Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Divinity of Doubt by Vincent Bugliosi

The book Divinity of Doubt by Vincent Bugliosi is without a doubt one of the worst books I have read! I say that having read some dreary books (see: Left Behind series).

Vincent Bugliosi is nothing if not absolutely sure of himself. His pride and arrogance blinds him to the fact that people have struggled over the questions he answers so blithely. He doesn't know what he doesn't know and he looks foolish when he wades into the deep waters of theology. He sets out to prove that one can never know definitively whether or not there is a God. On this point he may be correct. Both atheists and believers need to recognize there is a dimension of faith inherent in their beliefs, and they are beliefs, even in the case of atheists. But rather than wrestle with knowledge about God that is available to us, he'd rather dismiss the whole discussion and just say, "We don't know."

He begins by jumping right into a vat of ignorance. He completely dismisses the Bible and especially the gospels because the authors can't be called to testify in an actual court of law! Does he have no idea how ancient documents are tested for veracity? With his unmeetable standard, all ancient documents would be meaningless because their authors cannot testify at a modern day trial. Knowing as I do that the Scriptures pass every ancient document test with flying colors, it's embarrassing to see him begin with such an asinine assertion.

Bugliosi then launches in to cliched and faulty logical conclusion that God, if He does exist, cannot be what we think He is. Specifically, He cannot be simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful, and good. A good God would not allow suffering. The question of how a good God can allow suffering has plagued humanity for eons and yet Bugliosi simply wipes away all the well-reasoned, agonized-over responses to say, "God is not good." He gives no quarter to the idea that to banish all suffering, God would have to abolish free will. In his childish and simplistic manner, he states that surely an all-powerful God can allow free will AND abolish all suffering. In doing so, he ascribes to God powers that even God does not ascribe to Himself. God is all-powerful, but that doesn't mean He can do contradictory things simultaneously. For example, God cannot love and not love the same thing at the same time. That doesn't take away from His power, it just makes Him rational.

He follows this argument with a complete destruction of the atheist argument of proof that there is no God. He rips them for going after religion and equating that with God. While I agree with his sentiments here, since he has already lost all credibility with me in the previous sections, I can't even bring myself to cheer his demolishment of the Big Three (Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris). He has already quoted random, unknown Christian philosophers to paint Christianity as completely unhinged, so how can I trust that he is accurately representing the words and arguments of these secular thinkers?

He continues by half-heartedly trying to debunk Darwinism. Here I could agree with him as well, but his arguments are silly and embarrassing. While he makes a great emotional point that he finds the leap from bacteria to Mozart too hard to fathom, he does not follow it up with any real questions about exactly how do scientists explain bacteria becoming sentient, developing the ability to be self-aware, thinking, and capable of altruism. He wonders why, if man evolved from monkeys, there are still monkeys. He makes much of the fact that he cannot see evolution happening, pointing to a few hundred or thousand years back and seeing no real changes. Somehow, he tries to make the argument that change is not necessary or even possible. We are finished. One statement showing his utter lack of awareness of his own arguments is this: Although I do not believe today everything I believed yesterday, and do wonder if I will believe tomorrow everything I believe today, this seems rather hard to imagine." Huh? Acknowledging that he, himself, has changed, he finds it hard to imagine he will change further. With his arrogance, he may be right. He acknowledges that man alone among all creatures has the ability to reason, and sees this as an argument against evolution, but does not take the next step to see it as a reason for God.

There's so much more! I'll have to continue in another post.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell

Economic Facts and Fallacies by Thomas Sowell largely summarizes his book, Basic Economics. The difference being that this book is shorter, and more concisely deals with the fallacies addressed in that seminal work.

He begins by addressing the power of fallacies and lists some of the most common right up front: The Zero-Sum Fallacy, The Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc Fallacy (after this, therefore because of this), The Chess Piece Fallacy, and the Open-ended Fallacy. Many of these fallacies enter the mainstream and stay there because vested interests arise and continue to propagate them. Despite the resulting "untended consequences," many continue to hold to a fallacy rather than discard it and be labeled "wrong."

By definition, a fallacy is a false understanding of basic underlying reality and therefore, usually finds a home in the reality-denying, utopia-promoting left. Although the fallacies are described as "Economic" they manage to work their way into many areas of life.

