Thursday, November 29, 2007


English needs a non-gender specific pronoun for people. I had to take an online training course today at work. Before I could get started I had to read the following disclaimer:
"Throughout these materials personal pronouns are used to refer to trainees, instructors and any other individuals. This was done to improve readability and is in no way intended to discriminate against persons of either gender. Nothing in this material should be construed to indicate any discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, age, national origin, disability, marital status, disabled or Vietnam Era Veteran status, or sexual orientation."

I understand the need to make this statement but much of it could be avoided if English just found another word to substitute for the awkward he/she or his/her. In some situations using the word they or their is appropriate but these are plural words and are incorrect when the antecedent is singular.
Other languages have solved this problem. Japanese uses the title suffix "-san" to mean Mr/Ms/Mrs. It basically translates to "person to whom I wish to show respect." It's not gender specific and it works just great. People pronouns like kare (he/she), kareno (his/hers) are also not gender specific. They don't even have gender specific alternatives to -san, kare and kareno. I'm not suggesting that English take that step. There are many times when the gender specific nature can add clarity to a conversation. I just think that it's about time we made the language a little less male dominated.

Disclaimer: In the previous post I used the following phrases with the masculine first and the feminine second. Mr/Ms/Mrs, He/She, His/Her. This was intentional. I did not wish to imply any sexism by this. I was simply using the modern politically correct convention. I only post this disclaimer to further illustrate that the conventions, Mr/Ms/Mrs, He/She, His/Her still do not avoid the inherent bias toward the masculine. It's time we came up with something else.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


I don't get football.
First of all, as a kid I was never big enough to get picked anywhere before the last draw. And when I did get picked I was never given a position of great importance so I never had to learn the rules. It just seemed to me like an organized way to bully smaller kids with the sanction if the administration.
I never quite got the hang of all the rules. I mean I know the very basics but that's it. I can't follow the action on the screen when I try to watch a game with friends.
I do know some of the rules:
The players are divided into a bunch of various positions of (fraction)-backs. The greater your fraction the larger you are and the less you actually get to touch the ball. Fullbacks are the biggest guys out there but they rarely get to touch the ball. The quarterback is one of the smallest players and he touches the ball every single play.
They also have a position called the kicker. Ironically, for a sport that is called football this seems to be the only player who actually gets to touch the ball with his foot.
The basic idea, as I understand it, is that your team gets 4 chances to move the ball a specified distance. If they succeed they get 4 more chances to move it an additional distance. If they fail the ball is given over to the other team. If they make it to the other side they get 6 points and then the kicker can help them get an additional point.
I know that there are times when they can kick the ball from various parts of the field to get 3 point, but I have no idea what the rules are surrounding this.
There is also something called a safety that gets 2 points. I have no idea what that is or how you earn it.
There are all sorts of penalties and things that the referees can penalize a team with but, again, I don't know what any of them are or how they are assigned. They are times when flags are thrown in the air. I have no idea what this means. Taken in context I don't think flags are good things.
Friends of mine will try to talk football with me and I honestly think they don't believe me because they keep on talking about it as if I understand. Last week a friend asked if I had head the news a specific player but didn't identify him as a football player. "Hey did you hear about so-and-so?" I thought he was asking about a coworker. He then began to belittle me when I told him that I didn't even know who so-and-so was, let alone had I heard the latest news. For that few seconds I was back on the elementary school playground being picked last again.
I really don't have any beef with football as a sport. I might even enjoy watching it with some friends as long as they could accept the fact that I really don't understand it. The few times friend have attempted to explain it to me they've quickly grown frustrated by just how little I know and given up.
So in the future if any of my readers wants to talk about football, be advised that you will have to give a lot more background detail in order for me to understand what you’re saying. As long as you're cool with that I'll do my best to follow along.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

