Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gregory House at Torreya State Park

Over spring break I visited Torreya State Park near Bristol, Florida. My extended family used to have reunions there each summer, which were huge affairs with lots and lots of fantastic home-cooked food.  We haven't had a full-scale reunion there in decades, but I did have a family reunion / unofficial "hooding" by my Ph.D. mentors.  Torreya is consequently a special place for me, and I wanted to tour the Gregory House, which I had not done since I was a child.

The weekday tours are at 10 A.M., and since we had to drive a little over an hour to get there on time, we were a little early.  It was a slightly nippy morning, and the sun was still low enough to keep this clearing in shadow.  When I walked to the brink of the slope, I startled some deer that had been feeding there.  I really love this view!

The Gregory House is an antebellum "big house" from a nearby plantation.  It was not, however, built on this bluff; it was built across the Apalachicola River on much lower ground, convenient to river traffic.  This made it vulnerable to damage from flooding, and in fact the house was in pretty sad shape when the CCC moved it to its current location.  It had been abandoned since 1916, when the last surviving daughter of the original builder (if I remember the relationship correctly) finally died.

This is the front room.  That wooden post on the dresser is one of the few items original to the house; it was to hold the planter's top hat, and it is made of Torreya wood.  You won't be able to get one of these for yourself -- the Florida Torreya is listed as critically endangered.

This bed is another item original to the house.  It belonged to the last resident owner, the daughter mentioned above.

This trunk belonged to one of the Gregory men who fought to repel Yankee aggression.  You can see it in the corner of the bedroom above.

This is a "courting table".  A young couple could court until the candle burned to the top of the candlestick.  The parents could adjust the candle higher or lower, depending on whether they approved of the suitor or not.

When I was very young, all the talk about how old this house is made me afraid that it might collapse at any minute, and I refused to go up these stairs.  Today their most notable feature is the low railing.  Mr. Gregory was not a tall man.

Here's that view again, this time from the balcony.  As you can see, the sun has risen noticeably by this time.

This view from the balcony looks down onto a trail to some Confederate gun pits.  During the war, a chain was strung across the river to hold any enemy boat until the cannons could sink it.  

The trail used to go down past the gun pits to the river, cross in front of the clearing, and come back up the other side of the lawn.  The last time I went down that trail was during graduate school, and the part near the river was in danger of being destroyed by erosion as the river meanders.  My understanding is that trail has been re-routed, and is now somewhat easier on the way back up.

By the way, our tour group was very small:  just the ranger, one couple in their 50's, another in their 60's, and my dad and me.  One of the tourists was a photographer who really, really wanted to be told that the Gregory House is haunted.  The ranger's first answer was, I think, his most honest answer:  "No, it isn't."  Since the photographer kept badgering him, though, he started to adjust his story to what the tourist wanted to hear. 
  • "Well, I've never seen anything, but some people are more sensitive, and they pick up on things I don't."
  • "While the house was abandoned, it was sometimes used by tramps.  The story is that one time they got into a fight over cards, and one of them was murdered right here on the staircase."
  • "Don't tell her I said this, but the other ranger refuses to come in here alone, even to change a battery in the smoke detector."
  • "She's said that she will be working in the office and hear the sound of children playing, but when she looks out, no one is there.  But we all think she's a little nuts."
Of course, I have no way of knowing if it is haunted or not.  What I can say is that I've been in a number of buildings with much creepier feelings to them:  for example, both the Keith Albee and the Frederick here in Huntington, and definitely the older wing of the old Science Building at Texas A&M-Commerce. (The old Science Building has been torn down; I do not mean the new building that was put up around 2005.)

