Archive for December, 2005

The Thinker

Squeezed

For me the last day of the year is a day to take stock of my financial universe. If I wasn’t feeling the pain of most middle income Americans before, after I got through looking at the details of my family’s personal situation I do now. Our upper middle class family is being squeezed too. I feel fortunate that so far, while we have coped rather well. Yet we are being squeezed nonetheless. So are you. Now I have all the proof I need: my income vs. expenses reports churned out by my Quicken financial software.

2005 is the first year since the 1980s that my family has had less income than the previous year. This is due entirely to my wife losing her IT Help Desk job a year ago. She did not find another job in her field until a couple months ago. Where she used to work full time, she is now working part time. She now makes a fraction of her former wages and at least one third less per hour than her old job. In her last job, she had a 401-K and access to health insurance. In her new job, being a part timer, she has neither.

The good news is that she is really enjoying the job. The bad news is that with substantially less income than we had in 2004, we are not living quite as we used to. Granted, we are not eating dog food, but the fact that this is happening at all to my family when we have known nearly twenty years of steady income growth is disquieting.

In 2004 when we were flush, we spent over $6K so my wife could get elective surgery. In 2005, this is totally out of the question. In addition to elective surgery, we have cut back on other medical expenses. We are not getting the level of mental health care we got in 2004. Our insurance is reasonably generous with mental health benefits, and allows up to 26 sessions per year with co-pay. In 2005, these benefits were exhausted by July. We could have paid $150 a visit out of pocket for the rest of the year, but that is $3900. Ouch. In 2006, we will hope that our mental health benefits stay the same. Unless my wife makes a lot more money, although members may need weekly visits it will mean biweekly visits.

I bet that most of you are going through similar experiences. The Bush Administration talks about how wonderful the economy is. Consumer confidence, having tanked earlier in the year, is now rising again. I do not give too much credence to those numbers. I know that in the real America of 2005 things are different. If your family’s fortunes increased during 2005, consider yourself lucky: you are bucking a general trend. I hope your luck continues. My experience and the experience of many others of us suggest you are likely living on borrowed time. Most of the rest of us downsizing our lives. In my case, the downsizing is so far relatively modest, but it is still a bit scary. If my family’s downsizing continues for a few more years, our choices will get increasingly troubling.

Here is the reality for this upper middle class household. Things cost much more than are stated in the inflation numbers. Even though I am fortunate enough to have an existing locked in mortgage, my property taxes are rising. Ours are up about $500 from last year. This means that my monthly mortgage payments are also going up. Other big-ticket items going up: health insurance is up $400 compared to 2004. Copays for medicines: up $300. These three items alone add up to $1200 more money I had to pay in 2005, and with markedly less income. I do not track gasoline as a separate expense, but if I did, I am sure it would amount to at least a couple hundred dollars more a year.

Then there are the nickel and dime things that when totaled amount to real money: cable TV, auto insurance, homeowner’s insurance, association fees and electricity. Except for the cable TV, none of these are services that we can really do without. To compensate we have cut cash expenditures, charitable giving, dining out, entertainment, food (we are eating plainer), and gifts (nearly in half).

When we can, we are also deferring big expenses. We are less likely to engage in project like replacing the roof. Fortunately, before my wife lost her job we had finished all the costly home repair projects. My priorities are to keep a roof over our heads, put as much money as I possibly can into retirement accounts and keep contributing to my daughter’s college education fund. On the latter by May with virtually no income coming in from my wife, we cut our contributions to our daughter’s college fund from $400 to $200 a month. You can only pinch a nickel so far when you are living on one income.

Speaking of investments, I am really disappointed by how mine are doing. I bet you are too. Mine are nothing fancy: mutual funds that tend to track indexes. My USAA Income fund, which I purchased for low risk and started buying in 2002, has had essentially flat performance. Now it is worth about $120 less than what I paid for it. I am losing money on it, although the amount is small compared to the total investment. My USAA S&P 500 fund, which went gangbusters when Clinton was in office and the tech boom was hot, followed the very flat stock market since Bush took office. My total gain is 9.2% or about 1% a year, much of it realized before Bush took office!

These funds are set aside for our daughter’s education. I followed what I thought was sound financial advice at the time. Over seven years I expected some return on my investment that exceeded inflation. However, our non-indexed fund did much worse. Our USAA Growth Fund has lost 26% of its value since we began purchasing shares in 1996.

What a fool I was. I was taking mainstream actions, just like you I bet, and we still got screwed. I feel that we have been taken to the cleaners by the Bush Administration. No wonder Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security fell flat with the public. Americans simply had to look at their portfolios and realize, “We sure don’t need more of this!” Bush may be good for his big business cronies, but he is not good for the average investor who will need the money they are so diligently and painfully saving. Business taxes and capital gains may have been cut, but it has not resulting in any more wealth for me because I am not realizing any gains! The only good thing about selling a fund is that since I am losing money on it, I can take it as a deduction on my tax returns.

So just how is Bush really good for business? The reality is that stock prices have been flat. If a company has profits, they are more likely to use it to buy back their own stock instead of passing the profits on to shareholders. As The Washington Post reported this week, it is not translating into increased share prices, as it has in the past. It does however give the company more clout over its own future, and shareholders less.

I am no longer fooled. Don’t you be fooled any longer either. The Bush Administration and our Republican Congress have proven over five years that they are bad for your bottom line. Just run your family’s financial numbers as I did. I bet you see a similar trend. Bush and his Republican cohorts in Congress are systematically and very deliberately stealing wealth from all but the richest of us. If they continue with their reckless foolishness, we will be back to a society of rich and poor, with no one in the middle. As long as this crew remains in charge, you can expect the trend to exacerbate.

With the New Year comes mid term elections in November. If you are planning to vote your economic interests, you would do well to send as many of Republicans as possible in Congress packing.

 
The Thinker

Channeling Mom

My mother died about six weeks ago. I thought in the months after her death that I would be pretty out of kilter. I expected to be a lot more grieved than I actually am. I thought I would spend hours crying over her loss, because I did love her and still feel bonded to her. That I am not is due I suspect to the opportunities we had for closure during her final months. It was certainly not fun to witness her progressive decline every week, but I found some catharsis from the experience nonetheless.

Mostly I accept her passing. I awake in the morning fully aware that she is gone but it does not interfere with my day. Yet I still find myself getting teary from time to time. Christmas found us at my Dad’s apartment. I spent some time going through his huge stack of Christmas and bereavement cards. I took special care to read the notes in the bereavement cards. So many people, many of whom I did not know, were touched by my mother. I had no idea because she rarely strayed outside her comfortable bounds of family. Yet over 85 years even someone whose life struck me as very cloistered developed friends. Tears came to my eyes as I read the heartfelt condolences.

