Thursday, September 21, 2017

Fears and Dreams

This morning I saw a post on FB by someone who is a real life friend. Someone I would actually hug if i met them (which, if you know me, is rare). The post decried the fact that illegal immigrants are being used by big business. They are being paid too little and not given benefits or decent working conditions.

I wanted to comment "Amen! This is exactly why we need to end illegal immigration" but then I got to thinking. This person is a self-professed liberal. I know that if I posted such a thing I would be immediately attacked by the person's friends, called names, and the whole thread would go up in flames. Perhaps this person would even unfriend me, and certainly it would make it awkward (at best) when next we met in real life.

So I said nothing and moved on. I have two things to say about that (well, probably more, we'll see).

First off, I am saddened that I can't have a discussion with people, who I am otherwise good friends with,  about basically anything important in life, or in current events. Yes, I know, this was on FB, but I know (or at least I'm pretty sure) in real life the conversation wouldn't go much better. It would certainly be more polite, but the end result would be the same. At best, disappointment. At worst, "unfriending." I have a (short) list of relatives and friends for whom this has happened with me.

Why is it that so many people can't associate with people who have different views from them? Are people so shallow that they say "I love you, but only if you believe 'X' and 'Y' and not 'Z'?" There seems to be mode of though that says if I believe Z or fail to believe X or Y, then I am an 'A' (substitute your favorite bad person word there - bigot, hater, idiot, denier).

Nobody cares enough to find out why I believe 'Z' and don't believe 'X' and 'Y'. Nobody cares enough to say "even though we disagree you are still a good person." How petty! How narrow minded have we as a society become? Free speech, but only for me, because your speech is not "tolerant."

I could rant but onto point number 2. Immigration. I would normally be on the side of the immigrants, except for a few things. One is the way illegals get treated (low wages, poor working conditions, no benefits, etc.). Another is the horror stories coming out all the time. People found dying in Walmart parking lots, mass graves near the border. Stories of robberies and rapes of people trying to cross the border.

By supporting illegal immigration you are saying "I don't want to stop these things from happening." Now I'm not saying that people want these things to happen, or are supporting them, but when you create a "black market" for US residency, you surely can't expect there not to be black marketeers.

"Well, lock up the criminals who are doing this to the illegal immigrants!" you say? Then how would they get here, without the coyotes and human traffickers? The solution we should all agree on is to stop illegal immigration! If there is no illegal immigration, there is no reason to take people's money, kill them, rape them, or lock them in trailer trucks in 100 degree weather. There is no reason to pay them low wages and give them poor working conditions.

"What about the people already here?" you say? Give them a path. I propose we give illegal immigrants some amount of time (6 months, say) to register as illegals. Their cases would be considered and they could be vetted and either made legal immigrants or deported. Anyone who didn't register after the deadline would be deported on sight. But make the laws and let them work. Operating outside the law perpetuates a scenario where justice cannot operate, and the weak will be preyed upon. Surely everyone can see that.

But then again, maybe not. It seems too many people consider their world view more important than the world.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Eclipse Report

Not my picture
Unless you live under a rock you know that 8-21-17 was the "Great American Eclipse." This is my story of the eclipse. It started back in 2007 when I first began planning to see the eclipse. I wasn't sure where it would be visible at that point, but given my age and circumstances, I determined I wanted to see at least one total solar eclipse, and this would be it.

The Best Laid Plans...

Our first plans, once we knew from where totality would be visible, was to go to Jackson, WY. We had been to Grand Teton several years back, and started and ended the trip in Jackson. As you can see, it is comfortably in the zone of totality (between the red lines).


It's also a beautiful place to bee, as is Grand Teton National Park. If you haven't been, highly recommended.

But you can't book a vacation seven years in advance, and so I waited... too long. About a year in advance I went to book a place in/near Jackson, only to find out that you could not rent an outhouse - everything was booked! Perhaps it was for the best, as I'm sure it would have been more crowded than where we ended up.

Where did we end up? I chose two places, Nashville TN, and Salem, OR, and quickly booked hotels in both places. Then booked a third in Albany, OR, thinking it's just as close to totality as Salem, but a shorter drive up from the Bay area, where we could visit my wife's aunt. Also, we could not find a flight into/out of Portland on the days we wanted to travel.

We decided on OR instead of TN based on a web site that had the probability of cloud cover for any day of the year for a given area. Albany, OR had a 25% chance of cloud cover, vs. a 40% chance for TN.

Over the next couple of months we booked the rest of our hotels, flights etc. We spent time in the Bay area, then drove up the coast through redwoods to Albany, OR, then after the eclipse went down through Lassen Volcanic Park and back to catch the flight home. When I canceled our TN reservation, rooms (which were going for $200) were now going for over $1000!

Equipment

This is what I used to observe the eclipse. I am not saying it was the best, but it served my needs well.

For my eyeballs

I got a 10 pack of eclipse glasses on Amazon. I made sure they were "certified" ISO compliant glasses. No sense in messing with your eyes. Although only four of us were going I wanted 10 in case we lost/damaged some, or to share with other eclipse viewers who didn't have a pair.

As it turned out, the hotel we were staying at, the Comfort Inn and Suites in Albany OR, had a welcome packet with eclipse glasses for their guests. Nice place, and nice people. I would stay there again.

Telescope

As you may know I am an amateur telescope maker, and so I had grandiose plans of building a small scope for this eclipse, or maybe converting my 6" scope into a collapsible model but of course time and tide... to view the sun you don't need a lot of aperture, and I decided to purchase a Celestron 70mm travelscope. I used camelcamelcamel and waited until it was on sale for about $50.

The scope comes with its own backpack, tripod, finder scope, image erector prism, and 20mm and 10mm eyepieces.

The scope itself is decent. Very good image, with surprisingly little color aberration. Everything is plastic, but decently made. With a 13mm Nagler (I have an older one, and it is HEAVY) you could see the flex in the OTA, but even so the image was good. I like this scope! The backpack was nice, for carrying the scope on the air plane (I would not trust checking it).