The Gregory House, on the other hand, is just a charming old house.  Apparently the idea once was to restore it as a bed and breakfast.  It would have made a fantastic bed and breakfast, and for several reasons -- interior doors, a few electrical sockets, and even an inside bathroom have been added; the bottom floor had to be completely replaced; few of the furnishings are original; and the site is not its historical location -- such a use would not be destroying a pristine relic of the antebellum South.  People who wanted a relaxing stay in an historic building with a great view would get it, and those who wanted to believe they were sleeping in a haunted mansion could no doubt convince themselves that that was what they were doing, too.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: The Amber Room (Audio)


On my drive down to visit my dad over spring break, I stopped at a Books-A-Million just south of Atlanta and picked up an audio book to pass the time during the drive.  In the end I chose The Amber Room by Steve Berry, read by Scott Brick, hoping to find at least a good historical fiction.  I was disappointed.  I will not try to avoid revealing anything from the book because I cannot recommend it to anyone.
  1. None of the characters had any real depth.  The character that most nearly has depth is the White Russian introduced at the book's opening.  Unfortunately, he is murdered only about 1/4 of the way through the book.  As for the remaining characters, once the character is established, they never do anything remotely surprising.  The closest thing to a surprise is when the most prominent female villain does not indulge in unnecessarily murdering a teenage boy.  (Unnecessary murders are sprinkled generously throughout the book.)
  2. Related to the first point, few characters are more than stereotypes.  This is particularly true of Germans, who are in every instance cold and obsessive, and in every case but the heroes' police contact (a mostly absent character) are ruthless.  The first stereotypical image that comes to your mind when you think "Russian bureaucrat" completely defines the Russian bureaucrat the male villain meets in St. Petersburg; the southern lawyer who runs afoul of the heroine is neither more nor less than the stereotype suggests.  How about the hero and heroine?  They may not be exactly a stereotype, but they are a well-established cliche:  they love each other deeply but their quarrels led to divorce.  From the moment the (ex)-husband is introduced, you know they will get back together again; this is even suggested by the heroine's father in his will.  Sure enough, their remarriage is the epilogue to the story.
  3. Speaking of stereotypes, readers should stop trying to distinguish speakers by faking accents, as Scott Brick does here.  Fake accents are incredibly distracting.  On top of that, Brick uses a bad German accent to indicate nationality and a "feminine" voice when a woman is talking, but he can't do both, so German women voiced by him sound exactly like the German men.
  4. The level of violence is not really justified.  OK, I get how the billionaires at the top of the club of art thieves might feel themselves to be above the law, but hiring hyperviolent sociopaths as henchmen really does not make sense.  The string of murders (which includes both the heroine's father and both the hero's parents, together with everyone on their plane) was bound to lead someone back to their bosses.  This is especially true when they were murdering people who were very, very far removed from being threats; for example, people asking questions that might lead them to a mine from which the Amber Room had been removed 50 years ago.
  5. That whole mine episode made no sense whatsoever.  They left in the mine three large German trucks that had been used to bring in the Amber Room.  How did they get it out?  With their own trucks?  Why not just drive the German trucks out?  It's not like war surplus German trucks would have looked that out of place in 1951 Germany.  But no, they had to leave them in the mine and then murder anyone who got close to it, because apparently the trucks were some sort of give-away.  Yet they didn't even do that right.  They shot and killed some foreign help, but they didn't bother to remove all their identification, and they let one of the dying men spell out the name LORING (the billionaire who had him murdered) in the sand.
  6. The dating of the book is ambiguous at best.  Several references within the book make it seem to be set in the late 1990's, probably around 1998.  Additionally, the descriptions of air travel sound distinctly pre-9-11.  However, the book is set only in "the present day"; it really couldn't be set in even "the recent past" because it ends with the Amber Room being publicly restored to Russia, an event which is conspicuous for not having been in the news.  The book's publication date is late 2007.
  7. The worst thing about the book was the graphic and deviant sex.  The (German) male villain, in particular, seemed to be a cross between Will Riker, James Bond, and Ted Bundy.  He pursued rough sex with every woman he met, frequently by means of rape followed by murder.  The long pornographic descriptions seemed to be more an indulgence of a very ugly side of the author than anything required to develop characters or move the plot forward.


I am the king's good servant, but God's first.   
-- Saint Thomas More
It is easy to find Protestant churches, like the one that owns these flags, making the opposite declaration:  "We are God's good servants, but the State's first."  No doubt this is mostly a matter of thoughtlessness, but objectively speaking, this is idolatry. 

