Thursday, December 07, 2006

The War on Christmas

Several people I know seem distressed by what is sometimes called "the war on Christmas". One of the claims of this war is that many retailers do not wish their customers a "Merry Christmas" during this season. I've even seen lists of retailers who do not use the word "Christmas" to promote their seasonal shopping festival. As an adult Christian why should I think that retailers should use the word "Christmas" in their marketing? Maybe we should rather be upset that a store would profane the holiday by using it as a marketing gimmick to sell more stuff.

We can ask ourselves why we are concerned that Christmas remain associated so strongly with shopping.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Special

A bizarrely shameless election gimmick has recently appeared. I'm not referring to candidate Mina Brees having commercials saying people should vote for her because her father and her son are football stars. The shameless gimmick is that the GOP is persistently crank calling people, pretending to be the Democratic candidate until the person called stays on the line long enough to hear a bunch of negative statements about the Democratic candidate.

"Someone is flooding homes with harassing robo calls. They are makingit sound like many are coming from the Boyda campaign."

CONCORD, N.H. -- It turns out that some of the political phone messages Granite Staters are receiving as Election Day nears may be illegal. The issue revolves around the national Do Not Call registry.

A homeowner in Hillsboro received the same message several times in one day. It began by stating it had information about Paul Hodes, the Democratic challenger for the 2nd Congressional District.

After a few seconds, the ad turns on the attack. It isn't until the end that you find out it was sponsored by the Republican National Congressional Committee.

One of the calls features a woman who opens by saying "Hello. I'm calling with information about Paul Hodes," the Democrat challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Bass.


But Republican National Committee member Tom Rath said the legal issues here are far from straightforward, involving federal-versus-state law and issues of free speech.

It's a complicated legal question that's not going to get adjudicated this weekend," he said.

I was taught growing up that the ends do not justify the means, so such trickery rubs me the wrong way. It is convenient that the issue won't be resolved before the elections, but sliminess may be difficult to wash off.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Echo Valley H.E. Butt Foundation Camp

We went on a church cabin camp-out at the Echo Valley camp of the H.E. Butt Foundation in the hill country this weekend. The Frio River springs forth on the foundation's land, and the campground is along the water. The weather was gray, but fairly cool (in the 70's Fahrenheit mostly), so I think it was nice. I snapped a few pictures of the Frio and the cliffs over it. It's not far from some hunting land Amanda's uncle has in Edwards county, and I did see a doe and yearling pair of Axis deer on the campsite in addition to the regular white tailed deer we see all the time around here and in the hill country. Axis deer are native to India, but they are brought to deer ranches as exotic species, and they escape and breed.

Monarch butterflies were also plentiful in the hill country.

monarch butterfly on a flower

the river and the bottom of the cliff

more of the river and the bottom of the cliff

a view of the cliff side (I wish the sky had been blue.)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Statement of Faith

On Saturday morning, I was out mowing the lawn as I usally do as it is one of the things that give me a sense of self actualization, though that may be a bit silly. Actually, I was trimming around the house and flower garden when I saw a group of nicely dressed folk walking my way on either side of the street. Nicely dressed Jehovah's witnesses I surmised, and I walked into the house to let Amanda know that they were coming, though she told me to handle them on my own.

I don't know that I had ever talked to any calling Jehovah's Witnesses before. I may have pretended not to be home, and our last residence was a gated community, so maybe they never could get in. I do recall a tipsy conversation in college of some guy relating some Mormons calling and conversing about "true" religion or whatnot. Anyway, since I'd never talked to the Jehovah's Witnesses, and I've been getting a healthy dose of my own kind of religion and spirituality from reading American Gospel by Jon Meacham and listening to lectures from the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, I figured I could talk to some roving JW's. Plus, I was in a fine mood as I would be sleeping on a fancy new bed that night (mmm, individually wrapped coils with memory foam and convoluted foam on top in a king sized mattress), so I took off my sun hat when they greeted me, and I went to talk to the two older men from the group who approached.

They were quite friendly as I expected them to be, and I was happy to be friendly, too. They let me know that they were Jehovah's Witnesses, and I nodded, since I figured as much. It's not often that a half dozen or so sharply dressed people go house to house on a Saturday, even a relatively cool Saturday when the temperature is not expected to reach ninety degrees Fahrenheit. They asked whether I read the bible, and I answered affirmatively, even though I don't read or know it as well as I think I should, nor likely as much or well as they do.

Then they asked whether I believed in a Creator. I answered that I did. It's not every day that one is asked for a statement of religious faith, but I was feeling up to the task at least that day. The man talking continued that there were many who believe in Darwinism, but that there were several problems with the Darwinist arguments for evolution. After that my mind started racing as if the pump of rhetoric had just been primed by hearing "Darwin" and "evolution". I'm not sure exactly what he said after that since my own thoughts were loudly competing for my attention, and I didn't want simply to alienate them. Afterall, I assumed they were most likely just wanting to spread their good news of Christian salvation. I responded, smiling still, that I was aware of many arguments against evolution, but that I believed the evidence favors evolution over anything else offered, and any attempts to change my mind would be futile.