The image erector is so-so, but you need it, or an extension tube, to reach focus on the eyepieces I was using. Also, because the sun was at 40 degrees elevation at the tie of the eclipse, it was nice having the prism so the eyepiece was facing up (a 90 degree prism would have been even better).

Speaking of which, the eyepieces were OK, but I decided to use one of my better quality telescope eyepieces. I opted for a no-name 20mm plossl I've had for years, and my 13mm Nagler. Images through the Nagler are as awesome as can be, but there is very little eye relief for people with glasses.

The tripod that comes with the scope is garbage. I opted to use a camera tripod I picked up at Costco for $50 a few years ago, during a photo emergency. That tripod is flimsy as well, but is way more sturdy than the one that came with the scope.

Likewise, the finder scope is garbage. I removed the optics, and put a piece of plastic cut from a Chinese food takeout container (with a dot in the center) in place of the objective, and a sheet of paper with a small circle drawn on it in place of the eyepiece. I adjusted it so that when the scope was pointed at the sun, the dot of light from the objective fell on the paper in the circle. Crude but effective.

Note to Celestron - I would have been willing to pay more for a sturdier scope without the tripod, and with a cheap red dot finder scope in place of the crappy one you provided.

I purchased a commercial solar filter for the scope, since I didn't want to be bothered building my own filter. However, when I tried it out the sun was painfully bright. I stopped the filter down from 70mm to about 25mm, which was better, but I wasn't sure I trusted it.

The filter claimed to be made from Baader planetarium filter material, even had the Baader paperwork in the box. I wondered if they had used the photographic-only version of the film, or if it was counterfeit. Sure enough, about a week before we were to leave, I get an email from Amazon saying that they were unable to verify that the filter was safe, and that they would refund my money.

Fortunately I have made many solar filters over the years, and I had what was left of a roll of Baader filter material. I merely had to make the filter.

Camera

I have a Canon T2i camera, with a 55-250mm lens. While I can get good photos of the sun, it's kind of small. At 250mm the sun is roughly 250/120 = 2.1mm on the camera's sensor. The T2i has an APS-C sized sensor, which is 22.2x14.8mm, so the sun fills only 1/7th of the frame. Ideally I'd like the image to be at least 1/3 of the sensor size, or 5mm, which would require a 600mm lens. 600mm lenses, are expensive.

I could mount the camera on the telescope with a T-ring adapter, but that would leave me with no visual scope, and my primary purpose was to SEE the eclipse, not to photograph it.

I though about renting a lens. I know people who did, with great success, but I was leery of having to lug the rented lens all over. I would also have to make a solar filter for a lens that wouldn't be useful afterwards. Additionally, since I would be gone over a week, and I would need to get the lens a week or two early to practice, I would be paying $225, for a one-time use thing.

Instead I picked up a 2x tele-xtender for $99 that makes the 250mm lens into a 500m lens - at the cost of doubling the focal ratio (which I didn't care about) and losing the ability to auto-focus (which I cared about, but not enough to want to shell out $1000 for a dedicated lens). I had good success with it in the backyard, although focusing on the sun was difficult. How I long for the days of split image focusers on cameras!

For the camera, I had to make my own filter. Commercial ones were not only expensive, but impossible to come by. Attaching a homemade filter to the lens was a bit tricky. In the end I bought  a cheap screw on rubber lens hood and made the filter to fit that.

The two solar filters fit in a Chinese food takeout container, which fit in the telescope's backpack, along with the scope, finder, eclipse glasses and tripod. The rest of the optics went in my camera bag.

Needless to say, with a long focal length lens you need a good tripod. Luckily I have an old Slik tripod from my Dad that is very stable. Speaking of which, the tripod was actually broken, and so old I couldn't find any information on it. I took a picture of the damage and model number, which I emailed to Slik, asking how I could get it repaired. In about an hour or two they sent me an email saying I could order the parts from them (the email had a parts list and diagram of the tripod) and a video on how to repair it. The parts cost only $7, and arrived in a few days, and I was up and running! Very good customer service!

The Experience!

Driving up, the weather report looked good but we had heard of wild fires with thick smoke. We heard one place not too far away had to be evacuated! As we went up, at times the sun was barely visible through the smoke! Fortunately, the area where we were going was in between fires.



I had read about what an eclipse is like. I had seen photos. NONE of that prepared me for the real thing. We arrived at the hotel the evening before. One man was standing in the triangle of grass by the road setting up a camera. Turned out he spoke very little English, and didn't know where the eclipse would be in the sky.

Fortunately I had gotten this great app, TPE (The Photographer's Ephemeris) for my phone. It shows all sorts of data bout sun, moon, light and shadow. According to it, First contact would occur at about 105 degrees azimuth and 20 degrees elevation, and totality would be at 120/30. Using the app and the compass and level apps on my phone I was able to walk the property and find the best place to set up the next morning. I was in a spot where everything would be visible, but I could sit in the shade of a tree.

The next morning the hotel was full of people. There were three general categories. A group from France, of mostly older people, Asian tourists, and "crunchy geeks". This last category drove up from California in their Priuses, wore birkenstocks, floppy hats and Tee shirts with slogans like "Surely not EVERYBODY was Kung Fu Fighting" and "It's not rocket science - oh wait, it is!" and other geeky things.

Oddly enough all of those people sat by the road in the hot sun, while a small group of us sat in the back parking lot where it was not crowded at all. The small group consisted of American families, mostly from northern California. There was a young couple who sat with their glasses on and held hands the whole time; parents with their two small children, who played with a "robot dog" the whole time; an older couple who just had sheets of dark plastic they held over their faces... You get the picture. I was the only person who had a scope you could look through, and at times there was a line to look through my scope. I was glad I brought it. Here was my setup.



