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Advice to a First Year Student

The universities from which I graduated often ask me for things (mostly money). One recently asked me to contribute a short note of encouragement and advice to a first year student. I agreed. And then I discovered that my note was to be limited to 150 characters (25-30 words). It is difficult to condense my approach to university education to 25 words and still say something meaningful. Therefore, I composed the somewhat longer version that follows.

 

You have been given a wonderful opportunity. Your university is a vast reservoir of knowledge, and you have been given the privilege of scooping out as much as you can.

When I first enrolled as a university student, I determined to learn as much as I could, in class and out of it. I was convinced that if I did that, the marks would take care of themselves. And I was right.

So, my advice is: Pursue knowledge with a passion. Learn as much as you can.

Feel free to challenge what your professors are teaching you—especially if you can offer evidence that they are wrong rather than just an alternative opinion.

Question everything. And I mean everything.

Question Donald Trump, but also question Hillary Clinton.

Question Stephen Harper, but also question Justin Trudeau.

Question Adam Smith, but also question Karl Marx.

Question the CEOs of Esso and Kinder Morgan, but also question David Suzuki and Greenpeace.

Question John Calvin and C.S. Lewis, but also question Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens.

Question James Dobson and Margaret Somerville, but also question Henry Morgentaler and Margaret Sanger.

Question Pascal, Descartes, Augustine, and Aquinas, but also question Freud, Jung, Einstein, and Asimov.

Question Ptolemy and Isaac Newton, but also question Copernicus and Charles Darwin.

In short, pursue knowledge and truth fearlessly, without prejudices and preconceptions. You might be surprised where it leads you.

A final word. Your university was founded by Christians who dreamed that it would expand opportunities for learning and knowledge. The current leaders of your university are embarrassed by that Christian heritage and want to pretend that it did not exist. But question everything. Roads do not all lead in one direction. When I was there, the university was headed in the opposite direction to that of the founders, and it has continued to head in that direction. But there were also students whose search for truth led them back to the Christian faith of the founders. Some students today still find themselves following that path. Maybe you will be one of them.

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Tearing Down Statues

In recent years, there have been calls throughout North America to remove statues of men from earlier eras. The latest example was the decision of the City Council in Victoria, B.C., to remove a statue of John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister. (City Council is now considering re-erecting the statue in a different place.) The argument was that the statue was offensive to First Nations people because of Macdonald’s role in setting up the residential school system and that removing the statue would help achieve reconciliation with First Nations people. This has been followed by incidents of vandalism against other statues of Macdonald across the country as well as calls to remove those statues.

The statue in Victoria was set up partly because Macdonald, a Prime Minister from Ontario, chose to run for a parliamentary seat in Victoria, a move that symbolized national unity. Macdonald was also honoured for his role in bringing British Columbia into confederation and making Canada a nation that stretched from sea to sea. Of course, First Nations people are not happy about honouring that development either.

The recent calls to remove various statues have most often come from people on the left of the political spectrum wanting to remove statues of people on the right of the political spectrum. Critics have pointed out that there are statues to men on the left of the political spectrum that are offensive to people on the right. Many of those who want the statues of Macdonald removed are the same people who encouraged the erection of a statue of Louis Riel, who led a rebellion against the extension of Canada across the continent. It is shortsighted to suggest that one side has all right on its side and deserves a monopoly on statues. If statues can be removed because someone objects, pretty soon there may be no statues left standing at all.

Of course, removing statues is not unique to North America. Around the world, statues of former dictators are routinely removed by the revolutionaries who overthrew them.

What is lost in the argument is why we erect statues in the first place and whether we should do it at all.

Statues are usually erected to honour the achievements of certain individuals. Why it is primarily the achievements of politicians and soldiers (usually males) that are so honoured is a question for another time perhaps. But that suggests exactly why there are calls to remove statues. No politician has ever been elected with 100 percent of the vote, and if a politician has supporters, he inevitably also has opponents. The same is true for military men immortalized by statues. They have been honoured for their military victories, but victories mean that there were also losers, and the descendants of those who were defeated are understandably opposed to celebrating that event with a statue. As attitudes evolve, yesterdays’ heroes become today’s villains—and yesterday’s villains become today’s heroes.