Ironically, the same churches that fly the "Christian flag" (which only dates back to 1907, and which most Christians worldwide would not recognize -- not even in the sense of knowing what it is supposed to represent) underneath the US flag accuse the Catholic Church of idolatry for having statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and other Saints.  Those, you see, are graven images and are prohibited in the Ten Commandments.  The seated statue in the Lincoln Memorial?  The faces of presidents on coins?  Don't ask -- you're not supposed to notice those.  A Catholic with a statue of St. Francis in his garden is committing idolatry, these churches would say; one of their own number with a statue of a gnome in his garden is not.  A Catholic with a statue of the Blessed Virgin on his mantel is committing idolatry; a Protestant with a small copy of the Statue of Liberty on his mantel is not.

Sorry, but the essence of idolatry is to put something else on par with or above God Himself, and that is precisely the symbolism of flying the US flag above the "Christian flag".  It makes sense to fly the US flag over a corporate flag (which some companies have) because federal law supersedes company policies.  It makes sense to fly the US flag over state and city flags because it signifies that (at least since 1865) the authority of the federal government is greater than that of any more local form of government.  Flags of foreign governments may be flown either a little beneath the US flag (on a different pole) or at the same level, to show that the USA is neither a part of anyone's empire nor anyone's client state. But to fly the US flag over the "Christian flag"?

At this point, of course, the Protestant American will say (I have had this conversation before), "But the Flag Code says that nothing may be flown above the US flag!  The law says that the US flag must be given the greatest honor!"  There are several problems with this objection.

  1. The Flag Code does not supersede the US Constitution.  Since the Supreme Court has ruled that even burning a US flag is protected by the First Amendment, it is certainly permissible to fly the "Christian flag" above the US flag as a statement of religious conviction.
  2. There is no requirement to fly the US flag at all in your churchyard.  If you were to fly the "Christian flag" alone on a pole, the controversy would not arise.
  3. Similarly, no religious body I know of holds that it is imperative to fly the "Christian flag".  Many chose to do so, but they see it as an optional symbol, not a necessary one.  If only the US flag were flown, the controversy would again disappear.
  4. Perhaps the best solution would be to fly only the US flag, but to top the flagpole with a cross.  This avoids any idea suggestion that Church and State are competing for the same type of authority.
  5. We've been down this road before.  At one point it was the law that everyone must worship the "divine Caesar".  Failure to do so could result in death, but real Christians refused nonetheless.  If American Protestants are willing to render greater honors to the US government than to God even when the Supreme Court says they don't have to, how can they expect to stand when a persecution begins?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bigfoot DNA Article: Peer Review

Yeti colorisé

Not long ago, an article was "published" making the remarkable claim of genetic evidence showing the existence of a population of "Bigfoot" being (a) real and (b) some sort of hybrid between humans and some unknown non-human primate. "Published" is in quotation marks because of the odd manner in which the paper was finally presented:  Melba Ketchum, the author, bought a little-known web journal that was apparently going out of business anyhow, renamed it De Novo, and published her own paper. She claims that her paper had already passed peer review in the earlier incarnation of the journal (the Journal of Advanced Zoological Exploration in Zoology), but that the journal's lawyers would not agree to it being published; she also claims that the decision to publish her article was not her own, but that of the (unnamed) editorial staff of De Novo.  She further claims that she had to take these steps in order to make this important work available to the public, although it could have been made available at lower cost both to herself and the public if she had simply uploaded the pdf file to a web page or preprint server.  Unsurprisingly, this article, which would have been controversial enough without the theatrics, has gained little support outside the community of those who were at least already convinced that Bigfoot is a real, biological entity, not just a cultural phenomenon. 

I am not going to address the details of her genetic analysis because I lack the background to do so.  (Incidentally, her own qualifications for interpreting the genetic tests are also shaky.  Dr. Melba Ketchum is a veterinarian, which, although it does relate to biology, involves very different training than that of a research biologist.  The actual genetic tests were apparently carried out by commercial labs at her expense, with her contribution being the interpretation of the results.)  Instead, I will concentrate on some misconceptions regarding peer review that I noticed on a prominent cryptozoology blog.  My comments here will largely recapitulate comments I made there under a pseudonym.


