General Archive

Friday, September 16, 2016

2016 Texas Republican Platform - Part 2, Religion

Republican ElephantThis entry is part of a series taking a look at the latest Texas Republican Party Platform. For a list of all entries in this series, go to the Introduction. Today's entry will focus on planks having to do with religion. Actually, because of how infused the entire platform is with religion, this entry will only focus on some of the planks having to do with religion. Others made more sense to discuss in other sections of this series.

The very first statement of this platform got off to a bad start right from the get go:

Affirming our belief in God...

Government and politics should have nothing to do with religion, other than affirming the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion. Government is a secular institution, and there's no need at all to bring religion into it. In fact, when government represents a multicultural society with a mix of religious beliefs, it's positively better to leave religion out of politics. But here, in the very opening phrase, Texas Republicans are mixing religion and politics. In fact, just doing a quick word search, they mention 'God' 14 times, 'Judeo-Christian' 4 times, and 'Bible' twice. That's an awful lot of religious language for an institution that shouldn't be based on religion.


Judeo-Christian Nation- As America is a nation under God, founded on Judeo-Christian principles, we affirm the constitutional right of all individuals to worship as they choose.

America was NOT founded on Judeo-Christian principles, or at least nothing specifically Judeo-Christian that's unique from other cultures. If anything, the unique principles of the USA were Enlightenment values. You only need look as far as our nation's founding document, the Constitution, which makes no religious references, other than the convention of using 'Year of our Lord' for the date, and explicitly prohibiting religious tests for public office (plus the separation of church and state once you get to the amendments).

I know some people are fond of pointing to the Declaration of Independence (even though it's not the founding document of our nation) and the passage about men being "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights", but are they really that ignorant of history? I mean, the Declaration was written by Thomas Jefferson for crying out loud - the same man who made his own Bible by eliminating all the miracles of Jesus and other supernatural elements because he didn't believe them. He was a deist, not a Christian. And 'their Creator' is a typical deistic phrase, not a Christian one.

More generally, basic prohibitions against theft and murder and other types of crime are present in just about all societies. And codifying them into law goes back at least to the Code of Hammurabi (who wasn't Jewish, and certainly wasn't Christian given that he was alive roughly 1700 years BC). There's nothing in the Bible about structuring a government with bicameral legislatures. In fact, a democratic republic is more Greco-Roman in heritage. That First Amendment that we hold in such high regard (and rightly so) is actually counter to the First Commandment - we've actually guaranteed in the founding document of our nation that people can, in fact, have other gods before Yahweh.

And you don't just have to take my word for it. Go read the Treaty of Tripoli. This was a treaty written and ratified in 1796-1797, less than a decade after the founding of the USA (as determined by the ratification of the Constitution), under the presidency of John Adams. Everyone involved could rightly be called a member of the Founding Fathers. And the treaty was passed unanimously by the Senate. Not only that, they made it a point to take a roll to record the votes of everyone present. They wanted history to remember them approving this treaty. Article 11 states, and I'll emphasize it to make sure it doesn't get missed, "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...". That's a pretty clear statement from the Founders themselves that the U.S. is not a Christian nation.

(I've covered this idea of America as a Christian nation several times before if you're interested in more detail. Probably the three most relevant previous entries are Response to an Editorial by Pat Boone, Ben Carson - On the Issues, Part IV - Faith in Society, and A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle.)

Safeguarding Religious Liberties- We affirm that the public acknowledgement of God is undeniable in our history and is vital to our freedom, prosperity, and strength. We pledge our influence toward a return to the original intent of the 1st Amendment and toward dispelling the myth of separation of church and state. Tax deductions for charitable contributions are not government subsidies and give no authority for government oversight. Americans should be free to express their religious beliefs, including prayer in public places. We urge the legislature to increase the ability of faith based institutions and other organizations to assist the needy and to reduce regulation of such organizations. We also support vigorously protecting the rights of commercial establishments to refuse to provide any service or product that would infringe upon freedom of conscience of religious expression of the commercial establishments as stated in the 1st Amendment.

