Sunday, March 05, 2017

A Death in the Philippines



This is probably the most difficult post I will ever have to write on this blog.  My sister-in-law Mia Mascarinas-Green, who was an attorney in the province of Bohol in the Philippines, was brutally assassinated in front of her own children on February 15, 2017.

While it is not uncommon to read such stories in the news, most people never expect such a terrible thing to happen to someone they personally know, love and admire.  Mia was one of those people to me.  I first met her in the fall of 2003 when she stayed at our house for a week.  Before that, I had spoken with her on the phone several times.  I had a feeling before we even met that we would get along very well, and I was proven right when we finally met in person.  She had an easy going and likeable personality and we clicked from the start.  My wife Mae and I took her sightseeing to several places, including the Montauk light house and a Broadway showing of the musical Aida.

We would see her again less than a year later when we traveled to the Philippines in June of 2004 for Mia's wedding to Stuart, a UK national.  Stuart worked with local fishermen and elected officials in the province of Bohol to educate them about sustainable fishing and ending such destructive practices as dynamite fishing, which destroyed the very coral reefs that attracted fish to the local waters.  It was a very eye opening trip for me in many ways.  Apart from a few days in Canada, it was the first time I was outside of the United States.  I was in an environment totally unfamiliar to me, a developing country where one could see both clusters of corrugated tin shacks and fancy resorts.  I had the opportunity to get to know more of my wife's family.  It was Stuart, Mia's husband, who would inspire me to take up scuba diving.

Owing to the distance and costs involved, our visits to the Philippines were often spaced years apart.  We would make return visits in 2007, 2011 and 2015.  A number of blog posts were dedicated to the 2007 and 2011 trips, but the last visit was during a period when this blog was dormant. 



During our July 2015 visit, Stuart and Mia had a family party at their house in Loon.  Stuart hired a professional photographer to take pictures of us.  The photo above was taken on an elevated deck in their backyard overlooking the Strait of Cebu and the island of Cebu in the background.  Mia is the one near the middle in black holding her infant daughter Zia with her eldest daughter Zoe beside her, with her husband near the left end in blue holding the other twin, Eli.  This and other photos taken during this time are haunting to me in retrospect, because these are the last photos to have been taken of the entire family.  Mae's father (standing behind Mia in the photo above) was about to be treated for prostate cancer, so the trip had a certain poignancy in that we had braced our children for the possibility that it could be the last time they would see their "Lolo" Jose again.  It never would have occurred to me that it would in fact be the last time we would see Mia again.

I won't delve too deeply into the circumstances of Mia's death.  In short, she represented a woman named Conrada Blomqvist Otero in a dispute with Otero's son-in-law Lloyd Lancer Gonzaga over ownership of a resort on Panglao Island (a smaller satellite island of Bohol) called the Alona Embrace Resort.  Apparently fearing that he would lose the case in court, Gonzaga thought it would be a wonderful idea to murder Mia.  On the afternoon of February 15, while Mia was driving home to Loon with her three children and their nanny sitting in the back, Gonzaga and three of his goons on tandem motorbikes, forced her to stop.  Gonzaga and one of his accomplices then fired at Mia multiple times, striking her in the head and neck.  You can read the horrifying details of the attack here.


The photo above is of the evil scumbag Lloyd Lancer Gonzaga.  It was taken after his arrest at a previous incident that took place outside of Mia's office last autumn.  At present he and his accomplices are still at large.  While he was quickly identified by witnesses, including Mia's daughter Zoe and the nanny, by the time the police decided to raid Alona Embrace resort, Gonzaga had already gone into hiding.  There have been accusations that the police deliberately delayed attempting to capture him because they either fear him or are in his pocket, as Gonzaga's family, which hails from the same Davao region as current Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, is rather wealthy.  It is a sad reality in the Philippines that powerful business and political families employ armed goons who will murder their opponents.  Environmental attorneys and activists are often targets of such violence.

Mia was a very well known and respected attorney in Bohol province, and many people there are outraged about her murder and are determined to insist that justice be done for herThis tribute to Mia, penned by someone who knew her both as a fellow student and then as a teacher, really paints a picture of the wonderful person that she was. 

I'm still in a state of shock over this, though as the days pass I find my grief giving way to anger.  Part of me still can't believe that this actually happened and wonders if maybe this is just a bad dream.  But it really did happen.  And what makes it even more tragic is how pointless it was.  Gonzaga gained nothing by having Mia murdered.  He is now in hiding and the resort is presumably closed down.  What he murdered to keep is no longer his.  I'm reminded of the scene near the end of the movie Fargo when Margie has Peter Stormare's character in the back of her police car.  As she's driving, she is recounting to him the people who have died and says "And all for what?  A little bit of money.  There's more to life than a little bit of money ya know.  Don't you know that?"

