Monday, July 31, 2006

With Friends Like Us ...

Many in the West seem to have a very twisted sense of morality when it comes to the war that Hezbollah started and is enthusiastically continuing to prosecute against Israel. Victor Davis Hanson discusses this weird sense of morality in this National Review article. Hanson rips on the West for seeing only bad in Israel’s actions while absolving Hezbollah and Lebanon from any real responsibility.

Hanson explains the “distortion of language” in five points.

  • “Middle Eastern oil,” without which, “the war would receive the same scant attention as bloodletting in central Africa.”
  • “The fear of Islamic terrorism. If the Middle East were Buddhist, the world would care about Lebanon as little as it does about occupied Tibet.”
  • Anti-Semitism. “Israel is the symbol of the hated West.” If this were to happen elsewhere in the world, say France, Russia, China, India, “no one would dare say a word.”
  • “The worry that Israel might upset things in Iraq.”
  • “The world deplores the Jewish state because it is strong, and can strike back rather than suffer.” Hanson is clearly disgusted by the tendency to ascribe equivalent levels of morality to the actions of Hezbollah terrorists and the efforts of Israel to defend itself from the terrorists.
If it looks like a terrorist
Hezbollah invited the war by attacking Israelis on Israeli soil, killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. When Israel moved in to take actions intended to prevent the movement of the captured soldiers, Hezbollah used this as a pretext to begin firing missiles into northern Israel from southern Lebanon. It’s not surprising that the West has been surprised at Hezbollah’s military capabilities, but it is surprising that Israel was taken off guard. To date, Israel’s military actions in southern Lebanon appear to have been largely ineffective against Hezbollah’s missile capabilities.

Hezbollah is definitely a terrorist organization, but it is a recognized (and quite popular) political party in Lebanon, where it also sponsors health care as well as education (designed to indoctrinate against the “Great Satans” of Israel and the West). But it does not officially represent the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah embeds itself among the Lebanese citizenry, many of whom support the organization (see here). Its unguided missiles damage infrastructure and kill a few Israelis, but the chief purpose of the missile barrage is to terrorize the population of northern Israel. Former DoD official Mario Loyola says here that this is part of “Iran’s grand strategy ... to depopulate Israel through missile terror.” Israel haters want Israelis to leave on their own because they fear for their personal safety.

Proxies of evil
That brings us to the question of where Hezbollah gets its military prowess. The answer is that it comes directly and indirectly from one third of the Axis of Evil, Iran, and its nasty neighbor and partner in crime, Syria, both of which have been quite open about seeking Israel’s demise, and both of which are only capable of this due to oil wealth.

Loyola argues in his article that Israel cannot hope to be effective against Hezbollah missile barrages. He says that Israel’s only hope “is a robust Security Council resolution under Chapter VII that requires Iran to stop supplying weapons to Syria, and requires Syria to stop supplying weapons to Hezbollah.” Loyola says that the resolution should also demand transparency in military shipments from Iran to Syria and from Syria to elsewhere, and that it should authorize inspectors to enforce the resolution. And here’s the kicker. It must also carry enough teeth to authorize force.

Bad to the bone
Oh, good. Our hope for peace in the Middle East resides firmly in a U.N. Security Council resolution. I must seriously question Mr. Loyola’s sanity. Precisely when has a resolution of this type ever produced a long-term positive solution? And what are the odds that the “robust” resolution Mr. Loyola suggests could ever pass the Security Council?

How many of our “friends” (many of whom buy lots of oil from Iran and Syria) would support it? After months and months of talking, followed by some more talking, lavishly catered meals, Condi Rice trips to Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, and Jerusalem, etc., while Iranian and Syrian missiles continue strike Israel, would our “friends” on the council support the writing of such a resolution, let alone its passage?

And assuming that we live in Mr. Loyola’s fantasy world where this grand, world-saving resolution passes the council, how much support would the other member nations of the U.N. provide in carrying out the “force” provisions of the resolution? We’ve already seen how hospitable Iran is to Security Council resolutions, so we must assume that force would become necessary. I’m afraid that it would end up being Israel and the U.S., with some possible support from the U.K. (maybe) and Australia. Such “unilateral” application of authorized force would bring near universal condemnation from the international community and anti-security folks here at home. Perhaps a sufficiently broad multi-national force could be cobbled together about the time there are no Israelis left to protect.

I have my reservations about our elected Congress, but the U.N. is a corrupt, expensive, weak organization that is well suited only to talking and to squandering heaps of cash. It is ill suited to do anything that requires force. And, when you think about it, perhaps that’s a good thing. Imagine where we’d be otherwise, given the fact that about 85% of all General Assembly votes go against the U.S. and even more go against Israel. Some argue that we should get out of the U.N., but I argue that we have to stay in order to keep it from getting as bad as it would be without our involvement.

So, what should Israel do? Interdict Iranian and Syrian war materiel on its own? Go to war against Iran and Syria on its own? Iran’s nutcake president and ruling mullahocracy would love that. What a grand excuse to nuke the small country of Israel out of existence! Let’s face it; Israel isn’t big enough to take on its real antagonists on its own.

Who are we really?
We are Israel’s most powerful ally. But we have effectively demonstrated in Iraq that our population lacks the will to crush those that oppose us there. We are capable of doing so militarily, but we apparently don’t have it in us to do it. It would be too ruthless, so we approach war with the most exquisite military etiquette, while our ragtag opposition is decidedly less concerned about such mundane manners. Would we even be able to muster the desire and courage as a nation to support Israel in physically opposing Iran and Syria?

The Iranians and Syrians don’t think so either.

Watch Your Mouth

Mitt Romney put his foot in it over the weekend by using the term “tar baby” to refer to the nascent engineering problems with the Big Dig project in the state of Massachusetts, which he presently governs (see here). Romney told a crowd of about 100 supporters attending an event in Iowa, “The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can.” AP says Romney “said inaction would have been even worse.”

Politics is a business in which words mean things—sometimes. The dynamics of what words mean and when they are significant are tied up in a complex relationship between official definitions, unofficial definitions, the context of the utterance (or not—taking speech out of context is a favorite tactic), who heard it, what other political issues and problems you are grappling with at the moment, how popular you are, what the press thinks of you (or maybe just what they think of your party) at the moment, etc.

