Tuesday, December 30, 2014

In the thrall of a two-faced god

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, science and politics, history of science, radiation, short biographies

This post's title is taken from the last chapter of The Age of Radiance: The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era by Craig Nelson. Nelson chronicles the discovery of radiation and radioisotopes, and development of various radioactive products, that began in the late 1800's. He carries through to the present day, in which more than 400 nuclear power stations produce about 1/7th of electricity worldwide, hundreds of radioactive isotopes are known and dozens are used for various medical and industrial purposes, yet several major power plant failures and the problem of accumulating waste from nuclear power plants has led to overweening public fear of anything related to the word "radiation".

Thus, I have observed that the "epic rise" and "dramatic fall" refer to public perception. Prior to 1945, radiation was extremely popular. Lying in a pool of radioactive water was supposed to be therapeutic. Even in 1960, when I was given a half-ounce of "yellowcake" (pure U3O8) powder in a gelatin capsule on a field trip to a Uranium processing plant, it was considered rather benign, and such "pills" were suitable gifts to a troop of Boy Scouts. Public hysteria had yet to set in. Trips to Las Vegas to see A-bomb tests were still popular, and would remain so until 1963. Even then, the end of air-blast testing was a result of a treaty with the USSR, not from public protest in America.

Nuclear waste became an issue primarily in America, because of a set of rather odd laws that prohibited reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear power plants. This is done as a matter of routine in Europe.

A side note for those who need it: Induced fission of Uranium or Plutonium results in "fission products". When a large nucleus is split because it has absorbed a neutron, it leaves behind two fragments (sometimes three) whose mass totals the original mass, minus the mass of two or more neutrons released during the fission event. It is kind of like a drop of water splitting into two smaller drops plus a few tiny droplets. These fission fragments are usually radioactive isotopes, typically with several excess neutrons, so they tend to decay quickly by beta decay, which converts neutrons to protons and balances the nucleus better. Several such decays will result in a stable nucleus. The trouble comes because some of the "quick" decays actually occur over months or years. These longer-lived isotopes accumulate in spent fuel from reactors, and as a result, it stays "hot" for thousands of years. Chemical processing can easily separate out these waste products, leaving purified Uranium or Plutonium, whichever "fuel" was first used. Purified Uranium is called "depleted Uranium" because the power-making isotope has been greatly reduced or eliminated. This stuff makes great bullets for snipers, being almost twice as dense as lead. Reprocessed Plutonium can be returned to the reactor as fresh fuel. Also note that reactors that use enriched Uranium are designed quite differently from those using Plutonium.

In the late 1970's there was a great debate going on about the safety of storing nuclear power plant waste. I was at a public event where a nuclear power industry representative described the materials. He said that the spent fuel from a certain kind of plant would be in a canister that looks a lot like a 50-gallon oil drum, but that it would initially be producing 10,000 watts of heat from the decay of fission fragments. This would decline to 5,000 watts over several hundred years, then be quite steady for thousands of years thereafter. I stood and asked, "May I obtain one or two to heat my crawl space in winter?"

Back to the book. The historical sketches and mini-biographies are invaluable. Dr. Roentgen, the Curies, Fermi, Oppenheimer and so many others are brought to life as rounded personalities in a way I have not read elsewhere. The glacially slow tragedies that prematurely ended the lives of nearly all early students of radioactivity are heartbreaking. It took much, much too long for scientists to realize that the energetic particles released by these isotopes were displacing electrons or atoms from their places throughout any material they passed through, including their own bodies. Such displacement did damage that frequently resulted in cancer or, at higher levels, radiation toxicity and even rather rapid death at the highest levels. A further note on isotopes:

An isotope is a form of an element characterized by a specific number of neutrons in the nucleus. Thus, all atoms of Oxygen have 8 protons in the nucleus, but the number of neutrons ranges from 4 to 18, giving them atomic masses of 12 to 26. The "usual" isotope of Oxygen, O-16, has 8 neutrons. Very small amounts of O-17 and O-18, with 9 and 10 neutrons, exist naturally. All other Oxygen isotopes are short-lived and only exist because of reactions in a nuclear reactor, and usually only when a scientist's purpose is to create them. The most stable of these reactor-created isotopes of Oxygen is O-15, with a half life of about 2 minutes.

The book's 17 chapters are in 4 sections. The first covers the early years up to 1938 or '39, and the second, the development of induced fission and the Manhattan Project that led to both Uranium and Plutonium bombs. One of each was dropped on Japan in 1945, and I can't help wondering if this was as much for experimental reasons as military. The third section covers the cold war, and the fourth, the early spread and more recent fallback of nuclear power generation and the power plant disasters that led to its fall from grace.

I was surprised to find out (I should not have been) that the meltdown at Chernobyl was only one of at least 10 or 12, and became known because it was close enough to international borders that its fallout plume was easily detected in other countries. The others had been successfully kept secret, even though one or two may have exceeded Chernobyl in total radioactive materials released and environmental damage.

