Saturday, July 30, 2005

2000 Redux 

In case you still think W was the best choice the Supreme Court ever made, here's a very interesting analysis of the world we might have had, had Al Gore actually won the election he... um... actually won in 2000.

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Friday, July 29, 2005

Pope Speaks, No One Listens 

If there's such a thing as a lame duck pope, I think Ratzo I is it. Whenever John Paul II opened his yap about anything, it made the national news. Pope Ratzo isn't quite having that luck, unless he's bitching about Harry Potter. But, his words actually bring hope to the rationalists of the world:
Pope Benedict XVI lamented the seemingly "dying" church in Europe and the United States and raised questions about the soaring number of priests in Asia and Africa in a lengthy, off-the-cuff speech to Italian priests.
He was also shrewd -- or stupid -- enough to mention that some of the priests in third world nations might be taking on the jobs so they could basically have high status and perqs. Well, duh. And that's part of the point. In the modern world, there's really no benefit to being a priest. Hell, they've even taken away the "molest young boys for free" card in the US, Australia and Europe. So, what's left? A life of poverty and celibacy? No thanks.

Once upon a time, the church was a refuge for the younger children of big Catholic families who realized they weren't like the others, but could have an excuse for never marrying if they went into the priesthood or nunnery. Thanks to the western world pulling their heads out of their asses (mostly) on that issue, an entire generation of Catholics has grown up realizing they don't have to go into a religious life just because they like the same sex. And I think they've also realized they can do more good for the world not serving an institution that still supports superstition or bigotry. Hey, like it or not, Ratzo, the thing that the western world has given up is fear of invisible beings in the sky. Notwithstanding crazed religious bigots in America, while a majority of Americans claim to be Christian, I'm sure that some deeper quizzing would reveal that their beliefs extend as far as thinking that Jesus really was resurrected, maybe, and if they're good, and think pure thoughts, and think that Jesus is god, they'll get into heaven.

And believing in Santa will get you presents on December 25th...

Of course, from what I read online, people in Asia and Africa are still deeply superstitious. Major media in Asia reported the case of a girl who suddenly became a boy when she was 21 -- an event that would probably break down in an instant were it put to the scrutiny of Western Science. Can you say "late puberty", "tiny dick", "big clit", or "hermaphrodite"? And, in Africa, people are still killed by mobs because enough people believe that a witch doctor can toss a spell and steal a penis. This kind of thinking is made for devout Catholicism -- or any other devout belief in the ridiculous.

So, to recap... it's no surprise that people become priests in large numbers in Asia and Africa, either for economic gain or because they're just more likely to believe bullshit. And it's no surprise that people in Europe, the US and Australia don't fall for that crap as much anymore. And it's less than no surprise that Pope Ratzo can spew off about it and get hardly any coverage.

I give the Catholic Church about two more generations before they get shuffled off into the margains, and are regarded with the same condescending head tilt as Scientology. And that's a good thing. The less infected the west is by religion, the better.

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Where Credit Is Due... 

...you're screwed.

My parents, perhaps because they were Depression babies, were leery of credit and, in fact, they didn't get their first credit cards, ever, until I was well out of college -- not because they couldn't, but because they didn't want to. In fact, the only reason they finally did break down and get plastic was because stores suddenly started requiring credit card numbers in order to accept checks. That practice has gone away. But, I don't think my parents ever had more than two or three credit cards between them, and never had any balance on them. Having grown up with a totally screwed economy, they knew the value of cash and carry.

They kind of passed that on to me and, other than the almost inevitable "sucked in starving post-college student" adventure in my 20s (long since paid off and gone), I'm not a big credit-card fan either. At the moment, I only have one card with an outstanding balance, but it's from a retail store, not a general credit card, and I only ran up the balance one time, as an emergency measure. (My TV blew up, and I was at the moment unemployed. Which tells you something else about the screwed state of credit in the US right now. I was unemployed and they gave me a damn credit card.) But -- every month, I've paid ten percent of the total balance, and am about at the point where they get one check and the (smallish) balance goes bye-bye.

I have many friends and acquaintances in a far different situation. I've seen people I know (usually in their 20s) use a credit card to buy a sandwich at Quiznos. I've seen people in grocery stores put a pack of cigarettes and some tampons on the AMEX. Not only is that ridiculous. It's dangerous. That $6 sandwich is going to turn into a five-star restaurant dinner for two by the time you pay it off, if you succumb to the lure of the mythical Minimum Monthly Payment.

Of course, as I noted elsewhere, those MMPs are about to double, thanks to the Federal Government urging the credit card companies -- in exactly the wrong way -- to help people pay off their debts faster.

And now, many of those companies are going to be upping their interest rates and late fees.

I guess they're not making enough money, boo-fucking-hoo.

In any other universe, Credit Card companies would be considered no better than loan sharks and would be run out of business for fradulent, usurious practices. Also considering the rather sloppy handling of their customers' personal info of late, it's just an insult that they think a $39 penalty when your check arrives a day late is justified. As for fradulent, the concept of MMP is just a lie. It was 2% of the outstanding balance, soon to rise to 4%. But let's look at the math. Taking the average credit card rate of about 13% and a mythical $1,000 balance, with a minimum monthly payment of $10, here's what happens if you pay the minimum:Repeat for twelve years, paying a total of 180% of the original balance. Incidentally, if there's no bottom limit on the MMP, you run into what's called an infinite regress -- the balance will approach, but never reach, zero. Which should tell you something about credit card company math in the first place.

Anyway, there's one simple way to defeat these thieving bastards at their own game, and that's not to play it. It may be tempting to just put it on plastic, pay tomorrow for today's expenses. But it's a losing proposition from the word go. The TV I bought on credit is worth far less than I've paid for it. But, about six months after that purchase, when I was working, I bought a second TV (same size as the first one) for cash, and it's still worth somewhat in the vicinity of what I paid for it.

But... I would love it if America would end its love affair with credit. If everyone could ween themselves and get into the cash and carry mode, the credit card companies would lose their fortunes and their power quickly. It would become a borrower's market, and suddenly they'd have to drop their interest rates and their usurious practices in order to lure customers. If we could just cut up the plastic and learn to not spend money we don't have, then the companies that promised no late fees and lower rates would be the companies that got the business.

That's the only way to control any cartel, really. Stop doing business with them until they're willing to do business on your terms, not theirs. It may be a pipe dream, but if enough people play along, it just might work.

At any rate, the only people who get screwed by the credit card companies are those who sign on the dotted and sell their souls. And that isn't necessary.

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In (His) Name Only 

Linking without much comment, because this story says it all... despite professions otherwise, Americans know little about Christ's teachings and the bible, and do not act in Christian ways. One interesting irony from the piece: "In 2004, as a share of our economy, we ranked second to last, after Italy, among developed countries in government foreign aid."

Hm. Second to last, after Italy, one of the most Catholic countries in the world, along with Ireland and Mexico.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

A Driving Analogy 

Billy got a car for his eighteenth birthday. It was a used car that his parents bought for him, but it ran. He was happy, even if it wasn't a riced out Honda. It was a Ford, a few years old, but it ran great, the body and interior were in good shape, the radio and A/C worked. His father told him as he handed over the keys, "Check the oil and water regularly, get 'em changed every three thousand miles, have your mechanic check her out every year, and you'll have this car until you're out of college."

Billy nodded, but he didn't hear. And he didn't hear other things his father told him. Don't ride the clutch. Pay attention to any warning lights or strange noises. And so, Billy drove the hell out of that car, and after a year hadn't even cracked the dipstick. He hadn't even had the oil changed in that time. He'd meant to, but when it came to the decision on whether to spend $39.95 at LubeMasters or spend the money to go out partying with friends, well... it kept getting put off.

Six months after his nineteenth birthday, the car wouldn't start. Billy called dad, who used his AAA membership to have the car towed to the mechanic. It wasn't anything too serious, but $247.58 later (which dad paid) the car was running again. Billy promised himself he'd take better care of it, and indeed, six months or so later, did have the oil changed. Although he was sure that the brake light that kept coming on when he accellerated meant nothing, and neither did that weird grinding/squealing sound when he stopped the car.

Until the day he hit the brakes and the pedal went to the floor. That was when he learned why they called it an "emergency brake." Another tow-job, although this time dad told Billy that he couldn't help out. What would have been a routine brake-pad replacement became a replacement and rotor turning. "Oh, and I noticed you really need to have your radiator flushed, and when was the last time you changed your oil?" the mechanic asked. He stuck with the brake job. Car insurance was due in a week, after all.

Two months before his twentieth birthday, Billy was driving home late at night in a strange neighborhood. The temperature gauge had been floating way in the red, so he had the heater on, despite it being a hot night. Then he stopped at a red light and suddenly the engine got quiet and he saw a huge white cloud rising behind the car. The engine wasn't running, wouldn't start, wouldn't do anything.

"We can get you a rebuilt engine for about two grand," the mechanic in a strange neighborhood told him. Billy thought about the fifty seven dollars and change in his checking account, wishing he hadn't gone to Acapulco last spring break, maybe had bought a cheaper guitar. He wondered whether dad would understand. "But, I need a car to get to work. No car, no money..."

