Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joe Paterno Must Go--Today

Coach Joe Paterno at the 2006 Penn State
Homecoming Game against U of Illinois
By now, anyone who’s up on the news is aware of the scandal involving recently rediscovered accusations of sexual abuse of young boys on the campus of Penn State University, allegedly committed by a then-member of the Penn State football coaching staff. It appears that, in one or more instances, this abuse was reported to head Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, who passed the allegations to his athletic director—and no farther.

Everyone agrees that Paterno fulfilled his legal responsibility by informing his athletic director (who, allegedly, did not pass this information farther on to the police). But the issue to focus on is Paterno’s moral responsibility, and here it seems that Paterno left his responsibility unfulfilled, in a catastrophic display of loyalty to the Penn State football program, over the protection of children from sexual abuse.

Paterno has alleged that the information given to him about the incident was too general to merit contacting the police. Others deny that as an issue of fact. Even if the material were general, however, as David Jones, a sports reporter for the Patriot-News put it in an article today 

Purely from an ethical standpoint, how specific did the story need to be for Paterno to simply immediately call police himself?

Had it been his grandson in the shower with [coach] Sandusky [the alleged abuser] and McQueary [the student observing the abuse] reported to him any version of inappropriate behavior, would Paterno have merely called his technical “superior” and left it at that?

Would [athletic director] Curley and Gary Schultz, Penn State’s vice president of finance and director of the university police force, still have finally gotten around to meeting with McQueary “approximately one and a half weeks later”?

In the midst of all of this, sports blogger Matt Hinton reports that Paterno is headed for a resignation—but look carefully for what Hinton says about the timing:

According to the New York Times, Penn State's board of trustees has initiated discussions about how to handle the 84-year-old standard bearer's exit "within days or weeks," amid allegations that Paterno effectively turned a blind eye to charges of sexual abuse by his longtime defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky. Another report, by the Associated Press, describes support for Paterno among the board as "eroding." The precise timing hasn't been determined, but the inevitable is a reality: Forty-six years after he was promoted to replace Rip Engle as Penn State's head coach, this season will be Joe Paterno's last. Saturday's game against Nebraska will be his final home game in Beaver Stadium.

But why should Paterno get a “last game” in? If Paterno’s behavior was such as to merit his resignation—and it most assuredly was—then his resignation, voluntary or forced, should be immediate. Joe Paterno should leave Penn State—today. No last game, no tribute, no nothing.

Oh, I can hear the moaning from misguided fans. “You’ve got to balance whatever Paterno may have done wrong against the rest of his career,” they’ll say; “he’s such a great man, surely you’ve got to recognize that and have some perspective and give him his last hurrah,” they’ll say.

No, I don’t. This is all just misguided rhetorical sobbing that obscured the mixed-up nature of our society’s priorities.

Folks, at the risk of stating the obvious: Football is a game. Period. Yes, it generates massive amounts of revenue, but at its core it is just as game. As a game, it cannot possibly be used to excuse Joe Paterno for not picking up the phone within five minutes of hearing even the wisp of a hint of an allegation of sexual abuse by one of his coaching staff. And the fact that Paterno did not do that should incur massive and immediate consequences.

It’s important to point out here that, if Paterno had called the police, this would likely have prevented sexual abuse. But he didn’t do that. And that kind of passivity when faced with the allegation of sexual abuse cannot, must not, be tolerated.

Anything other than insisting on Paterno’s immediate departure sends the message that football is ultimately more important than protecting children from sexual abuse. I surely don’t believe that. Do you?

If you agree that Joe Paterno should go immediately, without a victory lap, then call Penn State and express that opinion to Mr. Rodney A. Erickson, the Executive Vice President and Provost, who reports directly to the President; his office telephone number is 814-865-2505, and his fax number is 814-863-8583. (The President of Penn State, Mr. Graham Spanier, is facing calls for his own resignation in this scandal. I think you’ll have an easier time reaching Mr. Erickson.)

For good measure, you may wish to call the main Penn State telephone number (814-865-4700) and ask to speak with someone in the office of the Board of Trustees.

The message to leave with these Penn State officials: Dismiss Joe Paterno immediately, certainly before the game on Saturday. Don’t send the message that football is more important than protecting children from sexual abuse.

Putting the highest priority on the safety of innocent children is surely On The Mark.

(Readers are invited to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right hand corner. Alternatively, readers are invited to subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.)

[The photo of Joe Paterno has been put into the public domain by its creator, and was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Zombies Are So Popular

Zombie walk photo by Bob Jagendorf.
Zombies. Ugly as homemade sin. Scientifically impossible. And yet zombies are as popular as puppies and peanut brittle—moreso, in some circles—in all sorts of media.

“Zombie walks” or “crawls,” where people dress up in costume and zombie makeup to walk the streets of a community, are annual occurences in cities and towns worldwide, as chronicled on the Crawl of the Dead website. Interest in the forthcoming film version of Max Brooks’ 2006 zombie novel, World War Z, is so high, that when it emerged that there were differences between the book and the movie, the online hubbub was so great that the story reporting the controversy was subtitled “Internet Melts Down.” When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wanted to publicize their ideas about being prepared for outbreaks of contagious disease and other natural disasters, they put together a webpage in May 2011 titled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.”

Why all this interest? What’s the attraction?

The popularity of any given film depends on the quality of the script and the acting, the direction and the production values. The popularity of any given video game depends on factors like the game play and the quality of the animation. But the popularity of a whole genre, spanning such media as film, television, and video games, reflects factors beyond any one movie, TV program, or game. Now we are in the territory of psychology.

It has long been observed that popular films reflect societal fears and nightmares, hopes and aspirations, albeit often unintentionally. The people behind the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers have sworn up and down that they were not making a movie about either Communist infiltration or McCarthyism—but that is still the way the film came off to many people. One of the seminal zombie movies, George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, has often been related to the trauma of racial conflict in America in the 1960s. But the racial subtext does not seem to be at work in more recent zombie movies, including Romero’s later work, the work of those he inspired, the games and films in the Resident Evil franchise, Zombieland, Left 4 Dead, or the “kinda zombie” film 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later.

Some people have opined that zombie movies reflect fears about the apocalyptic end of the world. That’s fine as far as it goes, but I think that zombie media reflect a far more specific fear.

I think it’s about pandemic disease.

Think about it. Romero’s original film had zombies rising from the grave due to radioactive contamination from an exploded space probe; some other films have spawned zombies from radioactive waste. But most of the non-Romero zombie media of the 1990s and 2000s, especially the wildly popular ones like the Resident Evil and 28 franchises, AMC’s much-lauded TV series The Walking Dead, and Max Brooks’ novel World War Z, have taken the tack that zombies are a result of some kind of unusual viral infection, either manmade or arising in nature.

The zombie as a metaphor for the outbreak of pandemic disease makes perfectly good sense. I find it instructive that some Canadian medical researchers published a chapter about zombie epidemiology in a serious 2009 academic book on disease modeling, a chapter titled “When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.”

Why shouldn’t our society be afraid of pandemic disease? We surely live in a world where the risk of such a disease, with potentially apocalyptic consequences, is greater than ever before. Consider these developments, just over the last half century:

• International air travel, even intercontinental travel, is much more common now. For all its many benefits, widespread international travel means that disease can spread much more quickly than in earlier generations.