Some goofy statements made by politicians have become part of our national lexicon. Think of Bill Clinton’s answer to a prosecutor’s question where Clinton said, “That depends on what the meaning of “is,” is.” Think of Dan Quayle’s scripted gaffe when he prompted a schoolboy spelling the word ‘potato’ to add an ‘e’ at the end of the word.

As noted in the cited Wikipedia reference, the term “tar baby” can mean a “sticky situation from which it is difficult to extract one's self.” But, “It has been used as a derogatory term for dark skinned people (such as African Americans in the United States ...)” So it should not be surprising that at least some people took offense at Romney’s use of the term.

The AP reports that “black Republican and civil rights activist” Larry Jones called the remark “inappropriate.” He went on to say that Romney has demonstrated “arrogance” rather than presidential capacity. I could find no reference regarding which candidate Jones supports (there are a lot of guys in Iowa named Larry Jones, so I couldn’t nail this down), but that could be a factor in Jones’s commentary.

It seems clear that Romney intended no offense and did not consider the term to be a racial epithet. But to some people that do consider it such, Romney’s ignorance of that fact is almost as bad as intending it as a racial remark. The question is how much this remark will harm Romney’s presidential chances.

Politicians often say dumb things, but most of the time we cut them slack, or the press doesn’t bother to report them. (Don’t fool yourself. This happens to politicians of all persuasions.) It is when the politician is controversial at the moment that we don’t cut them slack.

When Arizona Governor Evan Mecham ignorantly used the term ‘pickaninny’ to describe black children, he was already in hot water over a number of actions that appeared callous, and even racist. When he took actions that enraged some important people in his own party and got caught red handed demonstrating how cronyism worked in the political ‘good old boys club’ in his state, he became a very unsympathetic character that ended up being impeached. His racial epithet was just one of the drumbeats in the din that led to his impeachment.

Mitt Romney is a fairly popular guy among those that know who he is. He is not at present an unsympathetic character. He does not appear to be corrupt (at least by the standards applied to politicians), and has even been derided as being too perfect. It is possible that his comment might even make him more sympathetic with voters, as it could lend a certain sense of ‘humanness’ to his polished veneer.

I doubt that this one comment will lend any significant traction to Romney’s detractors—at least for now. If he were to mess up more often or prove himself to the public to be a certified jerk, the comment would easily be dredged up and used against him with more effect. At present, most people will think nothing of it.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

NCLB Revisited

Conservatives are squabbling over the value of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education policy, which has been part of public education nationally for four years now.

On Tuesday the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page published this article by American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray. (I wrote here about Murray’s plan to revamp the entire social welfare state, which I said was “wildly unfeasible politically.”)

In his article, Murray asserts that the main data being collected pursuant to NCLB is “beyond uninformative.” He notes that NCLB mandates collection of only pass percentages. He argues that this measure is easily manipulated and is insufficient to determine whether proficiency has been achieved. He suggests that additional information, including actual test scores collated by demographic groups, as well as actual testing methodologies could render useful data.

But Murray’s gripes with NCLB don’t stop at statistical sampling methods. He carps that NCLB is “a disaster for federalism …, holds good students hostage to the performance of the least talented,” and has had “dismaying effects on the content of classroom instruction and devastating effects on teacher morale.” I personally know teachers that would be inclined to agree on at least some level with Murray’s complaints.

But Manhattan Institute fellow Jay P. Greene and his colleague, senior research associate Marcus A. Winters strongly disagree with Murray in this National Review article. Right out of the chute, hwoever, Green and Winters misconstrue Murray’s arguments. They seem to suggest that Murray is against benchmark measurement of any kind. It is possible to arrive at that conclusion if you stop reading at Murray’s sixth paragraph, but that is not the gist of his contention.

Green and Winters take on Murray’s arguments about “teaching to the test,” saying that “these criticisms would only be valid if “teaching to the test” meant that students weren’t also learning how to read and add. Reducing teacher autonomy by requiring students to learn tested material is only worrisome if it doesn’t also produce real learning.”

Indeed, they argue that their empirical studies show that the “teaching to the test” mantra is a red herring, although, there is little discussion about how teacher morale eventually impacts student performance. Besides, they note that “the goal of our education system is student learning, not teacher autonomy. And qualified teachers have little to fear from tests that accurately measure effective teaching.”

But Murray’s main argument is that NCLB is not measuring effective teaching. Then Green and Winters turn right around and agree with Murray, saying “that focusing on the percent of students reaching an arbitrarily chosen benchmark we call “proficient” instead of raw scores is imprecise and can lead to misleading results …” But they argue that the NCLB should be fixed, not shelved. After rereading Murray’s article, I’m not sure that he is calling for the system to be scrapped, although, he never fully clarifies what he thinks should happen.

In defense of standardized testing, with which Murray seems to have some problems as noted above, Green and Winters argue that “there is actually significant evidence that accountability systems in general have improved student performance.” But they admit that “there is little research on the effects of NCLB in particular.”

Green and Winters conclude, “Research suggests that high-stakes testing can improve real student proficiency. We should not go back to the days when we had no tools for measuring and holding schools accountable for teaching students even the most basic skills.”

The trouble is that I’m not sure Murray would disagree with them. It seems that Green and Winters have created a straw man—an effigy of Murray—to tear apart. Murray’s criticism seems to call for better measurements, although, Murray seems to dislike NCLB on a more basic level. It violates principles of federalism, which subscribes to the understanding that government works best when applied at the lowest possible level where the issue can be properly handled. Green and Winter do not address this concern at all. And while they make a valiant case for standardized testing, they make a very weak case for NCLB.

