Pink, White, Blue, Green, Yellow, or Nada? (updated 8/20/2015)

Over the course of the last several years, I’ve been conducting a study of human preferences.  Admittedly, it’s a work in progress, and I’m careful not to describe it as a scientific investigation.  Indeed, it’s just an observational exercise, but I am ready to offer a hypothesis.

There are exactly seven kinds of Homo sapiens extant in the USA.  They may be labeled as Pinks, Greens, Yellows, Whites, Blues, Nones, and Anys. The distribution of these different members of our species is not uniform.  There are regional, gender, age, political, and even religious factors that contribute to the behaviors that determine the exclusive membership in each group.

The distinctive behaviors can be observed around mealtimes, in homes and in restaurants. It can also be observed during shopping episodes in grocery stores, convenience stores, and other places where we might choose to satisfy our sweet tooth.  Yes, I’m talking about how or if we choose to add something that tastes sweet to our food or drink.

What are you?  And more importantly, why?  That is the focus of my study.  Please leave a comment describing your preference and the reasons for it.  In a future essay I will share the results of my investigation.

Update: 8/20/2015

My research has come to a satisfactory conclusion.  These are the important findings.

  1. Sugar and its various substitutes are safe to eat in moderation for most people.
  2. Each of us is unique, and our diets should reflect our individual differences, tolerances, and preferences.
  3. Our preferences for food, and sweeteners, are often derived from magical or superstitious notions, and rarely from the sciences of nutrition and human physiology.

If you wish to read a brief but unbiased summary of the various sugar substitutes, I suggest, but even Wikipedia has some good information.

The reasons people give for choosing the pink, blue, green, white, yellow, or no packages to make their coffee or tea sweet are all over the map.  Some use what their friends use.  Some are influenced by advertising, negative or positive.  Many are influenced by news reports of various studies, as well as various FaceBook postings favoring one over another.  Quite a few base their choice on taste.

My obsession about the reasons we choose different sweeteners started when my wife and I went shopping in a Target store while traveling in California.  We were staying in a nice resort north of San Diego on the coast and our suite included a nice kitchen, and most important of all, a coffee maker.  We drink coffee in the morning and we needed to purchase the makings for our perfect brew.  For me, that requires blue packages of Equal or one of the other brands with aspartame as the sugar substitute.  To my amazement, that California Target did not stock any sweetener with aspartame.  Every other sugar substitute on the market was present, Splenda, Stevia, Sweet & Low, and of course sugar.  I asked a store employee and was told no one would buy it, so they stopped offering it.  Back home it’s one of the most common sweeteners.

My formal education was in the sciences.  Early in my career I taught several different college level general and organic chemistry courses, as well as other related disciplines. I studied biochemistry and human physiology in my graduate studies. Several of those courses were in the College of Medicine, although I was a graduate student not a medical student.  Since completing my formal education, I continue to study in these areas of the sciences even after I left the classroom.  I share this to illustrate that I know something about the ingredients of the various things we eat, and how they are metabolized.

Competition is brutal among the various companies that market sugar and its sweet substitutes.  Advertising is rarely encumbered by the facts.  It is impossible to make a wise decision about how to sweeten your tea or choose a sweet beverage to drink, if you rely upon advertising, posts shared on Facebook, and peer pressure.  Apparently in Southern California, if you want to add Equal to your iced tea, you have to order it from Amazon, have it shipped in a non-descript package, and hide it from your friends.

Because I know what sugar and its sweet substitutes are and how they are metabolized, I’m fascinated by the different notions that people have about each of them.  Again, I must stress they are all safe for most people, but each of us is unique.  Allow me to describe each one starting with sugar.

Table Sugar (White) is actually sucrose.  It is a disaccharide which means it is composed of two monosaccharides or simple sugars, glucose and fructose. Glucose is perhaps the most common organic molecular species found in nature.  Starch and cellulose are comprised of glucose which is also known as dextrose. It is our fuel, our energy source. Many of the things we eat are converted to glucose for use by our muscles or stored as glycogen (short term) or fat (longer term) for future use. We cannot live without glucose.

Fructose, is the other monosaccharide in table sugar. It is not readily converted to glucose in the liver.  If we eat too much sugar, most of us are unable to convert much of the fructose to glucose, and it is instead converted to liver fat, as well as fatty tissue in other organs such as the brain, kidneys, etc.  Some people are fortunate to be able to handle the conversion better than others, and this is certainly related to lifestyle, age, and genetics.   Fatty deposits in the liver and in other organs may lead to conditions such as fatty liver disease, metabolic syndrome, and others pathological conditions including Type II Diabetes.  Until modern times, most human diets contained very little fructose, except in fibrous fruits and some vegetables where the absorption of fructose into the blood stream was slow and limited.  Recent studies indicate that high concentrations of fructose in the bloodstream may cause an inflammatory response in arterial walls, as well as cardiac and other vascular tissue rendering them sticky to lipoproteins and other molecules  transported in the blood.  For most of us, sugar should be eaten in moderation and best eaten in fruits not from little white packages.

