Monday, February 25, 2013

The Fiscal Cliff Part II

That’s the sequestration part. In case you forgot, the football punted from January 1st to March 1st is about to land this week and there seems to be little or no activity to come up with a sensible approach to reduce spending.

Cutting budgets indiscriminately across the board is a bad way to do things because it doesn’t differentiate between critical services and perhaps not so critical services, and it’s using a meat cleaver where a scalpel would make more sense.

It is essentially a failure in leadership.

To make matters worse it appears that there is a concerted effort not to blunt the impact of the cuts but to make them as painful as possible for political purposes. I do not like playing politics with the welfare of the country.

There are two ways to make yourself look good. You can either do good things or make the other guy look bad. Both parties seem to now focus on making the other guy look bad regardless of what that means for the country.

That’s really messed up.

Why do we keep sending these folks back to congress?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Raise the Minimum Wage?

How good an idea is raising the minimum wage?

It's a good question and I don't think it's a simple answer. In the final analysis it will probably help the economy but in the short term it's going to cost jobs.

It's going to be tough for small businesses to pay $9 an hour without (1) raising prices or (2) cutting payroll. If they raise prices it just puts them at an even bigger disadvantage against the large chain stores. Add this to the pending regulations coming into play with the Health Care Law and some businesses will probably give it up and simply close their doors.

So clearly, in the short term, some people are going to get screwed, but in the long term building more spending power at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, a place with the highest propensity to spend that money, should help fuel an economy that is still sputtering on the edge.

Of course this assumes the sequestering cuts don't send it into a recession free fall. I think that's unlikely and, while I would have preferred more selective spending cuts, we have to start somewhere.

Pakistan’s Blasphemy Laws

In Pakistan “blasphemy” is a crime. So is “wounding the religious feelings of any person” whatever the hell that means.

In November of 2012 a female teacher at a girls school in Lahore apparently made a mistake while copying Islamic text from an exercise book and then distributed the text to her students. The error allegedly resulted in an insult to the prophet Muhammad.

The word spread and a mob of some 200 loonies attacked the school, burned furniture and graffitied on the wall of the school, “School management are blasphemers.”

Now this is bad but you could use the excuse that this is an extremist element, sort of like the Westboro Baptist church, and shouldn’t be used to judge Islam or Muslims.

However here are the problems with that idea:

(1) The police ARRESTED the principal of the school and he was in jail for 14 days

(2) The school FIRED the teacher

(3) The school took out a full page ad saying “Our school management and the owners have no link whatsoever with this dirty act” and “We appeal to the government and the police to take legal action against this teacher and investigate her real motive.”

Legal action? Dirty act? Talk about throwing someone under the bus. She made a boo-boo. You can’t blaspheme without INTENT. These people are savages. No, I take that back. They don’t deserve to be called people. I’d call them animals but I don’t want to insult animals. All in favor of turning the whole place into petrified glass raise your hands? You can’t carry on a rational conversation with pond scum like this.

Now excuse me while I go and buy another nice gift for my copy of the 1st Amendment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Head Start

The Head Start program is supposed to give children from disadvantaged families help in future school success. The program has been in place since the mid 1960s.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, issued a report in December of 2012 studying the effects of Head Start versus a control group through 3rd grade.

In the Key Findings there is the following statement, "Looking across the full study period, from the beginning of Head Start through 3rd grade, the evidence is clear that access to Head Start improved children’s preschool outcomes across developmental domains, but had few impacts on children in kindergarten through 3rd grade."

In other words, the positive benefits of Head Start were pretty much gone by the end of 3rd grade. In the Final Thoughts section the report identifies multiple studies that "showed a similar pattern of early positive impacts that were not sustained into elementary school."

So, if there are no lasting benefits, what the hell is the point of continuing the program?

The reports tries to provide some justification but it's primarily through speculation such as "...research suggests that positive outcomes later in life are possible."

Give me a call when you have numbers to support that speculation.

Head Start costs about $7 billion a year. Granted this is small potatos in the grand scheme of things, and Head Start may provide other benefits such as freeing up mothers for part time work, but you know the old saying, "a billion here, a billion there, it adds up."

Obama said in his State of the Union address that "Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road."

This was the justification for his proposal "to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America."

From what I've read it sounds to me like the advantages are more theoretical than demonstrated. In a special article on early education Science makes the statement "The value of investment in early education depends on the quality of interventions and the conditions under which they are administered."

