Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff

Over the past few days, I keep stumbling over the term "fiscal cliff" as I read through the business and political news.  It's surfacing everywhere, and it's primarily used to describe two related events.

First, there's the automatic repeal of the Bush-era tax cuts.  Second, barring any meaningful movement on deficit reduction, there will be major, mandatory, and significant reductions in government spending, up to and notably including military spending.

In the business media and in the general press, this is being cited as a reason to ring alarm bells.

We're approaching the cliff!  If we go off the cliff, we'll destroy our economy!  Something must be done!   Turn!  Hit the brakes!  Turn!  Go back!   Concerned defense industry folk and contractors and the financiers who sell and hold US debt are beginning to freak out a little bit.

And yet we're not turning.

Nothing is being done, because the divided Congress elected by divided America is inexplicably divided.

Here, I confess to find myself confused.  Sure, we're approaching what looks like a cliff.

But to my eyes, we're not approaching it from the top.  We're approaching it from the bottom.  It's the side of the deficit hole we've dug ourselves into, that deep pit of false and unsustainable growth.

The "cliff" is nothing more and nothing less than what we need to do to get out of debt as a nation, or at least reduce debt to manageable levels.

We'd not be going over the cliff.  We'd be starting to climb up it.

That's probably why the financial and political classes seem so alarmed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

All the Best Guns

He had carefully chosen all the best guns.

There were the two Glocks, of course, which almost go without saying.  Nine millimeter has good stopping power, but they’re also well-weighted, industry standard sidearms, with great predictable handling and reliability.

The Remington 870 Tactical?  It’s legendary for its reliability and robustness, the single most successful pump action shotgun in modern history.   It may not put as many rounds through as quickly as a semi-auto or full-auto combat shotgun, but it’s stone-cold reliable. There’s a reason it’s the weapon of choice for law enforcement.

The AR-15 is the only debatable choice...for close quarters a semi-auto bullpup like the FN2000 might be arguably better, but a bullpup could lose balance and would certainly become unwieldy if you intended to use a large-capacity 100 round drum magazine.  Sure, you can change out magazines in less than two seconds, but in the absence of cover, that would be a very long two seconds.  Of course, ever since the size limitations on semi-auto magazines were allowed to
expire, this is a moot point.  Given the intended purpose, the combination was a logical choice, although the tendency for the AR-15 to jam when used with large capacity magazines did end up being a factor.

He’d done his research, I’m sure, assessing the reviews that can be found everywhere online and in enthusiast magazines.  His weapon selections show thoughtfulness and informed consideration.

He also knew that Colorado is a state where access to firearms is
easy.  In fact, Colorado has laws on the books forbidding gun
registration in any form by any locality.  It’s really easy to buy a
gun there.  Further, laws establishing concealed carry are on the
books.  There could easily have been a gun-owner with a concealed
weapon on the audience.  In anticipation of this, he did the smart

He purchased tear gas, which in a closed space would quickly render
all but those wearing gas masks unable to clearly see or focus.  He
armored himself, wearing a bulletproof vest with groin and neck
protection.  His assumption, a logical one, was that any armed member
of the audience would be unlikely to successfully acquire a target in
darkness while incapacitated by tear gas and in the chaos of a
panicked crowd.   Between the tear gas, the optimal weapons selection,
and the body armor, there is really no rationally defensible scenario
in which he could have been stopped.  Barring an audience member with
a gas mask and a long gun, there was little possibility of preventing
him...legally...from carrying out his attack.

In fact, given the location and Colorado laws about open
carry...meaning you can carry a weapon openly and in public...he was
completely within his rights right up until the instant he
opened fire.  Had someone tackled him before he first discharged his
weapon, it could have been considered an assault.

Unlike our culture’s non-response to these regularly recurring events,
it was all very well thought through.  And both our society and its
law were...right up until that moment...very much on his side.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

First Cause

With my doctoral writing done for a few months, I find myself finally able to turn back to the Believer's Guide manuscript.  It's stewed and bubbled in the background for a few months, but the window of editing opportunity has finally opened up, as...finally...has the chance to start fishing around for publishers.  A book proposal or three have come together over this week, and have been churned out to midsized and smaller presses.