Aside from a lifetime of memories there is not much tangible left to remind myself of her. Almost all of her clothes and jewelry have been given away. My wife got a fair amount of her jewelry. A cookbook of her favorite recipes assembled two decades earlier by two of my sisters survives. I will likely recreate her recipes from time to time. However, the food will not taste the same. For as the preface to her cookbook says, “Of course, when I make this dish, I always add a little dash of…” That in a nutshell was my mother in her favorite role as master chef. Every exquisite yet familiar meal tasted the same yet was subtly different. Perhaps we will have family contests in the years ahead to recreate some of my mother’s many scrumptious dishes. With luck, some of us will come close, but no one will quite recreate the original. We cannot cook a meal with passion. For us, cooking is mostly a means to an end, not an end itself. Since my mother expressed much of her love in her cooking, this is perhaps a truest measure of my loss. It sounds silly but the quality of the food prepared here on earth took a dramatic nosedive with her death.

We tried to create a familiar Christmas meal at my father’s apartment. We had many of the right ingredients. There was a spiral ham, purchased at the local BJs. It was very tasty. Nevertheless, it was missing the cloves that my mother would have pierced into it. My wife made au gratin potatoes that needed a wee bit more time in the oven. They were blander than my mother’s, and did not have that layer of lightly burnt cheese on the top. Salad? My mother would have made a wonderful fruit salad, slicing all the fruit by hand. The rolls came partially cooked from the store. For dessert, we ate Christmas cookies contributed by both my sister and my wife. My mother probably might have made her exquisite Snickerdoodles. For me my mother’s favorite dessert was her Goober Roles. They were something like a cinnamon role, but made with biscuit and slathered with butter, brown sugar, karo syrup, cinnamon and nuts. The syrup invariably stuck to your teeth and the roof of your mouth, but you did not care: they were a sugar, fat and carbohydrate nirvana. You could not stop at just one. In fact, it was hard to stop after a pan-full.

Afterwards I helped clean up in the kitchen. It was quite a mess. Fortunately, my mother had trained me well. For years, she did both the cooking and cleaning up afterwards. Then one day she realized she had eight children: let us do it for a change. Therefore, we did, and to her exacting specifications. Now KP has become something I do on autopilot. I can take the messiest, greasiest pan-strewn kitchen and make it sparkle. Thanks Mom. She (and my father) taught me to stoically accept and take some modest pleasure in the many routine and unexciting chores that invariably populate a family’s life.

One thing my mother would not tolerate was dirt. This surprised me after reading her biography, because she grew up in a cleaning impaired house. She did not get the cleanliness habit until she went to nursing school. There she realized that the world was teaming with microbial life. Much of it, she was convinced, was aimed directly at her family. She got a bit obsessive with her cleaning. Not only did everything have to look clean, it actually had to be clean.

With two weeks off from the press of work, I had no more excuses. Our house is generally picked up. For example, our kitchen usually looks clean. Okay, my daughter may be thoughtless about forgetting to wipe the counter down after making her sandwiches. Occasionally even my wife or I will let a dish sit in the sink after a meal. Moreover, our kitchen table is almost always a semi permanent resting place for all the transient stuff that enters the house. It may be reasonably picked up, but is it clean? Alas, no. It would not meet my mother’s standards.

What it needed was a little Mr. Clean: me. And so yesterday I found myself at 10 AM in the kitchen. My mission: to get the kitchen clean. I could feel my mother watching down on me from the afterlife. “Your kitchen, Mark, is a not really clean.” “Yes Mom, I know. I am sorry.” “There’s no excuse for it. Cleanliness is next to godliness.” “No there isn’t, Mom. And I have two weeks off from work. I have run out of excuses.”

So out came the sponges, detergents and latex gloves. I went to work. I started by pulling out the refrigerator. Just cleaning the refrigerator turned out to be a two-hour project. I removed all the dust bunnies and wiped the wall behind the refrigerator. I threw out dubious food. I wiped down all its interior and exterior surfaces. I got rid of a decade of old photographs and magnets stuck to the door.

This was just the beginning. Abrasive cleansers went on the kitchen counters. They had been wiped numerous times but my discerning eye could still see the dirt ground into their textured surfaces. I scrubbed and scrubbed until it was as white as the model’s teeth on a tube of Pepsodent. Then, I scrubbed and bleached the sink. I wiped the windowsills. I even scrubbed the baseboard. After four hours I stopped. All this work and I was nowhere near being done!

I was exhausted. “Mom, I cannot do this anymore! I don’t have your stamina!” I had grand ideas for the kitchen. I was going to mop the floor. I was going to clean the windows. I was going to scour the oven. I was going to sweep out every cabinet, and remove all the crap in the junk drawer.

Yet I have not given up. For I still hear my Mom’s voice in my head, dreadfully concerned about my filthy kitchen. Tomorrow I will resume my clean kitchen quest. Then I will try to do the same to each room in turn. I will also shampoo the carpets. I will get all the dust bunnies in the corners of every room. I will dust then use Lemon Pledge (my Mom’s favorite) on all the wood furniture.

Then will I stop hearing my mother’s voice in my head? I am not sure. In reality even if I work at this full time, I will be lucky to get a quarter of it done. For the list of things that need cleaning and straightening is truly endless. And if I ever finish, I will have to start all over again. By that time, I am sure the kitchen will be filthy again.

Perhaps at some point I will sense my mother’s benevolent smile. Perhaps though her real thoughts from the afterlife are, “No! You got the wrong message! You are remembering as I was long ago. That’s not how I think now! Life is too short to spend it cleaning all the time. Get a life! Go for a walk! Smell some roses!”

But no, I am remembering my mother at my age: age 48. It is 1968 and that is what she was doing. She is waxing kitchen floors. She is bleaching sheets and our underwear. She is darning our socks. She is hustling us off to church. She is making sure our shoes are shined for parochial school.

Maybe this is how I grieve. Maybe, when my house is finally clean to her satisfaction, my grieving will be done. For now, I am not done channeling Mom.

 
The Thinker

The Id Unleashed at Craigslist’s Casual Encounters

(Warning: adult content. Reader discretion is advised.)

I am on a two-week holiday. I go back to work on January 9th. Like last year, I try to make my vacations at home count. Since my scenery is not going to change, I find it helpful to change the scenery in my mind. One way is to venture to places on the internet that time does not usually allow me to visit, such as Craigslist. There I go trolling for the unusual and the bizarre. I do not know what it is about Craigslist, but bizarre people seem to be drawn to it like a moths to a flame.

