Leap Day Trivia (or, Is the Moon a Moon?)

February 29 does not happen every year. In fact, it happens only about once every four years. This unusual day has caused me to do some interesting research about time, which ended in a question about whether or not the moon is a moon.

  • The three units of measuring time that pertain to leap years are the day, the month, and the year. In the simplest mathematical model of the solar system, the earth turns on its axis once a day. The moon travels around the earth once a month, and the earth and moon travel around the sun once a year.
  • The passage of a day is noted by the cycle of daylight and darkness. The Roman definition marks a day as beginning at midnight, but the Hebrew definition marks a day as beginning at sunset (by tradition, when it is dark enough to see two stars in the sky).
  • The Hebrew definition is based on the repeated statement in Genesis 1, “It was evening and it was morning, the (first, second, third, etc.) day.”
  • The passage of a month is noted by the position of the moon in the sky, as well as by the phases of the moon. The phases are caused by the fact that sometimes the side of the moon facing the earth is fully lit by the sun (a full moon), sometimes partly lit by the sun, and sometimes entirely in the moon’s shadow. Technically, a new moon is not the fully darkened disc of the moon, but the first crescent of sunlight reflected by the moon visible on the earth.
  • About twice a year, the moon moves through the shadow of the earth. This is a lunar eclipse, and it can be seen from much of the earth when it happens. About twice a year, the moon’s shadow falls upon the earth. This is called a solar eclipse. Because the moon is much smaller than the earth, a solar eclipse is seen only in a small part of the earth.
  • Eclipses do not happen every month because the moon’s orbit usually keeps the sun, moon, and earth from being aligned so that shadows are seen on the earth or the moon.
  • The passage of a year is noted by the change in seasons, usually best marked by the equinoxes—when daytime and nighttime are the same length—and by the solstices—when daytime and nighttime are as much unequal as they can be. The inequality at the solstices depends upon location on the earth—the difference is negligible near the equator but highly significant near the north and south poles.
  • The inequality in daytime and nighttime are caused, not by the orbit of the earth around the sun, but by the tilting of the earth upon its axis. The change in tilt, though, goes through its cycle exactly once each year.
  • The earth is closer to the sun in January than it is in July. The warmth of summer in the northern hemisphere is not due to the distance between the earth and the sun; it is due to the amount of sunlight the hemisphere receives during the day.
  • A year is 365.2425 days, or 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes, and 12 seconds.
  • A month is about 25.53 days, or 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 3 seconds.
  • The length of a year can be changed very slightly by a major earthquake.
  • The length of a month varies slightly because of the effect of the sun’s gravity upon the moon.
  • There are about 12.3685 months in a year.
  • Most ancient calendars had twelve months in a year, with an extra month added every three or four years to keep the seasons from drifting through the year. The calendar used by Muslims has twelve months every year, resulting in a year of 355 days. Therefore, Muslim holidays move through the seasons and are roughly ten days earlier every year according to the Gregorian calendar.
  • In the Roman Republic, priests in Rome declared when an extra month should be added to the year. They sometimes misused this power for political purposes, adding an extra month to the time that they or their friends in politics could exercise power over Roman law.
  • Julius Caesar changed the Roman calendar, making each month except February have either thirty or thirty-one days. In the Julian calendar, a month does not begin with a new moon. Julius Caesar also said that February would have twenty-eight days every year and a twenty-ninth day every four years.
  • The Julian calendar went into effect in the Roman year 708, which is now called 46 BC.
  • The month of July is named for Julius Caesar. The month of August is named for Octavian Caesar, Julius’ relative, who seized power after Julius Caesar was assassinated. The Roman Senate made Octavian the first Emperor of Rome and gave him the title Augustus.
  • A monk who taught at the University of Paris, Johannes de Sacrobosco, noticed around 1235 that the seasons had drifted several days in the Julian calendar. Sacrobosco also perpetuated a myth that Caesar Augustus had stolen a day from February to make his month of August the same length as July. Archaeological evidence has disproved this myth; July and August always had thirty-one days in the Julian calendar.
