Thoughts on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

The overwhelming majority of the reactions I have read were formulated within hours (or less) of the publication of the decision and appear to be based on its effect and informed solely by media reports. I believe that the only relevant consideration is whether the Court properly interpreted and applied the law.

After a couple of days of research and deliberation, I have decided that I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision.

I DO have a problem with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act itself. The law favors, among other things, moral or ethical beliefs that are grounded in religion. Ethical beliefs, just as sincere and immutable, that are grounded in secular philosophy or ideology are afforded lesser or no legal consideration. This categorically denies atheists equal protection and at least hints at a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf

Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993
https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/103-1993/s331

Published in: on 2014 07 03 at 09:01:31  Leave a Comment  
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One for the history books

In the United States History courses I took in college, the emphasis was squarely on political history: the political and military efforts to create our country, the effect of electing this candidate rather than his opponent as President, the transformation that World War II wrought on the world geopolitical stage and our emergence as a global power.  I learned also about the concept of historical perspective: that historians cannot speak intelligently about the effect of a given action until decades have passed and the ripples can be seen.

That still leaves us with the enjoyable pastime of speculation.

Just as the destructive force of post-tropical storm Sandy was amplified by merging with a North Atlantic system before making landfall, the economic and military fear, uncertainty, and doubt provoked by the possibility of sequestration, which strikes me as the United States’ self-imposed withdrawal from its role as a major military power, is coupled with what has become an annual Congressional tradition of holding the nation hostage, with each party and representative seeking to maximize the political and economic ransom in exchange for a continuing resolution to keep the government operating. Back when the Congress still performed its Constitutional duty to pass an annual budget, that opportunity to play chicken with (pig-)earmarked spending and unrelated amendments that would never pass on their own merits came only once a year.

The sequestration bill, the idea of Congress motivating itself by creating an alternative default scenario so dreadful that no sane person would allow it to come to pass, may make sense at first glance, but what it reveals to me is a Congress that lacks an awareness of its own capacity for stupidity and that considers brinksmanship as the default method for dispute resolution. The federal government has become so accustomed to unthinkable things, such as a war over personal animosity or abandoning our most fundamental ethical principles, our rights, and legal obligations for the sake of expediency and the perception of security, that it has lost that healthy fear of the repercussions of its own actions.

Regardless of what happens with the looming budgetary crises, there will be negative fallout for the Armed Forces and vital defense contractors. Infrastructure will go unmaintained or even be dismantled. Personnel training and equipment maintenance will be delayed or canceled. Our government is failing us in its most important duty: defending us. The degree and result of that failure cannot be foreseen. It is worth noting that a nation along our porous border is in a state of open war between the federal government and drug cartels, and some have speculated that it is in danger of becoming a failed state.

One would think that our elected officials should be spending all of their energy resolving the government’s immediate fiscal problems and mitigating the impact on the readiness of our Armed Forces. Instead, they have chosen this time to try to limit the American people’s access to firearms. Why, they ask, would a person need military-style weapons? As our politicians eviscerate our military in a way that no adversary ever could, that question pretty much answers itself!

It will be…interesting…to see how this plays out in the coming months and years. Perhaps historians will look back on this year as the beginning of the end of the United States’ status as a superpower.

 

2013 Novus annum

Each year, I set aside some time in late December and early January to reflect on the events and the lessons learned in the preceding twelve months and to set a course for the coming year. I don’t make resolutions, per se. Rather, I consider what I would like to change about my life, realizing that some changes may take longer than twelve months.

One goal with which I have been particularly unsuccessful over the years is the maintaining of a daily journal to capture my life. My physical journals have taken many forms, but beginning in 2007, I standardized on pocket-sized, page-per-day Moleskine journal with either a red or black cover. It is an excellent tool, but several years passed before I realized that it was not the right tool for me: the 3.5×5-inch pages were too small for my lengthy entries. Beginning with 2013, I am using the A4-size, page-per-day Moleskine journal. The larger pages should give me enough space to capture my thoughts. In addition to paper journals, I have used a variety of computer-based solutions, with mixed success. While this blog may appear under-utilized for a person intent on recording his life, it is actually a relative success compared to most of the local computer and web-based solutions I have tried over the years.  EverNote (www.evernote.com) has been a spectacular success for the short time I have been using it. The ability to store text, photos, audio files, and links in a single tool, all with geographical and topical tagging, makes it a key component (along with Gmail and Google Calendar) in my web-based “brain backup” system to combat the otherwise life-impairing retrograde and anteriograde amnesia caused by my medications. So far, so good.