Sucralose (Splenda – Yellow) is a derivative of sucrose made by substituting chlorine atoms for hydroxyl groups on the disaccharide molecule.  The result is a substance which is as much as 700 times sweeter than sucrose, meaning that very little is ingested when it is used to sweeten beverages or other foods.  It passes through the digestive system without entering the bloodstream and therefore does not provide energy.  It is a zero calorie synthetic sugar substitute.  It is useful in food preparation because it does not break down when it is cooked retaining its sweetness.  Recent studies raise questions about the effect that sucralose might have on the intestinal micro biome (gut bacteria). Since it is a relatively stable chlorinated hydrocarbon derivative, there are also concerns about its persistence in the environment and in sewage treatment.  Fortunately, due to its extreme sweetness very little is actually ingested or subsequently delivered into the biosphere.  The FDA suggests limiting the daily ingestion of sucralose to not more than 9 mg/kg of body mass. More studies are needed about this sweetener usually offered in yellow packages.

Saccharin (Sweet & Low – Pink) has been used as a synthetic sugar substitute for a very long time, over a hundred years.  It was discovered in 1879 and has been approved as a food additive since 1912 without any known adverse effects. The less formal chemical name is benzoic sulfimide, and it may be about 400 times sweeter than table sugar but this varies depending upon its formulation.  It’s safety as a sugar substitute has been demonstrated over a long period of use, but recent studies also call into question its impact on the bacterial environment of the gut.  It has an unpleasant metallic or bitter aftertaste which is why it is often mixed with glucose and other sweeteners to mask the effect. The official Acceptable Daily Intake of Saccharin is 5 mg/kg of body mass.

Stevia (Green) is a mixture of steviol glycoside compounds extracted from plants of the species Stevia rebaudiana. This sweetener has been in common use in Japan for many years.  Certain of the glycosides received approval in the United States in 2008 and Europe in 2011, and are sold as Truvia by Cargill and Coca Cola, and PureVia by PepsiCo.  The plant extract was originally banned in the Unted States in the early 1990’s because of carcinogenic fears later alleviated through testing and subsequent restrictions to specific glycosides present in the plant extract.  Stevia sweetener is a non-caloric additive because it passes through the digestive system and into the intestine where it is metabolized by bacteria without the glucose or steviol entering the blood stream.  The micro biome of the gut is definitely affected, but apparently without adverse effects. The green package and marketing as a “natural” sweetener have helped promote its use, but the FDA approval is limited to daily ingestion of 4 mg/kg of body mass because of concerns about its safety, less than half the recommended limit for sucralose and the lowest recommended daily intake of all.  Certainly, not all “natural” plant extracts are safe, in fact some are deadly, and green is just one of the colors of the rainbow.

Aspartame (Equal – Blue) is the methyl ester of a dipeptide of the naturally occurring amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, and therefore, the only sugar substitute with an entirely natural composition. Virtually all proteins contain these two amino acids and they are present in most cells in our bodies.  Phenylalanine is an essential amino acid, meaning it is one of the eight that must be included in our diets because we lack the biochemical pathways to make them ourselves. Aspartic acid is among the most common amino acids in natural proteins.  It is just about impossible for a human to avoid eating foods with protein containing aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and the methyl ester functional group in quantities much larger than when ingesting aspartame as a sugar substitute.  It is about 200 times as sweet as sugar, and the official Acceptable Daily Intake is 50 mg/kg of body mass, or at least ten times safer than other sugar substitutes and sugar itself.  When ingested, it is hydrolyzed to the two naturally occurring amino acids which are absorbed into the blood stream as are other amino acids from the digestion of protein.  These metabolites are then available for various metabolic pathways involving the amino acids such as the making of proteins and enzymes essential for our health.  Like the other sugar substitutes mentioned above, aspartame is very much sweeter than sugar, and that is why it has almost no calories.  The amount present in a blue package of Equal is so small that it is almost not visible.  Most of what you see in that blue package is glucose and a starch derivative added for packaging purposes only.  The downside of aspartame is its relatively short shelf-life.  If you heat it, it breaks down to the two amino acids which have no sweet taste.  This also happens over time which explains the expiration dates on containers of foods and drinks sweetened with aspartame.

There is a warning label on all foods and beverages that include aspartame.  The warning is related to the essential amino acid phenylalanine.  Individuals with the extremely rare genetic condition known as PKU Syndrome must follow special diets that restrict the intake of this amino acid because of the absence of an enzyme that metabolizes phenylalanine.  Too much phenylalanine in the diets of these people can lead to the toxic buildup of phenylalanine and a reduction in the amount of the essential amino acid tyrosine with harmful consequences.  All babies born in the USA and most developed countries are tested for PKU at birth.  Only 1 in 12,000 infants test positive for PKU.

Aspartame has been the victim of numerous internet hoaxes.  It is one of the most studied food additives by the FDA, and no harmful effects have ever been shown in legitimate scientific research.  This is really not surprising when you know what it is. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are already in our diets in the proteins we eat, and so is the methyl ester functional group (one glass of wine or beer contains far more than a twelve pack of diet soda).

Other sugar substitutes such as the sugar alcohols and acesulfame are also used alone and in combination with the above to sweeten our foods and beverages. Again, they are generally safe in moderation.  Acesulfame, also known as Ace-K, is usually found in combination with saccharin and other sweeteners to mask the aftertaste. The recommended daily intake is 15 mg/kg of body mass.