  • Pope Gregory XIII reacted to Sacrobosco’s discovery by ruling that three times in four hundred years the leap day should be omitted. If the number of the year is divisible by one hundred but not by four hundred, it is not a leap year. Therefore, there was no February 29, 1900, and there will be no February 29, 2100. There was, however, a February 29, 2000.
  • The Gregorian calendar went into effect in October 1582.
  • Pope Gregory only had authority to change the calendar in parts of Italy; however Roman Catholic kings in Spain and Portugal made the same change in their countries and colonies, and France followed suit fairly quickly. Protestant and Orthodox countries did not change as quickly: Great Britain and its colonies did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752, and Russia did not switch to the Gregorian calendar until 1918.
  • Pope Gregory’s change in calendars resulted in dropping ten days from October 1582. By 1752 this required a change of eleven days, and by 1918 it required a change of thirteen days.
  • The omission of days was protested by many people, not from superstitious reasons, but for very practical reasons. Many people were paid by the day or the week, but they had bills such as rent due every month. Therefore, the omission of several days caused financial difficulties in their lives.
  • Some people adjusted their birthdays to conform to the Gregorian calendar. George Washington, for instance, was born on February 11 in the Julian calendar but celebrated his birthday on February 22 after the switch to the Gregorian calendar.
  • Until the invention of mechanical clocks less than one thousand years ago, hours varied in length depending upon the time of year. An hour was one-twelfth of a day and one-twelfth of a night. Daytime hours were longer in the summer and shorter in the winter; likewise nighttime hours were shorter in the summer and longer in the winter.
  • The counting of hours worked backward and forward from noon, which was defined as the instant when the sun reached its highest point in the sky for any location. This highest point is called the meridian, which is represented by the letter m in a.m. and p.m.
  • Rapid travel by railroads led to the adoption of time zones around the earth. Travelers did not appreciate changing their watches in every town and city to match the local time, and railroad schedules were hard to create before time zones were adopted. Because of time zones, noon on a clock can be as much as thirty minutes away from the actual meridian.
  • Because of daylight saving time, noon on a clock can be as much as ninety minutes away from the actual meridian.
  • If not for time zones and daylight saving time, a full moon would be at the moon’s meridian at midnight. The first quarter moon would rise at noon and reach meridian at sunset, and the third quarter moon would rise at midnight and reach meridian at sunrise.
  • The moon was the only object so named until Galileo aimed a telescope at the planet Jupiter and detected four of its satellites, which he called moons.
  • Jonathan Swift wrote in 1726 that Mars has two moons. Swift also described their size and the speed of their travel around Mars relatively accurately. The moons of Mars were not detected by scientists until 1877.
  • A planet is described as an object of a certain size moving around a star. Refinement of that definition resulted a few years ago with the omission of Pluto from the list of planets in our solar system. Planets have been observed circling other stars in our galaxy.
  • A moon is described as an object moving around a planet. Usually moons are much smaller than the planets they circle. If two objects circle one another while moving around a star, they are called a double planet system.
  • Astronomers disagree among themselves about the size distinction required to identify a moon-and-planet system or a double planet system. Various ratios have been proposed, but universal agreement has not yet happened.
  • One rule suggested for distinguishing a moon-and-planet system from a double planet system is locating the center of orbit of the smaller of the two bodies. If the center of orbit is within the larger body, the smaller body is a moon. If the center of orbit is outside the smaller body, the bodies are a double planet system. The moon’s center of orbit is within the Earth.
  • When Pluto was still recognized as a planet, Pluto and Chadron were a double planet system.
  • Another rule suggested for distinguishing a moon-and-planet system from a double planet system is the path of the smaller body around the star. If the smaller object’s path around the larger object causes it sometimes to change direction relative to the star (retrograde motion), the smaller object is a moon. If the smaller object’s orbit around the star has no retrograde motion, then the two objects are a double planet system.
  • The Moon has no retrograde motion relative to the Sun. By the second rule listed above (and by some proposed ratios of relative mass), the Earth’s Moon is not a moon.

