Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring Ahead for the First Time

This coming Sunday, April 2, at 2:00 AM, people in Edinburgh and across most of Indiana will have to do something they haven’t had to do in more than three decades. They will have to spring ahead – move their clocks up one hour in observance of daylight saving time.

So that means 2:00 AM will actually be 3:00 AM. And if you are one of the unlucky ones who have to get up early for work on Sunday morning, you’ll be losing an hour of sleep, unless you remember to go to bed an hour earlier on Saturday night.

I was one of the proponents of changing all of Indiana to daylight saving time. It makes a lot of economic sense, and it means much less confusion for those who travel, communicate, or send freight across state lines.

It also means there should be less TV schedule confusion. Cable shows will remain at the same time all year, just like local and network shows. It also means there will be no more need to tape delay network broadcasts in the summer.

Of course, the major advantage for most people is that they will get an extra hour of daylight in the evening. Fourth of July fireworks probably won’t begin until 10:00 PM, because it won’t be completely dark until then.

But there will also be some minor annoyances, at least until we get used to them.

The most obvious annoyance is that we’ll have to remember to move our clocks twice a year. We’ll have to spring ahead and fall back.

For the manually-set clocks, it will mean taking them down off the wall and moving the hand around to the next hour before you go to bed Saturday night. Some digital clocks might be easier to reset. And the newer ones might do it for you.

New digital clocks detect the time of day through digital signals that come in through the power lines. If you have them set to observe daylight saving time, you probably won’t have to do anything to them.

The same is true of your computer, assuming you have already set it for the Eastern Time zone and set it to observe the daylight saving time switch. If not, you should do that now.

Just double click on the time in the lower right corner of your screen (assuming you have a Windows operating system). Then click on the Time Zone tab at the top of the window that pops up. Select Eastern Time from the drop down menu, not Indiana Time. Then put a check mark in the box on the bottom left that says “automatically adjust clock for daylight time changes.” And you’re done.

Failure to adjust your clocka, especially in the spring when we have to set them ahead, might make you late for whatever you have planned this Sunday. Or, assuming you can get through the day without noticing all your clocks are behind an hour, you will be late for work on Monday morning.

In the fall, it’s not so bad. If you forget, you’ll just be an hour early for work. But if you remember, you’ll be treated to that extra hour of precious sleep that you will be denied this coming Sunday.

What standard time giveth, daylight saving time taketh away.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

WWJD? Jesus Wouldn't be a Fundamentalist

When George W. Bush was elected president the first time, by the Supreme Court, not by the people, his victory could at least partially be attributed to the lack of a strong candidate by the Democrats. Al Gore was tainted by his association with a president who directly lied to the American people, albeit about a matter not pertaining to national security.

When Bush was elected president the second time, again by a slim margin, his victory could also be attributed in part to a very weak Democratic candidate who appeared to vacillate on key issues.

But his second victory was also helped significantly by what was viewed as a giant shift to the right by a constituency that was tired of what they saw as a national trend toward sinfulness and debauchery. Score one for the religious fundamentalists.

That victory made it seem as though the country had turned some corner toward salvation, and the fundamentalists wasted no time in capitalizing on their presidential victory.

Bush had already stymied medical research in key fields like stem cells and therapeutic cloning. So the fundamentalists turned their attention to the American education system by attempting to infiltrate it by posing as science professionals.

It didn’t work, of course. And now they’re regrouping following a stinging setback by a federal judge in Pennsylvania and, more recently, by the failure of an anti-Darwin bill in Utah.

But there may be even more regrouping necessary than many may believe. The shift to the religious right in this country on the coattails of our increasingly faltering president may not have been as seismic as many originally thought. And it might have been only a temporary anomaly.

Polls continue to indicate that, while belief in God is quite high, most Americans do not adhere to most fundamentalist beliefs, especially younger Americans.

A former pastor of the First Christian Church in Edinburgh who now is behind the pulpit of a church in Southern California was recently featured in a Santa Cruz newspaper article about fundamentalism. Steve Defields-Gambrel is a preacher on a mission, against fundamentalism.

