January 30, 2008

Recently America has suffered through a writer’s strike. This will go down in history with the great industrial battles of our past such as the Homestead Strike, where Carnegie Steel broke the steelworkers union. Seven guards and eleven strikers were killed in a battle during that strike. Or the Pullman Strike, where thousands of federal troops (aided by federal marshals) killed 13 workers and wounded 57 more.People stay up late, watching Letterman or Leno, desperate for a good joke to put them to bed in a good mood. Without writers, not a guffaw, no a chortle, not a laugh, not a grin, not even a slight twist at the corner of the mouth do the scriptless comedians inspire in the languishing audience. After the television has been turned off, husbands and wives lie next to each other in silence, as stiff and cold as the comedians while the television was on.

Of course, they could read my blog, where laughs abound, but as the poet didn’t say,

Laughter, canned laughter, every where,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Ho ho, ho ho, every where,
Nor any smile or even a wink.

Yes, the political candidates’ speechwriters are also on strike. (Apparently, nobody besides me has noticed the labor stoppage.)

Now, each candidate for President (not to mention the current President) has to write his or her own speeches.  Without their speech writers, politicians’ speeches are full of clichés, generalities, and empty platitudes.
When will the public notice that political speeches are no longer as full of inspiration as they once were? Maybe we need Abe’s speech writer back again.

Or Demosthenes’ ghost writer. Though after the war he supported didn’t go that well, Demosthenes offed himself. That’s another old idea we might consider bringing back.


January 29, 2008

The next morning at breakfast, mean Mommy had a few stern words for RG. “We had a discussion about closing the lids of your stamp pads after you use them.” [Along with putting stickers on paper, RG likes stamping pictures on paper with various little stamp pads.]

Mommy continued, “I found open stamp pads in the car. The ink dries out and the stamp pads are not good any more. I asked you to be sure to close the lids on your stamp pads.”

RG was obviously not interested in this discussion. She avoided her mother’s eyes. She seemed not to listen.

About fifteen minutes later, I heard a raised voice from the other room. RG was saying something to the effect of, “You didn’t ask my permission. You didn’t ask me first!” I didn’t quite get the whole gist of the conversation.

I asked Grandma what was going on. “RG is getting back at Mommy. She’s telling her off about something.”

I haven’t bought a birthday present for RG yet. I thought, Maybe I will buy her a bag. On the bag it will say “BAGGAGE.” Four years old is old enough to start collecting baggage. She can assemble it neatly into her bag and some day she can present it to a therapist and say, “Here is my baggage. I brought a bag of my baggage so I can talk about it with you. When I was four years old, my Mommy stamped on me…”

“In our house we eat one bite of everything. That’s what we do in our house,” Random Granddaughter told Grandma and Grandpa, shortly after they had arrived for a weekend of partying. The Barely Extended Family was partying to celebrate Grandpa’s 64th birthday (just passed), RG’s 4th birthday (arriving next month), and Random Daughter’s acceptance into graduate school (for the second time).

RG can spout the party line, but she still has trouble with the party. That night, RD had fixed broccoli and cauliflower (thereby mixing foods, a practice that offends RG’s culture, but she let it go because she had greater offenses to her culture to do battle with), pork medallions (which RG and everybody else thought were splendid) and scalloped potatoes. The troubles began with the abused potatoes.

RG likes potatoes. Potatoes should be white. RG likes cheese. Cheese should perhaps be in little pieces or between a couple of crackers. Mama (Random Daughter) had decided to mix white potatoes and red potatoes just to see what happened. Of course RD had improperly mixed cheese in with the potatoes, which now looked very strange and mottled. The adults said, “Those potatoes look very strange” and then happily ate them. As RG would happily inform you, “Adults will eat anything and adults are dangerously insane.” Nobody pays any attention to her, of course.

RG looked at the scalloped potatoes on her plate with great disfavor. “Take a bite,” birth mother Mommy urged. RG had forgotten the party line. Reluctantly she put a forkful in her mouth. She made a face. I believe moue is the correct term. She sat that way for a while.

“Chew it up. Wash it down with your kid wine” Mommy said. (The adults were drinking champagne in celebration of Mama’s acceptance into graduate school. RG was drinking apple juice as “kid wine.”)

RG’s moue got firmer. It became a mouerrrrrr or something. Eventually Mommy said, “If you decide to spit it out, please don’t do that at the dinner table. People don’t want to see food coming back out of your mouth at the dinner table. That’s not good manners. Go to the bathroom if you are going to spit it out.”