How many of these things did you already know? J.

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Two paths

Two paths stand before each of us, and each of us much choose which path to walk. One is the path of pleasure, and the other is the path of virtue. The path of pleasure appears pleasant, even beautiful, and it is easy to travel, but it leads to destruction. The path of virtue appears unpleasant, and it is much harder to travel, but it leads to true joy and not to destruction.

I have just read an interesting discussion of these two paths, and no, the writer does not mention Robert Frost. The poem in which Frost chooses the path less traveled, “and that has made all the difference,” is beloved by graduation speakers. Yet Frost never says that he is glad he took the path less traveled. When the poem is read with a sense of regret, it makes equal sense. Frost was born too late, though, to be quoted by Soren Kierkegaard. In his monumental Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard mentions sermons he has heard about the paths of pleasure and virtue. Specifically, Kierkegaard mentions preachers who recommend the path of virtue and discuss its charms. “Little by little,” Kierkegaard says, they alter their description of virtue and its rewards, until finally it seems like lunacy to choose the path of pleasure, not only because it leads to destruction, but because the path of virtue is equally nice in every way. Kierkegaard scornfully refers to these preachers as a committee formed to beautify the path of virtue, planting flowers along the way.

I do not quote Kierkegaard merely to correct the “prosperity gospel” preachers, those who say that God wants his people to be wealthy, healthy, peaceful, and happy in this present sinful world. Correcting their mistakes with properly applied Scripture is as easy as fishing in the hatchery pond. Instead, I am noticing how often we all try to beautify the path of virtue. We convince ourselves that we feel better after doing something kind and helpful for another person; we tell ourselves that we would feel guilty after sinning and our sense of guilt would take away all the fun. We assure ourselves that the sacrifices we make for God are improving our lives, guaranteeing us contentment in the midst of sacrifice. (What kind of sacrifice is it, then, if it makes us happy?) We promise ourselves that God is going to smooth the way before us once he knows that we have chosen to honor him by walking the path of virtue rather than the path to pleasure.

Kierkegaard rightly says that the Bible promises no such things. Easy and wide is the path to destruction, but narrow is the road to eternal life. The gate also is narrow, and few find it. In another place, Jesus says that the road to virtue is so difficult that we must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. The path of virtue requires nothing less than self-denial, self-sacrifice, and total faithfulness to the Lord.

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard stops at this point. He does not go on to say that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. As Paul wrote to the Romans, not one of us has faithfully traveled the path of virtue—we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Not only do we try to beautify the path of virtue; we convince ourselves that the path of virtue must be beautiful because the path we are traveling has all the surface splendor of the path of pleasure. Rather than confessing that we are on the wrong path, we honor ourselves by calling our way the path of virtue and by accusing others of being on the path of pleasure.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah says, but the Lord has laid on our Redeemer the burden of us all. All sin and fall short of the glory of God, but all are saved by his grace. We have not denied ourselves, but Jesus denied himself for us. We have forgotten to carry our crosses, but Jesus carried his cross through Jerusalem to Golgotha. Like Christ’s disciples we have not followed our Shepherd when trouble arose. We have run in other directions; we have hidden from trouble; when challenged, we have denied our Lord. Yet he went alone to the cross so we could be redeemed. Alone, he paid the price for all our wandering and all our guilt. Alone, he walked the path of virtue so he could come back and take us to be with him. Our Shepherd has blazed a trail through the consequences of our guilt. Now his rod and staff comfort us, goodness and mercy accompany us every step of the way, and we will dwell in his house forever. J.

Definitions

As a history teacher, I must define a few words so that the students and I can use them properly in the classroom. I want my students to know to true meaning of words such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “capitalist,” “socialist,” and “communist.” When we all use those words the same way, our conversations are much more productive.

Conservatives want to conserve things. They want to keep things the way they are. A conservative is likely to say, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.” Liberals want to change things. They don’t think things are good enough, and so they want to fix what is broken. A liberal is likely to say, “We can make it better.”

Actually, conservative and liberal are two words that cover some territory on a broad spectrum. A conservative wants to keep things the way they are, but a reactionary wants to change things back to the way they used to be. A liberal wants to improve the system, but a radical wants to destroy the system and replace it with a new system. Moderates are between conservatives and liberals. They want to change some things, but they want other things to stay the same. Convinced conservatives and convinced liberals think of moderates as weak and indecisive. They find it hard to fathom why anyone would want to remain in the middle between two choices. Yet political opinions are generally shaped like a bell curve. I suspect more people are moderate than are either conservative or liberal.

People sometimes change their minds, becoming more conservative or more liberal because of different experiences and new perspectives. Ideas can also change, generally from liberal to conservative. A new idea is going to be liberal at first. To adopt a new idea is to want to change. Two hundred years later, that idea has become old. Conservatives want to keep that idea, not to change it; but liberals might reject that idea that used to be liberal, because they think things can be better.

Limiting the power of government was once a liberal idea. Now it is a conservative idea. Defending human rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, was once a liberal idea. Now it is a conservative idea. Abolishing slavery was once a liberal idea. Allowing women to vote was once a liberal idea. Even capitalism was once a liberal idea. Once an idea has been around for a while and people have gotten used to it, the idea is now a conservative idea.

Capitalism has its origin in the High Middle Ages of Europe. As an economic idea, though, it was not expressed clearly until the late eighteenth century. When people thought at all about economics, they assumed that a limited amount of value exists in the world. For one person to gain wealth, someone somewhere would have to lose wealth. Nations competed for limited forms of wealth, such as precious metals. Explorers claimed newly-discovered lands for European governments, believing that they had to compete to see who would be wealthiest and strongest and safest. Adam Smith was one of the first writers to show that value in the world can increase, benefiting all people. A diamond found in a mine has value, but after a jeweler has spent hours cutting and polishing that diamond, the gem is more valuable, even though it is smaller. Wool sheared from a sheep has value. After the carder and spinner and weaver and fuller and tailor have worked with that wool to produce garments, the wool is far more valuable, even though much of it has been lost in the process.

