Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Defend the Country? - Not From MY Back Yard!

The increasing furor about military recruiters contacting high school students is really getting on my nerves. More and more parents are up in arms, frightened and angry because military recruiters have set up a table at Career Day, or called their child, or sent them an information packet. They are trying to block recruiters’ access to the schools. They are trying to change the law on releasing student information from an “opt-out” policy to an “opt-in” system. They really appear to want to keep their children from even seeing a soldier, much less talking to one.

Of course, it isn’t that they don’t like us. A spokesman for the National PTA said "We don't have anything against what the military is trying to do. We're just concerned about student privacy." The principal of Louisville's Eastern High says "Certainly we want to support military, but we don't want to be part of the recruitment effort." The sentiment is nearly universal - "We support the soldiers, but we don't want them to contact our children."

Other people are upset about who the recruiters try hardest to contact. Ann Kutay, from a parents' group in Seattle worries "...kids who may not be doing as well in school are targeted by a military recruiter, who tells them they can be a helicopter pilot.” Dustin Washington, a Seattle community activist, believes recruiters target students with lower incomes and minorities.

I understand your fears. I’m a parent of two teen-aged boys – prime targets for military recruiters. I don't want them to join up, and I've told them so. But when you say that you don’t want recruiters talking to your kids, that hurts me. It sounds a lot like someone saying, “Thanks for volunteering to defend my country and protect me from my enemies – I’ll leave your pay on the nightstand, and don’t call me at home, I don’t want my wife to find out.” It sounds like you think my chosen career is “beneath” your children.

It also sounds like you want something for nothing. Nobody likes war, soldiers least of all – we’re the ones who get shot at. But we’re by far the richest country in the world. Without a strong military to defend us, someone will be more than happy to take those riches. And without new recruits every year, we don’t have a military at all. You’re not willing to even let your child HEAR about joining the military, but you expect your neighbors to let theirs join up, so you can continue to live your peaceful life, undisturbed by the sacrifices that keep this nation alive. Or not your neighbors, but those lesser-privileged children down the street, or across town, where the other-colored people live.

That part of the accusation is true, of course. Naturally Recruiters seem to target lower-income and minority teens – those are the ones who are likely to join. People selling second mortgages call home-owners; people selling car insurance look for people who drive; and people who sell careers that don’t require college look for people who can’t afford college, or who won’t succeed there. Who’s to blame for that? The Recruiter? Better look again. Believe me, if a rich kid, or a child on an athletic scholarship, or even an MIT graduate wants to join up, we’ve got room for them…but strangely, not very many of them do. At least when that underprivileged youth joins up, he has a good chance to succeed on his own merits, no matter what color his skin is. Can the civilian world make that same claim?

Oh, and by the way, you’ve had 16, 17, even 18 years to raise your child right, teach them that war is bad, teach them that the military is bad, teach them that they’re too good to defend their country. Are you afraid that a Recruiter can reverse all that in a one-hour conversation? Well, if he can, then maybe he’s saying something YOU should hear, too. An honest Recruiter will be happy to talk to both of you – and if you’re listening, then a dishonest Recruiter (yes, I admit we have some) will have to stay honest around your child. Remember I said I don't want my boys to join? I didn't opt them out of the list the Recruiters will see - and if my sons make informed decisions to join up, I'll try to talk them out of it. If I fail, then I'll worry about them, and lie awake nights wondering if they're safe...and support their decision proudly.

So, all you parents who want to keep Recruiters completely out of your schools and away from your children – you have my utmost contempt. And you have made it quite obvious that I and every other member of the Armed Forces has yours.

Quotes and other information are from the following sources:

Washington Post

Louisville Courier-Journal

ABC News Nightline

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Legal Victims

It amazes me how many laws seem to be designed to hurt the victims. Let’s take a look at three examples.

Medically assisted suicide – Clearly the victim of a suicide is the person who wants to die. Most laws that specifically cover assisted suicide, though, provide punishment to those who assist, in an attempt to keep them from doing so. This takes away the last option from a terminally ill patient. A patient who has no chance for long-term survival and who is in constant pain is told that he must continue to suffer indefinitely. A person who can see his own mind slipping away day by day is told he must continue to the end, so his loved ones can experience the pain of his lack of recognition, so they can see him lose all that makes him a person. We don’t do such things to our pets – when they are beyond hope, when they can no longer live without pain, we end their lives. But we are not allowed to ask for such service for ourselves.

Prostitution – The only reasonable candidate I can find for a victim of prostitution is the prostitute herself. After all, most prostitutes give up all or most of their money to a pimp or madam. They are often the victims of violence from their customers, and cannot pursue legal remedies against them. They risk disease and unwanted pregnancy. Many of them are virtual slaves, kept in line through drug addiction, fear of deportation or abandonment in a foreign country, or simply the threat of violence, a threat that is often carried out. It seems to me, though, that all of these problems are the result of making the act illegal. If prostitution was legal, it could be licensed, inspected, controlled. The prostitute would keep the money she earned. They could receive medical care, and be legally protected from violence. There would be less financial benefit to enslaving women, so it would happen less. I don’t see prostitution becoming a respected profession anytime soon, but if it were legal, they would no longer have to be victims.