Sugar alcohols are not sugars, thereby adding to our confusion. A sugar is defined as a poly-hydroxyl aldehyde or ketone, and since sugar alcohols lack the aldehyde or ketone functional group, they don’t have to be listed as sugars on the label. It is a marketing game. These substances are not zero calorie sweeteners.  Additionally, the bacteria in our guts metabolize them causing some gas and other discomforts in people who eat foods containing large quantities, especially sugar-free candies and cookies among others.

Conclusion: Whether you choose pink, yellow, white, blue, or green packages to sweeten your beverages, you are generally safe if used in moderation.  Beware of packaging and labeling, natural doesn’t always mean natural, and sugar free doesn’t always mean low calorie.  Green and yellow are not necessarily good for you or the environment.  Just because your grandmother only used white packages doesn’t mean you should.  If you live in California, you might have to hunt for blue, because Donald Rumsfeld once served as CEO of S.B Searle and Company.

By every measure and scientific study, aspartame is the safest and nutritionally best for you to use to sweeten your food or drink.  For most of us who aren’t 16 year old athletes, sugar is probably the least healthy.  But again, we are each unique, and of these sweeteners are  safe in moderation.

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Abortion (Updated 8/17/2015)

Planned Parenthood is in the news.  I’ve heard of Planned Parenthood, but no one in my circle of family and friends ever sought their services, as far as I know.  The recent videos showing physicians associated with Planned Parenthood discussing the harvesting of fetal tissue while enjoying a nice lunch, certainly challenges our sensibilities.

I’ve never known anyone who had an abortion, but it is possible that I’ve not known that someone had one. My mother had a miscarriage sometime before I was conceived. As a consequence of that family tragedy and heartbreak, I enjoy my life instead of that other person.

A miscarriage and an abortion are two different things.  In this context, an abortion occurs when a living human being is purposely taken from its mother’s womb prematurely for the primary purpose of ending its life. In my opinion, that is terribly wrong and should never happen, no exceptions.  It is taking the life of a defenseless human being.

Life can be short, and it is terribly heart rendering when a brief life ends abruptly. Everyone dies eventually, but life goes on. According to news sources, abortions end the lives of tens of millions of individuals. Far more lives are lost through this practice than in wars, famines, plagues, or just about any other imaginable occurrence. Consider a holocaust occurring every year.  Consider that a sizeable number of us think this is acceptable, even necessary, people associated with Planned Parenthood for example.

I don’t understand the “pro-choice” canard.  Since when does one human being get to choose when another human being is going to die?  Sorry, but pro-choice sounds good but makes no rational sense. It’s pro-abortion wrapped in a nice sounding term. We do that often. We choose a euphemism to color the truth. In this case describing a pro-abortion stance as if it were pro-choice is like calling a rape just another type of love-making. A women may choose many things, but neither a women nor a man has a right to take another person’s life, unless it is in self-defense.

During sexual intercourse, millions of living beings (spermatozoa and sometimes an ovum or two) come to the end of their lives. But this is the way of life. The normal life span of a sperm is quite short, a matter of hours or days, ova normally live much longer. A sperm lives to search out an egg to fertilize, thus ending its life in the creation of a unique living human being. Very few fulfill their mission. The same can be said for an ovum. We don’t choose which sperm or ovum creates a new zygote possessing the potential to mature through birth and beyond. A man doesn’t have the right nor the means to choose, nor does a woman.

A zygote, an embryo, a fetus, and an infant are early stages in the development of a human life. Allowing mothers and their physicians to choose to end such a life for reasons of convenience or other equally unconvincing rationalizations, is not worthy of an enlightened civilization. Call it fate or God’s will, but we do not choose which life begins, nor should we decide to end that life. That human being, once created, has a right to live.

UPDATE:  What is science?  What is policy?  What is policy that reflects scientific understanding?  Lately, several of those seeking the office of President of the United States, as well as many commentators, have weighed in on these issues of life, when it begins and ends.

in my opinion, policies should reflect our understanding of science, even as we admit that what we know today might be deemed wrong tomorrow.  Such is the nature of scientific knowledge.

We know that life is continuous, and it cycles through recognizable stages.  A sperm is a living cell.  So is an unfertilized egg, as is one that has been fertilized becoming what is known as a zygote.  This is our scientific understanding. These single celled organisms are part of the human life cycle, just as analogous cells describe stages in the life cycles of all animals.

Life doesn’t begin at conception, it continues with the creation of a new unique individual enjoying the potential to participate as a member of human society.

As defined earlier in this essay, abortion is legal.  In other words, our society accepts an established policy allowing the termination of life before it is born.  No matter how it may be justified or argued does not change our understanding of the science. An abortion is the purposeful termination of a human life.  The policy discussion should focus on when we as a society should allow that to occur.

If I were the arbiter of this policy debate, I would argue against any abortion that fits my definition. Note that terminating a pregnancy to save the life of a mother is not an abortion.  Both lives matter.  In a typical circumstance, physicians would do everything in their power to save both lives.  In other words, the purpose of the medical intervention is to save the mother and the infant no matter the eventual outcome, and therefore, it is not an abortion by my definition or under my preferred policy.

A child conceived through rape or incest is an innocent and precious human being no matter the tragic circumstances leading to its conception.  We sympathize with the extreme trauma a mother may experience in this circumstance, but that doesn’t justify the ending of an innocent life.  There are alternatives available to a pregnant mother.  Frankly, there are procedures available in an emergency room that would prevent the pregnancy, and therefore, as in the example above, by my definition an abortion has not occurred. There are and have been many human beings who have lived wonderful and productive lives in spite of the circumstances surrounding their conception.

