#160: For All In Authority

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #160, on the subject of For All In Authority.

O.K., show of hands:  how many of you have been praying for our new president?

I see that hand.

img0160Trump

No, I appreciate this.  I have never been much of one for canned uninformed “pray for the President/pray for the leaders”–I never know what to pray, and I’ve been a political writer for several years, and still don’t know what to pray.  Part of the difficulty I face is that we are told to give thanks for the answers to our petitions, but for most of what I can imagine asking I have no reason to expect to see how God has answered–I am not privy to cabinet meetings nor to the thoughts of men.  Part of the problem is that it is very easy to want God to move our leaders to my political opinion, and God does not generally do that, or at least not that I’ve recognized in others.

But I am upset about the people who have been protesting, and particularly because I know that at least some of them would take the name “Christian”.  I do not mean that Christians should never protest.  I am not even saying that Christians should never be involved in overthrowing governments–that’s simply more than I know.  However, the call we were given was to pray, not to condemn.  In a modern democracy, the proper function of protest is to communicate our opinions to our leaders, not to condemn them for theirs.  Communicate, certainly; do not condemn.

One of those who taught me along the way made the statement God gives you the person that you need, not necessarily the person that you may want.  I do not even now remember to what exact situation he was applying that, but I have recognized it in connection with spouses, pastors, and particularly governments.  (I suspect it applies as well to parents, although I was out of the house and married before I heard it; I wonder to what degree it applies to children.)  Proverbs has a verse which in the original speaks of a lot falling in a lap, an archaic concept among archaic concepts for which the Christian Gamers Guild has found a modern translation, “We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines where they fall.”  Benjamin Franklin noted that if sparrows do not fall without God’s notice, nations certainly do not rise without His aid–and that would undoubtedly apply as well to governments.  At this point we know, incontrovertibly, that God chose to make Donald Trump President of these United States.  We may debate whether that is upon us a blessing or a curse, a reward or a punishment, a path forward or an impediment to truth, but whatever it is, it is what God decided we needed.  This is God’s gift to us, what He has given.

And every gift God gives is good.

Don’t choke on that.  Understand, as I know I have said previously and elsewhere, that when the Bible says that God’s gifts are good, it does not mean necessarily that we will like them.  All things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose it says in Romans 8, but it does not mean that everything that happens to us will be pleasant.  Eat your spinach, it’s good for you–this is the kind of good Paul meant there, that whatever comes to us benefits us, whether we enjoy it or not.  Suffering produces endurance.  When Jesus says that God gives both sun and rain to the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous, He did not mean that we all get good things and bad things–he meant that we get the good that is the sun and the good that is the rain.  I do not yet know whether this presidency will be steak or Brussels sprouts–the good I will enjoy or the good I need to endure–but I know that it has been given to us and it is good.

In the early days of the church, nearly all Christians lived in or near Jerusalem.  Then a terrible thing happened.  A Christian named Steven was lynched by a mob.  Instead of the rioters being brought to justice, the local ruler arrested one of the top people in the church, a man named James, and had him executed.  The persecution of believers had begun.  Many, including some of the leaders themselves, fled Jerusalem, left the province known as Judea, and sought homes elsewhere in the Roman Empire.  It was undoubtedly something they would have prayed to end, despite the fact that Jesus told them it would happen–and we see in hindsight that these fleeing believers carried the message with them into places it would not have reached nearly as quickly otherwise, so the church spread and grew as others heard the gospel and believed.  Christians had been told to take the message into the whole world, but were rather complacently sitting in the one small town (and face it, as capital cities of the time went, Jerusalem was a small one) sharing the message mostly with people who had already heard it or knew where to hear it if they were interested.  We needed that trouble to move us in the right direction.

Therefore I know what to pray.  I pray that God will give wisdom to this man and his advisors, so that they will accomplish the task God has given them in the best way possible.  I do not know what that task might be, nor do I know to what degree the answer to my prayer will involve God clearing the path for what the man wants to do and to what degree it involves God impeding that path so that only part of the human program will be accomplished.  I do know that God will accomplish His purpose, one way or another, and the current presidency is part of that.  We are instructed to pray, and not given much understanding of what to pray, but this is enough.  One way or another, this should move us in the right direction.  We might not know what the right direction is (and for those first century Christians it seems to have been every direction as long as it was motion), but we know that God is moving somewhere and will bring us where He wants us to be.

So let us pray.

#159: To Compassion International

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #159, on the subject of To Compassion International.

Compassion International is shutting down all of its operations in India because the Indian government has been objecting to aid coming from outside India for relief efforts.  There is evidence that it is because Hindu nationalists are trying to shut down Christian ministries; India is now 15th on the Open Doors’ list of places where it is hardest to be Christian.

Someone has said that when God closes a door, He often opens a window.  I’m sure that the organization has long honed its methods, and has a clear idea of how to do what they do to make it work–but now it is not working in India, and they may have to rethink their approach there.  The words “creative financing” and “creative accounting” sometimes have an “iffy” sense to them, but I think in the present situation the organization needs to be creative in how they deliver their aid to those children.

I would like to make a suggestion that might get them thinking in a workable direction.

img0159Compassion

India certainly has a tourist industry.  We know that people travel to see the Taj Mahal and other sites within the country.  At present they are turning away aid connected to a Christian ministry–but it is doubtful whether they would ever be turning away tourist dollars.  I am thinking that if Compassion International set up facilities in India modeled on hotels or restaurants or other tourist services, then said they were part of the tourism industry but listed the rooms at exhorbitant prices, such a model might work.  Couriers could bring money into the country and “pay” the hotel, which could then use the money to “purchase” supplies at low rates from an international supplier (Compassion International).  Native workers for the organization would become employees of these facilities, and the children they wish to help could be listed in any of several ways so that they would receive the benefits–employees, dependents, stockholders, whatever method works under Indian law.

Let us suppose that we list the children as employees of the hotel.  A courier arrives, checks in as a guest and stays overnight, paying the thousands of dollars that would otherwise have been spent on child care to the hotel perhaps by electronic transfer from the organization’s account to the hotel’s account, which might be in an international bank (depending on Indian law).  The hotel then spends most of that to buy food and supplies from its suppliers, and pays the children an official wage.  The children would be required to do the work of attending school (one of the benefits currently provided by Compassion International to its children), and school attendance would include free meals for the school day, and the employee benefits package would include fully-paid medical care.  “Uniforms”, that is, free clothing, would also be provided for school and work.  Some of the older children could be given tasks related to running the operation, such as working in the kitchen or cleaning the facilities, so that there is actual labor being performed by the employees.  Sponsors who currently are seen as donating money to provide benefits for individual children would be recouched, in legal terms, as providing for the salary and benefits of individual child employees.  In the United States they would continue donating to a non-profit charitable organization; that organization in turn would be, on the books, investing capital in a for profit corporation in a foreign country that is operating at a constant loss.  In doing this, the organization manages to deliver its care, much the same care as it is currently delivering, and the Indian government cannot prevent that care from being delivered without creating a lot of laws that are going to severely negatively impact its tourism trade.

Certainly the system would incur taxes and tariffs, but how serious can we be about wanting to help these poor people if we are unwilling to deal with such government regulations and costs?  There might be official industry standards to meet, but we deal with those problems in our own country–soup kitchens and homeless shelters are required to meet commercial facilities standards in order to deliver services to the homeless, and while it is an impediment to meeting those needs it is one that we overcome regularly.

I am not on the ground in India; I don’t know how severe or complex the problems actually are.  I think, though, that we are looking at some of the poorest people in the world, and I understand it is one of Compassion International’s largest national efforts, so I am hoping that if they give it some consideration they can find a way to continue delivering aid to these starving children within the strictures being imposed by the government and whatever other opponents they face.

I pray that they will find a way.

#158: Show Me Religious Freedom

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #158, on the subject of Show Me Religious Freedom.

It appears that Missouri has become a battleground for issues of church-state relations.  During the election we noted in web log post #126:  Equity and Religion that there was a ballot issue related to a cigarette tax to fund childhood education which included controversial language permitting such funds to go to programs sponsored by religious institutions or groups.  The measure was soundly defeated, incidently (59% to 40%), but whether that was due to opposition to the almost unnoticed clause about funding religious groups or to the near one thousand percent increase in the cigarette tax can’t be known.  The state is back in the news on the religion subject, as a lawsuit between the state and a church school is going to be heard by the United States Supreme Court this year.

The case is Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley, and SCOTUSblog nicely summarizes the issue as

Whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.

But perhaps that will make more sense if we put some detail to it.

img0158Tires

Missouri runs a program that collects used tires and recycles them into playground surfacing material, providing schools and other facilities with a durable but softer play surface.  The program is funded by a surcharge on new tires–technically tax money dedicated to the purpose of handling scrap tires.  Trinity Lutheran Church runs a school which has a playground used by the students but also by neighborhood children.  They applied to the program to resurface that playground with the safer materials, but were refused on the grounds of a church-state issue.

