Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Here in Canada the Supreme Court has just ruled that the refusal to allow gays to marry is discriminatory and unconstitutional. It has affirmed that a specific church may refuse to provide a service if that marriage contravenes that religion's edicts. But the government cannot deny civil marriage.

I am proud of the court, and the way the Prime Minister is handling the issue. He has announced a free vote on a law OK'ing the removal of "opposite sex" from the marriage definition BUT has said that the cabinet is ordered to support the bill. (I might take issue with the general principle that members of parliament should ever be forced to support a government position regardless of what they think is right or what they feel their constituents want. But that's another issue.)

Both Supreme Court and the PM have walked a sensible line. The court ruled wisely by reaffirming freedom of religion while making sure that discrimination against homosexuals cannot be made by government. (I disgree with discriminatory church policies. But that, too, is another issue.) And the PM announced that MP's can vote their conscience but gave a clear message that the cabinet is expected to support gay marriage. This is a courageous (and just) position.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

No coat hooks, part 2

Twenty years ago, when VCR's were new, my school had once player. It was kept in a geography classroom on the second floor, just overtop of my physics classroom. There was a tree outside the window. One night, someone climbed the tree, broke a window, and stole the VCR. There had been intruder sensors in the halls, but this enterprising thief beat the system by entering and leaving the upstairs window via the tree.
How did the principal respond? He had the tree cut down! Because our school was ringed with windows (it was built before the period of fortress-like schools with tiny windows), cutting down the tree reduced the number of accessible windows from about 250 to 249. I couldn't believe this ridiculous over-reaction.

Don't you think this story, although less tragic, is similar to that of the removal of the coat hooks mentioned in the previous posting?

One difference is that the tree decision was made by one person. Nowadays, I think it's the lawyers who call the shots. Lawyers told our board of education that teachers were not to be taking students to Europe during the March Break (during holidays!) because if there was a terrorist attack somewhere and the trip got cancelled, the students might lose their deposits and the school board would get sued. So, no more educational trips.
I had taken students to Greece, Italy, and Spain. I protested. I got a letter from the tour company saying that money would be refunded if a government travel alert was sounded for the trip destination. The board official responded that the students would be too disappointed if a trip was cancelled so they were not going to allow the possible disapointment to occur! I guess they felt that no one would be disappointed if there were no trip offered at all. Thank you Board of Education lawyers.

Probably it was the lawyers who recommended removing the hooks. Imagine, they would have said, what would happen if there were a repeat of that tragic situation: what if a student in this board of education were killed by being hung on a coat hook? The parents' lawyers would say in court "You KNEW that a student had been killed on a coat hook previously, yet you DID NOTHING to prevent it happening in your schools?"

The darn thing is, the lawyers would be right. That argument would win, wouldn't it? So what's wrong. The lawyer's advise was probably good. By following the advise the board was acting in its own best interest, and, perhaps, in a now-not-to-be-killed child's best interest, too. Yet I can't help thinking that the removal of the coat hooks was a dumb overreaction to an extremely rare event. If that's so, where is the flaw in the logic? How do we fix this paradox?
There are no coat hooks in my school
About 10 years ago a little boy in an Ontario elementary school was lifted up and suspended on a coat hook. He suffocated. Police were unable to find who killed him. Now all the coat hooks in all the washrooms in all the schools, elementary and secondary, in my board of education have been removed.
This brings up an interesting, though unsettling, question: was the removal of all the coat hooks a vast over-reaction? In over 200 years of public education in Canada, one student in one school was killed on a coat hook. Now, intellectually, it is hard to argue against a position that if the removal of the hooks saves even one child, the policy is worthwhile. How can you measure the cost of a life of a child against the inconvenience of hot being able to hang a coat or jacket on a hook?
On the other hand, as callous as it seems, we might say that there are many ways and times, in 200 years, that someone can be killed, and you can't stop them all. There are more children killed falling down stairs than being hung on coat hooks, and we still build multistory schools.
Sometimes a reality check is needed.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Are the religious right right?

CBC Radio ran an interesting program today in which a committed, evangelical, fundamentalist Christain minister took the CBC reporter into his home for a week. The program, told entirely in alternating first-person accounts, related how they came to respect each other even though their viewpoints about God, homosexuals, abortion, G.W.Bush, and almost everything else, were so different. Each told how wary they initially were about each other, how they became friends, and respected the other (even though his view was wrong!)

Here's what bothers me a little about the certainty of strongly religious people. Throughout history, religious people have always been strongly convinced of the correctness of their own beliefs. A while ago, African Americans were unworthy of treatment as humans; before that Native Americans, witches, heretics, "infidels" in the holy lands. Jews have been persecuted by Christians for a couple of millennia. Church doctrines have changed over time.

At each instant in history, I will bet that committed religious people have always said that they were certain their beliefs were true. They would have said that those who lived before them were misguided; that, in fact, EVERYONE who thinks differently is wrong.