Liberals at that time, believing in limited government, also believed that the government should be uninvolved in the national economy. They were convinced that the economy would regulate itself and would become stronger, benefiting all people, if the government would just get out of the way and let things happen. Private owners would be motivated to do their best to succeed with their property. They wanted customers to buy their products. Some would try to improve the quality of their products to attract customers, while others would try to cut costs to attract customers. Those seeking quality would pay their workers more to attract the better workers; but those who tried to cut costs might not need to pay workers as much, since their expenses would be smaller. Competition would waver between the higher quality and the lower cost, value would increase, and everyone would benefit. Liberal capitalists did not see any way that the government could help that process other than by staying out of the way.

Unregulated capitalists had critics by the middle of the nineteenth century. Capitalists hired children to work in their factories; those children worked from before sunrise until after sunset, labored in dark and dangerous conditions, and brought home less money than an adult would have expected for the same work. Liberals thought that conditions could be better. Some formed utopian communities, but others looked to the government to take over the factories and fix the problem. They figured that if the government owned the factories, they would improve working conditions, pay better wages, produce quality products, and sell those products for less, since the government would not be seeking to make a profit. Radicals (including Marx and Engels) expected the workers to rise in revolt, take over the factories, entrust them to the government for a time, and eventually replace the government with a world-wide utopian community in which each person would work for all and each would receive what he or she needed from all.

“Capitalism,” then, is defined as private ownership of the means of creating value, whether farms, factories, oil wells and refineries, or hospitals and medical clinics. “Socialism” is defined as government ownership of the same means of creating value. “Communism” is defined as shared ownership of these means without government control.

These definitions became confused when the Bolshevik Party in Russia changed its name to the Communist Party. They based this name on their promise of communism in the future, even though they named the country which they ruled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. For seventy years the Communist Party ruled the USSR, but the country remained socialist; it never became communist.

During the Cold War, Americans spoke of the struggle between communists and the free world. Other countries were ruled by Communist parties, but all of those countries were socialist. Moreover, all those governments were totalitarian, controlling the lives of citizens by controlling elections, education, communication, and every workplace, as well as law enforcement. It was a crime to disagree with the government. When citizens protested their governments, they were arrested or killed. People voted with their feet when they had their chance. Between three and four million Germans left East Germany to live in West Germany before the Berlin Wall was built; not many left West Germany to live in East Germany. When Vietnam was divided into a communist North Vietnam and a noncommunist South Vietnam, one million people traveled from North to South. Only ninety thousand traveled the opposite direction. When Fidel Castro said in 1980 that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was free to go, 125,000 gathered at the port of Mariel waiting for transportation to the United States. That many Americans have not tried to escape to Cuba in the entire fifty-five years that Castro’s Communist Party has ruled Cuba.

Small groups of people have experimented with communism. Even the early Christians were communist, according to Acts 4:32. No country has ever been communist, and no country ever will be communist, because governments are not good at surrendering their power to the people. Socialism has been tried at various times in various places with various levels of satisfaction among the citizens.

If unregulated capitalism was so bad, why did the workers of the industrialized nations not rise in revolt as Marx and Engels predicted? Marx and Engels did not envision regulated capitalism, in which the governments make laws about how farms and factories will operate, even though the government does not claim ownership of the farms and factories. Laws restricted child labor and eventually placed limits on the number of hours any worker could work. Laws allowed inspectors into factories to ensure that the factories were safe for workers and that their products were safe for customers to use. Laws forced capitalists to allow their workers to gather into labor unions which could then represent the workers and negotiate with the business owners. Capitalism survived and thrived because of its compromise with regulation. By 1988 it was easy to compare East Germany to West Germany, North Korea to South Korea, China and Vietnam to Japan and Singapore and Taiwan. In every comparison, it was easy to see that regulated capitalism produced a better life for citizens than totalitarian socialism.

Yet in regulated capitalism citizens often disagree with one another about the amount of regulation that is ideal. This conversation is part of an idea that has been called “the social contract.” On another day, I will write about that contract and what it means for people living under regulated capitalism. This post is too long already. J.

 

Do I hear what you hear?

Siri and I have two things in common. Both of us are fairly adept at tracking down information to answer other people’s questions. Both of us have trouble hearing in a crowded room.

Yesterday I did some Internet surfing, curious to learn if a name exists for this difficulty, and, more important, if solutions for this difficulty have been found. Some sites suggested that this difficulty is caused by hearing loss. I am sure that’s not the case with me, because I can recall having this difficulty even in childhood. For that matter, my hearing in childhood was unusual, as a classroom test indicated that I could hear much higher pitches of sound than most of my classmates. This ability evidently has a genetic connection, as most of my family also hears high pitches. Did you know that the Beatles included the sound of a dog whistle at the end of the last track of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Do you know many people who can hear that whistle? My kindred can.

Hearing high-pitched noises is not always a good ability to possess. I can hear light bulbs, computers, and appliances that are silent for most people. I remember a singing refrigerator that only a few people could hear—those who couldn’t hear it thought we were inventing a story. The refrigerator alternated among three pitches, almost pleasantly musical. The fluorescent lights at work hum in a monotone that can be distracting, almost painful, when there are no other noises in the room to mask the sound.