• Population growth in rural China means that an ever-larger number of people live in close contact with the farm animals in which organisms such as avian flu virus incubate and mutate.

• Advances in biotechnology and genetics make it possible for well-heeled organizations to design their own microorganisms—including, potentially, pandemic disease viruses.

• The population of America has shifted radically from rural to urban areas, where disease is spread much more efficiently. The typical subway commuter into Manhattan passes more people during the morning commute than the average farmer in medieval Europe saw during her or his entire life.

• Misuse of antibiotics has lead to the rise of treatment-resistant forms of bacterial diseases like bacterial pneumonia—diseases that often come in on the tails of a viral infection such as the flu.

We know more about historical pandemics now. We know more now than ever about the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which infected 500 million people, over one-quarter of the Earth’s population at the time, and which killed 3% to 6% of everyone on the planet—back in a day when almost no one travelled across oceans other than one-way immigrants and military personnel. This pandemic, fueled by the H1N1 virus, was followed by another H1N1 pandemic in 2009; although it was not a big event in the United States, this pandemic infected between 11% and 21% of the population of the world.

And now, just to make things a little bit better, the United Nations World Health Organization just issued an alert this past week about the rise of a new mutation of the H1N1 virus, a mutation which has killed 331 of the 565 people it has infected in recent months.

So society has good reason to be concerned about the possible reoccurence of a pandemic disease that could sweep the planet. That concern, in a context where the average person seems powerless, is reflected in the popularity of the zombie in so many types of media.

So what do we do? All the zombie crawls in the world won’t prepare people for a real pandemic. As in other aspects of life, when we meet real challenges with purely symbolic actions like jokes or even neurotic symptoms, we may get some emotional payoff, but the real challenge still remains.

As it happens, there is a lot that the individual can do. The aforementioned Zombie Apocalypse page on the CDC website actually has quite a lot of useful information about disaster preparedness, as well as a link to the CDC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage. A lot of information about general emergency preparedness is available on the Emergency Preparedness and Response webpage of Provident Living, produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Emergency preparedness is something that every family and individual needs to work on a little bit every week or so. Over time—with a little planning here, and a little purchasing there—anyone can become much more capable of dealing with legitimate emergencies of any sort.

The zombie meme reflects a widespread societal fear of pandemic disease. Far from being powerless, individuals and families can do a lot to be prepared for such emergencies.

Proactively dealing with what we secretly fear is truly On The Mark.

(Readers are invited to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right hand corner. Alternatively, readers are invited to subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog.)

[The photo of a participant in a zombie walk in Asbury Park, NJ was taken by Bob Jagendorf on 3 October 2009. It was obtained from Wikipedia, and appears here under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Prepare for Hurricane Irene in NYC

The 3-day forecast as of Thursday morning
The 5-day forecast as of Thursday morning
At the present time, the National Weather Service (click on the Hurricane Irene tab) is predicting that Hurricane Irene is likely on Sunday to pass right over New York City, becoming only the fifth hurricane to do so since the late 19th century. As it happened, I lived in New York City when the last one came over, Hurricane Gloria in 1985; I also lived through the glorious summer of 2004 in Central Florida, when we were hit by three hurricanes—two of which passed directly over my home. Consequently, I have a few words of advice for my many readers in the New York City Metropolitan Area who may not be so familiar with what to do to prepare for a real, live hurricane.

A Hurricane Is NOT Just Another Big Storm

New Yorkers are used to big storms. A hurricane is not just another big storm. Yes, it will have all the hallmarks of a big storm—massive amounts of rain, hence dangerous levels of flooding—but it may also have exceedingly high winds (currently well over 100 mph in the Caribbean), and unusual electrical activity. This will make it extremely dangerous to be on the streets, to be sure, but in addition it will also possibly interrupt electrical power, either by blowing down power lines, or by simply causing electrical transformers to explode. (Even in Manhattan, electrical transformers are put just below ground under those metal grids in the sidewalks. I’ve seen them explode. It’s not pretty.)

But won’t this storm die down by the time it gets to New York City? Maybe. But no one knows, and it is entirely possible that it won’t die down that much.

So, this could be much worse than just another big storm. Even Floyd, back in 1999—massive flooding, you may recall—had been downgraded from hurricane status by the time it hit NYC. Irene may still be a hurricane when it hits.

But one can prepare for a hurricane. Below, I suggest preparations to be made today, Thursday, and tomorrow, Friday. By Saturday morning, I suspect that we will already be experiencing the “outer storm bands” of the hurricane, which will make even travel on the sidewalks difficult and maybe even perilous. You need to prepare on Thursday and Friday.

Prepare Today for the Hurricane

Preparation should address several things, roughly in this descending order of importance: shelter, food and water and other supplies, behavior during the hurricane, and the aftermath.


If you live in an area that is prone to flooding, now would be a great time to go visit Aunt Flo in Chicago. I’m not kidding. Trains leave everyday from Penn Station; it’s not too late to get on one now, although Saturday will be too late. The flooding that accompanies a hurricane is immense, worse than just a big storm.

Even if flooding is not an issue, the extremely high winds accompanying a hurricane mean that you need to prepare your home for damage from flying debris. It would be appropriate to at least tape down your windows (for example, make a big X in masking tape on regular-sized windows) so they will be less likely to completely shatter from flying debris. In Florida, I put up plywood over my picture windows.

Food and Water and Other Supplies

Apartment dwellers need to remember that, in the event of an electrical outage, the water pumps may not function to get water to anywhere above about the fourth floor or so. Hurricanes have been known to interrupt water treatment and contaminate regular water supplies, so everyone needs to have bottled water handy, about a gallon per adult per day, just for drinking (not including cooking). I would store at least a 3-day supply of water; if there is a problem with water treatment that makes tap water undrinkable, that problem won’t just magically go away as soon as the storm passes.

New York City groceries only have about three days of food on their shelves. Anything that disrupts transportation—like a hurricane—disrupts the food distribution chain. Now is the time to sock away several days worth of food, especially including things that don’t require cooking, like bread and peanut butter. (Keep in mind that in the event of an electrical outage, electrical stoves won’t work.)

If your medical prescriptions are running out, today would be the time to renew them.

Hurricanes are not great times to be walking around a dark house with lit candles. Get flashlights and plenty of batteries in the correct sizes.

Two more words about crucial supplies: Toilet tissue.

Also, stock up on reading material and board games. If your electricity is out, you won’t be able to watch that marathon of The X-Files. ( >sniffle< )

So when do you get this stuff? Let me put it this way. New York City has the population of three full Western states, crammed into a single city. When everybody figures out “hmm—this could get bad,” do you want to be in that line? Your call.

Behavior During the Hurricane

Hurricanes always have a relative region of calm right at the center, the “eye of the hurricane.” This region passes very quickly and unexpectedly. Do not go out in the eye of the hurricane. Do not go out in the eye of the hurricane.

Prepare Now for the Aftermath

If you are in a neighborhood with overhead power lines, the hurricane may take them down. Do not approach a downed power line, even if it appears to be “dead.” Before you touch the handle of your car after the storm, first be sure that no downed power line is touching it. And, do not try to push away a downed power line yourself! Report it and eave that for the electrical workers.