My question to an evangelical, fundamentalist person of any religion is this. Isn't it worth considering that all of the people in those earlier eras felt as strongly that they are absolutely right as you do? You have been born and raised (or otherwise come) to accept certain tenets as absolute truths. If you are truly open-minded and rational, shouldn't you acknowledge that there is a rather low probability that you happen to have been born at just the perfect time in history that your generation was taught the absolute truth, while all those who came before (or believe different things now) are the ones who are wrong? How can honest, clear-thinking, fair evangelicals be so certain of the correctness of their positions?
Save "me", please

English may be a living language, but the proper use of "me" is dying. Often bad language comes up from the bottom: kids, TV shows, wrestling matches. Over the last ten years, an error that bugs me came down from the top, from adults, from professionals. It is the use of the word "myself" when the speaker or writer means "me."
e.g. Turn your documents into Kevin or myself by 3:00.
e.g. (worse) Dave and myself will be away tomorrow. (should be "I")

I turn in documents to you, not to yourself. I see her, she sees herself. You play with me, I play …

On second thought, I guess the word "me" is not imperiled as I first thought. Almost every student says "Me and her are going to the mall." Hearing that always gives myself a headache.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

If we only knew

I'm old enough to remember "Whites Only" drinking fountains and regulations in the American South that blacks had to sit in the back of the bus and give up their seats to white people. This concept looks so repulsive now. (It was repulsive then, too, but not for many southerners...bear with me.) If whites in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in 1960 could have looked ahead 45 years, they would have seen the disgust that people today have for their attitudes. If they knew, then, how their attitudes would appear to people 40 years in the future, would they have continued to hold their values?

My parents grew up on the Toronto Islands. Up until the 60's there were no Jews allowed in the bowling and baseball leagues, nor at the events in the Clubhouse. And my parents and their friends were otherwise very good people. Why didn't they see how wrong this was? If someone told them what people in 1980 would think of this policy, would they have changed it sooner?

Or take Sadam Hussein. He wanted to be known as a great leader, like Saladin. If he had known that he would be despised by future generations, would he have acted differently?

Let's assume that people would change their behaviour if, magically, they found out what future generations thought of them. The question becomes, then, what are WE doing today that people in 2040 will say "How could they have thought THAT? How disgusting! How could they have behaved that way?"

A couple of suggestions might be
"How could they (i.e. we) have ignored/contributed to global warming so much?"
"How could they have treated homosexuals that way?"
"How could they have destroyed so many species?"

Are there any things about us that you think might disgust future generations as much as those behaviours from the near past, like routinely-accepted racial descrimination, that disgust us now?
I realize that English is a living language, but would you help me save the word "me" from extinction? Often bad language comes up from the bottom: kids, TV shows, wrestling matches. Over the last ten years, an error that bugs me came down from the top, from adults, from professionals. It is the use of the word "myself" when the speaker or writer means "me."
e.g. Turn your documents into Kevin or myself by 3:00.
e.g. (worse) Dave and myself will be away tomorrow. (should be "I")
I turn in documents to you, not to yourself. I see her, she sees herself. You play with me, I play …
On second thought, I guess the word "me" is not imperiled as I first thought. Almost every student says "Me and her are going to the mall." …Hearing that always gives myself a headache.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

String Theory

You may have read about physicists proposing that everything is made of vibrating strings. It’s hard to get an intuitive grasp of this concept, but perhaps the following will help get you started.

Light can be thought of as a particle or a wave, depending on what experiment you do to detect it. If you look to see how it exposes a photographic plate or hits a screen, you discover that light particles, photons, have one-to-one collisions with molecules and land in a specific place on the screen (rather than wash across a screen like a wave washes up on a beach.) If you check to see how light passes through tiny holes you see interference patterns, places where light waves cancelled and reinforced.

It turns out that all particles (not just light) have a wave nature. For example, electrons travel through slits and produce interference patterns. You’ve heard of the electron microscope, which uses electrons rather than light to view tiny objects. The electron’s wavelength is smaller than that of visible light, so we can us electron waves to detect smaller objects.

Three formulas, two formulas from Einstein, and one from de Broglie, are helpful here. The first is Einstein’s famous E=mc2, which tells how much energy is needed to create a particle of mass m, or how much energy will appear if a particle of mass m vanishes. (c is the speed of light.) The second, also from Einstein, is E = hc/λ, where λ is the wavelength of the wave associated with that particle. This gives the energy of a particle with a given wavelength.

The third formula is λ = h/mv, where λ is a particle’s wavelength, h is a constant, m is the particle’s mass and v is its velocity.

String theory? Here goes.

First, get the idea of strings made of atoms out of your mind. Forget what they are made of and just consider them to be imaginary. Here’s how they work, in a nutshell.

Consider a tiny particle, like an electron, proton, muon, whatever. The particle has a mass. When moving, it has a wavelength (equation 3) and an energy (equation 2). Now picture two girls turning a skipping rope. They are making a standing wave. Their shoulders are nodes, hardly moving. Most of the energy of the wave is near the centre of the rope where the amplitude is greatest. Picture a particle to be equivalent to a standing wave: the “probable location” of the particle is where the energy is greatest. But the particle does not actually exist in a spot, its energy (and mass, equation 1) are spread out all the way between the nodes.

If the girls wiggle their arms differently, they could set up a standing wave with two loops and a stationary point, a node, in the middle. (You never actually see this when kids are skipping, but you can do it with your stretched-out phone cord if you try. Turn it at twice the rate of the “skipping rope” turning.) In this case there are two high-energy locations, the loops or antinodes. This wave is the first overtone of the original, which is called the fundamental. Buglers (and all brass instrumentalists) make use of the overtones to get different notes without changing their fingers. (Buglers can’t change their fingers: they have no valves!)