We all expect that people we know, whether family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances, will die at some point, whether due to accidents or illness.  I lost a high school friend who perished in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and had met a handful of others who died there as well.  But there is something about the murder of a loved one that affects you like no other death can.  Mia is dead because someone made a deliberate decision to riddle her with bullets in front of her own children.  It shakes me to my core.  At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, I feel as if a part of me died in that van with Mia, the part of me that believes that the good and the just can prevail and the wicked are punished.   When I told my daughter what happened to her aunt Mia, the first thing she said was "Why is it that the good people die and the bad people get away with it?"

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, LA Confidential, when Guy Pearce's character, Ed Exley, tells his colleague Jack Vincennes, played by Kevin Spacey, the reason why he became a police officer.  Exley's father, also a police officer, was killed while off duty and the person responsible was never found or identified.  Exley gives him a name, Rollo Teemasi, and explains to Vincennes that he decided to become a police officer because he wanted to catch the ones, like Rollo Teemasi, who thought they could get away with it.

The one hope I have now with regard to the murder of Mia is that Lloyd Lancer Gonzaga and his accomplices will not be among the ones who get away with it.  I have to admit that a part of me wishes that I could douse them with gasoline and light them on fire.  But the rational part of me wants them arrested, tried and sent to prison, because it is important for Filipino society that the system holds the powerful and the connected with responsibility for the crimes that they commit.  A vigilante killing of someone like Gonzaga, as emotionally satisfying as it might be, would not serve that purpose.

I loved my sister-in-law Mia and will miss her for the rest of my life.  She was a bright shining light in the world that was tragically snuffed out.  My wife and I used to talk about getting a house in Bohol and living there part time once we were retired.  I don't feel that way now.  Bohol will be an emptier place without Mia.

In conclusion, I hope that someone reading this post knows where Lloyd Lancer Gonzaga is and will report it to the authorities so that he can be arrested.   Justice demands no less.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

On Plastic Bag Fees

Last year, New York City passed a law that will impose a 5 cent fee on each plastic bag given to a customer, with the rationale of encouraging greater use of reusable bags and reducing plastic bag pollution in the City.  However, the New York State Senate passed a bill to prevent the City law from taking effect.  That bill is now on Governor Andrew Cuomo's desk.  It remains to be seen if he will sign the bill into law or veto it.

There are a myriad of reasons for trying to discourage the use of single use plastic bags.  They litter our roadsides, they clog storm drains, they kill marine life that accidentally ingest them, among others.  They are so cheap and worthless, that it has been my personal experience that register clerks will often attempt to put even the one small item that I purchase into a bag if I don't stop them fast enough.

Of course, there are arguments against proposals to either tax or ban plastic bags.  This article provides a balanced look at both sides of the issue. The one I hear most often is that it punishes the poor, who can't afford to shell out the nickel per bag fee.  To be honest, I am not impressed by this argument at all.  Given how freely plastic bags have been given away for years, it is easy for just about anyone to accumulate a surplus of plastic bags.  It doesn't make much effort to keep a couple of them rolled up in a pocket book, jacket pocket or in one's car to have handy when making a run to the store. 

The cynic in me believes that much of this concern for the poor is meant to mask the real reason to oppose laws to reduce plastic bag use, which is to protect the profitability of the companies that make the plastic bags. 

Still, it would be helpful if stores could provide positive incentives for customers to use reusable bags.  My local Shoprite used to credit its customers a nickel for every reusable bag used when shopping.  Having eight of them myself, I used to save 40 cents every time I did my weekly grocery shopping there.  However, for some reason, Shoprite did away with the credit.  I am guessing that as time went by and they crunched the numbers, it wasn't financially beneficial for them to continue with the program.  I might contact them to ask why.

Another positive incentive that a grocery or supermarket can provide is to allow customers who use reusable bags to bag their groceries to enter a raffle to win a gift card.  I am happy to report that Trader Joe's has such a raffle.  Since they have implemented it, I have won a $25 gift card three times.  In other words, I gained $75 for using reusable bags at Trader Joe's. 

Stores could also try out ideas such as providing free reusable bags to customers who purchase goods over a certain amount of money.

Ultimately, what matters most is do plastic bag fees or bans make a difference in our environment.  According to this article in The New York Times about a plastic bag tax that was implemented in Ireland, it does.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Yet Again Why Critical Thinking Is Important


If you, like me, are on Facebook, and you have any wingnut Trumpanzee friends, chances are you saw the meme above pop up on your feed at some point.

Now, if you are what I call a Fright Winger, chances are if you saw this on your Facebook feed, you would click "Like", maybe write in the comments section "Starbucks sucks.  Shame on them" and then share it to your own Facebook feed.

When it comes to me though, I have a different reaction when I read it.  "Does Starbucks have any veteran hiring programs?"  So, I found this search engine I had heard rumors about called Google and in the search field I typed "Starbucks Hires Veterans".  Within seconds, I found this.  Yep, that's right.  Back in 2013, Starbucks announced a commitment to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018.  According to more recent information from Starbucks, it has thus far hired approximately 8,800 veterans and military spouses.