RG got down from the dinner table and headed for the bathroom. While she was gone, Mommy said, “She’s such a drama queen.”

Eventually RG came back to the table. Eventually, we got to chocolate cake and blowing out candles. RG thought chocolate cake and candles was a much better party line for a queen of the drama.

In a Flash

January 28, 2008

Mommy placed five candles on the birthday cake and lit the candles.

“I can blow out the candles,” said Random Granddaughter. She began to puff. It took several puffs, but at four years old, who is counting?

As she got to the last couple of candles, she bent closer to make sure they puffed out. As she puffed, a few small flickers of flame started to sizzle up her long blonde hair. Mommy and Grandpa, closest to the scene, gasped in horror and then, with the same instantaneous reaction blew hard at the tiny tendrils of flame on the strands of hair.The flames went out in a second. The adults all breathed a sigh of relief and told RG to back away from the cake a little. She puffed out the last of her candles.

I blew out my candle.I didn’t need to make a wish; I was happy enough with nothing much happening to a little girl who hadn’t even really noticed what had not happened.

Acorn Replies (Part 3)

January 28, 2008

Renaissance Guy wrote:

I have a tricky question for you. When you talk about your own ethical code (ethics is a better word than morality), do you ever think hard about where it came from? Did you just choose to adopt it arbitrarily? Do you think it was instilled in you by other people? Did you get it from “mother nature”?

Although I didn’t get along very well with my parents, I don’t think of them as “bad” people. I think they were people who didn’t get very good parenting, who weren’t a very good match for each other, and who had a lot of difficulties and frustrations in their lives. As a result, they weren’t very good at parenting. When I got married, and we found ourselves nine months later with a child we weren’t planning on happening, I thought it was a good idea to try and start a better tradition of parenting.

However, my parents’ ideas about ethics and morality were probably fairly good ones and they passed them on to me. Empathy is a genetic capability of human beings that provides a capability of being ethical. It’s similar to swimming. We are born with the ability to swim, and ability that varies from person to person. However, if a person who has never been taught to swim is thrown in a pool, he or she is likely to flounder. If a person has never had an empathy capacity nourished, he or she is likely to detect little reason not to steal and rape and murder. Not every person learns to swim very well even if they are taught. I fall into that category; I took quite a few swimming lessons, but I never learned to swim very well.

I think that influence (and from other adults as relatives, friends, and teachers) set the basic foundation of my ethical beliefs and behaviors. As I grew older, I thought about such issues and started to make my own judgments and tried to act on them.

For example, when I was in high school we read the book The Ox-bow Incident, a Western novel and movie about an incident when three innocent men are lynched. The book made a strong impression on me.

A few years later, when I was in college, I joined the student newspaper, an activity which gave me another excuse for not studying (not that I needed any). At one point, the newspaper dissolved into a power struggle for control. The details are completely obscure and forgotten. Only one incident remains in my memory. One of the editors of the newspaper became very unpopular. At one point a bunch of the rebels who wanted the administration to change stormed into a room and shouted abuse at the editor. (No violence or threats of violence were involved; this was just dumb kids too full of themselves.) The editor (whom I remember as not too bad a guy) replied sadly that the accusations against him were unjustified and that the people who maligned him would later remember the incident with regret.

Although this was a trivial incident among not very grown-up college students, I was struck with a shock and a pang. This is rather like The Ox-Bow Incident, I thought, considering how easily I had been swept along with the mob pschology of the group. This is not very different than the way people really do get lynched, I thought.

Hurry Up

January 28, 2008


“Mommy is making a birthday cake for us,” said Random Granddaughter. “She wants to know what kind of frosting to put on it, banilla or chocolate.”

I thought about it. Vanilla frosting is fine, but chocolate is chocolate. “Chocolate,” I said.

“Grandpa wants chocolate frosting,” RG called to the kitchen.

A few minutes later she came to the table with a plastic bag containing candles. She pulled out a candle. “I want this candle.” The candle was pink. RG thought a little more. She pulled out three more candles. “I get four candles.” I will be four years old. “

“Pick a color for your candle, Grandpa,” she said. I pulled out a candle, more or less at random.

“You picked a blue candle. I have a pink candle,” RG said.

“How original,” said Grandma.

“How old are you, Grandpa?” she asked.