Now the intuitive step. What if the overtone represents a different particle from the original? That is, since every particle has a wave nature, we could think of particles as different resonances of a vibrating string, different frequencies where standing waves can be set up. The more massive the particle, the more energy (equation 1). The more energy, the smaller the wavelength (equation 2). The more massive particle could be a standing wave of higher frequency or an overtone of the wave associated with the less massive particle.

String theory is much more complicated than this, of course. But the idea here is to turn on a little light bulb in our brain, a little spark of intuition. Because of the wave-particle duality of light and matter, perhaps we can think of particles as resonances of strings. It is space itself which is resonating, not actual pieces of thin rope.

To test out the theory we can use some symmetry considerations to predict a resonance that no one has seen before. This leads to a frequency and wavelength prediction. That gives an equivalent mass and velocity (equation 3). When we let high speed particles race down linear accelerators and smash into atomic targets, tiny particles are produced. They don’t last long, and when they vanish, they give off a burst of light. The photon will have an energy equivalent to that particle’s mass (equation 1). This energy has an associated wavelength (equation 2) which translates to a colour. So, when we fire up our linear accelerators, synchrotrons, and cyclotrons (“atom smashers”) we can look for a burst of light of that colour. If we see it, we can say that we have discovered a new particle and announce its mass.

Alternatively, if we have a tiny understanding of string theory, we can say we have witnessed a new resonance of one of the strings of which the universe is made.
Women with guns.

How many TV shows have you seen where the woman gets the bad guy's gun and points it at him, trembling? He steps slowly toward her. "You won't shoot. Give me the gun." And she ends up giving it to him, giving away her only advantage. Sound familiar?

Everytime I see that I think "Don't give it to him. At least shoot him in the leg so he can't chase you." But she never does.

I watched one movie, a pretty good one, actually, for this genre. The woman got the gun away from the guy whose accomplice was holding her daughter. The idea was that the girl would be killed if the bad guy didn't telephone in every hour. What could she do but give him back his gun? And of course she did!

I decided to write an alternative version. What follows is an off-the-cuff account of what I figure the woman should have done. I backed it up a bit to show how she might have got the gun away from him. See if you think it's reasonable.

Don't Give Up The Gun

[Man with gun is in woman's appartment. His accomplice has her daughter in an unknown location. She dare not leave or cause trouble, or her daughter might be killed. Story resumes.]

With apparent carelessness, Barb came out of the kitchen carrying two mugs of coffee. Hearing her approach, the man turned his eyes from the television screen and watched her cautiously. She tried not to let her rising nervousness cause her hands to shake; she had to keep him from guessing her intentions. The fingers of his right hand drummed the nearby table, beside the gun. She tried not to look at it, staring instead down at the coffee. While preparing the coffee in the kitchen she had decided that she had only one chance. She fought the nausea bubbling up from inside, trying to stay focussed, to appear as if spilling the hot liquid on the rug was her biggest worry.

She jiggled a little coffee on the table, grimacing “Ow, that’s hot!” she exclaimed, hoping that just the right amount of anguish was in her voice. She was right in front of him now. Slowly she offered the mug to him, coffee filled to the brim. She was holding the mug's handle, so he’d have to put his hand around the mug. “Careful, it’s full”, she warned him. Please let him take it in both hands, she pleaded silently, as she extended it toward his his left hand.

The ruse worked. His fingers closed around the mug, and she released it. As she hoped, the scalding hot mug was too painful for his fingers. The man brought his right hand up quickly to take the mug by the handle. Just as he pulled the mug out of his his fingers she acted. She flung her steaming hot coffee in his face.

The man screamed and jerked back in the chair, involuntarily bring his left hand up, too late, to protect his eyes. Years of habit worked to prevent him from dropping the mug for a split second. An instant was all Barb needed. She grabbed the gun and jumped back out of reach.

Cursing, the man flung away the cup of coffee and grabbed for her, but missed. “Freeze, asshole” she yelled, and levelled the gun at his face.

“God damn it! You bitch.” he cried, wiping coffee from his eyes. “You’ve had it. Your little girl’s dead now.” He took a step toward her.

She pointed the gun at the ceiling and pulled the trigger. The boom was deafening, causing her to gasp and step back. Quickly she lowered the gun and pointed it at him. “Don’t come any closer!” she screamed.

The blast worked. The man’s survival instincts kicked in, and he froze. “OK. OK” he said. “Take it easy.”

Time stopped as they eyed each other, wondering what was going to happen next. Then she spoke sharply. “Sit down” she commanded. The man didn’t move and she made a motion toward him with the gun.

“OK,” he said, and he eased back into the chair. He took a big breath, and let his face relax. Inside, he was seething, furious at himself for getting taken by this woman. Doing his best to look confident, he smiled “Good move,” he said. “I’m impressed.”

Barb snorted with disgust, her eyes shooting daggers at him.

“No, really,” he continued. “That was a smooth move. You’ve got guts, I’ve got to say.” He paused, and the smile faded. “But playtime’s over. Put down the gun.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Barb replied grimly.

“You’re forgetting. My partner Barney’s got your daugher. If I don’t phone Barney to say that your husband’s wired the money, he kills her.”

“I’ll kill you.”

