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Wholesale salvation, priced to go

Even for those of us who don’t deify Billy Graham, it would still be hard to say anything bad about him. He never preached hatred. In fact he was friends with Martin Luther King and once bailed King out of jail in Alabama. Though he meddled in politics, he was reasonably nonpartisan about it. He refused to join the odious Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority” in 1979 and said, “I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice.” How many white preachers have ever talked about social justice? When televangelist Jim Bakker was sent to prison for fraud in 1989, newspapers looked into Graham’s finances the same way they had looked into Bakker’s. Bakker was a con man, but Graham was always found to be squeaky clean. He was married to one woman for almost 64 years.

The Washington Post reports that Graham will lie in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol from Feb. 28 to March 1. It will be almost like a state funeral.

And so it’s not surprising that the media have been filled with panegyrics for Billy Graham. I have seen only one piece, in the Guardian, that looks at Billy Graham from another angle. That’s “Billy Graham was on the wrong side of history,” by historian Matthew Avery Sutton. Sutton writes, “Graham had good intentions, as his work desegregating his crusades demonstrated. But when his influence really would have counted, when he could have effected real change, real social transformation, he was too locked into last-days fearmongering to recognize the potential of the state to do good. We are all paying the price.”

Billy Graham’s focus, then, was on “salvation,” and you’d better come and get your salvation quick because the end is near. Saving the earth didn’t much matter. It was saving souls that Billy Graham was into, and he developed methods for doing it wholesale.

Not too long ago, I assumed that the idea of “salvation” must have been a Christian innovation. That is not the case. Max Weber, in his classic The Sociology of Religion, has a good bit to say about the concept of “salvation.” The concept has existed all over the world, in forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, Gnosticism, Hinduism and Judaism. What we need to be saved from, and the means of attaining salvation, vary greatly. But the demand for salvation, it seems, is perpetually strong. It’s a good business to be in. Most people never stop to think about the ridiculousness of the idea that some magic wand can somehow make the difference between eternal salvation and eternal perdition. The concept of salvation is useful only to those who have something invisible to sell.

In light of Weber’s ideas, one could point out three elements that helped make Billy Graham such a celebrity.

First, Graham represented the Protestant church, which meant that Graham could offer membership in the church. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus — outside the church there is no salvation. The church is, as Weber writes, seen as “vested with the control of grace.” The church thus has shelves well stocked with fresh salvation. Come and get it.

Second, the price is cheap. Weber writes, “The level of personal ethical accomplishment must therefore be made compatible with average human qualifications, and this in practice means that it can be set quite low.” Easy terms and no credit check, either.

Third, Graham was a “religious virtuoso” who added value and sparkle to the deal, absolutely free. Weber writes, “Whoever can achieve more in the ethical sphere, i.e., the religious virtuoso, may thereby, in addition to insuring his own salvation, accumulate good works for the credit of the institution, which will then distribute them to those in need of good works.”

So that boils down to millions of lost souls “saved,” because the church was seen as a warehouse overflowing with salvation and grace, the price of salvation was cheap, and the bestower of salvation was charismatic and famous to boot. Lost souls know a good deal when they seen one. Basic salvation, no Billy Graham sparkle added, would have cost them a great deal more if they got it from a Jim Bakker, or a Pat Robertson, or a Joel Osteen.

In Billy Graham’s 99 years, has the world gotten any better with all this affordable grace and salvation added to the world? But as Matthew Avery Sutton argues in the Guardian, Graham didn’t much care about the world. If people of little ethical accomplishment can get into heaven so cheaply, then why not let the world burn, and seven billion souls burn in it?

Apple’s 1987 “Knowledge Navigator,” and Alexa

My opinion is that Alexa and Siri are useless. Last week, I met my first Apple HomePod at a friend’s house. Siri was a total idiot who knew nothing and who kept getting things wrong. I feel sure that HomePod buyers shout “Siri, stop!” much more often than they say, “Hey, Siri.” It was like trying to argue with a cat.

Yet a piece by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times this morning has the headline “Why We May Soon Be Living in Alexa’s World.” Not me!

