01 December 2008

Georgia runoff election December 2

Remember that voting thing we did last month? Well, it's time to try it again, thanks to Georgia's antiquated election laws that require candidates to receive not just a plurality, but a majority of votes cast. In this case, however, I'm grateful for the chance to take another shot at a couple of offices. Here are the major races in Georgia for the December 2 runoff election, with my endorsements in bold and brief comments:

U.S. Senate: Jim Martin v. Saxby Chambliss
Sure, it would be nice to have a 60-seat majority in the Senate, but does anyone actually think that the Senate Democrats could impose perfect party discipline on themselves? And remember, that 60-seat majority includes the two Independent Senators, including our old friend Joe Lieberman. Nevertheless, Saxby is an embarrassment and a doofus, and needs to be replaced (although he's not as much of a doofus as our former Senator Zell Miller, as SNL helped remind us recently).

Georgia Court of Appeals: Sara Doyle v. Mike Sheffield
Although Doyle wasn't my first choice in the initial election, she's clearly the better candidate in this runoff. Here's all you need to know - this is a race for a very important and influential judgeship in the state, and Sheffield is a darling of the Georgia Christian Alliance. He has already gone on record as opposing Roe v. Wade and Lawrence v. Texas (the latter being the case in which the Supreme Court struck down laws that criminalized consensual homosexual sodomy as violating an individual's right to privacy). Electing Sheffield to the Court would tilt it significantly to the right.

Public Service Commissioner: Jim Powell v. Lauren ("Bubba") McDonald
McDonald is an old hack of a state pol who is in the tank for just about every industry you can think of that he regulates from his perch on the PSC. Oh, and for good measure, he also filled out the Georgia Christian Alliance's questionnaire; it's ever so helpful to know that someone who is running to regulate state utilities is opposed to abortion and gay rights (and when did favoring coal-fired plants and opposing carbon taxes become a "Christian" position??).

Now, go vote!! Runoffs have historically seen much lower turnout than general elections, so your vote is even more important this time around.

19 November 2008

Church marketing - what not to do

Now this is funny.

What if Starbucks marketed like the church? Click here to see this video parable, but be prepared to be needled.

Not sure I agree with all of the theology on their original site, but you have to admit there's some cleverness afoot here.
Link

06 November 2008

Election post-mortem

I sent in a portion of that prior post (Elections and the Church) to my local paper, and much to my surprise they accepted it for publication, so you can see me in print here once again.

It definitely feels good to be done with the election season. It's as though I can get back to the rest of my life now. Does anyone else have similar feelings?

And just to prove that everything is better under President-elect Obama, check out this image:



Yes, that's my scorecard from yesterday, the first day after the election, with a personal best two-under-part nine holes (I've never shot nine in under par before), complete with my first ever eagle on a short par four (chipped in from just off the green). Admittedly, it was a short/executive course, but I'll take golf success wherever I can get it. Clearly, this is a sign that the universe has seen a significant realignment...

04 November 2008

Electoral predictions

OK, I've been resisting this all election season, mostly out of superstitious fear. However, I am now going to follow the advice of Oscar Wilde, "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it". Thus, here are my predictions for the outcome of the Presidential race.

Obama popular vote: 52%
Obama electoral vote: 364

McCain popular vote: 45%
McCain electoral vote: 174

If you really want to geek out on this stuff, click on this link to see the projected electoral map I created this morning.

Having voted early, I can now spend my day in search of free coffee from Starbucks and free ice cream from Ben & Jerry's (I think I'll pass on the free Krispy Kreme donut, though).

GO VOTE!!!

02 November 2008

Elections and the church

The following is the text of a brief talk I'll be giving in my church this morning. If you like what it has to say (with the potential exception of specific denominational references, depending on your flavor of church), feel free to borrow excerpts for your own house of faith, especially the final paragraph. And one reference note - the phrase at the end is from RFK, quoting Aeschylus (and although this phrase is popularly attributed to that Greek tragedian, it has actually never been found in any of his extant works).

I’d like to take just a couple of minutes this morning to talk about the upcoming election. Because after all, you haven’t heard enough about the election yet, right?

Here’s a quick exercise, and at the end of it I expect all of you to have your hands in the air (even though we’re Methodists). How many of you have already voted? Great! Keep your hands up. Now, how many of the rest of you are certain that you will vote on Tuesday? Excellent.

OK, you can put your hands down now. I said that I expected everyone to have their hands in the air because I believe that we, as faithful Christians, have a solemn responsibility to exercise our civic duty by participating in our nation’s electoral process. Given our recent history of elections, no one can say that your individual vote doesn’t matter.

Along with this duty to participate is an equally important duty to be informed, to use your God-given intellect to make reasoned choices. To that end, I have a stack of copies of the United Methodist Church’s voter guide, as published by the Board of Church and Society. Unlike some of the other voter guides floating around other churches this morning, this guide specifically does not endorse any candidate or party. What it does do is set forth the United Methodist Church’s official positions on a variety of issues, drawing from published statements such as the Social Principles and the Book of Resolutions, and compares these with official statements from the platforms of the two major political parties. You can pick up a copy in the narthex on your way out today.

And finally, along with our responsibility to be informed participants, we have what I consider to be an even greater task. Come Wednesday there will be electoral winners and losers, joy and sadness, celebration and resentment. I believe that we, as people of faith, must take the lead in helping bring our nation back together after this election season. As Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, regardless of who you support, regardless of who receives your vote, and regardless of who wins or loses, at the end of the day let us come together as one people, let us bind up each other’s hurts, and let us move forward in prayer for our new political leaders. Let us work to reunify this nation that God, for a time, has entrusted to us, and let us, by our words and deeds, do our part to make gentle the life of this world. Thank you.

29 October 2008

Election recommendations (Georgia)

Since I have received a few calls/texts/emails already asking my opinion on some of the candidates and questions on the ballot, I figured it might be helpful to list a few of my recommendations (I hesitate to call them "endorsements", since that implies someone in some position of authority might actually care what I think!). I welcome feedback, questions, follow-up comments, etc. 

I'm not going to list each and every race, because so many of them are district-specific and outside of my scope of knowledge, and others are ones where I don't have a strong opinion. Here goes:

President/VP: Obama/Biden
U.S. Senate: Jim Martin
State Court of Appeals: Christopher McFadden (although there are some other good candidates here too, like Edenfield and Meyer von Bremen)
Public Service Commission: Jim Powell

State Senate District 42: David Adelman

DeKalb County offices:
Superior Court: Tom Stubbs
Superior Court: Johnny Mason (note - there are two different judge races here)
School Board, District 2: Marshall Orson
School Board, District 9: Ernest Brown (although I know less about this race)

State Constitutional Amendments:
#1 - No, although I certainly understand why some would vote yes (and the Sierra Club has endorsed this one). Basically, it would give tax breaks to owners of large tracts of forest land who keep their land as forests for 15 years (owners of tracts under 200 acres already get this tax break). 
#2 - Yes. This allows for the funding of TADs (Tax Allocation Districts), such as funding the Beltline, by using money from school districts if they so choose.
#3 - No. This would give private developers the ability to raise bond money to pay for the development of "private cities".

DeKalb County Referenda:
Yes for CEO presiding over meetings with the Commission setting its own agenda
Yes for various homestead exemptions
Undecided for school uniforms (mostly I just think it's dumb that we vote on a nonbinding referendum on this topic - isn't this what we elect school board members to decide?)

Again, feedback, comments, and questions are welcomed. And whether or not you agree with me, you should go vote!

27 October 2008

Election info

For those of you in DeKalb County who aren't sure about things like your State House and Senate and County Commission and School Board Districts, here's a helpful site from the County:

https://dklbweb.dekalbga.org/voter/street.htm

I'm considering posting a list of my "endorsements", and will hopefully have something up on that soon.

And as you vote, keep in mind the words of that sage political/social commentator Jimmy Buffett:

Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men
Who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend?

08 October 2008

A new candidate

Consider this option (click here).

Oh yes, and more serious posts to follow soon.

25 September 2008

Bono on the bailout, and Al Gore the rabble-rouser?

Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative today, Bono said:

"It is extraordinary to me that you can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion to save 25,000 children who die every day of preventable treatable disease and hunger."

Meanwhile, Al Gore spoke about the severity of the climate crisis and called for an uprising of direct action protests against the construction of new coal-fired plants:

“If you’re a young person looking at the future of this planet and looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration." (emphasis added)

Ponder on those two statements for a while.

