The Writer in Black

The Writer in Black

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Feeding the Active Writer

Once upon a time I used to love watching movies, big tub of popcorn in hand.

These days, of course, that's not possible.  I can still watch movies and there are a few that are actually worth watching (may I recommend the Marvel Cinematic Universe?).  But popcorn?  Way too much carbs.

Not just the popcorn.  Nothing at the local theaters is safe for me to eat.  Even the chicken strips and mozzarella sticks are breaded with pure carbs. (What's with all this stuff?  When I was growing up it was popcorn, candy, and sodas.  That was it. Kids today....)

So, I came up with my own snack.  Carb free popcorn chicken.

Of course I most theaters are posted "no outside food or drink" and I woudn't publicly endorse anybody breaking those rules but, you know, if you have a medical reason why you can't eat what they provide but do have to eat on a regular basis, well, that rule could probably be challenged under the ADA.  I'm not a lawyer so don't take that as legal advice.

Still, here's my very simple recipe.

Ingredients:
2-3 lbs of boneless skinless chicken breast cut into 1/4" cubes.
1-2 eggs lightly beaten.
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (the real cheese, not the cheese flavored stuff).

Preheat over to 350 degrees Fahrenheit  (about 175C)
Take a small handful of the chicken pieces and roll them in the egg, mixing until the pieces are each completely covered with egg.  Remove the chicken from the egg and let them drain on a strainer so that excess drips back into the container with the egg.

Roll the egg coated chicken pieces in the cheese, breaking up clumps until each piece is evenly covered with the cheese.

Spread the chicken pieces in a single layer on a foil covered cookie sheet.

Repeat until all the cheese has been coated or until there is no more room on the cookie sheet.

Place in the preheated oven and back for 15 minutes or until the cheese starts to brown.

Let cool slightly, then transfer to a bowl or other container.

Enjoy.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Belief

Recently, in a post on another forum, someone made the statement “You can believe what you want.”  This is not the first time I have encountered that idea but it caused me to stop and think.
A classic example of this is Pascal’s Wager:  If you believe in God and are wrong, you lose nothing, but if you don’t believe and are wrong, you end up in Hell.  Thus, to be safe, it is best to believe.  Implicit in that is that one can simply choose whether or not to believe.
Can people really simply choose to believe, or not believe, something?  Or put another way are there really people who can do that because I cannot.

I cannot simply decide that, today, I am going to believe in invisible purple unicorns (and you “invisible pink unicorn” types are heretics), nor tomorrow that the purple unicorns have pink polka dots.  I cannot simply choose to believe that the Apollo shots, the Russian robotic sample return missions, and everything else were hoaxes and the Moon really is made of green cheese (despite appearances where a “white cheese” such as Parmesan would be a better fit).  And I cannot simply choose to believe that I’ve got an invisible friend in the sky who made everything and is controlling everything.

One of the things that one has to understand about me is that I am a scientist both by profession and by character.  As a result, I take the position that there is an underlying reality to the Universe and that my job is to try as best I can to learn/understand what that reality might be.  Science, religion, philosophy, Zen Buddhism, all are approaches to attempt to comprehend that underlying reality.  These approaches may be better or worse at moving toward that comprehension (I submit that no one ever has, or probably ever will, completely obtain that comprehension).  They may be closer or wider of the mark.  But the goal is moving toward that comprehension.

Different people, at different times, may have seen parts of that underlying reality.  Others might have been mistaken by what they thought was that underlying reality.  To me, Asatru (More on this later) is the idea that the Germanic/Norse people saw a bit of that underlying reality a bit more clearly than others such that the Germanic/Norse deities are at least a partial description of real powers in the Universe (or possibly a "meta-Universe" of which our observable Universe is but a part).  I do not know if this is so or not.  It might be true, or might not.  But am willing to entertain the idea and explore it seeing if I can find evidence to support it.

It's possible that the underlying reality is, in some manner, shaped by our beliefs (I don't say it's likely, but it's possible).  It's also possible that that underlying reality is supremely indifferent to what or how we believe.  Either way, it is what it is and we seek to find that "what is".  I find, for the most part, that I approach from the perspective of science (look for patterns, try to determine a "rule" for the pattern, compute what must happen or must not happen if the rule is true, look to see if it does or does not. Boiled down to "how do we know if we're wrong" and then go look) because I have found it very effective at sorting wheat from chaff as it were.  OTOH, I've encountered things that I cannot explain with my current understanding of science and so recognize that there are things that my current understanding of the world, obtained through science, is far from complete.

As Shakespeare put into the mouth of Hamlet, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy, Horatio." That, of course, does not mean that any particular fancy one might come up with is one of those "things" and, in fact,  that's not the way to bet.  As big as the Universe is, it is only (so far as we can tell) one but the possible "might be's" are endless.  There are simply more ways to be wrong than there are to be right.  Still, our knowledge, both as a species and as individuals, of the way the Universe is is incomplete and we do well to remember that.

