Monday, September 21, 2009

God is Weird!

I've been musing about infinity recently. No, not the car! The thing that looks like a lazy “8” . Everybody thinks they know what infinity is, right? It's something really really big. But that's not the half of it! The first time I was confronted by something infinite was in math in high school. I was in "mathletics" (yes, I was then and always will be an egghead), and came across something like the following problem:

solve for x, whereand the “...” means “continuing on infinitely”. Well, x is obviously, uh, well, I guess ...something. But what? After failing to solve that problem in the time allotted, I spoke to my math teacher. Since the number of square roots in infinite, you can take off the first one and still have

and since you know that's equal to x, you just substitute the x right back in place of the whole inside shebang, like so

so you square both sides, simplify and solve

Piece of cake! And I went about my merry way thinking that you could do the substitution because taking one square root operation off an infinite series made so little change it didn't matter. But wait! That's not really true. Taking one thing off an infinite series doesn't make a small change, even an infinitely small change – it makes no change, and that's the cool thing about infinity - “normal” arithmetic doesn't work!

I never knew until my father's funeral that his favorite hymn was “Amazing Grace”, but when I heard it I knew that one of the things he probably liked about that hymn was the stanza

When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.

You see, my dad was also a math geek (took after me, no doubt). As a mathematician, you can tell the author “gets” infinity. He doesn't say “we still have lots of time left” or some sissy statement like that, he says “no less” (well, grammatically it should be “no fewer days,” but we'll forgive that).

And that's the freaky part of God. I have friends who say that God can't possibly care about them because why would the creator of the universe want to waste time worrying about some idiot on a flyspeck planet in the corner of nowhere. But consider now an infinite God. He could spend a billion years contemplating whether or not you stub your toe tomorrow morning, and how much of His (infinite, remember) time has we “wasted?” None! He still has an infinite amount. Multiply that by a a million years of toe stubbing by 6 billion people and now how much has He wasted? None! The person who doubts God based on “finite resource” arguments simply doesn't understand God or infinity. And why should they? We never encounter infinity in “real life”.

Of course, there's another reason why a million years means nothing to God. Since time seems to be an artifact of being in our universe, and God is outside the universe, then I imagine God doesn't experience time in any sense we can imagine. He is outside of it, and superior to it. It must have been quite a thing for Jesus to experience the universe as a human being!

Being outside time has some very interesting implications. A young child may wish something could “un-happen”, but as we grow up we are taught that this is impossible. And yet, it is not impossible for God. How do you know that something terrible didn't happen yesterday; something so bad that you prayed with all your heart for it not to have happened, and so it didn't. It's kind of like some science fiction alternate reality story, and yet that's only form our perspective. From what I imagine would be God's perspective it would be a perfectly reasonable scenario, although one must assume that if God made it un-happen there is no difference between that and God not allowing it to happen in the first place. Thus, to us God cannot change his mind, but this is not a limitation on God, merely a limitation on how we are capable to thinking of things. For to change your mind means you thought different things at different times, and the idea of God being confined by our linear notion of time is nonsense.

My point it that God is as freaky weird as any mathematics you can dream up (and I mean that in the best possible way). We can say “God is infinite” all day long, but we can't imagine what that even means, and we rarely stop to think about what the consequences are (like actually being able to care for all those sparrows, and us).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Some of the reasons why I can't support the health care bill

I'm been meaning to blog about health care for a while, but I'm always too busy. Lately I got an email from a friend I haven't seen in too long, and the discussion turned to health care reform. In lieu of sitting and writing a blog post, I'm taking the easy way out and posting excerpts from my email message. The discussion began with the estimated 20,000 who die each year from lack of health care (I'm not sure what the source of that number is - if you have a source, please comment).

I do believe there is a moral imperative to care for all people, but I think the outright murder of 1,000,000 children a year through abortion is a larger issue than the death of 20,000 a year due to lack of extraordinary care, not just in sheer numbers but in moral gravity of the matter. Considering that Obama and others have stated unequivocally that abortion *is* health care, it seems likely that the passage of this bill would further institutionalize abortion and lead to more deaths. It is estimated that covering abortion under health care would result in an additional 200,000 murders per year. So passing the health care bill results in 10x *more* deaths, not fewer.

I can't agree with the argument that making abortions cheap or free would reduce the number of them. 74% of women in 2004 listed the reason for their abortion as "a baby would change my life" (source Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions). Lack of health care is lumped in with all other financial considerations (it is not broken out of the statistics, so I can't pin a number on it), but finances are a factor in only 23% of abortions. Even in the cases of financial hardship, making abortion cheaper would certainly not make it less likely! After all, health care is not the only cost in raising a child.