Just because the First Amendment doesn't literally contain the words 'separation of church and state' doesn't mean that the concept is a myth. I mean, just read the dang thing, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." So, government can neither support nor interfere with religion. That sounds an awful lot like separation to me. And it's not like the term, 'separation of church and state', is some revisionist invention of liberals. It was coined by Thomas Jefferson himself, back in 1802 in a letter to the Danbury Baptists. Here's the relevant portion of the letter.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. [emphasis mine]

Regarding the latter portions of the plank, I have to admit that I get tired of people trying to use religion as an excuse to break the law. Yes, you should have freedom to practice your religion how you see fit, unless doing so causes harm to other people. As an extreme example, you can't claim to belong to a religion that promotes theft, and that therefore you can't go to jail for stealing things. You still have to follow the law. Less extreme, you can't claim that insurance is 'gambling', so you're not going to provide it to your employees, or that taxes are immoral, so you're not going to pay them. Nor can you deny other obligations to employees or customers just because you personally don't like something about those obligations. If it's a law, you still have to follow it.


Protection for Religious Institutions- We believe religious institutions have the freedom to recognize and perform only those marriages that are consistent with their doctrine.

Okay.... And I believe I should have the freedom to recognize and say that the sky is blue. It seems odd to make a plank that's obvious to everybody and not an actual political issue.

Okay, maybe there is some concern that individuals will sue churches over this issue, but I haven't heard of any mainstream politicians pushing for legislation that would violate churches' First Amendment rights.

(more info - and I feel a little dirty just linking to them - Family Research Council - Can Pastors and Churches Be Forced to Perform Same-Sex Marriages?)


Family Values- We support the affirmation of traditional Judeo-Christian family values and oppose the continued assault on those values.

Most everybody supports 'family values', whether they're Christian or not. So if the Republicans are referring to an assault, I can only assume they mean against the more bigoted quarters of Christianity who oppose marriage equality and other gay rights, want to see women be second class citizens, want to take away women's right to bodily autonomy, and other similar positions. And if those are the 'Judeo-Christian' values they're referring to (which aren't shared by all religious people), then no, they don't deserve respect. Those values absolutely deserve to be assaulted by everyone with respect for their fellow human beings.


Empowering Local Entities Concerning Religious Meetings- We support the right of local entities to determine their own policies regarding religious clubs and meetings on all properties owned by the same, without interference.

If by 'local entities', they mean private companies or organizations, then sure, that's their right. I don't know of anyone, certainly not mainstream politicians, who would argue against that. But if they mean local governments, then no, local governments have to follow the First Amendment just like the federal government, and can't endorse particular religions (though they can allow religious uses of facilities as long as they open it up to all religions, and don't favor any particular religion).

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This whole issue of entangling politics with religion is one of the big problems with the current Republican party. Not only is it counter to the First Amendment, but it wouldn't be a good idea even if there was no First Amendment. Laws should have reasonable secular reasons, especially in a society where not everybody shares the same religious beliefs. And it's frustrating on top of that to see their mangling of history to try to support their views.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months

Vibrating Belt MachineLike I mentioned in a recent entry, for the past several months, I've been trying to lose some weight and get in better shape through a combination of diet and exercise. And I think I've been doing a pretty good job. So far, I've lost right around 40 lbs, and gotten several compliments from friends about the difference they've noticed. And quite a few people have asked me how I managed to do it. So, I figured I'd share the answer here on my blog. It's a combination of what worked for me, plus links to some of the better information I've found sorting through the multitude of weight-loss information out there. Maybe this will help out someone else trying to lose weight.

Continue reading "How I Lost 40 lbs in 6 Months" »

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nutrition Supplement Crankery

Protein SupplementsToday's entry isn't particularly constructive, but it's a short rant I want to get off my chest.

For the past several months, I've been trying to lose some weight and get in better shape through a combination of diet and exercise (and I've actually been doing pretty good so far - the real test is going to be if I can maintain my reduced weight & active lifestyle once the weight loss portion is over). But part of this has involved delving into the fitness subculture, especially the nutrition side of it, as I'm trying to be sure I get all the nutrients I need with the limited calories I'm consuming, and being able to find solutions that fit into my overall lifestyle and schedule (i.e. quick and easy).

So, even though I don't consider myself any type of body builder or fitness freak, I've begun eating protein bars and drinking protein shakes to help supplement a few key nutrients* (mainly protein, obviously, but also fiber and even carbs). I don't eat protein bars for every meal throughout the day, but they make for great snacks to give me those nutrients I'm looking for in a concentrated package without a lot of excess calories, especially right before and right after the gym.

