31 August 2011

God, Obama or Glenn Beck: Who Caused the Earthquake and Hurricane?

An earthquake? A hurricane? Someone out there is sending us a message!

I guess.

Two questions come to mind: Who is sending the message? And what is the message?

The most popular suspect as the perpetrator of last week’s East Coast earthquake and the East Coast Hurricane Irene that followed it is God. As the Almighty, the All-powerful, and the All-knowing, it makes sense that He’s the one who commands sufficient tera-joule level power resources and Cray-Computer-on-Steroids targeting finesse. Oh, I suppose humanity might whip up a good bit of power with a whole bunch of nukes, but tuning a large explosion into causing an earthquake far beneath the Earth’s surface or sparking an Atlantic hurricane seems beyond the current level of human science.

The hurricane missed our mountains, but it did play havoc with one of my favorite places, North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Whoever was directing the storm caused it to punch through the North-South Highway and, in places, the storm punched the ocean clean through the narrow barrier islands. To be anthropocentric about it, you have to think that the message associated with that must be pretty drastic.

The earthquake did catch the mountains, but only shook already-loose bricks or stones off of buildings. I was in the middle of jury trial in Clarksburg, and the courthouse suddenly began shaking. There was a “What’s that?” moment, and the judge sent the marshals to see what was going on. Under the circumstances, a structural engineer would’ve been a better choice, but none were handy. In any event, we went ahead with the trial, because it was just nothing to freak about. I did – and I do – marvel at the amount of energy it takes to shake a steel-stone-concrete building 200 miles from the epicenter. That, together with the fact that there was no loss of life or injury, strongly supports the God hypothesis. (God is all-loving, remember?)

Of course, everybody with an agenda and a personal hotline to the Cosmic Seat of Power announced that God was sending a message (and in some instances, a punishment) and they very kindly interpreted the message for those of us not tied into the Good-Ol’-Deity system.

A notable whack-job rabbi in New York slobbered all over himself as he ranted that this earthquake very clearly was a message that by permitting gay marriage (or, for that matter, gay anything), we were exposing ourselves to tectonic terror which would terminate our time on Terra.

We can always count on the wacky Westboro Baptist Church to give us the low down on God’s private thoughts. Moreover, when they do so they grin and chuckle and wring their hands with a good deal of malicious glee about the Lord’s no-nonsense approach to smiting the wicked. Hurricane Irene, to the Westboro sprites, was a very overt signal that the Lord God of Hosts is very annoyed about gay people.

One thought I have about Westboro, however, is that they may be misreading the extremity of the so-called punishment which is being inflicted. A hurricane? Really that’s a lot of rain and a lot of wind. The death toll was in double digits and property damage was in the mere single billions. Compared to some of the other remedies used by the Ultimate Magistrate, a worldwide flood, drowning armies in the Red Sea, plagues of locusts, frogs and so forth, this level of a hurricane seems rather weak tea in tepid water.

Pat Robertson, notable for his interpretation of God’s message about the vastly more severe earthquake in Haiti, got an entirely different message this time. Far be it from me to say that any of these holy receivers are wrong, perhaps God is just multitasking. To Robertson, the earthquake was a clear sign of the Second Coming of Christ. Even if you took the Book of Revelations completely at face value (sorry, that’s a bit of a stretch for me), I can’t make that connection. Of course, I’m reading it in English rather than the original Greek so I could be wrong. If I see Heaven opened and behold a White Host, boy am I going to come around to orthodoxy quickly.

One of the most notable interpretations of the disasters came from presidential candidate Michele Bachmann:

"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending."

Later, a campaign spokesman observed: "Obviously she was saying it in jest.”

Hats off to Rep. Bachmann. I think about 50% of her political opinions are pretty strange, but she has a really dark sense of humor and my book that’s a big positive. And let me say that her statement was absolutely brilliant sarcasm, sarcasm of the highest order. When your listeners aren’t quite sure whether you’re serious, you are so subtle, so nuanced, that you truly get the blue ribbon. (Now I know some of the Representative’s political enemies will say “Of course she was serious, and her campaign is just covering.” Well, how the hell do they know?)