14 September 2008

Truthiness, circa 2008

I have been doing my best to resist commenting on the Presidential election news cycles, being dominated as they have been by such inanities as porcine makeup. Yet I no longer can resist the onslaught of truthiness brought to bear by the Republican candidates. Yes, truthiness. Those of you who are fans of the Colbert Report know whereof I write. On its premiere episode, Stephen Colbert proclaimed, "We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist…I don't trust books. They're all fact, no heart. And that's exactly what's pulling our country apart today. 'Cause face it, folks; we are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and U.S. Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No, we are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”

Later, in a non-satirical (i.e., out of character) interview, Colbert explained his satire, saying “Truthiness is tearing apart our country, and I don't mean the argument over who came up with the word…It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that's not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything. It's certainty. People love the President because he's certain of his choices as a leader, even if the facts that back him up don't seem to exist. It's the fact that he's certain that is very appealing to a certain section of the country. I really feel a dichotomy in the American populace. What is important? What you want to be true, or what is true?…Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There's not only an emotional quality, but there's a selfish quality.”

This is exactly the playing field of the current election cycle, particularly since the selection of Governor Sarah Palin as the GOP’s Vice Presidential candidate. It’s not about what is true, it’s about what a certain segment of the populace wants to be true. It’s the notion that if you say something, all I have to do is disagree with your statement and I automatically have put forth an equally valid statement. For example, if I defend evolution and you counter by saying that creationism (or “intelligent design”, an oxymoron if ever there was one) is a “competing theory”, you have elevated intelligent design to an equal level of truthiness as evolution, simply by positing it as a valid alternative. Likewise, if you assert loudly and often enough that the causes of global warming are uncertain, then they really must be uncertain.

You have to live in the world of truthiness to be able to pull this off. Imagine someone challenging the scientific theory of gravity as being “just a theory”. Do you really want to try jumping off the roof to test this “just a theory”? If so, go for it, and I will include you in next year’s Darwin Award nominations.

The Republican candidates continue to utilize this satirical concept in shameful ways. When they run commercials about Senator Obama asserting that a law he supported means that he was in favor of “comprehensive sex education” for kindergarteners, even though what the bill really did was to encourage age-appropriate education for young children to help protect them from sexual predators, they commit truthiness. When they object to Obama’s commercials about Senator McCain noting that McCain is out of touch and can’t even compose emails by claiming that McCain’s war injuries prevent him from using a typewriter and therefore he can’t possibly compose emails, even though McCain himself has said in interviews that his cell phone is his favorite gadget, then they commit truthiness. (Gee, if only someone would invent a cell phone that you could use to send emails…wow, I wonder when they’ll come up with that…)

Similarly, when your son bravely joins his unit to deploy to Iraq, and you give a speech extolling the virtues of his unit because they will “be there to defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans”, you engage in truthiness because you ignore the supreme fact that the evil terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001 were not Iraqis, and that Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia didn’t even exist on September 11, 2001. With all due respect to the honorable members of Private First Class Track Palin’s unit, the 1st Stryker Brigade, 25th Infantry Division’s Combat Team, they are not being deployed to fight the enemy that attacked us on 9/11.

KA and SI, help me out here. The idea that by repeating a meme often enough it takes on a degree of truth – dare I say, truthiness – is repugnant to those of us who believe in actual truths, who think that there are in fact objective measures of truth and falsehood, and who believe that intelligent, reflective persons will comprehend these measures and will apply them to the most critical choices of our generation. And if they don’t, I suppose they will get the President they deserve…and I will get a sizeable incentive to emigrate to Sweden or Canada.

27 August 2008

Meteorological mischief

I’m an avid hurricane watcher. It comes from growing up in the path of so many tropical storms down in south Florida (where I grew up, Miami was the big city to the north of us). As a young child, I would map the progress of storms across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Caribbean Sea, plotting their coordinates and tracking their barometric pressure and maximum sustained winds at each reading. Combining that background with the fact that I plan to spend a few days down in Florida this Labor Day weekend, it should come as no surprise that I’ve been keeping an eye on Hurricane Gustav this week. As best as I can tell from the storm’s history and the current computer predictions, it looks like I’ll be safe in Florida.

Residents of the Gulf Coast, however, might not be so fortunate. In fact, based on the most current projections I’ve seen, it looks as though Gustav will become a rather strong storm (maybe Category 3) as he moves into the Gulf of Mexico, and he might make landfall somewhere around the city of New Orleans. Of course, any predictions about hurricanes that extend more than a day or two into the future are somewhat speculative; we are a long way from understanding all of the factors that control the weather. But the irony of this possibility was too striking to ignore (and I must thank Jason for the initial idea behind this post). To reiterate, there’s a decent chance that a major hurricane might hit New Orleans around the middle of next week, evoking memories of the devastation that was Katrina (she hit NOLA three years ago this Friday) and the current Administration’s continual failures in cleanup and restoration efforts – right in the middle of the Republican National Convention!! To paraphrase my spouse’s comments on this, that would be a fine display of Mother Nature’s justice.

I wonder if Lou Dobbs is on the phone with Pat Robertson right now, asking him to pray Gustav over to the coast of Mexico instead…

22 August 2008

VP...Then again...

You know what? I'm starting to think it's Hillary. Listen to Obama's tone of late, and his populist economic rhetoric. Who better to help him with that theme than Hillary? When was the economy better in the last 15 years than under Bill? (Of course, he can't really take a lot of credit for that, as no President actually has that much control over general economic health, but that's another post.) 

And also, Obama plans to unveil his pick in Springfield on Saturday on the state Capitol steps where he first began his improbable campaign. Springfield, of course, invokes memories of Abraham Lincoln - and thanks to Doris Kearns Goodwin's popular book, Lincoln is now famously known as someone who brought his harshest rivals into his cabinet - following the maxim "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer". (BTW, that quote has been attributed to Sun Tzu - author of The Art of War - and to Niccolo Machiavelli, but apparently there is no definitive source for that quote before its appearance in The Godfather Part II as spoken by Michael Corleone...go figure.)

So if it's not Biden, as I (sort of) predicted before, it's going to be Hillary. That would definitely be a newsworthy event. Stay tuned...

19 August 2008

Oh, why not – VP predictions

Chances are, by the time you read this Barack Obama will have announced his Vice Presidential selection. Nevertheless, I figured I’d join the cacophony of online voices making predictions about whom he will choose, so here are my various levels of prediction:

Most likely: Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE). Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, solid resume (now that it’s honest), adds experience and gravitas to the ticker, and would make a great attack dog in the VP debate.

Most boringly objectionable: Senator Evan Bayh (D-IN). Is in his current office because his father preceded him there, and has done little to distinguish himself in two terms in the Senate. Also was a solid supporter of the Iraq war, and his ability to deliver Indiana in the electoral map is perhaps overrated. This, to me, would be a rather disappointing choice.

Most likely surprise: Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). Picking his bitter rival (and the second most popular candidate in the Democratic Party) would be a bold move, one that might backfire depending on the level of animosity toward the Clintons that remains in the nation, and also depending on how the Big Dog reacts during the campaign. However, she would bring another constituency to the ticket and would rally the part of the Democratic base that Obama currently doesn’t have in his pocket.

Less likely/most satisfying surprise: General Colin Powell. It’s been rumored that Powell will endorse Obama at some point before or during the convention. What better way to endorse him than by agreeing to be his running mate? This would be a devastating ticket, and would clearly answer any concerns about national security prowess on the ticket.

So that’s my $0.02 on the topic. Comments welcomed to tell me just how off base I am/was.

25 July 2008

Missing your Musings?

The lazy days of summer have been anything but for yours truly, and thus I must apologize for my absence from this blog. You’ll probably have to put up with further absences over the next fortnight or so, as I will be traveling abroad and most likely will not have much chance for blogging. However, I’ll try to take some gorgeous travel pics and post them for your viewing pleasure.

I decided I needed to hop on here and make one quick post, however, because the irony of some of today’s political events struck me as being beyond even the normal ironic political material. It seems that John McCain has criticized Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin and his foreign policy overall. Specifically, McCain criticized Obama for not favoring the surge of troops in Iraq, asserting that while “our troops took the fight to the enemy” Obama was following a policy that would have resulted in “American forces…retreating under fire”. McCain also asserts that the surge he supported was the cause of the “Anbar Awakening”, even though many sources have shown that the Sunni tribal leaders began turning against extremists long before the surge began. In short, McCain is arguing for the forceful use of military power as a first resort in achieving diplomatic goals.

