Friday, January 29, 2010

Freedom of Conscience

The senate special election in Massachusetts brought yet another example of the conflict between freedom of religion and the perceived rights of some. One of the accusations Martha Coakley made against eventual winner Scott Brown was, “1,736 WOMEN WERE RAPED IN MASSACHUSETTS IN 2008. SCOTT BROWN WANTS HOSPITALS TO TURN THEM ALL AWAY.” That was sent in a mailing to voters with that statement in big letters on the cover. It is completely untrue. Brown never said any such thing. It was based on a gross exaggeration of his record.

What Brown did was sponsor legislation to allow some emergency room personnel to follow their conscience and avoid involvement in “Plan B” contraception for rape victims. It would not have turned rape victims away from the hospital. It would not even have prevented hospitals from providing that treatment. It simply would have allowed people with religious objections to follow their conscience and leave that decision to others. I believe that should be permitted.

So you know where I’m coming from, I oppose abortion but have no objection to “Plan B” for rape victims. In fact I believe it is permissible for rape victims to have an abortion (though they should think carefully about it, preferably with the help of a competent counselor). However I am not willing to force someone else to go against his conscience except in extreme circumstances. If someone’s religion forbids Plan B, there are others in the hospital not so constrained. The laws forcing people with such beliefs to violate their consciences have the effect of denying them the freedom to practice their religions.

There are other examples of disdain for religious freedom. In Minneapolis, Muslim taxi drivers are required to take passengers with dogs or alcohol, contrary to their religion. Elsewhere, pharmacists are required to dispense contraceptives, even Plan B, against their religious beliefs. A New Mexico photographer was ordered to take pictures at a homosexual wedding though it violated his conscience and other photographers were available.

Anyone who refuses to take an action that is legal but against his conscience is likely to be accused of forcing his beliefs on others. That is backwards; those trying to force their beliefs on others are the people who want to force others to violate their consciences. The people ordering the photographer to take the homosexual wedding pictures forced their beliefs on that photographer. Those ordering Muslims to transport dogs or alcohol are forcing their beliefs on those taxi drivers.

In fact this sort of thing is a case of misplaced objectives. The supposed objective in the case of Plan B for rape victims is so the victim won’t have to carry the child of the rapist. That objective is easily achieved by just letting someone else provide the information and pill. Instead, many such as Coakley want to force particular people to provide it. Their objective appears to be forcing their ideas on everyone. You are free to disagree with them as long as you do what they say.

The Muslim taxi driver situation is similar. It would be easy for those drivers to post something in their windows indicating that they will not take dogs or alcohol. That would be a boon to other drivers who would get more business, and it would achieve the ostensible objective of providing taxi rides for those who want them. However it would not force the Muslims to bend to the wishes of those who don’t like their religion. I have to believe that the real objective was to restrict Muslim freedom of religion, not to provide transportation for dogs or alcohol.

Those who want to force others to go against their conscience are demonstrating an intolerant bigotry. They ignore the constitutional protection for freedom of religion. They claim others can believe as they wish as long as it doesn’t affect how they act. In that they ignore the fact that the first amendment protects the free exercise of religion, not just religious belief. How can a Catholic have freedom to exercise his religion if he is forced to violate its teachings to keep his job? How can a Muslim have freedom to exercise his religion if he must violate its teachings to keep his job?

Ironically most of those trying to force their views on others today call themselves liberals. Their liberalism does not extend to allowing others to live according to their consciences. They believe that has the freedom to agree with them. However they are not willing to tolerate disagreement. That is a corruption of what the word “liberal” once meant. It is also a corruption of human tolerance and of the constitution.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I'm joining nearly everyone else in urging donations to the agency of your choice to help victims of the Haitian earthquake. Please give what you can. Give till it hurts.

It won't be enough.