Glenn Beck also interpreted these events as the work of God. The message he perceives, however, is a good bit more practical than the others. Beck is a convert to Mormonism. Among the important teachings of Mormonism is the encouragement of preparing for long-term self-sufficiency, including having an adequate stockpile of supplies to live without grocery stores, etc., for several months. That was the message Beck received, that the Lord God was telling us that bad things can happen and we need to be prepared for them.

Nobody is really saying that Obama caused either the earthquake or hurricane. Yet. I have to say, people accuse him of some of the weirdest stuff. This week I received a mass e-mail from a nutty website which promised to “Expose Obama’s plot to destroy the Constitution.” Goodness, I hope he doesn’t have such a plot.

However, the President took little bit of ownership, at least in the hurricane. In a speech on the White House lawn on Sunday evening, President O reminded the country that the hurricane was still a dangerous storm, that the federal government cares and would do all it could, blah, blah, blah. Mostly, it was paternalistic nonsense, and unnecessary blather.

Representative Ron Paul who, God willing, will never be the bride, has called for the dissolution of FEMA. He’s just wrong. FEMA, as the “point of the spear” of the Federal government does have an important role in emergency management. If we start with the presumption that we will respond to citizens who have catastrophic losses with something other than “too bad, so sad,” true disasters will exceed local resources and Federal resources will be required. The Feds provide money and provide supplies. When local control becomes impossible or ineffective, FEMA or other Federal agencies can provide leadership and management. But that is not the preferred model. The preferred approach remains one of local or state-level management.

One of the best things that FEMA does is train local managers to deal with disasters. FEMA trains people in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) which is a systematic and rational way to handle the demands of the mass of issues in a disaster. By the way, much of NIMS is available for study by anyone online at the FEMA website. The people who developed NIMS have the most important qualification of all: They all have ridden in vehicles with flashing lights to real emergencies.

Bad things happen. Sometimes they are ordinary things (rain, wind) in massive doses. These days, areas which are going to be pounded by a hurricane have 24 or 48 hours’ notice. The biggest urgent decision to be made by emergency managers is what areas to evacuate and when to do it. I can argue mandatory evacuation either way. If you’re dumb enough to stay for a hurricane, screw it, take your own chances. On the other hand, if by staying, you expose innocents (family) or rescuers to danger, you’re going beyond your personal rights. Evacuation prevents a great majority of what would otherwise be the loss of life due to a hurricane.

I am sure that there are a lot of county emergency service directors who are “wargaming” earthquake scenarios in Eastern United States this week. The Eastern earthquake provided a much better lesson than the Eastern hurricane. With a hurricane, you have warning. With an earthquake, within a span of 5 minutes you can go from normal life to near-complete destruction of infrastructure as well as loss of life and mass casualties, all over a wide area. As it is, the little earthquake last week reminded us that things can go to hell right quick.

It also reminded us the big dog of earthquakes, unreinforced masonry construction. The national Cathedral in Washington suffered some millions of dollars of damage. The Washington Monument was cracked. Around here, a chimney collapsed on the Barbour County Courthouse. The common theme? Stones or brick stacked on top of each other: Unreinforced masonry.

I do wonder that we’re not very good about learning lessons. Putting New Orleans where it was in the beginning wasn’t a fantastic idea, what with it being right by the Gulf of Mexico and partially below sea level. Massively rebuilding it in the same place is another head-scratcher. I’m sure that they will rebuild the National Cathedral with stacked stone, and that when the beaches and bridges are put back on the Outer Banks, people will build those beautiful coastal homes right up next to the ocean.

Of all of God’s interpreters, Beck gets closest to reality. That’s because he gives at least a partial solution, and rational reasoning. No matter what you think about this notion that it was the hand of God at work, the idea self-reliance and neighborhood reliance is long overdue for a resurgence. In North America, we have developed very effective response systems to handle most emergencies in a reasonably efficient fashion. One definition of “disaster,” however, is an event of such magnitude that it overwhelms local and regional response resources. When that happens, “they” may not be coming for a long time and it’s up to “us” to suck it up and take responsibility.

