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God Again

I just reread Karen Armstrong‘s book A History of God.  I found it rather complicated last time I read it.  This time was no different.  I got lost in all the details.  Still, I managed to extract some general principles from the book.  It’s really a history of religions, rather than a history of God, although the two do go together.

The focus of the book is the three monotheistic religions that trace their origins back to Abraham.  These are: judiasm, christianity, and islam.  The book does mention that previous religions were polytheistic, having many gods.  The ancient israelites, when they migrated into the land of Canaan, adopted the Canaanite gods.  It was only later that they settled on a single God.  The ancient Romans were polytheistic before they converted to Christianity.  Likewise, the Arabs were polytheistic before they converted to Islam.  The book does mention other religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism, but only for historical comparison with the three Abrahamic religions.

All three had a great deal in common.  All of them changed throughout history, as they adapted to changes in society.  All of them eventually divided into sects.  There was always a mystical sect.  There was always a revivalist sect that attempted to return to the roots of the religion.  There was always disagreement between the sects.

I noted two quite different conceptions of God.  Philosophers and scientists used mathematical logic and rational thinking to develop their concepts of God, along with a literal reading of the scriptures.  Some even developed proofs that God existed.  Others used quite a different approach: mystical thinking.  This was an interior and personal journey, involving meditation, dreaming, and various forms of stress and deprivation.  The result was a personal God, one that was deeply meaningful, but could not be clearly described to other people.  They employed a symbolic reading of the scriptures, so that the stories of mythology were never intended to be factually accurate, but did convey a moral message.

Logical proofs that God exists, using rational thinking, no longer works.  Even if it did, the result is always a distant God, perhaps God the creator.  Such a God cannot intervene in the lives of ordinary people, and is really of no use to most people.  Of course, God may appear irrational and illogical to us, because of our limited intellectual powers.  Logical proofs may be useless after all.

Karen Armstrong does imply that we can choose a God that is most suitable to us, and most useful to our society.  She also describes some concepts of God that may be harmful to us and our society.  We need to be careful of constructing a God that’s a perfect version of ourselves.  This God could become an idol, for example.  Perhaps what we need is just a sense of God’s spirit, although many people are not willing to do the work that leads to such a discovery.  She also cautions us against any religion that requires a literal reading of the scriptures.  Such a religion must deny the discoveries of science over thousands of years in order to maintain that literal interpretation.


A Glimpse of TV

I usually don’t watch television, mostly because I hate commercials.  All of the television channels have them, so I can’t escape them.  At Christmas, though, I visited my parents in their senior’s home.  They do watch TV, something that most people likely do.  I watched it too, and rediscovered why I don’t like it.  My mother went through the cable channels, selecting programs that seemed interesting to her.

I watched many TV commercials, fortunately only for a few days.  Many of them promoted diet plans, certainly a money-making enterprise.  People who believe they are overweight will try many different diet plans.  They all work at first, and all fail in the longer term.  The only winner is the diet plan company.  I found most of the commercials to be intrusive, especially after I’d seen them again and again.  This repetition is intentional, of course.

Other commercials were funny at first, then amusing, and eventually just annoying.  I was skeptical of others, like they were trying to sell me something I didn’t need by telling me half-truths.  Many were simply annoying.  No doubt people resist these commercials by muting the sound or just not paying attention to them.  I suppose, though, that some people buy products that have been heavily advertized.  That is what the advertizers want.

Most of the programs on TV seem to be of two types, humorous or action shows.  I don’t like either one.  I do like a good drama, but not of the soap opera kind.  There were lots of old movies on at Christmas time.  I watched two Santa Claus movies.  Both of them had similar plots, although they had different characters and different settings.  I might have enjoyed them more if they hadn’t been interrupted by commercials so often.  I found it difficult to maintain continuity with all the commercials.

I’m more convinced than ever that I’ve made a good decision to avoid watching television.  I do watch movies on Netflix.  I do read books.  The difference is that I can choose what to watch or what to read, and I can choose when to do it.  The other difference, of course, is that I’m not at the mercy of commercials.  Will advertizers read this blog?  Will they find a way to reach me even if I don’t watch TV?  I suppose this will happen some time.


