Saturday, November 19, 2005

Very Well Put

Why I am an Atheist. Or, read Penn Jillette's This I Believe essay from 21-Nov-2005.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

No Fruitcake Today

The nature of telephone marketing being what it is, I rarely answer the phone any more if I don't recognize the caller id. Unfortunately, I can't always ignore the phone, and last Saturday was one of those days. I was expecting a phone call from a FedEx driver concerning a missing package, so when the phone rang and the caller id indicated number unknown, I answered just in case it was my expected call. Sadly, it was not, so no fruitcake today.

Now, my wife will do one of two things when this happens to her. Most times she'll just say she's not interested and hang up. I try to do the same, but I really have a hard time doing that if I feel I'm being rude. I'm not saying my wife is rude, mind you, it's just a quirk of my personality that I find it difficult to interrupt someone. I'd rather just not answer the phone in the first place. If it's someone with a long sales pitch, she just might set down the phone and let them talk until they figure out she's not listening and hang up on their own. I've only once done anything like that. I decided to let the guy talk until he hung up on his own, but the first thing out of the guy's mouth was "This credit card will not cost you anything if you never use it." That was, to me, a challenge to find out how many more stupid things he would say before I pointed out just how ridiculous it would be for me to take on a new credit card and never use it. It was a long conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Back to last Saturday. Marketers are one thing, pollsters are completely different, and that's what I had on the other end of the line. They've got a job to do, and I don't envy them that job. For the record, I believe public opinion polls are thoroughly useless as an indicator of public opinion. I come by that belief simply because I understand a little bit more about statistics than the average high-school graduate. I'm no prodigy or anything, I've just studied it more than most. Unfortunately, most pollsters haven't. Most pollsters believe that a poll is as statistically valid as any other, objective, statistical sample, but they are not. Not by a long-shot. Polls require careful crafting in order not to bias the results. They require careful interpretation in order not to read anything into the results that isn't there. Both of these steps require someone skilled both with statistics and psychology, and, to tell you the truth, most pollsters are familiar with neither. What they are familiar with is politics. They know the message that they want to get across with the results of their surveys. They may even sincerely believe that their polls are not biased, and prove exactly what they set out to show. But check the polls two weeks before what promises to be a close election and you'll find each candidates' polls showing them clearly in the lead. Soon forgotten is the fact that the only poll that matters (that's the election, son) shows all prior polls to be far off the mark. So, as I said, I really don't like public opinion polls as an indicator of public opinion.

On the other hand, public opinion polls can affect public opinion, even if it's only to confirm to members of marginalized groups that they are not alone. After thinking about it for about 1.5 seconds (they don't give you much time to think about it), I decided to go ahead and answer this guy's questions. He was polite, which goes a long way with me, well spoken, and at least claimed that his organization, the name of which I can no longer remember, was non-partisan. As a member of a marginalized group, (I am an atheist), it was time for me to represent.

I got the typical questions about what's most important to me in my federal and state representation. I was a bit annoyed that the questions were all multiple choice, and limited choices at that. It's a shame, but probably half of my answers were disallowable because they didn't come from the pre-selected set. "I'm not a Democrat. No, I'm not a Republican, either. I prefer to think for myself. I don't support parties, I support candidates. yada yada yada..." At the same time I understood the rationale behind the limited multiple choice answers. It's that bias thing, again. Eliminate points where interpretation can be subjective in order to ensure that interpretation of the results is objective. Yes/no answers would have been better.

It really wasn't until the last few questions, though, when they collect demographic information, that I really began to get annoyed. Asked my race, I was given no fewer than 10 choices, with the last being other. When asked my religion, however, the question was "Do you consider yourself Catholic, Protestant or Jewish?" Um, that's it? That's not a very comprehensive list there, Chester. Your bias is showing, and it ain't pretty. I proudly answered that I am quite happily an atheist. As if the first question weren't presumptive enough, the next was "How often do you attend church?" By now, the interviewer has realized how stupid these questions are and stumbled through this one, but to his surprise, I answered "once a month." Silence. I think I may have invalidated the entire questionnaire with that answer. So be it. Had the questionnaire been crafted properly, 15 minutes of my day, and of my interrogator's day would not have been wasted.

