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Life on the Exoplanets

Driving to work one morning, wasn't I surprised to find all my carmates believed in extraterrestrials. They didn't just lean that way. They were absolutely, rock-solid firm-in-their-heart-of-hearts convinced that there was intelligent life on other planets. This could only be the effect of too many Star Trek boneheads and coneheads, for not only had extraterrestrials never been discovered, but even extra planets outside our own solar system had never been discovered. Casey, the one who, though she had never seen it, couldn't stand the film I Robot because she heard the plot deviated from Isaac Asimov's book, was the only one who knew no planets had yet been discovered. Still, she believed in aliens like all the rest.

That changed in 1995 - with regard to planets, that is, not aliens. Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva found the first planet, setting up a mad scramble amongst his peers, who as of this date, have found 370 others. They're all dogs, though - that is, you wouldn't want to live on them, and couldn't at any rate. Many are small and dense, revolving quickly around their parent star, and thus "tidally locked," with one broiling side always toward the sun and one frigid side always away. Or they're huge gaseous marshmallows, so that you'd sink well past your armpits. But scientists are confident they'll find an earth-like one sooner or later, and young people like those in my car, accepting life arising by chance and Natural Selection as an everyday event, wonder what type of aliens will live there: warm and fuzzy ETs, Independence Day thugs, or Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy screwups.

Of course, few, if any, of these new planets have been seen - they don't glow like stars, after all. Rather, their existence is discerned through various techniques. Maybe their gravitational pull causes the parent star to wobble a bit. Or, if they cross directly in front of the star, light flickers for just an instant. Such methods have proven valid closer to home. Neptune was first detected through the wobble it caused Uranus. Same with Pluto, whose status as a planet was revoked in 2006, thus disgracing our own Whitepebble Institute staff scientist Tom Tombaugh, whose only real credentials are a claimed distant relationship to Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto's founder. He's made other scientific contributions, to be sure, but they are all relatively minor - his thesis paper on sock-eating shoes, for instance. His real eminence stems from Pluto.

But Neptune and Pluto are light-minutes from Earth. These new planets are light-years. Are we really so adept at discerning what's way way out there? Maybe - but I look at it less confidently than with telling what's in our own back yard - our own solar system. Frankly, whenever scientists say they have discovered this or that I tend to accept it, but I do so tentatively, always with the caveat that these guys are frequently full of themselves, bursting with pride at human accomplishment, and intolerant of any layman who would question their theories, until they themselves revise them. Or - I suspect, its not so much those front line empirical scientists who are the problem, but a second buttressing layer of scientist-philosopher-cheerleader-atheist types, who ram science down all of our throats as the be-all and end-all. Me, I tend to side with that famous scientist and ex-Beatle John Lennon, who said "everything they told me as a kid has already been disproved by the same type of 'experts' who made them up in the first place." [quoted in interview with Playboy, so plainly I got this second-hand]

Now, it turns out that this year, 2009, is the 400th anniversary of Galileo's telescope. It's also the 400th anniversary of Kepler's publishing the laws of planetary motion. In time, telescopes would reveal our solar system to be only a tiny speck of existence, and not the embodiment of reality itself, as had till then been presumed. This discovery molded human notions regarding God. Says the Economist magazine: "it was easier to believe that a human sized universe was one that might have been brought into being with humanity in mind. It is harder, though, to argue that the modern version of cosmology, let alone any hypothetical one which is multiversal rather than universal, has come about for mankind's convenience." (8/15/09 pg 12)

This statement assumes religious people view it that way: that all has come about for "mankind's convenience." It's not hard to see how the Economist might reach that conclusion. Did not the Church maintain for centuries that Earth was the center of all creation, and that even the Sun revolved around it? Galileo got much grief for his contrary views. And aren't those born-agains always carrying on about their personal relationship with Jesus, as if no other issue matters? But - and I'm sure this is a fine distinction that will be lost on the scientist-philosopher-cheerleader-atheist types described above - anyone familiar with Watchtower publications know these have long maintained that mankind's salvation is not the primary issue before creation. Rather, it is the sanctification of God's name. Thus, Jehovah's Witness' view of God doesn't violate the spirit of that Economist statement.

