Friday, August 31, 2007

South Koreans leave Afghanistan after hostage ordeal | Reuters

South Koreans leave Afghanistan after hostage ordeal | Reuters:
"KABUL (Reuters) - Nineteen newly-freed South Korean hostages flew out of the Afghan capital on Friday after a six-week kidnap drama following a deal with Taliban insurgents critics fear could spur more abductions.

The South Korean Christian volunteers, part of a group of 23 missionaries kidnapped in southeast Afghanistan in mid-July, left Kabul on a chartered United Nations plane bound for Dubai en route to Seoul, a Korean embassy official said."
We can rejoice with the former hostages and their families, and mourn with them for the two men murdered early in this chain of events.

I fear that the Taliban, having gotten away with terror, will continue these tactics. This Reuters dispatch notes that the South Korean government is denying Afghan claims that a ransom was paid. It's bad enough negotiating with kidnappers and murders, but adding financial gain to the mix can only aggravate things.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

SCI FI Tech: Top 10 Tech Toys for the Filthy Rich

SCI FI Tech: Top 10 Tech Toys for the Filthy Rich:
"Just as cell phones are becoming ever more powerful ├╝bergadgets, and flat TV screens get larger even as their prices drop, so, too, do the gadgets of the upper crust further distance themselves from the trinkets of the masses. For better or worse, most of the guts of even the priciest pieces of tech are pretty much the same as those of the glitterati — even if the oil sheiks and Level III Scientologists of the world can afford to house those guts in 24-karat gold inlaid with Babe Ruth's bone fragments."
In yesterday's posting on the subject of electronic gadgets, I described my frustration with the failure of cell phone and other electronic device makers to get together on a standard charger. I also acknowledged my weakness for gadgets. Of course you have to concede that a cell phone is much more than a luxury -- it has created its own need.

But now here is an article that makes my personal peccadilloes seem trivial -- I mean not even in my wildest electronic fantasies would I go for a gold-plated Ipod Shuffle with diamonds.

My personal favorite was the $1200 docking station for Ipods and other MP3 players. To be sure, the author of this article pointed out that there is an Ipod docking option for BMWs, which, depending on how you define "docking station", could make it the most egregious example of conspicuous consumption.

My loving wife still points out the ever-increasing pile of dead and obsolete cell phones and other electronic devices that have accumulated over many years....

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Electronic Devices

I admit it. I like technology. I always have, and my job is great -- I get paid for working with technology every day. At least it's great until the research clusters go belly-up, but that's not often. We deal with open hardware standards, and open-source software as much as we are able, and things tend to work well across platforms.

Not so with home electronics.

There are four cell phones on our plan and only two of them use the same charger. I use a PDA, and while it was made by Dell, its charger is different from the Dell mp3 player (a previous PDA used the same charger as the mp3 player). We have two different chargers on our laptops, and the landline phones (cordless) have different chargers. My son's Ipod Nano uses a different charging cord, and I got one for myself. So at least we can share charging cords, if needed.

Last week I decided to extend my indenture to AT&T by upgrading my phone to a Samsung Blackjack. It's a "smart phone" and serves quite nicely as a PDA as well as a phone. It synchronizes to my university Exchange account and my gmail account, and I can actually type rather than use the stylus. (Well, it DOES increase the "fat-finger" problem...) But does it use the same charger as ANY of my existing devices? That's right. It is a different charger, but at least it is fairly convenient, as it spends part of the day tethered to the laptop where it can charge as it transfers data, and they included a second battery and charging unit.

The device count has gone down by one, and the charger count has gone up by one, so I guess it is a wash. Wouldn't it be great if all the manufacturers could get together on chargers. They all seem to be in the 5 volt DC neighborhood. Personally, I like the Motorola RAZR charger, which uses a miniature USB connector for its charger. Since the USB standard (note the word "standard") provides for power as well as data transfer, this shouldn't be like sending an astronaut to Mars.

Any chance of this happening? I doubt it...

Now, what am I going to do with all the obsolete devices?

Eight South Korean hostages freed - CNN.com

Eight South Korean hostages freed - CNN.com:
"SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- Taliban militants released eight South Korean hostages in Afghanistan after more than a month of captivity.

Earlier on Wednesday three women, identified as Ahn Hye-jin, 31, Lee Jung-ran, 33, and 34-year-old Han Ji-young, were handed over to representatives of the Red Cross.

Hours later five more hostages -- four women and one man -- were freed by their Taliban captors in Afghanistan, according to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent."
While this is great news, we need to keep the remaining 11 hostages in our prayers.