In any event, the eighteenth birthday present was a dead piece of junk in less than two years...

* * *

David was fifty, and he'd owned a lot of cars in his day. Perhaps going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, he bought the sporty Mustang convertible, "pre-owned". It had less than two thousand miles on it. Previous owner had changed his mind. Or rather, his wife had. David's story is much shorter than Billy's. He babied the fuck out of that car. Took it in for service every three months or three thousand miles, whichever came first. Had every single preventative repair that his mechanic suggested made immediately. Had it detailed twice a month. Kept it covered or garaged when it was parked.

When David died at the age of eighty-five, one of his bequests was to give that car to his favorite grandson, a forty year-old working for a catering company. The car was in absolutely pristine condition. Because it was from a sought-after-by-collector's model year, the grandson was soon getting offers -- good offers -- for the car. He accepted one of them and, after taxes, paid off his mortgage and started his own company, which became successful.

Billy, who was in his mid-fifties at the time, was busy paying alimony to two ex-wives, and mostly took public transportation to work...

* * *

Aesop stopped his tale, and the children sitting before him said, "Uh... what the fuck was that story about?"

"Let me tell you," he said. "A car is like the earth. Or the earth is like a car. It is the vehicle that moves all of us through space. We can choose to take care of it so that we may pass it along perfect to future generations, or we may run it into the ground. The difference in our actions is a measure of our maturity. Billy lived for today, and thought things like partying were more important than the means for his survival. But David knew the value of what he had, and he took care of it. When he was gone, his grandchildren were able to improve their lives because of how he'd acted."

"Tell us the one about the fox and the grapes again," the children whined, and Aesop wanted to slap them all.

This is not a facetious story at all. Rather, it's a good measure of the maturity of governments. Those who take action to prevent problems, despite the expense upfront, are acting in a mature manner -- those who protect their natural resources and their wildlands, who protect the environment, who seek renewable energy sources.

But those who don't give a damn, ride the wheels off the planet, ignore the red lights on the dashboard as they go off; indeed, insist that there are no red lights; those are the immature governments. And they are the ones who would leave this planet a steaming junkpile by the side of the road in a bad neighborhood, less than nothing for their children's children to inherit, because it'll be gone in their lifetime.

It's no mistake that I draw an analogy between an irresponsible college boy and this American administration's handling of the environment. After all, we've stuck an immature college boy in the driver's seat, and he's speeding toward the cliff, ignoring all the warning signs and good advice that come his way.

Hope you brought your parachutes...

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A Message from Their Sponsor 

I found the image below online. I have no idea the original source. But I thought it would serve as an appropriate reminder of what the Big JC's probable message would be to all the fundies and loonies and hypocritters who do business in his name, from Pat Robertson and Fred Phelps to Pope Ratzo and W...

Boy, that Jesus sure has some looong middle fingers...

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Oceania Is Our Enemy... Oceania Is Our Friend... 

Here's a bit of Newspeak from Washington. The War on Terror is now becoming "a global struggle against violent extremism"...
New opinion polls show that the American public is increasingly pessimistic about the mission in Iraq, with many doubting its link to the counterterrorism mission. Thus, a new emphasis on reminding the public of the broader, long-term threat to the United States may allow the administration to put into broader perspective the daily mayhem in Iraq and the American casualties
Or, in other words, you didn't buy our bullshit the way we first marketed it, so we'll act the same and call it another name.

Double-plus un-good...

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Amazing how the wingnuts' blind hatred of the Clintons can lead them to make wild accusations in public based on half truths. I refuse to link to NewsMax, but here are the lead graphs on their latest anti-Hillary screed:
No wonder 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been silent as a churchmouse about Karl Rove while her Democratic colleagues call for his prosecution for leaking classified information about CIA employee Valerie Plame.

Turns out - in the only case in U.S. history of a person successfully prosecuted for leaking classified information to the press - Hillary's husband pardoned the guilty party.

On January 20, 2001, President Clinton pardoned Samuel Loring Morison, a civilian analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence. In 1984, Morison had been convicted of providing classified satellite photos of an under-construction Soviet nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to Britain's Jane's Defence Weekly.

He received a two-year jail sentence.
Gasp, shock, horror... except, as the article sort of mentions, Morison had been prosecuted and sentenced during the Reagan administration. And he was the only person ever prosecuted and convicted under the law in question.

Clinton's pardon came about after lobbying by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose complete request includes this:
Ironically, we now have in Samuel Loring Morison a man who has been convicted for leaking information, while so many real spies are discovered but never prosecuted. Begin with the VENONA messages, Soviet spy cables intercepted during World War II and decrypted by the U.S. Army beginning in December 1946. VENONA exposed a network of Soviet agents operating in the United States, including at Los Alamos. Spies, such as Theodore Alvin Hall, who gave away our most sensitive atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, were discovered, yet never prosecuted.

What a different experience from that of Samuel Loring Morison. I have been told, though I do not know it to be true, that his rank - - not too high, not too low - - was a consideration in the decision to seek prosecution. I would hope that in your review of Mr. Morison's application for a pardon you reflect not simply on the relevant law, but the erratic application of that law and the anomaly of this singular conviction in eighty-one years.
A little more detail on what Morison actually did:
Samuel Loring Morison worked at the Naval Intelligence Support Center in Suitland, Md., from 1974 to 1984. The grandson of the famous naval historian Samuel Elliot Morison, he was an intelligence analyst specializing in Soviet amphibious and mine-laying vessels.

At the same time, Morison earned $5,000 per year as a part-time contributor and editor of the American section of Jane's Fighting Ships, an annual reference work on the world's navies published in England. There were repeated complaints about Morison using office time and facilities to do his work for Jane's and warnings to him about conflict of interest between the jobs.

In 1984, conflicts with his supervisors led Morison to seek a full-time position with Jane's in London. At this time, he began overstepping the boundary of permissible information that could be sent to Jane's. The case came to a head when Morison took three classified photographs from a neighboring desk. These were aerial surveillance photographs showing construction of the first Soviet nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The photographs were missed. Soon thereafter, they appeared in Jane's Defence Weekly and were traced back to Morison.
Note the enormous differences here between Morison and Rove/Libby. First, he didn't leak American secrets nor the name of American CIA covert operatives to the American media; he leaked pictures of Soviet ships to a British publication specializing in military craft. Poor judgement, yes, but not likely to get any Americans killed, since they were aerial surveillance photos, and it was no secret at the time that the US and USSR were using spy planes and satellites on each other constantly.

Contrast with Rove/Libby, who were pissed off that someone told the truth and contradicted their lies intended to start a war, then used vindictive leaks against him. NewsMax is comparing apples and oranges here -- or maybe comparing simple fools and malicious madmen.

Morison served his time, and a pardon nearly twenty years later is not a big deal. Rove/Libby's indiscretion, on the other hand, is part of an ongoing military fiasco that never should have happened.

To put it another way:'Nuff said.

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Pope Ratzo Hypocricizes Again 

Thanks to work behind the scenes when he was just a cardinal, Pope Ratzo has now allowed a married man with children to become a Catholic priest. Gregory Elder, previously an Episocapl minister (that church allows priests to marry) converted to Catholicism after his wife did. Now, he'll be an officially sanctioned, married priest with kids.

It sounds like a heartwarming story. But then there's this:
A group of Roman Catholic women risk excommunication with their plan to be unofficially ordained as priests Monday in a secret ceremony on a boat in the St. Lawrence River.

The women, including two Canadians, say the ordination will follow Vatican procedures.

But church officials have strongly objected to such ceremonies in the past. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, excommunicated seven women in 2002 after they were ordained.
Now, what's the difference? Or will Father Elder be forever prohibited from actually schtupping his wife once he becomes a priest?

You'd think, in this era when the number of people going into religious orders is at the ass-end of a long decline, the church would be happy to accept anyone who wanted to be a priest. And god knows, some of their officially sanctioned choices have been real winners when it comes to not being able to keep their hands off children. But barring someone from the priesthood because they're a woman makes no sense. For that matter, neither does barring a married priest. Think about it. What's one of the big things that parish priests do for their flock? Counsel them on marriage. How the hell can someone do that if, in theory, they've never even gotten laid?

Historically, of course, priests were not always required to be single, nor celibate. The church only made that ruling because they realized that priests with children, legitimate or otherwise, would be leaving their lands and money to the kids instead of to the church. It was an economic purse-snatch, nothing more nor less.

Barring women makes less sense, unless you want to consider two thousand years of misogynism by the church. I asked a Catholic priest about this once (and the layman who was having lunch with us just about shit a Rosary when I did), but he politely explained that, since the priest was a stand-in for Jesus in the Mass, he had to be a man. I then asked him, "But how can you tie down a metaphysical concept with a physical constraint?" Before I could add something crass like "Why do you need a dick you're not supposed to use to be a priest?" our mutual friend changed the subject.

But, honestly, that really is the question, isn't it? And, as all religions tend to do, their own human rules contradict everything they claim about their imaginary gods. Even more surprising that Catholicism would not have female priests, given their utter devotion to Mary. (Look up goddess-based religions and church history in the early dark ages to figure out how she got in there.)

