Monday, February 28, 2011

Testing to Destruction

The company I work for develops Electronic Health Record (EHR) software, which lets doctors' offices store patient information in computerized format rather than in paper-based charts that can be hard to read and easy to misplace. The federal government has recently gotten into the business of certifying EHR software, and in a couple of weeks, a company that represents the government will put us through a day-long, 35-step test during which we'll show how† our software does things like:
  • Storing basic information like the patient's height, weight, blood pressure, and smoking status.
  • Comparing new prescriptions against the patient's known allergies and existing medications (to prevent possible bad reactions) and transmitting prescriptions to pharmacies electronically whenever possible.††
  • Allowing patients to access their basic health information (such as a list of the medications they currently take and results of some lab tests) in "real time" (which usually means through a web site called a "patient portal").
  • Providing patients with summarized versions of their healthcare information as a printout, or as a specially-formatted computer file that could be imported into a Personal Health Record (PHR) like Google Health or Microsoft HealthVault.
Some of this stuff, like vital signs (height, weight, BP, etc.) and medication lists, we've done for years; other stuff, like patient summaries, is new to us. Getting ready for the test—developing new code, integrating the new features into our program and making them easy for doctors and their staff members to use, testing everything (the new stuff and the old stuff, to make sure that integrating the new stuff didn't break anything)—takes time. The test itself will occupy several employees for at least a full day, and we're paying a hefty fee to be tested. About 80% of the companies getting their software tested don't fully pass on their first try and have to have at least part of their product re-tested. If that happens to us, I'll be disappointed, but at least we'll have plenty of company, and I hope any needed fixes will be relatively minor.

It's the doctors and their employees who'll really have the hard part. Once we've updated their software to the certified version and trained them on the new features, they're the ones who actually have to use the software in a "meaningful" way. In fact, the phrase "Meaningful Use" is the unifying theme of this whole government initiative. It's not enough for the doctors to own and install the software,††† they also have to use it in ways that the government believes actually contribute to improved healthcare. The government is dangling incentive money in their faces, ostensibly to offset the costs of having to install new systems (for those who don't already use EHRs) or to upgrade their existing systems to certified versions, but the doctors are going to have to jump through a lot of hoops to get their checks.

And in the end, will any of this make a difference to the people who really matter...the patients? I'm not even going to venture a guess. All I know is that any EHR company that wants to stay in business has to get its software certified so its physician clients can at least try to earn the incentive money, so that's what we're doing. Wish us luck.

† Actually, at least at this stage of the game, the government isn't concerning itself with how the software does all this stuff, only that it can do it. The government-approved test script makes it clear that even if there's more than one way to fulfill a particular requirement, we should demonstrate only one method. They're not looking for razzle-dazzle, just results. It's very businesslike, and it also means that usability isn't a priority. An EHR system that can pass all 35 steps in the test script, but only by requiring users to fill out complicated screens or wander here and there throughout the system to complete a straightforward task, would pass the test, just as an elegantly-designed and intuitive system would. It's like that old joke: What do you call the person who graduates last in their class at medical school? "Doctor."

†† Not all pharmacies are hooked up to an "ePrescribing" system yet (although most are, and those that aren't are probably working on it), and not all prescriptions can be sent electronically. Although federal law has been updated to allow prescriptions for "controlled" substances like narcotic pain medications to be transmitted electronically, software for both doctors and pharmacies will need to be upgraded to handle the extra security measures that will be required.

††† Actually, for doctors with a sufficiently high percentage of Medicaid patients, just owning the software is enough to qualify for incentives in their first year of the program, but doctors who are attempting to earn incentive money from Medicare rather than Medicaid have to show 90 days' worth of "meaningful use" of the software to get the money. What's the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? In the U.S., Medicare is the federal program that helps the elderly and the disabled pay for medical care; Medicaid pays for medical care for low-income individuals and is managed by the states. (I believe that countries other than the U.S. also have programs called "Medicare," but I don't know how they compare to the American version.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

iPhoning It In

In a previous post, I wrote about an iPhone app that's intended to help Catholics prepare for confession. It's of no use to me (other than as an object of humor), but there are apps intended for the non-religious. Here's what I found in a brief search of the iTunes App Store:
  • Atheist Pocket Debater ($2.99; iPad version also available) from JAY-ROC Investments, Inc.: "...contains old and new arguments against the existence of God. The DEBATER gives many ways to argue against Christians, Creationists, and Bible thumpers. It is set up for very quick reference and memorization, yet contains full arguments as well as different ways to argue the same topics." Endorsed by Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine.
  • Atheist Resource Companion ($0.99) from Objective Publications: "... a study tool for users to discover the facts behind common debates regarding belief systems and atheism."
  • Creationist Claims Index (free) from Insomnia Addict: "A fully sourced, cross-referenced, and searchable reference guide for refutations to common Creationist claims, based on the book The Counter-Creationism Handbook by Mark Isaak originally published by Greenwood Press/ABC-CLIO. Great reference to have when in a debate."
  • Evolution Debater (free; iPad version also available) from Bomdigular: "This app is all about Biological Evolution. It is meant to help teach others about Evolution and help in debates in favor of Evolution. The app is full of great information that will easily help people understand that Evolution is real and something that has been going on for billions of years."
  • ...and probably others that I've missed. Searching the App Store for terms like "skeptic" may yield more goodies.
If you decide to use one of these apps, please don't just install it on your device then ignore it until you're in the middle of a heated debate with a believer. Whipping out your iPhone and saying "Wait a minute, I'll bet there's a good reason in here why your last argument is all wet" isn't going to change anybody's mind. (If a Christian asked you to "wait a minute while I look up a good response to your question in my Bible's appendix," you probably wouldn't have much confidence in anything they had to say, would you?) Familiarize yourself with the app's contents in advance, then use the app sparingly during discussions to clarify your thoughts or terms (for example, I always get the ontological argument confused with the teleological argument), and/or to provide additional references for your claims.

