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Use your head please

Several times a week I read something about folks who are upset about some information that SCIENCE has presented them and who choose to deny it. The extreme cases, I am sad to say, involve fundamentalist Christians who try to argue against evolution or who claim that the Earth is only 30,000 years old. The questions I want to ask these people go like this:
1. Do you use a cell phone?
2. How about a computer?
3. Do you drive a car?
Once we’ve established that there is something that they do that involves SCIENCE, the next question is:
What difference is there between the methods that produced your technological marvel and the methods that tell us the age of the Earth or that explain the fossil record?

There is no difference. Same SCIENCE all the way around.

If you believe that your cell phone will allow you to call your pastor to complain about the curriculum standards of your state board of education, why do you think the Grand Canyon was formed in a day? It’s a bad look, my brothers and sisters in Christ — it makes you seem stupid or hypocritical or both. Think about how this appeals to seekers. It makes them think that they have to turn off their brain before they can cross the threshold of a church, which is far from the truth.

Allow me to suggest that you try to get past how much of the world around you makes you uncomfortable and think about how to reach those who need to be reached. Looking defiantly foolish is not a good approach. Trust me on this.

When you set out to wreak mayhem, don’t forget the important things

This morning, a young woman got on the light rail a few stops after I did. She had pink & blue hair and the kind of colorful swirly skirt & tights getup you’d expect from that description – well, that people in Portland expect. She also carried a folded tripod and what appeared to be an M-4 assault rifle. Closer inspection of the latter revealed that it appeared to be a replica – the spray-on glitter was a subtle clue here. Still, it was a pretty convincing replica at first glance. Nobody said a word.

Her problem, as it turned out, was not her choice of fireams, it was that she neglected to buy a ticket. Yes, we had a fare inspector aboard who was working his way through the car. A few minutes after he got to Ms Pink and Blue, I heard the ominous radio crackle which means only one thing to a seasoned mass transit rider – she had no proof of fare, and the inspector was calling it in.

Let that be a lesson to all you would-be mass shooters: you can carry your M-4 on light rail, but don’t forget your fare.

No, you can’t do anything you set out to do, but…

One of the lies that people like to tell kids is “you can do anything you want to, if you really set your mind to it.” This is patently absurd. You can’t flap your arms and fly like a bird – believe me, I really wanted to do that. You can’t look at someone you don’t like and make them catch fire. You can’t make the Earth spin backwards and reverse time. (That’s a good thing, in my book.) This knowledge of your own limits may be depressing, to be sure. But think about it — the set of all possible actions is so incredibly large and dazzling that you should thank the Lord for keeping it from becoming infinite.

Here is the thing that kids should be told, over and over — you can do far more than you think you can. If you do find something you really want to do and that looks like it might be possible, understand that it probably won’t be easy. I am ashamed at the occasions when I have declined to attempt something difficult out of simple fear or discouragement, and yet I have managed to amaze myself time and time again by the things that I did accomplish. Give it a shot and don’t be discouraged by initial failure – that’s the real secret. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

A prayer for the mass-transit rider

Lord, protect us from those of brass voice and feather brain. Please keep those who chatter and bray from becoming our seatmate. If worse comes to worse and we are forced into proximity, let us have patience enough not to succumb to the temptation to deal out physical violence or even snappy remarks, however much the fool may deserve to be corrected. Though we are tempted also to pray for these people to be struck with laryngitis, let us understand that karma decrees that we shall also be sickened after they breathe on us.

Lord, help us to accept that the best we can do is to ask for swift, safe travel to our destination, and to appreciate how blessed we are that we don’t have to live or work with these people. All this we pray in the mighty name of your son, Jesus Christ.