The most difficult chapter to read through was the one on Fukushima ("Blessed Island" in Japanese). It is the best documented of the "big three" of the world's imagination, the other two being Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. The narrative exposes the monumental stupidity of the "designers" and "engineers" (they do not truly deserve those titles), who chose a reactor design known to be flawed; who chose to put it on a coastline prone to tsunamis and against clear warnings by geologists, and also in one of the more earthquake-prone parts of Japan—which is more earthquake-prone as a country than almost any other—; who chose to place the backup generators for the cooling system in basements that were at or below sea level; and then the host of errors that were made in operational safety measures during the weeks and months prior to the disaster. Actually, this was a series of linked disasters that played out over half a year's time, and in some measure they are still being played out.

But just as I was sure the author would inveigh against continuing use of nuclear power, he produced a string of facts such as:

  • The total death toll from nuclear power plant meltdowns, so far as is known, is 33,000 or less. This compares with 15,000 deaths over 30 years in the coal mining industry worldwide, and 20,000 in the petroleum industry.
  • The atomic bombs dropped on Japan killed roughly 200,000-250,000 within the first half year (half of those in the first minutes). An equal number were killed by the tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean. Roughly twice this many die yearly in America alone from smoking-related cancer and heart disease.
  • A dam failure in China in 1975 killed 171,000.
  • On a per-megawatt-hour basis, fossil fuels are 18 times as deadly as nuclear fuels.

This is why Nelson calls "Radiance", the totality of industries and products of radioactive elements and isotopes, the two-faced god, like Janus. To moderns, the apt analogy is a two-edged sword. One daren't touch it anywhere but the handle! Yet public opinion is so strong, and the ignorance of scientific principles so profound in both public and political spheres, that atomic energy is effectively dead in America and a number of other "developed" countries, at least for the next generation or two.

Here is some final food for thought I came across as I considered this post:

This illustration went around and around the Web after it was published late in 2011. It shows the excess radiation exposure people are expected to receive by living in the various Japanese prefectures. The red-toned one is Fukushima Prefecture, and the exposure is 0.25-0.50 µSv/h. That unit needs explaining:
Unit: µSv/h - micro-Sieverts/hour. Radiation toxicity begins to make itself evident above a total dose of about 500 mSv (500,000 µSv), or half a Sievert, and more severe affects appear after 1 Sievert. About one person in 18 is expected to develop cancer if exposed to 1 Sv total over an extended period—for example, 115 µSv/h for one year.
It is hardly risky to spend much time even in Fukushima Prefecture. Lifetime exposure under an excess dose of 0.50 µSv/h would be about 2/3 of a Sievert. However, there are a few focal areas near the destroyed power plant in which you'd be very sick after spending no more than a few hours. If you want the thrill of visiting a nuclear wilderness, though, nothing beats taking a "nuclear tourism" tour of the Chernobyl area, where one can look into lands that are said to be too radioactive for people to live, but where wildlife flourishes without human interference, and one can even take a short walk over ground that cannot, by law, be built upon for at least 10,000 years.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

How do we restore appropriate doctoring?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, medicine, ethics, doctors, memoirs

In all the various stories I have gathered of troubles I have had with or about medical doctors over the years, the problem has always been competence, not ethics. If the experiences Dr. Sandeep Jauhar has described are truly typical, it seems I've been quite lucky. His new book is Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician. The main title is a reflexive jest, because he was the one "doctored", or taught, through his experiences. He got an attitude adjustment, and not one that I would applaud.

General Norman Schwarzkopf said (I paraphrase), "Hardly anyone goes to work daily expecting to do a bad job." In the same way, very few begin a medical career intending to do harm or to get rich off the poor. In his former book Intern Dr.Jauhar described his trials after completing medical school and entering residency. There, he was the abused one, and he harks back to those days a few times in Doctored, when he meets residents and interns who callously take advantage of new ways of doing things, going home at the end of a shift, regardless what is happening, seemingly without caring a whit for the patient being handed off to the next shift's physician. While he never saw one stand up in the midst of CPR because "it was time to go home", but it almost came to that.

To become a family doctor these days is the fastest way to get into practicing on one's own, but it still takes a good while: four years of medical school and at least two years of residency, and perhaps a year or two of fellowship. At the earliest, a newly minted family physician can begin practice, whether privately or with an organization, by age 28 or 29. Dr. Jauhar is a cardiologist. The residency was longer—I am not sure whether he did one or two—and he performed a few years of fellowships before being hired as the attending cardiologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center at age 36. This accords with the experience of a family friend who also got free of his "education" at age 36 and is now in practice as an orthopedic surgeon.

