Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My 2008 Netflix Queue

Moviewise, 2008 was a year for old favorites and first time delights. The old films enjoyed again, some for the third or fourth time, were:

  • Leap of Faith
  • The Mission
  • Driving Miss Daisy
  • Amadeus
  • Life Is Beautiful
  • Crash
  • Being There
  • The Third Man

There were also a number of older films I had never seen before, but which I finally got around to watching:

  • Innocent Voices
  • Lonesome Dove
  • The Silence
  • Through a Glass Darkly
  • Persona
  • Saraband
  • End of the Spear
  • Saints and Soldiers
  • The Nativity Story
  • The Butterfly
  • The Long Walk Home
  • Jane Eyre: BBC Version
  • Gone Baby Gone
  • And then there were newer films that I managed to squeeze in. Among the best of these were:

  • The Kite Runner
  • Bella
  • Dark Knight
  • Charlie Wilson's War
  • Vantage Point
  • Babel
  • Most
  • No Country for Old Men
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Facing the Giants
  • All of the above were, in my opinion, good to very good films, and I'd recommend them all with the caveat that some are R-rated.

    Movies that ranged all the way from "okay" to "painful to watch" were:

  • Au Revoir Les Enfants
  • The Great Debaters
  • Night on Earth
  • 8 1/2
  • Inside Man
  • The Brave One
  • Deja Vu
  • Man on Fire
  • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  • There are many more good films out there, of course, and if anyone has any recommendations please don't be reticent about passing them along.

    From Bill and I best wishes for a great 2009.


    Good for the Gander

    Gary Varvel offers us cartoon commentary on recent developments in the news. The opinions expressed in the text are ours:

    It is perplexing, don't you think, that the Israelis simply fail to understand that if the Hamas terrorists want to kill them it's not very civilized of them to do anything substantive about it.

    If Mr. Madoff goes to jail for his Ponzi scheme which defrauded thousands of people of their life savings, and he should, then so, too, should every person in congress who resists social security reform and/or who obstructed serious investigation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and/or who used their legislative influence to force banks to make high risk home mortgage loans.


    Spend Less, Pay More

    Jason shares with us an article in the Albany Democrat-Herald which informs us of a clever idea hatched in the fertile mind of Governor Ted Kulongoski:

    "As Oregonians drive less and demand more fuel-efficient vehicles, it is increasingly important that the state find a new way, other than the gas tax, to finance our transportation system."

    According to the policies he has outlined online, Kulongoski proposes to continue the work of the special task force that came up with and tested the idea of a mileage tax to replace the gas tax.

    The governor wants the task force "to partner with auto manufacturers to refine technology that would enable Oregonians to pay for the transportation system based on how many miles they drive."

    The task force's final report came out in November 2007. It was based largely on a field test in which about 300 motorists in the Portland area and two service stations took part over 10 months, ending in March 2007.

    A GPS-based system kept track of the in-state mileage driven by the volunteers. When they bought fuel, a device in their vehicles was read, and they paid 1.2 cents a mile and got a refund of the state gas tax of 24 cents a gallon.

    The residents of Oregon get fleeced coming and going. The more they cut back on fuel consumption to save both gas and money, the less revenue their voracious government rakes in. But voracious government can never be expected to cut their spending. Oh, no. Elected public servants cannot be asked to forego their great retirement and medical insurance programs, or any of the other entitlements and emoluments of their esteemed office. Better it is to compensate for revenue shortfalls by taxing the mileage driven by the poor saps who purchased fuel-efficient cars.

    Perhaps we should look at this, though, not from the standpoint of the lowly taxpayer, but from the point of view of a politician. Why should they simply raise the gas tax, if revenues have fallen, when they can create a whole new parasitic bureaucracy affording rich opportunities to descend yet again upon the long-suffering public like a horde of hungry paper-pushing wood ticks? And, of course, once the mileage tax is enacted, the gas tax can be raised anyway. If only a way could be found to tax the air we breathe surely our political leaders would rejoice and levy the tariff forthwith.

    Exit question: Can you guess the party affiliation of the governor of Oregon whose brainchild this is? Here's a hint: He has a letter to the citizens of his state on his website .... from his dog. Oregon's voters have no one to blame but themselves.


    Tuesday, December 30, 2008

    End of the Year Book List

    The end of the year is always a good time for reflection on movies watched and books read. As I look over the books I managed to finish this year I notice a distressing lack of classic fiction, a lack I hope to remedy in 2009. What fiction I did read was mostly unremarkable. I confess to having read and, dare I admit it, even mildly enjoyed, a couple of high testosterone Vince Flynn thrillers. I also endured Stephen King's logorrheic and highly overrated The Stand. William Young's very popular The Shack was a nice enough story despite its implausibility, and The Fossil Hunters by John Olson was an intermittently entertaining tale of the competition between teams of paleontologists and the dangers inherent in doing field work in hostile countries. That's pretty much the extent of the year's fiction.

    There were some other forgettable books which I have duly forgotten, but here are twenty five others (including some of the novels mentioned above) which I've rated on a scale of one to four stars (*poor, **fair, ***good, ****outstanding). A caveat: The rating reflects only my interest in, and enjoyment of, the book and my opinion of its importance. A book on science or philosophy that I rank with 4 stars might seem a complete waste to someone who cares nothing for those subjects:

    1. Life's Ultimate Questions, Ronald Nash ***: A good introductory text in philosophy geared to students at a Christian college. Its only drawbacks are Nash's treatment of the early Greeks, which is a bit tedious, and his dismissive treatment of views with which he disagrees.

    2. Intelligent Design, Dembski and Ruse ***: Arguments by various scholars pro et contra intelligent design.

    3. Theory and Reality, Peter Godfrey-Smith***: A fine survey of the last one hundred years of argument about the nature of science.

    4. The Design Matrix - A Consilience of Clues, Mike Gene ****: An explication of the concept of "front-loaded" evolution. In my opinion, Gene has made an important contribution to the debate about intelligent design.

    5. Liberal Fascism, Jonah Goldberg ****: Perhaps the most important book I read this year, it makes a compelling case that fascism is a phenomenon of the political left, not, as most people assume, the right.

    6. Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne **: Claiborne gets good grades for enthusiasm and for sincerely trying to live up to his understanding of the gospel, but receives low marks for the quality of his reasoning.

    7. The Life of the Mind, Clifford Williams ***: This little book would make a nice gift for an academically-oriented student heading off to college.

    8. Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright ***: A condensation of his much more voluminous Resurrection of the Son of God.

    9. A Primer on Postmodernism, Stanley Grenz ****: An excellent and very readable overview of the major figures and ideas associated with postmodern thought.

    10. Moral Choices, Scott Rae ***: A good introductory text on ethics from a Christian perspective.

    11. The Case for Civility, Os Guinness **: Os makes a plea for greater civility in our politics while diminishing his case by taking jabs at the Bush administration whenever the opportunity presents itself.

    12. Devil's Delusion, David Berlinski ***: An amusing critique of modern anti-theism written by an agnostic mathematician.

    13. Fossil Hunters, John Olson **: A sometimes interesting but uneven story of a paleontological hunt for a prehistoric fossil in an Islamic country.

    14. The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins **: Perhaps the most overrated book of the decade. Dawkins gives us a polemic against God that seems to attack everything but its intended target.

    15. The Reason for God, Tim Keller ***: The pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City seeks to answer questions about Christianity posed by seekers among his congregants.

    16. God and Other Minds, Alvin Plantinga ***: In one of the most important and influential books in philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century, Plantinga shows that we know of God's existence in the same way we know that other minds exist. Not for the beginner.

    17. The Nature of True Virtue, Jonathan Edwards **: Edwards brings his logical skills to bear in this 18th century discussion of what it means to be virtuous. The book is written in a dense style that makes it less accessible to modern readers than one might wish.

    18. The Shack, William Young ***: Young has written an enormously popular tale of a man who manages to overcome terrible grief through a weekend spent with the Trinity.

    19. Last Lecture, Randy Pausch **: A book of advice written by a terminally ill computer prof for his children who will grow up without him. Poignant, wise, and funny.

    20. The Stand, Stephen King *: Don't bother.

    21. Getting it Right, William F. Buckley ***: WFB puts the internecine struggles of the nascent conservative movement in the 1950s and 60s into a charming novel. Ayn Rand fans will be dismayed.