Illegal drug use – The victim here is the general public. Drug dealers have made inner-city streets into low-grade war zones. People die because they happened to be walking down the wrong street, or were standing near a window at the wrong time. People are robbed by addicts who need money to support their thousand-dollar-a-day habit – and sometimes killed by the addicted robber. As long as there is a demand for intoxicating drugs, though, there will be someone willing to supply them. Making it illegal makes it much riskier to provide that supply, but that merely causes the price to rise until someone is willing to take the risk. These days, the various criminal organizations have worked out ways to protect themselves – the only people really at risk of prosecution are the low-level distributors. Above that level, the criminals make incredible fortunes, with virtually no risk. I have heard it said, in fact, that these criminal groups provide financial support to candidates who promise to be “tough on drugs”; they keep the prices, and profits, high. If drugs become legal, then legitimate suppliers will enter the market. Production prices are comparatively low, and distribution networks are already in place – every corner drug store can be a supplier, or perhaps we could use liquor stores or tobacco shops. And the Mafia and other criminal groups instantly lose their greatest source of income, cutting back their ability to buy weapons, hire crooked lawyers, bribe police officers and judges, and even to pay their huge bands of low-level criminals. Obviously, there would be problems – but performing dangerous activities (like driving) while intoxicated is ALREADY illegal, so amending the laws to cover new intoxicants should not be difficult. Just as with alcohol, children should not be allowed to use drugs – but right now it is easier for a child to get marijuana than wine. Making marijuana legal allows us to use the same enforcement system already in place for alcohol. And so on…

There is, of course, one common thread among these laws. All of them are the result of translating religious restrictions into law. They were not enacted to protect the public from criminals; they were enacted to “protect” people from their own base urges – to protect people from themselves. As long as we keep legislating morality, we will continue to pay the price.

Thursday, October 6, 2005


Whatever happened to subtlety and discretion in politics? President Bush’s administration seems to have completely lost the ability to camouflage the fact that their policies come straight from their personal prejudices, opinions, and whims. You can find three separate examples just by looking in this week’s papers.

First, of course, the war in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan seems to me to be a clear and appropriate result of Al Qaida’s attack on our nation. There’s really no question that they received substantial support from Afghanistan. It is unfortunate that we haven’t caught Osama, but we’ve clearly damaged that source of support, and we certainly had sufficient cause to do so. The war in Iraq, though, has only the slimmest of theoretical connections to the “War on Terror.” There’s not a lot of solid proof that Saddam was directly supporting Al Qaida, and the whole issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction seems to have been an error. I do feel that we’ve accomplished a good thing over there, and I CERTAINLY believe that we have to finish what we started. But I can easily imagine the real beginnings in a conversation between President Bush and his advisors…”Dick, Don, Condi…Dad left something unfinished over there. It wasn’t his fault; our allies just couldn’t handle us taking that Iraqi nutcase all the way out. But I think we’ve got an opportunity to fix that, now. Get out there and find me the proof that he’s supporting terrorists and making chemical weapons, so we’ll have a reason to stop him. Oh, and Don, while we’re waiting, get your boys to work up some plans and options for us to go in.” And so we did. Not because Saddam was a real threat to us, but because his continued reign was an ongoing insult to the Bush Family.

More recently, the Judith Miller debacle is just beyond my understanding. She didn’t expose Valerie Plame’s status as a CIA agent to the public – that was Robert Novak. She didn’t publish anything about it. She apparently got into the whole Plame issue pretty late in the game. And yet she was bullied into revealing her source through a contempt of court citation. I’m neither a lawyer nor a judge, but that sure seems like a violation of the First Amendment to me. We already knew Karl Rove was one major source for the leak. Now that Ms. Miller has finally given in, we know that Vice-President Cheney’s Chief of Staff Lewis Libby was the second major source. The Administration’s insistence on persecuting Ms. Miller very much seems to be an attempt to shift the blame away from the Administration officials who leaked the information in the first place!

And now, apparently, the Federal Government is trying to take away the right of the people and of the States to make their own decisions. Oregon’s voters have determined that Assisted Suicide should be legal. There are stringent requirements that must be met before the doctor can prescribe the fatal overdose of barbiturates, but if the patient is determined, the doctor will help him take his own life. Apparently, though, that offends the “pro-life” sensibilities of the President and his staff. Again, I can almost hear the conversation…”Gang, we’ve got to put a stop to this. We all know suicide is wrong, we’ve been taught that in Sunday School since we were kids. There’s got to be some way to override this law. Ashcroft, they’re using drugs to do it, so maybe you can come up with something.” And so he did – suicide is apparently not an approved medical use for barbiturates. That argument makes a superficial sort of sense, but is transparently an excuse to override the clearly expressed intent of the people of the State of Oregon in a situation that falls under the powers reserved for the States under the U. S. Constitution. (Those of you who don’t remember your Government classes…the Federal Government was given specific powers in the Constitution. Any power not specifically granted to the Feds was reserved for the States.) Whether you support Oregon’s law or not, I hope you can see the horrible precedent that could be set here.

I realize that it is only to be expected that a President’s personal values will affect his decisions. I just wish he could be subtle enough to let us pretend he’s an objective decision-maker, rather than an emotional hothead ready to do whatever it takes to make his dreams a reality.

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Family Business

When I started this blog, I really intended it as a place to update my extended family on the life of my nuclear family. After all, I hate writing letters - I can't even keep up an e-mail correspondence over the long run. It’s even worse when I try to tell several different people the same things. The sheer repetition gets on my nerves, and I end up shortcutting it, or just not writing at all. With this blog, though, I can write everything once, and any of my family who has an interest can check it out at their convenience.

For some reason, though, it has turned into more of an editorial page. Well, that’s been a lot of fun, and I will no doubt continue the same sorts of entries…but I also want to carry out my original purpose from time to time. Even when there’s not all that much to say. For my new friends who have connected based on our blogs and comments, you may want to skip this one and tune in next time.

