Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I Hate College Sports

It's not just the corruption, or the vast scale of the corruption, or how invasive and pervasive, or even how everybody knows just how corrupt it is but still lets it happen, That's not why i hate college sports.

I hate college sports because everybody lets it happen because they just want their team to win. They're afraid if they do it right, if they do it the way it's supposed to be, they won't be able to compete and win.

It's the only reason I can think of. If people suspected there was academic corruption at just a small fraction of what goes on in collegiate sports, they'd call for a complete overhaul of the system.

What they don't realize is that corruption in sports almost guarantees corruption in academics. If a school admits an unqualified student so they can play sports, that's academic corruption. If a school "arranges" for athletes to pass their classes so they're eligible to play, that's academic corruption.

Go to your average college campus. Compare the facilities and budget they have for sports to the facilities and budget they have for the arts and letters. Compare the cost and age of the football stadium to the cost and age of the library. Worse than that, compare the number of people who go through the stadium to the number of people who go through the library. Now, tell me if you think corruption in sports doesn't lead to a corruption in academics.

You might say "it's boosters and donors who pay for the stadium", and that's probably true, but all that tells me is the people who support the school are more concerned with the football team then they are the academic life of the college.

If we allow the popularity of college sports to overshadow the academic life of the school, then we're contributing to the corruption, not only in sports, but corruption of the academic program as well. We shouldn't even be talking about the academic program vs. the sports program. Sports is an extra-curricular activity. It's supposed to be something you do in your spare time, with spare money, not become the life of the college.

I don't think you can repair college sports. Since the end of World War II, it's just gotten worse and worse and we're at the point now where the only way we can possibly change the trend is by shutting the whole thing down for a few years and starting over from scratch.

As a governing body, the NCAA is a joke. It should be shut down and it's members tried for misappropriation of public funds.

The American academy from Junior High all the way through Graduate school is rotten and corrupt and it's only going to get worse until we decide to put a stop to it and I can't think of a better place to start than with the most corrupt part of the whole system, and that's sports.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

My Dream Production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Unlike a lot of directors, I've always believed Shakespeare's comedies should actually be funny. Actually, to be fair, most directors try to make them funny, but all too often, they're not very funny themselves, so the result is pretty boring.

The scripts themselves usually do have lots of funny bits in them, one only needs to present them in funny ways to complete the task. Therein lies the rub.

Most people try to make A Midsummer Night's Dream beautiful, even though none of the characters in the play act beautiful. Most of them are self-obsessed, boorish assholes--which is where the comedy comes in.

My dream project would be a film of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It would mostly work on stage, but, since it's a dream project, there are a couple of special effects I'd like to add, but probably not what you think.

The play has two worlds. The human world, which despite having classic Greek heroes as characters, the people are petty and incompetent and have a much higher opinion of themselves than they should.

Then there's the fairy world. Here's where most directors go wrong. The fairy world is a sort of absurd reflection of the human world. If the humans have over-inflated egos, the fairies have insanely over-inflated egos. If the humans make stupid mistakes, the fairies make three-stooges level mistakes.

Since it's a film project, I'd make the fairies actually fairy size, maybe a foot tall. This presents a slight problem when Bottom encounters Titania, but since he's enchanted anyway, it's no problem to shrink him down for the scenes of him amongst the fairies.

If the fairies are a reflection of the human world, then I'd have them create their world using found objects from the human world. A thimble might make a nice hat. A cup could be a wagon, a handkerchief a coat and so on. The fairies aren't beautiful. They have big noses and big feet and big ears. Their hair is a mess and they have no taste at all. They believe the are beautiful though, so the actors would have to present themselves like they were really grand, even though they're just ridiculous.

Usually there's a problem with the four human lovers. Most directors cast four equally beautiful young people which becomes a problem because four equally beautiful young people are basically interchangeable so there's no conflict (and no comedy) when they fall in love with the wrong person. The audience must have a sense of who belongs with who just by looking at them. That gives them some concern that they end up with the right lover.

Hermia and Lysander belong together and Helena and Demetrius belong together, but at the beginning of the play, Helena believes she should be with Lysander and Demetrius believes he should be with Hermia. Now, how do you make this funny instead of tragic?

Since these four are supposed to be teenagers, why not use high-school stereotypes? Hermia is a cheerleader, she could even wear a cheerleader outfit, and Lysander is the quarterback on the football team, he could wear a letter sweater. They have perfect hair and perfect smiles and in the Athens High School Yearbook, they would be the most beautiful couple. They're the kind of people who are so perfect, it's fun to hate them.

Since most of the comedy comes from Helena and Demetrius, why not make them nerds? Hermia calls Helena a "maypole" so maybe she's the tallest of the four, much taller than Demetrius. Demetrius should be short and scrawny. When he demands Hermia's hand at the beginning of the play, the audience should react like "dude, give it up".

Now, this set up gives you unlimited comedic possibilities whenever these four are on stage. Stereotypes are funny, no matter what anybody says, so just get over it. The adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" comes up several times in the play, and having Helena and Demetrius realize they're really hot for each other at the end plays into that.

What's funny about the mechanicals is that they're actors playing actors. There's a good bit of comedy already in the script, but there's much more to be had if you cast actors who match the type of actor each character represents. Then it becomes a matter of trusting them to find their own sensibilities about the character and the situation and develop the comedy already in it.

A director should probably spend more rehearsal time with the mechanicals than with any of the other sets of actors. I would look for people who are not only really good character actors, but also good at improvisation and use that improvisational sensibility to bring out the comedy. Fortunately, they are written as fairly mature characters, so you can hire fairly mature and experienced actors. Bottom is, of course, the plum role here, but any of the mechanicals have the potential of stealing the show so don't scrimp on these guys.

A lot of people spend a lot of time on Puck, but Puck really is just the catalyst for the other characters, so don't over do it with Puck. He should be well spoken, of course, because he has that last soliloquy. Other than that, Puck tends to be the straight-man for other characters, so he should be a very generous actor.

I like the idea of double-casting Theseus and Hippolyta with Oberon and Titania. What's fun with that is you have them set their characters at level five when they're human, but level ten when they're fairies. What's funny about these characters is their egos, and since you're working with actors that shouldn't be a problem. The comedy is pretty broad here, so don't be afraid of going over-the-top when they're in fairy form. They should be loud and brassy and bossy and completely unaware of how completely incompetent and impotent they really are.

The other characters should react to them like they're sucking up to the boss, because they are. The fairies act very obedient and respectful when the king and queen are looking, but as soon as they turn their backs, the fairies show how they really feel about being ordered around like that.

I knew a fellow one time who was directing this play, and he told me he wanted it to be "a gay sexual fantasia". Those were his exact words. When I saw the finished product, that's exactly what he got and I can't tell you how dull it was. Thank god he cut out about twenty pages or I never would have made it all the way through. I don't pretend to think my interpretation is the ultimate version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I gotta think it'd be better than that!

Monday, April 27, 2009

I Hate Target

I went by Target today because, although disillusioned long ago, I'm still fascinated by marketing and store design and when it comes to these things, particularly class position marketing, Target is the best of the best.

