Friday, May 28, 2010

Sex and Oil

And now, two completely different topics.

I have recently had reason to be thankful for one of my wife’s many good characteristics; she is not a fan of the show Sex and the City. This means I have not had to see the first movie and likely will not be going to the second one. I myself occasionally watched the series on TBS, usually with the same mindset applied to America’s Funniest Videos, marvelling at the stupidity that can be conjured up by people. Perhaps if/when the movies come to TV I’ll take a peek. But I’m certainly not paying for the privilege.

As I watch the ongoing oil tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico, I can’t help but feel sorry for the engineers at BP. I went to school with people like them (I haven’t checked , but I wouldn’t be surprised if some fellow alumni are involved in the current situation), and I know they would have thought about the possibility of something like that happening, and what to do if it did happen. I’m willing to bet that there’s a fair amount of “I knew this would happen someday” running through their minds as they scramble to figure out what to do.

Although the oil industry has considerable experience with this sort of thing - oil well “gushers” go as far back as drilling – none of it has been in deep water, so they’re having to make it up as they go. I’m also inclined to agree with Jon Stewart’s observation that the corporate resources devoted to such research have likely been considerably less than those dedicated to getting the oil. So now the bean counters who ignored them in the past scream for an immediate answer to a problem that should have been extensively studied in advance.

If only this wasn’t a common pattern.

Monday, May 10, 2010

You Can't Stay Here

KELO recently did a story about repeat drunk drivers and why they do it. It's adequate for what it is - you can't expect deep reporting in a minute and a half - but it seemed to concentrate on the drunk part of the situation, while driving was only mentioned as a consequence of the impaired decision-making induced by booze. Alcohol is admittedly the root cause of the problem, but I think the driving part deserves some attention.

Why do these people need to drive? I don't mean why do they think they can, but why do they put themselves in a position where driving must be considered? Usually it's like this: they drive to a bar or some other setting where they're not allowed to stay, so they have to go home or somewhere else. The alcohol-induced poor decision-making kicks in, and the trouble starts. But what interests me is the thought process at the beginning, when they’re presumably still sober.

Assuming it’s not an event that requires attendance, such as a wedding, why go out at all when it would be much safer – and cheaper - to stay home and drink? Use the money saved to get a computer and a good internet connection and wander the web. (Admittedly this is not without its hazards. A friend of mine who regularly did this had to be careful around eBay after a few beers, lest he buy something he’d regret. Also, some of the material I come across seems to have been posted by people under the influence. At least I hope they were.)

I think drinking in the company of others who are doing the same (if not to the same degree), besides providing a more convivial atmosphere, makes them feel less like they have a problem. It’s easier for them to think of themselves as "social drinkers", of which society is much more tolerant. A group of people drinking is portrayed relatively positively in media, especially commercials (with the obligatory “please drink responsibly” in miniscule print, of course). It’s usually the lone drinker who is featured in the ads for treatment centers.

Why do they drive to where they’re going to drink? That’s fairly simple; driving is usually the most convenient way to get there. As for getting back, as many times as some of these people have been caught, they’ve probably made it home many more times, so they always think they can make it again.

There are various ways to deal with this, each with drawbacks that, while usually not major, can serve as excuses for someone who doesn’t really want to change. Having parties at home may be not possible or convenient; there may not be establishments within walking distance; public transportation may not be readily available. Law enforcement can only do so much. The serial offenders have been through all that: many are driving without valid licenses, and some have already done time.

Given all that, the KELO story is probably correct in emphasizing the drinking. Controlling that is really the only single consistent – if not easy - way to handle the problem. But finding ways to get them to voluntarily refrain from driving is worth trying. Then - whatever other problems they may have - at least they’d be less dangerous.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Not Likeable, But Plausible

It really shouldn’t irritate me as much as it does. After all, it’s a pretty generic question, and one of the most basic, even if the follow-up tends to ruffle feathers. “Do you believe in God?” she asked. She considered it to be answerable with a basic yes-no-don’t know, and I suppose it is for most people. So I guess what bothers me is my own unhappiness with those options, which leads to the question of why I don’t like them.

I think a good part of it is my hard-headed, engineering-school mindset. I’m not comfortable giving answers without justification, and since proving the negative is probably impossible, and God hasn’t seen fit to settle the issue definitively to the positive (which to me is the best argument for negative, but it relies on the assumption that God would tell us of His existence), I’m left with intuition, and I’m not an intuitive person. As for “don’t know”, that is the bane of scientific minds. But in the end I fell back on the old Spock/Data answer: insufficient information.

After that conversation I tried to conjure up a variation of the question with which I could be comfortable. Eventually I came up with this:

“Is there a concept of God that you feel is compatible with the overall state of mankind and the universe?”

Yes, I know the idea that God doesn’t exist would also work. I guess that conversation just put me in the mood for a stroll down Deity Drive. (Large estates on that street. Some remind me of the movie Sunset Boulevard; slowly decaying as they cling to the past. Others look as though they were abandoned during the mortgage crisis; impressive but unoccupied. And what’s with all the plastic flamingos? But I digress.)

As you can see, it’s both more theoretical (not asking for firm belief) and more tangible (actually trying to relate God to our existence). Most importantly for this humble blog, though, is that I can actually answer it. There have been many Gods in human history that did this to some degree - Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies as well as any number of so-called pagan deities. But the more I’ve mulled it over, the better the God of Abraham as described in the Old Testament fits.

This is the God Lewis Black has described as “kind of a prick”, the God of whom David Plotz - after finishing a series in which he read the entire Old Testament, blogging as he went – said:

After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

I find that reaction interesting because it speaks to the human desire that God should adhere to our concepts of morality and justice, and basically be nice. Christians hold this especially dear, to the point of glossing over the explicit examples to the contrary both in their own texts and in the world around them. Lewis Black has noted that the New Testament Christian God seems to be generally nicer than the Old Testament Jewish version, which Christians attribute to Jesus, of course. Personally, I can’t help but connect that to the fact that God is much less directly involved with earthly affairs in the New Testament.

(Explaining God’s apparent decision to adopt a hands-off approach has long been a source of vexation to believers. My completely fabricated speculation that would account for it: God decided “OK, I’ve gotten things going and forgiven your sins; now I’m done. Fix your world yourselves.” Some explicit intervention would definitely settle a lot of things, though.)

I think that conceding the possibility that God may not always be a sweet wonderful being makes Him more believable. It certainly makes it easier to answer another version of my question. When someone considers the sorry state of the world and asks, “What God would allow this?” it’s not hard to point at old Jehovah and say “Look at His record. I wouldn’t put it past Him.”