First contact was cool through the scope but you couldn't tell anything was going on. It wasn't until the sun was about 80% covered that things began to get weird. First off, every little speck of light through the trees turned into an upside down image of the eclipse.


Next, the light began to be...odd. It seemed to me that everything had a greenish tint. I think it's because everything is getting dark, and my brain wants it to be reddish sunset, but in fact the light is daylight colored. It's very hard to explain, and a picture doesn't show anything wrong.

I spoke to some people who viewed the eclipse from a valley and they said they could see the shadow approaching them over the mountains. That must have been cool. A few seconds before totality, there are ripples of light on the ground. My son said he saw them, but I forgot to look - I was too busy watching the sun go dark.

I was able to see "Bailey's Beads" and "The Diamond Ring" for a fraction of a second. Then I was entranced by the sight of a black spot where the sun should be, surrounded by a glowing corona. I unscrewed the filter on the camera and hastily focused, but the results were kind of lackluster...


The sky was dark - not as black as at night, but you could see brighter stars and planets. It was about two minutes long, but it seemed like seconds before it all happened rapidly in reverse and I had to screw the solar filters back on.

Aftermath

After the eclipse we were told there would be horrendous traffic, so we were prepared to stay until the next day. However, that would have meant driving eleven hours to the airport the next day, so we decided, after seeing that Route 5 was moving pretty well, to chance it. It would only be four and a half hours to Redding, and we would get to see Lassen Volcanic National Park, which I really wanted to do.

So we got in the car, and... I will tell you traffic moved pretty well... until there was construction and a lane was gone... and then an accident... and then rubbernecking for another accident... and then...

We got creative with ways to get off the highway and find it again. However, roads were closed or detoured for construction that Google Maps really wanted us to use. Suffice it to say that 9 hours later we rolled into our hotel.

Lessons

I learned a few lessons from the experience:
  • If you have a chance, go see a total eclipse! I don't think I would go cross country just to see the eclipse, but as part of a vacation it was nice.
  • Book early, and often! Although some of the people we were with had booked the hotel the night before, it is less stressful to book ahead. Do your research on weather and traffic!
  • Ditch the camera! Honestly the pictures I got were not very good, and every second I spent staring through a camera was one I did not spend enjoying the eclipse.
  • Bring a telescope. The travelscope was just the right size,  and the 20mm eyepiece pretty much ideal. I suppose I could have gotten by with the tripod it came with, but the simple modifications I made were useful.
  • Practice. Work out any equipment bugs by viewing the sun at home ahead of time. I had worked out all the settings on my camera, but even for visual observing it is useful to practice. For instance, my wife discovered the glass didn't work well with her prescription glasses - it was easier for her to hold the eclipse glasses in her had an inch in front of her glasses.
  • Stay! In retrospect we should have stayed put until the next day when (hopefully) the traffic was less. In our case, our schedule didn't allow us to add a day to the vacation, but if I could I would have done it differently.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Trumped up BSA News

Picture from FOX
I'm been seeing a lot of these in my news feed:

Trump subjects Boy Scouts to a political rant that demeans the presidency
Trump critics liken Boy Scouts event to a Hitler Youth rally
There’s No Mistaking Trump for a Boy Scout
Trump is unteachable. His Boy Scouts speech proved it
Trump’s Boy Scouts speech broke with 80 years of presidential tradition
Trump's Boy Scout Jamboree speech calls for health care action, 'more loyalty' in DC
From ‘fake media’ to Clinton, Trump brings political attacks to the Scout Jamboree

and my favorite
The Origin of Trump’s Weird Sex Yacht Anecdote in His Boy Scout Speech

Of course the usual people are making the usual comments... how "Trump needs to go" - how "Trump is destroying the world," how he should be prosecuted, and how the Boy Scouts need to denounce him. Apparently this speech was unacceptable in all ways.

But did any of them take the time to watch the speech, or did they just look at the 10 second sound bites fed to them by the media that they trust and believe? Ironic how many stories blast Trump for saying "fake media" in his speech, in a story which is, itself, "fake media" in its portrayal of his speech.

So, out of curiosity I went and watched the whole speech. It is 38 minutes long, but since youtube will play it back at 2x speed I was able to get through it in 20 minutes. Let me say this:
  • It was a "Trump" speech (meaning there was an element of narcissism in it).
  • There was no "sex yacht" - well, there was a yacht, but if there were sex it wasn't mentioned. The story was about losing your focus and commitment in life, and it was actually a good point to make to scouts who will be starting their careers soon.
  • In brief, the subjects covered were
  • Boy Scouts, and scouting in general is great
  • America is great
  • Those who serve others (military, police, firefighters, etc.) are great
  • The scout oath and law are an important part of being a good American
  • The Trump administration has the support of the American people
  • The Trump administration has accomplished great things
  • The Trump administration has undone a lot of bad things done by the previous administration
  • It is important to find something you are passionate about and do it well
  • Service to others is an important part of life
Other than injecting too much about his administration, there's nothing wrong with the speech - but then again Trump is unable to say "hello" without injecting something about his accomplishments, so that's not "news". Yes, I can take blurbs from the speech and come up with something bad, but the sheer variety of things complained about in various news stories supports the fact that the overall speech was not rally about any of those points.

A couple of points need to be addressed.

How does this speech compare to other BSA Jamboree speeches?

I went back and looked at the previous Jamboree speeches on youtube.

At the 2013 Jamboree President Obama did not show up at all, apparently after initially indicating he would come, since the BSA has made up special patches to commemorate his appearance. Instead, Mike Rowe gave a speech. In it he praised the Boy Scouts, and their service, and pushed the value of hard work, and mentioned his organization, which offers scholarships and financial aid to those learning a trade, and which promotes "dirty" jobs growth. Now, I don't mean to compare Mike Rowe with President Trump in terms of the quality of essence of the speech. Mike is an excellent speaker, and eagle scout, and an apparently selfless and egoless guy. The opposite of President Trump in many ways. But my point is the outline of the points hit by the two speeches is similar, except for the fact that the organization that President Trump is promoting is his administration.

