Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where Does Your Opinion Count?

I like opinions. I have my own. I enjoy reading others' opinions. I enjoy exchanging opinions with those who are open enough to actually change their opinions - or with those open enough to change my opinion. I like opinions.

But I've come to recognize that there are places where uninformed opinions don't matter.

This thought came to me Saturday morning as I was watching a program on the History Channel on the origin and end of the universe. It was a mind boggling departure for the channel that used to be All Hitler, All the Time and is now "Monster Quest Plus." These seemed to be genuine explorations of actual science. The program featured actual astro-physicists who actually did calculations and study and knew stuff about how the current theories of the universe were formed and tested. It was an impressive popularization of science.

I realized that one of the discussions I've been in recently - a discussion about the inclusion of creationism in high school science curriculum - is a discussion in which a great deal of misinformation and opinion based on non-expert ignorance has been thrown about. There have even been a few young earth opinions.

Here were scientists who spoke knowledgeably about events billions of years ago, events we've just dimly come to understand. They actually knew something. But even if they didn't, the Universe is indifferent to their opinions. The age of the universe is not fixed by ancient texts reinterpreted in the 18th century. The universe is what it is, as old as it is, regardless of our opinion. This is a place where our opinion doesn't matter, and our uninformed, non-scientific opinion matters even less.

I also thought about the recent stories about the President's religion. One poll, apparently, says that a significant number of Americans believe that we should, somehow, exclude Muslims from qualifying for the Presidency. That opinion doesn't matter.

The reason it doesn't matter is because the Constitution excludes the criteria that is being set out in the minds of many poll takers. Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids a "religious test" for any office. To exclude anyone because of their chosen religion, or to chose only those of one or two faiths, is a clear violation of this article.

So, the opinion of 24% of the country who apparently think that that Jeremiah Wright flap was a clever ruse perpetrated by Obama - and who now think that Obama is a "secret Muslim" can and should join the rest of the nutbags in the Republican Party. Remember that 24% of the Republican party also thought/thinks that Obama is the Anti-Christ.

They're nuts. Their opinion, in fact, doesn't matter. The news reporters should stop reporting on this issue, unless it is to point out that the matter is irrelevant. The constitution rules it out of bounds! So, let's be strict constitutionalists and rule it out of bounds and get to talking about things that actually matter - like jobs and the jobs that have been outsource that Americans could now use!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Let's Be Careful Out There

Watching an NBC program just now. It was one of those spin offs of 48 Hours. "Someone like a Doctor, the state inferred," said the announcer.


The State, in the person of the prosecutor, IMPLIED.

The message encoder Implies. The message decoder Infers. That's the meaning of the two words. I imply. You infer. That's the way it works and not otherwise.

And while we're on it - "Begging the question" does not mean "really wants us to raise the question." Begging the question means to argue in a circular fashion.

I really wish newscasters, some of whom must be intelligent, would get these two simple and unexceptional bits of English grammar correct.

And don't get me started on "sort of unique."

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflections from Iceland (part 3)

You'll want to go to part one - they're out of order - sorry. I'm too lazy to fix the problem!

And the waterfall wasn’t far away. On the way from Reykholt to our next stop we, of course, stopped at a waterfall. This day it was Barnafoss, the Children’s falls. These falls are so named because of the legend of the death of two children in the glacial water of the falls.
This pattern was repeated all over Iceland: Educational institution; (we visited the following universities – either singly or as a group: Reykjavik, Keilir, Akurerie, Bifrost, Hvanneri, Iceland) high tech display or high tech manufacturing (DeCode, SET, Marel); thermal pools and power plants (Blue Lagoon, Heilsheidi, Orkuveita Reykjavik); visited lots of historical sites (Thingvellir, Viking Days, Culture house, Egil’s Saga); churches (Hallgrimmskirkja, Skalholt, Frikirkja). Of course, we also visited nearly a waterfall a day. The queen of the falls was Gullfoss, a part of the so called “golden circle” of tourist attractions.
Since we were not there as tourists you might assume we missed the tourist attractions of the “golden circle,” (Thingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss) as well as other touristy sites. You’d be wrong. We went whale watching, saw the beauty, bathed in the Blue Lagoon, one of us even flew over Eyafjalljokull and has pictures to prove it. We didn’t avoid the tourist spots; we simply added them to the educational and professional contacts.
That was Iceland: history, museums, hot pots and high tech. Oh yeah, and waterfalls.
None of this mentions the other reason to go to Iceland – the food and the people. Food, wonderful! Great fish dishes, stupendous lamb. The people – truly gracious Rotarians everywhere we went. But those things are just givens. Rotarians are always gracious hosts, and always serve their guests the very best food.

