Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Expell me!

When I signed up for my required Biology general education course in college, I was a little apprehensive about whether the curriculum would contradict or raise doubts about my feelings on religion. I found that just the opposite was true. Learning about the elements, the pieces of the cell, the progression of the human body as it grows in the womb, and similar topics actually strengthened my belief that only a God could have created life and the earth we live on.

I've observed with interest the intelligent design movement that has blossomed over the past few years. I think there's merit in admitting that some things in the universe are so complex and perfectly balanced that they are unlikely to have occurred by random processes. Unfortunately, scientists in America who dare to suggest this do not always face an easy road. Ben Stein presents some of their stories in his documentary Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed, which my wife and I watched together last week.

In Expelled! humorist, lawyer, actor, and documentarian Ben Stein interviews a parade of scientists who have been blacklisted for asserting that life is so complex and organized that it did not come into being by undirected processes. The movie doesn't argue against the established fact that organisms change and evolve over time. But Stein does challenge the notions that Darwinism explains how life first appeared on the earth.

A main theme of Expelled! is that the American scientific estabilishment views intelligent design as a cunning tool of the creationists in the decades-long battle over American science curriculum. Defending evolution is not enough for these scientists; they have gone on the offensive against religious belief and promoted the idea that science and religion are "at war", and that science is the obvious winner. Stein interviews some very bright individuals, some religious and some not, who counter that a belief in God can be an asset to a scientist, and that "we may be able to encounter God through science, if we are free to go there."

Stein presents Richard Dawkins as Exhibit A from the "Darwinism = no God" school of thought. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University whose book "The God Delusion" has sold over 1.5 million copies. In the movie's climax, Stein sits across a table from Dawkins in a one-on-one interview. When pressed to explain the origin of the first cell on earth, Dawkins actually suggests that life might have been "seeded" on this earth by a highly evolved intelligent life form on some other planet (a life form whose origins Dawkins confesses not to know). At this point the cool-as-a-cucumber Stein probably figured he had his documentary in the bag.

The Berlin Wall also gets a lot of footage in Expelled! The movie states that American science has placed a wall around what it is willing to believe, and is missing out by failing to consider ideas outside this wall, however meritorious they might be. Through all this, Expelled! ends on an optimistic tone. After all, the Berlin Wall came down, and Stein suggests that incorrect ideas will eventually fall as long as there are enough people willing to listen to and pursue the truth.

Expelled! is available on the Netflix "Watch Now" list.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Breakfast with Brigham

The newspaper has been pretty depressing lately, so I switched to some more enlightening breakfast table reading: an old copy of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young that my wife found. Brigham Young was an inspired man whose advice about the world is great to start the day with. Here are some favorite quotes from the skimming I've done so far.

On thrift and industry:

"We will have to go to work and get the gold out of the mountains to lay down, if we ever walk in streets paved with gold. The angels that now walk in their golden streets, and they have the tree of life within their paradise, had to obtain that gold and put it there. When we have streets paved with gold, we will have placed it there ourselves. When we enjoy a Zion in its beauty and glory, it will be when we have built it." (p. 226)

On learning about the world:

"We are in a great school, and we should be diligent to learn, and continue to store up the knowledge of heaven and of earth, and read good books, although I cannot say that I would recommend the reading of all books, for it is not all books which are good. Read good books, and extract from them wisdom and understanding as much as you possibly can, aided by the Spirit of God." (p. 197)

On how we live our religion:

"Our work, our every-day labor, our whole lives are within the scope of our religion. This is what we believe and what we try to practice." (p. 189)


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Joshua Tree day hike: Lost Horse Mine Loop

This past weekend we took the Scouts out to one of my favorite outdoor venues in Southern California: Joshua Tree National Park. I like camping in the desert because it's relatively quiet and empty compared to the rest of Southern California.

One way the desert is similar to the rest of Southern California is that almost every inch of it has been subject to human activity at one time or another. Our day hike on the Lost Horse Mine loop trail showed evidence of that.