    22. Who Walk Alone, Percy Burgess **: Burgess recounts the life of an American soldier who contracts leprosy while fighting in the Philippines during WWI. The reader of this book will learn a lot about the disease and what life was like for people who suffered from it.

    23. Abraham Kuyper - God's Renaissance Man, James McGoldrick **: A straightforward biography of a fascinating character in the history of reformed Christianity. Kuyper was a pastor, a theologian, a parliamentarian and eventually the president of the Netherlands.

    24. The Language of God, Francis Collins **: Collins was the scientist who headed the team which elucidated the sequence of nucleotides that comprise the human genome. In the book he talks about his journey from atheism to faith and also lays out his blueprint for harmonizing faith and science.

    25. Why the Universe Is the Way it Is, Hugh Ross ***: The first part of this book relates some astonishing facts about the fine-tuning of the universe. The second part is more theological and speculative.


    Re; Personal Generosity

    In a recent post titled Personal Generosity, we discussed a NYT op-ed in which Nicholas Kristoff wrote about studies by Arthur Brooks which reveal that conservatives are much more generous than liberals. Kristoff quoted a remark made by a critic of Brooks' findings to the effect that it may be true that conservatives give more than do liberals but that most conservatives are religious and their giving goes to build church buildings and not to help people. The comment demonstrated a complete unfamiliarity with what churches do, and a reader named Andrew writes to illustrate why the remark belies an unfortunate ignorance on the part of the critic who made it:

    I go to a "mega church" here in Lancaster. I've grown up there actually. My family has been attending since there were only 200 members. Anyway, I've often wondered myself why we spend so much on the building, or flat screens for the youth rooms, or the light systems for the services. I used to wonder... wouldn't that money be better spent helping someone needy?

    [But] this year members at my church supported over 2200 children in an area of Kenya called Securu. Our 5th and 6th graders raised $165,000 for a charity called Hoops of Hope to go to that same area of Africa to drill deep bore hole wells. Earlier this year we raised around $30,000 to open a few rehabilitation clinics in Vietnam for a vet who attends our church. Our members prepared over 2500 shoeboxes full of essentials to send away to children in need and bought hundreds of presents for needy families in our own area. These are just the things I can remember, and all this on top of the other ministries we run and the time we volunteer.

    Yes, maybe some of the money conservatives give goes to build big fancy churches, [but] better a big building where people come to care, and serve, and give than an empty art museum.

    In other words, the money that's spent by Andrew's church on physical structure is an investment that ultimately empowers them to do more to meet human need around the globe. Meanwhile, as Kristoff pointed out, much of what secular liberals donate goes to fund art museums, theaters, concert halls, and museums - nice things to have in one's community, to be sure, but hardly institutions likely to do much to help the poor and downtrodden. Indeed, this sort of "charitable giving" is simply a means for the well-off to make their own comfortable lives even more enjoyable.


    Ken Miller's Straw Man

    I don't know how many of our readers are really into biology, especially as it relates to the Intelligent Design/ Darwinism debate, but if you are there's a must read on the subject by Casey Luskin at Evolution News and Notes.

    Biochemist Michael Behe made an argument in his book Darwin's Black Box that a portion of the human blood clotting cascade was irreducibly complex. Biologist Kenneth Miller claims to have refuted Behe's argument to the satisfaction of presiding judge John Jones at the Kitzmiller trial two years ago. Now it's true that Miller satisfied Jones, who was eager to be satisfied by the plaintiffs, but it's not true that he refuted Behe, and Luskin explains why.

    This is important because Miller and others are going around the country claiming that Behe has been refuted, and thus ID has been discredited, when in fact neither he, nor it, has been. As Luskin points out, Miller did not address Behe's argument at all, but rather mischaracterized it and then critiqued the mischaracterization. This is called a straw man argument, and Miller's skill in the use of it does him no credit.


    Monday, December 29, 2008


    Hot Air links to this video of a computer simulation of an asteroid collision with the earth. It's best watched full screen with the captions on. The asteroid in the sim is about 300 miles in diameter (about as wide as Pennsylvania is long):

    The video notes that this is believed to have happened about six times in the earth's history. One such collision, which struck more of a glancing blow to the earth, is believed to have ejected enough molten rock from the earth's crust to have formed the moon. Another impact, smaller than the one depicted, is believed to have wiped out the big dinosaurs.

    Such collisions would be even more frequent were it not for the fact that the earth orbits the sun in the same plane as the large outer planets, Saturn, Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus. These, as well as our large moon, act as cosmic vacuum sweepers whose powerful gravity sucks debris into themselves preventing it from striking the earth. This is one of the many facts about life on earth that often gets overlooked in discussions of the possibility of finding life in other solar systems. Any planet which would give rise to life has to meet an extraordinary number of conditions, among which is that it has to be shielded from impacts such as this one by larger planets in the same solar system.

    Few, if any, other planets in the galaxy, or even in the entire universe, meet all the criteria necessary to sustain life which is why scientists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee titled their book on the subject Rare Earth.

    Until just a decade or so ago, scientists pretty much accepted the principle of mediocrity which held that the earth was an unexceptional planet of an unexceptional star situated in an unexceptional galaxy. It was believed that such characteristics must be common in the universe and that therefore life, too, must be common. With the dawning realization, however, that the earth is anything but ordinary and that living things require hundreds if not thousands of specific conditions unlikely to be found together in any one place anywhere else in the cosmos, scientists have of late had to change their thinking, and the principle of mediocrity is being silently laid to rest.

    The earth is an extraordinary place. One might almost think, if he didn't know better, that it was all intentionally set up that way.


    What Africa Needs

    Matthew Parris at The Times Online is an atheist which makes this article rather remarkable. He writes, surprisingly but correctly, that the best hope for Africa is Christianity. Here's part of his essay:

    Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

    It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

    Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

    I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

    But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

    After discussing how Africans are enchained to a kind of group think that reveres the strongman and how the typical African resigns himself to his wretchedness and adopts a stultifying passivity toward life and its challenges, Parris says:

    Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

    Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the know-how that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

    And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

    Of course, Christians have been saying for two thousand years that Christianity provides a liberating worldview that nothing else, certainly not materialistic atheism or tribal polytheism or animism, does. It's good that some non-believers are finally seeing for themselves and telling others that it is indeed so, but it reminds me of the closing line of Robert Jastrow's God and the Astronomers when Jastrow, talking about the arduous trail of scientific discovery that led finally to the conclusion that the universe exploded into being ex nihilo just as Christian thinkers have been saying for two thousand years, says:

    "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

    For "scientists" substitute "secular liberals" and you have the situation in Africa that Parris describes.

    HT: Hot Air


    Hacker Wars

    If anyone thinks that if Israel would just be reasonable and give the Palestinian Arabs all they want, i.e. put a gun to their collective head and pull the trigger, there'd finally be peace on earth and good will toward men they should read this. If it weren't so serious it'd be funny, especially the last sentence:

    The war that worries most people in the Middle East is the one going on between Shia Iran and Arab Sunnis. This conflict ultimately takes over every other conflict. For example, Iran has been trying to get a Cyber War going against Israel. Prizes were offered for the most daring attacks on Israeli web sites by Moslem hackers. But the effort went sideways last year when some of the Shia hackers began attacking Sunni websites in retaliation for some Sunni attacks on Shia sites. For the Shia, this was also payback for the increasingly anti-Shia tone of Sunni mass media. This, in turn, was in response to Iran's nuclear weapons program, and increasingly belligerent Iranian claims that it should be the leader of the Islamic world.

    For the last three months, Shia and Sunni radicals have escalated their attacks on each other's web sites. What really got things going was a Shia attack on the two main web sites for Sunni radical religious propaganda (including al Qaeda) on September 11, 2008. Sunni hackers retaliated shortly thereafter by defacing 300 web sites belonging to Shia clergy and religious organizations. Shia hackers then came back with more attacks on Sunni clergy, media and religious sites. The two main Sunni radical propaganda sites, and, have been down most of the time since September 11. Since some 80 percent of Moslems are Sunni (versus about ten percent Shia), the Shia soon began taking more damage than they were dishing out, by a margin of more than two to one.

    At first Arab media and religious leaders pleaded for the hackers to stop. Some chastised the hackers for fighting fellow Moslems, rather than going after infidels (particularly Israel.) But Moslem hackers don't like tangling with the Israelis, who have a much deeper bench in the hacking department.