Some would argue that the “separation of church and state” is on the state’s side in this, but that is not in the Constitution.  The Establishment Clause means only that the government cannot show favoritism between various religious and non-religious organizations; it can’t promote any specific religion, nor can it oppose any specific religion.  It will be argued as to whether providing playground surfacing materials to a church-run school might be promoting that church, but that is not all that is at stake.  Missouri is one of thirty-eight states which have what is known as a “Blaine Amendment”, after Maine Senator James G. Blaine who in 1875 proposed an amendment to the United States Constitution along these lines.  The Constitutional amendment proposal failed, but the majority of states adapted the concept to a variety of state constitutional amendments which were adopted and are still the law in those states.

The mindset of the nineteenth century was so very different from ours today that it is difficult to grasp.  If ever the United States was a “Christian nation” (I do not believe such an entity ever has or even can exist), it was so then.  Protestant denominations were separated from each other in friendly competition, and often worked together in evangelistic outreach; we had come through two “Great Awakenings” from which the vast majority of Americans, and particularly those who were neither Jewish nor recent immigrants (such as the Chinese in California), were Christians in Protestant churches.  However, those new immigrants–particularly the Irish and the Italians–were predominantly Roman Catholic, and Protestants still feared Catholicism, and not entirely unreasonably.  The fear arose because in countries dominated by Catholicism governments were perceived as following the dictates of the church–a fear which remained in this country until then Presidential candidate John Fitzgerald Kennedy made his September 1960 speech on the subject.  As a result, Blaine was the tip of an iceberg of an effort to prevent Catholicism from conquering America through the democratic process, perceived as in effect making the Pope our de facto emperor.  (We see similar efforts today reacting to the fear that Islamic immigrants will conquer by democratic process and impose Sharia Law on America.)

The word used was “sectarian”, and we might find that word inappropriate for its meaning.  After all, even at the dawn of the 1960s public school classes were opened with prayer and a reading from the Bible.  However, these were Protestant prayers, prayers that would have been embraced by every denomination from Episcopalian to Lutheran to Presbyterian to Baptist to Pentecostal.  They were thus viewed as non-sectarian, not preferring any one Christian denomination over any other.  Up until Pope John XXIII, Catholicism regarded all Protestants as condemned heretics (and it was more recently than that that the church has reached the position that there might be salvation outside the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches).  That was seen as the divisive position; the Protestant’s rejection of that was not seen as divisive, because Protestants were otherwise united and respected each other’s beliefs, at least in this country.

Blaine’s effort was attempting to prevent state money from going to Catholic education (“sectarian schools”).  Missouri’s version is considerably more strict.  It reads:

That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.

Arguably, read strictly this would prevent underpaid teachers in private religious schools from receiving food stamps or Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or prevent unemployed ordained ministers from getting welfare or social security.  No one has made that argument to this point; such programs were then not even imagined.

So this is what the First Amendment actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The sense is that the government will not interfere with the opinions of the people, or the expression thereof.  In a sense, the government has to be “opinion blind”–it can’t decline to give food stamps to a member of the Libertarian Party, or refuse to hire someone who previously worked for a Catholic charity, or decide whether someone can speak at a public meeting based on whether he was once Boy Scout or Mason or Gideon.

It would also seem to mean that the government cannot decide that an organization cannot receive public funds for a strictly secular purpose based on whether it is a religious organization.

Let us for the moment take the name out of this case.  Let us suppose that the plaintiff is the Columbia Community School.  It happens to be run by the Columbia Community Fellowship, but is incorporated separately as an educational institution.  Thus the application for materials from the program says that the applicant is “Columbia Community School”.  The question suddenly becomes whether the people who make the decision have the right to ask whether “Columbia Community School” is a religious organization–which under our hypothetical it is, but you would not know that from the name on the application.  Would it be a violation of the first amendment for the government to inquire whether the school is a religious organization?  Two points should by raised.  One is that it is established that the playground is used by children in the neighborhood who have no connection to the school; the other is that many public and private schools rent or even lend their facilities to groups for meetings some of which use these facilities for religious worship services–a use which the courts have agreed is legitimate, and indeed that it would be unconsitutional to forbid such use solely on the basis that publicly owned properties are being used by private individuals for religious purposes on the same terms that they are being used by other organizations for other purposes.  It thus seems that it would be illegal to ask the question, and the only reason the issue exists here is that we assume an organization with the words “Trinity”, “Lutheran”, and “Church” in the name is a religious organization.  While that seems a safe assumption, it is as prejudicial as assuming that someone with the given name “Ebony” or “Tyrone” must be black.

Let us also consider this aspect of the separation of the organization from the purpose.  Brigham Young University is clearly connected to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (The Mormons).  It also receives government grants for scientific research.  Should the fact that the school was founded by a religious organization for religious purposes disqualify it from receiving such monies?  If so, should the same rule apply to schools like Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Notre Dame?  Patently it is legitimate use of government money to support academic research in secular fields, even if performed by religious persons at religious institutions.

It appears that the only sane conclusion here is that the government cannot discriminate against religious persons or institutions in the disbursement of aid for secular purposes.  We might argue that there is a fungible resources issue, that the money the church does not have to spend on playground resurfacing is money they can use for religious purposes, but ultimately the only use that this paving material has is to create safer play surfaces for children, and the only way the church can get that material is through the government program, so denying it would be making “a law respecting an establishment of religion”, clearly forbidden by the Bill of Rights.

The Blaine Amendment, at least in the form it has in Missouri, is unconstitutional.

We’ll see whether the Supreme Court agrees with that later this year.

#157: Versers Restart

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #157, on the subject of Versers Restart.

With permission of Valdron Inc I have begun publishing my third novel, For Better or Verse, in serialized form on the web (that link will take you to the table of contents).  If you missed the first two, you can find the table of contents for the first at Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel, and that for the second at Old Verses New.  There was also a series of web log posts looking at the writing process, the decisions and choices that delivered the final product; those posts are indexed along with the chapters in the tables of contents pages.  Now as the third is posted I am again offering a set of “behind the writings” insights.  This “behind the writings” look definitely contains spoilers because it sometimes talks about what I was planning to do later in the book–although it sometimes raises ideas that were never pursued.  You might want to read the referenced chapters before reading this look at them.  Links below (the section headings) will take you to the specific individual chapters being discussed, and there are (or will soon be) links on those pages to bring you back hopefully to the same point here.

There is also a section of the site, Multiverser Novel Support Pages, in which I have begun to place materials related to the novels beginning with character papers for the major characters, hopefully giving them at different stages as they move through the books.

This covers the first eleven chapters of the book.

img0157Ocean

History of the series, including the reason it started, the origins of character names and details, and many of the ideas, are in those earlier posts, and won’t be repeated here.


Chapter 1, Slade 43

I had already decided that Slade would return in the third novel, and that right from the beginning he would be on this quest on behalf of the Caliph of the West Wind.  It seemed the place to start, particularly as my immediate audience wanted Slade back, I was very uncertain what I was doing with Derek, and even less certain what I was going to do with Lauren.  I knew quite a bit about the end of this book already, including that Filp would die on this venture but Slade would marry Shella and take her with him henceforth (perhaps also inspired by Chris Jones, whose character in my game married one of the princesses from The Dancing Princess).  I knew that Derek, Lauren, Bethany, Slade, and Shella would all be fighting together against the vampire Tubrok.  I knew that Lauren would free Merlin (and I knew where he was, but not how she would free him) during a critical confrontation.  I knew that she would use the spell which killed Horta, and that it would again kill her but only weaken Tubrok, that Derek would be horrified at seeing this.  I thought probably Derek would deal the fatal blow, but did not know how.  What I did not know was how to transition Slade from the very peaceful Parakeet world to the beginning of this venture.  I made it up as I wrote.

When writing books in series, one of the initial problems is how to introduce characters that your series readers already know and your new readers have never previously encountered.  Here I reintroduce Bob by talking about his feelings about that previous rescue mission.  I also give Lauren a touch of introduction, which will make her appearance a bit easier in the third chapter.

This is one of the unusual universe transitions:  Bob does not die, but in essence gates into the supernatural realm (what we call the “border supernatural”, places where mortal and supernatural beings can meet with each other without entering the other’s true realm) and then is sent from it to another universe.

Bob does not yet realize where he is, only that it is incongruous with his expectations.


Chapter 2, Brown 56

Again with Derek I have to put together who he is and what last happened to him.

I had committed myself to The Zygote Experience, an idea that was included in Multiverser:  Referee’s Rules and formalized in Multiverser:  The First Book of Worlds.  But I was undecided whether Derek would be born a human or, for some reason that kept playing in the back of my mind, a sprite.  I thought that it would be interesting to make him a small flying person; and although I had no idea how I was going to get him back to being human or what I would do about the wings as he transformed through successive worlds, the idea kept coming back to me.

It is that world description that suggests the player should not be given sufficient information to know where he is.  I wanted to keep the reader uncertain as well.  Yet I needed to move the story forward apart from the birth experience, and the mind of the mother made sense.  Thus I had to commit, and I went with the sprite.