Because it was one of the internet’s first successful bulletin boards (and because its owner Craig Newmark has persisted in keeping it around for about a decade), Craigslist has proven surreally popular. It is achingly low tech and unpretentious. It seems to be inhabited by contributors who cannot be bothered to spell check or use mixed case. Sadly, it is often full of spam. It is also a zone in cyberspace absent virtually any of the constraints that come with real life. As best I can tell, the only thing that you cannot get away with on Craiglist is child pornography. You can buy or sell pretty much anything including apparently illegal drugs (using code words like 420). It is one massively low-tech free speech zone. Except for the cost of an internet connection, it is truly free.

If you want a taste of Craigslist at its most bizarre, you simply must check out its many Casual Encounters sections. (There is one for each major city and state). But beware: Casual Encounters is an ultimate smoke and mirrors place in cyberspace where kinky and desperate libidos (generally male) play war with endless numbers of con artists and massively dysfunctional people. In Casual Encounters, the id emerges into the limelight and hold us in its garish gaze. Reality becomes surreal and the surreal morphs into the real. No one is quite who they appear to be. Their many kinky needs suggest posters are dealing with larger issues. Perhaps just by reading them from time to time I too am one of the fallen. (Just because I suspect you will be wondering, no, I have never met anyone from Craigslist, except my wife, who found some work on the side through Craigslist when she was otherwise unemployed.) On the other hand, maybe I am just a human being. Just as most drivers cannot help but slow down and gawk when we pass by an accident, those of us straying through Craiglist’s Casual Encounters find it something of a 24/7 rubberneck zone. It is not pretty. It is not poetic. It is typically crass and obscene. Nevertheless, it is hard not to look.

Most of the posters are guys, of course. It is clear their hormone levels are critically high. It is also clear that most haven’t a clue how on to woo a woman. Perhaps this characterization is unfair. Perhaps it is more accurate to say they have many very kinky needs that they cannot whisper to a woman they know. They can only find safety in expressing it to someone whom they do not know. Many seem incredibly desperate. Here is a sample of some of today’s postings from men looking for women in Craigslist’s Washington D.C. Casual Encounters area:

  • A 26 year old guy has his webcam ready and is willing to show his engorged nine inch long sexual organ to any willing woman.
  • A 24 year old guy woos women with, “You be Dairy Queen and I’ll be burger king. You treat me right; and I’ll do it your way”. (You can bet women are swooning over these lines.)
  • A 25 year old guy would like to orally do to a woman’s naked derriere what many dogs would do to yours if you let them
  • Many, many married men want a woman on the side, preferably someone younger, with firm breasts, a very high libido and with a predilection toward secrecy. Some will pay for the privilege.

Yes, there are “women” out there looking for men. Many are looking to “hit the slopes”, but their definition of skiing may surprise you. The vast majority though are run of the mill cyberspace pornographers trolling for email addresses. Others appear to be prostitutes who prefer to stay indoors instead of hiking their skirts near Logan Circle. They will not say it explicitly but it is clear enough with posting titles like “Sugar Daddy $$$$ wanted”. Those with a modicum more discretion are looking for “generous” men. For most though, sex, in the unlikely event it is realized, appears to be tangential. I guess they need all that sugar so they can keep hitting the slopes. To which all I can say is “Eew!” But I often say that when I pass an accident too.

Of the few ads from women that might actually be looking for a non-monetary and consensual sexual relationship, most are from BBWs. BBW apparently means “Big Beautiful Woman” which I suspect really means, “I make Edna in Hairspray look petite”.

Curiously, there seem to be lots of married women, almost all 30 or 31, who happen to live on Capitol Hill or Georgetown looking for a fling. Many claim to be wives of congressmen. Don’t worry, they manage to work out regularly at the gym, don’t smoke and promise complete discretion.

Of course, there are guys looking for other guys, sometimes married guys. I am not a homosexual but if I were, why would I be looking for married men? It seems like it would be more efficient to visit the local bathhouse.

Yes, there are plenty of libidinous couples out there looking to expand their humdrum sex lives. More power to them. Nevertheless, guys, they don’t want you. They want another woman. The wife is apparently very bi-curious, and the husband is just plain curious to watch his wife have sex with another woman. He no doubt also hopes he will get into her pants while his wife participates. The few couples out there looking for a man for a triad have a husband who usually asserts that he is not even a tiny bit bisexual. Oh please!

There are more women looking for women ads than I expected. Sixteen advertised so far today, and I would assume these are legitimate. Some cannot seem to admit they want sex. They claim they are looking for make out sessions only. Maybe they just want to stick one toe into the water to see if it is cold. Others can be as clinical as any guy.

It does not take much reading before these sorts of ads no longer seem the least bit remarkable. However, we discerning Craigslist readers look for not the routinely bizarre, but the desperately and unusually bizarre ad. What am I supposed to think of this posting that I saw today?

I want to empty a can of WD-40 into your…. – 25

I will travel to do this. I have my own funnel, so you don’t need one. I would appreciate going dutch on the WD-40, but not required. I would use a can of Right Gaurd because it smells better, but that cost twice as much.

Hell, if all goes well, I will drop a duece in your grill. No charge. All I ask is that you be discreet, rich, white, skinny, pretty, left handed, scorpio, and have a dog. Not cat people (a.k.a. freaks) please.

If this sounds like your cup of tea, get ready to start living. I mean it, too. It’ll be nothing but apple juice wishes and sardine dreams from here on out!

This one is clearly a joke, but with some it is hard to tell. At 48, I think of myself as something of a man of the world. However, ads like this, even when they are a joke, can still leave me bug eyed.

 
The Thinker

The Pope Wears Prada for Christmas

It may be time for Pope Benedict XVI to go to confession. Greed after all is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas warned Christians about the mortal sin of greed. “It is a sin directly against one’s neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them… it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.”

I realize of course that a somewhat higher spiritual authority, Jesus himself, told us not to judge others. However, I am not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. I shall not lob a stone Pope Benedict’s way, but I will send a raised eyebrow. For if not a sin, this new sign of covetousness by the Pope is disturbing.

For as you may have read in the paper, the Pope has a fashion sense. Pope John Paul II did not. John Paul believed in off-white and skullcaps. It was pretty much the same vestments every day. Benedict must have tried on the off-white robes and found them not quite to his liking. He seems to want something dressier. His shiny red Prada shoes seem to be making a statement: there is a new pope in town and he’s not a John Paul II clone. This new pope will not join the voluminous list of popes who only stood out in a crowd because their off white was surrounded by so much cardinal red.

If it were just the shiny red shoes perhaps he might be forgiven. Alas, last week Pope Benedict also showed up in St. Peter’s Square in a fur-trimmed stocking cap. Moreover, he has been seen wearing designer Gucci sunglasses. In addition, in a recent visit to the statue of the Madonna in Spain he appeared in a bright red cape trimmed in ermine. Avarice, that’s what it is. Greed, covetousness and avarice: he appears to be guilty of all of them.