For the 2010 BSA Centennial Jamboree President Obama recorded a 90 second video, which was played at the Jamboree. It was a very "generic" speech which said basically "congrats."

At the 2005 Jamboree, President Bush spoke. In his speech he praised the Boy Scouts, and their service, and pushed the value of hard work, and mentioned his administration's initiative to promote volunteerism.

So in terms of overall points, President Trump's speech did not vary from the "standard." In terms of delivery, neither Mike Rowe nor President Bush used a teleprompter. President Bush had note he referred to, and Mike Rowe spoke without any notes. President Trump used a teleprompter, as I presume President Obama did for his brief 2010 video.


Personally I didn't like President Trump's speech as much as the others, perhaps because I find his style narcissistic and triumphal. However, that is his style, not a substantive issue. I did think all three speakers were sincere in their admiration for scouting and their comments.

Boy Scouts an Politics

I've heard a number of people complain that Trump politicized the Boy Scouts, and that Boy Scouts are forbidden from being political or partisan. This is baloney. First off, here is the BSA official policy on Boy Scouts' participation at political events.
POLICY ON SCOUT PARTICIPATION IN POLITICAL EVENTS
Uniformed unit members and leaders may participate in flag ceremonies at political events and may lead the Pledge of Allegiance; however, they should retire after the ceremony and not remain on the speakers’ platform or in a conspicuous location where television viewers could construe their presence as an endorsement or symbol of support. In addition, photos of candidates or Scouts in uniform or BSA marks and logos are not allowed in political campaign materials of any kind.
Volunteers and professionals must be alert to situations that would imply that the BSA favors one candidate over another. Strict observance of our long-standing policy against the active participation of uniformed Scouts and leaders in political events is mandatory.
Note, however, that this was not a political event - it was a Jamboree, a scouting event. There was no "candidate" running for an office. The rules above are clearly a nod to the Johnson Amendment (which as you know I think is an unconstitutional infringement on first amendment rights). But regardless, there is no ban on scout participating in politics. In fact, part of the scout oath is to do one's duty to one's country, which explicitly includes participating in the American political system.

If President Trump appeared to have the support of the scouts present it's because he did, and that is to be expected, because the values that he expresses are in consistent with the scout principles of patriotism, good citizenship, religious belief and moral standards. Likewise, Mike Rowe and President Bush had the support of scouts in their respective speeches.

In short, President Trump was President Trump. The Boy Scouts were Boy Scouts. The media was outraged by everything President Trump says or does, and says he is evil. All things that go without saying. About the only thing newsworthy about the whole event was that the president spoke at a Jamboree, which hasn't happened in 12 years.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Shame on Them!

I'm reading a lot of opinions about the Peruta case being denied a hearing by the Supreme Court. For those unfamiliar with the case, Edward Peruta wanted to get a permit for carrying a concealed weapon in San Diego California. California has a law that requires a citizen requiring documentation of "good cause" that "distinguish[es] the applicant from the mainstream and places the applicant in harm's way" in order to carry a concealed weapon. And since California does not allow any open carry of weapons at all, that means that the "mainstream" of citizens are forbidden to exercise their second amendment rights. The right is granted only as an exception.

Imagine if only a select few who were out of the mainstream were allowed to vote, or to speak freely, or be allowed to have a trial by jury? And yet, the same rules do not apply to the second amendment. The case should have been open-and-shut, and yet Mr. Peruta was denied his permit because he wasn't special enough.

The decision was appealed, and the case went to the 9th circuit Federal Court, where it was ruled (correctly) that California's "good cause" requirement did, in fact, violate Mr. Peruta's second amendment rights. However, that wasn't good enough for California liberals. The case was re-heard en banc and the 9th circuit court reversed its own decision, based on the reasoning that at least some people were granted permits. Can you imagine a court saying "well, some people get to vote, so we can deny you your right to vote."

Well, the case finally made its way to the Supreme Court, which for months put off making any decision on it, but recently decided not to hear the case, which means the lower court decision holds, and Mr. Peruta (and other Californians) are denied their rights.

Oddly enough, people on both sides of the issue are happy. Notably, the pro-gun people are saying "well, at least they didn't set precedent because they didn't hear the case." The logic is that we should wait until we know we have the "votes" on the Supreme Court to get it passed the right way.

Here's the problem with that logic. The job of the Supreme Court is not to "vote" on issues and we should wait until we have appointees who will "vote" the right way. The job of the Supreme Court is to look at a case and see if it violates what the Constitution says. And, to quote the late Anton Scalia, the Constitution says what it says!

If the Constitution says you have the right to keep and bear arms, then that's the decision you make. If the Constitution says you have to bake a cake then that's the decision you make. The job isn't supposed to be one of "what the justices want" but "what the Constitution says." And if a justice doesn't like what the Constitution says, too bad. That's why we have a legislative branch - to do what the people who elect them want them to do. The Supreme Court is supposed to be a check on that power, not a pawn to whichever party appointed them. They are unelected and are not supposed to represent themselves or their party or anything - they are supposed to just follow what' on the paper.

Case in point - slavery. It was not the job of the Supreme Court justices to overturn all slavery laws because they decided to reinterpret the Constitution in favor of abolition - it took Congress to pass an amendment. Likewise Prohibition, and the repeal of Prohibition, and women's votes, and income tax... you get the picture?

If you want to do something that's outside what the Constitution says, you make a law. If the law is deemed unconstitutional, you either change the law or change the constitution. You don't lobby for "votes" on the Supreme Court. If you go down that path, then the country is no longer a democratic republic, but an oligarchy.