So anyway, Rita is doing much better. Her incision is pretty completely healed, and she’s walking a little bit farther every day. She’s been able to do more around the house, too. It takes a bit longer, as she has to do a little, then sit a little, but she manages to get it done. Best of all, she’s lost over 110 pounds. We’ll probably have to buy new clothes soon, as even her smallest stuff is looking pretty baggy.

Michael is now officially a theatre critic for WashingtonPost.com. Admittedly, he’s one of several dozen throughout the city, and his “beat” is restricted to high school plays, but it is still pretty cool. He is participating in the “Cappies” program, where a few students from each participating high school review and rate several productions at other participating schools. These reviews and scores provide each school an independent evaluation of what they’re doing well or badly. They also provide the reviewers a wider exposure to different theatrical ideas and experiences, as well as training them on what to look for when rating a show. That gives them a better way to judge their own work in the future. And at the end of the year, the best shows receive awards in several categories. Best of all, those awards are presented in a gala at the Kennedy Center.

Michael is very excited about it. He’s really looking forward to seeing all the different plays, especially since one school plans to put on Little Shop of Horrors. He also likes the opportunity to get a review published – the best reviews will appear in the Washington Post. I think what he’s most excited about, though, is the chance to express his opinions and affect the awards. He can’t rate his own school, of course, but he can certainly decide which play he thinks is the best, and root for his choice to come in second behind his school!

David is still enjoying his Creative Writing class. He’s got about two chapters done in a fantasy novel – he plans to complete the novel by the end of the year. They’re both gone a lot visiting friends, or monopolizing the phone for hours at a time. It’s hard for me to say anything, since I remember doing the same thing when I was their age…didn’t I, Dad? And stop laughing!

Me? Pretty much same old, same old. Under the Army Chief of Staff’s guidelines for public web sites, I can’t talk much about work, but nothing much has changed there anyway. It does seem to be wearing me down a bit, but in two more years, I should be able to quit and get a real job…and after 18 years, I’m pretty sure I can manage another two!

Anyway, that’s about it for news from here. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get upset about some other political issue…

Monday, October 3, 2005

Why Can't PVT Johnny Write?

In my current employment, I receive e-mails from a large number of young soldiers. Under current recruiting rules, they either graduated from high school or successfully completed a GED program. They were then screened for aptitude for a highly technical field. They have completed intensive training for that technical specialty to a level that would probably rate at least three separate industry certifications and around 10 semester hours of college credit. These are not stupid people. Why can’t they write?

It is rare for me to go an entire day without receiving an e-mail that completely lacks punctuation, capitalization, spelling and other grammatical rules. I’m not referring to a missing comma and a few misspelled words – I mean no punctuation whatsoever. I mean more than half of the words longer than five letters spelled wrong. They cannot correctly spell the abbreviation for my rank, even though it is shown on the web page where they get my e-mail address. In some cases, they cannot correctly abbreviate their own rank! Lesser examples of such ignorance are even more common, and are not exclusive to the younger soldiers.

We now call it Elementary School, but the first few grades were once called Grammar School. You were expected to learn basic grammar by the time you left the sixth grade. That, in fact, should have been enough to get by and avoid embarrassment throughout adult life. The next six years were supposed to extend the depth and expand the breadth of your knowledge of the English language. So how did these people complete that last six years without being competent? And if they could not manage at least some level of competence in English, what are we to assume about all the other subjects they were supposedly taught?

In the book Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein postulates a society in which the vote is given only to veterans of national service. The theory is that people who have voluntarily risked their lives to support their county will, on average, vote for what is best for the country, rather than what is best for them personally. It worked well in the book. I even agree with the theory behind it. If we tried it in real life, though, there would be a very dangerous transition period, because the people we have in national service right now are not up to the intellectual challenge.

There are three points, though, that make it even more frightening. One, in Starship Troopers, you had to complete your service to earn the vote – these soldiers already have it, and are already affecting our elections. Two, the soldiers are a reflection of our society at large, so you can assume there are other people out there equally ignorant. They still have the vote. Three, there are people out there that were turned down because they fell below our enlistment standards. And they still have the vote.

Friday, September 30, 2005

If I Was The President

Sometimes, when I’ve nothing better to do, I daydream about what I would do in various unlikely situations. For example, how would I spend $150 million if I won the lottery? That would be a little more likely if I bought a ticket. Or how would I remodel my house on one of those remodeling shows? I suspect my landlord would not be happy with my plans, though, so maybe I should wait until I own my own house.

After re-reading Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders recently, then watching “Commander in Chief” this week, I started thinking about what I’d do as the President. I can’t really imagine a set of circumstances that would get me there, but sometimes realism isn’t that important in fantasy. Naturally, there’d be a lot I’d like to do politically, but I’ll save that for other blogs. I was thinking more about what I would do for fun in between crises.

For starters, I think I could make the media happy by skipping vacations altogether. After all, I haven’t had a real vacation apart from family visits and day-trips since I got married. When I was in Italy for three years, I didn’t even have family visits! I did spend a week in England, but that was as a Boy Scout Leader for summer camp – not all that relaxing. Of course, I also spent time in at least seven other countries on business trips, but it looks to me like the President gets to do that sort of thing, too. Most of our Presidents have spent a few weeks going “back home,” wherever that might be, such as Crawford, Texas for President Bush. After 18 years in the Army, though, I don’t really have a home I’m desperate to go back to. I figure a weekend at Camp David now and again would be plenty, and during my term of office, my family can come visit me! Maybe the Secret Service can show them around downtown…

There are some other recreation possibilities, though. Kennedy Center is basically the government’s private theatre. I think if the President mentioned he’d like to see a certain group, arrangements could be made. Maybe a Renaissance Faire Music Festival, featuring the Minstrels of Mayhem and the O’Danny Girls? I bet getting tickets isn’t a problem the President would have.

