Friday, August 20, 2010

invading the president's "spiritual privacy"

A recent survey shows nearly 1 in 5 Americans think president Obama is Muslim. No surprise there. The White House issued the following statement:
President Obama is a committed Christian, and his faith is an important part of his daily life," the statement read. "He prays every day, he seeks a small circle of Christian pastors to give him spiritual advice and counseling, he even receives a daily devotional that he uses each morning. The president's Christian faith is a part of who he is, but not a part of what the public or the media is focused on everyday.
But the president's faith is what the public and media are focused on, as the poll demonstrates. It simply isn't what the president would like the public or the media to focus on. I wonder why we have to rely on a press release to know anything about what the president believes, anyway? Other presidents have shown, or at least talked about, their beliefs.

Even better is this statement, by Dr. Clyde Wilcox of GWU:
It's a troubling thing," Wilcox said. "I think it would be good for all of us to stop invading the president's spiritual privacy. We don't know what anyone's true faith is. It doesn't tell us about what their true core values are.
Say WHAT!? Religion has nothing to do with their values? That statement is as laughable as "what a person eats has nothing to do with their diet."

A non-sequitur, but this talk about religion and the president got me to thinking... President Obama has been criticized for bowing to foreign heads of state. Rather than keeping the tradition of US president never to show subservience to a foreign power, he has taken the tack of bowing to other heads of state. So did he kiss the Pope's ring, or at least bow to the Pope? Given the pictures and lack or notice from the press it would appear no, yet the Pope is a head of state, and one which has diplomatic relations with the US.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Water boarding ruled constitutional

I happened to read this story today. The 9th US circuit court of appeals ruled that a law against lying about military medals is unconstitutional. The case involved a member of a water board in California (hence the title of this post) who claimed to have received the medal of honor when in fact, he hadn't. The majority opinion claimed that there is no evidence that lying about military medals harms anyone. I would strongly disagree with that statement, especially when it concerns someone gathering support for a cause or office.

I couldn't help thinking of this story which was in the news the previous day. The electronics company Best Buy is threatening legal action against Rev. Luke Strand of Holy Family Catholic Church in Fond du lac, WI over the "God Squad" logo on his VW beetle.

I'm not condemning Best Buy, quite the contrary. Institutions should control how their trademarks are used. The underlying reason behind that is to protect the company's investment in its brand, but also to protect the cnsumer by preventing misleading information. Now, I understand the difference between civil and criminal law, but doesn't it strike you as wrong that the military can't "enforce it's trademark" in restricting the usage of medals it produces?

And so I offer the photo above as a suggestion for a "legal" alternative for Fr. Strand and his vehicle.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Atoms and Molecules

According to a new recent Rasmussen poll, "seventy six percent of Americans say it is at least somewhat likely that a terrorist group will detonate a nuclear weapon in the next 25 years, and that includes 45 percent who say it is Very Likely."
Most Adults (58%) also believe it is at least somewhat likely that there will be a major war involving nuclear weapons over the course of the next century, including 26% who say it is Very Likely. Thirty-two percent (32%) regard a war with nuclear weapons as unlikely, but only five percent (5%) say it’s Not At All Likely to happen.
Scary stuff, until you realize that 25 years is a long time. If you took a poll in 1969 about the US in 25 years, most people would have predicted we'd have a lunar base and be exploring Mars. History shows we took a different course.

I personally do worry about the next 25 years, but I don't think the atom is the biggest threat. NPR ran a story a couple of weeks ago about how genetically modified canola has "escaped". According to the article
...the vast majority of feral canola plants in the state contain artificial genes that make them resistant to herbicides. Researchers also found two plants that contained traits from multiple genetically modified varieties, suggesting that genetically modified plants are breeding in the wild.
Talk about a Jurassic Park moment! We have such arrogance in modifying DNA and so little experience or knowledge about the consequences. I think the most frightening technology on the radar today is genetic manipulation. Unlike a nuclear bomb, you can experiment with genetics undetectably, and with relatively simple, inexpensive, non-regulated equipment. Applying the lessons of computer science to biotechnology, I envision a day when an "anti-virus" subscription means protection from genetic hackers who make human viruses, rather than computer viruses.

Sorry for the downer post, readers, but these things creeped me out.

