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Friday, April 23, 2010

Christian Group Going to Supreme Court for Right to Flout Rules

I heard a story on NPR on the way in to work this week. A case is being brought to the Supreme Court by a student group, the Christian Legal Society, against the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. The university has had a long standing policy that in order to be officialy recognized by the university and receive public funding, student groups could not restrict membership on any basis. The local Christian Legal Society (CLS) at the university had for many years followed that policy, but in 2004, when it joined the National Christian Legal Society, it changed its rules to exclude homosexuals or those engaging in pre-marital sex. The university enforced its policy, and revoked its official endorsement of the CLS.

Well, the CLS didn't like that, so they're claiming discrimination. They want to be exempt from the rules because they claim that the rules infringe on their religious rights. To be clear, the university did not ban the CLS from convening on campus, or ban students from joining the CLS, and did not even stop the CLS from using university facilities. They just didn't officially endorse the CLS and give it the stipend that official organizations receive.

I see two issues here - receipt of public funds, and official recognition from the university. I don't see that the CLS has a leg to stand on concerning public funds, and I really don't see that they have much more of a case concerning official recognition. To be affiliated with a public institution, you have to follow the public rules. If you want a private club that excludes members for whatever reason, that's fine. Just don't expect to use my tax dollars to pay for your club, and don't whine when a university won't advertise for you.

(This reminds me of the whole brouhaha during the election season, when churches wanted to endorse candidates but keep their tax exempt status. You don't get to break the rules just by playing the religion card.)

Calvin and Hobbes Comic from Go Comics
Calvin and Hobbes on GoComics

Friday, April 16, 2010

Random Thoughts After a Night at Mass

crossOver Easter weekend, I went to church for the first time in years. (I was visiting family, and that same weekend my nephews were getting baptized, confirmed, and receiving first communion - all at the same mass. Since that was such an important occasion for them, I went to watch it.) It was a bit of a strange experience. On the one hand, it was all very familiar. I remembered when to sit, stand, and kneel. I remembered all the appropriate responses and prayers (even the full Nicene Creed). I felt myself reflexively wanting to make the sign of the cross and all the other appropriate gestures. I still felt the urge from my altar boy days to reach down and ring the bells when the priest was preparing communion. On the other hand, I was now watching the mass as an outsider. I was struck by just how much conditioning there was. It was easy to see how people repeating the same things week after week reinforce their existing beliefs. I realized why it was so hard to break that cycle.

Since it was Easter weekend, the Gospel reading was the story of Doubting Thomas. I'd never questioned the meaning of this story as a Christian, but now, as a non-believer, it's obvious how insidious it is. Thomas heard a group of people making claims of a very, very unlikely event. He did what any normal person would do in that situation, and demanded a bit of evidence. When Jesus showed up, he reprimanded Thomas for being skeptical. The moral of the story is supposed to be that blind faith is better than evidence! That type of thinking is exactly the problem with why rumors and urban myths are perpetuated. If everybody demanded a bit of evidence before accepting stories as true, we wouldn't need dedicated debunkers like Snopes or the Myth Busters.

At one point, I did become rather sad, when the priest started talking of praying for the deceased. It got me to thinking about all the people I knew who had died. I felt a double sense of loss - the first for when those people had died in the first place, and the second for when I finally realized that there wasn't an afterlife, and that I actually wouldn't ever get to see them again. Dealing with the death of loved ones and facing our own mortality is never easy, but at least those who have never been promised an afterlife only have to mourn once.

I didn't take communion myself while I was there. I didn't figure the priest would have been very happy to discover that an atheist had eaten the Eucharist. But to tell the truth, I wouldn't mind having a few wafers to snack on. Like I mentioned above, I used to be an altar boy, and we would occasionally snack on non-consecrated wafers. It may be an acquired taste, but I kind of miss it.