Concerns of euthanasia and death panel come from the fact that the "Compassion and Choices" society (a pro-euthanasia group) was involved in the wording of the sections of the bill dealing with "end of life" issues. If euthanasia is not being considered, why would they be involved at all? In fact Obama himself said he would reconsider whether his grandmother should have had a hip replacement when she was terminally ill (flat out, definite euthanasia, if you consider how long an elderly person can live with a broken hip).

Obama's appointed health policy adviser (Ezekiel Emanuel) is the guy who literally wrote the book on eugenics. Although he claims eugenics is no longer his bag, there is no public evidence to support this and in fact he has publicly stated that the doctors should consider in treating a patient whether the money is best spent on someone else (aka eugenics). I can't give the green light to these people to make health care policy decisions without assurance in the bill itself that these issues are off the table.

As for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), Obama's agenda has also created federal funding for ESCR at the expense of adult stem cell research funding. It is unlikely that a health care system administered by his appointees would reverse that decision. ESCR is not only immoral, it is plan old bad science, through and through (you can read my blog about it at Oh No! Not More Stem Cells!).

I am also against in-vitro fertilization (IVF) (you can read about that at When Adoption is Wrong). Is IVF covered under Obama's "reproductive health care". I don't think he's ever been asked the question. Massachusetts is one of 17 states that mandate insurance coverage for IVF, so I'd bet yes, Obamacare will cover IVF too. Another argument against it.

Despite what Obama and others have said I don't find any complicated moral issues - the moral arguments against this bill are all quite straightforward. But if you want more moral issues, consider the morality of adding 1 trillion to the national debt each year. That will quickly create a number of moral dilemmas, as we have to decide who to tax to death or who to cut what services to. Consider whether it is moral to force someone to pay for extraordinary care (or immoral procedures) under threat of prison. Consider that the current bill would still leave illegal aliens uncovered (how many of the 20,000 you quoted were illegals?). Consider that 33 million Americans don't have enough to eat (source Household Food Security in the United States, 2006), but there is no bill proposing a solution for that.

Also note that "insurance coverage" doesn't equal *care* (nor does lack of insurance mean that no care is provided). This bill provides insurance, but does nothing to address the reason why many people don't have it - the cost. Social medicine by itself doesn't reduce the cost to provide care, it simply reduces transparency and accountability. Consider the UK system, which Obama wants to model the US system on. I could write pages about the problems with that, as compared to what we have in the U.S. (perhaps another blog post).

Those are some of the reasons why I can't support the proposed health care bill. I'm sure there are more reasons, but any of the above would be enough for me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Declaration of Dependence

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind the party in power requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation and be content they can speak freely.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men human beings persons1 are created born2 equal, that they are endowed by their Ccreator3 with certain unalienable Rrights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness health care, taxes and sex4. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men persons, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed party in power, — That whenever any Form of Government person or persons becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People Government to alter or to abolish it ignore or ridicule them, and to institute new Government Laws, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established persons1 should not be changed repressed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind persons are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off find common ground with such Government, and to provide new Guards taxes for their future security5.

1. "person" refers to every member of the human race who is (a) already born (see footnote 2), (b) has no genetic defects that would require excessive health care costs or be unpleasant to look at, (c) has a life expectancy of at least 8 years from the current date, according to government statistics, and (d) meets any other requirements as defined by federal or state law.

2. "born" refers to a human being who (a) is wanted by all of its parents (however many there may be) or (b) if no parents are identified (e.g. clone or child of anonymous egg and sperm donors) is wanted by the state, and (b) gestated for at least 23 weeks, (c) has a weight of at least 2.2 pounds, and (d) has a length of at least 12 inches.

3. "creator" shall mean either the state, or, in the case of IVF, cloning, or other methods, the laboratory or corporation which funded or performed the procedure.

4. "sex" refers to any act, alone or with one or more other person of any sexual orientation, that gives immediate sexual gratification.

5. provided they meet the requirements of footnotes 1 and 2 above.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pax in Caritas on 9-11

My mother has one of the best attitudes of anyone I know. One of her axioms is when you're sad or lonely or depressed, get out there and help someone who's worse off.

I remember 9-11. I was working for a small company, and when I walked into the office that morning, something was amiss. "The twin towers were hit by a plane" someone said. I remembered how the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane many years ago, and thought it was something similar at first. Some idiot in a Cessna had takena wrong turn. "No, it's a jet" I was told.