Return of the True Cross

About a month ago I posted about a relic of the True Cross that was stolen from the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, MA. The relic has been found and returned to the church. According to the article, in summary:
Vermont State Police stumbled upon it after receiving a call from Richard Duncan....
Duncan told police he was having an argument over the phone with his partner, 34-year-old Earl Frost. ...Frost said he wanted to return it to a church, the police statement said. But troopers convinced him to bring it into the state police barracks in Royalton.
The Vermont troopers knew nothing of the Boston relic's disappearance, but they did a Google search while Frost and Duncan were on their way to the barracks and found several articles related to the theft.
At the barracks, Frost turned the relic over to the police and said that he had acquired it from an unidentified person in Rhode Island. 
You can read about the history of the True Cross in my earlier post, but the new article outlines the history of the relic in Boston.
The relic arrived in Boston in the late 18th century, a gift to a French missionary priest, the Rev. Jean-Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, who later became the first bishop of Boston.
The relic was given to Cheverus by Abbe Claude de la Poterie, the first pastor of the cathedral, who was also a French priest, as well as a onetime chaplain in the French Navy.
De la Poterie celebrated the first public Mass in Boston on Nov. 2, 1788.
Boston’s first Catholic church, completed on Franklin Street in 1803, was named the Church of the Holy Cross.
The church was designated a cathedral in 1808, when the Diocese of Boston was established; the current cathedral, on Washington Street in the South End, was completed in 1875.
The north transept window at the cathedral depicts the legendary discovery of the cross by Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine. In the scene, a dead woman is restored to life after the cross is laid upon her.
The south transept window depicts another story associated with the cross: return of the relic to Jerusalem by a Byzantine emperor after it was stolen by the Persian army in the seventh century.
 Deo gratius!

Monday, August 16, 2010

How many Catholics do you know?

Last week at scout camp I went to mass for the first time. Well, not my first time at mass, but my first time at mass up there. It was very interesting.

Camp runs from Sunday at around noon to Saturday at around noon. Since I have to leave Sunday morning before 10 AM to get up there, and since I usually spend about two hours remembering last minute things and packing the car before that, I go to Saturday evening mass, so I don't have to get up early.

Each year, we get a tour of the camp that includes the Jewish chapel, and we are told that there's a Protestant chapel and a Catholic chapel. We are told that there are "services" on Sunday night. I had assumed that these were prayer services. I didn't consider that an actual mass would be said at camp out in the woods. I guess it was the word "service" that threw me. I'm used to hearing the word "mass" and when I hear "service" it's usually not a mass.

So when one of the Catholic dads in the troop announced he was going to the mass on Sunday night, my ears perked up. It turns out he talked to someone and found out there was mass at the Catholic chapel. Three of us went on down. Our first task was to find the Catholic chapel. We all knew where the Jewish chapel was, from the tour, and we knew where the Protestant chapel was, since it's on the way to the far end of the monkey bridge across the lake. However, we just had vague directions to the Catholic chapel.

The directions turned out to be good enough, and we found it without trouble. It was a regular Catholic mass, very rustic, but reverently celebrated. What did surprise me though, were the number of people there. There were entire troops (not ours) there in class A uniforms. Not only that, but a whole bunch of people from my own troop, who I never realized were practicing Catholics. For my part, at least one of them didn't realize I was a practicing Catholic. I guess it's not something that we feel comfortable asking people these days.

As I knelt on the leaves and sticks of the forest floor, watching bread and wine being transformed into Our Lord, it made me think back to the horrible folk masses of my youth and the song "They'll know we are Christians". How many people could tell I am Christian, let alone Catholic, by seeing the way I behave outside of mass? Why don't we all talk about our faith, as we talk about politics, sport, and every other "important" aspect of our lives?

The saying "preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary" has often been (incorrectly) attributed to Saint Francis. Whoever said this had the right idea, though. In my "secular" life I am surrounded by atheists who have no problem proselytizing, wearing their belief like a badge of honor on their sleeve, yet how many times do I proclaim the Gospel publicly in my daily life?

[N.B. The picture above is not the Catholic chapel at scout camp. I neglected to take a picture of it. Perhaps next year I will remember.]

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Baptists and Muslims

President Obama has expressed his support for the "ground zero" mosque. For those who have missed the story entirely,
The Islamic center's leaders say they plan to build the $100 million, 13-story facility called Cordoba House three blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks. The developer, Sharif El-Gamal, describes the project as an "Islamic community center" that will include a 500-seat performing arts center, a lecture hall, a swimming pool, a gym, a culinary school, a restaurant and a prayer space for Muslims.
According to Obama, the Muslims have a right to build a worship center on private land. And he is correct, they do have that right. However, that doesn't make it a good idea. And it certainly doesn't warrant a presidential "thumbs up".

Consider the case of the Westboro Baptist Church. Their members have been protesting at military funerals, holding up signs with slogans like "God hates America". A federal court recently ruled that they had the right to protest. But was it a good idea? The Westboro church members were trying to get a national platform for their message, and in that sense they succeeded. But they also alienated people so much by their gross disrespect they not get the message across, but incited hatred of their cause.

A church (mosque, synagogue, etc.) does not exist in a vacuum. It exists within, and to serve, a community. Obviously the Muslims living in and near lower New York need a place to worship and study. But New York is a small place, and it is easy to get around. Moving the center even a few blocks, or building something less ostentatious would have shown the community that their feelings were considered and respected by the Islamic community. In fact, the group turned down an offer to move the center to state owned land in order to keep it where it is. This is not the correct stance for a community center to take. It is the stance of someone trying to pick a fight with the community.

Additionally, Obama's support reeks of the bad judgment he showed in his "stupid cop" comments over the Gates arrest last year. The president should not be taking sides on issues being resolved in a city. When he does so, he is the 800 pound gorilla grandstanding for attention. In the same vein as the center itself, Obama had the right to make those remarks, but they were not a good idea.