He says fundamentalist Christians belie the whole message that Jesus intended us to hear.

Fundamentalism is the belief that the bible is the unerring word of God, spoken to men by God, and that every last sentence of it is true and literal in its meaning. Fundamentalists also believe that Jesus Christ is the only path to eternal salvation. It supposedly harkens back to the early days of Christianity, when it was in its purest form.

Not true, according to Gambrel.

Fundamentalism was founded only about a century ago, around 1901. It grew out of several church revivals in the South that were partially the result of what some believed was a shift toward godlessness brought on by advances in scientific discovery. Prior to the 20th century, nobody was a fundamentalist Christian.

Gambrel said that fundamentalism often results in a harsh and even unloving form of Christianity that is just the opposite of what Jesus intended. Fundamentalism stymies one’s progress toward religious enlightenment; Jesus boldly stepped ahead.

“In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says he’s not here to abolish the law or the prophets, but six times in a row he revises them,” Gambrel said.

Jesus was a revolutionist who was eventually condemned to death for his heresies against the established “fundamentalism” of the day. There’s no reason to believe he would be any different if he walked the earth today.

Fundamentalism is repressive; Jesus was progressive. Fundamentalism is judgmental; Jesus was accepting. Fundamentalism is condemning; Jesus was forgiving.

As for the bible, the early Christians had none. It had not been canonized yet. That didn’t happen until centuries after Christ.

“The scary thing about canonizing is that it was done by committee," Gambrel said. "Nowadays we don’t respect many things done by committee.”

Gambrel’s point, and mine, is that we as Americans can certainly oppose depravity and immorality. We can do so by avoiding the things we disagree with, but also by constantly learning and evolving. Faith should be a dynamic process, not stalled in time and stultified.

If we choose to be Christians, we can be enlightened ones, not those who blindly follow the dogma of the unenlightened zealots.

According to Gambrel, early believers didn’t call themselves Christians; they called themselves the people of the Way, as in highway. They even used the phrase, “according to the Road,” instead of “according to the Bible.” He said following paths God presents means staying on the road, but simply moving forward.

And moving forward is something that fundamentalism cannot tolerate.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Big Bang's Smoking Gun Discovered

We measure our days and nights in hours, minutes, and sometimes seconds. It takes most of us about 90 seconds to make a refrigerator run during a TV commercial. Most of us have a work day that lasts eight hours. And our weekends seem painfully short at two days.

On the scientific level, however, time periods can be measured in extremely tiny or extremely long increments. For example, the Global Positioning System, which uses satellites to pinpoint the exact location of, say, a person with a GPS cell phone making a 911 call, works its magic by measuring the time it takes the radio waves to reach the cell phone in nanoseconds, or billionths of a second.

On the other end of the scale, geologists measure the age of fossils in millions or hundreds of millions of years. And the age of the universe is measured at 13.7 billion years.

Recently, however, scientists using the orbiting Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe have merged the incredibly large time scales of the universe with the unimaginably tiny time scale of microelectronics. They have managed to take a picture, so to speak, of the first trillionth of a second of the birth of the universe.

Fifty years ago, there was a debate raging of astronomical proportions. Really, the debate was among astronomers who couldn’t agree on whether the universe had a beginning, dubbed the Big Bang, or whether it was in a so-called steady state.

That debate was laid to rest once and for all in 1968 when a couple of radio technicians at Bell Labs serendipitously discovered the cosmic background radiation, which was predicted to exist if, indeed, the universe began with a bang.

Unfortunately, the Big Bang theory couldn’t explain how stars and galaxies could form. It predicted a very smooth universe. Our universe is lumpy with matter.

Then, 25 years ago, a scientist named Alan Guth figured out that if the universe had started with an immense inflationary period during the first few trillionths of a second of the Big Bang, that would create fluctuations in the energy field that would result in galaxies, stars, and planets.

Ever since then, astronomers have been looking for the smoking gun that would prove or disprove Guth’s inflationary theory. And it was announced just last week that the smoking gun has been found.