Even if we could send enough aid, the Haitian infrastructure wouldn't allow it to reach the people in a timely manner. That infrastructure was not the best before this happened, and the quake certainly did not improve it. Yet we must do what we can, and keep doing it for the months, maybe years it will take to help the survivors get some semblance of a life back. In fact we should help them try to get a better life than they had before the earthquake.

Some may wonder why we should bother, after all it was Haiti that failed to build the roads and other transportation facilities now so badly needed. It was Haiti that failed to require buildings to meet any sort of standard that would have allowed them to withstand the shaking. It was Haiti that failed to establish any means of dealing with such emergencies. All that is true, but it is also true that those were failures of the government, not the people.

The fact is that Haitians have long been subject to probably the most corrupt government in the western hemisphere. That is not the fault of the citizens who are too poor and uneducated to do anything about it. Haitian adults have spent an average of less than three years in school and lack the resources to prepare for such a disaster.

We can see the results on TV every night. Poorly constructed buildings are now rubble while the people sleep in the street and hope for food and water. Roads are impassable to relief workers, making it difficult or impossible to provide supplies except by airdrop. Medical facilities are either destroyed or swamped with the injured.

However the Haitian survivors are still people, just like us. They get hungry and thirsty; they love their families (though they have lost many family members). Haitians may be uneducated but they are quite as human as are we. Whatever help we can provide will help with that humanity.

We won’t be able to save them all of course. That is just the way things are, similarly to my volunteer work in search and rescue. We don’t save everybody but those we do save make it all worthwhile. Our help can allow some to live, and maybe even begin to improve their lives.

Beyond that, we should work with the Haitians and whatever emerges as their government to lift the people out of poverty. They need new homes but also education. They need food but also opportunity. None of that will come without a better government and foreign investment. We may be able to influence the government and we can certainly encourage the foreign investment. However we should also encourage their government and any foreign companies there to subsidize education. And of course we should be certain that our aid goes to help the people not to feather the nest of Haitian officials. That may be difficult but it is important.

We must first address the immediate problem of course. However as we make progress with that, we should also work with the Haitians on long-range plans to improve education and infrastructure, and to provide employment opportunities to the Haitians.

Haiti needs both immediate help with this disaster and long-term help to improve the lot of the people. We can and should do all we can in both areas.

Personal Note: Due to some family commitments, I'll not be able to post anything here for about a week and a half.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Male and Female

As I write this, a federal court is considering if it should overturn the voters and order California to allow homosexual marriage. Aside from the fact that there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution to require that, we should look at the primary reason that marriage not only exists at all, but throughout history has been between man and a woman (or in polygamous societies, a man and several women).

Of course a big part of the reason is that marriage provides an environment for the bearing and raising of children. It takes both male and female to produce human offspring. Furthermore, for most of history the very young have depended on their mothers for nutrition since men do not produce breast milk. It makes sense to have the female bear and feed the young while the male, who is usually bigger and stronger, goes in search of family necessities. Those are simple facts of nature, true for eons.

Though modern society makes that less necessary than before, there are still advantages to breast-feeding. Breast-feeding has been shown to be good for both mother and baby, but it puts a burden on women which men do not face. Nor do men face the morning sickness of early pregnancy or the discomfort and physical limitations of late pregnancy or the danger and pain of childbirth. It makes sense to put more responsibility for earning a living on men and to free up women to do what men cannot do.

In addition, the fact is that marriage is different from any other contract in the world – it is a contract of differences. Men and women are very different, and that difference goes far beyond plumbing. Marriage is specifically to formalize the relationship between two people who are fundamentally different, something that does not change in people beyond childbearing years.

Some of these differences are obvious. Aside from internal plumbing (and external shapes) men mature later but are, on average, bigger and stronger. However that is an average, some women are bigger and stronger than some men. Each sex also tends to be susceptible to different health risks though in nearly all cases that is also an average phenomenon.