Personally, I think allowing Father Elder to be a priest was a good decision, just as I think the threat of excommunicating women who dare to be ordained is a bad one. But that fact that Pope Ratzo is able to make both decisions at the same time just points out another example of his -- and the institution's -- blithering hypocrisy.

To the Catholic church, women are nothing but unwilling baby-factories. They truly only want you barefoot and pregnant, a walking Catholic factory from the moment you're married until your uterus falls out. Otherwise, they have no use for you, and this latest stupidity from the Vatican just proves it beyond all doubt.

How any woman can remain a follower of that religion is beyond me. And if every woman did leave the church, it would do what five hundred years of rationalism hasn't quite done yet -- leave them as irrelevant as they should be in the 21st century.

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Monday, July 25, 2005

It's Okay, He Was Brown... 

I've waited to comment on the tragic case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the unfortunate Brazilian in the wrong place at the wrong time who was murdered by British police. And the right word is murdered -- what else do you call two men holding an innocent person down so that a third can shoot him in the head seven times?

Of course, the defense I've heard from the British police is, "What if he'd been a terrorist and we let him go?" True enough, and I was willing to give that sliver of possibility the benefit of the doubt -- maybe the kid acted suspiciously, maybe he ran toward a train fiddling with his jacket, maybe it was all a spur-of-the moment, unfortunate goof-up.

Except that the police trailed him for nearly a half-hour, from his front door to the tube station. Because de Menezes happened to live in a building that had been targeted in terror investigations, and because he wasn't white, plainclothesmen followed him. But they didn't detain him, thinking he might lead them to another terrorist.

And in these particulars, this becomes one enormous cock-up, an act of murder that could have been prevented. After all, in this age where innocent people are harrassed and threatened and strip-searched because some airport screener is in a pissy mood, why the hesitation by the police in this one instance, a hesitation that led to murder?

If they thought de Menezes were a bomb-toting terrorist, they should have grabbed him right there on the street and detained him. A minute or two of questions, he'd still be alive. Instead, he was executed, in public, and that's a scary thing.

I have no sympathy for terrorists, but I have empathy for human beings -- and de Menezes is another victim of terrorism. The pants-pissing paranoia that too many people fall victim to is what caused these three cops to disregard this innocent young man's humanity and slaughter him like a cow for Sunday dinner. And, in this regard, the terrorists actually win when they cause those who should be our protectors to act as our judge, jury and executioner, regardless of any facts or evidence otherwise.

What facts or evidence? None -- except three British cops saw brown guy. Reminder to the British people: this is the kind of thing, not even extended to murder, that caused five days of riots all over Los Angeles. Remember Rodney King? And I'm damn surprised that the people of London aren't rioting, except that they're so damn polite. (They need to import some Man United fans and get them worked up.)

I'm sure the apologists are making the argument that, had de Menezes been a terrorist and gotten on the train, more lives would have been lost. And my answer to that argument is, in this case, it's bullshit. The cops had nearly half an hour to determine whether he was a terrorist, and stop him before he got anywhere near the station. Now, if a plainclothes cop had been standing on the platform and somebody near him suddenly shouted, "Allah ackbar!", a bullet in the head would probably not be an over-reaction. De Menezes did nothing of the sort.

It's pretty simple. As soon as innocent people start getting killed by their own side to "protect" us, the war on terror has been lost. The terrorists have won. And I hope that the cop who fired those bullets into de Menezes's head goes to his grave with the knowledge that he is the person who lost the war.

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Sunday, July 24, 2005

Ten Actors I Love 

Okay, it's not always about politics. Inspired by the bonus materiel for Casablanca, here are ten actors I'll watch in anything, in no particular order...
  1. Lauren Bacall. This is one classy, ballsy lady, always bigger than life. Hard to believe she made her film debut at nineteen, but nice to know that she's still alive and kicking.

  2. Raquel Welch. A woman that all our current bimbos should learn from, because, while she had the looks, she also had the talent. And presumably still has it, although she's been wise in keeping herself rare. In her heyday, no one could hold a candle to her onscreen.

  3. Sophia Loren. I think the term MILF was invented with her in mind. And the phrase GILF will pop up soon. Again, a sexy woman who has talent, someone I could watch watching paint dry.

  4. Karen Black. She was flavor of the month in the 70s, and then mostly vanished, although she's popped up in various low-budget flicks since then (q.v. the under-rated Gypsy 83).

  5. Mae West. This woman was a goddess. She even made her last film, Sextette, an otherwise unwatchable piece of dreck, into gold. She and Raquel Welch are two of the three reasons that Myra Breckenridge is one of my guilty pleasures. And the films she made in the 30s are priceless.

  6. Humphrey Bogart. He actually started out as a bad-guy character actor, and it was Casablanca that turned him into a leading man. But any Bogart film I've ever seen, no matter how bad otherwise, was incendiary when he was onscreen.

  7. Claude Rains. In his first major role, 1933s The Invisible Man, Rains was mostly unseen, but it was his voice that made his character and was so creepy. I still shudder when I remember the scene in which he sent a rival to his death over a cliff in a fiery car crash. But, beyond that, Rains was one of the premiere film villains from the 30s through the 50s. And he was always a villain that we hated and hissed, but understood.

  8. Buster Keaton. Okay, in silent fan land, there are but three: Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd. And, of those three, I cast my vote for Keaton. Why? Because Lloyd always played his characters a bit too prissy and effete, while Chaplin played them a bit too nasty. In contrast, Keaton really was everyman, and he was brilliant. On top of all that, he was technically brilliant. He made a film in 1921, when he was only 26, The Playhouse, that was a technical tour de force -- he played almost every character in the film, and had a twin love-interest played by one actress, and did it all without advantage of anything even resembling modern CGI tricks. Watching this short film and remembering when it was made, all I can ever think is... "Whoa. How the hell did he do that?" And Keaton's silent career was nothing but. He made Chaplin and Lloyd look like amateurs.

  9. John Huston. Again, bigger than life comes to mind. Huston could read the phone book and be entertaining as hell. In fact, in that "Who would you invite to a dinner party" game, he's high on the list. The man was just fun onscreen, no matter who or what he was playing. And he gave us so many memorable moments. Along with Raquel Welch and Mae West, he made Myra Breckenridge watchable; he also lent his talents to another film classic, Winter Kills. And, of course, forget it Jake, it's Chinatown. And, like the others, Huston is just fun to watch. Period.

  10. W.C. Fields. This man single-handedly brought surrealism to mainstream movies, and while he's permanently linked to Mae West via a film or two they did together, his career was so much more. And, while they may not have admitted it, he's had a big influence on so many modern actors. Any time that Billy Bob Thornton is nasty to a kid in a modern film, W.C.'s fingerprints are all over it. Any time drunkeness or stonedness are glorified in film now, thank the great god W.C.. This man had a sense of humor and a sense of anarchy, and he died too young. But watch any of his features from the 30s, and you'll boggle, thinking they must have been made much, much later. Sadly, he made his last film in 1941, a year before Bogart impressed the world with Casablanca. But every film he made is worth re-watching now, for his anarchic spirit.

Okay, I'm sure there are more, but those are the people I can think of at the moment. Any one of them, I'd love watching just reading their shopping list. Which is a lot more than I can say of most famous actors nowadays.

Sad, isn't it?

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Saturday, July 23, 2005

A Brief History of Western Culture 

Moved up by reader request...

About fourteen billion years ago, the universe began with a Big Bang, clouds of gas and dust eventually separating out of the expanding fireball. Gravity did its work, drawing the gas and dust together, until nuclear fusion kicked in, stars were born, trapped clouds began to orbit and condense and collide.

Four and a half billion years or so ago, the Earth formed, a rocky planet orbiting third out from an average star. Eventually, monocellular life formed, then learned the tricks of the collective. Eons pass. Life grew more complicated, climbing out of the oceans, taking over the land. Eventually, dinosaurs were the dominant life form, ruling the planet for over a hundred million years. Something eventually happened – possibly an asteroid impact, possibly a super volcano, no one knows yet – and the dinosaurs went bye-bye. Mammals stepped into the niche.

One particular class of mammals, pseudo-bipedal primates with opposable thumbs, slowly grew and evolved. Time passed. The first species of the genus Homo, Homo Habilis, lived for about a million years, up until a million and a half years ago. Various other species of the genus developed, grew bigger brains, slowly changed over time. Then, two hundred thousand years ago, Homo Sapiens – us – figured out stone tools, and language, and walking upright and a whole bunch of other things. Apparently, Homo Neanderthalensis also figured out a lot of the same things around the same time, but they wound up on the short bus of history, apparently extinct.

The end result is still the same. Nearly fourteen billion years after the Big Bang, humankind pops up, a mere eyeblink in the history of the universe from the birth of our kind until now. (The eyeblink is 1/70,000th of the universe’s life span.)

It took about another hundred and ninety thousand years or so before Homo Sapiens crawled into the middle east and suddenly started doing things really differently than every other species. Ten thousand years ago, agriculture was invented. Cities arose. Writing and law and science and art became human occupations. Our species learned more about the workings of the physical world in a few thousand years than in the entire multi-billion year history of that world previous. We learned to predict the seasons by following the moon and planets, when to plant and when to harvest. We took control of nature, and we thrived.