“No you won’t,” he said. “You can’t chance it. You’re not going to trade your daughter for me, are you?” He smiled confidently, as he saw the tears well up in her eyes. “Who’s more important to you? Me or her?”

“Sh..sh..shut up,” she stammered, but kept the gun aimed at his nose.

“He might phone to see if everything’s OK any minute. If I don’t tell him everything’s fine, he’ll kill her and split town. Think carefully.” He watched her carefully as she burst into tears, watching the gun waver in her hand, looking for the right moment to leap.“You’ll never see her alive again”, he taunted.

“I said shut up,” Barb wailed. “Let me think”, she shouted. For a moment they stared at each other, then she waved the gun.

“Reach the phone and tell him to bring her here” she ordered.

“Can’t do that, Missy. He’ll smell a trap.”

“Do it anyhow.”


“I – I’ll kill you.”

“No you won’t. Like I said, you can’t take that chance. You might as well give me the gun.”

“Here’s how I see it,” Barb replied, her voice steadier now. “I figure you are going to kill us anyhow.”

“No, we just want the money.”

“I’ve seen your face. My daughter’s seen you friend’s face. You’re going to kill us.”

“Of course not. You won’t tell because we have accomplises that will kill you, your husband, and your little girl if you do.” He shrugged. “But not me. I’m not a killer, just a business man.”

She stared at him. He had a handsome face, could have been a tennis player, she thought. Or the guy next door. His little smile mocked her. Amazing that he was so cool, considering she had a gun pointed at him. She looked deep into his eyes and shivered. The eyes told the real story. He hated her guts. He’s a charmer, that’s for sure, she thought. But those eyes.

A surreal calm seemed to come over her as she came to a decision.. “Here’s what I’m going to do,” she announced calmly. She took a step toward him, and took a deep breath. Suddenly, she pointed the gun down at his right thigh and pulled the trigger.

She was ready for the blast this time, but the man jumped in surprise and pain. He howled. “Oh! Shit! Shit!” He grabbed his leg. “You shot me! Oh, shit that hurts” Blood poured through his fingers. He moaned, and continued to curse.

“Hurts more than they pretend on TV?” she asked.

“God, yes! Why did you do that?” he demanded angrily. “That’ll cost you. You daughter’s dead. Do you understand me?”

“If she dies, so will you,” Barb replied, matter-of-factly. “Perhaps you should put your belt around your thigh before you bleed to death.”

“Put your hand on this while I take my belt off?”

She laughed. “Not a chance.”

He glared at her, then reached for a nearby pillow. He placed it over the wound and held it there with his elbow while he struggled to pull his belt off. She watched as he fed it under him and pulled it tight around his thigh.He wiped his bloody hands on the pillow, a little triumph.

She shrugged. “Now you’re going to phone your friend and tell him to bring back my daughter.”

“Won’t work. He won’t do it.”

She shrugged again. “Better hope he does, or you’ll bleed to death.”

“You bitch!” he spat. “I never hurt you!”


She walked over to the corner table and took the remote phone from its cradle. She tossed it into his lap. “Phone him,” she directed.

The man eyed the phone then stared at her insolently. He made no move to pick it up.

Without any warning, she stepped forward and fired, hitting him in the other leg below the knee.

“God! Damn you! Oh, God!” he shrieked. “My leg!” She waggled the gun. “OK. OK” he moaned.

“Phone him now.”


She squatted by the phone jack as he dialed. She could hear the phone ring on the other end. “Hi, Bud?” He looked at her carefully, then started to shout. “Bud, this bitch …”

Quickly she pulled the phone cord out of the wall. “That was a mistake,” she said, calmly. “Which arm do you want me to shoot?”

The man’s incredible confidence seeped away quickly. “N-n-no. No. Sorry,” he shrieked. “Don’t do that.”

Suddenly, her calm state cracked. “Then get me my daughter back, you asshole,” she shouted. “The next shot goes through your crotch. You’ll sing soprano if I let you live. Are you ready to try again?”

He nodded.

“Is there a donut shop or all-night convenience store anywhere near there?” she asked.

“Ya, a Mac’s Milk.”

“Then tell him there’s been a change in plans, that I’m going to pay a huge ransom. and that he’s to drop her at the Mac’s Milk and drive away. Tell him that when the owner of the store calls to say that she’s safe, you will leave here with the money.

“Do you think you can do that?” she asked, pointing the gun at his gut.


“You’d better, or you die.”

“You’re still playing with your daughter’s life. If my pal smells a rat, she’s in trouble.”

“Then see that he doesn’t. I think your life is worth more to you than my daughter’s is to you, isn’t it? Didn’t I hear you say something like that before?”

He grunted, then, after she plugged in the phone cord, he dialed. “Hi Bud. Sorry about that. She started to run, and I had to chase her. Stupid bitch…Ya…How’s the girl? OK…Good…Look, something’s come up.”

Barb got ready to pull the plug.

“The bitch has some jewels, and a lot of money right here in a safe. If you bring back the girl she’ll open it. No, I can’t make her…No, don’t threaten her with the girl…No, she’s looney. She’s convinced we’re going to kill the girl anyhow and she figures this is her only chance…Here’s what you have to do.”

He told the man the new plans.

“She’ll open the safe when she hears from the store guy.”

“And my daughter.” Barb called.