But I digress. After skipping the web sites that suggested hearing loss, I found others that described “the cocktail party problem.” It turns out that the “problem” is not that of people like me who cannot focus on one person’s voice when several people are talking. The “problem” is finding an explanation for the fact that most people can filter background noise and hear and understand the one voice they want to hear. Machines like Siri still cannot do that, and researchers want to know why people can filter unwanted noise so they can improve machines. So far research has indicated that the difference is in the brain and not in the ears. Studies with human subjects and with mice are focusing more specifically on the brains of the listeners to determine exactly how the brain filters sounds according to the desire of the listeners.

As I did my research, I wondered if any link exists between “the cocktail party problem” which I have (which is the opposite of the “problem” being studied) and the autism spectrum. Autistic people tend to be overwhelmed by sensory input; that is one of the key signs and symptoms of autism. As far as I could determine, no researcher has explored that connection. If anyone out there is looking for a thesis topic for an advanced degree in psychology or in audiology, let me make that suggestion…

Meanwhile, I continue coping as I have always coped. I maintain eye contact with the person I want to hear, and I do my best to read his or her lips during conversation. I also nod and smile a lot, or I try to match his or her facial expression without being obvious in my mimicry. No doubt from time to time I have been guilty of an inappropriate response, but everyone makes that kind of mistake occasionally.

Now if I could just pass a city ordinance to ban leaf-blowers…. J.

Balance of power

The chaos of Presidential primaries this year is a far cry from what the writers of the United States’ Constitution intended.

First, let’s skip the nonsense of asking whether the United States is a democracy or a republic. It can be both, and it is both. The United States is a republic because it has no hereditary leaders; it is a democracy because power rises from the people, who have the opportunity to choose their leaders. Presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all belonged to a party that called itself Democratic-Republican. Those three men (as any student of American history knows) had considerable influence and involvement in the formation of the United States government.

But the creators of that government did not trust the general population to make good choices. They feared that voters would be easily swayed by appeals to emotion rather than by good and responsible leaders. Therefore, the Constitution (as first written) allowed voters to choose the members of the House of Representatives but not members of the Senate. Senators were chosen by state governments until the twentieth century. As part of the balance of powers envisioned by the writers of the Constitution, Representatives serve two year terms, making them interested in immediate issues; but Senators serve six year terms, making them interested in longer term issues. The entire House of Representatives can change in a single election, but in any election no more than one third of the Senate can change.

The writers of the Constitution also did not trust voters to choose the President of the United States. Voters only choose electors from each state, and those electors then meet to choose a President. By Jefferson’s time, electors already were making their intentions known to the voters, so voters who favored one elector over another decided on the basis of how that elector promised to vote. In the general election in November, voters still will be choosing electors, but probably not one in a thousand voters will know the names of the electors they choose. They will be considering the candidates for President, not the candidates to meet together to choose the President.

The Constitution says nothing about political parties. Even though all the Presidents after George Washington have been members of a party, even Jefferson and Madison were at first opposed to party politics. By 1800 the first political parties had been formed in the United States, and ever since that time parties have selected candidates to be presented to the voters in the November general election.

Even then, primaries were not used to winnow the field of candidates. Leaders of the parties gathered in convention to select candidates for the highest offices and to form platforms (statements of the political positions of the party). Even in the middle of the twentieth century, few states held primaries to choose among candidates for President. The cliché of the “smoke-filled room” in which a few influential men decided what choices would be offered to the voters was, at that time, still a reality. Politicians decided to change the process leading to the nomination of a candidate for President after the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. In that convention, notorious for its disorder, Hubert Humphrey won his party’s nomination without having placed first in a single primary election. By 1972, both the Republican and Democratic parties had designed a new system in which the voters of the various states had a larger voice in determining which candidates would be nominated by the major parties.

The winnowing process has begun, as a few men and women travel around the country, seeking approval from the voters. Some states have caucuses and others have elections; some states bar voters who have not previously declared a party loyalty, others allow a voter to declare a party loyalty while receiving a ballot. Millions of dollars are spent by candidates and their committees advertising in every forum, hoping to get the attention of voters, and hoping eventually to get votes. In their speeches and on their web sites, all the candidates announce what they hope to do if they are elected President of the United States. Yet when an informed voter hears those speeches and reads those web sites, he or she might wonder whether or not the candidates are familiar with the United States Constitution.

The writers of the Constitution did not trust the voters, but they also did not trust the government. In various ways they worked to balance the government so that changing the laws would be difficult. All the states have equal representation in the Senate but proportional representation in the House, and most major decisions must be approved by both bodies. This prevents large states from dominating all the decisions without giving overwhelming power to the small states. The President cannot propose laws; only a member of Congress can propose a law, and then Congress discusses and debates the proposed law before voting whether or not to approve it. The President can sign the law, but only if Congress has approved it. If the President disagrees with the law and refuses to sign it, the President may veto the proposed law; but the two houses of Congress can overturn the veto by a supermajority.

