Updates still delayed - Troubles come in threes

Yes, I realize that "troubles come in threes" is a myth. But in any truly random distribution clumps will form in the data. I'm just going through a clump of trouble at one of the ends of a normal bell curve.

I've been spending a lot of time visiting hospitals lately. Put this together with my job as an electronic engineer, and acting as a caregiver, and I really don't have the energy - let alone the time to complete the documents that I'd like.

On top of this, my poor, faithful, Wal-Mart computer (souped up to acceptable performance levels) finally died. Luckily it happened about the same time that my replacement motherboard for my Toshiba Satellite laptop arrived. It took several hours of work but I successfully transplanted the motherboard into my formerly dead laptop, and am using right now!

I promise, as soon as my life shakes itself out a little I'll be back to blogging on my regular 3-6 post per week schedule.

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Updates interrupted by a family emergency

Just a quick note -

In reply to an emailed question, yes - I am not updating very regularly right now. This is due to a family emergency that has had me visiting at hospitals for the last two weeks.

No need to worry - everything is fine, and the medical emergency isn't with me. But blogging has taken a much lower priority.

Right now I'm in Redwood City, at the hospital of the best cardilogy surgeon this side of the Mississippi. Everything is fine. And my trust in modern medicine (based on evolutionary biology) has been increased.

I'm sorry for being cryptic about this - but I'm reluctant to write about this, it is not my story to tell. I trust my readers will forgive.

On a more positive note, waiting bedside at hospital rooms is a great place to catch up on my reading. I finished "The God Delusion" by Dawkins and "Breaking the Spell" by Dennett. I've almost completed "Kingdom Coming" by Goldberg, and I've got "Dumth" by Steve Allen and "Atheist Universe" by Mills waiting for me.

Friday in the atelier: "Nerissa" by John William Godward

Please excuse the meager biography on today's Atelier offering. I'm out of town and am unable to devote the time I would like to devote to this wonderful artist, John William Godward.

The amazing works by Godward were perhaps the last of the era of classical works before critics condemened the whole of realism as being merely technical.

Modernistic critics combined with Godward's failing health until he took his own life in December of 1922, at the age of 61.

Godward was a secretive person, so it is difficult to determine much about his life. But so many people have tried. Here is a short biography. And here is a much longer dissertation on Godward's life.

Click on the picture to see it in full.

Christmas Martyrs

I don’t have a Christmas tree this year, and I miss it.

This is due a combination of factors – the Calladus household has seen difficulties in the last couple of years, and along with a brand new 13.5 pound curious kitty who likes to climb… well, a tree just didn’t seem like a good idea. Still I’m sad that I have no where to hang my Bumble and Star Trek ornaments.

I did manage to get some mistletoe and an evergreen wreath, which have a couple of ribbons and is hung out of Cisco’s reach.

But I miss not having a tree. I miss the irony, the non-Christian symbol that is so embraced as “Christian”. I think it is so odd that Christians completely miss just how badly the Christmas holiday warps their religion with crass consumerism and pagan symbolism.

And Santa. I mean come on, how stupid can you get? Don’t get me wrong, I love the gentle, loving teasing game between parents and their kids – first telling stories about Santa, and later teaching them to recognize fictional characters. Santa has an elaborate backstory, and a huge conspiracy of adults who would never think of spilling the beans to a 5 year old. It’s great to see a child’s wide-eyed wonder, and it is just as great to see a child grasp the basics of reasoning.

But this is stupid if you are trying to teach a child that some miracles are real, and others are not. When a child discovers that the wonderful, miraculous figure of Santa is only a fiction, what is to stop them from generalizing and applying their new knowledge to Jesus; the other not quite as wonderful fictional character? Am I the only one that sees a problem with this approach? Teaching a little bit of critical thinking might be a bad thing when you are attempting to brainwash your kids into a religion.

And there is nothing about December 25th that is even vaguely correct about celebrating Jesus’ birthday. Gift giving is Zoroastrian, as is a midwinter holiday. The tree is Druidic, and Santa is of course Father Christmas, or “Old Man Winter” who in a pagan ritual carried winter with him. Giving him food and drink (cookies and milk?) ensured that winter would be favorable to the host. And of course commercialism has pretty much destroyed the holiday. But Christians protect Christmas like it was invented by Jesus himself (who was incidentally born in spring, not near the winter Solstice.)

Last year, Annie Laurie Gaylor was interviewed on Fox News as an opposing voice to a representative from the American Family Association. She spoke of this sort of Christian irrationality in last December’s Freethought Today magazine:
I was in New York City, and I appeared briefly on a Fox News weekend report opposite a representative of the American Family Association (who is never happy unless hysterically calling a boycott). I mentioned the irony of the Christian right demands.

"The Christians stole Christmas," I observed, pointing out that today's tokens of Christmas, which the far right is so eager to promote, stem from pagan festivities practiced for millennia around the time of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

He pricelessly responded that he had never heard of "this Winter Solstice."