The article goes on to conclude "Early childhood education remains peppered with both opportunities and debate. Continued progress will require new research that bridges traditional disciplines of neuroscience, psychology, sociology, economics, public policy, health, and education."

I'm an engineer. I've written a lot of reports in my day and this is the kind of statement you make when you're "sure" something should be true but you don't have any compelling evidence to show that it is in fact true.

Friday, February 15, 2013

He Wants His Snakes Back

The pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro Kentucky would like his snakes back.

The pastor was transporting the snakes, three rattlers and two copperheads, through Tennessee after purchasing them in Alabama (They sell snakes in Alabama? WTF?) for $800. Apparently our good pastor was stopped on Interstate 40 by the Tennessee Highway patrol for having windows with too dark a tint (Your car windows can have too dark a tint in Tennessee? WTF?) and the snakes were confiscated.

It seems that it’s illegal in Tennessee to possess any type of poisonous snake without a permit and typically only zoos and educational facilities can get one of those. Tennessee also has regulations about transporting poisonous snakes. Gee, good thinking. These are the first rational things I’ve ever heard about Tennessee.

In Kentucky, on the other hand, you can have poisonous snakes as long as they’re native species (You can keep poisonous snakes in Kentucky? WTF?), which of course the rattlers and copperheads are, and you have less than five of each species. You also need a special permit to bring snakes into Kentucky (GOOD thinking!).

Why would this guy want snakes you ask? It’s biblical. This church believes in a literal interpretation of Mark 16:17-18, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

There’s no polite way to say this so I’m just going to say it. Our pastor is a nut.

First of all, most objective scholars are convinced that Mark didn’t write Mark 16:9-20 but that it was added much later. Objective scholars are those that don't pursue biblical scholarship with the sole purpose of defending conservative Christian interpretations. In other words people that actual care about the truth.

There are actually four different endings to Mark.

The oldest and best manuscripts end after Mark 16:8, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

One manuscript continues after Mark 16:8 with “Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter. After this, Jesus himself also sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen,” but doesn’t have verses 9-20. Other manuscripts have this additional text and then continue on with verses 9-20.

The modern ending to Mark eliminates the “Then they quickly reported...” verse, which is an obvious interpolation that even contradicts the previous sentence, but continues on with verses 9-20.

There are a lot of arguments about what is the real ending to Mark including one that says the verses that originally followed Mark 16:8 are lost. I have no dog in that race but, in order of probability, I think it's most likely the original Mark (1) ended at Mark 16:8, (2) continued on with Mark 9-20 or (3) continued on but the original verses are lost.

Even if you’re of the mind that Mark 16:9-20 is a legitimate part of the Gospel of Mark, it doesn’t say POISONOUS snakes you twit!

How can anyone take Christianity seriously?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Jesus Portrait

A Middle school in Jackson Ohio has had a huge devotional picture of Jesus near the entrance of the school for over 60 years.

Recently someone complained and the ACLU and FFRF threatened a law suit if the picture wasn’t removed. Liberty Counsel convinced the school board to choose to go to court saying the picture belonged to a student club and was therefore student free speech.

It was the wrong choice. Clearly Liberty Counsel is grinding its own axe and giving the school board bad advice. Can you spell “conflict of interest?”

The school originally admitted that it had been presented the portrait as a gift from the student group and then it back peddled and said no, it belongs to the student group. Right there you know, that they know, it's unconstitutional and they're trying to hide behind student free speech.

But even student free speech doesn’t allow you to hang a huge portrait of Jesus in the school hallway!

Student free speech is not unconditional. A public school cannot display religious icons, period, end of discussion. The SCOTUS has repeatedly made that point. If the students want to wear t-shirts with a picture of Jesus, that's cool as long as other students can wear pictures of Thor, Odin, Vishnu, Zeus or any of the thousands of other gods men have worshipped through the centuries. That’s student free speech.

The board is going to get sued, they're going to spend a lot of money, and they're going to lose.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Gays in the Boy Scouts

I’ve been following this “discussion.” I have to put “discussion” in quotes because while everyone is talking and expressing opinions, they’re clearly not discussing. They’re just talking to the ether as it were.

It’s a little hard to pin down the actual objections but they seem to fall into two basic categories. The first is an objection to homosexuality itself. The key is how can an organization that claims to be “morally straight” accept immoral and sinful behavior?