First of all, let me clear up what peer review is not.  Peer review is not the acceptance of an idea by one or a few people with Ph.D.s.  Passing peer review is also not a golden ticket that makes an idea scientifically respectable. Papers published in obscure journals tend to remain obscure; even papers in well-known journals may be overlooked, or their true significance may not be understood right away.  Papers are often published that are controversial or speculative, and on occasion they are published in spite of the expressed reservations of the editors.  An excellent example is the publication of an article on the (since discredited, but never really respectable) "Torah code" in the journal Statistical Science.

Peer review is all about trust and accountability.  There are two levels at which trust is important.  

(1) Most fundamentally, of course, scientists have to trust that any mistakes are honest mistakes, not deliberate fraud.  Even deliberate fraud will eventually be uncovered by subsequent experiments, but the amount of time, expense, and even danger may be greatly increased by fraudulent data.

Peer review is really not particularly good at exposing deliberate fraud unless the fraud is especially amateurish; even in those cases it may go overlooked for a surprisingly long time.  

What, then, guards against scientific fraud?  Two thingsThe first is that real data will almost certainly be obtained later that will sharply contradict any fraudulent data.   The second is that the resulting loss of reputation can be toxic to a career, making it impossible to get papers published, obtain grants, or hold any academic position.  In a recent prominent case, a German physicist lost his Ph.D. because he was judged unworthy of it -- for a fraud that took place after he earned his doctorate.  Just earning the Ph.D., to say nothing of the professional work that follows, is hard enough that no sane person would carelessly endanger it.

How does this apply to the Ketchum case?  Well, she is not a research scientist; her job as a veterinarian is not really at risk, nor is any scientific reputation.  With nothing at stake, she will naturally be regarded with some additional suspicion.  She might still have been given consideration, but she could not afford doing anything that compounded the suspicion.

(2) Three hundred years ago, it was still possible to remain well-informed on the current state of all branches of science. The success of science in the intervening centuries has come at a cost, though; today it is barely possible to remain up-to-date on a tiny subfield of a particular discipline. In consequence, it has become necessary to have a "spam filter". That is what peer review really does; a paper that passes peer review makes it to the inbox, until then the paper is in the spam folder.
Of course, spam filters are not all alike. Some are too strict and put good messages in the spam folder; some are too permissive and let spam through; some do both; and some get it about right. Likewise with the peer review conducted by the various journals. Each journal has a slightly different scope -- what the journal is about -- and one thing peer review has to do is determine if the paper was submitted to the right journal. Different journals also have different length requirements (some specialized for quick notes, and others for lengthy reviews of the current state of knowledge about particular topics). Finally, they differ on the number of reviewers, the pool of reviewers they seek out, and the instructions given to the reviewers. This is largely what makes one journal more prestigious than another. This is why one journal's peer review is not transferable to another. 

Yet this is precisely what Ketchum claims for her paper. She claims (though does not present evidence) that her paper "really" passed peer review before, so there was no need to repeat the process. The only sense in which this is true is that the journal she bought seems to have barely been hanging on to existence anyhow, with no apparent reputation and (from what I could find on the Wayback Machine) no clear statement of scope and no instructions for reviewers.

The upshot is that Ketchum either completely fails to understand what peer review is about or (worse) does understand but is deliberately attempting to deceive those who do not. In either case, she will find it hard to earn respect from people who have dedicated their lives to science.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Carter Caves State Park near Olive Hill, KY

Eight days ago I made a brief outing to Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky.  It's only about an hour's drive from Huntington, and it has some nice scenery.  The weather has only recently started turning warmer, so I was in dire need of getting out; even so, I only arrived there around 5pm, after the Welcome Center had shut down and the last cave tour had finished.  That didn't much matter, though; due to the spread of white nose syndrome, all the caves with resident bat populations are off-limits, leaving only the X-cave and Cascade Cave, both of which I've seen several times.  

(Unfortunately, these precautions have not prevented white nose syndrome from being spread to Carter Caves.  I'm afraid its spread is unstoppable.  Attempts to stop it might still slow it down enough that bat populations could acquire immunity and avoid catastrophic crashes, though.)