One example of the “incomplete” nature of my, personal, understanding comes from my training in the Martial Arts.  Over the years I have studied several martial arts.  One of them was “Togakure-Ryu Ninjutsu” as popularized in the US by Stephen K. Hayes.

One part of that training was various “sensitivity drills” designed to open us up to “energies” (quotes because these “energies” do not meet the definition of energy that I know as a physicist) beyond those accessible to our normal senses.  One day, we did a particular drill which involved standing in a circle, about 20 feet across facing away from the center.  One member of the group would stand in the center holding a wooden “training pistol.” He would point the pistol at one of the people at random in the circle and focus his attention on that person as if he meant to attack him.  We were supposed to “feel” the intent and, when we felt it, pivot to face the person in the center.

During the course of the exercise I felt “twitchy” and would jerk my shoulders as if I were about to turn but then I’d go back to my original position.  Then, after several minutes, without any conscious intent on my part I found myself facing the center and there the person was, pointing the wooden gun right at me.

I’m well aware of the kinds of things where a person might pick up on something without realizing it:  seeing a reflection, feeling air pressure from the motion or breath of the person involved, hearing movement, that sort of thing.  There were no reflective objects in the training area.  At a distance of 10 feet I don’t think I would have felt any slight breeze from his motion or his breath, certainly not to the extent of being able to discriminate between his pointing at me or at the next person over.  "Targets" weren't chosen in sequence so I couldn't just spot the person next to me turning and know that I'm next.

Was there something that simply cued my physical senses at a “subconscious level” telling me that that was the time to turn?  I don’t know.  I’ve eliminated the obvious ones but who knows what might have been there that I don’t know about.  Or could it have been something else, something that goes beyond, sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell?  I don’t know.
 
Now, many of my beliefs, the ones that make up “me”, were formed when I was very young.  I believe that falling down hurts because I’ve fallen down a lot and, sure enough, it hurt.  But a lot of my beliefs aren’t so prosaic.  I believe many of the things I believe simply because that’s the way I was brought up in my “formative years” and taught whether by precept or by example, that that’s the way things are, taught by people I had reason to trust (teachers at school, parents, and so forth).  These beliefs are not always logical.  They are not always well supported by evidence.  And the experience may simply be that they’re the ways I saw and I didn’t see other ways.

There is a certain reasonableness in believing what one is taught from youth.  Parents, teachers, and to a lesser extent peers, are all people one has reason to trust to some extent.  When all, or even most, of them tell you a thing over the course of years it is natural, it is reasonable, to believe it.  It is not always right, but it is reasonable.  Without new evidence or argument of some sort it appears far less reasonable to pick up a new belief.  If one decides that one cannot accept, cannot believe in, the God with which one was raised, it is not reasonable to simply decide, arbitrarily, that one is going to believe in a flying spaghetti monster, at least it is not for me.  And so I look for experience, evidence, and argument and logic before accepting new beliefs.

An example is religion.  I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormon).  Now, the Church has many beliefs but one of the ones that was endemic to my teaching (whether official Church doctrine or not) was Young Earth Creationism, well, slightly modified Young Earth Creationism since one of the Church’s scriptural books “The Pearl of Great Price” contains a description of a planet “Kolob” described as being nearest to “heaven” and for which a single day was 1000 Earth years.  So the “six days” of Creation could have been 6000 years.  However, as I started learning more about science, particularly geology and biology, I learned of a huge body of evidence that the Earth was far older than what I had been taught.

One small piece of that body of evidence was the existence of what geologists call angular unconformities.  This is a case where rock layers, originally horizontal and flat, had been bent or tilted by geologic forces, partially weathered away, and then new layers of sediment laid on top of it to be gradually compressed into rock(1).  This process, to occur naturally, would take a long time indeed, far too long to happen were the Earth only a few thousand years old.

Example of an Angular Unconformity
(1) Example of an Angular Unconformity

And so, once I started questioning my previously unexamined belief in Young Earth Creationism, I started looking at the totality of my belief in the LDS religion and I soon found that I just didn’t believe it any more.  Too much contradicted the evidence that was available to me.

That did not, however, mean that I was simply going to grab onto any other belief that came my way.  Nor was I going to exclude the possibility of things beyond my understanding, things that could include a “God” or “Gods.” Loss of belief in something does not automatically mean belief in its opposite.  It did, however, put me in a position to consider different beliefs.  I looked at Wicca for a while.  While I do not doubt that many are sincere in their beliefs, I did not find the evidence to support those beliefs compelling.  Nor did I find the idea of reincarnation particularly appealing when I look at the world, do the numbers, and figure the odds of being reborn to a situation better than my current one.  That does not mean it isn't true--"appealing" and "true" have no necessary relationship--but appealing or not, I did not find the evidence as presented to be compelling.
I looked at Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, and various neo-Pagans.  I also looked at various forms of Christianity.  Oh, and I took a brief look at Islam.  I found none of them particularly convincing.  And so my agnosticism remains.