But at least the package turned up later that day. I love fruitcake.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Happy 4,500,000,031st

When I was in 7th grade, we were taught that the earth was 4,500,000,000 years old. That was 31 years ago, making the earth 4,500,000,031 years old now. Time flies, huh? It seems like only yesterday when the earth was a mere 4,500,000,030 years old.

I make the above statement not to be funny, but to illustrate a point about large numbers, particularly how people generally tend not to be aware of how large numbers used in everyday conversation can really get. What does it mean that the earth is 4.5 billion years old? The oldest trees on this planet are the slightest fraction of that age. The age of the average human is a slight fraction of that. It's not surprising that comprehension of just how long 4.5 billion years is comes with some difficulty.

Allow me to try to illustrate just how large 4.5 billion is. 4.5 billion nanoseconds ago, you started reading this paragraph. 4.5 billion microseconds ago, photons in the light now reaching the earth from Jupiter were still miles below the sun's corona. 4.5 billion milliseconds ago, the planet Mercury was on the opposite side of the sun from where it is now. 4.5 billion seconds ago, Abraham Lincoln was still president. 4.5 billion minutes ago, farming was invented. 4.5 billion hours ago, Hawaii was formed by volcanic accretion, and early human ancestors had just learned to use charcoal to maintain fires, but probably didn't know yet how to start a fire. 4.5 billion days ago, early hominids had emerged, but did not yet walk upright. 4.5 billion weeks ago, sharks evolved, and 4.5 billion months ago, the Appalachian mountains were formed from the collision of the North American, African and European tectonic plates.

4.5 billion people make up 75% of the world's population.

A stack of 4.5 billion standard sheets of typing paper would be 279 kilometers tall, 31 times the height of Mount Everest's highest peak, and could easily reach completely across the English Channel at its widest point.

A stack of 4.5 billion one dollar bills would balance the US federal budget for nearly 3 days. A stack of 4.5 billion thousand dollar bills would eliminate over half of the US national debt.

Starting to get the picture yet?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

This I Believe

You may have gathered from the rest of this blog that I am an atheist, which merely means that I do not believe in any gods, not even yours. That's not much to go on. In fact, atheists come in all stripes, and have various beliefs. All we necessarily have in common is that gods are not one of those things we believe in. We are not defined by what we do not believe.

NPR recently revived its popular essay series called "This I Believe". I have no ambition to read aloud my beliefs for the NPR audience, but hearing those who have had their essays accepted for airing each Monday morning has gotten me thinking less about what I don't believe, and more about what I do believe.

I believe ...
  • ... my wife, when she tells me "I love you."
  • ... that a good person is not necessarily religious, and a religious person is not necessarily good.
  • ... that freedom from religion is necessary before you can truly have freedom of religion.
  • ... that there's a balance between quantity of life and quality of life, and that the optimum may be different for everyone.
  • ... that there is no afterlife, so we must make the best we can of this one.
  • ... that grief, in part, is the manifestation of regret for things left unsaid.
  • ... that science does not have all of the answers, and that religion has far fewer.
  • ... that solipsism is a waste of time and effort.
  • ... that fearing mathematics is as silly as fearing ghosts.
  • ... that the lottery was not intended for people who are good at math.
  • ... that if you go to Las Vegas expecting to lose, you will not come home disappointed.
  • ... that you should split a pair of 10s once in your life, just for the thrill of it.
  • ... that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president, not because he was perfect, but because he was aware of his faults.
  • ... that patriotism is more than just flag waving.
  • ... that you can support the troops without supporting the policies that put them in harm's way.
  • ... that there is no greater liberty that can be exercised in civilized society than to vote, and no greater waste of that liberty than not to do so.
  • ... that the foundation of an ethical lifestyle is answering the question, "what difference would it make if everyone behaved the way I do?"
  • ... that to take the attitude that "it's someone else's problem," can be a crime against humanity.
  • ... that a job worth doing is a job worth doing well.
  • ... that honor is, as much as anything else, the ability to admit that someone else might be right when you are wrong and having the courage to say so.
  • ... that extra credit should be awarded for creative use of alliteration.
  • ... that a simile is like a babbling brook next to a metaphor's roaring rapids.
  • ... that irony is not at all like rain on your wedding day.
  • ... that dogs make better companions, but cats are pretty OK, too.
  • ... that a sense of gravity is as important as a sense of humor, but the sense to know when each is called for is far more important than either alone.
  • ... that I have many friends, but never so many that I could afford to lose even one of them.
  • ... that of all the things you can collect, friends retain their value the longest.
  • ... that I have some of the best friends in the world, and I hope that they can say the same.
  • ... that you don't really know someone until you've observed them sleeping.
  • ... that a life doesn't have to be driven by purpose to have worth.
  • ... that in the game of Life, no one sits on the bench.
  • ... that homilies and platitudes are overrated.
  • ... that the dot races during the 7th inning stretch at the ballpark are rigged.
  • ... that the designated hitter is bad for baseball.
  • ... that driving is a privilege, not a right, and that we would all be safer if that privilege were revoked more often than it is.
  • ... that handicapped parking is for handicapped people, not for people who merely have handicapped tags hanging from their mirrors.
  • ... that language is a social contract drawn up over hundreds of years, and that to take offense at words not meant to offend is as much a breach of that contract as are words that are meant to offend.
  • ... that the news should be about the news, not about the talent show that concluded its season less than 30 minutes before.
  • ... that I'll have another beer.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Her Name is Gail

