Wednesday, December 28, 2005

An Interesting Bit...

From Mark Steyn's mailbag:

Just having read your column " The tsunami, one year on ", on the ineffectiveness of the UN in the tsunami relief business, reminded me a a story in the local (Dubai) newspaper last month. Apparently some UN bigwig complained that the Gulf States hadn't donated their fair share for the Kashmir earthquake relief. The next day, the paper (Gulf News) had an indignant response from the local Red Crescent that UAE had donated $100,000,000 directly to the Pakistani relief agencies. It seems the UN asked for $35,000,000 for the privilege of donating through them, for overheads.

So now you know where 35% of the tsunami billions went...

Glen Williams
Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Monday, December 26, 2005

Robbing St. Stanislaus to pay St. Paul

The parishoners of the officially disbanded but thriving St. Stanislaus Koska Roman Catholic church in St. Louis, Missouri risk excommunication to hear Mass from an excommunicated priest:

ST. LOUIS - At least 1,500 people attended Christmas Eve Mass presided by an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest, despite warnings from the archbishop that participating would be a mortal sin.

The Rev. Marek Bozek left his previous parish without his bishop's permission and was hired by St. Stanislaus Kostka Church earlier this month. As a result, Bozek and the six-member lay board were excommunicated last week by Archbishop Raymond Burke for committing an act of schism.

Burke said it would be a mortal sin for anyone to participate in a Mass celebrated by a priest who was excommunicated — the Catholic Church's most severe penalty. Burke, who couldn't stop the Mass, said it would be "valid" but "illicit."

Despite the warning, Catholics and non-Catholics from as far as Oregon and Washington, D.C., filled the church. An overflow crowd viewed the Mass by closed circuit TV in an adjoining parish center.

"I'm not worried about mortal sin," said worshipper Matt Morrison, 50. "I'll take a stand for what I believe is right."

Many wore large red buttons reading "Save St. Stanislaus," and said they wanted to offer solidarity to a parish they believe has been wronged.

When Bozek entered from the rear of the church, the congregation rose and greeted him with thunderous applause.

"It was magic," said JoAnne La Sala of St. Louis, a self-described lapsed Catholic. "You could feel the spirit of the people."

The penalty was the latest wrinkle in a long dispute over control of the parish's $9.5 million in assets.

The parish's property and finances have been managed by a lay board of directors for more than a century. Burke has sought to make the parish conform to the same legal structure as other parishes in the diocese. As a result, he removed both the parish's priests in 2004.

Bozek, a Pole who arrived in the U.S. five years ago, said he agonized about leaving his previous parish but wanted to help a church that had been deprived of the sacraments for 17 months.

To be Polish is to be Catholic, he said, and to be Catholic is to receive the sacraments.

"I will give them the sacrament of reconciliation, the Eucharist. I will visit the sick and bury the dead," he said. "I will laugh with those who are laughing and cry with those who are crying."

Bozek said he doesn't believe that receiving sacraments at St. Stanislaus, especially Holy Communion, puts a Catholic at risk of mortal sin, in which the soul could suffer eternal damnation.

The Rev. Charles Bouchard, moral theology professor and president of Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, said Burke was following canon law "to the letter" in excommunicating Bozek and the board.

But some argue that St. Stanislaus' more than century-old governing structure holds the same authority as church law and the bishop lacked merit for imposing excommunication, he said.

"Whether the parties should have reached this impasse in the first place," Bouchard said, "is another matter."

The conflict started over the desire of the St, Louis diocese to close churches and sell off real estate in an attempt to stem the red ink from the pedophilia lawsuits. But in this instance it is not clear which entity holds title to the property. The St. Stanislaus church was established and managed by lay Catholics, yet being Catholics are subject to the authority of the church hierarchy.

I find it odd that the church would be rolling out the heavy artillery of excommunication and mortal sin for such a dispute. How many of the pedophile priests were excommunicated, or even defrocked? The modern church has to realize that its bishops, cardinals and Pope are seen by the majority of Catholics as figurehead authorities, part of the rich tradition of the church, but, like the royal family of England, very unlikely to inspire obedience to commands or edicts. With the beating that the American church hierarchy has suffered in the eyes of its lay community over their criminal negligence in the decades of abuse of minors by priests, and the subsequent coverups, you would think that they would feel some need to win back the good will of their flock. Closing a thriving community church to pay the legal bills for criminal priests will hardly do that.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

ID stands for "Irony Deficiency"

The ID Irony tour makes another stop at with this article by James Ringo (excerpted in its entirety):

An Atheist's Dream

Those battling to include the teaching of Intelligent Design (ID) along with Darwinian evolution in biology classes are shooting themselves in the foot, and not just because a Pennsylvania judge this week tossed out an effort to teach ID in schools.

The problem can be seen if one imagines, as a simple thought experiment that one is an aggressive atheist planning a propaganda campaign to capture the minds of the young. Such a campaign might look like the following. Begin by tying the question of the existence of God to some poorly supported theory of biology. Next, set up a joint presentation of this weak theory with, and in comparison to, the Darwinian theory of evolution which can and has been demonstrated in the laboratory with short generational microorganisms (both mutation and selection of the “fit” are observed) and has a world of data and modeling support. Finally, have this contest presented, refereed and commented on… by a Darwinist, as the bulk of biology teachers surely are. Diabolical no? Yet such a campaign is not far from what has been happening in Dover, PA, in Kansas and elsewhere.

Besides making a tactical misjudgment, those trying to force ID into the biology classroom are making a scientific misjudgment. This is a misunderstanding about how scientific disputes are settled and the status of the opposing theories.

