Friday, February 25, 2011

New blog. Alert the media.

Hey, insomniac who wandered here by mistake, or the two who showed up on purpose.  Here's where I stow the stuff in my head, to prove there's something there.  No guarantees, implied or otherwise, on the quality of the content.  I just got done dumping most of the essays and stuff I've written and kept, because an empty blog is sad.  A full one may be just as sad, or worse, but it doesn't give off a hollow sound when you hit it.

Book Review In Honor of Black History Month

Book Review: Brothers in Arms, The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes

In the flush of outrage and patriotism in the days and months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans by the hundreds of thousands volunteered to serve in our nation's armed forces. It was no different for black Americans, who were ready to fight for their country, even one that still treated them as decidedly second-class citizens.  Eager to maintain the support of black citizens for the war effort, the government attempted to placate them by accepting blacks into the still racially segregated armed services in support roles such as cooks, mechanics, quartermasters (supply troops) and the like, while never actually intending to let them fight.  This is well-known, but to this day, a myth persists that no blacks fought in combat during World War Two, except perhaps in isolated instances such as the famed Tuskegee Airmen of the 332nd Fighter Group.  But in fact, driven by the urgent need for combat replacements in the last year of the war, tens of thousands of black soldiers fought and were killed and wounded in front line combat, mostly in all-black units.  The 761st Tank Battalion was just such a unit.

With Brothers in Arms, The Epic Story of the 761stTank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, NBA Hall of Famer and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Author of On the Shoulder of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, and co-author Anthony Walton, finally do justice to the remarkable but almost completely unknown story of the 761st Tank Battalion, whose motto was "Come Out Fighting!"

Highly trained, but manning poorly-designed Sherman tanks that were in many ways mobile death traps and were in all ways under-armored and outgunned by the vaunted German Panzers, the 761st fought their way over 2,000 combat miles from the hedgerows of Normandy to the concentration camps of Mauthausen.  You could say they had to fight a two-front war - not only against the best Nazi Germany could throw at them, but also the worst to which some of their own countrymen could subject them. Both in stateside training and European combat, they fought to overcome indifference, stereotypes, outright racism and even violence.  They struggled against mistrust, disrespect, disdain, ignorance, doubting leaders, poor leadership and tactics, neglect and exhaustion.  They dealt with the ambiguous and contradictory feelings toward them personified in their erstwhile commander General George S. Patton, who had made it plain in past writings that he thought blacks couldn't think quickly enough for armored warfare, yet was willing enough to have their support in critical battles.  They fought for weeks and months without more than a day's break from combat, adequate winter clothing or even a change of uniform. To drag a wounded comrade to safety under fire or to scout ahead or attack German positions on foot was nearly an everyday occurence.  Rather than being part of a self-contained armored division staffed with infantry trained to support tank operations, the 761st Battalion was a detached unit (known to themselves and the rest of the Army as a "bastard" battalion) that was shuffled around different armored or infantry units according to need or the whim of commanders.  They would be placed alongside an all-white unit whose reactions to them ranged from caution to outright contempt, and win most of them over with their courage, skill, dedication and humanity, demolishing stereotypes that blacks weren't brave or intelligent enough fight or lead.  Then they would be abruptly bounced to another unfamiliar unit and have to start again from scratch, suffering the crushing indignity of going from heroes and life-savers one day to "n----r tankers" the next.

Through it all, they fought with unheralded but unexcelled valor and determination, and often with conspicuous gallantry.  And when they returned home, sure that their bravery and sacrifices in blood and lives would open America's eyes to their worth as men and finally gain them full participation in American life, they found a country mostly eager and determined to go on as if they had never even set foot overseas.  Their status as an unattached unit hampered record keeping, as did "lost" commendations and paperwork and old stereotypes, to the extent that even other black Americans refused to believe that they had fought at all, let alone from inside the iconic Sherman tank. Their skill in maneuvering thirty-two ton tanks through difficult terrain and demolishing German fortifications and machine gun teams with 75mm armor-piercing shells did little to prepare them for the postwar workforce and the reluctance of white managers to hire them, even after some obtained college degrees.

It would have been little wonder had they given up and retreated into bitterness and disillusionment.  But instead, we see in almost all of them a determination to start families and make new lives for themselves.  (We also see that men whose courage had been forged in bitter fighting against elite German armored units and SS troops were not easily intimidated by jeering crowds and phalanxes of police with nightsticks, dogs and fire hoses).  What is surprising is that so many people had to work so long and hard for them to receive the recognition that should have been theirs from the beginning.