This weekend, my wife and I lost a friend to a senseless act of violence. I'm an emotional old fart, so trying to say this aloud just isn't possible for me. If you would read on, please allow me to share with you memories of our friend. Her name is Gail.

You will find a link to her web site in the sidebar, where you will see that Gail was an artist. I'm happy to say that I am the proud owner of 3 Gail DeLay originals, all birthday cards made just for me. I could have had a fourth had I thought to take home the tablecloth from Macaroni Grill one night last spring after dinner.

Gail was also a musician and singer. She was talented, and the little she lacked in talent, she more than made up for with a boldness I wouldn't care to attempt myself. She sang with gusto and emotion that brought smiles and laughter to her audiences.

Gail always made me feel that she was happy to see me, and at the risk of sounding like a sappy Elton John lyric, she even cried when she thought that she had hurt me.

Gail loved animals, my own dogs included. I've never seen her happier than sitting on the floor with my three labradors licking her face, unless it was when she watched me with her dog, Indiana Bones, giving my face a good cleaning as if I didn't have three of my own who regularly do that job.

My wife and I will miss the laughter, the birthdays and the music. My dogs will too.

Thank you, Gail, for being a friend.

The Real Problem With "Defense of Marriage"

I have a problem with the Religious Right's cynical use of the term "Defense of Marriage," as in the proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would prohibit the recognition of gay couples as married within this country. I want to know, when two people who love each other and wish to be legally married, how does that threaten marriage? I would argue that if you find married gay couples to be a threat, then you need to examine your own marriage more closely. Divorce threatens marriage, but the Religious Right doesn't seem interested in banning divorce (yet), merely in ensuring that loving gay couples can never have the status of married, with all of the legal rights and obligations that status carries with it.

Oh, sure, gay and straight couples alike don't have any legal obligation to get married, and civil unions are not unheard of, so why get married at all? It costs more than simply living together. Since getting married, my wife's and my combined taxes have only gotten higher. We're not religious, so we had no qualms about living together outside of marriage. We didn't need a marriage certificate and ceremony to prove to ourselves or anyone else that we loved each other. We can't have kids, so whether or not we believe that married parents make for a better environment in which to raise children, that's no reason to get married, either. We would have been just as happy, and arguably financially better off, to live together without being married, as we are now as a legally married couple. So why did we, and why do thousands of other couples across this country just like us, bother to get married? For the same reason that thousands of gay couples want to get married.

I have gay friends who are, in all but legal terms, married. I think that's great; I'm happy for them. When I think about it, I can't help but remember how happy it made me feel to hear my wife say "Yes" (actually, it was more like "Of course!" but who's counting?) and I take a little comfort knowing that my friends were able to experience that same happiness. But it bothers me that I have something that they legally are not permitted simply because they are gay and we are not. By law, my wife has my medical power of attorney. She can speak for me when I can't speak for myself. My wife, someone in whom I have confided my deepest desires and secrets, things I would never tell anyone else, can make the decisions that I can not. I know that she would carry out those wishes as I would were I able to. As her husband, I have a right that my gay friends do not have, the right to have my spouse make decisions for me when I am unable. Or do I?