Because of all of this, I'm getting back into reading and thinking about the core concepts of the book, which inevitably stirs some entertaining mind-wanderings.  One of those is the whole "first cause" conundrum.

In a discussion group last month at my tiny church about the compatibility between faith and science, a well-informed and regular participant presented an opinion that I for a long time held myself.  It was a variant on what is often called the "First Cause" argument.

For those faith folk who don't buy into the reflexive fundamentalist 6,000 year old universe thing, "First Cause" has come to be understood in the context of our observable time and space.   Looking out at the way that creation has banged out bigly, and how it appears to have begun at a point of inscrutable singularity beyond which nothing can meaningfully be known, science-friendly believers have seen the possibility of God on the far side of that event.

Beyond that first moment lies God, we've thought.  And we're not wrong.  We're just not right in the way that we thought, either.

This is one of the many challenges the Many Worlds interpretation poses for the faithful.   Because that moment?  It's not the boundary.  On the "other side" may lie an infinity of other realities, or just a single scraping of reality against reality.   Yeah, Stephen Hawking described the number of other potential universes as 10 to the 500, but I know physicists.  The technical term for when they start pitching out numbers that high is "spitballing at infinity."

What Hawking is saying is that the multiverse itself might well be functionally infinite and eternal.  And if it's infinite and eternal, there can be no first cause.

Which, to be honest, works just fine for faith, with very little muss or fuss.  Why?  Because while First Cause arguments make some sense relative to time and space, they have never been meaningful statements relative to being outside of the bounds of our time and space.  Some unpacking of that is in order, eh?

From faith we know that God is eternal, but we know more than that. We understand existence as not being limited to the bounds of the flow of time and space, and understand being in God's presence as partaking of that eternity.   Being eternal, timeless, and without cause is an integral aspect of God's identity.

But when we've tried to explain this to skeptics, the conversations always go the same way.

Jesus-dude:  "Everything had to come from something.  So that something is God."
Skeptic:  "Oh yeah?  Well, what did God come from?"
Jesus-dude:  "Nothing.  God has just always existed."
Skeptic:  "But if everything has to come from something, then God has to come from something."
Jesus-dude:  "No, because God is God."
Skeptic:  "But everything has to come from something.  You're not making any sense."
Jesus-dude:  "That's because things work differently in the universe.  God's not part of everything we see and hear."
Skeptic:  "Oh, c'mon.  How can there be anything outside of our universe?  That's wackadoodle."

And to be honest?  The skeptic does have a point.   There's some tension in that thinking.  Or, to be more plain about it, did have a point.  If Many Worlds gains more purchase as a cosmology, the whole classical First Cause argument isn't worth arguing over.  It's just no longer relevant.

If the universe is an infinite and immeasurable multiverse, then ascribing causality is functionally meaningless when considering that infinity.  And saying "first" is equally meaningless.   How can there be a "first" if being stretches out to places where time has no meaning?

And into this kwazy cosmic yarp, the faithful have to ask: at what point did God create?  Could we still refer to God as the "Creator?"  The answer returns: Sure.  At every point, always, back farther than we can see, and forward beyond the scope of our vision.   It's just that parsing out God's infinitely generous self-expression from God's nature becomes a meaningless exercise.

I really am enjoying this manuscript.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Illiterate Sheepherders and the God Particle

Over the past few weeks, there's been much made of the "discovery" of the Higgs Boson.  It's an exciting time to be a theoretical physicist, as the pieces of the puzzle of creation continue to fall into place.  I'm particularly interested, personally, to know the implications of this for the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory, and some of the initial reflections seem to suggest that it may be a bitlet of confirming data.  Which would be cool, given that my whole manuscript would be rendered as meaningless as a reflection on the theological importance of a flat earth should it prove otherwise.