Frequently I'll hear a book review on NPR or I'll hear somebody reference a good book so I'll just go to library website and request the book. Sometimes in the process of reading one book my interest will be sparked in another. I just wait until the library sends me the email that the book is ready and I go pick it up off of the hold shelf. In this process I frequently forget how I found out about the book in the first place. Such is the case with my current book. Due to the similar themes, if I had to guess I'd suspect it was referenced in The Lucifer Effect.
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) details the process that we all take to distance ourselves from our mistakes. Like The Lucifer Effect it is an eye opening book. I'm about half way through and I've been really impressed with it so far. The book doesn't criticize people for being human. In fact most of the analysis in the book starts after the mistake has been made. If we own up to and speak about it in the active voice we are on our way to starting to correct the problem.
One part that I thought was very eye opening was an FMRI study on the brain activity of people as they were told different pieces of information that agreed with and some that went contrary to what the subject already believed. As long as the statements being read to the subject supported their existing beliefs their brain activity showed normal activity in the logical areas and the emotional areas of the brain. When they are read a statement that is dissonant to their beliefs the logic areas shut down and their emotional areas spike. In a very real sense they have shown that the fight or flight reflex by its very nature is illogical and based on emotion. Once they are again told statements that they agree with the logic area begins to function normally again. I've witnessed this personally on many occasions. When I've pointed out someone else's inconsistency they have lit into me with a strong emotional tirade.
Just as with Zimbardo's book, so far this book has shown me the value of being intellectually honest and consistent in you opinions. For me this has not been much of a problem. I've never felt the need to follow the herd. I'm perfectly fine with being the only one who believes quite the same as I do. I can see how someone who proudly touts their political affiliation would have a hard time making internal peace with decisions made by they candidate that went contrary to their personal philosophy.
One story that they tell about overcoming this cognitive dissonance came from conservative columnist William Saphire. I normally haven't been too impressed with Saphire's opinions. However, in this story Saphire takes the moral high ground in order to avoid his internal dissonance. Such actions should be admired. They are very rare, especially in politics. Saphire was a very vocal opponent of the Clintons and he was extremely critical of Hillary violating the law and refusing to turn over the Rose law firm's billing records. Saphire criticized her distain for "the rule of law" on many occasions. So several years later when Dick Cheney was being evasive about his energy policy records Saphire had a dilemma. He could support his man or bite the bullet and do the intellectually honest approach and criticize Cheney for the same reason he criticized Hillary. Such standing on principle is very rare in the political arena.
The thing that I enjoy most about these types of books is that they give real, practical advice as to how to avoid the behavior that they describe. Actually putting it into practice is, of course, much harder. I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"The Lone Dissenter"

Well at least that's what the AJC is calling me.

First I owe a debt of gratitude to the many friends and family members who provided moral support and advice in the days leading up to this meeting.
Thank you Snowflake for proof-reading my notes and helping me remove the LDS specific references that would have been confusing to a non-LDS audience.
Most importantly, thank you Victoria for talking me into going in the first place and then attending with me. Because of you I never really felt like a "lone dissenter". The more nervous I became the more convinced I became that this was the right thing to do.

Here are few links to news clips and articles about the Library board meeting.

Atlanta Journal and Constitution

CBS 46 video

Gwinnett Daily Post

And here are my notes from my presentation:

I’d like to start by thanking the Library Board for this opportunity to speak.

Thank you.

In response to the fervor around this issue I asked the board for a chance to publicly state that I agree with the current policy on internet use at the public libraries

I realize that there are many people in attendance today who will not understand my position. I hope that I will be able to convince you that I agree with the moral values you are trying to teach. I simply disagree with your strategy and ultimately whose job it is to teach them.

I have been a patron of the Gwinnett County library system for over 30 years. I have many memories of riding my bike to visit the library when it was in the basement suite at the intersection of Five-forks and Rockbridge. Now, my family of six uses your library system pretty much daily. I am also a Boy Scout scoutmaster over a small troop that meets at a church that is less than one mile from a library branch. I serve in a leadership position over the youth at the same church. I personally find pornography repugnant and degrading to both men and women. I have a real vested interest in the morality of our society and am working hard to teach all those in my charge the value of making correct choices.

With these credentials you may find it surprising that I support the current internet use policy. The truth is I get very scared when any one group tries to decide what is moral and correct for somebody else.
I respect your use of internet filters that would prohibit illegal images to be displayed. However, the stated goal of my opposition today is to restrict the legal access by adults to images that they find objectionable.

This is where I draw the line. When it comes to legal websites that may simply contain material that may be objectionable to someone else, I could give you a long list of images that I personally find to be objectionable but I do not expect the library to restrict access to this legal information simply because I object to it.