No Heat Again

The other day, I woke up at 5:30 am.  I was feeling chilly.  I tried to convince myself that it was only an illusion, but that didn’t work.  When I got up and checked the temperature in the house, it was 18.  No wonder I was chilly.  It was supposed to be 23.  I told myself: It looks like I’ll be staying up.

Even though I was still sleepy, I knew what to do.  I’d been through this before.  I went downstairs and looked at the furnace.  It was sitting there doing nothing.  Usually, there’s a red light on the front.  Usually the red light flashes a code if there’s something wrong.  This time, even the red light was out.  I tried a few things.  I flicked the circuit breaker off and on.  I did the same thing with the power switch that was just in front of the furnace.  I removed the two front panels from the furnace.  Nothing was obviously damaged.  I pressed the interlock switch at the edge of the opening.  None of this worked.

This time it was mild outside, just below zero.  I put the oven on low, with the door open.  I set up an electric heater in the basement.  Within a few minutes, the house was warming up.

At that point, I decided to call the furnace service.  It was the same company I’d called last year, when the igniter had failed.  I spoke to an operator at a paging service.  After I gave her the information, she wished me to have a nice day.  I chuckled at that.  So did she.  Within a few minutes, the service technician returned my call.  He said he would be there in about an hour, but asked me if I could wait until after 8 am.  I’d save a few dollars that way.  I told him I was quite willing to wait, and that I’d make the trouble call again after 8.

That gave me time to do a few things.  I washed my hair and had my breakfast.  I drank tea and coffee.  Finally, I was fully awake.  The house was warm.  I still had lots of time before 8.  I read the service manual for the furnace.  There were only three possible causes for that red light being out.  One was the controller board.  One was the interlock switch.  One was the house wiring.  I was betting on the controller board.

I started with the easiest thing, the house wiring.  The best place to measure the line voltage was right at the power switch, in front of the furnace.  I removed the cover.  I measured 120 Volts on the incoming side.  I measured zero on the outgoing side.  The switch was ON.  It was the switch!  With the circuit breaker open, and wearing gloves, I removed the switch.  It was an old one, with a white ceramic body, from the 1950s.  Should I just join the wires together?  That would be a quick test.  No, I might as well replace it with a new switch.  I’d have to do that anyway.  I had two in my box of spare parts.  When I’d replaced it, I flipped the circuit breaker closed.  Is that the furnace fan I hear?  The red light came on.  The gas came on.  The flames came on.  Everything’s back to normal with the furnace.  That was a relief.

At 30 seconds after 8, I called again to cancel my service call.  The furnace was still running.  We had heat again, glorious heat.  I shut off the oven.  I shut off the electric heater.  I put away my tools.  It was done.  Still, I was running on adrenaline for the rest of the day.  Nobody commented, but I must have been talking more than I usually do, and talking faster than I usually do too.  It was the next day before I returned to normal.    It took me a couple of days after that before I could stop listening for the furnace every few minutes.  Finally, everything is back to normal again.


What to do About False News

Before we can begin a discussion of false news, we have to decide on a couple of things.  These are not simple decisions; they are really making arbitrary divisions in a continuum.  The first one is: what is news?  I’m assuming that news is information based on facts, and that it is not just somebody’s opinion.  From this definition, we can determine what is false news.  It can only be news that’s based on false facts.  Further, we have to ask whether we actually need to do something.

I’m a scientist, one who has published papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  Of course, scientific papers are are not the same as news articles, but they can provide a model for news.  Review by scientific peers is part of the model.  The paper also has to be the result of original research.  It has to cite sources of information.  These have to be primary sources, usually other scientific papers, but not secondary sources such as text books.

News articles imply a chain of responsibility, stretching from the publication to the journalist to a verified source of the information.  Still, there can be accusations of bias, made either to the publication or the journalist.  These are easy to make, but difficult to refute.  Sometimes these accusations are accurate and well-known, based on the political views of the publication or the journalist.  Advertizers or commercial interest can also lead to bias.  Of course, publications and journalists are not perfect: all of them have a point of view.