There is no court that decides when a scientific hypothesis graduates to become a theory and when a theory is accepted as a law. But if there were such a court the theory of evolution would be called the law of evolution. The assurance biologists (including me) place in Darwinian evolution is demonstrated when we regularly bet our careers on evolution being right. These bets take the form of basing new experiments on, among other things, principles from evolutionary theory. For example, I have spent years on experiments which derived from an idea that a brain memory mechanism found in rodents would be preserved, expanded and adapted in the monkey. I followed this line of work because I am convinced of the general correctness of Darwinian evolution. Such conviction is essentially universal among the professors at major national research universities.

Now it is conceivable that all those biologists are wrong. Scientific revolutions have occurred before. The overwhelming bulk of attempts to overthrow established scientific law, however, come up empty, and usually with far less publicity than (say) Cold Fusion received.

The key to this kind of revolution is to find some inexplicable experiment or fact which is utterly incompatible with the current scientific understanding. If the proponents of ID would actually demonstrate (instead of simply assert) that the flagella or some other structure is irreducibly complex and could not have evolved then they would have met such a test. In fact, the “irreducible complexity” of the flagella, while asserted by ID proponents, is not holding up well. One (nicely reduced) candidate component of the flagella, which has an important function of its own and could also serve as a ‘way station’ on an evolutionary pathway to the more complex flagella, is a secretory structure with substantial homologies, discussed here (note: the provided link is inaccessible, but was hosted on the Miller and Levine web site.

This specific, detailed and technical dispute is exactly what should be happening. The first place to dispute evolutionary theory is in the laboratory. If proponents of ID show some success there, young Turks will flock to such a potential scientific revolution as Nobel Prizes beckon. At that point, basic texts in biology should (and will) attend to the issue, not before.

Lastly, if (say) 10% or even 5% of the professors at American medical schools backed ID one could argue there was an uncertain scientific consensus, or if this was an academic field where the very notion of expertise is suspect then there could be a supportable case that a political resolution would be needed. At present, however, it simply looks primitive. Science is not decided by consensus, but by evidence and experiment. Anybody who wishes is free to work to disprove Darwinian evolution. Textbooks, however, are compilations of consensus.

I would recommend a harder but surer path for those who believe in ID. Either do, or help fund, some revelatory experimental demonstration showing Darwinian evolutions limits.

I'd like to know what odds the Vegas bookmakers are quoting on the outcome of the ID/Darwin showdown. It may be too lopsided to even make book in, but I'm sure that there is plenty of foolish ID money that could be suckered in.

Some Not-unexpected News...

Housing Affordability Hits 14-Year Low

(Dec. 22) - [All emph. add.] Soaring house prices and higher mortgage rates [caused] housing affordability in October [to sink] to its lowest levels since 1991, according to the National Association of Realtors' Affordability Index, a widely followed measure of the average household's ability to buy a home at current interest rates. In some areas, including New York City, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Miami, housing affordability has dropped to levels not seen since the early to mid-1980s, according to mortgage giant Fannie Mae. [...]
Declining affordability mainly affects whether first-time home buyers will enter the market, but in some markets people who already own a home are finding it tough to trade up. [...]
Mortgage applications fell to an 11-month low last week, the Mortgage Bankers Association reported yesterday, as applications to purchase homes declined. [...]

Housing affordability fell nearly 9% in the third-quarter from the same period a year earlier, according to an analysis prepared for The Wall Street Journal by Moody's, a unit of Moody's Corp., which adjusted the NAR Affordability Index for seasonal variations. Affordability dropped by more than 20% in nearly two-dozen markets, including Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., Spokane, Wash., and Orlando and Lakeland, Fla., according to the study. "You have to go back 25 years to find a decline that is as significant on a percentage basis," says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's

In Tucson, where affordability has fallen 23% over the past year, buyers in all price ranges are feeling the pinch, says Kevin Freadhoff, an agent with Long Realty Co. Mr. Freadhoff says he's currently working with eight couples who would like to buy their first home but have been priced out of the market and a dozen others who already own a home, but are having trouble trading up.

In Seattle, declining affordability is forcing many home buyers to accept longer commutes, says Jane Powers, a broker with Ewing & Clark Inc. [...] And in Bergen County, N.J., where most starter homes are priced above $400,000, "prices have gone up to a point where it's pushing the first-time home buyer out of the market," says Margaret Foudy, manager of the Weichert Realtors office in Tenafly. That creates a "domino effect" as people who already own a home find it tougher to move up, says Ms. Foudy.

In 57 of 379 metro areas nationwide, homes were so expensive in the third quarter that a family earning the median income couldn't afford the median-priced home based on traditional lending standards, according to Moody's Sixteen markets have joined the ranks of unaffordable areas over the past year, according to the analysis.

To be sure, affordability isn't a problem in many parts of the country. [...] The National Association of Realtors' Affordability Index [...] indicates [that nationally], the median-income family has [slightly more than] the exact amount needed to buy the median-priced home, assuming a 20% down payment and a traditional mortgage. [Mortgage rates, though edging higher, are still relatively low by historical standards.] [...]

Another major analysis of affordability, by the National Association of Home Builders and Wells Fargo, shows that just above 43% of all new and existing homes sold in the third-quarter were affordable to families earning the median income. That's the lowest level since the index was first released in 1992 and compares with 50.4% a year ago.

Some factors have helped offset the decline in affordability. Many borrowers have embraced creative mortgage products, such as interest-only loans, mortgages with teaser rates of as low as 1% and "piggyback" loans aimed at buyers who don't have the money for a down payment. In the third quarter, borrowers could boost their purchasing power by 26% by taking out an interest-only mortgage, which allows a home buyer to put off repaying principal for several years, instead of a standard mortgage, according to Moody's [But rising short-term interest rates are eroding the effectiveness of many such mortgages].

In Tucson, roughly 60% of first-time home buyers make no down payment and instead now use 100% financing to get into the market, up from 30% two years ago, says Renee Booker, president of Long Mortgage, the mortgage arm of Long Realty.

