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Saturday, May 31, 2008

An atheist (I think) philosopher defends Intelligent Design

I have written quite a bit (some might say too much) that is critical of the Intelligent Design movement in this blog. See here for a summary of my criticism, which is shared by many Christian scientists -- it's not just me. I also state that I believe that God did design things.

In the interest of fairness, here's a link to a recent article (quite readable) in The Philosopher's Magazine, wherein Steve Fuller -- I would guess that he's an atheist, but I'm not sure -- tells why he appeared in court, on the side of the ID movement, in the Kitzmiller case.

Fuller says: All theories of wide explanatory scope in science are eventually shown to be empirically false, usually because they overreach their grasp. From that standpoint, Darwinists appear to be postponing the inevitable. Of course, that doesn’t make ID true, but ID may be well-positioned to point out the deep systemic flaws in Darwinism that Darwinists themselves have no incentive to recognise, let alone explore.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sunspots 162

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

(or something) From ABC News, an article on a college class in creative writing, that writes about how to properly let alien beings know about us.

The Scout Report recommend the University of Montana's web site on butterflies and moths as one of the best of the past year.

Slate reports that there are ants that like to live in computers.

Wired reports that a new newborn blood sample storage law is raising some fears about privacy violation.

The Scout Report recommends the Exploratorium's The Science of Music site as one of the best websites of the past year.

A minor league baseball player was traded for 10 baseball bats. Really.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More on Expelled, the movie

I have not seen Expelled, the recent movie about Intelligent Design (ID) and academic freedom. I did post, linking to two reviews of the film by Christians. I have discovered an even more extensive treatment of the film, and the issues it raises, on the web site of the American Scientific Affiliation, a group of Christian scientists.

The article is by Jeffrey Schloss. He seems to have been careful, and thorough. Schloss considers three main points.

First, on the linkage between evolution (which, unfortunately, Schloss does not define) and atheism, Schloss concludes that some views of evolution are, indeed, atheistic, and that that is a legitimate concern. However, he says of the film "What appears to be waved off without consideration is even the possibility of mutually enriching commerce between faith and evolution."

Second, on the matter of whether ID advocates have been unfairly treated by academia, Schloss concedes, after a discussion of the evidence, that that is possible. But he raises a more fundamental question: What is the ID movement all about, anyway? What does ID propose? He points out that Ben Stein, the narrator of Expelled, asks whether presenting ID in some academic settings should be forbidden. Schloss indicates that teaching that the earth is flat should be forbidden in a geography class, and that holocaust denial shouldn't be allowed in history courses. But, says he, about whether Expelled answers Stein's own question:
Unfortunately, on just this question - the one on which the entire point of the film most crucially hangs - it remains almost completely silent. In order to assess the point, we need to know what “the idea” of ID entails, and then what some of the arguments might be that support it, and then whether such arguments are properly scientific or perhaps better dealt with in philosophy. Even the first question is left hanging. What, besides believing that an intelligent Creator made the cosmos, does ID actually stand for?

Schloss says that the film doesn't answer that question, and this is not surprising. Young-Earth Creationism (which is not the same as ID) whether right or wrong, does present a falsifiable thesis, namely that the earth is only a few thousand years old. ID does not.

In his consideration of this second question, Schloss rejects ID's claim that ID is merely science, not religious. (I have written more on this question, and agree with Schloss on the matter, based on publications from the ID movement, itself.)

Third, on the claim that Darwin led to Hitler, Schloss concludes that this is not true.

Finally, Schloss concludes:
Sadly, the film contributes to an approach that has raised rather than lowered walls between Christians and the surrounding culture. Sadly, it raises the already growing walls of suspicion about any scholarly attempts to explore the relationship between science and faith. Sadly, it raises walls that don’t protect but constrain the spiritual growth of our students, if they are driven to believe they must choose between God and evolution. And most sadly, it is raising all these walls unnecessarily, along a border that is never demonstrated to have been accurately surveyed, much less to be in need of defending.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Can science and religion become integrated?

Can science and religion interact fruitfully with each other? I think so. I am not alone. Ian G. Barbour has been the leading voice, insisting that such cooperative interaction, or, as he puts it, Integration, is possible. He has categorized the possible interactions between science and religion as Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration, and argues that Integration is possible, and desirable. See here for scriptural reasons for Integration.

A recent issue of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science (not readily available on the Internet) considers Barbour's ideas.