Meanwhile, McCain prepared today to meet with someone he called a “transcendent national role model”, someone of whom McCain says, “I have been a great admirer”. Given McCain’s recent rhetoric, you’d be forgiven for assuming that this great role model were a military hero, a strong national leader, or some other person befitting McCain’s stated policies. But of course, I wouldn’t be writing about it if it were someone that logical. Rather, McCain’s “role model” with whom he is scheduled to meet today (in Aspen, no less) is the Dalai Lama. Yes, that Dalai Lama (there’s only one, after all). I wonder what the Dalai Lama thinks of the use of military force as a primary tool of diplomacy…

18 June 2008

AC Day Two

Wow, another relatively unremarkable day at AC. Here’s your recap:

The morning session included a great presentation from Emory Healthcare (no, really!). Emory’s representative highlighted their advances in various medical research fields, and briefly discussed the plans to expand the clinical campus. Some of the research they’re doing there is quite remarkable, and it’s nice to know that we as NGUMC Methodists have a hand in supporting it.

The morning also featured the retiring clergy addresses, which as always were quite entertaining. There’s nothing like giving a preacher one more shot at addressing his or her colleagues to liven things up.

The afternoon business sessions were mostly routine. In case you were wondering, the Conference’s unfunded liability for potential retirees with pre-1982 service is roughly $40 million, which is actually down from $60 million some years ago. The actuarial projection has us making up that deficit by the year 2021 (probably because there will be so few covered pre-1982 retirees around by then…). The full budget will be discussed Friday, but the fiscal house seems pretty sound at the moment.

The Young Adult Task Force had a nice presentation, including two resolutions – one to encourage the selection of more young adult delegates to AC, and another to recommend shifting the dates of AC to Wednesday-Saturday instead of the current Tuesday-Friday. The rationale behind this is that younger adults have less flexible schedules (and less vacation time), and thus it’s harder for them to take off more days during the week to attend AC. After some debate and discussion, both resolutions passed.

It definitely is true that the demographics of AC are on the older side. I think I’m safe in placing myself below the median age of the attendees. One thing that has struck me this year in particular is just how institutional the whole Conference and its proceedings are. The problem there, as with any institution, is that eventually practices grow to protect and enhance the institution itself, rather than the original underlying mission that the institution was founded to promulgate.

That’s really all I have to report today. Oh, last night’s and this afternoon’s worship service’s preacher was the Chancellor Emeritus of Asbury Theological Seminary, Maxie Dunnam. I missed both of those services, and it would seem that I’m glad that I did, as the reports I’ve heard noted that he characterized “diversity” and “inclusion” as false doctrines appealing to those who only want to hear what is popular. I suppose Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors is heresy also?

Tomorrow we’ll have the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) breakfast, and the MFSA will present their annual award to our own Beth Corrie during the plenary session in the afternoon. Beth will presumably have a minute or two to address the Conference…check back here tomorrow to learn what controversial things she said!

17 June 2008

Beer and grub at the Brick Store Pub

I had the pleasure of attending a beer dinner at the Brick Store Pub last week. This was a five-course affair with paired beers, with all the beers being from the Highland Brewing Company out of Asheville, NC. Highland’s owner, Oscar Wong, was in attendance to discuss his beers and generally hold court. The Executive Chef at the Brick Store Pub is Eric Ottensmeyer. (Notice also the cool keychain they handed out as a party favor!)

I begin this description/review with a big disclaimer: I really like the Brick Store. I have known one of the proprietors for some time now, and know several of the bartenders by name. Thus, I am favorably inclined toward the BSP (as it’s occasionally known) in general, and I consider it best to reveal my positive bias up front. Having said that, I expect that I will make a concerted effort to offer constructive criticism and critique where I can.

Overall, my dining companions and I had a great time at this beer dinner and we thought the beer-food pairings were spot on, despite a few critiques of some of the food preparations and executions. I am willing to chalk some of those critiques up to an imperfect kitchen arrangement and perhaps a kitchen crew that isn’t quite used to this level of food prep. With all those disclaimers and caveats in place, on to the dinner! And note the pictures for each course – hopefully they come through well enough for your viewing pleasure.



The reception course featured a carrot hummus on pita toast with leek oil,

some hamachi wontons with red grapefruit ponzu,

and a Georgia shrimp tostada with local basil pesto.

The carrot hummus was sweet and tangy, and the leek oil was subtle but provided a consistent backdrop. The hamachi slices were perched on perfectly crisp wonton triangles, and were sweet and citrusy from the ponzu (essentially a Japanese citrus vinegar). The shrimp on the tostada were cooked well, and although I wasn’t initially convinced about the pairing with the pesto it definitely grew on me. The beer for this course was the Highland Kashmir IPA, which was hoppy with a good bite but not lingeringly bitter. The beer paired particularly well with the sweet and tangy ponzu.

The official first course was described as a local summer squash medley with endive field mix, with Benton Farms lardon and grana padano, served with leek vinaigrette.

The greens were incredibly tasty, having a good bite and some potent bitterness. We all remarked on how different these tasted from the average “mixed greens” one finds in the grocery store – that is to say, they had a definitive flavor. The squash were tender and mildly sweet. My biggest issue with this course was the so-called “lardon”. In my book, lardons are pieces of thick-cut bacon that are diced, blanched to remove the excessive saltiness and smokiness, and then fried short of being well-crisped. The items in this salad were not lardons in the classical sense. They were more like strips of bacon, cooked crisp, and with a very potent smoky flavor. This is not to say they weren’t good (although one of my dining companions objected to the strong smoky flavor), but they definitely weren’t lardons. The beer was the Highland Gaelic Ale, a great all-around ale that complemented the dish without competing with it.

The second full course was a “trio” of baby beets served alongside a walnut crusted rabbit loin, with rogue smokey blue cheese and Valencia orange sauce/vinaigrette.

The “trio” was actually all three parts of the baby beets – leaves, beetroot, and finely diced stems. The salad was fabulous. The rabbit, at its best, was like really good meaty white fried chicken. My smaller piece was a bit dry and overcooked, but the larger piece was perfectly juicy. However, one of my companions’ rabbit was definitely overcooked. The beer was the Highland Oatmeal Porter, a dark and rich pint that was a little bit sweet and smoky – it went well with the dish, especially with the smokey blue cheese in the salad.

The entrée course a crispy skin duck breast served over Georgia blueberry hotcakes that were topped with a maple syrup duck demi-glace and some edible local flowers (which I couldn’t identify).

I was a bit skeptical of this dish upon reading its description, but the combination mostly worked for me. The demi-glace was savory and slightly but not too sweet, and while the duck meat was great I would have preferred a crispier skin. I think this was an execution matter; perhaps the kitchen rushed the prep of the duck rather than allowing it to render off its fat more thoroughly and thus yielding a crispier skin. The sweetness of the blueberries in the hotcake provided a nice contrast with the dish overall, especially since I had expected a very sweet “pancakes and maple syrup” flavor profile. The beer was the Highland Black Mocha Stout, which was thick with pronounced coffee and mocha flavors and some good bitterness – the bitterness of the sweet smoky beer went very well with the slightly sweet gamey duck.

Dessert was a strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, topped with espresso whipped cream.

The cream was actually white cream dusted with flecks of espresso. The cobbler was quite yum and warm, and not too sweet (you don’t want strawberry-rhubarb to be very sweet, in my opinion). The beer was the Highland Tasgall Ale, described by Mr. Wong as a “wee heavy Scotch ale”, single hopped, malty, and slightly smoky. The tart, creamy beer was a perfect foil for the dessert, especially for the espresso cream.

Overall, I rate this dinner as a success, despite a few missteps in the execution of some of the food dishes. The food concepts were first rate, as were the beer pairings. The cost of the dinner with beer (the pours were a bit over half a pint each) was $55, which seemed very reasonable to me. I look forward to the chance to taste Chef Ottensmeyer’s dishes when he has complete control over a serious kitchen operation (which, rumor has it, might happen in the not too distant future, but that’s all I’m allowed to say…). In the meantime if you’re a fan of good food and great beer and you have the chance to partake of another BSP beer dinner, I’d recommend you do so.

Annual Conference, Day One

Here’s your update on the North Georgia United Methodist Church's Annual Conference proceedings from the first day. If I were writing this based solely on the proceedings themselves, I probably wouldn’t have much to say. It’s a very low-key year, particularly in comparison with last year’s election of delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in which I took part as a candidate.