There are two possible ways to deliver news to consumers.  Both have their advocates.  Both can operate at the same time.  It comes down to who decides on what news to view.  If the consumer decides, there will be many possible sources of news.  It will arrive quickly.  This news will necessarily be unverified.  Some sources will repeat the news just by copying it.  In many cases, the consumers also be unable to verify the facts.  All they will have to go by is the reputation of the news source.

If the publisher decides, the news publisher requires verification from their journalists, in order to maintain their reputation and to avoid lawsuits.  Some news stories need little or no investigation.  Think of a report on an earthquake, for example, or an official announcement by government or a company.  Of course, these can still be false or biased, but the likelihood of this is fairly small.  Other news stories, ones involving a long investigation, can be quite expensive.  Somebody has to pay the cost of a proper investigation, as explained in this article.

Some apparent news articles are actually opinion pieces.  Opinion is often more appealing to viewers than hard news.  It’s more exciting.  It’s more engaging.  Sometimes publishers decide that all information from guests must be labelled as opinion.  Guests are not employees of the publisher.  Often the publisher maintains a separation between them and the authors of opinion pieces.  Even though the article may cite facts that can be verified, the publisher doesn’t verify them.  Some news sources even use opinions to provide an approximation of balance, featuring two people with extreme views arguing with each other.

Really, not much has changed in the reporting and delivery of news.  The old rules about which is real and which is fake do still apply.  The main problem now is that some people accept opinion as real news.  Should we be protecting these people from themselves?  I don’t think so.


Ransomware in the News

You’ve never heard of ransomware.  You are simply using your computer like you normally do.  Suddenly a message appears on your screen.  It says that all of your files have been encrypted.  All of your e-mail messages, all of your document files, all of your pictures have disappeared!  The message on the screen demands a ransom, payable immediately, to have your files returned.  That’s ransomware.

Ransomware has been in the news recently.  It could happen to you.  Here’s one news article about it that I saw recently.  I also read the comments that followed that article, just to see what people had to say about ransomware.

One comment stood out for me.  It put the blame on Microsoft, saying that not displaying the file name suffix in Windows was the cause.  By default, Windows displays an icon that represents the file type rather than displaying the file name suffix, which also indicates the file type.  Citing this behavior as the cause is both misleading and unhelpful.

This statement assumes that people will recognize suffixes rather than icons.  It’s not true.  People don’t know that EXE is dangerous but JPG is safe.  They still don’t know when they are presented instead with the icons for these file types.  They only know that they can click on an icon to open a file, or to double-click if that doesn’t work.  Windows, though, does know which file types are dangerous.  Windows displays a warning in a dialogue box when you attempt to open a dangerous file.  It says “some files can damage your computer”, or words to that effect.  Heed the warning.  If you are installing software, you can probably ignore the warning.  Otherwise, tell it not to proceed.  Above all, don’t disable the warning.

It’s files with executable content that causes the infection.  These may be EXE files, but they can also be many document files, some image files, or many obscure file types.  Windows will warn on all of these.  Heed the warning!

I’ve read about many ransomware infections on the SANS web site.  They generally start with an e-mail message that carries an executable attachment.  The e-mail message is very convincing, designed to entice the person to open the attachment.  The attached file looks innocent, but it isn’t.  If the person opens it, it downloads the actual ransomware from a web site, and runs it.  The ransomware encrypts all of the files and then demands payment.  At that point, it’s too late to do anything but restore the files from backup.

How do you defend your computer and your files against such an infection?  Backup is the best way.  Anti-virus software generally doesn’t work in this situation.  The key is to avoid opening executable files, whether they arrive as e-mail attachments or as downloads from web sites.  Corporate installations can prevent ordinary computer users from executing files that reside in their own folders, but people at home don’t have this option.

Once your files have been encrypted, you have few courses of action left.  The best is to reinstall Windows and restore your files from backup.  You could also just reinstall Windows and abandon your files.  Otherwise, you will have to pay the ransom to get your files back.