I think the point here is that not everyone agrees that homosexuality is immoral and sinful behavior. Granted, many of the groups that sponsor scout units do take that view. But the national board wouldn’t be forcing them to accept gays. For those units nothing would change except possibly for one little thing.

Rather than the national organization being the target for activists, individual units could be targeted. Have you ever heard the phrase “divide and conquer?” I don’t know how realistic a concern this is, the economics don’t seem to make sense, but I guess you never know. Now the Girl Scouts, who accept both gays and atheists, don’t seem to have any problems. But things always seem to be more serious when the boys are involved.

Besides, that gets us to the second objection. The concern that allowing gay leaders into the scouts would increase the chances for sexual abuse. There is no disagreement about the fact that the overwhelming majority of sexual abusers are male.

I’ve heard a number of right wing types ask would you let your teenage daughter share a tent in the woods with an adult male leader? Obviously the answer is no. Even the army doesn’t put males and females together in the same tent. But neither do the scouts have adults and scouts sharing a tent or at least they didn’t when I was a scout back in the stone age.

Impropriety is impropriety and I suspect it would be avoided in any case.

Opponents of gay inclusion seem to talk out of multiple sides of their mouths on this question on different days. On Monday they’ll claim that homosexuality is tantamount to pedophilia but on Tuesday they’ll back peddle and claim they meant that homosexual pedophiles would be drawn to the opportunity.

So which is it folks?

That homosexuality and pedophilia are synonymous, or even highly correlated, is demonstrably false. My understanding of pedophilia is that it is independent of sexual orientation, almost an orientation in itself, but one that is inherently harmful because the child, by definition, cannot give informed consent.

Pedophilia can overlap with heterosexuality or homosexuality which is why most pedophiles are also heterosexual. Jerry Sandusky, constantly being named by the right wing as an example of the horrors that will occur, was actually heterosexual even though he victimized male children. It’s the youth of the victim that attracts the pedophile and not the sex. The last I looked the probability of anyone being a pedophile was the same regardless of their sexual orientation.

That means that the scouts have the problem now just like Penn State had the problem. Allowing gay leaders isn’t going to change anything.

But what about openly gay scouts?

There are gay scouts today that stay in the closet for various reasons. I doubt “because the scouts would kick me out” is high on that list of reasons. That means there are probably gay scouts now so again, nothing really changes.

The bottom line is I see no rational reason for not lifting the global ban. As long as individual units can decide for themselves nothing really changes other than the acknowledgement of reality. Ok, granted, acknowledgement of reality isn’t high on a conservative’s list of “talents.”

No rational reason, but what about emotional reasons?

Given the amount of noise this issue has raised, it’s quite possible that lifting the ban will result in a devastating backlash with large numbers of parents pulling their kids from the program and leaders quitting.

Could it cripple the scout organization? It’s possible.

So now comes, to my mind, the big question, is this change important enough to risk the survival of the scouting organization?

Personally I think that risk is modest and this is a change that ultimately will make the organization stronger. Fifty years from now scouts, and everyone else, will be flabbergasted that there was even a debate.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI to Resign

In an announcement that shocked just about everyone, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he will resign the papacy as of February 28, 2013.

Benedict said that he no longer has the strength to meet the duties and obligations of the office.

I'm not what you would call a fan of Pope Benedict, to be quite honest I'm what I call excessively neutral, but I give the man credit for having the courage to do what he thinks is best.

Here's hoping he has a long and peaceful retirement.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

No BSA Decision

The Boy Scouts executive board has decided that "due to the complexities of the issue," it's going to kick the decision on lifting the Gay ban down the road to May.

It's hard to interpret this decision not to make a decision but I'm guessing some members have gotten cold feet and more lobbying is required.

The ban will eventually be lifted. If not in May then somewhere down the road. Moving the decision to the individual units makes too much sense not to do it.

Monday, February 04, 2013

A Nuclear Iran

It’s becoming clearer that Israel is not going to let Iran develop an atomic bomb.

The Israelis are keeping a close eye on the amount of enriched uranium the Iranians have managed to accumulate. If and when that quantity approaches the amount needed to construct an atomic bomb, an attack by the Israeli air force, or an ultimatum to the west, is almost guaranteed.

The primary danger here is the US either supporting the Israeli strike or, worse, doing it ourselves because we have a higher probability of success striking from the Persian Gulf.

A unilateral Israeli strike would be bad. A US strike, or US participation in a strike, would be a goddamned disaster.

