Monday, December 31, 2012

Have A Happy 2013!

Another year is upon us.

Meanwhile, 2012 was my most productive blogging year since 2009, when I had 79 posts.  In both years before that, I had over 200 posts each year.  2009 saw a steep drop, but 2010 was even worse, when I managed only 33 posts.  Last year saw an increase to 59, while this past year I was able to achieve a little more than that.  Still, it's a far cry from my golden age, which I don't expect to ever achieve again.

Like a lot of bloggers, a number of factors conspired to hamper my productivity.  For starters, I just don't seem to have the time that I used to have.  I also find myself sometimes falling short in the inspiration department.  There are moments during the day where I think of topics to write about, but then when I'm home later on, I forget what it was that had interested me earlier and I just spend my time surfing the Internet.

I can't promise that 2013 will see a concerted effort to revive this blog to a semblance of what it once was.  At times I veer from wanting to throw myself into making this a venue for impassioned and informed commentary to the other extreme of just throwing in the towel and shutting the whole thing down.  By the end of 2013, I like to think that I will have definitely chosen one or the other.

Anyway, I wish any and all reading this a healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

Richard Dawkins on Al Jazeera

In case you haven't seen it yet, you might want to check out the interview/debate between Richard Dawkins and a Mehdi Hasan of Al Jazeera above.
I felt that Dawkins should have done a better job when the interviewer brought up Stalin and Mao Zedong.  As I argued here, Stalin's atrocities were made possible because he ruled a state that had inherited a centuries long tradition of absolutism from Russia's tsarist predecessors.  The same can be said for Mao Zedong, who became dictator of a country that had been ruled by emperors for millennia.
One could also bring up the millions who died during China's Taiping Rebellion, which was led by a failed aspirant to the civil service who styled himself to be the brother of Jesus Christ.
To me, the whole argument of whether or not religion is a force for good in the world and whether the world would be better without religion is a stupid argument.  The way I see it, the world would be a better place if more people would be good regardless of whether they were religious or not, just as the world would be worse off when more people are bad, again regardless of whether they are religious adherents or atheists.
The problem with the communist dictators is that they were radical utopians who had no check on their power.  But this is not merely an atheist problem.  One can see strains of this radical utopianism among various Muslim movements throughout the world today, such as the Salafists, whose vision of an ideal society is to live as the prophet Muhammed and his early followers did in 7th century Arabia or the Muslim purists who have recently seized control of large swathes of Mali in western Africa.  It all boils down to the belief that you possess the one true way of living and that everyone else is mistaken and you're going to force them to live the way you want them to regardless of how they feel about it.   One of the hallmarks of a free, pluralistic society is that you have to accept that some members of that society will have beliefs and behaviors that offend you or you find to be mistaken but who otherwise do not infringe on your personal life.  It's the idea that we can all find a way to coexist as long as we respect one another's boundaries.

A Glimpse At The Prison Industrial Complex

Today, in the course of reviewing documents for my job, I came across a copy of a letter completely unrelated to what I was looking for, and so does not fall under the scope of client confidentiality.

Most people have likely heard of the term "prison-industrial complex", which basically means that certain groups in our society derive a monetary or other benefit from incarcerating more people in prisons.

The letter I came across provides a glimpse of one facet of this complex, namely our politicians in New York State.  It is a letter dating from January of 2000 from a New York state senator named Hugh Farley, to the then Republican Senate Majority Leader, Joe Bruno.

It reads as follows:

"If this year's budget includes authorization for a new prison, the Hale Creek site in Fulton County has always been favored by the Corrections Department.

Although Fulton County has long been at the top of the list, in recent years Senator Stafford has received a prison, I stepped aside for Senator Present when he needed a prison, and Senator Nozzolio has received a prison.  Now it should be Fulton County's turn.

I do hope, Joe, that you will do everything you can to ensure that we have a prison in the budget and that it is located in Fulton County."