But we're not finished yet.  What about those 10,000 refugees in America they are hiring?  Well, according to Starbucks, the refugee hiring commitment applies to the company internationally.  You see, Starbucks has outlets in cities all over the world.  I personally have patronized Starbucks in Hong Kong and Tokyo.  You can go on the Starbucks web site and check for yourself where they have locations.  Two cities I checked were Amman, Jordan and Istanbul, Turkey, two major cities in countries that host among the largest amounts of Syrian refugees in the world.  Sure enough, Starbucks has multiple outlets in those cities.  Starbucks hiring refugees in those cities would count towards their 10,000 refugee hiring goal.

Let's pretend though that the 10,000 refugees being hired were all in the United States.  The outrage by wingnuts is informative of the goal post shifting opposition they raise to having refugees brought into the United States.

I don't want my tax dollars used to support having refugees living here on welfare!

Companies like Starbucks or Chobani announce plans to provide jobs for refugees.

Why are they giving jobs to refugees when they should be hiring Americans instead?

What becomes clear is that these people have a very zero sum view of the world.  In their imaginations, if Starbucks hires a 25 year old Syrian refugee to work as a barista in the United States, somewhere an exemplary, model American citizen who just needs a break is going to be consigned to a life of poverty and hardship.  "I could have been somebody if it wasn't for that damned refugee!"

The meme above is illustrative of the toxic combination of prejudice and willful ignorance from which unfortunately a great number of my fellow Americans suffer.  And now we have a president in the White House who will be their champion.

Update on Malika El Aroud

Back in 2008, I had written this post about Malika El Aroud, a Moroccan woman living in Belgium who spent her days as an online jihadist cheerleader while living at Belgian taxpayer expense. 

Curious as to what happened to her, I searched her name on Google and was pleased to learn that she was arrested and sentenced to prison in 2010 for terrorism related charges.  Sadly, the prison term was for only 8 years, which means she should be freed by next year, if she hasn't already.  The question then is can she have her Belgian citizenship revoked and be deported?

Plastic Pollution and a Sobering Reality


The photo above is of a Laysan albatross.  It died from being fed plastic, which led to its starvation.  This is a serious problem affecting the Laysan, as the mothers inadvertently kill their children by catching and feeding them pieces of plastic debris.

Other forms of marine life are also greatly impacted by plastics pollution, including whales and turtles from ingesting plastic bags.  We are trashing our oceans, and it is rebounding against us, as plastic debris in our oceans breaks down into smaller pieces that are ingested by tiny marine organisms, which are then in turn eaten by larger organisms and so on up the marine food chain until it becomes part of the seafood we eat.

This post is not meant to be a primer on the problem of plastic pollution itself.  There are documentaries I recommend, such as Angela Sun's Plastic Paradise, which can be viewed on Netflix.  At under an hour, Plastic Paradise is a good introduction to the issue.  For a more lengthier, in depth look at the subject, there is the recently released A Plastic Ocean, which is available for rental or purchase on iTunes.  Below is a trailer for A Plastic Ocean.




Rather, the subject of this post is the frustrating reality that having accepted that there is a problem, is realizing how very hard it is to make any progress in combatting it.

Over the years, I have made some steps in reducing what could be considered the low hanging fruit of the plastics pollution problem, namely, single use disposable plastic bags, bottles, cups and straws.  I have a sufficient quantity of reusable bags for when I do our shopping at the supermarket.  I even have some reusable mesh produce bags for items such as apples, pears, etc.  For the Starbucks near my office, I have a glass cup that I wash after every use.  As frequent Robek's smoothie customers, I have a set of four Robek's reusable cups, one for each member of the family.  I choose, when available, beverages in glass bottles over plastic.  At restaurants, I notify the server that I do not want a plastic straw in my drink when they bring it to me.

The reason I call these items the low hanging fruit is because it is relatively easy to avoid using them, once one's consciousness has been raised on this issue.  The deeper problem of disposable plastic is that so many of the things we buy are packaged in them.  Want to buy a candy or protein bar?  It comes in a plastic wrapper that you throw away within minutes.  Laundry detergent, shampoo, or liquid hand soap?  Plastic container.  Frozen food?  Plastic wrapping and served in a plastic container.  Granted, there are many people passionate about reducing their environmental impact who find ways to eliminate plastic waste from their lives by making products using home made ingredients, for example.  Then there are people like me, who lead busy lives and have families, where taking such radical steps is very difficult.  For those in my boat who are married and have children, there is also the potential for familial tension if one comes off too strongly in trying to impose on the rest of the family such sweeping changes.

But back to the so-called low hanging fruit of plastic pollution, specifically, the plastic straw.  As I wrote above, I don't use them.   Problem is, as I have begun to notice, is that many restaurants have a policy where they automatically put a straw in your drink before they bring it to you.  This happened at one of my family's favorite restaurants, Hama Sushi in Plainview.  When we dined there last month, we all told the server that we wanted water, and to my annoyance, she brought us our water with straws already in our glasses.  To put my concern about this issue into some perspective, by some accounts, approximately 500 million plastic straws are used and discarded in the United States every day.  How is this not insane?