In Spokane, where affordability fell more than 28% over the past year, many first-time home buyers are using piggyback loans and 40-year mortgages [!!!], which have smaller monthly payments than traditional 30-year mortgages, to get into the market, says Laraine Hunter, a managing broker with John L. Scott Real Estate. [...]

[R]enting remains a bargain in many parts of the country. Stephan Vrudny, an engineer who lives in San Diego, sold his three-bedroom condo to an investor in June for $405,000, then rented it back for $1,500 a month. Mr. Vrudny figures the arrangement is saving him $430 a month, even after taking into account the lost mortgage-interest deduction. "We'll be homeowners again when it makes sense again as an investment," says Mr. Vrudny, who had purchased the unit for $345,000 last year. [That's an 18% gain in market value, in only one year !]

- By RUTH SIMON, Staff Reporter, The Wall Street Journal

New Home Sales Plunge by Largest Amount in a Decade

WASHINGTON (Dec. 23) -- [All emph. add.] Sales of new homes plunged in November by the largest amount in nearly 12 years, the most dramatic evidence yet that the booming housing market is starting to cool off.
[New home sales make up 15 percent of all housing sales, according to the New York Times.]

The Commerce Department reported Friday that sales of new single-family homes fell by 11.3 percent last month to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.245 million units.
Analysts had been expecting a drop of around 8.7 percent given that sales in October had jumped unexpectedly to an all-time high. [...]
In addition to the big plunge in sales, the median price of a new home dropped by 4.1 percent from the October level to $225,200. That was up only 0.3 percent from November 2004, representing a marked slowdown from what been double-digit price gains.

Analysts said they still expect sales of both new and existing homes to set records for a fifth consecutive year in 2005, but they are forecasting sales declines of around 6 percent in 2006 as demand falters under the impact of rising mortgage rates. [...]
"There are plenty of bubbles around the country that are losing air rapidly and more are likely to follow. But so far there is no generalized collapse in the market," said Joel Naroff, chief economist at Naroff Economic Advisors in Holland, Pa. [...]

Home sales were down in all parts of the country except the Northeast, where they staged a 13.4 percent surge, the biggest percentage increase in this region since January 1994.
Sales were down 22.1 percent in the West, the biggest decline since February 1994, while sales fell 18.3 percent in the Midwest and 5.5 percent in the South.

The stockpile of unsold homes rose to a record of 503,000 homes in November. [...]

While rates on 30-year mortgages dipped slightly to 6.26 percent this week, they are still a full percentage point above the four-decade low of 5.21 percent set in mid-2003.
Builders are apparently rushing to complete homes and sell them before mortgage rates rise further. The government reported earlier this week that construction was started on 5.3 percent more homes and apartments in November than in October.


Developers always overbuild during booms. ALWAYS. Look for new home prices to drop further, which of course will help solve that "housing affordability" problem - for new buyers.
Sellers will be much less happy.

I also take issue with claiming that interest-only loans, mortgages with teaser rates of as low as 1%, "piggyback" loans, and 40 year mortgages "offset the decline in affordability".
They're all wagers that either home prices will continue to climb, or that the buyers will increase their incomes substantially. As long as either of those conditions are met, then there may be some merit to buying the largest home that one possibly can, and sooner rather than later.
However, if NEITHER of those conditions are met, then the buyers will be worse off than if they'd purchased a smaller home, or not bought at all.
"Piggyback" loans are personal loans made in lieu of a downpayment, and have interest rates that range up into credit card territory.
Interest-only loans or mortgages with teaser rates are initially VERY affordable, but within five years one must start paying the principal as well, and on an accelerated schedule, and teaser rates give way to serious rates. While both are great for those who know exactly what they're doing, or those who manage to flip their properties within a few years, there are many people who are not going to be prepared to meet the increased payments, especially if their homes decline in value.
40 year mortgages are wonderful for those who are thrilled to be allowed to pay almost exclusively interest for the first 15 years of their mortgage.

When there are markets where 60% or more of families earning the median income can't afford to buy the median-priced home, where prices are increasing by double digits every year, where 60% of first-time home buyers make no down payment, and instead get 100% financing, where over 30% of buyers have adjustable-rate mortgages...

For how long can such continue ?
From where will future demand come ?

And once prices start sliding, the speculators will start to unload, further depressing prices, and those folks with interest-only loans will find themselves with payments increasing by 20% once the initial period ends, and homes that are worth 20% less than they paid for them - some of them will be upside-down to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.

There are some small markets, in areas that are desirable for vacation homes, where outside demand can keep the boom humming along, but in larger markets that depend much more heavily on organic demand, and especially where developers are throwing up new homes by the square mile, it seems as though the roller coaster might be cresting the drop.

As previously discussed, a deflating housing market in those 60 hot spots will cut a good chunk off of GNP growth, but in-and-of-itself, ought not cause a recession. Plus, the Fed will stop raising interest rates if housing hits a wall, which will benefit all of us who don't live in one of the real estate hot spots.


[All emph. add.] [T]here are several major differences between Japan in the 1980's and the United States today. One is the fact that property prices rose much faster and more steeply in Japan, partly because speculators used paper profits from a booming stock market to invest in property, insupportably leveraging the prices of both higher and higher.
Another difference is that the biggest speculators in Japan's frenzy were deep-pocketed corporations, and they pumped up the commercial property market at the same time that home prices were inflating. [...]

Japan suffered one of the biggest property market collapses in modern history. At the market's peak in 1991, all the land in Japan, a country the size of California, was worth about $18 trillion, or almost four times the value of all property in the United States at the time.
Then came the crashes in both stocks and property. [...]
Now the land in Japan is worth less than half its 1991 peak, while property in the United States has [roughly] tripled in value, to about $17 trillion. [...] **
In Japan's six largest cities, residential prices dropped 64 percent from 1991 to last year. By most estimates, millions of homebuyers took substantial losses on the largest purchase of their lives. [...]