Moreover, Green and Winter totally disregard Murray’s contention NCLB’s testing methodology dumbs down the brightest students and forces all students (top and bottom) toward average. While they are quick to cite empirical data showing that standardized testing improves overall scores and improves the scores of the lowest performers, they are completely mum on its effects on the top students. Does it hold them down? I would appreciate seeing some empirical evidence that addresses this concern.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that since Murray’s main contention (that NCLB’s measurements are inadequate) is admitted, NCLB by itself cannot be assumed to provide the same value as the standardized testing methods for which Green and Winters tout successes. Nor do we know how standardized testing impacts the brightest students. As to whether NCLB should be fixed or else scrapped because it reduces local control of education and expands yet another Washington bureaucracy; that is another question entirely, which Murray’s critics do a poor job of addressing.

It seems clear that we shouldn’t do NCLB at all unless we are going to use valid measurements. But before throwing more money at it, we should find out how standardized testing impacts our brightest students and explore whether this whole thing might be better handled at a lower level of government. Experience dictates that federal agencies are optimal for only a handful of matters. Primary and secondary education likely aren’t among those matters.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Modern Large Scale Apostasy

One of the main points of LDS theology is that following the deaths of Jesus’ apostles, an apostasy took place that gradually altered essential doctrines and ordinances and destroyed authority to act in God’s name. This necessitated a restoration of Christ’s original church, which Mormons believe occurred through their first prophet, Joseph Smith.

Other Christian churches understandably take exception with the LDS point of view. Catholics believe that their church is a continuation of Christ’s original church. Protestants also believe that an apostasy from Christ’s original gospel occurred, but unlike Mormons, they see no need for a physical restoration of this gospel. There has been a decreasing concern with authority and ordinances among Protestants and more adherence to the concept that essential authority derives from a call by the Holy Ghost, which one feels internally.

While there certainly has been more willingness on the parts of all of these disparate approaches to Christianity to work together, there will likely be no change or relaxation of these fundamental doctrinal differences in the foreseeable future.

For those that do believe an apostasy occurred, it is interesting (if pathetic) to see major modern models of such playing out before our very eyes. Jim Tonkowich, president of the Institute On Religion and Democracy, writes about “the crack-up of the Episcopal Church” and the divisions in the Presbyterian Church in this Weekly Standard article.

Tonkowich claims that the divisions within these churches are deep, and go to the basic understanding of faith and truth. In other words, this is something deep in the people’s psyche. It’s not simply politics. Tonkowich classes the conflict as being between conservatives and liberals. Being a conservative himself, Tonkowich frames the debate in a way that favors the conservative view and is notably less than flattering toward liberals.

On the conservative side, you have orthodoxy and strict interpretation of the scriptures. On the liberal side you have an understanding of truth that is constantly in flux. Tonkowich would have us believe that the essence of liberal Christian theology is vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Or that if enough people think something is God’s will it is in fact God’s will. I’m not sure that liberal Christians would agree with Tonkowich’s assessment.

At any rate, Tonkowich says, “The traditional Christian understanding is that truth is true even if it is not experienced. It is true objectively and absolutely.” But, he admits, “This is an assertion for which modern people have little patience.”

Most mainstream Mormons probably have no problem with this assertion. However, the Mormon reliance on living prophets that have direct authority from God also lends to the understanding that revelation is needed to grapple with ever changing world conditions. So, many Mormons probably also understand liberal dissatisfaction with having the Bible as the sole source of religious authority.

Watching the squabbles and changing doctrines in the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches gives an interesting view into how Mormons believe apostasy occurred in the original Christian church. But the toll that will be exacted by this process is not pleasant to contemplate. Tonkowich is probably not far off base when he asserts, “The results will be a liberal vestige with lovely buildings and lots of endowment money, but few people.”

Trends seem to indicate that the majority of those that quit supporting disintegrating churches will move, not to another denomination, but to no church at all. They may remain internally religious, but that rarely passes onto the next generation. The result will be a less religious, or specifically, less Christian society. The practicing Christians among us cannot view this as a positive thing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

George Gilder vs. Darwin

“The pretense that Darwinian evolution is a complete theory of life is a huge distraction from the limits and language, the rigor and grandeur, of real scientific discovery.” –George Gilder

George Gilder, Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute takes aim at Darwinian Theory in this National Review article. Fair warning: if you assay to read Gilder’s article, you’d better put on your thinking cap and be prepared to concentrate. It is not light, breezy reading.

Gilder quotes Robert Laughlin of Stanford as saying, “The Darwinian theory has become an all-purpose obstacle to thought rather than an enabler of scientific advance.” In essence, Gilder argues that Darwin-informed “materialist superstition” has become what many have long claimed religion to be: a set of blinders or chains that prevent pursuit of truth.

At times Gilder seems to be slamming Darwin altogether. For example, he lampoons some of the dichotomies and tautologies presented by strict adherence to Darwin. He says, for example, “Materialism generally and Darwinian reductionism, specifically, comprise thoughts that deny thought, and contradict themselves.” At other times Gilder seems to be suggesting that Darwin isn’t bad; just incomplete or inadequate.

Gilder’s thesis is that information “is manifestly independent of its material substrate.” This is easy to understand for computer programmers. You’ve got hardware (the mechanism for handling information), and you’ve got software (the actual information). Gilder posits that information necessarily comes first, existing independent of its later physical manifestation.

What we used to write on a sheet of paper, we now type into a word processing program. But in either case, the information exists independent of the sheet of paper or the word processor (or the computer that runs the word processor, which doesn’t know what to do with the information without other information that makes up the word processing program).

Gilder says, “In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate. No possible knowledge of the computer’s materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations. In the usual hierarchy of causation, they reflect the software or “source code” used to program the device; and, like the design of the computer itself, the software is contrived by human intelligence.”

And there you have it. The mechanism means nothing without the information, which exists independent of the mechanism. Take that one step further, and you have Gilder’s thought on the matter: information cannot exist without a pre-existing intelligence that generates the information. There must be a “mind” of some sort behind the intelligence. “Wherever there is information, there is a preceding intelligence.” (ellipsis original) “Mind can generate and lend meaning to words, but words in themselves cannot generate mind or intelligence.”

Gilder takes issue with Darwinists that focus on subsets of the mechanism in an attempt to show that the mechanism is in fact the information. Moving from computers to biology, Gilder says that “the deoxyribonucleic acid that bears the word is not itself the word. Like a sheet of paper or a computer memory chip, DNA bears messages but its chemistry is irrelevant to its content.”