Perhaps the highlight of today’s proceedings (from my perspective, of course) was a brief presentation on the Nothing But Nets campaign – go check out the website http://www.nothingbutnets.net. Hopefully many of you are already familiar with this great program (when I led a youth program at my church earlier this year, several of our youth already knew about it), but for those of you who are not and don’t want to read the website, it’s a program that distributes insecticide-treated mosquito nets throughout Africa and other regions of the world where malaria is rampant. For $10 the program can purchase a bed net that protects a family of four as they sleep, deliver it to the family, and provide relevant instruction on how to properly use the net. This is a bigger deal than you may think (and bigger than I used to think before I learned about it last year) – roughly 500 million people around the world are infected with malaria each year, and about a million people around the world die from malaria each year, or one person every 30 seconds! To put it bluntly and representatively, a $10 contribution means that four people in Africa probably DON’T DIE from malaria. How else can you save four lives with ten dollars? The afternoon turned into a bit of one-upmanship as various congregations and districts pledged $1,000 here and $2,000 there toward the campaign. By the end of the afternoon we had already raised over $100,000 in pledges.

No real controversial resolutions to report on, although we do now have one before us that would call on United Methodists to resist efforts by the Georgia Legislature to allow the carrying of concealed weapons in houses of worship. I can only hope this won’t prove to be a controversial measure...but if it is, at least I know one guy in my congregation who has a few sidearms he could start packing on Sunday morning.

In other news from today, we heard a presentation on General Conference from our delegation’s representatives. Basically, the representatives congratulated our delegation on being strong leaders at General Conference, standing up for what was right and true and good and all things genuinely Christian, and fighting back against the forces from the gates of hell that wanted to impose their evil reform and change upon the pure church. As you can tell, not so inspiring for me, especially since I'm apparently one of the minions from the gates of hell in that pantheon. Oh, and I finally elicited a response in the latest edition of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate - apparently someone found my (and another writer's) letter too offensive to let pass without comment:


TENNILLE – They will never give up will they? Folks like J.B. Gordan and Dan Browning will continue to push the homosexual issue until they succeed in splitting the church. Wouldn’t it be less painful for all of us if they simply started they own church or just joined the Universalists. They can interpret the scriptures any way they want. Mr. Gordan would no longer have to be concerned with super delegates like Eddie Fox and Mr. Browning could be a part of a church where everyone agreed with his position - 100%. I thank God that we still have men of intergrity like Rev. Fox and Bishop Davis who will stand for truth.
Attempts to equate the homosexual issue with slavery and women’s rights are weak. We all want to interpret scripture in a way that best suits our positions, but we can’t argue with anatomy or procreation. Allowing our desires to overcome the way we were made is what got us into trouble from the beginning. I suspect that people will continue to give in to the socially acceptable position that sex between to consenting adults, no matter their gender, is fine. May God have mercy on us. The day when the language in the Discipline is changed concerning this particular matter is the day I will be called to serve elsewhere.

Rev. Jim W. Dominey
Pastor, Piney Mount UMC

Hmmm, where to begin to reply to this? By the way, I promise that all of the typos contained therein were in the original letter as published. I suppose I could take issue with the writer's classification of me as a Universalist - although I think he really meant to call me a Unitarian. And no, I don't think that even if I founded my own church I'd have one where everyone agreed with me 100%. I never equated "the homosexual issue" with slavery - and what is "the homosexual issue" anyway? Is it too high prices for Bette Midler concerts? A lack of quality hair care products? I haven't a clue what to say about how "we can't argue with anatomy or procreation"...best to just let that one go. As for allowing our desires to overcome the way we were made, I agree - people shouldn't allow their desires to be conformingly-heterosexual Christians to overcome the fact that God made them to be loving homosexuals. And finally, there's the writer's last line. for which I must give him prophetic props - at least he is able to foresee the day when that Discipline language will be changed. I hope that I can maintain that optimistic attitude as well.

04 June 2008

To your health!

According to the latest research, "Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human lifespan"! Previous studies of resveratrol and other red wine polyphenols that found positive results in mice (e.g., anti-aging and athletic enhancement effects) administered levels of resveratrol that were the equivalent of an average person's consuming 100 bottles of red wine per day, an amount even I can't approach. However, the latest studies suggest that resveratrol and other compounds found in red wine could have a positive effect in humans who consume "a mere four, five-ounce glasses of wine" per day. Let's see, that's 20 ounces, and with the standard 750 ml bottle being equivalent to just over 25 ounces, that works out to be one glass shy of a full bottle of red wine per day. But then again, who wants to leave just one glass in an open bottle? Probably best to just finish the darn thing...

I think this is where I'm supposed to offer the liability disclaimer that I'm not a medical professional, and you're a fool if you take anything I say as being reasonable, competent medical advice. 

With that out of the way, cheers!

28 May 2008

Neuro-mystical brain insights?

OK, I'm intrigued by this video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the Harvard-trained neuroanatomist who has been making waves of late with her new book that describes her own massive stroke and its effects on her brain and her perceptions of reality (you can get the higher-def version of the video here, if you have a fast connection). In brief, she considers the left side of the brain to control logic, language, and the like, while the right side of the brain is more kinesthetic and expansive, blurring the distinctions between "I" and "other". When her stroke damaged the left side of her brain, she reports mystical feelings of expansiveness and oneness with all creation that she ascribes to her right brain.

I haven't yet read her book, but what caught my eye was this article in the Sunday NY Times discussing her experience. I'm not too keen on the comparisons to Eckhart Tolle's work (what I've seen of his stuff has been less than compelling), but what Taylor has to say is very intriguing. I hereby solicit comments from my readers who are more knowledgeable about such matters, or from anyone who also finds this stuff intriguing.

15 May 2008

Dining at Home – Home Restaurant, that is…

In another departure for my blogging, I’m switching back to a foodie discussion. This is a review of my recent dinner at Home Restaurant (the link actually goes to the restaurant group that runs Home, and it’s an annoying website, but I figured I’d toss it in anyway), the newest workplace of Richard Blais. Aside from being a quirky pioneer in the realm of what’s popularly known as “molecular gastronomy” (think “mad chef with a chemistry set”), he’s also a contestant on this season’s Top Chef on the Bravo Network. But enough background – on to the food!
Home’s menu is much more traditional in its appearance than many of Chef Blais’ other creations. You might call it a nouveau take on Southern or “down home” cooking. And that may be all you think of it, until you notice little quirks like buttermilk pancakes with “foie gras butter”, or pork short rib with “coffee BBQ sauce”. Suffice it to say that even the innocuous “oyster with hot sauce” is more intriguing than it sounds.

I dined at Home with two companions on Tuesday of this week, one being my spouse and one a friend from out of town. Spouse and friend began the evening with cocktails, a ginger margarita and a basil “mint julep” respectively. The margarita was tart and mostly traditional with the ginger being subtle but present. The basil drink (called "The Dastardly Deed") was intriguing – very fragrant basil permeating a sweet vodka-based drink, although it was a little sweet for my personal tastes (that didn’t prevent me from sampling it several times, though).

We opted for the chef’s tasting menu (with wine pairings), which had only been available since the prior day. Another caveat is that Chef Blais himself was not in the kitchen the night we were there, and our server was very up front with this information when we inquired about the tasting menu, so kudos for truth in advertising there. In fact, kudos all around to our server, Melissa, who was attentive and graciously responsive to our numerous inquiries. The tasting menu was technically a four-course affair, but as Melissa explained the first taste was really just an amuse-bouche, and they didn’t really count dessert as a course, so we wound up with six plates when all was said and done. We began with some excellent small biscuits, served with butter, pepper jelly, and sweet pickled okra.

Amuse-bouche – a single Kumomoto oyster on a bed of ice, with Tabasco pearls (get it - oysters and pearls?), served with a glass of Gruet (a sparkling wine from New Mexico). The oyster was topped with Tabasco dots that were like frozen ice cream droplets (made with the help of liquid nitrogen, no doubt), and white. The flavor of the sauce/pearls was not too hot, but it definitely lingered in a good way, popping right out of the pearls. I was a little disappointed to learn later that the Manager had intended that we be served a Laurent-Perriér Rosé sparkling, which probably would have been even better, but the Gruet sufficed.