The more significant differences are in our brains and hormones. The male and female brains are significantly different – with little or no statistical overlap in some important characteristics. Now before I go farther I want to be clear that I am not advocating discrimination. If a woman is big and strong enough to haul a charged fire hose up the stairs and hold the water stream on the fire, she should have a chance at a firefighting job. However it would be a mistake to expect that the same percentage of women as men will have that strength, and people whose homes catch fire will want someone who can do the job, regardless of sex.

Likewise it is a mistake to assume that the male and female brains will be equally attracted to all occupations. Men and women should have the right to try those jobs if they wish but we should not be surprised if each sex has different preferences.

So what are the differences between the male and female brain? I know of two that should concern us here. First, men have more gray matter than women but women have more white matter than men. The gray matter part does the analytic stuff while white matter is better for relationships and communication. That might explain why talking is so important to women. It might also explain the preponderance of men in some careers and of women in others.

Another significant difference is the connection between the two sides of the brain. They are in a sense two separate organs. The left brain is usually the analytical side while the right tends to be more intuitive. The connection between those two hemispheres is much stronger in women than in men. That connection has been compared to a path through the woods in men and a freeway in women. This connection to the right, “intuitive,” brain may help explain why women are more in touch with the emotional while men tend to be more “thing” oriented.

A classic example of these effects is played out in different variations in homes throughout the world. The wife may find a problem, for example she just cannot get the vacuum cleaner bag to fit as it should. She tells her husband who, if he thinks of himself as a good husband, promptly fixes it. Is the wife happy? Not at all. She will go about her work and get it done but not really enjoy it. Meanwhile the husband doesn't even notice that she is unhappy except to perhaps note that she didn't seem appreciative.

What has really happened here? Did the wife not want the vacuum cleaner fixed? Of course, but that was really her second priority. She is in tune with feeling and emotion so first she wanted her husband to understand her frustration. When she got not a word of understanding she felt unloved. That was exacerbated by her husband's failure to notice that she felt that way. Meanwhile the “thing oriented” husband believes he did what she wanted; after all he did fix the vacuum cleaner. His “thing orientation” also allows him to ignore her continued unhappiness until she gives him the cold shoulder when he wants affection.

The above is only a brief outline of male-female differences but it does help us understand that men and women are different and think differently.

It is these fundamental differences that marriage attempts to reconcile. The reconciliation is never perfect and often quite poor, but it would be worse without the idea of a long-term agreement to live together and support one another.

Those who ask “why no same-sex marriage?” are asking the wrong question. The real question is why we should have marriage at all? The answer is that we have it in order to formalize this relationship between people who are so different, yet attracted to each other and on whose relationship society has depended for generations. Same-sex couples present no similar reason for such a legally recognized institution.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Book Review, The Einstein Syndrome

Book Review, The Einstein Syndrome, Bright Children Who Talk Late, by Thomas Sowell, Basic Books, 2001. 201pp plus index

I picked up this book because of a grandchild who does not talk as much as most his age. What I found was not only an interesting book but one that is significant to a minority of children and their parents. Unfortunately, as the author indicates, we do not know how small that minority is, nor is there any definitive method at present of knowing if some particular children are in this group. In fact there is a tremendous gap of unknowns regarding these children, to the point that Sowell entitles one chapter “Groping for Answers.”

This book is about very smart children who talk late and are often misdiagnosed as autistic, retarded, hearing impaired, or otherwise handicapped. The effect is devastating to the children and their parents. It is also a potential loss to society if those children are mistreated to the point that they fail to accomplish what they otherwise might. Some famous people with this symptom include Einstein of course for whom it is named, plus fellow physicists Edward Teller and Richard Feynmann. Others include musicians Arthur Rubinstein and Clara Schumann, and mathematician Julia Robinson Schumann and Robinson are among the rare females in this overwhelmingly male group.