The world description gives a lot of information about what an unborn child experiences, beginning as a zygote.  By this point Derek is a blastocyst.  Although the game does not dictate the notion of spirits, too many things in fiction rely on them for them not to be real in the game world, and thus Derek, whose spirit is now twenty-two or twenty-three years old, is able to think and make observations while still a blastocyst—although the fact that his body is so new means he is always falling asleep.

The moment when he realizes he is hungry is part of that blastocyst growth prior to implantation:  the energy and matter that had been in the single-celled zygote has been spent and divided to create a multi-celled blastocyst, and at this point it is floating inside the fallopian tubes on the way to the uterus.  Until it gets there and becomes implanted in the uterine wall, there is no additional sustenance coming into the body, and it would feel depleted to some degree.


Chapter 3, Hastings 96

The odd thing about this world was that I had no idea what to do with Lauren at all.  In a sense, this was what I would in play have called a stall world–a place I could drop her where nothing would happen for a bit and she would spend time running around doing things that looked worthwhile until I could think of what to do with her.  I needed to move Slade’s story forward, and that meant I needed to write Lauren’s story; but I didn’t know what her story should be, so I just wrote something to see where it would go.  The volcano was there partly to give credibility to the island and partly to give me a potential danger to help get her out of here.  I quickly decided that she should be cut off from any contact with other land, as the reader would wonder why she did not attempt to reach it.

I had developed this world, or a world very like it, for demo games.  I had run a game at a Delaware game shop called Days of Knights, and discussed demos with the proprietor.  He said that whatever it was that made the game special, that had to happen within the first half hour of play.  I had previously had the problem that I would start all my players in a gather world and they would often stick there for a long time—which is great for campaign play, but terrible for showing what Multiverser can do.  I needed a world in which I could put all the player characters, give them a bit of an introduction to the game world, then kill them all, abruptly and with certainty, so they could all go to different worlds.  I decided on what I dubbed Tropical Island, a volcano that could go off whenever I decided it should.  I’ve used it fairly consistently since then as the starting world for new players in convention and demo games.  I didn’t change much here, although in game I tend to keep the psi and mag biases very low to limit their options.

Again the point is to introduce a character known to the readers who came from the previous book but new to those who are joining the story here.

The stick in the sand is a trick taught to scouts, although she doesn’t do it exactly right.  The trick is to align the stick with the direction of the sun so it casts no shadow, and as the sun moves west its shadow will appear pointing east.  That does not matter to Lauren; what she needs to know is whether the sun is moving, whether it’s morning or afternoon, and how long the day is likely to be.


Chapter 4, Slade 44

Having found this way of getting Slade out of the Parakeet world, and having realized that somehow he was bringing the humor back into his own story, I kept moving forward with my beginning.

It was at this point that I finally worked out what the quest was, and why Slade would have to do it.

The line “Welcome to my parlor” is the beginning of a quote that continues, “said the spider to the fly,” and so is about walking into a trap.  Slade uses it because he does not know what to anticipate, but if it’s a trap he’s unlikely to be able to escape it whatever he does.

The caliph corrects Slade’s grammar unobtrusively:  he looks well; he is good.

The caliph is explaining the concept we called the “border supernatural”, those places that are like the spirit world but also like the material world, where spirits and mortals can meet and interact as if in the spirit world but not actually in that incomprehensible place.

Majdi is the name of a close family friend who does not ever use his first name, spelled Magdi but pronounced with a soft g.  I needed an Arabic name, and my friend is Palestinian and of Muslim parents, so I figured it was close enough without sounding stock.  Acquivar and Phasius, and most of the names I used, I invented from whole cloth.

As mentioned, I knew before I finished the first book that Filp and Shella would be here in the third, and several of the major events that would happen in connection with them.


Chapter 5, Brown 57

The pattern of the sprite names is probably owed to E. R. Jones.  He created a sprite character for a fantasy game in which I played, named Lanethlelachtheana.  I heard it and recorded it as Laneth Lelach Theana.  When I started writing these characters, I thought Derek would make the same mistake as I; and I obviously copied elements of the other name into Theian Orlina Lelach and her husband Theian Alanda Morani.

I also began to debate whether, or when, to have Derek attempt telepathic contact with Lelach.  I didn’t want to do it, for a host of reasons, but I was beginning to think my story would die on the vine if I didn’t do something with it.

Continuing the follow the notes of The Zygote Experience, Derek has just experienced implantation—he is now attached to the uterine wall, and so feels his mother’s movement.  This also results in the influx of sustenance, as he is no longer relying on the initial food supply of the ovum for continued growth.  The heartbeat is also an early development following implantation, and he notices it but credits the notice to the fact that he is following an interesting story by mind reading.


Chapter 6, Hastings 97

I still didn’t know what she was going to do, so I was filling the space with things that might lead somewhere.

When I wrote this, I had a clear idea in my mind as to what that particular motion of the shadow signified; however, it may be easier to go from what shadow motion a specific path of the sun would produce than to go the other direction.


Chapter 7, Slade 45

I had not considered the idea of retelling the backstory of how Slade found the bottle; but the presence of Shella gave me the opportunity, so I attempted to do so as swiftly as I could.  I cut it where I did because I’d had enough dialogue about things the reader might already know, and didn’t want to compound it with dialogue about things they had just read.  In fact, at this moment I was not certain how I was going to repeat the information about the quest without seeming to repeat it.

It was easy to recall Filp’s suspicious nature; his character fell into place quite quickly.


Chapter 8, Brown 58

Again, I decided that what works well stretched out in a game has to be compacted in a book; so I moved forward to the end of the pregnancy.  I also recognized that it would be difficult to keep the reader in the dark much longer (if indeed he had not already worked out what Derek had not), even with my suggested interpretations.

The perspective that the tank seems to be shrinking is of course because he is growing rapidly and the tank is the same size.  However, he is unlikely to recognize that—we don’t really notice that we are growing until we realize that things around us seem smaller and we know they can’t be, and there is nothing around him he can easily use for a size reference.


Chapter 9, Hastings 98

Left or right was actually the title of a Game Ideas Unlimited article I had done and recently referenced in another article, so it was in my mind as I wrote the opening words of this chapter.  Oddly, the point of the article is that the referee can make such decisions not matter, and that was poignantly so in my mind here, as I still had no idea what she was going to do.

I was wondering whether the objects of Lauren’s quest should be buried.  I kept swithering between having the rod (for I had decided that was her first target) be in the water, on the beach, or buried.  I also began to think of the idea of a cave.  Actually, I had wondered about a cave as a potential place for adventure already, but had back-burnered this because I had the equipment quest to occupy my attention and I didn’t yet know what I would do in the cave.

The part about climbing being easier than descending is something they teach in Scouts.  I’m not quite sure why it is so, but the body does seem better built for ascending.


Chapter 10, Slade 46

I invented the breakfast on the spot.  I had not considered anything of the sort until I started writing this.  It was partly because I needed to get Slade up and partly because I recognized the need to show the hospitality of the Caliph.

The discussion of life and death was also unplanned; it just seemed to flow from the conversation.


Chapter 11, Brown 59

Nothing here was new except perhaps the “Wa maa” for “Where am I”.  I thought that seemed plausible, given the sounds I heard newborns make when I had them myself.

The wings should be a surprise even for anyone who had worked out that he was being reborn.  She does mention flying at one point, but it’s only a passing reference early when Derek is certain that he’s listening to crazy thoughts or fantasy dreams.


This has been the first behind the writings look at For Better or Verse.  Assuming that there is interest, I will continue preparing and posting them every eleven chapters, that is, every three weeks.

#156: A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #156, on the subject of A New Slant on Offensive Trademarks.

Anyone following the Redskins trademark dispute will be interested to know that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that is going to impact that–not the Redskins case itself, but a case close enough in its content that a Virginia federal appeals court has put the Redskins case on hold pending the outcome of the present case.

The case, Lee v. Tam, involves an American rock band whose members are all Asian, who want to trademark their band’s name, The Slants.  The U. S. Patent and Trademark Office refused to register the name on the grounds that it was disparaging of Asian Americans.  However, the Federal Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit overturned that decision, stating that it was an unconstitutional impingement on free speech, concluding that the provision under trademark law forbidding such protection of any trademark which “[c]onsists of…matter which may disparage…persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute” is unconstitutional on its face.

The Patent and Trademark Office has appealed, and the Obama Justice Department has supported that appeal.

The Slants performing at the 2016 Saboten Con at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix in Phoenix, Arizona, photo by Gage Skidmore.
The Slants performing at the 2016 Saboten Con at the Sheraton Grand Phoenix in Phoenix, Arizona, photo by Gage Skidmore.

Simon Shiao Tam, founder of the band, argues that they took the name as a way of embracing their Asian heritage, and that it neither offends those Asian Americans who are their fans nor is intended to do so.  He also points out that “slants”, while popularly used as a racial slur, has other non-racial meanings (unlike “Redskins”, “Nigger“, and similar epithets).  Still, the question isn’t whether the word can be used in an inoffensive manner, but whether the government can deny a trademark on the grounds that some might take it to be offensive.