First course (with the Gruet): Fluke sashimi topped with crispy bits of duck skin and micro cilantro with chili oil, and smoked mayonnaise on the side. All of the flavors were very distinct and pronounced except for the rather mild fish, which tasted a bit like yellowtail to me. In essence, the mild fish served as an admirable backdrop for the other great flavors. I particularly enjoyed the combination of the smoky mayo and crispy duck skin; our table decided that someone ought to start making “duck rinds” as a snack food alternative to pork rinds.

Second course: Shrimp and grits, two shrimp on top of creamy yellow grits, served with a bit of seared foie gras on the side, and topped with thin slices of pickled radish and mini cubes of freeze-dried pineapple (more fun with liquid nitrogen). All of the individual flavors exploded on the tongue, and yet again managed to remain balanced. I did notice what some other reviewers had said about the saltiness of this dish, but I didn’t think it was too much (this is Southern cooking, after all!). Further investigation (thanks, Melissa) revealed what I suspect is the source of what some palates called over-saltiness, as the grits contained parmigiano and cheddar cheeses (and no small amount of butter, naturally). The dish had a dash of pepper vinegar, which was very subtle in flavor. Our table’s only real complaint was that the seared foie gras was a little bitter (then again, we don’t eat much foie gras), but my spouse noted that combining the foie gras with the pineapple removed the bitterness. The wine for this course was a Brandal Albarino from the Rias Baixas region of Spain, an excellent white.

Third course: Here I should note that the wines were generally brought out first, leaving us to play the fun guessing game of what would be paired with the wine. Our wine here was a Syrah with a name I apparently didn’t quite catch – Halsted or something like that – and I believe it was from California’s Central Coast. It tasted of bacon fat and dark fruit. Had I been thinking more clearly, I would have been able to guess our arriving food – a piece of pork belly. This was glazed with a coffee BBQ sauce and served on a five-bean salad. The pork belly was not at all greasy or chewy, and it had a lightly crisp exterior with an almost creamy interior. The sauce was light and complemented the pork without intruding on it. As our friend commented, this was “like a really upscale cassoulet”.

Fourth course: The wine was Stella Maris, a Washington state meritage of predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It showed a dark cherry nose, with some eucalyptus and spicy hints of white or black pepper; solid fruit flavors without being so damned overbearing on the alcohol content like many big American reds can be (am I sufficiently revealing my biases yet?). The food was a small Kobe beef short rib, served on a puree of corn and topped with Point Reyes blue cheese and micro cilantro, with a celery-Makers Mark jus and a side of horseradish foam (think horseradish sauce fluffed up). I should also note that the manager later described the beef as Wagu, or “domestic Kobe”. No matter the name; the beef was outstanding. Just to prove that I could, I eschewed the steak knife and cut my first bite with my fork. This was another riotous combination of flavors – savory from the beef, a little salty from the cheese, sweetness from the jus and the corn puree, spiciness from the horseradish foam, and yet all the flavors managed to be both prominent and balanced.

Dessert: We had a sour cream pecan cake with whipped cream, a poached blueberry (that’s right, just one), and a quenelle of sweet tea ice cream. The wine pairing was a Pend d’Orielle (I hope I have that right), presumably their Riesling. The cake was good, the whipped cream was quite nice, and the sweet tea ice cream was just insane. Imagine some Thai iced tea in terms of the creaminess, but with the distinct flavor of Southern sweet tea.

Overall thoughts - Almost without exception, the dishes were well balanced with pronounced flavors that all stood out individually and yet were harmonious together. The execution was also pretty much spot on, which is a nice feat for a kitchen from which the Executive Chef is absent that evening. The price seemed fair - $60 for the tasting menu with a $35 supplement for the wine pairings.

We had a nice chat with the General Manager, Chet Huntley, on the way out (I didn’t ask him where David Brinkley was – figured he heard that often enough). He said that they were trying to have the food be interesting without having Chef Blais go completely overboard (my words, not his) in terms of the molecular gastronomy stuff. As I was dining, I thought that the tasting menu perhaps should have had more crazy whiz-bang elements to it. Looking back now I see that in fact it did have several Blais-ian elements, but that they weren’t the main point of the meal. The main point was the food. I think this is the mark of a mature chef – one who knows how to utilize techniques (even some crazy ones) and isn’t afraid to push the envelope, but who doesn’t force the technique to be front and center and instead allows the food to be the star.

Sorry this went on so long, and thanks for bearing with me. I did take pictures, but they turned out pretty lousy – I need to just go ahead and be willing to use the flash in restaurants, or figure out a better low light setting on my digital camera.

14 May 2008

The end of the Democratic primary season, at last

That title may seem a bit provocative and overreaching to some, until you read this news story. That's right, John Edwards plans to make it official this evening that he is endorsing Barack Obama for the nomination. The timing of this endorsement is clearly set to take the last bit of wind out of Clinton's sails, coming as it does on the heels of Clinton's blowout win in West Virginia yesterday where she ran up huge margins with white working class voters. Apparently the champion of white working class Democrats (had you heard that Edwards' father was a mill worker?) does not find these primary electoral results troubling enough to deter him from getting on board the Obama Express. Surely this is one of the final nails in the Clinton campaign coffin. Now it's time to start getting the Democratic Party back together in order to regain the momentum for the general election, especially at a time when the GOP is losing House seats in the reddest of red areas. Perhaps there is yet still time for the Democrats to avoid blowing the election in November...

Yet more self-promotion

Following up on some of those happenings at the United Methodists' General Conference, I sent a letter to the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, our local Methodist newspaper (yes, there are such things). I'm a little surprised that it was published given the mostly conservative nature of our neck of the Methodist woods, so we'll see if it stirs up some responses in the next issue. I've reprinted the letter below, as the paper has a subscription-only website, but if you happen to be a subscriber and would like to see it in its official publication, just click here and scroll down the page.

Bishop Davis' math questioned
ATLANTA - Commenting on the General Conference's decision to uphold its stance against homosexuality and the declaration that the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teachings", Bishop Lindsey Davis said, "I think the church is right. I think we are very much in sync with historic Christianity and very much in sync with 99.9 percent of Christians in the world".
By asserting that 99.9% of Christians would agree with the Discipline's current language on homosexuality, Bishop Davis thus assumes that only 1 in 1,000 Christians disagree with this exclusionary theological position. I for one believe that more than 1 in 1,000 Christians support the full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I believe that more than 1 in 1,000 United Methodists support this.
If one considers the delegates to General Conference to be representative of United Methodism, then one would have to concede that 45% of United Methodists support this. I even believe that more than 1 in 1,000 North Georgia United Methodists support this. Last year as a candidate for delegate to General Conference I received almost 20% of the votes cast on the first ballot, in spite of having proclaimed my belief that God's "radical love and inclusion should extend fully to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, just as they are.” If only 1 in 1,000 (or in this case, about 900) lay delegates supported full inclusion, where did my votes come from?
Despite the pain that many today feel in my church, in other churches throughout North Georgia, and in churches throughout Methodism, we will continue to bear witness to the continuing, renewing, and refreshing movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. As God says through the prophet Isaiah, "Behold, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert."
It was not that long ago that the UMC used Scripture (and the misguided interpretations thereof) to justify the denial of full ordination rights to women and the segregation of African-Americans into separate churches and church structures. I know that one day we will look back on this current exclusion with the same regret and shame that we now feel for our prior errors. I only hope and pray that this day will come sooner rather than later.

01 May 2008

And now for something completely different...

Allow me to take a moment out of my Christian/United Methodist theological reflections to wish all my pagan/Wiccan friends a blessed Beltane

(And yes, I mostly put that in there just in case there are any conservative Christian types - IRD, anyone? - reading my blog, so as to thoroughly piss them off if I hadn't done so already...)

Did you know that in days gone by in Ireland, people would decorate the "May Bush" with colored eggshells? 

In all seriousness though, do take some time today to commune with nature, celebrate the coming of warmer weather, and know that even though it may seem like the old dark ways are winning, these are just the last gasps of a dying age, and we are at the dawning of something new. Birth is a painful process, and in order to birth a new era, we must all work as faithful doulas. 

30 April 2008

Disappointing news from UMC General Conference

Bear with me on the technical procedural language here. This afternoon, the quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted to adopt the alternate minority report from the Church & Society 2 Committee regarding Paragraph 161G of the Book of Discipline. In short, what this means is that the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline retains the language that calls the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching". The vote was 55% to 45%.