Taede A. Smedes, in "Beyond Barbour or Back to Basics? The Future of Science-and-Religion and the Quest for Unity," in the March, 2008 issue, pages 235-258, has some serious criticisms of Barbour. So does Sjoerd L. Bonting, in "Is There a Future for the Dialogue?" (pp. 227-234). Bonting defines science as the natural sciences, only, excluding most psychology from the natural sciences. He says that the different areas of the natural sciences ". . . develop theories from observations and experiments, frequently aided by mathematics." Religion, however, is harder to pin down, says Bonting. Religion is:
. . . a phenomenon with several facets, such as experience of the transcendent and the sacred, belief, spirituality, mysticism, prayer, worship, moral awareness, and theology. Because of its multifaceted nature I claim that religion is not a suitable partner for the dialogue with science. (p. 228)

Barbour is not quenched. "Taking Science Seriously Without Scientism: A Response to Taede Smedes," (pp. 259-269) is his response. He concludes his contribution by expressing his continued optimism for future constructive interaction between science and religion.

If God is the author of the objects that science studies, and has also revealed Himself through the Judaeo-Christian religion, then surely there is a place for positive accommodation between them, and Christians ought to work toward such positive accomodation.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Christ, creator, long after Adam

This is the first miracle attributed to Jesus Christ:
John 2:6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. 9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (ESV)

This must have been a creation event, or a transformational event. The alcohol in wine contains Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen, whereas water contains only Hydrogen and Oxygen. (There were probably some impurities in the water in those jars, but surely there was not enough Carbon to make enough molecules of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, to make the difference.) So, somehow, Jesus made alcohol from nothing, and added it to the water, or transformed some of the Oxygen or Hydrogen atoms into atoms of Carbon, to say nothing of joining them with the needed Oxygen and Hydrogen, into molecules of ethyl alcohol.

It must have been more complicated than that. The Wikipedia article on wine indicates that good wine has other flavors, meaning other chemicals, and, no doubt, other elements.

Colossians 1:15-17 tells us that, in the first place, Jesus Christ was the person of the Trinity most involved in creation. It also tells us that He is, somehow, presently involved in sustaining and maintaining the material world. So Christ's action, in making wine, good wine, where there had only been water, should not be a surprise to us. It must have been a great surprise to the servants who filled those jars, though!

I noticed this passage as a consequence of following the ESV on-line Bible reading for a day in May.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Is nature all there is? John F. Haught

I have read John F. Haught's Is nature all there is? (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. See here for previous post on the book.)

I have read quite a few books on the philosophy of science, that is, on such topics as what the underpinnings of the scientific enterprise are, the history of the scientific way of finding things out, and what are the limitations, if any, of the scientific enterprise. I don't recall a better such book than the book referred to above. It is short -- 215 pages plus an index. It is well written, and readily understandable by a reasonably intelligent non-scientist.

After a most unfortunate beginning (Haught misquotes the late Carl Sagan, who said that "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be" -- Haught substitutes "universe" for "cosmos," and lengthens the quote by a few words.) the book is great.

For anyone who does not know, "naturalist" has at least two meanings. Some naturalists spend lots of time studying nature, generally trying to disturb the natural world as little as possible in the process. Haught uses the word to refer to someone who believes that there is a natural explanation for everything, as opposed to a supernaturalist, who believes that there is at least one something outside the universe, often a god or gods. Haught is a supernaturalist. So am I.

Haught argues that supernaturalism is more able to explain phenomena on the earth than naturalism, and does quite a good job of it.

In this post, I will restrict myself to two issues. One of these is the explanation of critical intelligence, the ability to analyze things critically. Naturalists, and others, depend on critical intelligence, and, in fact generally appeal to it as having bolstered their cases. Haught says this:
How then can we justify the spontaneous trust we all place in our critical intelligence and the imperatives of our minds? You will note that in asking this question I too am expressing confidence in my own mind, assuming that by obeying the imperatives to be open, intelligent and critical I may come closer to the truth, to what is. If I lacked this spontaneous trust I would not be asking the question that begins this paragraph. And if any naturalists are reading this book, they will notice once again that their own sincere questioning of what I am writing here is possible only because they too have already made an act of faith in the imperatives of their own minds to lead them to truth. (91) and this:

Therefore it is out of a sense of fidelity to my desire to know that I must now press on to find a more adaptive context for my critical intelligence than the one offered by scientific naturalism. I cannot find such an environment short of a worldview that looks upon nature as completely intelligible. And in the end, I believe, such a worldview must be a theological one, where the anticipated fullness of being, meaning and truth is ultimately nothing less than the eternal reality invoked by religions. Such a worldview is a much more encouraging setting for endless, ongoing scientific inquiry than is the naturalist belief that the universe "just is" and therefore is ultimately unintelligible. (96)

He also deals with purpose, and makes these telling statements:
For if nature is all there is, there could be no overall purpose to the universe. That is, there could be no goal beyond nature toward which the long cosmic journey would be winding its way. But if the logic here is correct, then the detection of an overarching purpose in nature would imply that nature is not all there is. In the broadest sense purpose means "directed toward a goal or telos." The question before us, then, is whether the cosmos as a whole is teleological, that is, goal-directed. (98)

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Jeffrey Overstreet on "Prince Caspian"

Jeffrey Overstreet has posted his review of Prince Caspian, the movie based (he says too loosely) on the book by C. S. Lewis. Thanks to Julana for the information.

Overstreet's complaints are justified. The movie has been pumped up and made more commercial, when it didn't have to be.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Sunspots 161

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

Wired reports that exercise, even before the teen years, can help prevent breast cancer.

Wired also reports that the mantis shrimp can perceive light in a way that is apparently unique. The article shows a great photo of the eyes of this shrimp.

(or something) Wired reports on plans for new nations in the ocean.

I was pleasantly shocked to discover that music by Bach made the top of the popular music charts in March.

Henry Neufeld on a revival in Florida.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Theories, facts, laws and doubting the truth of natural selection

In my small way, I have argued for many years that part of the disagreements over origins are because terms haven't been well defined. I was thinking principally of the term, "evolution," which, to some, is mostly about, say, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, while to others is about the origin of living things by exclusively random, purposeless processes.

I'm right about that. There is some muddy thinking about the meaning of evolution, some of it purposefully muddy, probably. Such muddiness has led to some unnecessary and avoidable disagreements on the topic of origins. However, I haven't gone far enough. There is also disagreement, or misunderstanding, about such important terms as fact, theory, law, and hypothesis, as they are used by scientists, and by the public at large. Again, such misunderstanding has led to some unnecessary and avoidable disagreement about origins, especially in statements such as "evolution is just a theory, so it doesn't need to be taken seriously." A recent article has attempted to clarify these matters.

The author, T. Ryan Gregory, writes that "Theories explain facts and are tested by generating hypotheses. No matter how much information accrues, hypotheses never become theories, and theories never graduate into laws. These terms describe three distinct aspects of science." ("Evolution as Fact, Theory and Path," Evo. Edu. Outreach (2008) 1:46–52, November 20, 2007. Quote is from p. 48.) He explains his reasoning carefully, and I believe that most all scientists, whatever their beliefs about origins, would agree with it. I also believe that non-scientists can read and understand his reasoning.

He also says:
That evolution is a theory in the proper scientific sense means that there is both a fact of evolution to be explained and a well-supported mechanistic framework to account for it. To claim that evolution is “just a theory” is to reveal both a profound ignorance of modern biological knowledge and a deep misunderstanding of the basic nature of science. (p. 50)

Gregory also points out that there is an opposite error sometimes made, namely that evidence of common descent is taken as evidence for natural selection, which, he says, does not necessarily follow.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Kevin Wright on Prince Caspian, the movie.

Kevin Wright, of Wright off the Bat, has posted a review of the current movie version of Prince Caspian.

He notes the substantive changes from the book, and argues that some of them may actually enhance the movie's message. He also argues that C. S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, would have opposed some of the trappings and effects of movie-making, including those from this film, such as creating a franchise, pushing teenage stars, and merchandising.

I'm still thinking about Wright's view of the effect of the changes. He is probably correct. He is correct about the trappings and effects, I'm sure.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A biblical mandate for scientific study?

Psalm 111:1 Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of splendor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered;
the Lord is gracious and merciful. (ESV)

This can be read as a mandate for scientific study of nature. I suspect that that's not the main meaning, maybe not the intended meaning, which was probably more about how God had rescued the Israelites, but it's nice to think that it also applies to looking into the way things around us are put together.

I noticed this passage as a consequence of following the ESV on-line Bible reading for a day in May.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Prince Caspian, the movie

I have seen Prince Caspian, the new Narnia movie. As others have said, it isn't the same as the book. What movie is?