This letter is interesting to me for two reasons.  First, it is clearly implied that prisons were doled out to state senators in New York like some kind of reward for loyalty or service to the Senate Majority Leader.  Second, Senator Farley's plea to Bruno to ensure funding for a prison in the budget is not couched in terms of a societal need, such as "Hey, we have an exploding prison population and need more prisons to address overcrowding!"  Rather, he wants funding for a new prison, because, dammit, he just wants one in his district and it's his turn.

Presumably, politicians like having prisons put in their district because it provides jobs for construction companies and construction and corrections officers union members.  It probably goes without saying that the beneficiaries of these contracts make campaign contributions to these politicians, while the unions give the senators their endorsements come reelection time.

Of course, it's no secret that this sort of thing does go on.  It's just that the letter I quoted, which was clearly not intended to be read by the public, really illustrates the corruption involved from the political side of things, with prisons budgeted for and dispensed like candy to state legislators.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

God's Quarterback Part IV: Tim Tebwho?

Remember way back in the 2011 NFL season, when Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos won six games in a row?

As I wrote in my first post on Tebow, some Christians claimed that it was a sign from God:

Tim Tebow’s pastor, Wayne Hanson, says he knows why the Denver Broncos are 7-1 since installing Tebow as quarterback – it’s the player’s faith.

“It’s not luck,” Hanson said according to TMZ. “Luck isn’t winning six games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.”

Hanson, who runs the Summit Church in suburban Denver, said the Broncos wouldn’t be winning games if God hadn’t decided to reward Tebow’s religious beliefs.

Cut to the 2012 season.  Tim Tebow has been traded to the New York Jets to do, well, something.  Meanwhile, the Denver Broncos acquired veteran quarterback Peyton Manning. 

Surely, God would punish Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos for getting rid of Tebow, as televangelist Pat Robertson pondered.

Well, let's see how that turned out.

From the NY Daily News:

Peyton Manning threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns Sunday to lift Denver to a 38-3 win over Kansas City that sealed the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs for the Broncos.

Denver (13-3) won its 11th straight and leaped past Houston for the top seed after the Texans lost to Indianapolis 28-16 earlier in the day.

I guess God likes Peyton Manning more than Tim Tebow.

As for Tebow, his lamentable season as the Jets most famous benchwarmer has come to an end.  He never got the chance to be the starting quarterback in a single game and the alleged reason for acquiring him, for running Wildcat plays, never really materialized.

Rumor is that Tebow will go to the Jacksonville Jaguars, which is probably the best thing for him.  If it happens, I hope he will get the opportunity to be the starting quarterback for a full season, and then maybe Pastor Hanson will see that there is nothing really miraculous about God's quarterback after all.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hey Fox News, This Is What A Real War on Christmas Looks Like: 2012 Edition

While Fox News hypes a bogus 'War on Christmas' that consists of people saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" or nativity scenes on public property having to share space with Festivus poles, events in other parts of the world show us what a real 'War on Christmas' looks like.

Just like last year, militant Islamists in Nigeria, likely members of a sect called Boko Haram, carried out an attack on Nigerian Christians on Christmas Eve.

From the BBC:

Gunmen in the northern Nigerian state of Yobe have shot dead at least six Christians, the army and local officials say.

They say a church in Peri village near Potiskum, the economic capital of Yobe, was set on fire in an attack late on Christmas Eve.

The head of the Network for Justice human rights group, Zakari Adamu, told the BBC that the gunmen also attacked the homes of Christians following the attack during the midnight mass service.

And then we have Indonesia.

This article reminds me of how right-wing Christians in this country react whenever President Obama makes any kind of nod towards Muslim-Americans.

Conservative Muslim leaders are not stopping with edicts forbidding Muslims from wishing Christians a Merry Christmas. Now they want the President not to attend any observation of the holiday in an official or personal capacity.

Separately, the infamous hard-line Islam Defenders Front (FPI) said that Yudhoyono and Boediono would “undermine” Islam if they decided to attend the celebration.

Muchsin Ahmad Alatas, the head of the FPI’s campaign division, advised the President and Vice President not to attend the celebration. “They decided to attend the program because they don’t have sufficient understanding of Islam,” Muchsin said. “They should have consulted with people who understand Islam better before making their decision.”

