Thursday, August 30, 2007

Friday Funnies - Labor Day Weekend Edition

For all of you who hate your jobs and would rather be someplace else, today's Friday Funnies scenes from "Office Space" is dedicated to you. Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What Makes People Good or Bad?

Yes, I know, that is a very big question that cannot be met with a single cut and dry answer. But it is something I have thought a lot about because of personal experience.

Longtime readers of this blog, well if you consider going back to this past January to be a long time, will remember I did a series about my oldest brother Bobby called "What About Bob?" To newer readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with this series, I invite you to click on the link to my January 2007 archive to read all seven parts and the conclusion.

To summarize briefly, both Bobby and my other older brother John, who is the middle child of the three of us, did not turn out the way my parents hoped they would. By their early teenage years they already had issues with getting drunk, getting high and getting into run-ins with the law. Neither of them would go to college and both of them ended up working in construction, with Bobby becoming a bricklayer and John working as a spackler. They also both got their girlfriends pregnant and married them, and each ended up fathering three children. Both of their marital relationships were tumultuous to say the least and they both ended up divorcing their respective wives. Presently, John lives in Florida with his now ex-wife and three children in a rather odd arrangement, though at times he has lived with another woman until that relationship went sour. As for Bobby, I have not spoken to him in almost nine months (read the "What About Bob?" series and you will find out why) though I have heard through the grape vine that he is still going to bars and getting drunk. To put it simply, John is forever treading water while Bobby seems to be forever drowning.

My mother often compares us to the three children of her friend Rita. Sometimes I would hear her lament, "Rita's three kids all turned out okay. They got college educations, stayed out of trouble, they are all well off financially. I had three kids and only one of them turned out right." And it is true. Rita and her husband Tom had two sons and a daughter. One son made a fortune with his beverage delivery route business (and as an aside, how come when I was in high school no one ever mentioned this fucking possibility to me!?!) and the other son worked in finance. The daughter also got a college eduation, though her husband makes a good enough living that she had the option to be a stay at home mom and crank out lots of kids to help save Social Security.

My brothers and Rita's children, as I did, had the privilege of growing up in suburban environments. Rita's kids grew up in Bayside, Queens while we were raised in Hicksville. What, I wonder, made the difference in the outcomes between how my brothers turned out and how Rita's kids turned out? Why were my brothers bad and Rita's kids good?

For clarification, when I use the terms good and bad to describe people, I do not mean to imply that they are entirely evil or angelic or 100% good or bad. Though I consider myself to be a good person, I am certainly flawed and commit my share of mistakes and regret certain things I have done in the past. Likewise, though my brother Bobby would fall under the label of bad, it does not mean that he never was or still is incapable of good things. Several years ago, when he was living in a friend's houseboat in Seaford, he and another person pulled a neighbor out of another houseboat that was on fire, which probably saved that man's life. Despite my stint as a volunteer firefighter, I never got the opportunity to do something like that. But I would say that Bobby is a bad person based on the totality of his actions as a person throughout his life up to the present day.

Since I am six years younger than Bobby, I was not a witness to his early years as a child growing up in the late 1960's into the early 1970's. It was not until I entered elementary school in the mid-1970's that I was old enough to start understanding what was going on around me and to remember it. I do remember that by the time Bobby was already 12, he was already wearing his hair long as was popular at the time, and that he was already getting into trouble in school and with the law. As I recounted in Part 1 of "What About Bob?", one of my earliest memories of Bobby was when I heard my dad yelling at him in Bobby's room. I looked into Bobby's room and saw my dad on top of him on the bed wailing on him while Bobby had his arms held up trying to deflect the blows. I had already categorized Bobby as a bad boy in my mind by then, and out of a desire to help my dad punish Bobby, I pulled out a belt from the closet outside of Bobby's room and called to dad to take it so he could hit Bobby with it.

The great unknown for me regarding Bobby was at what point between when he was born up to the age of 12 did he go wrong and why? I know my father, raised in a strict Irish Catholic family and working as a cop in New York City, was not a warm, nurturing figure. Did Bobby turn out the way he did because my parents made mistakes in raising him, was there something inherent in him that made him bad, or was it a combination of the two? And that question applies not just to him, but to all people that could be loosely characterized as bad.

An excellent example from film of a character who is corrupted by his environment comes from one of my favorite movies, "Full Metal Jacket". One of the main characters in the first half of the movie, which follows a group of Marine recruits through their basic training at Parris Island, is that of Leonard Lawrence, a somewhat slow-witted but gentle giant played memorably by actor Vincent D'Onofrio. From the outset of the movie, Lawrence incurs the wrath of the unit's bellicose drill instructor for his bumbling and awkward mannerisms. This clip from the film gives but a taste of the abuse that Lawrence, whom the drill instructor derisively refers to as Private Pyle, receives on an almost daily basis. Be forewarned though that this clip contains a lot of shouted profanity, so keep that in mind before clicking on the link.