First you have to understand Target makes not the least pretense at reaching the straight male market segment, so my presence there is pretty alien, both for them and for me. I put on my NASA approved containment suit and forged ahead though, in the interest of science.

Target does an amazing thing. They make a living selling consumer goods and household products to women who consider themselves slightly better than Walmart. They have a men's clothing department, but that's only because, shopping for husbands and sons, women actually purchase more men's clothes than men.

Target walks a pretty fine line though, because their customers actually prefer the same brands offered at Walmart and Kroger, so Target has to offer them in the same price range. Since they don't have Walmart's volume, they're probably making less profit on these products than Walmart, even though they sell them for a few cents more. They also have higher per foot real estate costs because they put their stores in locations slightly more visible than Walmart.

To make up the difference, they add a few premium sections to the store. They can't have a premium clothing section because women are pretty particular about where they buy their clothes and the market segment they're going for wants their work and dress clothes to come from boutiques rather than mass marketers. They may be mass market boutiques, but let's not split hairs.

I think Target generates a lot of their profit from their confections, coffee, furniture, and linens sections. The one I went to even had a Starbucks at the front of the store, which is interesting because the Walmart down the street has a Subway in the same spot. When it comes to class marketing, Subway vs Starbucks pretty much tells the whole story.

You could never have a Target for men. Most men simply aren't as attuned to the fine striations of class as women are. Not all men are immune to this type of marketing, but usually the stores who market to men that way are much smaller and locally owned and usually restricted just to clothing. People who try class marketing in typically male stores like hardware or electronics usually fail. They're still out there though, but their customer base is pretty small.

The only stores that have much consistent luck at class marketing to men are some brands of automobiles and sometimes Apple computers. At Lowes or BestBuy though, they actually shun class marketing because they know it could drive many of their customers away, regardless of their income.

Although I recognize class and all it's machinations in human society, I tend to think it's bullshit, so I usually think of class marketing as a fine, seven-layer, serving of bullshit too. One day, I think people will come to realize that all these folks who serve them by observing class distinctions are really manipulating them and there'll be some sort of backlash against it. Until then, I'll visit stores like Target occasionally, just fascinated to see what these people are up to now.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Telephone Pollsters

There's been a lot of talk recently about Zata3's poll about the Jackson Mayoral race. Some say it's valuable and accurate, some say it's not, but what nobody's talking about is how really annoying telephone polls are.

I find it pretty dehumanizing for anyone to try and reduce my opinion to a point on a graph and damned annoying that anyone would call me saying they want my opinion, when they really don't. They want to know where I fall on their pre-determined graph, not what I think.

Many of these companies conduct their polls without human operators, but those who actually do employ live human beings give them a script that reduces them to a mechanical operand so they might as well be a computer.

If a computer-controlled, recorded pollster calls, I just hang up. I refuse to have a telephone conversation with a non-biological entity saying it wants my opinion when it's incapable of even understanding what human beings are.

If I'm lucky enough to get a human operator, I generally find it terribly unfair that they want me to give them information, but they won't give me any, so I turn the tables on them.

First I ask who they work for. I think they may actually be required to answer that question. It's a matter of ethics really.

Next I'll ask who their client is. The poll company isn't calling for their own sake, they make money collecting opinions for other people. Most of the time, they won't tell me who their client is.

If someone's calling to get information, "who wants to know?" is a fairly logical response, but usually the pollster doesn't want us to know who's probing our psyche so they won't say. I find it terribly unethical for someone to know who I am and try to gather information from me, but remain unwilling to say who they represent. If they refuse to answer, then I usually hang up.

Most pollster calls never get past the second question. If they do, then I hit them with a third question and so far nobody has ever gotten past that. "And what is your name?" I ask.

It's a reasonable question. They have my name, my telephone number, and god-knows what other information about me, but you'd be surprised how many don't want me to know their name. If they do give me a first name, then I insist on knowing their last name.

I've never actually had one give me their last name. One went so far to say it was a matter of security. "Matter of security?" They call my house, but I'm unable to find out who they are as a matter of security? What am I going to do? Call them at their house just like they've called me at mine?

I suppose there is some useful purpose for opinion polls, but when it comes to politics, I prefer the actual ballot itself, which is the only opinion poll that really matters.

I Hate Andy Warhol

I never much cared for Andy Warhol. His contemporaries like Andrew Wyeth and Jackson Pollock did amazing things working with the traditional elements of painting like, form, line, light, color, and texture. Warhol had some mastery of these elements, but no more than the average art student.

The primary element of Warhol's work was culture. By presenting us with a rectangle full of familiar images, he re-contextualized the television experience. Television though, constantly contextualizes itself, so Warhol didn't really add anything.

People are more likely to buy a painting if there's somebody famous in it. Artists have been doing this for thousands of years. You can go down to Jackson Square in New Orleans this very afternoon and find a couple dozen artists doing exactly what Warhol did in that respect.

The art movement attributed to Warhol would have happened without him. The television experience was already producing dozens of artists doing exactly what Warhol did. By the time he retired, there would be thousands. Now that his techniques are fairly easy using a computer, there are millions.

Warhol's fame comes mainly from being at the right place in the right time. The New York art scene has a way of propagating and inflating bullshit to mammoth proportions and Warhol became its beneficiary. His work and his personality made him, effectivly, the Perez Hilton of his day.

I'm glad we live in a world where an artist can become as famous as Andy Warhol; I just wish it'd happen to better artists. My suspicion is that better artists would shun the social situations Warhol thrived on, and since those social situations are probably the biggest part of Warhol's fame, it's probably unlikely that a better artist will ever achieve his level of noteriety, at least in their lifetime.

The Cockroach: Victim of Our Perception

I sat on my deck yesterday and watched a cockroach climbing on a tree. It was one of the big European cockroaches people hate so much, and it made me think about how limited and how selfish our perspective really is.

The first thing you have to understand is cockroaches are remarkable and beautiful animals. Clean and efficient, they are perfectly suited for their environment. Their bodies have evolved to the size and shape and color of a pine bark nugget, which is good because their preferred environment is pine forests, which is why they're so common in the South.

We hate them, not because of they're ugly or dirty or carry disease or are dangerous in any way. None of that is true. We hate them because they inadvertently enter our homes. We'd hate bluebirds and unicorns if they occasionally showed up in our kitchens.

The reason we don't find bluebirds and unicorns in our kitchens is because they're not able to get into the house because of the doors and windows. Cockroaches, on the other hand, evolved to navigate small spaces and crevices so windows and doors are no obstacle for them. I doubt they even know they've gone from "outside" to "inside" out homes, since the concept of "house" probably doesn't mean anything to them. To them, it's just another pile of dead wood, and for them piles of dead wood is where they find food.

Because cockroaches are food for other creatures in the forest, they evolved to hide in the shadows and either run or freeze when they detect large movements. That makes them extra creepy to us because they remain hidden when we're moving, cooking or cleaning or doing things around the house, but they come out when we settle down to eat or watch television. We see it as an invasion, but they see it as simply a sign of "all's clear".

It's doubtful cockroaches even have a very good sense of who or what we are. Their eyes can't focus so they probably don't have any idea at all about our shape or form. Their minds can't comprehend the idea that we built the structure they're in. As far as they know, our homes are just another part of the forest and we're just another large animal moving about the forest, like a cow or a triceratops. (Yes, they are old enough to have experienced the triceratops.)