Gilder claims that this information flow is necessarily a one-way road. That is, the information can force a physical representation, but not vice versa. He backs this claim up with known DNA science, and shows how Darwinian Theory violates this “Central Dogma” of molecular biology. In a thinly-veiled suggestion that Darwinism is itself a dogmatic superstition, Gilder derides “all “magical” proteins that morph into data, all “uppity” atoms transfigured as bits, all “miracles” of upstream influence.”

Gilder sees intelligent creationism everywhere: in computers, biology, human relationships, finance and economics, politics, quantum physics, etc. He suggests that pretty much everything in the universe is hierarchical. “[I]t turns out” says Gilder, “that the universe is stubbornly hierarchical.”

Gilder derides Darwinism as unrelentingly reductionist in violation of what we actually know about the universe. He says, “The universe of knowledge does not close down to a molecular point. It opens up infinitely in all directions.” He says that “scientists attempt to explain the exquisite hierarchies of life and knowledge through the flat workings of physics and chemistry alone,” but they fail because “biology as a field is irreducibly complex.”

Gilder cites IBM mathematician Gregory Chaitin’s demonstration “that biology is irreducibly complex in a … fundamental way: Physical and chemical laws contain hugely less information than biological phenomena.” He says that biology “is above physics and chemistry on the epistemological ladder and cannot be subsumed under chemical and physical rules. It harnesses chemistry and physics to its own purposes.”

Gilder notes, “Science still falls far short of developing satisfactory explanations of many crucial phenomena, such as human consciousness, the Big Bang, the superluminal quantum entanglement of photons across huge distances, even the bioenergetics of the brain of a fly in eluding the swatter. The more we learn about the universe the more wide-open the horizons of mystery.” But Gilder also criticizes scientists that are “drifting away from … technological foundations, where you have to demonstrate what you invent — and now [seek] to usurp the role of philosophers and theologians.”

Gilder admits that he leans toward Intelligent Design. “All right, have a tantrum. Hurl the magazine aside. Say that I am some insidious charlatan of ‘creation-lite,’ or, God forfend, ‘intelligent design.’” But he issues a challenge that he believes is necessary. “Transcending its materialist trap, science must look up from the ever dimmer reaches of its Darwinian pit and cast its imagination toward the word and its sources: idea and meaning, mind and mystery, the will and the way. It must eschew reductionism — except as a methodological tool — and adopt an aspirational imagination.”

I doubt that the political scientific community will be quick to accept Gilder’s challenge. Rather, it is more likely to grab the pitchforks and torches on the way to heretic’s house.

Tragedy and Rights

Five-year-old Destiny Norton’s remains were found last night in the basement of her neighbor’s home, eight days after she went missing (see here and here). She was apparently murdered by her neighbor, 20-year-old Craig Roger Gregerson. No information has been released about the nature of the murder or the condition of Destiny’s body.

This news is a bitter pill to swallow for those that had searched, hoped, and prayed for Destiny’s safe return. Tired family members, neighbors, and friends of the Nortons responded in a hostile manner late last night when the Salt Lake City Police Department announced the results of its investigation. Of course, anger and rage are normal steps in the grieving process. I hope for the best for these people as they work through this process.

Some family members understandably felt that the police had failed to do their jobs properly. Destiny’s aunt repeatedly said that had the police allowed the searchers to do what they wanted to do; Destiny would have been found much sooner. But we have Fourth Amendment rights against “unreasonable searches” of our “persons, houses, papers, and effects” that cannot be abrogated except by a legal and specific warrant issued “upon probable cause.”

Family members submitted to extensive searches, information gathering, and lie detector tests, since it is common practice for police to first work to clear family members in missing person cases. This is both because family members often have the greatest opportunity and motive for being the cause of the person going missing, and so that police can remove doubt so as to be able to focus their attention and resources on more productive potential investigative leads. Many neighbors willingly allowed police and volunteers to search their homes. But apparently Mr. Gregerson did not permit police or volunteer searchers to inspect his home, or at least his basement.

The fact is that police had no “probable cause” that would stand up in court to forcibly search Mr. Gregerson’s home—until yesterday. In order to protect the rights of the accused as well as to allow for the strongest possible prosecution of the accused, police are unwilling to explain what information led to the issuance of a warrant to search Mr. Gregerson’s home.

While this story is immensely tragic, upon thinking about it, we would want it no other way. It appears that the police did a fine job of developing leads until they had something solid enough to successfully conclude their investigation. Had police or volunteers forced a search of Gregerson’s home without a warrant, the evidence gathered probably could not have been used to prosecute Gregerson. While Destiny’s remains would have been recovered sooner, a disservice would have been done to society, since a sick murderer would have been left free to exploit another child.

The grief of the Norton family and of their friends is understandable, and we should all grieve with them. But we have a Bill of Rights attached to our Constitution for a good reason: to protect the rights of individuals as well as society as a whole. One might aptly argue that courts have occasionally ruled in ways that have upset the balance between individual and societal rights. In that case, we should work within legal limits to fix things. But constitutional principles must be upheld if we want to maintain order in our society, even if that means that it takes a week instead of a day to snare a murderous predator.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Pioneer Day

It was a normal workday for me, but some of my kids watched the Days of ’47 Parade on TV in commemoration of the official entry of Mormon settlers into the Salt Lake Valley. I caught brief snippets of the parade, which seemed infused with history about Mormon pioneers and the LDS Church.

(Incidentally, my Mom-in-law and her sister reported to me that as they viewed the parade, they thought that the overweight crowd was more than well represented both among parade participants and parade attenders. There could be a variety of reasons for this observation, and it may be simply anecdotal, but I thought it should be mentioned.)

I couldn’t help but think about my friends that are opposed to public mention or displays of religion of any kind, unless it is something out of the mainstream—you know, from a group that could be considered in their minds to lack adequate social standing, and are, therefore, worthy of their tolerance. I could almost sense these friends cringing.