People have tried to present me with what they saw as evidence.  I have had fundamentalist Christians who have invited me to their Church to see people speaking in tongues and the like which, they believed, would convince me of the reality of their version of the Christian God.  They did not appreciate that I could point them to studies on “religious ecstasy” which showed similar effects in a wide variety of contexts and, since it is not limited to their religion is therefore not strong evidence for any particular religious belief.  Others have pointed me to people who have “died and come back” (technically a “near death experience”), but I can point to the work of Dr. Susan Blackmore and others on the neuroscience involved and how the typical “near death” effects can be shown to stem from the biological structure of the brain.

And so my agnosticism remains.  But out of all that, I did find one form of religion immensely appealing:  Asatru.  As part of my exploration, I read Diane Paxson’s “Essential Asatru” and Greg Shelter’s “Living Asatru” (I have since lost my copy of Shelter’s book and would dearly love to have both of those as ebooks).  One of the things I found most compelling is the idea that “wyrd” is something you build out of accumulated “orlogg.” In short, sin and punishment are not there because of some arbitrary “God says so” but rather are simply the natural result of the accumulation of ones actions.  I also found the “Nine Noble Virtues” which strike me as a far better model for a “good life” than the Ten Commandments (half of which amount to “stroke God’s ego.”)

These and other reasons made Asatru very appealing to me.  While being appealing is not, in itself, enough to be convincing for me, it was enough for me to see about giving the practice a chance.  Perhaps, if I gave the religion a chance, the Gods, if they exist, would see fit to provide me with evidence that would convince.

One chance for that came when one of our dogs, a six-month-old puppy, was very sick and was not expected to live much longer.  You have to understand, I am very much a “dog person.” While I’m fond enough of cats, my worship of the canine stops short of idolatry…barely.  Dogs aren’t just “pets” to me they are “furkids” (picked up that term from our regular pet sitter).  My daughter (eight years old at this writing) also loves our dogs dearly.  Now, add to that that we had only shortly before these events lost an old and beloved family pet (who I truly hope is awaiting me at “Rainbow Bridge”) and you see that this was a very traumatic event for our family.  I decided to make an effort.  I purchased a four lb “Engineers Mallet” (similar, in my conception, to what Mjolnir would be) carved Thor’s name into it in Elder Furthank, anointed it with some of my own blood, and sacrificed it into a large nearby body of water asking Thor, if he existed, to “hold his hammer between Trunks and harm” and to intercede with Eir, who Snorri described as the best of physicians among the Gods to grant Trunks healing.  I also offered a bottle of Guinness (Paxson said that “Stout” was a good offering for Thor) to Thor to that end.

Time passed.  Much to the surprise of everyone, including the vet, Trunks perked up and seemed to be healthy and happy.  A couple of months later, the vet said that the ultrasound techs were curious about what had happened since Trunks seemed to be doing so well.  They offered to do a follow-up ultrasound for free and the vet agreed.

The follow up ultrasound was completely normal.  The large internal abscess was gone.  The kidney irregularities were gone.  The spots on the spleen were gone.  I had a perfectly healthy young dog.
Did Thor intercede?  I do not know.  Human and animal bodies are marvelously complicated things and seeming miracles can happen from entirely natural causes.  On the other hand, I found the bottle (which I had left on the front porch, behind the railing) in the same place but empty.  Maybe somebody came along and drank it the put the bottle back.  My daughter said that maybe Thor accepted the offering and came and drank it.  I offered another bottle as thanks on the possibility that maybe Thor is real and had accepted the first offering.  That one was found later, in the same place, about half empty.

So it could be.  By itself, it’s not enough for me to truly believe.  There are other possibilities (including that I’m underestimating how long it would take for the drink to evaporate).  But it’s a start and enough for me to continue my exploration of Asatru.  Who knows, perhaps in time, bits and pieces will come together enough until I find that I truly believe and am no longer simply exploring.

One of my core beliefs is that there is an underlying truth to the Universe. At some level, what is, is, and what is not, is not. Anything else is chaos. And as a scientist I want to know and understand as much as I can of that underlying truth. If part of that truth is that Odin and Thor (by whatever name) are real beings, than I want to know that. If there is something more to human "being" than electrochemical reactions in the complex neurological structure of the brain, I want to know that.

And if none of that is true. Well, while I might be less happy with that knowledge, I still want to know. My quest is for "truth", whatever it might be. I'm willing to entertain possibilities outside the "conventional" (see above) but in the end, I want to know what is.