While not without minor flaws, such as the need for more maps, the thoroughly researched and well-written "Brothers in Arms" illuminates an important part of black history and American history (including the history-shaping involvement of one John Roosevelt Robinson with the unit).  The experience of the black serviceman in World War II is an important prelude to the Civil Rights struggles of the '50s and '60s.  It's hard to read this account knowing that what they went through was part of a fight that would stretch on for another two decades. It's hard, knowing they thought they had won peace for their children, but their children would have to continue the struggle.

"Brothers in Arms" also retells an important part of military history.  The flawed and bloody campaign for the Saar, a low point in Patton's career, has been almost completely overshadowed by the Battle of the Bulge and the final drive through Germany (in both of which the 761st also fought) and receives deserved attention here.

But I recommend "Brothers in Arms" simply because the men of the 761st Tank Battalion, as well as all black WWII veterans, deserve for their story to be told.

Favorite Feel-Good Songs

January 22, 2011 

Some of my favorite feel-good songs
What a Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
Dock of the Bay, Otis Redding
Cherry, Cherry, Neil Diamond
Good Vibrations, the Beach Boys
Brown-Eyed Girl, Van Morrison
Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles
Drift Away, Dobie Gray
I can See Clearly Now, Johnny Nash
Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
Lean on Me, Bill Withers
Peace Train, Cat Stevens
Love Train, the O'Jays
Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd (not Kid Rock's ripoff of that song + Werewolves of London)
Everybody's Everything, Santana
Sir Duke, Stevie Wonder
Peaceful, Easy Feeling, The Eagles
Questions 67 & 68, Chicago
Kodachrome, Paul Simon
Just Like Starting Over, John Lennon
Watching the Wheels, John Lennon
Easy, the Commodores
Let's Go, The Cars
Just Like Heaven, The Cure

I left off some obvious ones.

Christmas Songs - Definitive and Favorite Versions

December 24, 2010

My favorite versions of Christmas Songs.  Your results may vary...

Adeste Fidelis                                                      Bing Crosby
All I Want for Christmas Is You                           Mariah Carey
Baby It's Cold Outisde                                         Dean Martin
Blue Christmas                                                     Elvis Presley
Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)                         Amy Grant
The Christmas Song                                            Nat King Cole
Christmas Time Is Here                                       Vince Guaraldi Trio
Do They Know It's Christmas?                             Band Aid
Feliz Navidad                                                       Jose Feliciano
Frosty the Snowman                                           Jimmy Durante
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen                            Bing Crosby
Grown Up Christmas List                                     Amy Grant
Happy Xmas (War is Over)                                 John Lennon & Yoko Ono
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas                               Burl Ives
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas              Judy Garland
Heaven Came to Earth                                          2nd Chapter of Acts
Here Comes Santa Claus                                    Gene Autry
I'll be Home for Christmas                                   Bing Crosby
It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year           Andy Williams
Jingle Bell Rock                                                    Ritchie Valens
Let it Snow                                                          Dean Martin
The Little Drummer Boy                                       Harry Simone Chorale
March of the Toys                                               The Philadelphia Orchestra
Mele Kalikimaka                                                    Bing Crosby with the Andrews Sisters
Merry Christmas Darling                                      The Carpenters
O Tannenbaum                                                    Nat King Cole
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree                     Brenda Lee
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer                       Gene Autry
Santa Baby                                                          Eartha Kitt
Santa Claus is Coming to Town                           Frank Sinatra
Sleigh Ride                                                           Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops Orchestra
The Night Before Christmas                                 Amy Grant
There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays       Perry Como
Walking in the Air (from the film "The                  Peter Auty
Snowman" )

White Christmas                                                  Bing Crosby
White Christmas                                                  The Drifters
Winter Wonderland                                             Amy Grant
Wonderful Christmastime                                    Paul McCartney

Rights in the Absence of a Transcendent Creator

October 20, 2010

"The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records.  They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself, and can never be erased."
Alexander Hamilton,
The Farmer Refuted (1775)

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness..."

If the President of The United States includes "endowed" but purposely and conspicuously omits "by their Creator" (as he has several times) when quoting the Declaration of Independence, then by whom or by what does he suppose men are endowed with rights? And if that who or that what isn't bigger than man's power to oppress, tyrannize, injure, kill and take by force, then what, exactly, makes any rights inalienable? A "right" that is not inalienable is no right at all; it is nothing more than a privilege, granted by the strong to the weak, which can be altered or rescinded at any time at the whim of the grantor. Which was exactly the situation against which America's founders rebelled when they declared their inependence from King George III.