Apparently tens of millions of people find Alexa useful. But I don’t play music as background noise. I don’t order pizza. I don’t want my thermostats, or my light switches, to try to think for me. I don’t need help ordering from Amazon, either.

Back in 1987, Apple sales folk had a video for their corporate customers called “Knowledge Navigator.” It was amazing. Clearly the video was Steve Jobs’ dream about what computers would be able to do for us in the future, and how we would interact with computers. The human in the video was a Berkeley professor. The person inside the computer was his knowledge assistant. There was no pizza, no thermostats, no light switches, no asking the computer to play music. Instead, it was about stuff that actually mattered.

When Alexa or Siri reach the point that they can actually help people with research, I’ll be interested. When they can get messages to me without my ever having to talk on the phone, I’ll be interested.

If Steve Jobs were alive today, I wonder whether he would be worried about the failure of his vision. We keep getting cheated out of the bright futures we were promised. The old Walt Disney “Tomorrow Land” television shows of the 1950s and early 1960s told us that robots and automation would free us up to live lives of comfort and leisure. But instead, people work harder than ever, and most people have gotten poorer. Computers haven’t made us any smarter, any more than television did. Instead, computers have dumbed us down and, like television, have trained us to be better consumers. With all that knowledge and information right under our noses, most people are more easily deceived than ever.

I am pretty sure that I don’t want to live in Alexa’s world.

Free VPN that seems to work (so far)

When I first started shopping for VPN services some years ago, there was a sleaziness involved. VPN providers seemed to be located in countries that we don’t trust, the kind of countries that Internet scammers work out of. The targeted customers for VPN service seemed to be criminal types with a great deal to hide, as opposed to law-abiding but security-conscious computer users like me. Two or three years ago, I signed up with a U.S.-based VPN provider. But about eight months ago, after I started using HughesNet’s satellite service as my Internet provider, I had to stop using VPN. For some reason, satellite latency makes VPN protocols so slow that they become unusable.

Recently I discovered a new VPN provider, WindScribe. It’s a Canadian company. If we can’t trust Canadians, then whom can we trust?

WindScribe offers two types of VPN. One is a VPN tunnel that encrypts all traffic through your computer. Unfortunately, that’s as slow and useless as any other VPN service on a satellite connection like mine. But WindScribe also has browser plug-ins for Chrome, FireFox, and Opera. I’m using the FireFox plug-in, and it is acceptably fast. The browser plug-ins encrypt and anonymize only the traffic through your web browser, which is enough for me.

You can get either type of VPN service free from WindScribe if you don’t use much data. If you give them an email address, then you get 10 GB free per month. If you don’t give them an email address, then you get only 2 GB per month. The paid service, which is unlimited data billed annually, is reasonably priced. I may upgrade to that after I’ve tried out the free service a bit longer.

Everyone should use a VPN service! Here’s a recent article on why.

Two portraits, 35 years apart

Click for high resolution version

I went on a road trip to Asheville earlier this week, and while I was there I shot portraits of my oldest friend, whom I have known for almost 50 years. I shot the earlier portrait, below, around 1984. It was shot with a Yashica camera, medium format. The new portrait was shot with my Mamiya RB67 film camera.

Nature is not fair when she gives out good looks. Some people have all the luck. But if you take care of yourself and live an artist’s life, it’s remarkable how nature’s gifts will stay with you.

Oh no. More low-end grocery stores.

I went into a Lidl store for the first time yesterday. I had no idea what it is, any more than I knew what an Aldi store is the first (and last) time I went into one. I was shocked that this is the way the grocery business is going — extremely wide aisles, not much choice, and sorry looking stuff.

However, I was not too proud to help myself to the 49-cent avocados, which surely were a loss leader. As I waited at the checkout, I noticed a big sign that says, “Carefully curated for you.” That, of course, means that they don’t have everything. It means that they have only what they can sell for cheap.

Thanks, but I don’t want my groceries “curated” for cheapness. Granted, a Lidl store might be a good thing for people who increasingly buy their groceries at stores like Dollar General, which have no fresh food. Lidl does seem to have fast-moving produce, even if it’s not the best quality.