One of the arguments raised by the government is that the State of Texas won a decision that they did not have to permit a personalized license plate design which included the Confederate Flag.  There, however, the argument was that since the plate is an official government document issuing such plates would be as if the government were endorsing the use of that flag.  It is, perhaps, a weak argument–the government cannot legally be endorsing all the organizations which apply for such plate designs, many of whom have political or religious connections–but it is weaker applied to trademarks, as the Office has repeatedly asserted that the issuance of a trademark does not indicate endorsement of what it represents.

Against the government, enforcement of the rule has been uneven.  Numerous trademarks have been issued that include racial epithets or other offensive language.  If the government wins, many of those might have to be rescinded, and might end up in litigation.

Against The Slants, there is at least some reason for enforcement of a rule against offensive trademarks.  A broad decision here could open the door to a wealth of product names far more offensive to far more groups.  A narrow decision would probably have to take the line that whether the trademark is offensive must be determined in the context of whether the audience would perceive it so.  The slogan “Bring your bitch here” is probably not offensive if it is used by a groomer or veterinary clinic, but would be so at the entrance to a bar.  However, the harder case would be whether accommodations near the Westminster Kennel Club dog show could use that slogan to let breeders and trainers know that their animals are welcome in the rooms or dining areas.  Yet the court might here find that context matters and still rule against The Slants, since the question would be whether “slants” is an offensive Asian epithet and they are an all-Asian band.

Ultimately, though, as Ray Bradbury reminded us half a century ago, everything worth writing is offensive to someone.  Any effort to censor free expression in trademarks is doomed to failure, because the issue of what is and is not offensive is too subjective to legislate.

I am inclined to think that people who register and use offensive trademarks in order to be offensive will alienate potential customers and pay an economic penalty for it.  That should be a sufficient disincentive to the practice.  Otherwise, our high courts will spend a tremendous amount of time reviewing lawsuits over whether individual trademark applications are or are not too offensive under whatever standard is adopted.

#155: Driving on Ice and Snow

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #155, on the subject of Driving on Ice and Snow.

Let’s start with the obvious disclaimers.

I am not what is normally termed a professional driver, although I have had a few jobs in which I was paid to do work that included driving as part of the job and have worked with professional drivers.  I am not one of those “ice truckers”, and I have no particular qualifications for this.

However, I grew up in that part of northern New Jersey, in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, where there is a lot of snow in the winter, and I “cut my teeth” driving in Massachusetts during two of the worst winters on record (1978-79), so I have significant experience driving in and on snow and ice.  More to the point, I am not afraid of the stuff, and although I have been in several automotive accidents over the decades, the only one which involved snow or ice at all was a slide into a drift that did no damage to anything.  So I am going to be presumptive enough here to suggest that I know something about how to do this.

img0155Snowstorm

There are, I suppose, some obvious points that should be made.  You can’t force a vehicle through snow that the undercarriage does not clear–you’ll simply raise the car to the point that the tires have no traction.  With enough forward momentum you might force your way through, but everything is against you in this.  That’s why trucks with large tires do better than low-slung sports cars, or at least, that’s one reason.  (The weight also helps.)  Traction matters.  As we noted in web log post #154:  The Danger of Cruise Control, having good tread on your tires helps.  They still make studded tires for winter use, and they make chains, and these increase your traction, the degree to which you grip the road, and so the control you have over the vehicle.  They are not necessities; they are helpful particularly if you are doing a great deal of winter driving on packed snow or ice.  Some states have laws concerning when these are permitted to be on a vehicle on the road, because they provide significant traction by digging into the road surface.  My assumptions here are that you have ordinary radial tires, hopefully in decent shape.

The essential rule of driving in snow and ice can be summarized as avoid jerk.

That is not “avoid jerks”, although that is also an important point, and you want to give them plenty of space and be sure that you are not one of them.  However, jerk is a technical term in physics which refers to abrupt changes in acceleration, and acceleration means any change in any vector of motion, and a vector of motion means the velocity and direction of movement of an object.  Thus hitting the gas to propel yourself forward is jerk, but so is abruptly slowing or stopping, and indeed turning sharply and suddenly is also jerk.  These are all to be avoided.  Nearly everything else is a detail of that.

One of those details is try to avoid coming to a complete stop on ice.  Dump trucks have a first gear that is only ever used to get a fully-loaded stationary vehicle moving at one to two miles per hour so that second gear can take over.  The problem with being stopped is that the amount of push needed to get out of stationary momentum is significantly greater than the amount needed to change that rate of motion otherwise, and on ice you might not have the traction to get that push.  Of course, you have to stop at traffic lights if they are red–but you can anticipate this.  If you see that a light is red, or about to turn red, and you are some distance from it, decelerate and let it cycle back to green while you approach it more slowly.  You might not have to stop if it turns green before you reach it.  If you do find yourself stopped on a slick surface, remember that the only way to start moving is to do so extremely gradually, because your tires will spin if you push too hard, and in spinning they will make the surface slicker (for reasons we will cover).

Similarly, stay well behind the car in front of you, and particularly if it is moving considerably more slowly than the speed at which you feel comfortable.  Slow moving vehicles operated by nervous drivers are one of the biggest hazards on frozen roads, so although you should not drive faster than the speed at which you are comfortable, you should not go too slowly, either, as it increases the probability that you will become stuck in deeper snow if you hit a patch that slows the vehicle–having some momentum will keep you out of many problems.  If you are behind a slower vehicle, it is unlikely in the extreme that the conditions will be conducive to passing, so there’s no point crowding while awaiting that opportunity.  The closer you are, the less chance you have to react safely to any mistake the other driver makes, and honestly with you on his bumper he is going to be more nervous and more prone to making one of those mistakes.

There is another reason why you want to be particularly attentive to the car in front of you:  his motions will help you predict road conditions ahead.  If he swerves or fishtails, or abruptly slows, odds are good that there is something in the road at that point that caused him to do so.  It’s possible that he’s just distracted, or drunk, or otherwise impaired, but if he has been driving well to this point and suddenly makes an unexpected movement, you should be wary for trouble of some sort.  His movements will also indicate where he believes the road is going in poor visibility conditions, giving you time to anticipate curves.  Just don’t follow him into a driveway–or a snowbank.

Keep your attention focused not only on the other vehicles, from which you are trying to maintain a more than safe distance, but also on the road surface ahead.  At night (if there is no fog) use your high beams whenever there is no oncoming traffic and you are far enough behind any vehicle in front of you.  If there is a change in the road’s appearance, begin reducing your speed before you reach it.  Once you know what kind of traction you have on the new surface you can resume your previous speed if appropriate.  Do this even if the change appears to be for the better, because the appearance of the road from a distance might not accurately reflect the actual conditions.

As to road surfaces, a clean dry surface is your best friend.  Sand atop snow is usually next, or sand atop ice; dry sand on a dry road creates its own sliding problems, but of a different sort.  A thin layer of loose snow will give better traction than either packed snow or roughened ice, which are nearly the same.  However, loose snow can obscure potholes and other road hazards.  Slush also can obscure potholes, and is considerably less predictable.  A bit of dryer slush can give you traction similar to loose snow.  Wet slush on a road surface is more akin to driving through puddles, with the hazards of hydroplaning but reasonable traction when you are moving slowly enough to grip the road.  Slush atop ice is slicker than simple packed ice.  This is important partly because you want to know what kind of traction you are going to have on the road ahead so as to adjust your speed accordingly, and because it is often the case that you can position your wheels on one type of surface or another.  For example, if traffic has caused there to be a pair packed smooth ice pathways along the usual tire paths but there is loose snow down the center and to the edges, you can shift slightly toward one edge and take advantage of the better traction of the snow.

Let me mention so-called “black ice”, mostly because if I don’t someone will note that I didn’t.  This is in essence a very thin layer of smooth ice which occurs when melt refreezes, usually in situations in which a warm day or intense sunlight has warmed the road slightly and the cooling of evening or night has refrozen it.  It is essentially driving on ice, but it more difficult to spot as it is thin enough to see the road surface through it and so looks very like a simple wet road, if a bit more shiny.  It does not usually form on very busy roads because the constant warming from traffic disperses and evaporates it.

You should also be aware of changing road circumstances.  There are several ways in which the lay of the road, the construction of it, can impact driving conditions.  The best known of these is bridges, but you should also be wary of causeways and open fields.

We have all seen the signs which incorrectly read “Bridge Freezes Before Road Surface”.  The correction of “Freezes” to “Ices” helps, but it is more helpful to understand what is happening.  Roads absorb heat, particularly from the sun and even on sub-freezing days.  Dark macadam roads absorb more than lighter-colored more reflective concrete ones.  That heat is transfered into the ground below, which acts as ballast.  When the temperature starts dropping and the sun vanishes, the road starts surrendering its heat, but sub-freezing atmosphere will not create ice so quickly on a warmed road surface until the road itself nears the freezing mark after having drawn the stored heat from below.  However, with a bridge there is a thin layer of paving over a thin support structure, and a large space beneath through which air moves, drawing the heat out of the road from all sides.  Thus the road surface on the bridge will reach the icing point sooner than the road surface elsewhere.  Of course, if the air has not reached the freezing mark the water on the bridge won’t freeze.  In fact, when the world starts warming the reverse effect occurs:  the bridge de-ices before the road surface, as it will warm through quickly while the heat hitting the road elsewhere will take time to penetrate.