After Lawrence is violently hazed by his fellow recruits in the barracks one night, his behavior undergoes a radical transformation. His performance as a recruit swiftly improves, earning him the acknowledgment and grudging respect of the drill instructor, but his personality becomes dark and creepy. The Parris Island segment of the movie ends with Lawrence shooting the drill instructor in the chest in the bathroom on the last night of basic training before turning the gun on himself and plastering the bathroom wall with his brains. Leonard Lawrence epitomizes a person who turns bad because his psyche could not handle the cruel environment into which he was placed and in the end he snapped. Many of the shooters in the school shooting incidents such as Columbine and Virginia Tech were like Leonard Lawrence, kids who were often mercilessly teased and abused, until finally they lashed out violently at the society they felt was persecuting them. But while I know that Bobby was physically abused by my father, I suspect it was in response to Bobby's behavior rather than a cause of it.

Then there are those people who seem to thrive on being disobedient and preying on others. This clip from the 1979 film "Over The Edge" features an early Matt Dillon as the archetypal Seventies juvenile delinquent who appears to rebel against authority simply for the pure pleasure of it. There is an echo of my brother Bobby in Dillon's early film portrayals of bad boys whose personas combined equal parts swagger, menace, and charm. As shown in the clip above, even the threat of going to prison does not elicit any concern from Dillon's character, and in fact he seems to revel in the possibility of it.

And that is what has always baffled me about many bad people. Threats of punishment or even the implementation of it rolls off of them like water off a duck's back. My brother Bobby did a stint in Catholic middle school, spent time in a facility for juvenile delinquents, and served in the Marines, where he was let out early with a general discharge because of his insubordinate behavior. Nothing, be it harsh punishment or positive rewards, could straighten my brother out.

And while some people might like to point the blame for such deviant behavior on the Sixties, this is a problem that is at least as old as civilization. The Hongwu emperor, who founded the Ming dynasty in China in the 14th century, expressed his bafflement with government officials who continued to engage in corrupt behavior despite receiving harsh physical punishment. He wrote of giving "them countless lashes, I cut off their feet, and I showed all this to other members of the Board. With my own eyes I witnessed this punishment and my hair stood on end because of it. I was sure that there would be no repetition of the crime. But while the survivors were still in terrible pain and bleeding, and the corpses of the others had not yet been taken away, more misconduct occurred. I don't know how the world can be securely ordered." A book I have describes the punishment of one granary clerk accused of embezzlement, who was twice branded, then hamstrung, and then lost both kneecaps, but who still continued to pilfer supplies.

While the optimist in me believes that everybody has the ability to transform their lives to become good people, the realist in me, like the Hongwu emperor, is baffled and frustrated that so many bad people are seemingly incorrigible in spite of all of the punishments that are inflicted on them. Ultimately, is the best we can hope for simply to try and contain the damage that they can do to the rest of us?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Give The Gift of Life Part 2

This past Saturday I was pleased that I finally had some free time to go to Long Island Blood Services location in Melville to donate blood. I try to make an effort to donate 2 or 3 times a year.

In what seems to be an annual problem, blood supplies are at dangerously low levels, probably owing to the fact that many people are away on vacation.

If you are eligible to donate but have not done so, I urge you to give the gift of life.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Should the Bamiyan Statues Be Rebuilt?

That question is explored in this article on the BBC's website.

In the months before 9/11, the Taliban brought world attention to their extremist brand of Islam when they threatened to destroy the statues of Buddha that were carved into a mountainside in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. The threats caused an international outcry and a call by many to save a historical and cultural treasure. It also thrust into the limelight the bigoted and intolerant form of Islam practiced by the Taliban, which denounced the statues as being "un-Islamic".

But despite the pleas from around the world to save the statues, the Taliban went ahead on March 21, 2001, and destroyed them. Interestingly, according to this entry in Wikipedia, Taliban leader Mullah Omar initially wanted to protect the statues, but he claimed that when foreigners came to him and offered to repair the statues, he was offended because there were people starving in Afghanistan and that money should instead be spent on them rather than preserving pagan statues.

I shared the disappointment of many at the time when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas. It was an act of cultural vandalism against works of art that were relics of an earlier time in Afghanistan's history before the advent of Islam. Just imagine if Islamic hardliners tried to destroy the Sphinx in Egypt or if anti-Christian fanatics dynamited the Christ of the Andes statue on the border between Argentina and Chile. However, I remember some voices at the time pointing out that the international attention over the Bamiyan Statues overshadowed the appalling treatment of women under Taliban rule and that this was where the real outrage should be focused.

As for the question of whether the statues should be rebuilt, I personally would say no. For one thing, the rebuilt statues would not be the statues that were previously there, just replicas. They would not be authentic. Secondly, it would fly in the face of everything that Buddhism purports to be about. The central message of Buddhism is that it is our attachment to the things of this world that cause us to be unhappy. The Buddha himself would likely say that the statues were material objects, and now that they are gone we should just let them go. Lastly, the empty recesses themselves can serve as a monument, a monument to intolerance and cultural vandalism.