One rather...interesting...reflection on this profoundly exciting advance came in a recent article in the WaPo, in which the CEO of Beltway Atheists used the discovery as a reason to assert how ignorant religious people are.  This is perhaps unsurprising, given that anything and everything is a reason for anti-theists to assert how stupid faith is.  Wake up and have a cup of coffee?  Faith is stupid.  See a bunny hopping across your lawn?  Faith is stupid.   One has to appreciate such consistency.

Woven into the pattern of predictable rhetoric was a familiar trope about why the faithful are such remarkable dumb-dumbs.  Faith is the product of "illiterate sheepherders."   I've heard this one and variants of it many, many times, but thought it was worth taking a moment to reflect on it.

The only reason we believe in God, or so this particular anti-theistic line of reasoning goes, is because toothless half-wit inbred Judean hill people finally took a break from schtupping the livestock to goggle drooly-faced at the fastless deep of the cosmos.  Then, in the throes of their glazed eye confusion at the bigness of it all, they just made [stuff] up.

It's heartening red meat stuff for conventions of chip-on-their-shoulder freethinkers, no doubt.   But it has the unfortunate character of being completely, materially, and provably incorrect, utterly ungrounded in objective historical-critical research.

For starters, the assertion that "illiterates wrote the Bible" is...well...think about that statement for a moment.

Those who actually wrote the Bible were not, to put it in the most pretentious res ipsa loquitor wayilliterates.  Nor were they...with one or two exceptions...people who worked in the fields.  Scribes and the literate weren't exactly a dime a dozen in the ancient world, but where they did exist, they were the educated elite.  The folks who wrote the Bible were the scholars and trained historians of their era.  They were also the poets and musicians and storytellers, and those who observed and critiqued culture.

Were they dead on about the mechanics of the cosmos?  No.  Were they human beings, gifted with intelligence, creativity, and insights into the nature of what it means to stand in relationship with one another?  Of course they were.  

Even if one removes the whole God-part of the conversation, the presumption that human beings who lived in the pre-modern era were less human, less creative, and of less worth because they lacked the benefit of space-based telescopes and massive accelerators bugs me a bit.

It's the difference between humanism and anti-theism, I suppose.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Being Prepared in the Event

The recent storm flipped a switch of sorts in our household, one that we'd been slowly throwing for the last five years or so.   For the last five years, the run of major weather events has been increasing.  We had a "hundred year deluge," which caused flooding unlike anything long-term residents of this area had ever seen.  And then we had a "five-hundred year deluge," which was...well...bigger than that.  We had Snowmageddon, which buried DC once, and then again for good measure.   And then came this most recent event, which involved a violent weather phenomenon so rare that most non-meteorologists had never even heard of it.

Living in DC, we've made a point of having a week of emergency supplies on hand, particularly post-9-11/Sniper/Anthrax scare.  A several-week larder of canned food and water is supplemented by candles, crank-powered radios and lanterns, and a big ol' emergency battery brick for keeping lamps and fans running and charging devices.  But as the days dragged on without power, there was the inescapable sense that this is something we'll be seeing more of in the years to come.  Our family bit the bullet and took the next step in preparing for a more volatile climate.

We're going hybrid for our emergency power.  A small deployable solar array has arrived and is now stored in the basement, ready to keep flashlights, phones, and other household miscellany charged up.  It's also prepped to recharge our reserve 12 volt battery for lighting at night, providing a pretty much infinite source of power and insuring we're not reduced to driving around in our car to charge our phones.  Well, not technically infinite, but if the sun prematurely flames out, I think keeping our iPhones charged won't be quite the priority it is now.

A portable generator is also arriving, but not the cheap loud Pep Boys Chinese racket-box kind.  We dug a little bit into savings for an ultra-reliable, super-quiet one, something that can power our fridge, our net-based phone system, and a few odds and ends.  Like, say, a coffee maker.  Not that propane-grill made French press coffee is so bad, but there are some things worth keeping in play when the world falls apart.

It's also hyper-efficient, the inability to easily find fuel this last week reminded us...gets to be kind of important when things really go south.  When every gas station around is shut down due to lack of power, it's sorta kinda good not to run out of fuel after the first seven  hours of a crisis.