When you are pushing 40 and have a quarter-million in education loans to pay off, it's hard to make ends meet, even if your pay is well above the national median of $52,000. The book covers a period of about eight years, just the right span of age for most of us to get around to having a midlife crisis. Dr. Jauhar didn't really have time for a midlife crisis. He had a career to jump-start, and soon found the jumper cables were badly frayed. We read a lot about his wife's increasing distress as their savings dwindle after one child is born, and then when another is on the way.

Urged, berated, and nearly bludgeoned by his wife and by circumstance, he began to work part time for another doctor who is in private practice. He soon learned that is it all about business. He didn't have the heart, or the right way of thinking, to do well in business. Ask a doctor why there are so many tests ordered these days, and why nearly everyone gets the same tests regardless how sick they are. The standard answer you'll get is likely to be something about "defensive medicine", the need to "cover all the bases" to avoid litigation. The answer you won't hear is that the insurance companies pay better for some tests than others, and it is the high-dollar ones that are the most overused. Dr. Jauhar found himself "doing scut work for peanuts", to use a phrase he doesn't use, but that I've heard from others. Though he could now make ends meet, he felt he was beginning to lose his soul, helping a doctor game the system and get rich at the expense of the American public.

Make no mistake about it, we all pay for unethical medicine. Most of Medicare is paid for by a payroll tax, and its losses are covered out of the general Federal budget, from taxes we all pay. Insurance companies are not in business to subsidize health care, and must indeed make a profit, so premiums increase and increase to cover the actual costs they incur. Don't pay any mind to a few blind guides who boast that American medicine is the best in the world. Yes, there are a few areas in which treatments in America are the most effective, but in general we pay more than twice as much per capita as in any other developed nation for the thirtieth or fortieth best medical system.

The book is in three parts, titled "Ambition", "Asperity", and "Adjustment". In the end, he adjusted. That, I find rather sad. He got doctored all right. I remember once remarking that a good subtitle to the musical Grease would be "The corrupting of Goody Two-Shoes." Here, I cannot say Dr. Jauhar has been corrupted, not quite, but he has to admit there is a stain on his soul. The incentives built into moderm American medicine, which will be only partly relieved and otherwise exacerbated by the Affordable Care Act (AKA "Obamacare"), practically force a doctor to defraud the system to make a living, and yield incredible riches to those most adept at doing so.

I recall the "traditional" insurance plans called "Major Medical." Patients were expected to pay out of pocket for all the ordinary stuff: doctor visits or office visits (in a day when the doctor visited you a third of the time), and most pills or shots. If you needed something less ordinary such as setting a bone, or sutures, or an operation, the Plan paid 80%, and rates were such that most middle-class Americans could afford their 20%, maybe with a little short-term loan. Now that insurance plans purport to "cover everything" (It's not true, but that's what they advertise), where is the incentive for anyone to economize? When everyone pays thousands and thousands yearly for their medical plan, they feel entitled to go to the doctor for every little thing, and they're OK with the doctor ordering dozens of tests of all sorts, because "the Plan will pay for it". The next year, premiums go up, and the few who are wise realize that once "the Plan" has paid, it has to get the money back, and premiums are its only source of income.

Our system isn't just broken, it is devastated. Dr. Jauhar doesn't have much in the way of solutions to offer. I do. Vote with your feet. Get your "ordinary doctoring" from a local physician. If you need something major, assuming you're capable of travel, go to India or England or somewhere else with one of those 30-40 medical systems that outperforms ours, where you'll pay less at full price, including your travel costs, than you would for the "Co-pay" demanded by the hospital here. Medical tourism is on the increase, for good reason. If enough of us do so, the American medical system will respond to the only force mighty enough to change it: Competition.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

More on the immense difference between religion and faith

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, religion, christology, catholic theology

There is a lovely video I saw earlier today in a FaceBook post: an elderly Jewish woman named Fell singing hymns ("Jesus Loves Me" for example) to a severely demented woman, and really, really connecting with her. How many Christians know a single Jewish song of the faith, and could connect with someone of a different faith so deeply and genuinely? Mrs. Fell truly embodies something Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "I have become all things to all people."

Many years ago I read The Man Nobody Knows by Bruce Barton, first published in 1924. As a young person searching for an identity, I found some insight in it, about the humanity of Jesus. But I was ultimately unsatisfied, and when I later found faith in Jesus Christ, I realized how shallow the presentation was, leaving the deity of Jesus almost unmentioned. One thing of value stayed with me: the understanding that Jesus was a Jew, and lived and worked almost entirely as a faithful Jew. His message, as he told a Lebanese (Syrophoenician) woman on a rare visit to Lebanon, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." Yet, when she answered wisely, he granted her request (healing for her daughter), indicating that what those "sheep" discard could be obtained by others.

The passage just mentioned, found in Matthew 15, is one of several showing that Jesus knew His rejection by most Jews would be followed by a more successful spreading among non-Jews. This is largely played out in Acts of the Apostles. Before the time the Jewish-Christian testimony in Jerusalem and Judea was practically exterminated by the Romans after 68 AD, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews, the Jerusalem-centered branch of the church was a distinct minority.