I'm sure that Terri and Michael Schiavo thought that they had the rights of a married couple the day before her heart stopped and she lost the capacity to choose or refuse medical treatment for herself, but they are in serious danger of having those rights no longer. My wife and I, and all married couples in this country are in the same danger if a precedent is set that removes those rights.

The Florida courts have declared that Terri Schiavo's right to have her husband speak for her now that she can not still stands. The federal courts have twice decided that it's not a federal matter, and that the Florida state court's decision holds the force of law. But the Florida legislature, the US Congress, and the Brother's Bush have inserted their own noses into The Schiavos' private affairs and are attempting to nullify that right, ostensibly on Terri's behalf.

The matter of Terri Schiavo is not about the right to life versus the right to die. It's not about the State's rights to decide matters not specifically allocated to the federal government. It's not even about a parent's rights to make decisions for a child - Terri Schiavo is no longer a child. It's about a person's right to have matters of medical importance be decided by their spouse at times when they are incapable of making those decisions for themselves.

When Terri and Michael Schiavo married, they declared to the world that they were one, that each could speak for the other when the other was no longer capable. Michael Schiavo says that his wife told him that she would not want to be kept alive if she were to "become a vegetable." Is there any reason to believe that he would lie about this consistently for the last 15 years? No. Perverse accusations of a failed murder attempt notwithstanding, Michael Schiavo has nothing to lose or gain in the matter, unless it's the satisfaction that his wife's wishes are finally carried out. Does the fact that there is no clear and convincing evidence that she told her husband not to allow her to live as a vegetable make any difference at all? No. Clear and convincing evidence is required of the accuser, not the accused. Is there clear and convincing evidence that she ever said anything to the contrary? No, not that it matters any more than the above, but her parents' and brother's claims to the contrary are as much hearsay as Michael Schiavo's claim that she did not want to be kept alive in such circumstances. Absent any evidence that Michael is anything other than a loving husband who only wants the wishes of his wife to be carried out, Terri Schiavo's right to have her husband speak for her is being infringed upon by meddling, knee-jerk moralists and grandstanding politicians simply because she never took the precaution of drawing up a living will.

And it could happen to me. So let me say right here, this commentary is my living will. My wife already knows this, but until recently I never felt it necessary to make it formal because I always believed she would be allowed to speak for me when I could not. So, to all concerned - keep your collective meddlesome, moralist noses out of my business. I trust my wife, and she speaks for me. I trust the medical profession to know when recovery from a vegetative state is likely or not. If a competent physician declares that my life is maintainable only by persistent medical or hospice care, that I can no longer enjoy the company of my wife, family and friends, that I will never again see my niece look up to me and smile, that I will never laugh again because I won't hear or understand my wife's jokes, that I will never feel my dogs licking my face again, turn me off. That's not me any more, merely the body I formerly occupied.

Terri Schiavo's so-called defenders like to claim that the mark of a truly advanced society is in how it treats its citizens at the beginning and end of life. If so, then we are barbarians for the way we have abrogated Terri Schiavo's right to spousal representation, even moreso for exploiting her for political gain. The ancient Greeks were much more civilized than we, believing that a person's right to die with dignity if they so chose was paramount. The part of Terri Schiavo that was Terri died 15 years ago. It's time to set selfishness aside and allow her body to follow, as she asked her husband to ensure.

Note: Terri Schiavo's body died on March 31, 2005, 10 days after this commentary was originally written. May she finally rest in peace.

So how does Terri Schiavo have anything to do with gay marriage? Ask your friendly neighborhood religious rightist and you will get nothing more than confused, or more likely angry stares. But the Religious Right want gay marriage banned to "protect" traditional marriage. At the same time, they fought viciously to violate a married couple's single right arguably most in need of protection: that right of a married person to have their spouse represent them when they can not represent themselves. This hypocrisy is my problem with the term "Defense of Marriage."

Why Monkboon Wildcat?

Monkboon Wildcat was the nickname of a childhood friend of my father's. When he was alive, my father was a great story-teller, and one of his favorite subjects was Monkboon Wildcat. I use that name to remember and honor my father whenever I can.