10 things I did that you have probably not done

This was inspired by a post from John Scalzi (, who listed 10 interesting and unusual incidents from his life, and invited his readers to do the same. Here is my list:

* Rode on an ancient helicopter full of Marines, careening wildly at tree-top level.
* Recovered the corpse of a man who had drowned… four days prior. You wouldn’t believe the colors unless you saw it yourself.
* Broke my wrist playing cornerback in an American football game, then played the rest of the game.
* Watched in horror as my eight-year-old daughter accosted Steve Jobs on the show floor of MacWorld. (I was an Apple employee at the time.)
* Stayed in a house whose original timbers were laid in 1370. (It was my grandparents’ home in Sweden.)
* Wrote a program for the original Macintosh that sold eight copies.
* Carried buckets of water from the stream behind our house so we could use the bathroom. (The power was out to the well.)
* Did a voiceover appearance as Dan Rather reporting on a protest involving a giant condom stretched over the rotunda of a state capitol. (I still remember the phrase ‘enormous prophylactic’.)
* Had a recruiter call me to ask if I knew anything about Apple Help, and I replied that I wrote the book. (I did, too.)
* Had a cooling hose blow out in my car as I traveled down US 101 in California. I watched the cloud of steam streaming from under the hood as the temp climbed on the gauge. I pulled over, waited for the steam to dissipate, said “Please, Lord, let me get home.” Whereupon the temp immediately dropped back into the normal range and I was able to drive the three miles home without mishap or apparent damage to the car. (Yes, I replaced the hose and refilled the coolant.)

A brief observation while riding on the 12 bus

There are some obvious benefits to taking public transit, as well as drawbacks. I could do without the shouters and the crazy monologues, for instance; if I was driving, I could just turn off talk radio. But last night, I saw a new chapter in a story I would not have known about if I was isolated in a car.

The last leg of my morning commute is the 12 bus from Tigard Transit Center. One of the stops on Barbur Blvd. usually brings us a handful of students on their way to Wilson High School. Last school year I got used to seeing the same faces and hearing their chatter as they boarded. When school started up last month, I noticed one of the regulars was not among them. This youngster was an energetic dark-haired girl who liked to sit with one of the other girls and gossip giddily. When the students returned from last winter break, I saw her downcast face and teased her about it, which made her smile for a second. Anyway, I figured she must have graduated and didn’t think any more of it.

I saw her last night as I took the 12 on my way home, but I hardly recognized her. She was dressed as though she was coming home from a job where clothes are important. Her complexion was cleared up and her hair was well-styled. She carried herself differently, too. In short, she looked a lot more like a young woman now. The changes made me smile, and (not for the first time) I was glad that I get to ride the 12.

Sunday morning in Portlandia

I took the light rail early Sunday morning so I could do a bit of grocery shopping. I saw three incidents which provide a fairly representative snapshot of life in the Portland metro area:

1. As I waited for the eastbound train to arrive, I watched a lady being dropped off so she could go to the airport. She was a sturdy, white-haired gal with one of those big rolling bags with a telescoping handle. From her questions, it was clear she had never gone to the airport this way before, but she was pretty cheerful about a challenge that makes a lot of people nervous. A nice older gent with a walking stick answered her questions and saw that she boarded safely. As we headed down the line, I saw him exit and I was a bit surprised to discover that he didn’t appear to know the woman; he just wanted to help her.

2. As we approached downtown Beaverton, I saw cops standing near temporary barriers, redirecting traffic away from a closed street. As the train made the next crossing, I saw a group of runners with race numbers on their singlets, chatting and waiting patiently for the train to pass so they could continue their race.

3. As we continued to Beaverton Transit Center, I saw a man slumped in his seat, with all his possessions piled around him. He woke up long enough to vomit on himself, then curled up again.

This is the real Portlandia, people, in all its glory.

Does diet soda cause depression?

Today I came across a statement from the American Academy of Neurology (here is the link):

People who drank more than four cans or cups per day of soda were 30 percent more likely to develop depression than those who drank no soda. Those who drank four cans of fruit punch per day were about 38 percent more likely to develop depression than those who did not drink sweetened drinks. People who drank four cups of coffee per day were about 10 percent less likely to develop depression than those who drank no coffee. The risk appeared to be greater for people who drank diet than regular soda, diet than regular fruit punches and for diet than regular iced tea.

“Our research suggests that cutting out or down on sweetened diet drinks or replacing them with unsweetened coffee may naturally help lower your depression risk,” said Chen. “More research is needed to confirm these findings, and people with depression should continue to take depression medications prescribed by their doctors.”