That left a short stroll from the Welcome Center to a large natural bridge as my remaining option.  I've seen this many times, too, but because this is not a tour I can pause to appreciate the view.  I'm only getting used to having both an iPhone and a blog, with the implication that I should take pictures and post them, but I did chance to remember this time.

The foot path goes underneath the natural bridge.  Note that this is a very different kind of bridge than the one in Florida.  In that case, a surface river enters a cave for 100 meters or so before exiting on the other side, where it resumes as a surface river.  This example in Kentucky must have started out that way, but most of the cave has collapsed; also, to the untrained eye (that means me), it looks like the flow of this stream must have been much larger, at least episodically, in the past.  At any rate, here we have a surface stream passing though a mostly dry tunnel.

Here is another view of the little stream that runs underneath the natural bridge.  The stream may look tiny, but it flows at a good pace, and the many little waterfalls like the one you see in the foreground create a musical sound.

There are some nice colors in the rocks that make up the stream bed.

This is the other side of the tunnel.  The tunnel is actually quite short:  the two holes at the center left of this picture are also visible at the center left of the first picture.

Here is the path leading back to the Welcome Center.  Look, I realize that some people will think that this stream is little more than they can see in a nearby ditch, and that these flakes of limestone are no more romantic than flakes of concrete.   I only have a few responses.  (1) This limestone is very old -- old enough that, unlike the limestone of Florida, it contains no fossil shells.  To me there is something inherently interesting about rocks that were buried hundreds of millions of years ago that are only now being exposed by erosion.  If you can't wonder at either the beauty of the scene or at the age of the rocks, you're simply built differently than I am.  (2) This terrain is completely different than what I grew up with in Florida.  As a result, it will probably always have a slightly magical feel to it.  The same is true of snow.  I certainly get tired of the cold and wet, and I hate the bad driving conditions it can create, but part of me is still ten years old and thinks that snow is something rare and wonderful.  (3) What have you got against ditches?  I remember having a lot of fun playing in ditches as a child, especially when I would build a dam across the ditch but leave a tiny gap that the water would go racing through.  If I rarely notice the beauty of water running through a ditch any more, it's not because the beauty is not there, but because I have become too calloused to notice.

This picture gives a bit more context to the landscape in which the stream and natural bridge are found.  The Welcome Center is visible in the upper right-hand corner.  The stream continues for another 2 or 3 hundred yards before passing through another cave, this one fully flooded.  Several dozen feet above is the X-cave, though which the stream ran thousands of years ago before erosion lowered the valley floor.

Between the spot where I took this picture and where I took the previous picture, I saw several bats out hunting insects.  To the best of my memory, this is the first time I have seen a bat outside a cave clearly enough to be sure it was a bat.  These were feeding just at and above the level of the tree tops -- just close enough that I could make out the characteristic inverted triangle shape of a bat against the sky, as well as their jagged flap-but-can't-glide flight paths.  I think I've seen bats out and about in a few other places, but they were always so distant I could not be sure they weren't small birds. So even though white nose syndrome has made it to Carter Caves, at least some bats are still hanging on.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

What Are Rights?

It may not be entirely fair, but I'll use a comment on another blog to illustrate a problem with the way people use the term "rights" in disputes these days.  "Michael" wrote, 
Religions always have [t]he right to discriminate, by gender, by colour, by race, by sexual orientation and of course by religion. In secular society you can not do that anymore (thank goodness) but religions have those rights and they must be respected when dealing with matters pertaining to that religion.
To start out, let's differentiate the different things people mean by "rights".

1.  Sometimes a "right" is the result of a rule agreed upon by a society.  
(a) For instance, under certain conditions a quarterback has the "right" to deliberately throw an incomplete pass to avoid a sack.  
(b) Another example is the "right" of someone accused of a serious crime to a trial by a jury. 

Such rights are obviously limited to the society in question and last only as long as the agreement in the society remains, with some lag time built in for the rules to be updated to adjust to new opinions within a society.  This illustrated by the fact that the same crime may be judged by a juries of different sizes, or by a panel of judges, or by a single judge, depending on where the crime was committed, whether the accused is military or a civilian, etc. 