For one thing, there is more fighting in the movie, including an attempt to take King Miraz's castle, which isn't in the book at all. For another, Susan is much more active in the fighting than C. S. Lewis would have wanted. And the score is loud, to go along with the fighting. But it's a good enough movie, and Aslan, and honor, and not taking personal vengeance, are elevated. Georgie Henley, as Lucy, is splendidly appealing, as she was in the previous Narnia movie.

Here's a quote from the book (not the movie):
"You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in Earth. Be content." Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia. New York: Collier Books, 1970. pp. 210-211. To Caspian, who wishes that he had come from a more honorable lineage.

Thanks for reading. See the movie.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Genetic modification of human embryos

William Saletan, of Slate, reports that a human embryo has been genetically modified. He also said that the embryo would have been destroyed anyway, as it was defective, and that no federal funds were used in these manipulations. As Saletan points out, there are concerns about the possibility of this being an early step on a slippery slope.

Wired has posted some reactions to this development.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sunspots 160

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

D. W. Congdon has posted four theses against Intelligent Design.

The Wall Street Journal says that Eight Belles, the horse who was euthanized shortly after the Kentucky Derby, was descended from Native Dancer through three of her four grandparents, and that all 20 of the horses in the Derby were Native Dancer's descendants.

The Exploratorium has a Microscope Imaging Station , with some great images.

The Templeton Foundation has a web site where twelve well-known thinkers, from diverse backgrounds, answer "Does the Universe Have a Purpose?" The answers are interesting and varied.

A YouTube version of Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. See here for the producer's blog post about the video, a college class project.

Image source (public domain)

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Back to work

I'm scheduled to teach a May term (aka summer school) course, beginning tomorrow, God willing. It's the first time I've taught a college class since my retirement, three years ago. The course is an introductory biology for non-majors. I wonder if I can figure out how to do it? God helping me, I can.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Fantastic literature as a preferred medium for presenting Christian truth?

In a previous post, I considered aspects of Christianity in fantastic literature. I said that I did not think that fantastic literature was any more suitable than any other kind of literature for presenting fiction with a Christian world-view. However, in this post, I muse on the possibility that some Christian truths may be better presented in fantastic literature than in any other kind of fiction, and ask you, the reader, to respond, with other examples.

I believe that fantastic literature is an excellent place to portray an unfallen planet, inhabited by one or more unfallen rational, sentient species. C. S. Lewis did this superbly, in my opinion, in his Out of the Silent Planet (Malacandra had three such species). James Blish also considered this, from a different standpoint, in his A Case of Conscience.

Lilith, by George MacDonald, considers submission in ways that I am not sure would be possible in more realistic fiction.

Susan Palwick considers the matter of seeing Christ in other people in her The Necessary Beggar. The fantastic nature of the story makes this possible in a unique way -- the ghost of an alien speaks to a fundamentalist preacher and his faith is renewed.

I have discussed the question of vengeance in the works of Jack Vance, not because Vance writes from a Christian world-view -- he doesn't -- but because Vance uses fantasy to portray vengeance in many different ways.

Are there Christian truths that would lend themselves especially to portrayal in fantastic fiction? Are there authors who have used fantastic fiction especially well to consider some Christian truth? Let me know what you think, please.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Jesus and germs

Jesus was no "Monk." For those who haven't seen this TV show, Adrian Monk is an obsessive-compulsive crime solver. One of his obsessions concerns germs. He is constantly wiping his hands with disinfectant wipes. He's not the only one. Our local grocery furnishes wipes, so that you can wipe the handle of the grocery cart. Disinfectant wipes and liquids are big business.

Jesus wasn't that compulsive about cleanliness:
Luke 11:37 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. 38 The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. 39 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. 40 You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? (ESV)

Jesus was making a point, of course, about the inner unrighteousness of the Pharisees, and how it canceled all their outer cleanliness. I need to be careful that I'm not a Pharisee on this point. However, some of us are probably way too particular about germs. How did the Israelites, Sacajawea, Julius Caesar, Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Booker T. Washington and Joan of Arc get along without disinfectant wipes? They seem to have made it all right without them. North American society, no doubt encouraged by the makers of disinfectant products, seems to have gone overboard on this matter. Some scientists even claim that keeping our little kids from germs contributes to their susceptibility to allergies. I'm not sure about that claim, but I am sure that increased exposure to disinfectants is selecting germs for resistance to those very products.

I noticed this passage as a consequence of following the ESV on-line Bible reading for a day in April.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 09, 2008

And God created neutrons

I don't really know why God created neutrons, but I'm going to muse about this matter. Neutrons are one of the sub-atomic particles we first discovered. They were found to exist in the nucleus of most atoms.