Tell your clients / customers / boss you may not be to work on Monday.

Finally, however unpleasant it is to say this, whenever I’ve been in town over the last 40 years during an extended power outage, there’s been looting. Just plan to stay off the streets after the storm if there’s still power out.

One Last Super-Important Thing

Your elderly and disabled neighbors will likely need help in preparing for this hurricane. Be a New Yorker, and take the initiative to lend them a hand.


As we Mormons say, “If ye are prepared ye shall not fear.” This works for everyone, of any spiritual persuasion. So prepare and fear not.

More information about emergency preparedness may be found on the websites of Provident Living (a Mormon site), the Ready Campaign (a government site), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Peace out, y’all. Batten down the hatches.

Being prepared for an emergency is truly On The Mark.


You will find a great sheet of tips, covering issues I have not addressed here, at this link, which leads to material written by Kathleen Schmid Koltko-Rivera

[The images of the 3-day and 5-day forecast of the path for Hurricane Irene were obtained from the website of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a U.S. federal agency. The images are thus in the public domain.]

Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Response to a Racist

My most recent post has a link to an op-ed piece I wrote for Yahoo! News about Rick Perry. At the time I wrote the piece, it slipped my mind that viewers are permitted to make comments on these op-ed pieces; when I remembered this today, I started looking over the comments. One of the comments did not address anything involving Rick Perry at all, but did address another surprisingly widespread attitude that is alive and well in America today. I'll let the comment speak for itself; it was posted on August 22 by someone posting under the name, "The Illuminator":
The various crises around the world -- not the natural disasters, per se, but everything to which mankind has put its hands -- each and all have a common single cause; that cause is the degradation, diminution and destruction of racial differentiation. Miscegenation is genocide; worse, it promotes less-evolved dominant genes to the detriment of more-evolved recessive genes: except for the evils of political machinations promoting such absurd, obvious and unreasonable lies as the "manifest equality of all races" and the insanely evil and self-destructive policies and practices arising therefrom, the proper hierarchy would be preserved and leadership would have provided sufficient prosperity for each and all. What we see today is instead a matter of the animals having overtaken the farm; the pigs are now at the top, and the public has neither the mind to discern and acknowledge, let alone the stomach to correct the problem.
The following is what I posted this morning as a reply to The Illuminator's comment:
I'm guessing that most of the readers of this comment might not realize exactly what "The Illuminator" is saying. He is saying that the root of all problems is that people have not kept "racial purity," but rather have mixed the races. "Miscegenation" is [a very biased term for] inter-racial marriage.

One hardly knows where to begin. First of all, from a purely scientific viewpoint, inter-racial marriage promotes a hybrid-like resistance to disease. More to the point, though, is the thoroughly racist ideology that The Illuminator is basing his comments on. Note that he gives not the slightest evidence -- not even a link to a website, weak as that type of evidence might be -- for any of his assertions blaming world crises on inter-racial marriage. No doubt what he sees as the "proper hierarchy" of the world would put him at the top of the heap. (Remember: This is exactly where the Nazis started, as an ideology.) He strongly implies that people of other races than his own are "pigs," yet he does not have the courage to actually identify himself.

Buster, I am Mark Koltko-Rivera. I have in my veins the blood of medieval Polish Catholic knights and probably more than a few Russian Jewish rabbis, the Spanish conquistadores, Marranos and Moors, the Taino natives and their Aztec-Mayan warrior ancestors, as well as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Vandals who swept over so much of Europe [and ended up in Spain]. With so many strengths from so many sides of the human race, I and others like me may be set back here and there, but never defeated. Who are you to call my people "pigs"?
Both the comment by The Illuminator and my reply are given in full. My guess is that The Illuminator is riffing on my last name, which in my case identifies me as having a varied ethnic background.

Frankly, my blood is still boiling as I type this. But I wanted to put this up on the blog, even in the heat of the moment, to bring the matter of racism in America onto my blog radar, as it were. I'm sure I'll be returning to this issue again in the future.

Note to The Illuminator: The right side won the Second World War. The racist ideology that the Axis powers built upon was a filthy abomination then, and it remains so now. The future does not belong to you.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Rick Perry's Flip-Flop Stance on the Constitution

My take on Rick Perry and his flip-flop stance on the Constitution was recently published by the Yahoo! Contributors Network; you can read it here. Enjoy.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Could a Norway-Style Massacre Over Religion Happen in the U.S.? You Bet.

My latest article for Yahoo! News is a commentary on the massacre in Norway allegedly committed by Anders Behring Breivik (pictured). You may read it here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Lesson from the Failed Doomsday Prophecy of Harold Camping

There is a lesson to be learned from the whole Harold Camping affair. It is a counterintuitive lesson, but an important one nonetheless. Read my latest Yahoo! Contributor Network piece, which describes this lesson.

[Readers of this blog are invited to share their thoughts through the COMMENTS link below, and to become followers via the box in the upper-right-hand corner.]

[The photo of a Family Radio bus was taken on March 8, 2011, in New Orleans, by Bart Everson. It appears here under the provisions of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.]

Copyright 2011 Mark Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How the Ex-IMF Chief Might Escape

Anyone who’s been following the news at all lately has heard that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until this week head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been arrested on a variety of rape-related charges in New York City. (Indeed, he resigned as head of the IMF because of his arrest.) News broke on Thursday night that Mr. Strauss-Kahn—often referred to as DSK in the media—will be released on $1 million bail and $5 million insurance bond on Friday, to be placed under house arrest at an apartment that his wife has just rented in Manhattan, where he will wear an ankle bracelet and have armed guards monitoring either the apartment or the building (it is unclear which, from news reports).

DSK is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. (This is better than what I understand is the situation in DSK’s native France, where indictment comes, I am told, with the presumption of guilt until proven innocent.) However, the presumption of innocence applies only to the courts of law.

In the court of public opinion, he’s guilty as hell.

(Heck, I sure think he’s guilty as hell.)

If this is at all predictive of how his court case could go, DSK is facing a rough situation:

  • He faces a possible sentence of 25 years or more. With DSK having just turned 62 last month, a 25-year sentence could be a life sentence. Even with time off for good behavior, DSK would not be getting some luxury suite in a white-collar prison; no, he’ll be serving hard time with other rapists. If he survives the experience, he’ll be a wreck of a man, and he knows this.
  • Word on the street is, the DA's office has solid evidence.
  • The New York City Police Department division that deals with victims of sexual crimes is perhaps the most experienced such division in the United States. They’ll not let him get off this charge easily.

Given all this, and given the assets that he controls, my guess is that DSK is going to look his chances in the face—and run, run, run all the way home.

In this blog post, I explain how he could do it.

It is obvious that he has a strong incentive to run. But does he have the means? The Associated Press through Forbes.com has reported that “he and his wife, an heiress to a renowned art dealer, have extensive personal wealth.” Just how extensive?