Looking back in history, back much farther than Macdonald, originally statues were more often erected to honour gods. (However, it should be noted that in Exodus 20:4 the God of the Bible forbade the practice on the ground that no statue could do justice to the greatness, glory, and ongoing creativity of the living God. Such statues would fall so far short of the reality as to be insulting.) Later on, statues were also erected by political and military rulers who claimed to be gods, including King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Egyptian pharaohs, and many Roman emperors. The practice has been copied by modern dictators, including the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union and North Korea.

So, why do we now erect statues to human beings? To honour their achievements, of course. That is what we say. Or is it to “immortalize” them, make them immortal, worship them? The problem with such statues is that all human beings have flaws, failings, and blind spots. Some have achieved great things in some areas, while failing dismally in others. The statues are usually erected by supporters and followers of great leaders in order to honour their achievements—and perhaps also to deny their failures. But no matter how great the achievements, others can point to the failings and weaknesses.

Every human being has strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, virtues and sins. Maybe the truth is that no human being deserves to be honoured by a statue. None are gods worthy of worship.

 

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70 Is the New Confusion

Someone I know well has reached the exalted age of 70. I wondered what this number might mean. So, I looked it up on the Internet, the ultimate source for all kinds of useful information. This is what I found.

  • 70 (seventy) is the natural number following 69 and preceding 71.

 That didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know.

In mathematics, 70 is:

  • a sphenic number because it factors as 3 distinct primes
  • a Pell number
  • the seventh pentagonal number
  • the fourth triskaidecagonal number
  • the fifth pentatope number
  • a central binomial coefficient (since 70 is the number of ways to choose 4 objects out of 8 if order does not matter)
  • the smallest weird number (a natural number that is abundant but not semiperfect)
  • a palindromic number
  • a Harshad number
  • an Erdős–Woods number (since it is possible to find sequences of 70 consecutive integers such that each inner member shares a factor with either the first or the last member)
  • 70 squared is the sum of the first 24 squares starting from 1 (which relates to the Leech lattice and thus string theory)

I didn’t understand any of that. I hate math.

  • In science, 70 is the atomic number of ytterbium, a lanthanide
  • In astronomy, Messier object M70 is a magnitude 9.0 globular cluster in the constellation Sagittarius.

 I didn’t understand any of that either. I hate science.

  • In history, the 70 Years War lasted from 1572 to 1642.

That is a long time, but I don’t see its relevance. And I thought I liked history.

In the Bible:

  • 70 Hebrews went down to Egypt to begin the exile (Genesis 46:27).
  • There are names representing 70 nations in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10).
  • There were 70 men in the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel.
  • Moses assembled 70 elders by God’s command in the desert (Numbers 11:16-30).
  • Psalm 90:10 allots three score and ten (70) years for a man’s life, and the Mishnah says that one who survives that age is “strong.”
  • 70 Jewish elders translated the Old Testament into Greek.
  • In Luke 10:1-24, Jesus sent 70 of His followers out to preach.
  • In Matthew 18:21-22, Jesus told Peter to forgive people 70 times 7 times.

That might be relevant, especially the last one.

  • Several languages do not have a specific word for 70; for example, French uses “soixante-dix” (sixty-ten) and Danish says “halvfjerdsindstyve” (three and a half score).
  • In law, some copyrights expire after 70 years.

In sports:

  • In Olympic archery, the targets are 70 meters from the archers.
  • There are 70 laps in the Canadian Grand Prix and the Hungarian Grand Prix.
  • In Far Eastern cultures such as of China, Japan, and Korea, 70 years old is called “the Rare Age of the Olden Times.”