“I just turned 64,” I said. “There aren’t 64 candles in your bag of candles. I will use one candle 64 times.” I held the candle up and counted, “One.” I put the candle down. I picked the candle up and counted “Two.” I put the candle down. I continued picking the candle up, counting, and then putting the candle down.

By the time I got to eight or so, RG was laughing. I made a mental note, This joke gets a laugh. It’s hard to do comedy for preschoolers. I need all the good jokes I can get.

RG is pretty good at counting. I hear her counting all the time as she plays with her dolls and stuffed animals. She thought about the number 64. Even though it’s an even number, it sounded odd and incomplete to her.

“You need to hurry up so you get to 65,” she said.

“That’s quite all right,” I replied. “I got to 64 quite fast enough. I think I will stop and rest a bit.”


If someone had asked me about my religious beliefs at the age of ten, I would probably have answered that I was an “atheist.” I don’t remember exactly how I came to that conclusion, and it seems a little precocious, but I think it’s true. I didn’t get much religious instruction, though I was required to attend some Jewish education at an Orthodox Synagogue for a while. I read much of the Bible at that time.

I have known a fair number of atheists during my life. The ones who are most hostile to religion are often people who were raised by religious parents and then rebelled against their upbringing. Most of the aggressive atheists who participate at the evangelical Christian web site seem to fall into this category. I seem to be unusual in that I don’t have a long-standing personal grudge against religious belief. Part of the complicated reasons for my participating at wmb was that I thought of my childhood reaction against religion as superficial and shallow, and that I ought to learn more about religious belief (particularly Christian belief.)

Tim argues that there are better “Apologists” (defenders and advocates of Christianity) I should read than the ones I cite. At the moment, I feel that I have pursued this investigation about as much as I want to. I just turned 64 and there are many topics I want to explore and time grows shorter for me.

I will say the following. First, I don’t think that religious belief (or lack thereof) has much to do with intelligence. For example, Isaac Newton has been described as one of the most intelligent humans who ever lived. Whether that grandiose statement applies, I am not sure, but he was one very bright dude indeed. He was also one very religious dude. There are many other religious believers who are very intelligent people.

At the same time, there are many very intelligent atheists and agnostics. Bertrand Russell is another example of a brilliant man. William Empson, author of the book Milton’s God, is another example of a brilliant man. He earned joint degrees in literature and mathematics and probably could have been a brilliant mathematician, but instead decided to pursue literature. He has been described as one of the three most brilliant critics of English literature (along with Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt).

My conclusion is that one cannot “prove” or “disprove” the existence of God by any amount of logical argument or historical research. If a convincing argument for or against could be made, by now we human beings would be in agreement on the matter. I don’t believe once can argue one’s way to belief in God (as much as Christians like to argue about it).

I read Milton’s God in graduate school and I was profoundly influenced by it. Empson argues not only for atheism but that the theology of Judeo-Christianity is immoral; that Jehovah is an immoral bully. This is perhaps a much greater heresy than arguing that the Garden of Eden is a myth. I responded to it with an immediate reaction of “Of course!”

Which raises the difficult issue of morality (a term Christians like to use) and ethics (a term atheists like to use). I have a sense of “right and wrong.” David Rochester wrote not very long ago about his relationship with a woman named Laura who said she didn’t believe in evil. She said that Hitler, for example, was not evil but perhaps misguided in his beliefs. Like David, I have encountered similar people and I have been quite offended. In fact, in my makeup, I have a strong streak of self-righteousness and a strong tendency to condemn people I think are engaging in “bad” behavior. My behavior and life has not been (and is not) perfect, so not only am I philosophically incoherent, I am also a hypocrite.

I do not believe one can argue one’s way to an overwhelmingly logical and convincing reason for being a moral person. Why not steal and rape and murder?

For Christians, the answer seems to be, because God and Jesus said not to. For evangelical Christians the answer seems to be in part that the argument is more convincing because the Bible is inerrant. If it’s true in a historical sense: Jesus actually lived and Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead (and Noah’s ark really existed, etc.); and if it’s true in a scientific sense: humans were formed in the Garden of Eden and all life came from God’s Creation and not as described by “Darwinism” (as evangelicals like to scornfully dismiss the theory of evolution), then the rules of morality must be based on absolute truths provided by God.

My summaries and paraphrases of religious belief tend to provoke Christians into sputtering, apoplexy. Tim is very, very intelligent and a very very good scholar and Cameron is very very good and for all I know, Tim is gooder than Cameron and Cameron is smarter than Tim. Also, they both laugh at my jokes some of the time, which is the best way to flatter me. Nevertheless, they have not convinced me.