But that's the path we're happily running down. From abortion to gay marriage to religious liberty to self defense, we are accepting the "rights" of the Supreme Court to decide what they want rather than what the Constitution says. And when we talk about Scalia (and Gorsuch) who hold the opinion that the Constitution says what it says, they are labeled "extreme" and Democrats try to block their appointment because of their "conservative views." News flash - if you appoint a court that reinterprets the Constitution, you are just a couple of appointments away from having everything you worked for reversed. The way to change laws is supposed to be through the legislature, not the courts.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Thoughts on the Republican baseball team shooting

Photo of civilian legal SKS from Wikipedia
The gun banners are already talking about how we need to ban the assault weapon used by the shooter, and institute "universal" background checks. Thought I would put in my two cents. But first, a moment of prayer for those who affected by this tragedy.

First off, the rifle used is reported to be an Chinese SKS. It is nothing like an assault rifle - it has NONE of the features of a so-called assault rifle. It only holds 10 rounds. It does not have a detachable magazine. It does not have a suppressor or flash hider. It does not have a pistol grip. It doesn't have a scope or fancy optics or electronics or anything. It is 70 year old technology. If you would classify this as an "assault rifle" then pretty much anything is. Let's face the fact that rifles can be used to kill. A rifle that can't be used to kill has very little usefulness (for hunting, self defense, target shooting, etc,).

Secondly, regarding universal background checks, there are a bunch of issues that need to be stated. First off, who decides who should be forbidden to own guns? Right now there are cases going through the courts where governments have made rules denying someone a gun because they committed a misdemeanor, because they actually got mental health (as opposed to letting it fester so they could keep their guns), and all other kinds of silly rules. Common sense would say "deny guns to criminals!" but who defines what kinds of crimes count? And even then, does committing a crime take away a natural right (like self defense)? If you look, carefully and honestly, you'll see there is no black and white answer.

But let's say we do manage to define exactly what kinds of crimes/mental issues/etc. take away your right to self defense. Would that stop so-called "gun violence?" Most of the gun crimes committed today are with guns illegally obtained anyway (theft or having a non-prohibited friend or family member get the gun). No background check will stop those people from getting guns, because they didn't go to the gun store and buy them. The (small) remainder of crimes are committed by people who had no prior criminal record, and so passed a background check. Obviously the background check didn't stop them.

Then there is the so-called "gun show loophole" - which doesn't really exist - but what they mean is banning private sales of guns. Again you have the same two issues - the existing criminals don't submit to background checks and the future ones pass them.

So exactly what is the point of background checks? You could say that maybe the criminals find it harder to buy a gun illegally, since the risk and effort involved will make the street guns cost more. However, the opposite is true. Because of the overhead and red tape involved, it is more expensive to buy a gun legally. The criminals have way less overhead.

But that's kind of beside the point, because in the US we don't really have background checks - we have what amounts to registration. Let's go back to first principles and look at how a background check should work. I go to the gun store and say "I'd like to buy a gun." The gun store checks my driver's license or other form of ID, and looks up my name on the list of "bad people." If I'm not on the list they sell me a gun.

Instead what happens is I fill out a form. On that form I have to disclose things like my ethnicity, race, place of birth and fill out a whole bunch of questions about things like whether I belong to a group that advocates the overthrow of the government. None of the questions is optional, and if I fill them out wrong (even by mistake) that is a felony offense. The seller has to fill in the make, model and serial number of the gun involved. But wait, I thought it was me they were checking, not the gun.

Of course all of this paperwork has to be archived forever (literally) and inspected regularly (but not copied - wink wink) by the ATF (which is itself an unconstitutional organization, but I wont' get into that here). The net result is a web of complicated laws and regulations designed to trip people into accidentally becoming a felon, without any proof (or even reasonable hope) that any of this has any positive effect on "gun violence."

At least Maryland, after $5 million, finally scrapped their gun registry after discovering that in the 15 years it had been around it had solved ZERO crimes. How many crimes has the federal gun registry (I mean of course background check system) solved? I think we deserve an answer, but I don't think one will be coming any time soon.

So how do we reduce "gun violence"? Surprisingly gun violence is actually down, despite media claims to the contrary, and despite the number of guns being at a high point (pun intended). Additionally, the three safest states in the US are ones where citizens can carry guns without any paperwork or permission from their government. So maybe the solution isn't more gun control, but less? The definition of insanity is, after all, doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Novas Order

This post is inspired by a couple of discussions with Protestants. Bear with me.

Consider two stars, Castor and Pollux. They are the two brightest stars in the constellation Gemini (image courtesy Wikipedia). They represent the heads of the twins the constellation depicts.

Castor is actually a system of 6 stars, about 51 light years from the earth. Pollux is closer, about 34 light years from earth, and is a simple star.

Let's suppose one of the stars in Castor, and the star Pollux both go nova simultaneously. On earth we would detect Pollux going nova after 34 years, and then we would detect Castor's nova only after another 17 years had passed. That's because of the length of time it takes the light for each event to reach the earth.

But things would get even weirder if we were in a spaceship traveling at a significant fraction of the speed of light. The notion of simultaneity, it turns out, is relative, depending on your frame of reference.

What does this have to do with Protestants? First off, there is the Communion of Saints. According to Catholic belief, the saints in heaven are alive in Christ, enjoying the Beatific Vision, and interceding for us. That is backed up by numerous scripture passages, of which I will only name Revelation 5:8. For more on the topic see "The Intercession of the Saints".

According to many Protestants, those who are dead are asleep, waiting to be woken on the Last Day. They case this on Scripture like Isaiah 38:18 (which refers to hell, not heaven) and Psalm 115:17 (which refers to dead idols), or Psalm 6:5 (which refers to Sheol, not heaven).

But one of the key objections in this conversation was that the saints can't hear the prayers of more than one person at a time because they are not God. I've heard apologists talk about how God can give the saints in heaven the power to hear more than one prayer at a time, but I'd like to suggest an alternative hypothesis. Even in our own galaxy, things that are simultaneous to one observer may not be simultaneous to a different observer. What if our "simultaneous" prayers on earth are not simultaneous in heaven? Why should we think time in heaven works the way it does on earth? Time is a phenomenon of space, and heaven is not in our space-time continuum.