Now I’m even more concerned about the future of Whole Foods. And I wish I liked gardening a whole lot more than I actually do. Especially during the summer, when the sun is hot and the weeds are vigorous, I’m a kitchen creature, not a garden creature.

Even crummy tips aren’t safe from Republican taking

We recently learned that Trump’s labor department wants to change the rules so that restaurant tips would belong to restaurant owners rather than servers. Here’s a link to a story in the Guardian, “Restaurants have no right to take employees’ tips.”

The cruelty of this is just business as usual for the Republican Party. And for some reason, working people who vote for Republicans still don’t get it.

Who in the world would be willing to put up with what waiters and waitresses put up with for the pathetic federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour? If this Republican rule goes into effect, waiters and waitresses will leave their jobs in droves. Maybe the bigger, more profitable restaurant chains would be able to buy robots to do the job.

We should simply stop tipping if this happens. That’s more or less the way it works in France. American restaurants would have to rethink their prices and wages. In France, you can still leave a tip if you want to. But my understanding of the proposed Republican regulation is that it would be seen as stealing if a waiter or waitress received a tip but didn’t turn it over to management.

Robots and inequality

Amazon’s new automated store in Seattle. Source: Wikipedia

Trump voters and consumers of Fox News are having the time of their lives these days, glorying in how their big man is sticking it to liberals, immigrants, and brown-skinned people. They actually feel safer, now that a con man is in the White House who feeds them what they want to hear.

Meanwhile, their world is about to go even deeper down the rat hole. The right-wing media will see to it that they won’t know what hit them.

For decades now, the 1 percent have been raking in most of the gains, while working people’s share of wealth and income shrink. Working people really don’t understand just how rich the global rich really are. Still, inequality has reached politically dangerous levels. The rich know that the political danger is rising, but so far the rich have been successful at using their media and their political control to misdirect the growing economic discontent. The rich would much rather have fascism in America than European-style democratic socialism. The Trump era, with its demonization of government, its propagandization of the population, and its packaging of the rich people’s agenda as heartland populism, reveals to us how the rich intend to keep their gains and keep on bamboozling the losers.

Meanwhile, the liberal media are trying to warn us that a new wave of economic upward redistribution is about to hit working people: robots. In the New Yorker, we have “Amazon’s New Supermarket Could Be Grim News for Human Workers.” The Guardian writes: “Robots will take our jobs. We’d better plan now, before it’s too late.” Even a business-oriented industry publication writes: “From robots to smart mirrors, the world of retail will look like a very different place in 2030.”

While robots take jobs from humans at an accelerating pace, the intent of the Republican Party is to go right on cutting the safety net for working people, while cutting taxes on the rich and shifting taxes to lower-income people.

Republicans can’t say they weren’t warned. Policy think tanks such as the Brookings Institution have published report after report about where inequality is leading and how inequality endangers democracy. But Republicans don’t care about policy (or democracy) anymore. The Republican project is simply to enact the rich people agenda.

With the right kind of enlightened public policy, this country might be able to survive the coming wave of jobs lost to robots. But I have no hope of that ever happening unless justice catches up with Donald Trump and a whole lot of Republicans go to prison for their crimes. We’re still seeing only the shark’s fin above the surface of the water, but leak by leak it’s becoming pretty clear who those criminals are. The guilty are using increasingly dangerous and desperate tactics to evade justice. What blows my mind is that about 35 percent of the American population — economic losers, almost all of them — feel safer than ever during one of the most dangerous times in American history.

Britannia season 1

I am five episodes into Britannia season 1. This was a must-watch for me, since I am particularly interested in the history of the Romans’ clash with the Celtic world.

As for the history, the writers of Britannia seem to have stuck to the basic outline of what Roman history recorded. Everything else is imagined. The year is 43 A.D., 17 years before Queen Boudica’s uprising against the Roman occupation in 60 A.D.