I approached with only moderate expectation Christ Actually: The Son of God for the Secular Age by James Carroll. I did not expect it to be a work of profound faith, and that expectation was confirmed. It didn't take long to recognize that the viewpoint is Roman Catholic. Later it comes out that Mr. Carroll is a former priest, but is now married and a university professor. That is OK, I haven't found works of Catholic theology to be accessible to any but extremely over-educated readers, so I was glad to find a more readable presentation.

I am not sure the author's theological stance is so clearly within that of the Catholic Church. Where he goes to great lengths to explain away the so-called miracles in the New Testament (and he'd probably do so with Old Testament stories as well, were they in the purview of his writing), I am pretty sure the Church's more official position is that Jesus did indeed work miracles. He writes again and again of exploring and examining the divinity of Jesus; in the end, he takes the position, if I understand him aright, that Jesus is counted divine only in retrospect, and neither thought of himself as God nor said so to others. I wonder what he makes of  John 8:24, where Jesus, after being asked where his Father is, finishes a long reply by saying, "I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins." Or that, when he was speaking to the disciples before going to the Garden of Gethsemane (John 14:9), and Philip asked him to show them the Father: "Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (All quotes are from NIV)

One mystery of Christology is to understand when Jesus obtained what is called his "pre-Incarnation knowledge". In Mr. Carroll's view, there never was any. Instead, he speculates quite wildly about Jesus as a disaffected and unemployed young man of Galilee chafing under the economic strictures caused by Roman occupation and taxation, becoming a disciple of his cousin John (the baptist) and remaining so for perhaps a decade. Jesus eventually reacts against the asceticism of John and embraces a more public life, preaching to the dispossessed. I find that harder to believe than the goofy story "Bel and the Dragon", found in Catholic Bibles, but not Protestant ones. I guess if the Apocrypha have found their way into your world view, your imagination is rather unfettered. (For the uninitiated, the Dragon story is about Daniel in Babylon, defeating a fire-breathing dragon by throwing a helmet full of water into its mouth and down its throat, causing a steam explosion.)

While reading, I marked a couple dozen places on which I thought I ought to comment. But I have little taste for detailed debate. I will instead take up two important items.

Firstly, Mr. Carroll's fundamental premise is that the four Gospels are "wartime literature", with the three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) written in the 70-80 AD time frame, and John written by 90 AD. I believe they were indeed produced during a period of growing warmaking and warmongering, but a decade or so earlier. He writes several times that "all scholars" agree on these late dates, but he overstates his case rather dramatically. Maybe all Catholic scholars late-date the Gospels, but I doubt it. And even some non-Catholic scholars do so, but primarily those who follow the "higher critics" whose fundamental premise is that the Scriptures are purely human products, and treat them as literature and literature only. Such "historical criticism" of Biblical texts was initially condemned by the Vatican (Leo XIII) in 1893, but later somewhat welcomed (Pius XII in 1943).

Those who don't have a hidden agenda to deny and denigrate the Bible's inspiration understand that the Synoptic Gospels were produced between about 55 and 65 AD; perhaps as late as 66 or 67. Certainly within the lifetimes of those we consider their authors. The late-dating historical critics simply cannot believe that Jesus foretold the fall of the Temple 35-40 years before the fact. Instead they posit that all the Gospel authors put these words in Jesus' mouth, even as they were writing about a Jerusalem that they saw being destroyed around them (or "just over there") in 70 AD. Historical critics go to great lengths to deny God's existence, and particularly Jesus's deity. I say "deity" rather than "divinity". Divinity is a quality; deity is the being of the Person.

So the fundamental issue is whether God inspired the writings we call the Bible, and how detailed His inspiration was. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:13), "This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words." He claims verbal inspiration for what he spoke and wrote. Later in the same book, he discusses marriage and differentiates between God's commands and his own opinion, then discusses the choice of lifelong chastity, beginning, "I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy" (7:25), yet ending, "I think that I also have the Spirit of God." (7:40)

We know that there are all sorts of things in the Bible that we can't count as God's words, not directly at any rate. Certain words of Satan are recorded, such as his accusation of Job. One chapter of Daniel was the testimony of Nebuchadnezzar, and the entire book of Ecclesiastes is written from a despairing, depressed, fully human viewpoint. Yet Ecclesiastes is followed by Song of Songs. How amazing, an aging Solomon could write both "vanity of vanities" and "the song of songs". What happened in between? He got back into contact with God! Note: the Shulammite is Solomon writing in a female voice of his ecstatic experience of God as his lover. Guys out there, you think you are male? Maybe a real he-man?!? Wait until you meet the Source of Maleness, dude! ...and God is also the Source of Femaleness, as the title El-Shaddai attests ("shad" is Hebrew for breast). I state my understanding of inspiration thus: The Bible tells us what God wants it to tell us. How He accomplished its production is up to Him.