Most people probably won't read this article because of the title. If they did read it, there were probably moments when they experienced completely unnecessary senses of revulsion. That's how much a slave to our own perceptions we really are, even though we have the mental capacity to see beyond them. Our crazy perceptions make us believe these completely innocent and beautiful creatures are disgusting and close to evil simply because they are inconvenient to us.

Consider this: Raccoons eat cockroaches. If raccoons lived in houses, they might see the occasional entry of cockroaches as a surprise gift. To them, cockroaches would be beautiful and delightful, not repulsive and ugly. For us, it'd be like coming home and finding a ripe, red apple sitting on the counter.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

100 Years of Magic Drawings

Sometimes artists many years apart have similar ideas.

Below is J. Stuart Blackton's The Enchanted Drawing, produced in 1900


Over one hundred years later, Dutch artist Evelien Lohbeck updates Blackton's idea to incorporate modern technology.

Noteboek from Evelien Lohbeck on Vimeo.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Vision For Millsaps

One thing I keep hearing about this fight between the president and faculty at Millsaps is that some people worried the president didn't have a vision for the college. I've been worried Millsaps might lack vision too, but I don't blame Dr. Lucas for it.

The American Academy as a whole has gone so far afield of its stated purpose that I don't see how any college comes up with a meaningful vision for itself.

What people want from the college experience is to get themselves or their children into the middle class. There's actually no direct connection between academics and the middle class so colleges all over the country struggle to find ways to make themselves relevant to what people want from them.

My dad once told me "Americans want the University system for their colleges, but they're not very interested in the University Ideal. Most of them don't even know what it is."

His solution to the issue of a vision for the college was to build up the business and pre-med. departments which actually do help students enter middle class lines of work. It worked great for a while, but before too long all of the colleges we compete against developed the same plan. Dad died before he could figure out what the next step might be. He had some ideas, but none of them were developed enough to deploy yet.

Several colleges Millsaps' size decided to pick one side of the culture war and turn that into their vision, making the college a sort of extended boot camp for the left or the right. The culture war doesn't particularly have anything to do with academics, but it has everything to do with the middle class life, so it was a successful move for them. I would never attend a college like that, and I question what those parameters do to their academic integrity, but I can see their point and if that's what they want out of life, then I suppose that's the kind of college they should have. It's a steaming pile of bullshit though, and I just wanted to go on the record saying so.

Major Millsaps had a great vision for the college and we've made good use of it for over a hundred years now. The problem is, most Americans don't really care all that much about that sort of thing, no matter what they say.

If you ask most people how their alma matter is doing, they'll say how the football team did last year, or how many pledges their fraternity got, but ask them what's happening in the academic life of the college and they haven't a clue. When was the last time you heard somebody say "Wow! Dr Moore presented a great paper on the Peloponnesian War last month. I'm SO glad I took her class."

That's what college is though folks. It's not football teams or fraternity life or manicured campuses, it's the pursuit of knowledge, only we've gotten so far away from that, nobody really cares anymore.

Our motto is: "Ad excellentiam", short for "Ad excellentiam consequendam", or "In Pursuit of Excellence". The excellence it refers to is academic excellence, which is a pretty good vision for any school, if you can keep up with it. The problem is that the pursuit of excellence in knowledge for its own sake isn't what most people really want anymore. You can't have a college just for academics. Nobody will support it.

They want a three bedroom house, with two and a half baths and granite counters. They want a winning football team and their candidate to win the election. They want their favorite show to stay on the air. They want the blind kid to win American Idol. In a land of such rampant mediocracy, can you really blame Millsaps for struggling to come up with a relevant vision for itself?

I say college education, since the war, has become so a matter of course, and such a fashionable necessity, for those either of or aspiring to the vast middle class, that we espouse it as a matter of right, and we have ceased to ask, "What is it good for?"
--David Mamet, Oleanna; 1993

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Ghosts Among Us

As a lot of you may know, Millsaps is going through some turmoil right now. This is pretty hard for me because Millsaps was always part of my life and will always be really close to my heart.

I'm really having a hard time resisting the urge to call my dad or call my mom to talk about this. I know they're gone, but I guess they're still such a big part of me that I still really feel like I need to talk to them.

I guess, no matter how long somebody's been gone, if you still love them, they're never completely gone from inside you.

The God Box Paradox

Suppose I gave you a box. A simple cardboard box like a gift box without the wrapping and a simple cardboard top.

Then I told you, inside the box was all the proof you ever needed and all the information you ever wanted about God. There's just one catch: if you ever open the box, it'll be empty. So long as you keep the box closed, then it's full of the most amazing thing you could imagine, but if you open it, there'll be nothing.

Would you believe me? Could you believe me? If you believed me, could you keep from ever opening the box, just to make sure? Would you shake the box and weigh the box and put your ear next to it, hoping for some clue about what's inside?

If you believed me, how would it change your life to know you had this box with all the mysteries in the universe inside, but you could never open the box and see them.

That's what faith is like. You have a box, and you believe a bit of God is inside the box, but if you ever open it, if you ever try to prove to yourself there's something in the box, there will be nothing in it, but as long as you keep the lid on, it's the most amazing box possible.

It doesn't mean there's nothing in the box because you can't see it, it's that trying to see it will make you unable to see it, but if you accept that you can't see it, then you'll always know it's there.

That's why there are atheists. They opened the box and, just as I predicted, they found it empty. So now they say the box was always empty. Surprisingly, many atheists have no trouble understanding the paradox of Schrodinger's Cat, but they'll just laugh at my God Box paradox, even though it's the same idea.

Some people will say you can prove God's existence without opening the box, but they're wrong. Trying to prove God makes the box empty no matter what you do. The only way to keep the box full is by accepting you can never open it. So long as we know we can open the box any time we want to, but are willing to keep it closed, then we're able to keep God with us forever.

So, what about you? What would you do if I gave you a box?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Bully Bullshit

Kids are pretty smart and they're pretty good at knowing when we're feeding them bullshit.

We tell kids to avoid bullies and gangs, but then we send them to school where the biggest gang of bullies are on the payroll. The teachers and administration have one simple rule for kids: do as you're told or else! If that's not a bully, then I don't know what one is.

Kid bullies might cause temporary discomfort with wet willies, wedgies and purple nurples, but that's nothing compared to the punishment the adult bullies dish out with suspension, expulsion, failing grades, sitting in the corner, running laps and more.

When I was a kid, it didn't take me very long to figure out this was bullshit in its truest form. A lot of times, I had a better understanding of the material than my teachers. They'd been repeating the same data for so long that it ceased having any real meaning to them.

To me, it was new and exciting and I wanted to know more, but the teachers wanted me to follow their set pattern of exercises and tests and hoops and carrots and if I didn't, then I'd be in real trouble and then I'd get to see just how much of a bully these people were willing to be.

I wasn't very long before I said "screw that" and went my own way. My grades suffered horribly, of course, but learning was beautiful for me and I wasn't going to let these assholes, whose only concern was for me to shut up and do as I'm told, ruin it.