Yukio Noguchi, [is] a finance professor at Waseda University in Tokyo who is perhaps the leading authority on the Japanese bubble. [...]
In the 1980's, Professor Noguchi said, the frenzy in Japan reached such extremes that companies tried to outbid one another even for land of little or no use. At the peak, an empty three-square-meter parcel (about 32 square feet) in a corner of the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo sold for $600,000, even though it was too small to build on.
Plots only slightly larger gave birth to bizarre structures known as pencil buildings: tall, thin structures that often had just one small room per floor. [...]

Professor Noguchi said he also saw parallels between Japan then and America now. Last year, as a visiting professor at Stanford, he said he read real estate articles in local newspapers that sounded eerily familiar. Houses were routinely selling for $10 million or more, he said, with buyers saying they felt that they had no choice but to buy now, before prices rose even further.

"It was déjà vu," Professor Noguchi said. "People were in a rush to buy, and at extraordinary prices. I saw this same haste psychology in Japan" in the 1980's. "The classic definition of a bubble," he added, "is people buying on false expectations about future prices, and buying with the hope of selling in the future."

Economists and real estate experts see other parallels as well. In the 1980's, the expectation of rising real estate prices made many Japanese homebuyers feel comfortable about taking on huge debt. And they did so by using exotic loans that required little money upfront and that promised low monthly payments, at least for a short time.

A similar pattern is found today in the United States, where the methods include interest-only mortgages, which allow homebuyers to repay no principal for a few years. Japan had its own versions of these loans, including the so-called three-generation loan, a 90- or even 100-year mortgage that permitted buyers to spread payments out over their lifetimes and those of their children and grandchildren.

- By MARTIN FACKLER, The New York Times

The full article was careful to say several times that nobody expects home prices anywhere in the U.S. to fall by two-thirds.

It's interesting to note that even after a catastrophic real estate crash and an eleven year long recession, all of Japan's land is STILL worth half of what all of America's land is worth, even though America is fifteen times larger.
Population density is obviously a big part of the premium valuation, but can't be the only factor, of the U.S. is any guide; Houston, for example, has cheaper real estate prices than just about any city of its population size and density, for reasons unknown to me.
Maybe it's the extreme heat and humidity, which is very Vietnam-like.

Friday, December 23, 2005

God, can you gift-wrap that miracle?

Sometimes it just doesn't pay to do God's bidding. You say the prayers, you put His Will in motion, and yet the waves just don't part fast enough. You might actually get your feet wet crossing the Red Sea. Who can be bothered? Not Bruce Wilkinson, the world renowned author of "the Prayer of Jabez":

MBABANE, Swaziland -- In 2002 Bruce Wilkinson, a Georgia preacher whose self-help prayer book had made him a rich man, heard God's call, moved to Africa and announced his intention to save one million children left orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

In October, Mr. Wilkinson resigned in a huff from the African charity he founded. He abandoned his plan to house 10,000 children in a facility that was to be an orphanage, bed-and-breakfast, game reserve, bible college, industrial park and Disneyesque tourist destination in the tiny kingdom of Swaziland.

What happened in between is a story of grand hopes and inexperience, divine inspiration and human foibles. Mr. Wilkinson won churchloads of followers in Swaziland, but left them bereft and confused.

He gained access to top Swazi officials, but alienated them with his demands. And his departure left critics convinced he was just another in a long parade of outsiders who have come to Africa making big promises and quit the continent when local people didn't bend to their will.

The setback stunned Mr. Wilkinson, who had grown accustomed to operating on a larger-than-life scale, promising that God would enable him to achieve the impossible. "We're going to see the largest humanitarian religious movement in the history of the world from the U.S. to Africa to help in this crisis," Mr. Wilkinson predicted in June, when he believed his orphan village was about to sprout from the African bush.

Just a few months later, he found himself groping with his failure to make that happen. "I'll put it down as one of the disappointments of my career," he says.

Interesting choice of words. Most people would call saving the world from AIDS a calling. To Mr Wilkinson, it is a career option. Callings involve a total commitment of your life's energies and require a blind and unshakeable faith in your vision that will not be extinguished by setbacks and difficulties. Career options come with perks, benefits and personal growth opportunities, and have a half life equal to the time it takes you to realize that you missed the first on-ramp to the fast track.

Mr. Wilkinson's life has been all about miracles: He routinely asks God to perform them, and God, he says, routinely does. A solidly built 58-year-old, with silver hair and rimless glasses, Mr. Wilkinson led his nondenominational ministries to explosive growth over three decades, sponsoring thousands of Christian seminars and training battalions of Bible teachers.

But his life took a sharp turn after he wrote "The Prayer of Jabez," a 93-page, $10 tract published in 2000. It is based on a passage in the Bible's book of Chronicles, in which an honorable man named Jabez asked for God's favor. "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, and that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain," Jabez prayed. In the story, God granted his wish.

The lesson, Mr. Wilkinson says, is that God wants believers to ask for blessings. Those who ask -- by reciting Jabez's 33-word prayer -- unleash miracles. Those who don't ask, don't receive.

Squabbling couples should ask for happy marriages, he writes. Business executives should ask for more customers. Stuck in traffic once, Mr. Wilkinson says he asked God to delay his flight so he wouldn't miss a speaking engagement. He made his plane.

God as personal assistant, mentor and conscierge! Who can't love a God like that? Seriously, if anything illustrates the narcissistic impulse that lies beneath the surface of much of the modern therapeutic religious movements, it is the Prayer of Jabez. There is much to be said for the power of faith in motivating people to acheive great things. Norman Vincent Peale, with his book "The Power of Positive Thinking", can be said to have begun the modern movement within Christianity toward a motivational, therapeutic, self-centered wish fulfillment approach to spirituality.