Book Review: Descent into Darkness Pearl Harbor, 1941 (The True Story of a Navy Diver)

August 21, 2010

The standard narrative of World War II in the Pacific long engraved on the American psyche moves from the devastation at Pearl Harbor to the dark days of Bataan and first good news of the Doolittle raid.  From there, the tactical defeat but strategic victory at the Coral Sea, the stunning turning point of Midway, the Marines' savage struggle for Guadalcanal, fighting in the jungles of New Guinea, and the bloody island-hopping campaign.

But while all this was happening, Pearl Harbor was a beehive of activity, and not just with the comings and goings of Navy ships and in-transit personnel.  Every day, civilian and Navy "hardhat" divers like Edward Raymer donned almost 100lb of bulky diving gear and descended into the blackness of the oil-covered waters of Pearl to undertake the important and hazardous task of salvaging what they could of the once-proud battleships sunk and damaged in the attack and refloating as many of them as possible so they could be repaired and sent to the fight that had been over for them almost as soon as it had begun.  In Descent into Darkness Pearl Harbor, 1941 (The True Story of a Navy Diver), retired US Navy Commander Edward C. Raymer (formerly an enlisted sailor and the first person to dive on the sunken U.S.S. Arizona) weaves a fascinating tale of a relatively unknown but important part of the war in the Pacific – the attempt to undo as much as possible the damage from the Japanese sneak attack on the Pacific Fleet.  In so doing, he brings to life a motley cast of ordinary but brave, dedicated and hardworking sailors who are a microcosm of the Greatest Generation who triumphed in World War II, and who, like the combat sailors, sometimes gave their lives in doing so.

The nature of the divers' work dictated that it be done alone and unsupervised.  The kind of officers that would normally try to micromanage things were only too happy to leave the terrifying work up to the enlisted divers once they experienced it themselves.  This work involved painstakingly moving through fully fueled and armed battleships that were ripped apart and strewn with wreckage and debris.  It was up to the individual divers to overcome countless problems and hazards that had never been encountered in peacetime salvage diving, whether it was jagged steel, the removal of 2,000lb high explosive shells from magazines or the deadly buildup of explosive gases.  And because the work was inside sunken ships in water covered and saturated in fuel oil and debris, it was all done in pitch darkness and had to be accomplished with the help of radioed directions from ship's plans and done completely by feel – a feel that was finely honed in the months and years they toiled in the inky blackness.  The cadre of divers were true pioneers who invented solutions and procedures that became adopted as standard later on.  And from the Publisher's Weekly review, "Raymer's memoir is useful above all as a case study of the hands-on, un-bureaucratized approach to problem-solving that the U.S. brought to WWII from the beginning."

Raymer hilariously relates off-duty antics as the divers ingeniously circumvented prohibition (of liquor) in order outmaneuver an entire island of soldiers, sailors and Marines to secure female companionship for a series of covert beach parties.  But he also sensitively treats the difficult subject of encountering the bodies of sailors still entombed in the ships.  Phobias – fears of the dark, confinement, drowning and being buried alive all came into play as every day brought new challenges to be overcome.  (Even arachnophobia was a problem in an incident that will either terrify or amuse, depending on one's feelings towards spiders).

Raymer and a fellow diver spent a hardly peaceful interlude in the jungles of Guadalcanal and the waters of "The Slot" between the Solomon Islands.  Dodging the nightly "Tokyo Express" of marauding Japanese cruisers and destroyers, the sailors worked to repair ships and resupply the Marines on the island, for whom they gained a profound respect after observing and sharing in some of their hardships.  A high point was doing underwater repair work in crystal clear sunlit waters – something they had not yet experienced in the war.  The low point was the torpedoing and sinking of their home away from home, the repair ship U.S.S. Seminole.

After a 30-day survivors leave in San Francisco, Raymer returned to his brother divers and continued the work at Pearl Harbor on the USS Arizona, Utah, West Virginia, California and Oklahoma. He served as a liaison to news reporters and even a tour guide of the Oklahoma to none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  Some of the battlewagons were beyond saving – the Utah was scuttled and the Arizona remained at the bottom of the harbor, becoming a sacred monument and a tomb for more than a thousand sailors.  Others lived to fight again, like the lightly damaged Tennessee and the West Virginia, which was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, where the long, costly and bloody war was finally brought to a close.

If you're interested in history, curious about the "rest of" the Pearl Harbor story, love the salty vocabulary and tales of the Navy, are curious about working diving in canvas suits, weighted shoes and copper helmets in the days before SCUBA, wonder what it was like when important work wasn't weighed down with a web of nonsensical rules and regulations, or just want a good read, Descent Into Darkness is highly recommended.