The series has not been getting very good reviews. One reviewer said that it is “crazy as a box of frogs.” There is much to be said for that. My own view is that the Celts and druids were not nearly as wild and barbaric as they are depicted here. Celtic art, for example, and Celtic technology including ships, wagons, and chariots, were plenty sophisticated. Many of the druids spoke Greek. When the Gaulish druid Divitiacus went to Rome and spoke to the Senate around 60 B.C., by no means did he make a fool of himself. Cicero was impressed by Divitiacus’ knowledge of astronomy and natural philosophy. But in Britannia, the druids are half-mad, drugged-out bone-rattlers. They are sinister and ugly, as opposed to the kind of elite caste who left us the Brehon laws. And nothing has been said so far about Celtic music. How could they leave that out?

In many ways, this series defames the Celts and druids. Whether it lionizes Rome remains to be seen.

Still, the series is very pretty to watch, with great locations (though many locations, filmed in the Czech Republic, don’t look much like southern England). The scripts and dialogue are smart. The situations are unpredictable. Except for the Kerra character, all the Celts have bad hair, which I suspect is a trend started by the Vikings series.

I’m not exactly recommending this series, but if you have Amazon Prime, it’s worth streaming an episode or two and checking it out.

Flu shots?


Each winter, the media bombard us with articles telling us to get a flu shot. Here’s a typical headline: “The flu vaccine is only about 30% effective but you should get it anyway.”

No thanks. I’ll do my own calculus on whether to get a flu shot.

Those of us who avoid vaccinations are regularly told that we’re being anti-science. “Anti-vaxxers” are often mentioned as the left-wing equivalent of right-wing climate-change deniers. But I would argue that there is room for rational individual calculus about whether to get flu vaccines. The calculus is not the same for everyone, though. The adult calculus is different than the calculus for children. And the calculus is different for, say, smallpox (mortality rate 30 percent) than influenza (less than 1 percent to around 2 percent, keeping in mind that mortality from the H5N1 bird flu is much higher but is not known to be transmitted from human to human).

From the public health perspective, the calculus supports “herd immunity.” The idea is that even a vaccine that is only 30 percent effective will reduce the overall number of flu cases and hospitalizations. Assuming the vaccines themselves are safe (which I don’t necessarily assume), then that public-health calculus makes sense.

However, from an individual perspective, the calculus may look different.

For those who work in hospitals, or at grocery store checkouts, or on airplanes, or who have children in school — people who are constantly and unavoidably exposed to other people and their germs — the individual calculus almost surely would support getting a flu shot.

But I mostly stay home during flu season. When I do go out, I try to avoid rush times, to minimize the number of people I encounter. I keep my distance from people, especially if someone is coughing or sneezing. I watch what I touch. I wash my hands. I keep little towels in my pockets and in the car.

I do acknowledge that we as individuals have an ethical responsibility — even to others — to keep ourselves healthy. If we have something that’s contagious, we have an ethical responsibility not to spread it. Those of us who refuse the flu vaccine are told that we’re making ourselves more dangerous to ourselves and others, that avoiding vaccinations is antisocial and antagonistic toward public health. That is no doubt true with diseases that are highly contagious and when vaccines are available that are known to be safe and effective. (We are told that the mercury preservative in some vaccines is safe. Do I have to believe that?)

But if I avoid getting the flu, and if I therefore don’t help the flu spread by giving the flu to someone else, then my argument would be that I have met my ethical responsibility to others and that I am not harming pubic health. I also would argue that my no-vaccine, minimal-contact method of avoiding the flu is more than 30 percent effective, is rational, and is aware of the science.

It has been 25 years since I’ve had the flu. So far so good.

Railway project #1

Click here for high-resolution version

Here’s my down payment on the railway project that I described in the previous post. I used Google Earth to find the spot where the railway line crosses the Dan River north of Walnut Cove, North Carolina. That spot is about 12 miles from the abbey. I was delighted to see from the Google Earth satellite image that the bridge is a truss bridge, with short trestles on the approaches. Truss bridges were very common from the late 19th Century up until the 1930s or so. I suspect this bridge dates from the 1930s.

The photo above is a digital photo taken with my Nikon camera. I had the film camera with me, but getting to the bridge required parking the Jeep and hiking more than two miles in and out. I don’t have a backpack for the film camera yet, so it was too awkward and heavy to carry. I plan to go back and shoot this spot later with the film camera.

Below is the Google Earth satellite image of the bridge.