This is also important, because although we say that we slip on the ice, it’s not exactly correct.  We actually slip on the water.  Skiers, ice skaters, and bobsledders all understand that what makes them move is the fact that the friction between their blades and the frozen surface creates a thin sheen of water between the blade and the ice, and the blade floats atop this bit of water.  (There was a horrible accident in Lake Placid in the early 1970s when one international bobsled team decided to apply a blowtorch to the runners on their sled before making the run.  They exceeded all previous speeds, were unable to slow themselves, and sailed off the track into the trees at a tight turn.  If memory serves, they had exceeded eighty miles per hour.)  That means that icy roads are most dangerous when they are just freezing or just thawing, considerably less so when the ice is so frozen that the heat of the tires has minimal effect.

Causeways and open fields have a similar, but less marked, effect because they are open to the wind, and so wind chill is a significant factor.  Again, wind chill does not mean that the air is colder.  It means that the air warmed by a warm object is being replaced faster than the object can warm it, with the result that the warm object cools more quickly.  A strong wind two degrees above freezing will rapidly chill anything warmer than that until it is two degrees above freezing; it won’t freeze anything.  It is bad for you because your body is working to keep warm, so it makes you feel colder and uses more of your energy.  (Technically that “cooling breeze” on a hot summer day is wind chill; we just don’t call it that because we welcome it.)  It is similarly bad for your house, because the heating system has to work harder, and for the interior of your car if you are trying to stay warm in it.  However, that same wind just above freezing will more rapidly melt ice and snow on an open road, because it is warming it more quickly, replacing the chilled air immediately above the surface with slightly warmer air (the reason we can cool hot food by blowing on it with our breath despite the fact that the air coming out of our mouth is warmer than the room temperature air).  Because causeways and fields are open to the wind, they are more susceptible to changes from wind chill and warming.

Open fields also present a hazard from drifts.  Of course, if the drifts are deep they may become an impassable obstacle; but the more dangerous drift problem is the repeated dusting of powder which coats the road and becomes ice on top of previously placed sand or salt.  Many locales erect snow fences along the edges of fields to collect blowing snow before it reaches the road, but these are never completely effective.

Knowing what the road ahead is like is a very valuable asset in negotiating snow and ice.

It is advice so commonly repeated that you have almost certainly heard it:  if you are sliding or skidding on any surface, turn in the direction of the skid.  That, though, is just what, not why, and it is so counter-intuitive that most people do not grasp even that it works.  After all, if you are sliding in a direction you don’t want to go, the natural reaction is to try to steer in the direction you do want to go, and when that doesn’t work you panic trying to get the car to go a different way; why would you tell it to go the way it is already going?  However, when you are sliding or skidding, your front tires are not more than two blunt feet, and you can turn them any way you like but they will keep sliding just like blunt feet–unless you manage to get them rolling in harmony with your actual movement.  The only way to get them rolling is to align them with that movement, and then–again remembering to avoid sudden changes in direction–ease the new direction on the front end of the car by turning gradually in a better direction.  That is how you recover control of the car.

If you have been stuck in snow, you have undoubtedy noticed that one wheel will spin rapidly while the other does nothing at all.  This is a significant effect of an important design feature of the car.  Whenever you drive around a turn, the wheels toward the outside of the curve trace a longer arc than those to the inside.  That means that one of your wheels is moving farther than the other and has to turn faster.  If the drive wheels (whether rear wheel or front wheel drive) were linked absolutely, one or the other would have to slip on the surface, which means it would necessarily require the ability to slip against the road and would wear down the tires much more quickly.  To avoid this, the vehicle has a piece in the drive called a differential, the function of which is to shift the majority of the power to the wheel that is spinning faster.  The downside of this is that if one tire starts to slip, it will spin, and the other will be given a negligible amount of push, and you will be stuck.

That spinning tire is a problem for more reason than that it isn’t gripping and is wasting all your motive power.  The friction of the spin, even on ice, makes the tire itself hotter, and the hotter tire melts the ice more quickly, creating that layer of water that impedes grip and which quickly refreezes into a smoother, slicker surface.  Many people carry something in their cars to put under such tires to increase traction–salt, sand, and cat litter are probably the favorites, and all are good, but just about anything rough you can put under the spinning tire–pine needles, small branches, leaves, boards, clothing, floor mats, confetti, rice, birdseed–will increase the traction and help get you out of the hole the tire is digging.

It often happens that the spinning tire will create a ridge in front of itself that is increasingly more difficult for it to surmount, particularly if there was snow piled in front of the tire initially.  One very good way to free such a tire is to dig out the space immediately in front of it so that when it starts moving forward it will be moving downward, giving it momentum to continue beyond that.  It also sometimes helps to “rock” the car, that is, back it slightly then move it forward repeatedly, as if you can get the car to move a little you can in essence extend the rut and give yourself something of a “runway” to get the needed momentum.

If you find that the conditions in which you are driving have you frequently getting stuck in snow, you should give serious consideration to snow tires, studded tires, or chains for the winter months.

All of these have to become automatic for you–particularly pulling out of a skid.  You often do not have time to think about what the right response to the situation is.  It has to be your first reaction.  That means you have to practice, and become accustomed to the right responses.  You don’t just have to know that you should turn into the direction of the skid when you are sliding, but you have to do it automatically, feel that you have regained rolling motion, and pull out of it without losing that control, all before you have skidded too far.  You have to slow down, automatically, when you observe anything ahead that is likely to be a hazard.  You have to be aware of the kind of traction you have, and the kind of traction that you are likely to have on the road ahead, and keep a good distance from anyone else on the road to the degree that it is your choice.  Just as you have learned how to steer, how to slow and stop, how to use your turn signals and dim your brights all without stopping to think about it, you have to use these safety techniques as part of “this is how you drive”.  So you have to get out on the ice, in the snow, and learn to do it.

Incidentally, I know from experience that old tire chains in good repair make excellent ladders for tree forts.

#154: The Danger of Cruise Control

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #154, on the subject of The Danger of Cruise Control.

You may have seen an e-mail or similar communication warning of a danger connected to using cruise control.  It generally tells a story of a driver, usually a woman, traveling with cruise control who hits a puddle, loses control of the vehicle, and crashes, only to be informed by the police that it happens all the time.  There actually is a danger with cruise control, but it is considerably less severe than that story suggests, and if you understand a bit abount how it works, it’s not a problem.

img0154cruise

There is a story of the early days in which this was a new feature.  It is said that a man was driving a new Winnebago™, set the cruise control, and went into the back to make himself a sandwich.  Cruise control is not autopilot, and even autopilot (on airplanes) requires someone to monitor it.  We know that now, and since most of us are using cruise control in automobiles where we really can’t leave the seat while the car is moving it’s not likely to recur.  Self-driving vehicles are on the horizon, but already states are passing laws to require that a licensed operator be in the vehicle at all times when it is moving.

The disaster described in the story is simple to understand if you grasp how cruise control works.  It in essence reads the speedometer and adjusts the throttle.  If the signal to the speedometer decreases, indicating a reduction in speed, it increases the fuel supply to the engine, in essence opening the throttle an appropriate amount to compensate; if the signal indicates an increase in speed over the set value, it reduces the fuel supply.  Ultimately it balances such that the speed remains constant, the system responding to any changes in velocity more quickly than the driver can notice them.

The speedometer does not actually tell you how fast the car is going.  It tells you how fast the front axle is spinning, converted into miles (or kilometers) per hour based on the measured circumference of the recommended tires fully inflated.  That is, it takes the revolutions per minute of the wheel times the distance the car moves per revolution, and multiplies it out to get the velocity displayed.

The important part of that, for our purposes, is that what the speedometer is measuring, and thus that to which the cruise control is responding, is not your speed but the rotational speed of your front axle.

This matters because there are times when you are driving during which the rotational speed of the front axle is disconnected from the actual speed of the car.  It happens because the tires lose contact with the road.  It can happen on ice, on oily patches (including leaf oil from wet dead leaves), on sand or loose gravel, and most notoriously on water.  That is so common we have a name for it:  we call it hydroplaning.

One of the reasons tires have tread is to prevent hydroplaning.  There are other reasons; tread gives more traction on many surfaces, and allows the tire to form to the road better.  However, when you are driving on water on tires with good tread, the weight of the car pushes the tire to the road surface, squeezing the water into the tread so that you are making contact with the road and getting the water out of the way.  However, if the tread is bad or the water is deeper than the tread can handle, the water has nowhere to go, and the tire simply rides atop it.  When it does so, it is no longer making contact with the road, and the speed indicated by the speedometer (and read by the cruise control) has no relationship to your actual velocity.