“Ya, after she speaks with her daughter she’ll open the safe…Sure she will, or she dies…Ya, I’ll kill her. She knows that. All she cares about is the kid….Don’t argue, just do it….OK.”

As the man clicked off the phone, Barb nodded approvingly. “Good job. Throw me the phone.”

She caught the phone and dialled 9-1-1. “Get me the police….Yes. My daughter’s been kidnapped. The kidnapper’s accomplice is here, and he will tell you where she is being held. She’ll either be there, or the kidnapper will be taking her to a nearby Mac’s Milk…Yes. This is no joke. I’ve got a gun on him. I’m going to put him on and he’ll tell you where she is…What if he lies?” She laughed grimly. “I think he knows what will happen.”
Thoughs on whether God exists

I often think how lucky I am to be born a Canadian. I could have been born one of India’s teeming impoverished children. I could have had to grow up in the middle of sectarian warfare in Ireland, Serbia, or Iraq, or under a tyrannical dictatorship in the U.S.S.R. or North Korea. How fortunate I was that my parents happened to be Canadians!

The fact that the majority of citizens happen to have the citizenship of their parents is obvious and of little significance. Yet, when applied to religion, the observation leads to some serious questions in my mind. The vast majority of people end up following the religion of their parents. Of course some people convert to other denominations, Anglican to United. Some cross larger chasms, converting from Judaism to Christianity, or Christianity to Buddhism. It is surely safe to say, though, that most people who grow up in a family of a given faith become members of that faith themselves. That is, they accept the beliefs of the faith of their parents, or at least their surroundings during their formative years.

At first glance, this observation seems of as little significance as the citizenship “coincidence”. After all, how can you accept the beliefs of, say, Muslims, if you haven’t been exposed to that faith? The difference comes, though, with the importance believers of a faith usually place on the truth of their beliefs. Canadians do not go about announcing that Canada is the only true country. But many religious believers proclaim that their faith is the only true faith. That is, they feel that their God is the only God, or the practices or beliefs of their faith provide the only way to reach God or heaven, The Roman Catholic Church has, with no embarrassment, openly proclaimed itself as the one True Church. Devout Christians seize upon the word “only” in the scriptures and state that the only way to salvation is to accept Christ as the Son of God. Jehovah’s Witnesses tell the world that those who survive the coming apocalypse will be from their ranks only.

It is at this point that the coincidences become a little too much to accept. The good luck of being born Canadian pales compared to the good luck of being born into the only true faith.

When I think deeply about religious matters, such as the existence of a Creator, whether there is an afterlife, or whether there is a God who can hear your silent prayers, I wonder about the certainty that many believers possess. When I see good, intelligent, devout people disagreeing on what constitutes the absolute truth in these matters, I wonder what right have I to assume that my beliefs are the true beliefs? The conclusion that I have the monopoly on truth seems of low probability, and quite egotistical or chauvanistic.

I would like to pose some questions to religious people about this point. Because of my lack of knowledge of the other world religions, I will address the questions to fundamentalist Christians who consider their beliefs to be absolutely true. But I believe my questions have general applicability to other faiths, if tailored to their specific beliefs.[1]

Question 1: Does it concern you that you happen to believe what your parents believe? Do you ever worry that such a “coincidence” could be the result of indoctrination rather than free choice, uninfluenced by your superiors or upbringing?

Certainly, no one can be uninfluenced by his or her upbringing. No one is, or should be, brought up empty of knowledge and void of concepts of right and wrong. After all, that’s why we have universal education. Suppose, though, a button could be pressed which causes all preconceived notions about religion could be wiped from a 25 year old’s brain. (Perhaps the Men in Black have one!) Gone would be the suggestion that there is a God. Gone would be the assumption that the Bible is the literal truth (the question was addressed to fundamentalist Christians, remember.) I anticipate that the majority of such mind-blanked people would attain a belief in God. There seems to be a universal human nature or need to feel that someone is looking out for them, or there is life after death, or that their presence on Earth has a grand purpose. But would most pick up the Bible and say “You know, I this script seems to be the actual Word of God.” My guess is that many would see the Bible as representing something else: what ancient people thought was the word of God, or what early religious leaders wanted their flock to think was the word of God, or what early devout leaders though God would say if He were currently speaking to them. The point of my question and this subsequent impossible (some would say ludicrous) hypothetical scenario is to try to find out if fundamentalist Christians accept (their interpretations of) the teachings of the Bible because they have been told the Bible is absolute truth or because they have concluded, independent of their upbringing, that it is absolute truth.

I would be more satisfied intellectually to accept claims of religious fundamentalists if I felt that their ideas and passions did not come from parents or upbringing. Please remember that I am not claiming that the beliefs of religious fundamentalists, or any religious people for that matter, are untrue. I am saying that if I were to hold these (or any) beliefs myself, the “my parents thought that, too” coincidence would give me pause.

Question 2: Have you ever wondered what changes in your beliefs would results if the Bible were not absolutely true? Or, more to the point, have you ever wondered if the Bible might not be the literal Word of God?