The East truly is inscrutable. I don’t know if that is insulting or not.

  • In Islamic tradition, 70 is hyperbole for “an infinite amount.”

That is definitely insulting. And mean.

 

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The Road to the Greenest City in the World

Not everything I write ends up in this blog.

Who would have guessed that staring out my window at traffic congestion on the Trans-Canada Highway would lead to an article published in an online journal?  “Collateral damage of the ‘greenest city’” was recently published in C2C Journal. You can read the article here.

 

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Safety Instructions for Trampoline Use

(included with the assembly instructions)

 

Do not use if you do not understand the assembly instructions.

Do not use if parts are missing.

Do not use if you are under six years old (even if you can read).

Do not land on your head or neck.

Do not allow more than one person on the trampoline at a time. (Jumping up and down in one spot is not an activity you want to share with anyone.)

Do not use alone. Always have a supervisor present (preferably one with 911 on speed dial).

Do not place trampoline under power lines.

Do not place trampoline under tree branches.

Do not sit or stand underneath the trampoline.

Do not use if you are stupid.

Do not use the trampoline to catapult yourself onto buildings, trees, or power lines.

Do not jump onto the trampoline from rooftops, trees, power lines, or other dangerous objects.

Do not jump out of an airplane onto this trampoline.

Do not use if you weigh over 220 pounds. (Do not use if you are a woman and admit to weighing 150 pounds.)

Do not use if you are age 20 or older (or if you are a woman and admit to being 16 or older).

Do not use if you are pregnant.

Do not use if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Do not use if you are under the influence of small children.

Do not use if you are an animal.

Do not use with knives, razor blades, axes, machetes, other sharp objects, chainsaws, guns, ropes, nooses, strings, electrical cords, and other cord-like material on your person.

Do not use in the dark.

Do not use during a windstorm, hurricane, or tornado.

Do not use during a thunder and lightning storm.

Do not use if it is hailing or snowing.

Do not use if it is raining or the trampoline is wet.

Do not use under the hot sun.

Not recommended for use by persons between the ages of 6 and 20.

If you die or move (to a long-term rehab centre, for instance), please donate this device to another family (preferably one you don’t like).

Check and replace the side netting every 3-6 months. (This protects users from falling through worn netting onto the ground.)

Check and replace the mat every 6-12 months. (This protects users from falling through the bottom of the trampoline.)

Check and replace all other parts every 12-18 months. (This protects our company’s bottom line.)

Watch any two episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos. If you still insist on using this device, you are an idiot who deserves all the bad things that are going to happen to you.

The company has designed, built, and marketed this device, but the user is fully liable for all deaths and injuries incurred. Remember: Trampolines don’t kill people. Stupidity kills people.

 

 

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Populism Could Happen Here

There have been a spate of articles from university professors and political commentators in recent months warning that “populism could happen here.” There is evidently danger that some politician might garner support from the masses and replace the governing party in Ottawa and/or in some of the Canadian provinces, in the same way that Donald Trump garnered support from the common people and defeated Hillary Clinton to become president of the United States. Even Justin Trudeau seems to have recognized the danger.

One article cited research showing that 46 per cent of Canadians are “open-minded” while 30 per cent felt “economically and culturally insecure.” The assumptions and questions behind such research reveal some extreme gaps in logic. If a Canadian expresses concerns about illegal immigration, he is labelled close-minded, racist, or xenophobic. If a Canadian is in danger of losing his job due to flawed government economic policies, he is considered a dangerous extremist. Rather than admitting that governments may have been guilty of imposing bad policies, these commentators dismiss those who have been hurt by those policies as a danger to society, as insecure people open to manipulation by “populist” politicians.

In light of these articles, what is populism anyway? Is there indeed something happening? There is indeed a possibility that a politician in Canada could use popular support to get elected. It is called democracy.

There is a tendency in these articles to equate populism with Donald Trump and all of his faults. This is nonsense. According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, a populist is a “member or adherent of a political party seeking support from ordinary people; a person who holds, or who is concerned with, the views of ordinary people.” How is this a bad thing?