And if you find an app you like, don't forget to give it a 4-star ("good") or 5-star ("great") rating, and a brief review as well if you can. Lots of people decide whether to buy/download apps based on their ratings, and for the developers who make their apps available for free with no annoying ads, good ratings/reviews may be all the reward they get.

Disclaimers and warnings:
  • I played around briefly with "Creationist Claims Index" and thought it was fine, but I haven't used any of the other apps listed above. Inclusion on the list should not be construed as an endorsement.
  • The list doesn't include apps that are meant mainly for entertainment purposes, or that are essentially collections of freethought-related quotes, although there are plenty of those too.
  • If you search for the term "atheism" on the iTunes App Store, one of the results is the "John Ankerberg Show - About Christianity and the Bible" app. I couldn't find the words "atheism" or "atheist" anywhere on the app's page; maybe Apple lets developers "tag" their apps with keywords to make them easier to find? (Is a keyword of "atheism" on this app supposed to draw in the faithful who are preparing for battle with infidels, or is it intended to attract infidels like me?) The app was originally published in 2009 but has never been rated by anyone, so it doesn't seem to have much of an audience anyway. (I can't imagine why not. The app is rated "12+" because of "mild sexual content or nudity" and "mild mature/suggestive themes"; you'd think somebody would download it just out of prurient curiosity!)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Kidding Around

Is there something special or awful about the term "kidlet" that I'm not aware of? I ask because I used that word in the title of last night's post, and my blog's readership quadrupled overnight. Seriously, it went from an average of 1 view a day to a total of 4 views, with 3 of those views directed specifically to yesterday's post, not just the top-level "" address.

OK, so Gawker and Pharyngula have nothing to fear from me, but if I somehow made my niece and nephew an object of unwanted attention, I'm afraid of what my sister will do to me!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Kicking Back with the Kidlets

My sister graciously allowed me to hang out with my (elementary-school-age) niece and nephew this afternoon and evening. It's a good deal all around: I get to spend time with a couple of cool kids, they get a break from their usual routine, and my sister and her husband get a little time to themselves.

Since the weather is once again cold and dreary, and I'm cheap, I told the kids we could do whatever they wanted so long as it was age-appropriate, indoors, and free. So we headed to the library, where I was (as usual) impressed by the staff. As we entered, my nephew mentioned that he wanted to ask one of the librarians a question, and the lady sitting nearest the door piped up, "Ooh, ooh, ask me, ask me!" It's always nice to encounter someone who clearly loves their job, and even better when they're in a position to serve as a positive role model for kids.

After filling our minds at the library, we headed to our favorite burger-and-ice-cream joint to fill our tummies. (I can't work up much enthusiasm for ice cream when it's cold outside, but that never seems to deter the kids.) When our food arrived, my niece (who's well aware that I don't believe in god, and who has challenged me many times previously on that point) initially insisted that I had to "say grace" before we could eat. I replied that I don't pray, but she could if she wanted—my usual response in that situation. (I won't pretend to join in others' religious rituals, but it's not my place to interfere with someone who just wants to say some "special" words over their dinner.) After considering my answer briefly, she declared, "We don't have to say grace if you don't want to," and tucked into her food. She may be pious, but she's also practical.

The kids didn't need to be home until 8:00 (meaning "my sister and her husband wanted a little time to watch one whole TV show with no interruptions"), so we hung out at my house for a while after dinner. I let them play around on an ancient (Windows 95) laptop that I won't miss at all if it happens to get broken. My nephew asked how the different keys on the keyboard work (so I demonstrated Page Up/Down, Home, End, etc. to him), and what some of the symbol keys like the asterisk (*) are for. I explained that the asterisk is sometimes used as a multiplication symbol (e.g., 4*5=20), but then I got into the concept of footnotes,* and that spawned a whole new discussion into sentence structure and composition. (How teachers manage whole roomfuls of such inquisitive young minds, I'll never know.) I felt a little more confident when my niece asked how she could save a copy of the drawing that she'd lovingly crafted in Windows Paint, and I chanted "Click File, click Save, type a name, click Save, click File, click Exit" without even having to think about it.

Ah, the joys of nieces and nephews. For someone like me who never bothered to have kids of my own, they provide all the privileges of grandparenthood: I get to spoil 'em rotten, impress them with my knowledge of Harry Potter, and pass along my "wisdom" to them. And once I've filled them with junk food, I take them home to their parents. It's a great system.