But this is where a lot of the frustration comes in - there seems to be a huge overlap between the market for fitness nutrition supplements and the Whole Foods anti-science crowd. You know who I mean - the folks who don't understand chemistry and think that an ingredient with a long chemical name is automatically unhealthy**, and who are opposed to genetically modified crops simply due to fear mongering despite GMOs having so much potential to improve nutrition and reduce environment impacts (more info - Why I Oppose Organic Food and Answering Quora on the Safety of Organic Foods and Microwaves). I mean, just do a search on Amazon for protein bars, and note how many of the products are gluten free***, non-gmo, organic, or some combination.

To be sure, not everyone in the fitness subculture is also part of the Whole Foods anti-science crowd, but enough are that many products cater to them. It also becomes annoying when trying to research products. As an example, take a look at this article, Are Quest Bars Really as Nutritious as Claimed? Their image at the top of the article claims that "It's hard to call this bar real food", and then has a bulleted list explaining why: "*Processed sources of protein / *Fake fiber / *Artificial sweeteners". Oh the horror, processed food. And their claim of 'fake' fiber isn't really well founded. But as Luddite as the article was, one of the comments really made me laugh, but is indicative of the mindset of this sub-subculture, "Microwaving these is just taking out all of the nutrients inside+ adding radiation to your foods - same with anything else. Microwave = bad!!!"

To be fair, almost all of the other comments to that article were in support of Quest Bars, showing that quite a few people in the fitness subculture aren't part of the Whole Foods subculture. But good luck finding a protein bar that uses the most advantageous GMO crops or the most productive farming methods to help reduce habitat loss.

Image Source: Erica D. House Motivation + Inspiration


*Actually trying to figure out just how much of each major nutrient you need is a whole 'nother can of worms. I may go into this in the future, but for now, since protein seems to be one of the big debates, here's the best article I've come across on that, The Myth of 1 g/lb: Optimal Protein Intake for Bodybuilders.


**Okay, I was originally just going to link to this in parentheses, but I can't resist quoting it, so now it gets to be a footnote. Go read the article, Everything is Made of Chemicals. They quoted an example from an informational brochure put out by SenseAboutScience.org:

"If someone came into your house and offered you a cocktail of butanol, iso amyl alcohol, hexanol, phenyl ethanol, tannin, benzyl alcohol, caffeine, geraniol, quercetin, 3-galloyl epicatchin, 3-galloyl epigallocatchin and inorganic salts, would you take it? It sounds pretty ghastly. If instead you were offered a cup of tea, you would probably take it. Tea is a complex mixture containing the above chemicals in concentrations that vary depending on where it is grown." - Derek Lohmann, research chemist

Everything we eat is made up of chemicals, most with long, scary sounding names if you're not familiar with them. But whether or not you can pronounce the name of a chemical has nothing to do with how safe or healthy it is.


***There's nothing particularly wrong with gluten free. I remember when I was going through some issues a few years ago, and my doctor had me go gluten free for a couple months to see if that was the cause. It wasn't, but those months let me see how hard it is for the people who have to give up gluten permanently. It's tough. Gluten shows up in so many places you wouldn't even expect. So, providing gluten free options certainly helps those people out. The problem I have is the mindset for why these companies are making gluten-free products, simply as part of a fad diet that's demonized gluten for the general population.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Answering Quora - Which one is harder, engineering or medical?

I recently came across the Quora question, Which one is harder, engineering or medical?. I figured that being an engineer myself and knowing quite a few people in the medical field, I was in a pretty good position to answer. So, I relatively quickly hammered out a short answer, which has since turned out to be by far my most viewed Quora answer. It's a little surprising considering how little work this answer was compared to other things I've written for Quora, but I guess that's the way it goes. Anyway, below is a copy of what I wrote.

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I'm an engineer. My wife is an RN, and through her, we have several friends who are MDs. I've even gone along on a few medical missions and witnessed surgeries first hand. And I would say that you can't make a blanket statement that one is harder than the other. They're both diverse fields, with more and less challenging paths in each.

For example, as an engineer, you could earn your bachelors degree, then go off to a manufacturing company in a well established industry, and do nothing but look up values in tables and plug in numbers in already developed formulas. That's not very challenging at all. Or, you could earn a PhD, go off to a research institution, and try to solve new and fundamental problems in your field (e.g. Advanced Rotorcraft Technology - Research). Medicine ranges from family practice to epidemiology to pathology to surgery to countless other fields.