Belief is not the same thing as proof. However, even belief, at least for me, has to have something behind it beyond just blind speculation. I don't believe in invisible pink unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. I do believe in "dark matter" even though I haven't observed it and the evidence is rather abstract and mathematical. I don't need proof to believe, but I do need something to go on.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Asatru Leaning Agnostic

These days I mostly describe myself as an "Asatru leaning agnostic."  I don't particularly believe in the Norse Gods (or any Gods for that matter--although I don't exclude the possibility) but I find that the philosophy of Asatru makes more sense than most religions of which I am familiar.

I first got introduced to modern Asatru via the novels of John Ringo, specifically part 2 of Princess of Wands and an oblique reference near the end of Through the Looking Glass.  Curious, I followed up by getting Greg Shetler's book Living Asatru and Diana L. Paxson's Essential Asatru.

As a somewhat humorous note, I am a physicist.  And so I find it interesting to note that in the Norse creation story the sparks from Muspelhem, the land of fire (heat) meeting ice from Niffleheim, the land of ice (cold) was the driver behind the creation of the world.  In much the same way the meeting of heat and cold is the driver behind the science of thermodynamics which is behind everything interesting that happens in the Universe.  Neither Relativity nor Quantum Theory has altered that.  All that happens in the world comes about because of the meeting of heat and cold and energy flowing between the two.

On a more serious note there's the concept of ørlǫg  as described in those books.  I broke from the religion I grew up in (Latter Day Saint) first because of their young earth creationist position which was only a starting point in questioning the whole concept of the O^3 (that's O cubed:  Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent) God.  I'm supposed to believe that.  Once you start looking at that the whole thing quickly falls apart, particularly when so many of the "sins" are supposedly so for no better reason than "God said so."  Personally, I like the idea (again, based on my understanding from reading those two books) that "punishment" for "sin" comes about not because some old man in a nightshirt decrees it so but as the result of the nature of the sin itself.  The mere fact of doing "evil" tends to bring about its own punishment and any declarations by any Gods are more in the way of warning:  don't touch the fire or you'll get burned" than commandments "thou shalt kiss my divine heiny or I'll punish you."

As a real-world example of that idea consider the words of Al Capone: "You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone." Yet Al Capone, in following that philosophy, ended up in prison at 33 and dead at 48.  I, following a different philosophy, have lived longer and, while I may not be surrounded by as much money, women, and power I'm quite certain I've spent far less time looking over my shoulder wondering where the metaphorical hammer was to fall.

ørlǫg.  A far better justification for right and wrong than "the old guy in the sky said so."

And so, while I remain agnostic, I find a lot of appeal in Asatru.  Still, appeal is not enough reason, by itself, to believe in Thor, Odin, Forsetti and the lot.  And so I remain agnostic--but an Asatru leaning agnostic.

One of the things that, from my own reading, modern Asatru seems to lack is the concept of "sin" per se.  Things aren't good or evil based on whether they are offensive to the Gods or not, but rather, if anything, they might be offensive to the Gods based on whether they are good or evil.  Although it appears that the codification of these "Noble Virtues" is fairly recent, the basic concepts are quite old.  While not found explicitly in the Asatru Lore, I think they're a good distillation of the virtues that are celebrated in the Lore.  And they make a useful shorthand to answer questions about ones "moral compass." And so I'll take a look at them here.

Courage.
I've generally seen this defined in modern Asatru as the bravery to do what is right at all times.  Determining "what is right" might be open to question, of course, but for me the other virtues serve as a good guide.  It's also possible that different people may come to different conclusions about what is right:  a soldier defending his home against invaders may see this as the right thing to do.  Another soldier serving his nation in invading and stopping a dangerous "evil" (by his standards) regime may see that as the right thing to do.  And, here's the thing, they could well both be right.  The solder defending against the invasion is doing the right thing for him.  The soldier invading is doing the right thing for him.  And, in the end, when the dust has settled, the victory has been won by one side or the other, and the soldiers  of the victorious side can honor the courage of their vanquished foes while the soldiers of the defeated can respect the courage of those who bested them.

Courage need not just be courage on the battlefield either.  The political activist who risks arrest to stand up for a position he believes to be right, the scientist who braves ridicule by saying to his peers "you are wrong and I can prove it",  and the medical personnel who risk infection to minister to the victims of a plague all exercise the virtue of courage.

Courage is also, I think, a virtue that is its own reward and its lack is its own punishment.  There is no need for some stern lawgiver to say "if you do not have courage you will be punished.  If you do, you will be rewarded."  From the punishment aspect consider Kipling's poem "That Day":
There was thirty dead an' wounded on the ground we wouldn't keep --
No, there wasn't more than twenty when the front begun to go;
But, Christ! along the line o' flight they cut us up like sheep,
An' that was all we gained by doin' so.