* Like this one.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Acting Up

Many atheists face a personal quandary: should we be "out" (openly atheist) or not? For those who are financially or otherwise dependent on someone who is deeply religious, such as an employer or family member, being honest about a lack of faith might result in a lack of employment, or a lack of a place to sleep. For those of us with more liberal/tolerant employers and the means to support ourselves, open atheism can be a valid option. And once we've decided not to hide our skepticism under a bushel, there's often a desire—or at least a curiosity—about doing more. About being actively atheist. defines activism as "the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc." There are atheists and atheist organizations that are quite vigorous in defense of their disbelief, or more specifically, the defense of the principle of separation of church and state. "Atheists of Florida" is one such group. In December, they challenged Polk County (Florida) Sheriff Grady Judd for transferring sports equipment from the Polk County jail to area churches; they argued that the equipment should have been donated to non-religious groups such as schools. According to the group's own web site, their president, John Kieffer, was escorted out of the January 24th Cape Coral city council meeting by police for wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "One nation, indivisible".† And on Tuesday, Mr. Kieffer was arrested at a meeting of the Polk County School District school board and dragged out of the auditorium by police while yelling "Prayer has no place in government!"

I wonder what they've got planned for March?

That kind of activism is definitely not my style; I'm more the shy and retiring type. All the same, there are plenty of "quieter" ways in which we atheists and all other manner of "freethinkers"†† can make a difference in our communities:
  • Meeting with those with similar worldviews. There are lots of options, depending on your location and preferences (e.g., are you looking for an informal, primarily social group, or something more structured?): online communities, local groups (Meetup can be a good way to find these), and/or national groups such as American Atheists or the American Humanist Association. There is power in numbers.
  • Writing letters to newspaper editors and elected officials to make them aware of local violations of church/state separation, threats to freedom of speech, incidents of discrimination, etc. And if you're fortunate enough to encounter positive examples of tolerance and consideration for freethinkers and other minorities, take time to point those out, too!
  • Donating to any cause that you consider worthy. Religious groups may dominate when it comes to charities, but there are secular alternatives, including some of the biggies like Médecins Sans Frontières ("Doctors Without Borders") and the American Red Cross (whose iconic symbol is based not on the Christian cross, but on the Swiss flag). For more options, try typing secular charities into your favorite search engine.†††
  • Volunteering, just like "regular" people do...again, for any cause that you consider worthy. Helping out at a soup kitchen, or a food bank, or a literacy project, or mentoring/advocating for a young person...the possibilities are endless. If you don't know where to start, try searching for volunteer opportunities in (your city) using your favorite search engine.
While volunteering, or just going about your daily life, you don't have to parade yourself as an atheist...but if you are comfortable wearing something (jewelry or clothing) that identifies you as a freethinker, or putting an atheist bumper sticker on your car, or simply being honest about your views if the subject comes up in conversation, you literally "put a face" on atheism for people who may have never met an "out" atheist before. And that, in my opinion, is the first, best type of "atheist activism": being your honest, kind, fair, respectful self, and demonstrating that it can be done with no help from any imaginary beings.

† An excerpt from the American "Pledge of Allegiance," pointedly omitting a phrase that was added in the 1950s: " nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

††  A generic term that encompasses agnostics, atheists, Brights, godless, humanists, non-religious, rationalists, secularists, skeptics, unbelievers, and probably some labels I've missed.

††† When considering a donation to a charity you're not familiar with, do your homework  to avoid wasting your money and lining some administrator's pocket instead of helping the needy. Charity Navigator and GuideStar, for example, can help you decide whether a charity is worthy of your money and your trust.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Realizing That I'm Definitely Getting Old

It occurs to me that my idea of living dangerously is going to bed without brushing my teeth.

Wow. I never really went through a "wild and crazy" period, even in my college years—I was too busy working and putting myself through college, and I never lived in a dorm—but still...

It's been a long week, and the week is only half over. Here's hoping that I'm feeling a bit more upbeat and eloquent this weekend!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Considering An Angle That Had Not Previously Occurred To Me

Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, is infamous for the hateful slogans (especially the one he uses as his Internet domain name†) that he hurls at the LGBT community, American service members, Americans in general, Swedes, and, well, pretty much everybody except the members of his own church, who are mostly also members of his extended family. It would be easy to write off Phelps and his relatives (those who didn't flee the family compound at the earliest possible opportunity) as fundamentalist nut jobs. That's what I've always done, but now I've heard it suggested that Phelps merely finds hate to be a lucrative business.

In addition to the hundreds of pickets that the WBCers stage every year (at funerals, at churches, at schools, at businesses, at community events...any gathering is fair game, apparently), the group files lawsuits left and right. Phelps is a disbarred attorney (a former civil rights lawyer, if you can believe that), and most of his (grown) children are also attorneys, many of whom work for the family's own law firm. With his ability to antagonize just about anybody with a pulse, often pushing people over the edge, is Phelps just drumming up business for the family business?

Maybe it is just a money-making racket. They must need thousands of dollars a month for travel expenses alone. I can't imagine, though, what kind of salary would induce a parent to allow their preschool-aged child to join a picket line carrying a sign that reads "GOD HATES THE U.S.A." If I believed in any gods myself, I'd ask their mercy for those poor kids. But not for the parents.

H/T to PZ for the link to Cory Doctorow's post which provided the link to the blogger who quoted a comment on a 2006 post about Fred Phelps. Whew!

† I'm usually diligent about providing links to web sites that I mention in blog posts. Not this time. If you want to visit Phelps' web site, look up the address yourself. Better yet, don't. WBC may be using their web site to harvest Internet addresses with the intent of suing anyone who tries to damage or impede access to the site.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Seeking Solutions

Last month while I was watching the ITV miniseries "Downton Abbey" (which is already available to "watch instantly" on NetFlix - unpd. advert.), it occurred to me that while communication methods have changed, or at least multiplied, we're not necessarily any better at tracking information now than we were then.