2.  Sometimes a "right" is something that is inherent in being a human being -- something that is always the same, regardless of time, place, or culture.  An example would be that anyone accused of a serious crime has a right to some kind of trial before being punished for that crime.  It may be very formal or quite informal; it may be before a single judge, a panel of judges, a jury, or the community as a whole; the burden of proof may be on the prosecution, the defense, or somehow shared between them; but it should always and everywhere actually be somehow established that the person is guilty and not innocent before punishment.

(Note:  Someone is going to bring up something like a situation in war in which each side shoots at the other without any kind of "individual trial".  That's really something different, because a (sane) soldier does not try to punish his adversary, he tries to stop his adversary.  There is a difference.)

In defiance of a great deal of popular opinion, to say nothing of plots constructed by fiction writers, I will maintain that rights of this kind never truly contradict each other, though they may be in tension.  The cliche, "Your rights end where mine begin, and vice versa," is obviously too simplistic, but if genuine rights of this kind are indeed God-given, there must be rational means of resolving the apparent contradictions.

3.  Sometimes a "right" is the result of a rule agreed upon by a society, but one that is arguably always the best practice.  These are somehow intermediate between admittedly arbitrary rules ("Do we drive on the left-hand side of the road or the right?") and the proscriptions of natural law.  

I think the "right" to use money to pay debts (of wealth) might be a good example.  Money did not always exist, after all, and it is possible to get by on barter.  However, few would dispute that history shows a monetary system to be in the public interest. 


The problem comes when people confuse these meanings.  A common example would be, "The Supreme Court has established that a woman has a right to have an abortion."   This is typically thrown out as though it were an unchangeable human right (type 2), when in fact it is something established by the Court (type 1).  It is like saying that a cornerback has the "right" to jam a receiver within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage; that may be true now, but we can change it to 10 yards or to zero yards if we want.  Perhaps one could argue that a "right to abortion" is not arbitrary but a best practice, but (a) it would need to be explained why it is a best practice and (b) such a claim falls far short of being an argument-stopping moral imperative, as is usually intended.

The same kind of confusion is evident in the comment above from "Michael".  He says that "Religions always have [t]he right to discriminate" and "religions have those rights and they must be respected."  He is definitely claiming this to be a God-given, inherent human right (type 2), because what he says is "always" the case has not been recognized by society in most times and places.  On the other hand, it is by no means clear why "religions" in general, without regard to whether or how much they are true, should enjoy such "rights" -- if these are "God-given rights", why would God grant them to religions which teach falsely?  (Given the many and fundamental disagreements between different religions, they cannot all be even remotely correct.)

This may seem to be an idle distinction, but it isn't.  If something is a God-given right and you don't like it, tough.  It's not within your power to change.  It's not within the power of the President of the United States to change, or a unanimous vote of everyone on earth to change.  You may ignore the right, but the right you ignore is still there; you may run roughshod over it, but it remains all the same.  If, on the other hand, it is something that was made by man, it is something that man can unmake, and its existence today is no guarantee that it will still be around tomorrow.  If you like it, you had better always be able to explain why it is desirable to keep it around.

Another important consequence has to do with the very issue of freedom of religion.  It may be a political tradition (imperfectly observed) in the United States, but the question of whether it is a fundamental human right is an interesting one, and it is a question that divides certain traditionalist communities (like SSPX) from the Catholic Church.  If religion has an important impact on the eternal destiny of one's soul, why would there be a right to hold, practice, and teach a false religion?