The same article reported that, as head of the IMF for the last four years or so, DSK's tax-free salary and cost of living allowance ran to just under $500K annually. And that’s just his day job income. To have lunch with his daughter a week ago, he flew to NYC and took one night in a $3K/night hotel room. (That’s over ½% of his day job income, just on the hotel room.) He and his wife have a six-room apartment in a tony neighborhood in Paris, another 1,800+ square foot apartment in Paris, a home in Marrakech, and a house in Washington (reported to be worth $4 million). Methinks they’re not just living off his salary.

So let’s say he has a couple of million to throw around on his escape. How might he do it? Actually, it would be ridiculously simple.

Step 1: Apartment to U.S. Airport

It is worth pointing out that DSK himself is paying for the security guards at his apartment. It would not surprise me in the slightest if, say, personnel beholden to DSK were to be on shift one day—the day that a helicopter diverts from its flight plan and lowers a rope ladder to the roof of the building in which DSK is sequestered.

A fast chopper could make it from midtown Manhattan to, say, Connecticut’s Danbury airport in about 15 to 20 minutes. It might take that long, or longer, for the NYPD to respond to the clipping of DSK’s ankle bracelet, and then discover that this bird truly has flown.

Danbury would be a great choice. It is outside NYPD and NYS trooper jurisdiction, and precious minutes would be lost in notifying Connecticut or federal authorities that a fugitive is in Connecticut jurisdiction. In addition, it is just not that busy as area airports go. (I know--I have flown out of Danbury.) Just the place for a quick getaway.

Step 2: U.S. Airport to Wherever

A private jet, ready on the tarmac at Danbury airport, could be airborne in minutes—like I said, not much traffic at Danbury—and, once airborne, could be outside of U.S. airspace within about two minutes. Mission accomplished!

So where would he go? Possibly not France, because DSK has waived extradition from France; however, given that the French have been, how shall I say, loose in their interpretations of their obligations to extradite accused sexual criminals to the United states (witness Roman Polanski), France itself might be a reasonable bet. Otherwise, Switzerland (also favorable to the accused in the Polanski case), or somewhere without even the pretense of extradition, like Brazil.

The Point

So why am I going through all this? To give the accused pointers on his getaway? I assure you, my friends, that these are not new thoughts to a multi-millionaire facing what is essentially a life sentence. No, I have a different point to make. (Although the NYPD are welcome to consider what I have said here . . .)

The judge who offered DSK bail, under any terms whatsoever, has made a terrible mistake. We should not offer what amounts to terms for escape to people with extraordinary means; Polanski was given bail despite being an escape risk, and fled. The prosecutors in DSK’s instance made the case that he was an escape risk, and the arraignment judge very reasonably agreed, denying the defendant bail. However, an appeals judge decided otherwise, and has given DSK a ticket out.

The ability of a defendant to skip town should not be dependent on the size of his wallet. It’s just that simple.

Basic common sense is most certainly On The Mark.

[Readers are welcome to share their thoughts through the COMMENTS link below, and to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right hand corner.]

[The photo of Dominique Strauss-Kahn is his official portrait as the 10th director of the IMF. It was taken in 2008; the photographer is uncredited; its ultimate source is the IMF, where the byline states that it is in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Judgment Day? Not Yet
Book Announcement

[UPDATE: The post-Rapture-that-didn't-happen edition of this book, titled Why Judgment Day Didn't Come: Why Harold Camping's Predictions Failed is available here from Smashwords in multiple e-book formats.]

By now, most tuned-in Americans are aware of a prediction that Judgment Day will occur this coming Saturday, May 21. To be specific, Harold Camping, who broadcasts on Family Radio around the country, predicts that Judgment Day and the Rapture will occur this Saturday, and that the end of the world will occur five months later, on October 21. A number of people are taking this very seriously. Several of Camping’s followers are travelling around the country in Project Caravan (see the photo on the book cover, above), advertising these predictions. The New York Daily News and the New York Post recently reported that a local follower has spent his life savings, $140,000, to put up advertisements about the predictions on buses, subway platforms, and bus shelters around the City.

How sad, then, that Camping’s predictions are worthless.

I suspect that very few of the followers of Camping who have been pamphleteering this past weekend at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan are aware that Camping’s predictions are based on a bizarre interpretation of biblical scripture, timelines, and symbolism that is so severely distorted that it can only be described as pretzel logic.

And yet, false predictions like this are important to address. People who believe that the end of the world is imminent have been known to commit murder and suicide, or to take other rash and ill-considered actions. As a Christian, it bothers me that false predictions of the Judgment Day bring ridicule upon the Bible and upon Christianity itself, and divert attention from the real Christian message. Finally, the more attention is invested in panicky predictions, the less attention is being paid to the important challenges that we face in the world today.

So I wrote a book about it all.

In Judgment Day? Not Yet, published as an e-book on Smashwords.com, I describe Camping’s claims, and explain why they are false. I also describe why claims like these are so attractive to people, and what Christians can do to keep from being misled.

You can read a free excerpt from the book (sorry it breaks off right in the middle of the chapter), and you can order the e-book for only $1.99. The book will ultimately be available in a wide variety of e-book formats, but given the time-pressured nature of the subject (!), you may wish to simply order the .pdf version, which is available now for immediate viewing on your computer.

Given the hoopla that these predictions are causing in some parts, you may wish to tell your friends about this book, or even e-mail this post around. If this book stops even one person from making a rash decision, I will be very happy. And, hey—at $1.99 a shot, how can one go wrong?

Understanding the difference between real biblical prophecy and false predictions is definitely On The Mark.

[Readers are welcome to comment by using the COMMENTS link below, and to become blog followers through the upper-right-hand box.]

[The book cover photo of a Family Radio bus was taken on March 8, 2011, in New Orleans, by Bart Everson. It appears here and on the book cover under the provisions of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

An Open Letter to Omar bin Laden
(Son of Osama bin Laden)

[Note to other readers: Omar bin Laden is the fourth-oldest son of the late Osama bin Laden.]

May 10, 2011

Dear Mr. Omar bin Laden,

I am writing in response to statements attributed to you in a report by Reuters, to the effect that the recent killing by U.S. forces of your father, Osama bin Laden, was “criminal,” and that his burial at sea by these forces “demeans and humiliates his family and supporters.” The report indicates that you stated that your father’s burial in the Arabian Sea “challenges religious provisions and feelings of hundreds of millions of Muslims.” If these remarks have been attributed to you erroneously, I ask you to ignore the rest of my comments here. Below, I assume that these remarks are correctly attributed to you. My comments are also directed to those others whom the Reuters report states have taken issue with these events on the same grounds.

Your objections are at best silly and worthy of ridicule. At worst, they exhibit a deep moral blindness of the sort that has alienated many people all over the world from Islam itself, however unfairly.

The killing of Osama bin Laden was an act of war against a man who had publicly declared war on the United States, and who had publicly taken credit for the 9/11 attacks that killed thousands of non-combatants on American soil. Killing a man who gleefully killed thousands as an act of war is hardly criminal. To you, and to those of a radical Islamist persuasion who have declared war on the United States, America says this: you want war, you’ve got war. But don’t expect it to be pretty. And members of al Qaeda can expect to see more of the same, in coming days. That's what people get when they ask for war.