At this point what happens is very much dependent on whether you have front wheel drive or rear wheel drive.

If you have front wheel drive, the cruise control is interested in maintaining the rotational velocity of the front axle by adjusting the throttle to maintain that velocity consistently.  At this point, the tires are still spinning at the same speed.  The resistance is probably lower, because they are spinning freely and not pulling the weight of the vehicle, so the engine speed (RPM, revolutions per minute) is likely to decrease and the transmission might downshift, but the vehicle will be slowing in actual forward velocity.  There is likely to be an abrupt jerk, even several such jerks, as the slower car drops through the water to make contact with the road surface and pushes itself forward, possibly again to begin hydroplaning.  However, since the cruise control is working from the rotational velocity of the front axle by adjusting the rotational velocity of the front axle, it will not exceed the set speed.

A problem arises if you have rear wheel drive.  The cruise control is getting its velocity information from the front axle, but controling the speed of the vehicle via the rear axle.  When the front wheels lose contact with the road, they slow–and when they do so by hitting water, they frequently slow abruptly.  The cruise control reads this as the vehicle suddenly slowing, as perhaps from a hill or severe headwind, and compensates by increasing the fuel to the engine and so increasing the velocity of the rear axle, propelling the car forward rapidly.  This is the situation in which the woman in the story loses control of her car, as it moves madly, being driven forward with no ability to steer (because the same factor that prevents the front wheels from providing accurate velocity information also disables their ability to control direction) and what seems the inevitable crash.

Yet it is not entirely the fault of the cruise control or the design.  It is also the fault of the driver.

With every cruise control system since they first appeared, if you as much as brush the brake pedal with your foot the cruise control disengages instantly.  That means that if your car suddenly lurches forward, and you as a seasoned driver instinctively apply the brake, you’ve stopped the acceleration and are now in a position to control the velocity of the vehicle.  Sure, it’s a scare, a shock–but not more so than having a deer run in front of your car.  Yes, stopping fast on slick roads, whether icy, oily, or wet, can be challenging, but it is something drivers learn to do.

It should also be noted that many cars with cruise control also have an automatic shutoff built into this that reacts to puddles:  if you hit something like water, it will recognize the abrupt change in road surface and interrupt the speed control.  Also, anecdotally, I was told by a mechanic some years back that the number of new cars with rear wheel drive had fallen so significantly that he knew mechanics who didn’t know how to work on them.  So the probability is fairly high that your car doesn’t have the serious problem, unless you drive a truck.  (If your car has that “hump” down the middle, that’s the space for the drive shaft, so you have either rear-wheel or four-wheel drive.)

It’s probably safer not to use cruise control in heavy rain or on icy roads, but that’s something of a judgment call.  For some drivers, cruise control is dangerous simply because they expect to be able to slow the car going into curves by releasing the accelerator and are not accustomed to tapping the brake to get that outcome.  For some drivers it is more dangerous to drive without cruise control, because the tendency to accelerate can put a car well over the safe speed limit before the driver realizes that his heavy foot is getting him into trouble.  You can disable the cruise control as quickly as you can slow the car without it, so, to use the expression where it is almost appropriate, “your mileage may vary”.  Just be aware of what the system is likely to do under slippery road conditions, and be ready for it.

#153: What Are Ghosts?

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #153, on the subject of What Are Ghosts?

I do believe in ghosts, I do believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I do….

Thus spoke the Cowardly Lion (in The Wizard of Oz, of course)–but that which caused him to believe in ghosts was not a ghost, but a meddling witch.  This came back to me as I listened to a syndicated radio host (The Wally Show) saying that he did not believe in ghosts, but if he was in the real estate market and someone told him that a particular house was haunted, he would not buy it.  We will get back to that.  He also admitted that as Christians we believe in some kind of spirit realm–but that the idea of ghosts was still not something he could accept.

I’m going to say that I believe in ghosts in the sense that I believe there are real phenomena which have not been materialistically explained which at least appear to be manifestations of spirits.

img0153ghost

That said, though, just because I believe in “ghosts” does not mean I have any clue as to exactly what they are.  That might be overstating it–I have many clues, but nothing sufficient to achieve certainty.  Thus in the interest of making it clear just how unclear the matter actually is, here are a few of the possibilities, as I understand them.

  • It is certainly not impossible that these are spirits of the dead, people whose inner selves have been separated from their bodies who somehow are maintaining an earthly existence.  Most Christians don’t like this, because we are told that it is appointed to men to die once, and after this comes judgment, and from this we conclude that immediately upon dying we are consigned to heaven or hell for eternity.  (There are some who believe in something called “purgatory”, a place for souls who are in the process of being saved but are not yet pure enough for heaven; it is based on texts that are controversial, not accepted as canon by Protestants because they are not so recognized by Jews.  It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the essence of it.  Besides, having one more place for the afterlife does not release spirits to be here.)  However, we debate exactly how that happens, because our heavenly afterlife is intimately connected with the resurrection of the body.  Thus some think that we go to heaven as “unclothed” spirits and there await the resurrection, and some that we experience (or do not experience) “soul sleep”, such that we know nothing until the return of Christ revives us.  Other possible solutions to this include that we immediately receive resurrection bodies which, unlike Christ’s, are not dependent upon our natural bodies, or that we leap across time to eternity such that at the moment of our death we are at the moment of the resurrection.

    Given that we are in disagreement (I won’t say uncertain, because some of us are quite certain of one position or another as the “obvious” one), it is entirely possible that spirits of at least some of the dead manifest in the mortal realm.  We have the account of Saul visiting the witch at Endor and asking to speak with the departed spirit of the prophet Samuel, in which we are given the rather clear understanding that that spirit responded (and rebuked him for calling).  Some argue that this is because it was before the resurrection of Christ, but we are never told this, and so we just simply don’t know and cannot say that this answer is impossible.

    However, neither is it certain–which is the point here.

  • Many theologians who believe that there are such spirit manifestations believe that these are manifestations of what we might call opportunistic spirits.  They would use the words “demons” and “devils”, but I find that our understandings of those words, as our understanding of “angels”, seems very narrow and simultaneously inconsistent with some of what we know from the Bible.  One would think from what is said that the God who has made more kinds of insects than most of us can imagine could only make one kind of spirit being which divided itself into two parties.  I suspect that there are more kinds of spirit beings than there are kinds of lifeforms in the world–but that’s a digression.  What matters is that it is entirely possible that these spirits have almost nothing to do with the departed, but know enough about them to masquerade as them, possibly just to frighten people, possibly to cause them to doubt their understanding of spiritual matters, possibly to deliver deceptive messages.  The problem here is that we have no way to test this.  Houdini, for example, agreed with his wife on a secret password that he would use if he were ever contacted by a medium and she was present, to prove that it was him.  Although many mediums claimed to have contacted him, none were able to produce the password–but had they done so, would it have proved that this was indeed Houdini, or merely that spirits who masquerade as people might have been privy to many of their intimate secrets in life?  My problem with distinguishing departed spirits from opportunistic spirits is similar to my problem with other gods:  we are ill-equipped to know what is really happening in the spirit realm, and cannot know the origins or motivations of any particular spirit we might encounter.

  • Some people looking for an answer that is almost naturalistic speak of psychic residue, that people suffering particularly traumatic events project mental energy into the surrounding objects which can be sensed by others.  I have elsewhere written (Faith and Gaming:  Mind Powers, at the Christian Gamers Guild) that it seems to me at least reasonably plausible that people could in the future develop mental powers we do not presently have, and indeed it is a small step from that to suggesting that we might have mental powers of which we are unaware.  There is nothing necessarily evil or Satanic about that as a concept.  It might be that stressed brains leave some kind of wave pattern in surrounding matter which can be perceived by other brains attuned to this, and it might be that those patterns manifest as replays of events causing the stress–which would explain why so many claimed ghost sightings are frightening, particularly if the emotion is included in the projection.

  • Most Christians oppose the concept of animism–the idea that there are spirits in inanimate objects.  I am less persuaded.  There is sound scriptural support for the notion that animals, at least, have spirits, and it does not take much to extend that to cover plants, since the distinctions between these two categories of life forms are more scientific than spiritual.  (That’s bad news for vegans, really.)  I do not think that rocks and planks of dead wood and other non-living objects have spirits–it is, if I understand aright, the spirit that gives life to the body, whether that of a person or an animal or plausibly even a plant.  Therefore I think objects that do not have life in any sense do not have spirits–but I can’t say that I know this.  After all, God doesn’t tell us much that we do not need to know, and so most of what He tells us is about ourselves.  It is not impossible that, contrary to my belief, stones have spirits.  If so, it is possible that the torment of one spirit–that of a person–in the vicinity of another spirit–that of the supposed inanimate object–would leave an impression on that other spirit.  We might then be encountering the spirits of non-living matter reliving the suffering of living spirits that had been there.