I decided to make Hama Sushi my first test case for activism.  What if I could get the restaurant to change its policy on straws from automatically giving them to customers to giving straws only to customers who specifically ask for them?  So I wrote and mailed a letter to the restaurant making the case for adopting such a policy, citing the win-win scenario of less plastic waste and lower costs for the restaurant if they didn't have to order so many straws.  Several weeks went by without a reply, but tonight my daughter told me she wanted to eat there for dinner for her birthday.  Remembering what happened the last time we were there, I specifically told our server not to put straws in our drinks.  However, I couldn't help but notice that every other customer in the restaurant who ordered water or soda had it brought to them with a straw already in the glass.

After we had finished eating, I approached a lady who works there with whom we were acquainted from our years of dining there.  Having once been a server there, she appears to have been promoted to a managerial position at the restaurant.  I referenced to her the letter I had written and we discussed the issue for several minutes.  She explained to me that it was the restaurant's previous policy not to automatically provide straws to customers.  According to her though, some 95% of the people dining there would ask for a straw.   Servers would then have to walk over to the bar and grab the straws and bring them to their customers, which during busy times in the restaurant was considered a distraction.  Consequently, the restaurant decided it was simply more efficient from a time-saving perspective to put straws in the drinks automatically.  The lady agreed that it would save the restaurant money if so many patrons didn't insist on having straws with their drinks.  I found it sad that the dynamics of the restaurant business meant that the onus falls on the customer to request to not be provided with a straw.

Some of you reading this might be thinking, "Wouldn't it be easier for servers to simply carry the straws on them so that they (a) didn't have to automatically put straws in beverage glasses and (b) if a customer requested a straw, they wouldn't have to walk back to the bar to get one?"  To my astonishment, a law or regulation was enacted at some point that forbids restaurant servers from carrying straws on them.  I don't know if it is a Nassau County or New York State law and will have to look into this to learn more.  It was mentioned to me by a server at the Plainview Bareburger, where I had lunch several weeks ago.  Unlike other restaurants, like Hama Sushi, the server at Bareburger would put straws still in their wrappers on her customers tables, leaving it up to the customer to decide to use them, which they invariably did.  I chatted with her about the restaurant's straw policy and she was the one who mentioned to me that it was against the law for servers to have straws in their pockets. 

What we have, sadly, is a situation where so many people have been programmed to use straws when drinking a beverage at restaurants.  Last week I took my kids to eat at the Noodles & Company at the Broadway Mall in Hicksville.  Noodles has a self service beverage area.  The person who rings you up provides you with a paper cup and then you go to the beverage area and choose the drink you want.  The lids and straws are also located there.  Of course, my children and I did not take lids and straws.  What I couldn't help but notice though was that just about every other customer in the restaurant, regardless of age, put lids on their cups and poked straws through the holes in their lids.  Why, I wondered, were they doing this?   Why does a middle aged man need to use a straw to drink his soda? 

Even more frustrating is that even telling the server you don't want a straw is no guarantee that you won't get one anyway.  This happened last month at a Cheesecake Factory in Nyack, where my son and I ate lunch with some of the other parents and players from his travel ice hockey team.  I told the server not to put a straw in my iced tea, but sure enough when she brought us our drinks, my glass had a straw in it.  When I pointed out to her that I specifically requested not to be provided with a straw, she said she would go back and get me one without a straw.  I had to point out to her that the damage was already done and to just give it to me as is. 

The ubiquitous plastic straw is a symptom of a larger problem, which is the extent that the vast majority of humanity thinks nothing about using disposable plastic items for a few minutes and then seeing them become part of the waste stream, a good deal of which ends up in our oceans, for basically forever.  Proposals to ban or tax single use plastic bags is seen as infringing on some God-given right.  Plastic straws are reflexively associated with consuming beverages without a moment's thought on the consumer about why it is even viewed as necessary to do so.  Even buying something as small as a pack of gum at a CVS will often see the register clerk robotically start to put it in a plastic bag.  Sometimes even telling the register clerk right off the bat that I do not need a plastic bag will result in them replying "Are you sure?" 

Occasionally though, interactions with servers and register clerks result in what some would call teachable moments.  A few nights ago I took my daughter to Burgerfi.  We intended to have ice cream shakes, so I brought with us our metal, reusable straws.  I explained to the register clerk to make sure not to put straws in our shakes, as we had our own, which I showed to her.  She seemed astonished and asked me where I had gotten them from.  I told her I had ordered them on reuseit.com.  If interested, you can order your own set from them here!