We don’t need another war. The Obama administration needs to make it clear to Netanyahu the Dense that if the Israelis start a war, they’re on their own.

Super Bowl XLVII

Ok, so I blew it again. I never learn. I picked against the Ravens in all four games on my way to a 6-5 record through the play-offs.

I guess I shouldn't hold my breath waiting for the networks to call and offer me an analysts job huh?

First and goal on the 6 and the Niners couldn't push it in. Ah well, final score Ravens 34, 49ers 31.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Errors in the Bible?

Apologetics is the art of defending the faith against criticism. Every religion has their apologists but Christian Apologists tend to take center stage in Western culture.

Make no mistake about it, they’re quite clever and their job is a lot easier than you might think; it’s easier because their objective is not so much to convince the skeptic as to reassure the faithful.

An Apologist doesn’t have to worry about probability or even reasonableness. Any explanation, no matter how much of a stretch, as long as it’s possible, is good enough. Even multiple contradictory explanations are often put forth.

There are no errors or contradictions or embarrassing statements they don’t have an explanation for. Some of those explanations are utterly mind boggling but seem to satisfy most of the congregation.

Consider this statement.

Leviticus 11:6 The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.

Rabbits are not ruminants and therefore most certainly do not chew the cud. Obvious error right? Not according to your neighborhood apologist.

Rabbits do rechew partially digested droppings, called cecotropes, to extract additional nutrients. To the casual observer this could appear to be chewing the cud so this is a favorite explanation as to why this is not an error. It’s not a very good explanation since anyone that observes rabbits would note the difference.

Of course you see the problem here. This explains why the Hebrews might have been under a misimpression, but it doesn’t explain why an all-knowing god would. The explanation is usually something to the effect that God was speaking to the Hebrews based upon their understanding of things.

This sort of says that God figured the Hebrews were too stupid to comprehend the reality of the situation so he left them with their simplified, but mistaken, impression. Nice guy.

Now an all-knowing God should have been able to figure out the confusion this was going to cause down the road. It would have been trivial to clarify the situation by saying something like “The rabbit, which appears to chew the cud but is really chewing its own droppings, is also unclean for you.”

I think the Hebrews could have handled that bit of information.

Similar explanations are provided for calling a bat a bird and saying insects have four legs when they have six.

Bats are explained by claiming that the Hebrews probably thought the bat, because it had wings, was a bird and God was speaking to them based upon their understanding even though it was wrong. As for insects, the claim is since the focus was upon leaping insects, such as grasshoppers, the Hebrews didn’t consider the two hind “jumping” appendages as legs.

The same objection applies to these explanations. It tells us why the Hebrews might have been wrong but doesn’t really explain why God didn’t correct their misimpressions and head off trouble down the road.

If the author was an ancient Hebrew, these apologetics explain why he got it wrong but it’s still wrong. They don’t explain why God didn’t correct the situation if for no other reason than to avoid the current objections which, if he’s really all-knowing, he would have known were coming.

Unless of course he just doesn’t care.

Your choice. Either the bible authors were fallible humans or an infallible God who didn’t care enough about his creation to make it right.

Boy Scouts Rethinking Gay Exclusion

The rumor is that the Boy Scouts of America are having second (third? fourth?) thoughts about the blanket exclusion of gay scouts and leaders. The rumor is they’re thinking about allowing each scout unit to make up its own mind.

The Girl Scouts don’t seem to have a problem with allowing Gays to be members, or allowing Atheists to replace “God” in the Girl Scout Promise with whatever word they’re comfortable with, so why can’t the Boy Scouts grow up.

Even if they change the rule on Gays, the blanket exclusion of Atheists would continue.

BSA membership has declined by approximately 20% since 1999 from 3.4 million to 2.7 million. I doubt that decline has much to do with the exclusion of Gays and Atheists. More likely its due to a perceived “lack of coolness” but given the ongoing lousy publicity, I’d expect the decline to continue.

This is a step in the right direction but it still condones discrimination. Given the number of church based scout units, I don’t see this "decision" changing much. According to Wikipedia the largest single group of scout units, 37,800, are sponsored by the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church is third with 8,500. It’s pretty safe to assume that these units aren’t going to change their policy.

So this is pretty much a “have your cake and eat it too” attempt that the scouts hope will restore the funding lost by their current blanket exclusion. Here’s hoping Merck, Intel, UPS, and the other corporate sponsors that have pulled their support, hold out for something with a little more substance.