Nearly all the promises being made during the primary elections by the candidates concern laws that can only be made by the Congress. A candidate might make glowing promises to win votes, but without the action of Congress, those promises are only empty words. According to a political theory first proposed by European philosophers but first tried in the United States, government is limited by having a legislative branch that creates laws but cannot enforce them, an executive branch that enforces laws but cannot make them, and a judicial branch that interprets laws and can overturn them, but only when a citizen opposes a law and has brought it to the courts—often by intentionally breaking that law.

A candidate for President should promise to do the job of the President. This includes being Commander in Chief of the armed forces, representing the United States to other nations, and using the power of the executive branch to enforce the laws made by Congress. Voters who want to see changes in the laws of the United States—such as changes in the tax code, more benefits for the poor, or different immigration policies—need to pay attention to the candidates for the United States Senate and the House of Representatives rather than to the candidates for President.

For this reason, Abraham Lincoln was the only notable President after Andrew Jackson and before Theodore Roosevelt. Generally in the nineteenth century, Congress did what the legislative branch was supposed to do and the President did what the executive branch was supposed to do. For a number of reasons, Americans began to pay more attention to their Presidents in the twentieth century. As a result, people who wanted to be elected President began to make more promises to the voters, even though they knew that they would not have the power to keep those promises if they were elected.

It matters who is elected President of the United States this fall. It matters who the major parties nominate this summer. It matters because the next President will represent the United States to the other countries in the world. The President will oversee foreign policy. The President will be in charge of the armed forces. The President will approve or veto laws passed by the Congress. Those who vote in the primaries this winter and spring had best consider which candidate will best perform in those roles, not which candidate can make the most inspiring and generous promises. J.

Remembering the Sixties

It’s all coming back to me now: the Beatles, the space program, Woodstock, Star Trek, Presidents Johnson and Nixon, I Dream of Jeannie, the Vietnam War, the Avengers (John Steed and Emma Peel), MAD magazine, hippies, protests, the Six Day War….

My youngest daughter and I watch television together. Mondays we see I Dream of Jeannie, binge-watching if you can call three episodes a week a binge. Wednesdays we see the original Star Trek, although we have only three episodes left until we have to jump to the feature movies. Weekends this new year we’ve been watching musicals. So about ten days ago we saw “The Way to Eden,” known among Trekkies and Trekkers as the “space hippy” episode. With that episode still in my head, when we chose a musical to watch last night, I suggested we see Hair. She had not seen it before, but she’s old enough to handle it, so that is what we did.

Now I am very much in a Sixties mood. I’m torn between two movies for tonight. To stay with musicals and with Sixties music and dancing and clothing, I’m leaning toward Jesus Christ, Superstar. On the other hand, to continue her education about the 1960s (which is as remote to her life as the Great Depression is to mine), I am thinking of watching Forrest Gump. Either one would be a lot of fun, and I have a few hours left before I have to make up my mind.

Of course there is also the four-hour movie version of the Woodstock music festival. That might have to wait for another weekend, though…. J.

The flag at half-staff

I was wrong about two things when I first began writing this post about flying the flag at half-staff (half-mast in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations or on an American ship). Fortunately, I have a tendency to fact-check my own writing before sharing it with the public.

I thought that I had been taught in school that the flag at half-staff was not literally half-way between the top and bottom of the flagpole, but only lowered a bit from the top. Perhaps things have changed since then; otherwise, I was taught wrong, or I am misremembering what I was taught. Nearly every description of “flying the flag at half-staff” that I can find today indeed does define “half-staff” as literally half-way between the top and bottom of the flagpole. The exception to that description was a dictionary definition of “half-staff” and not an official or semiofficial publication on flag etiquette. Obviously, common sense would direct that the flag not be flown literally at that half-way point if that causes the flag or others below it on the flagpole to touch the ground or become entangled in trees or other obstructions.

I did correctly remember that, when a flag is to be flown at half-staff, it should first be raised in the morning to the top of the flagpole and then lowered; likewise, at the end of the day, the flag should be raised to the top of the flagpole before being lowered and removed. I also correctly remembered that the President of the United States declares when the flag should be flown at half-staff. Aside from annual observances such as Memorial Day, the flag generally is flown at half-staff at the death of a public servant, such as a former President, a Supreme Court judge, a member of Congress, and the like. The flag also might fly at half-staff to honor military personnel who have died in the line of duty. Governors may order the U.S. and state flags to fly at half-staff at the death of a state government official or former governor. No mayor may order the flag to be flown at half-staff except for the governor of Washington D.C.

