Octoberfest!

September 30, 2008 at 1:05 pm (Particle Physics) (, , , , , )

Ah, October!  My favorite time of the year.  The leaves are changing color, the weather’s cooling off, the politicians are making bigger twits out of themselves than normal… and the media.  What other time of year is friendlier to the lover of horror in any form, whether film, page, or audio?

Since I figure most everybody’s getting more than enough of politics these days, I’m going to back off of that and switch over to a topic near and dear to my heart – horror.

So unless I trip over nude pics of either major presidential candidate, don’t expect to hear much on the political end for a few weeks (I kid, I kid… even I have standards of horror that I won’t sink to.)  I might pipe up here and there with tidbits that I find particularly striking, but for the most part it’s going to be particle physics this month.

Each week, I intend to highlight one of what I consider the four major categories of horror media these days, starting with arguably the most modern trends:

  1. Torture Horror – most popular… today, really.
  2. Kill Flicks (or Slasher Flicks) – most popular in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.
  3. The Monster Movie – most popular in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.
  4. The Gothic – Most popular prior to the 40’s, with a modern resurgence.

I know there are more sub-genres, but we’ve got four weeks, so I’m going to go for four really, really broad categories.  But before I get into specific genres, films, and books, a brief discussion on horror.

What is horror?  What scares us, and why do we flock to it?

Well, the easy answer is, it’s fun to be scared (yeah, bet you’ve never heard that one before.)  That adrenaline rush, that little tingle up the spine, the way you feel when your fingers are clenched around the arms of your seat, either holding you in or getting ready to vault you out of it… it’s a reaction that I honestly think essential to being human.  The ‘problem’ is that we rarely get a chance to really experience it – and I couldn’t be happier for that!  It’s nice to live in a relatively safe time and place, where we actually have a chance to die of arterial plaque buildup rather than being bitten by a rabid moose.

So, since we don’t get all that many opportunities to be scared for real – and we certainly don’t enjoy the ones we get, most of the time – we find controlled environments to scare us.  Haunted houses.  Books.  Movies.

On a deeper level, horror stories of any sort are an effective means of communication.  We’ve evolved over tens of thousands of years (Intelligent Designers, substitute ‘God made us this way’) to carry the memory of things that are dangerous to us.  That way, when you saw a sharp toothy thing, you remembered that you saw it eat Cousin Ugg ten years ago, and that unless you wanted to follow his example, you had to leave.    By contrast, if you saw a small fluffy thing, it was more advantageous to still be cautious – sometimes the small fluffy thing had a sharp toothy thing guarding it, so learning the lesson that ‘small fluffy things are safe’ was counter-survival.  Therefore, any message that was delivered along with a scare has a better chance to stick.  We remember these stories, take them back to the cave (bar) and talk about them around the campfire (over a few brewskies after the movie… weeks later.)

Now, there’s more than just one type of scare that you can evoke.  I split it down into three categories.  Not coincidentally, the different type of movies focus on different levels of fear.

  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Terror

Fear is the easiest to evoke.  It’s the reaction you have when a car backfires nearby.  The feeling you get when the neighbor’s dog barks and snarls at the end of its chain.  Fear is a response  to a direct physical threat.  A lot of media finds that fear’s effective, and stops there – who needs to take time setting up horror and terror when you can just go straight for the jugular andget the job done?

Terror, on the other hand, is fear taken to the extreme.  It’s what you feel when somebody pulls a gun on you.  When the neighbor’s dog barks and snarls at the end of its chain – and then you hear the chain break.  Terror is when your body gets to the point of having to evoke the fight-or-flight response.  It’s harder to evoke than fear, because you actually have to engage the audience enough that they actually feel threatened, even if it’s only for a few minutes.  While fear can be evoked by grabbing somebody’s shoulder after you sneak up on them, actual terror takes more effort.

Horror, on the other hand, is a much more subtle response than either.  Horror doesn’t come in response to a physical threat.  Fear and terror are both instinct-responses, artifacts of the reptilian hind-brain – they happen whether we want them to or not.  Horror, true horror, only comes in response to thought.  Not that you have to choose to be horrified – rather, you have to consider the situation, and its implications, before true horror sets in.  Horror happens when your guard dog barks and snarls… and then goes silent with a pained yelp.  Horror is what happens when the pretty girl who went out swimming suddenly starts screaming and being dragged around in the water… and you see a single, distinctive fin that tells you this is no boat accident.

Put short, fear and its great-granddaddy, terror, happen in response to the facts you see.  Horror happens in response to the ‘facts’ your mind creates.

Personally, I prefer horror to fear and terror.  This isn’t because of any sort of value judgment – it’s simply because I don’t scare easily in movies.  I know how it happens.  I’ve seen the man behind the curtain.  Sure, I might do a double-take when Regan spider-walks down the stairs, but I’m not all that creeped out when she spins her head around and speaks in the voice of a former victim.  This has been the case since I was… oh… two, and my folks watched Clash of the Titans with me there.  I’ve been informed (repeatedly) that I was horribly upset when the Kraken dies in the end of the movie, and that my folks had to explain the difference between a movie and reality, and they ran that segment back and forth time and time again in the process of getting it into my rather young and bewildered skull.