The State of Independence Day

July 4, 2010

This day is a bit more solemn for me than past Independence days. I have come to the full realization that no matter how profound the wisdom of the founders in writing the Constitution, despite the fact that they were aided in their task by divine Providence, despite the genius of the separation of powers, checks and balances and safeguards, and the codification of our God-given rights built into it, it cannot protect and maintain itself. Its ability to do so was predicated on a clear understanding of its meaning and the intent of its writers, and that is no longer a given. Its enemies have succeeded in twisting its meaning and depriving generations of children of their birthright of education in its greatness.

It's no longer enough to rely on our young warriors abroad to protect us from threats without and the Constitution to protect itself from threats within. It is the duty of every citizen from greatest to least to dedicate ourselves as fully to protecting and defending her and our Republic as our military has pledged to do for generations and more fully than her enemies are dedicated to tearing her down. Political activism can no longer be the territory of the enemies of liberty only. It must become an integral part of our everyday lives, too.

So enjoy this day to the fullest, but let it not be solely a day to thank God for our liberty and celebrate those who have preserved it for us in the past and are doing so now. Let it be a day when we dedicate ourselves anew to preserving it for our children and their children and beseech Almighty God his grace and mercy on our land.

On the Need for Economic Literacy

March 26, 2010

Were I Grand Poobah of the United States, I'd require everyone to read a text and pass a test in basic free-market economics. Why?

To put to rest once and for all, economic myths like the one that sellers in a properly regulated capitalist system can set prices "arbitrarily." Or the closely related myth of "price gouging." Or the myth that the "market" is some cruel, impersonal force, rather than the sum total of the free choices of a population of free people.

So people would understand why price supports result in surplus of a commodity, price ceilings result in scarcity of a commodity and wage controls result in scarcity of jobs.

So that anyone who hasn't had the misfortune to live in a communist country or any other centrally-planned, command economy would know how backward, inefficient and wasteful they are, why they don't work, and why an army of a million government planners can never do what prices do automatically in a free market.

So people would understand that no collection of disinterested bureaucrats could ever regulate an industry as well as consumers when there is real competition. That in a competitive environment, the same company that resists or skirts government regulators will quickly fall in line when customer dissatisfaction affects their bottom line, or lose their business to companies that do. Why true competition in the insurance industry is the best thing that could happen to the healthcare consumer.

So that they would never again be led astray by the lies and promises of politicians and demagogues. So they would be able to figure out exactly why the current healthcare "reform" is so bad for the country, stop demonizing people who oppose it, and maybe even consider the better ideas that have so far been ignored.

There is an ever-increasing population of Americans who have never seen the tragic effects of Marxism, who don't realize it's not a new idea that needs to be tried, and who are easy prey for those who are trying to push us toward it. If that population reaches a certain critical mass, we're in trouble.

My recommendation for an interesting and readable text? Basic Economics, by Thomas Sowell.

Knowledge is power, and the truth will make you free.

The Ultimate Regulators

March 21, 2010

In her March 17 column, Ann Coulter said that if the hotel industry were regulated as heavily as the insurance industry, she would be explaining why the government doesn't need to mandate that hotels offer rooms with beds. If they didn't, they'd go out of business.

If insurance consumers had real choice, there wouldn't need to be government regulations against things like lifetime coverage caps or using pre-existing coverage clauses to fraudulently drop existing customers - insurance companies would quickly bow to the wishes of the consumer or quickly go out of business. All with no new gargantuan entitlements, thousands of new IRS employees or rationing of healthcare. In a free market, consumers are the ultimate regulators. With tools like consumer groups, a watchdog media and the internet, the American consumer is savvier and better informed than in any other time in history, and they are more interested and invested in their own protection than a Washington bureaucrat. And they don't cost the taxpayers anything.

Real Healthcare Reform

March 20, 2010

The healthcare legislation that the President and Congressional Democrat leadership are tying themselves in knots to cobble together out of parliamentary gymnastics, multi-billion dollar bribes, threats and coercion, union favors, back room bargaining, constant condescending preaching, demonization of opponents, outright lies, supplying fraudulent information and assumptions to the CBO, and for all we know, duct tape, chewing gum and bailing wire, all while not even fully knowing what is in it, is not about healthcare. It is a last-ditch attempt to salvage what was supposed to be the signature issue of the Obama presidency and realize a century-old dream of the left for the Federal government to be the lord, father figure and provider for every American. It is a Trojan horse that will lay the groundwork for further enormous expansions of government size, power, control and entitlements. It will give government unprecedented control over every aspect of our lives that could even remotely be tied to healthcare. (Like cigars? Rock climbing? Motorcycling?). It is opposed by a clear majority of Americans and has bipartisan opposition in Congress (no such bipartisan support exists for it). I humbly submit that if the issue were really the health of the American people, rather than a codification of the Left's hatred of private enterprise, Congress would immediately drop this multi-thousand page Frankenstein monstrosity into the dustbin of history and reform our health coverage system by doing four things, at zero cost to the taxpayer:

1. Eliminate the antitrust exemptions for the insurance companies, prohibitions on interstate purchasing and State mandates on coverage. If this single step happened, consumers would be able to choose exactly what type of coverage they wanted. Why should a retired man or post-menopausal woman, for example, be forced to purchase a plan that covers contraception and obstetrics? If you could choose, would you buy a plan that covers everthing down to doctor visits for sniffles, or would you cover only serious or catastrophic illness and use the savings as you see fit? You should be able to choose. Can you imagine if health insurance companies had to compete with hundreds of other companies in a marketplace similar to the one for car insurance? Consumers can regulate a consumer-product industry far better than government can. For a better-written and staggeringly commonsense take on this item, see the March 17, 2010 column at Incidentally, the amount and form of compensation from a company to its employees, including whether or not a company provides or contributes to health insurance for them, should be subject to the mutual agreement of both and no one else, period.

2. Reform medical malpractice laws, not to eliminate lawsuits for actual malpractice as opponents claim, but to allow doctors to make decisions based on what is best for the patient, not to continually work in a combative, defensive state of protecting themselves and their employers from predatory litigation.

There is no such thing as a "right" to healthcare anymore than there is a "right" to be happy, although we have the right to pursue happiness. You do not have a lien on other people's wealth and labor to provide you with healthcare. However, we are a civilized and compassionate nation, and so most of us would not be willing for anyone to suffer because of a real inability to afford healthcare. If we as a nation believe that everyone should have healthcare, then this is my answer:

3. Provide a safety net for those people who truly cannot afford coverage (even under the vastly lower prices that would result from real, competitive, free market system) by providing tax credits or tailored vouchers toward the purchase of private insurance plans. Even if someone is receiving aid, that aid should not go straight from the government to the provider - the aid recipient should be the one to fork over the payment. This would get government out of the equation, force people receiving the government aid to be an active participant in making sure they get the best care for the taxpayers' dollar and eliminate the problem of ever-shrinking reimbursements to doctors and pharmacies for services to Medicare and Medicaid recipients. This safety net would also be how we provide for people suffering from pre-existing conditions. A single-payer system would insert government bureaucrats right into the very center of a highly personal transaction in which they have no business, constitutional or otherwise. Single-payer guarantees a lord/serf relationship between government and the governed. Europe has a long history of serfdom, only relatively recently changed, but it is the exact opposite of the American ideal and what America needs. America has a different history, character and set of founding ideals from Europe, and we need American solutions to our problems.

4. Require themselves and every other member of the Federal government to have whatever kind of healthcare coverage they mandate for the rest of us. The fact that they refuse to do this now speaks volumes.

These are representative of the kind of ideas GOP senators and representatives have been advocating for years now, but in this year's debate they were utterly stonewalled by the President and the newsmedia. I'm no expert on the issue and my expression of these ideas are admittedly simplistic, but at their core is a common-sense desire to reverse the trend of ever-expanding government size, reach and power that I believe is completely consistent with the founding ideals of our nation.

My Favorite Song of Advent

December 14, 2009

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of Thy people be;
Before Thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on Thy mercy call.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to thee, O Israel.

The Ex-President Who Cried Wolf

September 16, 2009

Given the need for racial healing in America, it is inexcusable for short-sighted politicians to fan the flames of racial strife and trade decades of progress in race relations for the table scraps of questionable short-term political gain by affixing the motive of racism to all opposition. Do they really mean to say that all disagreement with the President is racist? Do people such as the ever more embarrassing Jimmy Carter not see that every time the word "racism" is misused, hurled indiscriminately, employed to end a losing argument or excuse bad behavior, it is further leached of its meaning and impact, like the unheeded warnings of the boy who cried wolf?

For the unjustly accused, the charge of racism is so hurtful, damaging and impossible to disprove that it ought to be handled like nitroglycerin. Instead, it’s flung about like the enamel in a Jackson Pollock painting. Actual racism is so ugly, despicable and worthy of extinction, that the word ought to have the impact of a freight train. Instead, people are so numbed to hearing it used for any and every reason that they treat it with automatic skepticism, which is most unfortunate.