In an enlightened society, human life should be protected and nurtured to the fullest extent of our abilities.

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The Meaning of Words

The wind is free and fossil fuels are finiteThis simple declarative statement illustrates a point about human language and logic.  We can string words together that sound smart, even clever, and certainly true.  If we take the time to consider the meaning, we often find flaws and fallacies in what we say.  Conversely, if we don’t carefully consider the arguments we hear or utter, we might be fooled by others or by ourselves.   On its own, a sentence like this may be true, but the message it conveys may be false, misleading, or even absurd.

This sentence argues in favor of wind turbines as a superior source of energy.  The commenter believes this, and in that sense is just being honest.  It is difficult to challenge this statement because we do experience wind at no cost, and the abundance of fossil fuels could never be described as infinite.  The writer opposes the continued reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas.  It was posted as a comment about a recent German research study that focused on the possible harmful effects to humans and other life from low frequency sound waves near large wind farms.

It is not important who made this statement.  I don’t know this person who is apparently well educated having earned advanced degrees in the field of climate science.  I often read articles on this website, and frequently read comments by this person.

We all do this:  we say something that sounds good, but upon further review, we find the message was confusing.  In the present case, the sentence may be true, but the message it conveys is not.  I am sure that Aristotle would describe this as a kind of fallacy using nice sounding Latin words—something like argumentum non sequitur.  Each half of the sentence by itself is arguably true, but put together they create a false illusion by begging unstated questions.  Are fossil fuels not free?  Is wind infinite?

Experiencing the wind may be free, but converting wind energy to a form that we can use is not.  In fact, it is more expensive than burning fossil fuels and certainly less reliable.  It may also be harmful to birds and other life, including human life.  Furthermore, it requires extensive surface area that may have a high cost, in dollars and in environmental impact.

Fossil fuels are finite, but so is the wind.  And not all fuels are fossil fuels, not even all carbon-based fuels, are fossil fuels.  In fact, the term “fossil fuels” is a misnomer that is used wrongly to describe carbon containing fuels that may undergo combustion when combined with oxygen to produce energy that we can use.  These fuels contain chemical energy which we can convert to energy to heat and even cool our buildings, and it can be converted to kinetic energy to move things.  These fuels are just as free as the wind!  However, converting the energy in fossil fuels to a form that we can use is not free, but it is less expensive than extracting the energy in wind.

Infinity is not a number.  It is a way of describing something that has no limit, no number.  In nature, it is difficult to find infinities, because we ourselves are limited in our perceptive abilities as well as our knowledge.  Very large and very small numbers are all around us, but they are not infinite.

The amount of carbon in the observed universe is enormous, but definitely finite, unless time and space are infinite.  Carbon is the fourth most abundant element by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.  Burning fuels that contain carbon does not change the carbon into some other element.  It is carbon both before and after it is burned.  Combustion of carbon containing compounds is one small part of the carbon cycle.  We never use up carbon, we change it chemically, and we can change it back.  All we need to do this is energy.  What starts out as a piece of wood can become part of a piece of wood again after it has burned, thanks to photosynthesis.  What starts out as coal, can find its way back to coal again, or to oil or natural gas, or to a leaf, a piece of limestone, or even to a diamond or the pencil you hold in your hand.

Carbon is by far the most associative element in the universe.  There are more different substances made of carbon than all other kinds of substances combined.  Carbon will be around much longer than wind will be around.  Carbon will still be around after our solar system is long gone, and our Milky Way Galaxy for that matter.  That which we call the wind, will not even remain a memory.  As long as there are humans to burn carbon fuels, there will be carbon fuels to burn.  You don’t have to worry about running out of carbon, but I expect we will stop burning large quantities of it as an energy source at some point in the not to distant future.  On the other hand, a wind farm the size of the earth’s surface is not large enough to provide the energy we will need.  Land is also finite, as is our patience for foolish statements.

Words have meaning and so do sentences and paragraphs.  But there is meaning between the lines as well, and it often speaks the greater truth.

Wind energy is not free, nor is the energy from fossil fuels.  Neither is infinite.

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Damn the Inconvenient Science

The recent commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy by the President was remarkable for many reasons.  At a time when so many difficult international challenges cause concern for our national security, why would he choose to focus on climate change?

New England and PEI 2009 (104)

Yes, climate changes, it always has and it always will!  But the President’s speech presented deeply flawed arguments based on absurd assumptions.  Does the President believe that humans can somehow control global climate or even prevent the climate from changing?  Does he believe that the climate that existed at some arbitrary time in the past was superior to the climate we experience today?  Does he believe that changes to the climate in the future will necessarily make circumstances worse for humans and all life?  Why would he use this occasion to sound this particular alarm, and expose his profound ignorance of this matter at the same time?

Others with unassailable scientific credentials disentangled the Presidents claims and warnings in his speech.  One writer identified 24 specific statements about climate in the speech that were known to be untrue or at best highly debatable.  This President, like most of the other 42 men who preceded him in office, does not claim to be a scientist.  It is obvious, therefore, that he’s listening to his political advisors, and he’s pandering to his base.  Damn the inconvenient science anyway.