But it worked, largely ruining me for real fright films ever since.  I just can’t be spooked by special effects – grossed out, certainly, but not scared by them.  For this reason, I’ve got a much bigger soft spot for movies that focus on character, on psychology – on the parts that make me try to wrap my brain around it.  Having to think about what something means lets my brain work around its gut rejection of the SFX, and instead distract itself with the “but… that means….” reaction that makes mystery movies so entertaining.

So!  How about a highlight reel to get people started.  Here’s the first installment of… the Wolfeman’s Picks!

The Wolfemann Picks… the movies!

  1. The Legend of Hell House
  2. Halloween (the John Carpenter original – you can give the sequels, and definitely the remake, a miss)
  3. The Beast with Five Fingers
  4. Halloween is Grinch Night
  5. Freddy vs Jason

The Wolfemann Picks… the books!

  1. Hell House, by Richard Matheson (not for the squeamish or easily offended)
  2. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
  3. Anything by H.P. Lovecraft, with special attention to At the Mountains of Madness and the Dunwich Horror.
  4. Anything by Edgar Allen Poe, with special attention to the Tell Tale Heart and The Fall of the House of Usher.
  5. Anything by Guy de Maupassant, with special attention to Diary of a Madman and The Horla.

The Wolfemann Picks… the music and audio!

  1. Anything by Nox Arcana, with special attention to Darklore Manor.
  2. Anything by Midnight Syndicate, with special attention to the Haverghast Saga (13th Hour and Gates of Delirium).
  3. Michelle Bellanger’s Blood of Angels.
  4. Old time radio – the Inner Sanctum.  One of the better “ghoulish host” series, the Inner Sanctum tended to have some excellent stories and a host who was simply enjoyable to listen to, especially during the Lipton’s Tea era of the show, when he would regularly banter with the spokeswoman.
  5. Old time radio – Mystery in the Air and The Price of Fear.  It’s hard to rate one above the other.  Mystery in the Air featured Peter Lorre, and the Price of Fear featured Vincent Price.  Having to choose between these two would make me cry.  My favorites would probably be Lorre’s version of The Horla, and Price’s “Specialty of the House” – both available (along with a lot of the Inner Sanctum) from Relic Radio’s finest program “The Horror.”

So… there’s some reading, watching, and listening to whet your appetite.  Until my special on Torture Horror, coming up some time later this week, pleasant screams!

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The Blame Game

September 27, 2008 at 11:43 am (Politics) (, , , , , )

As you might have noticed, there’s been a little bit of trouble with the economic markets lately.  Maybe you noticed your 401K being decimated, maybe you noticed investment firms going out of business, and if you (were) a Washington Mutual customer, maybe you noticed when your bank was sold to J.P. Morgan-Chase.

One of the big questions that everybody is asking through this, the “greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” is… what caused it?

Not that there’s a shortage of people to blame, but the most popular culprit is, as always, “corporate greed,” followed closely by “failed Reagan-era economic policies.”  Well, I actually am an accountant, which makes my commentary here almost legitimately qualified (more than your typical Journalism major’s at any rate), so why don’t I join in the blame game?

Who do I blame for the current economic crisis?

Everybody.

You see, here’s the thing.  There’s no one thing, or one aspect, that caused this.  It required a perfect storm of new regulation, market conditions, political expedience, and human panic.  Like the last economic disaster, it required poor long-term investment strategies, the lemming-like tendencies of investors everywhere, and just a soupcon of fraud.

First, a little terminology… or, as I like to think of it, our Usual Suspects, straight from central casting.

  • Bonds – long-term securities typically sold on a 10-30 year term that pay a modest interest rate over that period.  You buy a bond, you collect your interest, and when the bond comes due you’re given back the face value of your bond.  Bonds are often backed by some sort of collateral, just like your mortgage is backed by the house you buy with it.
  • Stocks – also known as trading securities, stocks regularly trade hands and are generally considered practically the same as cash.  You buy a stock, usually hold onto it for a little while, and then sell it on the uptick.  The exception, of course, is in some companies which are more long-term investments – Microsoft, for example.
  • The SEC – the regulatory body for American financial markets, the SEC does most of the final regulating on who says what about their financial condition.

Now, here’s what happened.  Banks started selling bonds, backed by mortgages that they had given out.  Many, many of these mortgages were (at one time or another) owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  While housing prices rose, these mortgages were as good as gold.  Traditional wisdom holds that mortgages are the last thing people will default on and, even if they do default, you’ve got a house you can go out and sell to make back the money.  Therefore, the mortgage-backed bonds should be incredibly secure securities – and were rated as such.  They sold at a premium, and everybody was happy.