Again, I would be more impressed with a fundamentalist’s convictions if he or she concluded that the Bible was literate, historical truth after honestly and fairly considering the question. I fear that it may be impossible to fairly question a fundamental tenet of faith that has been part of a person’s upbringing from day 1. True, some people convert to other religions, which suggests that open-mindedness is possible. On the other hand, conversion might indicate that they never actually accepted the article of faith in the first place. Unfortunately, this leads to a situation with no solution:
Convert: Yes I accepted it…now I reject it.
Skeptic: You never accepted it, you just think you did.
Convert: No, I actually accepted it.
Skeptic: No, you just think you actually accepted it…

It worries me that belief in God, based on the Bible’s claim of God’s existence, is subject to circular reasoning:

Person A: God exists.
Person B: How do you know?
Parson A: It says so in the Bible?
Person B: How do you know that the Bible is true?
Person A: Because God wrote it.
Person B: But how do you know that God exists in the first place?
Person A: It says so in the Bible.

Is it possible to come to accept that the Bible is the literal Word of God without first being told that it is? Perhaps. A fundamentalist might say “I get evidence for this every day, throughout my life.” My worry here is that such acceptance occurs in other situations which are too similar to be ignored: the concept of the self-fulfilling prophesy, the Rorschach ink-blot test, vision of God in the clouds or the devil in the smoke from the World Trade Centre, the “my horoscope sounds like it applies to me” claim. My grandmother says “I’ve played Bingo all my life and I think I’m a little ahead.” No bingo player thinks otherwise.

[1] (For the purpose of this essay I am defining fundamentalist Christians as those who believe that the Bible is the absolute word-for-(Hebrew)-word literal truth. This would take in standard Baptists and Nazarenes. Fundamentalist, but not Christian, would apply to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of the Old Testament. For example, they would say that there actually was a Daniel in a lion’s den who plucked a thorn from the lion’s paw. Anglicans and Catholic standard doctrine would see the same passage as a fable showing the value of belief in God and charity to your enemy. For a non-fundamentalist, the Bible’s truth would be of a more general nature: a moral or educational truth, rather than a literal one. Similarly, for a fundamentalist Adam and Eve were real people. For a non-fundamentalist, Adam and Eve were characters in a creation myth that tells us many truths about how God wants us to behave. Of course there are many Anglicans and Catholics, and people of other faiths, who would consider themselves fundamentalists, so the questions that follow are not directed solely toward Baptists.

Saturday, July 31, 2004

Stephen Hawking lost his bet!
Did you see where Hawking now agrees that his old proposal that black holes destroy all information is incorrect? He had always said that black holes could emit particles (one half of a virtual pair created at the event horizon). But he had been puzzled by the idea that, therefore, information is leaking from the black hole. That meant that information that originally entered the black hole was still inexistence. (Non-random radiation and particles are information because they denote pattern.)
For more, search Google on +bet +Hawking

Monday, July 19, 2004

35 years ago I was two months short of 19, a waiter at a lodge in Haliburton, Ontario. After lunch, I borrowed Mrs. Johnson's old TV set and set it up in the lounge of the main building. Mrs. J could get two channels with her TV tower, but without an antenna I couldn't get a picture. I found some lamp wire and ran it up to the curtain rod. Out of the TV came a lot of static, some sound, no picture. But I heard it: "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

I could hardly wait for dinner to end. After serving, we helped dry dishes and set up our tables for the morning. Then I was back to tinkering with the TV. I got a picture by running the antenna wire through the window and attaching it to the eaves trough. As the sky darkened, reception improved, and word went out to the guests to come to the lounge. As people gathered, about half of them Americans, the excitement rose.

To this day I will always remember watching Neil Armstrong descend that ladder.

The next day I went to town and bought the Toronto papers. Each semester, at the end of the astronomy unit in grade 9 science, I bring my originals to class to show the students. I try to make them feel the wonder I felt when I looked up at the moon and realised that there were men up there, walking around.

Monday, July 12, 2004

A week or so ago a friend sent me a very distasteful poem about immigrants. I won't dignify the poem by printing it here, but I would like to share my response to her. (For the record, (to put my response in its proper perspective) I am third generation WASP in Canada.)

Dear --------

If this poem reflects some people's image of immigrants, I am sad. If
many Canadians think this, then Canada is a poorer country for this

We were built by immigrants. We (except for Native North Americans) were all from immigrant families. Up until 2001, the last year I have seen solid statistics, immigrants had a higher level of education, on average, than Canadians. They had a higher literacy rate, and a lower jobless rate.

For us to put down immigrants reminds me of the cottager's syndrome. We cottagers look around for a lake to build a cottage on. We find a new lot and build a cottage, then immediately we want local town council to forbid all future development. This is the cottager's NIMBY: NOAMOTL = No One After Me On This Lake. We immigrants, our ancestors, came to Canada, thankful to have a place we can live up to our potential and dreams. Suddenly, having made it, we don't want anyone else to have the same right.

Intolerance of people who are different makes me sad. In my grade 12
physics class I have six Chinese students, two Polynesians, four
Indian/Pakastanis, one Serbian. They are all polite, hard-working kids. One of the Chinese girls is getting 100. To have her and her family labelled lazy, lawbreakers ("stolen trucks", for heavens sake), and unworthy of our respect is unfair to her.

Please don't distribute this poem. Intolerance does not make Canada a better place for anyone.

Love, Rob

Sunday, June 13, 2004

In an earlier entry I argued that governments should, as a rule, not oppose the people. I suggested that if the government lost a case to a citizen, the government should not appeal. Because the government IS the people, it should be glad a citizen won.