Christmas Dilemma

What Christmas gifts can I get this year?  I can’t think of anything, except for the same things I got last time.  My habit is to visit my parents at Christmas.  They live in a small city about two hours drive away from here, in a senior’s home.  Both of them are in their late 90’s now.  I’ll be staying in the spare bedroom in their suite.  A few other relatives will be joining us.  None of us are particularly religious, but we do have a few Christmas traditions that we want to maintain.  We all have dinner together on Christmas day.  We exchange gifts on Christmas morning.

What Christmas gifts can I get for these people?  All of us are my age or older.  We’ve settled on small things as Christmas gifts.  None of us want gifts that we have to keep.  This policy seems to grow stronger as people get older.  My parents celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary recently.  They received many letters and certificates of congratulations from leaders, including one from the Queen.  My mother complained afterwards that here were more things they had to keep.  She declared that she would keep them for a year, solving that problem.

They only want gifts that are consumable now.  So do I.  I have too much stuff too.  Books would be good.  Both my parents are readers.  They can give them away when they’ve read the books.  As long as the print is large enough, they will accept them.  Of course, they have too many books already.  How about food instead?  That’s certainly consumable.  I could get jars of jam, boxes of chocolates, or chocolate bars.  Isn’t all of that full of sugar?  I suppose, but it’s also delicious.  They can decide how much of it to eat at a time.  I ration it out, with lots of exercise in between.  Other people can do that too.

Maybe I can get them useful items, at least things that I believe will be useful to them?  I’ve tried that before.  They don’t seem to agree with me.  Most of these things get set aside, and eventually thrown out.  Everybody in my family has everything that they could possibly need.  I’m going to give up on that idea.  Maybe I’ll keep trying, but mostly I’ll give up the idea.

Now I’m back to what I gave as gifts last year.  That actually worked out pretty well.  Nobody complained, but we’re all polite now.  Some people even expressed appreciation.  It worked out pretty well.  I’m going to do the same thing again this year!


Personal Contact

When have you conversed with a real person lately?  Don’t count people who are paid to be nice to you.  That would include servers in restaurants and cashiers in stores.  Those are a vanishing species, too.  Pretty soon we will be able to order food in a restaurant from our mobile phones.  Pretty soon the stores will offer only machines to check our purchases and take our payment.

Aren’t there real people on the internet and on social media?  Aren’t they our friends?  Likely, although we never know.  There are also people pretending to be somebody else.  There are also robots pretending to be people.  The other day, Google wished me a happy birthday.  I was surprised.  How did Google know?  By the information I gave it, of course.  It’s just software wishing me a happy birthday, not a real live person.

I read all of my news on the web, but I know that it’s one-way communication, and broadcast communication at that.  I don’t have any influence on the news, although I can comment on news articles, of course.  I don’t count news as contact with a real person.

Advertizing and solicitation are all one-way communication too.  I get calls on the phone.  I get people knocking on my door.  I get e-mail and paper mail.  All of them are trying to sell me something.  This isn’t personal contact either.

When I want to converse with a real person, I rely on my family now.  People do talk to their husband, their wife, or their life partner.  They are indeed real people, most of the time.  People also talk to their children and to their relatives.  How often people do this depends on how close they want to be.  It’s a choice.  Some people are naturally close.  Others are naturally distant.  Of course, other activities can get in the way too.  It might take me a week to arrange a short conversation with a friend or relative.

I do occasionally talk to my neighbors, but they too are occupied with their families and their own friends.  Most of the time, I only talk to my neighbors when I happen to see them out in the yard.  It’s usually quite superficial and light-hearted.  Neither of us is willing to share more serious information.  I suppose we get our impression of neighbors from what they don’t say.  Maybe it’s all guesswork?

There are still some places where we have personal contact with real live people.  Various social events lead the way.  Even then, people have the opportunity to converse, but they have to take advantage of that opportunity.  They have to engage other people, often strangers, in conversation.  They may have to take the first step.  People may not be at all what you assume.  Getting to know other people may bring great rewards.

If social events are too intimidating, how about club meetings?  Generally it will be the same people at each meeting.  Soon, they won’t be strangers anymore.  The same thing holds for groups that are engaged in the same activity.  If you are slow to warm up to other people, you at least have time to get to know them at these types of events.  You will soon discover that there’s no harm in letting other people know you.  You may even find a friend that way.