As long as the Race Card remains the Left’s default response to even the most principled disagreements, the ideal of "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" will remain a quaint and naive sentiment from a receding past.

Hymn 9 by Isaac Watts

Hymn 9 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

And bathed in its own blood,

While all exposed to wrath divine

Was it for crimes that I had done

He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide,

And shut his glories in,
When God, the mighty Maker, died
For man, the creature's sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face,

While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

But drops of grief can ne'er repay

The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
'Tis all that I can do.

On Teacher Merit Pay

August 22, 2009

Merit pay for teachers sounds great, except that, unlike with, say, my job as an engineer, teachers don't really work on a level playing field. My wife, a 3rd grade teacher, is a perfect example. She's an excellent teacher; she is amazing in the classroom, and it's doubtful she'd suffer under any kind of merit pay system. She specializes in turning around low achievers, especially in math, and dealing with behavior problems and er, "challenging" parents who contribute little but complaints and think their little Johnny is only disruptive and disrespectful because he's a budding Einstein who isn't "challenged enough." So guess what students get placed in her class every year? Bingo. On the other hand, some teachers tend to get more high achievers and parents who are understanding and great helpers. (Kids in grade school are placed in their next class by their current teacher, subject to approval by the principal, and yes, politics and popularity contests enter into it, as does pressure from parents who go only by neighborhood gossip and superficial popularity and not the need to balance teachers' workload and match students to teachers based on several areas of compatibility).

Regarding using test data to evaluate teachers, my wife does very well with the challenges she's given and is known for her excellent test scores, but she has colleagues who get more of the high-achieving scorers in the first place, and as I mentioned, the process is not objective. But, while the current system of placing students would be unfair in a merit pay system, when it functions correctly (and not as a popularity contest), it accounts for different teacher strengths and teaching and discipline styles and the unique individual needs of students. Guaranteeing an equal distribution of high and low scoring students across classrooms, while ensuring fairness for teachers in a merit pay system, would not accomplish this.

Finally, and this is so self-evident it shouldn't even bear mentioning here, the teacher is just one link in the chain that comprises a student's education, albeit a vital one. A good teacher can overcome a lot in the way of student attitudes and abusive, neglectful, apathetic, self-absorbed, narcissistic parents (ask my wife about the time that the police arrested an abusive father outside the door to her kindergarten class), but they aren't always miracle workers.

I'm not saying pay shouldn't be based on merit, of course, but I'm not very confident that, given the government's usual ham-fisted way of accomplishing things, their version of merit pay would account for the complexities of the issue.

My wife has worked in union and non-union schools and is not a fan of the NEA or CTA, but this is one area in which many of my fellow conservatives could use some education of their own.

Why it Matters

July 4, 2009

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...

...And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. "

These incredible words are a big part of what makes America unique, with apologies to our democratic allies. This is why it is impossible for us to be a true member of a mythical "global community" - because so many in that community don't hold these to be truths at all, so many hate and despise these ideals, so many enslave and murder and rape their own people and those of their neighbors. Unfortunately, so many in our own country find these ideas and the men who penned them, repugnant too.

So have a happy Hot Dog and Fireworks Day, but let's celebrate with our eyes open and our brains turned on.

What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?

June 21, 2009

     I have some free advice for the young people out there, hard-won after 23 years of full and part-time work. If your parents' advice sounds to you like the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons (rent A Charlie Brown Christmas if necessary), maybe you'll listen to someone who isn't related to you and isn't always all up in your grille about cleaning your room.

     Get all the career counseling and aptitude testing your school has to offer. Do everything in your power to understand your personality, strengths, weaknesses, talents, aptitudes, etc. DO IT! Find out what you're most suited for, and don't just drift aimlessly into a job or career. For some of you, this is like telling you be sure to wear pants when you leave the house in the morning, but some people end up in a job or career by accident or default, sometimes through lack of focus or planning.  Don't ask me how I know.

     Once you figure out what kind of work will be enjoyable and fulfilling to you, focus your energies on achieving it. In Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki advises that the reasons usually given for going to college are all wrong. Don't go so that you can get a good-paying job, although that may be a happy by-product. Go to help you become the person you want to be. Figure out who you are and what you want to do, then if you go to college, go to equip yourself to be who you want to be. You may have to make some adjustments along the way, but that's OK. You'll be heading in the right direction.

     If you're in college working toward a technical degree, you may be tempted to neglect some of your more right-brained subject matter, and some schools make it easy to do so by, for example, backing off on the General Ed. requirements for say, engineering. But don't ignore the things that will make you a better, more well-rounded person. There's a reason Leonardo DaVinci was the archetypal Renaissance Man. It's better to be an engineer who appreciates Coltrane, Carvaggio and the use of base isolation units in the seismic design of multistory buildings than one who can talk about only the latter at a social gathering. Because I've yet to hear the latter come up at a social gathering of non-nerds.