    Meanwhile, Iran has been trying to get Moslem hackers united against Israel. For two years now, the Hamas office in the capital of Iran, has sponsored a hacking contest. Whoever makes the most spectacular attack on the most important Israeli web sites (belonging to a government agency or one of the major political parties), wins a prize of $2,000. Not that a lot of Moslem hackers need much encouragement for this sort of thing. But the Islamic radical groups have noticed that they are not getting the best hacking talent, and the Israelis typically respond much more forcefully. It has been found, however, that a prize, and a formal competition, tends to bring in the more skilled, if less religiously radical, Moslem hackers.

    It was hoped that this contest would defuse the Internet based war between Sunni and Shia Moslems. Although most Hamas members are Sunni, Shia Iran is a major backer of Hamas. So it makes sense for Hamas to come up with something to stop the Internet war between Shia and Sunni Moslems, and unite everyone against Israel. It hasn't worked, and Israeli and Western counter-intelligence agencies appear to have joined in, making attacks on Shia and Sunni sites, and letting paranoia take its course.

    Far be it from me, who can scarcely boot up a computer let alone hack into someone else's, to laugh at this kerfuffle, but the thought of Israeli and other Western operatives provoking the two sides to war against each other is kind of funny.


    Saturday, December 27, 2008

    Getting the War They Wanted

    Hamas wants war with Israel, and the world should let them have it. The status quo is untenable. Hamas has launched 300 rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli civilians in the last week and 3000 in the past year while the world stood by and did nothing. Imagine if Mexico or Cuba were launching such strikes into the U.S. How long would the American people tolerate it? How many American children would have to die before the people demanded that the government do something to stop the killing and the terror?

    Israel has finally run out of patience. Since the Israelis handed Gaza over to the Palestinians in 2005 the Palestinians have expressed their appreciation by launching over 5000 missiles at Israel. The Israelis have suffered through a recent six-month "cease-fire" that was no cease-fire at all. They've seen their children terrorized, maimed and killed by thousands of Palestinian rockets and mortars in just the past year.

    Now, finally, they've had enough, and today they've launched airstrikes at Hamas security stations in Gaza, but not before signaling Palestinian civilians to clear out of houses where weapons are stashed or Hamas fighters might be hiding. This is one major difference between the Israelis and the Palestinians: The Israelis will try to minimize civilian casualties, Hamas, like Muslim terrorists everywhere, tries their best to inflict them. Indeed, the latest barrage of missiles and mortars rained down on Israel after they had sent 90 trucks laden with food and medicine into Gaza to bring relief to the Palestinian people.

    It's not known how long this current offensive will last but Israel should be done with half measures. Hamas is a cancer that threatens Israel and oppresses its own people. Israel should take out not only Hamas' military but the leadership as well.

    DEBKAfile offers this analysis of what they think is next:

    While Israel's air attack is counted a success, its war chiefs are taking care not to be trapped by an early achievement into the sort of blunders which led to the Lebanon war's unsatisfactory conclusion in 2006. That campaign was commanded by a former airman, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who saw no point in a ground operation after Hizballah's command center was razed by air - until it was too late.

    The first objective of a ground force in the coming hours will be to destroy "Lower Gaza," the underground city designed by an Iranian general and spread under most of the enclave's area. This subterranean sanctuary kept the bulk of the Hamas army, 15,000 men, their officers and leaders, out of harm's way during the Israeli air offensive Saturday. Their resistance must be broken before Hamas can be brought to surrender. Until then they will fight on.

    The second Israeli objective must be to sever the Gaza Strip from Egypt by recapturing the Philadelphi border strip.

    Hezbollah will not sit by and let Hamas take this punishment so the Israelis expect reprisals out of Lebanon to the north. Such attacks should be answered with an all-out attempt to destroy Hezbollah which is another festering boil on the rump of civilization.

    It'll be interesting to see how Barack Obama, who campaigned as a friend of the Palestinians, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who once kissed the wife of uber-terrorist Yasser Arafat, will respond to Israel's action.


    Mass Density

    We wrote the other day about how the dark energy of the universe is fine-tuned to a value of 1 part in 10(120) and exclaimed about the incomprehensible precision of such a value. Yet dark energy is not the only quantity in the cosmos whose value must be unimaginably precise in order for the universe to be a place capable of sustaining life. There are dozens of additional parameters, forces, and circumstances that must be set just right in order for life to arise and survive somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos.

    For example, there is a huge amount of mass in the universe, but there cannot be just any amount if the universe is going to be suitable for life. The amount has to be precisely what it is. If it were off by 1 part in 10(60) at its inception the universe would have been rendered unfit for life. This is, astonishingly, an amount of mass equal to just one dime.

    If a dime's worth of mass (actually mass-energy) had been added or subtracted from the total at the initial creation event it would, among other things, have caused the universe to either expand too fast (if the mass were less) or cause all stars to be too big (if the mass were greater). In either case life could never have arisen.

    As we've pointed out before, skeptics have only one way to avoid the conclusion that this universe is not an accident - that it's the product of purpose and brilliant design - and that is to assume, without any evidence whatsoever, that there are an infinite number of worlds with an infinite variety to them. If that were so then one of them would have to have the properties our world does, no matter how astronomically improbable that may seem, and we just happen to be in it.

    In other words, the skeptic scoffs at believers for thinking there's a Creator who designed the universe while they, in their desperation to avoid that conclusion themselves, embrace the theory that there's an infinity of universes for which the only real evidence is the fact that if there isn't this "multiverse" then there must be a Cosmic Designer. Pretty funny.


    Crash Course

    Bill passes along a link to a course on global economics given by Chris Martenson. The course consists of twenty sessions, each a few minutes long, in which Martenson takes the viewer through the basics of economics and along the way teaches some very important lessons about the peril we find ourselves in in today's global environment.

    Readers who wish to develop a better grasp of economics but who are unable or unwilling to take a class or read a book on it, will find Martenson's short, punchy explanations a welcome and helpful tool.

    The first two chapters are each less than two minutes long. The third one, which may literally stun you, is about six minutes. Check them out.


    Good Year in Iraq

    Strategy Page summarizes the last year in Iraq and assesses the current situation. Problems remain, but Iraq is a far better place than it was a year ago and Barack Obama's opposition to the surge, his pronouncements of it's failure, and his early promise to end the war on his first day in office all make him look myopic, naive, and foolish.

    He has already backed away from his promise to end the war immediately, and I expect that by the time he takes office he'll have had a Damascus Road experience that will result in his prosecution of the fight against Islamic terrorism being pretty much indistinguishable from that of George Bush. It'll be great fun to read the excuses the liberal media will conjure for his change of heart and to listen to the yawping of the far left which will certainly feel betrayed by the man whose election they made possible.


    Friday, December 26, 2008

    Dark Energy

    Ever since the discovery of a mysterious property of the universe called "dark energy" scientists have feared that the fabric of the universe was, in time, going to rip apart, but Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at the University of Arizona, allays our fears in this story.

    Dark energy is very weird stuff. For the first 5 to 7 billion years after the Big Bang the universe expanded at ever-decreasing rates as gravity acted as a brake on the exploding sphere of space-time, but then about 7 billion years ago the expansion began to accelerate, as if someone pushed the gas pedal all the way to the floor.

    It turns out that the universe acts like a rubber band in reverse. As a rubber band is stretched the elasticity decreases and acts as a drag on further stretching. The "elasticity" of the universe, however, actually increases the more it stretches.

    Imagine the universe as an inflating balloon with everything that we can observe resting on the surface of the balloon. The balloon is inflating faster and faster and although it doesn't appear that it will burst as it was originally feared, it does appear that the expansion rate will continue to accelerate until everything on the universe's surface is speeding away from everything else at close to or even more than the speed of light.

    This, by the way, is why theories of an oscillating universe are no longer accepted. Once the universe expands to a certain point, it cannot collapse and thus cannot oscillate.

    This means that eventually, billions of years from now, earth-bound observers would be able to see no other objects in the sky because they'd all be moving away at speeds so fast that the light from them would never reach us. Since the sun is one of those objects from which we would receive no light then, of course, there'd actually no longer be any earth-bound observers.