I 'eard the knives be'ind me, but I dursn't face my man,
Nor I don't know where I went to, 'cause I didn't 'alt to see,
Till I 'eard a beggar squealin' out for quarter as 'e ran,
An' I thought I knew the voice an' -- it was me!

And that's the way it's been.  The horrible death tolls in battles weren't usually (not until the "modern" age anyway) caused during the battle itself but in the pursuit.  Shakespeare put it another way: "Cowards die a thousand deaths. The valiant taste of death but once."  That certainly has been the case in my own life.  When I've let cowardice dictate my actions the result has usually been misery, even if I avoid whatever it was I was afraid of.  When, on the other hand, I am moved by some small measure of bravery the result is that I'm usually happier even in "failure" than otherwise.

And yet given all of that Courage is a hard one for me.  Fear is a powerful motivator even if one knows, in ones head, that it tends to lead to more misery than it saves you from.  And so this is one I struggle with.

Truth:
Say what you know, or at least believe, to be true and right and it's generally better to be silent than to lie.  Now, according to the Norse beliefs (remember, we're talking about Asatru here) there is no obligation to be true to those who lie to you.  In the mathematical field of Game Theory a strategy of tit-for-tat is often the most effective strategy and I find it interesting that a mathematically sound approach is what has come out of Norse religion.

I would add my own thought that Truth may sometimes conflict with other virtues such as Hospitality.  This is the concept of the "white lie" told to spare others hurt.  I'm not particularly opposed to that concept just be sure that 1) it doesn't cause greater  hurt later and 2) be absolutely sure that you're telling your "white lie" to spare the other person and not to spare yourself (see "Courage" above).

Honor:                                       
Oh, this is a hard one.  I'm tempted to retreat to the "I know it when I see it" but that wouldn't be fair.  I'll try to give my own thought on the matter rather than repeat some other folks words.  To me, honor is the natural tendency to do the right things for the right reasons.  An honorable person doesn't have to think, doesn't have to figure the angles, doesn't have to calculate the odds, he just does it.  It's what you have when you take all the other virtues and pull them together into one smooth whole.

Loyalty:
As individuals we are rather small things in the vast universe but by giving our devotion to something outside ourselves, whether it's a cause, a belief, or a person, we can become something greater.  But this only holds so long as we remain true to that something outside ourselves.  To abandon the something is to lose all that one has gained and then some.

Now, this doesn't mean that devotions cannot change with time, but if they do we need to deal with them honestly.  A clean, honest break with old devotions is better for all concerned than betrayal, deceit, and trickery.

Discipline:
Anything worthwhile takes work.  It takes effort.  It takes putting off immediate gratification in favor of future, greater, satisfaction.  Whether its sweating and aching in the gym three times a week to build a strong body or spending six hours a day studying to learn a difficult subject or pushing doorbells every day to drum up support for the political candidate who supports the causes you favor it takes work, lots of work, to get the greater rewards in life.  And yet every time one takes that road it's a gamble.

The work does not always pay off in the ways you might like.  When I was younger I wanted to be able to sing well.  I spent hours every week working on it.  I took classes.  I had voice coaches.  The result?  I got to the point that if I practiced a particular song long enough with the right preparation I could stay mostly on key.  But sing well?  I don't have the voice.  I don't have the ear.  And I never will.  So that exercise of discipline didn't pay off.  Or did it?  Humans are creatures of habit.  Simply applying the effort, the discipline, made it that much easier to do so when next I wanted to accomplish something.  Years later when I wanted to get good at Judo, I spent hours every week practicing, exercising, studying everything I could about Judo.  And, while I will never be a "great Judoka," I got good enough to earn the respect of my peers in the dojo--and the respect and honor of the instructors.

So the rewards of exercising discipline are not always obvious.  It's easy to say "it's not worth it" but trust me, it is.  Oh yes indeed, it is.  And I don't need any old man in the sky to tell me that.

Hospitality:
When I grew up my family had a simple rule.  Well, we had lots of simple rules but I'm talking about one in particular.  Whenever we had guests the rule was that no one went away hungry.  This is a rule I have continued as an adult.  And, I think "hospitality" goes beyond just house guests.  Helping my neighbor at need is also a part of hospitality.  And, in today's shrinking world "neighbor" can reach very far indeed.Sadly, I've seen a lot of people not follow that rule.  Oh, yes, it can be hard to make sure that your guests and neighbors are tended to, sometimes ones duty to guests might mean going short oneself.  Easier to just look after yourself and let others fend for themselves.   Besides, if you're that hospitable you'll end up with people who just take advantage of you.

