Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bright Lights, Odd Double Standards

Well, it seems that I've no sooner put the campaign season behind me than the holiday season has me by the throat.

One way I can tell the two apart: The campaign season was full of (mostly unexamined) attacks on government while the holiday season is full of (mostly unexamined) praise for all the good that churches do for people.

There is, of course, some overlap. Ohio's incoming Republican governor, John Kasich - a man who made a fortune with Lehman Brothers and Fox News and released a pro-gOd book during his recent campaign - continues to make noises that basically boil down to "Government can't do anything right; business can't do anything wrong; privatization of government services is the answer to all our problems!" But by and large it's the annual Christian-donation-of-turkeys-to-the-poor stories that will predominate until January.

Of course this ticks me off. Government does far more good than churches ever have, yet it's the churches that get credit for every little good thing they do while government gets hammered for every little alleged mistake. It's a ridiculous double standard and I'm sick of it.

This was brought into focus yet again recently when my local paper (The Columbus Dispatch) ran a front page story on Nov 14 about Ohio's Medicaid program.

Medicaid is the state of Ohio's biggest expense ($15.4 billion), with about 40% of the entire state budget devoted to it. More than 20% of Ohioans benefit; most of them are children, or pregnant women, or elderly, or disabled - our most vulnerable citizens.

And here's the part of the article that really caught my eye: Only 3.1% of Ohio's Medicaid budget goes to administrative costs.

I was stunned. Could it *really* be that low?

I asked my S.O. to guess what those costs might be. She said 50%. Just the sort of answer you might expect after exposure to several decades of harsh, anti-government rhetoric from an endless series of talking heads on TV.

Checking online for some confirmation or refutation of that 3.1% figure, I found this from the American Academy of Family Physicians:

Medicaid Administrative Costs (MACs) are among the lowest of any health care payer in the country. MACs are significantly less than private health insurance plans; typically in the range of four to six percent of claims paid. By comparison, a health maintenance organization (HMO) with administrative costs of eight to twelve percent of claims paid would be regarded as efficient and a well-run commercial health insurer typically would have administrative costs of 15 to 20 percent of claims paid. No insurer has more limited administrative costs than Medicaid. Researchers at Harvard found that 31 cents of every dollar spent on health care in the United States pays administrative costs (nearly double the rate in Canada, by contrast).

That's a few years old and may or may not be accurate. Coupled with the Dispatch's figure, however, it should at least be enough to wipe at least a bit of the angry smirk off the faces of those Tea Party supporters who think private insurance companies and for-profit medical centers are intrinsically superior to state-run social programs.

As for explicitly Christian and other theist-run programs, I turned to the Charity Navigator website for enlightenment.

Here's some of what I found out:

----- Catholic Charities USA spends 9.6% of its budget on administrative costs - and another 5% on fundraising. Its three top people each draw a salary of more than $150,000 a year. (Ohio's governor gets about $145,000 a year.)

----- Christian Life Resources spends 22.2% on administrative costs - and another 13.3% on fundraising. The head guy's salary takes 4.3% of the total budget - which would be like paying the head of Ohio's Medicaid department about $675 million a year.

----- Activated Ministries devotes more than half its budget to fundraising even though its mission statement proclaims that it exists to help those in need.

----- Bethesda Lutheran Communities devotes 13% to administrative costs - and apparently continues to pay its former president/CEO more than $330,000 a year.

----- The Jewish Foundation for Group Homes devotes 10.5% to administrative costs. Its CEO makes more than $150,000 a year.

----- Episcopal Relief and Development devotes 4.5% to administrative expenses and another 8.7% to fundraising. Its president is paid $219,000 a year.

----- Atlanta Habitat For Humanity devotes 4.8% of its budget to administrative costs and another 5.9% to fundraising. Its executive director makes nearly $170,000 a year (which amounts to 1.58% of the total budget).

I picked those more or less at random. Feel free to check out similar organizations for yourself. If you find any that are being run as efficiently as Ohio's Medicaid program, please be sure to let me know.

NOTE: I tried to look up one of the most famous Christian charities at the Charity Navigator website. Here's the interesting message I got in response:

"We don't evaluate The Salvation Army. Why not? Many religious organizations are exempt under Internal Revenue Code from filing the Form 990. As a result, we lack sufficient data to evaluate their financial health."

Well, isn't that special? Apparently religious-run organizations aren't merely less efficient than many people know - they're less efficient than many people *can* know.

And for what it's worth, many secular organizations also seem to be doing worse than state-run agencies.

The American Red Cross devotes 4.4% of its budget to administrative costs and 3.6% to fundraising. Not too bad, in the grand scheme of things, I suppose - but I still find it difficult to reach into my wallet for them when at least three of its top administrators are being paid over $440,000 a year. (President Obama is paid $400,000.)

Note, too, that Oxfam America is described as "an international relief and development organization that creates lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and injustice" - yet 20% of its budget goes to administrative costs and fundraising. And its president is paid $311,000 a year....

Which must leave the head of United Way Worldwide sadly shaking his head. He, after all, gets nearly a million dollars a year. (That's 1.7% of the entire budget. Or the equivalent of paying Obama more than $50 billion a year - i.e., more than Bill Gates's total net worth.)

Just a few of the things you might casually mention to John Kasich and his pro-gOd, anti-government buddies when you run into them at the annual Christmas party.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Four Artists And A Wombat

I hope everyone had a pleasant Thanksgiving.

Which is my own personal secret code for "I hope everyone found time to indulge in some good reading as well as some good food recently."

It hasn't been a great reading year for me thus far, but I have managed to find the time to continue easing my way through Stefano Zuffi's Dictionary of Painters. It's a book that gives brief biographies of more than 300 famous Western artists along with beautiful, full color examples of their work.

After many weeks of savoring a few pages a day, I'm finally up to those artists whose last name starts with an R.

A tidbit about Georgia O'Keefe (an artist whose last name rather wantonly starts with an O) continues to stick with me, however. I already knew before reading the bio in this book that she spent nearly 50 years in the American southwest painting many of her most famous paintings. What I hadn't realized is that she was in her 40s when she first started spending her summers in New Mexico and in her 50s when she decided to permanently settle down out there and then live to be nearly 100. It's nice to know. Which is my own personal secret code for "Wow! Maybe I myself will find the strength to check out a new grocery store sometime before I'm 60!"

A tidbit about self-taught artist Henri Rousseau also continues to stick with me: He didn't start painting until he was in his 40s. (I can scarcely imagine what kind of country we might be living in today if the Jonas Brothers had been that patient to inflict their art on the rest of us.)

And then there's this tidbit about Rubens: When he was 53, he married his second wife - a 16-year-old girl. This raises a number of questions in my mind, including the G-rated "What in the world did they talk about?" (Does making snide little comments about Rembrandt and then giggling uncontrollably constitute talk or should it best be considered a form of aerobic chit-chat?)

The things that stick with me the most now (and I hope forever) involve the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Here's how Wikipedia sums them up:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (12 May 1828 – 9 April 1882) was an English poet, illustrator, painter and translator. He founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848 with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, and was later to be the main inspiration for a second generation of artists and writers influenced by the movement, most notably William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. His work influenced the European Symbolists, and he was also a major precursor of the Aesthetic movement....

Rossetti's wife Elizabeth Siddal died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862, shortly after giving birth to a stillborn child. Rossetti became increasingly depressed, and upon the death of his beloved Lizzie, buried the bulk of his unpublished poems with her at Highgate Cemetery, though he would later have them dug back up....

Rossetti leased Tudor House at number 16 Cheyne Walk, along the Thames in London, where he lived for the next twenty years surrounded by extravagant furnishings and a parade of exotic birds and animals. Rossetti was fascinated with wombats, frequently asking friends to meet him at the "Wombat's Lair" at the London Zoo in Regent's Park, and spending hours there himself. Finally, in September 1869, he was to acquire the first of two pet wombats. This short-lived wombat, named "Top", was often brought to the dinner table and allowed to sleep in the large centrepiece during meals. This fascination with exotic animals continued throughout Rossetti's life, finally culminating in the purchase of a llama and a Toucan which Rossetti would dress in a cowboy hat and persuade to ride the llama round the dining table for his amusement....

The passing of his beloved Top apparently inspired Rossetti to create the following:

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

Apparently Rossetti attempted to console himself by fucking Mrs. William Morris with some regularity after this.

Here's one of the drawings he made of her:

Alas, despite hours of online searching, I can find no evidence that any artist in all of human history has ever tried to capture the expression on Mrs. Morris's face the moment she first laid eyes on this....

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Honda Vs. St. Christopher

ChrisClicks recently left me a note asking me to explain why I collected and shared the latest batch of specific info tidbits I did.

Well, the short answer is that each of those tidbits caught my attention and stuck in my mind for some reason. Although that reason may not always be obvious to me, let alone anyone else, I think it's fair to say that most challenge various cultural assumptions I think deserve to be challenged or that simply aren't being given the attention they ought to be even as some other subjects are being given far too much attention.