    At any rate, here's the most fascinating thing about this. Scientists have determined that the amount of dark energy present in the universe cannot vary from the actual value by more than one part in 10(120). That's a one with 120 zeroes after it. If it did deviate from its actual value by more than this amount life would not be able to exist in the universe that would result. That is an unimaginably precise setting. It's the equivalent of the mass of a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of the mass of a single electron.

    What an amazing thing that this dark energy is calibrated to just the right value to allow life to survive. What an extraordinary amount of blind faith it takes to think that it's just a lucky accident.


    Refuting Ayers

    I think anyone who's willing to give domestic terrorist Bill Ayers the benefit of the doubt after his New York Times op-ed piece, or who still doesn't know what to make of Ayers, should read this piece at Pajamas Media.

    The first part of the post is an introduction by Bob Owens to an op-ed written by an FBI informant named Larry Grathwohl who infiltrated the Weather Underground during its heyday. Grathwohl submitted his op-ed to the NYT but they refused to run it. We're left to speculate as to their reasons, but it certainly doesn't make them look like a paper interested in getting at the truth.



    A letter writer to the New York Times observes that:

    "It's amusing that Andrew M. Cuomo, who owes his whole career to his dad, may not get the senate seat of Hillary Rodham Clinton (who owes her whole career to her husband) because David A. Paterson (who owes his whole career to his dad) may give it to Caroline Kennedy (who owes her whole career to her dad). You would think that a state as large as New York could find someone who deserves something on his or her own."

    You would think that, I suppose, but probably there are thousands of well-qualified inhabitants of that state who don't want anything to do with politics, and who can blame them? To be a politician means that to earn your way into office you not only have to compromise your principles along the way, but you also have to subject yourself to the indignity of a prolonged media strip search in which every cavity, no matter how irrelevant, is publicly probed and exposed. How many people would be willing to undergo what Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, and George Bush have been put through?

    No one is more adamant than I that our candidates need to be scrutinized, but the scrutiny needs to be fair, relevant and dignified. The combination of our obsession with titillation and gossip and a media that loves to feed it to us all but guarantees that a lot of decent, well-qualified people will avoid politics like picnickers backing away from a skunk. Thus, too often, we get what we deserve: a celebrity rather than competent, qualified public servant.


    Wednesday, December 24, 2008

    Christmas Wishes

    On behalf of my partner and brother Bill, I want to wish each of our readers a wonderful Christmas. If you're interested in reading what Christmas means to us you might find this story that we've run before helpful:

    A man named Michael, a father of a teenage daughter named Jennifer, had been a member of a top-secret anti-terrorism task force in the military and his duties drew him away from home much of the time Jen was growing up. He was serving his country in a critically important, very dangerous capacity that required his absence and a great deal of personal sacrifice. As a result, his daughter grew from childhood to young adulthood pretty much without him. Indeed, his wife Judy had left him a couple of years previous and took the girl with her. But there was not a day that went by when he did not think of them and wish that he could be with them.

    Finally, after several years abroad, Mike was able to return home. He longed to hold his princess in his arms and to spend every possible moment with her to try to make up for lost time, but when he knocked on the door of his ex-wife's house the girl who greeted him was almost unrecognizable. Jen had grown up physically and along the way she had rejected everything Michael valued. Her appearance shocked him and her words cut him like a razor. She told him coldly and bluntly that she really didn't want to see him, that he wasn't a father as far as she was concerned, that he had not been a part of her life before and wouldn't be in the future.

    Michael, a man who had faced numerous hazards and threats in the course of his work and had been secretly cited for great heroism by the government, was staggered by her words. The loathing in her voice and in her eyes crushed his heart. He started to speak but the door was slammed in his face. Heartbroken and devastated he wandered the streets of the city wondering how, or if, he could ever regain the love his little girl once had for him.

    Weeks went by during which he tried to contact both his ex-wife and his daughter, but they refused to return his calls. Then one night his cell phone rang. It was Judith and from her voice Mike could tell something was very wrong. Apparently, Jennifer had run off with some unsavory characters several days before and hadn't been heard from since. Judy had called the police, but she felt Mike should know, too. She told him that she thought the guys Jen had gone out with that night were heavily into drugs and she was worried sick about her.

    She had good reason to be. Jen thought when she left the house that she was just going for a joy ride, but that's not what her "friends" had in mind. Once they had Jen back at their apartment they tied her to a bed, abused her, filmed the whole thing, and when she resisted they beat her until she submitted. She overheard them debating whether they should sell her to a man whom they knew sold girls into slavery in South America or whether they should just kill her now and dump her body in the bay. For three days her life was a living hell. She cried herself to sleep late every night after being forced to submit to almost unimaginable degradation.

    Finally, her abductors sold her to a street gang in exchange for drugs. Bound and gagged, she was raped repeatedly and beaten savagely. For the first time in her life she prayed that God would help her, and for the first time in her life she missed her father. But as the days wore on she began to think she'd rather be dead than be forced to endure what she was being put through.

    Mike knew some of the officers in the police force and was able to get a couple of leads from them as to who the guys who she originally left with might be. He set out not knowing Jennifer's peril, but determined to find her no matter what the cost. His search led him to another city and took days - days in which he scarcely ate or slept. Each day that passed Jennifer's condition grew worse and her danger more severe. She was by now in a cocaine-induced haze in which she hardly knew what was happening to her.

    Somehow, Michael, weary and weak from his lack of sleep and food, managed to find the seedy, run down tenement building where Jennifer was imprisoned. Breaking through a flimsy door he saw his daughter lying on the filthy bed surrounded by three startled kidnappers. Enraged by the scene before his eyes he launched himself at them with a terrible, vengeful fury. Two of the thugs went down quickly, but the third escaped. With tears flowing down his cheeks, Mike unfastened the bonds that held Jen's wrists to the bed posts. She was alert enough to comprehend what was happening and as Michael helped her to her feet and led her to the doorway she realized that her father really had come for her.

    As she passed into the hall a step ahead of Michael the third abductor appeared in front of her with a gun. Michael quickly stepped between them and told Jennifer to run back into the apartment and out the fire escape. The assailant tried to shoot her as she stumbled through the room, but Michael shielded her from the bullet, taking the round in his side. The thug fired twice more into Michael's body, but Mike was able to seize the gun and turn it on the shooter.

    Finally, it was all over, finished.

    Slumped against the wall, her father lay bleeding and bruised, the life draining out of him. Jennifer saw from the fire escape landing what had happened and ran back to her father. Cradling him in her arms she wept and told him over and over that she loved him and that she was so sorry for what she had said to him and for what she had done.

    With the last bit of life left in him he gazed up at her, pursed his lips in a kiss, smiled and died. Jennifer wept hysterically. How could she ever forgive herself for how she had acted? How could she ever overcome the guilt and the loss she felt? How could she ever repay the tremendous love and sacrifice of her father?

    Years passed. Jennifer eventually had a family of her own. She raised her children to revere the memory of Michael even though they had never known him. She resolved to live her own life in such a way that Michael, if he knew, would be enormously proud of her. Everything she did, she did out of gratitude to him for what he had done for her, and every year on the anniversary of his birthday she went to the cemetery alone and sat for a couple of hours at his graveside, talking to him and sharing her love and her life with him. Her father had given everything for her despite the cruel way she had treated him. He had given his life to save hers. His love for her, his sacrifice, had changed her life.

    And that's why Christians celebrate Christmas.


    Personal Generosity

    All Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times wants for Christmas is for liberals, of which he is one, to be as generous with their own money as conservatives are with theirs. Kristoff has read Arthur Brooks' Who Really Cares and has seemingly had his world shaken. As we've pointed out in our own discussion (see here and here) of Brooks' research, conservatives, who the liberal media delights in portraying as a bunch of cheapskates and tightwads, are in fact far more generous in giving to charity than are those who belong to the "party of compassion."

    The difference is not just financial. Conservatives are much more generous with things like blood donations. For example, did you know that if liberals gave blood at the same rates as do conservatives our blood supply would increase by almost half?

    Kristoff also dismisses the objection that conservatives are generally religious and religious people give a lot to churches which just use the money to build more impressive buildings:

    According to Google's figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.

    In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It's great to support the arts and education, but they're not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)

    Kristoff might also have pointed out that much of the money given to churches is actually redirected to charities of one sort or another. Most of the charities in our local communities are sustained by contributions from churches.