The first season (or "series," in Brit-speak) of "Downton Abbey" is set in England in 1912-1914, a time when electrical power still seemed strange and not necessarily useful, and the ring of a telephone was considered a hideous racket. Mrs. Patmore, the cook for the aristocratic Crawley family, was probably expected to produce hundreds of different dishes and had to organize her recipes somehow. Perhaps she had a commercial cookbook or two, but more likely she wrote her recipes in notebooks, or on note cards, or just scribbled them on slips of paper that were stored here and there. Surely there were times when she knew that the recipe she needed was somewhere in her collection, but had no idea which notebook, or on which bit of paper, in which drawer? (Not that there weren't highly organized cooks serving in English manor houses in 1912, but I doubt Mrs. Patmore was that sort of cook.)

My company is dealing with the same sort of disorganization, just many times larger and in digital format. I know the developer and I discussed that bug sometime in the last few weeks...or was it a few months ago? Did we talk about it in person, or by phone? In an email? Did one of the techs create a trouble ticket in our CRM app? Did we document it in a Google Wave? Or did we write it up in a shared document, and if so, is that document on the hard drive of my desktop or my laptop, or on a network share, or out in the cloud? If somebody typed it up, I can at least search for it, but if I don't know where to start searching or some specific terms to search for, it's gonna take a while. I don't even remember which client reported the bug.

I probably deal with more bytes of data in an hour than Mrs. Patmore's real-life counterparts did in their whole lives, but some days it seems like that just makes me more efficient at losing stuff.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Busting Through

My daffodils are coming up. In February! The abnormally high temperatures—following two weeks of the coldest, nastiest winter weather I've ever seen in this state—have the poor flowers thoroughly confused.

I can't really blame them; I've been feeling oddly upbeat and energized myself. Maybe that's because the awful weather is gone (at least for the moment; we've still got weeks of winter left and who knows what's yet to come), but I think it actually started while there was still snow on the ground. I feel like I did in my late teens and early twenties when I was first living on my own (and loving it), working full time, and putting myself through college (also full time). I was busy, but pleasantly so. That only lasted a year or two before I cut back on my semester hours, fell in love, got married, and generally turned into a "grown-up." But I remember that as one of the happiest and most intellectually rewarding times of my life, and I've been flashing back to it a lot lately, which is cool. Maybe I just need to quit listening to '80s music and find something a little more current!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Taking Joy in the Moment

I've been blogging for a month now (a short month...a February's worth of blog posts). Overall it's been a positive experience even though I get a little irritated about it most weeknights. I'm tired and winding down from the workday and then I realize that I need to post something, and I usually have no idea what I'm going to write about. But I've been surprised and pleased to find that with a bit of thought and effort, the words do come. (I find that jotting down all those random thoughts that pop into my head at odd moments is a big help. Many of those little "nuggets" can later be expanded into full-length blog posts.)

Writing a blog is much like posting a profile on a dating web site. You feel like you're putting yourself out there in front of the whole world, simultaneously fearful that everybody will see you, and that nobody will see you. You're just one of millions, and most of the few who do see you will spare barely a glance before thinking "meh" and clicking the "Next" button. You choose your words so carefully, crafting the image that you want to present but knowing that some central, cherished aspect of your life—your kids, your pet, your hobby, your taste in books or movies or music, your lifestyle—will be an immediate turn-off for someone. Or maybe your words "click" for somebody out there, and a connection is forged, whether you ever learn about it or not.

I've decided that the secret to happy blogging, and "successful" use of online dating sites, and so many other things in life, is to be the best you can at being yourself (after all, who else can be you, and who else can you be?), and let that be enough. Publishing a blog post or being open to the possibility of a relationship is an achievement, a Good Thing in and of itself, even if it doesn't lead to a book contract or the love of my life. Not that I would spurn either of those!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Blinding Ignorance Does Mislead Us*

In "There Is Nothing Blind About Faith," Alister McGrath writes:
...all of us, irrespective of our views about God, base our lives on beliefs - on things that we cannot prove to be true, but believe to be trustworthy and reliable.
McGrath's point—that we all trust some things we can't absolutely prove—is valid, as I discussed in my post on "practical faith" a few weeks ago. I often "put faith in" people I perceive to be experts. If an Egyptologist (especially one I recognize from documentaries) made a claim about the meaning of an inscription in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, I'd believe the claim, especially since it would probably have little or no real impact on me. But if my life, my liberty, or a significant chunk of my money was at stake, and time permitted, I'd want to research the surgeon, attorney, or roofer I was thinking about employing. "Past performance is no guarantee of future results," as investment literature warns, but the best chance of a successful operation, trial, or new roof lies in the hands of a professional with up-to-date skills and a good track record. When the outcome matters, I want evidence.

McGrath continues:
The simple truth is that belief is just a normal human way of making sense of a complex world. It is not blind - it just tries to make the best sense of things on the basis of the limited evidence available.
Uh, yeah, that's how a 5-year-old comes to the conclusion that the crumpled pair of pants under the bed is really a monster. If the evidence is insufficient to explain a complex situation, there's nothing at all wrong with admitting "I don't (yet) know why this happened." Unlike resorting to saying "goddidit," it's honest.