But there's a catch to that "easy approach".  A great truth in the world is that if you want to have friends you have to be a friend.  To let others fend for themselves is to end up with a lonely life.  But, there's another catch as well.  It's not the cost or the fanciness of the "hospitality" that works the magic.  That it's provided cheerfully, and willingly.  A table of potato soup and collard greens, provided cheerfully in the presence of good company is far more "hospitable" than caviar and filet mignon grudging from the hand of a stuck up . . . Well, you get the point.

In the myths the Gods were often wandering the world and a guest one hosts could easily be a god.  There's a lesson there, I think.  Consider any guest as a possible God in disguise and one will rarely go wrong.  And while one might attract a few moochers along the way by that approach, one will rarely lack for friends.

Industriousness:
This one I think relates strongly to Discipline.  Where discipline is taking the harder, longer road to great rewards rather than the shorter, easier road to small rewards, Industriousness is pursuing that road with vigor.  When I chose Judo as a martial art, I chose one that took time and work to achieve high rank rather than one of the many "belt mills" where you can show up for class (if that) pay your fees and you, too can be a black belt in six months.  But that choice would mean nothing if I didn't put in the time and effort.  If I didn't do the work.  So it is with many things in life.  Discipline and Industriousness go hand in hand if you want to achieve real success.

Self Reliance:
Too many people these days look for other people to take care of them.  I was raised to take care of myself.  Help others in need, yes--see Hospitality--but there's a difference between "need" and "want" and the old adage about "giving a fish" also comes into play.  Sometimes your neighbor may want a fish but what he needs is to learn how to fish and perhaps someone to give him a shove out toward the lake.  The best help you can give most people is the motivation and ability to fend for themselves.  And, in that, example is a great teacher.  One helps others be self reliant by being self reliant.

One of the great virtues of being self-reliant is that self-reliance is essential to freedom.  If you are beholden to anyone for your survival then to that extent they control you.  To be free you must be able to stand on your own.  And if anyone tries to make you dependent on him or her, flee that person.

Note that fair trade is not a violation of self-reliance.  Both the farmer trading part of his crop and the blacksmith providing iron tools for those crops are self reliant.  Each takes only what they give good value for.  The employee giving honest work for an honest wage and benefits is self reliant.  There is no shame in doing work, even the most menial work, in order to be able to say "I earned my way."

I think this is one of my biggest disagreements with the traditional Christian concept of God.  Salvation cannot be earned.  It is given entirely and completely at the pleasure of the Christian God.  A person's eternal future is entirely at the sufferance of another.  This is completely contrary to the very idea of self reliance.  And so people bow and plead and beg and worship in the hope that they will be given as a boon something they cannot earn cannot win of their own efforts.  And why can they not win it of their own efforts?  Because the Christian God says so.

Perseverance:
No matter what you do you will occasionally face failure.  The truly successful are the ones who can come back from failure and keep striving until they succeed.  Yes, sometimes the reason for the failure is that you're on the wrong path and no amount of perseverance will succeed, but all too often people quit when continued striving would have brought success.  In the end you have to make that call for yourself.  Quitting is easy.  Nothing is easier than to drift along with each change of fortune.  Staying the course despite the difficulties along the way is much harder.  But it is only there that greatness is achieved.

And so in these nine virtues I find yet another set of reasons to find Asatru appealing.  But again appeal is not sufficient reason to believe in this specific set of deities.  And so I remain agnostic, but an Asatru leaning agnostic.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater.

"You can't shout 'fire' in a crowded theater." (Actually, the original quote, which Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. used to justify ruling that a ban on anti-draft protests was Constitutional, was falsely shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater.)

This argument gets raised again and again and again to claim that all rights are "limited" in some way.  However, it completely fails.

A right is something that others are not permitted to prevent you from doing or having (not something that others are required to provide for you--but that's another discourse for another day).  When you go into a theater, nobody takes away your ability to shout "fire." Nobody gags you, disables your vocal cords, neutralizes the speech center of your brain or anything remotely like that.  Now, if you do exercise that right and use it in such a way as to cause harm, say by shouting "fire" with there not, in fact, being a fire, you may be held accountable for the harm caused by that exercise.  But nobody takes away your voice because "the right is limited."

We already have, and always have had, equivalent "restrictions" on gun rights.  In Colonial days and for Fifty years after the ratification of the Constitution any free citizen could own and possess any weapon they wished.  Muskets?  Of course.  Rifles?  No problem.  Pistols?  No sweat.  Revolvers (invented as flintlock in 1814 and with percussion caps in 1836).  Legal.

Then Georgia passed a ban on knives of "offensive or defensive purpose", and on the sale of pistols and requiring that all owned pistols be worn openly.  This occurred in 1837.  It took about eight years for that to be challenged in the Georgia Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional.