The South Korean government agreed to continue with their already-announce plans to withdraw their 200 troops by the end of 2007, and not to send evangelists to Afghanistan. What is not clear to me is how these particular hostages fit into that category. While they were openly Christian, their duties did not include converting Muslims to Christianity. They were humanitarian aid workers whose motivation was to serve the Lord by serving those in need.

As I indicated in yesterday's posting, this may be less about religion and more about preventing the rebuilding of the Afghan infrastructure, as that might be seen as supporting the successors to the Taliban.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Taliban to release Korean hostages - CNN.com

Taliban to release Korean hostages - CNN.com:
"SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- South Korean negotiators in Afghanistan have reached a deal with Taliban militants holding 19 South Korean Christian aid workers for over a month, a presidential spokesman in Seoul said Tuesday.

The group of South Koreans was kidnapped in Ghazni province on July 19. Seoul welcomes the deal, but spokesman Cheon Ho-sun cautioned that many details must still be worked out and the aid workers will not be released immediately.

Under the terms of the agreement, South Korea agreed to stick by its previous decision to withdraw its 200 non-combat troops from Afghanistan, which work mostly in an engineering and medical capacity."
I am pretty conflicted over this. On one hand I am happy that this hostage crisis may be nearing an end, without further murders on the part of their kidnappers. On the other hand, I cannot see how this can have any other effect but to embolden the kidnappers, and I suspect there will be more such kidnappings.

Other reports indicate that South Korea has agreed not to send missionaries in the future to Afghanistan. It needs to be noted that this group did not go to evangelize; they went to work in a medical facility. The 200 Korean troops were engaged in rebuilding infrastructure as well as medical work.

The kidnappers' strategy seems to target humanitarian efforts as much as anything else. Why, I can only speculate, but it has been said that the war on terror cannot be won militarily. It can only be won by helping to alleviate the causes of unrest and by improving the lives of the people. I suspect the terrorists know this, and that, in part, is why humanitarian groups are targeted.

I hope these Korean church workers find ways to show Christ's love by loving others. It would be a shame to see the Korean church withdraw insides its own borders.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Linux felon forced to install Windows | CNET News.com

Linux felon forced to install Windows | CNET News.com:
"A Linux user who was jailed for uploading a film onto a peer-to-peer service has been told he will have to switch to Windows if he wants to use a computer again."
Talk about cruel and unusual punishment....

Apparently the monitoring software his probation officer wants to install on his PC runs only on Windows.

Why I Do What I Do

I spent the weekend with the Boy Scouts at the annual Great Rivers Council Sporting Clays Tournament. As part of the program, boys can spend two days earning the Shotgun Shooting merit badge. This involves some serious classroom learning, safety instruction, as well as hands-on practice, and the boys know that this is no time to fool around. An educator from the Missouri Department of Conservation did the instruction, supplemented by volunteers. This was my fourth or fifth year helping with the merit badge.

We had 18 boys go through the course, and plenty of adults to help supervise the firing line. Many of the boys qualified, including two of the first-time shooters.

What really made my day was a young, slightly built boy of about 11 or 12 whom we knew could be a problem. He lacked strength in his arms and upper body, and was pretty hyperactive. Even the Remington youth shotguns were too large and heavy for him to comfortably mount. We kind of double-teamed him on the firing line and he did really well. He followed instructions and worked safely. He could only fire a couple rounds at a time before he had to take a break, but he kept at it. On his third trip to the line I heard a cheer, and looked up to see a clay target falling to the ground in several pieces. The boy had a grin on his face that I will remember for a long time. He shot a few more times, and broke three targets in a row before he simply could not go on due to fatigue. The leaders and boys high-fived him, and while he did not qualify this time, he did what many (including himself) doubted he could do. This weekend should go a long way toward increasing his confidence in himself.

And this is why I am a Scout leader....

P.S. -- Sunday afternoon my son and I went out to the local rod and gun club and spent a couple hours shooting trap. It was a good afternoon for father-son activities, and we both broke well over 50% of our clay targets.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

SI.com - MLB - Rangers first team in 110 years to score 30 runs

SI.com - MLB - Rangers first team in 110 years to score 30 runs:
"BALTIMORE (AP) -- Five runs in the fourth inning.

Nine runs in the sixth.

Ten in the eighth.

Six more in the ninth.

The Texas Rangers rounded the bases at a dizzying pace and became the first team in 110 years to score 30 runs in a game, setting an American League record Wednesday in a 30-3 rout of the Baltimore Orioles."
Two grand slams, three 3-run homers, and one solo homer -- and all the Texas offense was concentrated in four innings. That must have been a wild ride.