    At any rate, Kristoff provides a public service in disabusing the readership of the Times of the notion that to be liberal is to be more compassionate and generous than conservatives. The myth may make liberals feel good about themselves, but there's no empirical substance to it.



    Barry Arrington at Uncommon Descent offers a succinct rebuttal of compatibilism, i.e. the view that our choices are fully determined and yet at the same time free. As Arrington points out, this certainly sounds like a contradiction.

    The compatibilist defines freedom, however, as the lack of coercion, so as long as nothing or no one is compelling your behavior it's completely free even though at the moment you make your decision there's in fact only one possible choice you could make. Your choice is determined by the influence of your past experiences, your environment and your genetic make-up. The feeling you have that you could have chosen something other than what you did choose is simply an illusion, a trick played on us by our brains.

    Compatibilism, however, doesn't solve the controversy between determinism and libertarianism (the belief we have free-will). It simply uses a philosophical sleight-of-hand to define it away. As long as it is the case that at any given moment there's just one possible future then our choices are determined by factors beyond our control, and if they're determined it's very difficult to see how we could be responsible for them. Whether we are being coerced by external forces to make a particular choice or not, we are still being coerced by internal factors that make our choice inevitable.

    The temptation would be for the materialist to simply accept determinism, but not opnly does this view strip us of any moral responsibility, it seems to be based on a circularity: The determinist says that our choices are the inevitable products of our strongest motives, but if questioned about how we can know what our strongest motives are he would invite us to examine the choices we make. Our actions reveal our strongest motives and our strongest motives are whichever ones we act upon. But, if so, the claim that we always act upon our strongest motives reduces to the tautology that we always act upon the motives we act upon. This is certainly true, but it's not very edifying.

    On the other hand, it's also difficult to pin down exactly what a free choice is. It can't be a choice that's completely uncaused because if it wouldn't be a consequence of our character and in what sense would we be responsible for it? But if the choice is a product of our character, and our character is the result of our past experiences, environment, and our genetic make-up, then ultimately our choice is determined by factors over which we have no control and we're back to determinism.

    It seems to me that if materialism is true and all we are is a material, physical being, and all of our choices are simply the product of chemical reactions occurring in the brain, then determinism must be true as well, and moral responsibility and human dignity are illusions, and no punishment or reward could ever be justified on grounds of desert.

    This all seems completely counter-intuitive. So most people want to hold on to libertarianism, but they can only do so by giving up materialism. It's only if we have a non-physical, immaterial mind that somehow allows for human volition can there be free will and thus moral responsibility and human dignity.


    Tuesday, December 23, 2008

    Materialism and Intentionality

    In the course of his ongoing debate with Dr. Stephen Novella on the topic of dualism vs materialism, Michael Egnor elaborates on the concept of "intentionality." There are different ways to think of intentionality, but basically it's the aboutness or meaning we attach to things. Egnor argues that meaning is a property of mind, not of matter and that the fact that we experience intentionality is strong evidence that there's more to our cognitive apparatus than just our material brain.

    Materialist Paul Churchland sums up the materialist view that there is no immaterial component to us, no mind, this way:

    The important point about the standard evolutionary story is that the human species and all of its features are the wholly physical outcome of a purely physical process...there seems no need, nor room, to fit any nonphysical substances of properties into our theoretical accounting of ourselves. We are creatures of matter. And we should learn to live with that fact.

    For materialists of Churchland's stripe mind is only a word used to describe what matter (the brain) does. It's a word that describes the brain's function, like the word "photosynthesis" is a word that describes what green plants do. You won't find in a plant any photosynthesis (PHS), you'll only see chemical reactions occurring which we label PHS.

    We are merely brains, Churchland believes, and our beliefs, hopes, and experiences (which comprise our intentionality) don't really exist at all except as chemical reactions in the brain. Your belief that you are reading this is simply a product of certain combinations of atoms, like the light given off when you strike a match, and if you had a different chemical reaction when you read these words you'd have a different belief.

    Egnor says that the problem with this kind of materialism (called eliminative materialism) is that it's essentially self-refuting. How, he asks, can one believe that there are no beliefs?

    If eliminative materialism is true, then a discussion about eliminative materialism is merely changing chemical gradients in the interlocutors' brains. Some materialists are willing to eliminate the mind in order to deal with intentionality. For these philosophers the brain is just a computational device, like a very special kind of computer.

    But meaning is not a quality possessed by calculating devices like computers. Computers don't reflect upon what their computation is about. Egnor invites us to...

    Consider a simple electronic calculator. It computes, in the sense that I can enter 2...+...3...= and I get ...5. It's amazingly accurate, fast, and reliable. The reason for its accuracy is that it employs a causal string of electronic events such that pushing the '2...+...3...=' buttons causes the event '5' on the little screen. Integrated circuits, all that stuff. Of course, the calculator doesn't think (really quick) "hmmm...two plus three is....hmmm...five!" There's no thinking at all. There isn't even any 'arithmetic' going on in the little calculator. There's just causal events, electrons bumping electrons and going through gates on a circuit, structured by the program to cause 5 on the little screen when 2...+...3...= is pushed. What's going on in the calculator is a mechanism, a series of causally effective material events.

    Note that the actual meaning of the numbers and arithmetic operations doesn't really matter. My toddler can push 2...+...3...=, and still get 5, without any meaning to the computation at all. 5 comes up just because it is caused materially by the physical events. My cat could push 2...+...3...=, and still get 5....the computation is completely independent of meaning.

    To illustrate the lack of intentionality or meaning in a computer John Searle constructed the problem which came to be known as the "Chinese Room." Searle's illustration is as effective answer to the idea that our mental processes are just computational events such as a computer performs:

    Imagine that you go to China, and get a job there. You speak only English, and don't know a word of Chinese. You work in an information booth, in which Chinese people can write questions on a piece of paper and pass the question through a slot to you inside the booth. You of course have no idea what the question is, because you can't read Chinese. However, the Chinese guys that hired you have given you a book that has written, all in Chinese, any question that could be asked, and along with it, the answer corresponding to each question. You take the question written on the paper and search through the book, until you match the Chinese characters exactly. Then you copy the Chinese answer, and return to through the slot.

    The Chinese person who asked you the question believes, quite understandably, that you understand Chinese, understood the question, and were smart enough to figure out the answer. And of course, that is true of the Chinese guys who wrote the book. But it most certainly is not true of you. You don't know Chinese, you don't know what question was asked, and you don't know what the answer was.

    A Chinese person outside the booth would have believed that he was interacting with a person who understood his questions and provided good answers. But what you have done is, precisely, a computation. You have mechanically matched input to output, just as a computer program does, but you have added no meaning. You understand nothing. Only the minds of the guys who wrote the Chinese book have intrinsic intentionality. Computation-by-itself does not give rise to intentionality.

    Egnor concludes:

    Meaning is not inherent to computation, no matter how complex the computation. Material causation - silicon-based computation in an electronic calculator, or tedious illiterate computation in a booth in Beijing, or carbon-based computation in a living brain - does not give rise to intentionality. Matter ... does not give rise to intentionality. Intentionality - meaning - is the mark of the mind.

    If there is something immaterial about us, like a mind, that fact raises a host of additional questions. Where does it come from? What's its relation to the physical brain? What laws does it obey? What happens to it when the body dies? Etc. No one knows the answers to these questions, indeed it's hard to imagine how they would even be investigated. At this point, however, it's enough of a task to determine whether there are good reasons to believe that such an immaterial substance, one that plays a role in human consciousness and cognition, actually exists.


    Renewal in London

    Christianity is experiencing a renascence of sorts in London, long regarded as one of the most secular places in all of Britain. The focus of this renewal is an Anglican church in the upscale Kensington district called Holy Trinity Brompton which boasts a membership of 4000 and whose congregation is comprised of some of the wealthiest and best educated among London's citizens. These folks are coming to Brompton because they've realized that money and learning don't and can't provide the answers to life's deepest questions.

    TIME has the story here.


    Sudden Concern Over Qualifications

    Couldn't Congressman Ackerman have said almost everything he says about Caroline Kennedy's lack of qualifications for a Senate seat about Barack Obama's qualifications to be president? Why do those who enthusiastically supported a blank sheet like Obama in his quest for the presidency suddenly wax all principled and punctilious about qualifications when Caroline Kennedy expresses an interest in being appointed to a vacant position? Just wondering.