You see, life is easier for grownups if kids do as their told, whether it makes any sense or not. It's even in the bible. Leviticus gives parents license to stone children who don't obey. STONE them, as in: throw rocks at them until they're dead.

It sets us up for a life, even as adults, where everyone has a level of power where people with more power get to tell you what to do and you get to tell people with less power what to do.

We allow it because societies and classrooms must have some order to function and this is a fairly effective way to create and maintain order. There are other ways to achieve order, but they require more time and effort which generally boils down to more money, so we choose not to employ them, because they're just children after all and it's not like we get much return for investing in children.

It's not just about money though. I went to the most expensive schools in town, and even they were convinced this was the best model for teaching children. There are other models out there, but in the U.S. only people with extreme political or social issues use them.

Homeschooling and tutors are the oldest forms of education, but they require a pretty hefty commitment from the parents so they're the least employed. The European model requires the least commitment from parents. With fewer responsibilities at home, parents can then devote more time to the factories and fields, so most governments favor it.

Here's my proposal. We're far from full employment in this country. Most of these unemployed people could be pretty good educators with the proper training, and would do it if they could make a living at it. If we turned these people into educators, then we could tear down the militaristic European model educational system and build something that makes much more sense and works much better.

To pay for it would require a real commitment though. We could afford it if we reduced military and social spending by a third and ended the war on drugs. These are moves that would solve a lot of other problems as well.

None of this will happen for a million reasons though. I think the biggest reason is that people like the feeling of telling somebody else what to do. It makes them feel powerful, even if the person they're bullying is just a kid.

It's OK to keep doing what we're doing, you just have to always remember, there are better ways if we were strong enough to commit to them, and what we're doing now comes with a really big portion of steaming bullshit.

Republican Melt-Down 2009

If you haven't noticed, the Republicans are having some sort of a melt down.

Part of it is just because they lost the election and there's always a purge after losing an election. Since they lost both the presidency and congress, this purge might be worse than most.

The other part is that the Republicans have always considered themselves masters of the economy and no matter how much people criticize their other stuff, they've always been able to point to that to justify themselves. When we went into a recession with the Republicans on watch, with some of their policies in the spotlight as the probable cause, it kind of threw them into a state of shock.

Normally a purge isn't that bad, but it creates a power vacuum and right now they don't have anybody to fill it, so they're dredging up some old horses like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich. Both of them were pretty well discredited years ago though so their return is pretty impotent.

Some of the faithful have left the party and now call themselves libertarians. I can't see them really embracing most of the libertarian agenda though so that probably won't last. There's an outside chance they could end up taking over the party from the real libertarians, which would suck because they serve a useful purpose as is.

Historically, when a party is in power for a long time, they end to take things too far, so the electorate eventually gets tired of them and kicks them out. If you look at our history, this see-saw from left to right has happened several times, so rather than pull their hair out, the Republicans should probably use this down time to work on their fundamentals and clean up their act and just wait until it's their time again.

They could also work on their sportsmanship some too. Losing is part of playing the game and you have to take it with some grace or you come off looking like an asshole. The Democrats aren't much better when they lose, but it's never too late for somebody to come forward and start acting like a grown-up about it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sarah Palin Assaults Bigfoot

For years, scientists have debated the existence of the mysterious creature said to roam the northern pine forests, but photographic evidence surfaced recently that proves without a doubt that Sarah Palin is real.

As presented in the Weekly World News, the beast once known as John McCain's running mate was captured on film after she shot and killed a native Sasquatch resident of Alaska.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Libertarians Vs Progressives. Who the Hell ARE These People?

I've written before how the Democrats don't want to be called "Democrats" anymore, they want you to call them "Progressives". Well, now the Republicans have gotten in on the act and they want to be known as "Libertarians".

They're the same people they always were, with the same affiliations and the same beliefs, but they're not happy with the press their party received over the past few years so they're looking to re-brand themselves.

There actually already are Progressive and Libertarian parties, and I'm sure they're just thrilled with all the new members. Neither party has anyone elected to congress, so they must see this new-found popularity as a real opportunity. Ten years ago the Libertarian and Progressive parties had to join forces just to have enough people to field a softball team. Now, they're having to bring out the folding chairs so their new members have a place to sit.

These people who used to be Democrats will probably be shocked when they find out the biggest success the progressive party ever had were little programs known as Prohibition and Teddy Roosevelt's New American Empire.

The people who used to be Republicans will probably be shocked when they find out that, until recently, the biggest planks in the libertarian platform were the legalization of drugs and prostitution, making abortion more accessible and eliminating the FCC's decency regulations.

You see, Re-Branding is bullshit.

These people don't want to join a new party, they just want to get rid of all the negative baggage their old party carried around. It doesn't really work though because everybody knows it's the same old bus, just with a new coat of paint.

You see, parties aren't too good at achieving their stated agendas. What they are good at is achieving their member's real, hidden agendas, the ones even they are ashamed to admit.

The republicans say they want smaller government, but what they really want is power, so government grows substantially when the republicans are in office.

Likewise, the democrats say they want to help the common man, but what they really want is control, so life gets worse for the common man when the democrats are in office.

Both parties actually do their best work when they're out of office. The lack of power forces them to stick to their stated agenda, and a lot of times, that's when they make the most progress at getting what they say they want.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

Not an hour after I posted saying I was sorry for spreading the Susan Boyle meme and comparing her to Celene Dion singing the Titanic theme, and somebody sends me a link to Boyle singing that very song on Larry King live.

Link: YouTube

Who is Guillermo, Why I Twitter Him and Why You Should Too

Sometimes things get really big and I have no idea why.

Twitter is probably the least useful of all the social networking sites, but right now it's all anybody wants to talk about. Likewise, Oprah Winfrey and Ashton Kutcher are people of really moderate talents, who, for some reason, amassed huge followings.

Recently, these massive but impotent forces combined. Kutcher challenged CNN to a duel to see who could get more twitter followers and beat them, only to have Oprah announce on her show that she was starting to twitter and have her twitter followers suddenly challenge Kutcher's minions.

I hate mob mentality. It just goes against everything I'd like to believe about human beings.

To battle these evil forces, I'm trying to get everyone I know with twitter to follow Guillermo Rodriguez, the parking lot security guard from the Jimmy Kimmel show. Just follow this link to begin following.

Even if you don't use twitter, join now and start following Guillermo, just to show the world how much you hate Oprah and Ashton. It'll also give you an idea of what the twitter experience is all about and why it's just...bullshit.

Sorry I Infected You

Last week I inadvertently exposed you guys to the latest internet viral meme.

Susan Boyle, also known as the ugly Brit who can sing like an angel, was seen originally by an estimated eleven million viewers of Britain's Got Talent, then her segment was posted to YouTube where in just a few days various copies of it received over twelve million hits.

That's just the beginning though. As I write this, five of the top twenty videos on YouTube are copies of the Boyle video. At this rate, she should be bigger than Chocolate Rain and the Star Wars Kid combined in less than a week.

Back in the real world, Boyle is getting some compensation for her internet fame as requests for interviews roll in, including one for the coveted Oprah Show.

I apologize to any of you who read my post and have since gotten really, really tired of seeing the same video, over and over again. Just because I was an early adapter doesn't mean I didn't contribute to this really pernicious viral meme.