Except that traditional wisdom only holds out over the long-term.  Over the long term – the life of the mortgage – housing values will rise.  But over the short term, they fluctuate.  Once in a while you hit a dry spell in the housing market – especially if a lot of new homes have been built and sold and flipped so many times that the value has inflated beyond reason.  And that’s the situation we’ve found ourselves in.  Low interest rates and sub-prime mortgages were originally meant to let people who couldn’t buy a house buy one for the first time, or let people who already could afford one afford a larger one.  But, since credit was easier to get in larger and larger amounts, people got a little bit greedy – why should they sell their $100,000 home for a ‘lousy’ $110,000 when they could get $125,000 instead, because the guy who wants it can get that much and there aren’t enough other places in the area he could buy instead?

So you sell the home at a markup… and then *he* sells the home at a markup… and then somebody can’t make their mortgage payment and the *bank* sells the home at a more modest markup, to a guy who fixes the place up and sells it as a *big* markup.

This was confounded by the fact that people were taking out second and third mortgages on their homes, sometimes to fund investments, sometimes to fund home improvements, sometimes because they wanted to buy something big and flashy.  A lot of people treated their homes like credit cards with better interest rates.  This helped fuel the economic boom of the last two decades… but like all booms, it slows down, and nobody was thinking about what they would do if housing values started to drop.  When housing values drop, you can’t take out another mortgage because you already owe more money than the house is actually worth.  Without the steady flow of multiple-mortgage income, the consumer-goods economy slows.  When the consumer-goods economy slows, profits and salaries start to slide back.  When they start to drop, people can’t afford the mortgages they have out, and the banks have to foreclose on the house.  When they do that, the *bank* can’t get all of their money back… and they can’t back their bonds.  Nobody wants to buy bonds that can’t be backed, and to be honest, nobody really wants to sell them, so bond prices stagnate.  But if people have to sell them, then the prices plummet (more on that later).

Now, normally, this all would have taken a long time, probably long enough for housing prices to start ticking back up.  But a time bomb had been set in the mortgages.  Back during the 90’s, under the Clinton administration, the Democrats started pushing groups like Fannie and Freddie to give out more loans to low-income families.  They pushed to expand what could be considered income.  This gives our our little bit of fraud – people were listing unemployment benefits as income to repay a home loan, and welfare checks.  Not the sort of things you want to base a 30-year mortgage on, are they?  But the Democrats actually sued to let them be included.  What this did was that it accelerated the process listed above.  When your income is already on shaky grounds, any hit can endanger your mortgage.  If you already couldn’t afford it, and were counting on ‘flipping’ the house to make some money, dropping prices are disastrous.  And, if you don’t have many roots in the area because you don’t have a job you’re particularly fond of or family and friends you’re especially tied to because you just moved into the area, you might find it more to your advantage to abandon the mortgage *first*, not last.

(Those looking for another voice saying much the same thing, if somewhat more abrasively, may find Ann Coulter’s rant on the subject enlightening.)

So the banks are left stuck holding the bag on a bunch of houses that aren’t worth as much as they used to be, and the people who owned them… well, they didn’t really have all that much equity in them in the first place, so they’re not out too much, just the roof over their heads (not to make light of not having said roof – hopefully they were able to find new accomodations, ones within their current income levels.)  Why is this really a problem?  The banks can just wait until prices rise, which they inevitably do, and then they’ll be fine.

Well… remember what I said about people having to sell their securities that nobody wants?  Banks and investment firms are required by the SEC to maintain certain asset levels.  Not just houses or long-term securities, but liquid assets.  Cash and tradeable securities, things they can use to cover withdrawals.  They also have to hang on to a certain level of combined assets, but the liquid assets is where the dominoes start to fall.

Houses are all well and good, but when I go to the bank I want cash, not a chunk of window moulding appraised at the cash value.  Not only is it easier to spend, it fits in my wallet much better.  So the banks have just traded massive amounts of cash for massive amounts of real estate.  They need to get cash to stay in business, or else the government seizes them and sells them off to J.P. Morgan-Chase at fire-sale prices.  To make matters worse, they already had this problem when they were extending the mortgages – they packaged them up into bonds and sold *those* off to make back cash so they could give more people mortgages that could be packaged up and sold to make back cash… lather, rinse, repeat.  So now they’re stuck with houses.  They’re stuck with interest payments on these bonds.  And, eventually, they’re going to have to pay those bonds off… but the houses backing those bonds, *right now*, won’t make much cash.  The banks start getting nervous and calling in a lot of those mortgages they put out that were ‘interest-only’ – now they want principle, and they want it fast.  Well, that just results in them getting even more real estate, which they can’t sell at a profit, so they sell them at whatever price they can get, pushing the housing prices down even faster (though not *that* fast… funny how they always go up faster than they go down, isn’t it?)  But since the banks were stuck holding the highest amount of paid value on the houses, they also eat the largest losses when they sell at actual market value.

And losses make the market-lemmings start searching for cliffs.  They sell the bank stocks.  They want to sell the bonds, but they can’t get anybody to buy them, so they’ll hold those.  The bank stocks drop, equity in the bank drops, they need even *more* assets… and the death spiral begins.