The fact is that no matter how you slice it, the history of the state of Utah is inextricably intertwined with the history of the LDS Church. You don’t have to like it, but if you are going to have any kind of honest study of Utah history, the LDS Church and its adherents are going to feature prominently. Like all history, it has portions that are not at all pretty, but it is what it is. And in my humble estimation, it is worth studying if you are planning on spending an appreciable amount of time in the state.

Unlike some of my neighbors, I had no ancestors that arrived in Utah in those first couple of decades of settlement. My parents are not from Utah (my Dad is not from the U.S.) But my parents moved here to accept a job offer when I was quite young, and Utah has been my home for most of my life. As a longtime citizen of Utah, I feel that my study of state history—including the wonderful, the less-than-wonderful, and the LDS Church—has been worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Religious Opposition to Romney Overblown?

National Review editor Kathryn Jean Lopez thinks the MSM is all wet (see here) when it comes to assessing Mitt Romney’s presidential appeal to Christians, in light of him being a Mormon. Lopez quotes CNN’s Bill Schneider as saying, “[T]he press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn’t get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction.”

Lopez doesn’t think much of the now famous Bloomberg/LA Times poll that concluded that 37% of registered voters would refuse to vote for an unnamed Mormon for president. Of course, many bloggers have thoroughly fisked the poll to demonstrate that it is unreliable (see here and here for examples). (Of course, they knew it was unreliable when they commissioned the poll, but this is the kind of stuff that sells well.) Besides, Lopez notes that a poll about a generic future possibility is meaningless in the real world.

As a Catholic, Lopez is philosophical about Romney. After noting how well his political views align with traditional conservative positions, she says, “I might not go to church with him, but I can work with him. And if I were a conservative evangelical Protestant, I’d certain (sic) consider voting for someone who talks about a culture of life in the way Romney does.”

Of course, Lopez is not “a conservative evangelical Protestant,” so whatever she thinks she might do if she were one is irrelevant. There is no question that many evangelicals distrust the Mormon religion. (Click here for a humorous cartoon on this issue.) But they’re going to be voting for a president, not a pastor. When evangelicals get into the voting booth, are they going to be more concerned about political ideology or doctrinal disagreements? Lopez is betting on the former. And in that case, Romney aligns nicely with evangelicals.

At any rate, Lopez thinks the MSM is overblowing the whole religious difference thing when it comes to Romney. She seems to suggest that they might be projecting their own distaste for anything religious onto the public.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Coming War

I have written a number of times about declining birthrates (see here, here, and here). I have dabbled in a variety of theories as I have pondered the causes of declining birthrates in our nation and throughout the world. Jonathan Last takes a shot at it in this Weekly Standard article.

While people were screaming a couple of decades ago about the impending population explosion (and some are still screaming), the world’s attitudes and behaviors with respect to child rearing underwent a major shift. Last says (basing his statement on calculations by population guru Phillip Longman), “By 2080, world population will probably have peaked around nine billion, after which it will sharply contract.” The impact on our nation will be the diminution of “populations, then economies, then military power, then world influence” (see here).

That says what is happening and what will happen. But why is it happening?

Last says that the multiple and complex factors include “the spread of abortion, contraception, divorce, and women's work opportunities,” as well as decreasing religious activity. He notes, “The birthrate in pious Utah is nearly double what it is in secular Vermont.”

Last also cites “host of other small, hidden influences,” that include social acceptance of homosexuality, increasing geographic mobility that causes extended family separation, women putting off childbearing until after fertility has peaked, (a trend that has a number of causing factors of itself), the decreasing economic value of children, and the increasing cost of child rearing.

Children were once a significant source of economic benefit, both while families were young, and again in old age. But the information age has changed all of that. “Small hands, so helpful during the agrarian and industrial ages, are useless in the information age.” Today, “Instead of children helping their families economically, one child can easily cost parents $1 million” in costs and foregone wages.

Last says, “Having children is more economically burdensome and less economically rewarding than it has ever been in the course of human history. We have reached a point where children are actually an impediment to economic and social success.”

Adult children also used to be the primary caregivers during declining years. They were, in essence, their parents’ retirement plan. Today, however, the cost of aging has been largely socialized. Last asks, “[W]hy bother going through the expense of having children, since you'll be provided for anyway?” Last cites Longman in saying, “[W]e still leave it to individuals to bear (in both direct expenses and forgone wages) nearly all the growing cost of raising the children who sustain the system, while allowing those individuals to retain a dwindling share of the value they create.”

Last’s article seems to primarily address the economic reasons for declining birthrates, although, he does mention some cultural matters as well. Of course, my foray into causality might be ill placed. Is it likely that understanding the reasons for declining birthrates will reverse that trend? In today’s world, people need to have cogent cultural and economic reasons to have children and to rear them. It’s hard, expensive work. In the absence of good reasons, many are opting for fewer or no children. Simply understanding the underlying factors will not reverse this trend.

A couple of decades ago people decried the unsustainable nature of an increasing population. Contrariwise, we must consider the unsustainable nature of our socialization of aging. A declining percentage of producers cannot hope to continue to provide adequate support for an increasing percentage of retirees. Even as we expand our Medicare system and ignore the impending implosion of our Social Security system in defiance of demographic realities, we continually push the problem into the future toward an increasingly dire situation.

What will the brave, new future hold for an aging population that lived their productive lives in a culture that failed to create enough children to provide for itself? This could easily produce a whole new and terrible meaning to the phrase ‘generation wars.’

Monday, July 17, 2006

It Truly Is Great

Nothing compares with sitting in the solitude of the Teton wilderness, staring up through towering 100-foot tall spruce trees at the clear night sky jeweled with more visible stars than you’ve ever seen near civilization, when the night is silent and windless after the biting flies have gone to bed.

No commercial water park matches the grandeur of jumping into Scout Pool in the geyser-fed Warm River near the spectacular 265-foot high Union Falls, which fewer than 1% of the visitors to Yellowstone National Park ever experience. You have to watch out for horseflies and other pesky flies, but it’s well worth it. It was worth the 17-mile hike to see the awe on the faces of 12- and 13-year-old boys as their scoutmaster pointed out to them tracks made by a black bear sow just a few hours earlier on the same trail they were hiking.