I do think it's more stressful / difficult to actually become a medical doctor than an engineer. MDs have to go to graduate school, pass their licensing test, and complete their residency (almost like an apprenticeship). Engineers simply need a bachelor's degree. Granted, engineers can earn PhDs, and can do a lot of on the job training and continuing education throughout their careers, and can do the EIT to PE path (our own version of an apprenticeship, which is more important in some fields than others), but all that's not required to simply become an engineer.

So, it depends an awful lot on the specific field of engineering and medicine. There's probably a higher minimum level of competency among MDs than engineers because of the more difficult path to become an MD, but at the more challenging levels, I think they're comparable. After all, the two go-to phrases to emphasize intelligence are 'rocket science' and 'brain surgery'.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Answering Quora - What are the plot devices you would like to see less of?

Film ReelI answered a Quora question a few weeks ago on What are the plot devices you would like to see less of?. Although the questioner originally asked for only three plot devices per answer, I couldn't help myself and added two more. This has actually become one of my most viewed answers on Quora. Anyway, below are the plot devices that drive me up the wall (slightly edited from my Quora answer). Note that nearly all the links take you to the appropriate entry on TVTropes.org


Out-of-Context Eavesdropping, Not What It Looks Like and other related tropes.

Someone overhears only a small part of a conversation, pieces together what they think the conversation is about, and come to a conclusion wildly different from what was actually being said (I'm going to kill him tomorrow ... at basketball). Similar examples are seeing the characters do something that looked suspicious when viewed from only one particular angle or at just the right moment. These are so unlikely to occur at all in real life (most people would simply assume they overheard something out of context), and the problem could usually be resolved with a simple question that never gets asked.


Idiot Ball

This is when characters seemingly go out of their way to act stupid. The worst example of this I can think of is Dracula. *Spoiler Alert*. Even though one character had already succumbed to Dracula, and all the lead characters knew this and believed in vampires, when another character began displaying the same symptoms, it never dawned on them that maybe Dracula was working on her, too. (In fact, Dracula has so many bad horrible plot devices I could on at length on how much I disliked that book, and have - Book Review - Dracula.)


Arbitrary Skepticism, Flat Earth Atheist, Stupid Scientist, Agent Scully, etc.

This is the tendency of so many writers to treat skeptics and scientists simply as cynics or denialists. It's especially bad in stories where in that fictional universe, evidence for the supernatural/monster/alien is all over the place, but the skeptics still refuse to believe. Perhaps the worst example of this in a story I've read is in the Left Behind series (I only got a couple books into it). After all these events that just scream Rapture and that the fundamentalists were right all along (billions of people disappearing in an instant, Israel being miraculously saved from an invasion, fire breathing prophets), all the religious skeptics go on continuing to dismiss religion out of hand for some reason (more info - Some Early Thoughts on Left Behind, More Thoughts on Left Behind After Finishing the Book, and Book Review - Tribulation Force).


Alien Invasions (Planet Looters, Easily Thwarted Alien Invasion)

Alien Invasion movies are almost universally awful if you apply any type of rational thinking to them. First, the motivation is almost always ludicrous. This is a civilization with the technology and resources for interstellar space travel. What could they possible need from Earth that wasn't more easily attained elsewhere? Even if for some reason they wanted to come to our solar system, there are all the objects in the Oort Cloud and Kuiper Belt that would provide huge amounts of water, metals, or minerals, without the cost of removing them from Earth's gravity well. And when they do actually attack, in so many action movies, it's like the aliens have no concept of strategy or tactics. They send in a bunch of small fighters or foot soldiers to shoot up civilians (e.g. The Avengers or Cowboys vs. Aliens), when they could just drop bombs from orbit without ever exposing themselves to our military. Or, considering their level of technology, they'd probably have weapons even more effective than plain old bombs that they could utilize. It's just ludicrous to imagine that their invasion strategy would be to send a bunch of their alien soldiers into Manhattan.


Santa Claus Movies Where Kids Should 'Just Believe'

These movies irritate me to no end. In fact, I've written about it this blog before in the entry, Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars. Why do so many movies make it a virtue to accept something on blind faith without evidence, when we should be teaching our children critical thinking skills. Skepticism is what keeps people from buying timeshares, giving their credit card numbers to Nigerian princesses, or believing they've won the Internet lottery. It's a skill that should be fostered, not made to seem like a character flaw. And the Santa Claus movies are especially irritating because every sane adult knows the truth about Santa. We're not just telling kids to have faith, we're telling them to have faith in a known lie.


Image Source: Wikimedia

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