On the other hand in the past year I have read many books and accessed websites about the evils of polygamy. I have recently read a book which details the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I like to read information on both sides of an issue before I form an opinion. As such I have even accessed material that is very critical of mainstream Christianity. I am sure much of this material would be very objectionable and possibly even considered pornographic to someone who was just looking over my shoulder while walking around the library.

If taken out of context by a passerby I can think of many situations that could be described as vulgar or pornographic but taken in context are far from it.

A medical student viewing an anatomy website.

A criminal justice student looking at crime scene photos.

A nervous mother-to-be viewing images of child-birth.

A teenager viewing a video about how to protect herself from date-rape.

A mother looking for more information about a surgery that her child is about to undergo.

A woman afraid she might have breast cancer viewing a site with details on how to give a self examination.

My church preaches modesty in dress and as such we discourage two piece bathing suits and any outfit that shows any part of a woman’s torso. As such will any image that includes a belly button be filtered?

The Amish, Mennonites and some other Christian denominations take this morality a little bit further and find exposed human skin on the arms and legs to be offensive and immoral. Are we going to protect our Amish library visitors from being offended?

Some cultures require even more covering for their women that the Amish. Some find any visible female skin to be offensive. I have sat next to library patrons several times who were wearing full burkas. Should we filter based on their morality?

The dilemma here is that if we allow legal images to be restricted based on morality, then whose morality do we use? There is no way that the library can be expected to shield other patrons from accidentally viewing material that anybody may find objectionable.

My family already has filters in place to protect our children. Those filters are my wife and myself. We have educated our children as to what behavior is acceptable and what books and websites we will not allow to be viewed. They know that if someone else is involved in behavior that we find immoral that they are to walk away and not participate. The images that I described above are already available in countless books in the library system and every single day, during warm weather, my son has to walk into the library and see girls that he believes are immodestly dressed.

The library system is not a baby-sitting service and the librarians are not our children’s nannies. Get involved in their lives. Attend the library yourself. Help them select the books and websites that they choose to read. If they are old enough to leave them unattended show up early to pick them up periodically and see what they have been doing. In short, let’s do our job as parents. Let’s not surrender our parental responsibility to a software package, the librarians and the county government.

This is where I ran out of time but I felt it was just a good a way to end as any so I simply said thank you and sat down.

These are the few paragraphs that I had to leave out:

Just this week my wife and I found out that a popular, award winning children’s book had themes that we disagree with. We will not allow our children to read that material and we have educated them as to why so in the future they will be able to make that decision for themselves. As offensive as this particular book is I am sure that there is not a single software package out there that could make this decision for us. No filtering software can protect my family from immorality. That’s why I am acting as that filter and I am teaching my children to filter themselves based on our own morality and not someone else’s arbitrarily assigned values.

Please continue to allow me to be in control of what I decide to view while using library resources. Our country’s founders would be proud that you have chosen to stand up for the first amendment and refuse to censor this media.

I believe that our freedom of choice is a sacred trust that was given to me by my God. I honor Him by choosing as He would wish, not by restricting the ability of others to choose good over evil.

Thank you.

My only fear during this whole process was that in standing up for freedom of choice and parental responsibility that people would think that I was advocating pornography.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nonsense Intollerance