Rest assured, the Susan Boyle video won't do any harm to your computer, but you may soon start having a negative reaction to hearing her sing, the same way people eventually started reacting to Celene Dion singing the Titanic Theme.

For more about the Susan Boyle phenomenon, check this news story.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Last King of Scotland

I'm fascinated by Africa, both its history and its present, although I have to admit, most of it I don't understand. Americans, both white and black, know and care very little about the history of Africa and there isn't all that many works available about it, so I was pretty excited about the film The Last King of Scotland.

In most movies about Africa, the actual African people are usually less important to the plot than the wildlife or the scenery. There are a few exceptions though, and The Last King of Scotland is one of them.

The film is historical fiction. Some of the people and events are based on history and some are made up. Set in the 1970's Uganda, that presents an unusual problem in that it's pretty hard to know what was real and what wasn't.

It tells the story of the first part of Idi Amin's presidency. Amin is thought responsible for killing an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people in Uganda. Just the fact that there's a 2/3 margin of error in these estimates gives you some idea of what must have gone on in those days.

Because the film and the novel it came from were intended for a western audience, there had to be a western guide to the utterly alien world of African culture so they created the fictional character of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, a Scottish national who travels to Uganda after medical school to minster to the villages, but ends up as the personal physician to the new dictatator, Idi Amin. Garrigan was fictional, but most of the other characters in the film were based on real people.

I've watched the film twice now and it's still very difficult for me to take it at face value because so many of the forces that shaped the modern world also shape the film itself. It's impossible to tell if the characters shape this story, or if they're just floating on the waves of historical and social issues that make up the fabric of Uganda in the '70's.

If you come to the film without knowing the history, it's a fantastically powerful human drama, and a true tragedy in the original Greek sense of the word. You see hubris change a man who truly loves his country and his people turn into an ogre and slave to his own insecurities and ambition.

If you come to the film knowing its history, then it's all those things plus an intricate piece of the puzzle that is modern Africa. To give you an idea how difficult it was to divorce the story from it's history, the climax and end of the film occurs right at the beginning of the infamous raid on Entebee, that so shaped the course of the modern conflict over Israel. To bring it back to the world of cinema, there are four other entire films that begin at the very end of The Last King of Scotland.

Forest Whitaker was nearly buried in an avalanche of awards and nominations for his portrayal of Amin, including the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor. He struggled mightily to humanize a man remembered in history for atrocities approaching the levels Hitler or Stalin. Part of his struggle was knowing how the white, western world uses stories like Amin to dismiss Africa and Africans as hopelessly savage and alien.

I think he's wildly successful in his portrayal, although it gives us no clues how to respond to what's going on in Africa, even today.

If you're wondering about the title. Uganda was once a colonial holding of Great Britain, as is Scotland. As a young man, Amin took a job as soldier for the British African Corps and the officers of his unit were all from Scotland. Amin saw similarities between Scotland and Uganda, which, ironically obtained it's independence from Great Britian before Scotland. During his presidency, Amin sought to wring out the forces of colonial control in Uganda and make it stand on its own. He never forgot his Scottish friends though, and offered himself as the new King of Scotland to help free the Scottish from Great Britian as he'd done for Uganda. He even invited himself to visit the Queen to discuss the matter, but she declined.

Monday, April 13, 2009

How to Stop the Haters

When you see people like the Westboro Baptist Church do really crazy things, one has to wonder what in the world they hope to accomplish with their outrageous antics.

Their stated goal is to make the United States stop allowing homosexuality, stop allowing any non-christian activity and become something the United States never was and never was intended to be. Even though they say this is what they want, you have to think they know this is highly unlikely, if not impossible: so, what is it they really motivates them?

Since they can't logically get what they say they want, shouldn't they just give up and go away?

The same holds true for most terrorist organizations. When Al Qaeda does something outrageous, they usually follow it up with a list of their demands. If you read what they want, immediately you recognize that it's just ridiculous. They'll never get what they want. Some of it isn't even possible and surely they know their actions will only make us angry and make it that much less likely that we'll ever give what they want.

First you have to recognize that what they say they want isn't what they're really after. They'll give us a list of what they think we should do, but they know we'll never do it.

That doesn't mean their activity is fruitless though. Attacking us raises their status among their own peers, who also hate us. Attacking the U.S. or protesting the funerals of U.S. servicemen might make you a pariah in the U.S. and even hunted by our forces, but among their small social band, it makes them look extra brave and highly devoted to the cause.

This situation is especially true when you're dealing with a pretty small group like the Westboro Baptist Church, which is really just one extended family and not even all of them are in the group. With a small group, their hopes and goals and actions can get so far afield of the larger culture that they might as well be from Saturn.

Look at the Manson Family. They knew those murders weren't going to change the country or eliminate the people they called pigs, but participating in the murders raised their status among their demented little community to an almost god-like level.

Teenagers do the same thing. As adults we scratch our heads when teenagers skateboard down a flight of concrete steps, busting out a few teeth and breaking their arm. It was a completely stupid thing to do. So why do they do it? Because other teenagers think it's cool. Risking their necks for something completely pointless and stupid makes them a hero to their peers.

With adult groups there's another motivation as well. They might not get what they say they want, and they might not get but a very few converts, but there are enough people out there who also hate homosexuals or hate Americans who might lack the courage to actually do anything about it themselves, and they may not want other people to know they think that way, so they'll send these folks a few dollars. They're certainly not getting rich, but they do bring in enough money that way to continue doing what they're doing.

So, when you run into people like this, keep in mind they want radical confrontation. That gives them the most brownie points with the people back home. The best way to get rid of these people is by not giving them what they want. Embrace them. Love them. Don't even mention that you don't agree with them. Getting hugs from the opposition gives them zero clout with the folks back home. If we stop feeding their true desire, then pretty soon they'll pack up and go home, which is what we really want.

Ego, Confidence and Ability

There are three scales that control pretty much everything in a person's life.

The first is ego and the second is confidence and the third is ability.

Ego is a measure of what you think you deserve. On one end of the scale, you're worthless and should be swept away with the trash. On the other end, you're god himself and should be worshiped by everyone.

Confidence is a measure of what you think you can do. At one end of the scale, you're helpless and hopeless and should live in an institution where people can take care of you. On the other end of the scale, you're superman and can do way more than anyone else on earth.

Ability is the measure of what you really can do. That one's really hard to determine because ego and confidence tends to pull it in opposite directions. You think your ability level is completely different from where other people see your ability level which is completely different from you actual ability level.

Ideally, you'd think these scales should balance each other where what you think you deserve matches what you think you can do and what you actually can do. It's usually not that way though.

These scales can get way out of whack with each other. People with really huge egos can have really low levels of self-confidence. They set themselves up for failure. They think they deserve everything, but their ability is just average so since they don't get what they think they deserve it makes their confidence sink like a rock.

People can get out of whack in the other direction too. Some people have really high confidence levels, but really low ego levels so they never really accomplish as much as they could, because they're convinced they'll never get anything in return.

Sometimes, both a person's ego and confidence levels can be much higher or much lower than their ability levels, so they end up just lost and confused most of the time.