It's one thing to tell a Muslim who is president of a Muslim majority country not to attend a Christmas celebration.  It's quite another when Christians themselves are prevented from celebrating their holiday.

The members of two besieged Christian congregations on Jakarta’s outskirts are worried that hard-line groups will not let them observe Christmas in their own churches.

Rev. Palti Panjaitan of the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) in Bekasi, West Java, said that his congregation was again banned on Sunday from holding services in their half-built church.

The last time I checked, there were no atheists, or as Fox News blowhard Bill O'Reilly likes to call us, 'secular progressives.' preventing Christians from attending midnight mass, tearing down nativity displays from private property, or burning down churches.  If Fox News were a legitimate news organization, it could instead focus on showing its viewers what real religious intolerance looks like.

Friday, November 23, 2012

God's Quarterback Part 3

Near the end of my last post on Tim Tebow last January, God's Quarterback Part 2, I predicted that for this year, "Tebow will probably have a season like Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets had in 2011, he'll win a game or two, then lose a game or two, and so on until the end of the season."

As a lukewarm Jets fan, it never would have dawned on me that Tebow would eventually be traded to the Jets.  When the trade was announced earlier this year, I had to confess I was extremely baffled by it.  Admittedly, I am not a super knowledgeable football fan, but the rationale for the trade, that Sanchez would remain the starting quarterback, while Tebow would be utilized as a quarterback in special plays, just sounded plain dumb to me.  Since then, experience has appeared to validate my doubts.
What I have frequently witnessed in some of the games I have watched is Sanchez leading the Jets on an offensive drive.  Then, when they would get within a certain distance of the other team's end zone, they would pull Sanchez out and bring in Tebow, who more often than not, would either gain little yardage or end up losing some.  Then Sanchez would come back in, his momentum disrupted, and throw for an interception.  On a couple of occasions, while switching from one quarterback to the other, the Jets would end up having to call a time out because it took too long.

At other times, Rex Ryan would have Tebow play in other positions, both on offense and defense.  I couldn't help but think that the Jets couldn't figure out what to do with Tebow.   While Tebow tries to project a gung ho eagerness to do whatever he can however Ryan wants to use him, it has to be killing him on the inside that he has gone from being a quarterback on a team that made it to the playoffs against all expectations to being essentially a spare tire on a mediocre team that has already blown its playoff chances for the season.

In my last Tebow post, I had expected that Tebowmania would fade once he had a full season as a starting quarterback with a mixed record.  Instead, he has had even that taken away from him, as he mostly sits on the sidelines sliding into irrelevance.  Even assuming the Jets give Tebow the chance to play a game as their starting quarterback, the damage has already been done.  I have to admit I feel bad for the kid.  To quote Switch's last line in The Matrix, "Not like this.  Not like this."

Hurricane Sandy - Surveying the Damage

The day after the winds subsided, I walked up and down a section of my rather lengthy block on my "disaster porn" tour to see how my immediate neighborhood fared.

The owners of this house at the first street corner east of my house must have been extremely grateful at how lucky they were.

The tree had fortuituously fallen at an angle somewhat diagonal to the house, which resulted in the house avoiding any structural damage.

Unfortunately, not everyone shared the same fate.

I was fortunate in that the large maple tree in my backyard did not fall, as it had swayed visibly at the peak of the storm, though the yard did end up becoming strewn with many large branches.

In one photo, you can see that a section of chain link fence was bent from the impact.  The house was also dinged in a few places, with the gutter being dented in a spot and one of the bulbs in the backyard floodlight getting knocked out and shattered.

I have since cut up the large branches with my chain saw and they are now in a pile in the back.  The Town of Oyster Bay does take them away once a week if you bring them to the curb, but with so many people having downed trees and branches, only a small amount can be put out at any one time.  If too much is left at the curb, they simply ignore it, so I will have to bring one bundle per week to the curb until the pile gradually disappears.  It's times like these where I wish I had a fire place so that I could burn it.

