait from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Česky: William Tyndale (portrét ve Foxeově Knize mučedníků) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


And, said the survey of 2,083, the most read and searched version of the Bible was the King James version. Thirty-eight percent preferred that over the New King James version, which just 14 percent prefer.

Americans also said that the Bible is king over the Koran, with 80 percent calling the Bible sacred, with just 8 percent citing the Koran. That was followed by the Torah, at 4 percent, and Book of Mormon at 3 percent.

With more people tapping into the Bible for direction and inspiration, the most read book in the world is also having a bigger influence in American politics. More than two-thirds, or 69 percent, said their personal faith has at least a little influence in political issues. And the percentage of those who said their faith influences their political leanings has increased from 27 percent last year to 31 percent this year.


It is interesting that the King James Version was the most widely read. at least on the Internet. Part of this might be that the copyright on the King James Version expired centuries ago so the King James Version is the most likely to be found for free. Most of the appeal of the King James and New King James Versions must be the familiarity of these translations. Although the NIV has become popular, the NIV along with most modern translations just doesn’t read the same as the old King James.


It is not too surprising that 80 percent of the American population would consider the Bible sacred, considering that somewhere around that percentage of Americans are at least nominally Christians. I am surprised that 8 percent consider the Koran sacred. I do not think there are that many Muslims in the United States. Perhaps some of these are multi-culturalists who want to say every religion’s book is sacred. I wonder if respondents were allowed to give more than one answer to the question. The Torah is the first five books of the Old Testament, so that 4 percent must be Jewish, although I would have thought that they might consider the Hebrew Bible sacred. I though there were more Mormons than 3 percent. They consider the Bible to be sacred, so I wonder if Mormons said both the Book of Mormon and the Bible. I wonder if there were any Hindus or Buddhists in the survey.


Since 69 percent stated that their faith had some influence on political issues and the the number whose faith influences their political leanings from 27 percent to 31 percent this last year, it appears that the Freedom From Religion Foundation still has a lot of work to do. Or maybe not, since they don’t depend on popular opinion for their successes but on the ability to manipulate the courts. On the other hand, it doesn’t look as though the publishers of Bibles whether in print or electronically are going to go out of business any time soon.





Yom Kippur

This evening at sunset Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar began. Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the seventh month, Tishrei, of the Jewish calendar. This year that corresponds to September 14, which is actually the earliest time in the Gregorian calendar that it can fall on.  On this day Jews ask for forgiveness for the sins they have committed against God and their fellow men over the past year.  They fast for 25 hours on this day, starting about 20 minutes before sundown the previous day and continuing until evening of the day. Jews also attend Synagogue services for much of the day and there are five services in contrast to the usual three prayers on most days and four on Sabbaths. After the last service, they recite they Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”, and blow the Shofar.

Here is the Biblical description of the Day of Atonement.

1 The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. 2The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die. For I will appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.

3 “This is how Aaron is to enter the Most Holy Place: He must first bring a young bull for a sin offering[a] and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. 5 From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

6 “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. 7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.[b]9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat.

11 “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. 12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the tablets of the covenant law, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.

15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.

18 “Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.

20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

23 “Then Aaron is to go into the tent of meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. 24 He shall bathe himself with water in the sanctuary area and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.

26 “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. 27 The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and intestines are to be burned up. 28 The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.

29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselvesand not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you— 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. 31 It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. 32 The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments 33 and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.

34 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”

And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Lev 16:1-34)

Since the Temple was destroyed in 70, the ceremonies pertaining to the Most Holy Place cannot now be performed. Instead Jews remember the Temple ceremonies in the Avodah service. Orthodox and most Conservative Synagogues have a detailed recitation of the Temple Ceremony.

Here is a detailed description of the Yom Kippur Services.

So, G’mar Hatimah Tovah.


Sore Loser

Two Democratic State Senators in Colorado were recalled this week. They had supported tougher gun control laws for Colorado and their constituents didn’t like it. At least that is the explanation that seems most likely. Naturally the Democrats have a different take on the matter. Naturally their policy on gun control couldn’t possibly be unpopular in a state like Colorado, especially in the rural parts of the state. Their defeat has to be the results of the nefarious NRA which spends millions of dollars to prevent popular gun control measures from being enacted. This couldn’t be the results of a fair election. It must be massive voter suppression.

I got an e-mail from Debbie Wasserman Schultz on this very subject yesterday.