Positive thinking and personal success are good things. But religion isn't, or shouldn't, be about that. If religion is busy stoking the fires of desire and ambition, then it cannot act as the mirror of conscience, the brake on hubris and the wellspring of eternal, sacred values that transcend earthly material success. The Gospel of Success opens the temple doors to the moneylenders, motivational life coaches, agents and brokers of worldly advancement. It may be a good preparation for the world of business, but at the expense of an ability to deal with the inherent tragedy of human existence. As Jesus said, the poor will be with us always. We can help those that suffer, but the woes of existence are not amenable to a five-point strategy of elimination. You don't wipe out disease and poverty, put it on your resume and then move on to the next challenge.

Moving to Africa

Riding his global celebrity, in 2002 Mr. Wilkinson took a three-week preaching tour of Africa, where he felt the tug of the continent's 20 million orphans, most left parentless by AIDS. As he told soon afterward: "God ripped open our chest, took out our heart, dug a hole in Africa, put it in, covered it with soil and said, 'Now, follow your heart and move down to Africa.'"

Within months, Mr. Wilkinson, his wife and their teenage daughter -- the youngest of three children -- moved from suburban Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. He launched Dream for Africa, a Christian organization aimed at solving the problems of AIDS, poverty, hunger, orphans and spiritual emptiness.

"We asked the question, 'What does God want done with the orphans?' " he said in a June interview with this newspaper. "We don't set a goal based on resources, but on the need."
Mr. Wilkinson felt a special kinship for South Africa's poor neighbor, Swaziland. Years earlier, while they still lived in Georgia, the Wilkinsons had sponsored the training of Bible teachers in the mountainous, nominally Christian country of 1.1 million people, more than two-thirds of whom live on less than $1 a day.

In 2002, a group of Swazi pastors arranged for Mr. Wilkinson to have an audience with the country's king, Mswati III. "How can I help you?" he asked the king, according to people who were there. King Mswati listed the country's woes: poverty, AIDS, orphans and joblessness.


In Mr. Wilkinson's view, he was called to step in because village chiefs and traditional aid organizations had fallen down on the job. He bypassed small solutions and came up with one on a grand scale, which he called the "African Dream Village." It would provide homes for 10,000 orphans, who would live 20 to a house, with a volunteer Swazi couple in charge and elderly widows as grandmother figures.

Each home would have a bed-and-breakfast suite where tourists would pay $500 a week to stay, combining charity with an African vacation. Fifty such homes would form a mini-village of 1,000 orphans, built around a theme -- such as Wild West rodeos or Swazi village life -- to entertain guests. There would also be a new luxury hotel and an 18-hole golf course. Orphans would be trained as rodeo stars and safari guides at nearby game reserves.

The idea, Mr. Wilkinson said, was to "try to bring experiences to the kids they could only get at Walt Disney or a dude ranch."

The village would have schools, churches, medical centers and a "Mega Farm" to feed everyone. Mr. Wilkinson also planned a bible college, a cannery, a chicken farm, a bicycle factory and a truck-reconditioning plant, with water supplied by a new dam. "They'll be self-sufficient from the day they move in," Mr. Wilkinson said in June.


A $190 Million Price Tag

Dream for Africa put the price tag for the project at $190 million. His group projected the Dream Village would generate $12 million a year in revenue, and would create jobs for five doctors, nine firemen, 12 masons, one entomologist, two wildlife specialists and 68 pastors, among many others.


Ms. Jarvis and Mr. Wilkinson roamed the Swazi countryside until they found the right property: 32,500 acres near two of the country's best game reserves, home to white rhino, crested eagle, warthog, gnu, lion and other species.

Late last year, Mr. Wilkinson asked Ms. Jarvis to tell the king what he had in mind and what he wanted: a 99-year lease on the land and control of both game parks.

In the following months, Mr. Wilkinson pitched his plan to government officials and, he says, secured verbal commitments. In February, the king invited him to tour the small airport near the proposed orphan village. Mr. Wilkinson said an upgrade was imperative because he required an airport big enough to land Boeing 777 jets filled with Western volunteers and tourists.

It wasn't until Feb. 23, however, that Dream for Africa gave the government anything in writing -- a 34-page proposal.

Mr. Wilkinson gave the government five days to approve the plan. "They knew all about this for a long time," he says, explaining the short deadline. Mr. Wilkinson and his aides sent letters to government officials, threatening to take his orphan village to Zambia or South Africa if the Swazis didn't sign up.


Touching a Nerve

In a country where land ownership provokes deep emotions, Mr. Wilkinson's request for a prime tract touched a nerve. Colonizers offered previous royals mirrors and other trinkets in exchange for land.

In the 1970s, a British evangelist won the support of King Mswati's father, promised do-good projects that turned out to be hoaxes and ran off with the money people had donated. "Are We Really a Nation of Fools?" asked an op-ed in the Times of Swaziland, after the Dream for Africa plan surfaced.

The outrage spread to organizations that Mr. Wilkinson had accused of failing the orphans. "The history of these kinds of grand-scale 'social engineering' experiments is not very promising," Alan Brody, an American who headed the local Unicef office, told the Times of Swaziland. "So I have deep misgivings about Swaziland making itself the guinea pig for this kind of experimentation."


As Mr. Wilkinson's frustration mounted, Ms. Jarvis tried to arrange a decisive meeting between him and King Mswati during the monarch's visit to New York in September. Mr. Wilkinson, then spending a few months in the U.S., juggled his schedule and flew to New York. The king's chief of staff, Mr. Fanourakis, agreed to set up the audience, but only at a time that would have required Mr. Wilkinson to wait in New York a few extra days.