In addition to a more suitably sized Moleskine journal and enabling software, I have added a couple of hardware implements to aid in capturing my life.  For as long as I can remember, I have had an “all-in-one” printer that included a scanner with automatic document feeder. Very handy, if I happen to be working next to it. My latest all-in-one printer (HP OfficeJet 4500) is a network node, with both ethernet and wireless connectivity, and I use the latter. Combining the 802.11g adapter with  Google’s cloud printing feature, I can print using my Linux netbook from practically anywhere. Scanning, though, is another matter. Wireless scanning using my netbook remains illusive; therefore, I have added a new portable wireless scanner (Xerox Mobile Scanner) to my toolkit. This battery-powered sheet-fed scanner converts scanned materials into either PDF or JPEG and stores them onto SD card, USB drive or a smartphone’s internal micro SD card via the phone’s USB cable. The SDHC card included with the scanner is an Eye-Fi card, which I have set to wirelessly send all scanned materials to both my smartphone and EverNote. The system is working great so far, and I am looking forward to using it to digitally store some 20-year-old journals I have found!

The last remaining piece to digitally capturing my life is storing verbal communications. Right now, the easiest way is to take notes, then write out a “memorandum of conversation,” which is emailed to EverNote and the other party. I am experimenting with an older Olympus digital voice recorder with a USB interface for the capture, and I am looking for open-source software to do speech-to-text transcription and OCR processing on the audio file. My goal is to duplicate in Linux the functionality of Dragon Naturally Speaking Premium. Alternatively, my wife’s Windows box is available to use with Dragon software and the audio files, emailing the text output and the audio file itself to EverNote.

I am experimenting with capturing current weather observations (unsuccessfully) and watches/warnings (successfully) from RSS feeds for ultimately appending that information to the daily log.

There are still obstacles to overcome, but they and their range of possible solutions are known. What started out as a digital adjunct to memory is rapidly developing into digital awareness of the kind that has been my ambition for YEARS, capturing the “outside world” through countless sensors – weather instruments, sea buoys, GPS, traffic cameras, commodities tickers, practically endless remote sensors – and feeding that data stream into my consciousness.

I shall save the potential applications for another post. :-)

Shameless LOPSA plug!

I am proud to be a Charter Member of the League of Professional System Administrators.
LOPSA
The organization’s origin can be traced back to a disagreement circa 2005 between USENIX – The Advanced Computing Systems Organization and one of its several special interest groups: SAGE (System Administration Guild). The short version is that SAGE and its parent organization decided to part company. (Ironically, USENIX still has a sysadmin-oriented special interest group.)

I’d say that overwhelming majority of the members of SAGE had interests in other areas of USENIX, so the separation was emotionally charged for a lot of us. USENIX is an extraordinary organization, and its annual conference, the Large Installation Systems Administration conference, “LISA,” is renowned in Linux/Unix systems and network admin circles as a pinnacle of our professional year.

Anyway, when I joined LOPSA during its formation, I cancelled my USENIX membership as a symbolic statement, and I simply never had a reason to rejoin. As I became unable to work in 2006-2007, I let most of my professional memberships and journal subscriptions to lapse. They had been paid-for by my employer, and they weren’t cheap! I have remained active in only two fine organizations: LOPSA and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) in order to stay abreast of both the practice and the theory and academic developments in computing and system administration, both as a personal interest and in the hope that I will be able to resume my career.

Published in: on 2013 01 07 at 05:50:23  Leave a Comment  
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My Beautiful Bride – 2012-12-01

My Beautiful Bride - 2012-12-01

I was beaming with joy inside! Due to my dysthymic disorder, I didn’t know I looked so emotionless on the outside.

Published in: on 2013 01 02 at 03:30:56  Leave a Comment  
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My mind on sabbatical

On the Threshold of Eternity

On the Threshold of Eternity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

As with my paper journals, sometimes it shocks me to visit my blog and see how much time has passed since my last post. Obviously, the habit of documenting my life remains a work in progress.