As for those bonds… allow me to introduce you to the SEC’s latest new regulation related to this.  Last year, they required that investment firms list all their securities at market value.  Even if there’s no actual market out there.  Before this ruling, you could’ve tightened your belt, looked at the execs who chose to invest in these, and said “Bad doggie, no biscuit for you!”  You’d wait until the housing market started to come back up, your assets are worth more than you paid for them, and sell them at a profit.  Now, you have to estimate a price for bonds that nobody wants.  Being good little accountants, you follow the SEC’s rules, and devalue the bonds, despite the fact that they’re backed by assets which will eventually be worth more than the bonds themselves.  This makes your balance sheet look bad – like banks, you have to maintain a certain asset level, and now your assets are on the line.  So you *have* to go out and try to sell these “worthless” securities that nobody wants right now… right now.

“Two moths and a wad of camel spittle” looks bad on the balance sheet, no matter how you slice it.

The bonds are devalued down to pennies on the dollar.  Your assets, formerly on the line, are now well under it.  And… you have to declare bankruptcy, or sell, or otherwise go through a company catastrophe.  The death spiral steepens.

All of this comes back to the market-lemmings.  They see even bigger losses and disasters.  Rather than take a leap off the edge of that nice little table they’ve been eyeing, they decide that it’s time to go for broke and take a swan-dive off Angel Falls.  They sell financial stocks.  They sell bank stocks.  They sell everybody’s stocks.  The stock markets begin to plunge – the lemmings start building platforms on top of the peak and jumping from there.  The markets drop even further.  Finally, you’re at the point where the lemmings are putting on tiny little space helmets and sky-diving from orbit, the regulations in place devalue vast amounts of corporate real estate, and the entire economy tanks.

That’s where it could end up, at any rate.  Fortunately (and this is one of the only times you will ever hear me say this), the government has said they’re going to do something.  They’re going to give the banks and investment firms with these ‘toxic’ bonds cash in exchange for them – the government can hold them until they come due, and make a profit on them.  It might cost $700 billion dollars, but in the long run these actually are safe investments… it’ll just require tightening up the belt, giving the execs stern looks, and saying “bad doggie!  No biscuit!” for a year or two.  Exactly what the companies should have been able to do.  Exactly what they would have been able to do if the SEC, with the best of intentions, hadn’t paved the road to Hell.

And if the lemmings hadn’t stampeded right down it.

So, who’s to blame for the current crisis?

Everybody.

Which means that, just maybe, it’s not that unfair if everybody shoulders part of the cost.

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Who’s Right?

September 27, 2008 at 9:35 am (Politics) (, , , , , )

Phew!  Things have been busy down at the ol’ hermitage, so I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance to post for a while, despite many interesting things happening this week.  Well, time to start scrawling on the walls again….

How many of you listened to the debates last night?

How many of you who listened realized that the fastest way to commit suicide during them might be to devise a drinking game where you take a shot every time you hear the words “That’s not true” from either candidate?

I’ll confess, I didn’t listen to the whole thing (I had errands to run, and lousy reception on the radio where I was running them).  But with what I did listen to, I was struck by the fact that their were three messages you could come away with.

  1. John McCain is old, and has been in the Senate a long time.
  2. Barack Obama’s voice is much easier to tell from Jim Lehrer’s than John McCain’s, and he hasn’t been in the Senate such a long time.
  3. One of the two of them – or both of them – was lying through his teeth for much of the debate, proving that they were fully qualified to serve in the Senate.

I take that last message from the fact that, frequently, one of them would say something, and the other would reply with ‘that’s not true’ or some variant thereof.  So, either the one who had the floor was lying at the time, or the one protesting was.  They couldn’t both be lying about it, could they?  And they couldn’t possibly be telling the truth, could they?  So how do you know who to believe?

Well, here’s the thing.  Most of the time, they were both telling the truth.  And they were both lying.  Not only in the same breath, but in the same words. You see, in the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, “everything I told you was true… from a certain point of view.  Many of the things we accept as truth, are only true from a certain point of view.”

Let’s take this one, for example.

Obama says “If you’re making more than $250,000 a year in taxes, your taxes will go up under my plan.  But I’m going to give 95% of American families a tax cut, the people who need it.”

McCain says “Under Senator Obama’s plan, your taxes could go up if you’re making $42,000 a year.”

Obama interrupts with “that’s not true, that’s just not true.”  Rude, but I’ll let him slide – McCain did it too.

Now… which one of them is telling the truth?  Both of them.

You see, under Senator Obama’s plan, if you’re making $250,000 a year, your taxes will go up, and he’s going to give a tax cut to 95% of American families.  But he’ll also potentially raise your taxes if you’re only making $42,000 a year.  Because, from a certain point of view, you can only be making $42,000 a year at the very same time you’re making $250,000 a year.