I do not know how many parents have children in this category but clearly there are some and those parents will benefit from reading this book. Their children will also benefit since informed parents may then be able to fight an often recalcitrant school and social system and protect their children from mistreatment. If any of my readers have children meeting the description below, I urge them to read this book.

The typical first-noticed sign of Einstein syndrome is failure to develop language skills at the expected age. Such children may remain completely speechless or they may use a few words, even nonsense words, but they fail to put the words together into coherent phrases or sentences. Some may fail to understand the spoken word, but most apparently understand much earlier than they can speak. When they finally do speak some start off haltingly, others begin speaking complete sentences. Many go on to become socially as adept as their peers while some do not, much like average children.

In many cases it is uncertain if the child cannot speak or simply chooses not to talk. In fact some speak in certain circumstances, then do not speak again for extended periods of time. One little boy did not speak until his older brother, reading aloud to the parents, had difficulty with a word. The little brother read the sentence aloud, perfectly. Then he did not speak again for months.

Another common sign of this syndrome is delayed toilet training. Most children are toilet trained by between two and three years of age. For these children the median is at least a year later.

Those signs can easily mislead parents, friends, relatives, and even some professionals to believe the child has severe and permanent problems. As a result many of these children are placed in classes designed for the handicapped. That is hard on the children and interferes with their development. The mistake is understandable, autistic children do exist, as do those who are hard of hearing, the retarded, and even idiot savants. The symptoms can be similar. In fact today, the most likely misdiagnosis for these children is probably autism. Unfortunately the treatment that helps a child with those problems can harm the child with Einstein syndrome. It is important to avoid misdiagnosis, difficult though that may be.

So what are the indications that a child is in this group instead of autistic, retarded or otherwise permanently handicapped? While there is no clear indication, there are some things that can point in that direction.

First, what about hereditary background? So far all indications are that this is an inherited trait. Most such children have close relatives who are either in an analytical job or who are musicians. Children and grandchildren of engineers, scientists etc. appear to be over-represented in this group, as do children of musicians.

Second, are there early signs of high intelligence, especially in the areas of analytical skills, music and memory? Sowell calls this the three M's: Math, Music and Memory. These children tend to do exceptionally well at analytical and mathematical work. They often have prodigious memories and frequently become competent musicians at very young ages. They are often very good at taking things apart and reassembling them. In fact one boy switched the locking doorknob from the bathroom with the non-locking one from the basement, then locked his mother in the basement where she was doing laundry – he was three years old at the time.

This last characteristic can be dangerous. Sowell's own son (who inspired his investigation into this) quickly learned to defeat the locks on the safety gates which his parents put on the stairs and leading into the kitchen. He took a tumble down the stairs as a result, but was fortunately unhurt. As you might guess, raising such children magnifies the difficulty of dealing with curious and lively offspring. However it also magnifies the potential rewards since such children often grow up to be a credit to their parents and an asset to society.

If parents suspect that a child is in this group, Sowell recommends that they get multiple independent evaluations. They should avoid anyone who agrees to give a second opinion only after they see the first evaluation – that will not be an independent opinion. They should also be wary of schools, speech therapists, and others who benefit from getting more clients in lucrative programs. Too often those people have neither the skills nor the motivation to distinguish between autistic children and this syndrome.

If these bright children are misdiagnosed they will be subjected to inappropriate therapy and probably placed in programs for the handicapped. The therapy will probably anger them (they are often capable of world-class tantrums) and the handicapped programs will deny them the challenge they need. A bright child will be bored and likely cause mischief. Many will drop out of school because there is nothing there to interest them.

What these children need is intellectual stimulation. That means real advanced classes, not just standard classes with more busy-work. Many have done very well when placed in classes well above their age group. They also do well in special summer programs sponsored by universities. However many “educators” are wedded to the lock-step model that fits the average child. They regard genius with suspicion. After young Edward Teller showed his teacher a better way to do a math problem the teacher responded, “So you are a genius, Teller? Well, I don't like geniuses.” Few teachers today would dare express such sentiments openly, but many undoubtedly nervous about smart students.