And, has the text of the Bible been edited? Boy, and how! So what? Cannot God inspire an editor just as effectively as an author? For example, where did the author of Genesis get his material? While I believe it really was Moses, he must have used source writings to compose the Torah. The beasts of burden used by Abraham and Jacob and their servants are called camels in Genesis, yet historically we know that camels were introduced much later, perhaps even after the time of Moses. Abraham and Jacob would have used donkeys. Clearly, either Moses or a later editor updated the text to use a desert beast that had become more familiar. Maybe it was Samuel.

Historical critics late-date the Old Testament books by centuries, not just a decade or two as they do with the Gospels and some Epistles. For a long time it was not known how to counter their arguments. No texts of Old Testament books were known older than Tenth Century AD. After 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed the dates back to around 160 BC. Then, more recently, fragments dating back to the 700s and 800s BC have been found, mainly in ancient mezuzahs. Naturally, it would be helpful if larger texts were found dating to the times of David and before. If such materials exist, God is still keeping them hidden.

The book most enthusiastically late-dated is Daniel. The young Daniel is supposed to have been taken captive to Babylon in about 586 BC, and lived until the year before Cyrus allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem 70 years later. Many critics pooh-pooh this, and presume it was written during the time of the Maccabees, in about 160 BC. No matter when it was written, it contains a prophecy that is detailed enough to check. This was done by Sir Robert Anderson, who wrote The Coming Prince more than a century ago, in which he demonstrates that the period called "69 weeks" in Daniel began when a certain decree was issued in 445 BC and ended on Palm Sunday, the only day before the crucifixion that Jesus was proclaimed the Messiah. The length of that period comes to 69x7x360 days, or 173,880 days, exactly. If the book of Daniel predicted that period with such exactitude, then it is much more likely that it was written during and near the end of Daniel's life, in Babylon. Those who cannot believe God's word contains genuine predictions would have to late-date Daniel to some time after the year 32 AD to make their case convincing. They'd be laughed out of seminary!

Are the Gospels equally inspired? Faith says Yes. Mr. Carroll states at one point that what is most important is not faith but faithfulness. This is clearly in accord with Catholic teaching going back to the Fifth Century, that we are saved only by our own works. Jesus the Redeemer is never mentioned in Christ Actually. The title comes from something written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Bonhoeffer's beliefs stretch the faith of Jesus a little, those of Carroll stretch it beyond recognition. Aquinas wrote that we must imitate Christ, and this subject informs the last full chapter of the book. This is not Biblical faith. We are told repeatedly by the apostles, particularly Paul, that believers are indwelt by Christ. In his resurrected condition, this is possible. Carroll will admit no bodily resurrection, neither of Jesus nor of anyone else.

In spite of my deep disaffection, I find certain value in the book. We need to be reminded of the Jewishness of Jesus. He did not hate the Jewish leaders, but wept over their intransigence. Yet Mr. Carroll goes too far, proposing that the Gospels are anti-Jewish screeds written later in the Roman-Jewish wars. Anti-Jew they are not, but anti-false-religion they most certainly are, because Jesus was anti-false-religion.

The Gospel of Matthew has been said to have the subject, "Christ versus Religion", and that of John, "Religion versus Christ." Yet, these writers made clear repeatedly that the religion being promulgated by the Pharisees and scribes and other leaders of First-Century Israel was far, far from the religious practice taught by Moses and Samuel and Ezra. And those who are sometimes called "Jews" in Acts, who were following Paul around and trying to undo his work, were a rival faction of what I call "Judaizers" among the Christians, probably based in Jerusalem, where James later told Paul, "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law." So zealous for the law, they had nearly forgotten the freedom from over-interpretation of the law into which Jesus had called them. They occasioned the downfall of Paul, politically speaking. Let us remember, though, that the crowd that had been whipped up into crying, "Crucify him, crucify him!" was the same crowd that received the first gospel preached by Peter on the day of Pentecost, 7 weeks later, and 3,000 of them, now redeemed and forgiven and baptized, formed the nucleus of the church in Jerusalem. God first reached out to those who'd been duped into calling for His demise.

So here is the list, according to this former Catholic priest:
  • No deity, just a kind of after-the-fact divinity conferred by our adoration.
  • No miracles (a repeated statement: "He could not"!), which John called "signs".
  • No resurrection.
Yet, as the writers of the New Testament make clear, without these there is no salvation. Jesus said to those who didn't believe in him, "You will indeed die in your sins."

The Jesus Christ that Mr. Carroll writes of is not the Jesus Christ in whom I believe. Not even close. If he is a Christian, then I'd be ashamed to call myself a Christian. But if I am a child of God, then unless he repents, Mr. Carroll is destined to perish.

