Thursday, February 25, 2010

Last Fall

Last fall I got involved in 40 Days for Life. This is a group that organizes people all around the world to go to abortion clinics for 40 days and pray for an end to abortion. You register on their web site, sign up for times and days when you are available, and show up to pray.

One of my Lenten resolutions was to spend some time each week going to the abortuary and praying. Sadly I missed the first week, and expect to miss this week due to the snow storm. I was going to blog about my experiences, but I don't want to wait longer. The same snow storm has given me some time to blog, so I'm writing about last fall's 40 days.

I had heard about 40 Days for Life last spring, but was hesitant to join. I pictured myself standing outside the abortuary all alone, being attacked by a crowd of pro-abortion people, or watching helpless as young women paraded past sobbing and wailing. Fortunately that image couldn't be further form the truth. A friend of mine who goes regularly with her children to pray there encouraged me (you know who you are - thanks!). So I joined.

Each local "chapter" has volunteer captains who are in charge. You have to sign a pledge of non-violence to join, and the captains make sure there is always someone there who knows what they are doing. In fact, they generally will cancel your time slot if there aren't at least two people there. Nobody has to stand by themselves.

My slot was generally late afternoon on Thursdays and/or Fridays, as that meshed best with my schedule. There were never less than five people there with me, and often eight to ten. Some were more sociable than others, although all seemed ot be very nice. We were shown where it was OK to stand, and where it was not, and could hold signs provided, or not, as we wished.

The first day I was there I spoke to the man in charge, who offered me literature and a sign if I wanted it. I declined, and just talked to people or prayed silently. The road we were on was fairly busy at that time of day, and our signs were clearly visible to approaching traffic. About once or twice a minute a car would go by and honk, its occupants waving and smiling, or giving us a "thumbs up". Once or twice and hour a car would go by where the occupants screamed "F you!" (always the same word). Either way we would smile and wave back.

It was nice seeing pro-life cars outnumber the pro-abortion screamers 60 to 1. But the best part about going was how I felt each time I was there and how I felt afterward. I don't know that my being there actually saved any lives, but just the fact that I was part of the effort that did save lives felt good. The prayer time felt good too. I seldom spend a whole hour or more (outside of mass) engaged in prayer. I felt peaceful and full of love standing there watching the traffic go by. And the whole way home in the car I'd be singing, with a grin on my face. And later I'd hug my wife and children extra hard.

So if you have a spare hour or so this Lent, I urge you to sign up and show up. It's easy, painless, and good for you (and the world). If you can't make it in person, please join us in prayer.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Frankly Fed Up

This past weekend our cub scout pack had a sleep over at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA. I have been to the Franklin several times, and each time I've enjoyed it. I always think I should go more often, but the thing that always stops me is driving around Philly. I hate driving in most cities, but Philly always seems to get me lost somehow. This time was no exception. After spending 45 minutes sitting in traffic coming into the city, I managed to be in the wrong lane at the wrong time and wound up in a twisty maze of little streets, all alike. With no place to pull over we had no choice but to continue as the GPS tried frantically to recalculate fast enough to beat the next corner. It failed, and an endless "recalculating" loop began until we got out of that section of the city.

Having finally arrived we stowed our gear and started exploring the place. Everywhere we turned we were confronted by giant sized posters of Gunter von Hagen's "Body Worlds" ("extended by popular demand"). Now I'm not excessively squeamish when it comes to anatomy, but I really don't want to be confronted with this stuff when I'm getting food or eating, and after the 50th poster you have to think "what kind of idiot needs 50 posters to tell them what's in the museum, when they can just read one of the 50 maps around?". Because of this insensitivity towards visitors, its obvious aim at desensitizing people, the fact that there's no "science" involved (these are "art" display of corpses) and my disdain for Gunter von Hagen's disrespect for humanity (especially in some of his "shows") I would not go to the exhibit even if there weren't a separate admission price for it. Fortunately, none of the kids were the slightest bit interested either.

What I was looking forward to was the promise of "Star Gazing with giant professional telescopes in the Joel N. Bloom Observatory (weather permitting)". Since it was a beautiful clear night, and I am an amateur astronomer, this was going to be fun. Sadly, when we got there and got our schedules, there was no mention of observing nor any time planned for potential observing, nor any explanation of why the activity had been left out. What we did have was a schedule that had the children (some of whom were tiger scouts as young as 6 years old) up until midnight, and then up again at 6:45 AM.