Friday, August 24, 2007

UPDATED: More Proof That Gay Marriage Is Hurting America

As reported by the Associated Press, the husband of evangelist and gospel singer Juanita Bynum (the link is to her MySpace page) turned himself in to face charges that he beat her outside a hotel. Bynum's husband, Thomas W. Weeks III, is also a minister. Newsday has more details about the assault here.

Let's be honest about what is really going on here. The reason why Weeks assaulted his wife was simply because he was angry and frustrated about the issue of gay marriage and America's growing tolerance for homosexual perversion. It is just one more stark example of the threat that homosexuals and gay marriage poses to traditional marriage in America. With your prayers, Juanita Bynum's marriage can be healed and the scourge of homosexuality will be erased from our great nation.

Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism has a post about Thomas Weeks here. Predictably, Weeks blames Satan and not his own personal flaws for the assault. Judging by the supportive comments posted on the comments forum to the Newsday articles I link to, and those of a friend of Pentecostal church-goer Santhosh Paul, the Indian-American man who tried to hire someone to kill his own wife, Pentecostals seem prone to blaming the devil for everything that goes wrong in their lives.

Friday Funnies - Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

Here's a blast from the past. I was hoping I could find the one where Eddie Murphy sings "I would like to live in your neighborhood someday. The problem is, whenever I do, y'all move away!"

Another Mind Warped By Religion

As many of you may know, the American Midwest has been experiencing a terrible ordeal from extreme weather events. Storms have caused record flooding and killed at least 25 people.

Now here is something you probably did not know. All of this terrible weather afflicting the nation is being caused by homosexuals and Oprah Winfrey. Well, the homosexuals and Oprah are not actually causing the bad weather, rather it is a sign of God's anger with America over its tolerance for homosexual perversions.

If you want proof, it's all here at the website for Street Preachers. This site came to my attention just this afternoon when I was reading the comments thread for this post at David Neiwert's blog Orcinus. A commenter named Ruben Israel posted the following comments:

IT'S THE MANIFEST WRATH OF GOD ON YOU PEOPLE....Floods, underwater earthquakes, monster hail storms, category 5 hurricanes, Mile-wide F-5 tornadoes, heat waves, drought, solar storms, wild waves of the ocean destroying lives and property, out of control wild fires and unrelenting, blistering HEAT WAVES which are but a foretaste of things to come for you HELL BOUND perverts! Need I go on with respect to...raging wild fires consuming millions of acres of land, destruction of property and life...It's on your front page, in front of your face but you refuse to believe it's the God of the Bible...You prefer to call it "Mother Nature" I've got news for you, it's FATHER GOD and He's had enough of the carnality, depravity and homo friendly disciples of Oprah Winfrey! REPENT!

I posted a response to Ruben Israel by pointing out to him that volcanic eruptions have been photographed on Jupiter's moon Io and fierce wind storms can be noted in Mars simply by looking at it through a powerful telescope. Since these violent phenomena are taking place on uninhabited planets and moons in our solar system that harm no one, it is clearly evidence that these things are natural phenomena. Why then are the same events taking place on our world attributed to the wrath of god?

Ruben Israel is a textbook example of how religious dogmatism can warp one's perception of the world. Catastrophic events such as volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, rather than being seen for the natural events that they are, become in the eyes of ignorant religious fanatics signs of an angry god's displeasure with humans who flout his will.

While I look at this from the perspective of an atheist and skeptic, even if I were a religious person I would still take offense at Ruben Israel's bigoted nonsense. You see, if there really was a god that created us and everything in the universe, it would be perfectly capable of targetting its wrath directly at the people who offend it. For a god to cause an entire region of the United States to be flooded because it is angry with homosexuals would be like me burning down the houses of my neighbors because I am angry that a suicide bomber killed dozens of people in a marketplace in Baghdad.

If there really is a god that is angered by homosexual conduct, then surely it has the power to cause homosexuals to spontaneously combust every time one inserts his penis into another man's mouth or anus.

It's All in the Timing

Remember last week when I called on any of my Muslim readers to pray that Allah causes my plane to crash? Well, as you all know, my plane made it safely back to New York, though the ride was on the bumpy side and we had to remain in our seats for most of the flight.

Fortunately for my family and I, the wedding was held last week instead of this week, as the greater Chicago area has been inundated with rain this week, causing rivers to flood and homes to lose power. I feel bad for the people out there who are going through this now and hope that things take a turn for the better soon.

