Friday, July 16, 2004

A lack of faith

Faith is an amazing thing.  An average group with faith in a strong leader can overachieve; religious faith can heal the sick; faith in one another can bring people through incredible crises.  The lack of faith, as Darth Vader once put, is disturbing.  It demonstrates itself most often in the loud profession of belief, which is belied by actions that show that the belief is shallow.

I usually use religious fundamentalists as an example of this.  Note that I am not limiting myself to Christians here; Islamist, Jewish, and others give us daily examples to ponder.  The key here is that these folks feel that everyone must follow the fundamentalists' creed; if not, the non-believers must be dealt with.  Notice that it’s not enough that the non-believer should be presumed to doomed to eternal suffering, or at least doomed to miss out on eternal paradise.  Really, now, isn’t that sufficient punishment?

Evidently not.  I have nothing against preaching and proselytizing to the unwashed masses, but if they’re not going to fall in line, then it's the non-believer's  tough luck. 

This is not to presume that the reverse situation is acceptable; that is, it is not all right to put down those who profess their faith because that bothers you.  People should worship or not worship in whatever way they see fit. 

This lack of faith drives the whole issue of public displays of faith, like benedictions before events.  Since most everyone believes in a single God, it seems as if it should be simple to offer thanks to God in general in a way that does not stomp all over someone’s Christian, Islamic, Talmudic, or even pagan belief.  But, fundamentalists don’t feel that way.  It’s got be their version of the Almighty, period.  When their representatives get elected, they try to legislate a particular religious view into daily life, intolerant of whoever else lives there or whatever heritage might be trampled or destroyed (the Taliban destruction of ancient shrines in Afghanistan, or desecration of Native American burial areas are two examples; then there's Jerusalem, which no less than three "faiths" have tried to destroy).

So, lawsuits get filed.  The fundamentalists claim the plaintiffs are godless; the plaintiffs claim the fundamentalists are reactionary bigots.  And all because the fundamentalists are so insecure in their faith that they can’t abide by any aspect of life that doesn’t include it.

Well, publicly they can’t.  Many a Sunday Christian is willing to throw six or seven of those Commandments to the winds when they think no one is looking.  The same applies to hypocrites of all faiths.  I've known Moslems who would actually say hello to the Baptists when they bumped into each other at the liquor store.

Keep in mind that, in the US, issues about prayer and religious displays have always centered on disrespect, embarrassment, or outright animosity being shown to those who do not participate.  To a lesser extent, it’s also about respecting all faiths, not setting one up above others as a state institution.  It’s not the prayer that most people object to; it’s the ramifications to those who aren’t card carrying members.

So, atheists, for example, have held that the nature of some religion-tinged events singles them out, sets them apart.  But what about an atheist who’s afraid that the mere mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance will turn his kid to religion?

If you can believe this (and you may have heard about it some weeks back), some atheist was so afraid that his kid would get religion from the Pledge that he went to court to have God removed from the Pledge.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

(A slight digression:  The Pledge was originally written without the reference to God; that was added in the 1950’s as a counter to the “godless” Communist threat, showing that Congress can show a lack of faith in our entire country.  Apparently the geniuses in office thought that, without God in the Pledge, we’d all become atheistic Pinkos overnight.)

Fortunately, the Court recognized that a) the God in the Pledge is a generic monotheistic deity,  and b) this guy’s case had nothing to do with God, period.  It turns out he was a divorced parent trying to keep custody of his daughter.  He argued that Mommy was going to raise the kid as a ---gasp--- believer in God, which, to him, was so awful that he would go to any lengths to prevent the child from being tainted.  Apparently, he didn't think he could explain and justify his own philosophy to the kid with enough conviction to keep her from being swayed by the mere mention of the word "God".

Just when you think it can’t get much crazier you get this:  A lack of faith in his own lack of faith

Tuesday, July 6, 2004

Required reading

When was the last time you read this? 

That's right, the Declaration of Independence. I wonder how many people have actually read the entire document? Of those who have, how many times -- once, maybe, because it was required in American History class?

It's one of those things I like to look up every now and then to remind myself of how we got here. The History Channel did a fine series called the "Founding Fathers", which they followed up with "Founding Brothers". Cokie Roberts has just published a book called "Founding Mothers" about the women behind the men. The one thing that one can get out of the Declaration and the history of those behind it and behind the events that followed is: These were amazing people who were in the right place to create what has been a most durable system.

I was talking about this to a fellow one day. When I allowed that we were fortunate to have men who could craft the Declaration, the constitution and the Bill of Rights, he snorted and said that actually they weren't particularly bright or dedicated and that the Constitution was a poor document.

The guy is an idiot.

Consider the Constitution. No country in the world, not a one, has a constitution that has been in continuous use for 216 years. It has been amended only 27 times, and only once has an amendment been repealed. Most of the states, I suspect, have many more amendments and there have been constitutional rewrites in several. Alabama has over 800 amendments to its constitution, but when it's suggested that perhaps a new one should be written, there is a huge hue and cry over changing what one nut described as a "God-given constitution".

I have trouble imagining some Alabama governor ascending Mount Cheaha and receiving the state constitution from a burning bush.

By the way, former Governor Fob James, while in office, wrote a paper describing why the Bill of Rights did not apply to states.

I am not singling out Alabama here; the idiot who thought the founding fathers were ordinary slobs is a northerner. Over the years, I've heard similar sentiments from idiots of all persuasions. Other modern politicians speak of the need to control the Judiciary, forgetting about the checks and balances that have kept our method of government in tact for over 200 years.