The hapless opening pitcher got the loss, since he stayed 5 innings, leaving the score 5-3. The other three pitchers allowed 25 runs between them.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Back in Town

Susan's field season ended early last week (she tends maize for genetic research), and the Columbia Public Schools starts again tomorrow (the kid is a 9th grader), so we took a quick trip up to Minnesota to visit some old friends from our congregation.

When we left, the temperature in both places had been in triple digits, but on our arrival in St. Paul, the days turned cooler, with highs in the 70s, and the nights were downright chilly, with lows in the 50s and 60s. We used a comforter for the first time in many weeks, and it felt strange at first. We may have to leave Columbia more often when the weather turns hot...

Along with sharing our friends' house, we were also privileged to worship with them Sunday morning. The preaching was good and the hymns were mostly familiar (they use the newer blue PC(USA) hymnal). There were some differences, though. They had a praise band and projected the words on the wall behind the pulpit, and there was a fair amount of "dead air" during the service. I don't mean this in a derogatory way at all; the time for personal confession of sin seemed quite a bit longer than the 15-20 seconds we are used to. It was refreshing to not feel rushed to complete my personal confession. And the pastoral prayer was pretty much interactive with time allocated for people to add their own spoken prayers. In addition, the worshipers were given an opportunity to write out specific requests and place them in the offering, and these too were read by the pastor.

It is refreshing to see how other PC(USA) congregations worship. We may do things a little differently, but we share the same Lord, Faith, and Baptism -- and we felt just as welcome as we do in our local neck of the Presbyterian woods.

Amanpour Gets Three Prime-Time Hours - washingtonpost.com

Amanpour Gets Three Prime-Time Hours - washingtonpost.com:
"NEW YORK -- Christiane Amanpour's work on the documentary series 'God's Warriors' took her directly to intersections of extreme religious and secular thinking.

She watched, fascinated, as demonstrators in San Francisco accused teenagers in the fundamentalist Christian group BattleCry of intolerance in a clash of two cultures that will probably never understand each other.

Understanding is what Amanpour is trying to promote in 'God's Warriors,' which takes up six prime-time hours on CNN this week. The series on religious fundamentalism among Christians, Muslims and Jews airs in three parts, 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday"
I linked yesterday to a story arising out of this series -- about a young man who started with no particular affiliation with any religion passing through Judasim, Islam, and finally is a Christian.

CNN is tackling a story here that has a lot of significance in how events transpire in the world today, and it seems as if they are devoting more than a sound bite or two to the topics.

It is hard to say how this will all play out. There are a few clues in this article that indicate where this may be headed. One in particular relates to the BattleCry organization in which Amanpour notes that girls are encouraged to wear long dresses at BattleCry events. She asks how this is different from the Taliban.

I find it hard to imagine that a reporter of Christiane Amanpour's experience could fail to see a difference between encouragement to avoid sexually-revealing clothing among teens and how women in Afghanistan had been forced under threats of violence or worse to conform to a dress code that that covers women from head to toe.

As with much of today's media, I suspect that this series will be a mixed bag of good and not-so-good reporting and analysis. I will try and watch it and see what useful things it has to say about these problems of culture, religion, and politics.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Rejecting radical Islam -- one man's journey - CNN.com

Rejecting radical Islam -- one man's journey - CNN.com:
"WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The path to faith often takes unexpected twists. In the case of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the road went through three of the world's major religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- and ultimately brought him to the FBI."
This is a fascinating story, involving parents who fail to instill basic values, charismatic leaders who try to fan embers into flames, and a young man who was lucky enough to get out from under the sway of radicals and smart enough to take proactive steps to free himself of prejudice and hate. He is a courageous young man.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Female Korean Hostage Forfeited Freedom for Colleague

Female Korean Hostage Forfeited Freedom for Colleague:
"A Taliban militant said Wednesday that one of the hostages had foregone her chance of freedom to allow another captive who was more ill to be released.

The spokesman for Taliban commander Abdullah Jan, who only identified himself as Masoom, said he was unable to recall the name of the woman who sacrificed her freedom.

“Their names are very difficult to remember,” said Masoom to The Korea Times. “All names are alike with the difference of a few characters,” he said. “This is why we can’t remember them.” ..."
I have to wonder what Masoom must feel as he reflects on this act of selflessness. I hope and pray that this brave woman will be released soon, with the remainder of the hostages.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

It's my Blogiversary!

Well, sort of.

I set up the blog on August 12, 2005, but my first serious posting was August 14th, 2005.

It's been a fun trip, and I look forward to continuing the journey.