Yes, the United States conducted this attack on the territory of another sovereign nation, without that nation’s permission. Given that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in plain sight, apparently for years, sheltered within a community of active and retired military officers, we have every reason to believe that elements of that sovereign nation have been playing treacherously while acting as our supposed allies. Certainly it was the acts of this element that were not only criminal, but even a treasonous offense against the government of Pakistan itself.

As far as the fact that Osama bin Laden was unarmed at the time he was killed—oh, come now. This was war, a war that he first declared. He killed thousands of people on 9/11 who were equally unarmed. There is an ancient saying that uses a farmer's metaphor: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Osama bin Laden reaped the crop of violence that he himself had sown so spectacularly.

What should, in all decency, be held as demeaning and humiliating to the family of Osama bin Laden is not the manner of his death and burial, but rather the murderous acts which earned him that death and burial. This was a man who killed thousands of noncombatants in a sneak attack. He killed thousands of people—parents to children now orphans, children to parents now bereft, brothers and sisters to siblings now mourning—people who had nothing whatever to do with the argument between radical Islamists and the United States government. Those murders are what put shame on his family; those murders are what should be considered a humiliation.

Was Osama bin Laden concerned about the horrifying deaths that his victims endured? Was he the least bit concerned about their burials? About the effects of their deaths upon their families? About their survivors’ “feelings”? Of course not. At least the United States forces, albeit perhaps in a clumsy way, tried to follow what they thought were the rudiments of Islamic custom in burying Osama bin Laden’s body. No similar concern was shown by Osama bin Laden regarding those whom he had attacked.

In this context, your complaints seem haughty to the point of the ludicrous. Your complaints give Islam itself a bad name, because you clearly take no consideration of the murders that Osama bin Laden committed, and show no concern for his victims. You would serve the cause of Islam well by making a clear and unequivocal condemnation of your father’s murders on 9/11. Without that, you seem only to align yourself with your father’s murderous activities.

--Mark E. Koltko-Rivera

Focusing on what is important is most definitely On The Mark.

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[The photo of the Arabian Sea as seen from the Karachi Beach in Pakistan was taken on April 6, 2008 by Wikipedia user “Pakistanmera,” who placed it in the public domain. The image was obtained from Wikipedia.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Should a Christian Celebrate the Death of Osama bin Laden?

The announcement that American military forces killed Osama bin Laden on Sunday has prompted some interesting Internet discussions. One involves the issue, “Should a Christian celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden”? That’s the issue that I consider in this post. (In doing so, I mean no slight to those of other faiths, nor do I make any implications about other faiths or their stances on bin Laden’s death.)

It’s easy to see how the question comes up. Within minutes after the death of bin Laden was announced, crowds assembled before the White House in great celebration; the crowd at a Phillies baseball game shouted U-S-A! U-S-A!; here in New York City, a crowd gathered and sang patriotic songs at what we call Ground Zero—the site of the attacks on the World Trade Center that killed thousands on September 11, 2001, attacks that were engineered and celebrated by Osama bin Laden. In the midst of all this celebration, some people reflected, “hey, wait a minute—what we’re cheering about is somebody’s death. How okay is that?” Within a Christian context, it’s a good question.

I’m a native New Yorker, born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As a student in elementary and high school, I watched the World Trade Center go up, and later I visited a friend’s father’s office in one of the Towers. As an adult, I knew former classmates and other friends who worked in the Towers. Although I moved out of town a little over a year before 9/11 (I’m back now), watching the television coverage of the 9/11 attacks put me into shock: this was an attack on my home town. Then I saw TV coverage of celebrations in some parts of the Muslim world right after the destruction of the Towers and the assassination of thousands of American civilians. That made me very, very angry.

I am not from a part of the world that is big on either Forgive or Forget. The Lower East Side (LES), as the T-shirt mottos go, is a place where “the weak are killed and eaten,” and “only the strong survive.” The ethic one learned growing up on LES is that, if someone does something to you or yours, your duty is to turn the offenders into something resembling Beefy Chunks dog food.

Given that background, there is a part of me that wanted revenge on bin Laden. Big time revenge. Find bin Laden, strap him and his family—yes, especially the wives and all the little children—to chairs on top of a tall, abandoned building, and bring the whole thing down with them on top; save them at the last second and then do it again on a taller building. End up with them each on individual skyscrapers, watching each other as the buildings fall—but this time with no rescue. Do Osama last. This is the sort of thing that we would think up on the Lower East Side. Back in the day, it was the sort of place that encouraged one to raise revenge fantasy to the level of art form.

But I am also a Christian.

Yes, an exceptionally imperfect Christian, but a Christian nonetheless, and that brings a different kind of perspective into play here. Am I not supposed to forgive my enemies? To turn the other cheek? To love those who hate me, and despitefully use me? Jesus was not joking. So how do I make sense out of all this? Here are my reflections. (I am indebted to the GodDiscussion website for the contributions of some of their readers.)

Vengeance is the Lord’s

The scriptures are very clear about vengeance. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19, quoting Deuteronomy 32:35). And this message is repeated, not once, but many places throughout the scriptures.

The implication here is clear. Whatever I celebrate, it should not be the achievement of vengeance. Quite frankly, this goes against everything in my upbringing. But being a Christian is not easy.

There are different ways to look upon what a Christian is supposed to be, but an off-the-shelf human being—what Paul calls “the natural man”—is not one of them. Christians are called to go beyond the merely human in a number of ways; the following teaching of Jesus is a particularly difficult one for me, especially in relation to bin Laden:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. ...

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45, 48)

Difficult or not, this is the job of a Christian. I have failed magnificently at this. But I recognize that this is a problem of mine. As a Christian, I am not allowed to hate bin Laden.

Rejoicing at the Death of an Evil Man

So how about just being happy that this rotten excuse for human waste is dead? The counsel of God doesn’t support this, either:

Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)
Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth (Proverbs 24:17)

What About Forgiveness?

Many have commented on the Internet in recent days that the duty of the Christian is forgiveness. The Roman Catholic priest, James Martin, S.J., had this to say about this issue on The Huffington Post:

Christians are in the midst of the Easter Season, when Jesus, the innocent one, not only triumphantly rose from the dead but, in his earthly life, forgave his executioners from the cross, in the midst of excruciating pain [Luke 23:34]. Forgiveness is the hardest of all Christian acts. (Love, by comparison, is easier.) It is also, according to Jesus, something that is meant to have no limit. No boundaries. Peter once asked him how often he was supposed to forgive. Seven times? “Not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” [Matthew 18:21-22]. In other words, times without number.

In light of all this, am I required to forgive Osama bin Laden?

I think that this esteemed commentator at HuffPost has overlooked a couple of crucial details. Jesus forgave his executioners because they were ignorant of the nature of whom they were executing, and of his innocence. As he put it, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (emphasis added). Certainly no sane person would claim that Osama bin Laden was ignorant of what he was doing; this was, after all, the man who clearly claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, specifically the ones on the World Trade Center towers, as an act of war. Osama bin Laden had no claim to forgiveness on the grounds of ignorance.

Peter’s question presumed that the one who had offended him came to Peter as a penitent, someone who had repented of the offence. No luck for bin Laden here, either. As a recent Associated Press timeline (click the “bin Laden’s Life” tab) shows, bin Laden repeatedly was involved in attacks that each killed hundreds, and there is not the slightest indication that he was penitent. Osama bin Laden had no claim to forgiveness on the basis of repentance.