We still had (and still have) trappings of our mammalian past, though, mostly living in hierarchical societies with an Alpha as leader, their Beta enforcers, a whole bunch of underlings relying on them, and the obligatory Omegas, who exist solely to make the underlings feel okay about themselves. Not exactly the best system in the world, but it worked. There were wars and famines, to be sure, but we obviously made it through in one piece. Various major cultures rose and fell. Three thousand years ago, Greece stepped up to the plate and, for seven hundred years, dominated what is now Europe and the Mediterranean. It was a time when science and rational thought predominated – most of our philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, physics, aesthetics and literature are rooted in the developments made by the Greeks.

Greece was followed on her heels by Rome – in fact, in many ways, the Roman Empire is really just an absorption and overlap of the Greek Empire. From Zeus to Jupiter; Ares to Mars. The Romans borrowed everything from the Greeks, and perpetuated the growth of science and art, and etc.

The Roman Empire brought together much of modern Europe and the middle east as one entity. Disparate cultures mixed and mingled, and there were many a place that didn’t need to be conquered because they realized they’d be much better off as part of Rome.

Rome lasted for a thousand years. About a century before her death, its Emperor went a little crazy, adopted a three-hundred year old cult, turned the place into a theocracy, banished all other religions and forced conversion of the people.

Surprise, surprise. The Roman Empire embraced Christianity in 325 CE. In the next century, the Empire split in two (after having been briefly re-united), and the western Roman Empire ceased to exist in 476 CE.

Religion – specifically Christianity – ruled the western world and for nearly a thousand years, nothing of cultural significance happened. Well, not quite true. Nothing good happened. But, a few hundred years later when another theocracy had arisen in the middle east, the Christians decided to launch a Crusade against them, Islam, and embarked on a long series of pointless battles over a small piece of land. For an excellent read on the entire history of the Crusades, check out Dungeon, Fire and Sword by John J. Robinson. Suffice it to say that, when the Pope was the real ruler of the West, stupidity ensued. I won’t even get into the Inquisition here.

The point is, human culture flourished for three and a half millennia, then stopped dead in its tracks when superstition took over. During the Dark Ages, all art, science and culture were warped to religious ends. There were no scientific discoveries because scientific explanations contradicted easy theological answers. The Earth had to be the center of the solar system and the universe because god said so; heaven had to be beyond the plane of stars and hell somewhere underground. God forbid anyone should dig down or shoot a rocket upwards to find out the truth. From the 5th to 13th centuries CE, the west was stuck in a rut. Even as rumblings of the Renaissance began in the 14th century, everything was still subsumed to religion. Dante is considered the first Renaissance poet, but he’s best known for his religious epic The Divine Comedy, and most people are only familiar with the one interesting part of the trilogy, Inferno – Dante’s trip into hell – because that’s where all the cool bits are.

But... the Renaissance was a rediscovery of (surprise, surprise) all that Greek and Roman art and science that had been in hiding for so many centuries, suppressed as pagan by the church. And where had it been hiding? Why, in the Muslim world. This marked the second time that Islam bailed out Christendom, actually. The first was when Marmeluks defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 CE. Had the Muslims not stopped Genghis Khan then, all of Europe would have been absorbed into his empire, and we would be living in a quite different world.

In 1453 CE, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the Dark Ages ended. In less than fifty years, Christopher Columbus was off to (re)discover the new world, and suddenly European art and science began to flourish again. Just a few of the big names of the 15th and 16th Centuries: DaVinci, Gutenberg, Michelangelo, Thomas More, Martin Luther, Cervantes, Shakespeare, John Donne. The spinning wheel is invented – the first turn of the eventual industrial revolution. And, over these two centuries, independent monarchs arise in Europe – Henry VIII having the royal balls to tell the Pope to get stuffed, thereby starting the Church of England and showing the world that it could be done.

In the 17th century, things really get cooking. Harvard is founded. Torture is outlawed in England. New York and Boston are born. René Descartes cogitates. Locke and Hobbes philosophize. And Isaac Newton takes all the old Greek and Roman science and revolutionizes it, and brings us the first theories and laws that lead directly to all the fancy science we have now. The computer on which you’re reading this, the Internet over which it’s flowing, the space station, and on and on, were all born with the start of classical mechanics.

Which brings us to now, more or less. In the five centuries since theocracy in the west was stomped down, humankind has made more advances than in its entire ten thousand year odd history previous; more advances than in the two hundred thousand years since the birth of Homo Sapiens. And we’ve made more scientific advances in the last fifty years than in all that time previous; more in the last ten years than in the last fifty, and it just keeps getting faster and faster and better.

But... there are still remnants of Dark Age thinking among us, of which I’ll cite but two examples. First is the movement against stem cell research, which would deny breakthroughs that could cure many, many human diseases -- all because of their misguided, uninformed superstitions about where stem cells come from. Second is the push to try to put “creationism” on equal footing with evolution as a theory about the origin of mankind. The latter should sound familiar – it’s exactly what the Catholic Church did when Galileo tried to say that the Earth revolved around the sun. Rather than look at the evidence with their own eyes (and trust that any result would be a part of their god’s plan), they denied that evidence and insisted that things had to be a certain way. They ignored the facts to fit their theory, hardly science at all.

It’s exactly what creationists do now, and if you look at the numbers, you’ll notice something interesting. The more hardline creationists set the date that everything began at October, 4004 BCE – meaning that their universe is a mere 6009 years old. This is a bit younger than human culture but about the same age as recorded human history – if you want to ignore all those ten thousand year old and older cultural artifacts we’ve been finding of late. What’s significant about this is that, like the church’s terracentric universe, it tries to put mankind at the center of everything. It comes out of a deep insecurity, that we aren’t special, that we weren’t put here for a reason. But, dammit, we’re running the planet, we must be special, right? Right...?

How convenient, then, that creationists think of all those fossils as false evidence planted by Satan to trick us. It allows them to ignore what I stated previously. Dinosaurs ruled the Earth for about ten thousand times as long as we’ve been around and, as far as we know, they never developed any sort of culture or technology at all. But they came first and lasted (so far) a lot longer. They put us away from the center of things. (A nice mind-twister, though: could any sort of manufactured artifact survive the sixty-five million years of planetary change that have ensued? What if the dinosaurs killed themselves in a nuclear war? They certainly had the time to evolve to that stage.)

The story of humankind has been a journey of discovery, from that first flint arrowhead right up to the Large Hadron Collider and beyond. See Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the most brilliant distillation of this fact ever presented onscreen; he tells the entire story in a single cut.

So, we have a choice. We can continue to explore and learn about our universe, to exploit whatever advances we can, to educate ourselves and others. We create our own meaning to the universe. It doesn’t matter whether humankind was “created” with a special position or not. We’ve gotten to a special position, and we can chose to use it.

Or, we can fall prey (pray) to superstition, pretend that we were dropped into this universe to make some invisible cloud being happy, ignore facts and reality and science – and plunge ourselves back into the Dark Ages, where nothing happened for a millennia. Nothing but war and plague and hatred and intolerance.

Kind of ironic, isn’t it? The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are most active when the religious folk are in charge. Once the church got kicked to the curb and secular states took over, the Horsemen were reined in (and/or reigned in) and humankind has again flourished, defeating many diseases and reducing famine. We haven’t gotten rid of War yet (but the current one is, notably, just an extension of the Crusades), but anything is possible. It may seem unlikely that we’ll ever defeat Death but, you never know. Again, some theorists think it can be done.

You never know without science, and you can never appreciate it without art. We have a choice as a species: willful ignorance and subservience to false idols, or investigation and education, a striving toward new ideals. We can go the way of the dinosaurs or the way of the stars, but the only thing that can save us is ourselves.


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Wednesday, July 20, 2005


There's a nasty surprise lurking in the economy, and it's probably going to go off before the next presidential election. I'm talking about the housing bubble in the US, which has already expanded beyond the breaking point. It's very near exploding, and when it does, a lot of people are going to find themselves up shit creek, with neither paddle, raft nor lifevest.

Simply put, housing prices have shot up much faster than inflation in the last few years. Before this was news, speculators managed to hop in and make a fortune by "flipping" houses -- that is, buying a property, fixing it up a little bit, then selling it within a few months for an enormous profit. Flipping is the kind of thing that heats up a market, because people start to hear stories of other people making a killing, and are so inspired to go get them some as well. Multiply the frantic buyers, and the value of the product on sale goes through the roof. Supply and demand, baby.

Sound familiar? It should, because we're pretty much in the same situation the stock market was during the tech boom of the 90s. Remember those days, when millionaires were made over night? That happened because stocks were issued, buyers thought, "Wow, I can make a fortune." They bought bought bought -- demand drove up price, the lucky ones sold out. And when the lucky ones sold out and became millionaires over night, the frenzy was fed. It got to the point where buyers were paying premiums for companies that didn't provide anything -- no products, no real content yet, just a web address and an idea. And then, blam, the whole thing went bust.