WMAP data showed that the cosmic background radiation is polarized on a small scale. In other words, it’s lumpy. It’s astonishingly compelling evidence that the universe did, indeed, go through a very brief and rapid inflationary period during the first trillionth of a second of the Big Bang.

I’m sure that is very exciting news to astronomers and cosmologists. But what is even more exciting to me is that we are living in an age when humans have actually learned not only to probe inside a time period of a trillionth of a second, but the very first trillionth of a second of the universe’s existence.

One doesn’t have to understand how it works to appreciate how truly fascinating it is.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

I-69: Get it Built

The U.S. Interstate Highway system is the largest engineered structure in the world. Like buildings, the system was planned and specified prior to its being constructed.

Consisting of more than 42 thousand miles of road surface, The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways, its official designation, was initially funded in 1956. Seventeen years later, in 1973, the nationwide system of highways was more than 98 percent complete.

I-69 is a relatively minor segment of the Interstate system, running from southern Michigan to Indianapolis. But, thanks partly to the North American Free Trade Agreement, I-69 started getting a lot more attention as the best direct route for trade from Canada to Mexico.

Initial planning for the extension of I-69 began in the mid-1990s. In 1998, Congress gave its approval for the extension of I-69 from Indianapolis to the Rio Grande. Since then, much progress has been made in other states along the highway's proposed route, including Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee.

But while other states have started construction on their sections of the highway, Indiana is lagging far behind. Opposition groups held up the plans for years.

Obviously, it is necessary to determine the best route for any proposed highway. Studies were necessary to ascertain the most appropriate route, and to determine what the environmental impact will be. However, special interest groups have delayed construction of I-69 much longer than was necessary to do a study.

Now, after many years of study and debate, the proposed route was supposedly finalized. And, thanks to the passage of Gov. Daniels’ Major Moves legislation funding is now available to finally begin construction on the long-awaited highway.

But, politics being what they are, look for the next legislative session to be a contentious one over the northern end of the I-69 route, and over whether or not it should be a toll road.

The governor wants the route to follow existing route 37 through Perry Township. But neighborhood opposition has convinced many legislators that a move to the west would be better.

After 10 years or more of planning and public hearings, one would think the proposed route would have been carved in stone by now. Apparently that is not the case.

The new debate threatens to delay the start of construction yet another three years or so. The project is already 20 years behind. By rights, motorists should have been driving on the new highway by now. But the earliest that can happen is at least 10 years out.

It took less than 20 years to construct the nation’s Interstate highway system, from start to finish. If politics and opposition groups had held up initial construction of the system, we still might be getting around the country on two-lane highways.

It is taking longer to build Indiana’s section of I-69 than it took to construct the entire Interstate system. And that only hurts the state.

Sen. Brent Waltz (R-Greenwood) said we ought to spend a bit of time to make sure the final route makes sense. He said a three-year delay would be worth it if it results in a route that is better for the state.

But the route has already been approved by painstaking study and debate. It took years to finalize. It’s now time to move on.

The state now has the money. It has a route plan in place. The only thing left to debate about is whether or not it should be a toll road, and that can be decided after construction is well underway.

Daniels wants construction to begin in 2008, which is about a decade later than it should have started. The General Assembly should not waist even more time haggling over something that was supposedly already decided.

It’s time to finally get it built.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ban Smoking Statewide

As a single guy living alone, I tend to eat out a lot. My favorite culinary venues are in Indianapolis and Greenwood.

Until a couple of weeks ago, the question I was asked almost every time I ate out was, “Do you want smoking or non-smoking?” What a relief it is not to have to answer that question anymore. The long-awaited smoking bans took effect this month.

A growing number of Indiana communities have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in public buildings, including restaurants. Bloomington led the way several years ago. Since then, Indianapolis, Greenwood, Columbus, Fort Wayne, Carmel, and Shelbyville are among those communities that have passed smoking bans.

Smoking bans are supported by a large majority of citizens, even many smokers. Smokers view it as another excuse to quit the nasty habit.

Some see smoking bans as just one more example of government’s encroachment on a person’s privacy. Normally, I would agree with such sentiments. I oppose the seatbelt laws for the same reason.