Benedict sees himself as a classical pope. In those nostalgic days before Protestantism the pope was not just the spiritual leader of all Christianity, he was also seen as something of a defacto uber-king. It was okay for a pope to be opulent. Indeed, popes were not just opulent; many were also corrupt to the core. Others had wives, mistresses, extended families and bastards. The custom of priestly celibacy did not evolve until the Middle Ages. With such power and influence there was little point for a pope to spend his life pretending to be miserable.

While it is unlikely that Benedict will diverge with his predecessors’ inclinations toward priestly celibacy, he does appear to be taking the first few tentative steps toward emulating a richer sort of personal life. This fisher of men seems to be appealing to a higher-class clientele. Perhaps there is some logic to his approach. While the poor will be always, it seems like most of the poor that can be converted to Catholicism are already members. Europeans seem to have moved on beyond organized religion. That churches survive in Europe today at all is largely due to governments refusing to let them die. Yes, countries such as Germany prop up their churches with direct subsidies.

Even so, Christianity has lost much of its appeal in Western Europe. In today’s Washington Post, for example, we learn that the Church of England has closed 1,700 churches since 1970. While 24 million Britain citizens were baptized into the Church of England, only 5 million can be found in the pews on a given Sunday. In England, churches are being rented out for rock climbing and acrobatic exhibitions. For many Catholics in Western Europe, the only time they are likely to see the inside of a church is when they attend a marriage or a funeral. Otherwise, they simply cannot be bothered. Religion is no longer trendy; it is so Old World.

Perhaps that is why the Pope is wearing Prada. Maybe he realizes he must make some tiny compromise with the 21st Century. After all, it is hard to bring in churchgoers if they cannot identify with you. Many ordinary Western Europeans and Americans are now rich beyond Jesus’ wildest dreams. Moreover, it seems they like their material comforts just fine and do not feel too disturbed by their apparent lack of spirituality. What was that advice that Jesus gave them? Give away all their possessions to the poor, live with no thought of tomorrow and follow Jesus? I don’t think so! They will part with their Land Rovers, Pilates classes and Caramel Chocolate Frappuccino Blended Crème coffees when Hell freezes over. But hey, if the Pope can wear Prada and nifty Gucci sunglasses, maybe he is not as uncool as they thought. Perhaps they will give him a listen.

So perhaps there is marketing acumen with Pope Benedict’s recent fashion statements. I have to wonder if one of his first actions as pope was to call in a Madison Avenue public relations firm. If he had then doubtless they would have recommended an image makeover. Perhaps ermine lined capes and fashion sunglasses were their top recommendations.

Still, you have to wonder what the late Pope John Paul II would have thought of his fashion statements. I get the feeling he would be giving him a jaundiced eye. As Pope John Paul II saw it, the truth never changes. Consistency has been the Catholic Church’s main selling point for two thousand years. For if Pope Benedict is to give in to marketing pressure what is next? Loosening of celibacy requirements for priests? Women priests? A pragmatic stand toward birth control? The devout Catholic mind reels.

While I am sure a pope never has to do more than raise their hand before a lackey attends to his every need, the Church has invested too much in the marketing of a pope as a spiritual creature wholly indifferent to the earthly desires. Were I a Catholic perhaps I would advise Pope Benedict to consider the message that he is sending.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

With The Lord of the Rings movies now only available on DVD, fantasy enthusiasts were obviously wondering what next famous fantasy series would be coming to the screen. I was not surprised then to see the first (published) book of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe appear in movie theaters just in time for the holidays. It is a natural choice, not just because both books are convincing fantasy worlds, but also because C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were good friends. (Tolkien was the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Lewis and Tolkien met regularly and critiqued each other’s works. In addition, both were enamored with mythology.

As with The Lord of the Rings movies, fans of the Narnia books will feel some trepidation. Will their beloved Narnia be successfully rendered on film? Lord of the Rings fans got lucky. While a few purists were upset with Peter Jackson’s interpretation, most fans widely embraced The Lord of the Rings movies.

I cannot say whether this first Narnia movie was faithful to the book, since I never read it. As a teenager, my wife was an enthusiastic fan and read the books repeatedly. From her perspective, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a virtually perfect cinematic representation of the book. She left the theater absolutely gushing over the movie. Consequently, if you also were a devoted reader of the book, you probably will be satisfied too. Do not read further. Go see it!

The movie starts out well. It begins in the London Blitz during World War II. It convincingly captures the horror of that time. We watch the four Pevensie children (Lucy, Edmund, Peter and Susan) leave their distraught mother for the safety of a country estate owned by an odd professor. Peter, the oldest and barely into adolescence, has the unwelcome duty of being head of the family. Little is seen of the eccentric professor. However, the youngest of the family, Lucy, soon discovers the magic wardrobe in an unused room in the professor’s estate. As you probably know, it mysteriously transports her to this other world called Narnia, which is stuck in what seems to be an eternal winter. She makes friends with Mr. Tumnus, a friendly creature that appears to be half-human and half goat. Of course, he is but one of many magical creatures they will meet. Lucy returns to the wardrobe. Gradually the other children discover she is not making up Narnia. Eventually they all are in Narnia together.

Narnia is ruled by the wicked White Witch, who is convincingly played by Tilda Swinton. She aims to keep its creatures oppressed and Narnia in perpetual winter. One of the boys, Edmund, falls under her icy charm. Meanwhile there are rumors that the White Witch’s enemy, a lion called Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson) is returning to Narnia. He of course wants Narnia to be free of the White Witch’s influence. If he succeeds, winter will recede, the creatures will be free and Narnia will bloom again.

As with The Lord of the Rings movies, it becomes another good vs. evil story. The good news is that the movie is very well done. The four children are quite convincing. Narnia is believable. There is no off note among the entire cast. In addition, the special effects blend in seamlessly with the live action. One has to scratch pretty deeply to find some things about which to complain.

Nonetheless, I found some things that made it less than perfect for me. While C.S. Lewis was a devout Christian, the parallel between Aslan and Jesus was pretty hard to miss and for me gave the film a condescending tone. The White Witch plays the role of Satan. Aslan is rendered digitally and is amazingly lifelike. I must confess though that I was far more enamored with the White Witch than with Aslan. She may be something of an ice queen, but she got my temperature rising.

You will not be surprised then to find out that Jesus’s death and resurrection have a parallel reality in Narnia. Just as Jesus goes to a sacrificial death for a greater cause, so the Lion allows himself to be sacrificed. (His death is graphically depicted. Parents beware. It is more of a PG-13 movie than a PG movie.) Even the book of Revelations is modeled, with the movie ending in a culminating battle between good and evil. You will not have to guess too hard to figure out which side is going to win.