Here’s how it works.  Let’s say you run a small restaurant, or other business.  You can easily be making $250,000 a year – gross.  Now, that $250,000 a year is promptly chewed up by the cost of supplies, salaries you pay out, rent on your business, registration… and taxes that you’re already paying.  After all – at that level, if you’re not a corporation for tax purposes, you’re in the 35% tax bracket, and firmly within the realm of the 26% AMT.  You end up taking home about $42,000 a year… net.  So they’re both telling the truth.  By the way.  Tell me – in a typical double-income household (huband and wife), is your shared net income $42,000 a year?  Would you consider yourselves rich?  You’re making just as much as the guy who brings home the $42,000 above, so why not?

But, you say, you’re not making $250,000 a year gross.  You’re probably right, so by that standard you’re not rich.  But, again, it’s all a matter of your point of view – net pay, or gross pay?

Similarly, Senator Obama will give out a $1000 refundable tax credit to 95% of American families.  Why?  Well, because they’re just so wonderful they deserve it, I guess.  Where will that money come from?  The extra taxes paid by all those ‘rich’ people out there.  Whether he ‘raises taxes,’ ‘closes corporate loopholes,’ or does both at once (or, for that matter, whether or not there’s a difference between the two), he doesn’t deny they’ll be paying more.  They’re funding, among other things, that $1000 bucks.  The only way this isn’t a forced financial redistribution is if he plans on making that credit one that you pay back the next year, in which case it really isn’t that helpful.  Is a forced financial redistribution a bad thing?  Maybe, maybe not.

But a lot of the people in that 95% already get a refund back.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t really mind an extra digit on my tax refund, but is it fair to arbitrarily say “since you don’t make as much money as Mr. X, we’ll take his money and give it to you?”

Tax credits are great… when they’re there for a reason.  When you have a tax credit to help people recoup the costs of college, that’s a good use for it.  When you give people credits to make sure their dependents are taken care of during the day so they can work, that’s a good use for it.  You’re using a credit to stimulate specific activity that you want to see.  But just saying “I like you, have some money” isn’t the purpose of a tax credit (that’s what Christmas is for!)

So, who’s right?

They both are.  They’re both telling the truth, and they’re both lying.  Politicians rarely want to get caught in a bald-faced lie – that’s why they’re so very good at twisting the facts.  Perhaps the best recent example of this was Bill Clinton’s infamous line – “That depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.”

Lies cause scandals.  Half-truths, twisted truths, and lies of omission just give jobs to advertising executives.

EDIT:  For further examples, please take a look here.

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Particle Physics?

September 20, 2008 at 7:31 am (Particle Physics) (, , )

Politics, Religion and… particle physics?

Okay, so it’s not usually on the list of dinner table taboos.  However, it was one of several subjects that my family routinely did discuss.  Once in a great while, posts in this category actually will involve particle physics (particularly as news comes out regarding the LHC, one of the more fascinating projects out there today if you ask me.)  Quantum physics, unified field theory, these sort of things will come up… sometimes.

More often, this will be the section of the blog dedicated to my random musings and interests.  Movies, music, games… these sort of things are all fair game for this section.  I’ll try to keep how often I post to the Particle Physics section under control, though when things are slow on the political/religious front (like, say, between elections and after I’ve ranted about general philosophy enough that my virtual throat’s sore), I’ll still try and get a post in here once in a while.  Check it out if you’re interested, if not… wait for somebody in Washington to do something objectionable.

If history holds, you won’t have to wait too long.

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Coming down on one side….

September 18, 2008 at 5:04 pm (Politics) (, , , , , , , )

I’ve said before that I want to stay neutral here.  But I can’t any more – I haven’t been around here long enough to say ‘vote this way because I say so.’  But while poking around to see what searches brought people here, I tripped over an interesting one – ‘Obama treason.’  Now, why would that lead somebody to this blog?  I’m not sure, it doesn’t pop up in the Google search.  However… well, guess what did pop up.

http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5hi9TDNHvuBZpFsO8ZbiFYsnbIl3A

Doing a bit more research turns up this, from the New York Post.

Both claims are supported by the Daily Telegraph.

Now… I don’t like to support a lot of media sources out there.  The bias involved – on both directions – is irritating.  But when I come across something like this, with three separate sources, I’ve gotta start taking it seriously.  Especially when the defense – from the Obama campaign – is this.

“In fact, Senator Obama had told the Iraqis that they should not rush through a Strategic Framework Agreement governing the future of US forces until after President George W. Bush leaves office, she said.”

While they do follow up with a statement pointing out that Obama says that such an agreement must be reviewed by Congress, the fact remains that he wasn’t advocating they insist on Congress reviewing it (BTW – unless you consider this a treaty, which it isn’t, such review would be… well… unconstitutional.  It’s an agreement related to the strategy to be pursued, which I would think is under the Commander in Chief’s jurisdiction, not Congress’.)

What he was advocating was that they not make such an agreement until Bush is out of office.  In other words, he told the leaders of Iraq that they shouldn’t deal with the current administration.

It doesn’t matter what the reason is – this is despicable conduct for a presidential candidate.

Doesn’t matter who does it.  The fact is that a presidential candidate shouldn’t be screwing around with the operations of the current president, whether he likes him or not, unless it’s in the context of another official position he already holds.  I don’t hear about any other Senators bugging Iraq to not make agreements about how long our troops are there.