Such a situation has arisen in British Columbia. A mother has won the original case and every appeal. The government says it will ask the federal Supreme Court to rule. The issue is whether the government should pay for the special education required by a child because of his medical condition. The court said "yes". The appeals court said "yes". The provincial supreme court said "yes". The British Columbia government should announce "We are pleased to accept the decision that we are going to fund the education of your child. We are happy to have the opportunity to see that your child is educated to the best of his abilitiy, because both you and he are citizens of this province."

The government is not above the people. The government IS the people.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Can you identify this poem?

When I was in high school in the 60's, this poem went around. I don't know if it was written by one of my classmates, or if the source is more ancient. Have you heard of this?

'Twas a nice October evening in September last July.
The moon was shining brightly and the sun was in the sky.
The flowers were singing sweetly and the birds were in full bloom.
I went up in the attic to sweep the downstairs room.

Some other lines went
I looked out on the ocean: not a street car was in sight.

A barefooted boy with shoes on stood sitting in the grass.

Anyone identify this?

Friday, June 04, 2004

Saving the Titanic Passengers

How far did the Titanic coast after hitting the iceberg? Does anyone know how far away the ship was from the iceberg when it came to a stop?

Whenever I watch a disaster flick or read about past tragedies, I wonder what I would have done. Here's my only solution to the Titanic thinking.

Could Titanic have reversed and let the passengers out onto the iceberg?

I have never heard this discussed or mentioned before. Does anyone have information on whether this possibility was discussed or feasible?

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Conflict resolution (2)

Seldom do I get into conflicts with my colleagues. If it happens, though, I have a way out that works wonders. When faced with an anxious or angry person who is telling me how much I am at fault or how wrong I am, I say "Good point." Or "I see what you mean." Or "You may be right."

I don't have to back down. I don't have to say that my colleague is 100% correct. I don't have to admit fault. Usually, though, acknowledging that part of what my opponent says is true disarms him. He realizes that I am not blindly resisting, that I am listening. He realizes that I am not an enemy, out to get him, or make him look bad. Usually the level of antagonism or tension drops significantly. I can follow with "I just figured that..." and calmly give my side.

So, when in a heated argument, try telling your opponent that he has just made a good point. It works to calm him down and makes him more likely to acknowledge your point of view.
Conflict resolution (1)

When I began teaching I assumed that if students misbehaved or disagreed with me about what constituted proper conduct, all I would have to do is tell them my reasons. They would, then, alter their behaviour because they would see that my reasons were logical and valid.

The result was that I got into many arguments. Students would resist, give me stupid reasons for their behaviour, or not understand my point. It took me many years to realize that, after the first justification, future discussion is a waste of time. Furthermore, allowing the students to keep arguing was dangerous for them. In some cases their mouths got them into trouble. I was actually doing them a disservice by continuing a futile discussion.

Now, if I give an instruction, such as "Please stop talking and begin writing" and the student starts to talk back, I say "The only words I want to hear are 'yes, sir'". The effect is amazing. The students says "Yes, sir" and peace ensues. The student is usually content, not angry. He or she just shrugs and gets down to business.

I don't mean to imply that I'm a dictatorial teacher, becase I'm not. The point is, though, that sometimes a teenager needs a firm, absolute limit. The student actually gains some security with this interaction. Most of the time, he or she realizes that there is to be no discussion or objection, and just accepts it.

Perhaps there's a lesson for parents here. There are times for discussion and times for acceptance of a ruling without discussion. Sometimes the latter course of action ends up being the best for both parent and child.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Government IS the People

Part of the trouble with many municipal, provincial, state, or federal governments these days is that they consider themselves to be better or more knowledgeable than the people. Consider this example:

A citizen feels he has been assessed too high a tax, so the citizen appeals. The citizen wins. The government appeals the decision.

The government’s appeal bothers me. I think that, as much as possible, the government and the people should not be adversaries. The government IS the people. In retail sales, “The customer is always right” is a winning motto. Just so should be “the government errs on the side of citizens”. If a judge has decided in favour of the citizen, the government should be glad, or at least satisfied. If I were president or prime minister, one of my rules will be “Unless it believes a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred, the government will not appeal a judgement in favour of a citizen.”

Why do governments in democracies consider them above the people. After all, the governments do not merely represent the people, they ARE the people. They are composed of citizens, no better, no worse, than the typical citizen. Yes, they may have more money (that may be part of the problem), or more education than some. But the point is, members of the legislature should consider themselves citizens employed by other citizens. And that’s it.

Should the government be allowed to keep the details of its meetings secret? In general, (i.e. unless matters of serious national security are involved) no. If the people want to know what has been discussed, they should be able to find out, without going to court. After all, the government representatives in the meeting ARE the people.

Should censor boards exist? Should government representatives decide what books a citizen can read or what films a citizen may watch? Of course not. The government is not a parent. The people in government should have no more say than you regarding what you may do, as long as your actions do not hurt others.

The last sentence is important, however. We do give governments the mandate to make rules that serve society itself, like “Drive on the right” or “Contribute (via taxes) to educate the citizens of tomorrow.” However, the government should be willing, as much as possible, to accept the citizen’s view.