...thinking and informed scientists...make their decisions on the basis of their judgements of how best to interpret the evidence. They believe - but cannot prove - that their interpretation is correct. And nobody thinks they are deluded, mentally ill, or immoral for believing such things.
A delusional or mentally ill scientist could of course misinterpret evidence, but assuming that the scientist is no wackier than usual for an academic, an honest difference of opinion would probably not lead to accusations of insanity (although the professional debate could get heated). As evidence is added to, reviewed, and organized, though, a consensus may emerge. That's when we'd expect those who initially disagreed to review their earlier thinking, and possibly change their minds.

And that's the difference between science and faith. Science is forever adapting—improving!—as new evidence comes to light. Faith "is the same yesterday, today, and forever," and while some consider that a virtue, I don't. Progress can be unsettling, but its opposite isn't stability. It's stagnation.

H/T to PZ

* "Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!" — Leonardo da Vinci

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Believing What You Know Ain't So?, Part 3

I knew Greta would shred Pascal's Wager. If you haven't already read her piece, go read it. Here's a taste to whet your appetite:
Pascal's Wager offers no evidence for God's existence -- not even the shaky "evidence" of the appearance of design or the supposed fine-tuning of the universe or the feelings in your heart. It offers no logical argument for why God must exist or probably exists -- not even the paper-thin "logic" of the First Cause argument. It does not offer one scrap of a positive reason for thinking that God is real.
Awesome as always, Greta! (I keep wanting to type her name as "Great," which I think is entirely appropriate.)

In formulating his "wager," Blaise Pascal posited that neither the existence nor non-existence of god can be conclusively proven, and acknowledged that some people just can't bring themselves to believe without evidence. What might serve as "evidence" for god (and what certainly doesn't) is a matter for another post; tonight I want to write about belief.

For those who who don't understand why I can't force myself to believe in a proposition that is inherently unbelievable (talking animals, virgin birth, dead people coming back to life, take your pick), I offer a thought experiment:
  • Imagine that somebody is threatening dreadful harm to you. (If your response is, "So what, I can take it," imagine instead that whoever or whatever you love the most is being threatened: your spouse, your child, your original Picasso, whatever.)
  • The only way to prevent this dreadful harm is through genuine belief in the existence of leprechauns. (If you already believe in leprechauns, substitute any creature you consider fictional: unicorns, dragons, the paperless office, etc.) Nothing else—not all your worldly wealth, not your ceaseless labor, not endless words of praise for The Little People—will suffice, and subterfuge will be immediately detected.
  • Can you, through sheer will, convince yourself that leprechauns exist?
Actually, I think it probably can be done, with time and effort. In 1984, Winston Smith needed a lot of help from O'Brien to change his way of thinking. He very nearly failed, although in the end he "won the victory over himself." He was even ecstatically happy at the end of the book. But the last sentence of that novel is the most chilling I've ever read.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Believing What You Know Ain't So?, Part 2

Well-intentioned religious folks ("WIRFs," an acronym I just now coined) are fond of suggesting that agnostics and atheists like me should act as though god† exists, just to be on the safe side. If the WIRFs are right, the argument goes, we doubters will be spared eternal torture, and if they're wrong...well, no harm done.††

Is belief in a myth (or acting as though you believe in a myth, which amounts to the same thing) harmless? Let's consider a practical example. A 5-year-old who believes in Santa Claus is cute. A 15-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus is a matter of some concern. A 35-year-old who sincerely believes that Santa Claus exists (as a corporeal being, not just in the "Santa Claus is the personification of the warmth and generosity of the Christmas season" sense of "existence") would be viewed as needing the services of a mental health professional. Even if belief in Santa Claus doesn't lead someone to harm themselves or others, we'd rightly wonder if they're in touch with reality and can be entrusted with grown-up tasks.

The biggest danger of belief in an incorrect proposition is that wrong information can lead to bad decisions. If you believe that you're going to be whisked away to paradise at any moment, you might not bother to make long-term plans like saving for your retirement or caring for the planet. If you believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism, you might decide not to get your kids immunized against totally preventable but highly contagious and occasionally fatal diseases like pertussis ("whooping cough"). If you believe that a girl who's been raped has "lost her honor," you might consider it necessary to punish or kill her "to restore her family's good name." GIGO.

None of us is completely rational; we all have some beliefs that are based on emotion rather than reason. That's part of our charm. In the interest of making good decisions for ourselves and those around us, though, we should at least be willing to examine our beliefs, ideally by discussing them with others. Just as the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, the best way to figure out what you believe, and why, is to explain it to someone else.

† The god the WIRFs believe in, of course, not those heathens' idea of "god."

†† This is often referred to as "Pascal's Wager,"††† after French philosopher Blaise Pascal.

††† After I'd started composing this post, I noted that Greta Christina is also taking on Pascal's Wager. I'm waiting to read her post until I've finished mine so I won't (unintentionally!) plagiarize her. I have no idea what she wrote, but knowing Greta, it'll be good.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Letting Go of Perfection

It's been years since I've had to endure a job interview, but I was always prepared for the standard questions, "What's your best quality?" and "What's your worst quality?" I would answer both questions, with total sincerity: "I'm a perfectionist."