Clearly, whenever scientists say "jump!" Jehovah's Witnesses do not respond with "how high?!" We believe, uphold, and defend the Bible. Nonetheless, whenever Watchtower publications have commented on other planets and the possibilities such may suggest, they have been eminently reasonable, in keeping with then-current knowledge, and free of the delusion that all revolves around humanity:

But what about the other planets? Were they put in space and into orbit for no reason at all? No, we cannot conclude that...... We should not be so shortsighted as to think that the earth is the center of the universe.   Awake 1973, 5/22 pg 15

But are there [outside our solar system] other planets? Maybe yes, maybe no. The fact is that other stars, or suns, are so extremely far away that scientists have not been able to prove whether there are any small planets around them.......One can see, then, that it is certainly unwarranted for persons to speak so positively about advanced civilizations on distant planets. They have not even proved that such planets exist, much less that they have advanced civilizations on them.   Awake 1981, 2/22

******  The bookstore

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The Two Mennonites

In many respects, Meander With Me Mary is a cool lady. In her nineties, she has taken up blogging. Even Pop, universally acknowledged as 'cool' by twentysomethings, has not done that. That computer he got from me still sits on his desk. Once in a while he turns it on and tries to figure it out using the printed instruction manual. But you don't learn computers that way, so he gets nowhere. Occassionaly he'll show interest in learning it some other way, but then he gets sidetracked by "I got along without it all these years - why do I need it now?" That's how it is with new inventions. The kids embrace them. They soon become indispensable as air. But the old folks say "who needs it?" Mary is an exception.

A fluent writer, possessed of good storytelling and poetry, her blog has found an audience. I like it when a person of her years begins writing, because they've been around long enough to distinguish fads and fluff from enduring values. She'll catch you if you try to change history. Like this post, in which she muses whether people would be cooperative and decent during this downturn like they were during the Great Depression which she remembers. You treasure voices like hers; otherwise contemporary know-it-alls extrapolate the present into the past. 'Not so that people are more dishonest and slippery and belligerent than they were before,' they'll say. 'We just have better reporting today.' But old birds like Mary won't let them get away with it.

"I remember well the 1930s and its poverty," she writes. "Men stood placidly in long lines hoping for a job, any job. There was little in the way of welfare and many went to bed hungry. Notwithstanding, few people locked their doors in fear of losing what little they had. Today, instead of patient, placid men standing in line for jobs, we would have riots. Because this country has not taken the stern measures China did to curtail its drug problem, if we have a deep recession, no house will be safe from invasion of drug addicts seeking a “fix”. We survived the great depression of the twentieth century because the majority of the population in America were descendents of legal immigrants who had deep respect for law and order......Yes, we had crime during thirties, but when a teenager, I felt no fear walking home from a movie late in the evening, old women needn’t fear being mugged carrying bags of groceries home, and old men could sit in a park late in the evening without fear of being beaten by teenage hoodlums. Situations have a way of getting worse the older a country grows."

This mirrors (except for my biblical application) a post I wrote long ago: Hitchhikers and Hoboes. Hitchhiking, not that long ago, was a perfectly acceptable, cheap, and safe way of getting around. Hobos were harmless. Don't tell me conditions today are same as they've always been.

This is my beef with Mad Men, a hugely popular TV show set in the 1960's. (which I've never seen - another item I pass judgment upon sight unseen - a habit I picked up from the Judge First, Ask Questions Later religious conferences) Characters of the program are sleazy and promiscuous, every bit as much as today. The effect - and perhaps the motivation? - is to implant the notion that today's conduct is normal - people have always been as they are now. But I remember in high school, back in the days when people got dressed up to go downtown, a classmate who became pregnant. It was absolutely shocking; people spoke of it in hushed tones. She was withdrawn from school, and I never saw nor heard from of her again (not that we were ever close). Sometimes I wonder what became of the poor girl. Possibly, she emerged stronger, since trial has a way of doing that. On the other hand, maybe she destructed. But the point is that the event was anything but normal, as it is today. Having a child out of wedlock is practically a status symbol today, at least in our neck of the woods.