And another thing... the notion of the particular and general judgements. It has always bothered me that we are taught that there are two judgements after death - the particular judgement, where we are judged as individuals and steered to heaven or hell, and the general judgement at the end of the world, when all are judged and we will see God's plan. Both are based on Scripture, but what's the sense of a second judgement when you've already been judged? You know the outcome.

But what if they are describing the same judgement? On earth they would appear to happen at different times, but again, God is not constrained by time. When I die, why can't I be judged on the last day, and be in heaven (hopefully) on the day of my death? If we can do such tricks in our own galaxy with worm holes etc. why should we think God can't accomplish it? I'm not saying that this is what happens, necessarily, but I see no reason why it could not happen that way, either scripturally, theologically, philosophically or scientifically.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Novena to the Holy Spirit

After the Ascension of Our Lord, His disciples and Apostles spent nine days praying for the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5, 12-14):
And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away; and when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.
Thus the tradition of the novena, nine days of prayer for some intention. But the first, and earliest novena, is the original one, recognized by the church, the novena for the Holy Spirit. I join the church in praying this novena each year on the nine days leading up to Pentecost. Please join me.

There are different prayers for each day, found here

as well as the following, which are repeated each day:

Act of Consecration to the Holy Spirit
 
On my knees before the great multitude of heavenly witnesses, I offer myself, soul and body to You, Eternal Spirit of God. I adore the brightness of Your purity, the unerring keenness of Your justice, and the might of Your love. You are the Strength and Light of my soul. In You I live and move and am. I desire never to grieve You by unfaithfulness to grace and I pray with all my heart to be kept from the smallest sin against You. Mercifully guard my every thought and grant that I may always watch for Your light, and listen to Your voice, and follow Your gracious inspirations. I cling to You and give myself to You and ask You, by Your compassion to watch over me in my weakness. Holding the pierced Feet of Jesus and looking at His Five Wounds, and trusting in His Precious Blood and adoring His opened Side and stricken Heart, I implore You, Adorable Spirit, Helper of my infirmity, to keep me in Your grace that I may never sin against You. Give me grace, O Holy Spirit, Spirit of the Father and the Son to say to You always and everywhere, "Speak Lord for Your servant heareth."
Amen.

Prayer for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit

O Lord Jesus Christ, Who, before ascending into heaven, did promise to send the Holy Spirit to finish Your work in the souls of Your Apostles and Disciples, deign to grant the same Holy Spirit to me that He may perfect in my soul, the work of Your grace and Your love. Grant me the Spirit of Wisdom that I may despise the perishable things of this world and aspire only after the things that are eternal, the Spirit of Understanding to enlighten my mind with the light of Your divine truth, the Spirit of Counsel that I may ever choose the surest way of pleasing God and gaining heaven, the Spirit of Fortitude that I may bear my cross with You and that I may overcome with courage all the obstacles that oppose my salvation, the Spirit of Knowledge that I may know God and know myself and grow perfect in the science of the Saints, the Spirit of Piety that I may find the service of God sweet and amiable, and the Spirit of Fear that I may be filled with a loving reverence towards God and may dread in any way to displease Him. Mark me, dear Lord, with the sign of Your true disciples and animate me in all things with Your Spirit.
Amen.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

An extra few days

I've been seeing this meme posted for the last couple of days... and even on Catholic Answers last night the host was defending moving Ascension Thursday to Sunday.

The justification, in his case, was that if it were on Thursday, Catholic schools would have off and it would separate families where the parents had to work.

What? How out of touch must the bishops be? First off, I have never heard of a Catholic school closing for this - they simply have mass and celebrate the day at school (and bishops should know this, having at least some sort of oversight into to the workings of the schools in their own diocese). True, the parents will be separated from the kids if they are at work, but they would have been separated anyway if they are at work.

When I was a child (preschool) I still remember enjoying holy days of obligation that were not Sundays. My mother would take us to mass, and we'd always stop for ice cream after. It was just a nice day to spend with family.

Later, in school, I remember sitting in the pews murmuring quietly waiting for mass at school to start. It was a treat and a bonding experience to have mass with all my peers. With geography, and with the 5 different masses each weekend, I didn't often see a lot of my friends at mass. Plus, this was mass just for us, with a homily geared towards our lives.

As an adult, holy days of obligation during the week have become a time of bonding as well. I find out who is Catholic, and we all carpool over to noon mass during lunch. It is also an opportunity for evangelization. "Hey Mike, wanna do lunch Thursday?" "Sorry, I'm going to mass with Ed and Jim and Carolyn." "Why are you going to mass?" Boy, is that an opening or what?

In short, I see a lot of up sides and no down sides to keeping the holy days where they belong. With vigil masses, and masses in the morning, noon and evening, there is really no excuse to miss it, unless you just really can't be bothered. And who knows - being invited to Ascension Thursday mass by your coworkers may be the thing you need to get mack into practicing your faith.

Friday, February 10, 2017

I am pro choice

Let me ask you a seemingly innocent question. Should Christians be excluded from receiving welfare benefits? In other words, if someone is legally entitled to receive government benefits, should that person be excluded if they are Christians? Or Muslims? Or Jews?

No? OK, we agree on that.

Now let me play a bit of devil's advocate here. What it Mary Catholic takes $5 of her welfare check and drops it in the collection basket on Sunday? Shouldn't she be excluded from receiving benefit? After all, doesn't that mean that the State™ is subsidizing her church? Isn't that a violation of Separation of church and State™?

At this point, if you're intellectually honest, you have to admit that the money, once Mary cashes her check, is controlled by Mary, and it isn't the government choosing what to do with it. If you can't follow that, then you must reverse your answer to the first question and say that all people of faith must be excluded from all government programs and entitlements.