My understanding of this is, of course, subject to being corrected by the Church, but here's how I understand it at present. 
  1. The real, root human right is not to "freedom of religion" as it is understood in a secular context, but the freedom (in an Augustinian sense) to truly observe the true religion.
  2. This means one must be honestly, freely convinced of the true religion.
    1. A best practice for determining/demonstrating the true religion is to allow all religions a fair chance to make their best cases -- sort of the way Elijah did with the prophets of Baal, though less dramatically and renewed for each person.  That way the choice can be made with full knowledge and consent of the will
    2. This does not mean that we cannot learn over time, either as persons or as societies.  After all, we allow the same fair chance for the heliocentric model and the geocentric model of the solar system, and the heliocentric model works better.  We don't feel it necessary to tell children they must respect both equally.  Likewise, we should not feel uncomfortable about, for instance, banning the human sacrifice associated with Mesoamerican religions.  Such a ban would be hard or even impossible to justify if "freedom of religion" were a God-given right, rather than just a best practice for allowing each person to be truly convinced.
    3. Whether in science or religion, we must "be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason."
  3. The problem that arises when freedom of religion is not present is not necessarily that the wrong religion is observed, because of course it is possible to forcibly repress all false religions and leave only the true religion free.  Nor is the problem that "we can't ask them to do what we don't do ourselves" -- that would be fine as it applies to people, but true ideas, when they are truly understood as such, really should be treated differently than false ideas.  No; the problem is that it would make it impossible to recognize the true religion from its contrast with false alternatives, and it would leave the nagging doubt that the only reason it was accepted was because no alternatives could be considered. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

10 Years for Changing Tags

Do other people have dreams like this?

Last night I dreamed that I was trying to work two jobs with the federal government at the same time.  This was not really allowed, so I (sort of) disguised myself, only so superficially that I thought it would keep me out of trouble if I were caught.  I didn't change my name, but I wore different (though identical) pairs of blue jeans to the two jobs.  As in the real world, I had two checkbooks (from when I had both a bank account and a credit union account); both have brown leather covers, but I took one to one job and the other to the other job. Most importantly, I used the same parking permit, which was associated with my car tag, but I drove one car to one job, then changed the tag and permit over to my other vehicle and drove to the second job.

I was caught, and what really got me into trouble was taking the tag off one car and putting it on the other.  I was sentenced to 10 years in prison for that.

Of course, it's a good feeling to wake up from such a dream.

By the way, I don't work for the federal government at all, nor do I own two vehicles.

I think this must have been in part due to watching "Accident Investigator" on Hulu. The scary thing about that show is that I know I could have been involved in many of these incidents had the circumstances been different.  All it takes is a moment of carelessness, or a bit of bad luck.

UPDATE:  "Accident Investigator" may have gotten me into the frame of mind where I was thinking, "Donnerwetter!  This could happen to me!" but I now remember that in Episode 16 ("The Secret War") of "Soviet Storm:  WW2 in the East" there was a courier who worked for the Swedish government who changed the tag on his bicycle when he was visiting his Soviet handlers.  Clearly some of the details influenced my dream.

Sunday, March 3, 2013


A few days ago I stumbled across an article in which a father talks about his need, as a Christian, to forgive the man who murdered his daughter.  Let us not forget what an amazing thing this is; this kind of forgiveness, I firmly believe, is supernatural. There are substitutes that are merely natural, including rationalization, forgetfulness, and despair of justice, but true forgiveness goes beyond what we can naturally supply.

But.... You knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you? 

But we need to bear in mind just what it is our business to forgive.  We also need to remember that forgiveness doesn't undo the offense.

For example, what if I were to say, "I forgive Yigal Amir for assassinating Yitzhak Rabin," it would not show me to be exceptionally magnanimous.  Everyone would notice that I am not a friend or family member of Rabin.  I never met the man.  Furthermore, I am not even Israeli, nor am I Jewish.  If I were to presume to forgive Amir, it might reasonably be expected that I really meant there was no crime to forgive.

We can only really forgive what someone has done to us -- even in the Our Father, we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."  The murder of Michelle Millare caused her father, Roland Millare, unimaginable grief, as well as the loss of his daughter's presence, the hope of grandchildren though her, etc.  He can, by the grace of God, forgive her murderer for the pain and loss he has suffered on account of the crime, and it is a very good, even saintly, thing for him to do.  In a real sense, though, he cannot forgive the harm done to others by the crime:  to Michelle herself, to Michelle's mother, to any siblings, to her friends, and even to the community as a whole -- which is one reason the forgiveness of family is not enough to prevent prosecution.  

The scribes and Pharisees were right to wonder, "Who can forgive sins, but God alone?"