As we get older, these levels do tend to balance out and meet each other, but, boy, does it take a long time and it can be a really painful process.

The best advice here is probably what your parents and teachers and others told you when you were a child. Push your ego down as much as you can. Push you confidence up as much as you can and seek with patience to discover your real ability.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Ugly Cover Is Beautiful

48-year-old Susan Boyle is funny looking. Hair like a freight wig, pudgy, a little mustache and eyebrows like a neanderthal, but she has a secret no one would ever guess.

When Susan went on Britain's Got Talent, she told producers she'd never had a boyfriend, never been kissed and lived alone with her cat.

She walked on stage and as soon as Simon Cowell saw her, he was ready sweep her off the floor with the fleas and fur left over from the dog act that went before. You could see him already calculating the hurtful comments he'd throw her way soon.

She said she wanted to be a professional singer like Elaine Paige, and the whole audience chuckled. "This poor woman is so deluded", they thought.

And then she sang....

You really have to watch the video below to appreciate this woman's performance. With the first sound out of her mouth, the judges and the audience gaped in awe. The sheer beauty of what she could do swept over them like a wave, washing away the snide cynicism and judgmental attitude they held just a moment before and bathing them in real joy.

Even the judges gave her a standing ovation (two of them anyway).

They say you shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. We all know it, but we all do it. Every so often though, you'll run across somebody like Susan Boyle who shows you the truth of that adage in a way you'll never forget.

Link: YouTube

Unintended Consequences: Tea-Bagging Washington

A lot of people on the right don't much care for how much money Obama is spending. No surprise there. They worry that all this spending will lead to tax increases above the ones he's already recommending. Well, Duh.

To register their discontent, some thought it'd be a really cool idea to model their protest on the Boston Tea Party. So far so good, only not so good...

To begin with they had the idea of sending actual tea-bags to Washington. Remember how after 9/11 there was a crazy guy sending out letters with anthrax in them? It seems folks in Washington take a dim view of anyone sending bags full of unknown powders to the capital building and sending said bags to your congressman might prompt an unannounced visit from the FBI, so then they got the idea of cutting off the tags from the tea-bags and sending those or taking pictures of the tea-bags and sending those, only some people decided to email them and the whole thing just started to be kinna lame.

...And then there's this problem with the word "tea-bag". If you're fifty and republican, then you probably don't know that "tea-bag" is a word used to describe a practical joke and a sex act, a homosexual sex act, and not a particularly wholesome homosexual sex act.

Organizers of the tea-party tax revolt tea party all around the country scratched their head in bewilderment when hipper, younger people burst into snickers and outright guffaws when they heard republicans talking about teabags and sending tea-bags to Washington or tea-bagging congress.

Sometimes, it's best to just quit while you're ahead. Having protests based on the Boston Tea Party might work out fairly well, but just leave anything involving tea-bags out of it.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Reverse Sacrifice

Nearly every religion has an element of sacrifice in it, but sacrifice isn't what you think; in fact, it's just the opposite.

When people sacrifice to God or the Gods, they say they're doing it to show submission and gratitude, but what they're really doing is trying to bribe the fates and obligate God to act on their behalf.

The idea is simple: people want God to not destroy them with a flood or a volcano or they might want a bountiful harvest and lots of children or they might want God to forgive their sins so he doesn't punish them, so they leave him a gift, food or money usually, with every expectation that God will take their gift and grant their wish in return.

Consider this: what use does God have for money or food? It's the priests who benefit from your sacrifice and they use their false authority to make people believe God will grant their wish.

Then the Jesus story comes along and turns this idea inside out. Instead of men sacrificing their valuables to God, God sacrifices his most valuable to men. He gives in sacrifice his own son, a sacrifice he kept Abraham from making so many years before.

Instead of men obligating God to them with their sacrifice, God obligates men to him with his sacrifice. We don't really know what it means when we say Jesus was God's only son, but we do know we have nothing to give in return of nearly that magnitude.

It wouldn't be long before Christian priests returned to the old ways and started accepting sacrifice on behalf of God again. The worst being the selling of indulgences in the middle ages. God's reverse sacrifice was too powerful a concept though and it never took very long for men to realize they had to set things right again.

I don't know if Jesus knew he would be God's sacrifice to man, but when he went to the great temple, he knew this idea of sacrifice to God was a scam and the money changers were the most obvious manifestation of the scam. Jesus profoundly wanted people to see through their own delusions to what God really was so he attacked the money changers, even though doing so put his own life at risk.

This idea that God sacrificed for us is hard because it's much easier if all we have to do is offer up a lamb or a dove and believe God will grant our wishes. It's not that easy though. God's not for sale. He wanted us to know the truth. He tried several times to show us the truth, but we always returned to the easier path, so God brought the story of Abraham full circle by offering to us what he wouldn't let Abraham give to him: his own child.

Unintended Consequences

Sometimes things don't go as planned. Sometimes we do things hoping for one result but actually get exactly the opposite.

We've heard a lot about Unintended Consequences with the financial crisis and all the efforts to cope with it, but takes a lighter look at the same phenomenon.

In today's post, Cracked looks at five well-known public health campaigns that had unintended consequences and ended up accomplishing exactly the opposite of their original goal. They include D.A.R.E., England's Bully Beating Campaign, Nebraska Safe Haven law, California's Healthy Lunchbox Program, and The Phillip Morris Talk: They'll Listen campaign. is all that remains of Cracked Magazine, which those of you who grew up when I did, might remember as a blatant rip-off of Mad Magazine. Print is dead so Mad evolved to television and Cracked went to the web.


There's Something Strange in Loch Ness

Filmmakers for the History Channel's MonsterQuest recently discovered something totally unexpected in Scotland's famous Loch Ness.

Using remote operated vehicles to film underwater, Mike O’Brien of Louisiana-based SeaTrepid LLC was hoping to find evidence of the Loch Ness Monster when his cameras showed something else...

Golf balls, thousands and thousands of golf balls.

Besides mysterious lake monsters, Scotland is famous as the birth place of golf. Apparently locals and tourists have been using Loch Ness as a driving range for some time now and evidence of their activity is building up on the lake's bottom.

Although the monster can probably handle it, there is some concern for other life in the lake as golf balls can emit toxins as they deteriorate. Even though the ecology is somewhat fragile, there is no plan to retrieve the golf balls yet because they're in a part of the lake that's too deep to use regular scuba equipment.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

MirrorMask: A Jim Henson Fantasy

Most of you are probably aware of the two fantasy films Jim Henson produced in the 1980's, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, but many of you may not know there is a third Henson fantasy film, MirrorMask, released some fifteen years after his death.

MirrorMask is the dream-quest of Helena, a young girl who lives and works with a family circus until her mother falls gravely ill. Originally conceived as a sequel to The Labyrinth, MirrorMask is Helena's coming-of-age story. Although it has many of the same story elements of Labyrinth, MirrorMask uses them in much more subtle, but yet much more powerful ways. It's the story of Helena growing up: what she wants to keep of her life as a girl, what she wants for the future, what she wants from boys, and most importantly, her relationship with her mother. It even explores the relationship between artists and their creations.