     If you are able to go to college but you're not sure you want or need to go, my advice is to do it. Maybe not right now, but soon. In the same way that in 20 years you will probably be in a different place and frame of mind than you are right now as you're relaxing in the tattoo parlor getting that wicked sleeve filled in, be careful about limiting your choices 20 years down the road by how you're feeling right now. Believe your parents when they tell you that 20 years comes faster than you can imagine. I know a lot of people who learned the hard way that is a whole lot more difficult going to night school with a full-time job, spouse and 2 kids than it is when you're fresh out of high school and Mom and Dad are still footing most of the bills. Think about all this if you think you don't need college because you're going in a non-traditional direction. Take advantage of the cash cow that is your parents while you can. Just remember, someday you may be ponying up the money for their rest home. I'm not saying everyone should go to college or that you won't find happiness and fulfillment without it, only that if you're not sure, college can only open doors for you.

     Let's talk about the military for a moment. One of my few regrets in life is not having served in the military. I had planned a specific career in the military early on, but when my specific plans didn't pan out, I ended up not going that route at all. But I think I would be a better, more disciplined, more squared-away person today for it, had I done it. I probably would have finished college in a shorter amount of time and Uncle Sam would have paid for it. And I'd have that certain justifiable pride that my Dad and many of my friends enjoy that only comes through serving our country in its armed forces. Something to think about.

     Unless money is what is most important to you (in which case, helping you achieve happiness is probably a fool's errand), money will likely be the least important factor in your career choice. You've heard the saying "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life."  If you enjoy what you do, if it is not just a job but who you are, if you look forward to the day's work when you get up in the morning, then you will be happier than a lot of millionaires (there are a lot of happy millionaires out there, but the happiness and the millions are both just the results of doing what they love) and will adjust your lifestyle to fit your income. If the only thing that truly fulfills you is making art, then you will be happy living on ramen noodles in a 1,000 square foot studio on what seems like chicken feed, making art, and you'll be miserable in a 3,500 sq.ft. custom home making six figures in marketing, your desk at the office looking more and more like a coffin every day. And while benefits and job security are worthy considerations, life on earth is inherently insecure, and change is the only constant. Ask your parents what are the only 2 sure things in life.

     Finally, the best advice of all is found in Matthew 6:33.

     Godspeed, go forth and conquer, and if you make the big time, remember the little people like me. You may address autographs "To my really good friend Jerry, without whom I wouldn't be where I am today."

The Governing Class

June 15, 2009

For quite awhile, I have thought that one could classify people politically as one of three types.

The first type live and work under the conviction that in order for free societies to exist and for their citizens to fully enjoy the blessings of liberty, each citizen must govern himself or herself, and those for which he or she is responsible. And they do so, with honesty and self-restraint, and raise their children to do likewise.

The second type, for whatever reason, cannot or will not govern themselves, are a constant danger to others, and are constantly impinging on the liberty of others.

The first type believe that one of the few legitimate roles of government is to restrain the predations of the second type upon the first. The first type would have an easier time living their lives and dealing with the second type but for the presence of a third type.

This third type may or may not govern themselves, but can always be identified by a feverish desire to govern others. Often they belong to what is called the "governing class," and a lack of belief in either God or kings does not preclude their operating as if by divine right. Unfortunately, they are usually far more concerned with the rights of the second type of person than with those of the first type that are their victims. They usually manage to find their way into government, and there act out their desires to govern others with a baffling indifference to restraining the second type of person and a perverse interest in directing the lives of the first, all the while exempting themselves from the strictures they impose on both.

The first type are fully capable of dealing with the second type, but Lord save us all from the third. 

On Holocaust Denial

June 13, 2009

It comes up every once in awhile, usually in the wake of news events related to the Holocaust, such as last week's tragic and deplorable shooting of guard Stephen Johns at the DC Holocaust museum - deniers of the Holocaust coming out of the woodwork. In fact, the deranged and hate-filled murderer himself was a vehement denier. Another notable example was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, prior to his visit to Columbia University in 2007, on the "need to be open to scientific questioning of events", including the Holocaust (scientific rigor being a hallmark of Holocaust deniers). But sane grownups know that the historical reality of the event is long settled. And I don't mean settled in the way that the consensus, based on theory, computer modeling, political pressure and religious fervor, is that global warming is settled. The scientific questioning of events Ahmadinejad asked for already happened, was very thorough, and the verdict was in, sixty-four years ago. The evidence was so far beyond what a person of the 1940's could wrap their mind around, that General Eisenhower was afraid that nobody would believe it, would believe that anything that horrible and bestial could have been perpetrated by humans against humans.  "Take pictures of everything," he reportedly said, "I mean everything, because one day some son of a bitch is going to say this never was." 