For that matter, it would be the perfect opportunity to meet people. How many of your favorite movie stars, TV stars, musicians, and authors do you think would turn down an invitation to dinner at the White House? I’d like to invite Geena Davis and Martin Sheen to discuss dramatic portrayals of the Presidency, after I’ve done the real thing for a few months. That might be a good excuse to invite Harrison Ford, too, even though Air Force One is not the real reason I’d want to meet him – I’d much rather meet Han Solo and Indiana Jones. The President can’t exactly go down to the pub on a whim, but I could invite Spider Robinson and bring Callahan’s Bar to the White House, metaphorically at least. In fact, I suspect that every living author on my Yahoo 360 Favorites list would get an invitation sooner or later. If only it had happened in time for me to meet Robert Heinlein…

The one meeting I’d most like to set up, though, is a working lunch with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and the Administrator of NASA. I’m just certain that those two authors have a number of workable suggestions on improving the Space Program, and I’d very much like to hear the Administrator’s response to their ideas. In fact, his response might determine how long he’d stay Administrator…because I just bet Paul Allen would be interested in the job, even if he had to give up his stake in SpaceShipOne.

Yes, I can definitely see some opportunities for fun as the President. All in all, though, I can’t help thinking that it would be more fun to win the lottery.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Anybody watch the premiere of "Commander-in-Chief" last night? I did. If you taped it, then the rest of this entry may contain spoilers, so go watch your tape first.

I'm not sure I'm going to like the show. Of course, anything that has Geena Davis in it will keep my attention for at least a few episodes. And I enjoyed some of the moral, ethical, and political questions the first hour raised - if they keep that up, I'll keep watching.

For instance, if the President asks his Vice-President to resign rather than take over, does the Vice-President have a moral obligation to agree? After all, the President chose her for the job, he should be able to fire her. On reflection, though, I find I agree with the show's answer - the Vice-President has every right to maintain her office and ascend to the Presidency. The situation rather reminded me of one of my military pet peeves - people who join the military (to include the Reserves and National Guard) for the paycheck, or the college money, or whatever, then try to back out when they find out they've been picked to go to war. President Bridges picked Mrs. Allen to be the Vice-President as a stunt, sure. But if he didn't give at least some thought to the possibility of his own death in office, well, then his judgement isn't all that good, anyway!

Another moral question that came up - is it right for the President to use the threat of military force to save the life of a woman who is going to be stoned to death for adultery? Let's ask that another way. Is it proper for the President to threaten a friendly (or at least neutral) nation with an act of war to save the life of a criminal convicted of a capital crime under the due process of her own country? It's amazing how much the wording of the question changes the answer, isn't it? I think she was wrong, there. I don't believe we have the automatic right to use our superpower might to dictate all forms of justice in another country. There is a difference between genocide and execution of an individual. However mild we believe her crime was, the woman did know the penalty for her act before she committed it. Using our military force in such a way makes us little more than a bully.

On the other hand, I don't believe we have any obligation to maintain diplomatic or trade relations with countries that we feel are barbaric. We're a capitalist nation, and business is business. Just like any businessman or customer, we have every right to decide who we choose to do business WITH. Cutting off foreign aid and trade to a given country and to those who continue to support them might well do more damage in the long run than an extended bombing campaign, and certainly more than an invasion consisting of three helicopters. The moral and ethical principles involved, though, make that option the better choice, in my opinion.

A related question. If Nigeria was not only executing the woman, but the man as well, would that change the moral principle? Would President Allen still have wanted to go rescue her? Or should she rescue both of them, or neither? I tend to believe that what's good for the goose is good for the gander...and if the same law applied to both genders, then we'd really have nothing to complain about.

There were some problems with the show, though. Worse than making the wrong decision about the Nigerian woman, I don't think President Allen thought through the consequences of that decision, and the show made no mention of them. As if we could do such a thing and not have a huge backlash against us in the international press, especially in the Muslim countries! That might be covered in later episodes, though, so I'll withhold judgement on that one.

The worst problem was the believability of the basic premise. I just can't conceive of any party politician choosing an Independent as his running mate. Surely there was a female member of his own party that would have sufficed! I understand the dramatic necessity here - they need the conflict between the party warhorse, Speaker Templeton, and the Independent President. But couldn't they have managed much the same with a hardline Conservative President selecting a moderate from his own party? She could even have made public statements that disagreed with the party platform. We could still have had the conflict between the late President's beliefs and those of his VP, and thus between the new President and the Speaker of the House, but it would have been mch more believable within the political structure we know.

My biggest concern, though, is one I got from my dad, that this will turn out to be an extended campaign ad for Hillary Clinton. As long as President Allen stays independent, doing things to outrage each party in turn, or even both at once, I can enjoy it. If it turns into a mouthpiece for either party, though, I'm done.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Cosmic Cue Ball

I was pretty rough on the "Intelligent Design" movement last time - and I stand by that. To me, the ID concept is a thinly veiled attempt to get Creationism back in the schools as a wedge to eventually get back to teaching Christianity as part of the curriculum. What bothers me is not so much the lack of science involved - I don't expect modern scientific rigor from a "theory" based on a 3000-year old book. It bothers me more to think that the people behind ID really believe we're that stupid. Unfortunately, they're probably correct, on average, but I'll leave that for another entry...

However, I've often heard a concept that could be termed Intelligent Design that intrigues me. I don't know the source of it, but I suspect I first heard it from my dad, and we discussed it again in a late night philosophical discussion (is there any other kind of philosophical discussion?) during my recent visit. I like to call the idea "The Cosmic Cue Ball."