There are two ways that significant progress can be achieved in greatly reducing our use of single use plastic items.  One is the spreading of awareness of the problem and convincing enough people to make a concerted effort to change their habits with regard to single use disposable plastic.  The other is through legislative action that bans or puts costs on the use of such items.  Both approaches have their drawbacks.  Getting enough people to change their consumer choices to the extent that it has a noticeable impact on the marketplace runs up against general human inertia and our addiction to convenience.  Legislative solutions inevitably run into opposition, as the plastics industry will frame the issue as an attack on capitalism, jobs and freedom of choice.

The Hama Sushi experience was a sobering reality check for me about the difficulty that lies ahead if I want to become an activist in reducing single use plastic waste.  But I will make a pitch to each and every one of you who reads this.  Can you pledge to use one less plastic straw?  One less plastic bottle?  One less plastic bag?  If just one of you can do that, then I will feel my efforts are not in vain.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Surfacing for air

I can't believe it has been almost two and a half years since my last post.  At the time, I had notions of returning to blogging.  I was even crafting a very ambitious post conjecturing how recent events throughout the world could lead a Muslim person to conclude that his religion and way of life was under the attack.  The idea was not to apologize or validate such a person's point of view, but rather to understand how one could come to that conclusion and therefore embrace a jihadist ideology as a means of response.  In other words, a trying to understand your enemy kind of post.

Between my job commuting to work in the city and my son's ice hockey, I found it difficult to find the time to sit down and compose my thoughts into something I felt was worth being read by other people.  Weeks turned into months, which turned into years. 

During that time, ISIS expanded and then contracted in the Middle East (though it's story has not played itself out) and Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, albeit with nearly three million fewer popular votes. 

On a more personal note, clicking on the links to fellow atheist bloggers from back in the day in my blogroll, I see that many of them have either ceased blogging themselves or their sites are defunct.  There was a sense of community back then that is lost now and will likely never come back.

That being said, I may decide I still have some things to say.  I may take an active role in trying to reduce single use disposable plastic items like straws, bags, etc.  As a scuba diver and lover of the ocean, I am dismayed at the level of plastic pollution in our oceans. 

Until next time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ebola The Gay and Atheist Away

Via Right Wing Watch comes this report of a Christian wingnut named Rick Wiles, who has a radio program called Trunews.  While I am sure I have heard of him before, nothing he said stuck in my memory.  Well, I will certainly remember him now.

On his program, Wiles said "Now this Ebola epidemic can become a global pandemic and that’s another name for plague. It may be the great attitude adjustment that I believe is coming.”  He then went on to say, among other things, “Ebola could solve America’s problems with atheism, homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography and abortion.”

Normally, I would just shrug this kind of thing off as some nutty utterances by a fringe character.  In this case though, shortly after uttering these comments, Wiles had on his program Frank Wolf, a veteran Republican congressman from Virginia.

I don't know if Congressman Wolf heard Wiles remarks before speaking with him.  If he did, I would like to know why he still appeared on Wiles program.  If he didn't hear the remarks, will he condemn them if brought to his attention?

I was sufficiently disgusted that I called Wolf's office and spoke to one of his staffers.  I told her that Wolf appeared on Wiles program several days before, what Wiles had said, and asked her why the congressman would validate a radio show host who uttered such horrible things.  She took down my address, but the tone of her voice had that "we'll be sure to give this the attention it is due" vibe to it.  I won't hold my breath waiting for a letter in the mail from the congressman, though if by some chance I do, I will be sure to share it here.

I also wanted to follow up with an e-mail, but the e-mail form requires one to enter a zip code and informs you that only e-mails from constituents will be answered.  As I am a New Yorker, that ruled out any chance of my getting a reply.

I just looked a moment ago on his website to see if perhaps there was a press release condemning Wiles remarks, but there was none.

It would be great if some of Wolf's constituents who are angered by Wiles comments were to contact Wolf to let him know that it is unacceptable and wrong to associate himself and legitimize Wiles.

But back to Wiles himself.  While hateful, his remarks, along with those by other so-called Christians, are also rather revealing, not to mention pathetic.  It's as though they are throwing up their hands and hoping that their imaginary friend will do their work for them and use plagues and natural disasters to wipe out the people and things they hate because they can't do it themselves.  It also strikes me as very unchristian behavior.  After all, Jesus implored his followers to love their enemies.  Wiles doesn't seem to be expressing any love for me by hoping I die from Ebola for having the temerity to be an atheist in America.  Furthermore, as a frequent blood donor, if I were to be killed by Wiles god, my community would no longer benefit from my generosity as a donor.

If by any chance you read this Rick Wiles, I don't want you to die from Ebola.  Instead, I want you to reevaluate what you believe and make an effort to become a decent human being, if that is at all possible.

Praying For A Discount

This article on the BBC web site caught my attention.  It seems a diner in North Carolina was offering 15% discounts to customers who visibly prayed over their meals or before being served.