Reflections from Iceland (part 2)

From the old church we moved on to the graveyard beside the church. Among those interred in the graveyard was Snorri Sturluson, buried there in 1241. Beside the graveyard were the remains of Snorri’s 13th century house. Snorri was one of the greatest of Iceland’s storytellers, relating the stories of the old gods, the Kings of Norway, and the rules of writing poetry. He was also a successful lawyer, elected the lawspeaker of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, in 1215. He was something of an engineer, building the first “hot pot” outside his home in Reykholt. The “hot pot” was a thermal bath using geothermal water to make was is essentially a stone hot tub. The “tub” is still in existence, and still hot.
Snorri chose wrong, however, in the 1220’s. He allied with the King of Norway, Håkon IV, and advocated a union with Norway. Civil war followed. In the civil war Snorri found himself allied against Håkon, and in favor of jarl Skuli. Skuli lost the war. Snorri petitioned to return to Iceland and was refused. He went regardless of the King’s demand that he remain in Norway, an act Håkon found bordering on treason. Unable to trust Snorri, the King engaged in a plot against the great skald, and in 1241 one of Snorri’s opponents led a raid on his home in Reykholt, resulting in Snorri’s assassination.
After touring the remains of the home, the cellar where he was assassinated, the secret passage from the home to the hot pot, and the hot pot, Pastor Waage took us into the beautiful, modern church and museum display. Here the Pastor demonstrated the unusual singing style that was, and remains, common in Icelandic Lutheranism, inviting us to join him in the 100 verses (in Icelandic) in praise of Mary the Mother of God.
How is this typical of our month in Iceland, you ask?
As I said at the start it has all the elements of our four weeks in country, except waterfalls. Everywhere we toured we were surrounded by this amazing sense of the history of the country – both the thousand year history and the immediate history of life following the financial meltdown of 2008. This was the second most historic spot in our month in country (the most historic was Thingvellir, the site of the Allthingi).
It had a thermal pool. The pools of Iceland were a major focus. Several of the group made it part of their mission in Iceland to visit a pool in every town.  As far as I know they were successful. But even beyond the municipal pool, every home had its “hot pot.”
It had a “thermal” pool. This one was constructed in the early 13th century, it was one of the first uses of geothermal energy in the country. That was a major theme of this trip. We visited thermal power plants in and around Reykjavik. We saw the pipes for hot water running across the hillsides outside Akurerie, we wandered into the steam outside Borganes. We even visited a hothouse heated by thermal hot springs, growing cucumbers in just six weeks.
It was connected to an educational institution, had a closed school on the grounds, and was an educational morning overall. Education was one of the major themes of the trip. Since four of the five of us are educators, we were introduced to schooling in Iceland everywhere we went. We visited a primary school in Hafnadfjördur. We visited a secondary school in Selfoss. We visited tertiary education all over the country. Education was a major part of our month in Iceland.
Finally, it was, despite being historical, supported by a high tech museum. In the new church, in the basement of the library, was a high, high tech display about Snorri and Reykholt. Truth be told, by the time we heard about the conversion of the Icelanders, the problems of the Reformation, and Snorri’s death, we did not have time to visit the museum display. But there it was.

(still more in the third post)

Final Thoughts from Iceland

I can tell you about just one site in Iceland and if I do it right all I’ll have to add is waterfalls.
Reykholt, a tiny village, not even a village anymore, near Borganes has almost everything we came to Iceland to experience. It has “hot pots,” or a thermal hot tub; a deep sense of history; both old and new educational opportunities and scenic beauty.
Our visit to Reykholt came during our fourth stop. First stop Keflavik, then Selfoss, then Hafnadfjordur, and then Borganes. Borganes is a thousand year old town, just slightly larger than my home of Lindsborg. The town was built on the site of Egil Skallgrimsson’s settlement. Like all of Iceland, it is a town steeped in history and more than willing to tell the story their part in the settlement of this ancient land.
On Tuesday, June 8, we travelled just a few kilometers out of Borganes to Hvanneyri  and the agricultural university there. It is an extremely small university, one of seven or eight “universities” in Iceland. There are only 300 students at the Agricultural University of Iceland, making it smaller than the smallest of our ACCK colleges.
From Hvanneyri we travelled inland along the fjord to the tiny village of Reykholt. There are probably 100 residents of the village, and on a high hill above the church is a beautiful school building, the former home economics school. In front of the school is a statue of Iceland’s greatest medieval writer and chieftain, Snorri Sturluson. This little village was the home Sturluson’s home – the home and the grave are beside the old church.
We were met at Reykholt by Pastor Geir Waage. Pastor Waage is an old school Catho-Lutheran clergyman. He began our visit with a lecture in the old church. The pews in this old church were older than old school. This part of the visit began with a long story about the coming of Christianity to Iceland in the year 1000. From there Pastor Waage gave us a second lecture on the coming of the Reformation to Iceland. Unlike the coming of Christianity in 1000, this change in religion resulted in death and violence – something we didn’t find out until we visited the church at Skalholt two weeks later. (After the arrival of Lutheranism in the 16th century, the last Roman Bishop was executed at Skalholt.)

(more in the next post)