At the beginning of this year, I lost my father suddenly. I continue to struggle with grief and with futile attempts to make peace with the resulting void in my life. For the past several months, my  “thinking time” allotment has been consumed by more mundane aspects of life, such as chronic pain and severe depression.

Considering that the treatments for both tend to dull my intellect, it’s remarkable that I manage any higher-order thought at all. Letting my thoughts escape becomes even more troubling.

 

Published in: on 2012 11 15 at 06:06:50  Leave a Comment  
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My kids’ mom

This is excerpted from a note I posted on Facebook with the same title. It’s about the events that followed a tornado hitting my ex-wife’s home in the early morning hours of April 28, 2011. Nothing in the world means more to me than my children, and after my separation and divorce from their mother, I sometimes questioned her decisions as a parent. I have always had difficulty with trusting someone else fully, especially if that someone has divorced me. I no longer have difficulty trusting her absolutely.

No one, not even I, could have done the kick-ass job that Tracy did in keeping our children safe through the tornado hitting their house and through the aftermath. I monitor weather watches and warnings in her county, primarily because of the kids, so I called within a minute of the tornado warning to ensure that they had not slept through the Wx radio alarm (as though my Imperial March ringtone would be louder…) but got no answer. After a little while on eggshells, I got a call from her reassuring me that the kids were safe, despite the tornado damage to their house. She got them to a safe place at a neighbor’s, gave me the neighbor’s phone number (throwing out the window the way we normally deal with each other) so that I could always reach the kids, and dove back in to helping her parents with pressing emergencies at their house. Despite everything that was going on, she kept me informed every time the kids changed location and made sure I had a means to reach them.

It amazes me that she finds herself in the position of being laid off as a teacher. If I were a school administrator, I wouldn’t merely retain her, I’d clone her, so that I could focus on problems other than school safety and learning, secure in the knowledge that my teachers had it covered. As a parent, I can only hope that my children end up with teachers like their mother for 12 years, so that they will be well-prepared for people like me as their university professors.

Published in: on 2011 05 01 at 08:30:13  Leave a Comment  

Personal and government emergency preparedness

This week, the northern half of Georgia is enduring the effects of an unusually heavy snow/ice storm. Practically all of the precipitation fell Sunday night/pre-dawn Monday morning, but continuous sub-freezing temperatures have prolonged its effects, causing, for example, widespread school closures for three or more consecutive days – unprecedented in my memory.  One might characterize this as a “once in a decade” winter storm for Georgia, though it is the second significant winter storm in the span of a month…in a state that often goes an entire winter without a significant snow/ice storm.

I grew up during the Cold War, and I saw how personal disaster preparedness became deemphasized for most people with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with it, the freedom from the ever-present threat of nuclear war. Of course, our nation was shaken from its complacency a decade later, and since then, there has been a renewed emphasis at all levels of government in encouraging us to be prepared and equipped to deal with disasters, natural or man-made. The federal government has been doing an outstanding job of communicating to individuals and local governments that, in the event of a catastrophe, we may need to survive on our own for several days before outside help reaches us. The rule of thumb for individuals and families is to maintain the resources to sustain themselves, while either evacuating or sheltering-in-place, for three days.

Though physical disability limits my evacuation options, I am fortunate that, because of my background (growing up in the Cold War, a former Boy Scout, a veteran, an outdoorsman, work experience in public safety/emergency management, etc.) my life required no changes in order to attain that level of preparedness and much more.  The only long-term survival need outside of my control is my reliance on prescription medications, a few of which are absolutely vital and, since they are tightly-controlled narcotics, would be difficult to obtain in the event of a prolonged breakdown of social services.