That tidbit about how 44% of NFL fans happen to be women flies in the face of all those football widow jokes that comic strips and sitcoms have been churning out for decades.

The tidbit about how Cher found her latest boyfriend online challenges my long-standing assumption (or hope) that very rich and very famous people inhabit a better world than the rest of us do. The image I now have in my mind of even Cher sitting alone at her computer and having to wade through all the visual chaff of the Internet to find one other like-minded human being serves as a reminder that this remains a sad, sad world of loneliness and alienation even for those with the power to go anywhere and do anything. It's a lesson I've learned repeatedly in my reading (perhaps most memorably in a bio of Johnny Carson which revealed that even after he'd become a big star in the early 1960s, he still had to clean his own toilets because he couldn't find a maid able to do the job half as well as he could). Some people might take perverse comfort in stories like these in the belief that they reveal the high and the mighty to be Just Like Me; I find them instead to be rather depressing because if being rich and famous isn't really much of an escape from mundane existence, well, what escape from mundane existence is really possible?

Some of the other tidbits I shared seem to rather obviously reveal how horrible life can be on this "perfectly" designed world. Imagine - 60,000 miscarriages every year just in Thailand (a country where only about 1% of the world's population of humans live), yet some theists still prattle on and on about how only a supremely wise mind full of love could have created the human body. Would they continue to prattle on and on were it possible for us to rub their noses in just one of those bloody dead fetuses? (Can I get a government grant to run a few tests to find out?)

Anyway.... The bottom line is that I'm constantly finding little sparkles of information buried away in odd places while most of the big media spotlights continue to be focused en masse on black, gooey tar balls of information I'd much rather forget.

Yes, I know there's a war going on in Afghanistan. I know soldiers are going out on patrol. I know some are being killed by roadside bombs. I know that there are American families waiting for these soldiers to return home. I've know it for nearly 10 years now, thank you very much, and I do not need to see yet another video of yet one more patrol/explosion/homecoming to know that it's going to continue to be this way for many months if not years to come. Afghanistan is a toothache that I can do nothing about and that won't go away. I prefer to forget it to the extent I can.

The current outrage over airport screenings is another toothache that too many news organizations insist on dwelling on. But I don't fly. I've never flown. I never plan to. These stories are all about someone else's toothache - that someone else being a spoiled American public whose ardent desire not to have their "junk" touched by a screener has completely eclipsed the much more serious problems of literally billions of other people on this planet.

And then of course there are all the stories about Sarah Palin as so many reporters and commentators and news outlets quickly shift from Campaign 2010 to Campaign 2012 without ever pausing to give the problems associated with actually holding elective office *today* the attention they deserve. As far as I'm concerned, Sarah Palin is a toothache for another day (if ever). I'll feel that pain when I come to it.

All of which is merely my long-winded introduction to what I really want to say today, which is this: Some of the info tidbits I come across stay with me forever. Some deserve more than a passing mention in a long list of tidbits. Some deserve a spotlight.

A recent brief little news item about Honda windshields is one of them.

Here are the key passages:

Honda has come up with a surprisingly simple answer to reducing the risk of accidents: small triangular markings on the sides of the windshield....

Two triangles, fixed slightly above the driver's line of sight, are arranged so they point toward each other from opposite sides of the windshield. According to Honda, their presence makes it easier for drivers to avoid accidental contact in tight situations, such as when passing another car or turning into a narrow alley.

Experiments conducted by Honda with several different models of vehicle found the triangles encouraged drivers subconsciously to stabilize their line of sight when making a left turn....

Encouraged by the findings, Honda plans to make the markings a feature of all its vehicles, including those marketed overseas, introducing them in stages to each model....

Although the ceramic triangles, with sides measuring 4 to 5 millimeters, are very inconspicuous, they give the driver a better sense of the vehicle's width, the carmaker said.

Such a simple thing! And yet it apparently has the potential to save at least a few of those tens of thousands of lives that are lost every year on our roads and highways.

And yet this was, at best, a very minor, one day story....

Contrast that with the much better known St. Christopher medals and statues.

I can still remember growing up in a heavily Catholic neighborhood in Toledo and seeing people driving around with dull-penny-colored depictions of this saint propped up in the center of their dashboards. Even then it seemed weird to me that adult human beings would have dolls like this at all, let alone displayed in such a public way. When I learned that they did so in the belief that ol' Christopher might actually protect them from accidents and injury... well, I have to say, it gave me pause.

On the one hand, I could relate. I mean, it wasn't that different from what I was doing when I tried to keep it from raining by not killing spiders, or when I tried to guarantee a good day by not stepping on any sidewalk cracks while walking to and from school. Cause-and-effect relationships aren't always simple, and many require much empirical research and trial-and-error testing to prove or refute. One might even go so far as to say that much of childhood is properly devoted to teasing out the often subtle differences between magic (and the world as we want it to be or imagine it to be ) and science (or the world as it really is).

By the time I'd encountered dashboard St. Christophers and had them explained to me, however, I seem to have progressed beyond the point at which I could take them seriously. My "lucky" rabbit's foot, after all, had failed me many times; why should I believe St. Chris was going to be any more effective?

And yet adults - adults! - apparently swore that he *was* different.


It was just one of the many times when I was a child that I felt wiser and more competent than the much older people who were in charge of things.

Which didn't do much for my sense of security, given that they were the ones with nuclear weapons at their disposal....

Flash forward to today - a time when St. Christopher has officially been downgraded among the saints. Pope Paul VI removed his feast day from the Roman Catholic calendar in 1969. As is the case with so many saints, his poorly documented story remains a mix of myth and supposition created and perpetuated by Christians with a well-known bias and agenda. Few non-Christians seem very likely to credit his image with miraculous powers.

And yet millions of non-Christians almost certainly continue to be aware of those powers associated with him even as at least some Christians continue to put their faith in them.

How long might it be before Honda's safety accomplishments are as well-known?

How much better might the world be when everyone finally lets go of their childish embrace of rabbit's feet and holy icons and starts consistently embracing (and further developing) the empirically-proven power of windshield triangles (among other things)?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

11 Things I Learned This Past Week

----- About one-third of American wives earn more money than their husbands.

----- The average vehicle is worth 34% of its original value after 5 years on the road.

----- Cher met her latest boyfriend online.

----- In 1907 more than 20,000 Muslims were killed by cholera during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj. (Cholera has a 50% mortality rate when left untreated.)

----- The price of aluminum has dropped nearly 60% in the last few years. It is one of the steepest declines that the metals industry has ever seen. (Thanks to recycling, some 75% of all the aluminum ever made is still in use.)

----- Last year, 4462 motorcycle riders died in crashes; about 65% were not wearing helmets. (If you ride a motorcycle in Ohio, you only have to wear a helmet if you're 17 years old or younger.)

----- 44% of NFL fans are female.

----- Nearly 25% of people on Medicare have 5 or more chronic illnesses. They account for two-thirds of all Medicare expenses.

----- There are 60,000 miscarriages in Thailand every year.

----- Men are cited for reckless driving 3.41 times as often as women.

----- Dutch artist Piet Mondrian was so deeply shocked by the sight of a bullfight just over 100 years ago that he went off to live by himself in the countryside. Apparently his well-known painting style of boxes and lines arose at least in part as an attempt to reimpose order on the bloody chaos of existence.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Oddest Couple

"The lion shall lie down with the lamb - but the lamb won't get much sleep." - Woody Allen

That's the memorable line that always conjures up a funny image in my mind of a poor sheep whose terrible Leo-induced insomnia is forcing it to keep at least one eye open all night long.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I recently found myself an eyewitness to an even stranger scene.

First, here's a view of what the birdfeeder outside my kitchen window looks like on a typical day:

Now here's what I saw when I flipped on my back light and looked out my kitchen window on the evening of Oct 14:

I know it's kinda hard to tell, but... that's a skunk on the left and a raccoon on the right, each snarfing up the spilled seeds on the ground without paying the least bit of attention to the other.

My feeder attracts both skunks and raccoons with some frequency every year from about August to November. The skunks usually come just after dusk in groups of two or three. They tend to have little patience with each other. Hissing is common. Savage clawing has been known to occur.

The raccoons don't come as often as they used to. In past years, it's tended to be a momma with a few cubs. I take my feeder into the shed before sunset during those weeks when they threaten to become a nuisance.

In all the years I've been living here and filling my feeder, I don't think I've ever attracted a raccoon as big as the one on the evening of Oct 14.

I know I've never seen any raccoon that close to the normally highly territorial skunks before.

And by "close" I don't mean merely side by side, like two puppies nursing from adjacent teats. I mean to say that I actually saw the skunk back his butt up into the very face and nose of the raccoon and then drape his long, white-striped tail over his dinner companion's back and the raccoon just kept on eating his seed as if he were the only animal on earth.

And then, as if to prove to me and my S.O. that it all really hadn't just been a mirage brought on by some wacky ear virus and/or camera gremlins with access to Photoshop, the two gave a repeat performance on the evening of Oct 22.

It was, as even a staid old Amish grandma might be moved to say, the goddamnedest thing I ever did see.