And after that.  Other laws have been passed by Georgia and elsewhere, but still... Repeating rifles?  Legal.  Gatling guns?  Legal.  Breechloading artillery?  Legal.  The Maxim gun (early crew served automatic weapon)?  Legal.  Congreve and other bombardment rockets?  Legal.  Automatic rifles?  Legal.  Submachine guns?  Legal.  Handguns and rifles with detachable magazines (some of which went up to 50 rounds or more)?  Legal.  Only in the 20th century did that change.

But through all that, there was one constant.  The same "no shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater" "restriction was in place.  If you used the guns to cause harm you were criminally or civilly liable for that harm.

That's what "you can't shout fire in a crowded theater" really means.  You can't use your right to "free speech" to cause harm without being responsible for the harm caused.  And that's what the same thing means when it comes to guns.

But we don't need gun control for that.  We already have that restriction.  Use a gun to cause harm and you are already legally responsible for that use.

So the parallel case already exists, and always has.  You already have the "no shouting fire in a crowded theater" restriction on "gun rights" and have had it since before there was a Constitution to guarantee any of the rights we hold.

Going beyond that, however, is no longer parallel and the analogy, thus, fails.
 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Feeding the Active Writer

School is closed because of icy road conditions.  I'm home today with my daughter (well, not exactly since she's visiting with friends up the street who are also home today because of the weather).

When the weather outside is frightful, a fire can be delightful.  But something else that's delightful in foul winter weather is a big cup of sweet, rich, hot chocolate.

The problem, of course, for those on a low-carb diet is sugar.  Not only us sugar added to the chocolate in standard recipes for hot cocoa, but the milk itself has a surprising amount of sugar.  One cup of milk has 13 grams of sugar!

What to do, what to do.

Take a look at heavy cream. One cup of heavy cream has 3 grams carbs of which zero are from sugar.  No sugar.

So we can make our hot chocolate with heavy cream, resulting in a rich, creamy utterly decadent hot beverage.  Just the thing to chase the chill away on those cold winter nights.

Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
4 Tbsp sugar-equivalent artificial sweetener (as always, I use sucralose, the generic for Splenda)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract.
Optional:  sugar free whipped cream

Heat the cream to a low simmer.
Add the cocoa and sweetener and stir until they are completely dissolved.  It helps to "smash" any lumps against the side of the pan
Stir in the vanilla.
While it's right at the edge between a simmer and a full boil, remove from the heat and pour into a cup.
Top with a large dollop of whipped cream.

Enjoy.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

"A Well Regulated Militia"

Bringing another post from my old Livejournal blog.

Much has been made by Freedom Deniers about the use of "A well-regulated militia" in the 2nd Amendment.

Let's see what James Madison, the gentleman who was the primary author of the Bill of Rights had to say on the subject:

"The only refuge left for those who prophesy the downfall of the State governments is the visionary supposition that the federal government may previously accumulate a military force for the projects of ambition.  ... [Here Madison describes a chain of events, unlikely as he thought them, that might lead to such a force being gathered] ... Let a regular army, fully equal to the resources of the country, be formed; and it would not be going too far to say that the State governments, with the people on their side, would be able to repel the danger. The highest number to which, according to my best computation, a standing army can be carried in any country, does not exceed one hundredth part of the whole number of souls; or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This proportion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men. To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million of citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves." James Madison, The Federalist Papers 46.

This was one of the arguments given for accepting the Constitution with its much stronger central government (compared to the Articles of Confederation). An army about three times the size relative to total population, as the US army is today, would be overwhelmed by a citizen militia of a number amounting to essentially every free male (an issue at that time) capable of bearing arms.

Note that the 1790 Census listed a total population of "free white males 16 and over" of just over 800 thousand. Since some folk would be too old, or infirm, or otherwise not able take up arms in the "militia" at any given time this is another confirmation that Madison's "militia" was the entire population of the US capable of bearing arms. And here we see from his own words that one of the purposes of that militia was to serve as a check against the possibility of the Federal government using a standing army against the rights of the States and the People.

And since Madison was the primary author of the Bill of Rights, I think this should put to rest any further speculation about what "a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people, to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."  A good part of "security of a free state" is security as a free state.  And the very purpose is to ensure that the States had sufficient strength, militarily, residing in their "militias", which was to say the whole of their people capable of bearing arms, to outweigh any attempt by the Federal government to overpower the States.

One thing to consider is that a "well-regulated militia" must, of course, be "well regulated" according to the meaning of those who wrote the Bill of Rights and whether the National Guard serves that purpose today.  But what did "Well-regulated mean?  Contrary to popular modern belief it did not mean "under government control.  Consider the usage examples from history of the term (taken from the Oxford English Dictionary):


1709: "If a liberal Education has formed in us well-regulated Appetites and worthy Inclinations."
1714: "The practice of all well-regulated courts of justice in the world."
1812: "The equation of time ... is the adjustment of the difference of time as shown by a well-regulated clock and a true sun dial."
1848: "A remissness for which I am sure every well-regulated person will blame the Mayor."
1862: "It appeared to her well-regulated mind, like a clandestine proceeding."
1894: "The newspaper, a never wanting adjunct to every well-regulated American embryo city."