The original Puritans certainly knew about it. That's why they banned the celebrations of Dec. 25, correctly viewing the partying, gift exchanges, festivals of light and decorating with evergreens as vestiges of the infidel past. Christmas carols often plagiarized traditional music (the love song "Greensleeves" became "What Child Is This?"). The custom of Christmas cards only came on strong with British Victorians, along with the decorated tree.

There is no reference to "Christmas" in the bible. New Testament references would place the supposed birth of Jesus in spring, not winter. It is actually the returning sun, not the birth of a son, that is society's traditional reason for rejoicing. As is typical with vanquishing religions, Christians found it useful to absorb some of the favored customs of their missionized prey. Then they conveniently forgot the origins, to the point today where a majority of believing Christians do not know they are actually observing a "natural holiday"-- the shortest and darkest day of the year, the harbinger of the new year--in a manner similar to that of pagan predecessors.

The December "war" is not being waged by nonChristians, it is being waged against them. Turning our public schools into Christian-celebrating factories, assaulting commercial attempts to include all customers, is the opposite of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."

I can attest to the "No Peace for Infidels, Malice to All (nonChristians)" mentality. Two five-minute appearances on the Christmas subject on Fox News, including The O'Reilly Factor, have yielded hundreds of poorly spelled, ungrammatical and mainly vicious emails from pious believers (I'm told I am a "drunken whore" who "should be kept off the airways"). In two brief (and sober!) interviews, I was outnumbered two to one.
“Malice to All NonChristians.” This is the basic symptom to the “I’m a Victim / Martyr” mentality that Christians so often display in America. The Atheists in America (all approximately 3 million of us) are waging a war against the poor, helpless, outnumbered Christians (all 220 million of them.)

I get passive-aggressive email from devoutly religious acquaintances this time of year. I can predict who will send it, and I can predict that it will arrive two or three weeks before Christmas. This is sad considering that I go out of my way to be pleasant during Christmas. Why must Christians go out of their way to be unpleasant?

Friday in the atelier: "Starting a New Ristra" by Kirk Richards

I was born in New Mexico, and although my father’s job transferred our family to Texas when I was only two years old I still feel a firm connection to that state.

This connection is partly due to family – my father’s parents and his sisters lived there. My father retired to New Mexico, and lives in the same town as my aunt and some cousins – the same town where I was born. (I’ll bet you can’t guess what town! Here’s a hint – think “UFO.”)

Yes, I was born in Roswell NM, and in the ‘70’s and ‘80s it considered itself a ranching town – it didn’t identify itself with UFOs until the early ‘90s. I myself still don't associate it with the Roswell crash - which didn't happen in Roswell anyway.

It was our family tradition to travel there twice a year, during summer and Christmas. I love New Mexico even now, and love the look and feel of the New Mexico badlands. There is something about standing in the middle of a seemingly endless dry prairie, feeling like I was the tallest thing within eyesight except for a distant purple mountain. There is an awe that sneaks over me when the loudest thing I can hear is my own heartbeat; and the next loudest the chirp of a distant meadowlark.

In late summer, and throughout the fall, New Mexico harvests its number one food crop – chile peppers. People bring the chiles home and cure them by stringing them together with needle and twine to create a “Ristra.” The ristra is usually hung by the front door, outside in the dry air so that it can grow a beautiful dark red as it ripens. Chile ristras have always been a sign of the approaching holidays for me, a sign of Thanksgiving and Christmas and family. As the weather turns colder and damp, the ristras are moved indoors and prepared for storage, or allowed to hang indoors perhaps until Christmas.

This cropped detail of the painting by living master Kirk Richards is called “Starting a new Ristra” and it is very evocative of New Mexico. (Click the picture to see it in full from Mr. Richards web page.) The pink adobe walls, the chiles, and the Spanish style blouse all fit together in a way that makes me feel like I’m with my relatives again. When I see this painting I’m reminded of the beginning of fall and chilly nights. Soon luminarias, paper bags that glow with lighted candles, will start lining sidewalks in time for Christmas.

Richards, who lives in Amarillo Texas, created another painting that evokes the feeling of New Mexico to me, “Blue Corn”. As a living master, Mr. Richards maintains his own web site where you can view or purchase his works and also read his extremely impressive biography.

I would like to point out that Kirk Richards was trained by Richard Lack, who also trained Stephen Gjertson – whose work “The Recorder Lesson” I’ve already profiled. Therefore Kirk Richards shows the influences of an unbroken line of tutoring from the master Jean-Léon Gérôme to William Paxton then to Ives Gammell who tutored Richard lack.

The science of making a buck from Ghost hunting.

When I was growing up I and some of my friends used a tape recorder to try to capture ghostly voices. We left the tape deck in abandoned houses and on gravestones in order to capture voices from “beyond”.

And we got some stuff we couldn’t explain too. We got a heartbeat sound from a recording in an abandoned house; we got ghostly whispers that were just on the edge of being understandable from the graveyard.

We were seriously, and happily creeped out.