And what made it even more goddamnediest was that these were evenings when I'd just seen an endless stream of campaign attack ads roll by on my TV screen while watching the nightly news.

Who knew that we'd ever get to the day when asking our politicians to behave like skunks and raccoons at the same feeding trough would constitute a major raising of the bar?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In Or Out?

In my recent entry about daydreaming I mentioned in passing how spooky it is that "our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present" (as one researcher put it).

Daydreaming, of course, is only part of the story.

Although it's easy to think that "paying full attention" is synonymous with forcing our brains to suck up every bit of important sensory data that they can without distraction, such a thing actually appears to be impossible.

Each blink interrupts the flow of data into our eyes, but our brain helpfully fills in the gaps.

The retina's famous blind spot also limits the amount of visual information our eyes take in, but once again the brain helpfully fills in the gaps, creating the illusion that these blind spots don't exist.

I once read that our brains do much the same thing when we're listening to another person speak, automatically editing out the irrelevant pauses and ummms and automatically smoothing over the slurs and missed syllables and accents. (According to E. Bruce Goldstein's textbook, Sense and Perception, "The sloppy pronunciation of most words in conversational speech makes about half of the words unintelligible when taken from their fluent speech context and presented alone." Only about 60% of normal sentences are perceived correctly when moderately high background noise is present.) What we end up remembering is the meaning of the conversation (as derived by our brains from an imperfect source) rather than a verbatim transcript of what was actually said. Depending on who we are (and other circumstances), that derived meaning may have very little to do with the intended meaning.

Which brings to mind this passage from James L. Christian's textbook, Philosophy: An Introduction to the Art of Wondering:

Bertrand Russell once wrote that the stupid person always reduces brilliant concepts to his own level of stupidity since he must oversimplify them to understand them. Something like this takes place in our communicating with one another. Because of our own pre-established conceptual points of view, we "translate" what another is saying into the familiar experiences of our own world. In doing this, we miss the living experience which the other person is in fact attempting to convey.

Is the situation better or worse here than it is with the eye - a sense organ that, according to Christian, delivers photons and waves to a brain that interprets them as colors that exist only in our heads?

Flash a green light for better, a red light for worse.

Issues like these gave spice to my long-ago college life before settling down and going to sleep beneath the steadily falling detritus of humdrum everyday life.

They were reawakened this morning when I myself woke up yet again with a ringing in my ears.

It's not particularly unpleasant or bothersome, but it *does* seem as real as any dial tone.

Except, of course, it isn't. It's merely tinnitus - an inner-created sound that my brain often insists is coming from without.

Wikipedia explains the situation this way:

Tinnitus... is the perception of sound within the human ear in the absence of corresponding external sound.

Tinnitus is not a disease, but a symptom resulting from a range of underlying causes that can include: ear infections, foreign objects or wax in the ear, nose allergies that prevent (or induce) fluid drain, and wax build-up. Withdrawal from a benzodiazepine addiction may cause Tinnitus as well.

Tinnitus can also be caused by natural hearing impairment (as in aging), as a side effect of some medications, and as a side effect of genetic (congenital) hearing loss. However, the most common cause for tinnitus is noise-induced hearing loss.

As tinnitus is usually a subjective phenomenon, it is difficult to measure using objective tests, such as by comparison with noise of known frequency and intensity, as in an audiometric test. The condition is often rated clinically on a simple scale from "slight" to "catastrophic" according to the practical difficulties it imposes, such as interference with sleep, quiet activities, and normal daily activities.

Tinnitus is common. About one in five people between 55 and 65 years old report tinnitus symptoms on a general health questionnaire and 11.8% on more detailed tinnitus-specific questionnaires.

Even though one part of my brain understands what's going on here, another part refuses to believe it. That part insists that what I'm hearing really is "out there" and not just some self-generated whine.

As it happens, I came across a segment on "Unsolved Mysteries" the other evening while randomly flipping through my cable channels that focused on this very issue. Apparently there was this man in New York City who began hearing a dull, grinding rumble that he was sure was coming from Out There. He spent a lot of time trying to track it down, thinking that the source must be a highway, or a rooftop air conditioning unit, or some such thing. No luck. The sound continued even when he went deep into a cave....

At this point it might seem obvious that he, too, was a victim of tinnitus. But his ear exam (unlike mine) revealed nothing wrong.

And then reports started coming in of thousands of other people claiming to hear much the same thing.

One of these people was a radio sound engineer who managed to re-create the sound for others using various tapes and what-nots. When other "victims" of this maddening sound heard his re-creation, they seem to have immediately said "Yep! That's it! More or less...."

One hypothesis was that these people were especially sensitive to the US Navy's ELF program - a high-tech means the Navy had developed to stay in touch with its submarine fleet all around the globe. When the program's transmitters were shutdown in 2004, one man said that he did indeed experience some - but not complete - relief. For many others, however, the noise they heard droned on.

Or show the program claimed (without much detail or supporting evidence)....

The ability to readily determine what's us and what's not, what's inside us and what's outside, what's objective reality and what's subjective delusion would seem to be a pretty important one.

Unlike some people I could mention, I think I (and most of my humanist and atheist friends) do a pretty good job telling the difference between our daydreams and our fantasies and the nature of the universe.

But now, suddenly, at what's perhaps the more basic level of sense data, I find myself unable to completely trust myself.

Hearing *isn't* believing.

So what is?

Well, the conceptual framework inside my head that's interpreting things, I suppose. It's a framework that includes knowledge of neurons, and nerves, and the impact a long-dormant but now suddenly restless virus might have on a highly sensitive inner ear. My doctors have explained it all so well. I can find fine medical illustrations online that back up what they say to an amazing degree.

Yet still part of my brain insists the strange humming sound I hear when I wake up in the morning really and truly is "out there"....

Is it any wonder that earlier humans, raised exclusively on the mythical conceptual framework of spirits and other worlds, seem to have accepted what this part of the brain was saying?

Is it any wonder that they seem to have often understood inner voices and dreams and hallucinations as communications from the Great Beyond and almost never as self-generated noise and distortion?

No, of course not. As Russell more or less said, we dumb things down until they're on the same level as our ignorance.

The real wonder is that even in an age of science and widespread literacy, so many people feel the need to dumb things down to a level of ignorance scarcely indistinguishable from that of ancient shamans.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Things That Make Me Smile (3)

That's a photo that was taken here in Columbus during last Saturday's OSU football game.

Although I have absolutely no interest in close-up photos of such games, distance shots do have a certain beauty that even an anti-sports fanatic like me can appreciate.

And shots that manage to include the Goodyear blimp are darn near irresistible.

How can tens of thousands of people sit in a stadium and pay any attention at all to a few guys throwing a ball around when they could be looking up and watching this modern marvel making its lovely loops in a sky that was as off-limits as the stars for untold generations of human beings?

Some of my fondest memories of growing up in Toledo involve looking up on a fine spring day and unexpectedly seeing one of these blimps calmly floating by like an emissary from a pleasant dream.

The magic of that first moment of recognition never grew stale - partly because they were pretty rare (no more than once or twice a year, at best) and partly because normal life in Toledo tended to be so crushingly mundane in comparison.

Perhaps the most notable Apparition of the Dirigible came one day while my 6th grade class was attempting to play kickball outside. A few of us were too fascinated by the enormous rubbery visitor from Akron to pay much attention to the much smaller rubbery balls that were being kicked our way. Our teacher about had a fit. How dare we allow such a silly thing distract us from our assigned task of keeping the other team from circling the bases!

It was then that I conclusively realized that not every fool in the world was a blood relative.

As it happens, I moved away from Toledo in 1979. It wasn't until I moved to Columbus about 22 years after that that I once again knew the joy of these chance encounters with my favorite inflatable acquaintance.

But I should say "acquaintances" since Goodyear has several. I used to know all their names: America. Columbia. Mayflower. They tend to stay put in various areas of the country, but one incredible day [Sept 7, 2002, to be precise], shortly after I moved here, ALL of them could be seen convening in the distance, a stunning flotilla of floaters. I forget what the occasion was, but apparently it was a very rare event, never repeated since.

I was on my way to get my haircut at the time.

I suppose I felt as hyped up as any ancient mermaid-seeing seafarer as I excitedly told my stylist the wondrous sight I'd just seen overhead.

Judging from her dull, cow-like expression, I might as well have been telling her that I'd just caught a glimpse of someone fueling up at the gas station across the street....

I had one teacher in high school who might have understood. When a blimp suddenly appeared out our classroom windows one afternoon, he noticed the electric charge it produced and good-naturedly allowed us to go to the windows and watch - one at a time.

He said it reminded him of his days teaching in Alaska when the whales would come along and start jumping out of the water. He had allowed his students go to the windows to watch that, too.

It was a nice moment.

But it didn't last.

All too soon, the blimp was gone and that teacher had resumed attempting to teach English the way a paraplegic might attempt to teach ballet. I mean, really - he had to be one of the worst instructors I've ever had. Didn't know the difference between plot and theme. Didn't know that "Animal Farm" was an allegory about Stalin and the Russian Revolution until I pointed it out to him. I guess he thought Orwell just loved writing about livestock....

