history technology time universe

The order of things

Universe is 14 billion years old (~~ 4.3×10^17 seconds)
Sun is 4.57 billion years old
Earth is 4.54 billion years old
Life is 3.8 billion years old
Mammals are 225 million years old
Humans are 200,000 years old
Religion is 102,000 years old
Cities are 5,000 years old
China is 4,085 years old
Judaism is 3,828 years old
Hinduism is 3,100 years old
Rome is 2,768 years old
Democracy is 2,525 years old
Christianity is 1,985 years old
London is 1,973 years old
Islam is 1,450 years old
Gun powder is 972 years old
The telescope is 408 years old
New York is 351 years old
America is 240 years old
The locomotive is 204 years old
The repeating rifle 167 years old
“On the Origin of Species” is 156 years old
Dynamite is 148 years old
Radio is 120 years old
Nuclear weapons are 70 years old
The worldwide web is 24 years old

death history war

The Equivalence of Tragedy, Part II

20130213-064640.jpgI did a little research and I found that it might be true, depending on one’s definition of “killed in combat.” That, in itself, is an ugly question. But it’s just one of a few ugly questions this poster suggests. The main one is why would anyone compare two different tragedies in this way?

Does it mean that a year of drunk driving accidents and total Vietnam combat kills would be equally as bad had their numbers been the same?

And just what kind of trick is being pulled by comparing numbers of one year’s “killed and injured” to a decade of “killed in combat?”

I think I get what they’re trying to say even though their message is ham-fisted and oblivious. “You know that drunk driving is a stupid thing to do, just like you know that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was stupid. You know that it’s not just wreckless, it’s murderous.”

I deeply empathize with all who have lost friends or family members to drunk driving or combat. Comparing one to another this way, though, is confusing and threatens to abuse the memory of those who died in either of these ways. But, since it is begun, I will finish with some actual facts:

  • U.S. killed and injured annually by alcohol-related car accidents: 450,000-500,000
    • According to the NHTSA, Year 2000 total fatalities: 13,989
    • And year 2000 total injuries: 468,780
  • According to Wikipedia, total combat deaths from Vietnam War: between 451,000 and 1.16 million
    • This figure does not include an estimated 245,000 to 2 million Vietnamese civilian dead or those who died in Cambodia or Laos.
death history

The Equivalence of Tragedy

I saw this poster in the ferry terminal and thought. ‘That can’t be true:’


freedom history politics technology

It Would Have Been Impossible to Kill 20 School Kids With a Musket

Used by a lone gunman at an Oregon mall this week

Violently disturbed aberrations existed 200 years ago, too. For what we know, bad people have always existed and will always exist. We can’t do anything about them. No social program, no medical intervention, no entertainment rating system will ever make us completely safe from them.

Though weapons have been around, likewise, for millions of years, the gun is a fairly recent invention. Guns of 200 years ago, like the musket, were single-shot rifles that had to be reloaded after each discharge. Modern automatic weapons provide much more efficient firepower.

At some point, we all have to agree that technology has made it easier to do more damage as a lone gunman. The NRA has to agree to this simple fact, too, don’t they?

Look, we’re a gun-loving culture and that’s not about to change. Some of us love to hunt, some of us want guns for protection and some of us just love to shoot. I believe that responsible, mentally balanced citizens deserve the right to have guns for those purposes as long as it’s done in a safe way.

By allowing assault rifles in this country, our society is saying that we’re willing to put up a certain number of gun violence victims in exchange for that technology.

How to Fix This

  1. Well, first, make these machines illegal and set a limit on future technology.
  2. Let’s create a gun victims fund in this country and tax the shit out of bullets for this kind of weapon.
  3. Let’s create criminal penalties for the owners of these guns so that there’s increased for owning one of these machines if it is used to kill innocent people.

The Holland Example

I watched a short documentary on the evolution of bicycle culture in Holland recently. It’s known as one of the most bike-friendly countries in the world. They started building their bicycle infrastructure 40 years ago because of public outcry following a rash of auto accident deaths.

Can you imagine that? The people came together and rather than bickering around the issue and grandstanding about personal freedoms, decided that these were preventable deaths and that they, as a culture, had to do something about it. They didn’t make cars illegal, but by changing traffic rules in and around cities that stopped favoring cars and started favoring bicyclists and pedestrians, they’ve changed the trend and kept people alive.

Here’s the thing: a ban on assault weapons will save lives in this country.

history politics

Stop the Nazi Comparisons

Comparing by The Department

Mike Godwin, perhaps in despair of the reductive reasoning becoming so common in the Internet’s newsgroup arguments, coined “Godwin’s Law,” which reads:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”

The Nazi comparison was evoked, usually in heated debate, on almost any subject, but especially in political discussions. It may be less so now, but only because Godwin’s Law has been a successful counter-argument.