The front of the house also suffered some exterior damage, with small sections of roof shingles having been torn off.

The damaged areas of the roof are now covered by tarp, as we were hit with a nor'easter storm the week after Hurricane Sandy, so I had to make sure the exposed areas were protected so as to avoid further damage to the house.

All in all, my house didn't fare too badly.  Yes, the roof will need to be fixed and we will have to spend money to get the tree cut down in the back.  But these are minor inconveniences compared to the devastation suffered by many of my fellow Long Islanders who live on the South Shore.  It will be a long time before many of them experience a return to normalcy.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Ted Nugent Prison/Death Watch

On April 14, 2012, Ted Nugent declared at the National Rifle Association annual convention that, "If Barack Obama becomes the President in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year."

Well, as we all know now, President Barack Obama was reelected this past Tuesday.  That means that Nugent has until April 14, 2013 before he either dies or ends up in jail.  By my count, as of today, the Motor City Madman has another 157 days left to go.

Color me skeptical, though of course I wouldn't put it past Nugent to do something to deliberately get himself arrested just so he can say, "You see!  I told you it would happen!"

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - Weathering The Storm

Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post titled "The Importance of Emergency Preparedness."   In that post, I described some of the steps I had taken to be prepared in case my family and I found ourselves affected by a prolonged power outage or storm.

Well, as those of you who have been following the news know, Hurricane Sandy struck the New York-New Jersey area with tremendous destructive force, and I was finally able to put my disaster preparedness to the test.

We lost our power early on the morning of Tuesday, October 30.  I recall that my wife and I had both woken up around 3 a.m. and could see that we still had power because of the time being displayed on the cable box for the television in our bedroom.  At that point, I figured we had endured the worst of the storm and would not lose our electricity.  Several hours later though, we awoke to see that the cable box and the LED clock on our room were both dark and the air was cold.  We already knew that our kids schools were closed, as well as my office.  My wife also did not have to report to her new job in Queens for the day.

Without being able to watch the news or access the Internet on my computer, our only source of information about what was going on would come from a portable radio I had purchased for just this occasion.  Listening to 1010 WINS, we got a sense of the devasation caused by the storm, even though we couldn't see images of the worst hit places like the South Shore of Long Island or the New Jersey Shore.   We also knew that the loss of power on Long Island was widespread and that it could take at least several days or more for power to be restored.  We could also see with our own eyes, which will be the subject of a separate post, the havoc wreaked in our own neighborhood, with fallen trees blocking sidestreets and at least one house that had suffered physical damage from a fallen tree.

While we did not have electricity, we were fortunate to have hot water because we have a gas water heater.  We could also use our gas stove, though it would require using a barbecue lighter to ignite the flame.  I was not comfortable doing this though and decided that we would rely on our Max Burton tabletop stove that I had purchased years earlier but never really got to use.   The stove is fueled by butane canisters and I had nine of them.  One thing I would learn is how long it would take to deplete a canister, which turned out to be about every two days.  I am pleased to say that the stove worked very well and I enthusiastically recommend it.   We used it for canned soup and boiling water for tea and instant oatmeal.  My wife also cooked chicken and tilapia on it, though it ended up not being a good idea because the food soon spoiled because there was no power for the refrigerator.

And therein lies the first lesson I learned from Hurricane Sandy.  Do not buy meat, poultry, fish or other such perishables when you know a major storm is coming that might knock out your electricity.  For items such as milk, cold cuts, and other smaller perishables, I have made a mental note to self to buy ice before the storm hits and keep the items in a cooler.  One tip worth following that I will try to remember in the future is to freeze blocks of ice to help keep the freezer colder when the power goes out. 

Another demerit on my part was that I neglected to maintain our emergency food supply at adequate levels.  Not long ago, I had done an audit and saw that some of the items I had were well past their expiration dates so I had to throw them out, while others that were just a few weeks past the date I ended up eating so as not to let them go to waste.  Luckily, it ended up not being serious because shopping areas near us had power as early as the next day and we ate out as often as we ate in.  The second lesson from this experience was that I have to do a better job of maintaining my emergency food supply and be more mindful of the expiration dates.   This weekend I will work on reconstituting the supply to an adequate level of several weeks worth of food.