However, choosing not to wear seatbelts endangers only the person making the choice not to wear them. Laws requiring seatbelts restrict a person’s right to choose to take the risk. If smoking affected only the smoker, I would oppose smoking bans, too.

But secondhand smoke is not only annoying to the non-smoker, it is dangerous. Smokers have the right to smoke, but they do not have the right to smoke in public places where their bad habit adversely affects those around them.

The anti-smoking ordinances in place in Indianapolis and Greenwood go a long way toward protecting children and non-smokers from secondhand cigarette smoke. But in all honesty they do not go far enough.

In Indianapolis, for example, bowling alleys are exempt from enforcing the ban. There are lots of children at bowling alleys, since bowling is a family game.

The smoking ban also does not apply to outdoor venues. That might seem to make sense because there is always fresh air blowing in when you’re outdoors.

But I’ve attended outdoor concerts and other events where people were freely smoking all around me, or up-wind from me. It wasn’t much different from being in an enclosed space.

Initially, the proposed smoking ban in Indianapolis included outdoor venues. But the original bill was in danger of dying unless the changes were made. The compromise was a good one, but it is unfortunate that compromises have to be made when it comes to the protection of public health.

Other communities that are considering anti-smoking ordinances, such as Franklin, should take that into consideration. The issue is not about a person’s right to smoke. It is only about where they have that right. If it is a public space, even an outdoor one, nobody should have the right to smoke there.

And, although a hodgepodge of varied anti-smoking ordinances around the state is better than not having any smoking bans at all, a statewide unified ban would be far better.

The Indiana General Assembly is not considering a statewide smoking ban this session. It’s too late for such a bill to be introduced this year.

But next year, with the start of a new General Assembly, it would be a perfect time to introduce legislation that would ban cigarette smoking in all public places statewide.

There is very little likelihood that small towns with mostly Mom-and-Pop restaurants would consider adopting anti-smoking ordinances. A state law would cover such small towns and rural areas.

Once upon a time, and not too long ago, smoking was even allowed in patient rooms in hospitals. It was allowed on airline flights. In fact, there were few places one could go to escape the vile stench of cigarette smoke.

Today, the indoor air is much cleaner. But in a few years, it could be we will look back on today’s smoking climate and wonder why we even allowed it in public at all, even outside.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Heresy: A Crime Worth Dying For?

The recent spate of protests, death threats, and calls for censorship that came as a direct result of some Danish newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad doing unholy things got me to thinking about what kind of parallels might exist in other religions or at other times.

Although I can’t say I was shocked at what my research discovered, I can say with all certainty that I was at least mildly surprised by the frequency of religious censorship, even going as far as modern-day executions as retribution for what someone may have spoken or written.

A Danish newspaper last September published a dozen cartoons depicting Mohammad. They were caricatures, which means, of course, that they were not exactly flattering. The Muslim world, especially Muslims in the Middle East, responded by doing what they do best, burning embassies and calling for executions of the perpetrators.

Not to be outdone, though, two religious groups in Great Britain were also up in arms. One group rallied and yelled and said that the artwork sewed evil into people. They claimed it made a mockery of their god, and claimed that while they had no problem with freedom of speech there should never be freedom for desecration.

But these were not groups of Muslims protesting Danish cartoons; they were groups of Christians protesting the show “Jerry Springer: The Opera.”

They may have been right about that sewing of evil thing, because some members of the group published the phone numbers and addresses of BBC officials who showed the screening. At least one of them received death threats.

A second Christian group actually took the BBC to court to press charges for, of all things, blasphemy. The British High Court dismissed the case.

The biggest difference between the Muslim protests and the Christian protests were that no lives were actually lost in the latter.

It does show, however, that both fundamentalist religious groups, the Christians and the Muslims, get their feelings hurt far too easily. And when they do, their responses are those of five year olds.

They yell and scream and throw things. Then they want you to die, or at the very least, go to jail.

Take for example the case of an activist who was convicted in Germany last month and sentenced to one year of prison for mailing toilet paper stamped with "The holy Qur'an" to mosques and the media.