Ike was prescient in the matter. He foresaw the Holocaust deniers, and so he made sure that as many soldiers, officers, politicians, journalists and German townsfolk as possible viewed the sickening physical evidence firsthand, and gathered a mountain of horrifying and heartbreaking photographic and physical evidence along the way. This, before Photoshop was invented. Would that the deranged murderer, who was a WWII vet himself, had been one of the camp liberators. The mass graves and mounds of dead bodies and the emaciated, hollow-eyed living skeletons gave mute testimony. The large number of Jews today without parents or grandparents or great-grandparents give vocal testimony, as does the dwindling number of quiet, elderly people with tatooed numbers on their arms and horror seared upon their minds and souls.

The deniers are too late. But maybe we shouldn't wish them away.  People aren't going to stop believing the Holocaust happened because of their wild-eyed claims.  They'll stop believing it because it becomes blurred with time and distance and people stop talking about it.  But people are still talking about it because they are determined that the world never forget.  And in a satisfying irony, every time deniers make the news, it adds to the conversation.

On God and Existence

June 11, 2009

I am a simple man.  I believe in a reality, an existence, that is too big for me to fully see with my finite vision, fully perceive with my finite senses, fully measure with the impressive but finite tools at my disposal, fully grasp with my finite intellect, or fully conceive with my finite imagination. Yet I have been ridiculed for my belief in God by equally finite people who are confident in their ability to know and state categorically that there is no infinite and no God, although it is impossible to do so. They are like a man cut out of a sheet of notebook paper who tells his fellow two-dimensional paper people that to talk of other non-scientifically proveable dimensions and of a three-dimensional world inhabited by large, multicolored, three-dimensional beings who wear shoes and play basketball and eat tacos is foolish and even dangerous, and that only the ignorant and superstitious do so.

To try to understand existence with no reference point outside of that which is observable is like trying to lift oneself off the ground by standing on a rope on the floor with both feet and then pulling up on the rope with both hands. As Francis Schaeffer wrote in The God Who is There, to try to derive meaning for man with only man as a starting point is like wandering along the wall of a round, featureless, pitch-black room without windows or doors. They confidently deny the existence of the infinite God without understanding the meaning of finitum non capax infinitum - the finite cannot contain the infinite.

Fighting Words

 (MOLON LABE! – “Having come, take!” i.e., “Come and take them [our weapons]!”)

-- King Leonidas of Sparta to King Xerxes of Persia
in response to his demand the Spartans lay down their arms

“For it is better to die of hunger, exempt from fear and guilt than to live in affluence with perturbation”

-- Epictetus

"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? 
I know not what course others may take, but as for me, Give me Liberty, or Give me Death!"

--Patrick Henry

"Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say, what should be the reward of such sacrifices?' Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship, and plough, and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!"

-- Samuel Adams

“They who would give up an essential liberty for a temporary security deserves neither liberty nor security.”

-- Benjamin Franklin

"I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way."

"I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike!"

-- John Paul Jones

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. A man who has nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety is a miserable creature who has no chance at being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

-- John Stuart Mill

"We're paratroopers, Lieutenant. We're supposed to be surrounded."

-- Cpt. Richard Winters, E/506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Bastogne


-- Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, 101st Airborne Division, Bastogne, December 1944, to German commander demanding surrender

"We're surrounded.  This simplifies the problem."

--Col. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, USMC, at Chosin Reservoir, Korea

“It is better to be a live jackal than a dead lion – for jackals, not for men. Men who have the moral courage to fight intelligently for freedom have the best prospects of avoiding the fate of both live jackals and dead lions. Survival is not the be-all and end-all of a life worthy of man. Sometimes the worst thing we can know about a man is that he has survived. Those who say life is living at any cost have already written themselves an epitaph of infamy, for there is no cause and no person they will not betray to stay alive. Man’s vocation should be the use of the arts of intelligence in behalf of human freedom.”

-- Sidney Hook

"This ship is built to fight. You had better know how."

-- Admiral Arleigh "31 Knot" Burke to the crew of the USS Arleigh Burke, DDG-51, at her commissioning

"Are you guys ready? Okay. Let's roll!"

-- Todd Beamer, United Flight 93, September 11, 2001