While some Christians might think this is such a wonderful thing, I can't help but think what's to stop nonreligious customers, once they hear of the discount, from engaging in phony prayers just to knock 15% off their tab?  Especially us atheists.  After all, if Christians believe that we are immoral and untrustworthy by nature, then local atheists should eat at that diner en masse, making outward displays of prayer and piety, while inwardly snickering to themselves in satisfaction for hoodwinking the restaurant's owner.

I imagine if enough people did it, it would start to cut into the restaurant's profit margin, thereby causing the owner to terminate the discount.

If you are an atheist and you were going to eat in a restaurant knowing that customers who prayed in the restaurant would receive a 15% discount, would you make a show of prayer to save a few bucks on your bill?

Not sure if I would, but if I did, I might write Matthew 6:5-6 on the bill.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Baby Jesus Was Watching Over You

As I have mentioned before, Facebook is a gold mine of religious silliness for an atheist blogger.

Some months ago, a friend from high school shared on Facebook a traffic incident that she had experienced.  She was driving on a dark road somewhere out in eastern Suffolk County in inclement weather when the car ahead of her lost control, spun around, and narrowly avoided colliding with her.

One of her Facebook friends proclaimed in a comment to the post that "the Baby Jesus was watching over you."

I had to figuratively bite my tongue to keep myself from writing something sarcastic in response.

I wanted to write "The Baby Jesus?  How could the Baby Jesus watch over her?  Jesus was an adult when, according to the Gospels, he was crucified, died and rose from the dead.  Do you mean to tell me there is a part of Jesus that remains perpetually an infant to this very day?  Maybe the Trinity needs to be revised (would you call it a Quadrinity?)  to Father, Grown Son, Infant Son, and the Holy Spirit!"

I guess this is one function of my blog.  A place where I can vent about the things I can't write on Facebook in response to some of the nuttiness I encounter.

The Importance of Skepticism

The atheist/skeptic community quite naturally focuses the majority of its attention on religious claims, and for good reason.

However, a healthy skepticism is vitally important on other facets of our lives as well.

This is a post I mean to write for quite a while, but unfortunately I never seemed to get around to it.  Now that I am attempting to revive this blog, it seems as good a time to address it as any.

Several years ago, we received a letter in the mail from the People To People Ambassador Program informing that our daughter, who at the time was in 4th grade, was nominated (by who, it didn't say) to participate in a trip to London and Paris.  Wanting to find out more information, I went on the web site.  Strangely, when I entered the code that was in the letter, the address it had for my daughter was in Wisconsin instead of New York.  I called the number and spoke to a customer service representative, who said it must have been a glitch or something.

Anyway, the program was having a presentation for interested parents at the SUNY Stony Brook campus.  My daughter was quite thrilled at the prospect of going on a trip to London and Paris, and I recall at one point when I made a joke about her not being able to go, she started to cry and said "You have no idea how much this means to me!"

So, my wife, my daughter and I made the trip to SUNY Stony Brook on the appointed day.  When you arrive, they collect the letter you receive in the mail.  In retrospect, I wish I had made a copy of it so I could reproduce its contents for this post.

We, along with other parents and children in attendance, entered the auditorium and listened to a man named Mike speak to us.  He then showed us a short film about the program.  After that, he brought out some of the people who have participated as chaperones for the program.  If memory serves, they were all school teachers.

The presentation was rather slick, and at least one person I read online described it as similar to promoting a time share.  There was a great emphasis made about how international travel can boost one's chances of being accepted to college and how it was such an enriching experience.  The cost estimate for the trip, to the best of my recollection, was somewhere around $5,000 to $6,000 dollars.  For parents who would have difficulty paying for the trip on their own, there were some fundraising opportunities, which I guess was doing things like selling candy bars and such.

After the presentation was over, Mike said that representatives were available in the lobby to accept deposits for early registration for the trip.  When we went out into the lobby, I saw that a number of parents had lined up to register their children for the trip and pay the deposit.  My wife asked me if we should do the same and I told her that I wasn't going to be rushed into paying for my daughter to travel to Europe with a bunch of strangers without doing more research about the organization.

Sure enough, when I did do some online sleuthing (the Internet is your friend!), I found some not so flattering things about the People to People organization.

For starters, my daughter had not done anything noteworthy to have received her invitation to the trip. 

An investigation by CBS found some bizarre irregularities in the invitations that were sent out.

"Many parents... believe their kids won an honor from a non-profit run by President Eisenhower's granddaughter. But the experience of Steve and Jennifer Barbee indicates otherwise.

The Barbees' daughter, Katelynn, got invited on a People to People trip this summer with other "high school students" from Tennessee. But Katelynn died back in 1996 when she was 10 days old.

CBS News found the same story in Iowa - a boy supposedly "recommended for the honor" of a People to People trip for his "outstanding middle school achievements." Impossible, said the mom in a letter, because her son "died at seven weeks of age in 1993."

I also found reviews of People to People by former and current employees of the company at a web site called Glassdoor.  The picture they painted was not a very encouraging one.