Maybe this is change we can believe in.  If that’s the case… I don’t think I want this particular change.

Do you?

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Jesus was a…?

September 16, 2008 at 9:38 pm (Politics, Religion) (, , , , , , , )

If you haven’t heard it from Donna Brazile, I’m sure you have from Tom Brokaw.

“Jesus Christ was a community organizer.  Pontius Pilate was a governor.”

It’s a line that has a nice bit of punch to it, especially if you buy the idea that Sarah Palin was slamming all community organizers when she said that being a mayor “was like being a community organizer, except that a mayor has responsibilities,” and not just one man who apparently thought that being a community organizer qualified him for the Presidency (and two autobiographies before his fiftieth birthday.)

I hate pithy slogans like that, which pack a lot of punch and little substance.  And believe me, this one packs very little substance.  But just for fun, let’s analyze it, shall we?

First off, the obvious implications.  If you just pointed out that “Jesus Christ was a community organizer,” I’d let it slide as an attempt to demonstrate just how offensive her remark had been.  But by following it up with “Pontius Pilate was a governor,” you immediately, and not at all subtly, link it to Palin, the only governor involved here. 

And by linking it to Palin through ‘governor,’ you link it to the only person involved here who was a community organizer – Barack Obama.

So, as a counterpoint to saying that she had more responsibilities than Barack Obama, the Democrats are comparing her to Pontius Pilate, one of history’s more reviled figures, and taking the chance to also compare their boy to Jesus Christ, one of history’s more respected figures.

Even I, a Pagan by faith and choice, find this statement offensive.  Not only because of the attack on Sarah Palin (who certainly doesn’t live up to Pilate’s career history or path), and not only because of the arrogance of anybody claiming that Obama and Christ are on approximately the same level, but also because of the fact that you’re belittling Christ’s actual résumé.

Now, let’s throw out the issue of miracles, rising from the dead, and/or actually being the physical Son of God.  Let’s just look at what Christ actually was.

He was a rabbi – a priest, a teacher, and a healer.  He was also a community organizer, granted, but he was much more than that.  He created a philosophy (and religion) that has endured for two thousand years in one form or another.  He advocated peace in the face of many of his own people clamoring for war.  He absolved the people who killed him of guilt, and ministered not only to his own people but to their mortal enemies.  He took a tax collector – a person often thought of as an enemy collaborator in his time – as one of his disciples. 

As a community organizer and rabbi, he taught a far stronger message of unity and strength than Obama has, one carried out through his actions as well as his words.

Now, all of this is just getting worked up about the statement itself, and not the inanity of the statement itself.  Let’s carry the statement – and linking Christ with Obama and Pilate with Palin – through to its logical conclusion, shall we?  Just for fun.

Christ was arrested by the High Priest’s men, and taken to his house, where he was questioned.  Throughout the (rather brutal) interrogation, he declined to defend himself in the least, according to two of the four gospels.  Instead, he made a non-response that was basically a plea of nolo contendre at the time (“that’s what you say” rather than “uhm, no.”)  According to a third, he actually confessed to the crime of claiming he was the Son of God – blasphemy under Jewish law of the time.

(For the record, yes, that is arguably a case of the Bible contradicting itself… but that’s a subject for another post.)

After this, he was led to Pilate.  There, the High Priest and his men accused him of sedition against the Roman state – a crime punishable by death, which blasphemy wasn’t under Roman law.  Pilate asked Christ if that was true… and Christ responded with the same non-answer as before.  It worked better with Pilate than it did with Caiaphas and crew – he said he found no fault in him, and pretty well bent over backwards to try and keep him out of trouble.  (Luke 23:1 through 23:24)

He offered to release a Rabbi who was accused of speaking out against Rome to the people – something that probably would have raised quite a few eyebrows back in Rome – and instead they told him to release a murderer.  And so, as the law required – as his oath as a governor required – as the very people who hated him as the symbol of their oppression required – he had Christ executed.  (Luke 23:18 through 23:24 – see what I mean about letting emotion rule over thought being a bad thing?)

Frankly, Pilate did more to defend Christ than Christ did, according to the Gospel of Luke.  He only had him executed when threatened with rioting on the part of the people he was supposed to be governing.  Which would have resulted in the Legionairres having to go out and start killing folks.  Which he really didn’t want.

Now, if we’re going to carry the Palin = Pilate/Obama = Christ equation through to fruition, what would that involve?  Hmm….

It would involve Obama being found guilty of some manner of horrible crime by pillars of the black community… Jesse Jackson, perhaps?

It would involve those people trumping up charges of treason against him, and a trial in which he plead guilty, despite the efforts of the Judge and Prosecutor and everybody else in the system trying to convince him not to.  The Judge, refusing to accept that plea, holds the trial, and packs the jury with as many supposedly sympathetic voices as possible, but they still convinct him.

At this point, President Palin (because no governor and no vice president has the authority to do this) offers to pardon him, because she and everybody else on the side of the ‘oppressors’ can see that he’s innocent (a little thick maybe, for not defending himself, but innocent.)