It is difficult to comprehend the complexity of the construct known as climate.  The sun is a primary driver of atmospheric dynamics.  Trying to describe some hypothetical average weather for a specific region or for the entire planet is a fool’s mission.  Our sun is a variable star.  Our distance and orientation to the sun is always changing in pseudo-cycles related to seasons, glaciations, and ice ages.  The Earth itself is another important driver of changes in the atmosphere because of the heat from nuclear fission in the core, mantle, and crust that ultimately reaches the oceans, continents, and the atmosphere.  And yes, it is definitely true that human activities change climate.  Average weather conditions around and in modern developed areas are distinctly different than when the land was an untouched forest, desert, marsh, grassland, tidal basin, barrier island, or mountain valley. For thousands of years, we have modified local weather conditions where we live and produce the fruits of our diverse cultures.   All life changes the environment and the atmosphere in profound ways, not just human life.

Trying to predict how average atmospheric conditions will change in the future is not possible because our scientific understanding is not sophisticated enough.  Seemingly chaotic events unknown to us could change everything, overnight, over decades, over centuries and over the millennia.  For proof of this, just take a look at climate change in the past, in the historical as well as in the geological record.

This entire debate can be elucidated by a very simple equation.

C = A + N

Climate change (C) is necessarily the sum of anthropogenic (A) and natural (N) causes.  There are two unknowns on the right side of the equation.  Science has not determined the extent to which our human activities cause climate change, and no scientist can say how the average weather conditions of the earth or a region might have changed, if humans were not present.

The President and his political advisors argue that (A) is greater than (N), significantly greater.  They assert that using carbon based energy sources in modern societies is the cause.  They also assume that limiting the use of those energy sources will reduce (A), and consequently (C), to near zero.  Furthermore, they believe that (A) is bad and (N) is good.  Ironically, (N) is known to have catastrophic consequences for humanity, while (A) is usually manageable.  Finally, they justify the cost of reducing (A) without comparing that to the cost of adapting to (C).   According to most economists who have studied these issues, the President’s plans require enormous costs with differentially negative impact on the poor and especially those that live in underdeveloped areas of the world.  The benefits of the President’s plans are negligible and likely immeasurable, except perhaps to the bank accounts of the political action committees and candidates that appeal to extreme environmentalist causes and organizations.

Graduates of the Coast Guard Academy do have an important, even vital, responsibility to protect our national security.  I hope they consider their future challenges in a more rational manner than was presented to them during their commencement ceremony.

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Religious Freedom

cropped-img_06471.jpgThe United States Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion.  The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993, which passed Congress with nearly unanimous bipartisan support before being signed into law by President Clinton, endorses this constitutional guarantee.  The vast majority of states have similar laws and court rulings further securing this natural liberty.  Religious freedom is one of the founding principles of our representative republic.

Why would some national media outlets and networks, among others, criticize the State of Indiana for recently enacting such a law?  I can think of only three possible explanations: 1) they are ignorant of the law and the Constitution; 2) the editorial predisposition of these news organization is in opposition to the free exercise of religion; and 3) Indiana enjoys conservative leadership and a possible aspirant for the presidency in 2016.

For most of us, our beliefs provide a moral framework for greater civility.  Tolerance of our differences, be they religious, ethnic, gender, skin pigmentation, and even our transient judgements about the daily happenings in our lives, certifies our continuing viability as a people and as a sovereign nation.  Stifling the free exercise and expression of diverse religious beliefs is not religious tolerance.

Contrary to the failed arguments of the politically and ideologically motivated talking heads, the free exercise of religion does not give license to criminal or civil violations.  No matter what your religious or irreligious motivations, you are not allowed to break the law, and this includes laws regarding discrimination.

Historically, nations dominated by a single national religion tended toward tyrannical rule.  Nations with two or few competing religions often descended into chaos and civil war.  Ironically, the multi-ethnic, multi-religion character of the United States results in greater tolerance of diverse religious perspectives.  Maintaining that tolerance is vital to our prosperity.  We should do everything in our power to keep governments out of our personal and spiritual lives.

Whatever your religion, I hope you have a wonderful day on this glorious Palm Sunday, 2015.

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Unintended Consequences

new-germanwings-airbus_300dpiToday, the world is trying to comprehend why a commercial pilot would intentionally fly an airplane into the side of a mountain.  Undoubtedly, there will be suggestions for preventing such tragedies in the future.  Ironically, it appears this horrific occurrence at least partially resulted from previous efforts to make air travel safer.  What can we learn from this?

Many years ago, an old friend in the higher education world told me about a library at a large urban college that realized that significant numbers of books were missing from the collection every year.  Students would check them out and lose them or just not return them.  Other books would disappear without a trace and were assumed to be stolen.  The chief librarian reported over two hundred books per year on average would be lost, just from those that were stolen.  In order to put an end to this unacceptable circumstance, extra security personnel were hired, and cameras and other technology were installed to catch the thieves.  The outcome was amazing as they reduced the number of lost or stolen books by nearly 50 percent, a savings of almost ten thousand dollars in the first year alone.  They were proud of their success, until the college budget officer calculated the cost of their solution.  It was obvious the bean counter and the librarian had different priorities.

The story is illustrative of the mistakes we make when we don’t carefully consider the consequences of our good intentions.  In other words, we don’t understand or agree upon our goals, and we fail to do a risk/benefit analysis.  In this case, the librarian wanted to stop book theft, while the budget administrator wanted to reduce costs, both worthy goals, but neither were achieved.  An optimal solution would have eliminated the theft of books while also reducing the operating cost of the library.