The first set of fallacies Sowell dives into are Urban Fallacies. Here he tackles such things as overcrowded cities, sprawl, mass transportation, and city planning. It's interesting how the left can decry overcrowding as well as urban sprawl. The fact is, Americans do have a lot of living space in urban settings and because of lowering costs of automobile transportation, can afford to move to suburbs as well. To fight these economic realities of people acting in their own best interests (staying the city for the benefits it affords or moving to the suburbs to escape the crowds), the left will often fall into the aforementioned Chess Piece Fallacy. They believe people can be moved about like chess pieces on a board. Therefore "public space" is created, driving up the cost of housing, public transportation is heavily subsidized, rent control is implemented. All have differing and possibly conflicting goals, and all result in boosting costs and therefore lowing the standard of living. Often these policies come from third-party observers who simply wish to impose their own particular vision of what life should look like on others and bear little risk of being harmed by the adverse consequences of their policies.

Unafraid to wade into dangerous waters, Thomas Sowell dissects Male/Female Fallacies. Noting the long-held belief that women make significantly less than men, he dives into the data and how it is collected. Often these kind of fallacies are a result of comparing unlike things. In this particular case, all women were compared to all men, with no regard for education level, number of hours worked, or seniority. Time and again, when like to like are compared, the numbers become much more equitable. Even so, disparities exist. Rather than go straight to the standard "sexist" explanation, he mines the data. Often, men are generally much more likely to work longer, study harder, eschew career interrupting breaks, take on more risky, therefore better paying, positions, and make career more of their focus than women. These differences in work-related behaviors usually account for differentials in pay, rather than sexism. Besides, sexism is hardly the best way to manage a for-profit business. If profit is the goal, a business will strive to hire the best people at the lowest cost. Even a sexist, if he is striving hard enough for personal gain or the competitiveness of his business, will hire a woman if that makes the most economic sense. When looking at the non-profit sector, it is there that sexism (and racism) is more likely to rear its ugly head.

Next, Sowell moves very close to home and battles Academic Fallacies. Here he discusses why college costs so much, what accreditation means, what actually goes on at college, and the problem of tenure. College costs are driven up by government subsidies, the desire to compete with other institutions, and prestige considerations. Many colleges have huge endowments. Rather than dip into these, they will solicit government funds and subsidies. Accreditation is often at the whim of the accreditor. They might make demands that increase the cost of education while conferring no educational benefits. These may include better health insurance for employees. Many colleges focus on research and the publications of papers in little-read journals. Although neither may have any impact on the quality of education or the educator, these practices continue to drive up costs. Finally tenure may require keeping an educator on the payroll long past his ability to produce educated students. Conversely, good educators may not be given time to prove themselves and may be let go rather than given a risky tenure proposal. Sowell knows education better than most and his opinions hold great weight.

Income fallacies abound and Sowell convincingly debunks many of them. A favorite politicians trot out is the fallacy of the rich vs. poor. While it is common sense, what is usually lost in the debate is the fact that the "rich" and "poor" are not static groups. Most people will move between several quintiles throughout their lifetime, some even moving from the bottom to the top and back again. Few people remain in one particular quintile for life. Most people start out at the bottom as poor students or newly married adults, move into their prime earning years after dedicating their lives to their career, then retire and find themselves back in the bottom group. To treat the poor and rich as static groups is to attack a problem that may not have a basis in reality.

Once more, unafraid to wade into controversial topics, Sowell takes on that most touchy of all subjects, Race. Although racial discrimination has a long history thoughout human existence, it can be difficult to use stats to prove a racial bias in America. Often, like Male/Female disparities, like and like are not being compared. He points to unstable family groups, crime, lack of good educational opportunities, and the obvious ability to tie all these disadvantages to a particular, easily noticed, skin color. While it is not fair to judge a person by a generality, employers make risky investments in employees. Unfortunately, some in the black community have handicapped other members by their actions. Once again, when like to like are compared, the "racism" seems to disappear.