While I’m confident in my ability to weather a disaster and help others do so, an event occurred this week which shook my confidence in my local government to do the same, even at the level of essential services. This ice storm, while heavier than initially predicted, did not occur without warning. On Monday morning, after the precipitation itself, I had a medical emergency that I believed might be imminently life-threatening and could not be treated outside of a hospital. I dialed 911, and a fire/rescue truck and an ambulance were immediately dispatched. I live about 3 miles from the nearest fire station. About 15 minutes later, the dispatcher called to inform me that help was on the way, but the rescue truck and ambulance were having trouble getting to me due to road conditions. Another 20 or so minutes passed, and the dispatcher called to tell me that they could not get into my apartment complex due to the ice and asked if I could walk (several hundred yards) to the entrance of the apartment complex to meet the ambulance. Since my manual wheelchair lacks all-terrain tires, I told her that was not possible.  I began to think about whether a LifeFlight helicopter would have enough room to land safely in the parking lot in front of my apartment. Help finally arrived, well over an hour after my initial call, in the form of a fire department paramedic’s personal pickup truck equipped with snow chains. The paramedics assessed me and transported me to the waiting ambulance.  Fortunately, though there was no way to know without going to the hospital, I did not need to be admitted.  (On the ride home, though the temperature had remained well below freezing and road conditions inside my apartment complex had not changed, the cab had little difficulty taking me all the way to my door.) Last night, my home blood pressure monitor (faulty, as it turns out) provided a reading that indicated that heart damage or a heart attack was imminent. I called 911, and rescue and an ambulance arrived within 15 minutes. It only took the fire department and ambulance service 3 days to discover the invention of snow chains and to use this discovery to their advantage.

My life may depend on how well I prepare for every conceivable contingency as I stock my disaster kit. Many lives depend on how well our city and county governments prepare. YOU NEED NOT WAIT UNTIL AFTER THE DISASTER to find out how prepared your first-responders are. Every local government should have a written disaster plan, and you should be able to view it. In Georgia, you can probably obtain a copy at nominal cost, pursuant to the Open Records Act. Ask your elected officials what the local government’s plans and capabilities are in the event of X. If you aren’t satisfied with the answer, get your county and state emergency management agency involved. Get involved yourself, if you have the time and the skills (this is very common among HAM radio operators).

Don’t wait until AFTER it hits the fan to find out whether your community is prepared for it!

More information about preparing for various types of disasters can be found at Ready.gov and The National Weather Service StormReady Communities Program.

Published in: on 2011 01 13 at 08:23:47  Leave a Comment  

Trying to blog more often…

One of the goals I intend to accomplish is to record something every day.  It’s a goal I’ve had for years. I have better tools than ever: I carry at least a Moleskine journal and a “Rite in The Rain” waterproof-paper notepad, along with quality pens, one of them waterproof, everywhere I go. My Palm Pre Plus has software to make it easy to post blogs from anywhere. This wealth of tools poses its own problem: there is no central place for daily journal entries of a general nature. There is no place or method to record cross-references.

Published in: on 2011 01 06 at 05:04:33  Leave a Comment  
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Okay, so Christmas Eve may be an odd time for an atheist to “come out”.

Gentle Reader, for an unknown reason my thoughts have turned toward the philosophy of religion and toward my own beliefs on the matter. My understanding of faith is belief in the absence of evidence. I obviously can’t prove that reading this entire post carefully is worth your time, but I ask it of you anyway. If we are close, long-time friends and any of this still comes as a surprise, I beg you to give me the benefit of the doubt and don’t feel offended: in the specific example of which I’m thinking, we’ve been friends longer than I have been able to say the words “I am an atheist” even to myself, and our friendship means more to me than keeping you posted on belief changes that I believed would strain that friendship for you, perhaps past the breaking point, at the relatively young age at which I got honest with myself about what I really believe.

I have raised my children to believe that there is nothing worse than lying, and it is vital for me to live by what I teach my children, and, conversely, to teach them by example. A lie of omission is no less a lie, and fear of how the hearer will respond to the truth is no justification.

Yes, this IS an odd time, but I hope that my friends know better than to think that my intent is to insult or offend.

Below is a communication I sent to a friend who I came to know relatively recently and whose friendship and wisdom I came to value immediately. In it, I refer to Pascal’s Wager and the high value I place on my own intellectual integrity. Allowing others to simply assume what they will about my beliefs on religion doesn’t seem like the action of someone who values his intellectual integrity so highly, does it?