Though I've considered this as an option for a while, it feels a bit odd to be doing it.  Sure, we're not going hard-core survivalist.  We're not buying biohazard suits and tactical shotguns for the whole family, much to my boys' great disappointment.

Maybe next year.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Teaching Kids about Pluralism and Atheism

On the last day of our recent trip to San Francisco, we stayed in a humble cookie-cutter Holiday Inn Express near to the airport.  It was utterly nondescript, and completely functional, as it was shoutin' distance from where we'd need to be the next morning.

As we were packing up that morning, I I often do in hotel rooms...the drawer of the nightstand between the two queen beds.  In the drawer was a Yellow Pages and the inescapable Gideon's Bible, but there was also something else.  This being San Francisco, there was also a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, distributed by the followers of a Hindu holy man whose slightly scowling visage appeared on the back.

It was kind of cool, thought I, and so I pointed the books out to the family.  The boys asked me why the books were there, and I told them about the Gideons.  I've always felt that just leaving a Bible out doesn't really open up the kinds of conversations that really get to the heart of faith, but then again, it doesn't hurt, either.  So long as the hotel gives permission, it's fine.

I talked about how in the same way that the Gideons had the right to share the holy books of our faith, the Hindus who put their book in the drawer were equally empowered to present their belief system.  I talked about the importance of respecting others, and noted that it was all part of what made our country great.

I read through the Bhagavad Gita for a had been a while...and then absent-mindedly began to leaf through the Gideon's Bible.  It was then that I noticed that the Bible had been defaced with a large sticker, applied by an atheist to the interior front cover.  It was a leaving of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, that group of anti-theists who make it their business to be as unproductively aggressive as possible in their attack on faith.

The sticker itself was the usual diatribe, this one focused on attacking Gideon as a biblical character.  It was oddly irrational...the Gideons don't do what Gideon did, not being impromptu military leaders in a loose tribal federation and all...but this is typical of anti-theist rhetoric.  "Did you know that [insert name of figure from religious tradition here] was the most horrible person who ever lived?"  It would have been offensive, and it did cheese me off a little bit, but there was no point in growling umbrage.   Instead, as with all things, it served a very helpful teaching purpose.

I showed my Jewish/agnostic kids the sticker, and asked the boys what they would have thought about a Christian who had come into the room and defaced the Bhagavad Gita.   They thought that would be obnoxious.  I asked, then, if that would be any different from what this group had done.   Both boys concurred that there was this kind of activity was done by individuals who were best described as...well...both used a word that I think perhaps George Takei puts best.

I asked them, then, if atheists were all that way.  One of my boys said, no, and talked about a friend who didn't believe in God and who wasn't religious in any way.   I asked him if his friend was mean and disrespectful to those who were different.  No, of course not, said my son.  He would never do this.  You see, said I, not all atheists are like this.  I reminded them of family members who are atheists, and asked if they were obnoxious, angry people.   No, of course not, they said.  They just don't believe in God.

That lead to a short conversation about how faith...real faith, not reflexive a challenging thing.  It isn't easy, or simplistic.   I also reminded them that an output of any authentic faith...and, frankly, the genuine application of a deep compassion for other sentient beings.

Which is something that fundamentalism and atheism often struggle with, in equal measure.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Hot Sticky Worship Sweat

When I arrived at church on Sunday morning, I had only the vaguest idea what the day would look like.  There was stuff on the schedule, of course.  We had a Youth Mission team headed off to Kentucky who were going to be blessed.  It was a communion sunday.  There was a post-worship Bible study on the docket.

But with the entire region walloped by a massive derecho, none of that was certain.  Communications were critically compromised.  There was no power, and it was the middle of a heat wave.  My phone was a pretty but almost useless brick.   In the few moments the overburdened 3G network had let me in, I'd managed a few emails and texts with our stalwart worship and arts elder, in which we agreed to keep it simple and play it by ear.  Maybe just a prayer, some lemonade, and a sendoff for the Mission team.   We'd see.

I arrived early, wending my way through debris, and stopping at one point to clear a country road of a fifteen foot branch that was blocking most of it.   Things at church were better than I'd expected.  The huge graceful tree sheltering the fellowship hall was undamaged.  The not-quite-as-huge tree next to the manse was also intact.  There was no power, of course, which meant that the sanctuary could have passed for a brick easy-bake oven.