Yesterday, I tweeted about how people had a hard time voting in the Colorado recall election, and wow did the Republicans blow up my Twitter feed. They think that Democrats are angry because “dead people and illegal aliens” weren’t allowed to vote.

I’m not angry, I’m disappointed. Voting is a basic American right — maybe the basic American right — and right-wing special interests like the NRA and the Koch brothers poured a lot of time, effort, and money into this race as court battles made it harder for (very much alive) Coloradans to cast a ballot in this week’s election. We know that when voting is made harder, Democratic turnout is driven down.

We’re not going to let this stand. That’s why we’ve launched the new National Voter Registration Project to ensure that what happened in Colorado doesn’t happen again, and why I want you to be a part of it. Add your name today.

The Colorado recall was defined by blatant attacks on our democratic principles. Colorado voting laws allow mail-in ballots to be automatically sent to voters, and in the election last November, 74 percent of Coloradans used mail-in ballots. For the recall, due to obstruction, voters weren’t allowed to vote by mail and didn’t even know where to vote in person until two weeks before the election.

These efforts were able to depress voter turnout. Now they’re saying that what happened in this election is a preview of what’s to come in 2014.

I don’t know about you, but I’m taking them at their word.

Add your name today, and together, let’s stand up for the right to vote:



Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Democratic National Committee

Read the sentence I put in italics. I wonder if Debbie Wasserman Schultz really understands the implications of what she wrote. If making voting harder causes fewer Democrats to get out and vote, what does that say about the people who generally vote for Democrats? Are they too lazy to get off their couches and travel to a polling place to vote? Are they too stupid to find the polling places?

Well if that is what Debbie Wasserman Schultz believes about their base, I won’t argue the matter with her. Personally, I think voting should be made harder. I don’t think that it is too much to ask for voters to vote at polling places where their actual physical presence is required along with an ID to prove that they are who they say they are. Voting by mail or through the Internet so obviously facilitates fraud that I have to believe that that is the intention of anyone who supports such measures.

Naturally, there are people who may be unable to actually vote at a polling place, either because of some handicap or their schedule does not permit. Exceptions should be made in such cases, but in general, if you are able to go to a polling place to vote but choose not to, then you are not taking the matter seriously enough and your vote should be suppressed.


9/11 Again

I am not sure just how to say it, but the twelve years since 9/11 have not been what I expected and I am a little disappointed. I had expected that the tragic events on that day would bring Americans closer together. That is the only good that can come of something that takes so many lives. Instead, it seems that Americans are farther apart than ever.


I do not expect everyone in a large country like ours to agree on everything. That is not possible in a free country, nor is it desirable. If I wanted a country where every citizen marches in lockstep, I would move to North Korea. What I mean is that ever since the Vietnam War, and perhaps even before, there has been a certain percentage of Americans who simply hate their own country and all it stands for. They often say that they are for peace and social justice, but their actions indicate that they are for a defeated America and for tyranny. They seem to have sided with every one of our enemies throughout the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries, with the exception of the Nazis in World War 2. The various tyrants that these people have supported, the Stalins, Maos, Castros, etc, have always talked a lot about helping the oppressed and it is possible that the Progressives have been naive enough to believe their propaganda more than their deeds. They could fool themselves into believing they supported fellow progressives. I might have thought that these progressive liberal-minded people would at least be able to oppose religious fanatics who scorn the liberal ideals that the progressives say they are for and who want to take the entire world back to the seventh century. I imagined that while Osama bin Ladin never had the sort of military capability of a Hitler, anyone could see that he was just as evil. I thought the progressives would believe that America was in the right, for once, or at least would be too ashamed to show their faces.

We did have unity for a short time, but then the America haters among us crawled out from under the rocks they had hidden under. True to their nature, they blamed America for the terrorist attacks on 9/11. We had it coming. It was wrong to invade Afghanistan to capture bin Ladin. He was a victim. We shouldn’t pursue the terrorists but show contrition for our sins. Thus we get Obama’s World Apology Tours.

I also thought that 9/11 would wake Americans up to the fact that we live in a dangerous world. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, too many Americans started to believe that there was a new world order of peace and prosperity. We didn’t need to worry about any enemies or rivals. Everyone was friends now. We could safely ignore the rest of the world altogether. We could cut back on our military strength and readiness. It was this kind of thinking that enabled President Clinton to not take the terrorist threat of Osama bin Ladin and al Qaeda very seriously. Osama bin Ladin declared war on us, and we ignored him.