The Nazi comparison is the doomsday device in a debate. It is powerful and immediate. It is the apex of human horror. It is meant to swiftly and completely annihilate an opponent’s arguments and rebuttals.

I thought about this last night while listening to NPR’s Fresh Air. The September 4, 2007 show had two guests discussing with show host Terry Gross the influence the Israel lobby has on the American government. First, author Steven Walt asserted some of the arguments of his new book, The Israel Lobby, which is basically that a loose confederation of Jewish and non-Jewish groups in this country skews this country’s Israel policy toward a particularly right-wing, hawkish view of the Middle East that runs counter to U.S. interests–and even Israel’s interests. During the interview, he clearly denounced antisemitism and stressed a distinction between the broad range of views held by Jewish people, both here and abroad, and the narrow focus of the Israel lobby.

Walt was followed by Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman who did everything he could to muddy the debate, including, yes, invoking the Nazis. He also tried to conflate the Israel Lobby with all Jewish people everywhere.

Even though it wasn’t a head-to-head debate, Walt was a lot more convincing than Foxman.

belief God history science universe

Why We Believe in God

Buddha said he wanted to have a word with me by Stuck in Customs

The March 4 New York Times Magazine had an article about the debate among evolutionary biologists regarding why humans believe in God. Religion is so persistent in human history, scientists can’t help but see it as a trait that has evolved in us, like opposable thumbs or hairless skin. But because it exists in the mind, the debate resolves around whether religious belief is an adaptation or the perhaps useless side-product of other adaptations.

The adaptationists say that religion helps bind us to other people, where we get advantages of the group–others to look after us when we’re sick or with whom we can share resources. Also, being ostensibly religious may help us build our reputation, which would provide access to better mates.

The “useless side product” camp tells us that we are primed to a belief in God by specifically three mind “modules.” The first, called “agent detection,” makes us able to quickly identify threats, such as a bear in the brush or a car pulling out of a drive way, and engages other mechanisms that will preserve our welfare. Sometimes, though, agent detection makes us perceive things that aren’t there–like a better-safe-than-sorry reflex. “Casual reasoning” is our ability to construct narratives, even counterfactual ones, to explain phenomena in our lives. Lastly, “theory of mind” is the ability in humans to recognize–and simulate in their own minds–the thoughts of others. Playing chess and anticipating your opponent’s next move is a good example of this ability, as is the act of persuading others. These three traits, they assert, make it natural for us to believe in an omnipotent, disembodied presence; the ultimate predator, the ultimate parent.

Interesting as these arguments are, they bother me because both presuppose that God does not exist. That idea seems as off-balance as the creationist “intelligent design” view of the world.

To me, a “universal belief” is one most likely to be true. There are all sorts of wacky, local beliefs that are easy to dismiss chiefly because they are local.

We can’t all agree on God’s gender, appearance, origin, special powers, commandments or even whether there’s one or many gods, but every collection of people throughout history has believed in a creative force superior to our own.

What really makes it easy for us to believe in God is the constant reinforcement of cause and effect in our life. The tree falls down because the wind blows. The prey dies because our arrow pierces it.

I had a conversation about God with a guy in a bar once. He said something very profound. “If you ask any religious person what the one constant in life is, he’ll say ‘God.’ If you ask any secular person the same question, he’ll say ‘change.’ Now, one person can be stupid, but not vast groups of people. All these people are correct if God is change.”

Just those three words, God is change makes a lot of sense to me. It answers many of my questions.

family history

You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)

Dashwood Painting 1814
Mackinac Island (1814) by William Dashwood

My first name is Porter, as was my father’s and grandfather’s. My great grandfather, though, was named George. As a kid, I used to ask my dad how grandpa got to be named Porter. What I remember of the story is that he was named after a hero in the War of 1812, Porter Hanks, to whom we were somehow related. Also, there was something about him being shot in the chest once, but the bullet lodged in his pocket watch. Hanks later disassembled the watch and had a ring made from it. This lucky ring would somehow, someday come to me.

I was thinking about this today and decided to put “Porter Hanks” into a Google search box. I learned a lot about the man.

Some count Porter Hanks as the first British prisoner of the war. He was a lieutenant in the American army and commander of Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac island in Lake Huron. He was in charge of 60 poorly trained and out-of-shape artillarymen at what was then America’s most distant outpost.

News had not yet arrived to him that America had declared war. In the early morning of July 17, 1812, the fort was surprised by an overwhelming force of British soldiers, Canadian fur traders, and Indians. Commander Hanks surrendered without firing a shot.

On August 16, while being court-martialed at a fort in Detroit for cowardice, the British attacked. He was “cut in two” by a canon ball.