With pen in hand, and about to put the last flourish on her signature and allow him to go free, the public outcry from his own community threatens riots that will require the institution of Martial Law.  Rather than see that happen, she allows the legally required sentence to be carried out, and Obama to be executed.

A rather ridiculous scenario, don’t you think? 

I think rather higher of the black community and their leaders than that… and of Barack Obama.

Still, I think I’ll take the real Jesus Christ over a community organizer.

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Voting to Win

September 15, 2008 at 3:23 pm (Politics) (, , )

“Well, no, I don’t particularly like either candidate, but I’m going to vote for XXXX because I want my vote to count.”

That’s what my Psychology professor said before class one day in late 2000, as the rest of us students discussed the merits of Gore versus Bush versus not voting at all because we didn’t particularly like the Republicrats these days (well, for those of us who could vote – High School seniors don’t always have that option.)  I’d just pointed out that anybody who didn’t like either of the major candidates should consider voting third party… and that’s the response I got (edited because I don’t particularly remember who he was voting for, the robot or the cowboy).

As I argued then (and later, with my own mother), voting for somebody you don’t want to win is the only way your vote doesn’t count.  What’s worse, your vote counts as a negative.  Other people, ticked off at not having any serious choices, instead write in ridiculous candidates (like a friend of mine, who routinely votes for Superman).  Again, it’s a wasted vote, but at least it doesn’t vote in a direction you don’t want the country to go.

Most people don’t believe that a vote for a third-party candidate can win.  Some people still go ahead and vote third-party, arguing that it’s a protest vote.  That’s a step in the right direction, at least.

All I ask is this.  When you go to the polls November 4th, I don’t care if you vote McCain, Obama, Barr, Baldwin, or for somebody else, do the responsible thing – vote for the one you want to win.  Don’t vote against the one you want to lose – Dubya got a number of votes through that sort of logic, and look where that got us (to be fair, so did Gore… helped a lot, didn’t it?)

Vote for somebody who agrees with you on the majority of the issues… not with somebody who only agrees with you that the other guy isn’t the right one.  But how do you discover the point of view of a third-party candidate, largely ignored by the media?

http://www.selectsmart.com/president/2008/comparethem.html

http://www.factcheck.org/ is another good source – it doesn’t include a breakdown of the viewpoints of third-party candidates, but it does help to cut through some of the attack-ad BS from both sides.  If you’re going to vote for a major party candidate, at least be sure you know the truth about them.

Poking around on the net can reveal more good resources too.  Ultimately, we’re in an era where it’s easier to discover this sort of thing than ever before.  If you shop around for your candidate, rather than just voting for one of the main parties or the other, you’ll find you’ve got more options than you’d ever thought before.

And, just maybe, you’ll be one of the early supports of one of our next big parties.  After all – there were times when the Republicans and Democrats were pretty small too.

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On Bias

September 10, 2008 at 9:27 pm (Politics) (, , , , , , )

Bias.  Always a bad thing, isn’t it?  After all, a biased jury convicts poor innocent people of crimes that they couldn’t have committed, just because a biased media spent the last six months of the trial blasting the public with one-sided commentary on the trial.  Even worse is when ‘bias’ becomes an ‘-ism.’  Racism, ageism, elitism, sexism – all bad things.

Or are they?

After all – a bias is merely preferring one thing over another.  I have a bias towards vanilla ice cream and pineapple-coconut cakes.  I have a bias towards Final Fantasy 6 and Resident Evil 4, and against God of War and Final Fantasy 7.  These aren’t bad things… so we call them ‘preferences’ or ‘likes’ instead of ‘biases.’

My point in all of this is that bias isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s just a bad name for something neutral that we often see in a negative light (see also: ‘cliches’ versus ‘traditional plots’ or ‘stereotypes’ versus ‘archetypes’).

Bias becomes a bad thing when it colors your opinions and you don’t acknowledge it.  Well, since I can’t help it coloring my opinions here (as you’ll see soon), I figure it’s best to just come out and admit to them.  Look at it this way – after this, you’ll know to take it with a grain of salt when I come out swinging against the latest comments from the Religious Right.

Bias #1:  Like most people who consistently (and, some would say, Quixotically) vote Libertarian, I support small government.

It means that I think the government should keep its nose out of my business.

The government has the right to stop me from taking actions that pose an immediate threat to the people around me – like driving down the I-Road at 80 mph (though, ironically, it seems increasingly reluctant to exercise that right, to judge by my morning commutes.)

It does not have the right to tell me that I can’t eat butter, because that’ll make me fat and turn me into a drain on society.

It does not have the right to tell me I can’t get married to whoever I want, so long as they are a legally-consenting human adult within that jurisdiction.

You’ll notice that the government, State or Federal, has done (or is doing) both of these things in some places.

Similarly, it’s not the Government’s place to save the world.  They can feel free to say ‘we would prefer that you do this,’ or ‘please don’t do that.’  I’m even willing to let them encourage those steps – place a tax on the vices, or offer substantial tax credits for the use of ‘green’ practices.  But I do not feel it is the government’s place to force the people to behave the way they feel is ‘right.’