Friday, August 13, 2010

August Mars Hoax

I am an amateur astronomer, and so each year I am approached by a dozen or so people and asked if Mars is really going to appear as big as the full moon in August. The answer is no, it will not be. Why do people think so each year?

There are two ways to describe the size of an object. One is to give its actual size, in miles, for instance. Mars' actual size is about 4200 miles in diameter. However, unless you are standing on Mars that doesn't really help you understand how big it looks. So astronomers measure size by stating how many degrees in angle you'd have to turn from one side to the other. This is the angular size of the object.

In 2003, Mars made its closest approach to Earth in many thousands of years. At that time Mars had an angular size of about 24 arc-seconds. How big is that? We're familiar with measuring angles in degrees. Ninety degrees is a right angle. However, even one degree is too big to be useful for describing the size of many astronomical objects. A degree is broken up into 60 arc-minutes. Each arc-minute is further divided into 60 arc-seconds. So 1 arc-second is 1/3600 of one degree.

So where did this "as big as the full moon" come from? In 2003, when Mars was 24 arc-seconds in angular size, if it were viewed through a telescope at 75x, it would appear to the observer through the telescope to be the same size as the moon would look without a telescope (the full moon as seen from Earth is about 30 arc-minutes or 1/2 degree in angular size). Someone misunderstood and it snowballed from there.

Where did August 27th come from? That was the day of the closest approach in 2003. However, Mars was close to that angular size for weeks before and after. The "one day only" was another misunderstanding.

The interesting thing is that Mars has a close approach (called an opposition) every 2 years and 2 months, so not only is the hoax extravagant in its claims of size and duration, but it has been around every year, even in years when Mars wasn't visible at all in August.

Such was the case several years ago when my mother called me about the Mars story to ask if I were going to view it. I was curious, since my mother doesn't "do" email. She had read it in her local paper! I won't name the paper, but there was the story, printed straight from the email. Apparently, they staff of that newspaper (and not a hokey one, but a "real" New York newspaper) didn't think to check the source or ask an astronomer before printing the sensational story.

Did I view Mars during that approach in 2003? You betcha. Right from my backyard. But I have to say it was not as spectacular as you might imagine. Next time you are out during a full moon look up. How much can you actually see on the moon? Now imagine a dull orange ball that size, with very faint fuzzy markings, and you'll get an idea of the reality of looking at Mars through a telescope in August 2003. In fact, I've taken an image of Mars and degraded it to look like I remember Mars looking through my telescope in 2003. A far cry from the highly processed images we typically see on the web!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Big Brother's Driving You

I read this article "How electric cars could pull the plug on U.S. highway funding" and it got me thinking. The gist of the article is as follows. Currently US transportation projects (like highway maintenance and improvements) are mostly paid for by state and federal taxes on gasoline. Revenue from those taxes has been falling in recent years, to the point where there is no longer enough income to pay for the projects. The government has had to subsidize these projects with general tax revenue (which as we know is nearly limitless). But why can we no longer afford to maintain the roads we've built?
The problem, according to the article, is that people are driving less, and cars are more efficient. However, if you look at the graph at right you will see the real problem. Between 1998 and 2000 spending went from $20B to $30B and is now almost $40B.

Either way it is clear that the projected spending is not sustainable with the projected income. This is exacerbated by government subsidies of electric cars, which result in reducing income further.

Most people, when they realized they were spending their income to reduce their income, would stop doing it. But our government marches to the beat of a different drummer. It is more important to follow the political agenda than to make sense. The solution is to raise more tax revenue.

But how? We need to take back those subsidies from the electric/hybrid car folks. One good way to do that is to tax people by the distance they drive, rather than by the amount of gas they buy. Given we need the revenue, I actually think that's a good idea. It's fair in that the people who use the resource (roads) are the ones who will pay to maintain/improve them. True some people drive highway more than local roads, but except for outliers this is a good system.

But of course, there's a catch or I wouldn't be writing this. How would you measure how far people drive? If it were me, when the cars went in for their annual state inspection I would record the mileage and use that as a basis for taxing. Obviously cars that are junked or sold would have to have their mileage recorded or the owner would pay a penalty, perhaps equivalent to the expected mileage on the vehicle.

However, the proposed solution will use GPS tracking to monitor your car's mileage. According to the article, this is the system being implemented in the Netherlands and Poland. Aside from the fact that every car would now require a GPS, and that the system will require billions in computer technology, the government would then have the technical capability to monitor the movement of every citizen. You can probably guess how I feel about that.

Where has Mike been?

Sorry for the long hiatus. I was away at boy scout camp last week. The plan was to spend a week with our troop and Friday morning leave to go to the CNMC (Catholic New Media Celebration) in Boston. The week started out great. I learned how to belay on the climbing wall and had a great time doing all sorts of fun activities. However, a stomach virus went through the camp, and as luck would have it I did something different on Friday morning. I'll leave out the details. You're welcome. Still having a hectic next couple of weeks until the kids are back in school and things settle down, so blogging will be light. Please bear with me.