But back to the blimps.

At some point early in my Toledo childhood my ears became acutely attuned to the peculiar droning sound of their engines. It might be mistaken for a large lawnmower if it wasn't so obviously coming from the sky. It might be mistaken for a plane or helicopter if its pitch didn't change so slowly as it went by. As it is, it's unmistakable.

I almost always hear them before I see them, and Saturday was no exception - even with my tinnitus.

It was about 6:45pm - perhaps 30 minutes after the above picture was taken - that I first heard the approach of my beloved behemoth while I was sitting in my living room watching the news with all the windows closed.

Rushing outside, I saw it pass through the rapidly darkening skies almost right above my head.

I suppose its scrolling lights were advertising something or other. All they said to me, however, was "I'm back! I'm back! Did you miss me?!"

It was gone before I could reply - a rare maiden of the night rushing to get back to her home in the northeast before a line of cold rain coming in from the west might wet her pretty tail.

It was all over too quickly for me to grab my camera.

No pixel-creating contraption at my disposal could ever adequately capture her shy lighting, in any case.

Instead I offer a shot that I took last fall when she surprised me in broad daylight as I stood in my own back yard.

Ahhhh, I wonder who might be enjoying her now.

Not being the jealous type, I wish everybody could.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Do You DD?

I bet you do.

It's natural.

It feels right.

It's sooooo easy for it to become the kind of habit that you don't even think about anymore.

Maybe you're home alone right now and you're thinking, "What the heck? Why shouldn't I?"

Maybe you're at work and you're sure no one can tell what's going on there as you sit behind your desk or talk on the phone or smile and nod.

Maybe you even do it when you're with your spouse or lover because you believe he or she is simply too stupid to notice.

I myself do it all the time.

I have for many years.

It's called daydreaming.

And according to a recent study involving more than 2200 people, it's common for the waking mind to wander this way nearly 50% of the time.

If that study is to be believed (and many experts seem to think that it should be), even the minds of those engaged in "demanding" tasks wander some 30% of the time.

I bet your mind is wandering right now, isn't it?

Well, go on - let it. These words here don't mind. They're just words. They'll be here when and if your mind ever decides to come back.

But you should know this: According to the study, you'll probably be happier if you focus on what's in front of it.

In fact, those who let their minds wander while they're using a computer are apparently among those most likely to be unhappy.

The nature of the cause and effect relationship here (if any), is a tad murky, but....

It all made me reflect on my own DD habit.

And it made me realize that instead of concentrating on what I'm doing, I'm often reliving painful moments from the past, or imagining all the bad things that might happen in the future, or wondering what alternative presents I might be living in now had I only gotten up an hour earlier, or had a few dollars more, or been born the hereditary ruler of a small principality.

That seems rather odd, doesn't it?

If we can chose to daydream about anything, why should we choose to daydream about things that bring us down rather than about those things that make us happy?

It's the same question I've long had about dreaming while we're asleep. The slumbering brain could provide us with an unending stream of fantasies perfectly tailored to our wants, needs, and desires. Instead, it often gives us nightmares about falling out of trees or being naked on a bus or falling naked out of a tree that's just been hit by a bus. Why?

I guess one answer is that if our slumbering brains made us as happy as sex or cocaine, we'd never want to wake up. And I bet species that never want to wake up are less likely to survive (even though the sloth and the koala seem to be doing ok).

But why would the alert mind choose to spend its precious DD time on worries?

Well, maybe worrying provides a survival advantage, too.

But is survival worth it if worry and unhappiness rather than satisfaction and happiness predominates?

Fortunately - or unfortunately, as the case may be - even worried, unhappy people seem to have an instinctive will to live that overwhelms all but the worst waves of misery.

Then again, maybe this study is simply wrong.

Maybe most DDers actually end up feeling better rather than worse after a good, long DD session.

What do you think?

Whatever the truth may be (for you, for me, for most people), my mind keeps being drawn back to a comment made by one of the researchers (Dr. Matthew Killingsworth): "This study shows that our mental lives are pervaded, to a remarkable degree, by the non-present."

Spooky, eh?

Thank goodness I still have the ability to put all this out of my mind, walk out to my kitchen, and rekindle my ongoing relationship with a cherry pie that exists very much in the here and now.

Well, the there and soon, anyway.


Monday, November 15, 2010

The Day Of A Million Updates

Before plunging into still more new times and new topics, I thought I'd briefly revisit a few old ones.

(Don't worry, though - I don't really plan on revisiting a million of them. I just said that to scare away the riff-raff.)

----- Since posting Pitching My Tent back on Oct 20, I've had no second thoughts about leaving Open Diary. From that first entry until this one I've experienced no problems here and continue to feel right at home. Although this site has its limitations - no private notes, no search function, no diary download - its ease of use and reliability remain huge pluses. (Live Journal, in sharp contrast, has annoyed me every time I've tried to use it.) Although I have no intention of deleting my old OD diary, it's a relief to no longer be putting all my eggs in a basket that has a disturbing tendency to disappear without warning or much explanation.

----- Since posting The Chipmunk Gene on Oct 22, I've continued to run around collecting delicious tidbits of information. I shared a small part of my stash in my last entry. Here now is one of the newest additions to my info-pile: The average Italian male is 5'6" tall.

----- Since posting My Secret Fear on Oct 23 (my secret fear being that Chinese microwaves are turning the brains of Americans into mush), I've learned that about 15,000 Americans died in traffic accidents in the first half of this year. This was reported as *good* news because it's better than the 16,500 Americans who died in the first half of 2009, but... it still is the equivalent of five 9/11 terrorist attacks when it comes to the number of lives lost. Would anyone call five terrorist attacks as deadly as 9/11 in a 6-month period good news in any way, shape, or form? Of course not. But most Americans have accepted an endless series of deadly car accidents as a normal part of life and/or a natural cost of doing business. The terrible day after day after day carnage unfolding on our roads rarely, if ever, impinges on their consciousness the way a single missing child story might. Or even the way the latest sports scores regularly do. I don't get it. I doubt that I ever will.

----- Since posting my Update On Jon David Clark on Oct 24 (Jon being the guy who was convicted of killing his wife during an exorcism), I've read several stories about Catholics in Poland and the US who think the Catholic Church needs more exorcists. I'm still waiting for a theist to explain to me why it's ok to reflexively dismiss people like Jon as obvious evil psychos while at the same time seeing the quite similar dogmas and rituals of an established church as sane and moral and/or unworthy of notice or comment.

----- Since posting This Messy World on Oct 26, I've attended two more Diabetes Management classes with my Significant Other. I've learned that too much sugar in the blood can damage your blood vessels and make them more susceptible to a build-up of plaque, loss of elasticity, and other bad things. The smallest blood vessels tend to be damaged first. These smaller vessels are in places like the feet and eyes. That's why diabetics can end up losing feeling in their feet, why foot sores are slow to heal, and why - in extreme cases - the feet and legs can die and have to be amputated. There are small blood vessels in the retina, too. When those get damaged, scar tissue can form. Such tissue hurts your ability to see and can lead to blindness unless removed by laser surgery. Yes, indeed, the human body sure is a marvel of perfect design....

----- Since posting A Messy World Gets Messier on Oct 29, I've been back to my doctor and learned the results of my electronystagmography. It turns out that my left inner ear is indeed fucked up. Or - to put it in slightly more technical terms - it's still showing signs of viral labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis. Until I'm willing to submit to an autopsy, there's really no way to be sure. In any event, a build-up of fluid or an inflamed nerve is apparently what's leaving me susceptible to so-called drop attacks - which are also known as an "otolithic crisis of Tumarkin." (That term makes me feel so much more special than "knocked down on me arse"; I plan on using it with the store manager if I ever end up taking out a shelf of pickles at my local Kroger's.) I'm now taking prednisone in an attempt to reduce the inflammation and make it easier for my body to fight off the virus that's allegedly the root cause. It might be years before I know if it's worked. If it doesn't work, I might find out without any warning at almost any time. Yes, indeed, the body is a marvel of perfect design....

----- Since posting India: Land Of 300 Million Gods - And No Toilets on Nov 3, my mind has been haunted by India. That's partly due to an Oct 18 story about how 10 more Hindus were killed at yet another religious festival over there. It's the sort of story I've encountered (and commented on) many times before, yet things never seem to get better - people refuse to learn from the past or change their ways, and so another stampede is made inevitable. And then another - and another. You can bet on it if you're sick enough. This time the stampede occurred when people were on their way to sacrifice their goats at a temple. People started pushing because fasting seems to have left them short-tempered. A perfect example of religious madness wrapped within religious madness leading to completely unnecessary tragedy....