This is what is known in ghost hunting circles as Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP. Today's ghost hunters can still use a cheap tape deck to chase ghostly voices, or they can lay out a lot of money for the privilege of being known as a "Certified EVP Researcher!"

Wikipedia has this to say about the possible supernatural origin of EVP:
Most commonly it is believed that EVP are the voices of discarnate entities such as spirits, inaudible to the human ear but able to be picked up with electronic equipment. Some believe this suggests the voices or sounds may have been produced directly on the recording device via psychokinesis. Others believe the sounds may have been outside the range of human hearing, possibly produced by psychokinetic manipulation of sound waves. Additionally, some believe certain EVP may be psychic projections from the researchers themselves, or possibly communications from alien entities.
So I wanted to know more about EVP – and started reading up on it. I haven’t been too successful – there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of free information regarding the theory of EVP.

But my! If I had a few hundred dollars I could easily spend it all in minutes ordering books and CDs online that are described by praise such as: “Home Study Course” “Certified EVP researcher” and “Certified Ghost Hunter.” I can also order correspondence courses, or attend adult education or community college courses that are taught by “Chief Investigators” or Reverends with shaky or meaningless doctorates.

The Reverend “Doctor” Dave Oester and Reverend Doctor Sharon Gill seem to be the kings of generating income from would-be ghost hunters. Owners of the ghostweb.com website, the reverend doctors sell everything from books to CDs to jewelry, and in doing so make enough money to support their endless vacation (now in their 6th year!) of driving around the country in their RV and investigating hauntings in quaint towns and interesting cities.

Reverend Dave, as he calls himself, is ordained through the Universal Life Church – which is interestingly enough where I myself am ordained. And you can be ordained too, in minutes at the Universal Life Church Monastery website, for free! You could legally perform weddings! (Personally I like to sneak up behind a cute couple on a date and yell, “Surprise! You’re Married!" Hilarity ensues!)

Go ahead, go get ordained! It only takes a few minutes, and unlike the ghost hunting courses offered by Reverend Dave, it’s free!

Here are some other ghostly items from various sites, with some not-so-ghostly prices!
  • Paranormal Studies 101 - A course on Ghosts and Hauntings from my own city of Fresno
  • Bluegrass Commmunity and Technical College - several Ghost hunting courses.
  • Ghost-Mart - A discounted paranormal equipment supplier. Why pay retail? Get their best Digital Voice Recorder for a mere $80!
  • Technica - lots of real honest to goodness scientific equipment that you can use to find Casper. These tools are normally used for such mundane things as precise temperature readings, sound level metering, and radiation detection. Very expensive, but hey, you get quality ghost tools!
  • Ghosthunter - get the 3-axis digital AC Gaussmeter for only $260! What this has to do with ghosts escapes me - and I've got to wonder if the average ghosthunter could tell the difference between gauss and gauze.
My guess is that Freddy Jones would need an extensive trust fund to keep The Mystery Machine filled with these ghost-hunting goodies.

So far these ghost hunting tools are expensive, but at least you get value for value. I might not agree that a downloadable PDF is worth twenty dollars, but the writer actually went through some time and effort to produce it.

But The Ghost hunting Store goes so far as to sell you what you can download for free. They offer Audacity, a very nice multiple track digital audio editor, on CD for a mere $9.50. Of course this program is open source, and can be downloaded for free from the Audacity homepage.

The Ghost hunting Store also offers a 70 minute CD of “Pure White Noise” for a mere fifteen dollars. I think this is especially interesting since Audacity also offers the ability to generate white noise, which can then be directly recorded to an audio CD for a ghost hunter.

Okay, I don’t think this is fraud, because value is being traded for value. I do believe that the people at the ghost hunting store are being immoral for neglecting to mention the free, open source nature of their product.

I lamented in my entry on the Star Registry that I’m just too darned honest to get rich. I could easily design a gee-wiz EVP recorder that would generate impressive and meaningless results, and sell it under the “Reverend Calladus” name-brand. I bet it could become a tidy income for me. Unfortunately I’d have to throw away the bathroom mirror because I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the face afterwards.

I have managed to learn about a couple different EVP theories, and I latched onto the schematics of an EVP device from the 90’s. I’ll explain the theory of operation of that device, and in so doing I’ll explain why no ghosts are actually being detected with it.

I'll also use these schematics to raise that vexing question of, "At what frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum are ghosts located, exactly?"

I also want to speak on the various EVP theories that I’ve so far uncovered – and why they are either incorrect, or meaningless. Here’s a hint – one theory suggests that upon death we will gain understanding of the advanced mathematics and information theory required for the Digital age!

It's a good thing you don't have to take this test!

Here’s a neat website. It’s the citizenship test for some fictional country like Scott Adams’ “Elbonia”.

There are over a hundred citizenship questions for their government. It looks suspiciously close to America’s citizenship test – except there are no questions about Christianity, Jesus, God, church, or why you can't be a good citizen without religion. This test is for a completely secular government constitution.

Oh wait – my mistake. This citizenship test isn’t for a fictional country at all; it is for the very real secular government of the United States of America. Sorry, with all the religious talk about a so called, “Christian Nation” I just sort of assumed...