The offices we were in had cable, but no TV (we were using it for internet access only). One of the guys went across the street to an electronics store and bought a TV, and we connected it in the conference room. The entire office piled into the room and we sat around the TV.

The images were shocking. We watched the towers go down, and spent the rest of the day talking about it and watching it played over and over. Being in central NJ, we could actually see the cloud of smoke near the horizon drifting southward. That faint cloud no the horizon made it much more real than the images on the TV set.

Over the next few days, stories began to come in. One of my best friends worked in the towers, but took that day off to take care of a parking permit issue. He was one of the only survivors in his company. Our church was hit especially hard. We had (if I recall the numbers correctly) something like 40 parishioners who were in the building, and we lost many of them. I remember going to memorial services and hearing them play the 4th verse of "America the Beautiful"

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

while we all sat and cried. Over the next few days it became clear that I was sad. Well, now I'd say "duh", but it didn't hit me right away. I decided it was time to help someone. Fortunately for me DW's company had a program where employees (and their spouses) could volunteer to help support the rescue efforts. So we signed up, got our assignment and set out for some warehouse in northern NJ to do something. What we wound up doing was sorting donated material and moving it around a hug warehouse to be sent over by barge to the rescue workers.

We had pallets of work gloves, dust masks, water, sports drinks, T shirts. You name it, we loaded it up. In retrospect the work was fairly trivial in the grand scheme of things, and we weren't equipped with the skills to do it very well (computer geeks are not known for their strong backs), but we were doing something to help, and it was like therapy for me. When I went home that evening, sweaty and dirt streaked, I felt 100% better.

The moral of this story, if there is one, is that sometimes, mother knows best. Feeling blue? Find someone and help them. You'll be doing both of you a favor.

Oh No! Not More Stem Cells!

I came across two articles yesterday about stem cells, so it's time for another "embryo vs. adult" article. As background, see my earlier blog The Stem Cell Debate is Over? about the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells. So, onto the latest news in stem cell research.

According to Liposuction Leftovers, fat cells, as a byproduct of liposuction can quickly and easily be converted into iPS (induced pluripotent) stem cells, which provides an easy way to to do research with iPS cells, and potentially a faster way to provide treatments derived from those cells. The research isn't "scalpel ready", of course, but the idea would be to do a liposuction-like procedure to remove fat cells form a patient, convert them to iPS cells, and use those cells to treat a variety of diseases on the patient himself. Since the cells are the patient's own tissue there is no risk of tissue rejection or other immune problems. As the article states

“Thirty to 40 percent of adults in this country are obese,” agreed cardiologist Joseph Wu, MD, PhD, the paper’s senior author. “Not only can we start with a lot of cells, we can reprogram them much more efficiently. Fibroblasts, or skin cells, must be grown in the lab for three weeks or more before they can be reprogrammed. But these stem cells from fat are ready to go right away.”

The fact that these cells don't have to be cultured is important, because existing ways to culture human skin cells to make iPS cells involves using mouse-derived "feeder cells", and scientists are concerned about cross-species contamination which could be a barrier to developing treatments using the cells.

At the same time I can across Immune Response in Mice Suggests Limits to Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy. This research was done on mice. Mice are used in a lot of research not because scientists want to kill them, but because their immune systems are very similar to a human's. They are used where the research would be dangerous to humans, or the effects are unknown. As the article states:

"We all want to know what's going to happen if you transplant these stem cells into a person," said Mark Davis, MD, PhD, the Burt and Marion Avery Family Professor and professor of microbiology and immunology. But because unmodified embryonic stem cells can cause cancer, the researchers transplanted the cells into mice rather than people.

Proponents of embryonic stem cell research claim that embryonic stem cells are "given a free pass" by the body's immune system, but that is conjecture. So the researchers studied the mouse immune system's response to embryonic stem cells, and discovered than contrary to the beliefs of embryonic stem cell researchers, the immune system does attack embryonic stem cells, since they are foreign tissue. As the article quotes

"It's getting harder and harder to believe that these cells are immunoprivileged," said Joseph Wu, MD, PhD, assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine and of radiology. "In fact, the rejection of these cells confirms our suspicions that they do cause an immune response."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Moving Day

I know I promised some of you I'd blog about boy scout camp, and I haven't, but this is on my mind right now. Last week we helped my mother move into an "alternative retirement" community. What that means is "semi-assisted" living. It was tough.