In an airplane, locking the cabin door does keep people with bad intentions from gaining access.  Unfortunately, it also stops the well-intentioned from preventing tragedies.

Sometimes we are guilty of knee-jerk reactions to our daily frustrations, grabbing onto the first solution that comes along, or just doing something and hoping for the best.  In my experience, legislative bodies, bureaucracies, and well-meaning activists are most often guilty of this, with unfortunate outcomes for the rest of us.

Congress seeks compromise solutions to seemingly important problems.  Then they describe their actions in ways that benefit them politically, ignoring the unintended consequences.

The EPA, the FDA, and the FCC, among many others, introduce regulations that appear to solve or prevent certain problems, but in time they commonly make matters worse and more expensive.

Highly motivated activists often suffer from mass delusions, fervently committing to their causes.  The worst offenders try to silence the opposition by various tactics including character assassination or worse.  They give little consideration to the logic of their intentions.

How safe can we make air travel?  How clean can we make our air?  What global climate do we want to make?  Can we make the Internet better through regulation by the government?  Are more people benefiting from affordable health care?  Can we deport 10 million illegal immigrants?  What energy sources make sense for modern life on our blue planet?

We are inundated with examples where the cure is worse than the malady.  Sometimes, we cure the uninfected while killing the victim.  We just shake our heads and go on with our lives.  Our folly is self-correcting after all.  Even if the correction is not in the best interest of humanity.  Oh!  Why else would we act?

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A Blessed Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!  Laurie and Norm in Destin - 20141030This is my favorite holiday because it reminds us of our many blessings.  The greatest of these being the many friends and family members who enrich our lives on this day and throughout the year.  Laurie and I wish each of you a most blessed Thanksgiving.  May God Bless You and Yours!

Most of us are unaware of the history of this Thanksgiving Holiday in our country.  With the help of Wikipedia, I gathered the earliest statements and proclamations which established this tradition.  I hope you enjoy reading these as much I do.

In the fall of 1621 following a successful harvest, William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony wrote.

They began now to gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health and strength and had all things in good plenty. For as some were thus employed in affairs abroad, others were exercised in fishing, about cod and bass and other fish, of which they took good store, of which every family had their portion. All the summer there was no want; and now began to come in store of fowl, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besides waterfowl there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison, etc. Besides, they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to the proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largely of their plenty here to their friends in England, which were not feigned but true reports.

On the same occasion, Edward Winslow added this statement published in Mourt’s Relation.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labor. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreations, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which we brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

During the Revolutionary War in 1777, The Continental Congress offered The First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving which was drafted by Samuel Adams.

For as much as it is the indispensable Duty of all Men to adore the superintending Providence of Almighty God; to acknowledge with Gratitude their Obligation to him for Benefits received, and to implore such farther Blessings as they stand in Need of: And it having pleased him in his abundant Mercy, not only to continue to us the innumerable Bounties of his common Providence; but also to smile upon us in the Prosecution of a just and necessary War, for the Defense and Establishment of our unalienable Rights and Liberties; particularly in that he hath been pleased, in so great a Measure, to prosper the Means used for the Support of our Troops, and to crown our Arms with most signal success:

It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive Powers of these United States to set apart Thursday, the eighteenth Day of December next, for Solemn Thanksgiving and Praise: That at one Time and with one Voice, the good People may express the grateful Feelings of their Hearts, and consecrate themselves to the Service of their Divine Benefactor; and that, together with their sincere Acknowledgments and Offerings, they may join the penitent Confession of their manifold Sins, whereby they had forfeited every Favor; and their humble and earnest Supplication that it may please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance; That it may please him graciously to afford his Blessing on the Governments of these States respectively, and prosper the public Council of the whole: To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty God, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, Independence and Peace: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.

And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.

In November of 1782, the following proclamation was signed by John Hanson, the President of the Continental Congress, and Charles Thomson, its Secretary.  There were several such “national days of prayer, humiliation, and thanksgiving” during this period and into the terms of George Washington and John Adams.

By the United States in Congress assembled, PROCLAMATION.

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged, – the present happy and promising state of public affairs, and the events of the war in the course of the year now drawing to a close; particularly the harmony of the public Councils which is so necessary to the success of the public cause, – the perfect union and good understanding which has hitherto subsisted between them and their allies, notwithstanding the artful and unwearied attempts of the common enemy to divide them, – the success of the arms of the United States and those of their allies, – and the acknowledgment of their Independence by another European power, whose friendship and commerce must be of great and lasting advantage to these States; Do hereby recommend it to the inhabitants of these States in general, to observe and request the several states to interpose their authority, in appointing and commanding the observation of THURSDAY the TWENTY-EIGHTH DAY OF NOVEMBER next as a day of SOLEMN THANKSGIVING to GOD for all His mercies; and they do further recommend to all ranks to testify their gratitude to God for His goodness by a cheerful obedience to His laws and by promoting, each in his station, and by his influence, the practice of true and undefiled religion, which is the great foundation of public prosperity and national happiness.

Done in Congress at Philadelphia, the eleventh day of October, in the year of our LORD, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-two, and of our Sovereignty and Independence, the seventh.

The very first Thanksgiving Day designated by the newly established government of the United States of American was declared on October 3, 1789, by President George Washington.