When a life is at stake or a complex, expensive piece of machinery is used, perfectionism is a worthy goal. Those involved should be well-trained and in good physical condition. Equipment should be inspected. Checklists should be devised, tested, and followed. I'm a big fan of checklists. :-)

But if I'm going to be honest with myself, I have to admit that checklists have caused me almost as much grief as they've saved me. Like anything else that can be used for good, they can be used inappropriately or to excess. A dash of salt enhances the soup but a cupful renders it inedible. The same kitchen knife that chops vegetables can be used as a murder weapon. A checklist ensures that essential steps are taken, but really, do I need a checklist of books I want to read?

Writing things down gives them an air of legitimacy, and striking items off a list makes me feel I've accomplished something, a feeling so powerful that I sometimes list items I've already done just so I can cross them off right away. Hey, I wrote all this stuff down, then I crossed it all off; look at how effective I am! But if I can't complete the checklist, oh, the disappointment. Some lists are overwhelming—discouragingly long, or containing tasks so vague I don't know where to start. So I don't start, because I know I won't be able to finish, and the perfectionist in me insists that I must "do it right or don't do it at all." Even worse, I've made strong starts but then abandoned worthwhile efforts due to minor setbacks. How many times have I lost some of the weight I wanted to lose, or started a fitness program, or made an effort to learn a new skill, then gave it up because "I couldn't get it right"?

But with age comes pride in the attempt and the ability to laugh at myself. If not for those, I don't think I could ever have started this blog!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Admiring Abby's Applicants

Am I the only person who composes letters to "Dear Abby" in my head?

"Dear Abby, why do my friends always want to see such silly movies? I try to compromise..."

"Dear Abby, it bothers me that someone I care about isn't living up to her full potential, but I want to let her make her own decisions..."

"Dear Abby, is there anything I can do to help a coworker through a difficult personal time besides being a sympathetic listener?"

I think it's my way of assuring myself that my problems aren't that big a deal and I'm handling them correctly. On the other hand, maybe I'm just jealous that people who really do write to "Dear Abby" have far more interesting lives than I do.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Catching Up

I'd originally hoped to post something to this blog at least once a day. Life intervened and I missed that goal, but with this post, I've averaged one post per day. And in this case, "average" is good enough for me!

Confessing to iGod

I love my iPod touches. Yeah, plural; I've got two of them: a second-generation model, and a fourth-gen (with the crappy camera, but a crappy camera is better than none at all, and my cell phone is such a cheapy that it doesn't have one). I was never impressed by Mac OS but I'm a total pushover for Apple's PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). Remember the Newton? I had two of those, too. A calendar with months (or years) worth of info (that can be searched...when did I last take the car in for an oil change?), a contact list that can be updated in seconds, a calculator, a notepad, an alarm clock, and as the technology improved, email and web access...all in the palm of my hand. (Oops, no, Palm is a different operating system for a different PDA, one I only played with briefly a few times.) A well-designed PDA is a geek's wet dream, and my iPods are never far from my side. I even take them to bed with me. (Alarm clock, like I said.)

When Apple introduced the ability to download "apps" (programs) in moments, they had the I-want-it-now generation hooked. Apple quips "There's an app for that" and they're not exaggerating by much. There are apps to get you organized, to improve your health, to run your business, to educate yourself, and of course to entertain yourself (or your kids, which can be a pretty big deal when the oil-change-in-30-minutes place is running behind). I'm not surprised to learn that Confession: A Roman Catholic App ("Making confession easier") exists. I was a little surprised to find that it isn't the first app designed to help users examine their conscience and prepare for the act of confession (with an actual priest; the app doesn't replace the confession booth), but apparently it has received "the first known imprimatur to be given for an iPhone/iPad app." Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes of the Diocese of Fort Wayne – South Bend has declared that the app is free of doctrinal or moral error.

Whew, that's a relief. I mean, anyone whose life is so hectic that they need an app to help them remember everything they should confess would welcome the assurance that the app itself won't lead them into sin. I hope Bishop Rhodes knows what he's doing, though; how carefully did he review the following aspects of Confession?
  • The "Examination of Conscience" feature is a checklist of sins based on the Ten Commandments. This is just going to make people think about stuff they haven't even done yet, and thinking about it is going to make them want to do it.
  • Doesn't allowing users to add "custom" sins encourage them to think up new ways to misbehave? Isn't violating one or more of the Ten Commandments bad enough?
  • The app is rated "9+" for "Infrequent/Mild/Mature/Suggestive Themes." Is it "suggestive selling" to young, impressionable minds?
  • And finally, what's all this talk of "touching users"? Hasn't the Catholic Church gotten in enough trouble with that kind of stuff already?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Noting the Noise

My house is right next to an expressway. The location couldn't be more convenient, and in exchange for putting up with a bit of traffic noise, I got an excellent price on a wonderful house in a lovely neighborhood that I couldn't otherwise afford. But it took me months to get used to the noise at night, especially on Fridays and Saturdays when the street racers are out.

And now I'm so happy to have the noise back! Traffic over the last few weeks had been down to almost nothing at night (except the occasional emergency vehicle with sirens blaring), but I hadn't consciously noted that until last night, when I realized that evening traffic noise levels are back to their pre-blizzard levels. It feels like the city is alive again!

Celebrating Charlie

Happy Darwin Day! If Sir Charles were still around, he'd be 202 years old today.