One aspect of mass that I've missed since I quit going is the singing. I was never one of those Catholics who sat there silently, or just mumbled the words during hymns. I sang. I wasn't particularly good, but I enjoyed it. So, going into church, I was thinking that I might enjoy singing hymns again. I tried on the first hymn, but I just couldn't get past paying attention to the words and the meaning of what I was singing. So I didn't try to sing anymore after that (even though I had most of the lyrics memorized and didn't need to look in the hymnal).

Anyway, those are just a few of the random thoughts I had after going to mass for the first time in years. I definitely didn't feel any pressure to return to the church, but it was an interesting experience.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Response to Anti-Liberal Article by Gary Hubbell

Updated 2011-09-25

I've just been threatened with a lawsuit over this entry, because I included the full text of Hubbell's article. I thought the manner in which I was using it would have fallen under fair use, so I didn't think I was doing anything illegal. But, since this blog is just a hobby of mine, I don't feel like getting caught up in a legal battle over it, especially since I'm not an expert on copyright law. So, for the time being, I'm going to remove most of the quotes from Hubbell and leave my commentary. I am going to leave the first sentence from each excerpt, so that readers can follow along in Hubbell's original article. Certainly, this must fall under fair use.

For reference, here's the e-mailed threat that I received. I suppose I should mention that it's possible to spoof e-mails, so there's no guarantee this is actually from Hubbell.

From: Gary Hubbell [e-mail address redacted]
Date: 24 Sep 2011, 10:21:29 PM
Subject: You have one day to remove my copyrighted content from your website

I will sue your stupid liberal ass for more than you ever knew you possessed if you don't remove my copyrighted content from your website at once.

If you don't believe me, contact your copyright attorney and see who's right and who is wrong. I know the law and you don't, you ignoramus.

It would be fun to go through with this, because you have defamed me, I can prove it, and you have violated my copyright.


Gary Hubbell, Broker/Owner
United Country Colorado Brokers
Hotchkiss, CO 81419

[contact info redacted]

On to the entry...

I got another e-mail forward that I couldn't resist replying to. The e-mail was basically just a copy of an article from the Aspen Times Weekly, Barack Obama has awakened a sleeping nation, written by Gary Hubbell.

Much of what this guy said was just outright wrong. Whether he's lying or misinformed, I'm not really sure. But considering that this is a monthly column that he writes for a paper, it doesn't really make much of a difference. He ought to have the sense of responsibility to fact check statements he wants in print.

Barack Obama has awakened a sleeping nation


Barack Obama is the best thing that has happened to America in the last 100 years. Truly, he is the savior of America's future. He is the best thing ever.

[remainder of quote removed]

Approval Rating:
The e-mail starts off bad, getting one of it's first claims wrong. You have to go back to Kennedy to find a president who didn't have a worse approval rating than Obama at some point during his term. In fact, Obama's approval rating has increased with the passage of the health care reform bill.

I'll get to this a bit more below, but the short of it is that right now the country's involved in two wars and a recession. I'm not surprised we're in debt. Granted, the gross debt is pretty high right now, and in terms of dollars it's the highest it's ever been, but as a percentage of GDP, it has been higher in the past. In fact, during WWII, the gross debt briefly reached over 100% of GDP. After a steady decrease following the war, starting with Reagan the gross debt increased from 33.4% of GDP to 64.1% by the time Bush Senior left office. It decreased to 57.3% under Clinton, and then began increasing again under Bush Junior, reaching 62.9% by the time he left office. Since Obama's taken office, he's continued Bush's trend, and the gross debt was at 83.4% at the end of last year.

Public debt isn't quite so bad (gross debt less intra-governmental obligations such as the money that the government owes to the two Social Security Trust Funds, the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program and the Social Security Disability Insurance program). It's still lower than what it was when Bush Sr. left office.