When discussing Third World Fallacies, Sowell demonstrates the fallacies that crop up in this area. Like the income fallacy, rich and poor countries are often compared as if they were static entities. In fact, just as individuals move among income groups, countries move up and down the scale of wealth. Often policies designed to alleviate this notion of static poverty actually hurt wealth creation. Foreign aid will prop up a ruinous dictator and allow the corruption to continue. Also, as the aid given is considered "free" it will often be used in ways that are unproductive or inefficient, thereby continuing the harm to a nation. Property rights are the single biggest way to help an undeveloped nation achieve its potential, yet money is usually the proffered solution.

Another great book by Thomas Sowell. Read this if you don't want to tackle his voluminous Basic Economics.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne

I bought The Lively Art of Writing on the recommendation of a fellow Speech mom. She lamented the fact that the speeches she judges lack a good thesis statement and the resultant cohesiveness. Being the good homeschool mom that I am, I instantly went to Amazon and bought it.

That doesn't mean, however, I read it.

It's a small book, but somehow, it didn't look appetizing. Besides, I had a bunch of library books to get to first.

I took it to Hawaii when my library books didn't come in on time and spent a good day or two absorbing it.

Now I want to teach a class on writing. The small, little, dare I say, lively book, captured me and entertained me to boot. It dovetails in with the writing program, IEW, that we have been using. Although she gives grace where IEW lays down the law, she has a few rules of her own: Ban the word "there." Never use first-person.

Payne begins by teaching the basics of a thesis statement and how to formulate an effective one. She moves onto outlining by using a simple pro and con list related to your previously stated opinion. The structure of an outline is discussed, beginning with the inverted triangle introduction, block body paragraphs, and a triangle conclusion. The graphic representation clearly depicts the "right" way to write any essay.

Interspersed between chapters are review questions and assignments. If used in a classroom setting, I have no doubt they would be very effective. The chapters themselves are short little nuggets of wisdom, easily digestible and fun to read.

To summarize:
* Remove the "I believe" and "I think" statements and forcefully state an opinion.

* Create mental pictures when writing, relating details to the five senses.

* Use transition words and hooks between paragraphs.

* ACTION! Eschew the passive voice!

* Pattern the written word after the spoken word by varying sentence length and styles.

* Vary sentences by "stringing along" additional descriptive information, adding "periodic" additions within the sentence itself, or in other descriptive ways, expand sentences beyond their most reduced state.

* Keep the structure within a sentence parallel.

* Use dictionaries, thesauruses, metaphors, similes, and descriptive details. (I just broke the last rule.)

* When you have mastered the rules, you can break them. (See the sentence above.)

As I read, I shuttered to reflect on my previous writings. I'm quite certain that I have broken every dictate laid down and a few poor Lucile Vaughan Payne has yet to encounter. Hopefully, I am the better writer for her words.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo

  Heaven is for Real by Todd Burpo tells the story of a 3-year-old's experiences in heaven in a fascinating and completely believable way. Initially, I feared the story would be one of leading questions and ideas planted in a young child's head. This, however, was not the case.

After going through various physical trials and ready to relax with his family, Todd Burpo takes them on a vacation. Almost postponed by a particularly bad case of the flu in his son Colton, the well-rested, recovering boy, his sister and parents take off for a nice trip. Suddenly waylaid by a frightening recurrence, the family returns to their hometown and family doctor.

Days later, with an increasing look of death on the boy, Todd and Sonja make the call to remove Colton to a bigger hospital 90 minutes away. Immediately diagnosed with a burst appendix, the boy is whisked into surgery screaming for dad. Todd pours out his anger and fear to God in a small out-of-the-way room while his wife frantically calls friends and family for fervent prayers.

Once out of surgery, Colton immediately begins to scream for Dad again. After another horrific relapse the family is released and Colton celebrates his 4th birthday.

Not until several months later, while passing by the hospital, does Colton mention that the hospital was the place "the angels sang to him." After several of these kind of extemporaneous statements, including stating that he had seen Jesus, the Burpo's begin to believe that Colton had some kind of supernatural visitation in his hospital room. He also accurately described his father and mother's actions and location during the surgery, using details he could not possible have known.