Parents of these bright children should be prepared to fight for what is best for the child, going against the establishment if necessary.

What is the cause of this syndrome? That is unknown but Sowell does have an idea about a possibility. (Though he states clearly that it is an idea at this point, it is not yet shown to be fact.) It is known that the brain continues to develop for the first years of life and Sowell speculates that the analytical part, associated with both music and critical thinking, may develop early at the expense of the nearby portion devoted to speech. There are several facts that go along with that possibility, but so far there is nothing approaching proof.

As mentioned, there are a lot of unknowns about this subject. Sowell is getting on in years and unlikely to contribute much more to the research. Fortunately Professor Stephen Camarata of Vanderbilt is continuing the task with a larger group of children. He will be able to follow many of those children into adulthood. Like Sowell, Camarata is the father of an Einstein syndrome child. However Camarata's profession training is in hearing and speech science. Whereas Sowell is a non-specialist more or less dragged into this subject, Camarata has a more appropriate background. That is the good news.

The bad news is that you cannot accelerate the process of following children into adulthood. Whatever answers Professor Camarata finds will not be available for years. Meanwhile parents who believe they might have an Einstein syndrome child will have to do the best they can with the information available. I wish them well.

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Friday, January 8, 2010

A Counterproductive Tax

This example comes from my home state of Oregon but I suspect the foolishness behind it is not limited to a single state. I hope readers from other states will look at their laws to see if any are just as silly. I'm sure every state has greedy politicians who are willing to pass bad tax laws if it will give them more money to play with.

We are facing a referendum called Measure 67. This is a tax passed by our legislature and which voters placed on the ballot by petition. It includes a poorly conceived and regressive sales tax in a state where voters have consistently rejected sales taxes. Our legislature, ironically one of the most liberal in the country, has imposed higher taxes on small corporations than on large ones. Furthermore they want to tax the same income several times in many cases. To see how this would work we have to examine the provisions of the measure.

Oregon Measure 67 imposes a minimum tax on corporations, the amount dependent on gross sales rather than on profits. A company can lose money and still owe a hefty tax bill. Though the legislature did not use the term “sales tax,” this is clearly a tax on sales and I regard it as a back-door attempt to sneak a sales tax past the voters.

Interestingly, even if a corporation has no sales it will owe taxes. The measure specifies a minimum tax of $150 on corporations with sales of less than $500,000. A start-up with no sales will pay a sales tax!

This sales tax increases with corporate sales but stepwise, in fixed increments rather than as a percentage of sales. A company with $500,000 of sales will pay the same tax as one with$999,999 of sales.

The tax increase with sales also tops out at a tax amount of $100,000 on sales of $100 million or more. At that level, sales the tax phases out and does not increase further. A company with billions of dollars in sales will pay no more tax than one with sales of only $100 million. I find it amazing that such a provision is in a measure claiming to tax large corporations their fair share.

As written, the measure can also tax the same sale several times. Because this sales tax is not limited to retail sales, it would be paid any time a corporation sells anything. To see how this leads to multiple taxation consider the following example:

Corporation A makes a component which it then sells to Corporation B. Corporation A would of course pay sales tax on the gross amount of what it sells.

Corporation B then assembles that component into a module which it sells to Corporation C. Corporation B must pay sales tax on the entire amount of the sale, including the portion paid to Corporation A which was already taxed once.

Now Corporation C includes that module in a final product which it sells to the retailer, Corporation D. Corporation C must pay tax on the entire amount of the sale, including the portion it paid for the module and what Corporation B paid for the component. The sale price of the component has now been taxed three times.

Finally Corporation D sells the product to its customers, again paying sales tax on the entire value of its sales. That value includes the cost of the component from Corporation A, the module from Corporation B, and the product from Corporation C plus the cost and profit (if any) involved in the retail sales. The component has now been taxed four times. The added value of the module has been taxed three times, and the added value of the product twice.