I'll get to this in more detail below, too. Yes, lots of people have protested health care reform. But lots of other people have supported it. But that's always been the nature of things. Lots of people protested the de-segregation of schools, too, and I think it's clear now who was in the right on that one. Just because a lot of people protest something isn't necessarily an indication that the thing is good or bad. It's just a measure of how much emotion it evokes.

Stimulus Spending:
To say that the stimulus spending hasn't worked is just an out and out falsehood. It has worked, and our economy would be in worse shape if it hadn't been passed. Granted, it could have been implemented better, but it definitely helped. Had it been bigger, it might have had even more impact.

Also, given that this guy's whole point seems to be that Republicans, even if not perfect, are the better alternative to Democrats, it's hard to overlook the Republican hypocrisy on this issue - bragging about stimulus money in their home states to their constituents, while criticizing the stimulus when they're in D.C.

Of course unemployment is high. We're in the midst of the worst recession/depression since the Great Depression, and of course it's going to take some time to recover. Did this guy think we'd be back to normal in just a year? Is he blaming Obama for a recession that began before he took office? Or is he just listing all our nations woes and blaming them on 'liberalism,' despite the years of Republican controlled executive and legislative branches in the years leading up to this recession?

Entitlement Programs:
What exactly does he mean by unsustainable levels? I'm not arguing that welfare programs couldn't be modified to reduce their costs, but this seems like hyprebole since the programs are sustainable. Below is a link of the proposed 2011 budget shown in a graph to make it easy to see how much money those 'entitlement' programs receive relative to the total budget (The military and Social Security combined make up for 40% of the federal budget).

That's why Barack Obama is such a good thing for America.

[remainder of quote removed]

I always wonder about this association of Obama with 'unchecked liberalism'. People lose a lot of credibility in my eyes when they insist on calling him a far left liberal. He's a moderate, a bit left of center. I know I've mentioned this before, but there are some actual, honest to goodness far left parties in this country - the Green Party, Communist Party USA, Freedom Socialist Party / Radical Women, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Action, etc. Obama and the other Democrats? Not so much.

And why even bring up Hitler?

Average Americans who have quietly gone about their lives..

[remainder of quote removed]

Activism like the Tea Party nuts? The people who threw bricks through a Congressman's window after the health care reform bill was passed? The ones who shot out a window? The christian terrorists who planned to kill police officers in Michigan? A lot of the so called activism making headlines right now is more rioting and vandalism than anything constructive.

Think of the crap we've slowly learned to tolerate over the past 50 years as liberalism sought to re-structure the America that was the symbol of freedom and liberty to all the people of the world.

[remainder of quote removed]

To be honest, out of all the problems we're facing right now, people illegally entering our country just to find jobs is pretty low on my list of concerns. It's not right, and something needs to be done about it, but it's not worth throwing a fit over. (And now that I've actually met a fairThe bigger problems I'm concerned with are smuggling and border security.

I agree with his take on welfare. Through Irma, I've heard stories of women showing up in labor & delivery making comments on how the new baby means a bigger welfare check. As lots of people say, welfare should be a hand up, not a hand out. The program could definitely use some type of restructuring, but it still needs to stay in place in some manner. Ignoring compassion, when people are out of work and out of money, they become desparate and turn to crime. One purpose of welfare is to keep those people off the streets and from endangering those of us that are lucky enough to be gainfully employed. There are also those who for legitimate reasons (handicapped, retarded, etc.) simply can't work, and I don't mind supporting them. (I doubt my proposal for welfare would ever be accepted - mandatory birth control drugs for males and females at the same time they get their checks. If you can't support yourself, why bring in another life that you can't support?)