Monday, December 08, 2014

It really, really IS who you know!

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, sociability, relationships

Do you want to live longer and better, be healthier and smarter? For about 3/4 of us, a truly holistic doctor would prescribe, "Join another group or two; spend more time with people you enjoy and love; get out more." Who would such a prescription not help? Those who already have strong, vibrant social networks. The rest of us would be well advised to develop them. Clue: a vibrant social group is not to be found in virtual space or on your computer or phone. Human faces work better than Skype, much better, infinitely better.

Humans really are social animals, though the extent of our sociability varies. For reasons yet to be ferreted out, all the genes that either strengthen or weaken social tendencies seem to be carried in all of us, but are differently expressed in every individual. How else to explain my family: my wife and I are both very introverted, yet our son is powerfully extroverted (or extraverted, as Carl Jung originally spelled the term); my father is an extrovert, my mother was more reserved, but very sociable, and my siblings and I seem to cover the spectrum (I am the most introverted).

It is becoming better known that married men, in particular, live 10-15 years longer than single or divorced men. The effect is not as strong for women, who tend to have better social lives than men even when they are introverts. Also, having a "partner" is not the same as having a married spouse, and confers no extra longevity benefit. It seems far too many married men have such poor social lives that their wives are their only close confidants (because "men don't talk about those things").

While reading The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter" by Susan Pinker, I suddenly remembered the play Our Town. Nearly all I can recall is when the narrator looks out and says, "…one day you look at the gray-haired woman at your side and realize the two of you have shared 50,000 meals…" Of many things Ms Pinker repeats throughout the book, sharing mealtimes, during which you actually converse, rather than grunting over the morning paper or whatever, and particularly starting in infancy, foretells how healthy and successful you are likely to be all your life.

50,000 meals. You know I always have to figure things out. Thornton Wilder must have been thinking mainly of farm families, in which the farmer returns home for mealtimes. Three meals a day works out to nearly 1,100 yearly, so 50,000 meals is a bit over 45 years. Even in 1938 when the play was written, an American couple who'd survived their childhoods, and were starting a life together by age 20 or 22, could expect 45-50 years together.

What of today, when most American couples see each other mainly at dinnertime? There's no way to accumulate 50,000 mealtimes together. For example, my wife and I have been married just 40 years. Nearly all that time, we shared 10-11 meals per week, depending on whether one of us slept through the other eating breakfast on a weekend morning. Throw in a couple weeks of vacation or staycation, with 21 meals together each of those weeks, and it comes to about 565 meals together yearly, or more than 22,600, but way less than Thornton Wilder's calculation. Now in retirement, we average about 18 weekly, and we're happier and more relaxed (not having bosses is also a big help!).

The book begins with stories of a couple of breast cancer survivors, and the social settings both enjoyed, that helped them cope with the sudden and extended disruption of their lives. They are contrasted with people who have little or no social support, and the studies that have shown they are much, much more likely to die shortly after diagnosis, even with aggressive treatment.

The second chapter probes an area of Sicily in which intense social support is the norm, and in which the number of 100-year-olds is 3-4 times what you'd expect. This is a well-attested matter, compared to earlier reports of extreme eldership in parts of Russia, where it was found that young men in Tsarist Russia had taken their dead fathers' identities to avoid military service, or in certain parts of Japan, where the dead had been reported as living for decades so their families could get government support payments (similar to one kind of Social Security fraud). In these villages, everyone truly knows everyone, and they care for one another with rare intensity.

Not everyone can handle the kind of ardent sociality the central Sicilians find normal. I wonder how introverts fare in those villages. But even introverts need at least a few close friends. The quintessential loner of our time, the Unabomber, who took great care to be as unknown as possible, was eventually discovered through his brother. Having "nearly no contact" did not equate to having none at all.

A major theme of the book is that our gadgets are no substitute for friends. Even though we might have tons of online "friends" through FaceBook or something similar, there isn't any health benefit to keeping up with all their Updates or Tweets. Nor are there any intellectual benefits. Rather, quite the opposite. Without going back over all the chapters about the effects of electronic gadgetry on children, I think it is safe to state this conclusion:
Both children and adults learn much, much better from the tutelage of a skilled teacher, than from any combination of laptops, smart phone apps, and other electronic substitutes, including MOOC's. (My conclusion; the author's is lengthier and more specific)
That is why families with the money to do so are putting their children into private schools that have demonstrably great teachers. There is much debate recently about the re-segregation of our schools. In a country where many more blacks are poor in comparison to whites, this is a visible matter. Stand outside a private school and count how many kids of each color exit at the end of the day. I have an idea: for every two children in a private school, offer free tuition to a minority child, and sufficient support by counselors to ensure a realistic chance at success. You'd also need to train the rest of the kids in kindness toward the free kids, or the school will internally segregate.