    Monday, December 22, 2008

    Penn Jillette

    Magician Penn Jillette is an atheist who has not been shy over the years in announcing his unbelief which makes this video on Breitbart quite remarkable. There is much in these few minutes that Christians and atheists would both do well to heed, especially starting at about the three minute mark:


    Have Happy Friends

    A brief article at Edge by two researchers named Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler claims that our happiness is not only influenced by those around us but also by those who reside at up to three degrees of separation from us:

    We recently published a paper in the British Medical Journal that addressed these questions. We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure.

    We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person's happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends-that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person's probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.

    Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.

    If this is true then our happiness must also affect the happiness of thousands of people we don't even know. It's a phenomenon that ripples across entire societies.


    Legal Anachronisms

    Critics of the current administration have faulted the President for disregarding international law as it pertains to the treatment of captured enemy combatants and terrorists, but Clifford May, citing a National Review article by Andrew McCarthy (only available by subscription), argues that the Geneva Conventions were designed for a world that no longer exists. He maintains that modern terrorism makes the Geneva accords, at least as they are applied to modern terrorists, obsolete and irrelevant.

    Here's the heart of May's column:

    Andrew C. McCarthy - director of the Center for Law and Counterterrorism at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies - writes what may be the definitive rebuttal of the now dominant narrative that the Bush administration violated international law and fundamental morality by not giving captured terrorists "the privileges the Geneva Conventions grant to honorable combatants."

    He notes that what we short-handedly call the war on terrorism is complicated by the fact that the existing system of laws and treaties were designed with conventional conflicts in mind. "The animating idea of the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1949 after the carnage of two world wars, was to civilize warfare," he writes. "Belligerents opted into the system by conduct" - that is, by obeying the laws of armed conflict.

    But members of such groups as al-Qaeda (including al-Qaeda in Iraq), Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Taliban, Hezbollah, and Hamas routinely and egregiously violate the laws of war - for example, by targeting civilians, hiding among civilians, not wearing uniforms, and not carrying their weapons openly.

    McCarthy, a former U.S. government terrorist prosecutor, also notes that before Bush became president, both the Washington Post and the New York Times editorialized against giving such "unlawful combatants" the status of POWs. Both approved President Ronald Reagan's 1987 decision not to sign "Protocol I," an addendum to Geneva specifically designed to extend to terrorists the Conventions' prohibition against coercive interrogations.

    The Geneva Conventions are treaties, and treaties apply only to states that have signed them. You can't conclude they were meant to benefit non-state terrorist organizations unless you also believe there is no meaningful distinction between al-Qaeda and the French Resistance (as some critics of the Bush administration do indeed insist).

    McCarthy elaborates: "[T]errorists cannot opt into Geneva. They fall outside because, by definition, they reject its minimum humanitarian requirements. Affording them Geneva's benefits rewards their savagery and undermines the system's civilizing objectives."

    It is absurd to suggest that America can prevail in a war against terrorists by prosecuting them after they carry out attacks in which they intend to die. A rational government, conscious of its duty to protect the population, must attempt to prevent and pre-empt terrorists from completing their missions. That requires gathering solid, actionable intelligence.

    "The best source of such intelligence is the interrogation of captured terrorists," McCarthy writes. "Applying the steep Geneva interrogation restrictions reserved for honorable combatants would be suicidal: Life-saving intelligence would be lost and no reciprocal benefit achieved for captured Americans, whom terrorists would torture and kill in any event."

    What I find most regrettable about much of the criticism of the Bush administration's handling of detainees is the self-righteous denunciations of the use of waterboarding, which causes no lasting harm to the subject, in order to extract information that might save American lives. I think every person who criticizes even the limited use of what are euphemistically referred to as "harsh measures" ought to be asked whether they would prohibit waterboarding if they had a son or daughter whose life would be saved if the technique were employed but lost if it weren't. I wonder how many of the critics would still maintain that it's use is "deeply immoral." How many of them would be willing to tell their loved ones that they would rather they be dead than that their lives be saved by the use of technique from which a terrorist would walk away none the worse for the experience?


    Saturday, December 20, 2008

    Overview of the Bush Presidency

    For those interested in such things the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press have conducted a very thorough survey of public opinion on the Bush presidency. The results are discussed here.

    One of the things that strikes me as peculiar about the survey is the number of people who refuse to credit Bush policies with having kept us safe from a second terror attack after 9/11. Fully 50% of Democrats said that Bush policies either did not do much or did nothing at all to protect us from terrorist attacks. I wonder what reason these people would give for why we haven't been hit again. Do they think that the Islamist extremists have just lost interest?

    Another oddity is that in late April 2008, just 37% expressed a favorable view of the federal government, about half of the percentage of five years earlier, and yet by comfortable margins we elected to office the party most likely to give us a lot more federal government. Go figure.

    One more thought on the survey. I think it almost politically impossible that Bush could be a popular president because to achieve popularity one has to be either a consistent conservative or a consistent liberal. Bush was neither. He was hated by liberals despite the fact that he did more to advance liberal ideas on helping the poor and oppressed and expanding government programs than did any Democrat president since FDR. Yet the left despised him because of the war and perhaps because of his Supreme Court appointments. Conservatives supported him for precisely those two reasons (plus his tax cuts) but were dismayed by all the things liberals should love him for. Consequently, because he did too much that people in both groups disliked, and because he did such a poor job of selling and defending his policies, few people on either side think of him as a good president.

    Anyway, there's lots of data in the report to ponder and pore over. Most of the country, not surprisingly, thinks that Bush will be remembered as a bad president. Despite my frustration with some of what he hasn't done, I just don't see this, but time will tell.


    Lost Opportunity

    By now most readers will have heard of the sign placed by atheists next to a Nativity scene outside the legislative building in Olympia, Washington on which appeared this statement:

    "At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."

    Okay. It seemed a little rude, perhaps, to place it next to a Nativity scene, but what's noteworthy about it isn't so much the message, but the reaction to it. People are outraged. They're calling the sign "hateful." They demanded that the governor of Washington have it removed. Somebody even stole it.

    I think all of this suggests an insecurity concerning the beliefs of those who are miffed by the sign, and, maybe more importantly, it squanders an opportunity. Those who erected the sign are, no doubt inadvertently, offering Christians an opening to engage in a dialogue on the merits of the claims made on the sign and to show the public that each of them is either false or at least a matter of the atheist's own faith commitment to naturalism.

    I think it would be wonderful if intelligent Christians posted themselves by the sign and invited passersby to consider what the world would be like were those claims widely believed to be true and engage skeptics in polite dialogue about them. Christians should use the sign as a springboard for writing well-reasoned pieces to the local papers explaining the evidence for God's existence and how Christianity, so far from being an enslaving force, has been a force for liberation throughout history, how so far from hardening hearts, it has been the greatest source of compassionate outreach to the poor, the sick and the oppressed throughout the last two thousand years. Instead of demanding that the atheists be denied the freedom to express their views Christians should seize the opportunity to show the intellectual superiority of their own view and the inadequacies of the atheist position.

    Unfortunately, this takes confidence, learning, and effort so perhaps it's easier to simply demand that the other side just shut up. At least that's what a lot of people have chosen to do, and a good opportunity to defend the faith has been allowed to slip away.


    Defeating the IED

    American war casualties have not been much in the news lately due largely to a massive drop-off in the effectiveness of the insurgents' favorite weapon, the improvised explosive device (IED). A couple of articles at Strategy Page explain how coalition forces have managed to neutralize this devastating killer in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It turns out that it's being done largely by guys sitting at computers doing something called pattern analysis. You can read about it here and here.


    Friday, December 19, 2008

    How to Rehabilitate an Incorrigible Rapist

    If those who would take away a citizen's right to bear arms had their way this plucky 57 year-old woman might be dead tonight:

    Imagine Mr. Preyer's surprise when he broke through the door and found his intended victim confronting him with a shotgun. One wonders how many other women she saved from Mr. Preyer's predations. As it is she's lucky to be living in a state where the D.A. isn't prosecuting her for homicide. For a mind-boggling example of self-defense landing the intended victim in jail check out this unbelievable story.

    AllahPundit at Hot Air mentions that Mr. Preyer had been married for four months and had eight children. Fast work.


    Career Choice

    Not sure what career to pursue? Forbes magazine lists the six or seven fields projected to add the most jobs over the next ten years.