Now suppose there is a competitor, Corporation E, which sells the same product but makes the component and module in house (or more likely overseas). Corporation E pays the sales tax only once since it need not buy from anyone else. In fact it may even have a retail arm allowing it to sell directly to customers and thus avoid being taxed for both its sales and the retail sale. If it has that power it is likely a large company, perhaps with total sales well over $100 million so it will also benefit from the regressive nature of the tax which phases out at sales of that amount.

This measure, by intent or by accident, favors big corporations at the expense of smaller ones. In fact Corporations A, B, C, and D would do well to form a conglomerate so they can both avoid multiple taxation and benefit from the regressive nature of this sales tax. While claiming to force large corporations to pay their fair share, Oregon Measure 67 in fact discriminates against smaller corporations for the benefit of the large ones.

I urge my fellow Oregonians to defeat this badly written sales tax. I also urge citizens of other states to keep an eye on their own politicians and not allow them to sneak bad laws past the voters.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Keeping the Tigers Away

It's an old joke but it can make a sharp point:

“Why do you always wear that ugly chain around your neck?”

“To keep the tigers away.”

“What do you mean, there are no tigers anywhere near this place.”

“Of course not, my chain scares them away!”

We would regard anyone who thought a chain around his neck kept tigers away as eccentric or worse. Yet we have similar thinking in many of the measures now in force to try to stop terrorists in this country. The attempted airline bombing on Christmas Day provides a case in point. That event has triggered more restrictions on airline passengers and those restrictions have “succeeded” insofar as no other attempts are known. However there is no evidence that any more bombing attempts would have been made with or without the changes.

Let's be honest, some security measures undoubtedly have been effective. Checking for explosives with the proper equipment is quite a reasonable precaution, as is keeping a list of people we cannot trust on airplanes. However other restrictions amount to placebos. The requirement that passengers remain in their seats with nothing on their laps for the last hour of the flight is as useless as wearing a chain to keep tigers away. Any terrorist equipped to blow up a plane will simply take action when that restriction is not in effect. Meanwhile passengers will be unable to use the restrooms – and that will surely not improve dispositions aboard.

Also in the useless category are many of the restrictions on what passengers can carry. Can anybody really believe that someone is going to hijack a plane with the nail file on a fingernail clipper? I don't know who came up with that restriction but I have to wonder what he was smoking.

In fact the prohibition on pocketknives is also useless and probably counterproductive. After 9-11 passengers are not going to sit by while someone with Swiss army knives hijacks their airplane. Anyone trying that will be lucky to survive to face a judge, more likely he will be beaten to death. After all, there will be only a few terrorists and many passengers to resist them. If a few passengers have pocketknives they will be better able to resist the terrorists.

Some of the measures taken to protect airline travelers do make sense. High tech “sniffers” can find many explosives and obviously we do not want passengers to carry firearms. That is fine but much of the current security system seems to be built on the assumption that citizens are incapable of taking care of themselves and that government should become Big Brother and treat the people like sheep. We now have a government that refuses to trust the citizens, a truly sad state of affairs in representative republic. That is especially true in light of the effective actions of the passengers on Flight 93 (cf my blog of 11 Sep 2009,, skip down to the 11 Sep article).

We need a change in the whole attitude of many government officials. We as citizens must insist that they stop regarding themselves as aristocratic repositories of all wisdom and start to think of themselves as servants of citizens. And they must realize that those citizens are likely to be as smart as they are. That will be difficult, changing ingrained attitudes takes time. As a start we should insist that congress overturn the ineffective regulations and allow only those likely to be effective. Of course congress is part of the problem so the only way we can get them to act is for enough citizens to write that they know their re-election is in danger if they do not listen to us.

We should all write our representatives and demand that they change the way security is managed in the airline industry.

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