As you’ve probably noticed I don’t have much tolerance when people take superstition and try to masquerade it as science. I read a lot of science and skepticism books, websites and blogs on a daily basis. I subscribe to many email newsletters from science organizations and I also listen to a several blogs a week on different aspects of science, religion and philosophy. Science, religion and even mythology all have useful places in our culture, but I find it very sad that so many people are so negative about science.
On a very personal note: I strive to stay up to date on the latest news, information and potential breakthroughs in the study of Autism. My brother-in-law has autism. Even before Victoria and I were married I have accepted the fact that at some point in my life I would likely be Denny’s primary care-giver. With this in mind I get a serious bee in my bonnet when I hear some of the superstition and nonsense get gets throw around as helpful advice for dealing with autism.
Recently Jenny McCarthy has been promoting here new book about her life since she found out her son was autistic. For years a preservative called thimerosal was used in vaccines. Some believe that this preservative causes autism because it contains mercury. No proof of this has every been found. McCarthy claims to have witnessed her son transform from normal to autistic right in front of her eyes after he was given a vaccine. The real kicker here is that there wasn’t even any thimerosal in the vaccine he received. She also likes to tout the fact that she trusts her “mommy instinct” more than she does the scientist and doctors. Let’s see, on one side we have thousands of doctors and scientist who have been objectively studying this issue and on the other side we have a Playboy centerfold and her mommy instinct. Hmm… I have nothing but sympathy for what McCarthy must be going though. I applaud her efforts to use her celebrity to bring this issue into sharper focus for parents and family members who are dealing with this disease. Her cart just seems to have derailed from reality and she is now using emotion to justify and add legitimacy to her unfounded superstitions.
Even big named famous doctors are not immune to falling victim to nonsense. Last week CNN medical stud Sanjay Gupta posted a blog about FC, facilitated communication. This is an old practice where a helped will support and autistic person’s hand and “stabilize” his/her jerky motions and allow him/her to type a message on a keyboard. At first this looked like an astounding breakthrough in communication. That is until tests revealed that the IQ of the autistic person with a “facilitator” was remarkably similar to the IQ of the facilitator. Whether deliberately or unintentionally the facilitator is just moving the hand as a pointer just like the old Parker Brother’s Ouija board pointer. In tests of this nonsense they would blindfold all of the participants and suddenly the ability of the “spirit” to locate the letters completely disappeared. I suspect that if a similar, double blind-controlled test were ever to be performed on FC that the results would be strangely similar.
Its not a matter of being closed minded to new ideas. Quite the contrary, I just believe that the more extreme the claim then the more extreme the evidence required to prove it. If FC ever tests successfully I would be the first to go over to Denny’s house to see what he had to say.
Having a facilitator just put on a blindfold seems like a very simple way to provide some measurable data about whether FC is based on the reality or fantasy.

Here’s the link to Sanjay Gupta’s blog.

This is Jenny Mccarthy’s book.


A few days after every caving trip I find that muscles I didn’t even know I had ache. I also find a bruise or two that I can’t even remember how it got there. Saturday’s trip to Petty John’s cave was no exception. For the last couple of years every time I’ve dropped into a cave it was in a guided situation where I was the guide and most everybody else it was their first time into a cave. And typically it’s a rather large group, ten or more. Last weekend was a significant departure from the norm. The group was relatively small. There were only six of us. Two of us had a great deal of experience in this cave. Aaron has also been in Petty John’s five or six times. Although he’s only thirteen, in the past I’ve used him to lead groups much older than him through the tight spots so I could “bring up the rear” with the folks who need more assistance. Two others had been in the cave with me before and took to it very well. We only had one complete novice and he did amazingly well for his first time.
With such a motivated group we were able to descend all the way down to the waterfall in what they refer to as the lower stream passages in record time. This was no small feat and I’m very proud of all who came along. We were able to go into some places on this planet that relatively few people will every see.
Every time I take a group of people climbing or caving all I ask is that they do their best. I don’t care what your ability may be I just want you to push yourself right up to that limit and keep trying. I get much more frustrated with people who quit too early and stop trying than I’ve every been with folks who just kept on trying no matter what level that took them. This group did very well. There was a great deal of the reaching down to provide a hand hold for the next guy and even a few situations when we would literally stand on each others shoulders in order to help each other get to the next level spot. I find this type of teamwork to be spiritually fulfilling no matter which side I’m on. Whether it’s my shoulder being stepped on or I’m the one doing the stepping. When I find myself in the position of the step I reflect up the examples of those that have taught me in the past. Considering the many great leaders that I’ve had in my life it is very humbling for me to fell the weight of others no relying on me for their progress. I doubt I am worth of this respect and it causes me to be very introspective as to whether or not I desire the trust that they have given me.
I have no delusions that I’ll discover any new passages or make any amazing breakthroughs in speleology. However, I doubt that I will ever stop caving. The metaphors that become literal in this situation are far to powerful for me to avoid.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Why Darwin Matters

Why Darwin Matters is the latest book by Michael Shermer. I've read and reviewed many of Dr. Shermer's books before on this blog. The main focus of this book is to explain and detail the current attacks on science that originate from the Intelligent Design community. Shermer does an excellent job of explaining the history of both evolution theory and the intelligent design/ creationism movement.