I suppose it started with the Boob Tube. TV has been around almost exactly as long as I have. Once considered a great "babysitter", the TV set has been exposed for what it is, a kind of "empty calories for the mind" machine. Too many of us are as inactive and "obese" mentally as physically (Think of obesity as a principle: mass without muscle. Apply that to your mind. Not a pretty picture).

It is too bad the word "friend" wasn't trademarked and made unavailable before FaceBook took it over. A "FB Friend" is not usually a friend. The default term ought to be "acquaintance". In the past few years the FB folks have made available some categories, such as "acquaintances", "close friends" (AKA your actual friends you're likely to meet face-to-face), and "relatives". Only an actual, physical friend can take you to the store when your battery's dead—and call AAA for you because so is your cell phone—, or give you a foot massage, meet you for a coffee or soda (I don't drink beer), and care for your cat when you're away for a couple of days. Ms Pinker makes a strong case that those who spend the most time online spend the least time with real people, and are thus the loneliest. And they'll often tell you that.

There is the Dunbar Number, named for Robin Dunbar of Oxford: 150. That is the number of strong relationships humans can effectively manage. Even then, not all will be equally strong. I think of a very social fellow in Bible history, king David. During his vagrant days, on the run from king Saul, he had about 400 men who followed him. Still, there were "the 30" and "the 3", and a second "3 who did not attain to the first 3". "The 3" seem to have each managed around 130 of the men, with the help of about 10 of "the 30", and possibly one each of the other "3" as a lieutenant. Let's compare with typical numbers of "FB Friends".

I have 146 "FB Friends". OF those, 23 are children of church friends (a "church kid" category), 12 are former colleagues from work (with a FB "smart tag" of the company name), 14 are "relatives", and 12 I count as "close friends" in that FB category. My closest friend other than my wife, a man I typically eat with at least weekly, does not use FB, though one of his sons is in the "church kid" group. Of the 146, 133 allow viewing their friends and my "Friends" page lists them, so it was easy to grab the statistics. Here is a bar chart of their "FB Friend" quantities:

By doubling the size of each category to get the next, I made this a Lognormal analysis. The result is skewed to the heavy end. Note that Dunbar's Number would be in the first of the three bars of about 30 members. The Median is 317, and the rather great number of folks with 1,000 or more "FB Friends" is startling. They must spend a good part of their day scanning their News Feed!

It would not be hard for me to double or triple my numbers. But I am selective whom I "friend". My sociable son, not so much. He has over 600.

I also looked at the face tags in Picasa, where I have about 25,000 photos tagged. Of 738 tags, not all are true names. Some are various kinds of "I don't know" designation, such as "unknown female second cousin" or "Bill in the Rock Club"; there are exactly 100 of these at present. I have 14 groups, such as "HS Friend of Son" (maybe 200 or so kids I'll leave him to sort out later if he chooses) or "Relatives of so-and-so" (several faces from old family reunion pix, say, in 1914). There are 51 various kinds of distant acquaintance, such as President Bush, photographed at long distance from a speech venue, or various people whose face and name I know but we've never met and will likely never meet, possibly because they're dead (Antoine Lavoisier is one of these). And there are 7  such as "baby Tom" or "young Tom" for a few children in the family that I wanted Picasa to be able to better recognize at various ages. That leaves 566 distinct persons that I either know well now, or have in the recent past. Not bad for the family introvert!

This is not just an entertaining book to read, it is a scholarly work, and the endnotes constitute an extra chapters' worth of fascinating reading material in addition to the many, many references. An example: From a note on page 314 about breastfeeding, the author points out that the claims for various health benefits of breastfeeding overlap in a significant way the benefits of skin-to-skin contact and face-to-face interaction between mother and baby. (I find it amazing that less than half of American women breastfeed at all, only half of those keep it up for 3 months, and very few last even 6 months. Much of the blame goes to companies with policies that disallow even unpaid leave for child care longer than 9 weeks. I am so glad my wife was able to nurse our son a full year.)

So, feeling a bit lonely? Nobody's going to come to you. Turn off the video game and find a compatible church or hobby club (My atheist brother belongs to a choir, and this season they are of course practicing the Hallelujah Chorus). Then, every chance you get to meet with one of your groups of pals, turn off the cell phone. It won't help you live longer, but they will.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Paradox of the afterlife

kw: book reviews, spiritual speculation, heaven, near-death experiences

A few years ago Eben Alexander, M.D. wrote Proof of Heaven. I haven't read it. Now he follows up with The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion, and Ordinary People Are Proving the Afterlife. As I was reading, the words of an old slave spiritual song often came to me: "Everybody talkin' 'bout heaven ain't a-goin' there." Opinions on the subject cover a full spectrum. Some disbelieve any kind of afterlife. Some believe everyone "goes to heaven" after they die, and even the range of opinion among religious people starts near the "everyone goes" end and runs along to those who would say, "few, very few" are heaven-bound.