The alternative report (which was the majority coming out of Committee) would have changed the language of that Paragraph to say that faithful United Methodists have genuine disagreements about this issue, and that the Church would continue to seek faithful responses and insights, and would have deleted that language about being incompatible with Christian teaching. Because the minority report was adopted, the majority was not voted on.

The newly adopted language also removes some of the prior language that recognized our "limited understanding" of the "complex gift" of sexuality. It also added the words "monogamous, heterosexual" to the marriage covenant.

I'm sure others will have more studied commentary on this in the days to come, but my take on it is that the Conference has voted to adopt a statement on human sexuality that is at least as repressive, if not more so, than the prior statement. The alternative would have been to say that faithful Christians agree to disagree. 

Count me disappointed. 

28 April 2008

Why not, indeed!

Remember the end of my previous rant where I suggested that perhaps “there will be a backlash against the conservative agenda, and miracles of inclusion and grace will occur at this year’s General Conference”? Well, guess what? The General Conference voted on the new members of the Judicial Council today (again, that’s the UMC’s version of the Supreme Court). The GC elected candidates supported by progressive groups such as the Reconciling Ministries Network, thereby replacing several conservative Council members who were up for re-election. It should also be noted that these new members were on a slate of candidates nominated by the Council of Bishops (which is to say, the Council of Bishops selected moderates/progressives for its nominees).

In other encouraging news from Fort Worth, the committee studying Paragraph 161G of the Book of Discipline - that being the section on “Human Sexuality” – has passed by a vote of 39 to 26 a new version of said Paragraph, which now goes to the plenary session of GC. While the new language is not yet what I might want it to be, it’s a very significant step forward. Most strikingly, the proposed new Paragraph would REMOVE the previous language describing “the practice of homosexuality” as being “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and would instead state the following:

We know that all are God's children and of sacred worth; yet we have been, and remain, divided regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality. Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness. We continue to reason and pray together with faith and hope that the Holy Spirit will soon bring reconciliation to our community of faith. The fire in our disagreements points to a deeper human mystery than we knew. We believe that the Spirit has brought our collective conscience to acknowledge this mystery more honestly, and to make our claims with greater humility before God and our neighbors. We therefore ask the Church, United Methodist and others, and the world, to refrain from judgment regarding homosexual persons and practices until the Spirit leads us to a new insight. In the meantime, let us seek to welcome, know, forgive, and love one another as Christ has accepted us, that God may be glorified through everything in our lives.

I predict some serious fireworks on the floor of the general session once this comes up for a vote. Nevertheless, I see these developments as a serious movement of the Spirit among the GC delegates. Continue to keep them in your prayers in the days ahead.

26 April 2008

Political bribery, sure, but in the church?

OK, this is going to be a rant, with PG-13 language advisory and all that jazz. This is one of those news stories that got me so incensed I was literally shaking with rage (that usually occurs with respect to something the church has done, but occasionally I get it from the Bush Administration also). It has to do with the quadrennial United Methodist General Conference, so if you’re not interested in the United Methodist Church I’ll understand if you tune out now, but if you’re at all interested in the power struggles of the religiously inclined, you can keep reading.

So here’s the basic story: The Renewal and Reform Coalition, basically the conglomerate group of the conservative wing of the UMC (I’ll refrain from calling them “christo-fascists” for now), gave pre-paid cell phones to about 150 delegates from Africa and the Philippines as a “no-strings-attached” gift. Fine so far? Well, the phones were accompanied by a letter inviting delegates to a breakfast where they could have "fellowship with other like-minded delegates," and receive "information about the important issues that are coming before the conference." The letter concluded with a recommended slate of candidates for Judicial Council, essentially the UMC’s Supreme Court.

Let me go over that again. The phones are a “no-strings” gift, but they come with an endorsed slate of candidates for Judicial Council. Who do these people think they’re fooling? I suppose it would have been too crass simply to staple a $100 bill to the letter, so they sent along cell phones instead. Just to flesh out the argument, imagine that they had included a $100 bill instead of a pre-paid cell phone, and imagine you’re a delegate receiving this package. So in one hand you’ve got a list of candidates, and in the other hand you’ve got Benjamin Franklin staring at you. Remember, there are no strings attached to Benjamin. Right? Just because he comes with a list of recommended votes doesn’t mean there are any strings attached…maybe just a paper clip, but no strings.

Give me a freaking break! Who the heck is supposed to believe this horse manure? (That was my PG-13 language, and trust me, it’s much more R-rated in the original version.) If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a freaking duck! This arrangement is a walking, quacking bribe. That’s right, it’s a BRIBE, dirty payola that even secular politics wouldn’t tolerate.

Frankly, I think that every delegate to the UMC’s General Conference who was involved with this bribery scheme should surrender his or her credentials out of shame and embarrassment and repentance. Since that’s not going to happen, the Conference should adopt a resolution condemning this practice and reprimanding all those involved. In a classic belated closing of the barn door, the General Conference did vote today to establish an Ethics Committee for future General Conferences, since at present there’s no body where one can register an official complaint about a practice such as this one. Nice work for 2012, but it doesn’t help much for now.

My only hope (and I think it’s a legit one) is that the assembled delegates will be so thoroughly appalled by this treacherous, shameless act that there will be a backlash against the conservative agenda, and miracles of inclusion and grace will occur at this year’s General Conference. Hey, why not?

More shameless self-promotion

Recall the op-ed piece I referenced in my previous post, and then go check out my response via a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (scroll down a bit to get to mine). Basically, I thought that Merritt was somewhat dismissive in his treatment of the "social issues" such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, human rights and peace with justice. He was shocked that self-identified Christians might deign to vote for the non-conservative-identified candidate, and figured that if only the Democrats could come around on abortion and gay marriage, they might attract a large bloc of Christian voters. I could go on a bit about these issues, but I have covered them in the past, and besides, I have another rant I need to compose and post forthwith.

By the way, despite all of my previously published letters in the NY Times, the Wall Street Journal, et al., this is actually the first letter that my hometown newspaper has accepted for publication. Perhaps it's because I signed this one as the Lay Leader of my church? Who knows...just glad I finally broke through...

22 April 2008

And another thing...

Check out this op-ed piece in last Saturday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wherein the spokesman for the Southern Baptist Environment and Climate Initiative notes that some younger evangelicals are actually turning away from the Republican Party (horrors!) and are voting Democratic (anathema!). While he does make a few good points and he is helping bring the Baptists around to the issue of environmental stewardship, Mr. Merritt's arguments still ring a bit flat to my ear. 

Stay tuned for my brief response, which hopefully will be published in said newspaper soon - once that happens, I'll opine more long-windedly here.

PA redux

OK, so it looks like I was off by about 2%, as the current results have Clinton winning 55% to 45%. However, I may wind up being right about how close the actual delegate tally will be - we'll have to wait a while to see how those come out. In any event, it's clear that this primary fight will continue for quite some time - that is, assuming Clinton can continue to receive the requisite funding. One opinion I've read recently suggests that Obama may have lost the battle but won the war by forcing Clinton to severely deplete her campaign's resources. Let's see how things go in Indiana next - and North Carolina too, although Obama ought to win that state handily.

21 April 2008

Quick PA prediction(s)

Because everyone else is doing it, I figured it would make sense for me to toss my free predictions (and remember that you get what you pay for) for Tuesday's Pennsylvania primary. 

In case you've been living on the dark side of the moon the last few weeks, Clinton and Obama have been going at each other with increasing intensity, having nothing else to do since there hasn't been a primary in six weeks. Pennsylvania has the demographics that should favor Clinton, and thus the expectation is that she will win the primary. The real question, however, is which of the two candidates will do better than expected? The current average of polls has Clinton up by about 6%. Most observers contend that she needs to win by about that much in order to maintain the status quo. If Clinton wins by a double digit margin, she really upends the state of the race, and we'll probably see the two of them slug it out all the way to the convention. If, on the other hand, Obama gets to within 3% or 4% of Clinton, we will see increasing movement of the superdelegates to his side, and increasing pressure on Clinton to consider withdrawing. And of course, if Obama somehow upsets Clinton and wins Pennsylvania outright, you can stick a fork in her campaign.

So what will happen? I think that as has happened in the past, Obama will lose a couple of percentage points off of what the polls tell us (due, perhaps, to latent racism that voters won't disclose to pollsters), and thus Clinton will win by 7% or 8%. However, Obama will come very close in the delegate count because of how the delegates are apportioned by district, and thus will lose very little ground in the overall delegate count. Unfortunately, this means no resolution in the near term, and we continue on with what has become an increasingly silly campaign.