Why not?  Because right is ultimately a very subjective thing in a lot of fields.  After all – there was a time when it was ‘right’ to feel that the mentally disabled should be sterilized so they can’t contribute to the ‘genetic weakening’ of the people.  There was a time when it was ‘right’ to consider homosexuality a mental disorder.  There was a time when it was ‘right’ to do a lot of things we consider abhorrent now… and that is precisely why the government shouldn’t have the power to force people to live by the standards it considers ‘right’.

Bias #2:  I support the Constitution.

The Constitution is a wonderful, wonderful document.  It lays out all of these rules for what the government can do with its not-inconsiderable power.  Brilliantly, it also lays out all of these rules for what the government can’t do with its not-inconsiderable power.  If only it would follow those rules reliably, we’d all be a lot better off.

It also has these amazing things called amendments.  A large number of these grant what we call civil rights.  For example, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of (in this order):

  1. Religion
  2. Speech
  3. The Press
  4. Assembly
  5. Petition

All of which means that the government can’t require people to follow – or not follow – the religion of their choice.  It can’t say that the public can’t say or write bad things about it – it also can’t say that the public can’t say or write bad things about other people.  Basically, when they wrote the Constitution, they said very specifically that it’s a good thing that we can disagree, and that Congress (or other branches of the government, it has later been determined) can’t say that we don’t have the right to disagree, publically, and to express our opinions, no matter how vile.  I can say or write whatever I want, so long as I am not committing slander or libel, and so long as I’m not encouraging people to commit criminal acts.

And you have every right to be offended by it, and to argue with me, and to tell me that what I said is offensive.  But you don’t have the right to force me not to say it because you find it offensive (if we did have that right, we’d be an awfully quiet country).

Of course, not all of the amendments were such brilliant ideas – I give you the 18th amendment – but we’ve managed to weed out the rotten ones over the years.

Bias #3:  I support personal freedoms.

In my opinion, the government has rarely, if ever, accomplished something good by banning something.  Prohibition is probably the best example of this – while it sounded like a good idea to ban alcohol, doing so gave us a sustained and powerful organized crime base, which has survived ever since on continued vice laws.  Ironically, considering my preference for small government, I tend to support the idea of the government allowing pretty much everything, and then regulating it so that responsible usage is preferable to abusive usage.  It works for pretty much everything, but that’s a topic for another post.

Similarly, I don’t support banning abortion.  While I don’t particularly approve of it, history has shown that banning it simply drives it underground, with some excessively gruesome results.

Bias #4:  I believe that people of any gender, race, faith, gender identity, philosophy, or body shape have equal rights.

Now, that’s a pretty common one, and one that most people won’t disagree with.  But it includes some things that members of both ends of the political spectrum don’t usually agree with.  For example, I believe that we all have the right to marry one or more people with whom we are in love.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think that the government has any place in regulating marriage – it should be a strictly religious matter, with a secular union available that grants the legal priviliges currently restricted to married couples (that whole ‘separation of church and state’ thing).  But, so long as the government handles marriages, it should offer the option up to anybody.

Similarly, I believe that racists and other people with objectionable views have as much right to speak their minds as you or I.  As I said before, neither the First Amendment nor the Fourteenth grant you the right to not be offended.  If I have the right to say that people of all races are equal, then the KKK has the right to say they aren’t.

I also have the right to go there and heckle the living daylights out of them, but that’s the beauty of the First Amendment.

That’s probably enough for just now.  If I come across others later on, I’ll try to point out where I find something offensive (though frankly, you’ll probably have an easy enough time of picking it up yourselves….)

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Welcome!

September 6, 2008 at 8:12 pm (Uncategorized)

Welcome to Dinner Table Taboos, where I’ll be discussing those three little things you’re not supposed to bring up in polite company – politics, religion, and particle physics.  Three things that most people don’t discuss, for fear of getting in a fight (or making eyes glaze over)… and three things that my family and I routinely discussed, whether over the dinner table, or in public.

This isn’t a news blog, or somewhere to go when you’re looking for the latest on the current shenanigans up in the capitol.  What this is for is putting my reactions to them up in a place where the people who don’t want to be subjected to them don’t have to be.  Who am I, and why should you care what I think?

Well… because this isn’t a news blog.  I’m not a journalist, I don’t want to be one, and while I do have an axe to grind I’ll make it perfectly clear when the ol’ wheel’s spinning.  I’m not blogging for the Democrats, the Republicans, the atheists, or the religious right… actually, I’m equally irritated by all of those.  I’m a gnostic eclectic neo-Pagan with a mild background in physics, Libertarian political leanings, and a job as an accountant making sure that your tax dollars do get put to work.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve probably got a point of view on things that you aren’t going to find reading the Times.  If any of that appeals, then check in every once in a while – I hope to keep things interesting around here.  All I ask is that you keep things civil, and try to keep an open mind, especially if you comment on things.  If you want me to be willing to change my mind, it’s only fair that you are too.

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