In short, let's assume that mainstream scientific theory is all true - the Big Bang, expanding out to make the universe, matter cooling, forming galaxies, stars, planets, and so on. Add in Evolution here on Earth to get life and eventually intelligent life. No matter how you look at it, there are some pretty unlikely chances occurring in that series of events. That can be explained by random chance - after all, in an infinite universe, it had to happen somewhere. But of course, there's really no good explanation for how the Big Bang got started in the first place. So, let's postulate an external source for the Big Bang - and since we've done so, let's explain some of those unlikely chances, too, by further assuming that it was intentional. Not only did this source cause the Monobloc to explode, it did so it just such a way as to cause the formation of everything we know today - including ourselves. Imagine a billiards shot on a table the size of the universe - if I hit it just there, with exactly this english on the ball, then this particle will hit there, and that one there, and so on, to the billionth upon billionth power...eventually leading, not as chance, but as a result of skillful intent, to a universe bearing life.

While I don't necessarily accept this concept, it does explain one thing that Big Bang and Evolution do not cover sufficiently for me - there doesn't seem to be anybody else out there. In the standard theory, we have to accept that either all other intelligent races are too far away to contact, or that by chance, we really are the first, or even ONLY race to develop. In the Cosmic Cue Ball theory, we can assume that Intelligent Life (or a side effect of our existence yet to be determined) was the goal...and the Ultimate Pool Shark didn't necessarily need two races to make the shot.

As long as I'm on about Intelligent Design again, check out today's Non Sequitur.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Intelligent Design Through The Ages

2400 B.C. - The way the sun travels across the sky is beyond our understanding. It must be carried in a golden chariot by an intelligent entity. We will call this entity Ra, and worship Him.

900 A.D. - The power and fury of thunder and lightning are beyond our understanding. They must come from the hammer carried by an intelligent entity. We will call this entity Thor, and worship Him.

1450 A.D. - The movement of the planets and stars around the Earth, with their cycles and epicycles, are beyond our understanding. They must be ordained by an intelligent entity. We will call this entity God, and worship Him.

2005 A.D. - The development of the millions of living species on the planet is beyond our understanding. They must have been designed by an intelligent entity. We will...not name this entity, so that the Godless nonbelievers will not recognize our references to Him.

Ethical Atheism

I read another article on Space.com, about the new attack on evolution, Intelligent Design. In it, they quoted Sen. Santorum (R, PA) as saying "If we are the result of chance, if we're simply a mistake of nature, then that puts a different moral demand on us. In fact, it doesn't put a moral demand on us."

This, to me, is the result of sloppy thinking. People who believe in God seem to believe that without God, we would all be useless hedonistic criminals. We'd rob, rape, kill at will to satisfy whatever transient urge happened to pass through our maddened Godless brains. That turns out not to be the case. (I've been told that's a more polite way to express myself when I really want to say "Bulls**t!")

Atheism puts a GREATER moral burden on us, even from the most selfish of viewpoints. Without a promise of Heaven, we have only this life to make the best of it. Without a threat of Hell, we can only depend on our own intelligence to decide how best to do that. And a dog-eat-dog world where the strongest bully wins is not my idea of an Earthly Paradise.

Let's take a closer look. If everyone is out solely for themselves, and there is no societal framework, only the biggest or most ruthless will prosper - everyone else will serve the few rulers in basically a slave society. An intelligent Atheist can see that the odds of him being the biggest or most ruthless are slim, and it is far more likely to end up as one of the downtrodden masses. With that in mind, that's not the society I'd choose.

Even if you ARE the biggest and most ruthless...let's say you are the absolute ruler of your society. You've built more than 50 castles, you've got hot and cold running servants (not much in the way of technological comfort, but enough servants keeps that from being YOUR problem). Your picture is everywhere, thousands of people cheer your name everywhere you go. You don't have the power of life, but you do have the power of death - you can point to any individual that crosses your path, speak a few words...and that person will be dead within the hour. You have it all, and no one can challenge you! But...how do you sleep? Who can you turn your back on? If you remember, Saddam Hussein had all that. How's he doing now? Is that really a good life to strive for? And even if you avoid all the hazards...what are you leaving for your children? With no immortality, your children are REALLY the only way to live on past your death!

No, in my opinion, the best we can do to make Heaven on Earth is a rational society, with a strong legal framework and respect for individual rights. You know, kind of like the U.S.A. We're still not perfect, but we're better than 'most anywhere else. An ethical Atheist participates in his society to make it better for everyone, as the best way to benefit himself and his loved ones. That's a moral demand far beyond the "carrot and stick" method of most religions. And as for the next person who tells me I have no morals because I don't believe in his god...well, I won't do anything to him, because I support his right to believe differently - I'm even sworn to defend it with my life, if necessary. I just hope he recognizes that right for me.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

School Report

I went to the Open House at the boys' school today. Looks like they're both doing pretty well. I didn't get to meet all their teachers, due to the awkward system they have set up - they schedule a 10-minute block for each class, and you have to basically follow the child's schedule around to all their classes to see all the teachers. Since no arrangements were made to allow for one parent attending for two children, I had to pick and choose a bit on which teachers to meet.

I met three of Michael's teachers, for his Spanish, History, and Physics classes. All three seemed to think he's a pretty smart kid, and told me he should have no problem making up for missing four days last week. His Spanish teacher was especially enthusiastic - not so much about Michael, just enthusiastic in general.

I met the teachers for David's Chemistry, Algebra, French, and Creative Writing classes. They seemed pretty impressed with David. I nearly made his Creative Writing teacher cry when I told her that he was more enthusiastic about her class than he had ever been about anything in his life. As it happens, he likes that teacher, but that's not why he's so excited - he's been pumped up about this class from BEFORE the first day of school! Would you believe he's working on a novel?