On the other hand, I'm not sure how many people actually abuse the welfare system. I've only heard anecdotes of the worst cases, which tend to stick in our memories, but I haven't seen any actual data. Certainly, the popular notion of 'welfare queens' is drastically overblown. Could it be that there's not really all that much of a problem? I don't know. Let's look at it hypothetically. Obviously, there are people that abuse the system. And it's our tax money that's being stolen, so that angers most of us, and we want to see something done about it. But what? It takes investigators of some sort to crack down on the criminals. If the problem of fraud is widespread, those extra employees would pay for themselves. If the problem's not widespread, their salaries wouldn't offset the savings, so we'd end up having higher taxes while making the government bureaucracy even bigger. We may have stopped a handful of frauds, but we'd have cut off our noses to spite our faces. That's why we need to base decisions on actual evidence, and not just gut feelings of right and wrong.

Deficit Spending:
This is a bit tough for me to comment on, since I don't know enough about economics. It just seems to make sense that deficit spending doesn't work over the long run, but I've seen it argued many places that short term deficit spending during a recession/depression can help stimulate the economy. Indeed, there was massive deficit spending by the government for the military during WWII, and many have argued that that was the primary cause of getting out of the Great Depression. But was it simply correlation instead of causation? That's the whole problem with economics. It's so big and complicated, and you can't do many controlled experiments on it.

But, given that economists recommend deficit spending to get out of a recession, I don't know that it's so bad right now, as long as it's curtailed once the economy starts recovering. It's also worth pointing out that the last time the budget was balanced was under Clinton, a Democratic president. So if you're looking to an alternative to Democrats, I don't see why people assume Republican means more fiscal responsibility or less spending.

I somewhat agree with this part. All the emphasis on self esteem above performance has hurt our education system, and those types of policies were never based on any sound scientific evidence to begin with. But in some cases, people have gone too far in other directions (again, ignoring evidence of what actually works), and we end up with boondoggles like the TAKS test here in Texas, where educators end up teaching to the test, instead of giving kids a solid education. I'm not sure what a good solution is, or if there are any other countries with good models to emulate. When you look at reports like the NSF's Science and Engineering Indicators, people are ignorant all over the world.

Where I disagree with this guy is the nature of the problem. He mentioned 'basic functions of mathematics and literacy.' Those basic functions pretty much are covered already. The U.S. has a 99.0% literacy rate. I don't know of any stats on math, but I'd imagine that a similar number of people are capable of basic arithmetic. The problems aren't in basic skills, but in broader knowledge and critical thinking. And in a representative democracy where everybody gets to vote for elected officials, a well educated populace is very important.

Gun Rights:
What country, exactly, is this guy writing about? The U.S. has some of the most liberal gun ownership laws in the industrialized world. You have to really screw up (as in committing a felony) before the government prohibits you from owning firearms. Even with this current Democratic executive and legislative branches, we've gotten laws passed that allow people to carry firearms in national parks - i.e. more freedom, not less.

I know that nobody wants to pay taxes, but you can't get something for nothing. If we want things like highways, NASA, the FDA, and the military, the money has to come from somewhere.

I don't understand why taxes all of a sudden became such a big issue when Obama took office. Why didn't we see the Tea Party protesters 3 years ago? The timing seems a bit suspicious. For most people, taxes are comparable to what they've been for the past 50 years. For the wealthy, they've increased slightly under Obama, but they're still significantly lower than they were during the Nixon & Reagan years. The tax burden in the U.S. isn't that bad compared to other countries, either. All the data just makes the Tea Party protesters seem like a bunch of whiners who don't want to pay their fair share to support society.

The incarceration rate per capita in the U.S. is the highest in the world. Think of every country that seems excessively opressive or totalitarian - Russia, China, South Africa, Saudi Arabia. The U.S. outdoes them all in the amount of citizens in jail. To put it in perspective, even though the U.S. only has 4% of the world's population, it has 25% of the world's inmate population. Does this guy want a complete police state?

This is another tough one. Through Irma, I've heard it from both sides regarding the medical field. Civilian doctors have to pay extremely high malpractice insurance, and people can sue over such frivolous things. But in the military, where it's very difficult for soldiers to sue, doctors get away with so much malpractice that would never be tolerated in the civilian world. Litigation does serve as a valuable check to keep doctors in line. And you yourself have told me about the problems you had trying to sue somebody in England, where the burden is placed on the person doing the suing. There has to be a happy medium, but with as reactionary as people are, the pendulum swings too wildly from over restrictive to over lenient.