The Chosen People of the Supreme Being Test - Chapter 2: A Whole Lotta Smitin' Goin' On

In Chapter 1 of this series, we looked at how the God of the Bible, whom many today believe is the real, true, and all powerful and all knowing creator of the universe, gave his chosen people a stretch of land in the eastern Mediterranean that was poorly suited for sustaining a large population safe from foreign invasion. I compared the land of Canaan to that of Egypt, which was blessed with the fertile Nile River valley that could sustain a large population and had deserts along the frontiers that served as buffers against foreign invaders.

In summary, I concluded that if an all powerful universal deity had indeed selected a particular group of people to be his chosen people, it would be reasonable to expect that this deity would assign his chosen people territory that offered them an advantage over their neighbors. Since the land of Egypt was much more fertile and hospitable than the land of Canaan, the God of the Bible is either lousy at geography or he does not exist.

However, the geographic disadvantage of living in Canaan need not have been a disadvantage if the Israelites were militarily stronger than their neighbors. After all, if a confederation of tribes are supposed to be the chosen people of the most powerful being in existence, it would be reasonable to believe that they should be never be defeated in battle.

Indeed, the book of Joshua speaks of Joshua and the Israelites defeating this king and that king and destroying this city and that city. The text clearly tries to give the reader the impression that the tribes of Israel crossed the River Jordan, and with the Creator of the Universe on their side, were an irresistible juggernaut sweeping away all before them. But as with any piece of laudatory propaganda, the book of Joshua goes into great details about the victories allegedly won by the Israelites while being strangely vague about their defeats. For instance, Joshua 15:63 mentions almost as an aside that "Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the people of Judah." Further on, in Judges 1:19, we are told that though the "Lord was with the men of Judah...they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots."

Next, we leap ahead in history to the time of King David, the second king of Israel, whom we are to believe established an "empire" that extended all the way to the Euphrates River. Chapter 8 of Second Samuel is a litany of David's victories over the Philistines, the Moabites, the Arameans and the Edomites. He even manages to defeat those pesky Jebusites (2 Samuel 4:6-7) who frustrated the men of Judah and Benjamin to establish his capital at Jerusalem. Various maps differ in their representation of the size of the territory ruled by David, but by far the most exaggerated I found was this:

Even though I have been an atheist for approximately 15 years, I had taken it for granted that Israel was a mighty kingdom under King David. It was therefore a surprise to me when I began to read that there was virtually no archeological evidence to support a Davidic superkingdom that stretched from the Sinai to the Euphrates. The Tel Dan Stele makes reference to a "House of David", but the stele itself commemorates a victory by the Arameans over the Israelites. At best, it is evidence that there was an historical King David.

Regardless of how large or small Israel was under David and Solomon, what is not in dispute is that from the 9th century BCE onward there were two small kingdoms, Israel to the north with its capital at Samaria and Judah to the south with its capital at Jerusalem. In 722 BCE, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, while the southern kingdom of Judah maintained a precarious independence for another century and a half when it was conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer.

But if we are to take the Bible literally, things were not suppose to turn out this way. The prophet Isaiah, who is supposed to have lived in the early 8th century in Judah around the time that Israel succumbed to Assyria, boasted in Isaiah 49:23 that "Kings will be your foster fathers, and their queens will be your nursing mothers. They will bow down before you with their faces to the ground; they will lick the dust at your feet." Perhaps Isaiah got his inspiration from this:

The obelisk above is a depiction of Jehu, king of Israel, kneeling before Shalmaneser III of Assyria. While Christians love to claim that Isaiah foretold the coming of Christ, the celebrated Biblical prophet was less successful with his prediction about a restored Israel compelling kings and queens to bow down and lick the dust before it. Instead, as mentioned above, the kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, ending the existence of an independent Jewish state for the next 400 years.

In the second century BCE, a Jewish state was reestablished by the Hasmoneans, but by the early 1st century BCE the Judean kingdom was reduced to the status of a Roman client state. After two violent but ultimately unsuccessful rebellions against Roman rule, the diaspora of the Jewish people out of the land of Israel accelerated and there would be no Jewish state until 1947. In Genesis 17:8, the god of the Bible tells Abraham, "The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you." And yet for the last three thousand years, the land allegedly promised to the Israelites by their god was in their possession for less than one third of that time.

So, not only did God fail to provide his chosen people with the best choice of land for settlement, his evident sponsorship did not translate into winning wars against their powerful neighbors and preserving their existence as an independent state.

By no means should this be interpreted as denigrating the fighting capabilities of the Israelites. To borrow from Benjamin Netanyahu, they lived in a tough neighborhood. During the Bar Kochba Rebellion (132-135 CE), the Jews fought the Romans so ferociously that the Roman 22nd Legion disappeared from the listings of Roman military units.

But while the Israelites could inflict defeats on their smaller neighbors, such as the Edomites and the Moabites, no Israelite army could ever march on Thebes, Nineveh or Babylon. If the ancient Israelites really were the chosen people of the most powerful entity in existence, it should be expected that they would be able to conquer the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and the Persians rather than being conquered by them.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Battered Wife Syndrome

That is what this article on the New York Times web site (registration required) made me think of.