Here we are.  "Well regulated" does not mean "under government control" but rather something along the line of "in good working order" or "doing what it should."

Well, one of the "what it should" for the militia is to serve as a check against Federal power.  Can the National guard serve that purpose?  The National Guard is 1) smaller than the national military, 2) often less well armed (many guard units, in my experience, have been armed with obsolete "castoffs" of the regular military), 3) paid for by the Federal government 4) subject to call-up by the Federal government at any time with the State having no authority to overrule that call-up, 4) provided with such arms as it has by the Federal government and on and on and on.  A lesser armed force can stand against the Federal government if it is numerically superior and has local support (see Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan for examples).  However a force that's smaller, less well armed, and relies on the Federal government for pay and equipment cannot serve as a check against Federal power.  It's a part of Federal power regardless of it's on paper attachment to an individual State.  Thus, the National Guard, by definition, cannot be the "well regulated militia" that Madison describes in the Federalist papers.  It does not meet the "well regulated" part (as Madison understood the word to mean) because it could not stand as a check against Federal power over the States.

The "well-regulated militia" remains today what it was to Madison--the whole of the people capable of bearing arms.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Charlie Hebdo

There will be foul language.

I would like to say that I am shocked by the actions of "radical" muslims in France, with the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.  I would like to, but I would be lying.  After all, with the Fatwa against Salmon Rusdie, the murder of Theo van Gogh, the attacks on Kurt Westgaard, and others, it's hardly the first time "radical" Islam has responded to vocal criticism with violence.

I generally wear two hats professionally speaking:  a scientist and a writer.  As a scientist, I pursue the evidence where it leads, wherever it leads.  To do that I need to freedom to make inquiries, and state conclusions without fear of violent reprisal.  Counterargument, yes.  Violence no.

As a writer, what I need is even broader.  I need to be able to explore ideas without censorship and, again, without fear of violent reprisal.

Both of these things are pillars of Western thought, and supposedly held to by Conservative, Liberal, and Libertarian alike.  Attack that and you undermine Western philosophy and the very concept of liberty.  Once you say, "this you may not read, this you may not see, this you may not know"* under threat of violence, whether that violence is from the state or some other body, then you have tyranny.

I will absolutely never submit to that kind of tyranny.   You want to come after me for my words?  Well, bring it.  You may get me.  I'm well aware that I'm neither invincible nor immortal.  I'm also not backing down.  And I'm also not alone.  You get me there will be others.  We will not stop.  Ever.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, let me iterate: "I have sworn on the altar of God eternal enmity against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

This is my oath.  So help me Thor, Odin, and all the gods. (And, yes, I worship pagan gods.)

So, in that spirit, let me say the following. (I said there would be foul language?  Here it comes)

That child-raper Mohammed was the vilest piece of shit to ever walk the Earth.  A goat fucker?  No, a pig fucker.  He has to wipe smegma from his lips in order to spew bile and disease from his mouth, a mouth, may I add, that smells of pig dick.  Yep.  Mohammed sucks pigs.  And I say "pigs" not because I have anything against pigs.  They make tasty bacon but Mohammed was so utterly ignorant as a supposed prophet of god, excuse me, "allah" (and yes, the lower case is intentional), that he couldn't figure out how to make the tastiest animal on the planet safe to eat.  Yep, he was stupid as well as evil.  And weak.  What a patheticly weak specimen of pig sucker he was.  All that stuff about treating women in Islam.  The only reason for it is that Mohammad was so weak that he'd piss his burnous and dribble shit on his sandles if he ever met a woman on equal footing.  That kind of oppression only comes from fear.  So weak and cowardly, afraid of women.  And you think that dogs are unclean?  Well no wonder.  No dog with a gram of sense would have anything to do with a disreputable specimen like you.  Even the stupidest of dogs wouldn't bother to piss on you if you were on fire.  I'd tell him to suck my dick but who knows what pestilence he carries.  So go back to your pigs, Mohammed.  Or, better yet, fuck yourself in your ass, you pustule on a pig's ass.  Don't worry.  Your tiny little pecker couldn't possible hurt going into even your stuck-up, pinched ass.

I could post some pictures of goats and pigs to get you excited but instead, how about a few of these:


And to those precious snowflakes who try to play moral equivalence games with these asshats, claiming that folk like the Westboro Baptist Church are the equivalent of folk who slaughter people over political cartoons--that standing around with signs that say mean things is the equivalent of murder over opinion, you are also vile and I hope you choke on your own bile.

And I mean that in the nicest possible way.


*Robert A. Henlein as placed in the mouth of his character "Lazarus Long."