In the time of Barack Obama, Black Panther members stand outside polling places in black commando uniforms, slapping truncheons into their palms.

[remainder of quote removed]

Black Panther Members:
Well, there's not much to be said on this. A couple Black Panther members were standing outside a polling place, one of which had a night stick. After about an hour, cops came and removed the one with the night stick. It's definitely bad that it happened to begin with, but it was an isolated incident, not part of some larger conspiracy, and the police took care of it as soon as they found out. (It's a bit hard to try to pin the blame for this on Obama, though. It occured in Pennsylvania while Obama was a senator for Illinois.)

ACORN has certainly had some problems, but those problems are nowhere near as big as right wing pundits and politicians have made them out to be. The specific incident cited here, the prostitution ring, turned out to be a fraudulent video created by James O'Keefe (the 'pimp' in the video). When O'Keefe actually visited the ACORN offices (dressed in a suit and tie, not as a pimp as implied in so many news stories), one of the ACORN workers called the cops on the videographers, while another thought it was a joke and played along, not realizing what O'Keefe was up to. It was only through substantial editing that O'Keefe was able to make it appear that the ACORN workers were giving him advice on prostitution. (In another issue that speaks to O'Keefe's integrity, he's currently in hot water in Lousiana for tampering with a senator's phone.)

ACORN also doesn't have any role in taking the census. They're a 'partner', which basically means that they get the word out about the census. To put it in perspective, Avon is another partner, along with over 30,000 other groups.

Communist in White House:
Well, it looks like a former communist, Van Jones, had been the Special Advisor for Green Jobs. In the 90s, he had been a communist and associated with an organization called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM). For one thing, this isn't the McCarthy era. Being a communist may not earn you many friends, but it isn't a crime. And having been a communist at one point in time does not disqualify you from public office. Besides, Jones was no longer a communist when employed by the White House. In a book written by Jones released in 2008, The Green Collar Economy, he wrote, "We are entering an era during which our very survival will demand invention and innovation on a scale never before seen in the history of human civilization. Only the business community has the requisite skills, experience, and capital to meet that need. On that score, neither government nor the nonprofit and voluntary sectors can compete, not even remotely." That sounds rather capitalist to me.

Still, aside from his former communist leanings, it doesn't look like Jones was a particularly good choice for the position. He had even signed the 911Truth.org petition.

Auto Company 'Takeover':
The auto companies approached the government asking for this help. It wasn't forced by the government. The government has also said repeatedly that it plans to sell the stock as soon as it's practical. Thankfully, it looks like that might be sooner than expected for GM, the company where the government actually owns a controlling share.

Wall Street Bailouts:
I think everybody, conservative and liberal alike, is pretty pissed at the bonuses being paid on Wall Street. I'm not sure whether the bailouts were necessary in the first place, but I tend to think they probably were. And at the time the bailouts were being debated, I certainly wasn't alone. 57% of the public favored the bailouts to begin with (64% or Republicans, 56% of Democrats, and 54% of Independents). However, looking at the way it's played out, it seems that it definitely could have been structured better, and Congress and Senate do deserve the blame for that.

Habeus Corpus:
Honestly, out of all the points in this e-mail, I think this is the one that angers me the most. It's so hypocritical. He complains about an erosion of rights, but doesn't see the hypocrisy at all when he says that a certain group of people don't deserve rights. Whatever happened to that principal of innocent until proven guilty? Do we just trust police and soldiers to get the bad guys every time and never make mistakes? Why even have judges? The prisoners locked up in military jails may or may not be terrorists. How do we know without giving them their day in court? If there was sufficient evidence to lock them up in the first place, then a trial will convict them and they'll stay locked up. If there's not sufficient evidence, how can we be sure they're guilty? Maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe some soldier just didn't like the way they looked at him. I'm ashamed to be living in the 'land of the free', when we're willing to take away people's freedom just because we're scared.