Costly Commitment | Christianity Today

Costly Commitment | Christianity Today:
"South Korea's missions movement received a growing amount of criticism after a group of 23 church volunteers were abducted in July while traveling in Afghanistan on a medical-aid trip.

Shortly after the group was taken hostage, several Korean newspapers published editorials questioning the Christians' decision to travel to a dangerous country. One of South Korea's widely circulated newspapers, The Chosun Ilbo, chastised Christians, saying they were taking unnecessary risks abroad.

'It is simply futile for Koreans to engage in missionary or other religious activities in a country like Afghanistan,' the July 23 editorial stated. 'Religious groups should realize once and for all that dangerous missionary and volunteer activities in Islamic countries including Afghanistan not only harm Korea's national objectives, but also put other Koreans under a tremendous amount of duress.'..."
One thing that should be noted is that the Presbyterian church that sent these health workers has a reputation for humanitarian work, as do many of the churches in South Korea.

This is not the first time Korean aid workers have paid the cost of discipleship with their lives, yet they continue to look for ways of serving around the world.

While is is entirely understandable that many churches in South Korea are reevaluating their methods, I cannot support those who "blame the victim" for all of this, especially in view of the fact that these courageous men and women are trying to make a positive difference in a part of the world that so desperately needs to experience compassion.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Two female Korean hostages freed - CNN.com

Two female Korean hostages freed - CNN.com:
"(CNN) -- Two female South Korean hostages were set free Monday by a group of Taliban militants who kidnapped them and 21 others more than three weeks ago in Afghanistan, an Afghan official told CNN.

The governor of Ghazni province, Mirajudin Patan, said the two female hostages, who have been reported to be seriously ill, were freed Monday, 25 days after they were first taken by militants."
This is good news, at least for two of the hostages. We need to keep the remaining hostages in our prayers.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Monster galaxy pileup sighted

Monster galaxy pileup sighted:
"New Haven, Conn. — Four galaxies are slamming into each other and kicking up billions of stars in one of the largest cosmic smash-ups ever observed.

The clashing galaxies, spotted by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the WIYN Telescope, will eventually merge into a single, behemoth galaxy up to 10 times as massive as our own Milky
Way. This rare sighting provides an unprecedented look at how the most massive galaxies in the universe form.

“Most of the galaxy mergers we already knew about are like compact cars crashing together,” said Kenneth Rines of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Mass. “What we have here is like four sand trucks smashing together, flinging sand everywhere.” Rines, who was a Mead postdoctoral fellow at Yale from 2003-6 when much of this work was done, is lead author of a paper accepted for publication in Astrophysical Journal Letters."
Wow!

The photo is made available courtesy of Kenneth Rines.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Blowing Things Out Of Proportion

On Saturday August 4th, an email written by Joan Gray (217th GA Moderator) was published in Presbyweb. I do not know the provenance of this email, but I suspect it was directed to a particular group of people, and not necessarily for the whole PC(USA). By Monday a flurry of letters to the editor appeared, nearly all of them condemning Moderator Gray's words and some of the Presbyterian blogs have also weighed in. Tuesday showed several more letters and they were more balanced.

The email begins:
"I feel led to address an opinion I have heard from several people in several places in my traveling around the country. The statement is usually made in response to my assertion that everyone who believes in Jesus as their savior is a brother or sister in Christ to every other believer. It goes something like this: “Gay and lesbian people are not my brothers and sisters; they can’t be Christians,” or “Gays and lesbians would not be allowed to join my (Presbyterian) church.” I am deeply grieved when I hear this opinion, and I believe it is not only wrong but deeply pernicious heresy for the following reasons...."
Please follow this link to read the full text of the email. If you are not a subscriber to Presbyweb, you can obtain a 30 day free trial, following which you can decide whether it is worth your while to subscribe. I recommend it highly.

Joan Gray then makes an excellent case, in my opinion, for demonstrating the perniciousness of the attitudes addressed in the first paragraph.

NOTE WELL -- her email addressed the PC(USA)'s requirements for membership, not ordination. All those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are (or should be) welcome in our fellowship. There are no arcane theological questions that members are required to answer. Ordination has a higher standard (as it should). Ordination is not an entitlement of membership. There are a number of constitutional questions, some relating to theology, some relating to polity, and they must all be answered in the affirmative with either "I do" or "I will". But for membership the only theological question that must be answered is "Who is your Lord and Savior?"

So what is this "pernicious heresy?" First of all, "pernicious" in modern usage suggests something that may not seem all that bad by itself, but undermines people, beliefs, or organizations. "Slippery slope", which Joan Gray also uses in her email, describes an effect of perniciousness.