19 August 2011

Penn Jillette & God, No!: Chill, People, It’s the First Amendment

Penn Jillette self-identifies as an asshole atheist libertarian. He has written a new book, God, No!: Signs You May Already Be An Atheist and Other Magical Tales, a fast, funny and persuasive promotion of atheism. Lots of believers, mainly Christian, are (to use a Jillette-ism) going “batshit crazy.” I doubt that God with smite him, but I could be wrong.

Jillette’s opinion starts out deceptively mild: “You don’t have to be very smart, fast, or funny to be an atheist. You don’t have to be well educated. Being an atheist is simply saying ‘I don’t know.’ “

Later, he expounds: “Once you’ve answered ‘I don’t know’ to the existence of a god, the answer to whether you believe in god pretty much has to be no. That doesn’t mean you’re saying it’s impossible for there to be a god, or that we couldn’t have evidence of a god in the future. It just means that right now you don’t know. Believing cannot rise out of ‘I don’t know.’ “

He’s right. I don’t know if God is there from objective evidence. As for me, I believe in God and in Jesus, the Christ, but I do not have objective evidence. And I don’t plan on getting irregular about this book.

After all there IS an objective reality. The God, A god, a FEW gods, another power (“The Force”?) or none of the above exist or don’t exist. Jillette’s statements, my rambling, the Pope speaking ex cathedra, and burning bushes (which we only know of through hearsay accounts) will not change the objective reality. So, for Heaven’s sake (my phrase), RELAX.

A favorite hymn is “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” There, “know” is not meant in the mathematical or Boolean sense. If I drive past a farm and see a shorn sheep standing there, what I KNOW is that it is shorn on one side. However, that it is shorn on the other side is way I’ll bet. I KnowThat My Redeemer Lives is a statement of the strength of faith, that I have a strong faith which nourishes me and brings me peace, even absent objective data. Don’t get confused by song titles, nor impeach me with them: After all, One Night in Bangkok does NOT Make a Hard Man Humble. My “knowing” reality is really more like another favorite hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.

Why religion? Well, because it’s true. But there are so many religions out there and they contain lots and lots of mutually exclusive tenets. In any event, that’s the bootstrap argument from Hell. (What is objective is that our language is peppered with religious references.)

A better answer is to look at society or civilization in light of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, shelter, safety and so forth, and the human desire to continue to improve how we meet human need and develop an human culture. The presence of and absence of religion has, at various times, helped and hindered those goals. Religions teach various precepts, the most basic of which usually promote ethical and peaceful interaction. Religions have other rules, and Jillette liberally illustrates God, No! with examples of the silly ones which are at the very least neutral in meeting human needs. My favorite example from the book is the ban on the bacon cheeseburger to the Orthodox Jew. I could add things like the drinking of poisons and handling of poisonous snakes because one of the gospel writers made a single throwaway reference. Pretty clearly, the argument that religion – any religion – has a 1:1 correlation with meeting the basic benificent goals of society is pure bullshit.

Other paths can lead to the same behaviors that society should affirmatively sanction. Eastern religions such as Buddhism promote remarkable peace and order. Humanism and atheism can contain just as beneficial and ethical instruction as any religion toward the goal of advancing down Maslow’s hierarchy. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment gives us the power to practice the system of moral beliefs which works for us, with our own personal freedom.

Locking religion out is just as dumb locking people into religion. Some months back, there were press reports of a judge in Arizona who assigned criminal offenders the task of reading a certain book. This was a book on ethical and moral and LEGAL behavior and was written from a Christian faith-based perspective. Obviously, the government requiring someone to read a single religion-based volume is not a good idea. Simply abandoning the whole book report idea, however, was just about as dumb. There are lots and lots of other good books out there on decent and lawful and productive living from various faith and non-faith perspectives. Among the best are the books of Larry Winget. His specific faith perspectives are the vermouth in my martini – the bottle may be there in the room, but it doesn’t come near the glass.

In addition to the benefits that society receives from those who will follow faith as a path to progress in behavior, religion likewise is a path to internal/personal improvement. The greatest improvement is that of eternal life, but there we’re back to a fact for which there is an objective truth which is currently unknowable. Personally, I think Gandhi made the cut but I know a lot of religions disagree.