Unfortunately I feel that the people who could benefit the most from this book, the ID proponents, are the least likely to actually read it. If anyone were to read this with an open mind I think they could see that Shermer successfully defuses the false dichotomy that an acceptance of evolution necessitates an atheist theology. I've never quite able to see how observations in the natural world could have any implications at all about things that are, by definition, outside the natural world. Personally I've always felt that trusting a theologian over a scientist to answer scientific questions is roughly akin to taking your social studies teacher's advice over you Science teacher when it comes to physics questions. Why do so many people have such a hard time making this distinction?
One minor frustration with the book is that Shermer seems to have written it as if this was the first time his target reader had even picked up any book on the issue. As such it is very well detailed and he does a good job of detailing evolution v intelligent design 101. As someone who has read all of Shermer's previous books and follows this debate pretty thoroughly, much of the material came across as a little bit remedial. However, if you are interested in getting a handle on this issue I think this book is very well done.
The most damning quote from the entire book came not from Dr. Shermer but from the judge in the Dover school board intelligent design case from 2005.

"Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

To be sure,
Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions.

The citizens of the
Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."

John E. Jones III

Now before you try to dismiss this guy as another "activist judge", keep in mind that he is a self-confessed evangelical Christian, a Republican and was appointed to the bench in 2002 by George W. Bush.

If you have any doubt at all as to the illegitimacy of intelligent design as science please read this book.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Staying Open-minded

I worked in the outdoor retail industry for nine years. And I'm a self confessed "gear junky". I really like the latest high tech gear. Having to schedule and participate in vendor clinics for years really gave me the inside scoop on the technology of camping and climbing.
A few years ago I had a friend build an alcohol stove and he was really singing the praises of it. I told my friends in the industry about it and asked them why there were so few alcohol stoves on the market considering how light the finished stove turned out. They explained that the heat output was so low for alcohol that it just wasn't a feasibly option for more than just and overnight trip.
Recently I had another friend show me a simple alcohol stove that he uses. I have trusted this friend before so I opened up my mind and decided to give the fuel another shot.
I found a great site online that had several different models and complete instructions on how to build them with nothing more than 2 Pepsi cans and a little bit of epoxy. I spent most of Friday night and Saturday morning building and testing three slightly different models of one of the stoves. I experimented with different sized jets; different amounts of jets and different spacing, etc. The best model was able to boil 8oz of water in 6 minutes. The catch was it burned a lot of alcohol, about 2oz, in the process. The stove was exceptionally light; however the fuel efficiency would only make it practical on a very short trip. I own an MSR whisperlite that I've had for 20 years. I have hiked for 7 days and 84 miles even boiling my water to purify it and only used 12oz of white gas for the whole trip. If I'd have tried this with the alcohol stove it would have require close to a gallon of alcohol. Once the fuel weight is taken into account this stove may actually turn out to be quite a bit heavier than my whisperlite.
One of the driving forces behind my experiment is that my scout troop is planning a 50-mile hike for April. I wanted to give the scouts a practical inexpensive alternative to high priced commercial stoves. During one of my tests today I found that I couldn't tell if the stove was still burning or not. I had to look at the distortions of the sunlight in the shadow of the stove to see if there was heat rising from the stove. Alcohol burns almost invisible in the daylight. Last night I could see the flame just fine, but in the daylight I was almost impossible. That was the nail in the coffin for me. There is no way I am going to encourage our scouts to make fires with a fuel that they won't even be burning. It's just too much of a safety concern. The photo above shows the stove while it is burning.
At any case I'm glad I gave it a good attempt. And realistically my only investment in the experiment was a can of denatured alcohol and a bunch of cans from the recycle bin.
Incidentally, if anybody else would like to try to build one of these I found that by using Dr. Pepper cans for my upper and Dr. Brown's cream soda cans for the lower that there was no need at all to dilate the lower can. It was a snug fit without all of the trouble of having to try to flare out the can.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Freedom of Expression

"But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

John Stuart Mill