For the last several years I have thought that some individuals and businesses were choosing to lower the flag to observe other tragedies, such as school shootings, the shooting in a movie theater, and the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. To me, it seemed inappropriate to treat those deaths as equal to the death of a public official or of military personnel. By no means do I think that those were not tragic events—each of them was horrible, and each of them deserved a public sense of sadness and mourning. I merely objected to using the flag as a symbol of those tragic deaths, since the victims were not placing their lives into the service of the United States of America. Likewise, it seemed inappropriate to fly the flag at half-staff after the shootings in Paris last year. Again, that event was a horrible tragedy, but few of the victims were citizens of the United States and none of them were public officials.

I still feel the same way about those observances, but I was wrong to assume that individuals and businesses were making that decision. Each of those times the flag flew at half-staff, it was by proclamation of the President of the United States. I cannot say whether or not any political agenda led the President to make those proclamations. I do fear, though, that as hatred and senseless violence increase, we may arrive at a time when we are in constant mourning. In the near future, we might never see the flag flying at the top of the flagpole again. J.

Spring training

The Super Bowl and the hockey and basketball All-Star Games are minor sporting events meant to fill the gap before baseball’s spring training begins. Every February, professional baseball players report to their various camps in Arizona and Florida to prepare for the coming season.

This tradition began long ago, when the major leagues had no teams south or west of St. Louis, Missouri. At that time, baseball players often neglected their training during the winter and needed a few weeks of practice to restore their timing and their strength. Now major league teams play in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and California. Now professional athletes work all twelve months of the year to keep their bodies at peak performance. Spring training remains, though, as a chance for team players to become reacquainted and to meet the newest members of the team, and as a chance for the management of the team to decide which twenty-five players will be on the team roster Opening Day.

Players with multi-million dollar contracts do not have to worry about their jobs. Barring injuries or felony convictions, they can expect to be with their major league teams from the first day of the regular season. Many other players are under pressure during spring training. A team might have three of its five starting pitchers chosen by virtue of their contracts and their past performance; more than a dozen pitchers might be competing for the last two spots. Some of those competitors are young and will return to the minor leagues for more instruction, practice, and improvement. Others might fail to make the team and then retire, or they might choose to play a season or more in Japan. A very few might miss their chance to make one team, only to be chosen by another team and added to its roster.

Spring training sometimes has some interesting competitions, not only for the pitching staff, but for a regular position or two as well. Often the known players will play only the first part of a game before being replaced by the up-and-coming youngsters and by those scrambling for one of the last open spots. Managers and coaches are doing more than selecting their rosters, though. They are detecting problems in each player’s performance so they can work with those players to get rid of their problems. They are seeing how the players work together as a team so they know what to expect during the regular season. They want to know which players are going to support the team and which are only interested in personal achievements. They want to see players communicate with each other; and they hope that, by the end of spring training, communication is less necessary because the players will know what to expect from one another.

The chief glory of spring training, though, belongs to the fans. For three months we have relived the past season, its triumphs and its disappointments. For the last three months we have speculated about the coming season, who will do better than last year and who will not do as well. For the last three months a few players have been traded and a few have retired, and for every retirement and trade there has been speculation of a thousand other possible trades or retirements. During spring training the fans learn more about the young players who might join the team in a season or two. Best of all, during spring training the fans can re-experience the sights and sounds and smells of baseball. Once again we see the green grass and the reddish-brown dirt and the white chalk lines. Once again we hear the crack of a bat hitting a baseball, or the slap of a baseball landing in a glove, both accompanied by the patter of the players on the field and by the cheers of the crowd. It is not too soon for an overpriced beer and hot dog, or a cardboard bowl filled with corn chips covered with glow-in-the-dark orange cheese-flavored sauce. All this is part of baseball, and it has been missing from our lives for far too long.

Spring training is one of the best times of the year for a baseball fan. Opening day is fast approaching—the day that begins with every team tied for first place, every team hoping to be champions by the end of the season. As players begin to report to their various camps, the anticipation of baseball grows day by day. As every fan knows, this year will be the year, the year our team will win it all. On behalf of fans everywhere, “Play ball!” J.

About last weekend–reading and writing

Reading and writing were two goals I had for this long weekend. On Tuesday morning, I look back at the past three days, and I see a glass half-full and half-empty. I did some good reading and some acceptable writing, but a lot of other tasks went undone.

Over the weekend I composed a two-part essay on post-modernism and Christian faith. The second part is not finished, and the whole essay needs more polishing. I might not ever post or publish what I wrote this weekend, but at least it has helped me to focus a bit more on these issues.