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor, and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be. That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks, for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation, for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his providence, which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war, for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed, for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted, for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually, to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed, to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shown kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord. To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and Us, and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Presidents Washington and Adams declared Thanksgivings in 1795, 1798, and 1799, but there were no such declaration while Thomas Jefferson served as President.  President James Madison proclaimed a Thanksgiving in 1814 at the conclusion of the War of 1812.

President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November 1863. The proclamation was written by Secretary of State William Seward.  The establishment of an annual day of thanksgiving should be credited to Sarah Josepha Hale who wrote a series of editorials on the subject.  She is the author of the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.  Because of her campaign and this proclamation issued by President Lincoln, our Thanksgiving Holiday has been celebrated every year since 1863.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.”

Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863.

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Whose Anger is Justified?

Ferguson RiotsIf you watched the news these last few days, you were likely bombarded with images of violence in the streets of Ferguson, as well as in New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Oakland, and Chicago among others.  You saw some people filled with rage, and you watched as they acted out their emotions by burning buildings, looting, turning over cars, and expressing their feelings in unfortunate ways.

If you turned on the sound, you heard commentators, government officials, experts, and members of the general public expressing their opinions about the cause of the violence and the state of the nation.  If you changed channels, turned the dial, or opened different websites, you witnessed an amazing range of perspectives.

What justifies rage?  Why do we let our emotions overtake our reasoning?  Don’t look for answers here.  I am just an observer like most of you. I confess to feeling deep emotions and even anger at the images and opinions I see and hear.

Instead of trying to figure out who is right and who is wrong, try to understand what is happening.  Try to empathize with the families, the members of the grand jury, the witnesses, the authorities, the peaceful protesters, the local business owners, and the media.  Try to grasp what motivates those committing all sorts of despicable and violent acts right in front of our eyes?  Understanding their actions is a struggle, perhaps an impossibility.  I am incapable of putting myself in their shoes, of seeing the world as they see it.

What angers me?  It is seeing human beings act irrationally, whether they are torching a police car because they hate the police, or behind a microphone making statements that are obviously untrue.  Irrational behavior takes many forms, but when the intentions are malicious and self-serving, and when the consequences are harmful to others, something must be done and rational leaders must come forward.

In the last few days, I’ve seen incredible examples of emotional hijacking where people let their emotions shut down their brains.  They seem to act like animals, but even that is not fair because animals rarely act in ways that are contrary to their own interests.  My dog would never intentionally poop in her own bed.

Irrational behavior is dangerous!  Its manifestations spread exponentially, like a chain reaction.  A word elicits a frown, which causes a scowl, which results in a punch, which leads to a death, which motivates a riot which leads to more death and destruction which ultimately destroys a society.   In this sequence, there are times when thoughtful people can and must intervene to prevent the escalation.  Ideally, they must act as soon as there is a frown, and before the first scowl.  If they allow the punch, it may be too late.

The people of Ferguson started down this path of destruction within minutes of the death of one of their own.  For some, their grievances find origins unrelated to this or any current events.  They are long-simmering.  This present insult opened old scars and brought many sympathizers, as well as those who wished to exploit this tragedy for their own harmful purposes.

What can be done now?

  1. The agitators, hooligans, and thugs must be arrested and dealt with through the criminal justice system.  There should be zero tolerance of their destructive behaviors in our society.  As long as these people remain to incite and enrage the mobs, chaos will continue.
  2. Thoughtful and credible people within the community need to take charge.  They should gather their fellow citizens together, listen to their grievances, and work together to find solutions.  Through this participative process the community can heal and forge a constructive vision for its future.  A critical mass of people in the town has to invest in such a positive outcome.
  3. The community must work together to assist those who have been harmed by this unfortunate episode.  They may not realize it now, but if they do trust in each other and commit to finding solutions, a renaissance for Ferguson is possible.

The media needs to change its approach.  Sensationalizing cherry-picked tragedies distorts our perspective.  In a society of over 300 million people, there will be bad news, every day of the year.  The networks and the mass media publications have a responsibility to provide perspective and to help their readers and watchers to understand what happened and why.  It is not enough to just horrify us and look for people to blame.  We need adults reporting the news to us.  Each network, every publication, and even colleges of journalism should take a look at themselves and ask what they can do to improve society, not just sensationalize its failings.  We the people need to turn off and refuse to buy their distortions.  Only the fittest will survive, but we the consumers define which is the fittest.

Ironically, we learn as a society.  These terrible experiences get our attention, unlike a thousand normal days.  I remain optimistic about the future of our country.

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The POTUS and the Null Set

White HouseImmigration is a good thing!  My wife and her family came to this country through the legal process and became U.S. Citizens.  In my family, we have English, German, Hispanic, and Irish relatives, among others, who immigrated to this country only one or a few generations removed.

Our country was founded by immigrants!  Even the indigenous peoples who met the European explorers migrated to our hemisphere from other lands on the other side of the world.  All modern humans are the descendants of migratory people.

Our immigration laws and policies are not working.  According to the media, political leaders, and government officials, there are millions of people here illegally.  Obviously, this is not supposed to happen.

What do we do about this?

Enter the President of the United States who says he’s tired of waiting for Congress to take action.  He appeared on a number of television networks last night in prime time and announced an executive action ostensibly to solve the problem for about five million people.   In order to be included under his order, immigrants must satisfy at least four criteria.