And in 2004 two Dutch film makers received death threats for their film exposing poor treatment of women in many Islamic nations. One of the film makers was eventually stabbed and shot to death by a Muslim.

Christian groups are more likely to call for censorship and bans than for murder, but there are also exceptions to that general statement. Abortion doctors have been the target of fundamentalist Christians, who believe firmly in the “right to life” for all humans, except, apparently, for abortion doctors.

Several movies have also been the target for censorship by Christian groups, including “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which depicts a love affair between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian,” which is a parody on Jesus’ life, was even banned in a couple of European countries, including Norway. But next door, in Sweden, the film was actually advertised as being so funny that it was banned in Norway.

Islamic countries, especially in the Middle East, are often a hotbed for violence. But that region has never earned a reputation for being a hotbed for innovation and invention. For them the Dark Ages have never ended. Religion often suppresses reason and creativity.

The Dark Ages are also still alive and well for Christian fundamentalists. If reason hadn’t finally supplanted the Christian forces that brought about the Inquisition, the witch hunts, and all the heresy trials throughout history, the U.S. might also be a third-world nation.

Personally, though I’m not religious, I do have one prayer. And that is may God help us to break free from our religions.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Bush's Science Policy is Schizophrenic

Last week NASA was forced to cut a planned robotic space mission. The spacecraft, named Dawn, was set to orbit two asteroids. It was a purely scientific mission, and one of several science missions that have been cancelled over the past few months.

Also last week, House Republicans touted a series of policy proposals that are supposed to enhance America’s competitiveness in technology. The U.S. still leads the world in technological progress, but that lead has been slipping in recent years.

The Bush administration’s science policy seems to be in a state of schizophrenia. On the one hand, Bush goes on national television during his State of the Union address and promotes technology and manned space missions. At the same time, NASA’s science missions are being cut or scaled back while Bush censors his top science advisors when the results of their science run contrary to the administration’s party-line conservative agenda.

And while the president is touting a policy encouraging the advancement of technology, he is making statements to the press in support of including the pseudoscience of intelligent design in the science classroom.

As for America’s space program, it seems to be in the early stages of a reversal. Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s, NASA’s missions were almost exclusively manned. Sending humans to explore space is extremely costly and dangerous. But, because of the Space Race with the Soviets, robotic missions to the moon were just not high-profile enough. Humans had to go up.

We learned a lot in those days. A huge number of modern consumer goods and services have come into being as a direct or indirect result of the manned space program of the 1960s.

Robotic missions are much cheaper and entirely safe. They can teach us a great deal about whatever they were designed to measure. But there are far fewer spin-offs that directly benefit society.

There was a great amount of sadness among many of the NASA scientists who made the early manned space program possible when Pres. Nixon decided to cut NASA’s budget, which effectively brought to an end to manned missions to the moon. Even orbital missions were all but halted.

In place of the manned missions, NASA turned its attention, and smaller budget, to unmanned scientific missions. The Viking missions to Mars and Voyager missions to the outer Solar System were spectacular successes. These missions led to great discoveries that excited not only the planetary scientists involved, but the general public as well.

In 1981, humans went back into space in the Space Shuttle, but the missions were all in close Earth orbit and were nowhere near as spectacular as the earlier moon missions. Basically, the Space Shuttle was a truck with earth orbit as its highway.

There were some infamous failures along the way, too. Two shuttle missions resulted in disastrous loss of life. And some robotic missions to the planets ended in failure as well.

Lately, however, the unmanned missions have been successes that resulted in increased scientific knowledge of Mars, comets, and asteroids.

So, as the pendulum swings back the other way, toward manned scientific missions, it is with a similar sort of melancholy that permeated through NASA when its early manned missions were cut.

If Bush’s initiative is successful, it will mean that the space program will get more expensive, and at the same time, more impressive. Sending men and women to the moon, and ultimately to Mars and other planets, will get the space program back on the track it should never have left in 1974.

The sad part is that it is at the expense of losing valuable unmanned science missions. These missions cost so little it’s a pity we can’t afford to keep them even as we ramp up the manned space program again.