There are a few factors pushing the housing market in that direction right now, with a few more on the horizon. First off, median home prices are out of range of most families just starting out. For the moment, gone are the days when a just-married couple with an infant child and one or two meager incomes could buy a house for a reasonable monthly mortgage with the expectation that it would grow in value, equity providing funding for those college educations down the line. At current interest rates, the monthly payment for a typical home in Los Angeles -- $600K -- is $4,000. That's $48,000 a year, just on house payments, meaning the family should be making at least $96,000, if not more, just for this to be a feasible deal. Hidden in the cost are property taxes -- which, at inflated prices come out to inflated amounts. True, they're a Federal Tax deduction, but the higher the income, the less this is a benefit, so these families get caught in a Catch-22: in order to be able to afford that "starter" home, you have to earn so much that you lose out on a lot of the traditional tax benefits of buying that home.

It gets worse. Many buyers are operating under the delusion that prices will keep going up, but that's just impossible. They may continue to go up for a quarter or two, but eventually real estate will price itself out of the market. Prices will stall, then fall. As soon as trends turn and prices start to drop, speculators will cash out as quickly as possible, meaning there will be a lot of houses available. At that point, it goes from the current seller's market to a buyer's market, and the inevitable consequence of a buyer's market is this: prices drop, and drop.

Now, let's get back to the family that bought the $600K house two years ago, expecting it to appreciate. And perhaps it did, hitting a high of $750K. But, at this point, no buyer is going to want to invest at $5,000 a month. Houses that would have been snapped up in a day earlier are going to go on the market and sit there. Eventually, there's a housing glut -- more properties for sale than there are buyers to purchase them. Suddenly, prices start to drop, and probably quickly. It begins with over-extended buyers who want to cut their losses, so they sell for their cash balance and sacrifice their equity. Whoosh, overnight prices dump $150-200K. And then, the bottom starts to slip as buyers sense bargains and make harder deals.

Our hypothetical family's $600K house may very well be valued on the market for $500K now, and that's very bad news for the family. If they've been paying principal first on their loan, they only have $96,000 in equity in two years. This means their debt in the house is $504,000. They can refinance and dump their equity. But if they have a traditional loan where they've been paying principal and interest or, worse, an interest only for five years loan, they're screwed. Suddenly, they owe more on their home than it's worth on the market. They move into negative equity land, meaning their credit records show a massive liability instead of a nice asset. In effect, their investment is worth less than nothing. And, as prices move downward, it gets worse and worse. This may actually serve to equalize the property glut for a while, as people literally cannot afford to sell their homes, but in the long run it's still good for the buyers.

For a while. But... a lot of people signed on for those interest only mortgages, which kick in interest plus principal payments after a certain term, usually three to five years. This is great if the value of your house goes up. But if it doesn't, you're screwed. A vast majority of these loans are set to kick in principal payments in 2006-2007. Mortgage payments for these folks go way up, but there's no chance of cashing in any existing equity to help ease the burden.

That's when the foreclosures start happening, when it's actually more economical for people to give up and walk away. That's when the banks wind up with a lot of property that isn't bringing them income -- and the bargain basement sales begin. Or, not bargain basement, but reasonable prices start to become the norm again, relative to typical income levels.

Beyond the effect on conumers, though, is this: states get spoiled when housing prices are inflated, because it means property tax revenue is inflated. And, in their typical short-sighted way, states don't look at the big picture and say, "What if the property tax base takes a dump in 2008?" Rather, they look at that revenue in 2005, keep adjusting for inflation and assume it will stay the same. So, 2008 rolls around, they're expecting revenue at about 109% of current levels; instead, they get something like 66-75% of 2005 levels. And they panic, and the second round of effects kick in. Services are cut, neighborhoods start to deteriorate, and the devaluation of property continues as under-served communities start to become less attractive places to live.

As a renter, I laugh. And I take note of an example in my own neighborhood. Less than a year ago, a house nearby went on the market. I checked out the realtor's lit while walking the dog. For a 1200 square foot bungalow -- a place barely bigger than my apartment -- they wanted $600,000. It sold in less than a week. Now, it's on the market again (I suspect the new buyers were flippers) and it's been on the market for over a month, with no magic "In Escrow" signs appearing. This time around, the realtor doesn't have flyers with the asking price out front, but I'll bet the seller started out with stars in their eyes and asked way too much. I'm guessing they had the balls to put it on the market for $800,000. True, they did seem to fix it up a bit and paint it nice. But it'll probably still be on the market a month from now, and if I were to ask the price then, I don't think it'll be all that much above the original price of a year ago.

The steam is starting to run out. Or, if you will, the bloom is off the tulip. Which is all well and good, because when a crappy, run-down one bedroom house of less than 900 square feet in a blighted inner-city neighborhood sells for $450,000, there's something very, very wrong with things. I applaud all my friends who got into the market five or ten years ago and who are sitting on goldmines now. I laugh at all the idiots who bought inflated money-pits a year or two ago.

And I wait. The bottom is going to fall out of this market fast, and that's when I'm going to grab me something nice. At a reasonable price, a monthly mortgage that'll be on a par with my current (under-market) rent. And I won't have to worry about flipping or equity, because I'll buy a house for the only real reason anybody should buy residential real estate -- as a home. As the American Dream.

Right now, the American Dream is a nightmare, in more ways than one, but one segment of the sleepers are going to be hearing that alarm clock within the next two years, and there'll be no pushing "snooze" this time around.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Let the Civil War Begin 

UPDATE: As we now know, Roberts is Bush's nominee. But I wonder now -- has the Administration stacked the deck with a tainted candidate? Face it, the man has only been a judge for two years. I'd hardly call that a glowing recommendation for the highest court in the land, no matter how many cases he's argued before that court. But... what if Roberts has some skeleton in the closet that will magically be leaked to a reporter at a crucial time when the heat on Rove is getting to be too much? What if Roberts is just a sacrificial lamb? I'd say the odds are even money that this will happen, and provide the media feeding frenzy necessary to make Rove fade from the headlines. Or so certain parties would hope. Like I've said before, Rove knows he's fucked, so he'll use every dirty trick in his repetoire to save his sorry ass.

If Drudgereport CNN and ABC News are to be believed (we'll know in about ten minutes officially), Bush has nominated this man, John Roberts, to the Supreme Court. From information available, Roberts is an anti-choice, anti-environment, anti civil-rights, pro big business, religion in schools wingnut.

This cannot stand and cannot pass. And, as I predicted earlier, the early morning rumor that Edith Clement was going to be the nominee was just a distraction, probably a planted lie so that the press and blogosphere wouldn't have the whole day to gather up anti-Roberts ammo.

Of course, this could also be a double-dodge and at six p.m., Bush will announce that his real nominee is Fred Phelps or Ralph Reed. But I doubt it. This seems like just the kind of stupid nomination Bush would make.

We must fight this. If the Senate must filibuster, so be it. But we need all the dirt, all the info, all the weapons we can muster against this nomination.

And, at the same time, we cannot lose sight of Rovegate. Ideally, the Democrats will be able to link the two, use the (inevitable) media frenzy over Roberts to keep Rove on the front burner, perhaps dupe Roberts into opining on that matter in public, and then use Rove's crash and burn to bring them both (bring them all) down.

There are so many reasons to despise this nominee -- whether you're a woman, an ethnic minority, pro freedom of/from religion or, no doubt, gay or lesbian. There are no reasons to support it, and many to oppose.

I wonder how Smirky is going to try to justify this choice, and how many times the phrase "no litmus test" will slip past his lying lips during his speech. And -- will he be as adamant about Supreme Court Justices not "legislating from the bench" when Roberts tries to do just that to overturn Roe v. Wade, force religion on schools, eliminate environmental protection, etc., etc.

Yes, Smirky McWingnut is just continuing his tradition of making not one decision that has been any good for this country at all. Time to impeach the motherfuckers, all of them, now.

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It's not often I read a CEO story online and think, "Wow. What a great guy." Meet the exception, Jim Sinegal, CEO of CostCo. He has a very interesting philosophy, really. CostCo should limit their markups, pay their employees good wages and give them exceptional benefits.

The reaction of Wall Street Analysts:
Some Wall Street analysts assert that Sinegal is overly generous not only to Costco's customers but to its workers as well.

Costco's average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Wal-Mart's Sam's Club. And Costco's health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco "it's better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder." [Emphasis added].
Look at that quote again, because it epitomizes everything that's wrong with Corporate Attitude. Excuse me, but shouldn't it be better to be an employee or customer of a business? Granted, stockholders are the "owners" of a company, but without happy customers to give them the money and loyal employees to keep things running, those stockholders are nothing.

And Dreher's comment makes them sound like a bunch of whiny, ungrateful bastards. "Boo-hoo. All we do is sit on our fat asses waiting for dividend checks, and the CEO of CostCo has the nerve to give his customers fair prices and pay his employees a living wage."

Give me a break.

The Sinegal saga gets even better though. His annual salary? $350,000. Compare that to CEO's of companies that make multi-millions, at the expense of employees and customers. Find me a company that's just laid off a few thousand workers, and I'll show you a company that just gave huge raises to its executives. Here's Sinegal's explanation of his behavior:
"I've been very well rewarded," said Sinegal, 69, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. "I just think that if you're going to try to run an organization that's very cost-conscious, then you can't have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong."
Hear, hear.

We need more executives like Sinegal, and we need to kick bankers like Dreher to the curb. We need to extinguish the culture of greed. Because, honestly, does anybody in this country really need more than $350,000 a year?