I don’t think there are “absolute” moral laws in the universe. There are no overwhelming logical reasons for not killing and stealing and raping. I don’t do these things because my parents (for all their faults and failings) raised me not to do these things; they made use of my natural empathy for other humans to turn me into a reasonably decent human being. I tried to do the same for my daughter and I think I succeeded reasonably well. She and her partner are trying to do the same for our granddaughter. She will be four next month; perhaps I will give her a midterm exam.

 I have to get ready to leave for the mainland. I will blither on when I get more of a chance.


January 26, 2008

This weekend, my wife and I are going to visit the Barely Extended Family: Random Daughter (Mama), Out of Law Partner (Mommy), and her little Highness, Random Granddaughter. I will tell ask her to do or say something cute and endearing for her fans, but like a cat, she says and does what she feels like.

Reflected Glory

January 25, 2008


Speaking of college, which David Rochester recently did in his blog, saying something such as “I hated it. I hated it. I hated it.”

I would say that each person should be regarded as an individual, and should so regard him or her self, and not try to fit himself or herself into a Procrustean bed.

David attended a college in Ohio named Oberlin and had a miserable time. My daughter attended Oberlin and had an OK time. Not horrible. Not wonderful. But fairly good.

These experience only tells us that my daughter and David are different people with different needs and capabilities. For example, one person might like a certain food. Another person might dislike that food intensely. A third person might throw up or have some other dangerous reaction to that food. This only tells us something about each person’s reaction to that food. It does not tell us anything in general about that food except to be careful with it and not feel that you have to like it or eat it.

My daughter had worked on a research farm in the Midwest. (This web site describes the general problem of the American chestnut tree, though not anything specific to do with my daughter or the work she did.)

My daughter dreamed of saving the American chestnut tree. She enrolled in graduate school to study horticulture, specializing in nut trees. (I made jokes about studying nuts running in our family, which my daughter took in good humor.)

After she began her studies at Cornell, she said to herself, “I have made a terrible mistake.” Although she completed her Masters degree (being very conscientious), she left graduate school without going on to get her doctorate as she had originally planned.

She and her partner moved to Seattle. My daughter found she was not able to get a job in medical research (an area where she some work experience). She ended up getting a temporary job at a financial institution which turned into a permanent job. Random Granddaughter was born. My daughter delighted in being a co-Mom. (Because of a childhood illness, she can’t bear a child herself.)

She became weary of her job. Eventually she considered going back to graduate school. She worked with a career counselor to select a course of study. She eventually decided on medical statistics. She applied for the University of Washington. She was rejected. They told her that her background in math was not strong enough because she was competing with people with stronger math backgrounds. They told her that if she took more math classes, they would consider her again, though there was no promise or guarantee of acceptance on her reapplication.

My daughter took two years of calculus through distance learning. Although I had passed a year of calculus when I was in community college (after initially flunking out of Cal Berkeley, if I tried to solve a differential equation now, my brain would melt and leak out of my ears and make an ugly mess. I was very impressed as my daughter plugged her way through two years of calculus.

She applied again. A couple of days ago my daughter received an email that in part said,

“The Admission’s Committee of the Department of Biostatistics reviewed your application at our meeting yesterday. I am thrilled to be able to invite you to join our graduate program next year as a MS student. This offer of admission includes full financial support for your studies. This support package is a 12 month appointment that will be renewed annually provided you maintain satisfactory progress in the program. This support may be in the form of a research assistantship or teaching assistantship, and is sufficient to cover tuition, books and living expenses for your graduate studies. Specific details regarding the support will be sent in the future in a letter from our Graduate Program Director…”

My conclusion, with no additional evidence, is that the Admissions Committee said to each other This is a very serious student. Accept her!

We’ll see if this time the dream and reality match better. One never knows. One plugs ahead. At least my daughter does, while her father basks in reflected glory.

This gets very complicated. For the last couple of years, I have read and posted extensively at, the blogging site of World magazine, a leading magazine and web site for American evangelical Christians. This was very odd as I am not a religious believer. At the beginning of 2008, I decided to take a six month (at least) “sabbatical” from participation at that blog. I may not return to posting there.

Some of the Christians at wmb have found my participation there interesting and amusing at times, though I think all believe that my participation would be immeasurably improved if I converted to Christianity. Others have found my participation offensive and irritating.