9/11 did wake us up, for a few years. Now, I am afraid that too many Americans have fallen asleep again. We elected a fool who believed that all the problems of the world were the fault of his predecessor and all he needed to do was to reset everything and make speeches. He believed, and probably still believes that the melodious sound of his voice and his soaring oratory can end ages old disputes and reconcile enemies. We can see the results in America’s declining influence all over the world.

There is one other thing that did not match my expectations, though I wouldn’t call it a disappointment. There have been no other successful major terrorist attacks against the United States. It would be nice to believe that it was due to the diligence of law enforcement and Homeland Security, but it is more likely the truth that it is a lot harder to plan and execute a really large terrorist attack than anyone anticipated. I think that al Qaeda used up most of its resources in the attack on 9/11 and was never able to recover once we started hunting them in earnest. It is also likely that Osama bin Ladin was not really the terrorist mastermind we took him to be or as he imagined himself to be.

It could be that we were actually lucky on 9/11. Perhaps a more capable or determined enemy with the full backing of a foreign government could have done a lot more damage. We might not be so lucky next time, and there will be a next time. I wish I knew how to wake up my fellow Americans who are forgetting how dangerous the world really is. We cannot turn our backs on the world. The world won’t let us. We may not long have as much margin for error or foolishness as we now enjoy. I hope it doesn’t take more loss of life.



Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor

Gaius Octavius Caesar, better known as Augustus is without question one of the most influential men in the history of the West. The story of his life and accomplishments is an astonishing one, and yet full of contrasts. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, yet he never used that title. Augustus began his life as the son of a relatively minor Italian aristocrat but became the most powerful man in Rome. He was the grandnephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar and used this connection to leap to the heights of Roman politics, yet his cautious personality was the opposite of Julius Caesar’s more flamboyant style. His rise to power showed a ruthless and often bloodthirsty deposition, yet when he had achieved absolute power, he governed justly and humanely. He had little military skill, unlike his grand uncle, but, with the aid of his friend Agrippa, he was able to defeat his rivals in the civil wars that ended the Republic. He was an absolute ruler, but he maintained the fiction that he had restored the Republic and scrupulously followed the forms of the old Constitution, while remaking Roman politics in a form that endured for the next two centuries. He always suffered from uncertain health, but he outlived nearly every one of his associates, including several possible heirs to his position.

English: A statue of the first Roman Emperor A...

 Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt is a wonderful biography about the first Roman Emperor. Everitt tells the story of Augustus from his boyhood to his climb to power and his death. This is a sympathetic biography and while reading it, one feels exhilarated by Augustus’s victories and sorry for his losses, especially in his last years when it seemed that no one would be able to maintain the political structure he so carefully built after his death. Everitt portrays Augustus as a statesman, who for all of his faults was concerned to leave Rome better than he found it. His influence lasted as long as the Empire lasted and on to the present day.


 Augustus’s last words were reputed to be, “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit.” He certainly had played his part well.

UN Concerns About the Trayvon Martin Shooting

I hadn’t thought that I would write anymore about this incident but it would seem that the United Nations has taken an interest in the matter, specifically if it has been properly investigated as a hate crime. I heard about this story courtesy of The Last Resistance.

3 September 2013 – A group of United Nations independent experts today called on the Government of the United States to finalize the ongoing review of the case involving the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, an African –American teenager who was shot in 2012 by a neighbourhood watchman in the state of Florida.

“We call upon the US Government to examine its laws that could have discriminatory impact on African Americans, and to ensure that such laws are in full compliance with the country’s international legal obligations and relevant standards,” said human rights expert Verene Shepherd, who currently heads the UN Working Group of Experts of People of African Descent.

The death of Trayvon Martin sparked a new debate about racial profiling in the United States after the unarmed black 17-year-old was shot and killed in Florida by George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watchman. Mr. Zimmerman, who argued that he acted in self-defence and with justifiable use of deadly force, was found not guilty of all charges against him.

The US Department of Justice, the US Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are currently evaluating the evidence generated during the federal investigation, as well as the evidence and testimony from the state trial, trying to establish potential civil rights charges linked to the case.

“The Trayvon Martin case has highlighted the importance of the need to review those existing laws and policies that can have a discriminatory effect on the basis of race, as African Americans become more vulnerable to such discrimination,” Ms. Shepherd said, recalling that the US has been party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights since 1992, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination since 1994, and many other international human rights law treaties.