Naturally, the arrival of the humans was foretold, and the prophecy was that the eldest would be a future King of Narnia, after he proved himself in battle. Here is another instance where the otherwise excellently rendered world of Narnia fell apart for me. Am I supposed to believe that everyone in Narnia is going to let Peter, barely an adolescent and who probably never even led a Cub Scout pack, lead them into an ultimate stakes battle against the White Witch and her vastly superior forces? Okay, sure. Why not? This is after all a fantasy. However, it did not work for me. His character did not seem to have sufficiently matured to take on such responsibilities.

Moreover, although the movie is quite long for a movie these days (two hours and twenty minutes) it is not long enough to make me fully suspend disbelief. This is because the screenwriter and director had to make some choices and left out some things. Perhaps they left out things like why the good citizens of Narnia would follow Peter into battle. They seem more like compliant sheep. If, like my wife, you have read the books then your mind can fill in the gaps. However, if you have not read the books then these issues loom larger, become distracting and ultimately make the movie a bit less plausible than it could be.

Nonetheless, this is still an excellent fantasy movie in a league that few can touch. My little nits notwithstanding you will likely find it quite well done and engaging too. It is about as good a movie about Narnia as you can possibly expect in two hours and twenty minutes. 3.4 on my 4 point scale.

 
The Thinker

The Meaning of the Law

Back in May, I asked the question “Why do we have governments?” As I said back then, the answer was not rocket science. After disclosures this week that President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless electronic eavesdropping on American citizens, not just once, but apparently thirty times since 9/11, I have to wonder if President Bush missed some fundamental lectures on government too. Could Mr. Bush accurately answer the question, “Why do we have laws?” I doubt it.

Maybe he would answer something like, “Laws are rules that people must follow, except presidents, particularly when it comes to the nation’s national security.” The disclosure this week by The New York Times of these illegal wiretaps and Bush’s subsequent bizarre rationalization suggests that it will take a new administration to remove this terminal case of cognitive dissonance from the White House.

His “logic” seems to go something like this. Despite this FISA statute that explicitly prohibits eavesdropping on American citizen’s telephone calls without approval from the special secret FISA court, FISA was countermanded by the joint resolution passed by Congress on September 14th, 2001. It gave me carte blanc powers for anything I think might even be remotely related to 9/11.

Of course, the resolution says nothing about authorizing wiretapping against American citizens without a warrant. You would think it would be clear from the title of the resolution, which is “Authorization for the Use of Military Force”. Moreover, it authorized the use of our armed forces “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

Thus far, Jose Padilla is the only United States citizen charged in the United States with helping the Al Qaeda terrorists. (He was finally charged years after he was first detained.) He has had a tough time getting a trial for his alleged crime, because Bush declared him an enemy combatant. Padilla has been languishing in a military brig for three and a half years, stripped of the rights we assume all Americans have, including the right to a fair trial. Even so, this joint resolution sounds like it does authorize the president to send the military against any American who might have colluded with the enemy. Unless these few errant citizens are engaged against our forces in combat, you would think it would be much simpler to send the FBI and charge them with treason.

In this case, we are talking about the National Security Agency. The last I checked the NSA was not part of the military. In addition, it cannot exert any military force. The guards at the front desk at the NSA may have a pair of revolvers, but it is unlikely that we will see brigades of NSA eavesdroppers ever going into battle. Of course, the NSA likely does fine intelligence work, but they simply are not a military force. If you polled members of the 107th Congress, I bet you would be hard pressed to find any member who thought that in passing Joint Resolution 23 they were invalidating part of the FISA law.

Even Bush seems to acknowledge his actions broke the FISA law.

QUESTION: Why did you skip the basic safeguards of asking courts for permission for the intercepts?

BUSH: First of all, right after September the 11th, I knew we were fighting a different kind of war. And so I asked people in my administration to analyze how best for me and our government to do the job people expect us to do, which is to detect and prevent a possible attack. That’s what the American people want.

There is only one wee problem to his logic. It is this minor thing called the Oath of Office. Bush solemnly swore to:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Of course, the U.S. Constitution sets a framework for laws that Congress may pass. To protect the constitution a president must necessarily enforce the laws passed by Congress. In fact, that is the whole point of being president: to faithfully execute our laws. (Commander in Chief is a separate duty which applies only to leading our armed forces.) The president does not make any laws. However, whether he agrees with them or not it is his solemn duty to do his best to uphold our laws. All of them.

However, Bush apparently thinks he can ignore laws when he does not agree with them. That this is wholly inconsistent with his oath of office does not bother him in the least.

Nevertheless, it should bother you. It should bother you a lot. The law may be smart or it may be stupid. Clearly, Bush thought the FISA law was stupid and dated after 9/11. Instead of doing what he should have done, which is to petition the Congress to change the statute, he flagrantly and repeatedly violated the law. Why did he do this? Most likely, because he knew that Congress would not change the law. So he invented the world’s most dubious excuse to circumvent it. It is as if he dropped his pants and mooned both Congress and the American people. You can almost hear him taunting, “I know what must be done and you are too stupid to do it. You are a bunch of morons. So I’ll do it anyhow.”

Consulting with a few members of Congress about his decision does not change the law. It does not make it okay. Even if it did, the information was classified. No one who knew about it could disclose their knowledge of it without breaking the law. That is why some of the few in Congress who did know what was going on, people like Senator Jay Rockefeller and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, chose to say nothing. If they had, they would have broken the law. They could have gone to prison. They respected the law, even though in this case they were clearly troubled by Bush’s apparently illegal acts.

Clearly, Bush had no qualms though. Therefore, the American public need to send him a clear message. No one person is above the law, and that includes the President of the United States. We need to bring this out in hearings. Then, if our Congress had any backbone, the House would impeach him and the Senate would remove him from office for flagrantly and repeatedly violating the law of the land.

This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of law. The law is meaningless unless it is enforced. The citizens of the former Soviet Union had rights. It included:

In accordance with the interests of the people and in order to strengthen and develop the socialist system, citizens of the USSR are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, meetings, street processions and demonstrations.

Did they have these rights? Sure, but only if they toed the line of the Communist Party. The reality was that the Soviet Union did not support these rights. Consequently, they became meaningless. By circumventing the FISA law, Bush used the law like toilet paper, and essentially canceled a right to privacy for hundreds of millions of Americans. In addition, he cheapened the rights and liberties of all American citizens.

In reality, he is destroying our way of life. We fought against the British because we wanted a government that represented our interests. Our constitution and laws define our liberties and rules of conduct. They apply equally to everyone.

Yet Bush thinks he is an exception. In reality, Bush is nothing but a bully. Bush is trying to win through intimidation. However, bullies have only as much power as we let them get away with. It is time for citizens to demand that our Congress hold Bush accountable for his law breaking. Let me be clear: your freedom and the freedom of your children depend on it. Otherwise, our future is going to start looking a lot like the Soviet Union’s.