One employee wrote in May of 2011 that the cons of the organization included:

Unpleasant work environment full of aggression, anger and frustration.
Many people afraid of being fired for speaking their mind.
High turnover among staff.
High pressure selling leads to many cancellations.

A former employee wrote around the same time that "There seems to be a lot of very angry and nasty people in the management group.  It is not unusual for shouting matches to break out among 'leaders' in the company."

Another current employee wrote "Attempts to find and keep senior people have failed time and again as they arrive and figure out the real situation and leave.  Consequently, the same poorly qualified individuals stay and continue to make poor decisions." 

When I was doing the research I had found a review site from parents and students, where many, though not all, of the reviews were mostly negative.  I tried to find it again, but it may no longer be online.

Needless to say, after having investigated the matter to my satisfaction, I went over my findings with my daughter to explain why I would not register her for the trip. She was very understanding and accepted the decision.  I only wished I had done the research before wasting the time and gasoline to drive all the way out to Stony Brook. 

That being said, I do not deny that a fair number of children who go on People to People's trips have enjoyable and memorable experiences, and I read a number of reviews to this effect.  Some of them may even end up reading this post and commenting here.

Still, it seems clear that the way these trips are marketed to impressionable children and well meaning parents is not entirely honest.  As explained above, my daughter didn't receive her invitation because of any special achievement on her part.  With regard to college, I had never traveled outside the United States until I was 20, and that didn't stop me from getting a college education.  My daughter and my son are certainly more well traveled at their young ages than I was.  I didn't fly on an airplane for the first time until I was 25.  My son was less than six months old on his maiden flight.  I was 20 the first time I ever left the United States, and that was a drive to Montreal, where I stayed less than 24 hours.  My kids have been to the Philippines and Hong Kong 3 times, as well as Taipei, the Bahamas, the Caymans, and the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. 

By all means, send your children on a People to People trip if you want to, but don't do it because you believe that they will suffer some horrible set back in life for not attending, because they surely won't.

You Can Keep Your Religion, but...

When I first started this blog back in the Autumn of 2006, I tapped out this brief declaration in which I exhorted religious people to give up their religion.  At the time, I saw my blog as a platform for atheist evangelizing, and I perhaps naively hoped way back then that I could write posts that would cause religious believers to acknowledge that they could and should abandon their religious beliefs.

Time and experience have since mellowed me in this regard.  Don't get me wrong, I still think it would be great if people abandoned superstitious religious beliefs, and I still proclaim that the god of the Bible and the Quran is no more real than leprechauns or the Loch Ness Monster.

What has changed is my sense of priorities.  As a parent of two children, one 13 and the other 11, one of my most important responsibilities is to do my best to raise them to be educated, morally autonomous young adults who can behave responsibly, earn a decent living, and make positive contributions to their community.  This is one facet of my life where I feel that I need to focus on getting things right, for lack of a better word.   It is more important for me to be successful in my personal life, being a good father, a good husband, a good son, a good neighbor and a good citizen, than it is to be an atheist telling religious people that the beliefs they hold dear are not true.

I have since come to divide religious believers into two broad camps.  One camp consists of religious people whose beliefs fall under what I call Inner Fulfillment Purposes.  They practice their religious beliefs because it gives them a sense of meaning, purpose and joy.  I don't really have a problem with them.  The other camp consists of the Busybodies.  These are the people who feel that their religious beliefs give them license to insert themselves into the lives of others.  They run the gamut from the relatively harmless Jehovah's Witness who will ring your doorbell on a Saturday morning to the Muslim extremists who will beat you do to death because you allegedly wrote something insulting about the prophet Muhammed.

So, if going to church on a Sunday morning or synagogue on a Friday evening floats your boat, far be it for me to complain about it.  But as far as the Busybodies are concerned, they're still fair game to me.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I'll Never Forgive Ridley Scott For Prometheus

Yeah, I know!  Prometheus came out what, like 2 or 3 years ago?  Why still bitch about it?  Well, for openers, I was really looking forward to seeing the Alien franchise go off into a new and interesting direction instead of just rehashing the same old thing.  But alas, it was horribly botched.  And now comes word that a sequel to Prometheus is in the works, which only serves to remind me what an awful mess the first one was.

I'm not going to go through a laundry list of plot holes and stupidity in Prometheus.  The video below by Cinema Sins covers a lot of it.



There are a couple of things about Prometheus that really irk me that I haven't really seen addressed in comment threads I have read about the movie in a number of articles and posts.  Here goes.

Charlize Theron's Character Serves Absolutely No Purpose!

When we first meet Vickers after the crew wakes up from hypersleep, we see her staring intently ahead while doing push ups.  The impression we get of her is that of a very strong and determined person who is not to be trifled with.  When she addresses the crew, she tells them rather emphatically that "it's my job to make sure you do yours."  Afterwards, she has a private meeting with Shaw and Holloway, the two characters whose research has provided the entire raison d'etre for the voyage to another star system, and proceeds to give them a thorough dressing down.  Clearly, Vickers is being set up to be a dominant personality and potentially a villain, or at the very least, an obstacle to Shaw. 