This is from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website, formerly the INS website which had morphed briefly into a branch of Homeland Security. (Motto: “Let your tired, poor, huddled masses breath in your own damned country!)

I find it interesting that Emilio Gonzalez, a Bush appointee and former National Security and Foreign Policy advisor to Bush and Rice, didn’t add anything about the religious foundation of our nation’s laws in this test. No mention of the Ten Commandments at all.

The adult literacy student that I tutor is studying the citizenship test. He was finally comfortable with the previous test questions, and now he’s starting again on these. (Many questions are similar or the same.)

It’s really fascinating to me that this gentleman knows so much about the politics and structure of the United States government. It’s fascinating that he is a productive member of society. He and his wife own their own business here, and have hired several employees.

When we were discussing this new test last night he was justifiably proud. “Mark,” he said, “none of my employees can answer all the questions off of the old or the new tests. I’m only sticking on a few from this test, but I will get it finally.” (Yes, his employees are natural-born American citizens, I asked.)

“Yep.” I replied, “Most Americans that I know, even really smart people, can’t answer all of the citizenship questions. Most Americans have little understanding of how their government works.”

My student thought for a moment. “It’s a good thing they don’t have to pass a test in order to vote.”

Hm. Yea. I’ve got mixed feelings about that.

For your enjoyment – here are the Questions and Answers for New Pilot Naturalization Exam as of November 30, 2006. How many can you answer?

1. Name one important idea found in the Declaration of Independence.
A: People are born with natural rights.
A: The power of government comes from the people.
A: The people can change their government if it hurts their natural rights.
A: All people are created equal.

2. What is the supreme law of the land?
A: The Constitution

3. What does the Constitution do?
A: It sets up the government.
A: It protects basic rights of Americans.

4. What does “We the People” mean in the Constitution?
A: The power of government comes from the people.

5. What do we call changes to the Constitution?
A: Amendments

6. What is an amendment?
A: It is a change to the Constitution.

7. What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
A: The Bill of Rights

8. Name one right or freedom from the First Amendment.
A: Speech
A: Religion
A: Assembly
A: Press
A: Petition the government
9. How many amendments does the Constitution have?
A: Twenty-seven (27)

10. What did the Declaration of Independence do?
A: Announce the independence of the United States from Great Britain
A: Say that the U.S. is free from Great Britain

11. What does freedom of religion mean?
A: You can practice any religion you want, or not practice at all.

12. What type of economic system does the U.S. have?
A: Capitalist economy
A: Free market
A: Market economy

13. What are the three branches or parts of the government?
A: Executive, legislative, and judicial
A: Congress, the President, the courts

14. Name one branch or part of the government.
A: Congress
A: Legislative
A: President
A: Executive
A: The courts
A: Judicial

15. Who is in charge of the executive branch?
A: The President

16. Who makes federal laws?
A: Congress
A: The Senate and House (of Representatives)
A: The (U.S. or national) legislature

17. What are the two parts of the United States Congress?
A: The Senate and House (of Representatives)

18. How many United States Senators are there?
A: 100

19. We elect a U.S. Senator for how many years?
A: Six (6)

20. Name your state’s two U.S. Senators.
A: Answers will vary. [For District of Columbia residents and residents of U.S. territories, the answer is that DC (or the territory where the applicant lives) has no U.S. Senators.]

21. How many U.S. Senators does each state have?
A: Two (2)

22. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?
A: 435

23. We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years?
A: Two (2)

24. Name your U.S. Representative.
A: Answers will vary. [Residents of territories with nonvoting delegates or resident commissioners may provide the name of that representative or commissioner. Also acceptable is any statement that the territory has no (voting) representatives in Congress.]

25. Who does a U.S. Senator represent?
A: All citizens in that Senator’s state

26. Who does a U.S. Representative represent?
A: All citizens in that Representative’s district (each state is divided into districts)

27. What decides each state’s number of U.S. Representatives?
A: The state’s population

28. How is each state’s number of Representatives decided?
A: The state’s population

29. Why do we have three branches of government?
A: So no branch is too powerful

30. Name one example of checks and balances.
A: The President vetoes a bill.
A: Congress can confirm or not confirm a President’s nomination.
A: Congress approves the President’s budget.
A: The Supreme Court strikes down a law.

31. We elect a President for how many years?
A: Four (4) years

32. How old must a President be?
A: Thirty-five (35) or older
A: At least thirty-five (35)
A: More than thirty-five (35)

33. The President must be born in what country?
A: The United States
A: America

34. Who is the President now?
A: [Current president] (as of November 20, 2006, George W. Bush)

35. What is the name of the President of the United States?
A: [Current president] (as of November 20, 2006, George W. Bush)
A: (President) George W. Bush
A: George Bush
A: Bush

36. Who is the Vice President now?
A: [Current vice president] (as of November 20, 2006- Richard (Dick) Cheney)
A: Dick Cheney
A: Cheney

37. What is the name of the Vice President of the United States?
A: [Current vice president] (as of November 20, 2006- Richard (Dick) Cheney)
A: Dick Cheney
A: Cheney

38. If the President can no longer serve, who becomes President?
A: The Vice President

39. Who becomes President if both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve?
A: The Speaker of the House

40. Who is the Commander-in-Chief of the military?
A: The President

41. How many full terms can a President serve?
A: Two (2)

42. Who signs bills to become laws?
A: The President

43. Who vetoes bills?
A: The President

44. What is a veto?
A: The President refuses to sign a bill passed by Congress.
A: The President says no to a bill.
A: The President rejects a bill.