  • Many of the stories I have heard of supposed hauntings include the fact that someone died in a particular place, and that this was known to the person who experienced the haunting.  Nurses often believe that certain rooms in hospitals are sometimes haunted by former patients, and will sometimes tell this to incoming nurses.  Ghosts are seen in castles that are famously said to be haunted.  It could be that at least some of these are projections of the expectations of the observer–that is, an unexpected glimmer of light, a stray noise, a chill breeze, and the imagination supposes that for just a moment there was something there.  Our minds are already designed to provide details for many things we see.  If something moves in your peripheral vision and you have every reason to believe it to be a person, your mind tells you it is a person; in fact, if you believe it to be a specific person, your mind will put that person in that position.  Sometimes we are startled because the person we saw was not the person we thought we saw.  There is no particular reason why the mind could not provide the image of a ghost where we were anticipating the possibility that we might see a ghost, and the moreso if that makes us nervous.

From this it is evident that assuming the phenomena to be real there are still a great many plausible explanations for it.  None of these explanations covers every detail of every supposed encounter, but then, none of them is the only possible explanation for any reported encounter.  There might be ghosts; there might be something that tricks us, intentionally or accidentally, into believing that we have seen ghosts.  As with Unidentified Flying Objects, it might be that different explanations apply in different cases, and some of them are real departed spirits, but others are not.

I am not afraid of ghosts, but I have never had an encounter.  I don’t know that I would be uncomfortable living in a supposedly haunted house.  However, there is good reason to be reluctant to buy a house that is said to be haunted:  such rumors will impact its market value.  There are always stories attached to houses, but when the stories have a negative emotional impact–previous home of serial killer, house in which entire family died mysteriously–it makes the property less desirable.  “Haunted” is exactly such a story.  If a house is thought to be haunted, you can probably buy it for very little money, and sell it for less.  It becomes a bad financial decision.  So of course I would be hesitant to buy a house I had been told was haunted, not because I necessarily believe that, but because when the time comes to sell my potential buyers are likely to believe it.

So I do believe that there might be something like ghosts out there, but I don’t believe we either do or can know exactly what they are.  We are not equipped to deal with objects in the spirit realm, or indeed even to know with certainty whether that is what we are encountering.

#152: Breaking a Habit

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #152, on the subject of Breaking a Habit.

We all have habits.  It is actually a positive feature of our design:  we can harness this habit process to give ourselves good habits, like habitually buckling our seatbelts, or brushing our teeth, or saying prayers when we hear sirens.  Yet we tend to notice habits when we develop harmful ones–the regular drink at the odd time, the tendency to snack while working, and of course one of the big ones, smoking.

It was smoking that caused me to think about this, because I know several people who smoke and really can’t afford the cigarettes, and because of my father.  I can remember him smoking when I was a boy, and I can remember that my mother said he had a hard time quitting.  In the last years of his life he shared with me two things, one the way he managed to quit, and the other a technique he had recently seen in a newspaper that would work well with his own.  He seemed at the time eager that I should pass these to smokers I knew, but on reflection it occurs to me that these are good ways to quit just about any habit–and my theology tells me that we all have habits we ought to break, and we all have trouble breaking them.

img0152cigs

The difficulty, it seems, is that it is just about impossible for any of us to say to ourselves that we will never do something again, and then stick to that.  It’s the reason you’ve probably already broken at least one of the New Year’s Resolutions you made yesterday.  It may be that angels who live in eternity can make irrevocable choices, but those of us stuck here in this time zone do not have that ability.  And therein lies the key to beating the habit:  recognize that you can’t decide never again, and deal with right now.

My father explained to me that he never quit smoking.  He had in previous years won bets against people who were trying to quit smoking, which were in essence that he could go longer without a cigarette than they would.  One day he applied that to the long haul.  For over fifty years he never quit smoking, never told himself he was quitting, he just always decided that he didn’t need a cigarette right now, every time he wanted one.  You don’t quit smoking, you don’t break a habit, by deciding right now that you will never do it again; you break it by deciding that you won’t do it now, even if maybe you’ll do it later.  When later becomes now, you make the same decision, because you can almost always decide that now is not a good time for a cigarette, that you can have one later when the time is better, and never decide that the time is better.

So that’s how it’s done.

The other part is worth mentioning, particularly for people who have failed before.  Failure is not necessarily a disaster; it only means that you start again.  The suggestion that was made was that you keep score and play against yourself.  Keep a notebook, or get some kind of “app” on your phone that lets you record this.  Every time you indulge the habit–have a cigarette, or if that’s not your habit, raid the icebox or take a drink–write down the date and time, and do the math:  how long has it been since the last time you did this?  That’s your score.  Keep track of your best score, and try to beat it.  If you have gone four days without a cigarette, but your personal best on record is six days, tell yourself you can beat six days, even if it’s only six days and one hour, and put off that smoke until you’ve bested yourself.  Then you have a new record, a new best to beat.  You’ve also proved that you can go that long, and if you stick to it you’ll be going months without a mistake.

This is nothing new, really.  It’s part of why they have that litany at the beginning of every speech at Alcoholics Anonymous: this is who I am, I admit I have a problem, and at the moment my streak is this long.  When it has been three years since you’ve had a drink–or a smoke, or an unscheduled snack, or whatever your habit is–you have some sense of accomplishment in the number.  No one says it will never be a temptation; it’s only that practicing resisting that temptation makes you better at it; setting goals you know are achievable because you have done nearly as well before, and dealing with the problem in the present instead of in the hypothetical, all make that resistance easier.

So I hope this helps you quit the habit, whatever it is.

#151: A Musician’s Resume

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #151, on the subject of A Musician’s Resume.

I am a musician–always have been, a music major in high school, my kindergarten teacher dubbed me her “little songbird”, and I tell people that English is my second language.  I am good at it (I do not believe God intends for us to denigrate our abilities by lying)–but I don’t get as many opportunities to do something with it as I would like.

img0151mjy

I belong to several online Christian musician groups, and periodically I see notices seeking someone for a band.  I am always a bit hesitant as to how to respond to these.  For one thing, I am particularly bad at self-promotion and do not like to do it; for another, I have sometimes been rejected without explanation or, worse, completely ignored, and that hurts.  (Rejected with an explanation is always better, even if the explanation is offensive.)  Beyond that, well, when you have as much experience in the Christian music field as I have, you also have a lot of questions going into just about any opportunity.  Sometimes I think that the people trying to form bands haven’t really thought through any of it, and the questions confuse them.  So to resolve all of these matters, I decided I would put details about my experience, abilities, and hopes here, and in future refer people here who want to know more about me.

This is something of a confusing and oversized page, because it really is attempting to accomplish three different goals:

  1. Convey something of who I am to to anyone seeking musicians for solo appearances;
  2. Open the door to musicians who might be interested in becoming part of a reformed Collision;
  3. Communicate my availability to any band looking for someone with one or more of my talents.

While those goals are not completely compatible, they overlap sufficiently that three separate pages would be highly redundant.  Thus there is much here that is of no interest to persons in connection with any one of those, but hopefully everything that any of them would want to know is here.

It seemed best to begin with a list of bands in which I have been a member, and what my part in it was.  I am undoubtedly omitting a number of them, but the list is extensive even so.  I fronted[1] for all of these, but always shared the position with other members of the band.

Band Experience

  • The Last Psalm, evangelism pop-rock band; founder, director, arranger, primary composer, lead and supporting vocals, electric rhythm and second lead guitars, keyboards.
  • The Agape Singers, Luther College official ministry and promotional ensemble; student director, soloist and supporting vocals, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, contributing composer/arranger.
  • Jacob’s Well, pop-rock band with unfocused ministry for playing local coffeehouses; contributing composer/arranger, lead and supporting vocals, bass guitar.
  • Aurora, formed to support evangelistic outreach meetings; contributing composer/arranger, supporting vocals, bass guitar.
  • Topsfield Fair Evangelism Band, semi-official Gordon College ministry band formed for evangelistic support; contributing composer/arranger, lead and supporting vocals, bass guitar.
  • TerraNova, evangelism pop/rock band; director, arranger, primary composer, lead and supporting vocals, electric rhythm and second lead guitars, second bass guitar, saxophone.
  • Cardiac Output, teaching ministry band; founder, director, arranger, composer, lead and supporting vocals, electric rhythm and lead guitar.
  • 7dB, unofficial worship band at the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Shiloh which was exploring other ministry directions; co-founder, co-director, arranger, contributing composer, supporting vocals, third guitar (rhythm, lead, and impact), second bass guitar, keyboards, flute.
  • Collision, evangelism rock band arising from 7dB dissolution; co-founder, director, arranger, primary composer, lead and supporting vocals, instruments as 7dB but eventually moving to bass guitar only.
  • Silver Lake Community Church Worship Band, not ever really given a name, I was asked to help the worship leader organize musicians for leading music in services; directed as a vehicle of teaching him to direct, supporting vocals, bass guitar, rhythm and lead guitars, piano.