The American Humanist Association is pushing—or rather, is backing Representative Pete Stark’s (D-CA) push—for House Resolution 81, which would officially designate today as "Darwin Day." I'm not against the idea, particularly when 40% of Americans still believe that "God created humans in their present form," but does this kind of resolution have any real-world effect beyond allowing the Humanist Association to claim some kind of public relations victory? Really, to most Americans, a House Resolution in favor of "Darwin Day" means about as much as "Bravo for Boysenberries Day," and most who would actually care about such a thing would regard it as just another sign that our nation is doomed. "Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!"

Putting Churches to Good Use

You'd think with all the time I've spent at home in the last few weeks, I'd be totally caught up with email and other online tasks. Not so much (and housework went by the wayside, too). I'm just now plowing through mailing lists and blog entries that I normally check daily, so this article about a Florida atheist group complaining about a Baptist church being used as a polling place just now came to my attention.

"We must insist that the polling place be moved to a more secular environment," the director of the atheist group wrote. The Freedom From Religion Foundation takes a similar stance: "the government cannot compel a citizen to enter a house of worship" and "there has only been limited litigation" with regard to absentee voting as a "reasonable [alternative] for those objecting to entering a church to vote."

The FFRF makes good arguments against using (private) churches and in favor of using (public, secular) facilities like malls, libraries, fire stations, and schools as polling places, including the availability of handicap-accessible parking and the educational benefits to students. I can personally vouch for the latter. I remember walking past long lines of adults waiting to vote when I was in elementary and middle school, and wanting to be all "grown up" so I could go into one of those little booths and cast my own votes. Nonetheless, I'm really not bothered by the fact that my own polling place is a Baptist church. It's conveniently located and has plenty of parking space (although it's an older building and I'm not sure how handicap-accessible it is). I take perverse delight in the knowledge that my vote almost certainly cancels out the vote of one of the church's members. And I think it's nice to see the building actually being used for a legitimate purpose!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Betting Your Life

The snow has stopped, the sun came out today, and the drifts are starting to melt. Not a moment too soon. I made it to the office for four of this week's five workdays, and I got a lot accomplished today. Next week seems on track to being a "normal" week, at least schedule-wise, and I'm looking forward to it.

I haven't enjoyed the last two weeks, but they've been educational. There's nothing like being snowbound to help you sort out the important stuff from the chaff. I had light, heat, warm clothes, hot food, running water, plenty of diversions, and communication with family, friends, and coworkers. So what if I didn't have on hand exactly the movie I wanted to watch or the food I was craving at a particular moment? I was warm and safe and well-fed, and it would have been silly to try to leave the house for anything less than a life-threatening emergency. So imagine my surprise when a friend who works at a casino told me that people were gambling there throughout the recent terrible weather. What in the world would drive someone out in that kind of weather—in which emergency vehicles were crashing or getting stuck in snowbanks—to play cards or a slot machine? A horrible home life, a gambling compulsion that refuses to be denied? Normally I prize knowledge, but there are some things I'd just rather not know.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Unfriending IRL

My address and phone number are unlisted,† and I don't have a Facebook account. While these measures don't prevent people from finding me if they really want to, it does reduce uninvited contact. It also makes it a little harder to figure out who my friends are. On Facebook, I gather, you have total control over which "friend requests" you accept, and it's easy enough (technically, if not socially) to "unfriend" someone whose behavior displeases you. That kind of relationship (which I may be misrepresenting since, as I said, I don't use Facebook) seems to lack the subtleties of real-life friendships—"school friends," "work friends," "workout friends," "friend friends," etc.—but my inner geek appreciates the clean lines between "friend" and "not-friend" relationships.

I wish real-life relationships came with that kind of clarity. Am I still friends with someone who meant the world to me twenty or thirty years ago, but who never initiates contact or acknowledges phone messages, emails, or cards? There's been no falling-out, no disagreement...just a gradual drifting apart. I'd hardly know where to start if we ran into each other today, but I'd feel obligated to try, just as I feel obligated to keep sending birthday and holiday cards. It seems like a minor investment of time and money, and who knows, maybe someday it'll pay off. In the meantime, I think I already know how it feels to have a Facebook "friend request" ignored.

† A "privilege" for which I pay a monthly fee, oddly enough. You'd think it'd cost nothing to have the phone company leave me out of their directory (which they no longer even print, I think; isn't it just online now?), since I'm sparing them the effort of verifying and including my contact information. But no, I have to pay to not be listed. I assume it has something to do with lost advertising revenue, but that's a post for another day.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Drifting Away

My schedule's been shot all to hell. Between being snowbound for days on end, sleeping way too much, consequently developing a migraine that left me out-of-sorts for days, and only making it into the office two days out of the last ten, I've lost all sense of time. Totally forgot about posting last night; it didn't even occur to me.