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: Pleasantville

I found the movie Pleasantville available on DVD at the local superstore for the bargain price of $5.45. My wife and I saw the movie when it first came out (1998). I remember I really liked it but I had forgotten most of the details. At this price, there was no reason not to add it to my DVD collection. I watched it for the second time last night.

Pleasantville is a mythical TV show that is somewhere between The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver. Pleasantville imitates much of the sappy family sitcoms saturating the TV networks during the 1950s and 1960s. It is wholly inoffensive and saccharine to the point of gagging. Nonetheless, just as it is a mystery to me why anyone would waste their time watching reruns of dreck like Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch, these shows resonate with many people. In the case of David (played by Tobey Maguire, best known for his role as Spiderman) he is drawn to the show because it models for him the mythical home life he wants to have. His reality is that his parents are divorced. His 40 year old mother is about to leave him and his slutty sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, who is best known for her Legally Blonde movies) alone for the weekend. A Pleasantville TV marathon is just what David needs to tune out the reality around him.

A fight with his sister over the remote control ensues, causing it to be shattered. Mysteriously a TV repairman (played by Don Knotts, whose selection for the part was I am sure not coincidental) knocks on the door to service the TV. He provides a special “loaner” remote control, which mysteriously allows David and Jennifer to be transported into the monochrome world of Pleasantville. In Pleasantville it never rains, teenage infatuation never goes beyond holding hands and the local fire department’s only mission is rescuing cats out of trees.

Playing the Ward and June Cleaver roles are William H. Macy as George Parker and Joan Allen as Betty Parker. David and Jennifer assume the roles of their teenage children. While David aches to play his part, Jennifer has more difficulty making the transition. For a while, we get to revel in the innocent and surreal town of Pleasantville where the home team wins every basketball game and married couples always sleep in twin beds. Another town fixture is the diner where the local teens mix. It is at the diner where Mr. Johnson (Jeff Daniels), ably assisted by David, provide cheeseburgers and Cherry Cokes for Pleasantville teens. Pleasantville seems to be a happier version of The Village. The all roads lead back to Pleasantville.

Jennifer becomes Pleasantville’s change agent. She shows the local boys that they can do more than hold hands at Lover’s Lane. Soon many of the mobile teenagers are discovering they have hormones. Very gradually, the world of Pleasantville turns from shades of grey into dabs of color.

Consequently, Pleasantville is really another metaphor movie. Pleasantville is a utopian town full of rigorously mainstream values where all children respect their parents, nothing really bad ever happens and everything is ordered, as it should be. The town is also as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread. In other words, it is an American socially conservative nirvana. Jennifer starts a very gradually transformation of the people of Pleasantville. One by one, they morph from caricatures into real people. The transformation is easy to spot when citizens show up with colors on their faces.

Naturally, at some point the mayor wakes up to the threat to his town. The monochrome citizens of Pleasantville have to figure out how to deal with the situation. Meanwhile, Mr. Johnson finds that he gets no satisfaction from flipping burgers anymore. He begins to paint. After Jennifer discusses the facts of life to her mother, Betty Parker learns the joy of masturbation and she too begins to change.

While Pleasantville is full of fine actors, a second viewing made me remember why I liked it so much. Pleasantville is worth watching simply to enjoy Joan Allen in the part of Betty Parker. In this role, she demonstrates that she is an exceptional actress. I found it quite exhilarating to watch her character morph from caricature into human being. Her role alone would be reason to see the movie, but William H. Macy’s part as David’s TV father is also deftly done.

It is not a perfect movie. I have never been the biggest Tobey Maguire fan, but he plays his part competently. Reese Witherspoon is dead on as a slutty Valley Girl teen. Yet she too matures in the movie, going from a shallow woman into good-looking guys into a woman who appreciates literature. This is an easy movie to get wrong but Director Gary Ross almost always gets it just right.

The result is a satisfying movie full of little surprises. You expect the movie to dwell on nostalgic themes. Instead, it helps us understand why people have flaws and many dimensions. While not quite in the league of some of my top favorite movies for progressives, it remains on the ring just below the top. It is satisfying in a weird sort of way that no 50s sitcom could possibly be.

 
The Thinker

Welcome to the Matrix

The 21st century is taking some getting used to. It seems to me both familiar and strange. In some ways, it is more fantastic than my wildest fantasies growing up in the 1960s. True, we do not have men on Mars. Nor are there giant space stations in earth orbit serenely rotating to the tune of Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube.

Still, it is an amazing new world that I inhabit. We’ve come a long way baby. I grew up in an age when the space program was just starting. The ordinary life I knew growing up was incredibly low tech. Only governments, banks and very rich companies could afford computers and they were housed in their own buildings. A typewriter was something of a luxury; most of us wrote out our letters by hand. Most office systems consisted of a typewriter, carbon paper and a card file. Air travel was largely only for the rich. I was 23 years old before I took my first commercial airline flight. The idea of a personal computer was ludicrous. Most of us drove cars with manual transmissions. Lacking power brakes, we had to push down hard on the pedals to stop the car. We owned cars that many of us could repair ourselves.

I am not sure when my world changed. Nevertheless, this new world I inhabit still seems surreal. The feeling comes back whenever I take a business trip. This week it was two nights and three days on the north side of Atlanta. It was a high tech experience all the way. It started when I inserted my electronic key into my hybrid and drove it to the long-term parking lot at Washington Dulles International Airport. A bus picked me up and took me to the terminal, but automated announcements kept me company the whole way. The driver did not have to say a thing.

Once inside the terminal there was no need to interact with a ticket agent. Like all the airlines now, I simply inserted a credit card into my airline’s electronic agent machine. Within thirty seconds, I had a boarding pass in my hand. Getting through the security screening was the most labor-intensive part of my airport experience. Even so high tech machines sniffed and examined my carry on luggage. Many moving walkways and frequent escalators carried me quickly to Concourse B. At the gate a solid-state monitor, supplemented with many recordings, provided basic flight information and informed me of the weather at my destination.

Inside the airport, it seemed that everyone is talking to themselves. No, I was not looking at them carefully enough. They are yakking into their cell phones, informing their significant or insignificant others about every minute aspect of their journey. CNN blared above my head. Within easy walking distance were restrooms with automated toilets. A nearby Starbucks was ready to provide a quick caffeine jolt.