I believe that all people have a spiritual side, and we have for thousands upon thousands of years…even prior to the Neolithic Revolution, back when our species still lived as hunter/gatherers, driven by the annual cycles by which our wild food crops became ripe and edible. In every era, that which cannot be explained by the practical knowledge of the day, which we’ll call “science” or “nature” for succinctness, was attributed to the supernatural (again, “gods” or “magic,” for brevity). Given that we as a species have existed for thousands and thousands of years, and that we did not develop the ability to directly see things that were much smaller or much larger than ourselves until about 500 years ago, it was natural that, to paraphrase badly, whatever could not be explained by science was attributed to magic and the gods. Many people whose spiritual nature is expressed through religion may look at the birth of a child or a majestic mountain view and see these as “proof” of the supernatural. My having the same experiences fills me with awe, too, even though I see it as “nature just doing its thing.” My unaccounted-for spiritual (for want of a better-understood, more precise word) feeling in these situations made me question everything else I believe about the way nature and logic work…until I remembered something unstated that I consider an axiom: regardless of what we BELIEVE, myself included, we don’t KNOW everything about ourselves or the universe. The honest among us will be the first to distinguish between our beliefs about the universe and our knowledge about it. Knowing the science and STILL being able to experience the sense of wonder is A Very Good Thing, I think.

For my Christian friends, with all my heart I wish you a wondrous and Merry Christmas.

For those looking around for the unfriend button, or on the ground for the first stone, please take a moment to read my message to my friend, in full.

Dear (my valued friend whose name I have omitted for your privacy),

You might have surmised that we don’t share the same religious belief. That doesn’t cause me any discomfort, and I want to humbly and respectfully take the initiative to ensure that it doesn’t cause you any, either.

I am an atheist, and I have been for as long as I can remember throughout my adult life. The word “atheist” is so over- and misused that it doesn’t convey any reliable meaning, so I shall elaborate. I am not what I call a “militant atheist” – a kid who mistakes belief for knowledge and thinks he knows better than the rest of the world…or who has suffered some tragedy and reacts by railing against his religious belief system. I was raised Baptist as a child, though I never believed that what I was told was literally (or even figuratively) true. It’s just that, prior to my late teens, I felt that I wasn’t free to assert what I DID believe. Part of that was apprehension about the ramifications with my family.

I explored other religions, particularly Buddhism, as a young adult, but ultimately I reached the same stumbling point – the supernatural element.

To summarize my worldview, when I look at physics and biology, I believe that everything that exists can be explained by the laws of nature and logic, without a need for some supernatural force. I also believe that the laws of nature and the laws of logic tend to rule out the existence of a being with the attributes of the Christian God. Of course, it is impossible to KNOW that God (or the enlightened Buddha, etc.) does not exist, known as proving a universal negative, because one cannot see every nook and cranny of existence at the same time.

I believe that the vast majority of those who believe in a religious worldview learned their beliefs from their parents and the culture in which they happen to be born. They never pause to question why they believe as they do. That’s understandable – religion is a great comfort, and its absence can get cold and lonely.

That sums up what I BELIEVE. I freely admit that I could be wrong and you could be right.

Pascal, in his famous Wager, would argue that I should conduct myself as though I am a Christian, because I have everything to gain and little to lose if Christianity is fact, and I have (in his view) lost nothing in life or death if atheism is fact.

If I could respond to Pascal, I would say that my intellectual integrity is a very high price to pay in order to go through the motions of being a Christian, and that doing so would be an affront, not only to my beliefs, but to yours, as well.

I live a life of integrity, as best I can. I strive to conduct myself in accordance with ETHICAL teachings that Jesus, Siddharta Gautama (the man who became the Buddha), and the Dalai Lama would recognize and, I believe, approve of.

Beyond that, I will take my chances, with my eyes open, if my beliefs turn out to be erroneous.

Finally, I don’t teach my beliefs to my children. I try to keep them from forming ANY beliefs about religion until they are old enough to think rationally, weigh evidence, and articulate why they believe what they believe.

I just want to be truly understood, and I want there to be no discomfort between us if the topic comes up. As I said publicly (and tell my grandmother repeatedly), it doesn’t bother me in the least if someone says they are praying for me. I take any well-wishes in the good faith in which they’re intended, and as damaged as I am, I’ll take all the help I can get!

And yes, when my son was gravely ill with meningitis as an infant, I prayed to God, Allah, Buddha, every benevolent Hindu, Greek, or Mayan god I could think of, along with the Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge!

I deeply hope I haven’t overstepped any bounds or your comfort level.

With love and respect,

Jeff

“In the whole wide world there’s no magic place,

So you might as well rise and put on your bravest face.”

- Neil Peart/Rush, “Bravest Face”

 

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