I'm not advocating Socialism, just sanity. For far too long, big companies have approached ridiculous executive salaries via the "dog's balls" theory -- because they can. That greed has come at the expense of the workers who make those huge salaries possible in the first place.

Luckily we have people like Jim Senegal in business. We need more like him. And the ultimate irony is that CostCo probably will outlast a lot of the competition. As Sinegal reminds us in the article:
"On Wall Street, they're in the business of making money between now and next Thursday," he said. "I don't say that with any bitterness, but we can't take that view. We want to build a company that will still be here 50 and 60 years from now."

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Let the Distractions Begin 

Rovegate has certainly had legs, when it comes to news cycles. To the great consternation of wingnuts everywhere, this story isn't going away, even surviving the London bombings; in fact, outlasting them as a top of news item.

The more desperately they try to change the rules or redefine the terms, the more things come back to bite them in the ass, and my god, the MSM even seems to be doing some of the biting for once...And etc. The latest snafu, of course, was Bush's pronouncement that anybody in his administration who committed a crime would be fired -- followed almost immediately by everyone but the NewsMax bunch pointing out that the previous criteria was that anyone who leaked would be fired. Or, as several news outlets actually put it, "This statement seems to be Bush's gift to Karl Rove..."

Which brings us to this morning's rumor, that W will announce his Supreme Court nominee tonight, and there is "intense speculation" that that nominee will be Judge Edith Clement of the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans. I read "intense speculation" to mean "anonymous sources tipped off reporters," and translate that latter to mean "the administration wants to float this rumor early."

Whether Bush announces Clement tonight or not, a couple of things are obvious. First off, Clement doesn't seem to be a rightwing ideologue. In fact, like Bush, she seems to be an utterly non-descript personage; merely competent (or not) and not much else. If this is, indeed, his nominee, then he's running scared (or stupid) and has totally backed off his promises to the far-right religiofascists. But there's also the possibility that Clement is not the nominee, for several reasons.
  1. Karl Rove is trying to save his ass. What better way than to leak out a phony name so that, when the real nominee is announced, anyone in the press who insisted Clement was the person will be somewhat discredited, and the Mighty Wurlitzer can take up the tune of "you can't believe rumors in the press, you need named sources."

  2. A big part of the day could be wasted in discussion of Clement's record, analysis of the meaning of the nomination, etc., only to have it become useless when the real announcement is made. (Although, in that regard, the strategy seems to have failed. Other than a couple of mentions of her name as a possibility, I haven't seen a lot of discussion otherwise.

  3. The surprise would be bigger than the story; that is, the switcheroo in the speech would kick the story to the top of the news chain, helping to distract from everything else.




BOOGA!!!! BOOGA!!!!!!

After Bush's speech does even worse in the ratings than his last one and his approval ratings dive a couple more points, expect the "non-specific but credible rumors of major terrorist activity" coming to a mall or tourist attraction near you.

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Right Idea, Wrong Solution 

The Federal Government has urged credit card companies to find ways to help their customers pay off their balances faster, which is a good thing. But, since the Federal Government is in the back pocket of the credit card industry, the "solution" is exactly backwards...
Within the next month, Bank of America, MBNA and Citigroup will raise minimum monthly payments on their cards from 2 percent of the balance to up to 4 percent, not including interest. Other card issuers are expected to make similar changes by the end of the year.
Or, in other words, the minimum monthly payment due is about to double for some credit card holders.

Now, in some strange looking-glass world, this gets translated into, "Look! Consumers can now pay off their balances in twenty-four months instead of forty-eight." In reality:
  1. Paying only the minimum amount due on a credit card balance, you will never pay off the balance. Okay, you might manage it in fifty twenty-five years... that's comparable to mortgage terms. A typical car loan is only five years.
  2. Obvious to anyone not working for the government: doubling the minimum monthly payment ups the chances that more of the card company's customers will miss a payment, so the credit card company can rake in even more of those sweet, sweet late fees -- making the entire exercise moot, anyway.
Again, the solution is simple, at least from a logical viewpoint. Never accuse the bribed of being logical though.

Here it is: the government has got to put a cap on credit card interest rates. Period. On what planet is an 18-20% (or higher) interest rate not usury? Ten percent would be a tidy profit; five percent would be more in line with other loan rates. This would have a double effect: first, credit card balances would not run away at insane, compounding rates, keeping them more manageable for borrowers. Second, credit card companies would suddenly get a lot more responsible about granting credit, since the insane profit margin would be reduced to something more in line with other businesses.

On top of that, it might be a good idea to regulate credit card advertising. Hey, we try to protect children from alcohol and tobacco advertising, right? Should be the same with credit cards, so they aren't getting the message from the cradle to young adulthood that Plastic Gets You Everything.
Interest charged on paying cash: Zero.

Cost of financial responsibility: Zero.

Being debt-free: Priceless.

For everyone else, there's Mastercard...

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Beating a Live Horse 

Okay, sorry. But the more I hear about the London bombings, the more I'm inclined to shout, "Shenannigans!" The latest is perfect spy cam video footage of the four smiling suicide bombers arriving together at the train station, backpacks in tow. That, and all the guys bought round-trip train tickets.

Things that make you go "Hm..."

Now, granted, if I were a suicide bomber, I might hedge my bets by buying a roundtrip ticket, since buying a one-way ticket would seem suspicious. On the other hand... I ride the Metro, LA's subway/train system, all the time, and normally I buy a one-way ticket at the station I get on, then a one-way ticket back when I return. Nothing unusual at all, since two one-way tickets cost $2.50, while an all-day pass (our version of "round trip") costs $3.00. If I'm going to be stopping at multiple stations throughout the day, I go for the three dollar jobbie. Otherwise, it's one-way.

Now, all alone, this isn't suspicious. In fact, given that so much was made of the FBI missing the 9/11 highjackers buying one-way plane tickets, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Al-Qaeda playbook added a step: "When buying tickets for transportation you're going to blow up, make sure your ticket is round-trip." (That's "return" for our British friends.)

But... if they were that cautious, if they wanted to appear that normal... why the hell did they all arrive at the same gate at the train station at the same time? Given that another maxim added to the Al-Qaeda playbook might be something like, "Westerners have grown extremely suspicious of groups of obviously Middle-Eastern men travelling together, so split up" -- then why does the video frame presented to the world all but scream, "WHY THE HELL DIDN'T YOU CATCH THIS BEFORE THEY GOT ON THE TRAIN?"

(I'll bet that what we won't be seeing is any CCTV footage from the streets of London of the bombers before they entered the station, despite the city being covered with more cams than a flophouse whore has crabs. Seriously, there is footage out there of the four of them as they approached the place. But would that give away too much, as the four of them briefly talk to their coordinator, someone involved in the oh-so-convenient terror drill? Time will tell...)

Which brings up another convenience... the latest news spin on the London bombings is this: "Hey, look. They photographed the bombers. Intrusive spy cams everywhere must be a good thing. So why aren't they everywhere in the US right this very second?"

Except, the so-called MSM misses the obvious point. Sure, they caught the guys on cam. That didn't stop them. Ergo, video cams everywhere are less than useless in stopping terrorism. Oh, sure -- they may provide pretty pictures of the criminals afterwards. But what good does that do for the dead and wounded?

Public spy cams are a cheap, feel-good solution. The government -- the US or UK -- can point and say, "Look. We have CCTV cams on every corner." Yeah, great. But do they have trained personell watching the output every second? People who can push a button and summon security when, say, four young Arab men with big backpacks walk into a trainstation together? Of course not -- and I'll bet you that nobody was actually watching the video monitors on the morning of 7/7. If governments were really serious about combatting terrorism (and doing something about unemployment), then they'd hire rafts of otherwise unskilled people, train them in what to look for, then stick them in every train, bus and subway station in the country.

Oh, but that would cost way too much, wouldn't it?

Let's review...
  1. Conveniently, they're running a terrorism drill on the morning of 7/7, one which presumes there will be bombings at about the same time and in all the exact same places that are blown up.
  2. None of the four bombers are the suicidal type, despite all being Muslims (as if that's a requirement for fanatacism); one has an infant daughter, another teachers underprivileged children; several are very young and not apparently militant otherwise.
  3. The CCTV cameras on Bus #30, the one that blew up, aren't working that morning, despite having been given a 20 hour overhaul by a contractor not normally hired for the job.
  4. Bus #30, which blew up nearly an hour after the three trains, is the only bus in the city system diverted after the first bombings happen.
  5. Despite sitting on top of the bombs that blew up, undamaged documents belonging to the allged suicide bombers are quickly discovered by the police.
  6. A survivor on Bus #30 noticed a guy with a backpack fiddling with it before it blew up. Is "fiddling" necessary if the bombs are on timers?
  7. Likewise... the bombs were on timers. What bomber in their right mind is going to stick around for the fireworks when they know they don't have to be there to set them off?
  8. Despite the comments since the event, I'm not convinced these four guys were out of their minds, see above.
  9. Gosh, we're stealth suicide bombers... lets all march past the security cameras, ubiquitous in London, on our way to the trains.
  10. Several mosques in England have already been torched by skinheads.
  11. The UK was about to pull out of Iraq. But I guess we won't do that now, because of the "evil-doers." How conveeeenient...
Yes, it may sound tinfoil hattish... but it really, really smells like the four "bombers" were dupes, guys hired to be part of a drill that wasn't really a drill at all. The first three managed to smuggle their "fake" bombs onto transit. Number four was probably figuring it out about the time his backpack went boom.