At least the MD-80 I was on is an older aircraft. The flight attendants were forced to do their safety briefings the old-fashioned way. However, many passengers were tuned into their MP3 players or wholly zoned out. The more adventurous on this ninety-minute flight booted up their laptop computers once we hit 10,000 feet and kept working. Time is precious in the 21st century. It must be filled with something. Only the old fashioned like myself take time to look out the window. For most, a jet is merely a quick way to get between two distant points, not a journey to be savored.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is a lot like Washington Dulles, just much bigger and feeling its age. More escalators and moving sidewalks whisked me where I needed to go. At least this airport has the now nearly compulsory automated subway linking concourses to the main terminal. Washington Dulles will not have it for a few more years.

At the Alamo car rental, of course my reservation is already in the computer. I was told to take my pick of any of the compact cars. I picked a bright red one on the assumption it would be easier to find. I handed my rental contract to the gate agent who scanned it. Within seconds, I am on the open road. Forty-five minutes later, I am at a Homewood Suites near the Cobb Galleria Centre. It is here that I encounter the only electronic hiccup of the day. While I am in their reservation system, the system cannot seem to assign me a room. The application, written in Visual Basic (I can tell from the error message) repeatedly bombs. Some old fashioned human ingenuity is called for. The clerk unassigns someone else’s reservation so I can select theirs. The electronic room key is quickly encoded. Within minutes, I am relaxing in my second floor suite.

How suite it is. It was hardly a year ago that I was bemoaning the lack of high-speed internet in hotel rooms. Now it is pervasive. This hotel has the now standard high-speed internet service. In a minute, I am online, reading my email and surfing my favorite web sites. I may be five hundred miles away from home but with my government furnished laptop computer, it is as if I have never left. My virtual office and me. My suite and me. For suite living is the way to go. Moreover, this is the first suite I have stayed in that actually felt like an apartment. Even sweeter, it is a quiet room. While next to the Cobb Parkway, I do not hear road noise at all. This hotel is below the road surface and behind a berm. The comfy bed and lack of noise is itself a bit surreal, but allows me to get a deep sleep I can rarely get at home.

I have wheels but I do not need them that much. I am a couple hundred feet from a Schlotzsky’s Deli. Cobb County may be in the intellectual dark ages when it comes to teaching evolution, but everything else is high tech. Gleaming office buildings, hotels and convenient retail abound. There is a movie theater across the street (I took in Syriana while I was there.) A mall up the street made a convenient place to buy some Christmas presents. However, mostly I prefer my cozy room. It comes with a fireplace, but no wood. (Do they expect guests to bring their own firewood and matches?) It has a stove, refrigerator and dishwasher but no food. (I used one glass and found the next day that the maid ran the dishwasher to clean it.) Generally, I do not like to travel alone. Yet if I must this is the way to do it: a nice quiet and comfortable suite with a fireplace I cannot use, two TVs and a convenient high-speed internet connection to distract me.

The Cobb Galleria Centre is a half mile up the road and the destination of my trip. It is beautiful, immaculately clean, quiet and plushly carpeted. In other words, it is like every other convention center in which I have ever been. It is the sort of place that had I stumbled upon it in the 1960s would have been breathtaking even without its many high tech features. Aside from the self-flushing toilets and urinals, each conference room has its own electronic board informing attendees about the current and future seminars in the room.

I am here to talk about the groundwater data in the system that I manage. I attend a committee meeting. In the afternoon I do an hour-long demonstration of the system I manage to passers by out by the registration area. The following day I give a half hour speech that is well received, then listened to more than three hours of similar speeches by others. At the conclusion of my business, I do it all in reverse, arriving back in Washington Dulles three quarters of an hour late. My flight left a rainy Atlanta shortly before sunset. I was treated to a surreal but stunning picture of a fingernail sun on the horizon dancing off the top of an endless carpet of dark stratus clouds. It was all just for me. For none of the other passengers seem to care. The guy next to me was methodically thumbing his Blackberry.

Although all this technology is so convenient and ubiquitous, the only real part for me is looking out the window and marveling at our complex planet from a height that would have astounded humans only a hundred years earlier. The rest of the journey feels surreal and artificial. I ache for something that feels more concrete. That is why business trips like the one I took last month to Helena, Montana turn out to be so much more fun. Arriving a day early to spend a day hiking mountains makes me appreciate the hotel’s Jacuzzi and the end of the day. Clean mountain air beats the persistent press of cars and humans. For all its glitter, a dazzling convention center is no substitute for a mountain, raw and exposed to the elements, and a path to take me to its summit.

Although I make my living in the world of technology, I know the time will come when I will have had my fill of it. I will not give it up altogether. I will doubtless keep a computer and high-speed internet connection. Nevertheless, I do hope that retirement finds me somewhere far from the omnipresent press of gadgetry and civilization that is this newer, more crowded 21st Century. I will want a place with a view of a moose outside my window instead of a Hooters. If I miss a café latte, I will buy a machine. If a Barnes & Noble is not around the corner, I will order my books online. Someday again, nature will be around the corner instead of hours away. Someday I shall buy peace and nature.

 
The Thinker

Three Years of Blogging

Time flies when you are having fun! Today I start year four of my blogging adventure. This means that it is time for a metablogging entry again.

In blog time, I am now a great grandfather. I would bet that less than one percent of blogs have lasted three years. One of the few that I can point to is my friend Lisa’s blog, Snarkypants. Lisa is responsible for turning me onto blogging. So if you hate my site, it is all her fault! (Just kidding Lisa!)

One thing I monitor is whether my blog is growing, staying static or losing interest. Overall, it looks like this blog is still garnering more interest. Part of this is explained because I have an additional year of material online. Consequently there are more entries that are searchable. Popular entries a year ago remain popular today, simply because they come up easily in Google searches. (I think my entry on Sharon Mitchell has reached immortality status. It still averages at least half dozen page views a day. My entry on Infidelity also gets many reads.) However, looking at my web logs, newer entries routinely get hits from all sorts of places. Mostly they come from Google, but I am seeing more and more referrals from the blog indexer Technorati.

While no one else likely cares, I find it interesting to compare my SiteMeter statistics from one year ago with today. The current SiteMeter graphic below clearly documents a slow but steady growing interest in this blog. Last year my peak monthly page views was around 3600 (shortly before the election). This year my peak was in April at around 7000 page views. I did not start tracking with SiteMeter until early March 2004, but in 2004 I averaged about 1,760 visits and 2,300 page views a month. Over the last year, I have averaged 2,730 visits per month, or an increase of 55% compared to last year. When looking at page views, I now average 4047 page views a month, an increase of 76%. These are decent growth rates for a backwater blog, particularly since every year there is more indexed content out there competing against my content. It remains unlikely that my blog will ever show up on a recommended blogs list.