"How can you believe in a Creator and in evolution?" came the question after a few more statements and, I think, a bible verse citation. (Jehovah's Witnesses seem to me to be as agile at quoting the bible as Baptists, and that actually helped us later in the conversation.) I mentioned something about the grass growing but not requiring God to pull up each blade but rather let the grass grow by it's biological processes, and then I mentioned that the sun rises each day though God doesn't have to push the earth to make it spin each day, but rather the mechanism of gravity does that for us. There was some verse mentioned about God causing the sun to shine, etc., but I forget which it was unfortunately. I said that my faith was sufficient for me even though I do not know the true nature of God. I don't have to believe that God sticks his fingers in every physical, chemical, or biological process in order for me to believe in a Creator. Relegating God to such chores would essentially make God into something we could scientifically test, but my faith is about things metaphysical, about primary causes that could never be proven or disproven by science. After all, we are not expected to put our God to the test, and scientifically testing for God would require a "God of the Gaps" theology that I do not find fulfilling.

I said I believe in these things because I choose to believe in them, not because I can prove them or disprove them. Now we reached the point where I was biblically bolstered by my new acquaintances because the man to whom I was talking offerred a verse in Paul's letter to the Hebrews that addresses the point I just made. Chapter eleven, verses one and three state,

"Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen."

"By faith we understand that the universe was ordered by the word of God, so that what is visible came into being through the invisible."

I can believe this just as I can believe that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," and for me, though not for everyone including perhaps even the nation's Founders, the Creator in this quote of the Declaration of Independence is the God whom I chose. Thomas Jefferson wrote "Nature's God" in the Declaration, which for most Christians and myself is the one God of the Trinity. Aligning my understanding of God to encompass the Nature's God or Creator of the Declaration of Independence with the God of the bible and a God who can use any means including biological evolution does not result in contradiction at least for me.

At some point after talking about the levels of mechanism that I would allow God to use, the man to whom I was talking remarked that he was surprised by how much we agreed. I'm sure there were points of mine that he did not accept, but our exchange was amicable. Then he started talking about how bad television is, and I scarcely held back an, "Amen, brother!" So they went on their way, and I finished tending my lawn.

My God is one who seeks to allow us to transform ourselves by grace. By using suffering or hardship to find our souls when our selves cannot find a way to win. That way we can aspire to find happiness and peace hopefully on earth as in heaven.

I took a little while to read some of the notes given to me about the Jehovah's Witnesses take on biological evolution. They do state that they are not politically involved in trying to require any particular teaching in public schools. The article I read pointed out many technological things humans can learn from nature such as the wing design of a whale's flippers, etc., but then the article quoted Michael Behe, a major proponent of Intelligent Design, on why the "trial and error over millions of years" *seems* unlikely to produce the amazing features of the biological world, and thus it is more sensible that these things were created just as they are by an omnipotent creator.

Such characterizations seem to lack imagination to me. For example, genetic algorithms in computer science are also based on what we learn from nature, but instead of simply making a copy of an artifact of nature such as an eye or a whale flipper, genetic algorithms copy the *mechanisms* of nature, specifically biological evolution, as a promising technique of artificial intelligence. Thus, not only can we learn from nature about how things may be created via the mechanism of biological evolution, such a mechanism itself exhibits properties of intelligence.

Perhaps there is a way to view biological evolution itself as "intelligent" design, or maybe just "artificially intelligent" as far as we can scientifically show.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Austin Bats Pictures

Correction: The bats eat about five to ten tons of insects each night, not ten to fifteen, according to BCI.

We went on the Austin riverboat for a sunset and the bats tonight. The weather was just clearing, so the clouds made a perfect backdrop for the Congress Street bat colony.

Bats in the sunset

Bats over the river

People on the Congress Street bridge to see the bats

I probably need to get a camera with a faster CCD sometime since ISO 100 mode is relatively limiting.

There are about 1.5 million bats living under the Congress Street bridge, and they eat about five to ten tons of insects every night.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Little Schemer

I just finished reading The Little Schemer for the first time. It's a wonderful little book for an introduction to the Scheme programming language.

The book starts off slowly, and is somewhat tedious, but the exercises are good, and the book quickly requires the reader to think a lot about the questions it asks. The penultimate chapter develops a derivation of the applicative order Y combinator and requires several readings to get the gist of it. I'm still not sure that I understand it. The final chapter gives an implementation of a simple Scheme interpreter written in Scheme.

Linux Hard Drive Encryption

Encryption is required on my new work laptop, and since my employer does not have an official Linux encryption recommendation, I was allowed to implement one for our group. I actually implemented two because I realized (thanks to a coworker's suggestion) after developing the first method that using Logical Volume Management (LVM) would be nicer and, I think, simpler.

Hard Disk Encryption for Linux using LVM, LUKS, and Ubuntu 6.06

The original way, not using LVM.