Does this not all validate that long list of adjectives [17!] Paul uses to describe people in the "last days?"

But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up [with pride], lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power; and from these turn away. - 2 Tim 3:1-5

Meander With Me Mary doesn't think so. Breaking away from a strict Mennonite life, she now has absolutely no use for religion, and particularly for that based upon the Bible. Whooooooowheee! you should hear her when she gets going on it - I can picture steam coming from her ears! But I'm immune to her carrying on, because I have a Mennonite of my own up my sleeve. A Watchtower issue of last year features the life story of a Witness who was once a Mennonite. I know the fellow. I've been to his home. I won't name him, for he doesn't blog. Moreover, he is now quite elderly and in poor health. Why should I assume he wants to "go public?"

As a Mennonite, he was chased from Russia to Germany. He studied with Jehovah's Witnesses there, was baptized, and then emigrated again to Paraguay. He began preaching in a Mennonite colony in his new country, where they promptly spread out warnings about the newly arrived "false prophet." With a growing family, he moved here to New York. The article touches upon various spiritual highlights and experiences he encountered.

What the article does not mention is that this fellow must be a millionaire. He became one of the area's premiere homebuilders, with tracts of houses popping up everywhere, and he has used his wealth to accomplish much good.'s not a huge point in itself, I suppose, but combined with innumerable like points, it makes a great impression upon me. Because - you know that nine out of ten outfits would only focus on his secular success; that's what people typically love to boast about. The Watchtower, however, doesn't even mention it, just as he never carried on about it. Instead, the focus is entirely on spiritual matters, as he was a spiritual man. Recall from Second Timothy that "lovers of money" was one of the attributes assigned to people in the last days. I do appreciate an organization that puts spiritual values first. It's a rarity today.

So let ex-Mennonite Mary trash religion all she wants. I got me my own ex-Mennonite. The two counter-balance.



Tom Irregardless and Me                No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’

The French Version of Geraldo?

It's not unusual for the developmentally disabled to have issues of self-esteem. And it's not hard to see why. If your closest associates - in the vast majority of cases, your only associates - are people who have to be paid to see you, you don't think you might have some self-esteem issues?

But Doug has no issues of self-esteem. He is one of the few who has benefited from heavy family involvement. At the restaurant, he barks (more or less literally) directions to staff as they pass by - this or that dish is empty, and he holds it up to make his point. Doug is non-verbal. If you don't know him, you won't understand a thing he says. If you do know him, you still won't understand a thing he says but, combined with gestures, you can usually catch the drift. Doug's very social. He thrusts out a hand to men as they pass, inviting a handshake. From women he wants hugs; he holds out both arms.

After the meal, we drive over to the Fairport commons area - Liftbridge Park - to hang out a bit. We're in luck. Lots is happening - a classic car show and a live band. I wheel Doug near the band, an all-girl group called It's My Party, who perform songs from the early 60's, and perform them very well. They have matching outfits, just like in the 60's, synchronized gestures, and ... um...some campy 60's dialog between songs. The drummer is their producer, and their website says they have performed for 20 years. How can that be, since the singers themselves are yet high-schoolers? Ah, the producer has been around that long, and maybe some of the backup musicians, of which there are 8 or 9 - are some of them high-schoolers, too? The girl singers have been replaced once or twice.

Many in the audience are older folk - revisiting their youth, one suspects - and after the show, a woman remarks on the lankiest singer's long limbs. "Yeah, it's hard to get clothes," the performer replies. Actually, I thought she said it's hard to get close. That would fit too, for the trio accentuate their songs with 60's cheerleading gestures, arms flailing like windmills.