It would be different in a real war. Prisoners of war would be kept locked up until the war was over and treaties were signed. But the 'War on Terror' isn't a real war at all. It's law enforcement, going after criminals. There's no end in sight. How can we justify locking up the accused indefinitely without ever allowing a judge or jury to see the evidence.

Health Care, Again:
First of all, the 'overwhelming public disapproval' is slightly less than half the country, with slightly more than half the country supporting the health care bill. Are the representatives supposed to ignore the majority of their constituents that wanted this bill?

Also, as I've written you before, the health care system in the U.S. is definitely in need of an overhaul. Compared to industrialized nations with universal healthcare, the U.S. spends about twice the amount on healthcare (from either a per capita or GDP basis), but our quality of care isn't any better and we have less access to physicians.

It also seems that much of the Republican reaction to health care reform is simply obstructionism, dismissing the bill out of hand simply because it's coming from Democrats. Mitt Romney is a particularly clear case of this hypocrisy, considering how similar the national health care reform bill is to what he instituted in Massachusets.

Here's a good link covering a lot of the misinformation about health care.

I don't know about you, but the other day I was at the courthouse doing some business, and I stepped into the court clerk's office and changed my voter affiliation from "Independent" to "Republican."

[remainder of quote removed]

World's Policemen:
We had a Republican president and Republican congress when the war in Iraq was started. The intelligence on WMDs was sketchy at best, and even if we accepted that the intelligence at the time was trustworthy, it wasn't an immediate threat to the USA (not until Iraq could have developed ICBMs). Sure, Hussein was a horrible dictator, and the region may end up being better off without him, but the war was definitely a case of the U.S. acting as the world's police and getting involved in a region that didn't directly affect us. So maybe this guy is tired ouf the U.S. acting as the world's police, but I don't see how he thinks that Republicans are the better alternative.

Republican Fiscal Responsiblity:
I included this link above, but it's worth including again. If Republicans are the more fiscally responsibly, why didn't any of them in the Senate support the pay-as-you-go rules?

Literally millions of Americans have had enough.

[remainder of quote removed]

This last paragraph is basically just more of the same from above, so there's really nothing else to add.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Website Update - Top 10 Page List Updated for Past 6 Months

Top 10 ListIt's been quite a while since I've remembered to do a monthly top 10 list. So, here's making up for lost time - the most popular pages on my site from October 2009 through March 2010. For the most part, my most popular pages from months past have stayed popular. A few new blog entries have found their way into top spots.

March 2010

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  6. Blog - Texas Board of Education in NY Times Magazine
  7. Programming
  8. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  9. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  10. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency

February 2010

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  4. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  6. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  7. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  8. Programming
  9. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  10. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency

January 2010

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  4. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  5. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  6. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  7. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  8. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  9. Programming
  10. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool

December 2009

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  4. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  5. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  6. Programming
  7. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  8. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  9. Blog - Ray Comfort - Still Ignorant on Evolution
  10. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool

November 2009

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Blog - Origin of Arabic Numerals - Was It Really for Counting Angles?
  4. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  5. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  6. Blog - Review of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
  7. Programming
  8. Theoretical Max Propeller Efficiency
  9. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  10. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video

October 2009

  1. Autogyro History & Theory
  2. Blog - A Skeptical Look at MBT Shoes
  3. Programming
  4. Factoids Debunked & Verified
  5. Blog - Casio EX-F1 - First Impression of the High Speed Video
  6. Factoids Debunked & Verified, Part II
  7. Blog - Letter to Pharmacy about MBT Shoes
  8. Blog - Review of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed
  9. Blog - My Favorite Airplanes
  10. X-Plane as an Engineering Tool

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