Over the next year and beyond, the details slowing begin to come out that Colton had, in fact, visited Heaven. Even though he had never technically died, he vividly recalled meeting Jesus' cousin, John, his grandpa, Pop, who had passed away 25 years before his birth, seeing God's throne, and sitting by the God the Holy Spirit, whom he described as "blue." Committed to asking no leading questions or even supplying words to describe what Colton told them, his parents patiently waited for the story to come piece by piece from their pre-schooler.

Shock and true belief set in when Colton described his older sister greeting him in heaven. Unbeknownst to Colton, his mom had miscarried a baby at 2 months gestation between the birth of him and his older sister. They never knew the baby was a girl, and they had never named her. Colton quoted her as saying she couldn't wait for her parents to arrive so she could finally have a name!

Vivid details and knowing things he could not possibly have known convinced his parents that their son had in fact been to heaven. Later, Todd is convicted for yelling at God when Colton tells him the reason he screamed, "Dad" when coming out of surgery. God had told Colton that He was sending him back to answer the father's prayer. As Todd puts the pieces together, he realizes that while he was screaming to God about how unfair He was, his son was sitting on the lap of Jesus. God answered the prayer of a man who had no idea what he was talking about!

The biggest message Colton wanted to get out was the love of God. It ended every story, every detail, every new revelation. In describing the throne and size of God, Colton felt it necessary to add how big God's love is. He especially focused on the love Jesus has for children.

Although Colton sat on Jesus' lap and remembered Him vividly for his eyes, beard, and especially for His love, he could not exactly describe what He looked like. For the next several years, it became a game with the family, when in the presence of a "portrait" of Jesus, to ask, "What's wrong with this one?" Never did Colton find a picture that he believed accurately depicted the Prince of Peace.

Once day, after finally sharing the story publicly, someone mentioned a girl named, Akiane Kramarik. Raised in an atheist home without television, the girl had begun having visions of Jesus and heaven at the age of four. A prodigy painter by the age of six, she was finally able to communicate on canvas what she saw. Her picture of Christ caught the attention of the Burpos. In one glance, Colton knew exactly who it was. For the first time, here was an image that had nothing wrong with it. Jesus looked back at Colton with the eyes he knew so well.

This chilling story tantalizes with the reality of heaven. I can't wait to go there!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber

Chronicling the events surrounding the assassination attempt on the life of President Ronald Reagan, Rawhide Down by Del Quentin Wilber, is a quick and easy read. It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look both into the events from the President's perspective and also the surrounding actors. He treats us to an inside look into the tormented mind of John Hinckley Jr. as well.

I love the picture of Reagan that Wilber paints. Here is a man who effortlessly steps into the role of his life. Reagan was the consummate actor and he knew he was born to play this role. Literally. He had been taught from an early age that God has a plan for our lives and he firmly believed this was God's plan for him. Because Ronald Reagan played the President as a role, he was able to keep his personal self private and still be gregarious and outgoing. It made him the "Teflon President." The ability to stick to a pre-determined script contributed greatly to his ability to weather and survive such a devastating attack.

Hoping to finally convince Jodi Foster of his love, John Hinckley Jr. believed shooting the President would do the trick. While he had contemplated and nearly shot at Carter, he lost his nerve. Now the new president would have to do. Standing outside the Hilton Hotel with the crowd of greeters, Hinckley opened fire on Reagan. Wounding three others instantly, it was unclear at first that the President had been hit. Shoved into the waiting limo by his alert and reactive Secret Service agent, it appeared that a broken rib caused the pain and inability to breath that Reagan experienced. Making a split decision to risk another shooter at the nearest hospital, Agent Jerry Parr ordered the limo to change course away from the White House.

Clearly hurt and fading rapidly, Reagan insisted that we walk on his own power into the hospital.

It's what a President, hoping to inspire his country would do. It's the way Hollywood would do it.

He collapsed immediately inside.

Although the hospital had had a few minutes of a heads up that the President and others were on their way, some of the personnel who went right to work on him didn't know who their famous patient was. Those who did trembled and prayed that he wouldn't die on their watch. Assuming it was a heart attack and knowing preventing shock was the most important first response, they pumped him full of fluids and blood.  Not recognizing the suit he had memorized earlier in the day on the bodies on the ground at the hotel, Reagan's personal doctor sped towards the hospital. He and the eventual supervising surgeon agreed. No VIP treatment. Treat the President of the United States as any other emergency room patient. Often the VIP treatment killed those to whom it was given.