Among the things I read this weekend were portions of a writer’s notebook I created when I was younger (so much younger than today…). Back then I kept track of my short story ideas by swirling them together in a longer work in which they occasionally became entangled with each other. Part of the inspiration for this style came from Arthur Hailey (Airport and Hotel) and Allen Drury (Advise and Consent and its sequels), but a stronger influence was Kurt Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions), with his minimalist approach to description. Friends who read portions of this notebook compared it favorably to Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), whose work I had not read when I started that notebook. This weekend I’m reading through this older writing to see if anything can be culled from the various plots and characters to stand alone as a short story. If I find anything I like, I will share it.

Last month I created a new WordPress blog containing a book I wrote a few years ago for a class I was teaching. The blog is not quite complete—I’ve not had time to read every post to make sure that I didn’t drop or repeat sections when uploading it, and I’ve not selected tags and categories for it yet. If you’re interested, though, you can find it here. The class was for church workers and was called Principles of Bible Interpretation. Technically, the subject was hermeneutics, but I tried to avoid technical terms in the book. (Exegesis is reading the Bible to learn its message—the “what” of Bible reading—and hermeneutics is the rules by which we read—the “how” of Bible reading.) Of the books selected by the program directors for teaching this course, one book was meant for graduate students, and the others (though more readable) disagreed with key teachings of my denomination of Christianity. Hence I wrote and used this book, trying to make it both approachable and doctrinally correct. It has since been used by another teacher of the same course. I thought I would make it available as a free online book. At first I called it “How to Read the Bible,” but the proper title of this book is “It’s All About Jesus: A Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Bible.” I hope you will take a look. J.

Traffic sighs

For more than a year I have been taking medicine to reduce anxiety. As a result, I am a calmer driver than I used to be. When other drivers do foolish or dangerous or illegal things, I used to shout and lose my temper. I would arrive at work already out of sorts, a bad way to start the day. Now I just sigh, or roll my eyes, or grit my teeth. I might grumble something sarcastic, such as, “Nice turn signal you didn’t use there.” I might even bark out a brief complaint. For the most part, though, I’m doing better behind the wheel than I was doing a year or two ago.

I am the kind of driver who stops at red lights. Even if the light turns yellow while I am still a thousand yards or more from the intersection, I begin slowing rather than planning to drive through the red light. As a result, I am often the front car in the group waiting for a light to change green. Of course when the light turns from green to yellow, I check my mirrors; if another driver is close behind me, I might not stop at the changing light. Many a time I have gone through an intersection when I thought I should have stopped, only to have another car or two follow me past the red light. Many a time I have seen the light turn green, but two more cars from the other direction entered and cleared the intersection before it was safe for me to start. The effect is like that of watching something from a distance, seeing the action before you hear the sound. Sometimes I wonder if the synapses between my eyes and my brain are faster than average, since I seem to notice the change of traffic lights more quickly than the average driver.

The last week has produced some other traffic sighs in my car. Not once, but twice—twice!—this week the following scenario happened. My light was green and I was approaching the intersection, when a driver facing a red light decided to take advantage of the right-turn-on-red privilege. There was room enough to squeeze one car ahead of me and I did not sigh about that right-turn-on-red, but I did react when a second car followed the first car into the intersection, turning right on red without coming to a stop and coming within a few feet of mutual damage to both our cars.

An even scarier near-event happened closer to home one morning this week. Less than a mile from my house I must turn left onto a road where there is a two-way stop: the northbound and southbound traffic has to stop, but the eastbound and westbound drivers are cross and need not stop. Parked cars in driveways and on the road make it hard to see the cross traffic, especially that coming from the right when I am trying to turn left. This time of year, the rising sun aligns with the westbound traffic, requiring extra attention to my left before making a turn. A speed bump has been built to slow the eastbound traffic, coming from my right, but the speed bump only makes the decision whether or not to turn more complicated. Predicting which drivers will slow for the speed bump and which will hit it at full speed makes the decision whether to turn or to wait about as certain as a coin flip, but with a much higher risk potential.

So that morning I came to the intersection, stopped at the stop sign, and (as I always do) looked right and left and scanned the intersection. My top priority is watching for cars, trucks, and other moving vehicles, but I am also alert for joggers, bicyclists, dogs, and small children. Nothing was coming from the left, but two cars were coming from the right, so I waited. By the time the two cars crossed the speed bump and cleared the intersection, a car was coming out of the sun from the left, so I waited. When that car had passed in front of me, I saw two cars—a dark-colored car to my right, but slowing for the speed bump, and a white-colored car approaching the intersection in front of me, not yet arrived at its stop sign. The occasion seemed propitious, so I made my left turn. Afterward I checked my mirrors, expecting the dark-colored car to be behind me. Instead, the white car was behindmethisclosetome. Not only was it clear that the driver had not stopped at the stop sign; even a “rolling stop” would have had the white car farther behind me.

A year or two ago I would have been screaming my head off at that white car and its driver. Now a simple sigh and a roll of the eyes is all I produced. The proper medication can make a world of difference in one’s attitude, even behind the wheel. J.