Wikipedia offers a list of “populist” parties in Canadian history. These include the various Social Credit parties, the Reform Party of Canada, the Liberal Party under Alexander Mackenzie and Wilfrid Laurier, Dufferin Pattulo’s British Columbia Liberal Party during the 1930s, Mitchell Hepburn’s Liberal Party of Ontario, the many socialist and labour parties leading up to the founding of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the Manitoba Liberal-Progressive Party, Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale in Quebec, John Diefenbaker’s Conservative Party, the federal New Democratic Party under Tommy Douglas, and even Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party. Any party on the left or right that appeals to average people can be considered populist. Indeed, any party that hopes to get elected must gain the support of voters. It is called democracy.

So, why all the furor over populist movements? It seems that the left-leaning academics and political elites who support Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are afraid that they will lose power to the Conservative Party led by Andrew Scheer (in the same way that Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals lost power to Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives in Ontario). Despite their claim to speak for the common person, the poor, the marginalized, and the middle class, many of these elites see themselves as benevolent rulers who know better than the people what they actually need. Convinced of their own superiority, the rightness of their opinions, and their right to rule, they are afraid that the people might throw them and their political friends out of office. Left-leaning political parties claim to want government “for the people,” but they often fear government “by the people.” They don’t really trust the people they are claiming to help. It is why most left-leaning revolutions end in dictatorship.

Hence the many articles warning about populism. The intent of these articles is to try to tar their political opponents with the Donald Trump brush. That is, by calling their opponents “populist,” they are implying—without having to prove it—that these opponents are erratic liars, bigots, racists, extremists, and zealots who play on people’s fears to get elected. That charge might have some merit when applied to Doug Ford, although he is not nearly as extreme as Donald Trump. However, it cannot fairly be applied to mild-mannered family man Andrew Scheer. In fact, in this case, it is not the Conservatives but the liberal elites who are using fear-mongering to gain electoral success.

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Pressure to Conform

In North American society, and particularly in Canada, Christians have come under increasing pressure to conform to mainstream social norms. Governments, courts, educational institutions, and the media have pushed Christians to change their positions and practices on variety of issues, including homosexuality, sexual morality, abortion, assisted suicide, the authority of the Bible, and their belief in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

There is an interesting parallel in the Bible in 1 Kings 22. There the prophet Micaiah was called before two kings sitting on their royal thrones at the entrance to the city of Samaria. This newly erected capital city was built on a hill, dominated by an ivory palace gleaming in the sun. The kings were dressed in royal robes of gold and purple at the edge of a vast parade ground. They were surrounded by an array of courtiers, officials, and soldiers. In front of them were 400 prophets shouting, dancing, and performing. Also watching were a large crowd of spectators, mesmerized by the spectacle. Altogether, the scene portrayed the power of the royal governments.

Micaiah, a prophet of the Lord, was also summoned to stand before the kings. He was counselled ahead of time to “Let your word agree with theirs” (verse 13). In other words, he was advised to conform to the message being given by the combined forces of the kings, bureaucracies, and religious establishments.

But, even though he knew the kings could order him to be killed at any moment, Micaiah answered that he could speak “only what the Lord tells me” (verse 14). And then Micaiah explained the reason for his confidence: “I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left” (verse 19). Those who have seen the true God know that all of the powerful rulers and authorities of the earth are weak and insignificant in comparison to Him.

The prophet Isaiah said something similar (in Isaiah 40):

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales

Before him all the nations are as nothing

He brings princes to naught
and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Those currently in power don’t understand this. They think that time is on their side and that the few backward traditionalists known as evangelical Christians will either fade away or be brought around to their way of thinking. In a sense, they think they are gods, that they have ultimate authority. But theirs is a short-term perspective, and they do not reckon on the possibility of a God who is greater than they are and who will ultimately have the last word.