We are far from a perfect nation. There are still injustices committed, there are people who are hungry, there are opportunities missed. But, we, among a handful of nations through history, can speak out and work to improve and strengthen our system.

For that we can thank a bunch of guys who not only were willing to take chances, but also had the foresight, genius, and dedication to craft a country that would be different from any that had gone before.

I think that's worth celebrating.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Simple jobs are always the hardest

Yesterday, my mailbox broke.

No need for tears, for it lived a good life. It's been with me ever since I bought the house 14 years ago, and lord knows how long it was here before that. It's a huge mailbox, technically known to the Postmaster General as a "jumbo". So, as long as I was going into town anyway, I figured I might as well get a new one.

Are there three more dangerous words in the English language than "might as well"? As if I needed a further curse, my wife suggested that I "might as well" get one as big as the old one. I can't imagine why. Once or twice a year, we get something worthy of such a grandiose box; most of the time we get bills, which could go into an old tin can as far as I'm concerned.

So I go to the hardware megastore, and, lo and behold, they have the twin of the box I have. At least, it looks like it's the twin. Of small differences are huge problems made.

The mailbox stand on which the old one reposed is a custom job consisting of four pieces of angle iron welded together; these are welded to a plate of similar material, which is itself welded to a three inch pipe. The pipe is welded to an old pickup truck wheel. This arrangement cleverly combines limited portability with sufficient sturdiness to remove the front end of a Hummmer.

Of course the screws that held the old box on were completely rusted. I was prepared for that and hauled out the old drill with metal cutting bit to dispatch the offending fasteners. In a short time the old box was off, the new one slipped onto the angle iron frame perfectly. It appeared that I would escape the curse of "might as well".

Yeah, right...

As a final test before bolting the new box on, I opened its door. Unfortunately, the door would only open a quarter of the way because its edge hung on the front side of the frame. The "twin" mailboxes differed in how the doors were hinged, and that difference was enough to turn this half-hour job into three hours of hacksawing.

Well actually it was about one hour of actual sawing, but I wasted about two hours trying other methods, which included completed removing the teeth from two "metal-cutting" blades in a saber saw. Apparently, these "metal-cutting" blades only worked on metal no thicker than aluminum foil.

The box is up, and it's lovely, I guess. As long as the box was off, I "might as well" have repainted the frame, but I knew when to give up.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Considering the Usenet

I'm not sure at what point one starts the era of popular use of the Internet, but when I got on in 1995, there weren't a lot of us. So, it's kind of sad, within 10 years, to realize that there's a large crop of Internet users who know little or nothing about Usenet.

Let's go back...waaaaay the mid-1980's and early 1990's. Back then, we dialed up our 2400 bps modems (yes, that's 2400, not 24000)and connected to Bulletin Boards (BBS). BBS's were where people went to chat, exchange information, or get technical support. Often these involved long distance toll calls, yet it was worth it because the quality of discussion on technical BBS was high. Of course, there were arrogant so-and-so's and outright idiots, but they either got moderated out or ignored.

Then along came CompuServe and it's forums. They had a forum for every topic under the sun, about all of which were moderated. You never knew who might turn up posting; Halton Arp, a controversial astronomer who has a whole family of odd-ball galaxies named after him, used to post on the Astronomy forum. Microsoft and Novell forums had developers and engineers posting solutions to problems. Graham Cluley, who you will see quoted in an article about the latest virus or worm, was with an outfit called Dr. Solomon (which got bought and destroyed by McAfee) used to post regularly in the Antivirus forum.

Now all this time, the Internet has the Usenet. In the old ARPANET days, scientists, engineers, economists, and other scholarly types would make a posting, called an "article", available to the 'net for comment.

(Slight diversion: Articles would often reference other articles. To make these easier to get to, a guy name Tim Berniers-Lee applied a concept called "hyperlinking". Click on the hyperlink and you got the referenced document. Of such humble beginnings was the World Wide Web born--child of the Usenet.)

As time went on, articles of similar interest were grouped into "newsgroups". As the ARPANET became the Internet, people began stumbling onto these newsgroups and starting their own groups. Some began to post binary files (the original place for music sharing). The Usenet was rough and ready with relatively few moderated groups; language could get pretty coarse, and a mildly controversial comment could get you flamed into submission.

(Second diversion: I once had the "honor" of being royally flamed by one of the original developers of Windows NT, for saying that Windows 95 was preferable to NT 3.51. If you never used NT 3.51, well, consider yourself lucky. Evidently, though, he took it personally. I'll have to write that story up sometime.)

(Third diversion: "Spam" started out as a Usenet headache. Technically, an article was "spam" if it was crossposted to many groups at the same time. It didn't have to be an ad. In fact, more often than not, the post was a rant or manifesto of little interest to most of the groups. "Velveeta" was a post that also posted to many groups, but it was individually posted, so that the "To:" section didn't reflect the crossposting.)

Ok, the story has gotten long, so let me start to wrap it up. As more and more people hit the Internet and started dropping in on the Usenet, the number of posts grew, but the number of good or useful posts dropped. Gradually, people looking for specific topic information gravitated to web-based forums, reducing the good posts even further. Technical groups lost most of the developers and engineers, to be replaced with newbies asking where the "any key" was who got answers from wanna-be know-it-alls who, of course, know little or nothing.

I used to post a modest amount on the Usenet, but I made my last post about a year or two ago. I quit reading at all a few weeks ago. Between RSS feeds, blogs, and Google, I can get the info I need when I need it. But, it's not the same.

What I regret most is that I'll probably never be able to get into a flame war with a developer of Longhorn.