Nothing is more inspiring than standing silently and respectfully with 250 young men (no giggling, whispering, or elbow-jabbing) saluting Old Glory atop bluffs overlooking the still, chilly waters of the majestic 200-acre Lake of the Woods as the sun sets.

There is a special place in the soul that can only be touched by experiences similar to that of quietly paddling a canoe across Lake of the Woods through the pre-sunrise mists arising from the lake before the mosquitoes are up, seeing the waning moon as well as the sunlight kissing the spruce trees at the top of the ridge.

No chapel, however beautifully appointed, matches the sacred beauty of sitting in the outdoor chapel at Camp Loll, surrounded by the handiwork of the Creator that gave Michelangelo the ability to paint. (Incidentally, Camp Loll is one of the nation’s most wilderness Boy Scout camps).

I’m still scratching some of the manifold mosquito bites I sustained last week. I’m still chagrined at some of the (not entirely unexpected) antics of a few of the boys in our troop (whom I trust will eventually grow to become productive members of society). But these were small prices to pay for last week’s experience in the rustic wilderness where little news or technology reaches.

The world went on while I had a (hard-working) respite from the world. The week provided some time to pull away from the routine and remind myself of some of the things that are truly important in life.

I proudly rowed a boat along side my 13-year-old son as he bravely attempted the mile swim in the incredibly chilly waters of the lake (something I did not attempt until I was 18). I thought no less of him when, at nearly 7/8ths of a mile he looked at me and his assistant scoutmaster with a look in his eyes that let us know he was in trouble, and said that he didn’t think he could make it any further. An hour of personally administered hypothermia treatment later, he was OK. He even canoed the length of the lake, built a lean-to shelter, and won an arm-wrestling contest later that evening.

My son may not think of an experience late Friday afternoon as any big deal, but having worked on staff at Camp Loll as a youth, I know different. After being less than completely diligent throughout the week at the Climbing Merit Badge class, my son was struggling to complete the requirements in the final hour of the week’s program time. Two 18-year-old staffers, Travis of Rockford Illinois, and Kenny of Layton Utah, stayed nearly an hour late—long after the staff dinner bell—to focus on my boy and to help him finish the requirements. They received no extra pay or recognition for this. Young men of that caliber make me think that our nation will be in good hands with the next generation.

It was remarkable to spend time in the great American wilderness, knowing that all of the area around us was owned, not by any monarch, corporation, or rich family, but by all of the American people—the boys at camp, my immigrant father, the kid living in the New York slums, and every other American citizen. I am grateful to generations that had the foresight to set aside these lands as national preserves. I am grateful for the freedom to experience these lands first hand. I am grateful to users and land managers that work to keep these areas simultaneously accessible to the public as well as pristine.

Last week made me proud to be an American all over again.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Into the Woods

I’m off for a week of Boy Scout camp at Camp Loll in the Tetons.

I will get more than my fill of rain, cold, sunburn, mosquitoes, icy lake water, trails, herding boys around to merit badge classes, outdoor cooking, crude junior high humor, smoke in the eyes, etc. But I will be rewarded with some of the most fantastic scenery on the face of the earth, spending time in part of Yellowstone National Park that fewer than 1% of the park’s visitors ever see, canoeing on a lake where you can clearly see the bottom until it drops out of view at a depth of more than 30 feet, watching young men experience one of the world’s most unique places, watching young men create memories that will last a lifetime, helping young men learn to respect and reverence the wilderness and our country, and sharing some special experiences with my second son.

Our troop should be in good shape. With adult volunteers coming and going throughout the week, we should always have at least one adult for every two boys. That usually means enhanced youth safety. We have an even number of boys, so that makes the buddy system work relatively well. I’m a little concerned about the synergistic potential for mischief of one of those buddy teams. We’ll have to have 24x7 adult supervision for those two. Somehow I doubt their parents would approve if we were to shackle them to a tree every night.

Back next week.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Of Amusement Parks, Music, Complaints, and Crashes

We took our family to Lagoon, the local amusement park yesterday. This was our second visit of the season. We went several weeks ago with my employer’s annual fun day. We thought it would be fun to return on a day that would probably be less busy (at the heavily discounted $7 bounce-back price). The weather was nearly perfect for the occasion. It was never too cool, and it only got into the mid 80s during the day. The lines for the rides were shorter than they were during our visit a few weeks back.

A couple of years ago when we took the family to Lagoon, we noticed that music was played throughout the park. Pop music was played in the general areas of the park. Children’s songs were played in the Kiddie Land area. Western themed songs were played in Pioneer Village. And yet another pop rock genre was played in Lagoon-A-Beach, the water park.

A lot of music played in places like that is rather inane, as might be expected. However, I was quite shocked at the nature of the music played at Lagoon-A-Beach. The fare included songs with very explicit sexual lyrics, rap numbers (I can’t really call that art form music) that included the most foul swear words in the English language, at least one song inviting listeners to engage in Satan worship, and songs glorifying prostitution. This was not what I expected to expose my pre-teens and toddlers to while trying to enjoy some time at a venue that classes itself as a family oriented business.

I also didn’t care for my kids commenting on the large and intricate tattoo featured on the exposed back of a 50-something female water park patron that looked like a 200-lb+ pile of cottage cheese, but I figure that the Lagoon management didn’t have much control over that.

A couple of days later I wrote to Lagoon’s management about the music we were treated to while attending Lagoon-A-Beach. I received a personal letter back from David W. Freed, President of Lagoon Corp. He was very sympathetic to my complaint. He explained that the music was part of a subscription to a nationally broadcast radio program that was classed as “teenage contemporary.” He also said that as a result of my complaint, Lagoon had immediately switched to another more benign program.

As we frolicked in the water at Lagoon-A-Beach yesterday, I noted that the music being played was mostly top-40 songs from the early- to mid-80s. I thought it strange that my teenagers were quite familiar with most of these songs from 20 years ago. It was pretty inane stuff back then, and it’s still pretty inane stuff today, but at least it’s not patently offensive filth. It felt somewhat rewarding to think that my little letter a couple of years ago made a difference.