“States are required to take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists,” said the Special Rapporteur on racism, Mutuma Ruteere.

According to the 2011 US Department of Justice Hate Crime Statistics, 71.9 per cent of the total number of victims of hate crimes reported to the nation’s law enforcement agencies were victims of an offender’s anti-black bias. In a 2012 survey, the local non-governmental organization Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that at least 136 unarmed African Americans were killed by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes over the course of a single year.

I wonder how many Whites were victims of an offender’s anti-white bias, or perhaps that doesn’t  count.

If you go through the roster of the 193 members of the United Nations, you will find few, if any, countries that have not discriminated against some group on the basis of race or ethnicity, as well as religious discrimination, discrimination against women, etc. In many places this is still very much an ongoing problem. You will also find that there are few countries that have made more of an effort to redress past and present discrimination than the United States. If the United Nations is really interested in fighting against discrimination and violations of basic human rights, there are many places where there efforts are more urgently needed than here in America They could, for instance, take up the problem of the Christians in the Middle East, the Kurds in Turkey, the Tibetans and others in the People’s Republic of China, etc. In other words, the US has one of the best human rights records in the world and we certainly do not need to be lectured to by a corrupt organization composed of dictators and kleptocrats.

Rosh Hashanah

This evening at sunset Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days begins. This holiday takes place on the first two days of the month of Tishrei in the Hebrew calender. Because the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, the dates wander a bit in our Gregorian calendar. This year it takes place on  September 24-26. The New Year is celebrated for two days because of the difficulty of determining the precise day of the new moon.

Rosh Hashanah, which means “the head of the year”,  is not mentioned as such in the Bible. Instead the day is called “Zikaron Teru’ah” a memorial of the blowing of horns in Leviticus 23:24 and “Yom Teru’ah” the day of blowing the horn in Numbers 23:9.

 23 The LORD spoke to Moses: 24 “Tell the Israelites, ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you must have a complete rest, a memorial announced by loud horn blasts, a holy assembly. 25 You must not do any regular work, but you must present a gift to the LORD.’”  (Lev. 23:23-25)

1 “‘On the first day of the seventh month, you are to hold a holy assembly. You must not do your ordinary work, for it is a day of blowing trumpets for you. 2 You must offer a burnt offering as a sweet aroma to the LORD: one young bull, one ram, and seven lambs one year old without blemish.  3 “‘Their grain offering is to be of finely ground flour mixed with olive oil, three-tenths of an ephah for the bull, two-tenths of an ephah for the ram, 4 and one-tenth for each of the seven lambs,note 5 with one male goat for a purification offering to make an atonement for you; 6 this is in addition to the monthly burnt offering and its grain offering, and the daily burnt offering with its grain offering and their drink offerings as prescribed, as a sweet aroma, a sacrifice made by fire to the LORD. (Num 29:1-6)

I mentioned that the Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar. That is not quite correct. A fully lunar calendar would be based solely on the phases of the moon would cycle through the year, as the Islamic Calender does. Instead, the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar. The twelve months add up to 354 days, so to keep up with the seasons extra, intercalary months are added in a nineteen year cycle. Seven intercalary months are added during the cycle so that a thirteenth month is added every two or three years. This means that the dates wander a bit compared to the Gregorian calendar but stay within the appropriate seasons.

Anyway, Shana Tova everyone.


Reformed Egyptian

English: Joseph Smith translating the Book of ...
Hard at work
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, I talked with some Mormon missionaries who were working our neighborhood. Most people prefer to avoid proselytizers of any sort, but I find conversations with them to be interesting. It must have been an odd experience for the two missionaries, as I must have been one of the few non-Mormons they encountered who had actually read the Book of Mormon and knew something of Mormon theology. I had an interesting talk with these two young men.

If you talk with Mormon missionaries for any length of time, they will give you a copy of the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is supposed to be a history of some Jewish emigrants to America led by a man named Lehi. This expedition began just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 587 BC. Various historians made records of their experiences and the last of these, one Moroni, collected these accounts that had been engraved on golden tablets and buried them around AD 421. In 1823, Moroni, now an angel, showed Joseph Smith these tablets and had him translate them using the “urim and thummim” or seer stone. After this task was done, Moroni took them back to Heaven.