But once the vessel Prometheus sets down on the moon LV 426, Vickers almost immediately fades into insignificance.  It is Holloway, not Vickers, who orders the ship's captain Janek to have the crew gear up to venture to the alien structure near the landing site.  Shaw tells one of the security guards accompanying them to the structure that no weapons are allowed.  I thought Vickers was in charge!  At no point during the crew's journey to and exploration of the structure does Vickers provide any orders or guidance to them, nor does anyone consult with her.  The person who just a few minutes earlier in the film made such a show of being a dominant personality ends up being just a passive observer for most of the remainder of the film.

The one time during the entire movie that Vickers shows any real, decisive action is when she torches the infected Discount Tom Hardy with a flame thrower.  Even then, he likely would have died on his own, so her action doesn't affect the plot in any meaningful way.

Her irrelevance as a character is further underscored, rather embarrassingly I might add, at the end of the movie when she ejects from the Prometheus in an escape pod seconds before it crashes into the Engineer's ship, only to die moments later when the alien vessel rolls on top of her.  At the very least they could have had her survive only to be killed by the Engineer or by the squid creature in the life pod.

Perhaps Vickers was more integral to the plot in an earlier version of the script, only to be pretty much neutered in the rewrite.  I don't know.  What seems clear to me though is that if Vickers was completely excised from the movie it would basically have been unchanged.

Elizabeth Shaw's Crucifix

After the android David drugs Shaw, he steals her crucifix necklace.  It is never really explained why David takes it.  Perhaps, because he is an android, David considers religion to be irrational, so by taking the crucifix from Shaw he is separating her from something that he believes she is better off without. 

At the end of the movie, when Shaw goes into the crashed Engineer's ship to retrieve David, she makes a point of taking her cross back from him, which prompts David to ask rhetorically how she can still believe after all that has happened.

What is odd about this little subplot is that we are being told that Shaw's Christian faith is very important to her, but at no point during the entire film (apart from the very end when she prefaces the date with "in the year of our Lord") does she give any indication that her actions or beliefs are informed by Christianity.  In fact, what she does espouse is the complete opposite of Christian doctrine.

When Shaw and Holloway are giving their presentation to the crew at the beginning of the movie, she tells them her belief that the Engineers "engineered" the human race.  This is in complete opposition to the Christian belief that human beings were created by God in the image of God.  If the development of the human race, and indeed, the origin of life itself on Earth, is due to the work of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, then what room does that leave for a biblical creator God in Shaw's belief system?

The prominence of Shaw's crucifix is just a lazy way to inject religion into the movie without providing any substance.  What would have been interesting is if Prometheus gave us an Elizabeth Shaw who struggled to reconcile her Christian faith with her discovery of the existence of an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.  After all, how does the existence of intelligent beings on another planet fit into the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ?  Did Jesus die for the sins of just the human race or does it also extend to all intelligent life throughout the universe, assuming that we are not alone in the universe?  If Prometheus wanted to tackle some really important philosophical and religious issues, surely the impact of life on another world on human religious belief systems should have been on the top of the list.

Yes, I know that Prometheus hints that Jesus was a messenger sent to Earth by the Engineers and that his death by crucifixion is the reason why the Engineers decided to destroy the human race.  That just seems plain silly to me, as it doesn't make any sense that an extraterrestrial being would succeed in his endeavor by being an itinerant preacher in Judea instead of landing his spacecraft outside of the emperor's palace in Rome.  And why didn't the Engineers send a similar envoy to China, which also covered a similar extent of territory and ruled over a large population?

The sad thing about Prometheus, at least in my opinion, is that it could have been a better movie than the one we got.  In Greek legend, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to give to humanity.  If Prometheus the movie had been true to the legend, then instead of trying to find immortality, Weyland's motivation for funding the expedition would have been to get his hands on advanced alien technology, with Shaw and Holloway's scientific endeavor providing him with the cover to carry out his true agenda.  The Engineers, in Chariots of the Gods fashion, instead of having engineered humanity, played the role of trying to shepherd us, as well as beings living on other worlds in our galaxy, until we were far enough along to continue to reach the technological level to become a space faring species.  The world that the star map led to could have served as a testing ground for anyone who landed there to determine if their race was worthy or needed to be exterminated.  When Vickers, acting as Weyland's proxy on the voyage, attempts to steal from the Engineers, it sets in motion a chain of terrible events that not only threaten the members of the voyage, but the human race itself.  The tie in to Alien would be that the derelict Space Jockey ship that Ripley and her crew encountered was on its way to destroy another alien world that failed the test, but something caused the ship to crash.

At any rate, we didn't get the Prometheus that we deserved.  Maybe if I was a Christian, I could forgive Ridley Scott for making such a visually beautiful piece of shit.