    Unfortunately, this study was done before our economy went into recession so that might effect the results somewhat. Nevertheless, those who are struggling to settle upon a college major or career pathway might find the article helpful.


    White Privilege

    I recently received a beautiful e-mail (posted on our Feedback page), from a student who expressed her desire to give back to those who have so little something of the abundance with which she is blessed. Her wish to help others is just wonderful, and I am deeply impressed with this young woman's commitment to the poor and marginalized.

    There was one thing she said in her missive, however, which is a common sentiment on campus and one which I asked her to reconsider. She feels, or at least seems to feel, that part of her obligation to help the poor is a result of the fact that she's "a white, middle class, educated female with a tremendous amount of undeserved privilege." I know students are encouraged by liberal professors to think that one's race or gender confer upon one a large measure of undeserved privilege, but to tell the truth I think my colleagues are just plain wrong about this. The idea of white privilege is a shibboleth that is too often used to evoke in whites a sense of racial guilt. In my response to my student I tried to explain why I think the idea of white privilege is actually a derogation of the choices and sacrifices made by our grandparents, parents, and ourselves:

    Dear S_,

    Yours is a lovely e-mail, and I think it's wonderful that you want to give of yourself to those who subsist on the margins of society. I wish you well and pray God's richest blessing on your efforts.

    I do want to urge you, though, to consider something. Maybe I'm reading a little too much into what you say, but you seem to suggest that your status in society is somehow an undeserved privilege. If that is what you're saying I don't think you should see it that way.

    You are what you are and have what you have for a couple of reasons. First, your parents and grandparents worked very hard, sometimes 12 or more hours a day, I'll bet, to provide you with an opportunity to get an education. Your status is largely the fruit of their toil, as well as dozens of other important and wise choices they made in life, and it's not something you should feel guilty about. Indeed, I think it diminishes their effort to think of your status as a consequence of your race. So far from feeling that your privilege is undeserved I think you should be proud of the people who made it possible and grateful for their sacrifices and the choices they made.

    The second reason you enjoy the status you do is because, once given the opportunities your parents and grandparents worked so hard for, you had the character to make the most of them. You took advantage of the opportunity to get an education, you held yourself to high standards through your teen years, you had the wisdom to not squander the opportunities you were given.

    None of this is a result of your race. I know that a lot of instructors on campus think that being white somehow confers an unfair advantage over others in society, but I think that's mistaken. It was to some extent true historically, but it hasn't been the case in the U.S. for a long time. No one has been denied opportunity in this country by virtue of his or her race for well over fifty years. If people in this country languish in poverty it is because of the choices both they and their parents have made, not the color of their skin.

    The fact is that there are lots of African and Asian-Americans who are successful in this society, but no one talks about black privilege or brown privilege. Instead they talk, as they should, about how hard the parents of those people worked and the ordeals their parents endured in order to give their children a chance to make it in the world. Contrarily, there are whites, blacks and Asians who enjoy historically unprecedented opportunities to make a positive mark in life but fail to do so because they lack the character it takes to make something of themselves.

    In other words, you enjoy the status you do, S_, not because you're privileged by your race but because you're privileged to have the parents and virtues you do. It's wonderful to want to "give back" but don't let anyone imply that you should do so out of guilt over your race or class. Your motivation should be your love for God and the conviction that he wants you to be an instrument to help others become what you are.


    Thursday, December 18, 2008

    More on the Egnor/Novella Debate

    Michael Egnor, a substance dualist, finds himself in the midst of a fascinating debate with materialist neuroscientist Steven Novella.

    Substance dualists hold that the world is reducible to at least two fundamental substances: mind and matter. Materialists belive that everything is reducible to matter and that there is no such thing as mental substance.

    Novella asserts that Egnor's view that mind is an immaterial entity that plays a role in cognition and consciousness has been discredited by scientific advances in neuroscience:

    [Egnor] fails to recognize that this battle has already been fought and lost within the scientific arena...[a]s our knowledge of brain function increases, it is squeezing out any role for a non-material ghost in the machine. A non-material cause of mind is...unnecessary...

    Novella believes that mind is just a word that we use to describe the function of the brain, much like we use the word "digestion" to describe the function of the stomach. Here is part of Egnor's reply:

    There are six properties generally agreed to constitute the essence of mental states: intentionality, qualia, persistence of self-identity, restricted access, incorrigibility, and free will. Each of these properties of the mind shares a common characteristic - subjectivity, what philosopher David Chalmers has called the "Hard Problem" of consciousness. The 'easy problems' of consciousness are the kinds of problems that neuroscientists routinely deal with; for example, the determination as to which neurotransmitters in the brainstem are associated with behavioral arousal. These are 'easy' because they're tractable, although they can obviously involve some very challenging science. The Hard Problem is something entirely different; it is the problem of subjective experience, of why we are subjects, and not just objects. Why do we experience things?

    Philosopher Joseph Levine has termed this epistemological gap between our subjective experience and our inability to explain it using a materialistic understanding of nature the "Explanatory Gap." Levine succinctly observes that we lack an explanation of the mental in terms of the physical.

    The dispute comes down to this question: How can subjectivity be explained by objective matter? Subjective experience is the central dilemma in the mind-brain problem. Matter, even brain matter, has third-person existence; it's a 'thing.' We have first-person existence; each of us is an 'I,' not just a thing. How can objective matter fully account for subjective experience? If matter is the complete cause of the mind, how is it that none of the six salient properties of the mind is a property of matter? How exactly does a clump of protein, carbohydrates, and lipids (a neuron) give rise to meaning or to first person experience - using the example of pain, not merely the behavior associated with pain and the reflexes and neural correlates of pain, but the experience of it?

    The mind's salient properties are all first-person, not third-person. Not a single first-person property of the mind - not intentionality, qualia, persistence of self-identity, restricted access, incorrigibility, nor free will - is a known property of matter. No one has ever demonstrated a law-like dependence of any subjective property of the mind on any objective property of matter. How could we establish such a scientific relationship? A differential equation quantitatively relating intentionality to intracellular calcium?

    Egnor poses a tough challenge to the materialist. How does matter convert photons of energy into the experience of red? How does matter convert vibrations of molecules in air to the experience of sound? Before the materialist can claim victory he needs to be able to give a plausible explanation of how material substance can give rise to the phenomena of subjective experience. Without such an explanation all claims that the issue has been settled seem grossly premature.


    Wright Out, Warren In

    Well, this is an interesting development. Barack Obama has selected Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration. I wonder who's going to be more confused by this, the evangelical right who voted heavily against Obama because he stands for many of the things Warren opposes, and because when they look at Obama they see Jeremiah Wright, or the left which put Obama in a position to be elected President and who sees Warren as the reincarnation of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society.

    As of last report, evangelicals were still working through their confusion over what to make of this strange turn of events, but the left has lost no time in expressing their disappointment and outrage.

    The Swamp has the immediate reaction of People for the American Way and they're definitely not happy. Ben Smith at Politico says that the gay and lesbian community is furious at Obama over the selection of Warren.

    Barack Obama may, in the minds of some of his most ardent supporters, go from messiah to apostate even before he takes office. Of course, this might all be a political ploy to lull Christian conservatives into a sense of complacency, but we can certainly hope that it signals something a lot more significant. Maybe when Obama promised us hope during the campaign what he meant was that it was conservatives who should have hope. Right now liberals are wondering how they can still cling to the tatters of the hope that inspired them during the election.

    The rather minor Warren appointment comes on the heels of much more major disappointments to the left. Obama retained Bush's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, appointed the somewhat hawkish Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State, and chose retired Marine corps general James Jones to be National Security Advisor.

    From the perspective of the left this represents very little change and offers very little hope. Of course, this could all change after January 20th. We'll see.

    HT: Hot Air.


    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    Repeat Offenders

    The same folks who sell Christmas gift certificates that can be used to pay for an abortion have been found in flagrante delicto against Indiana state law not once but twice by the Mona Lisa Project. The MLP is the work of a pair of college students who've gone undercover into abortion clinics across the country with one of them posing as a thirteen year-old girl who's conceived a child with her fictitious thirty-one year-old boyfriend. The girls secretly film their encounters with PP counselors and others and have released two of the videos so far. They're pretty damning.