Doug is captivated by all this. You want to leave? I ask after a few songs. Slight but emphatic shake of the head no. You want to stay? Slight but emphatic shake of the head yes. You want one of their CDs? Yes. So we wait in the lineup, which really isn't wheelchair accessible, and they sign his copy with hugs and kisses - xxooxxoo. Of course, Doug solicits actual hugs and gets them from the girl or two closest to him. Backing out, he keeps it up and gets several more hugs from other know...girls in the audience, girl friends of the singers, and so forth!

Back at the home I write up a report - they like to keep track of social progress and "if it's not documented, it didn't happen." I tell about all the hugs and conclude with the question "how does he do that?" I mean, it's not as if anyone offered to hug me.

These are my people: the developmentally disabled - to use the current jargon. Working at the group home was probably the most enjoyable job I've ever had, and I resisted any attempts to rise in the ranks because each step up meant more bureaucracy and less contact with residents. I still keep up with them. This outing with Doug was on my own time.

All this explains why I'm not in a hurry to pick any quarrel with Sabrine Bonnaire, one of France's premiere actresses. We're on the same team. True, I'm not familiar with her acting career, but then I'm not French, am I? Who would ever have thought that a film would be made about a group home, and if it was, who would ever have thought it would be any good? But such is Ms. Bonnaire's first stab at film directing. The film is Her Name is Sabine. It's a documentary set in a group home. Sabine is Sabrine's sister.  Sigh....I hope it's not a sign of how invisible these people are that even the reviewer has screwed up the title: it is not the cheery My Name is Sabine, as he states. It is the more provocative Her Name is Sabine, implying that most people would see her as a subject, a patient, a resident, a disabled person, a ....but she has a name.

Sabrine Bonnaire makes sure people know her name. She's pulled photos and home movies out of a seemingly bottomless reservoir to show her sister growing up - a vibrant, talented (she plays classical piano), pleasantly quirky girl - once inseparable from the 18 month older Sabrine. But she suffers from autism. It's effects grow more pronounced through the years. Her parents pull her out of school and hire tutors. Still, she deteriorates. An admittance to the hospital's psych ward is a total disaster - the screen goes black while Sabrine narrates the details.

Sabine is now in a group home, just like where Doug is. The French actress used her fame to jump-start funding, and the house exists largely because of her. She's since met with French President Nocolas Sarkozy and Minister for Work and Social Affairs Xavier Bertrand to argue for the disabled. Is Sandrine Bonnaire the French version of Geraldo Rivera? Like him, she's done much to advocate for this most vulnerable population, and I can't do anything but cheer her for that.

Now....the point upon which I would contend with Ms. Bonnaire is a small point. It's hardly the focus of her story. Barely worth mentioning. On the other hand, I will mention it AND I will make a big deal over it. It steams me. In the midst of the film review linked to above is inserted Sabrine's observation about their Jehovah's Witnesses upbringing (who would have guessed?), as if it somehow explains Sabine's troubles:

Sandrine and Sabine grew up in a large, working-class family on the outskirts of Paris. Their mother was a Jehovah's Witness whose strict adherence to the sect's rules on birth control explains the number of children: 11 in total, of which Sandrine, now 41, is the sixth, Sabine the seventh. Growing up in a Jehovah's Witness home was "quite heavy", says Sandrine. "First of all, it was very boring. You don't do birthdays and Christmas when everyone else does them. You can have them, but three or four days after the date, so you feel apart from your friends."

I tell you, I won't put up with it. I'll bet you anything that this girl was fully embraced in the local congregation and circuit, where the atmosphere is warm and accepting, and where children are taught to be kind and compassionate to those less fortunate, rather than "bullying" and "mocking" (yes, even during birthdays and Christmas), as they were in the grade school Sabine had to be pulled from. It's not Jehovah's Witnesses who screwed up the title of her film. The JW mother ought to be a hero in this story, not a token religious nut. She nurtured her daughter as a child and adult as, one by one, other siblings departed for lives of their own. How is it that Sabine plays classical piano without, at the very least, mother's support? Mom dutifully followed doctor's advice and admitted Sabine into the local hospital, where they put her in locked isolation and straightjacket, administered drugs by the truckload, denied toilet facilities, and ultimately forbade family visitation - these were medical experts, mind you - and finally returned the woman to her mother in far worse shape than they found her. Does it occur to anyone that the mother's faith helped her carry on when everyone else failed her daughter? As stated at the outset, family involvement with the developmentally disabled is, at least in the U.S, rare.