So, if Mary "given" a tax break by the state to send her kids to private school, how is the State™ subsidizing a church? Mary can choose to use that money in any school, secular or religious. Once Mary cashes that check, it is controlled by Mary, and it isn't the government choosing what to do with it. The money itself is earmarked for education, and that's what she must spend it on, and she does.

Now, let's look at it from a purely economic perspective. Mary pays $8,000 in taxes, and her local public school costs the taxpayers $23,000 per student per year. If Mary is given an $8,000 tax break to send her kids to a different school, Mary wins, her kids win and the taxpayers win! Mar wins, because she can now afford to send her kids to the school that will educate them best. Her kids win, because they get a better education. The tax payers win, because Mary's three kids are now saving the school system $69,000 per year, for a net savings for $61,000 per year to the tax payers. [N.B. these are not made up numbers, these are actual tax rates and public school costs for a nearby town in NJ - I looked them up.]

It seems to me there is no Constitutional justification for opposing school choice, and every economic incentive to support school choice. Could it be that the real reason for opposing school choice is because legislators are in bed with big business and special interest groups?

Saturday, February 4, 2017

NICS and Johnson

Photo Credit: mensatic on morguefile.com
If there is one thing that strikes me as so blatantly unconstitutional that we shouldn't even find a possibility of disagreement, it's the government coercing people to remove their constitutional rights. One of the biggest ways the government does that today is by taking your money and then requiring you to give up rights to get it back. Bullying? Yes. Clearly illegal and unconstitutional? Yes. And yet, I find myself having discussions with people who think it's OK for the government to take away constitutional rights if it leads to "some good"™. A couple of cases in point.

The Social Security Act has been amended to take away the second amendment rights of social security recipients. People with disabilities have the choice to not receive social security benefits or forfeit their constitutional rights.

A little background. NICS, of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, is a service provided by the FBI mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 (although NICS applies to all guns in the US, not just handguns). By law all gun dealers must run prospective buyers through the system, which identifies people who are deemed "unfit" to be allowed a gun. That list includes people who [emphasis mine]:
  • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Is under indictment for a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Is a fugitive from justice;
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Is illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
  • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner;
  • Has been convicted in any court of a "misdemeanor crime of domestic violence", a defined term in 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(33)
In December the Obama administration promoted a new implementation of an "improvement" to social security. Page 19 of "Implementation of the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007 (NIAA)" says [again, emphasis mine]:
Under our representative payee policy, unless direct payment is prohibited, we presume that an adult beneficiary is capable of managing or directing the management of benefits. However, if we have information that the beneficiary has a mental or physical impairment that prevents him or her from managing or directing the management of benefits, we will develop the issue of capability. ... It is also important to remember that we can reevaluate a beneficiary’s capability even  though we may have already determined a beneficiary’s capability in the past...

Note that having a third party manage your benefits is cause for losing your second amendment rights. That means, for example, if you are a poor person, perhaps with little education, who has a family member manage their finances, boom! No rights. Or perhaps you are a shut-in, due to a physical disability who has somebody more mobile do all your financial transactions. Again, no rights. The problem is that this system bases your constitutional rights on capability rather than criminal activity or violent behavior.

Let's look at the example from the document. This is how they see it working properly...
For example... a once capable beneficiary who is admitted to a mental hospital may now be incapable.
But the person admitted to a mental hospital is already covered by the NICS rules, without this amendment. Finally, let's look at how someone who is declared unfit can restore their rights.
We propose to provide these individuals with a process by which they can apply for relief from the Federal firearms prohibitions and ... we propose ... to require an applicant for relief to submit written statements and any other evidence regarding the applicant’s reputation.
So, if I am on social security, it is not enough to meet the "normal person" standards for securing my rights, I have to have other people vouch for my reputation?

Let me repeat my principle. If the government restricts the constitutional rights of citizens in order for them to receive government money, that law is illegal and unconstitutional. It is monetary coercion by the government.

Case number two. The Johnson amendment requires charities to give up their first amendment rights (by prohibiting them from endorsing a candidate) or to give up their tax exempt status. And yes, even corporations have first amendment rights.

The justification is that if a tax-exempt organization could say "We're ready for Hillary" or "Make America Great Again" that would effective mean the government was subsidizing candidates' campaigns. But that assumes that the money being donated to these organizations "belongs to" the government somehow, and that the government is giving that money to them, and that simply is not true.

Let's assume I give $100 to my local church, and my tax rate is 30%. According to some, I actually gave $70 to the church, and the government gave $30. In reality, I gave $100 to my local church. The following April I file my taxes and the government gives me, not the church, the $30, with which I can do what I want. So the money has not, in fact, been given to the church, since I could give the $30 to whomever I please (perhaps to a political candidate my church disapproves of). The fact is, at the end of the day, I get the money, and I control where it goes. How is the government subsidizing my local church any more than if, say, I was receiving welfare or social security, and I gave part of that money to my local church? I am the one directing money that I control, not the government.

Ironically, the government's role in this "subsidy" is far more remote than the subsidy of contraceptives and abortifacients by the Little Sisters of the Poor, with which the Obama administration and it's fans saw no problem at all.

No, the real effect of the Johnson amendment is to stifle political speech by churches. Why do I single out churches, specifically? Because big corporations are able to set up 501(c)(4) sister corporations, which can endorse candidates, often with the same employees. So Cecile Richards can go to a Planned Parenthood Awards dinner and freely stump for Hillary, because she is also working for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. In fact, Planned Parenthood can endorse and fund raise for Planned Parenthood Action Fund without losing their tax exempt status.

Remember when Cardinal Dolan was panned for offering to appear at the RNC convention but not the DNC convention? Of course, he had offered to speak at both, but the media said otherwise and the backlash was intense until the truth came out. So we have created a political climate in which certain organizations can, if they have the money and are on the "right side" of things in the media, pay the government to buy back their first amendment rights, and others (primarily religious) cannot.

Un-consti-tutional.