The language that was engraved on these golden plates is supposed to have been “Reformed Egyptian“. The story of the golden plates written in reformed Egyptian makes the Book of Mormon unique among the sacred texts of the various religions. If I want to read the Bible in its original languages, I have only to study Koine Greek and Hebrew. These exist many old manuscripts of both the Old and New Testaments, as well as many writings and inscriptions in both languages. If I want to read the Koran in its original language, I can study Arabic. It is true that the Arabic of the Koran is not the Arabic spoken in Cairo or Baghdad, and the language is difficult for even native speakers. It is also true that there are few inscriptions and writings from the first century of the Islamic Era, making the ancient Arabic more obscure. I could study it though. The same thing could be said of the Sanskrit of the Vedas, the ancient Chinese of Confucius and Lao Tse and many others. I cannot say the same of the Book of Mormon. There is not a single scrap of Reformed Egyptian to be found anywhere. There are no inscriptions, no fragments of parchment or papyrus, nothing. The golden tablets are gone. For this reason, most non-Mormons consider Reformed Egyptian to be a product of Joseph Smith’s fertile imagination.

It might be worth considering the matter, though. The hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt were a complicated system of symbols. These symbols included ideographs and phonetic symbols representing syllables or consonants. There were also symbols at the end of words which were mute but indicated grammar. The phonetic symbols worked a little like a rebus, a picture of an object was used to indicate the sound associated with that object. For instance, to indicate the word belief, I could draw a picture of a bee and a leaf. An eye could mean the pronoun I. This is, in fact, where the letters of our alphabet originated. The earliest versions of ABC were diagrams of objects that started with those sounds in the Phoenician language. The Egyptians never managed to take the step of creating a full syllabary or true alphabet.
Hieroglyphics were sacred writing, used mostly for inscriptions on stone. The Egyptians used two other systems, based on Hieroglyphics. Hieratic was a somewhat simplified version of Hieroglyphics used for writing on sheets of papyrus. It was invented about the same time as Hieroglyphics. It was used for many purposes, but gradually became associated with religious uses. Demotic was a variation of Hieratic invented around 660 BC. It was widely used for everyday purposes and became the script most familiar to Egyptians and foreigners.

Hebrew is, of course, written with a true alphabet (or abjad if we want to be pedantic). It worked fairly well for representing Hebrew  I am not sure why any speaker of Hebrew would use another system. The Book of Mormon explains it;

32 And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.

33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record. (Mormon 9:32-33)

That really doesn’t work. I cannot imagine that any Egyptian script would be more concise than Hebrew. The Hebrew letters work just as well for modern Hebrew as for Biblical Hebrew and the Jews also used them to write in Yiddish, a dialect of German. Aramaic uses similar letters, as does Samaritan. For that matter, our own Latin alphabet, as well as the Greek alphabet derive from the same source. Since the various alphabets derived from the ancient Phoenicians can be used to represent many different languages, there is no reason why some modified form of the Hebrew alphabet couldn’t be used to represent the language of these American Jews, no matter how much their language evolved.

So, why Reformed Egyptian? Well, Joseph Smith could hardly claim to have translated Hebrew. Any skeptic could have simply produced a

English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Muse...
English: The Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. Français : La Pierre de Rosette, dans le British Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

paper written in Hebrew and demand he translate it. It was safer to translate from a language no one could read. Knowledge of how to read the writing of Ancient Egypt had been lost many centuries ago. The Rosetta Stone had only been found in 1799 and Jean-François Champollion had just finished translating it in 1822. Even if anyone in the United States knew about his work, it was not likely they would possess a copy of his translation. Besides, being one of the oldest civilizations in history, Egypt was mysterious and exotic. Even the Greeks and Romans felt this attraction. Whatever his faults might have been, Joseph Smith was a good showman. Proposing that the Native Americans were descended from a lost tribe of Jews was exciting enough for potential converts. Adding in the splendor of Ancient Egypt was too much for him to resist.

Of course, Joseph Smith’s career lasted until his death in 1844 and sooner or later the knowledge of how to read Hieroglyphics was going to cross the ocean. There was always the danger that someone might ask Joseph Smith to translate a scroll or a wrapping off a mummy. In fact, someone did make such a request of Joseph Smith, providing him an opportunity to use his imagination once again. The results turned out to be very embarrassing for the Church of Latter Day Saints, thought the truth wasn’t known for over a century. That is a story for another time.