Ritual is good for turning one’s mind inward. I am part the denomination known as the Disciples of Christ. One practice of the Disciples is that we come to the Lord’s table (practice communion) in every service. That has great meaning to me. That’s about all I can attest to personally. I do not go with the transubstantiation thing, I do not believe that the wafer becomes human flesh or that the cup turns into human blood or that there is anything else of the magic show to it. It turns my thoughts to this guy whose example should be the rule and guide of my own life. I’m glad we repeat the coming to the table a lot because I never seem to get it right. Jillette talks about a ritual within his own family, annually releasing balloons in memory of family and friends who have died. This is really a touching account in the book. It’s his ritual, and it works for him.

Notwithstanding our disagreement on the “ultimate question,” I cannot help but like Penn Jillette. Oh, he’s an asshole, but so am I. I admire people who fly their own flag. If someone is an asshole, what the hell, just hoist the Jolly Roger. Jillette does.

This is a brash, vigorous offering in the marketplace of ideas. Its presence is a celebration of the First Amendment. I don’t expect to see an Arabic edition published in Saudi Arabia or an Iranian one in Farsi.

Five stars.

01 August 2011

The Debt Limit: A Pox on Both Their Houses; No, Make that ALL Their Houses

We have been stupid enough to buy into the Congressional/Presidential Create-a-Crisis bilgewater, and now we are supposed to be pathetically grateful that our ever so wise political leaders have resolved the “Crisis.” That is, they’ve resolved it long enough to delay their next crisis until election time, when a new round of “blame the other guy” will take off in full force.

And yes, we really are dumb enough to be buying into this. We really are taking sides: Oh, the poor president! Oh, thank you Jesus for our conservative sentinels! Blah, blah, blah.

In point of fact, Congress knew this particular “crisis” was coming, the President knew this particular “crisis” was coming and so did everybody else who'd had grade school arithmetic. Rather than dealing with the issues, everybody decided to play a game of political Who-Has-The-Biggest-Weenie. (Yes, I know that’s gender-specific. When people of both genders in government quit playing that game, I’ll quit talking about it. In the meantime, it’s a fair description.) I think it’s fair to assume that the government “Mastercrats” were taking a minute now and then to detect when the Treasury was going to run out of money. It wasn’t rocket science, but they had allegedly neutral public agencies (Office of Management and Budget, Congressional Budget Office) to help them count. And then, suddenly, it was crisis time, and in every instance it was “their” fault. If only “they” would quit being so rat-bastard stubborn, we could all enjoy the second coming of George Washington. Disgusting. Absolutely disgusting.

In order to blame “them” and promote the Glorious Ascendance of “us” in the 2012 elections and after, the Mastercrats played Chicken with United States government obligations and with the very real opinion of the market regarding the quality of government debt instruments. In doing so, the Mastercrats created and depended upon raw fear, in order to gain so-called grassroots support from people who were scared shitless that their military wages or Social Security benefits were not going to be paid. In doing so, the Mastercrats buried the real issues of spending and the debt rating. The latter has as far-reaching economic consequences for the United States as the former. Remember free enterprise? Even if we don’t believe in it, we sure as hell worship it. The debt ratings are standards by the marketplace of how secure treasury bills, bonds and debt instruments are for investors. If they are less secure, the investors are going to want higher returns, meaning we will be paying more interest for government borrowing. More expensive borrowing by the government means more expensive borrowing for everybody else which means fewer houses and cars sold, fewer jobs to manufacture and sell the capital products, more unemployment – but that really doesn’t matter to the Mastercrats as long as their weenies measure longer than the other guys’.

The raising of the debt ceiling is nothing new. Ronald Reagan did it 18 times and on one occasion described to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (a Republican) the bad consequences in the event of a default:

Dear Howard:

This letter is to ask for your help and support, and that of your colleaques, in the passage of an increase in the limit to the public debt.

As Secretary Regan has told you, the Treasury's cash balances have reached a dangerously low point. Henceforth, the Treasury Department cannot guarantee that the Federal Government will have sufficient cash on any one day to meet all of its mandated expenses, and thus the United States could be forced to default on it obligations for the first time in its history.