Some of the people who regularly read and post at my blog site include people from the more or less favorable group, including Cameron and Mommy, (both of whom commented on my “Acorn” post) and Vicky, Janie, and Kyle, who have not. Pete is a bit of a special case; we “met” at wmb. Unlike me, he is a Christian. Like me, he has some doubts about wmb being that useful a place to participate for a long period of time, though obviously his reasons are not all the same as mine.

I seldom delete comments (only one deletion in the history of my blog), and not because of disagreement. I am quite willing to delete a comment, but it would be because I found it boring or tedious, not because it expresses a different point of view on politics or religion. I find it very charming that Cameron reminds me that I can delete her comments. Pete has said something similar. It does not distress me when a Christian posts a comment affirming their Christianity or expressing a Christian point of view. I consider the probability of Cameron (or Pete for that matter) posting a message I found any reason to delete about as low as I would reading in the newspaper that either of them had been arrested as a terrorist. I don’t have a microscope powerful enough to see a probability that low.

I suppose if someone posted an entire sermon (of hundreds of paragraphs), I might say, “That’s quite enough,” but I’ve seen no sign of such happening, and a few paragraphs are fine.

Briefly, in terms of what Cameron and Mommy said, my response to the Christian belief that we humans are all fallen is:

1) As a metaphor, I find it describes how humans behave in a moving and powerful way.

2) As a literal description of how humans actually began, the story of the Garden of Eden and of Adam and Eve is not convincing to me. In any given month, wmb contains hundreds of messages expressing vigorous disagreement between evangelical Christians (who consider the theory of evolution a myth) secular people and a few “liberal” Christians who consider the Garden of Eden story a myth. I think it sufficient to acknowledge the disagreement exists. If someone decides to start the evolution vs. Creation flame wars in my blog, I will start deleting messages. It’s perfectly OK to refer to your beliefs in this regard as part of a message.

3) As a belief system I do not find the Eden story admirable. The book Milton’s God by the brilliant and eccentric British critic William Empson presents this point of view better than I can.

4) In this regard, I find evolutionary theory a convincing (though not yet complete) theory for accounting for both altruistic and benevolent human behavior and for evil and wicked behavior. Cameron and her husband Tim, a minister who has an excellent Christian blog at has criticized my arguments with considerable good-humored vigor at their blog.

(Most of Tim’s posts are very serious and very religious. However, just by coincidence, when I visited his blog just now, his latest post was a very—if I may dare to say so—very “Random” piece of satire about Christian libertarian Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul. I was feeling a little “guilty’ (not the right word) about leaving Ron out of my recent satire about Presidential candidates. Tim took care of that unplanted ground quite nicely—I don’t think anything will grow there for quite a while. By the way, Cameron, you can tell Tim he is now so in trouble …)

OK, back to my theme. As I’ve argued with Tim and Cameron in his blog, I think the basis for altruistic human behavior lies in part in our capacity for empathy. To the extent that we, as human beings, can vicariously imagine what another human being feels, we are reluctant to cause that person pain and we feel (and occasionally act on) an urge to help other people when we see suffering. The Christian expression of this impulse is what we call “The Golden Rule.” I rather offended Tim a bit in his blog by describing Christianity as a “virtuous swindle,” though he no more deleted my message than I would be tempted to delete one of Cameron’s messages.

I agree that the term is not an especially felicitous one. I am very resistant to supernatural explanations of the universe. We seem to live in a universe that follows natural laws which have been described by what we call science. I do not find a chronicle that tells of a “virgin birth” and a “resurrection from the dead” convincing. There are Biblical scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Robert Price who are very skeptical about the assertion that Jesus was literally the “Son of God.”

Tim is a formidable Biblical scholar, and I think it fair to say that he would argue that I don’t know what I am talking about. If Cameron (or Tim) or Vicky or Kyle or anybody else wants to make a comment to this post expressing a different point of view, I am comfortable with that.

However, I will probably not turn my blog into a pale imitation of World Magazine at the leading evangelical Christian web site, or of the Secular Web at, the leading atheistic web site.

(Actually, as I’ve said, I consider myself a “Radical Agnostic” rather than an atheist, but I’ll talk about that on another day.)

I have more to say in response to some of the other comments, but I need to get on the treadmill and then head out to the ferry. It occurs to me that if they made exercise bicycles connected to the ferry engine available to all the passengers, we could pedal our way to the mainland and save a lot of gasoline as well as getting into shape. This idea needs work, but that’s the idea.)