"But Mike" you say "Do you really want to let dangerous mentally ill people, or perhaps parkinsons patients who have unsteady hands and paranoia, to have guns?" No, of course not. "Do you really want to have less transparency into political candidate financing?" No, of course not. But a bad law is a bad law. Find a different way to achieve the ends, one that does not strip constitutional rights from people.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Liar Liar

A few years ago my mother treated us to a cruise to Alaska! Yes it was awesome, but that's not what I want to talk about. One of the places we stopped at was Skagway, and in Skagway, the place to go is called "Liarsville."

Liarsville got it's name in an interesting way. During the Alaskan gold rush, every news outlet, big or small, wanted to cover the story. So they all sent reporters to Alaska to go cover things first hand. However, it was not very easy to trek all the way out on the trail and try to find the prospectors to get their stories, so the newsmen set up a camp near Skagway and made up stories about the gold rush for their papers to print. Hence the name "Liarsville."

My point is that "fake news' is not a new phenomena. And if you staunchly support the media, realize that you are merely supporting a point of view, not the truth. Choose your sources wisely, and even then don't believe all you read.

Look at things like the coverage of the Mosque attack in Canada, or Trump's immigration freeze, and you will look long and hard before you find any "fact" that is in fact, a fact. We have a thousand news sources, most of which have set up camp at their computer to make up stories.

That's not to say that everyone's a liar, or that there is no truth or that you cannot know the truth. But you are responsible for digging through the dreck if you want to know the truth.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

March for Life 2017 Report

As you know, I attend the March for Life when I can (last, year, for instance, our bus was canceled due to the snow). This year I took a "different" bus, to go with my son's youth group, rather than the pro-life group I usually go with. Because the bus was going at a different time, by a different route, this was not an apples to apples comparison. So, on with the report.

We had mass and then filed onto the bus and got on the road. Everyone was tired because of the early hour, and the bus was pretty quiet (the leaders had declared it a "quiet time" until we got to MD). As we headed to the Garden State Parkway, the bus stopped abruptly, as the road ahead was closed. After a lot of maneuvering the bus got turned around and went back almost to the start. Half an hour later, we were still trying to find a way to get to the parkway.

Due to that, we were late getting to the rest stop in MD. This is a different rest stop than the one we usually stop at, and we were late, so I can't comment on the crowd sizes there. We got back on the road and had an uneventful trip to Washington. Well, not totally uneventful, as we prayed the rosary and sang songs and talked and ate and had a good time.

When we got to D.C. things got bad again. Traffic was a disaster, and it would take 5-10 minutes to go each block. We were invited to meet up with our bishop and the rest of the Diocese at 11:15, but 11:50 had come and gone, and the rally had started. By the time we could see the Capitol building, it was 12:15, and before we got off the bus, V.P. Pence had given his speech (which we live streamed via phone on the bus).

IMHO the best speech we heard was Mia Love's "What might have been" speech.



We jumped off the bus and hurried over to the march proper, which was about to start. We never did find our bishop and the rest of the diocese. We wound up missing the whole rally, which is a shame because it's usually a lot of fun meeting the people around you while hearing the speeches.

A few things were different during the march. Usually the march is peaceful, with everyone singing, shouting, and praying about abortion. This year there was one man who has a hug sign and a megaphone telling people that the "Roman" Pope is the antichrist and that Catholics are idolaters who are going to hell. He was harassing all the groups that were clearly associated with Catholics, and following priests around.

Another thing different was the lack of any counter demonstration. Usually, there is a group of about 5-10 women on the steps of the Supreme Court building holding "keep abortion legal" signs. There are also a few women here and there along the route with similar signs. This year I saw only one woman, mixed into the crowd at the Supreme court, holding a sign with a drawing of a coat hanger on it and the words "Never go back" and "Say no to Trump".

Lastly, I actually saw an abc news truck, and a C-SPAN camera man, and someone said they saw a CNN crew. I have never seen any news outlet cover the march other than EWTN and a few independent cameras. I don't know what kind of news they are reporting - so far I've heard CNN's reporting was completely "fake" as expected, and I see an article on an abc site that says "thousands" marched and then goes into the "women's" march which had "500,000" march - amazing how they can estimate crowd size for one march but not the other. It was interesting to see them at least have a presence.

Maybe someday they'll give less biased coverage. It's still better than the time a few years ago where a (CNN?) reporter was standing with the group of ten "pro-choice" women, and when asked by the new anchor about the numbers says "I don't know which side has more people" as literally hundreds of pro-lifers pass in front of him. The video has apparently been deleted from youtube - I'm sure the news station didn't like people posting that story.

Again, since we were on a different bus, with a different schedule, we went immediately after the march to the Metro station to go to RFK stadium to get to the bus. Usually we go to our representatives' offices to lobby, and then take the Metro all the way to MD and meet the bus there.

Apparently some people in our group got lost and were on the wrong train, all the way to the last stop. So again we got a late start, even though we were leaving earlier. We stopped for dinner, and got home around 11 (plan was to get back around 8). The whole way back the bus was cheering and singing. It was a lot of fun.

So the big question people ask is "how many people?" I can't say. Someone on the bus said the estimate was 750,000 but it didn't look to me like it was bigger than other years (the largest crowd was 650,000 four years ago). If I had to guess I would say this was one of the smaller marches I was in, but the only measure I really have to estimate is the number of people I see on the mall, because in the march you can only see a small part of the crowd. This year the mall crowd was not a reliable estimate, because we were not on the mall during the rally, and a lot of people had probably left by the time we got there.

Perhaps you can watch this and count.

You might think that the crowds should be larger because of the support of the current administration, and because the V.P. was speaking. However, nobody knew the V.P. was going to speak until Thursday, when it was probably too late to change plans, so I don't think that had any effect on crowd size. Likewise, the fact that the administration is pro-life is not a reason to come to a protest march - if anything that would result in smaller crowds.

Overall a fulfilling day, and well worth the trip, but I'm still recovering.