And the hell of it is, I wouldn't be so cynical or so doubting of the official story if it weren't for the near-constant lies told by the government of this country, since even before 9/11 happened. Watch the Karl Rove story closely, for example, and you'll see the US government telling blatant lies, twisting facts, changing stories and evidence. And it's all of a piece. Everything designed to delude the American public into saying, "Invade the Middle East to stop terrorism? Fuck yeah."

When, in reality, the plot all along was "Invade the Middle East and gobble up all that sweet, sweet oil."

And, again, I flash back to Richard Nixon. He was hated because of Vietnam, but he was impeached because of Watergate. Likewise, I think W is hated (with an approval rating lower than his presidential number) for Iraq, but will go down because of Rovegate.

Don't be surprised if, in the next few months, Britain suddenly wakes up and says, "Wait a minute. We've been hosed." After all, while the media here tries to make this look like England has suddenly been introduced to terrorism, that ain't the case. London has been a target of terrorist bombs for decades. Remember the IRA? Which is why the British people are so stoic about the event. They've been here before, many times. And, IRA aside, there was the Blitz -- a not-so-fond childhood memory of many of those who are in power there now. In fact, when it comes to wholesale destruction, London is one of the winners of history. In 1666, after suffering through a year of the Plague, which decimated the population, the city was razed by fire. Ironically, it was actually the thing that ended the Plague, since it drove out the rats, and the fleas, that spread it. The city recovered and, thanks to Christopher Wren (not just an Agatha Christie villian), it bounced back with world-class architecture; many of London's most famous landmarks were built after the city was scorched to the ground.

Anyway... I'm in an insteresting cultural position on this issue, being half Irish and half... everything else, but a lot of English. The Irish are the Old World's supreme bullshit artists, but the Brits are the Old World's supreme bullshit detectors. I think they're already starting to catch a whiff of "something isn't right here." I only hope that their bastard offspring, the Americans, can be half so smart in the coming days.

Oh yeah... one other interesting bit. Why do these things always happen in fours, when there should be no necessary constraint on number? Four planes highjacked during 9/11. Four bombs in Madrid. Four bombs in London...

To Muslims, the sacred number is five, not four. Same reason you'll find Christian fanatics doing things in threes and sevens. If, in fact, we're dealing with religious fanatics at all, rather than chimeras and illusions designed to scare us into place.


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Down the Toilet 

For some scary reading, check out this article about Comptroller General David Walker,, who runs the General Accounting Office. His job, basically, is as head bean counter for the government, and the things he's saying about the future of the economy and budget for the US are not good.

A short analogy: it's as if a family of four (two school-aged children) with a gross combined income of $150,000 just bought a $5,000,000 house, then decided to pay for it, and the property taxes thereon, with nothing but credit cards. They're planning to send both their kids to college, of course. What? No cash in the bank for necessities? Get more credit cards! Then hang on, because in twelve years, little Timmy will be starting his Freshman year in college and, five years after that, when the student loan bills start to come due, dad's retiring. (Hey, they got married late). Kind of obvious that this family would be in trouble after about the first few months of trying to pay a monthly mortgage that's one-fifth their gross (not net) income. And never mind that by pulling out the plastic, they're converting a fixed, say, 4% mortage rate into a 19%, 20% or more credit card rate. They're totally, utterly screwed, and thanks to the Federal Government, they can't even really escape it by bankruptcy anymore, either.

Back to reality... I doubt that many American families are that stupid. Somewhat stupid, certainly, but not that incredibly stupid.

According to David Walker, our Government is that incredibly stupid. The US is now the biggest debtor nation in the world. We used to be the biggest creditor. We're fighting two wars that have gone nowhere, and all of this is financed after the biggest tax cut in history -- which went, by the way, to the wealthiest Americans. For most of the rest of you, did you enjoy your $300? Hope so, because you've already paid back more than that with hidden increases in other taxes, energy costs and cuts in services.

But, as disturbing as the longterm picture in the article, is this observation: "Nobody knows how the Pentagon is spending $1 billion a week in Iraq. The Department of Defense has 'absolutely atrocious financial management. If it were a business, it would be out of business.'"

One billion dollars a week. And what's it going to? Not much. That's one billion dollars of our money, being flushed down a rat hole in the middle east. Funny, isn't it, how conservatives can bitch and whine about tax dollars being "wasted" on lunch programs for poor children, but absolutely shut up when the same money is being wasted, on a much larger scale, on nothing?

I've done this before for the deficit, but here's what that billion dollars could do for Americans, here, in one week:
  1. Buy $200 worth of groceries for 5,000,000 families. Every week.
  2. Buy laptop computers for one million school children. Every week.
  3. Buy a low-cost ($20K) new car for fifty thousand families. Every week.
  4. Provide a $50,000 college scholarship to twenty thousand students. Every week.
  5. Send eight million families of four out for dinner and a movie. Every week.
  6. Send forty million kids (or more) to see a show at a local theatre, or ten million kids to a Broadway show. Every week.
  7. Buy a typical month's worth of prescription drugs for ten million senior citizens. Every single fucking goddamn week.

And I could go on and on, but you can do the math as well. Instead of any of the above benefits for Americans, what are we getting for our money? Dead soldiers, dead Iraqis, an increase in terrorism world-wide, two wars with no end in sight to either, and our country being spent right down the toilet with no return.

How did we get into this situation? I'll give you a hint. There's a W in it, and he's a liar.

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

Unanswered Questions 

Update: Thanks to Infowars for calculating the odds that a terror drill and a terrorist attack would exactly coincide in three different train stations, at the same time -- One chance in 3,715,592,613,265,750,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (or 3.715x10^39))

As the so-called MSM plays the "booga booga" card of homegrown terrorists in London, parroting the official story, I find myself with more and more questions about the whole thing. There are just too many anomalies, too many little glitches for me to accept that this was, in fact, a quartet of local terrorists who got their hands on military grade explosives and then blew themselves up.

Consider this: Bus #30, the double-decker that was blown up, was the only bus to be re-routed after the bombings. There's also this:
Also a point of interest....last saturday a contractor came to inspect the CCTV on the buses at the depot, According to my supervisor the person spent more than 20 hours over that weekend, 20 hours to see if the CCTV is working? Also that person who came was not a regular contractor, for security reasons the same few people always come to the depot to carry out work, this time it was different.
And, as we all know now, the CCTV cameras on Bus #30 were not working.

But -- even more disturbing and suspicious: when the bombings happened, a hypothetical terrorism drill was being carried out, one which played the "what if" game, mainly, "what if bombs went off" in the three stations that happened to have been bombed. You can read a very telling interview about it. Short version: what are the odds that a terrorist attack exactly mimicking a drill would happen at exactly the times and places envisioned by that drill? One would think that terrorists would have no access to the drill-planners plans. Or vice versa. Unless... well, you do the math.

An interesting scenario I've read is this: the drill was cover for a bombing plot, in case anybody got caught before the big boom. That is, if someone got snagged trying to bring a bomb onto a train, they could say, "I'm part of the drill. Looks like you did your job and stopped it. Heh heh." And looking at the info that's been put out regarding the bombers, my bullshit meter really goes off. Not a one of them seemed to be the suicidal type. The only common denominator among them was that they were Muslims. How convenient. More on that convenience here.

And don't forget -- on the very morning that 9/11 happened, the US was involved in an anti-terrorism drill which posited... (wait for it) commercial planes being highjacked and striking various civilian targets.

Finally, answer me this question: if the suicide bombers were, in fact, strapped to their bombs -- military grade explosives that made a really big boom -- how is it that personal documents were found so quickly? Shades of the highjacker's passport found, undamaged, in the 9/11 wreckage when most of the victims on the planes were identified by scraping DNA off of burnt metal. Truth to tell, it seems rather obvious that about all they'd find of the suicide bombers is... nothing. Paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. A high explosive going off strapped to your back is going to be much, much hotter. They might find a dental filling or two. I doubt that they're going to find an unburned wallet. Unless, of course, it was planted. I'd be interested to find out what actually happened in the searches of the bombers' homes. Did MI6 go in first, then turn over the evidence they "found" to the local police, who wouldn't be in on the plot?

And it all still comes back to the first question, posted earlier on this blog: Cui Bono? The UK was about to pull their troops out of Iraq. Now, they probably won't. The Olympics aren't going to be in London for another seven years. There was absolutely no strategic or political benefit for Al-Qaeda to go after London as a target. Rather than advancing their cause, these bombings really set Al-Qaeda back. And, say what you want about them (if there even is a "them" there), Al-Qaeda isn't stupid. If, as we've been told, they're a terrorist organization that kills people, then they're vermin and assholes who should be eradicated. But they aren't stupid.

Bombing London was stupid. 'Nuff said.

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Spinning in the Wind... 