Toward the end of his life, Jim Henson realized he had taken physical puppetry about as far as it could go and began experimenting with the then, new field of computer generated imagery. After his death, his children Brian, Lisa, Cheryl, John and Heather continued taking the company in that direction.

Although there are some physical effects in MirrorMask, they realize most of the film using CGI. Unlike most studios who use CGI just as an effect, The Hensons use CGI as an art in itself, just as their father used puppetry, and like their father's work, MirrorMask is a stunning and unforgettable visual experience.

Henson was most proud of how he used the work of a single designer (English artist, Brian Froud) in The Dark Crystal. For MirrorMask, his children chose to go the same route by using English artist Dave McKean. Like Froud's work in The Dark Crystal, McKean's art fills the entire universe of MirrorMask, sets, costumes, backgrounds and character design.

McKean's designs are quite different from Froud's. His work is more psychological and iconic and abstract. McKean's work is strongly reminiscent of Tim Burton and Edward Gorey, and like Burton and Gorey, most of his work begins as a pen or pencil sketch.

Since neither The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth did very well during their studio release and made most of their returns in VHS and DVD sales, the studio decided to have a limited theatrical run for MirrorMask and focus their efforts on selling the film in the secondary market. The plan soon fell apart though so the video release of MirrorMask received little, if any, advertising.

Because the marketing plan for MirrorMask collapsed, most of the people who might enjoy the film never heard of it, which is a shame since MirrorMask is every bit as good, if not better, than either The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth. You can still find the film on DVD though, and if you love fantasy films like I do, then I really, really recommend it.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Open to the Experience

I've been laughing because Easter's coming and I have stupidly wounded myself in the palm of the hand. I call it my partial stigmata. It's not a very big wound, but it's right in the palm of the hand, just like you see in the paintings of Jesus.

I've had some really minor spiritual experiences in my life. To be honest, they could easily have been just my imagination. I've always been fascinated by the prospect of having some sort of major experience though, like a real stigmata or vision.

I've been something of an asshole at times, so I've never really considered myself a candidate. Guys like Paul or Buddha were much worse though, so I suppose it's still possible.

My first reaction would probably be to seek psychiatric help. I've been around people with real delusional emotional problems before and there's some of it in my family, so if I ever had a vision or anything like it, that would most likely be my first thought. Mohamed reacted that way at first, too. For a while he kept his visions a secret, but finally talked to his wife about it to see if she thought he'd gone mad.

Most of us go through life never quite sure about our purpose or direction. I have to think some sort of contact with a spiritual entity would make the answers to those questions a lot clearer. I've never really thought about spending my life as a prophet, but who knows, maybe it'd be really cool.

The great majority of humans go through their entire lives without anything even resembling that sort of experience, and of the few that do, many of them meet pretty unpleasant ends but I think it'd be worth a painful end though to have even one second's glimpse into the larger universe.

I've never really expected any sort of contact with the other side or another dimension, but I can't imagine anything more interesting or more worthwhile.

People have a tendency to follow anyone they believe had these kind of experiences. I wouldn't want that. A vision wouldn't change my opinion that people serve God best when they learn to follow themselves. I could be a witness or a messenger, but never a prophet who leads a flock.

If there are any spirits or higher entities out there reading my meager scribblings on the internet, try and make contact some time. I'm open to the experience. Tell me something I could never know any other way. Give me a glimpse of how you see the universe. Who knows, maybe I could make something of it that might help somebody somewhere someday.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Capitalist Overlord Reveals the Truth to Howard Beale

Not long ago I wrote about my favorite scene in the movie Network. I neglected to mention that there are actually two incredible speeches in the movie. The first has Howard Beale challenging us to throw open our windows and shout "I'm as Mad as Hell!", the second has the great Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the chairman of the board of the company that owns Beale's network.

It seems Beale has been too successful at revealing the truth about how the world works and is starting to challenge the hidden masters ability to ply their trade. Rather than killing Beale or simply taking him off the air, Arthur Jensen believes he can convert the television prophet to his philosophy so he calls Howard Beale into his office to reveal the truth about how the world works.

Link: YouTube

What's great about this is that both men are telling the truth and both are right even though they're saying exactly the opposite things. The *truth* is so complex and so diaphanous that sometimes the only thing you can do is present both sides and let people's minds try and mingle the two together.

Arthur Jensen: I started as a salesman, Mr. Beale. I sold sewing machines and automobile parts, hair brushes and electronic equipment. They say I can sell anything. I'd like to try to sell something to you.

You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won't have it! Is that clear?

You think you've merely stopped a business deal. That is not the case! The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back! It is ebb and flow, tidal gravity! It is ecological balance!

You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations. There are no peoples. There are no Russians. There are no Arabs. There are no third worlds. There is no West. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels. It is the international system of currency which determines the totality of life on this planet. That is the natural order of things today. That is the atomic and subatomic and galactic structure of things today! And YOU have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and YOU...WILL...ATONE!

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

You get up on your little twenty-one inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those *are* the nations of the world today.

What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do.

We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime. And our children will live, Mr. Beale, to see that . . . perfect world . . . in which there's no war or famine, oppression or brutality. One vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock. All necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused. And I have chosen you, Mr. Beale, to preach this evangel.

Howard Beale: Why me?

Arthur Jensen: Because you're on television, dummy. Sixty million people watch you every night of the week, Monday through Friday.

Howard Beale: I have seen the face of God.

Arthur Jensen: You just might be right, Mr. Beale.

More Futility and Determination

Last time it was a blond on an escalator, this time it's a hamster in a wok. (note: no hamsters were hurt in the making of this video.)


Super Vitamin Ring

Underdog's superpower came from a vitamin pill he kept hidden in his ring. Now you too can have Underdog powers with this hidden compartment Viagra ring.

Sweet Polly Purebred Gives it a thumbs up!

Futility and Determination On An Escalator

Some might say this video demonstrates how blonds can't understand how escalators work, but personally I'm impressed with her determination to get to the top despite everything working against her.

She does eventually get to the top, but the same number of steps on a regular staircase would have taken her five times as far.
Link: YouTube

How to Pray

We don't control prayer. We control only when we pray and how we pray, but only God controls when and how he answers prayer.

Too many people use prayer like letters to Santa Claus: "Dear God, I want this, this, this and this, and please hurry, I need them by next week." No matter how faithful you are, it just doesn't work that way.

There's a very good reason it doesn't work that way too. Suppose God really liked Tom, so he gives Tom a modest .5% return on his prayers. That is, God gives Tom what he prays for one half of one per-cent of the time.

One half of one per-cent doesn't sound like very much, but consider this: if Tom made one hundred prayers a day, with a .5% return on those prayers, in about a years time (depending on what he prays for), Tom can amass enough answered prayers to rule the world.

God wants us happy and successful, but he doesn't want us to use prayer to amass selfish power so he reserves for himself the decision on which requests through prayer to answer and which to leave undone. One could even argue that God tries to help us as much as possible whether we pray for it or not, so asking for things in prayer might be pointless.

When Jesus taught us to pray, he said we should only ask God to provide our daily bread and forgive our sins. By "daily bread" he means we should ask God for the most basic things we need every day. God must answer those prayers because nearly all of us who were alive last week are still alive this week.