A chart showing the current year's visit and page view statistics for Occam's Razor

Of course, I have become a bit disenchanted with SiteMeter statistics. It only measures those arriving here by browser, and then seems to miss many of those too. I know I have a number of people who read my entries using newsreaders and they will never show up in SiteMeter. I see them in my raw web logs. It is almost impossible though to determine which of these are robot search engines and which are actual people reading content. Still, SiteMeter is a metric useful for generalizing trends. Overall, I would guess my actual visits and page views from real people are about twice what SiteMeter reports.

One trend I have noticed is that I am getting more comments. The number of comments is still anemic compared to most people’s blogs. Nevertheless, it is still a trend. A little SQL on the comments table returned the following data. I am getting more comments and longer, more thoughtful comments when I get them.

Year  # of Comments   # of Bytes of Comments
2005  	104  		70010
2004 	80 		47177
2003 	57 		31597
2002 	3 		1934

As for blogging itself, it remains a fun but time-consuming hobby. However, it is getting more difficult to think up good original content. I often have to poke myself to create entries. I often rattle my brain for something interesting to expound upon. I continue to find political entries less interesting to write. This is a shame because when I do write about topical politics I get a lot more page requests. It usually takes at least 90 minutes to create an entry, since each entry is edited about four times. In addition, I find no fewer demands on my time. My list of hobbies continues to grow. Alas, the time I have to devote to them does not. However, blogging remains a very high priority for me. I mean here I am in Atlanta on business. What am I doing for fun in the big city? I am writing another time-consuming blog entry.

For me it is worth the inordinate amount of time I spend. As I expounded elsewhere, I find blogging to be therapeutic. I have an escape for the many unusual ideas crossing my mind. From reading the comments, I realize I have compatriots out there. While I am sure there are many people who do not particularly like what I have to say, I get regular appreciative comments. Thank you to those of you who leave me these little pats on the back. Thank you for those who do not agree but still do not mind trading emails on various topics. They inspire me to keep blogging. I do not know how successful I am at prying open minds. I am headstrong enough to actually want to change people’s opinions. It is an impossible metric to measure except anecdotally.

I do hope that overall my entries are well reasoned and if nothing else good for debate or thoughtful discussion. I also hope you enjoy your time here. Next March with two years of SiteMeter statistics, I will metablog again.

 
The Thinker

The Angst of Evolution

Another day, another article in the Washington Post on the seemingly never ending evolution controversy. This latest article is more about the controversy in Cobb County, Georgia, whose school board is insisting that biology textbooks that discuss evolution have a prominent sticker on it that says evolution is a theory and not a fact.

Regular readers know that I have discussed evolution before. I will not beat the God vs. Evolution meme to death again, except to point out once again that there are two definitions to “theory”. As it applies to evolution, it more simply stated as the law of evolution. For Cobb County to declare that evolution is only a theory means they are either letting their personal biases creep into public policies, or they cannot be bothered to consult a dictionary.

Still, I have to wonder what engine is feeding all this antievolution hysteria. Religion seems to play a big role in it. However, the more I read about the issue the less convinced I am that the creation myth in the Bible and other holy books is its root cause. I think much of it is because to accept evolution we have to come to grips with evolution’s obvious conclusion that our little lives simply do not matter.

The billions of years that our planet has been around is, after all, a hard concept to get our minds around. If our planet is about 4.5 billion years old, let us wrap that timescale into something we can get our mind around: the radius of the planet. The Earth’s radius is 6378 kilometers or about 4000 miles. Divide that distance into 4.5 billion units. Let each unit represent one year. By my calculation, a year would amount to 1.42 centimeters.

Now pick up a metric ruler and look at the size of 1.42 centimeters (about .55 inches). Then imagine an airline trip of 6378 kilometers, the distance to the center of the earth. That is roughly the distance from where I live (near Washington, D.C.) to Zurich, Switzerland. In the span of a human life, say 80 years, you would travel about 113.6 centimeters, or about 3.7 feet toward Switzerland. That would not even amount to the initial bump of our airplane out of the gate!

According to scientists, it took about a billion of those 4.5 billion years before primitive life (bacteria) evolved on earth. The first mammals evolved around 565 million years ago. (Our plane, which left Washington D.C., has traversed all but 502 miles of the distance to Zurich.) Dinosaurs roamed the earth 150 million years ago. (We are 133 miles from Zurich.) The first human ancestors appeared 13 million years ago (11 miles from our destination.) 3.7 million years ago (3.28 miles away) the Australopithecus Afarensis, one of our distant ancestors, left footprints in the sands of Kenya. 27,000 years ago (1,257 feet to go!) the Neanderthals became extinct. The start of recorded history was 4000 years ago (186 feet from our destination gate).

On such timescales, all individual lives become irrelevant. A million years from now, it is unlikely that human life will even exist on our planet. In the timescale of the earth’s evolution, our species is going to be just another flash in the pan.

If we could acknowledge our insignificance in the grand scheme of things then perhaps evolution would be better accepted. However, many of us cannot. We see our lives as having purpose, meaning and most importantly some enduring value. However if we were to imagine our life as being random chance then it is hard not to embrace atheism as a religious philosophy, because it seems to be the only one that makes any sense. What is the point of anything including the belief in an intelligent and creative force to the universe if nothing we do in our lives endures?

While some part of our logical mind can accept it, our emotional side has a tough time with the knowledge. Indeed, it is hard not to even recoil at the very idea. It is no wonder then that evolution is such a flashpoint in our society. For to accept evolution at its face value we must in some sense to deny our intrinsic human feelings. Our genetics inform us that life matters, and consequently that we matter. We are a hopeful species, likely as a direct result of evolution. So for some, by our schools endorsing evolution then the government in some sense is advocating atheism and spreading hopelessness. We recoil.

Therefore, we look for any rationalization that we can find. For many we leave God to sort it out. Evolution becomes yet another big mystery in our wonderful and amazing universe. However, we are still confident that despite evidence to the contrary that our lives do have lasting meaning. For others though perhaps a pure faith-based response is insufficient. Therefore, they give it many names including “creation science” and “intelligent design”. They all amounts to the same thing: trying to use pseudo science to refute evolution’s truth. To accept evolution on some level we must also admit that we are alone in a random and pointless universe. Accepting it can lead many of us to madness. After all, our brains are biological organisms. They exist to bring order to chaos, so we can live another day. Accepting evolution then becomes something of an acknowledgement of existentialism. We feel reduced to the parts of Vladimir and Estragon, waiting endlessly for Godot to show up.

Those of us pondering metaphysics have other potentially plausible ways to reconcile the contradictory feelings. For me, as I outlined elsewhere, there is some comfort found in the simple laws of thermodynamics. For while time marches relentlessly forward and all things seem to change, while form changes matter and energy do not. They are simply transformed endlessly from one state to another. This in itself is a big mystery, and one physicists are trying to understand, but offers some feeling of hope to the rational.

 

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