At any rate, they both seem to be doing well, which was very gratifying. I know they're smart, of course...with a mom like theirs, they could hardly help it, and I like to think I'm not totally stupid, myself. But it's always nice to have other people agree with me...and even better to see that they're applying themselves well enough to make that intelligence apparent!

As an aside...if anyone is actually reading this blog, I'd love to get a comment once in awhile, just to let me know if I'm wasting my time!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Tasteful Hobby

I found a man with an amazingly expensive hobby. We went to a small restaurant in Indianapolis, named Shultz's. It didn't look like much, inside or outside, but my dad had been there once before and recommended it highly. Just as we were seated, the waiter came to take our drink orders, dropping off two baskets of appetizers before we could think about ordering them. One basket contained fried biscuits and apple butter - not an unknown dish in Indiana, where if we can't fry it, it must not be edible. But these had the light, fluffy, smooth texture of store-bought biscuits, cobined with the flavor of homemade, fried to a beautiful and even golden-brown. The other basket held tortilla chips and pico de gallo - again, standard fare, but not done like this. The chips were actual tortilla shells, cut in quarters and deep-fried to a flaky, crispy perfection, then lightly salted and delivered to the table still too hot to eat...though they were too good for that to stop us. The pico was merely very good - fresh, chunky, maybe a little too mild. After all, we were in Indiana, where hot sauce is an import.

I looked over the menu and saw several tempting options, but my father took the choice away from us, and we had a true Hoosier standard - pork tenderloin sandwiches and onion rings. Only five onion rings in an order, hardly enough for a side dish, I thought, but he only asked for two helpings to share between the four of us. When they arrived, I understood. If you take a large onion, cut it in half, then separate the layers and dip and fry the resulting bowl-sized pieces, you get these onion rings. That will, of course, leave several smaller pieces from the center of the onion, which were used to wonderful effect in the french onion soup my son ordered. The onion bits were thick in that bowl...once you made it through the thick layer of melted cheese and croutons. I'm not a fan, myself, but Michael has ordered french onion soup in a dozen places, and was looking forward to going back to Schultz's again, where he knew he could get it the way it should be.

Tenderloin sandwiches, like I said, are a Hoosier standard - I ate them in school lunches, and have fried up the frozen ones you can find in the grocery. I've even had the really good ones, dinner-plate sized, with the better breading, that you find in your better class of home-cooking-style restaurants. But I've never had one before that was not only the size of the plate, but thicker than a ham slice and tender as a good steak. The breading was not the normal cumbs, but a light coating that enhanced the flavor of the pork without covering it. I don't believe I'll ever be able to order a tenderloin anywhere else, ever again - there's just too little chance of finding it's equal.

I looked the prices over, too. About the same as you would expect from a "family-night-out" restaurant chain, like Friday's or Applebee's, or maybe a little bit lower. Of course, that only counts the food we actually paid for, as those unordered appetizers were "on the house." The only explanation is that we had found a restauranteur who truly loved his food, and wanted to share it with the world...and we were fortunate enough to benefit from his generosity. Meanwhile, he was planning to open up another couple of stores, then maybe franchise it out, perhaps eventually introducing a quality pork tenderloin somewhere outside the Midwest.

We went back on Saturday, and found a sign on the door. It thanked the regulars for their patronage, then added "but there were too few of you." Schultz's has closed for good. From Dad's conversation with the owner, it seems that this was his ninth attempt at owning a restaurant, and this one lasted a mere four months. It's got to be an incredibly expensive hobby - opening new restaurants, letting his few customers discover his wonderful food, then being forced to close down again in but a few months. If he ever decides to open number ten, though, and if I manage to hear about it, he can count on seeing me for dinner.

Apollo Redux

I read this morning about NASA's new plan to get us back on the Moon by 2018. They plan to reuse a lot of the tried-and-true Shuttle hardware, the stuff that never failed, like the solid rocket boosters you see attached to the Shuttle's main external tank. They've also got the ambitious, never-before-tried plan to send one rocket up with the crew package and another rocket up with the engines to take the crew from Earth orbit to the Moon. Most intriguing to me is the plan for each lunar mission to leave components behind, eventually constructing a permanent base that could be manned for up to six months at a time.

It won't be cheap - $104 billion over that 12 years. That averages out to $8.7 billion a year. That's over half of NASA's budget, and a little over a third of what we spend each year on "International Affairs" (source: A Citizen's Guide to the Budget from the Gov't Printing Office). It's also about 2.5% of the Defense budget - not counting supplementary spending for the War in Iraq or other emergency funding.

But it's worth it. As I've mentioned before, I don't really believe that the government will be the source of the next major step in space. This plan, however, at least takes a baby step on the way. The two new goals - multi-launch missions and a permanent base - could lend a major assist to later commercial development.

The base, in particular. The toughest part of any effort in a new location is the initial setup. With even a tiny base in place, later crews would have a place to stay while they begin construction of something more ambitious. That not only applies to later government-funded development, but to private enterprise. NASA does not intend to have the Moonbase permanently manned; instead, they will use it as a temporary base at a permanent location. There's no real reason why they couldn't rent it out to commercial interests during other times, giving a private construction crew a base from which to work while they build a commercial facility "next door". Done properly, a NASA base would end up being the "City Hall" for an eventual Luna City.