The perceived snub was, Mr. Wilkinson says, his snapping point. He left New York without seeing the king and soon afterward let his inner circle know that he was done with Swaziland, done with Africa and done with Dream for Africa.


Mr. Wilkinson says that he blames neither God nor man. He says he weeps when he thinks of his disappointed acolytes, and is trying to come to grips with a miracle that didn't materialize despite his unceasing recitation of the Jabez prayer.

"I asked hard enough," he added, his gaze drifting upward. "All we can do is ask God what to do, ask him to help us in the doing of it, and work as hard and wisely as we can. Somewhere in this it's got to be all right to attempt a vision that didn't work and not to make it an overwhelming failure."

Did you catch that? He doesn't blame God for his impetuous decision to quit when the going got rough. How very magnanimous of him! But when you are accustomed to having flights delayed by the Almighty, it is hard to expect someone to deal with that level of difficulty. Apparently that little voice in his head that cried "think of the children!" was drowned out by the one that complained "I didn't get into the salvation business to put up with indecisive kings and skeptical bureacrats!".

Even Moses had to present God's demand to Pharaoh seven times before he released the Jews from captivity. Apparently Bruce Wilkinson considered his time more valuable than Moses'.

A little knowledge…How’s that irony meter, Skipper?

Today’s UK Financial Times (subscription) newspaper carries a lengthy article reviewing the so-called “growing battle” (that we all know and love so well) between science and religion over the issue of evolution, particularly in the US.

The article observes the new trend of fundamentalist Christian religious groups trying to push creationism into schools under the pseudo-scientific guise of Intelligent Design, and recounts the usual protestations against this attack on the integrity of science as a whole.

There is also an overview of the Vatican’s defence of Darwinist evolution’s compatibility with religious belief. So far, so familiar.

However, this passage caught my eye:

“Attacks by the fundamentalists have not yet harmed research into evolution, which is advancing rapidly as biologists use new genetic tools to understand the process at the molecular level. If anything, the debate may be a stimulus, says Sean Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who is a leading US evolutionary scientist.

“Never before has evolution received so much attention”, says Prof Carroll. “Teachers are looking for fresh materials to bring to their students. There may be positives coming out of the struggle.”

I suppose the problem with actually engaging with the enemy, rather than just ignoring him (as most religious folk have hitherto ignored evolutionary science), is that you can end up knowing him. And a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Breaks My Heart...

Former Iraqi Dictator Claims Beatings While in Detention

BAGHDAD, Iraq (Dec. 21) - Saddam Hussein insisted again Thursday that he had been beaten by his American captors...

When the court gave the former leader an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, Saddam instead used the time to expand on earlier assertions that he had been abused in custody. [...]

On Wednesday Saddam told the court he'd been beaten "everywhere" on his body and insisted the marks were still there. He did not display any marks.

Why does he believe that anyone cares ?

We could work him over with a rubber hose every night, as far as the American and Iraqi publics are concerned.

Monday, December 19, 2005

More Enlightened People

I missed this, from last month's elections:

City of Denver, Colorado
The "Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative"

The initiative removes criminal penalties for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana among adults 21 and older, in the City of Denver.

Yea - 57,540
Nay - 50,090


Rationality wins the day.

While Denver city officials say that the Denver police will continue to cite adults for marijuana possession under state law, they are apparently unwilling, as of yet, to go to court over it, since there hasn't been a single citation issued for marijuana possession since 1 Nov. '05.

I have only a mild desire to see marijuana legalized - what I REALLY want is for America's "drug warriors" to stop plucking the low-hanging fruit of relatively harmless marijuana, and redouble their efforts to stop intensely harmful stuff like heroin or methamphetamines.

Just as we have "wet" and "dry" counties, I'd like individual state and local governments to be able to approve or ban marijuana sales, and of course any public space has the right to bar public intoxication or smoking, and any private property owner can ban the use of alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana on the premises.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

ID, Sex Combs, and Theodicy

Harry Eagar, staff columnist at The Maui News, recently wrote this column (quoted in full here with the author's permission), which has a curious hook at the end.

In 49 other states, many eyes are turned to Dover, Pa., where the school board wants to teach the kiddies intelligent design.

This is hardly an issue in Hawaii. I blame the Buddhists for depriving us of this sport.

I am not a Buddhist, but my understanding is that they are pretty relaxed about how we got here, possibly because they believe we are coming back again.

Whatever the merits of that, the presence of about 15 percent highly respectable Buddhists has done wonders for the manners of the Fundamentalists in Hawaii. Down South, where I grew up, the preachers could -- and did -- preach that anybody who didn't subscribe to the views summarized in the Schofield Reference Bible was an agent of Satan.

Since there was no identifiable body of well-behaved non-Fundamentalists willing to challenge the preachers, they were able to bully everybody else on evolution and other subjects, like beer. The Buddhists don't have to say a word to abash our local Fundamentalists, though. Their presence is enough.

I was in Houston the week after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where I amused myself by watching televangelists preach that God was sending a message and a chastisement to the notorious sinners of New Orleans. Skeptics (none seen in Houston but I found some on the Internet) noted that Bourbon Street was not flooded, while dozen of churches were. Go figure.

I was never exposed to the evidence for evolution through natural selection in school. Roman Catholics in those days were nearly as relaxed about evolution as Buddhists. At St. Pius X High School the biology teacher was also, and primarily, the assistant football coach. Each day, he would come into the classroom, sit on the edge of his desk and tell us, "Take out yer books and I will give youse some biology notes."

He wasn't a native Southerner.

He then read from the textbook, leaving out all the a's, an's and the's, and we were supposed to copy it out. We didn't get very far into the book before the year ended.

I don't know what the girls were taught. We were separated in biology class.

So, deprived of the fine public school education that I might have had, I've had to teach myself biology.