  1. They must be parents of U.S. Citizens.
  2. They must have been in the United States for a minimum of five years.
  3. They must pass a background check to determine if they have committed any crimes.
  4. They must pay all back taxes owed on earnings while in the United States.

This is an amazing set of conditions.  On first reading they may appear entirely reasonable and even compassionate.  On further analysis, I’m wondering if anyone could possibly satisfy all four criteria.  Could anyone prove it beyond reasonable doubt?

Under the current interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, anyone born in our country is a citizen, even if the child’s parents are not.  A large number of children become U.S. Citizens in this way every year.  Some of their parents are here legally, migrant farm workers and others on student visas or with green cards for example.  The President’s order does not apply to these parents who have legal documents authorizing them to be here.   So the plan only deals with the subset of parents of U.S. citizens who are here without documentation.  How will they prove they’ve been here five years?  Would they have to prove they never left the United States, even for a few days or even a couple of hours?  Why not four years? Or three years?  Or ten years?  Only parents of U.S. Citizens without any immigration documentation who can somehow prove they have been here at least five years are eligible to come forward for consideration.

A criminal background check determines whether a person has committed a crime.  If it is known that these parents of U.S. citizens entered the country and stayed for at least five years without proper authorization, then they violated immigration laws and possibly other laws as well.  Unless they are pardoned, they cannot pass a background check.

If someone resided in our country for at least five years and was gainfully employed, they should have paid income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes.  Under the President’s plan, these parents of U.S. Citizens, who are here illegally, who somehow pass criminal background checks, and who owe back taxes, would then be required to pay those taxes before satisfying the requirements of his executive order.  How will we know how much they owe?  Did they work under false documentation and identification?  If so, this should disqualify them?

Well there you have it, a null set.  No one need apply, because no one could possibly satisfy all these requirements.  The President apparently violated the Constitution and his oath of office issuing an executive order that pertains to no one.  He managed to irritate more than half the country, while taunting the very constituents he hoped would applaud his actions.  Furthermore, he created a bureaucratic nightmare guaranteed to frustrate large numbers of legal and illegal immigrants.

I need a drink.

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A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Tis but thy name that is my enemy

Thank you William for bringing Juliet to life so she could speak such profound truth.  What difference does it make what a thing is called?  The smell is that of a rose, even if it is called rafflesia or perhaps eastern skunk cabbage.  Such errors in nomenclature do not alter the truth, a rose is still a rose.

We cringe, especially when the error comes from a person of influence or authority. If a distinguished botanist should name that rose a dandelion, we would surely roll our eyes, but we would set a child straight without a smidgen of acrimony. It is, after all, a teachable moment.

Why would a botanist call a rose a dandelion? Why would a chemist call carbon dioxide carbon? Why would a world leader call a vital component of our atmosphere a pollutant? The truth endures, words succumb. Consider the source and the motive.

Carbon is not the same as carbon dioxide, but today there are headlines in almost every major newspaper announcing that China and the United States have agreed to cut carbon emissions. In fact, very little carbon is emitted in the United States. On the other hand China does emit great quantities of carbon in the form of soot. The agreement has very little to do with soot. It is about carbon dioxide.

To a chemist or a biologist, referring to carbon dioxide as carbon or carbon pollution is crazy. Why don’t they call it oxygen?  Carbon dioxide molecules are mostly oxygen, about 73 percent. That surely would be confusing, but calling it carbon is just as illogical, if not as confusing. Is it deception? Do they believe we will more likely go along with their schemes, if they call it a dandelion?

Why do we call carbon dioxide a greenhouse gas when it has nothing to do with greenhouses or the greenhouse effect? A greenhouse heats because warming air cannot escape.  In the atmosphere, molecules of water, and to a much lesser extent carbon dioxide, absorb infra-red, converting molecular vibrations into increased translational motion which is what we call temperature.

Why do they call it carbon pollution? It is not carbon and it is not a pollutant. Carbon dioxide is a natural, even vital component of the atmosphere. Without it, plants would die and animals would soon thereafter starve to death.

The concentration of carbon dioxide in our environment is quite variable. On top of the Hawaiian volcano, Mauna Loa, air that has been collected, purified, and dried to remove all water vapor has an average carbon dioxide concentration of about 395 ppm, although this varies with the seasons. In an airplane cabin, the concentration may be above 1200 ppm, because of all the people breathing. Plant nursery owners pump carbon dioxide into their greenhouses to accelerate plant production. The atmosphere above the ice in Antarctica during the recent glacial period contained less than 200 ppm carbon dioxide. There are daily and seasonal cycles of carbon dioxide concentration in the air, as well as geographical influences. Plants and certain geochemical processes remove it from the atmosphere, animals and other geochemical processes add it back. The oceans of the world contain most of the world’s carbon dioxide and much of this originates from the oceanic crust and the mantle beneath it. Some of the carbon dioxide dissolved in the global oceans escapes into the atmosphere as the water is warmed by the sun and other forcings. Additional carbon dioxide in the oceans combines with calcium and other minerals to form carbonates.  Has anyone asked why we should try to manage the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere?  What concentration would you like?

So, please!  A rose is not a dandelion and carbon dioxide is neither carbon nor a pollutant. Stop trying to deceive us.

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