Despite the pleasant weather, the manageable crowds, and the milder-than-expected freak show, most of my family was complaining by 6:00 PM that they had had enough. Most wanted to go home, but a few caught a second wind. Having brought two vehicles, as we could not fit our entire family plus tag-along friends in a single car, I stayed behind for a couple more hours.

I was rewarded for this act of benevolence by witnessing a nasty collision just a mile down the road. As we headed toward the I-15 entrance, a spiffy new Mazda 6 with an air foil on the back ripped past me and whipped over into my lane as I was approaching an intersection where the light for our direction had just turned red. The sporty Mazda displayed no break lights as it cruised into the intersection. My passengers and I watched helplessly as we could see the makings of a crash.

A smaller vehicle that was a few years older was heading through the green light at a pretty good clip. The driver couldn’t see the Mazda until the last moment due to the intersection being at the crest of a hill and having a vehicle waiting to make a left turn blocking view of traffic coming from my direction. The smaller vehicle struck the rear passenger door of the Mazda with convincing force, causing the Mazda to do a 360, so that it stopped in the same direction as it was headed, with air bags deployed all over the place. The smaller vehicle spun a 180, and then rolled backward powerless to the shoulder of the road. Its entire grill remained firmly embedded in the side of the Mazda.

Fortunately, the driver and passenger of the smaller vehicle were wearing seatbelts, so they were not seriously hurt. The driver of the Mazda jumped out of her vehicle and ran over to the other car to make sure they were all right. Without safety equipment, the collision would have been a serious tragedy. I immediately called 911, but a sheriff/paramedic vehicle pulled up even as I was speaking to the dispatcher. Soon a Highway Patrol officer arrived, followed by a local police officer. I remained on the scene (as required by Utah law for witnesses of a crash) for about 20 minutes to fill out a report of the incident.

My teenage passengers thought the crash was the most remarkable event of the day. It led to a discussion on the way home about automobile insurance and ambulance-chaser trial lawyers. I can’t say that all of my remarks were charitable.

While I appreciate Lagoon’s change of music, given the crabbiness of my family members on a nearly perfect day (not to mention the exorbitant prices of everything inside the park), I’m thinking that we will probably avoid doing the theme park thing for a while.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Respecting America

I enjoyed celebrating the Independence Day holiday with my family yesterday. We make an annual pilgrimage to our town's local parade, which isn't too difficult, because it runs down the main drag for a mile, and a prime spot on the parade route is about half a mile from our house.

It amazes me every year to see many parade attendees remain sitting on their butts when the American Flag goes by. In 2002, almost everyone stood. By my very unscientific method of observation, the number of people standing for the flag has seemed to decrease each year since then.

Whatever one's disposition toward the current administration or the prosecution of the current war effort, what is wrong with showing proper respect to the symbol of our nation? What are these people saying by their failure to show adequate respect?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Stop or We’ll … Uh … or We’ll …

The six western nations (including the U.S.) that are negotiating with Iran to stop uranium enrichment have issued an ultimatum (see here) to try to force Iran to comply by July 12. The term ‘negotiating with Iran’ can only be applied in the loosest sense, since Iran is largely a non-participant in the negotiations.

So far, the process has consisted of the six nations describing to Iran a package of incentives and threats. Iran has responded, at least publicly, by pretty much by laughing at them and telling them to shove it. Although diplomats have been very tight-lipped about what the package includes, it would appear to be highly unpersuasive.

Iran certainly has weaknesses that can be exploited, but there is no clear evidence of sufficient will on the part of the rest of the world to do so, especially as far as all of the main players are concerned. The referenced article cites unnamed diplomats in claiming that “Russia and China were closer than ever to supporting the West on U.N. Security Council action - including sanctions …”

Oh, really. That's like saying they wouldn't touch sanctions with a 9½-foot pole rather than with a 10-foot pole. And even if they truly supported sanctions, what would those sanctions be? Something akin to Saddam’s oil for food fiasco? Or perhaps the tidily-wink games that the U.N. Security Council played for months in the run-up to the liberation of Iraq? In fact, is there any example of truly effective sanctions by the U.N.?

Diplomacy is certainly the most desirable method of resolving international conflict. However, diplomacy can only work when a credible military threat exists. A military threat is only credible when there is sufficient military might and the will to use it. Can anyone demonstrate that these elements are in place today, or will be in place by July 12?

Sadly, the current diplomatic ultimatum comes across as implying, “If you don’t stop by July 12, we will be forced to issue another ultimatum.”

Telling Churches How to Worship

Seminar speaker Jerold Willmore lectures the LDS Church on how to practice religion in this SLTrib op-ed piece. Willmore, who has a deep history in environmental activism and says he is a “behavioral scientist,” goes on an environmentalist tirade, the likes of which would make worshippers of Gaia proud. Willmore suggests that since the LDS Church isn’t publicly instructing its members to reduce CO2 emissions, it is complicit in the immoral destruction of our earth’s environmental life support system.

Like many in the environmentalist religion, Willmore bases his faith in ‘science.’ He claims, “More than 95 percent of the world scientific community agrees.” He isn’t precisely clear about what this broad community supposedly agrees upon, but he seems to put a lot of words in their mouths about global warming being “the compelling moral imperative of our time,” and the earth being “under assault” by the “predatory species” of humans.

While the religion of environmentalism claims its basis in science, it is largely based in very selective handling and manipulation of a few scientific observations and the willful ignorance of other observations that prove less convenient to the faith. Willmore correctly says, “Religions are faith-based belief systems. When confronted by cognitive dissonance between the evidence and their beliefs, true believers follow their dogma and deny the evidence.” Strangely, Willmore seems hypocritically unable to see his own reflection in this statement.

In contrast, Richard S. Lindzen, a bona fide Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, says in this WSJ op-ed piece that “There's no "consensus" on global warming.” Lindzen dismantles the human-caused global warming propaganda. He notes that even those qualified scientists that support this theory do so largely out of lassitude, saying that they can’t think of anything else that might be causing warming.

Lindzen discusses the incredible complexity of factors that determine the earth’s atmospheric conditions. He suggests that we are mere rubes in our understanding of what all of the factors are and how they actually work together. Yet we have people, including scientists, that want to base public policy on a few cherry-picked concepts of this dismal understanding. That’s called dogmatic extremism.