Thanks to the loss of power, our oil burner lay dormant, and with the temperature dipping down into the low forties, we had to endure a cold night.  In my post that I linked to in the opening paragraph above, I considered purchasing a kerosene heater.  Since then, I did end up buying one.  I had also bought a five gallon drum of kerosene.  In my ignorance, I did not realize at the time that kerosene over a year old should not be used.  So, after I set up the kerosene heater in our living room on the morning of October 31st, I had no means to fuel it.   I went to the Home Depot on Jericho Turnpike in Syosset and purchased a half gallon container of kerosene, which turned out to only fill the heater to half of its capacity.  I tested it out successfully during the day time.  During the night I turned it on and had it at its highest setting.   The living room became very warm, though the fuel became depleted after about four hours.

With the return of electrical power uncertain, I knocked myself for not having an adequate supply on hand.  Lesson #3 learned.  I returned to the Home Depot in Syosset on Thursday, November 1st, only to find that they no longer had any in stock.  I decided to try my hand at their store in Westbury, further west on Jericho Turnpike.  When I entered the store, I noted a number of people milling about where boxes of the kerosene heaters were stacked, but I did not see any kerosene fuel containers.  Not wanting to give up, I walked to the other end of the store and serendipitously discovered a box containing two 2.5 gallon containers of kerosene, which appeared to represent the last supply of kerosene in the store.  I eagerly snatched it up, grateful that I had enough kerosene for at least the next four nights.

As good as this was, it also led to another area of concern.  Among the victims of the widespread loss of power on Long Island were many gasoline stations.  This resulted in long lines of cars at the few gas stations that did have power.   The situation was further exacerbated due to people without power standing in line at these gas stations with gasoline cans to fill to provide fuel for the generators they were relying on to provide electricity for their homes.  The day before the storm, I filled my wife's car up, because she would have to drive into Queens for her job, whereas my driving was mostly local.  I started that Thursday with little more than a quarter of a tank of gas, and by the time I returned home with my supply of kerosene, the gasoline in my car was below a quarter of a tank.  By Friday, my wife's car was also down to about a quarter of a tank.

Friday night, I could see a long line of cars stretched out along the curb of the right line of the southbound lane of South Oyster Bay Road leading up to the Hess station at the corner of South Oyster Bay Road and Old Country Road.  I had already decided that it was incredibly stupid to wait in line with my car with the engine idling, as the hour or more wait would probably end up burning up all the gas I had before I could get into the station.  I had a couple of 2.5 gallon gas cans in my tool shed that I had used for gasoline for my old lawn mower.  I grabbed one of them and walked down to the station.  Several of the pumping stations there were dedicated for people standing on line with gas cans.  I was in line about roughly one hour when it was finally my turn.  After I filled it up, I walked back up South Oyster Bay Road past the line of cars.  A number of people asked me if the station still had gas and I told them yes, though there was no guarantee that there would still be any by the time they got there.  This situation would play itself out across Long Island, as desperate people low on gas would waste it driving around in search of stations and then idling in line while waiting for their turn to pull up to the pump.  In some instances, drivers with empty tanks would literally have to push their vehicles alongside the gas pumping station.

When I got home, I put most of the gasoline into my wife's car and then a little bit in mine.  I had boosted her gas supply to about 3/8 of a tank, while mine budged a little closer to the quarter line, not nearly enough to justify driving around looking for more gasoline the next day.   The fourth lesson from Hurricane Sandy was that it is imperative to obtain two 5-gallon gas cans to have on hand in case a future gas shortage arises.  However, I will have to wait a few weeks after all of this has passed us by, as gas cans are selling like hot cakes right now. 