45. What does the President’s Cabinet do?
A: Advises the President

46. Name two Cabinet-level positions.
A: Secretary of Agriculture
A: Secretary of Commerce
A: Secretary of Defense
A: Secretary of Education
A: Secretary of Energy
A: Secretary of Health and Human Services
A: Secretary of Homeland Security
A: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
A: Secretary of Interior
A: Secretary of State
A: Secretary of Transportation
A: Secretary of Treasury
A: Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs
A: Attorney General
A: Secretary of Labor

47. What Cabinet-level agency advises the President on foreign policy?
A: The State Department

48. What does the judicial branch do?
A: Reviews and explains laws
A: Resolves disputes between parties
A: Decides if a law goes against the Constitution

49. Who confirms Supreme Court justices?
A: The Senate

50. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?
A: John Roberts (John G. Roberts, Jr.)

51. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?
A: Nine (9)

52. Who nominates justices to the Supreme Court?
A: The President

53. Name one thing only the federal government can do.
A: Print money
A: Declare war
A: Create an army
A: Make treaties

54. What is one thing only a state government can do?
A: Provide schooling and education
A: Provide protection (police)
A: Provide safety (fire departments)
A: Give a driver’s license
A: Approve zoning and land use

55. What does it mean that the U.S. Constitution is a constitution of limited powers?
A: The federal government has only the powers that the Constitution states that it has.
A: The states have all powers that the federal government does not.

56. Who is the Governor of your state?
A: Answers will vary.
[District of Columbia and U.S. Territory residents would answer that they do not have a state governor or that they do not live in a state. Mentioning the governor of the territory for Guam is acceptable. Any answer that mentions one of these facts is acceptable.]

57. What is the capital (or capital city) of your state?
A: Answers will vary. [District of Columbia residents would answer that DC is not a state, and that therefore it does not have a capital. Any answer that mentions one of these facts is acceptable.]

58. What are the two major political parties in the U.S. today?
A: Democrats and Republicans

59. What is the highest court in the U.S.?
A: The Supreme Court

60. What is the majority political party in the House of Representatives now?
A: Democrats
A: Democratic Party

61. What is the political party of the majority in the Senate now?
A: Democrats
A: Democratic Party

62. What is the political party of the President now?
A: Republicans
A: Republican Party

63. Who is the Speaker of the House of Representatives now?
A: Nancy Pelosi

64. Who is the Senate Majority Leader now?
A: Harry Reid

65. In what month are elections held in the United States?
A: November

66. What is the current minimum wage in the U.S.?
A: $5.15

67. When must all males register for the Selective Service?
A: At age 18
A: At 18

68. Who is the Secretary of State now?
A: Dr. Condoleezza Rice
A: Condoleezza Rice
A: Dr. Rice

69. Who is the Attorney General now?
A: Alberto Gonzales

70. Is the current President in his first or second term?
A: Second

71. What is self-government?
A: Powers come from the people.
A: Government responds to the people.

72. Who governs the people in a self-governed country?
A: The people govern themselves.
A: The government elected by the people.

73. What is the “rule of law”?
A: Everyone must obey the law.
A: Leaders must obey the law.
A: Government must obey the law.

74. What are “inalienable rights”?
A: Individual rights that people are born with

75. There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.
A: Any citizen over 18 can vote.
A: A citizen of any race can vote.
A: Any male or female citizen can vote. (Women and men can vote.)
A: You don’t have to pay to vote. (You don’t have to pay a poll tax to vote.)

76. Name one responsibility that is only for United States citizens.
A: Vote
A: Serve on a jury

77. Name two rights that are only for United States citizens.
A: The right to apply for a federal job
A: The right to vote
A: The right to run for office

78. Name two rights of everyone living in the U.S.
A: Freedom of expression
A: Freedom of speech
A: Freedom of assembly
A: Freedom to petition the government
A: Freedom of worship
A: The right to bear arms

79. What is the Pledge of Allegiance?
A: The promise of loyalty to the flag and the nation

80. Name one promise you make when you say the Oath of Allegiance.
A: To give up loyalty to other countries (I give up loyalty to my [old][first][other] country.)
A: To defend the Constitution and laws of the United States
A: To obey the laws of the United States
A: To serve in the United States military if needed (To fight for the United States [if needed].)
A: To serve the nation if needed (To do important work for the United States [if needed].)
A: To be loyal to the United States