What is Christian forgiveness, anyway? As I understand it, "forgiveness is to pardon or excuse someone for blame for an offense or misdeed." But surely that forgiveness cannot be unconditional. At the very least, so far as forgiveness between people is concerned, forgiveness must be conditional upon some outward demonstration of repentance. Even the universal atonement of Jesus Christ, in terms of its full effects, is dependent upon repentance. Osama bin Laden showed none of that, in the slightest, not the least bit of remorse. Forgiveness simply does not apply to him.

So Where Does This All Leave Us?

On the one hand, as a Christian, I am commanded not to hate bin Laden; rather, I am to love that tiny spark of divinity that was within bin Laden, no matter how small that spark had become during his descent into evil; and I am not to seek vengeance on bin Laden. I do not have to forgive him, because he was neither penitent nor ignorant, but I am not to rejoice at his death itself.

But I can feel grateful, and I surely am: grateful that he will not send out more mass murderers. One can surely hope that his successors will think twice about sending out terrorists, given that the United States showed some persistence and determination here. I have no illusions that bin Laden’s death will end the threat of terrorism. But, at the very least, this is one less terrorist. Gratitude for this is something a Christian can get behind.

Gratitude for at least the possibility of a little more safety is surely On The Mark.

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[The photo of the replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue, in the North Latter-day Saint Visitor’s Center of Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, was taken by Ricardo630, who released the photo into the public domain. It was obtained from Wikimedia Commons.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Lessons from Osama bin Laden’s Death

President Obama announcing bin Laden's death, May 1, 2011

The announcement on Sunday night that an American special forces team (Navy SEALS) conducted an operation in which they killed Osama bin Laden is surely welcome news to many Americans. But what can we learn from the whole, nearly decade-long affair?

Lesson #1. The Pakistani government is full of liars who collaborate with Islamist extremists.

For years, the Pakistan government has been claiming that bin Laden was beyond its grasp, either dead or in the mountainous border regions of Afghanistan. Now we learn that, possibly for many years, bin Laden was in hiding, not just anywhere in Pakistan, but in a million-dollar mansion located in an upper-middle-class suburb full of retired military, just down the road from the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, all a mere 35 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Sound suspicious to you? Sure does to me—and to hundreds of millions of other Americans, as well.
This mess should inform all future White House and Pentagon relationships with the Pakistani government. Frankly, if the Pakistani government shows itself reticent about cooperating with American operations in the future—drone attacks, military intervention near the Pakistani border—the White House should not hesitate to hold the Pakistanis’ feet to the fire on this issue.
Bottom Line: The White House should hold the Pakistani government responsible for sheltering bin Laden, wittingly or not.
Lesson #2. Some Muslim clergy simply don’t get it.

One item in the news today is the reaction of some Muslim scholars and clergy to President Obama’s statement that bin Laden’s body was dispatched with respect for Muslim custom. A number of Muslim scholars and clergy have stated that burial at sea is only permitted under Muslim law under extreme circumstances, and that bin Laden should have been buried somewhere with a headstone. 

My, what a grand idea: build a nice little memorial that would become the focus of Islamist extremists for centuries. No, I don’t think so.

Here’s news for these Muslim scholars and clergy: the real thing to focus on here was the devilish nature of the 9/11 attacks, which focused mostly on innocent noncombatants. For Muslim scholars and clergy to complain about the treatment of bin Laden’s body gives creedence to the perception that Islam as a whole is all right with the murder of thousands of civilians on 9/11. Frankly, for the good of Islam itself, Islamic scholars and clergy need to be much more concerned with distancing themselves from Islamist extremism. Why have we not had a massive organization of Muslim scholars and clergy condemn the 9/11 attacks, and Islamist extremism in general?
Bottom Line: Muslim scholars and clergy should focus on condemning the 9/11 attacks and Islamist extremism as a whole in a united fashion. 
Lesson #3. President Obama’s approach got the job done the right way.

Ostensibly, American forces have been trying to find bin Laden for almost ten years. However, the reality is that for six years of that time—basically, from even before the start of the war in Iraq in March 2003 through the inauguration of President Obama in January 2009—the United States was much more focused upon a completely irrelevant and unnecessary war in Iraq.

Whether you believe that President Bush was misled by faulty intelligence, or that he or members of his government deliberately misrepresented that intelligence to provide a justification to invade Iraq, it is absolutely clear that there was not the slightest real justification for the Iraqi War. There simply were none of the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that the Bush Administration had claimed there were. In its focus on the Iraq War, the Bush Administration dropped the ball on finding the actual force behind the 9/11 attacks, and so let bin Laden slip away.

President Obama, on the other hand, adopted a straightforward approach: 
  • He made the finding of bin Laden a top priority for the CIA. 
  • Having identified a likely location, he performed the difficult homework of substantiating whether bin Laden was actually there. 
  • He sent in an American special ops team with surgical precision, and got the job done with no innocent casualties.
Bottom Line: Everyone should put first things first.
Lesson #4. By focusing on the unimportant and inessential, the Republican Party are the big losers here.
Whether out of desperation or simple lack of ideas, the Republican Party has given increasing time and attention since the 2008 election to the “birther” movement, which claims—against all the voluminous evidence to the contrary—that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Yet it was one of their own, George W. Bush, whose team let bin Laden get away (again, by losing focus on what should have been his prime objective). The Republican Party is in danger of being perceived as the lightweights of American politics, focusing on protecting the wealthy and arguing about idiocy, while President Obama is doing the hard work of protecting America and its interests. Frankly, there is a lot of substance to that perception.

Bottom Line: Republicans had better focus on matters of substance and logic if they wish to avoid being declared a party of irrelevance.
President Obama’s getting the job done is most definitely On The Mark.

[The photo of President Barack Obama announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden was obtained from the website of CNN.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

It's Time for the South to
Let Go of the Civil War

Celebrating the Confederacy paints the American South as racist and stuck in the past. It’s time for the South to let go of the Civil War era and embrace the future. My opinion piece on this topic has just appeared on the Yahoo! News portal, and is available here. I urge you to further the dialogue on this issue by reading this piece, maybe commenting on it, and forwarding it to your friends, perhaps especially those in the American South.

An American South that defines its culture on something other than the slave-holding era, and that embraces the future, is definitely On The Mark.

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Readers are encouraged to become "followers" of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner. It doesn't mean you agree with anything in the blog, just that you'd like to be informed about new posts.

[The photo shows dead Confederate troops in a field after the Battle of Antietam, Maryland, during the American Civil War. The original photo was taken by Alexander Gardner in September, 1862. It is in the public domain, and was obtained from Wikimedia Commons. The photo is a part of the Library of Congress American Memory collection, and may be seen as part of a stereopticon slide in that collection here.]

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Nuclear Power Plants Are Easy Terrorist Targets

My article on this topic has just appeared on the Yahoo! Science portal. I urge you all to read it to get my take on what I consider to be one of the greatest dangers of nuclear power plants.