Last night I watched "International House Hunters" on HGTV. A young New York woman was moving to Bangalore to be with her boyfriend, who had a job in the tech industry over there. One of the places they looked at was a fabulous $300,000 house that had sacred cows wandering around outside it in an unkempt area that looked like it hadn't been touched since the bombs were going off in the 1940s. If it's true that the average Indian makes $2 a day, it would take the average Indian 150,000 days to get the money for a house like that. (NOTE: If you live to be 100, you'll have lived less than 37,000 days.) I don't understand how anyone other than a governor or general of the old British Empire could stand to live in such opulence in the midst of such poverty. Neither can I understand how a young, apparently sane guy can work in a 21st century industry in an area that's still overwhelmingly shaped by 4000-year-old religious superstitions - or how a young, apparently sane NY woman can happily navigate chaotic streets that were shown leaving a random motorcyclist crumbled in the dirt. It's as if other people's misery and stupidity is seen by them as just so much charming backdrop to Our Grand Adventure. (As it happens, the couple decided on a marginally cheaper apartment instead, but... despite paying over $200,000, they found that the native Indian contractors had installed the toilet paper dispenser in the shower instead of by the toilet.)

----- Since posting Can Atheism Be Proven Wrong? on Nov 4, I've remembered many of the other reasons why I'm severely allergic to theism and theists. The concept of gOd is just too stupid to be taken seriously - yet millions do. There is, after all, absolutely no reason to believe that consciousness can exist in some free-floating form apart from a physical brain, but theists blithely shrug this off. There is no known way for some force larger than the universe to intervene in the distant operations of that universe at a speed faster than that of light, yet theists blithely shrug this off, too. What, exactly, might allow or motivate a supernatural force to intervene in our piddly affairs? What might motivate an allegedly perfect (and thus necessarily self-sufficient) being to ever want to create anything, let alone this mess of a planet? How can anyone look at the vastness of empty space and the huge numbers of lifeless black holes and enormous stars and conclude that this being's prime concern and love is little old us - creatures smaller than fly specks in the far corner of a remote part of an infinite desert? Theists reject all sorts of much less absurd ideas than gOd every waking moment - yet take extreme umbrage when we atheists dare question the "logic" and "evidence" behind their version of theism (which - whatever version that may be - most other theists also reject). The question isn't "Can Atheism Be Proved Wrong?"; the question is, "Why Isn't Theism Generally Recognized As A Serious Mental Disorder?" (See the two-part entry I posted on Feb 6, 2004 for more along these lines within the context of my rejection of agnosticism.)

----- Since posting In Praise Of Inauthenticity on Nov 6, I've successfully finished transferring all seven of my old Baja Marimba Band LPs to my computer and then disks. I've also transferred seven of my old Herb Alpert LPs, three of my Burt Bacharach LPs, two George Winston LPs from the 1980s, and two Windham Hill compilations. It's been fun. Why? Well, as I once told an elderly aunt when she asked me to explain the appeal of video games, "After years and years of just looking passively at a screen, I'm finally able to control and manipulate what I see." Only in this case, it's what I hear. Sure, that manipulation has been pretty minor thus far. I could play with the tone and speed and a whole of of other stuff, thanks to a program like Audacity, but... just moving decades-old notes from fragile black vinyl to small, shiny disks is magic enough for me right now. The prospect of actually compiling personal playlists makes me feel more powerful than David Copperfield!

Truth be told, the whole thing blows my mind whenever I stop and think of everything that had to happen in order for this day to come. Setting aside the need for humans to invent music and musical notations and instruments and all the rest, there was the need for these particular people to have musical ideas, which then somehow got made into a score, which others than somehow read and mastered. Then some long ago day - a day when I myself was actually on this earth breathing and doing something myself, I'll never know what - these people and others got up out of bed and got together in a faraway studio and actually made a record. The result was eventually shipped out (on tape?) after much fussing and manipulation to nondescript factories that stamped little ridges in vinyl (of all things!), which was then put in a paper sleeve (made from unknown trees) and a cardboard sleeve decorated with photos and artwork and commentary created by still other people I'll never know but who, in essence, were working for ME. Eventually the result ended up in a store in Toledo (most often, the JC Penny at the Franklin Park Mall), and I just happened to be there at a time when a purchase was possible (thanks to the generosity of my sister). Now, some 40 years later, after many moves and an incredible unbroken string of days of personal, national, and international trauma that somehow failed to damage any of these records, I'm able to digitalize these long-ago vibrations on a system that was the stuff of science fiction just a few short years ago.

It's amazing to me that people can continue wasting their time trumpeting the mythical miracles of Jesus when there are so many real miracles like this out there unfolding every day that ought to be noticed and celebrated.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

10 Things I Learned This Past Week

----- The phrase "Be here now" apparently became popular after it was used as the title of a 1971 book by Ram Dass.

----- "Scratch the average Republican today, and he'll say 'tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.' We've demonized taxes.... We've created almost the idea that they're a metaphysical evil.... It's rank demagoguery. If [Republicans] were all put into a room on penalty of death to come up with how much [from the federal budget] they would cut, they couldn't come up with $50 billion, when the problem is $1.3 trillion. So to stand before the public and rub raw this antitax sentiment, the Republican Party, as much as it pains me to say this, should be ashamed of themselves." - Reagan budget czar David Stockman ("60 Minutes" interview)

----- The relay of the Olympic flame doesn't date back to the ancient Greeks but to the Nazis. It was a media ploy expressly invented for the 1936 games that attempted to link Hitler's Berlin with ancient Athens.

----- The highest tax bracket for individuals in the US is currently 35%. The highest tax bracket in Austria, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Japan, and The Netherlands is 50% or more. Swedes pay the most - nearly 60%.

----- The number of pet cats in the US increased 18% in the past 10 years. There are now 86 million pet kitties in American households. Some 56% live in a home with at least one other cat. Many of those cats are on Prozac.

----- Although the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy goes back to ancient times, the phrase itself seems to have been coined by Robert K. Merton in his 1968 book, Social Theory and Social Structure.

----- "In both his 1994 and 1998 runs [for governor of Florida], Jeb [Bush] made it clear: not only was he not apologizing for his background, he was proud of where he was financially, and certain that it was the result of his own pluck and work ethic. 'I've worked real hard for what I've achieved and I'm quite proud of it,' he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1993.... The attitude was much the same as he had expressed on CNN's Larry King Live in 1992: 'I think, overall, it's a disadvantage,' he said of being the president's son when it came to his business opportunities. 'Because you're restricted in what you can do.' This thinking cannot be described as anything other than delusional." - S. V. Dáte, author of Jeb: America's Next Bush (2007)

----- Henry Dunant founded the Red Cross in the 1860s and won the first Nobel Peace Prize as a result. He spent the last 20 years of his life in a small room in a remote Swiss hospital/nursing home, mostly forgotten, and died a pauper there in 1910.

----- "Two years after the crisis on Wall Street, it has been announced that bonuses this year will be $144 billion, the highest in history. That's who's going to get this tax cut on the top, you know, 2 percent of the population. They don't need a tax cut. They don't deserve it. And, therefore, what we have to do is focus on Main Street, and that means getting our house in order fiscally, not tax cuts that we can't afford.... The point is, we're now in real-world governance. And you don't get 100 times at bat. The Republicans have been at bat for 30 years, and they've whiffed on everything." - Reagan budget czar David Stockman ("This Week With Christiane Amanpour" interview)

----- One of the common side effects of prednisone is insomnia.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Things That Make Me Smile (2)

I ran into an old friend at a nearby park this afternoon.

Although he seemed to be completely naked, he let me take his picture.


Pretty wanton, eh?

I think I've been seeing him on and off for about three years now in that same area. It's a big park, but apparently he has everything he needs in that relatively small area.

Although there was a day this last summer when I saw one just like him in a neighbor's yard. I suppose it could have been my friend, but... I doubt it. It seems more likely to me that it was a relative of his, since I live some distance away from the park, but who knows?

Maybe the urge to explore got into him.

Maybe he was temporarily frighten away from his home by a swarm of bees.

Maybe he received a foreclosure notice in error and had to find some new digs until things got straightened out.

Maybe he was coming to steal my nuts.

In any case, it was good to see him again.

And it was good to hear others at the park say, "Oooo! Look! I've never seen one of those before!" as they pointed at my friend.

It's nice to know he still has the ability to impress others despite the advancing years.

And it's nice to know that our secret relationship extends back much further than casual observers will ever guess....

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kicking It Up A Notch

Hope you find this news as interesting as I did!

Humanists Launch Largest National Advertising Campaign Critical of Religious Scripture

A national multimedia ad campaign – the largest, most extensive ever by a godless organization - launches today and will include a spot on NBC Dateline on Friday, November 12, as well as other television ads, that directly challenge biblical morality and fundamentalist Christianity.

The campaign, sponsored by the American Humanist Association, also features ads in major national and regional newspapers and magazines demonstrating that secular humanist values are consistent with mainstream America and that fundamentalist religion has no right to claim the moral high ground.