As for my gasoline problem, I realized that I had an ace in the hole.  My mom has a car but no longer drives because of the shape she is in.  I decided to drive down to her apartment to see how much gas she had.  To my tremendous relief, she had a full tank.  Plan A was to try and siphon some of her gas into my two gas cans, but alas, the siphon did not work.  So, Plan B, with my mom's permission, was to drive to a gas station that was pumping gas, park near it, and then stand in line to fill up my gas cans.  I ended up doing this twice on Saturday, November 2nd.  My wife's car was filled up to about 3/4 of a tank, while I had gotten enough to bring my car up to 3/8 of a tank.  I then scored another 5 gallons the next day, when I saw that the BP station at the corner of South Oyster Bay Road and Woodbury Road had gas while I was walking to Trader Joes.  With that, I was up to about 5/8 of a tank, enough to tide me for the week. 

My prediction, and time will tell in a few days, is that by this week's end the gas supply problem on Long Island will have significantly improved.   As more homeowners with generators have their electricity restored, they will no longer need to buy gasoline for the generators, which will ease up on the demand.  Concomitantly, gas stations that until now have had gas but were without power will come back online, thereby expanding the supply of gasoline.  By the middle of next week, barring some further adverse circumstances, the gas lines should be just a memory.

Speaking of generators, one of my most unpleasant memories of this whole experience will be the nearly incessant loud purring of our next door neighbor's generator.  At least now we will have peace and quiet again, assuming that the follow up storm we are experiencing today doesn't knock out the power again.  I don't begrudge people buying a generator for times such as these, but for me personally, it does seem a bit gratuitous.  Generators cost a lot of money and take up space that I really don't have.  I can live without electricity for a few days as long as I have hot water, heat, food and the means to cook it.  I do plan though to look into the possibility of obtaining some kind of large battery device that could conceivably power a refrigerator or other applicances for a day or two.

Lastly, during the eight nights without electricity, I relied heavily on, and indeed depleted, my supply of glow sticks.  I used two of them per night, one for our bedroom and one for the bathroom.  They generally last about eight hours or so, so I would wait until roughly 10 p.m. to activate them.  They are ideal for power failure situations at night, because they provide sufficient illumination to enable you to find your way around a room without being so bright that they make it hard to fall asleep or cause you to squint like you do when you turn on a light in the dark.  They are also a safe alternative to candles, which are a potential fire hazard, especially if left burning while one is asleep.

In conclusion, when it comes to rating my preparedness for dealing with the lengthy power failure caused by Hurricane Sandy, I would give myself a B-.  This has been a valuable experience that has revealed to me where my preparations were deficient and where I need to make improvements so as to be better prepared for the next time, as I have no doubt that at some point there will be a next time.  I also hope this post ends up being informative to those of you who read this in making your own preparations for handling a similar situation.

Hurricane Sandy - Like Living In The 1930's, But With Cell Phones

Sorry to say, but I haven't been able to post anything new here because it is now 9 days that I have not had electricity in my house.  The only way I can get Internet access is when I go to work, which is where I am typing this from right now.

Fortunately, stores near my house have power, so it is easy to shop or go out to eat.  While I can't watch tv, I do have a portable radio where I listen to the news.  So, in that regard, it feels like living in the 1930's.

Hopefully by the end of the week electricity will be restored and I can post about living in a post-Hurricane Sandy Long Island.  My heart goes out to the people who have lost their homes and their loved ones.   While I can lament the electricity and gasoline situation here, it is just a trifling inconvenience next to the terrible losses many other people have suffered.  Until next time.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Hurricane Sandy - Update

I haven't been able to post any updates since my initial post because my house lost power early Tuesday morning.  I managed to make it into my office at work today thanks to the Long Island Rail Road establishing partial service.

Once the power is back in my neighborhood, I will follow up with pictures of the damage in my immediate area, followed by a post on how well my family and I fared in terms of emergency preparedness.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Living History - Hurricane Sandy

Right now, we here on Long Island are getting battered by Hurricane Sandy.  Residents of the barrier islands like Fire Island and Long Beach on the South shore were told to evacuate.  Watching on the news, most places on the South Shore and the East End have been flooded.