I've had an odd fascination with prison dramas and documentaries for years. I'm not sure why, although I had a relative (now deceased) who did time. Maybe it's just curiosity about his experiences, which he never discussed with me. I've never had any illusions about being able to withstand physical abuse, but I always thought I'd just shrug off solitary confinement. After way more time indoors than I like, even with benefit of TV and books and Internet, and loving family and friends no further away than a phone call or email, I'm beginning to understand the expression "stir crazy." I'll be on my best behavior from here on out!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Expecting the Worst

The city's not quite done digging itself out from more than a foot of snow, and now there's more on the way...another four to ten inches, if the forecasts are correct, along with sub-zero temperatures. At least I made it to the office today, and the mail carrier made it to my mailbox. I guess it's too much to hope for a trash pickup on Wednesday as scheduled, but at least the cold keeps the garbage from smelling too much!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Getting Back on Track

I haven't accomplished as much as I'd like this weekend, particularly since it started with a nasty migraine headache, but I'm getting back on track. I spent three hours yesterday shoveling a path for the car through the snow drifts from the garage to the street, then was too tired to go anywhere. I did make it to the grocery store this morning for milk and eggs, though. Laundry's done, as well as some much-needed tidying up. I just hope I can make it to the office tomorrow morning; I'm actually looking forward to being at work on a Monday morning after being stuck in the house for the better part of a week!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cracking Up

I'm not trying to turn this into a recipe blog, really, but I'm snowbound at home and preparing meals with whatever's handy, so that's what I've been thinking about lately. I've been making these oatmeal crackers for a few years now and I quite like them. They're really fragile so I always bake them just before I'm ready to eat, but I enjoy them mainly for their toasty fragrance and flavor, which are best right out of the oven anyway. And when's the last time you had freshly baked crackers?

Oatmeal Crackers
  • 1 cup quick-cooking oats, dry
  • 1/8 t. baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 2 t. oil (I use canola, but any vegetable oil, including olive oil, would be fine)
  • water (amount varies; about 1/4 c. total)
  • non-stick vegetable spray
  • more salt and/or sesame seeds for sprinkling (optional)
Blend the oats, baking powder, and salt. Add the oil and mix until it's evenly distributed. Add water a tablespoon or so at a time and mix until a crumbly dough forms. Spray a baking sheet with non-stick vegetable spray and dump the dough onto the baking sheet. Spread a sheet of clear plastic wrap over the dough on the baking sheet, and use your fingers to press out the dough, through the plastic wrap, into a thin, even layer. Important: Remove the plastic wrap before baking! We're not making Shrinky Dinks here.

If desired, sprinkle the dough with a little more salt (salt with some texture, like kosher or sea salt, would be good here), sesame seeds, or whatever. (I haven't tried herbs because I like these crackers really well with just salt, and I worry that herbs would burn during baking. If you decide to experiment, let me know how it goes.)

Using a knife or pizza cutter, cut the dough into bite-sized pieces. (Don't try to move the dough around on the baking sheet, it's too fragile for that, but if you wait until after the crackers are baked and then try to cut them, you'll end up with crumbs.) Bake the crackers in a moderate oven until they're dry, crisp, and browned at the edges. Time and temperature will depend on your oven, how much water you used, and how thinly you pressed out the dough. In my countertop convection oven, they usually need about 20 minutes at 350°.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Making Do: Making Soup

I don't seek out or enjoy hardship, but I do appreciate that "going without" makes me more creative. When grocery shopping isn't an option (because I'm out of money or stuck at home, like I am today), I do the best I can with what's on hand. This turned out pretty well using nothing more than pantry staples:

Tomato, Corn, and Black Bean Chowder
  • nonstick vegetable spray or a few teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 1 smallish onion, coarsely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small carrot, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)
  • 2-3 cloves garlic (put through a garlic press or minced)
  • chili powder, to taste (I used about 2 T.)
  • cayenne pepper, to taste (I used maybe 1/2 t.)
  • 2 cans (15 oz. each) diced tomatoes in juice
  • water (about one tomato-can full)
  • 2 cups corn kernels (I used frozen, but canned/drained would work)
  • 1 can (15 oz.) black beans (I didn't bother draining them)
Using nonstick vegetable spray or a little vegetable oil, cook the onion and carrot until the onion is clear. Add the garlic, chili powder, and cayenne pepper. Cook, stirring constantly, until the spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the canned tomatoes and a canful of water. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the carrot is tender and the flavors have blended (I think I gave it 15 minutes or so). Turn off the heat. Using an immersion blender and great caution, process the soup until smooth. (If you don't have an immersion blender, you could do this in 2 batches in a regular blender, but please be very careful with hot liquids!) Return the soup to the heat, add the corn and black beans, and simmer until the corn is tender, stirring occasionally. Add more water if the soup is too thick for you. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

As with most soups/stews, the flavor will be better if you refrigerate it overnight and reheat it. Serve hot, garnished with whatever you've got on hand: shredded cheese, sour cream, diced avocado, chopped cilantro, diced chicken or beef, etc.

If I'd had some canned green chiles on hand, I would have added those along with the corn and beans, but it was still pretty tasty without them. The carrot wasn't strictly necessary, but adding minced or shredded veggies to a soup, especially one you're going to puree, is a good way to boost nutrition and use up odds and ends, and it might have added a little sweetness to the soup. Pinto or kidney beans would have worked well in place of black beans.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Holing Up

My head's feeling much better today, but thanks to the winter weather that's crippled about a third of the nation, I'm snowbound at home. I may be here for a while, too. My garage is detached and located behind the house so the driveway is long, and it's covered in waist-high drifts. Even four-wheel drive SUVs are getting stuck out on the snow-packed roads so I've got no business venturing out in my little car.

It's just as well I can't get to the office. Our voice-mail system is answering so the power must be on, but I can't connect to any of our servers, including the email server. Here at home, at least I've got a working Internet connection!