Although Reagan tried to joke with those around him, as any good Hollywood President would do, it was obvious he was in a lot of pain. Draining blood from his lung was not easing his ability to breath and the blood kept flowing. Worse, it was warm, indicating it was coming from deeper within. Knowing he had just turned 70 and seeing his gray complexion, most at the scene thought he was at death's door.

Finally recognizing Reagan had not suffered from a heart attack or a broken rib, a small incision was found under his right arm. Those with experience knew: gunshot wound. There was no exit wound and it was unclear, even from x-rays where exactly the bullet was. Surgery became the only option to stop the bleeding and remove the bullet. Even though he had pledged no VIP treatment, the doctor could not bring himself to leave a bullet in the President. If it should ever cause future damage, he would never forgive himself. The harrowing surgery was almost a disaster as the bullet could not be found. Continuing to poke around for it was causing further damage. Finally in exasperation, the surgeon ordered another x-ray. Realizing how close he was, he went in again. The bullet and all the damaged tissue removed and after being sewn up, Reagan headed to recovery.

A desperate Nancy was there for him. Their special bond revived him and gave him hope. After she went back to the White House to sleep on his side of the bed, curled up in his t-shirt, Reagan regaled the nurses with one-liners and jokes. To a nurse who sat holding his hand all night, he wrote, "Does Nancy know about us?" (Being intubated, he couldn't speak.) As the actor that he was, playing his most important of roles, he knew it was important to keep their spirits up as well as his own. Finally an exasperated nurse put a warm cloth over his eyes and told him to get to sleep.

Meanwhile, Reagan's cabinet and the rest of the country struggled to keep up with the latest news. The VP, Bush, raced on a plane back to Washington DC from Texas and Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, took it upon himself to declare himself in charge. He wrongly assumed he followed the VP in the line of succession. Although they tried to put on a brave and under-control face to the country and the world, their most skilled PR man, James Brady, was lying on a gurney next to Reagan.

Reagan emerged weeks later looking whole and healthy. Knowing he had beat the odds and survived a gunshot, he governed with renewed confidence. He had played his part superbly, even asking those in the operating room if they were all Republicans! The country loved him, and his hotly contested economic planned passed. Years of economic growth followed.

I can't help but long for such a self-assured President. One who is comfortable in his own skin. Who knows who he is and what he believes. One who knows he sits in destiny's chair and must live up to the role he has been given to play. Reagan was such a man.