I'm fortunate to live near the midway point between the North and South shores, so I am not concerned with flooding.  What is causing devastation for those of us who live away from the coasts is the high wind speeds that are knocking down trees.  For me, it is an issue of special concern because we have a large tree in the middle of our back yard that has already lost many large branches that have struck our house and battered a section of the chain link fence between our yard and our neighbor to our immediate right.

I went outside a short while ago, first to inspect the exterior of the house and then to check out the immediate neighborhood.  Thus far, my house has suffered some minor damage, but nothing to get terrible upset about.  A falling branch took out a light bulb near our back door and dented a small portion of the gutter.  Our deck and behind our garage is littered with large branches.  On the front of the house, I espied a couple of missing roof tiles and a portion of the siding lining on the front of the house has gotten unattached and is swinging in the wind.  It wouldn't surprise me if the entire thing comes off before the night is over, unless the wind slackens.

The biggest concern is that the entire tree may come down.  When the wind blows especially hard, you can actually see the ground on one side rise up as the leaning of the tree to the other side creates an upward tug on the roots.  I can only hope that the tree either remains standing, or if it falls, that it will fall directly westward and miss both my home and my neighbor's home.

After surveying my house, I walked up and down my block in both directions.  Across the street, the homes are without power.  While the lights have flickered on and off at times here, we have been lucky that we have not lost power.  I am prepared for that contingency though, having an ample supply of glo sticks and flashlights.  One of my neighbors across the street, an elderly Italian man who lives alone, had a whole section of his siding torn off on the east side of his house.  I gave him one of my glo sticks.

Further down the block, a large tree in the front of one of the houses came down across the front lawn, though the house itself appears to have been mercifully spared..

And that's how things stand in my little section of the world tonight.  Depending on conditions tomorrow, I will see if I can take some pictures of the damage for a follow up post.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Oh, The Horror Of It!

USA Today has an article about the results of a survey by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life that show that the percentage of Americans who do not affiliate with any religion has risen to 20%.

I haven't read the The Pew Forum's report yet.  What amused me though is the reaction of some of the religious persons quoted in the USA Today article.

First up is Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary, who frets that "Today, there's no shame in saying you're an unbeliever, no cultural pressure to claim a religious affiliation, no matter how remote or loose."

Right, how dare we be open about being atheist, agnostic or just spiritual!

Then from North Dakota we have Wanda Melchert, who in response to The Pew Forum's report declares "we're praying about this. We feel there's a great need for people to turn back to God. When we lose that, it's dangerous for our country."

Really?  How so?

What is potentially dangerous is the possibility of violent religious reactionaries lashing out at a society that they feel they can no longer control.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Shit Anti-Choicers Say - The Gift From God

The October 2, 2012 edition of Newsday, Long Island's major newspaper, featured a letter-to-the-editor from a Marc de Venoge, who decried what he refers to as "[d]ecades of values-free... government and school policies" that "fail to treat the root cause" of teenage pregnancy.

The solution, according to de Venoge, is "to teach the basic notion that...any pregnancy is a God-created gift from the moment of conception." (Emphasis mine).   Of course, what de Venoge means by "any pregnancy" is every pregnancy, even if it results from rape or incest.

This echoes what former senator and failed Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said in an interview with CNN's Piers Morgan earlier this year:

"I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created — in the sense of rape — but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you."

Let's set this straight right away.  Pregnancy is not a "gift from God," it's the consequence of a biological process.  Here are a few excerpts from WebMD's slideshow on conception:

"A man may ejaculate 40 million to 150 million sperm, which start swimming upstream toward the fallopian tubes on their mission to fertilize an egg. Fast-swimming sperm can reach the egg in a half an hour, while others may take days. The sperm can live up to 48-72 hours. Only a few hundred will even come close to the egg, because of the many natural barriers that exist in a woman's body."

"The fertilized egg starts growing fast, dividing into many cells. It leaves the fallopian tube and enters the uterus three to four days after fertilization. In rare cases, the fertilized egg does not leave the fallopian tube. This is called a tubal pregnancy or ectopic pregnancy and is a danger to the mother."  (Emphasis mine).