There are times, like famines and droughts, where our daily needs aren't met and people literally die from want. If you look at droughts and famines historically, they're almost always caused by human greed or stupidity. Even then, there's always actually been enough food and water to go around, just not enough people willing to share their excesses with those who have none.

One of the great criticisms of faith is that there's no correlation between how often good and bad stuff happens to people and how often they pray. That's absolutely true. You can pray your church doesn't get hit by an asteroid, but it won't change the odds that it might.

Prayer isn't a super power. Being faithful doesn't mean you'll get stuff while the rest of the world goes without. Faithful prayer means you recognize all the things we need come from God, even though he doesn't require us to recognize him before he provides for us.

You can pray to get stuff if you want, but remember God knows both your needs and your desires even before you do, and only he decides whether to help you with these things, or leave you to get them on your own, or even to keep them from you, and he does it whether you pray or not.

Jesus gives us several ideas on how and when and why to pray and they all make a lot of sense. In short, Jesus says we should keep prayer simple, private and modest. I don't see how you can go wrong with that plan.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

April Foolery From Google

As you might have guessed I use some form of online services pretty much every day.

April 1'st greeted me with two stunts from services I use from google.

The first was a message in my GMail window saying "New! Gmail Autopilot" in the slot usually reserved for announcements from GMail labs about new features. When I clicked the link to check out the latest do-dad, it took me here:

OK, that's pretty funny. I especially liked the google auto pilot response to the Nigerian scam-spam mugu letter, then I realized a lot of new GMail users might not even know what a Nigerian scam-spam email was since GMail has become pretty efficient at filtering out this garbage. Still, a great April fool's effort.

Google wasn't done with me yet though. Next I checked my YouTube (a google owned company) account. For a second or two, everything looked normal--then suddenly the entire screen reversed. All the letters were backwards and in reverse order and the videos themselves were upside down!

Now THAT was impressive. You can't do it using regular HTML. They could only do it at all because most of YouTube is in shockwave which gives the author a lot more formatting choices.

Google has pulled April Fool's day pranks before but this year they really made an extra effort with different departments in the company offering different pranks. Besides Gmail and YouTube, Google had pranks hidden in their Analytics, gBall, Google Maps, Google Images, Blogger, Google Chrome, Google Earth, Google Code, Google Docs, Google Mobile and Knol services. I'm excited to see what they come up with next year.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

White Flight Destroys Jackson

Although there's not a lot of people willing to talk about it, the only real problem in Jackson is the same problem that hit New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta and a number of other Southern cities and that's the white flight movement that began in the civil rights era.

Before the civil rights era, there were any number of immoral and now illegal mechanisms in place to keep black people out of the middle class and when they started to gain political but not economic power in the seventies, the almost all-white middle class decided they were no longer welcome in cities with a bi-racial power base, so they packed their bags and bought up little towns outside the city limits. Since they were the only people in town, the move gave them both the political and economic power they desired.

The move left cities like Jackson and Atlanta and New Orleans with a population overwhelmingly skewed to the poor and black who couldn't afford to relocate. Pretty soon, what black middle class there was began to move out of town as well making the problem even worse.

Cities work best when the middle and working classes are the largest and the poor and upper classes are the smallest. The white flight phenomenon, combined with the unnatural class distribution leaving most blacks either working class or poor, left cities with populations skewed to the poor and working classes.

The problem with this population model is that the poor and working classes require the most public services like police and public schools, but have the smallest tax base to fund it, leaving a real gap between the sources and needs of public funds. This gap between sources and needs materializes in the city with a spike in crime and school related issues like drop-out rates and low test scores.

At the moment, there's few constitutional ways of combating the problems of gentrification and white flight. I think you can legally and morally face the issue though, but first you have to be really honest about what the problem really is.

In the South, that means being willing to share power between white and black. Sharing isn't any easier when you're an adult than it was when you were in kindergarten, but it's still absolutely essential. More white faces among city officials in Jackson would go a long way toward slowing and reversing the white-flight trend. At the same time though, white residents have to be willing to accept black people in positions of power and not pack their bags for Madison when they see how black the city council is in Jackson.

This concept of a peaceful co-existence between races and cultures might be some sort of liberal pipe-dream of mine, but surely people realize the alternative can't last forever. Sooner or later, this pattern of black central cities ringed by white mini-cities is going to collapse in on itself.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fighting Gorillas

Last week I posted pictures of drunk gorillas. My friend Tracy responded that gorillas always scared her. Maybe this picture of two silverbacks fighting are why. The WWE got nothing on these guys.

Karl Marx Was An Asshole

Recently I wrote about how conservatives in these troubled times are returning to their roots and re-reading Ayn Rand. In the interest of fairness, I'd like to also point out that liberals are showing a renewed interest in Karl Marx.

If you don't know, Marx was the evil genius behind communism and he was a real asshole. Despite his reputation as a humanitarian, the people who actually tried communism would tell you there wasn't much improvement between having the state own everything and the old system where the king owned everything.

Like Rand, Marx had no practical experience in any of the subjects he wrote about. He idolized Darwin but decided to forgo Darwin's extensive fieldwork and based his economic and political theories entirely on stuff he read in books.

It's not like people never gave Marxism a chance. Russia and China both tried Marxism, but the only way they could keep order was by killing tens of millions of people. Even hippies were barely able to eek out a medieval subsistence using Marxism, only made bearable by copious amounts of cannabis and lots of sex with hairy women. Marx called religion "the opiate of the people", never realizing how much actual narcotics his own system required.

Professional English asshole, Christopher Hitchens recently waxed nostalgic about Marx in his Atlantic Monthly article: The Revenge of Karl Marx. I could write a whole article on how Hitchens is an arrogant ass and pretty much wrong about everything.

To bring things full circle, I hear a lot of buzz among the republican zombies about how President Obama is trashing the constitution and ushering in an era of communism in America.

First off, Obama isn't trashing the constitution any more than any of his twenty predecessors. Compared to George W Bush, he's John Adams himself. The office of the president is far more powerful than the founding fathers ever intended, but that started some time before Lincoln and growing ever since.

Secondly, Obama isn't introducing communism. Communists take over successful, going companies to expand their power and install their social plans. Obama is taking over decidedly unsuccessful companies in what one could best describe as something of a super-power bankruptcy action for companies "too big to fail".

These companies could easily avoid any government aggression by simply getting their act together and not taking any government bailout money. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Obama's actions with these companies is an effort to calm people's concerns about the bailout process. People want to know this money is well spent so the government is getting involved to make sure these companies do fairly logical things like reducing salaries, which, by some twisted logic, they weren't doing on their own.

Most of these companies probably won't exist in ten years, no matter what the government does. The Obama administration is trying to engineer some sort of soft landing for the rest of the economy as these really big companies implode. Obama may be liberal, but he's no communist.

To be quite honest, incendiary political speech like this really chaps my ass. I realize it's people's preferred way to play the game these days, both on the left and the right, but it's simply not helpful in any way. You have to accurately describe what's going on before you can understand it and deal with it. Otherwise, you might as well just say George Bush is Godzilla and Obama is Gamera and cheer them on from the rubble like a Japanese school kid.