And what is this about the "sect's rules on birth control?" Nobody among Jehovah's Witnesses has any hang-ups about birth control, unless you mean the abortion-inducing IUD kind, which yes, we do reject. But contraceptives? Condoms? No one has any issue with them. So if the mother did have strong views in this regard, it didn't come from the "sect." And the holidays? Well, yes, I suppose. But surely it's a matter of perspective. There were Jewish kids when I was going to school and they sat out every Christmas and Easter. It wasn't that big of a deal. There were compensating attributes within their own faith. No one carried on about how they were deprived. Look, if there's a party going on, of course a child will want to be part of it, same as all will want to subsist on ice cream and candy. But as adults, you hopefully come to realize what's important and what's not. Christmas, to take the most prominent example, does not fall on Christ's birthday. Jesus never said anything about celebrating his birth anyway, and most customs associated with it are from non if not anti-Christian sources.

In fact, is it just Sabrine Bonnaire or is it all of France? For perhaps two decades, France has leveled a 60% tax on financial contributions made to Jehovah's Witnesses, a repressive measure unheard of in any free country, and a plain attempt to stamp out the group. The policy's been under appeal from the outset and will likely be decided in the European High Court. Look, I know that much of Europe is intensely secular, and probably France most of all. I suspect it stems from World Wars I and II, bloodbaths that found fertile soil in the very continent where churches held most sway. If churches can't prevent such mass slaughters, what good are they? But how ironic that the only Christian group with the guts to unilaterally stand up to Hitler is the one most harassed in post-war France!

Still, the movie is great. It's a shame so few Americans know of it, just as they know nothing of Maigret. French critics dubbed it "the most beautiful film Cannes has given us this year". Mrs. Sheepandgoats and I, though not of that august body, fully concur.

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’

Sailing Alone Around the World

All the girl wants to do is sail alone around the world. What's wrong with that? Nothing, says her nautical Dad. Nothing, says her nautical Mom. Plenty, says the Dutch Council for Child Protection, who have successfully sued for temporary guardianship. So Laura Dekker's not going anywhere, not yet, not at 13 years of age.

Now, if this story didn't push a lot of buttons from back in our homeschooling days, I wouldn't write about it. It's all the way over in Holland. What business is it of mine? But it does push buttons, for with the exception of the sixth grade and post-secondary, our two kids never saw the inside of a school. We came to know much about child developmental authorities - more than we wanted to know - and their confidence that they alone knew the best way.

In Laura's case, they're fretting about dangers on the open seas. "She simply does not have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that await her," wrote the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, joining in the fray. Actually, she probably does, and she certainly does in comparison with any journalist or child agency self-appointed to protect her. Laura was born on a yacht and spent her first four years sailing the oceans. She's been sailing solo since she was six, and conceived an around-the-world trip when she was 10. Nobody debates her sailing skills. She'd planned for her voyage to take two years, putting up in ports along the way to dodge bad weather.
Still, if those Dutch authorities had limited their concerns to physical dangers, we could live with that. Sure, it smacks of imposing mediocrity on all young people - uncomfortable to the point of denial that some might develop special abilities or possess special gifts. Having said that, I admit that oceans are wet and deep. Winds kick up a fuss. Pirates make trouble. Mean animals swim around - did you never see Jaws? Thirteen is pretty young. It's not as if one can't see their point. And what's this fixation about being the youngest person ever to do this or that? Someone or other brought up the case of Jessica Dubroff, a seven year old who crashed her plane taking off in rotten weather, attempting to become the youngest person to fly cross country U.S. (though her on-board flight instructor and dad approved the bad-weather takeoff, which suggests that adults should be banned from these activities, not kids).