To clear up one matter at the outset: No map is provided in the book. It is about some of those who claim to have tasted heaven, trying to put all their memories into some kind of map. The nearest thing to a map that the author presents is a metaphor from ancient writings of Persia: A conical hat with levels. Sort of like the pointed hat of a witch or wizard … or a dunce. Though each level is smaller than the one below, this small size represents not the size of the realm at that level, but its similarity to the level on which we all find ourselves in our quotidian lives. The true extent of each higher level is supposed to be many times greater than the one below. There's no telling how many levels there are. Familiar sayings about "seventh heaven" have no bearing on it, and none appear in the book.

The book's point of view is entirely what I would call Natural Religion. God is at best vague and formless, more frequently referred to as "the Divine", and in one section near the end, as an all-encompassing entity so that all are eventually subsumed into "God's body". There is no personal God, no Savior and no need of salvation in Dr. Alexander's system.

The seven chapters of the book are very loosely arranged around seven "Gifts": Knowledge, Meaning, Vision, Strength, Belonging, Joy, and Hope. The Appendix describes a kind of meditation using sound as a way to approach the kinds of experiences reported as Near-Death Experiences (NDE's), without being at risk of death. Perhaps he hopes to discover the "music of the spheres".

The three "big questions" that all children eventually get around to asking, and that are never answered, are
Who are we?
Where did we come from?
Where are we going?
Of course, there is a silly comedy routine in which the reply is
from Europe,
to the New World,
(and answering the implied, "Why?") to take over.

Naturally, the three questions are infinitely bigger than that. Are they answered by answering the question, "Are we really heavenly creatures in some kind of temporary non-heavenly realm?"? In one of the later chapters, the author states his acceptance of reincarnation. Doctrines of the cycling birth and rebirth of souls in human form must cope with the vast increase in human population since the time of Gautama Buddha about 2,500 years ago.

Jokes about "My mother-in-law will probably come back as a mosquito" notwithstanding, it seems curious that, should a soul fail the tests of a human lifetime, it returns as some lower creature—perhaps a cow or a rabbit or a crow—in this same realm, not as a conscious entity in some lower level of the multi-level "hat" the Persians imagined. And how is it that, though there were probably no more than 250 million to 300 million persons on Earth in 500 BCE, the number rose to half a billion by 1500 AD, a billion by 1800 AD, and about 7.2 billions today? The numbers of desperately poor on Earth today exceeds the entire human population in the year 1800. So does the number of those who enjoy at least a "middle class" level of prosperity, with riches that Solomon would have envied (what good are 100 tons of gold if you can't buy an iPhone with it?). Where did all these new souls come from? Did a lot of antelopes and orioles get "promoted"? The number of persons who die every year is roughly half the entire world population of the year 500 BCE. That's a lot of recycled souls going around!

It is nice to imagine we are all going to some heavenly realm, or that we are made for that realm and that it is already all around us if we have our eyes opened to see it. There is a certain element of that latter belief in evangelical Christian teaching. But as a Christian, along with all Bible-believers I must question the implied universalism of the book. Let me just ask you this: would you be comfortable sharing Heaven with Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and a constellation of lesser darknesses such as Jack the Ripper, Vlad the Impaler or Pope Boniface, who "crept in like a fox, ruled like lion, and died like a dog." Hey, how 'bout ol' Nero? God has a Hell for a reason!

From cover to cover, both Old and New Testaments hold out a hope, not of "going to heaven", but of resurrection out of death, a permanent leaving-behind of death in all forms. The Old Testament statements in favor of resurrection are comparatively vague, though Daniel was pretty explicit about it. He stated that all the dead would be raised up, some to eternal blessing, some to everlasting contempt.

During the ministry of Jesus he criticized the Sadducees for their disbelief in resurrection, so it is clear it was part of Hebrew theology already. The New Testament culminates with a vision of the "New Jerusalem", a holy city, "coming down out of heaven from God". That is, the perpetual dwelling of the eternal people of God is with God on the Earth in this amazing City. And crucially, the writer states there are "a new heaven and a new earth", onto which this city is lowered. Thus, for a Bible believer, while there is some element of the heavenly surrounding the people of God today, the eternal realm is not here now, but will be brought in to replace this one.

Dr. Alexander tells a pretty story. I am sure it gives comfort to many who otherwise have no hope. But we do not yet know whether NDE's manifest something real, rather than being a kind of standard series of hallucinations conjured up in a dying brain. We are told they all contain the same elements, but a little digging around with Google reveals that NDE's are tuned to cultural expectations. The NDE's of people in some cultures are rather terrifying! It's just that most of those reported in English are the experiences of Westerners with Western (that is, neo-Judeo-Christian) cultural expectations. What we do know is that the fear of death is powerful motivation to grasp at anything that might stave off the darkness. This book taps into that enormous market.