The article reports that more than 60 people died in a church in Peru during an earthquake. And yet despite this, the article quotes church member Rita Cabrera, as saying "The only thing we can do now is pray and give thanks to God." Give thanks for what?

The statue of Christ that stood at the entrance to the church was undamaged, and evidently the residents of the town interpret this as some kind of miracle. Gee, let's do the tally here. More than 60 people die when their church collapses on them, but it is a wonderful thing that a Jesus statue survived intact. Wouldn't it have been better if the statue was destroyed and all of the people inside survived unharmed? After all, Christians believe that Jesus died for the sins of humanity. Why not let a Jesus statue be destroyed to save the lives of his worshippers?

It isn't news to anybody that people who have survived some tragic event will often point to any positive bit of news as a miraculous sign. And it is certainly not just a Christian phenomenon. Muslims in Indonesia exhibited the same response to the mosques in Banda Aceh, Sumatra that withstood the tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people in the province. It is a classic example of "confirmation bias", with religious people interpreting the survival of religious buildings or icons from disasters natural or man made as evidence of God's intervention.

But anyone who looks at the world with a clear mind can plainly see that events unfold just as we would expect them to without the intervention or even existence of a divine being. Natural disasters, diseases, accidents, and other calamities strike all people regardless of whether they are good people or bad. That nearly one in five Zambian children succumbs to malaria before the age of five, as described in this National Geographic article, demonstrates that the universe is indifferent to us at best, or at worst hostile, as described by astrophysicist Neil De Grasse Tyson.

So, I imagine a Christian asking me, how exactly should the townsfolk in Peru react to the earthquake that destroyed their church and killed dozens of people who worshipped there? Would you deny them the right to seek solace in their deeply held religious faith? Of course I could deny them no such thing. But I would ask them to consider the following: If the government they lived under repeatedly failed to provide them with basic social services such as electricity, clean drinking water, an army to deter foreign invaders, and a police force to protect them from criminals, would they continue to have faith in that government? Likewise, if they were in a government building during the earthquake and the roof collapsed and killed dozens of the townsfolk inside, would the survival unscathed of a portrait of that country's president be considered a miracle from God? If the answer to both questions would be no, then why continue to retain a belief in a deity that apparently cannot protect their loved ones in a house of worship?

Death Without Dignity

Can you think of a more undignified way to go out than this?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Back From Chicago

Back home safe and sound!

Proof that Allah doesn't exist?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Premature Friday Funnies - Serial Mom

This is a great clip from the movie "Serial Mom" with Kathleen Turner. You can tell that she must have had a lot of fun being in this film. Be forewarned though, this scene, where Turner's character is making a series of prank phone calls to her annoying neighbor, contains a lot of profane language, so don't play it if you are near people who might get offended.

Sorry Bedrock, just doing my part to help destroy the moral fabric of America! :-)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blogging Hiatus

As mentioned in my post below, my family and I will be flying to Chicago later this week to attend the wedding of one of my wife's relatives. Plus, my son will be the ring bearer. Blogging to resume Sunday, unless of course Allah answers the prayers of his flock and causes my plane to crash. Enjoy the rest of your week everybody.

Prayer As a Weapon

Sara Robinson, co-blogger at Orcinus, has an interesting post up about Wiley Drake, a Southern Baptist pastor who has urged his flock to engage in imprecatory pray to call on God to smite the staff members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Here is a brief article about it on the Christian Newswire site.

For more information about what an imprecatory prayer is, see here. While some people might find this whole thing rather disturbing, I find it rather comical. After all, given that we know that there is no God that answers the prayers of its followers, there is nothing to worry about. Heck, tomorrow my wife, children and I are flying out to Chicago. If every Christian, Jew and Muslim in America prayed for my plane to crash and kill me and my family, I wouldn't be the slightest bit hesitant about boarding the plane.

To be honest, I would more expect a Christian to pray for me to find and accept Christ than for me to be killed in a plane crash. But I wouldn't put it past a Muslim to pray for Allah to strike me and my family down, particularly after some of the posts I have put up lately.

As a matter of fact, if any Muslims visit this blog in the next three days, I implore you, please do pray to your Allah to cause my plane to crash. Let's see if your precious Allah is up to the challenge.

My Favorite Jihadi Terrorist of the Week

Yet another deluded Muslim fails to get his 72 virgins.

What's In a Name?

In another chapter in the ongoing saga of the so-called "War on Christmas", the New York Times reports (registration required) on a heated school board meeting in New Hyde Park here on Long Island this past Monday night.

The meeting room was packed with local residents expressing their anger over a proposal to change the name of the school's annual Christmas Concert to Winter Concert. Apparently, the Board of Education had already rejected the proposed name change, but the townfolk felt they had to vent their displeasure anyway.