The evening went fairly well except for three things. First off, the "Special reward", which was ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, consisted of about 1 tablespoon per kid. Come on! Secondly, everywhere we went we were hampered by sleeping bags and other gear around the exhibits, set up for other groups (and of course "Body Worlds" posters). Lastly, the IMAX movie was a film called "Under the Sea" which spent an inordinate amount of effort to associate three cuttlefish mating with human sexuality in a manner which was sophomoric for adults, and inappropriate for the kids. It all ended with dire warnings about anthropogenic climate change.

After that we set up our sleeping bags and tried to get some sleep. The area they put us in had us packed in shoulder to shoulder, and the kids were all wound up from the sexy movie, so very little sleep was had. By morning, several of the scouts were throwing up and we were all cranky. Time for breakfast! After some delicious cold cereal (they apparently didn't stock any yogurt that did not have artificial sweeteners) we trekked to the planetarium where we watched yet another movie (in lieu of an actual planetarium show). This one was a film by the NSF called "Two Small Pieces of Glass" which was a history of the telescope. Being an amateur telescope maker and a fan of the history of the telescope I was dreading the low level of research and high level of misinformation to ensue. Let's just say I was not disappointed.

It wasn't all bad. We all enjoyed the "standard" exhibits. The giant heart is always a hit, and the train exhibit was fascinating. Likewise the aerospace place and newton's loft. The "rotating" exhibits were the main problem.

After leaving the museum, we decided to have lunch and do a little bit of sightseeing before we left Philly, which gave me ample opportunities to get lost again, which I took advantage of. Then we headed home. The kids had fun. Me, not so much. Perhaps I am just an old curmudgeon, but next time I think I'll stick to the Liberty Science Center.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Are you a fan?

Each Lent I think about SQPN, because that was when I discovered it. It all started several years ago. I had decided to pray the rosary daily during Lent, and the only really quiet time I had to pray was in the car during my commute. The only problem is that it trying to drive safely and keeping count of the prayers was as much as my poor brain could manage, and it became difficult to meditate on the rosary itself. I needed an audio aid to help me out.

In previous years I had listened to The Rosary is a Place with Father Groeschel and Simonetta, which was broadcast each morning on my local Catholic radio station, but sadly the station had gone off the air. That year, since I had an iPod, I decided to look for a rosary podcast to put on my iPod to play in the car. I searched iTunes, and came up with a podcast called Rosary Army. Much to my surprise, it wasn't a rosary itself, but a talk show by a couple that made rosaries (among other things). It was kinda cool.

It didn't hold my attention for long (sorry guys) but it did introduce me to The Daily Breakfast, the "flagship" podcast from the Star Quest Production Network (SQPN). Over the years since I have enjoyed many of the wonderful shows put out by this network. Shows like the iPadre, the Saintcast, the Catholic Hack, Catholic Under the Hood, Secrets of Star Wars (and Narnia, and Lord of the Rings), Catholic in a Small Town, Grace Before Meals, the Catholic Foodie, Healthy Catholic, Technopriest, Hands and Feet, and others.

In the past year there have been a lot of changes at SQPN, however. They started or acquired quite a few new shows (yay!). They lost some important people (Greg and Jennifer moved to satellite radio - good for them, bad for SQPN). Many of the shows moved to video (via ustream). The "flagship" show made some dramatic changes ("The daily Breakfast" became "Breakfast with Father Roderick", and then became "The Break with Father Roderick").

So this Lent I am thinking about how my experience of SQPN is different from previous years. For me, it feels like something is gone that I really used to enjoy. I'm not sure what, but I think it has to do with the demise of the Daily Breakfast, or maybe things are just too hectic with so many show choices. I'm not sure. I haven't said anything, because I don't want to burst other peoples' bubbles if it's just me, and I certainly don't want to say that the shows that are offered aren't good, they are great and I highly recommend them. But a conversation started on Plurk a few days ago, and I think there may be others in the same boat.

Here's what I think is bothering me. In the years of listening to Father Roderick every weekday morning for 27 minutes, he became in my mind my priest. All of a sudden, instead of spending every day with me, he's there once a week. The weekly show lacks the immediacy of the daily show. For instance, instead of talking about "today is Ash Wednesday" and explaining it, there's a single show that mashes all of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday, and Lent into an hour long show. I don't feel like there is a single cohesive topic to the show.

Which brings me to my second point. Although the show is split into three 20 minute segments, I find I have to hear the whole thing in one sitting or lose it. One reason might be that the show no longer shows up as "new" on my iPod. Or perhaps it's because if I start the show on another device I have to remember where I was and search for that point. Whatever it is, I find myself listening to the whole thing, and it's too much to sit through at once. The segments are too long on one topic with one voice, and I find myself wanting to fast forward.