For 56 years my mother has lived in the same house. It's the only home my sister and I knew, until we moved out into our own places. As kids, I remember going to my grandparents' houses. My mother's mother lived in an apartment in Brooklyn. It was the first floor of a brownstone. I remember my sister and I used to love sneaking around through the servants' corridors (of course, they had no servants, but the brownstones were built assuming that everyone had one, and the "secret passages" were still there so the servants could serve without being seen). My father's parents lived in a house on a huge piece of land (1 acre, remember I was a city kid) way out on Long Island. There I remember raking leaves in the fall, picking blueberries from their patch in the summer, and exploring all the nooks and crannies of the house and property.

I remember every holiday or event we spent at my grandparents' houses. The smells, the sounds, the feel of the carpeting. The spots of color on the wall from the lights on the Christmas tree. The fake fireplace. The small wooden farm toys from Germany. The bronze elephant commemorating the opening of the Brooklyn bridge. The bright light of the sun in the kitchen. The best coffee I have ever had. From the Christmas goose to the Easter egg hunts on the huge lawn their houses were a wonderland.

But home was our house. We played games in the basement, which my father had finished himself. I remember when he installed a steel I-beam and cut the lolly columns (he was an engineer and a welder) to make the basement bigger, and I remember him installing the tile floor and paneling. There was the patio we sat out on on summer nights, trying to find satellites and meteors. There was the swing set, which we used pretty much every day until it rusted through and fell down. We went all over the world, and even to the moon and planets on that swing set.

When we got a bit older, and the swings were gone, we added on a kitchen, pushed out into the backyard. I remember many family meals around that kitchen table. There were breakfasts, with the sunshine pouring through the east-facing window. Lunches eaten on the run as we interrupted our play. Dinners and family conversation. Homework on school nights, and family games in the summer time.

My mother's mother had a stroke and moved in with us. It took her a long time to recover, but we relished having grandma in our home full time. No need to take the train into Brooklyn, even though we missed her old apartment. After a few years, she passed away, and her room became the computer room. My father's parents both passed away, and although my aunt and uncle moved in, and kept the place pretty much the same, it wasn't the same. But our home was still there.

The next big change in the house came after my sister and I were grown and gone, with kids of our own, when my dad battled cancer and parkinson's disease. He was wheelchair bound, and my mother put a deck and ramp on the back of the house so we could wheel him in and out easily. The den was now his bedroom, and my kids used to run in there first thing when we visited, and jump on him. I remember sitting by his bed having conversations, and the kids putting on shows for him. He eventually passed away in that very room.

But through all the changes the house was there, and it was still "my" house, full of memories for me, and now for my kids, as they played and explored when we visited my parents. And time went on.

My mother is 85 now, and her health isn't what it once was. The house became difficult for her. A light bulb would burn out or a faucet would leak and she would have to call a neighbor or wait until we visited her to fix it. She was blessed with excellent neighbors and lots of wonderful friends nearby. Still, the stairs became hard to navigate, and so she pretty much lived on the first floor.

About two years ago she decided to move somewhere easier for her. She looked around, and chose the "alternative retirement" community relatively near our house. She wanted to move while she was still mobile enough to get out and make friends. On the other hand, she really hated to leave her long time close friends and neighbors and her parish. For our part we told her we would support whatever decision she made. She dragged her feet, and then there was the house to sell and all.

Finally, moving day came, and it snuck up on me. Furniture had been given away. Garage sales had been held, and yet there was a ton of stuff to move (3.5 tons, we later learned from the movers). Imagine moving from a 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom house with a full basement, garage and attic to a one bedroom apartment! There was a whirlwind of packing, moving, cleaning and unpacking. Some of the stuff had been taken by my sister and niece. Other stuff wouldn't fit and went to our house. I'm sitting here staring at a stack of boxes filling most of my living room because we just don't know where to put them yet.

I have many observations about mom's new home. It is a lot like being at a resort. There are game rooms, a pool, a dining hall, stores etc. The room is a bit like a hotel room. The building is a big square with a courtyard, and the apartments have a hall between them, so there are windows only on one wall. Since mom's apartment faces the courtyard, there really isn't any direct sunlight. That kind of bothers me after the house she left, which was very sunny. Also, I know it's a bonus to be in the company of people her own age, but the lack of children or even middle aged people makes it seem a bit flat.

It wasn't until the next day that it began to hit me. I will never see the house I grew up in again, or if by some chance I do, it will likely be completely different. I feel like part of my life is gone. I feel selfish for feeling that way. After all, it's only a house, and I didn't really spend much time there the last few years. My mom is the one who's important, and she's probably missing the house more than me. My home now is here in NJ with my wife and children. It will take a while for my mom's new home to become her home, but it will never be my home. My job now is to make a home for my children, so that they and their kids will have great memories too.