Neutrons are one of (we think) a veritable "zoo" of subatomic particles. We now believe that neutrons are made up of three smaller quarks. Even though they are not considered to be fundamental (that is, basic building blocks, which cannot be broken down), the Wikipedia article on neutrons still lists them, with protons, as being one of the two building blocks of an atomic nucleus. They have no electrical charge, so do not interact with other particles in some of the ways that charged particles do. Why, then, did God make these anonymous entities? Obviously, we can only speculate about this, but I shall do so.

I guess that the main reason God made neutrons is that they make it possible for atomic nuclei to exist. (Except for the most common isotope of Hydrogen, Hydrogen1, which has no neutrons in its nucleus, just a proton.) Why do I say this? In the first place, atomic nuclei are extremely small. The Wikipedia article that is linked to earlier in this paragraph tells us that such nuclei are about 1/100,000 the size of the atom itself. Suppose that you were shrunk to 1/100,000 of your current size. You would be almost invisible to the naked eye. The nucleus is not only very small, but is extremely dense, roughly 10,000,000,000,000,000 kilograms per cubic meter. (A cubic meter of water would have a mass of about 1,000 kilograms.) The nucleus is packed! Or, in other words, you and I are mostly space, because most of an atom is basically empty, except for the tiny nucleus, and we are made of atoms. It's no wonder that some sub-atomic particles can pass right through us without hitting anything!

Not only is a nucleus dense, but electrical charges are concentrated there. Each proton has a single positive charge. All atoms, except for Hydrogen, have more than one proton. That means that from 2 to 92 positive charges are jammed into an exceedingly tiny volume. Like charges repel each other. So how is it possible that these protons can exist together in the nucleus? It isn't easy, but the presence of neutrons seems to make that possible. In other words, there is a force that holds the nucleus together, and it is stronger than the electrical repulsion forces that would break it apart.

If there were only one proton in all atomic nuclei, the only type of atom would be Hydrogen. As fine as these are, and as important, the complexity of matter, especially living matter, would be impossible if there weren't many types of atoms, not just one. Suppose you had to prepare a blog post, a poem, or a business document, with no letters but an h! Written communication would be impossible.

Without neutrons, you wouldn't be here. The hereditary information that came from your parents couldn't have existed, in the form of DNA. Without neutrons, your life would be dull and dry, assuming you somehow existed as you do now without them. There would be no flavor molecules, no sugars, no caffeine. There would be no semiconductors, no computers. No musical instruments, no paintings, no books, no flowers. Nothing but a cloud of Hydrogen.

I'm thankful for neutrons.

I don't understand everything about nuclear physics, by a long shot. For more detail on these topics, check the links in this post.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Templeton Foundation: "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?"

My personal answer, of course, is "no!"

The Templeton Foundation has posted a web page, which I have not yet fully explored, with the title indicated above. There are statements from a variety of people, giving different answers. I expect that this will be an important resource on questions of faith and science.

I found the essay by philosopher Mary Midgley to be especially insightful. (The essays all seem to be brief.)

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sunspots 159

Things I have recently spotted that may be of interest to someone else:

(or something) K has tried a new kind of fruit, with photos.

Wired on a giant squid, with the largest eye ever studied.

An interview with Patricia A. McKillip, wherein she answers questions about her writing habits. Spoiler: she listens to Telemann while writing.

Bonnie on how to keep up with what's going on in the world (or not).

Russell on how men look at women, and how they should (or shouldn't).

Slate has a disturbing article (disturbing because of what it says about some Christians) about alternative Christian culture. For example, I had no idea that there was a "Christian pro wrestling." What makes it Christian? Do they hit each other's heads with softer chairs?

Image source (public domain)

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Warning against idolatry in 2008

Luke 18:9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (ESV)

It is often pointed out that the Old Testament commandments against idolatry, if they were made today, might be made against worshiping ourselves. Here, Jesus spoke of people, who, like us, are tempted to believe that we are self-sufficient, a form of self-worship. May I never do that! (But I know that I have, sometimes.)

I noticed this passage as a consequence of following the ESV on-line Bible reading for a day in April.

I'm cheating a little. I've been posting reflections on my Bible reading on Sundays, but I may not have access to a computer for several days, so am posting on May 1, 2008, but telling Blogger that I'm posting on May 4. We'll see how that turns out.

Thanks for reading.