Check back in Wednesday for further analysis, and feel free to make fun of how wrong my predictions turn out to be!

17 April 2008

And also...

Oh yeah, and I'm pondering/ruminating/beginning to work on a book proposal. Currently it could go one of two ways - either as a straight-up spiritual guidebook, or as a spiritual memoir with some more didactic elements included for good measure. Either way, the gist of it will be something befitting this title:

The One Theory: An East/West Spirituality for the Quantum Age

More to come...

16 April 2008

No really, I'm here!

Apologies again for my absence. I was away at various beaches recharging the batteries, and since I've been back I've been in the middle of an intense workload (still in it, in fact, through tomorrow - anyone want to join me for a wine tasting Thursday evening to put the week behind me?). However, I had to share this tidbit with you. My comments? OMGWTF!! Watch and be amazed...

10 March 2008

We Heart Hypocrites

(Sorry, I couldn’t figure out how to make a “heart” symbol, so I wrote out the word instead…)

In some of the most entertaining political scandal news to emerge in some time, Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D-NY) has apparently been caught up as an alleged client in a high-end prostitution sting. The highest irony of this situation is that during his tenure as attorney general of New York, Mr. Spitzer was right out of Law and Order central casting (although he looks less like Jack McCoy and more like Elliot Stabler). As the NY Times reports, after busting another high-priced escort service business in 2004,

Mr. Spitzer spoke with revulsion and anger after announcing the arrest of 16 people for operating a high-end prostitution ring out of Staten Island. “This was a sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure,” Mr. Spitzer said at the time. “It was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring.”

I will leave the political and legal analyses for others in the blogosphere, except to say that when it’s a high-priced escort service where the women (or men) work voluntarily with absolutely no coercion, implied or otherwise, and all transactions are truly consensual, I have to believe that our public safety needs would be better addressed if we utilized our limited law enforcement resources in other realms.

My interest is differently focused. I have been pondering why it is that we (and if you want to exclude yourself from “we”, go ahead) find such delight in the downfall of public hypocrites. Of course, all scandals can be titillating, but there seems to be a particularly juicy, extra-special-tasty element to the story if there’s a healthy dose of hypocrisy included. After all, think about how this story would have played if instead of Mr. Spitzer, who has built his reputation on prosecuting those who transgress the law, we inserted some well-known horn dog of a guy, e.g. a pop music star, a professional athlete, or a hypothetical spouse of a leading Presidential candidate. It simply wouldn’t be as entertainingly titillating (unless perhaps it were the aforementioned hypothetical spouse).

So why is it that we particularly revel in the exposure of notorious hypocrites? Do we feel better about ourselves by seeing the foibles of others who we previously considered to be morally superior to us? Are we reassured that they are somehow just as mortal as we, susceptible to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? And if so, why do we insist on comparing ourselves to these idealized versions of humanity in the first place?

Perhaps there is a noble aspiration latent herein. Perhaps we seek heroes who will call us to our better angels, but in the end we fear our true potential and thus we establish heroes with feet of clay who we later can knock back down to our level. This keeps us safe. We are not required to aspire higher, because those who seek the heights are ultimately exposed as frauds. If there are no genuine heroes, no genuinely virtuous role models, then we are let off the hook. How can we strive toward perfection if those who claim to be perfect are always less than perfect?

In our religious undertakings, it perhaps seems easier to establish a Divinity as a distant object of worship. If Jesus were fully divine but somehow not entirely human, then we cannot be expected to match his life with ours. If the Buddha were a transcendent incarnation and not an earthly prince who sought a more enlightened human life, then we need not seek his level of enlightenment. As long as God is only wholly other and is not fully with us, we have an excuse. Otherwise, we might actually have to live up to the high callings that such lives place on our own lives.

04 March 2008

(LDL + HDL) X Big Pharma = BS

First, a necessary disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. You should not take anything in this post to be accurate medical advice, and you should not act upon anything you read herein without consulting a competent medical professional.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let me issue another warning: This long-winded post is neither particularly spiritual nor particularly political, although it may wind up containing some elements of each realm therein. Rather, this is my rant against what I’ve come to believe is a bunch of bogus assertions regarding one of our most vital health issues, coronary heart disease (CHD) and/or cardiovascular disease (CVD) and its supposed link to cholesterol levels. I will omit most of the minutiae herein, but will provide some links at the end of this post to articles that discuss this topic in much more mind-numbing detail than I really care to repeat here.

Here’s my bottom-line conclusion, again remembering that I am not a medical professional and you shouldn’t believe anything I say. High levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol don’t cause CHD (heart disease). There, I’ve said it, and by doing so I’ve contradicted most accepted medical wisdom of the past several decades. What makes me think I know something that all that accepted medical wisdom doesn’t? Let me back up a couple of steps to try to illustrate with some vastly oversimplified (and occasionally truncated) science.

The biggest selling class of drugs in the country is statins, drugs like Lipitor and Zocor that claim to reduce the risk of CHD by reducing LDL levels. Big pharmaceutical companies (“Big Pharma”) generate billions of dollars annually from the sale of statins. In laypersons’ terms, statins reduce the amount of LDL, or “bad”, cholesterol in your blood. Supposedly, LDLs contribute to CHD by causing plaque (fatty deposits) to build up in the lining of your blood vessels. Thus, by reducing LDLs, statins are supposed to reduce the risk of CHD by reducing that plaque. Raising HDLs (“good” cholesterol) tends to reduce those same fatty deposits, thus also reducing the risk of CHD.

Sounds simple so far, right? But here’s a wrinkle. A recent study of a new drug that combined two types of drugs, one statin and one with another LDL-lowering mechanism, had some mind-boggling results. The new drug actually did lower LDLs more than either single drug on its own. However, the drug brought no actual health benefits. That is, even though it significantly lowered LDLs, it didn’t lower the risk of CHD. But if you accept the premise that lower LDLs cause a lower CHD risk, it’s impossible to lower LDLs without lowering CHD risk.

Also, many studies have shown that contrary to accepted wisdom, lower LDL levels don’t actually correlate with lower CHD. In many populations in this country and in many other cultures worldwide, groups with very similar LDL levels have vastly differing rates of CHD.

So what’s happening here? Well, if you’re a genuine scientist, and you find results that contradict your premises, you start questioning your premises and try to establish a better hypothesis that fits the actual results. Some statins have been shown to reduce rates of CHD. Scientists have assumed that this was happening because the statins reduced LDLs, and lowering LDLs reduced CHD. X causes Y, and Y causes Z, therefore X causes Z. But what if Y doesn’t cause Z? Then we have to look for what else X might be causing, which in turn causes Z, for a full explanation of X’s effects on Z. In the case of statins and CHD, we don’t yet know what this missing factor is, but one potential explanation is that statins reduce inflammation in the body, and this reduction of inflammation is what actually is acting to lower CHD.

So why not just keep taking statins, regardless of how they work? Several reasons come to mind. First, they’re bad for you in a lot of other ways, including being somewhat toxic for your liver. Many patients report numerous side effects, including but not limited to memory loss and cognitive impairment, muscle pain, weight gain, skin rashes, and sexual dysfunction. Oh, and if it’s reducing inflammation you want, you can choose instead to take omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oil) that have no side effects, plenty of other good effects, and cost a whole lot less than name-brand prescription statins. And let’s not forget the basic preventive tips of exercise and weight loss.

But if LDL cholesterol isn’t the big evil it’s been made out to be, why hasn’t someone figured this out previously? Well, some would argue that many researchers have figured this out, but these researchers been drowned out by Big Pharma that has a multi-billion-dollar per year interest in the LDL hypothesis.

Here’s one take on why we have the situation we do. As of a few decades ago, it became easy to test for cholesterol levels, and then for LDL and HDL levels. Then there came drugs that were able to change an easily testable number, so it’s easy to show the immediate impact of these drugs. Tying those numbers to a widely prevalent category of disease made the final linkage an incredibly profitable one for Big Pharma. What could be more persuasive than “Take our little pill and you won’t die?