The ads juxtapose notable humanist quotes with passages from religious texts, including the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Quran. The ads then ask the audience to "Consider Humanism." One example is the following pairing: The Bible: "A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent." I Timothy 2 (New International Version) Humanism: "The rights of men and women should be equal and sacred—marriage should be a perfect partnership." Robert G. Ingersoll, in a letter dated April 13, 1878. Another pairing is: The Bible: "The people of Samaria must bear their guilt, because they have rebelled against their God. They will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open." God, Hosea 13:16 (New International Version) Humanism: "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own—a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty." Albert Einstein, column for The New York Times, Nov. 9, 1930

To see images and videos of the ads and find more information about the campaign please visit: http://www.considerhumanism.org

"Humanist values are mainstream American values, and this campaign will help many people realize that they are already humanists and just did not know the term," said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. "Humanists believe in and value love, equality, peace, freedom and reason – values that are comparable to those of moderate and liberal religious people."

In addition to the television ad on NBC, ads will also be displayed on cable channels. Print ads will appear in major newspapers, including USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Village Voice, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the Independent Triangle, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and magazines, including Reason and The Progressive. Ads will also appear on Metro trains in Washington, D.C., on billboards on I-95 near Philadelphia and in Moscow, Idaho, and on buses in select cities.

"We want to reach people in every corner of the U.S., from all walks of life, to raise the flag for humanists and show others that they have more in common with us than with biblical literalists," said Speckhardt.

"It's important that people recognize that a literal reading of religious texts is completely out of touch with mainstream America," Speckhardt added. "Although religious texts can teach good lessons, they also advocate fear, intolerance, hate and ignorance. It's time for all moderate people to stand up against conservative religion's claim on a moral monopoly."

All quotes from religious texts were checked by scripture scholars to ensure accuracy, context and proper translation.

The Stiefel Freethought Foundation was the primary sponsor of the Consider Humanism campaign with a $150,000 donation. Another $50,000 was raised from supporters of the American Humanist Association for the launch of this campaign, bringing the total ad buy to $200,000 so far.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Things That Make Me Smile (1)

That's January 1976 that this snippet from my Compton's 1977 Yearbook is talking about.

All this time later, it still makes me smile.

Wikipedia adds these details: In February 1976, NBC was sued by the Nebraska ETV Network, Nebraska's chain of PBS affiliates, for trademark infringement, since the new NBC logo was virtually identical to the Nebraska ETV Network logo, except in the coloring. An out-of-court settlement was reached in which NBC gave Nebraska ETV Network new equipment and a mobile color unit, valued at over $800,000, in exchange for allowing NBC to retain their logo. In addition, NBC paid $55,000 to Nebraska ETV to cover the cost of designing and implementing a new logo.

In 1979 this N was pretty much hidden behind NBC's peacock. It seems to have disappeared entirely in 1986.

They say truth is stranger than fiction. All I know is that it sure is funnier.

Or maybe I'm just easily amused.


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Let's Lend Stephen A Hand

Every week Time magazine asks a famous person ten questions that have been submitted by readers.

This week's famous person is Stephen Hawking.

Here's the very first question (as you can see for yourself by going here):

If God doesn't exist, why did the concept of his existence become almost universal? — Basanta Borah, BASEL, SWITZERLAND

Ok, now take a moment to imagine all the bright and insightful things Stephen might have chosen to say in response.

Take a few more moments to think about all the wise and wonderful things YOU might say in response.

(Maybe even take a few moments to scroll down and share those wise and wonderful things with us in a note or two before continuing.)

Now read Stephen's actual response:

I don't claim that God doesn't exist. God is the name people give to the reason we are here. But I think that reason is the laws of physics rather than someone with whom one can have a personal relationship. An impersonal God.



Ahem. Sorry. It's just that that's the sort of thing I expect from goofy Unitarians - not from one of the leading thinkers of our age.

Here's what I wish he would have said instead:

Although I'm a physicist and a cosmologist - not a psychologist or psychiatrist or anthropologist - here's the situation as I understand it. Humans are social creatures. A large portion of our brains is devoted to getting along with other people and trying to figure out what's going on in their heads. When we look at the non-human world, it's natural for us to approach it in the same way and with the same skills. We personify nature. We see faces in the clouds. We think in terms of angry seas and vengeful winds. We come to believe in spirits which inhabit nature - river sprites and sky gods. It's natural for us to come to believe that the universe as a whole is inhabited by a supreme spirit. And just as we try to appease angry parents, bosses, kings, and other humans, we try to appease these spirits. The fear of injury and death and the unknown makes this appeasement very important to us. It wasn't until fairly late in human history that we've realized that these spirits are things we've projected onto nature - not independent entities. Instead of appeasing nature, we've learned to look at it objectively and as it is with the scientific method. Looking at nature from a scientific perspective has proven to be far more insightful and productive than looking at it from a religious perspective ever has. Alas, not everyone has come to accept this yet. Old psychological and cultural patterns die hard.

Yeah, that's wordy, I know. The editors at Time would have had fits trying to edit it down to fit their space requirements. They might well have decided not to use it at all.

And I'm sure there are others out there who could say it better. Michael Shermer comes to mind. So does Massimo Pigliucci. But I don't have instant access to their answers to this question right now.

All I know for sure is that Stephen's answer really sucked.

If you can compose even a marginally better one for him to use in the future, I strongly encourage you to do so!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Election Reflections

You've probably heard how Republicans are trying to spin last week's election results: The American people have spoken! They want less government spending! They want Obamacare stopped in its tracks! WE have a mandate for REAL change!


The fact is, most Americans seem to have been turned off by both parties. "None Of The Above" was the real winner.

Consider: In my state of Ohio, the turnout rate was a mere 48.7% of registered voters. That was down from about 70% in 2008 and 56% in 2006 (the last time we got to vote for governor).

For the first time since 1978, our new governor - Republican and Fox News darling, John Kasich - won with less than 50% of the total vote. More people voted for his Democratic and other opponents than voted for him. That's not a mandate.

The truth is, both Democrats and Republicans seem to have stayed at home and sat on their hands in shocking numbers. It's just that Democrats were more likely to do so than Republicans, so the Republicans ended up winning more or less by default.

One Florida congressman said on MSNBC that Republican turnout was down 22% in his district - but Democratic turnout was down a whopping 60%. So a case could be made that both parties lost - it's just that Republicans lost less.

A closer look at what people think about so-called Obamacare reveals similar complexities. Although a majority of people *do* seem to be against it, vast numbers of people are against it because they believe it didn't go far enough. In fact, those people about equal the number that are against it for standard Republican reasons. A majority actually seem to be in favor of many individual provisions when their views are probed in detail.

It was thus with much disgust that I myself have been watching Obama's reaction to last Tuesday's results.

The message he seems to have taken away from those results is, "People want us here in Washington to work more closely together, so I'm going to start reaching out to the Republicans and see what we can do."

NO! That is exactly the wrong message to embrace.

Obama has tried to reach out to Republicans again and again in the last 18 months. According to that Florida congressman who appeared on MSNBC, some 100 Republican amendments were incorporated into the health care bill in an attempt to win them over and, in the end, virtually none of them voted for it. The message to take away from this election isn't to continue to pursue this same course of action in hopes of a different outcome - the message is that Obama should do more to energize his Democratic base by flipping off obstructionist Republicans and fighting for the Democratic principles and policies most Democrats want. The fact that he hasn't explains why so many Democrats stayed home this time around. And his decision to act even more like a Republican himself in the coming months might well doom whatever hope he has of actually winning re-election against a real Republican come 2012.

It's about time he started treating his friends better than his enemies.

Those enemies have given him little, if anything, in exchange for his courting of them. And the new batch aren't headed to Washington to reach out and compromise - they're headed to Washington to put an end to his presidency. Instead of continuing to be a co-conspirator in the plot to return a Republican to the White House, he needs to wake up and start fighting for us rather than against us.

Incredibly, his administration has instead chosen to argue against us in a major church-state separation case now before the Supreme Court.

According to a Nov 3 story in the Los Angeles Times headlined Solicitor General Surprises Justices In Religious Schools Case:

"The Obama administration upset liberals as well as the president's two Supreme Court appointees Wednesday by arguing that taxpayers had no right to sue the government if it used tax money to fund religious schools.

"The surprising argument came in this term's most important church-state dispute. At issue is the constitutionality of an unusual 13-year-old Arizona law that gives individuals dollar-for-dollar tax credits up to $500 for contributions to private organizations, which in turn allows taxpayers to direct a $500 tax credit to a private organization, which in turn pays tuition for students in private schools. More than 90% of the money goes to religious schools, the challengers said....

"Acting U.S. Solicitor Gen. Neal Katyal joined Arizona in defending the law but went further, arguing that no one had legal standing to challenge it in court....

"Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer quickly objected. If no one can sue, there would be no way to enforce the 1st Amendment's ban on laws that foster 'an establishment of religion,' they said.

"Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to agree, commenting that 'this is the state's money' going to private groups that fund only religious schools.

"Justice Elena Kagan, Katyal's boss until she joined the court in August, also objected to his argument. She ticked off a series of landmark rulings that rejected state aid to parochial schools. 'So, if you are right, the court was without authority to decide' those cases, 'but somehow nobody on the court recognized that fact?' she asked.