Some of the disgruntled masses went a little over the top in airing their feelings. One compared the school superintendent, who had proposed the name change to make the concert more inclusive, to Osama bin Laden.

Another resident, an attorney by the name of James McHugh, decried the proposed name change as "religious bigotry at its worst."

No, Mr. McHugh, this is religious bigotry at its worst:

In case you are wondering, that man is Jan Hus, a Czech religious reformer who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church in 1415 after being found guilty of heresy.

But back to the topic at hand. As our society becomes more diverse, school districts across the country have students whose parents come from non-Christian societies, such as Hindus from India for example. However, Christians are still the overwhelming majority in this country, and it is understandable for some Christians to be upset when they feel that their traditions are not being respected.

Therefore, I propose that the Solomonic solution to this problem is to simply rename the concert the Christmas and Winter Concert, thereby retaining Christmas in the title, while making a nod towards diversity and inclusiveness.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Save the Date

If you live near the ocean or any other major body of water and you care about the environment, then on Satudary, September 15, you have the opportunity to participate in an important event, the 21st annual International Coastal Cleanup day. Join other volunteers and clean up litter along the shores or our beaches, rivers and lakes.

For those of you who live in New York, as I do, please check out the web site for the American Litteral Society of New York. Contact information is provided for cleanup coordinators in your area. Just click on the link for Beach Cleanup News. If you live outside of New York, then the web site for the Ocean Conservancy can help you to find participating groups.

I took part in the cleanup in 2005 in the Zach's Bay section of Jones Beach and plan to do so again this year. Since I absolutely detest littering, an event like this is right up my alley.

And if anyone needs a reminder as to why littering is so harmful to our environment, this article is quite sobering.

If you are free the morning of the 15th, I urge you to participate in this worthy event.

A Misplaced Sense of Rage

That's what I encountered today after I had picked up my son from day camp and was on my way to pick up my daughter from day care.

I was driving in the left southbound lane on South Oyster Bay Road when I noticed a young, tanned, brunette women in a dark blue car driving uncomfortably close behind me. The intersection for Old Country Road was about a hundred yards or more up ahead. The light was red and the cars ahead of me were slowing down and stopping. I took my foot off the gas pedal so that my car would gradually slow as I got closer to the rear car ahead of me, about 20 yards away.

I looked in my rear view mirror and saw brunette girl gesticulating wildly at me and mouthing words at me in effect that I should hurry up and go faster. But her request was absurd as the traffic ahead of us had stopped. I motioned with my hands towards the traffic light up ahead, and shouted out, in vain, that the light was red and what was the hurry? Her face became a mask of disgust as she shifted into the right southbound lane and pulled ahead of me.

But her gain would prove to be shortlived, as the line of stopped cars in the right lane was longer than in the left lane, where I remained. As I coasted past her, I turned my head to look at her with a smile on my face. I was greeted by her left hand with middle finger raised, her face turned away resolutely to avoid eye contact with me.

I couldn't help but laugh and enjoy my moment of schadenfreude as I ended up coming to a stop about six or seven cars ahead of her. If brunette girl had simply remained calm and followed behind me slowly, she would have been closer to the intersection than she was. At the same time, I was a little hurt. This young lady did not know anything about me, and yet because she was impatient and in a hurry, she had made me an object of hatred. I had not done a thing wrong to her, and again, if she had remained behind me and coasted to a stop as I had done, she would have been in a much better position than where she ended up. Call it a case of misplaced rage.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Antarctica Strain

As global warming melts more and more Antarctic ice, ancient bacteria that had been trapped for hundreds of thousands of years are being released into the marine ecosystem.

The article quotes a scientist as saying that the bacteria is harmless to humans. Still, I couldn't help but think of this movie.

Religious Tyranny versus Freedom Part 2

For my female and gay readers.
I have to say, I wish I looked like Eric Bana in Troy.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Friday Funnies - Adventures with Richie on Rescue Me

Yeah, I know, it's only Thursday night. Thought I would get these up early.

These are funny clips from the television series Rescue Me, wherein series regular Franco finds his relationship with his girlfriend complicated by her retarded brother Rich.

Open Thread: Religious Tyranny versus Freedom

I know which side I'm on! ;-P

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Great Moments in Geekdom

If you are a hopeless female Star Trek fan, perhaps you might consider entering yourself in the Ninth Annual Miss Klingon Beauty Pageant being held next month at the DragonCon in Atlanta, Georgia. I only just became aware of this event yesterday when I read a blurb about it in the current issue of Discover magazine.

Reading about this ridiculous contest, I could not help but think of this:

I was not able to find the entire clip on Youtube, but this excerpt captures the gist of it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Misunderstanding of Decisive Battles and Turning Points in History

As someone who enjoys reading books about history, particularly military history, I am familiar with the speculation that some people like to make about how history would have turned out differently if the positions of the winners and losers in various battles were switched. Among the prominent examples are "What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo?" or "What if Lee had won Gettysburg?"