If a judge has ruled that the citizen is correct, the government should say “OK. I accept the ruling,”, because both the citizen and the government are the People.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Making the Streets Safe for Women

The Take Back the Night campaign deals with a serious issue: violence against women. Women have a right to feel safe walking neighbourhood streets at night. Many years ago I told people of a proposal for providing women with a safer environment. The technology for doing it was just around the corner, but now it’s here. What do you think of this idea?

What if a woman had a radio transmitter, perhaps like the communicator the Star Trek people wear on their chests. They tap it: “Enterprise, Riker here.” Presumably their communication is broadcast by a radio signal. Imagine a woman walking along the street. A suspicious man approaches. She taps her communicator “6 ft 2 or 3. Black hair. Red jacket, black pants, beard.” The signal goes out and is recorded somewhere. Later, the woman is found dead by the side of the road. The police, with a warrant, listen to the tapes, recognise the woman’s voice (or, better, the signal carries an identity code with it), and have a description of the suspect. Future women benefit when he is arrested, albeit not our victim.

Now imagine that many women have these devices. The man might think twice, not knowing if his description has already gone out. Now all women are safer.

I expect there would have to be many different channels and recording tapes running. Perhaps cellular telephone technology is needed so that a suitable channel is instantly assigned. Possibly the messages would stay for, say, 3 days and then be erased.

The company providing this service needs a way of making money. The service could be provided for a monthly user fee. Perhaps by paying a fee the user could receive a record of the message. That way two people could conclude a verbal agreement and, on the handshake, each tap their communicator and record their acceptance of the other’s terms. The agreement would be enforceable because each would conclude that the other has the permanent record of their vocal agreement.

Some communicators could be voice activated, for example when “Help” is shouted. Each could have GPS so that location is transmitted along with the identity of the wearer.

Of course there are privacy issues. Should each set make a small beep warning people around it that what they are saying is being recorded and transmitted?

But what do you think of the idea, though. It strikes me that widespread available and use of this service just could make the streets safer for everyone.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Blind Acceptance

I little while ago I attended a friend's church service. The pastor give an interesting sermon--they call the Message. At one point she said "Just as twins separated by great distances can feel each other's distress, so can ..."

I wrote her a letter. In it I explained that one of my goals as a physics teacher is to have students think, examine, and test hypotheses and claims before accepting them. Many students enter my classroom being firm believers that Earth has been visited by aliens, that we have not gone to the Moon, that ghosts exist, that mysterious disturbances happen in a Bermuda triangle, that people can read minds and move objects by pure thought, and so on. I try to persuade the students to look at these claims sceptically. And here she was talking pseudoscience.

I mentioned to the pastor that there was no reputable scientific evidence that separated twins can sense, for example, when the other breaks an ankle or has a bad dream. I requested that she refrain from stating dubious, unsupported claims as fact(and using them to support her argument).

But this brings up an interesting question: Where do I stop with my request? Obviously, I can't ask her to stop repeating untestable claims about the existence of God. To her God's existence is a fact. I'm trying to be fair to her, here. Regardless of whether I'm believer, agnostic, or atheist, I feel I have to let her state claims about God as facts as she sees them. But I want her to stop stating OTHER unsubstantiated claims as fact.

I think there's a line here that the pastor, priest, rabbi shouldn't cross, but it's a little tricky justifying it.

I am reminded of the requirements for good science fiction. We allow certain breaches of the laws of physics (warp drive; transporter beams; instant communication, perhaps). But having granted this limited latitude, we want consistency with the rest of the known laws of physics. I have a hard time explaining to my wife why I allow one "magic" device but not another. If you are a sci.fi. fan, though, I expect you know what I mean.

(I remember one episode of Star Trek, the Next Generation where Geordi and Ro were in a semi-dead state, or a different dimension, or something ("cloaked and phased", actually, they need the anyon beams to wipe out the chroniton fields!). Anyhow, they couldn't be seen by normal matter (i.e. everyone else). They could run through walls! My 10 year-old daughter saw the inconsistency: If they pass through the walls, she asked, why they didn't fall through the floors!)
Intuitive Grasp of Concepts

As a teacher of physics, primarily (also computers, general science, and music), I strive to instill an intuitive grasp of concepts in my students. Of course, this requires that I have an intuitive grasp of the concepts myself. I was delighted when a light bulb turned on in my head early one Sunday morning while reading Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos by Ian Stewart. I sat upright in bed and exclaimed "I get it!". (I had read Gleick's book Chaos but and learned much, but did not get that Eureka moment.) My wife, whom I had shaken awake to report the good news, prevented me from immediately calling a friend to see if he wanted to discuss fractals and chaos with me!

I feel I have an intuitive grasp of fractals and chaos, fuzzy logic, relativity, and quantum physics, but string theory eludes me. I am looking for a book that will help the light bulb turn on once again. I am presently reading, and highly recommend, Galileo's Finger by P.W. Atkins. The book is written beautifully, and takes me past my frontiers of knowledge. Perhaps when I reread the chapter on strings I will shout "Eureka".

Thursday, April 29, 2004

On my Gravestone

Although I prefer cremation because I'd rather not use up space on Earth once I'm gone, if I had a gravestone, I would like it to show one of these epitaphs:
"He wanted everyone to be happy" --- not very poetic or profound, but true
"He died learning" --- my goal, and why I am a teacher.

I am never more alive than when I am learning something.
Does that mean the second statement can never come true?