In view of the fact that in our denomination, nothing unrelated to profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour can be used to bar one from membership in the PC(USA), any additional conditions placed on members is a pernicious eroding of our membership requirements, whether it is done by a session or, more commonly, by fellow members who deny Christian fellowship with those of whom they disapprove.

I have to admit that I was a little jarred by Joan Gray's email when I read it Saturday, and I remember thinking that this may unleash a lot of ugliness. I wish I could say I was wrong.... I do not know what prompted her to write this, but I can speculate. I have also heard comments similar to what she heard. They, too, are our fellow Christians, and we ought to able to love, fellowship with, and even remonstrate with them from time to time without blowing things out of proportion.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Stereotype Smackdown: Dispelling the Myths of Megachurches - washingtonpost.com

Stereotype Smackdown: Dispelling the Myths of Megachurches - washingtonpost.com:
"They're big, nondenominational, homogenous churches that are all show with little spiritual depth.

That's what some might assume about the nation's megachurches, but scholar Scott Thumma is out to bash the stereotypes and explain the churches' appeal.

'Everybody takes those general characteristics and applies them to all megachurches,' he said.

Yes, they're big, he says, but only 5 percent have 3,000 seats or more, and only two or three can seat 10,000 at one service.

He and Dave Travis have written 'Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America's Largest Churches' to reveal what research says about the 1,250 Protestant churches across the country that attract at least 2,000 worshipers each weekend."

I've heard these stereotypes; they're not a figment of the imagination.

My sympathies tend toward the "wee kirks", and thus I do not find myself attracted to large churches, but I do get tired of hearing people criticize the large congregations.

It is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time slot in the week. Thumma and Davis suggest that rather than being homogeneous, the larger congregations tend to be racially diverse. Their other findings seem to undermine other stereotypes as well.

Maybe we in smaller congregations have something to learn from the megachurches?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Korean stem cell fraud produced real advance - CNN.com

Korean stem cell fraud produced real advance - CNN.com:
"NEW YORK (AP) -- Remember the spectacular South Korean stem cell fraud of a few years ago? A new analysis says the disgraced scientist actually did reach a long-sought scientific goal. It's just not the one he claimed.

The new study suggests Hwang Woo-suk and his team produced stem cells -- not through cloning as they contended -- but through a different process called parthenogenesis.

That, too, is an achievement scientists have long been pursuing.

In 2004, when Hwang and his colleagues at Seoul National University announced they had produced a human embryo through cloning and that they had recovered stem cells from it, the news made headlines around the world.

Two years later their research and a later paper were declared frauds by a committee of his university. The stem cells weren't produced by cloning, the committee said, but it was highly likely that they came about through a much different process called parthenogenesis."
Interesting. This is something that the conventional wisdom said was not possible.

This article tended to take a more generous tone with Dr. Hwang and his colleagues than has been taken before, acknowledging that they may have simply flubbed a highly complex procedure along their way to claiming success in cloning. It is perhaps worthy of note that they acknowledged in their paper that one possible explanation for their results could have been parthenogenesis, and they could not completely rule it out.

So what does all this mean? It points to a way forward that reduces the considerable ethical problems in creating and harvesting embryos solely for the purpose of creating stem cells. We'll have to see if this proves an efficient way to obtain stem cells.

Hopefully people on both sides of this issue can approach alternative ways of obtaining stem cells with open minds. Unfortunately ideology has tended to trump science in the past, with some stem cell scientists claiming that only embryonic stem cells are useful, and some on the other side unwilling to allow any research whatsoever on stem cells for fear of destroying developing embryos.

Perhaps Dr. Hwang can rehabilitate his reputation by re-analyzing his data and seeing if perhaps there is something to be salvaged. Obviously some researchers think that is the case, and I hope they pursue this line of inquiry.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

PC(USA) - Presbyterian News Service - Small church takes huge risk, goes buildingless

PC(USA) - Presbyterian News Service - Small church takes huge risk, goes buildingless:
"LOUISVILLE — Just call it the little church that could. And did.

Faced with declining membership, dwindling revenues, and an aging, non-handicapped accessible building, the Buechel Presbyterian Church here joyfully embraced what it saw as its only viable option for survival.

Rather than close its doors to future generations, the congregation voted in August 2006 to sell its building and make its new home across the street at Westminster Terrace, a neighboring independent living home."
An interesting response to changing times...

This congregation, with a history of supporting mission causes, designated 10% of the proceeds from the sale of the property toward Joining Hearts and Hands.