The idea for this post came to my mind recently when I was reading some reviews on for a book that came out late last year called "The Siege of Vienna", which recounts the attempt by the Ottoman Turks to take the city of Vienna in the year 1683. The Turkish defeat is often represented as the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. One reviewer on even posits that if the Turks had succeeded in capturing Vienna, "there well might have been no Christian Europe to dominate the world stage for the next 500 years."

Such viewpoints are mistaken in both the micro and macro level because they fail to take into consideration the realities that existed at the time. Pretend for a moment that the Turkish army managed to capture Vienna before the arrival of the Polish relief army under John Sobieski. Would the Turks have been able to hold the city? Looking at a map of the Ottoman Empire at its zenith, one can see how far Vienna is from the Ottoman capital at Istanbul. The Turkish army would have had to maintain an incredibly long supply line to keep its soldiers equipped with arms, ammunition, food, and clothing. And much of the territory through which this supply line had to run were conquered Christian peoples such as the Hungarians, whose loyalty was ever in doubt. So while the Ottoman army would have had to maintain itself far from its center of power, the armies of its enemies, including the Hapsburgs and the Poles, were close to their centers of power. Thus, the capture of Vienna would not have opened up the rest of Europe to Ottoman conquest.

What we also know from the study of history, is that at the macro level, the balance of power between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire had been slowly shifting away from the Ottomans for some time prior to the siege of Vienna. Nearly twenty years earlier, the first portent that the Ottomans were falling behind Europe militarily was felt. The Ottomans were facing off against their traditional enemies, the Austrians, at a place called St. Gotthard in 1664. The Austrians were reinforced by a contingent of French soldiers sent to them by Louis XIV. At the time, the French were the most advanced nation in Europe in terms of military techniques. Lord Kinross, in his well written book "The Ottoman Centuries", describes how when the Turks first saw the French auxiliaries on the battlefield, with their shaven chins and powdered wigs, they laughed at the French scornfully. But the French would have the last laugh as they ended up driving back the Sultan's Janissaries in disarray.

So, would history have turned out differently if the Ottomans had taken Vienna? Probably not, because the capture of the city likely would have done nothing to change the fact that the major powers of Christian Europe were beginning to surpass the Ottomans in terms of military technology. It is doubtful that the Turks could have held the city for long against a determined effort by the Christian powers to retake it. What the Ottoman defeat at Vienna made apparent to its enemies was that it exposed the weakness of the Turks and emboldened them to annex its European territories.

As I mentioned above, another popular speculation is how the American Civil War might have turned out if Robert E. Lee had won at Gettysburg. If the Union Army had been defeated, could Lee have taken Washington and won the war? Such an alternate outcome hinges on what kind of "win" Lee could have achieved. For Lee to have taken Washington, it would have been necessary not just to drive the Army of the Potomac from the battle field. Lee would have had to have destroyed the Army of the Potomac as an effective fighting force. To put this in perspective, Lee had won numerous victories against the Union Army during the thirteen months prior to the Battle of Gettysburg. In May of 1862, Lee drove back George McClellan from the outskirts of Richmond, the Confederate capital. He then decisively repulsed Union armies at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But the Union armies he defeated did not dissolve into a mindless rabble. The Yankees remained intact and licked their wounds to fight another day.

If Lee could not destroy the Union army when they attacked him, he was at an even greater disadvantage at Gettysburg, where he was attacking them. Most military historians would probably agree that the decisive day at Gettysburg was the second day, on July 2. On that day, much went wrong for the Confederate army as its Corps commanders tried to coordinate Lee's plan to assault both flanks of the Union army, while so much went right for the usually hapless Army of the Potomac. Still, if the Confederates had caught a few lucky breaks, particularly in their assaults on the Union left at Little Round Top, the Army of the Potomac might have found itself in an untenable position and would have had to retreat. But even so, it still would have been an intact fighting force posing a threat to Lee if he decided to march on Washington.

The most famous event of Gettysburg, "Pickett's Charge", happened on the third day. I put Pickett's Charge in quotes, because General Pickett did not lead the charge that day. His was one of three divisions that took part in the attack that was overseen by Lee's most reliable corps commander, James Longstreet. The famous charge was preceded by the largest Confederate artillery barrage of the war, which ironically did very little damage to the Union defenders. As even the most casual of Civil War buffs knows, the Confederate attack barely pierced the Union center before collapsing.

But suppose the attack had succeeded in driving back the Union Army? The Confederate cannonade that preceded the attack had depleted most of Lee's artillery supply. If he tried to march on Washington, not only would his supply of artillery been inadequate, his march on the capital would have been slowed by the need to transport the thousands of his soldiers wounded in the three days of the battle while trying to keep his army supplied in hostile territory. Therefore, even a victory for Lee at Gettysburg need not necessarily have resulted in the Confederacy winning the Civil War. Another possible alternative outcome for Lee, which I have not read, is explored by Newt Gingrich and William Forschten.