Some skeptics are upset by the fact that the plan takes over 12 years from today to effectively repeat what we accomplished back in 1969. I understand their doubt. But we've pulled back from our early Apollo success, and not maintained our capabilities. A former marathon runner who hasn't trained in a year does not immediately go back to running 26 miles. He has to slowly work his way back up to it. So do we. The technology has improved, and we can get back to the Moon more safely, with better capabilities on arrival. But we can't do it today, and we definitely can't move on past the Moon until we get our space program back into shape.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Work, In a Manner of Speaking

Had a fascinating day at work today. The network room had no power. Since everything I do requires, at a minimum, access to the mainframe, that meant I spent the entire day just sitting at my desk, reading a book. Not a bad way to make a living, but I'll be paying for it tomorrow, when I have to try to catch up!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Maris D. Hall, 1919-2005

My grampa died last week. He was a difficult man in a lot of ways, but nonetheless, well-loved. It was slightly amazing to see just how many people showed up to pay their respects. Family, of course, but also people he worked with, people who shared his interest in antique tractors, and even people from his time as a Boy Scout Leader.

The three people who spoke at his service pretty well captured the real Maris Hall. He was a talented manager, able to run the power system for a small city for years. An even more skilled engineer, whether working on the electrical system for a Navy ship, restoring a rusted hulk to a showpiece of a tractor show, or hammering raw iron into a functional piece of camping gear. A very intelligent man, he always had an answer to any question. Usually, it was the right one. He didn't handle disagreement all that well, though, especially from his own loved ones. For the last year before his death, he and his one surviving son barely spoke, because Dad disagreed with his new plan to bring the grandchildren in to pick over his possessions prior to his death, then auction the rest. He asked Dad to visit him to discuss the change, but the decision had already been made - Dad was supposed to approve of it, not dare to point out the problems involved. I suspect Dad is going to have trouble dealing with that over the next few years...

It's probably a good thing Grampa didn't ask our opinion. I went because he told us it was important to him, and despite my own misgivings...and all OUR past disagreements...if it was important to him, it was important to me. It sort of made me feel like a vulture circling him, but it WAS his idea. I didn't discuss it with my cousins, but I did notice the sorts of things they selected - small things, things of sentimental importance, nothing of real value, just like me. In fact, one of them flew in, obviously with no intent to take anything that wouldn't fit in an already-full suitcase. I am pretty sure they were there for the same reason as me - the Old Man called, and we came. That's sort of important to me. It was good to see my cousins again, and even better to see that apparent understanding between us.

I still have a lot of unresolved feelings about my Grampa. He was a reactionary old conservative. We shared a bond through our military service, and I was proud beyond words to accept the flag symbolizing his service when it was removed from his coffin by fellow American Legionaires. But if he knew more details about my political views, he might very well have disowned me. He never really accepted my wife, even though she's made me a happy man for twenty years. But I've noticed over the last few years how many of my mannerisms and speech patterns are echoes of my father. This week it finally occurred to me to wonder how many of his traits are reflections of HIS father...and how many of mine I will pass down to my two boys. The Old Man is in me, and always will be, and it is somehow comforting to think that a little of him will continue to live on, even past my own death.

When I saw him in May, he seemed the same vital powerful man he had always been - maybe a little slower, and certainly a little more deaf, but still going strong. My dad tells me he was still that way practically up until two weeks ago, when he found he was sick. He lasted for a long time, then ended quickly and relatively painlessly. And I guess that's a good way to go. But I'll miss him. I love you, Grampa.

Monday, September 12, 2005

RenFaire Time

Our trip to Maryland Renaissance Festival yesterday was a great success. Rita couldn't go, of course, but both boys invited friends, so I set out with a cargo of five teenagers - Michael, his friends Amanda and Josh, and David and his friend Amber.

Had I mentioned I hate travel? Well, this area has helped develop that hatred to new levels. For unknown reasons, the junction from I-95 to the Beltway and I-395 had two of the three directions blocked off. Fortunately, it was still open my direction, but the huge number of drivers wanting to go elsewhere were jamming up my exit, driving slowly as they looked longingly at the way they wanted to go. Getting home was even worse - we left a little later than planned, and found ourselves in the traffic jam that results when the Redskins' game ends - half a stadium worth of people trying to get past the bottleneck at the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It took us over an hour to go ten miles.

But we got there eventually, and it was worth it. I hung on to the kids long enough to get a couple pictures, but then each set of friends went off together, and I wandered the streets alone. That is actually not a bad way to see the Festival! It's nice to select which shows to see on your own, and to only look at the shops that really interest you, and especially to feel free to stop and watch the street theatre without worrying that your partner isn't interested.

That street theatre is one of the best parts of the Faire. Yes, some of the people you see passing are employees - such as the two women "dancing" on rings and ropes hanging from a tree branch 20 feet up. Others, I'm not sure about, like the four ladies ranging from a 6-year-old to an adult, all dressed in matching yellow outfits and mime makeup...and with Mom on 5 foot stilts. And still more were just fellow guests like myself, like the guy who has better than 50% of his chest, arms, and back covered with tattoos, or the ladies in belly-dancing garb dancing to whatever music was handy.

The scheduled acts are pretty good, too. I very much enjoyed the antics of Hack and Slash, two men who have a comedy act that includes whips, swords, and a bed of nails. Imagine, as Hack lies on the bed of nails, and Slash comments on how difficult that is...and how much MORE difficult it would be (as he lifts a concrete block from the stage) if we add the old-fashioned torture of weights on the chest (as he drops the block onto Hack - hey, isn't the chest a little bit higher up?).

The O'Danny Girls were great, too. Ribald lyrics in beautiful three-part harmony - I laughed at every verse, even the ones that made ME blush, and sang along with every chorus. They were followed by a band of two bagpipers and two drummers playing traditional Scottish and Celtic tunes...mixed with a little Stairway to Heaven!