Moreover, terms of the Court's decision are not especially unreasonable, surely more balanced than anything I can imagine here in the States. Nobody has said she can never go. If a Court-appointed army of child development specialists conclude she'll be okay, she'll get their seal of approval, perhaps in just a few months. And they're not removing her from her home - at least so long as everyone behaves. The family’s own lawyer was satisfied. The decision “supports the idea that you are not a bad parent if you try to help your child fulfill her dream," he noted. And, regarding Laura, "she is happy with the ruling, and now we can prepare this (journey) in a mature and responsible way." Yes, if those child protective people had limited their concerns to physical dangers on the high seas, we could all get on with life.

But they don't limit their concerns to physical danger - they're also worried about Laura's social skills! "A 13-year-old girl is in the middle of her development and you don't do that alone -- you need peers and adults," said Micha de Winter, a professor of child psychology at Utrecht University. Adults can make choose to be alone, he added, "but for children it is not good....Particularly the absence of parents at such a crucial time of the child's development ... the risks are serious." It doesn't occur to anyone that self-esteem from such a feat, and interaction with repair, supply and regulatory personnel at ports around the world, might offset the temporary draught of run-of-the-mill peers and grown-ups. "Two years out of school will have an impact on her normal development," another expert said. "It is wonderful to have dreams, but they have to be realistic." And, suggesting that the Netherlands is a nation of busybodies, the Dutch Prime Minister [!], Jan Peter Balkenende told a weekly news conference that Dekker's schooling must be taken into account. ("Where do you learn more, on a 2-year trip or at high school?" the family lawyer responds.)

Of all the objections we faced homeschooling, the most patronizing, smug, asinine, and exasperating were those dealing with socialization. Exasperating on two counts: 1) in assuming social skills would not develop under homeschooling, and 2) in assuming they would under traditional schooling. What about Columbine? What about Albertville? What about their social skills? In fact, how many socially-inept deviant misfits are there among young people today? Yet they all went to school.

My pal Bob the architect homeschooled some but not all of his kids. That topic came up the other day, before the Laura Dekker story had broken. He reflected that the social skills of his homeschooled kids far outstripped those of the traditionally schooled, who’d been mostly confined to that tiny sliver of humanity – those of exactly their own age. Students one grade above or below may as well have been from another planet - and adults another universe, a universe where they exist only to instruct and supervise, not to befriend or interact. Where does that artificial grouping find any counterpart in the real world? On the other hand, the homeschooled kids I observed, my own included, freely interacted with all in the community, of all age groups, and grew up without self-consciousness of those around them.

The trouble with child protective agencies, as with many agencies, is that they are seldom content to fulfill their original mandate. Instead, they seek to expand it. Didn't they once confine themselves to issues of maltreatment and abandonment? John Holt of Growing Without Schooling used to decry how, under the guise of protection, children are banned from the adult world - a significant contributor to delinquency, he maintained. A few years back, in East Rochester, parents were cited for underage employment of their child. They were dumbfounded. They owned a small deli - it was the family livelihood - and it was nothing for a youngster, returning from school, to take a turn behind the register. Can the kid's life really have been improved by forbidding his participation in the family business?

Showing that socialization concerns, not the physical dangers, are really the only ones that matter, the Court plans to have Laura interviewed by a team of child psychologists. If she passes muster, she may yet sail off when she is 14. So be it. This girl has handled ships alone through international seas. She has interacted with all and sundry port personnel. The psychologists, on the other hand, have read a lot of books, sat through college courses, and earned degrees asserting they are child experts. My sneaking suspicion is that Laura is far better equipped to analyze them than they her.

Unfortunately, degrees are really all that counts in the world today. It might be a better place were that not so.


Aha! Laura Dekker has her own website here. Now you can follow her adventures with the high seas and high government. You can even sponsor her, if you like.


9/8/2009 update: Whoops. I take it back. Looks like Mom doesn't support the trip after all. Sigh....seems like my Mom also used to tell me I couldn't do stuff I wanted to. And most of my scheme's were less ambitious than Laura's. That's a Mom for you.


Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’