I have also done a substantial amount of solo work[2], and filled in as requested in other bands, most recently on lead/rhythm guitar or bass guitar for several of the monthly Relentless worship services at the Bridgeton Assembly of God church.

Notes on Musical Abilities

  • As a composer, I have written hundreds of songs in many styles, from choral to rock to country to jazz.  Dozens of these are still in my repertoire.  I tend to write when I have the opportunity to perform, crafting songs to fit the available ensemble.
  • I generally have avoided doing covers without a good reason (I consider audience participation a valid reason), and so as an arranger I have always found a way to make any song significantly different from the original.  I am particularly good with vocals, having worked with as many as six parts or as few as two.
  • My vocals are tenor–I was first tenor in New Jersey All-state Chorus twice, and have had voice classes and lessons including a session with one of the top voice teachers in the country; I have coached voice.  My comfortable range runs from low C (middle of bass clef) to high A (middle of treble clef); my effectively useful range extends maybe a minor third above that, a fifth below it.  I am very good on pitch and blend, and can keep a part well enough that if someone else loses theirs I can jump to it to put them right and then return to mine.
  • Some people rave about my bass guitar playing; it seems easy to me, except when I have to play a complicated part and sing a different complicated part at the same time.  I manage.  I have played several different kinds of bass guitars over the decades, but currently own a Carlo Robelli six-string which I tune to B Standard; I probably have access to a four-string acoustic bass guitar if needed.
  • I am an excellent rhythm guitarist who can name any chord you can play and probably play any chord you can name.  I finger pick and chord frill easily and understand how the position of the chord can impact the flavor of the music.  I am a passable lead guitarist who prefers to let someone else do the lead work and coach them if they need it, providing second lead support for double leads, back-and-forths, and similar passages.  I have never been able to find (or afford) effects boxes that I liked/could use, but I have done some cry off the guitar itself, and designed and built a channel changer box I use to switch to a louder channel on the amplifier as needed.  I have or have access to several electric guitars, none of them noteworthy, and one non-electrified acoustic guitar.
  • I consider my keyboards playing passable, useful for a band that doesn’t need a full-on keyboard player but wants keyboards for occasional use.  I’ve taught beginner piano and coached more experienced players in understanding different keyboarding styles; I write keyboard parts when necessary for a particular player to capture a particular sound.  Some of my songs were written on and for the piano as the primary instrument.
  • As to other instruments, flute and saxophone have been mentioned, and there are a score of others I have played and could play again.  My saxophone is badly in need of repair, but I have access to flute, violin, viola, ocarina, dulcimer, and probably other instruments I’m not remembering.

If you hand me an instrument I’ve never seen before, within an hour I will play you a song I wrote for it.  I’ve done it with the fife, tin whistle, recorder, dulcimer, and several other instruments.  I am no longer very good at tuba and don’t have one, and my trumpet playing has never been good and the trumpet needs repair, but if you’re looking for someone who can fill in with odd instruments, I probably fit the bill.

Equipment

As mentioned, I have or have access to a six-string bass, a couple of six-string guitars, a flute, and several other miscellaneous instruments; I also have access to a midi keyboard (seventy-six keys).  I have several amplifiers and quite a few speakers, a few low-end microphones, a sixteen channel mixing board, and miscellaneous equipment such as cables and mic stands.

I also have a sound guy who will probably come with me (Hi, Mike) who has a fair amount of equipment as well, and knows people from whom he can borrow more.

Minstry Considerations

I have written extensively about the relationship between music and ministry in previous entries on this web log; I have included a list of relevant articles at the end.  My own ministry is specifically that of teacher.  Although I would hope that would be integrated into whatever is ahead, I have long considered evangelistic bands very important and have worked with many, and I have also worked with pastoral/worship ministry bands.  If I’m joining your band, I’m supporting your ministry.

All of the previously mentioned bands were ministry bands.  I have undergraduate degrees in Biblical Studies from Luther College of the Bible and Liberal Arts (formerly) in Teaneck, NJ, and Gordon College in Wenham, MA (plus a Juris Doctore from Widener University School of Law, and a lapsed membership in Mensa).  For about the past two decades I have been the Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild, an international interdenominational Christian organization; I have published several books on Christian life, most famously Faith and Gaming about integrating our leisure activities with our Christianity.  I taught Biblical Studies at a fledgeling Bible College in Pitman[3], and continue to do so online through the auspices of the Christian Gamers Guild.

I was an on-air personality on one of the nation’s leading Contemporary Christian Radio stations[4] for half a decade, where I interviewed many artists and others in the Christian music industry, taught Bible online, and otherwise ministered to the listeners.

My Hopes and Expectations

I have done a lot of solo work, and am certainly willing to sing and play solo anywhere that wants me.  It is not what I prefer for two primary reasons.  The more important is that it is so limiting, because there is only so much one person who is not able to use computer-generated musical accompaniment can do alone on stage.  The lesser is that I don’t like to feel like I’m putting myself forward, so I insist on sharing the stage and the spotlight with others.  I have long told my band members that everyone in the band is there to make everyone else in the band look good, not to worry about how they themselves look because that’s the responsibility of everyone else in the band.  It’s easier to do that if there’s actually a band, and I’m not alone in the spotlight.  When I do solo appearances, I try to include some time teaching, because that is ultimately my ministry.[5]

If I “had my druthers, I’druther” reform Collision.  For one thing, the band has a name and a following including an extant album.  For another, I like the concept, the minstry purposes, the goals.  But I’m not wedded to this, and if someone is interested in including me in whatever ministry they are doing, that’s something I will seriously consider.

The vision for Collision is to be the band people tell other people they need to hear, to do music that is on the rock side of contemporary, and to use it to proclaim the gospel as an evangelistic outreach.  My expectations are that everyone plays an instrument; I’d like several vocalists, but understand that not everyone can sing.  The ideal instrumentation was conceived as lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums, and a “fifth instrument” that floats between keyboards and other instruments as needed; at our height we replaced the rhythm guitar with keyboards quite well, and lost the fifth instrument, but ran two voices (we were adding a rhythm guitar/vocalist just before we started losing people).  Again, though, it’s flexible:  if the Lord provides a different collection of musicians, that’s what we will use.

I expect that any Christian band will have some ministry purpose, and will have some understanding of what that purpose is, sufficient to articulate it to me.

My Limitations

  • I am getting old and have had two hernia operations; I can’t easily roadie the heavy equipment anymore, although I do have a hand truck to help with that.  I also struggle with asthma, and so have to avoid smoke, dust, and pollen as much as possible so I can keep breathing.  It also limits my physical exertions somewhat, but not as much as it might.
  • I am terrible at self-promotion.  I am not a salesman.
  • I do not have a space for a band to practice.  Collision practiced in my living room when we did not have a drummer, but with the drummer we had to set up on the front deck, which is very much weather-sensitive.  Whatever we do, we will have to practice somewhere else.
  • I am located just outside Bridgeton, New Jersey (Hopewell Township), a stone’s throw from the Delaware Bay if you’re Sandy Kofax.  I can get transportation, but probably can’t travel much farther than an hour for weekly rehearsals, less for more frequent ones.  Otherwise, my schedule can be kept fairly open, and I can almost always be where I promise to be (e.g., barring medical emergencies and transportation failures).  I expect that I would be able to arrange to tour, if the tour was going to pay for itself.

I have worked with seasoned professionals, and have trained rank amateurs, and am open to discussing options with anyone who thinks I might be good for whatever they are doing, or that they might like to work with me.

My Questions

  • Where and when do you expect to practice?
  • What kind of music are you doing, and are you open to including compositions by the members?
  • What is your sense of your ministry, your ministry goals?
  • What are your hopes for the band’s future–are you wanting to stay local, hoping to go national, or what?
  • How is the band organized–is there one person who makes all the decisions, or two or three people who are in charge jointly, or is it the theory that all the members participate in all the decisions?  Or indeed, are different aspects overseen by different members–one musical director, one financial manager, one booking agent, and so forth?

So if you think I’m your guy, be ready to answer those questions and get in touch with me.

*****

Here are those hopefully helpful articles about Christian music and ministry:

*****

Footnotes:

  • 1  I use the word “fronted” to mean that I would speak to the audience, such as introducing songs and band members; it also usually included sharing some teaching or testimony.

  • 2  When I perform solo I usually play an acoustic guitar and/or an acoustic piano if one is available on site; I sometimes play an electric guitar and/or electric piano.

  • 3  The school was named The Institute of the Great Commission, and was started by a local church named The Rock; I taught one term, but then a church split undercut the funding and the school laid off half of the four-member faculty.

  • 4  WNNN-FM, licensed to Canton, NJ, with studios in Salem.  Sometime in the late 1970s it was reportedly number twelve on a list of such stations, and when I was program director I was informed by one of the major label radio relations people that we were one of the fifty stations she contacted every week.  It was sold and pirated for parts a few years after my departure.

  • 5  My teaching is readily available on many posts on this web log, but #121:  The Christian and the Law is particularly significant as an example of a teaching from a concert, and #88:  Sheep and Goats as something I taught at a service which was not a concert.