More and more souls arrived, as did the communion elements, followed by more souls.  Though I was ready to do just a prayer, the Spirit felt there for a shortened service.    Chairs formed an impromptu semi-circle in the fellowship hall, which was at least 10 degrees cooler than the sanctuary thanks to the sheltering wings of that old tree.   A bustle of folks snagged stacks of hymnals.  A folding table received the elements.  A lectern slid into place.

And so my wee kirk worshipped, blue bulletins fanning all a-flutter.  The hymns I'd selected were...thank the Maker...all well-known and easily sung, and though we were a cappella, the room filled with strong voices and harmonies.  It was hot, but the room was filled with good cheer.

As I preached from the handwritten text I'd recreated by candlelight the night before, the sweet-salty taste of sweat touched my lips.  I lacked the necessary kerchief, so instead of mopping my brow with a South Georgia country pastor flourish at opportune pauses, I just let it run down my face.  The flavor of a good honest sweat was still there as we shared the Lord's Supper, mingling favorably with the sweet of the juice and the slight tang of the sourdough.

Afterwards, the cool of shade trees, watermelon, and lemonade made the lingering a pleasure.

Worship is always better when it's honest, real, and requires a teeny bit of sweat.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Our First Derecho

As the power returns to our Annandale home, the boys have settled in to some air-conditioned summer SpongeBob watching, and I've returned to blogging.   The past few days of sweltering through heat were made tolerable by a decent emergency plan in our household.  We had water, and a large reserve of canned food we didn't even need to touch, and a propane powered grill that's provided us with hot meals and hot water for french-press coffee.  Oh, and a handy little emergency power supply.

What was unsettling about the event was that for all of my 43 years, I did not have a frame of reference that let me grasp what was happening.  Friday night we were expecting  storm activity, but when things happened, it didn't meet any of my expectations.  It woke us, and with the waking, it was clear it was not an ordinary storm.  The house thrummed and shook as wind and rain and hail battered it.  The trees in our neighborhood rocked and shook wildly, and the sky lit with endless, constant lightning and thunder.   As the power went out, it felt for a moment like we had inadvertently wandered into some apocalyptic film, or a scene in some old Star Trek where a high-energy plasma storm was sweeping across the Enterprise.   "We've lost all power, Cap'n!  She's dead in the water!"

Then there was the sound.  The thunder was so frequent it blended into a roar, which mingled with the wind, which mingled with the rice-krispies-of-the-Titans sound of trees snapping, crackling and popping.

 It was genuinely alarming.

"What is it, dad," shouted my panicked little guy, as we hustled downstairs to the security of cinderblock with the dog and the emergency power brick in tow.   "I don't know," I said, because I didn't.   It wasn't a tornado.  The wind wasn't right for that.  It wasn't a regular storm.  I was at a loss.  I genuinely had no idea what was happening.  "I don't know" is a hard thing for a dad to say in an emergency.  For another ten minutes, the whatever-it-was raged, diminished, then raged...and then passed on.

Now, I know the name of it.  We all got to learn a new word: derecho.

There are some great sites describing the derecho, but it's basically a heat-driven atmospheric energy event.  To visualize it, think of something that's basically a tornado laid on its side, stretched out over 100 miles or more, and that just blasts its way across the landscape.   In the case of this one, a long way across the landscape.  It's not precise, but that's the net effect.

As I rode to church through thirty-five miles of nonstop devastation, I found myself thinking many things.  One was that my family is going to need to upgrade our emergency plan.  But I thought other things.   I thought that the the global-warming deniers and the party that panders to them had better hope this doesn't happen again.

When you've hitched your wagon to the monied industrial interests who are trying to shill us that climate change isn't real, and that there's nothing to see, just keep buying/burning fuel...well...a few of these events might make people realize you're the enemy of the future of human civilization.

Rhetoric and ideology mean very little in the face of a Creation that is hell-bent on setting the balance straight.