    The counselors in both of the Indiana tapes flout the law that requires them to report knowledge of statutory rape and encourage the girl to cross state lines to get an abortion so that her mother won't find out about it. Here's the tape of their second visit:

    Ed Morrissey at Hot Air has much more on MLP's unfolding expos�. It'll be interesting to see if Indiana is going to prosecute Planned Parenthood. In my opinion, the way MLP is doing this, dropping the videos into the public domain at intervals rather than all at once, is going to make it harder for the authorities to just ignore it until it blows over. The more of these videos that are released, and the more widespread the abuses appear to be, if in fact they are, the harder it will be to cover it up and to contain public outrage. The harder it will also be for our legislators to continue to fund PP to the tune of $330 million of your tax dollars every year.

    It's almost amusing that these expos�s come on the heels of last spring's hoax in which PP personnel were taped as they clearly encouraged a donation that would go specifically toward aborting black children because we already have "too many of them". What an organization.


    Bumble Had it Right

    Kitty Genovese was a 1964 New York City murder victim whose calls for help were heard by dozens of people only a few of whom responded by calling the police. Even though the apparent lack of response was overblown by the media, subsequent psychological studies showed there is indeed something called a "bystander effect" in which people will often refuse to involve themselves in situations where others are in danger.

    Whether this is true of people or not, it certainly seems that the cries of the long-suffering Zimbabwean people in Africa have gone pretty much ignored by their neighbors in Africa and around the world.

    The African countries of Sudan and Zimbabwe (among others) are festering boils of human cruelty and wretchedness that need to be lanced. There's evidence that other African leaders may finally be screwing up the moral courage to condemn Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe for the disaster he has inflicted on that once beautiful land but not much evidence that anyone in the West is actually going to do anything substantive about it if they don't. FrontPagemag lays out the awful facts:

    The 84-year-old Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe since the country achieved independence from Britain in 1980. In that time, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) has gone from one of Africa's most admired and successful nations to a failed state of enormous proportions. Now, with a humanitarian crisis raging inside the country, pressure from Africa and abroad is mounting for Mugabe to end his tyrannical reign and spare his country from further misery.

    International pressure on Mugabe is long overdue. Zimbabwe's inflation rate is an unfathomable 231 million percent, while unemployment is above 80 percent. Everyone from human-rights activists to opposition-party leaders are routinely abducted and murdered. Most pressingly, a cholera epidemic is ravaging the country. The latest World Health Organization report find 14,ooo cases of cholera infection, and some 800 dead, though some critics call those numbers far too low; meanwhile, millions of sick and impoverished Zimbabwean refugees are flooding into neighboring countries. The UN estimates that this particular outbreak will ultimately kill one in ten Zimbabweans.

    Even though some African leaders such as the much respected Desmond Tutu have all but called for African military intervention, other voices are more timid, cautioning against outside involvement that would stir a backlash in the region against "democracy":

    The African response, moreover, still leaves much to be desired. Despite the newfound willingness of some African leaders to criticize Mugabe, some African nations are hurriedly distancing themselves from Tutu and Odinga's calls for Mugabe's resignation. Dr. Roger Bate, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is bluntly pessimistic that other African nations will follow through on their calls for Mugabe's overthrow. There is "no chance at all," says Bate, pointing out that many of Mugabe's critics have backtracked since last week's statements, including South Africa's Jacob Zuma. This is unfortunate, because if the African Union or South Africa and other neighboring states did force Mugabe out that "could have a positive effect, driving similar despotic leaders to seek elections and leave power peacefully."

    By contrast, foreign [i.e. non-African] intervention to oust Mugabe could have a destabilizing effect. Bate points out that any military intervention on the part of the UN, especially one that involves American or British troops, could "encourage a backlash against democracy." Bate speculates that at some stage during such an incursion, members of the Zimbabwean army would back a breakaway faction of Mugabe's party, who would then "form some kind of power share government in exchange for aid from the West or China."

    In the "old days" before we became a kinder, gentler nation much more sensitive to what the rest of the world thought of us, this situation would have been expeditiously handled by simply sending the CIA in to covertly depose the villain. Of course, we can't do that sort of thing nowadays because it would violate international law. So, we sit by and watch helplessly as perhaps millions of people die in agony and misery in order to avoid giving offense to words on paper. When the law protects tyrants and permits genocide then, as Dickens has Mr. Bumble observe in Oliver Twist, the law is an ass.


    Tuesday, December 16, 2008

    Seven Questions

    John Fund suggests that had the media spent only half as much energy and resources looking into Obama's connections to Chicago's political machine as they did investigating Sarah Palin we might not have to be addressing possible scandal even before the new President has been inaugurated. Unfortunately, our major media were heavily invested in getting Obama coronated so actually investigating him was out of the question.

    Now suspicions are being raised about his connection to the seamy Chicago political scene and the most transparent administration in history has suddenly assumed a Nixonian opacity. Politico states that there are at least seven questions Obama's team needs to answer, and answer soon, if their inauguration is to avoid the odor of corruption.

    The seven questions follow. Their rationales can be read at Politico:

    1 - Did you communicate directly or indirectly with Blagojevich about picking your replacement in the U.S. Senate?

    2 - Why didn't you or someone on your team correct your close adviser David Axelrod when he said you had spoken to Blagojevich about picking your replacement?

    3 - When did you learn the investigation involved Blagojevich's alleged efforts to 'sell' your Senate seat, or of the governor's impending arrest?

    4 - Did you or anyone close to you contact the FBI or U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald about Blagojevich's alleged efforts to sell your Senate seat to the highest bidder?

    5 - Did federal investigators interview you or anyone close to you in the investigation?

    6 - When did you and Blagojevich last speak and about what?

    7 - Do you regret supporting Blagojevich?

    Obama could stonewall, of course, but that would hardly represent the sort of change most of his admirers voted for him to bring to Washington. We'll see by the end of next Wednesday whether Obama is going to really be a different kind of politician or if he's going to be just more of what Chicago often produces.


    Sounds Like a Plan

    Bankruptcy is the best option for the Big 3 auto manufacturers and law professor Todd Zywicki explains why in a Wall Street Journal column. He argues that management, labor, and politicians each oppose bankruptcy for all the wrong reasons.

    The heart of Zywicki's brief is this:

    Chapter 11 exists to allow [a corporation] to continue in business while reorganizing. Reorganization arose in the late 19th century when creditors of railroads unable to meet their debt obligations threatened to tear up their tracks, melt them down, and sell the steel as scrap. But innovative judges, lawyers and businessmen recognized that creditors would collect more if they all agreed to reduce their claims and keep the railroads running and producing revenues to pay them off. The same logic animates Chapter 11 today.

    General Motors [is] ... in need of reorganization not liquidation. It needs to shed labor contracts, retirement contracts, and modernize its distribution systems by closing many dealerships. This will give rise to many current and future liabilities that may be worked out in bankruptcy. It may need new management as well. Bankruptcy provides an opportunity to do all that. Consumers have little to fear. Reorganization will pare the weakest dealers while strengthening those who remain.

    So why do the Detroit Three managements and the UAW insist that "bankruptcy is not an option"? Perhaps because of the pain that would be inflicted upon both.

    The bankruptcy code places severe limitations on the compensation that can be paid to a manager unless there is a "bona fide job offer from another business at the same or greater rate of compensation." Given the dismal performance of the Detroit Three in recent years, it seems unlikely that their senior management will be highly coveted on the open market. Incumbent management is also likely to find its prospects for continued employment less-secure.

    Chapter 11 also provides a mechanism for forcing UAW workers to take further pay cuts, reduce their gold-plated health and retirement benefits, and overcome their cumbersome union work rules....

    Those Washington politicians who repeat the mantra that "bankruptcy is not an option" probably do so because they want to use free taxpayer money to bribe Detroit into manufacturing the green cars favored by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, rather than those cars American consumers want to buy. A Chapter 11 filing would remove these politicians' leverage, thus explaining their desperation to avoid a bankruptcy.

    So, if Zywicki is correct, management doesn't want bankruptcy because it will limit their compensation. Labor doesn't want bankruptcy because they'll be forced to renegotiate their ridiculous work rules and their lucrative benefit packages. Politicians, particularly Democrats, don't want bankruptcy because they're in bed with labor and because they see a bailout as providing a lever to force auto makers to make the cars they want rather than what the American car buyer wants.

    Sounds to me like bankruptcy has a lot to recommend it.