One day, I will meet him and shake his hand.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Demonic by Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter is very funny, very smart, very quick witted, and very sarcastic. She's a dish enjoyed in small bites. But, her 295-page book Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America is almost too short. Her basic thesis is this: the left operates from a mob mentality and its leaders want nothing more than to get out in front and lead the mob.
Her somewhat off-putting title comes from Mark 5:2-9 in which Jesus asks a demon his name while casting him out of a man. The demon replies, "My name is Legion, for we are many." Mobs are demonic and their father is Satan, the father of lies. It sounds over-the-top until reading her book. She makes a powerful case for fearing and fighting the left when we see it through this prism.
Relying heavily on the book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind written by Gustave Le Bon in 1896, Coulter repeatedly cites his description of a mob and then gives examples of today's left that perfectly match it. 
Mobs react to images, not words and carful reasoning. There is a reason that a good liberal's car can be covered in bumper stickers. That's how they think - in bumper stickers. Many instantly come to mind: War is not the answer, Meat is murder, Make love not war, Love your mother (earth), Save the planet. Yet conservatives are rarely able to boil down their carefully thought out and researched positions into a few catchy phrases. (Although I myself have a "The bigger the government, the smaller the citizen" sticker on my car and I want to submit "Liberals feel good, Conservatives do good" to Dennis Prager for his next offering.) The left offers images continually instead of reasoned positions. Bush drove the car into the ditch. How do you argue with that? No he didn't. What car? What ditch? Was it on the way to a Cash for Clunkers deal? Who dug the ditch? No discernible, arguable, facts are given, just easy to grasp images.
Another characteristic of the mob/left is its desire to create messiahs. Having rejected the real one, they worship Stalin, Mao, Castro, Obama. Democrats are "rock stars." Name one conservative "rock star." Even Reagan had his contemporaneous detractors, and even today, while praised, has never been elevated to god-like.
Mobs live comfortably with contradictions. Only the left can demonize the right as hating women because it takes a pro-life position, and yet rush to defend any Muslim terrorist, despite the fact that they actually DO hate women. It is the left that fights for free speech to the death, but implements Orwellian speech codes at colleges and disrupts conservative speakers. It is the left that bows to Al Gore's desire to radically curb energy consumption while caring not a whit that his home uses 20 times more energy than the average American home. It is the left that looks to the race-hustling, lying Al Sharpton as a voice of reason and sanity. 
Despite the fact that the worst examples of racism in this country were perpetuated by Democrats, the left has been able to champion itself as the defenders of Civil Rights. Democrats fought and died to protect slavery. Democrats implemented Jim Crow laws. Democrats stood at the schoolhouse doors and kept out black children. Democrats filled the sheets of the KKK. Yet when the people of the United States moved away from racism toward a more egalitarian society, Democrats switched on a dime and rewrote their history. It is to blacks enduring shame that they have bought this. Lyndon Johnson, himself a documented racist, signed the 1964 Civil Rights act, despite voting against all the previous acts, and in true narcissistic fashion promoted himself as a lover of blacks. And blacks have voted Democrat ever since.
Mobs easily swallow and believe myths. The left in America has no shortage of myths they promote in order to lead the mob straight to the voting booth. Black congressional leaders were spat on and called the n-word while walking through a group of Obamacare protestors. A $100,000 reward was offered for any kind of proof. Despite an overwhelming number of video cameras at the scene, no one collected the prize. Yet the myth endures. Referring to Obama, someone yelled "Kill him" at a Sarah Palin rally. After being thoroughly researched by the Secret Service and found incorrect, the myth lives. Coulter lists a page and a half of other myths promulgated by the left: Global warming, Global cooling, Tawana Brawley, Alar on apples causes cancer, the explosion of heterosexual AIDS. Since they never admit they were wrong, myths carry no risk and are one of the most powerful tools in the hands of the mob leaders.
Mobs run to conspiracies. Gas prices are high because of a conspiracy. JFK was killed in a conspiracy. Every Michael Moore movie. Reagan plotted with the Iranians not to release the hostages until after he took office. Despite conspiracy after conspiracy being debunked, the left clings to the lack of evidence of being evidence of how good the conspiracy is. The right has... birthers. Yet no serious and high positioned Republican has ever publicly subscribed to that. 
Coulter spends a considerable part of her book chronicling the mob-run French Revolution with the reasoned/God-based American Revolution. The left would like to run the two together as sister revolutions, yet the facts are quite different. The French Revolution was a horrific, blood-thirsty affair with no well-stated objectives. Even its leaders were executed when they did not appear to be loyal to the mob. It ended after a few years with a dictator. Americans reasoned their way to Revolution through pamphlets, sermons, documents, and long discussions. They produced the Declaration of Independence to carefully lay out their grievances and objectives to a watching world. All the founding fathers survived into old age unless succumbing to battle wounds or disease. It ended with a healthy, functioning republic going on 236 years old.
The left, like their French forebearors, turns to violence in order to reach its goals time and again. Riots are always leftist. Always. They defend violence and criminals repeatedly. They seek to destroy faith in our justice system so they can move us away from law and order. The mob enjoys enormous power when it is willing to get violent. Yet the left will loudly denounce the right for violence in the rare case when an abortion doctor has been shot. Despite being roundly condemned by every prominent person on the right, it is the right that is called violent. Yet the left screams, "No justice, no peace." That statement alone wraps up several characteristics of the left: myths, lack of reasoning, lack of consistency, resort to violence. 
Being in front of a mob brings instant popularity. Whether you are Chris Matthews and want the ratings or Obama and want the votes, getting a mob behind you is instant success. That mobs only destroy and operate to instill fear and disorder is irrelevant to those at the top. Mobs destroyed France. Mobs will destroy America.
The mob must be stopped.