Likewise, Lee's defeat at Gettysburg, while an important victory for the Union, is not necessarily the turning point in the war that it is popularly thought to be. The war did drag on nearly two years more. It should also be noted that a year after Gettysburg, a smaller Confederate force under Jubal Early raided to the outskirts of a thinly defended Washington, D.C. while Grant was besieging Lee at Richmond and Petersburg. In the end, the outcome of the Civil War was not determined by Lee and Grant in Virginia, but in the collapse of the Confederate Army of Tennesse in late 1864, which paved the way for Sherman's famous March to the Sea.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Get Ready to Lose Your Appetite

If you read about this, that is.

All I can say is that I plan to be very careful about what I am ordering if I should ever visit China.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Tom Tancredo and the Mecca Option

Little known Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo kicked up a bit of a firestorm recently when he told a small crowd of people in an Iowan restaurant that taking out the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina should be an option if Islamic terrorists set off a nuclear bomb in the United States. He had floated the same idea a couple of years ago when he was a guest on a talk radio program.

Evidently, Tancredo seems to believe that the mere suggestion that Mecca and Medina could be destroyed in a retaliatory attack will serve as a deterrent to terrorists from engaging in such an attack. Personally, I think that Tancredo has lost all sense of reality.

The message that Osama bin Laden has repeatedly preached to the people of the Muslim world is that the United States is at war with Islam. If al-Qaida or some other Islamist terror group were to set off a nuclear bomb or other device to cause a mass casualty incident in the United States, a retaliatory strike on Mecca and Medina would play right into their hands.

If Islam's holiest sites disappeared under a couple of mushroom clouds, does anybody really believe that hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world will meekly abandoned their faith because Allah did not stop the attack? I believe the more likely response is that the world will experience a paroxysm of violence like it has never experienced before. Westerners in Muslim countries will be hunted down and killed by angry mobs. European cities with large Muslim populations will be engulfed by riots on a scale that would dwarf the riots that swept Paris almost two years ago. The Arab oil states would cut off their oil supply and sabotage their oil sites to prevent their take over by American military forces.

Of course, not everybody shares my opinion of Tancredo's remarks. LaShawn Barber, the African-American version of Michelle Malkin, supports Tancredo "100 percent". The majority of the comments to her post are from her troglodyte fans in agreement with her and Tancredo. They remind me of a student I had when I was a student teacher at West Hempstead High School back in 1992. His solution to everything was "why can't we just bomb them?"

It seems lost on many people that many problems do not have quick solutions. Unfortunately, we live in an era where a segment of the world's Muslim population embraces an interpretation of their religion that sanctions terrorist attacks on civilian populations. They are like a cancer that must be rooted out. It will be a problem that will be with us for many years, perhaps decades, and it will only end when the message and tactics of fiends like Osama bin Laden are decisively rejected by Muslims. How we get to that point is a different topic.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Reason Number 748 Why Malaysia Sucks

H.L. Mencken is often quoted as saying that a Puritan is someone who has a haunting fear that someone somewhere might be having a good time.

If the famous curmudgeon were alive today, I do not doubt that he would have some choice barbs to direct at Muslim fundamentalists. It seems the puritanical National Union of Malaysian Muslim Students is upset about an upcoming concert to be held in their country by American pop star Gwen Stefani. They demanded that the concert be cancelled, because the mere glimpse of Stefani's bare midriff might throw the entire country into anarchy.

While the concert will go on, apparently Stefani has agreed to alter her wardrobe so as to not offend Islamic sensibilities. Personally, I hope that during the last song in her concert, Stefani will change into this as a "fuck you" gesture to the Malaysian Muslim Students Union.

When are these people going to realize that they live in the tropics and that they were not meant to adopt the dress codes of a 7th century Arabian desert culture?

And how many more Malaysia bashing posts do I have to do before Exercise In Futility is declared an anti-Malaysian hate site?

Friday Funnies - Nothing to Beat Yourself Up About

While the movie "Fight Club" is not meant to be a comedy, there are parts of it that are wildly funny.

A word of caution though, do not play this loudly if you are at work or any place where you do not want anybody to be offended by the "F" word.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Hyman Roth of Priests

When I read this article on Newsday about a priest who confessed to molesting a 5-year old boy but was given a light sentence because he had terminal liver cancer, it brought to mind a scene from "The Godfather Part 2".

Near the end of the movie, Michael Corleone is voicing his determination to kill the aged Jewish gangster Hyman Roth, while his inner circle advises against it because of the heavy security around Roth. Tom Hagen, Michael's adoptive brother and consigliere, mentions that Hyman Roth is in failing health and isn't expected to live much longer, to which Michael quips in response, "He's been dying of the same heart attack for the last ten years."

Cry Me A River

I wish they would all go out like this guy did.