Plus, he's live on ustream. If I don't get to watch him (which I don't) I feel like there's something else I've missed. The few times I did watch live I got a completely different experience. There was conversation with Father Roderick and the other fans in the chat room, and some "outtakes" none of which were there on the final version. So now, instead of ustream becoming a positive thing, a way to be more connected, my inability to see the show live makes me feel like an outsider.

I don't know exactly what it is, but it feels like it's not as good as last year. I still listen to some of the shows (iPadre, Catholic Foodies, Catholic Under the Hood and the Saintcast) but not as many, and I don't feel as excited about Catholic new media as I did a year ago. Sad, considering the Pope's call to explore new media to spread the Gospel.

And so I thought I'd blog and invite my readers (both of you) to comment, and ask your friends and other SQPN fans to comment, and perhaps we can have a discussion about what we like and don't like, and how it makes us feel. Maybe you folks can snap me out of it, or maybe we can figure out some formula to help SQPN. Thanks for reading this.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Good News

Since today is Ash Wednesday I fasted from bear meat, but still enjoyed the continuing good news. How long it will last I don't know, but I'm not one to examine the dentition of free equines. So without further adieu:

Forward in Faith Australia, is setting up a working party guided by a Catholic bishop to work out how its followers can "swim the Tiber". It is believed to be the first group within the Anglican church to accept Pope Benedict XVI’s unprecedented offer for disaffected members of the Communion to convert en masse while retaining parts of their spiritual heritage. I can't tell you how exciting it is to be able to see some reunification with out Anglican brothers and sisters

The Kansas state House has approved an amendment that would prohibit insurance companies from automatically covering abortions under their plans except in very rare instances. The language moves in the other direction from the Congressional health care bill that funds abortions. Under the amendment, state residents who don't want their insurance premiums to pay for abortions would be protected and people who want to get abortions would pay for them with their own money by purchasing a rider for such coverage.

In Mississippi yesterday, pro-life advocates submitted more than 130,000 signatures to get a personhood amendment on the state ballot. The amendment would define an unborn child as a human being starting at fertilization, but some legal observers say it will be overturned. Yes, that's 2 in 2 days! The amendment states: "The term 'person' or 'persons' shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."

A woman who faces assault charges after she pulled a knife on two pro-life advocates who encouraged her not to have an abortion has decided against having the planned abortion.

Mike Huckabee, in a post on the blog of his national political action committee, the potential 2012 presidential candidate says he agrees with the scientific fact that human life begins at conception. "There is no doubt in my mind that life does begin at the point of conception. It does not begin when a Judge, or an attorney, or a left wing activist group decides that it does," Huckabee writes. "Science determines that life begins 'when the male sperm and female egg join – a new and unique life form is created.' Scientists don't say life begins at birth or viability. It begins at conception."

Kirstin Holum placed sixth in the 3,000 meter race in the 1998 Winter Olympic. Holum, 29, is now a Catholic nun known as Sister Catherine Mary. Holum says that her conversion was sparked by an experience with the pro-life group Crossroads that she says changed her life. In a letter that Crossroads received in 2005, the former speed skating champ wrote: "Crossroads completely changed my life! I came onto Crossroads as a mediocre confused Christian and finished as a zealous Roman Catholic."

...and if you haven't been following "Creative Minority Report" check out the story of baby Gianna. Warning: you will get a good cry out of it.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Eating the Bear

"Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you."

I'm not sure where that saying originated, but I like it. you see, sometimes things seem to go wrong all at once. The news is filled with things that make one think the world is going to hell (or has arrived there). The weight of a million defeats and injustices seem overwhelming. The bear is hungry.

Then there are times when good news arrived in buckets. A good report card, a kind word from a friend, and hopeful news. The bear is tasty. As a Catholic I can't really get too discouraged by the bad news. I've read the ending of the book and it's a happy one. Still, I'm glad when things seem to be looking up.

Despite the bad news about the continuing CCHD scandal and the problems in Ireland and elsewhere, there is a lot of good news today. And so, dear reader, I wanted to share some happy news stories today.

Colorado has gotten enough signatures for a Personhood amendment to be on the ballot. The amendment reads "the term 'person' shall apply to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being." While some pro-lifers decry so called personhood amendments as a waste of time, I see it at worst as a way to get the issue in the public eye. Why can't all human beings be "persons"?

40 Days for Life is back this Lent, bigger than ever! According to the article, the fall 40 days campaign helped prevent at least 2,000 document abortions. I can't wait until Wednesday.