81. Who can vote in the U.S.?
A: All citizens over 18
A: All registered citizens over 18

82. Name two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy.
A: Vote
A: Join a political party
A: Help out with a campaign
A: Join a civic group
A: Join a community group
A: Tell an elected official your opinion on an issue.
A: Call your Senators and Representatives
A: Publicly support or oppose an issue or policy
A: Run for office
A: Write to a newspaper

83. When is the last day you can send in federal income tax forms?
A: By April 15th of every year
A: By April 15th
A: April 15

84. Name two of the natural, or inalienable, rights in the Declaration of Independence.
A: Life
A: Liberty
A: The pursuit of happiness

85. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?
A: Thomas Jefferson

86. When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?
A: July 4, 1776

87. Name one reason why the colonists came to America?
A: Freedom
A: Political liberty
A: Religious freedom
A: Economic opportunity
A: To practice their religion
A: To escape persecution

88. What happened at the Constitutional Convention?
A: The Constitution was written.
A: The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution.

89. Why did the colonists fight the British?
A: They had to pay high taxes but did not have any say about it. (Taxation without representation.)
A: The British army stayed in their houses. (boarding, quartering)
A: The British denied the colonists self-government.

90. When was the Constitution drafted?
A: 1787

91. There are 13 original states. Name three.
A: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.

92. What group of people was taken to America and sold as slaves?
A: Africans
A: People from Africa

93. Who lived in America before the Europeans arrived?
A: The Native Americans
A: American Indians

94. Where did most of America’s colonists come from before the Revolution?
A: Europe

95. Why were the colonists upset with the British government?
A: Stamp Act
A: They had to pay high taxes but did not have any say about it. (Taxation without representation.)
A: The British army stayed in their houses. (boarding, quartering)
A: Intolerable Acts

96. Name one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for.
A: U.S. diplomat
A: Oldest member of the Constitutional Convention
A: First Postmaster General of the United States
A: Writer of “Poor Richard’s Almanac”

97. Name one famous battle from the Revolutionary War.
A: Lexington and Concord
A: Trenton
A: Princeton
A: Saratoga
A: Cowpens
A: Yorktown
A: Bunker Hill

98. Who is called the “Father of Our Country”?
A: George Washington

99. Who was the first President?
A: George Washington

100. Name one of the writers of the Federalist Papers?
A: James Madison
A: Alexander Hamilton
A: John Jay

101. What group of essays supported passage of the U.S. Constitution?
A: The Federalist Papers

102. Name one of the major American Indian tribes in the United States.
A: Cherokee, Seminoles, Creek, Choctaw, Arawak, Iroquois, Shawnee, Mohegan, Chippewa, Huron, Oneida, Sioux, Cheyenne, Lakotas, Crows, Blackfeet, Teton, Navajo, Apaches, Pueblo, Hopi, Inuit
[Adjudicators will be supplied with a complete list.]

103. Name one war fought by the United States in the 1800s.
A: War of 1812, Mexican American War, Civil War, or Spanish-American War.

104. What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?
A: The Louisiana Territory
A: Louisiana

105. What country sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States?
A: France

106. In 1803, the United States bought a large amount of land from France. Where was that land?
A: West of the Mississippi
A: The Western U.S.
A: The Louisiana Territory

107. Name one of the things that Abraham Lincoln did.
A: Saved (or preserved) the Union.
A: Freed the slaves
A: Led the U.S. during the Civil War.

108. Name the U.S. war between the North and the South.
A: The Civil War

109. Name one problem that led to the Civil War.
A: Slavery
A: Economic reasons
A: States’ rights

110. What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?
A: Freed slaves in the Confederacy
A: Freed slaves in the Confederate states
A: Freed slaves in most Southern states

111. What did the abolitionists try to end before the Civil War?
A: Slavery

112. What did Susan B. Anthony do?
A: She fought for women’s rights.

113. Name one war fought by the United States in the 1900s.
A: World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, or Gulf (or Persian Gulf) War

114. Who was President during World War I?
A: Woodrow Wilson

115. The United States fought Japan, Germany, and Italy during which war?
A: World War II

116. What was the main concern of the United States during the Cold War?
A: The spread of communism
A: The Soviet Union [USSR and Russia are also acceptable.]

117. What major event happened on September 11, 2001, in the United States?
A: Terrorists attacked The United States.

118. What international organization was established after World War II (WWII) to keep the world at peace?
A: The United Nations

119. What alliance of North America and European countries was created during the Cold War?
A: NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

120. Who was President during the Great Depression and World War II?
A: Franklin Roosevelt

121. Which U.S. World War II general later became President?
A: Dwight Eisenhower

122. What did Martin Luther King, Jr. do?
A: He fought for civil rights.
A: He strove for (worked for, fought for) equality for all Americans.

123. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream for America. What was his dream?
A: Equality for all Americans
A: Civil rights for all

124. What movement tried to end racial discrimination?
A: The civil rights movement

125. What is the longest river in the United States?
A: The Missouri River

126. What ocean is on the west coast of the United States?
A: The Pacific Ocean

127. What country is on the northern border of the United States?
A: Canada

128. Where is the Grand Canyon?
A: Arizona
A: The Southwest
A: Along/on the Colorado River

129. Where is the Statue of Liberty?
A: New York Harbor
A: Liberty Island
[Also acceptable are New Jersey, near New York City, and on the Hudson (River).]