Lindzen argues that the debate constantly referred to by dogmatic environmentalists has never even been properly framed. He suggests three points for the debate.
“First, nonscientists generally do not want to bother with understanding the science. Claims of consensus relieve policy types, environmental advocates and politicians of any need to do so. Such claims also serve to intimidate the public and even scientists--especially those outside the area of climate dynamics. Secondly, given that the question of human attribution largely cannot be resolved, its use in promoting visions of disaster constitutes nothing so much as a bait-and-switch scam. That is an inauspicious beginning to what Mr. Gore claims is not a political issue but a "moral" crusade.

“Lastly, there is a clear attempt to establish truth not by scientific methods but by perpetual repetition. An earlier attempt at this was accompanied by tragedy. Perhaps Marx was right. This time around we may have farce--if we're lucky.”
Gayle Trotter is one of WSJ Editor James Taranto’s readers. She takes exception here (scroll to “Hot Enough for You?”) with a global warming article in Parade Magazine that suggests that ancients thought climate issues were beyond their control:
“These ancient civilizations did not assume good weather would continue. In fact, they had elaborate religious rituals (sometimes involving human sacrifice and infanticide) to attempt to influence the weather. I would argue that our current environmental policy is about as effective at influencing the weather as their ancient religious ceremonies, and indeed, environmentalism has become a new religion in our age.”
Taranto notes that the article in Parade invites readers to engage in environmental rituals to “stop global warming.” You can “buy a fuel-efficient car; take mass transit; and, when you can, bicycle or walk to work.” Given what we actually know (not just believe), there is no rational reason to believe that these rites will reduce global warming any more than throwing a virgin into a volcano will keep it from erupting. I’m not saying that Parade's suggested activities won’t help the environment (although that is certainly debatable), but we cannot know that even if all humans followed them any appreciable impact on the global climate would result.

I’m always amazed that the members of the environmentalism religion that most vociferously and evangelistically moralize about various selected behaviors are reluctant to actually demonstrate their faith to the most logical conclusion of their beliefs. If the human race is as immorally toxic to our globe as they claim, since they are among this toxic race, why don’t they remove themselves from this immoral existence? Ah, I thought so. They are pure. It’s only the rest of us that are the infidels. And how is this not a religion?

My church believes in allowing all to worship “how, where, or what they may” (see here), but we also “claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” Willmore is free to worship as he wishes. He is free to express his ideas of how he thinks my church ought to worship, but it takes an awful lot of cheek to do so. Fortunately, I am free to ignore his silly suggestions.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Is Software Piracy Bad?

Software development is a creative effort in which developers engage, hoping to obtain certain benefits. Some developers create software for altruistic reasons, as is the case with many open source projects (see Open Source Initiative). Some development is done for purely recreational reasons; some good, some benign, and some malicious. But the software that is most used throughout the world is done for profit.

With any type of intellectual property, the issues of ownership and proper usage surface. Our society has long been comfortable with copyrights, which are intended to define legal ownership of intellectual properties. However, not all societies share the common American understanding of copyright. In some societies, the idea of holding ownership of an intellectual property rather than allowing it to freely benefit the lives of citizens seems immoral.

Even within the U.S. there is wide disagreement about the morality of some of our copyright laws. For example, is it moral for the legal right to use the image of Mickey Mouse to be owned by descendants of the creator, basically in perpetuity, even though the creator passed away long ago? Is it moral for Microsoft to hold a copyright on products that became obsolete a decade ago? Different people feel differently about these types of issues.

International copyright infringement used to be a relatively minor issue. With the advent of the xerography, which simplified and reduced the cost of copying of printed materials, new situations developed. This was magnified many times as we moved into the computing era, where recorded material of any type is easily digitized and transferred.

Ostensibly, those that own copyrights to materials get upset with those that obtain or misuse copies, since this practice dilutes their control, and especially because it reduces their profit. They see this practice as tantamount to theft, and they have successfully coined the term ‘software piracy’ to describe it. An international organization called the Business Software Alliance aims to address software piracy.

Many consumers cannot see the harm in copying a piece of software, a song, or a DVD movie. It is certainly cheaper than buying it retail. Why should Microsoft sell a copy of its Office suite for hundreds of dollars? You almost need it to operate in today’s world. That sounds an awful lot like a monopoly. Isn’t this immoral? (By the way, you can get a free open source office suite that works very similar to Microsoft’s from

Every for-profit software producer loses vast amounts of potential profit to markets in China, Russia, developing Eastern European countries, etc. In fact, over 90% of all software in use in China was obtained on the black market. (The Chinese government is by far the largest consumer of black market software.) Does this mean that Chinese consumers are smarter shoppers than Americans in general? Are there other matters to consider?

AP’s Joe McDonald has an excellent article here that discusses some of the broader implications of software ‘piracy’ in China. The software market works a lot like the prescription drug market, where we are often partially paying for the next development. The market can and should quibble about how much should be paid toward this effort, because it is kind of like buying futures. But consumers need to understand that completely undercutting the effort cuts funding for future development. It essentially stifles creativity.

That’s OK if you figure that the drugs we currently have on the market will be good enough for society for the next century or millennium, or if you figure that we don’t need any innovation in software in the future. The fact of the matter is that the people that produce these commodities need to be able to put groceries on the table while they work on the next innovation.

Even the Chinese government is beginning to come to grips with the fact that software piracy is hurting the country. Chinese programmers end up working for foreign companies that can pay them, since Chinese software companies can’t make a profit due to piracy. China does not innovate; it simply uses others’ ideas. That can seem like a smart strategy, but they are discovering that it bites them in the long run. It destroys the ability of the market to work its magic that creates higher level jobs, synergistically spreading new wealth and idea creation throughout the society, which raises the overall economy rather than just a tiny sector.

But don’t look for anything to happen in China or Russia soon. Consumers right now see only the quick gain of getting something cheaper. The concept of improving their economy and society over the long run is something they aren’t grasping at the moment. This will require a solid effort to educate consumers. Are these countries up to the task?