This country now possesses the strongest credit in the world. The full consequences of a default -- or even the serious prospect of default -- by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and on the value of the dollar in exchange markets. The Nation can ill afford to allow such a result. The risks, the costs, the disruptions, and the incalculable damage lead me to but one conclusion: the Senate must pass this legislation before the Congress adjourns.

I want to thank you for your immediate attention to this urgent problem and for your assistance in passing an extension of the debt ceiling.

Ronald Reagan

Conservative icon Ronald Reagan apparently didn’t see raising the debt ceiling as a big problem for America. His was the administration that continued large deficits, his directed at the military expansion that outspent and eventually destroyed the Soviet Union’s economy. Most people (me included) don’t see that as a bad thing.

More recently, the debt ceiling has been raised repeatedly without the disgusting and dangerous spectacle we’ve been treated to this year. In 1997, 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 (Republican presidential years), the debt ceiling was raised with between 193 and 214 Republican votes. In 2007, 2008 (Republican presidential years), 2009 (twice) and 2010 (Democratic presidential years), the debt ceiling was raised again, but only in 2008 did the bill have any Republicans on board.

So let’s not continue with this “it’s the other guys fault” bullshit. Every Mastercrat wants to spend money. Nobody really wants all-out frugality. Everybody wants savings for all spending except spending for them and for those whose asses they must kiss to advance their own personal interests. All of the Mastercrats are speaking piously about their love for America and the tough choices they are making and their bravery, love of God, and sleepless nights. This is showmanship and bad theater. Author Robert A. Heinlein (among others) identified the correct way to get cooperation from most people: Don’t bother looking for their better nature, because most of them don’t have one. Look instead for their self interests, because everybody has those.

I do not exclude the Tea Partiers from the Mastercrat ranks. They were willing - no, they were downright slobbering - to crash the ship rather than compromise AT ALL. They were willing to cut any and all spending that didn’t fit their own worldview without discussing the effect on anyone. Screw ‘em. Moreover, they have the temerity to compare themselves with patriots who actually did something courageous in the Revolution. Screw ‘em, the hypocritical bastards.

A single example among the thousands of economic hypocrisies is the flap last February over the F35 Joint Strike Fighter engine. The F35 is a fifth-generation attack/fighter aircraft which incorporates the latest in stealth technology. It comes in a conventional version, a short takeoff and landing (STOL) version, and a carrier version. The idea was to incorporate the latest technology and save money by using a single basic design with many common components. The engine for the F35 is built by Pratt & Whitney, a longtime builder of jet engines. But wait, some of the Mastercrats screamed: The other manufacturer in the competition to build the engines, Rolls-Royce/General Electric, designed and built their own pretty good engine, and we need to buy that too so we have a spare engine, just in case the Pratt & Whitney doesn’t work. Horsefeathers, said the Department of Defense, we do not need it. But Mastercrats from states where that engine would be built chimed in that it was a necessity and not a waste of money. And so, they reasoned, $450 million in the current fiscal year was a cheap price to pay for a spare engine that nobody needs. Notably, the people pushing for this expenditure came from both parties. Leading the pack was none other than Speaker the House John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio (where the engine would have been built), the same guy who was leading the Jesus-Loves-Thrift money forces in the fake crisis.

The double shuffle and doublespeak associated with the spare engine would’ve shamed the town drunk showing up and insisting that he lead the church choir. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R – CA) reasoned (?) that a second engine would actually save money because then manufacturers would be in competition. In other words, they could build two for less than the price of one. No kidding, he really said that.

And so, we stumble on, the debt limit will (probably) be extended, most of the promised savings ($1.5 trillion) are as-yet unknown but “to be announced” by November and among the only people not buying this snake oil are the bond rating agencies who are about to stick it to us.

And as long as we participate - as long as we oooh and ahhh the latest Mastercrat toy store in our neighborhoods, as long as we sell out to the Mastercrat buyers, we’re going to get the same turd again and again, just in new and better Christmas wrapping.

It’s not about throwing tea into a harbor. It’s about telling the screamers to Shut the F**k Up so we can apply REASON for a change.

Jeez, are we ever dumb.

Pippa passes.