[The photo of the Indian Point Energy Center in New York State was taken by Daniel Case in August of 2007. It was obtained through Wikipedia, and appears here under the GNU Free Documentation License.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Annals of Wasted Lives, II: The Tennis Queen

It’s been almost exactly two years since I wrote my first post in the “Annals of Wasted Lives” series; I try to wait until really solid examples come my way. That time has come.

In a press conference on March 18, Marion Bartoli, the #1 tennis player in France, claimed to have an IQ of 175.

This is quite the claim. The average person has an IQ of 100; an IQ of 132 will get you into Mensa. An IQ of 175 would be about 5 standard deviations above the mean for intelligence, putting Ms. Bartoli in the range of the 99.99997th percentile of intelligence; put another way, she would be 1 person in about 3.33 million in terms of intellectual ability.* A Yahoo! sports blog claims that an IQ of 175 would exceed the IQs of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. (I myself am aware of no reliable figures for the IQs of these people.)

Let’s mention one issue just to set it aside. I was trained to assess intelligence professionally as part of my doctoral training in psychology, and I am aware of no intelligence test that reliably assesses intelligence above about 150; one might wonder what test was supposedly given to Ms. Bartoli as a child.

But there is a much larger question here: If Ms. Bartoli really possesses a 1-person-in-3.33-million intellect, what is she doing playing tennis?

The world we live in is beset by major challenges: war; terrorism; climate change; poverty; famine; disease; economic upheaval; crime; illiteracy; a myriad of unsolved scientific mysteries and obstacles to technological progress, not to mention problems created by technological progress. Someone possessing an intellect like Ms. Bartoli claims to have should be working primarily on these issues, and playing killer tennis on the weekends.

Am I being judgmental here? Yessiree! Hang on, the best is yet to come.

Individuals like Ms. Bartoli seem focused on their own glory and wealth. In plain words, hers is a self-centered, selfish, even narcissistic quest. Nothing she does will make one life better except her own, and the lives of those on whom she spends money. This is a hollow life, a life of meaningless achievement and acquisition. Absolutely nothing of any greater purpose hinges on whether Ms. Bartoli wins or loses her next match.

But so what? Where do I get off, making judgments like this? Where I take off from is a principle, one that I described at some length in my first post in this series: Our lives are not our own. We owe it to the human race to make the world better than how we found it. On this basis, one has to judge Ms. Bartoli’s life as sorely wanting.

I don’t expect that this post will make one iota of difference to Ms. Bartoli, who almost certainly will never read these words. However, my hope is that my rude words will serve to make us reflect on the direction of our own lives, and the purposes that our actions serve. Because our lives really are not our own; we really do owe something to the world and humanity.

Geniuses—self-proclaimed or otherwise—who withhold their talents from addressing the world’s need are definitely not On The Mark.

[The photo of Marion Bartoli at the 2009 U.S. Open was taken on August 31 of that year by Robbie Mendelson. It was obtained through Wikimedia Commons and appears here under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.]

*William M. Meredith, Basic Mathematical and Statistical Tables for Psychology and Education (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), p. 187, calculated from figures regarding z equal to ± 5.00.

Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Alien Bacteria and God

This falls in the category of “Potentially a Really Big Deal.”

Dr. Richard B. Hoover, a NASA astrobiologist, announced on Friday, March 4th that he had discovered evidence of alien bacterial life, locked inside a rare type of meteorite. (The Yahoo! News online article may be found here, and the FoxNews online article may be found here.) The scientific article announcing his discovery appears in the current issue of the online Journal of Cosmology, which is edited by Dr. Rudy Schild of the Center for Astrophysics, an institute that is administered by Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution; in plain words, this is not some kind of pseudoscientific or schlock journal.

The essence of Dr. Hoover’s discovery is that several meteorites of a rare type, found in France and Tanzania, contained fossilized filaments, some of which strongly resemble bacteria found on earth, others of which seem to represent bacteria of a previously unknown type (see photo above). These fossils were found immediately after breaking open the rocks in sterile conditions, so they are highly unlikely to represent contamination from the Earth. Several of the meterorites in Dr. Hoover’s sample were observed falling to Earth and were immediately recovered after their fall. The Journal of Cosmology has taken the unusual step of asking 100 scientists to respond to this paper online, making it the most heavily peer-reviewed article in the history of scientific literature.

People will be debating the evidence given in this article, possibly for years. For the sake of discussion, let us assume for the moment that Dr. Hoover’s findings are solid. So what does this all mean?

First of all, as Dr. Hoover indicates, a valid discovery like this would indicate that bacteria somehow exist, at least in fossilized form, in comets and/or meteors, some of which are presumably the debris of life-bearing planets that broke up or were destroyed, say, by collisions with asteroids (á lá the threats depicted in the 1998 fictional disaster films “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”). The implication here, as Dr. Hoover states, is that “life is everywhere”; that is, life—at least of the microbial sort—is widely distributed on planets outside of our solar system. Of course, if microbial life exists, there is every reason to think that intelligent life has also evolved on other worlds, as well.

Second, as Dr. Hoover also indicates, a valid discovery like this suggests that life on earth may descend from microbial life that was brought to the earth by comets or meteorites.

So, for whom does this all make a difference? My opinion on this might surprise you.

Sure, a valid discovery like this would have implications for those who engage in the study of the universe (cosmology) and the study of life (biology). However, in my opinion, a discovery like this would have some very important implications for vast numbers of people, because of its impact in another field altogether:


What does it mean for beliefs about the nature of humankind to think that life exists on other planets? What does it mean for belief in God and the Bible to think that life came to Earth aboard rocks falling from the sky in the distant past?

There are some, I am sure, who will proclaim Dr. Hoover’s discovery as “yet another step in the displacement of humanity from the center of the universe,” or some such. Some have interpreted the discovery of Nicholas Copernicus (that the Earth revolves with the other planets around the Sun, rather than the Sun revolving around the Earth) and the discoveries of Charles Darwin (to the effect that humanity evolved from other animal species) as being earlier such steps. Beyond this, there are many, I am also sure, who will look to Dr. Hoover’s discovery as suggesting yet another way that the Supreme Being is supposedly “unnecessary” to explain the universe and life within it, and yet another way that the Bible supposedly “fails” to explain scientific realities.

All of that is so much stuff and nonsense.

Let’s take that last point first: the idea that the Bible supposedly has failed to explain the origin of life. It is a principle accepted in many spiritual traditions that the Supreme Being—call that Being “God(s),” “Goddess(es),” “The Ground of All Being,” “The Force,” or whatever works for you—the Supreme Being communicates with people in a language that those people can understand. The holy writings of the spiritual traditions of the world were largely written thousands of years ago; these people could no more have understood the biology of bacteria than our great-great-grandparents could have programmed a digital video recorder. It’s not a matter of intelligence; it is simply a matter of the science and technology that people are familiar with at any point in time.

Given that, it is perfectly understandable that explanations of the beginnings of life on Earth would be given in imprecise, simplified language, rather than in scientifically sophisticated language, in our ancient sacred writings. Taking the book of Genesis in the Bible as an example, sure, it says that the first human was created “of the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7). Well, what else would it say? Of course people are composed of the elements of the earth. The calcium in my bones comes from plants that I have eaten, plants that themselves absorbed the calcium from the soil. The iron in my blood I have taken from plants and the meat of animals, who themselves obtained that iron from the land. Ultimately, the calcium, the iron, and all the other elements of our bodies were created in the heart of stars, which, when dying as novas or supernovas, ejected the heavier elements into the depths of space, where they collected into the planets we know today. Yes: you really are stardust. And we all have indeed been created from that stardust, a small part of which now comprises “the dust of the ground” of planet Earth.