Michael's group joined me for the Joust. I wasn't terribly impressed by that show, though. Certainly, the young squires that tried to catch the brass ring on their lances had a tough task, but I think the older squires throwing javelins at haybales could have done better. No one managed to unhorse their foe in the actual joust, nor even break a lance on their opponent, making it very difficult to tell who was winning. I suspect that the result of the whole competition was predetermined to match the story of the Faire, but I think the players went too far to make sure things ENDED right, at the cost of putting on a good show.

We spent way too much money, and I've got sore legs and blistered feet, but I definitely want to go back next year - and I'm looking forward to having Rita on my arm again for that one!

By the way, I've got pictures from our visit posted up - check my photos section if you're interested.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Travel Time

I hate travelling. I hate the ten-hour drive to Indiana or Georgia. I hate the 45 minute drive/train to work. I even hate the 10 minute drive to get to the grocery store, especially when the back gate next to my housing area is closed, and it turns into a 20 minute drive.

I've found that the time it takes me to get places is a major factor in my decisions on what to do. I'd rather skip breakfast the next morning than go out to the grocery just for milk...if I don't need more stuff than that, it's not worth the trip. I'd rather go to Wendy's, 10 minutes away, than Popeye's, 15 minutes farther. And I almost never see my family, because 10 hours one-way kills two days, there and back, and that's too long for any trip much shorter than two weeks.

I ran errands today. I estimate that it took me about 45 minutes to do what I needed to do. The rest of the three hours was driving in the terrible DC traffic to get to the places I needed to be. That's over two hours of my life, wasted in travel. Too much!

I know, we're much better off than a century ago, when a 10 mile trip was a good chunk of a day, and a trip from DC to Indy was a once-in-a-lifetime event. But I've read and watched too much science fiction to be satisfied with this. I want my Niven Transfer Booths, or Star Trek Transporters, or even Asimov slidewalks, and I want them NOW!

Thursday, September 8, 2005

This Space For Rent

I read a couple of news stories today. First, Shuttle Flight Delay. Apparently, Katrina has shut down the company that makes the Shuttle's external fuel tanks. That's understandable, it's a major disaster. The bad part is that even without the hurricane, NASA did not expect the analysis and redesign of the foam insulation on the tanks to be complete earlier than fall of 2006.

That's just too long. The International Space Station really can't keep operating without regular resupply flights, let alone expand into something that can actually be useful. Obviously, the Space Shuttle is no longer reliable enough to do the job, and the U.S. Government is not going to invest the money to replace it any time soon. And if the Space Station closes down, that's pretty much the end of Man in Space - not just for the U.S., but for the whole world.

Then I read another story - New Company Aims to Colonize Mars. That's where the future of space exploration and colonization is, with private companies. Like Scaled Composites, the builders of SpaceShipOne, Four Frontiers sees a chance to make a buck in space. And as we all know, humans, especially Americans, will do pretty much anything to make a buck. As more and more private companies and individuals invest in the commercial possibilities of space, the research will happen, and progress will be made.

It's interesting, in a way. The first major steps towards space were taken in an international game of oneupsmanship, the Cold War. After that, the spirit of exploration and scientific curiousity were barely able to keep the program limping along for 30 years. Now the next "giant steps" are liable to come from human greed. It's not a nice commentary on us, but if that's what it takes to get us out there where we belong, I'm all for it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Disaster-Proof Memories

Everyone knows that almost everything you own is replaceable. After a disaster, like a fire or flood, insurance will replace most or all of your possessions. If you're not insured, then you have to start from scratch, but eventually you can earn enough money to get it all back. The only exceptions are the physical manifestation of your memories - pictures, scrapbooks, albums, and so on. There's just no way to recover a burned photograph.

Nowadays, though, people are putting more and more of their pictures in digital format. It's still not perfect; after all, a fire will likely destroy your computer along with your photo albums. for example, I'd hate to lose the dozens and dozens of pictures I took of Washington D.C. when my mom, uncle, and grandmother visited last year, but if my computer dies, they're gone.

Fortunately, we share more of our digital photos, since we can give them away for free. If I lose those pictures, I could call my mom or my uncle and probably have them on CD in a few days. And the same goes for them, since we all kept copies of each others' pictures. Just by pooling those pictures, we've effectively used the old standard "copy three times" backup system, and even provided each other "off-site" backups in case of a disaster affecting the entire area!

But things are getting even better. I added a few photos to my Yahoo! account the other day, and realized that I now have an offline backup system that is virtally invulnerable. After all, Yahoo! (and Google, and MSN, and AOL, and all the others) have their own professional backup systems. Barring malicious destruction, those few pictures I've uploaded are now completely secure from anything short of complete social collapse. I guess I'll be uploading more pictures from time to time...just to be safe.

Monday, September 5, 2005

Gas Prices - Who's Making The Profit?

Okay, I understand the Law of Supply and Demand. Supply goes down, prices go up. I also understand that Katrina has knocked out big chunks of our refining capacity, as well as closing many of the pipelines that we use to bring in imported oil. So the supply has dropped, and prices are going up as a result. All clear. But...

The price of crude oil hasn't gone up all that much this week. The cost of actually refining it is unchanged. The cost of transporting it is pretty much the same, ditto the various other costs associated with selling it. All the costs of production are the same, but the price went up 50 cents or more per gallon, all over, immediately. Somewhere along the line, someone is getting a lot of extra money for no extra work. That's a pretty big profit. Is this any better than the people who charged $10 for a bag of ice after Hurricane Charlie? Or the hotel that tripled its prices for travellers stranded after 9/11?

So who's profiting, and how well do they sleep at night? Of course, that much money will buy plenty of sleeping pills...