Not cynical enough to believe that profit motives are behind such a solid tenet of our accepted medical wisdom? Then consider just how many major studies, federal agencies, and supposedly independent bodies recommending statins are comprised of doctors and researchers who receive substantial payments from pharmaceutical companies. Whether it’s consulting fees paid to cardiologists, or funding for research institutions or other supposedly independent groups, Big Pharma has thoroughly funded the research supporting the widespread use of statins. You can read all about this in the various articles I’ve linked at the bottom of this post. Oh, and those nifty TV ads by Lipitor featuring Dr. Robert Jarvik rowing across a lake? Turns out he’s not licensed to practice medicine, he only started taking Lipitor after receiving a $1.3 million endorsement contract, and he isn’t even the guy in the boat (it’s a body double).

Let me make one further point, in order to make this at least quasi-spiritual. Why are we so ready to believe the LDL hypothesis? Is it because we want to trust authorities that tell us to do so? Then we should learn to question authority a little more often. Is it because we actually don’t feel in control of our bodies (and by extension, our lives), and think that a magic pill will give us back that control? Then we should meditate on how we’ve moved away from being able to control our own selves, and strive to reclaim at least some responsibility for our own destinies. Can you apply these options to other areas of your life? Do you want to find some external, higher authority to trust without question? Do you find it easier to assign control over your life to outside forces? If so, consider how you might change that orientation and begin to look within yourself for solutions. It’s sort of Zen-like, but I think it’s also a Christian concept – the Kingdom of God is within you. As Jesus said (albeit in the Gospel of Thomas), "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."


References:

New York Times, January 16, 2008, "Cholesterol Drug Bombs"

BusinessWeek Magazine, January 17, 2008 cover story, “Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?”

Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2008, “Can a Drug That Helps Hearts Be Harmful to the Brain?”

New York Times, February 26, 2008, “Pfizer to End Lipitor Ads by Jarvik”
Related Op-Ed Column here

University of California - San Diego Statin Effects Study

Health Beat Blog – “The Cholesterol Con – Where Were the Doctors?”

21 February 2008

Alternate realities: A thought experiment

As promised, here are some further musings about all this vibrational energies stuff. I’m going to outline a few different explanations of reality, and you can ponder on these and see which one most appeals to you.

1) The universe was created by a Divine Being or Intelligence (we’ll call said Divine Being “God” for short), and the universe operates according to laws that God established. God occasionally or frequently intervenes in the day-to-day goings-on of the universe and of its created beings. In fact, everything that is was created by God, and everything that is longs to be reunited with its creator God. The entire creation, seen and unseen, including all of the beings therein, groan as if with birth pains to reach a new or renewed state of union with God in order to fulfill its true purpose. Some people, generally devotees of God, are more attuned to God than others, and perceive a different kind of reality, a spiritual reality or realm that is actually at the heart of what we ordinarily see as material and temporal reality (the four dimensions of “space-time”).

2) There isn’t necessarily a Divine Being, but there is some sort of Intelligence or Order that supports or infuses all that is (we’ll call this “the Force”, as a familiar sobriquet). This Force permeates the universe; the universe fairly resonates with unseen energies. These energies are vibrational in nature, and there is almost a kind of universal music or tonality to all that is, seen and unseen. Some people are more adept (or have practiced more) at tapping into the Force, and are attuned to the vibrational energies that exist therein. They can perceive another realm of reality, and either consider four-dimensional space-time reality as illusory, or at best as an incomplete depiction of the truth.

3) It’s unknown and unknowable whether there is a Divine Being, but there probably isn’t. However, the universe that we see in its four dimensions of space-time, everything that is, is actually made up of infinitesimally small particles that have the form of strings. These strings vibrate at resonant frequencies, and each and every string has a unique resonance, or harmonic. Thus, any particle should be thought of as a tiny vibrating object, rather than as a point. This object can vibrate in different modes (just as a violin string can produce different notes), with every mode appearing as a different particle (electron, photon, etc.). Strings can split and combine, which would appear as particles emitting and absorbing other particles, presumably giving rise to the known interactions between particles. Different harmonics determine different fundamental forces (gravity, etc.). The universe is not just made up of the four dimensions of space-time we generally perceive, but is actually comprised of 10 or 11 (or possibly 26) dimensions.

So, which one of these alternate realities do you prefer? Do they all seem far-fetched? Or is one (or two) very familiar to you, while the others seem nonsensical?

Scenario #1 is the standard orthodox Christian take on things, complete with references to the New Testament (Romans 8, to be specific). Many of you out there probably find this to be a familiar reality, although others probably see it as an outmoded devotion to a mythic Sky-God.

Scenario #2 is an amalgam of various new-Age spiritualities, including the “woo-woo” spirituality of my spouse’s aforementioned mentor. See previous post for more on this. Those of you who are devotees of the Lucasian worldview (i.e., Star Wars) probably find this one pretty appealing. Others probably find it to be either too wacky or dangerously heterodox.

Scenario #3 is a really crazy sounding one, isn’t it? Funny enough, it is also the theoretical model most popular among the smartest quantum physicists today. This is the current standard scientific model to explain what comprises the universe and everything that is. It has its detractors and it is not proving to be particular adept at generating falsifiable hypotheses, but it remains as science’s current best guess.

Here’s my take on this. As Einstein said, E=mc2, meaning that the inherent energy in something is equal to its mass times the speed of light squared. What that means is that even the smallest atom has a huge amount of potential energy in it, if you can figure out how to convert the matter into pure energy. That’s the basic physics behind nuclear power, and nuclear bombs. The other thing that this means is that there are two kinds of stuff in the universe, matter, and energy, and that the one can be converted into the other and vice versa. So if everything that exists is made up of vibrating strings, and everything that exists is also able to switch between being matter and being energy, then this stuff that we call matter, the stuff that comprises me and you and everything that exists, is really just energy organized in different ways based on what harmonics or modes the component string parts (or manifested energies) are vibrating into.

That’s just basic quantum theory and string theory adapted to a slightly more existential explanation of the universe. Given that, isn’t it perfectly plausible that there could be an underlying vibrational pattern to the universe, and that this pattern might shift over time in some seemingly organized way, and thus Scenario #2 makes a lot more sense then one might have previously thought? There’s another essay I would need to write about chaos theory and/or Jungian synchronicity to explain why things that are seemingly random and unrelated actually do exhibit patterns and non-causal connectivity, but I’ll spare you (and me) for now. And of course, if you want to take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith to posit a Divine Being behind all of this, then Scenario #1 also starts making a lot of sense.

In short, life and the universe (and everything, with apologies to Douglas Adams) are a lot more mysterious than we usually think. If we can remain open to these mysteries, we might just gain a little glimpse of insight every now and then. Why not give it a try?

20 February 2008

Apologies for my absence

Alas, I have been away from writing for too long, but work, that “real” work that allows me to pay the mortgage and other bills, has been too busy the past few weeks. However, I should be facing a welcome lull for a bit, so I promise to get back to you, dear readers, with the various thoughts I’ve put off blogging about for these past weeks.

Here are a couple of quick notes, first political, then spiritual (or at least quasi-spiritual):

Clinton was within a few points of Obama in the most recent Wisconsin polls, yet Obama won the state by 17 points. That’s an enormous butt-kicking (and no, I’m not implying anything about the size of Hillary’s posterior), and it also shows the continued predilection of the pollsters to be utterly confounded this year. Next up, March 4 featuring Texas and Ohio. The polls (for what they’re worth) are already showing Obama inching close to Clinton in Texas, and the system there seems to favor him, as 2/3 of the delegates are chosen in a day-long primary, while the other 1/3 are chosen in evening caucuses. Yes, as a Democrat in Texas you really can vote early and vote often.

Apparently while I wasn’t looking, some of my prior commentary found its way into the letters section of the Wall Street Journal. Check out this missive to see my name in print, and thanks to my spouse’s Aunt Nancy and her husband Rex for bringing this to my attention (yes, I really wasn’t aware I got in).

One of my spouse’s mentors/gurus said recently that she believes we’re on the cusp of entering a new era, that the vibrational energies of the universe are all a-twitter in anticipation of some significant breakthrough. Yes, said mentor/guru is into what we like to call that “woo-woo” spirituality, but she’s not completely wacky and is usually quite prescient. More on that idea later.

I’ve taken up vegetarianism for my Lenten discipline this year, and let me tell you, it can make eating out bloody well impossible. I’ve only had to completely transgress once so far (not that I complained much about the she-crab soup and the seared ahi tuna), but I’ve been surprised to realize just how meat-centric even the less traditional restaurants can be. Oh, and don’t worry, you can serve me whatever you want if you invite me over for dinner – that’s one of my caveat rules: Graciously eat whatever your host puts before you.

More anon, especially on the idea of the universe’s vibrational energies shifting.