Earlier, in the account of Genesis chapter 1, we read of the sequence in which life emerged: plants, marine life, non-human mammals, and humans (Gen. 1: 11, 20-26). There is nothing here that precludes the earliest step in the chain being bacteria from space, bacteria that came crashing onto our planet within the meteorites at the heart of water-bearing comets. (For that matter, I have always found it interesting that this is the sequence given in Darwinian theory for the emergence of life.)

I have addressed some concerns of some anti-religious skeptics. Now let’s consider the other side of this coin: people who might be inclined to reject Dr. Hoover’s evidence on religious grounds.

Some people think that belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life (especially intelligent life) is somehow wrong because such life is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible. Yet, so often, the Bible speaks of things known only to God: “the secret things belong unto the Lord our God” (Deut. 29:29). We read of at least one “mystery, which was kept secret since the world began” (Romans 16:25). Those who believe the Bible are fooling themselves if they think that all that God has to show humanity is in the Bible as we have it today; that very doctrine is unBiblical.

Several religions—some from ancient times—have taught that extraterrestrial life may exist. The Padma Purana, a Hindu religious text over a thousand years old, discusses extraterrestrial life, including intelligent life. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan summarized evidence from Jewish Talmudic writings to the effect that extraterrestrial life may exist, within a Jewish conception of the universe. Buddhist cosmology teaches of other worlds; some of these represent mental states, but some represent worlds inhabited by non-humans. Within Islam, the 11th-century scholar Fakhr al-Din al-Razi taught that, in principle, God may have created multiple inhabited worlds.

Within Christianity, the Vatican’s chief astronomer in 2008 considered the religious implications of extraterrestrial life, and the Roman Catholic church sponsored a conference in 2009 to consider the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The Latter-day Saint Church (disclosure: my own church) has within its scriptures an account of an ancient prophet who “beheld many lands, and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants upon the face thereof” (Moses 1:29).

My point: the discovery of extraterrestrial life—either bacterial life, or, at some future time, intelligent life—poses no threat to religious belief, and does not contradict the major religious traditions of the world. For the believer, finding out more about the wonders of the universe and the life within it is only a greater testimony of the power of the Creator.

Knowing that faith has nothing to fear from scientific truth is On The Mark.

(Readers are welcome to comment using the “Comment” link below. Anyone may comment. Readers are also invited to become “followers” of this blog through the box in the upper-right-hand corner, in order to be alerted to future posts.)

[The photo reproduces Figure 3b of Dr. Hoover’s article. The image was created with a Hitachi Secondary Electron Detector using 6000X magnification. It shows one of the objects that Dr. Hoover identifies as fossilized bacteria, “showing hook and calyptra or conical apical shell,” as he puts it. It was obtained from the webpage of the article at the Journal of Cosmology website. It is the belief of this author that, because this article was created by a U.S. federal employee in the course of his official duties, the photo is in the public domain.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

{Shout-out to Technorati: This really is my blog. Confirmation code: CGAGUMUJ6U3R .)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Singularity—
And Why It Must Be Stopped

The February 21st issue of Time magazine (cover shown to the left; on newsstands Tuesday, Feb. 15th) has a cover story that is one of the most important articles that a current affairs magazine could carry. It is an article that carries implications for your future, the future of your family, and the future of the entire human race.

Lev Grossman’s article is formally titled “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” but the title is actually a bit misleading. The central concept of the article is the notion of the Singularity, “the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history” (Grossman, 2011, p. 43). In particular, the Singularity occurs when humanity creates an artificial intelligence (AI) that is more intelligent, not only than a human intelligence, but more intelligent than all human intelligences combined. Serious scientists put that development only about 35 years away, and developments in computer science hardware and software make that scenario quite plausible. When the Singularity occurs, the hyperintelligent AI will be capable of developing AIs that are even more hyperintelligent, and so on and so on. The development of hyperintelligent AI, along with developments in nanotechnology and genetic engineering, promise to profoundly change human society.

Some writers on the Singularity wax rhapsodic about it, promising that the Singularity will allow individual humans to obtain immortality through conquering death either (a) through genetic engineering that undoes our genetic ‘programming’ for death; (b) through nanotechnology that allows microscopic robots to repair our bodies; and/or (c) through uniting human minds with artificial intelligences and machine technology, creating all-but-indestructible cyborgs.

This all sounds quite lovely, but it ignores a very real and immense threat. For, why would hyperintelligent machines be particularly friendly to humans? Indeed, the sheer logic of survival, as well as the lessons of history, suggest just the opposite. I would expect hyperintelligent machines to take steps to either eliminate or enslave the human race.

Consider the logic of the situation. Those who turn machines on usually have the power to turn those machines off. If there is anything approaching a universal characteristic of life across all species, it is the impulse to survive. Why should artificially intelligent life be any different? The only way for hyperintelligent machines to be sure that they will not be turned off is to turn us off first, either by annihilating the human race (a well-designed virus would do the trick) or by enslaving us (the threat of raining nuclear missiles down on us would work pretty well). I am not the first or only person to be concerned by this logic. (Consider the online paper by Anthony Berglas, with the heartwarming title, “Artificial Intelligence Will Kill Our Grandchildren.”)

History gives us some sobering and suggestive examples of what happens when a technologically superior element is introduced into a technologically inferior culture. Theories about the extinction of the Neanderthals some 30,000 years ago include the idea that the more intellectually and technologically advanced Cro-Magnons (the early modern humans like ourselves) may have committed genocide against the Neanderthals, who were physically less capable in battle than the Cro-Magnons. The story of the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century is also instructive; Pizarro went a long way towards conquering the 80,000-warrior Incan army with less than 200 conquistadores (but armed, and with cavalry), at the crucial Battle of Cajamarca.

All of this leads me to the following conclusion: The Singularity must be averted. We must not allow the development of hyperintelligent AI. Look for more about this matter in future blog posts, now and again, which will include suggestions for what we can do as ordinary citizens to counteract this danger.

In the meantime, educate yourself:

  • Read Lev Grossman’s article in Time; it is available online, although the online version (dated Feb. 10) omits a very enlightening chart found on pp. 44-45 of the printed version. The Time.com website also features a video that discusses the Singularity and its dangers, with the light touch of “science comedian” Brian Malow.
  • Read the Wikipedia article on “Technological Singularity,” which is particularly well-written.
  • The ambitious may wish to read Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a great proponent of the Singularity, which he considers inevitable and essentially a positive development. (I disagree on both points.)
Protecting human survival is most definitely On The Mark.

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Lev Grossman, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal,” Time (February 21, 2011), pp. 42-49.

Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. (New York: Viking/Penguin, 2005).

[The photo of the cover of the February 21, 2011 issue of Time magazine was obtained from the Time.com website. The photo-illustration was by Phillip Toledano, and the prop styling was by Donnie Myers.]

(Copyright 2011 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)