Recently I learned that we humans have a gene called SCML.

What it does for us, if anything, is not yet discovered, but it turned up along with the 30,000 or so other genes in the Human Genome Project. This particular gene was already known, and had a name, because it had been discovered in fruit flies.

It is often said that we share 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, or 45 percent with bananas.

I don't know what the antievolutionists make of this sort of statistic. They seem to just ignore it. I have read the principal papers of the leading Intelligent Design Creationists, like Alvin Plantinga, Michael Behe, Philip Johnson and William Dembski, and they do not have anything to say about it.

They should, because the fact that living things share so many genes seems to require some explanation.

Take those little plastic necklaces that you perhaps bought for the keiki at the county fair. The power that makes them glow is adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is coded for by the ATP gene.

You could say that we share the ATP gene with bananas (and every other form of life) because ATP is the only practical way to transfer energy inside a cell. (That wouldn't be precisely correct, but it's the best molecule for it, and every cell uses it.)

The fact that you and your peanut butter and jelly sandwich both have (or had) ATP genes does not in itself prove that you and peanuts shared a common ancestor that had the ATP gene and passed it down both ways. It suggests that, but it does not prove it.

SCML, though, does more than suggest.

We got it in one of two conceivable ways: Either a common ancestor of us and flies provided it to both, or a designer gave it to humans and to flies independently.

The second alternative is possible, I suppose, but it does raise the question of why a designer, intelligent or otherwise, would give you a gene that carries instructions to make a sex comb on your midleg.

Because that's what SCML does for fruit flies.

There are a few noteworthy things here.

First, the humor element. One technique for eliciting a laugh, with the possible additional payoff of putting a hook in your memory, is misdirection: effective and easy to describe, yet difficult to put into practice. Here Mr. Eagar tosses SCML onto the table early on, then draws the reader elswhere in a path that ultimately leads us right back to SCML and the punchline. No, it isn't an earth shaking thing, I just happen to enjoy analyzing effective writing, deftly done.

Second, Mr. Eagar's hook, and flooded churches in New Orleans, lead the reader to think about what ID, in its entirety, entails. When ID provides credit to some yet to be named designer for Nature's complex wonders, all the way down to bacterial swim-fins, that Anonymous Designer similarly deserves credit for everything where the God-of-the-Gaps argument resides.

Can you spell Theodicy? (No fair looking.)

Theodicy is a branch of theology that seeks to reconcile the existence of evil with a benevolent God. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and last year's tsunami, as well as human nature in general, have each served to raise this apparent conundrum. I say apparent, because there is far less conundrum here than meets the eye.

Natural disasters don't qualify as evil, because they are part and parcel of a world operating without continuous Godly intervention: an earth without earthquakes is an earth without vulcanism, which is a dead earth. Looked at in this way natural disasters are a feature, not a bug; they have no moral component. (Credit here goes to David Cohen, in some -- typical for him -- particularly insightful posts at BrosJudd immediately following the tsunami.)

Human nature presents its own conundrum, but also one that is more apparent than real. If humans are to be other than automatons, they require free will, which, by definition means the capacity for evil.

Again, but through a different path, feature, not bug.

ID, a Two Letter Acronym for Irony

Intelligent Design, in crediting a deus ex machina for natural history's unexplained features means that deus, the Designer, gets credit for all of them.

In addition to bacterial swim fins and hemoglobin, the Designer also gets credit for:

The pelvis, which slopes sharply forward, and lower back, both designed for knuckle walking. The only reason we are able to walk upright is the sharp bend at the base of our spines, making the lower back a notoriously weak part of our anatomy.

Teeth. The human muzzle is flatter than other mammals, with a corresponding reduction in space for teeth, particularly the ironically named wisdom teeth.

Sinuses. We have the same bones in our faces as other mammals, just shaped differently. But the drainage system, which came along for the ride, is a dog's breakfast.

Prostate gland. This has design failure stamped all over it.

Giving credit to some Designer for otherwise unexplained features of life means giving that designer credit for all such features, including ones that would shame any first year engineering student. The list above, far shorter than it could be, contains (at least before modern medicine) the cause of early death and agony simultaneously widespread, prolonged, and random.

None of them are essential to life or humanity. None of them are the result of "intelligence." Thre is no more intelligence in this list than the likelihood someone will ever get a Nobel for inventing the artificial appendix.

This is where ID collides with theodicy, taking it, and irony, to a whole new level.

Thanks to ID, the question "Why does God allow evil?" has now morphed into "Why is God evil/incompetent/ignorant?"

The question, the inevitable consequence of taking ID at its word, is fair, obvious, and resistant to any answer consistent with Christian notions of God. ID, in attacking naturalistic evolution as destructive of faith in God, has replaced it with an idea far more destructive of faith in general, and Christianity in particular, than evolution could ever be.

It is a doddle to encompass naturalistic evolution within Christian theology; Catholicism has done so without so much as a ripple. In contrast, making God responsible for every jot of natural history makes Him responsible for all the tittles as well.

If there has ever been a case of being careful what one asks for, ID certainly presents it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

But it works all right in ‘24’

From the Daily Telegraph (UK):

Torture is not acceptable, seven law lords agreed yesterday as Britain's highest court unanimously allowed an appeal on behalf of 10 suspected terrorists who were detained in the months after September 11.

They challenged their detention on the grounds that evidence against them might have been obtained by torture, carried out abroad by agents of a foreign state.

Lord Bingham said English common law had "regarded torture and its fruits with abhorrence for over 500 years, and that abhorrence is now shared by over 140 countries which have acceded to the Torture Convention".

As a result of yesterday's ruling, the cases of suspects still in detention will have to be reconsidered by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC), the anti-terrorist court that hears evidence in the applicant's absence.