130. What country is on the southern border of the United States?
A: Mexico

131. Name one large mountain range in the United States.
A: The Rocky Mountains
A: The Appalachians
A: The Sierra Nevada
A: The Cascades

132. What is the tallest mountain in the United States?
A: Mt. McKinley
A: Denali

133. Name one U.S. territory.
A: American Samoa
A: The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands
A: Guam
A: Puerto Rico
A: U.S. Virgin Islands

134. Name the state that is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
A: Hawaii

135. Name one state that borders Canada.
A: Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, or Washington

136. Name one state that borders on Mexico.
A: Arizona, California, New Mexico, or Texas

137. What is the capital of the U.S.?
A: Washington, D.C.

138. Why does the flag have 13 stripes?
A: Because there were 13 original colonies
A: Because the stripes represent the original colonies

139. Why do we have 13 stripes on the flag?
A: Because there were 13 original colonies
A: Because the stripes represent the original colonies

140. Why does the flag have 50 stars?
A: There is one star for each state.
A: Each star represents a state.
A: There are 50 states.

141. What is the name of the National Anthem?
A: The “Star-Spangled Banner”

142. On the Fourth of July we celebrate independence from what country?
A: Great Britain

143. When do we celebrate Independence Day?
A: July 4

144. Name two national U.S. holidays.
A: New Year’s Day
A: Martin Luther King Day
A: Presidents’ Day
A: Memorial Day
A: Independence Day
A: Labor Day
A: Columbus Day
A: Veterans Day
A: Thanksgiving
A: Christmas

Is Religion Necessary to Control Bad People?

I’ve heard the “religion is necessary for some people” argument now from several friends and acquaintances. This argument is that it is fine for some people to be without a religion because they have an good system of personal ethics. However, other people actually require a religion with a built in moral code to prevent them from doing evil.

According to this argument, some people are bad because they lack an internal moral compass, and as such they require the constant threat, guidance, and promise of religion to prevent them from becoming criminal. Religion is also supposed to reform evil people from being criminal, or from just being a non-contributing member of society.

To me, this seems like Alcoholics Anonymous – where the alcoholic acknowledges that he or she requires spiritual guidance and strength to overcome addiction. This works for some people – I know that having a positive attitude is necessary for success in any endeavor, and the belief that you can draw strength from outside of yourself can increase your will to succeed.

When I was taking Tae Kwon Do we were taught that bursts of strength came from focused ‘Qi’ – and yelling the “Kee-YA” during a strike seemed to make the blow more effective. I see the belief in a ‘Qi force’ to be a useful fiction that actually allowed me to focus my mind and body on a very narrow target and increased the force of my punch. I’m under no illusion that this force is real – it is merely a useful way of fooling myself.

And perhaps the belief in a ‘higher power’ is a useful way of fooling yourself to stay sober through AA. Perhaps the belief in a “God the Master” prevents people who lack a moral compass, or lack willpower, from doing evil. Belief in a God who owns both the carrot of Heaven and the stick of Hell ensures that the poor sinner will stay on the straight and narrow path.

And what about falling off of the wagon, so to speak? In AA someone who fails is forgiven, and allowed to try again, for as many times as it takes. Forgiveness enables a person continue on – without forgiveness a person might come to believe that any attempt to change is ultimately futile and may not bother to make a second (or third) attempt.

So, I think I must concur that bad people can use religion to help themselves reform. But I must disagree when such a person gives God all the credit for success. This sort of personal triumph was aided by a useful fiction, but ultimately it is personal actions and attitudes that matter. I think it is as silly to thank God for your ability to change as it is to thank Qi for your ability to break a brick with a Karate chop.

We should ask why there is a belief that only religion can give ethical aid, why can’t we use a non-religious approach?

I’ve been told by Christians that their religion is the only hope of reforming evil people, or of preventing people from becoming evil. After all, the argument goes, in 2000 years Atheism is yet to create the same sort of moral guidelines supported by a community ‘safety net’.

In my reply to Daniel Lewis I state my opinion that there are two reasons why non-belief has not already created a useful ethical system. First, science is a relatively new human invention. Humans have always experimented, but only recently have we learned how to qualify results. Second, the persecution of non-believers and other heretics has stifled progress. (Torture and death tends to cloud people’s minds.)

Karl Marx wrote that religion was being used to create the illusion that everything was okay, that it masked real suffering that had to be addressed, and therefore religion ought to be abolished. In my opinion Marx was very wrong.

I think that getting rid of religion without offering an alternative philosophy is a mistake. Religion is used as an extended social network, binding people and communities together. When done well, it acts as a safety net. It is a very powerful tool which, like any tool, can be used for good or evil purposes.