Everyone say it together: Correlation is NOT Causation. I will field this one from the perspective of someone who likes diet cola and who struggled with depression much of my life: you folks have it backwards. My depression predated my diet soda consumption by many years. For my part (and I suspect I speak for others), I found something cheap and legal that made me feel better for a while and I jumped into it — it’s called self-medication. The AAN may wish to study this concept. Seriously, I am glad they are doing studies like this, but do try to keep an open mind, people.

Milestones of aging

When I turned forty, I understood that I could no longer pretend to be a kid. Some of you may suggest the fact that I had a wife, four daughters, and a mortgage should have disabused me of that notion, but I will reply that you are merely clouding the issue with facts — we’re talking about self-perception, a realm where hard data has no purchase.

The next milestone was when I was introduced to my granddaughter Riley at Clovis Community Hospital. Becoming a grandparent sets off the aging alarms like few other things in this world, trust me. Even the marriage of her mother Amelia a few months prior hadn’t hit me with the same sort of emotional broadside. Holding a newborn is just more visceral, I think — you know on a deep level that you are in a life-changing moment.

Monday’s revelation took place on a light-rail train heading on the MAX line toward Beaverton Transit Center. I looked up from my reading of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi (a book that was born to read on a commute, if ever one was) to see a young woman waving to me. She was offering me her seat in the crowded car. Oh dear. Did I really look that old and feeble? I was tired, I had bags under my eyes, my knees hurt, but still… I was really old now. Sure, this was a small thing both in time and import, but it still made me sad for a second. (My emotional priorities shifted strongly when I got to work and read the e-mail announcing the sudden death of a friend, but that is another story).

Eventually I was able to laugh at myself for this foolishness. I am not old, you know – my grandmother is still alive, for all love! Everyone knows that old is always 10-15 years older than one is at the moment. Besides, I got more sleep last night and I am moving a little better after a visit to the chiropractor. And most of all, I am alive, my wife and the best dog in the world are alive, and I have things to do. Let’s move on, shall we?

Tolkien fans should rejoice in The Hobbit

Karen and I saw The Hobbit on Sunday afternoon. We opted for the low-tech version — both of us are more interested in old-fashioned virtues like acting and storytelling. As we sat through the endless previews, I commented to Karen that I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in a theater. After a brief review, we decided that the last film that had convinced me to buy a seat was The Return of The King. It seems, therefore, that I have high expectations when Peter Jackson takes us on a journey to Middle-Earth, and it makes me happy to state that my expectations were fully met by The Hobbit.

Minor plot spoilers below

The screenplay works well for me, in general, and very well in some scenes. I know there are folks who get their knickers in a twist at every departure from the holy writ of JRRT, who insist that any film must be slavishly loyal to the book’s plot. The politest thing I can say to such zealots is that I am very glad you didn’t make the film.  Film and novels are very different media, with different strengths and demands. (You want a film that faithfully follows the book? Go see the first Harry Potter movie again. Feel better now? I wouldn’t.) The Hobbit’s screenplay fixes some of the narrative issues I have with the book. Two examples:

(1) Face it, the book’s dwarves-in-the-trees scene is very silly. I don’t want to imagine how cringeworthy that whole tableau would be if PJ had tried to shoot it exactly as written. Happily, he didn’t. The presence of Azog raises the stakes and makes it dramatically tighter, as well as propelling the plot along better and more energetically.

(2) The gathering of the White Council, which is only alluded to in the book, comes off as a dreary departmental meeting in some government office, with Saruman in the role of droning Chief Minister. I loved it, both as a reason for the delay in facing the Necromancer and as an affirmation of the timeless truth that committees rarely make bold strokes.

I really enjoyed how much the film individualizes the dwarves. Nori and Balin stand out, but they all manage to make distinctive choices. I found it very easy to care for them and invest in their hopes. All the acting is strong and faultless; this is an ensemble piece and the actors fully inhabit the world of Jackson’s Middle-Earth.

You want one more reason to see this? It’s not The Phantom Menace. Enjoy!