"'My answer to you is yes,' he said.

"At this, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a key swing vote, called for a pause. 'I just want to make sure I heard your answer. Your answer is yes? Those cases were wrongly decided?'

"Katyal said the court might have the right to say the states had wrongly subsidized religion, but he insisted no taxpayer had standing to sue....

"If the court were to agree with Katyal and broadly shield the government from legal claims that it is wrongly diverting public money to aid religion, the ruling could be far-reaching.

"Liberal advocates said they were taken aback by the administration's stand.

"'The brief they filed is the same that would have been filed by the Bush administration,' said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. 'There is no reason for the Obama administration to get involved in this case, let alone to take the conservative position that there is no standing.'

"The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, called the administration's stand 'inexplicable.'"

Inexplicable indeed.

Why should Democrats or others who disagree with Republicans vote for Democrats like Obama if they're just going to pursue Republican policies while in office? Why bother voting at all?

It's hard to understand why Obama doesn't get this - why his reaction to a new batch of radical Republicans should be to reach out to them when reaching out didn't work with their less radical cousins.

The closest thing to an explanation I can find comes from my reading of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Gladwell devotes quite a few pages in that book to explaining why Korean air crews about 10 years ago tended to crash at a frightening rate. The basic problem - according to Gladwell - was that those Koreans had been raised in a culture in which it wasn't proper or polite to question authority. When Korean air crews got into trouble, the co-pilots weren't acting as independent back-ups but as complacent yes men - even when that ended up sending planes into mountains. Once Korean air crews were retrained and co-pilots learned how to assert themselves, the odds that the passengers on their planes would safely reach their destination shot up.

It seems to me that Obama could benefit from some similar retraining.

In 2008 there was much talk about his cool, rational demeanor. There was even some talk about how a black man running for high office in the US simply couldn't afford to appear to be angry. It seems quite possible to me that Obama has gotten much further ahead in his life than angry old Jesse Jackson ever has by simply smiling and compromising and doing his best to appear to be non-threatening.

However essential those qualities may have been in his rise to the presidency, it seems to me that they threaten to permanently sink him now.

Monday, November 8, 2010

My Least Favorite Theist Of The Year

Of course the year isn't over yet and I might well change my mind before January 1, but... Austin "Jack" DeCoster has been haunting my thoughts ever since I first heard about him last summer.

Perhaps DeCoster haunts your thoughts, too.

I hope the name at least rings a bell.

Hint: He's the guy who seems to have been most responsible for that outbreak of egg-spread salmonella poisoning that sickened thousands of people.

By all accounts, DeCoster is a devout, born-again Christian - a guy who flies a Christian flag outside his business and testified before Congress that he prays several times a day for those he made sick.

According to an Aug 22 story in the Washington Post, he once fired a manager because he was an atheist.

Well, no atheist that I know of has engaged in business practices as atrocious as the Jesus-loving Mr. DeCoster.

That Washington Post story includes the following short but shocking catalog of some of those practices:

-- In 1996, DeCoster was fined $3.6 million for health and safety violations at the family's Turner egg farm, which then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich termed "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen." Regulators found that workers had been forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands and to live in filthy trailers.

-- In 1999, the company paid $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving unpaid overtime for 3,000 workers.

-- In 2001, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DeCoster was a "repeat violator" of state environmental laws, citing violations involving the family's hog-farming operations. The family was forbidden to expand its hog-farming interests in the state.

-- Also in 2001, DeCoster Farms of Iowa settled, for $1.5 million, a complaint brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the company had subjected 11 undocumented female workers from Mexico to a "sexually hostile work environment," including sexual assault and rape by supervisors.

-- In 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the family's Maine Contract Farming branch $345,810 for an array of violations. The same year, DeCoster Egg Farms of Maine paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 1998 by Mexican workers alleging discrimination in housing and working conditions.

-- In 2003, Jack DeCoster paid the federal government $2.1 million as part of a plea agreement after federal agents found more than 100 undocumented workers at his Iowa egg farms. It was the largest penalty ever against an Iowa employer. Three years later, agents found 30 workers suspected of being illegal immigrants at a DeCoster farm in Iowa. And in 2007, raids at other DeCoster Iowa farms uncovered 51 more suspected undocumented workers.

-- In 2006, Ohio's Agriculture Department revoked the permits of Ohio Fresh Eggs because its new co-owners, including Hillandale founder Orland Bethel, had failed to disclose that DeCoster had put up $126 million for the purchase, far more than their $10,000, and was heavily involved in managing the company. By playing down DeCoster's role, the owners had avoided a background check into DeCoster's "habitual violator" status in Iowa. An appeals panel overturned the revocation, saying the disclosure was adequate.

-- In 2008, OSHA cited DeCoster's Maine Contract Farming for violations that included forcing workers to retrieve eggs the previous winter from inside a building that had collapsed under ice and snow.

An eye-opening Sept 21 story in the New York Times opened with the following sentences that really bring into focus the consequences of this man's operations:

On a July night in 1987, scores of elderly and chronically ill patients at Bird S. Coler Memorial Hospital in New York City began to fall violently sick with food poisoning from eggs tainted with salmonella.

"It was like a war zone," said Dr. Philippe Tassy, the doctor on call as the sickness started to rage through the hospital. By the time the outbreak ended more than two weeks later, nine people had died and about 500 people had become sick. It remains the deadliest outbreak in this country attributed to eggs infected with the bacteria known as Salmonella enteritidis.

This year, the same bacteria sickened thousands of people nationwide and led to the recall of half a billion eggs.

Despite the gap of decades, there is a crucial link between the two outbreaks: in both cases, the eggs came from farms owned by Austin J. DeCoster, one of the country’s biggest egg producers.

A July 24 story posted by the Europe Sun added these details:

In 1977 neighbors whose homes were infested with insects filed a $5 million lawsuit, claiming nose plugs and flyswatters should be the "new neighbor" kit.

In 1980, the DeCoster operation was charged with employing five 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old by the Labor department.

In 1988, 100,000 chickens burned to death in a fire and were left to decompose.

In 1992, DeCoster was charged by the state with indenturing migrant workers and denying them contact with teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and labor organizers.

In 1996, federal investigators found DeCoster workers living in rat and cockroach infested housing and OSHA found their drinking water contaminated with faeces. Yum.

As far as I'm concerned, the fact that Jesus never came down from the sky and kicked this follower of his right in the ass is further proof of his non-existence.

And the fact that no Christian church that I know of has excommunicated DeCoster, condemned his actions the way they regularly condemn so many others, or threatened him and those like him with hellfire reveals an awful lot about the nature of the "absolute morality" they claim to embrace.

As for those conservative Republicans and others who are so quick to condemn government and regulations and inspectors but never seem to have a harsh word for even the worst scoundrels in the business world whose egregious actions put the lives of us all at risk... well, I suppose you can guess what I think of them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

They're Number One!

Although I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, a scant 53 miles from Windsor, Ontario, I almost never heard the word "Canada" uttered by anybody.

Weather maps on the TV newscasts and in the newspapers included data from distant areas of the US but nothing from The Mysterious Land Without A Name just to my north.

While dispatches from foreign correspondents stationed in places as far away as Germany and Japan were delivered almost daily to my doorstep, not a single comment, sigh, or peep from anyone in The Huge Pink Blob ever seems to have made its way the short distance south to Ohio.

I came to think of Canada as The Huge Pink Blob early on in life because that's what it was depicted as being on the jigsaw puzzle map of North America I had. While all 50 US states and their major cities and roads and products were shown in exquisite, colorful detail, the provinces and territories of the second largest country on earth were reduced to nothing more than one long, monochromatic smear cut off by the top edge of my cardboard distraction long before the North Pole regions performed the same service in the real world.

Mexico was the similarly monochromatic Orange Pie Wedge way to my south. I learned far more about Mexico in my youth than I ever learned about Canada, however. Mexicans sometimes even made their way into comic books and movies!

Canadians, in contrast, were reduced to sending me hard-to-decipher messages via Windsor's AM 800 radio station, CKLW. It seemed like such a lonely radio station, way off by itself at the far end of the dial as if trying to hide from me. The few times I accidentally found it, it apparently tried even harder to pass itself off as an American station by playing the same sort of music all the other stations were (with the exception of WTOD and its truly otherworldly country and western ditties).

I can vaguely vowing at some point in my youth to one day find out more about Canada and give it its due.

That day is now!

Consider what I've learned just this evening, ye self-centered Americans, and weep!

----- Canada is one of the world's few developed countries that is a net exporter of energy!

----- Canada is the number one producer of uranium as well as of zinc and/or potash! (My sources aren't entirely clear.)

----- Canada has the longest coastline in the world! (Over 125,000 miles - or over 200,000 kilometers, as they put it in the original Canadian.)

----- Canada has more lakes than ANY other country!