Non-believers are becoming interested in systems of philosophy based on the scientific and the rational. Secular Humanism is currently my favorite.

Paul Kurtz, founder and chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism has almost single-handedly snatched the insulting label of ‘Secular Humanist’ from Christianity and used it as the foundation of an ethical system based on science, reason, exuberance, and the philosophy that improving the condition of humankind while reducing human suffering is the greatest good.

I think Dr. Kurtz is onto something here – and other non-belief ethics seem to fall in line with the various manifestos of Secular Humanism. (Yes, there are more than one – but the latest manifestos seem to be saying essentially the same things. The Humanist Manifesto 2000 is the latest.)

Is Secular Humanism the replacement for religion? I dunno. The philosophy is in its infancy, and science is only now starting to focus on the evolution of morals. There is a lot to discuss here.

But I’ll leave that for another entry.

Hacking Blogger

I'm trying out a new hack that I found on the Hackosphere blog. It's called 'peekaboo' posting - or 'drop-down' posting. Via the Unbearable Lightness of being a Postdoc blog.

To see more, click on the 'read more' link below.

See? Now you can read the rest of the post! To get back to the summary portion of the post, click the 'summary only' link.

Note, this does leave a bug in your blog. From the Hackosphere blog:
Update 2: If you click "Older posts" link, the "Read more" link may appear even for the posts which you haven't divided into summary and full post. This is a known problem which we haven't solved yet.

Also note that if you click on a post title, you see that complete post with attached comments by itself. This isn't a bug - just thought I'd mention it.

On another note, Blogger DOES have a built-in bug (or perhaps it is only this template, I dunno) in that if you do click on the "Older Posts" link at the bottom, you won't be able to return to the main page by clicking on the blog header. This is why I included a link to the "-Main Page-" at the top right.

Friday in the atelier: "Country Quilt" by William Whitaker

William Whitaker, born 1943, is a living master. Mr. Whitaker came to love art through his father, who was a working artist. The younger Whitaker disliked the modern abstract art trends that were at the height of fashion in the 1960s, so it was his good fortune that he was able to train in the academic style of figure painting and drawing under portrait painter Alvin Gittins; who was head of the art department at the University of Utah at that time.

Mr. Whitaker is still creating wonderful art, and has even gone so far as to create a website where the lay person can view his magic in action, and perhaps learn some of the techniques that he uses. I’ve spent several happy hours on his web site.

I’m very attracted to several of Mr. Whitaker’s paintings, so it is very difficult for me to pick just one to display today. This is a cropped detail of “Country Quilt”, which is one of my top 5 favorites from his works. Click on the painting to take you to the full painting hosted on William Whitaker’s website.

The colors in this painting are fantastic, as is the amount of detail placed in such a small area. The painting is a mere 10 x 12 inches, which to me means that Mr. Whitaker is very good with precision brush strokes. I love how the light reflects off the model’s knees, which seems to further bring this painting to life.

Do yourself a favor, explore William Whitaker’s web site and see what he’s working on. If you love great art, you won’t be disappointed.

Faith as a grain of mustard seed

The majority of Christians in America do not have the faith in their God that they pretend to have. There is just too much evidence to the contrary.

Something that Sam Harris said in Huffington Post on November 29th made me consider this:
How many more architects and mechanical engineers must hit the wall at 400 miles an hour before we admit to ourselves that jihadist violence is not merely a matter of education, poverty, or politics? The truth, astonishingly enough, is that in the year 2006 a person can have sufficient intellectual and material resources to build a nuclear bomb and still believe that he will get 72 virgins in Paradise. Western secularists, liberals, and moderates have been very slow to understand this. The cause of their confusion is simple: They don't know what it is like to really believe in God.
I’d have to agree, most Christians in America don’t really believe in their God. If they did, they would show more evidence of it. I read a lot of talk about “God’s Law” on the Internet, but I don’t see much evidence that Christians have enough faith to follow said law in the face of possible ‘persecution.’ Let’s face it, many actions advocated in the Bible will, if followed, get you arrested and tossed in jail today. This fear of persecution, or should I say prosecution by American law forces Christians to be as milquetoast tentative as Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 17:14-20
14 And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,
15 Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.
16 And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
17 Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.
18 And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.
19 Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Except for a small minority of Fundamentalist Christians who, like Reverend Paul Hill, have put God’s law before Man’s law; the faith of most Christians is miniscule compared to the faith of the least Islamic martyr. Christians could try civil disobedience as has Judge Roy Moore, or they could attempt martyrdom as has Eric Rudolph. However the consequences for these sorts of actions are just too severe for this “faithless and perverse generation” of Christians, who believe that true activism is encapsulated by a two-dollar Wal-Mart bumper magnet.

If you are a Christian, do you believe that Reverend Hill’s actions were wrong? Do you believe that Homosexuals are deserving of life, not death as according to the Bible?

Perhaps the real truth is that you are a Christian who is a good, ethical person who is moral in spite of biblical teachings, not because of them. I certainly hope so, because a firmer turn toward true fundamentalism would give me little hope for the future of America, and the world.