Lost Horse was a gold mine, one of the biggest in the area, and it's fun trying to spy the various ruins still strewn about, such as old car parts, cables, scraps of metal, and rusty nails (make sure your shoes have thick soles if you do this trail). The actual mine site is fenced off. I shot this picture through the chain links.

The mine is situated on the side of Lost Horse Mountain. It took just a few minutes to scramble to the top, and the view was well worth it.

Most people visit this mine as an out-and-back hike. We continued on the less-traveled 6.5 mile loop option for some real desert solitude. The trail grew fainter as it descended Lost Horse Mountain and wound along and around a ridge. There was more evidence of mining in this area, including at least one open shaft and this interesting chimney thing.

The trail was flatter for the final few miles, following a wash along the western base of the Lost Horse Mountains. This was a good place to concentrate on the desert plants. I was impressed by the circular leaves of this yucca.

This part of the trail also had the most Joshua trees. These two looked very friendly. It's nice to have someone to go through life with.

Right about the time when our eyes started to blur with the same desert plants, rocks, and sand, and our water started looking frighteningly good, we were back to the truck. The parking lot, which had only a handful of cars at 9 AM, was now overflowing at noon.
For lunch we hopped in the truck and took a side trip down to Keys View. This is where you reach the edge of a desert plateau and can see a broad swath of the Salton Sea, Coachella Valley, and San Gorgonio Pass areas.

I imagine on even a normal day Keys View would be windy, but this was during a Santa Ana wind event and the gusts were almost enough to knock you over. From the viewpoint, we saw the smoke of the Orange County fires over 80 miles away, fanned by the same winds.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Learning about places in your family history using the Internet

Below are some notes from a workshop "Learning about places in your family history using the Internet" that I've presented several times to local genealogical interest groups. When we say the Internet is an "information superhighway", that includes information about places all over the world. The amount of geographic information on the Internet, in the form of pictures, maps, and articles, has grown immensely even since I first gave a presentation like this two and a half years ago.

Although getting pictures of where you ancestors lived may not help you get through that "brick wall" on your pedigree chart, the information can be a nice supplement to your published family histories and can help you feel a stronger connection to your ancestors.

Getting pictures of your ancestors’ homelands

  1. Open a Web browser to

  2. Type in a place name and click Search

  3. Browse the pictures that appear

  4. If you see one you want to save, right-click it with the mouse and click Save Picture As…

  5. Optionally, leave a comment for the person who posted the photo. Use a “junk e-mail” address

Why is this useful?

  • Supplement your histories with beautiful photographs of your ancestors’ homelands.

  • See what the area looks like without visiting it.

  • Communicate with people that took the photographs.

  • Add your own interesting photographs for the benefit of others.


  • Submit JPG photos. They are smaller in size and will load quicker.

  • Can’t submit photos of people to Panoramio.

  • Flickr provides a similar way to browse photos on a map, but the photos can be of anything.

My ancestors' homeland: Killybegs, Ireland. Photo obtained from Panoramio.

“Driving” through a neighborhood

  1. Open a Web browser to

  2. Click the StreetView button. You’ll see some cameras of areas where StreetView is available.

  3. Zoom to one of the cities with a camera icon or type in an address from one of those cities and click Search Maps. You should see a little yellow man and some streets outlined in blue. The blue streets have StreetView.

  4. Drag and drop the man onto the street you want to view. A viewer window should appear.

  5. Use the arrows on the viewer window to take a “drive” down the street. You can look to the right or left, zoom in and out, or turn around.

Why is this useful?

  • Tour your ancestors’ neighborhoods without actually having to go there.

  • Enter addresses from vital records, journals, etc. to see what the area looks like.

  • Take a screen capture of a house, landmark, etc. for your family records.


  • If you something you want to save a picture of, press the Prt Scr (Print Screen) key. Then open Paint and click Edit > Paste. Then save the file.

  • If you’re taking many screen captures, try SnagIt by TechSmith software.

  • The address that Google Maps gives you may not put you at the exact house. Some prior knowledge of the area is helpful.

  • If your area doesn’t have StreetView, keep checking back.

My great-grandparents' former home in South Gate, California, as seen in Google Maps StreetView.