In France, hundreds of Catholics stood up to homosexual activists who were trying to stage a "kiss-in" at Notre Dame. The crowd spontaneously broke out into a chant of "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for "We have a Pope!"

Zenit reports that the young generation of Catholics are more orthodox and more oriented towards marriage and families than us old folks. Nice to see the Church getting back into Her game.

More and more studies are revealing that Abstinence works and contraception doesn't.

It looks like we will have a Mother Teresa stamp this year (although you can sign the petition to help make sure).

...and in a news story that made my day today,  the Virginia legislature strips Planned Parenthood funding from its license plate bill. In what pro-life advocates are hailing as a brilliant legislative move, Virginia lawmakers stripped Planned Parenthood funding from its own bill to sponsor pro-abortion license plates. The plate bill now sends the proceeds from sales of the plate to a state fund that actually helps pregnant women, the Virginia Pregnant Women Support Fund.

Blacks are an endangered species

A lot of feathers are being ruffled by a billboard in Georgia. The billboard (pictured at right) points to the fact that black women are three times more likely to abort their pregnancy than white women.

Some people are nit picking with statements like the fertility rate of black women is higher, which makes up for it, so blacks won't become endangered. Next they will be saying the billboards should be opposed because blacks are not a separate species. Others are calling this an attempt to impose guilt and shame on black women. What's there to be guilty of or ashamed for if abortion is not the killing of a child?

But both of these positions miss the point of the billboard entirely. Planned Parenthood, the nation's leading abortion provider, and champion of the abortion movement in America, was founded by Margaret Sanger, a eugenicist, who intended it to reduce the population of immigrants, blacks, and "unwanted races." Indeed, one of PP's early projects was the "Negro Project", whose goal was to eliminate those "human weeds".  Margaret Sanger wrote of the project:
"We should hire three or four colored ministers, preferably with social-service backgrounds, and with engaging personalities.  The most successful educational approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal.  We don’t want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members."
Pro-abortion people will be quick to point out that Margaret Sanger is now dead, and that there are many blacks who work for PP, and that PP provides health care for poor women. All this is true, but doesn't refute the facts. PP was set up to eliminate the "unfit", which for Sanger and the likes meant the poor, the immigrant, the black (and others). Sanger was not an idiot, though. She knew that if you tried to pitch killing off races you didn't like, it would not be very popular with the American public. So the idea is to promote contraception and abortion not as "the duty of the unfit" but as their "right", and to provide it for low cost s a "service" to the "unfit".

And so PP was set up to be the provider of "women's reproductive health" for those very people. It thus appears to be a charitable organization, and indeed enjoys a tax exempt status and receives over $300 million in government funds each year. And it also each year rakes in $900 million, through abortion and contraception (provided to whom? You got it - the "unfit"). At the same time it vehemently opposes any other organizations that want to provide health care to those same women but who do not offer abortions. If its goal was to for those women to have better health care it would welcome other organizations who do as well. After all, it is supposed to be a non-profit, so competition is not the issue.

Consider the state of Georgia, where these billboard are being erected. According to Georgia Right to Life president Dan Becker, as printed in Jill Stanek's blog:
Of all states reporting abortions to the CDC, GA reports the most abortions of black mothers, 18,901 in 2008 alone. Dan also reports that 30% of GA's population is black, but they account for 59% of all abortions; and 14 of 14 abortion mills are located in majority minority neighborhoods.
14/14 seems like an interesting coincidence if PP is not targeting minorities...

Friday, February 5, 2010

Toyota Gas Pedals and Radiation Death

When I went to college I quickly learned some "tricks". One trick was that if I joined the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) I could use their new UNIX computer in the school's computer lab. That was important, because using UNIX I could do all my assignments without having to wait in line to use a keypunch machine and then wait to get my printout from the school's massive IBM 370 computer.

Aside from getting my homework done easier, and meeting a great bunch of people, I learned some things about computer science. First off, I learned that the ACM had a code of ethics. Up to that point I had never considered that a code of ethics would be part of a particular discipline, rather than just a life code. I figured if you're a Christian, that's your code of ethics. But that's really a subject for another post.

One of the other things that happened was I started receiving Communications of the ACM, which is their member publication. It's full of papers and abstract stuff, but one column fascinated me - Inside Risks by Peter Neumann. Go ahead and click the link and read an article or two. Good stuff. Don't forget to come back here when you're done.