Talk about a press conference that just sets the bullshit meter on high... thanks to Capitol Hill Blue, an amazing transcript of Scottie McClellan trying to fend off reporters.

And it's nice to see the Washington Press Corpse finally do their job. They hop on the Rove question and don't let go. Of course, the whole reason they're so fervent in this matter is because Scottie lied to them originally, and they don't like that. And they let him twist slowly in the wind, claiming he can't comment on "an ongoing investigation", when he was perfectly happy to comment on the situation before Matthew Cooper spilled his guts and Judith Miller went to prison.

I sense the smell of Karl Rove going down. I only hope he brings John Bolton, Dick Cheney and W. with him.

And I encourage the press corps to keep questioning, to not let Little Scottie off the hook. Keep on hammering, and maybe we'll knock the truth out of the bullshit.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Digital World 

Tonight, I transferred some old Super-8 movies to digital video, during which time I had occassion to thank the powers that be that I got to be an adult in the digital world. The movies were from college, actually made in the dying days of Super-8, that weird era when it was still cheaper to shoot things on film than it was to upgrade to video. (At the time, giant, expensive cameras that shot onto VHS tape. And for the kidlets who don't know what Super-8 was -- it was a form of film half the size of 16 mm. Er... one fourth the size of 35 mm. Most of us couldn't afford sound Super-8, so it was silent movies with soundtracks recorded on cassette tape, fingers crossed that it'd sync up in class. But, I do digress...)

Anyway, as I went through the process of trying to transfer these films to a modern form, I found myself constantly cursing, and wondering how the hell any of us put up with an analog world. Splices broke, take-up reels refused to take up (spilling acres of footage on the floor), film insisted on curling up into tangled jumbles when liberated from their reels. And I couldn't help but realize that the totally square image of Super-8 had far less resolution than the cinema format video I can shoot now.

But, the real point of this rant is this: somewhere between the late 80s and now, humankind was given control over the electron, and it has revolutionized our world. Way back then, making a movie involved physically cutting and splicing bits of celluloid, and in the filming process, it was impossible to tell if everything worked out right. Under or over exposed? Tough shit, kid -- you'd have no idea until the film came back from the lab. Not to mention that editing on the original was a totally destructive process. Make the cut a frame too late or too early? Oops. Lost the frame you cut on. Sorry.

And I thank the powers that be that I'm an adult in the digital world, that I have a high-end camera that didn't cost an arm and a leg, that I can edit in the non-linear world, in a non-destructive manner, that I can correct and adjust and fix and do effects that would have been insane to even consider in Super-8 land. That I can add a soundtrack and sync it exactly, that I don't have to care whether I'm using up footage because an hour and a half of Mini-DV tape costs next to nothing. And... that I can create a project and burn the whole thing to a surround-sound DVD, with multiple menus, and do it all from the comfort of my own home office.

Gives me flashbacks to the days that I was a boy, hunched over my home-made egg-carton film filing system, hacking together pieces of celluloid meticulously, taking hours to do what I can do in seconds now. And realizing that my parents did have a VCR then, but it was huge and clunky and expensive, and getting a video camera at the time to do the same would have cost me half my college fund and given me a right shoulder to make Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous.

Who says science doesn't march on? I just wish I were a freshman in film school now, because it would have been so much easier and cheaper. A big part of the reason I switched from a Directing to a Writing emphasis in my major was that I saved a good thirty or forty grand in not having to make a movie on 16-mm. But, today, I could go out in the streets with good friends who are actors, and shoot something even better for less than a grand. If that much.

The downside of it all? Sean Klitzner. Or maybe not. Sometimes he's good, sometimes he's not. Then again, there's this guy. So, I guess the net makes its own arguments against cheap video... or makes its own arguments for it.

But... trust me... it's so much easier to do this stuff with a few clicks and drags than it was to do it with bits of film and tape. And I love living in the digital age...

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Sunday, July 10, 2005

Atheist Morality 

One of the big arguments against atheism I hear from theists is this one: you can't possibly have any moral code if you don't believe in god. I would argue exactly the opposite. You cannot have a true moral code if you do believe in god.

For those of you brainwashed from childhood and still not free from the myth of god, that may seem like an impossibility. But, in fact, I would argue that people who believe in god are totally immoral, while atheists can be the most moral people on earth.

It comes down simply to this. Atheists believe that this is it -- this life, from birth to death, is all you get. No rewards in heaven, no afterlife, no golden harps. When you die, game over, and you won't be walking away from the machine in some fancy arcade to go commune with angels. When you die, you're gone. Your personality, your memory, your identity, your awareness, everything.

Consequently... the worst possible thing that any human being can do to another human being is take everything away from them. With no afterlife to believe in, murder is clearly the most heinous crime imaginable. It's the theft of another person's entire being and awareness. I do not have the right to take that from another human being, just as they damn well don't have the right to take it from me. That is an ironclad result of believing in no god, no afterlife. LIFE is sacred. LIFE is all we have.

Following from that argument, yes, I'm against the death penalty -- but for more subtle reasons. Personally, if someone has committed heinous crimes like murder, a much better punishment then snuffing their life out is to lock them in a small room until they die, with no future, nothing to do, no satisfaction. Remove their future but let them live -- and that punishment is far, far worse than turning their lights out with a couple of machine-administered hypodermics, isn't it?

And, really -- how much does this country try to have it both ways over the death penalty? Is it penance? No. It's punishment. And, if it really is punishment, why sugar-coat it? Why try to make the punishers feel less nasty by making the killer's death easy? If we were not hypocritical, then every death sentence would be carried out in exactly the way the convicted murderer killed their victims, in public, with witnesses. Cruel and unusual be damned -- and I could make the argument that, since the convicted killer had carried out a certain act in killing their victim, it would not be unusual as a punishment. But it would teach the killer and society nothing, except that violence is good. Which it isn't. Again, locking someone away for the rest of their life to do nothing and be nothing is a far nastier punishment than freeing them from care and responsibility by turning their lights off.

Now, there's one half the argument -- because this life is all we have, as far as atheists are concerned, our morality is extremely life-valuing. Murder, war, assault, robbery, rape, non-consensual sexual activity, etc. -- things that interfere with the happiness of others -- are all very bad things. And you can do with your life what you want, to the point that it doesn't fuck up my life. That's it in a nutshell. (I'll save abortion for another posting, since it's such a complex issue -- or is made into one.)

Now... what of the theists? They have a double out. First off, since they believe in an afterlife, it isn't game over when life stops. There's some mystic fairyland waiting, and everyone goes there. And, consequently, murder ain't no big thing, if it can be justified. And, believe me, with religion, all kinds of murders are justified. Just read the Old Testament, and you'll see god's favorites killing non-believers left and right with impugnity. The end result is the onoging holy war we have today, where fundamentalist Muslims have no problem killing infidels; where fundamentalist Christians think they can shoot doctors who perform abortions without themselves going to hell. As long as death is not the end for them, murder will never really be a sin, despite the Commandment "Thou Shalt Not Kill." And explain for me for a moment why that's even a commandment when, for example, David is ordered by god to kill one third of his prisoners of war as a sacrifice to the lord. Um... maybe the commandment was supposed to be "Thou Shalt Not Kill Unless I Tell You To."

The second out that theists provide themselves is this: their morality is not based in their choice of wrong or right; it's based in the punitive brownie point system, which will be paid off after they die. In other words, they do no behave morally because they have chosen to do so. They behave morally because of the fear that some invisible being in the clouds will smack them silly at some point after they die if they don't act a certain way.

That's not morality at all -- especially not when the system can have so many exceptions. "I can kill an abortion doctor, but god will forgive me for saving fetuses." "I can kill an infidel and get 72 virgins in heaven." "I can excute that criminal, because god wants him to die." "I can kill that person, because he doesn't believe in the one true god, and my god won't care if he dies."

It's the difference between childhood and adulthood, really, with theists as the perpetual children and atheists as the grown-ups. For example, a child may decide not to do something not because they know it's wrong, but because they know they'll get in a buttload of trouble if their parents find out. An adult will decide not to do something because it's wrong.

Nobody is watching you, people. Nobody but yourselves. And, at the end of the day, the only judge of your life with any merit or value is yourself. You can die a sinner or a saint. Either way, you'll rot in the ground or be burned and scattered; either way, your mind isn't there when your body is gone.

Don't believe me? Okay, ask yourself this. What's your earliest memory? How far back can you remember in your own life? Most likely, it's somewhere between the ages of 2 and 4, when the cognitive centers of your brain developed to the point that the mush in your head was able to distinguish between "me" and "other stuff". And, try as you might, you've got no memory of the fourteen billion or so years that the universe existed prior to your birth, right? Honestly, you don't. Yet, souls are supposed to be eternal. So, what were you doing for those billions of years before you woke up here? What are you going to be doing for the billions of years after you die?

Hey, the concept is scary, I know -- that's the only reason religion still exists. But dump the myths and fantasies and promises for one second, and you'll see that there's only one plausible way to live life -- to respect all other lives, all other people; to let everyone live the way they want to, as you'd wish them to let you live your life. The Golden Rule -- a derivative of atheism, pure and simple.

I'd like now to quote The Prophet:
Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...
John Lennon died for your sins.

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