----- Canada has the soundest banking system in the world! In the words of mortgage specialist Pam Martin, "I am very pleased to see the World Economic Forum has ranked Canada's banking system as the soundest in the world for the third consecutive year. Canada's banks and other financial institutions are sound and well-capitalized, and were less highly leveraged than their international peers heading into the financial crisis. In contrast to many other countries, none of Canada's banks required bailouts. Even during the worst days of the credit crisis, our financial institutions' health allowed them to continue to raise capital. The strength of our financial sector is the result of a sound regulatory regime, including capital requirements for financial institutions that are well above minimum international standards and higher than in many other jurisdictions, and a more conservative risk appetite among financial institutions.... It's no wonder that international leaders around the world praise Canada's financial system as a model for others to emulate."

----- According to John Weston, a member of the Canadian Parliament, Canada is bouncing back from the current recession faster than any other country in the G8!

----- People all around the world love and respect Canada more than any other country! According to a recent story in USA Today, "The USA has slipped three notches to No. 4 in an annual ranking of nations with the most favorable brand performance, says a new study. Climbing to the top spot (from No. 2 in 2009) is Canada, thanks in part to its success in hosting this year's Winter Olympics in Vancouver.... Now in its sixth year, the survey (produced in partnership with BBC World News this year), queried 3,400 business and leisure travelers on five continents, augmented by expert focus groups, on their image associations of various countries in five categories, including tourism appeal, quality of life and value systems."

Pretty impressive, eh?

And it gets even more impressive when you realize that everyone from Alanis Morissette to Celine Dion to Howie Mandel to Jim Carrey to Doug Henning to Keanu Reeves to Mike Myers to Pamela Anderson to Sarah McLachlan to Stephen Pinker to Morley Safer to Shania Twain to Marshall McLuhan to James Randi to William Shatner chose to be born in Canada rather than ANY other place in the universe!

Had I ever heard of Canada before *I* was born, I just might have chosen to enter this life in Vancouver or Toronto myself.

If it wasn't so late, I'd be mighty tempted to start a Canada Appreciation Society.

As it is, I'm reduced to paying homage to that great country in this entry, then calling it a night.

If you're not an easily tired, ridiculously lazy American like me, I strongly encourage you to start such a society on my behalf.

Canada deserves no less!

And if the ghost of Pierre Trudeau doesn't pop up to thank you, I will.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

In Praise Of Inauthenticity

Hey, want to know a little secret?

Here it is: I hate to spend money. Not because I'm cheap or a miser or anything as interesting as that but because there are so few things I'm interested in buying.

The few things I do buy tend to end up severely disappointing me.

One quick example: I recently went out and bought a pair of lounge pants and even though I thought I bought the exact same brand and style and size as the lounge pants I already have and love, it turned out that the company is now making them different and... they just don't feel right. They're not as soft. The pockets don't fit my hands as well. And I can't trust the fabric not to crawl up my butt when I least expect it. I mean, come on - if you can't trust a simple pair of $10 lounge pants to provide you with a few moments of satisfaction, what incentive do you have to spend even $20 on a new car?

Well, despite this extreme reluctance of mine to hand over my cash to a world apparently intent on perpetually disappointing me in ways I can't even begin to imagine, I was recently persuaded to buy an Ion turntable - and I love it!

I now have the magical power to translate my vinyl records into digital files that I can play and manipulate on my computer and burn unto disks (hallowed be their technology). If I had an iPod, I probably could transfer these digitals files to that, too, but I don't. Maybe someday. Which will probably be several years after everyone else has moved on to a new format or gizmo....

But to keep focused on the positive: I've now successfully transferred most of my all-time favorite LPs to my computer.

And by "all-time favorite LPs" I mean my collection of 40-year-old Baja Marimba Band releases.

Yes, seriously.

Want to know a second little secret? I've been unapologetically in love with Muzak for as long as I can remember.

I was certainly in love with it in high school when my peers were in love with Kiss and Led Zeppelin and I brightly come out with "Julius Wechter and the Baja Marimba Band!" whenever I was asked who I might like best.

For some reason, my peers always thought I was joking.

For my part, I could never understand why anyone might prefer "Stairway to Heaven" to Julius's incomparable arrangement of "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?"

Julius was quite a guy. He played on Herb Alpert's first hit, "The Lonely Bull," back when Herb was still recording in a garage, then went on to write one of the Tijuana Brass's all-time biggest hits, "Spanish Flea" (which Julius had mischievously originally entitled "Spanish Fly"). After that, a place for a Julius composition was reserved on virtually every Alpert album. Most were infectiously catchy in a way an Aerosmith or David Bowie tune could only dream of being (though I've always been a fan of "Fame").

Oddly enough, Julius eventually got an advanced degree in psychology and became a marriage counselor. I've also learned in recent years (thanks to the miracle of the Internet) that he had Tourette's Syndrome. Try as I might, I can't stop smiling as I try to imagine which might make the better Monty Python skit, a marimba player with Tourette's or a marriage counselor. My bad.

Sad to say, the Baja Marimba Band - which was never very popular despite many appearances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" after the plate spinners and before Topo Gigio - fell completely out of favor circa 1970. Part of their shtick was their outfitting themselves as a bunch of dirty, stupid Mexicans. Admittedly, that probably wasn't the best idea anyone ever had - and it probably was an idea made even worse by the fact that Julius and the band members were about as authentically Mexican as bagels and lox, as LA Times music reviewer Charles Chaplin good-naturedly put it in the liner notes he wrote for their humorously entitled "Greatest Hits" LP - but... it worked for me.

Just like Bill Dana's Jose Jimenez character worked for me.

And Frito-Lay's Frito Bandito.

I didn't think these ethnic stereotypes were cruel racist putdowns - I just thought they were funny.

My consciousness has since been raised.

My love of the Baja Marimba Band's music endures.

None of which I had planned to write about today.

Then I sat down, picked up my copy of Time dated November 1, and read a story entitled Ballads For The Bad Guys.

Here are a few brief passages:

In Rialto, on old route 66 just outside Los Angeles, young Mexican Americans in sharp cars and glittery, cowboy-goth clothes are pouring into a hangar-size nightclub to hear El Komander sing. Brawny, buzz-cut and with a midnight pallor, El Komander looks as if a Mexican drug cartel might have sent him on a summer internship with the Russian mob.... His narcocorridos — narco ballads — are about the gunfights and beheadings going on south of the border: the word asesino (murderer) figures heavily in his lyrics. "Trashed with drugs," he croons in a deceptively sweet voice. "Blowing heads off those who cross us."

Driven by a tuba, an accordion, drums and a guitar, narcocorridos sound like polka pumped up on meth. By turns frenetic and mournful, the songs celebrate the violent lives — and grisly deaths — of Mexican drug lords. The genre's popularity has spread quickly from Mexico, and dozens of singers now routinely tour the U.S., finding huge audiences that are not limited to the nation's 47 million Hispanic....

The music's appeal is tied to its association with danger. In that sense, the narcocorrido has something in common with 1990s gangsta rap, complete with the fast and ferocious lifestyles of its performers. Many balladeers receive money from drug lords to write paeans about their exploits; some are paid to perform at gangs' private parties in secret hideouts. But being one gangster's favorite singer can make you a target for his rivals: nearly a dozen musicians have been killed since 2006....

The music has also given rise to a film genre. According to Baja Films Internacional director and producer Oscar Lopez, every month big-box stores sell tens of thousands of DVDs of gory Tijuana-made direct-to-video movies whose scripts are based on the latest narcocorrido hits....

In the last four years, some 26,000 people have been killed in the drug wars in Mexico. Stories about the latest slaughter down there that's worse than the infamous Valentine's Day Massacre in 1920s Chicago now appear almost every day in my newspaper. The situation, as one story I recently saw put it, is significantly worse than the much better reported war in Afghanistan.

And bands are now singing songs dedicated to the perpetrators of all this violence?

And listeners are eating it up??

Wow.... I'm beyond stunned.

You know, if Bill Dana tried to revive his Jose character on national TV, I'm sure the outrage would be deafening. And maybe it should be.

But... a whole industry has popped up in celebration of regular mass beheadings and mutilations as Mexico descends into a narco-civil war and there's *no* outrage?

Indeed, if Time is to be believed, the narcocorrido craze is actually being exploited by the likes of Subway and the Ford Motor Company as a way to appeal to Hispanic youth.

Dear Julius! Please wake me up from this post-apocalyptic nightmare and help me understand why *I* ever should have had to be the one required to defend his taste in music....

[EDIT: A guy by the name of Harvey Perr actually wrote the liner notes to the Baja Marimba Band's "Greatest Hits" LP. Perr was affiliated with something called FM & The Fine Arts. His actual words: "Best of all, it turns out that they're damned fine musicians who really play and so what if they're as Mexican as bagels and lox? Or lasagna? They are beautiful." The LA Times's Charles CHAMPLIN wrote the liner notes to Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass's "Greatest Hits" LP at a time when Herb's A&M Records company was based in the former film studio of Charlie Chaplin at 1416 North La Brea in Hollywood, California. I'm sorry for the confusion - and even sorrier about an aging process that scrambles memories the way a blender can scramble eggs and ants.]