OK, welcome back. One of the things which I found interesting was the sheer number of different types risks associated with computing. We can all understand the risks of losing data, or being hacked, or banking errors, but there are "real world" dangers involved as well. Toyota is finding this out with their sticky gas pedal recall. The flaw is a mechanical one, but since the gas pedal is really just an input device to a computer that controls the car's acceleration, Toyota is (rightly) being called to task for not having safeties in the software. For instance, brake pedal pressure is also monitored by computer (for antilock brake operation). Why not cut out the accelerator when the brake pedal is being frantically pushed?

It seems like an obvious thing in hindsight but should Toyota have had the foresight to do it? As a software architect, and a reader of "Inside Risks" I have to say that they should. The "state of the art" in software today has been "dumbed down" due to short sighted management and low customer expectations. Developers, especially those who work on systems that control "real world" devices, need to consider failure modes in the design of their software.

Of course, although the Toyota blunder is making big headlines, it is not that serious a problem. Far more serious is the death of Scott Jerome-Parks, as described in this NY Times article. Mr. Jerome-Parks died in 2007 at the age of 43 from a radiation overdose for cancer treatment.

His treatments were performed using a new state of the art linear accelerator. The device works by accelerating a beam of electrons and focusing them onto a tungsten target. That converts the energy of the electrons into X-rays, which then pass through a "multileaf collimator". The collimator is essentially a set of metal "windows" that can open or close by varying amounts to control the size and shape of the X-rays that pass through them. Everything, from the strength of the electron beam to the shape of the collimator is controlled by software.

According to the article:
The investigation into what happened to Mr. Jerome-Parks quickly turned to the Varian software that powered the linear accelerator.
The software required that three essential programming instructions be saved in sequence: first, the quantity or dose of radiation in the beam; then a digital image of the treatment area; and finally, instructions that guide the multileaf collimator.
When the computer kept crashing, Ms. Kalach, the medical physicist, did not realize that her instructions for the collimator had not been saved, state records show. She proceeded as though the problem had been fixed.
“We were just stunned that a company could make technology that could administer that amount of radiation — that extreme amount of radiation — without some fail-safe mechanism,” said Ms. Weir-Bryan, Ms. Jerome-Parks’s friend from Toronto. “It’s always something we keep harkening back to: How could this happen? What accountability do these companies have to create something safe?”
It seems that the machine ignored the fact that the instructions for the collimator were missing, and left the collimator wide open, exposing Mr. Jerome-Parks to the highest possible dose of radiation. I don't mean to say that people should avoid radiation therapy, which does save many lives, or to demonize that particular machine, which no doubt has also saved lives. Also, since then, Varian has released an update to add fail safes to the system.

However it came too late to save Mr. Jerome-Parks. Nor is his case unique. According to the Times article errors in radiation therapy are more common than realized, and some of them are due to software errors. Not mentioned in the Times article are issues that Peter Neumann wrote about in "Inside Risks in Medical Electronics" in 1990 about the Therac-25 software problems. When a particular set of commands was entered, the device malfunctioned, emitting high doses of radiation into the patient, resulting in at least 4 deaths between 1985 and 1987.

As we make machines more and more complex, we tend to rely on software more, without realizing that while software simplifies the need for specialized mechanisms, it does not of itself simplify the control problems it intends to solve. With poorly architected, designed, and implemented software accepted as the norm in our homes and offices, it is no wonder that failures happen in critical equipment.

If we look at the Toyota problem, it is actually blown way out of proportion. I don't mean that the people who died or were injured are not important, I mean that we are focusing a lot of attention on this issue, while overlooking similar types of problems that cause even more deaths and injuries. I hope that when the Toyota problem is fixed we won't forget that other people are dying from shoddy software.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Vegetative? I dont think so.

The BBC reports that using a new brain scan technology, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), researchers can detect patients' thoughts in real time. No, they can't tell whether you are a Republican or Democrat (and of course, the research is being carried out in the UK and Belgium so it doesn't matter) but they can detect the difference between thinking about motor activities and spatial images.

They used this technology to allow people to answer questions with their mind only. To do so, they ask a yes/no question and ask the person to think about an activity for "yes" or an image for "no". Depending on the area of the brain which shows activity on the fMRI, they can determine the person's answer.

A nice parlor trick, until they turned the technology on patients in a so called "vegetative state". Out of 60 patients examined, 43% could respond to questions asked verbally. This is a significant find, and challenges whether patients are being diagnosed incorrectly, or whether we even understand what a "vegetative state" is.

A lot hangs in the balance here. In the UK it is legal to allow a patient in a vegetative state to die by withdrawing all care (including food and drink). However, if these patients are able to respond, are they really in a vegetative state? Of course even a "true" vegetative state does not make a person "not human", laws to the contrary notwithstanding. This research just points out how slippery the slope of euthanasia really is.