Lord Hope said that all a detainee needed to do would be to "point to the fact that the information which is to be used against him may have come from one of the many countries around the world that are alleged to practise torture" - an "easy" test.

If SIAC had reasonable grounds for suspecting that torture has been used in that case, he added, it would have to investigate the facts.

Human rights organisations said this would be sufficient to stop the Government relying on information obtained from states that use torture.

Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, said the judgment would have no bearing on the Government's efforts to combat terrorism.

"The majority of their lordships have ruled that evidence should be admitted to SIAC hearings unless those acting for terrorism suspects can establish - on the balance of probabilities - that the evidence was obtained by torture," he said.

As much as I accept that extraordinary threats call for extraordinary measures, this seems to me a sensible ruling. The authorities will not ignore this kind of information when it comes to responding to security threats, but will investigate its source for individual prosecutions.

Besides the moral repugnance of the practice, it is well established that torture is the best way of quickly obtaining false confessions and misinformation.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

This little Ducky packs heat

I picked up my Christmas present today, a brand new Ruger GP-106 .357 Magnum revolver. Finally, a wintertime hobby to get the Duck out of the house between December and April.

For a Blue state, Minnesota's gun laws are surprisingly lax. I was required to go through a background check through the county sheriff, which resulted in a permit to buy a firearm which is good for 1 year. Minnesota also has a concealed carry law, which allows authorized citizens to carry a concealed firearm in public. The permit process is similar to the process to buy a firearm.

The Minnesota concealed carry law was passed in 2003 after the election of a Republican House and governor, to the wails of many a Twin Cities anti-gun progressive. The law also allows property owners to ban handguns from their premises by posting a notice to that effect at building entrances.

The kind of firepower that the average American citizen can legally get his hands on is really quite surprising. While undergoing infantry training at the Basic School in 1980, I got to experience firing a wide range of military small arms, including this, this, this, this, and this. Although the training was deadly serious, it was still a blast to handle this kind of hardware. Not that I intend to turn into a gun nut, but now that I am fully invested in my 2nd Amendment rights, look for more gun-friendly content in coming issues of the DD.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Dueling Absurdities

Umberto Eco opines on the debased state of religion in Europe:

Religions are systems of belief that enable human beings to justify their existence and which reconcile us to death. We in Europe have faced a fading of organised religion in recent years. Faith in the Christian churches has been declining.

The ideologies such as communism that promised to supplant religion have failed in spectacular and very public fashion. So we're all still looking for something that will reconcile each of us to the inevitability of our own death.

G K Chesterton is often credited with observing: "When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." Whoever said it - he was right. We are supposed to live in a sceptical age. In fact, we live in an age of outrageous credulity.

The "death of God", or at least the dying of the Christian God, has been accompanied by the birth of a plethora of new idols. They have multiplied like bacteria on the corpse of the Christian Church -- from strange pagan cults and sects to the silly, sub-Christian superstitions of The Da Vinci Code.

It is amazing how many people take that book literally, and think it is true. Admittedly, Dan Brown, its author, has created a legion of zealous followers who believe that Jesus wasn't crucified: he married Mary Magdalene, became the King of France, and started his own version of the order of Freemasons. Many of the people who now go to the Louvre are there only to look at the Mona Lisa, solely and simply because it is at the centre of Dan Brown's book.

I've often winced at reading that quote attributed to Chesterton. Is the credulity of the post-Christian any greater than the credulity of the Christian? So people now believe in strange and bizarre faiths. They are only strange and bizarre in comparison to what came before. Christianity was once strange and bizarre. Is it any stranger to believe that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and went to France as it is to believe that he rose from the dead?

Chesterton's statement is somewhat disingenuous. It would be more accurate to say that "people who don't believe in god will believe in something else". To say that they believe in "anything" makes them out to be foolish simpletons, the spiritual equivalent of rubes in the big city who will be scammed out of their savings by fast-talking confidence men. But Chesterton somehow feels that his faith, the faith of the Christians, is totally different from this "anything", when in fact it is one of the many "anythings" that this simple rube, Man, will believe in.

All faiths, or things believed in but not seen, appear ridiculous to outsiders. The person who will "believe in anything" doesn't exist in reality, for once a faith becomes real to a person, it forms a defensive shell around his psyche that will drive out competing faiths. Very few people will believe in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Wicca at the same time. It is the feeling of being in posession of the one Truth that gives religious faith its power over the mind's skeptical side, and engenders the sense of awe and wonder that fulfills the longing of the believer. The fact that it is a hidden truth, not obvious to the immediate senses, that adds to the value of posessing that truth. A truth that was acknowledged by all people would lose that power.

On what basis can one determine that one faith requires more credulity than another? Why is it hard for a traditional Christian to imagine that the DaVinci Code could inspire such enthusiasm and belief? The Christian is buttressed in his faith by a historical tradition measured in millenia, and a worldwide fellowship of co-believers. Yet it is the earliest Christians, who were a minority cult persecuted and ridiculed for what was at the time the strangest of faiths, in a God who was killed like a criminal, that earns the most admiration among modern Christians. How credulous must these early Christians have been?

To be present at the birth of a faith is heady stuff. New faiths and cults have that over Christianity, the power of newness, the specialness of small numbers, of secret knowledge not available to others. Looked at in this fashion, is it any wonder that religions are constantly splintering into competing sects, or being born out of whole cloth?

I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

A clear and coherent absurdity? Now there's a shot in the arm for Christianity! With friends like Mr Eco, Christianity needs no enemies. Religions are the most personal of things. Even within a church or sect there are as many varieties as their are believers. We all construct personal systems of meaning out of our experiences, even secularists. Those systems cannot possibly be deciphered without access to those experiences, which, like the iceberg, remain mostly submerged under the surface of the visible person. Leave each man to his own absurdity, and with luck he will leave you to yours.