Does de Venoge believe that God is monitoring the progress of each sperm cell and intervening where necessary so that the favored sperm reaches and fertilizes the egg?  And if it is such a divine gift, what divine purpose is served by an ectopic pregnancy?

There's also a flip side to this "Gift from God" argument.   According to the CDC, as cited in this pregnancy fact sheet, "About 10 percent of women (6.1 million) in the United States ages 15-44 have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant."  de Venoge and his ilk are basically saying that women who are unable to conceive apparently are unworthy of such a gift from the Supreme Being.

Well, thankfully, at least for some women who have trouble getting pregnant the old-fashioned way, there's help that does not require divine intervention.

From the same fact sheet:

"Infertility can be treated with medicine, surgery, artificial insemination, or assisted reproductive technology. Many times these treatments are combined. In most cases infertility is treated with drugs or surgery."

That's right.  Where God fails, human ingenuity can sometimes fill the gap.

But even if I were willing to entertain the claim that human pregnancy is a gift from God, what about pregnancy that results from sexual reproduction in other species?  Or does it only apply to humans?

Todd Akin, Republican nutbag member of the House of Representatives from Missouri, who is currently running to be a Senator from that state, not long ago notoriously said that during a "legitimate" rape, a woman's body has the means of mounting a biological defense against the rapist's sperm to prevent a pregnancy.

Seriously though, if our anatomy was truly the result of the handiwork of an Intelligent Designer, then the human female could have been designed to either accept or reject a man's sperm regardless of whether the sexual encounter was consensual or coerced.  Just imagine, there would be no problem of teen pregnancy or abortion!   Now that would be a really useful gift.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What The Hell Is He Talking About?

The October/November 2012 issue of Free Inquiry magazine, which I read last week, contains an article by an R. Georges Delamontagne titled "Overgeneralization: The Achilles Heel of Apocalyptic Atheism?"

Unfortunately, while portions of the issue are accessible on the Free Inquiry website, Delamontagne's article is not one of them, so I can't provide a link to the article itself.

In summary, Delamontagne takes atheist luminaries such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris to task for making claims about religion that "are not substantiated by findings deriving from research applying appropriate social scientific methodology and, thus, are prone to serious errors, the most common and flagrant being that of overgeneralization."

Though I believe Delamontagne makes some valid criticisms in his article, in the penultimate paragraph he proceeds to drop this turd bomb:

"The direct, confrontational, no-holds-barred assault upon organized religion by contemporary atheists is misguided - a terrible waste of time, precious talent, intelligence, and energy that has little chance to help bring about the realization of a life for humankind guided by humanist ideals."

All I could think was "What no-holds-barred assault on organized religion is he talking about?"  To the best of my knowledge, no prominent atheist figure has beat up a priest or a rabbi, torched a church or a mosque or disrupted Bible study classes.  We're not forming human chains around houses of worship to keep people from attending religious services. 

Or does Delamontagne consider public criticism the equivalent of a "no-holds-barred assault" of religion?

Based on my recent observations, it is the actions of people who identify with one religion towards peoples of other religions that has reached the level of assault.  It isn't atheists who threaten to publicly burn the Quran like Pastor Terry Jones.  It wasn't atheists who attacked Christians and Ahmadiyas in Indonesia or Shia Muslims in Pakistan.  Atheists had nothing to do with the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in India.  I could go on an on (seriously, I could!) but I think I made my point.

Do some atheists overgeneralize or behave immaturely with regard to religion sometimes?  Sure, most of us have been guilty of it at times.  But does such rhetoric or behavior constitute an assault on organized religion?  I would reply with an emphatic no.  It seems to me that in criticizing atheists for overreaching sometimes, Delamontagne commits the same error himself.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Electric Eye

During my years as a teenager in the Eighties, one of my favorite metal albums was Screaming for Vengeance by Judas Priest. The album opens with an instrumental track called "The Hellion" that then segues into the song "Electric Eye," which is about an aerial surveillance device whose "lasers trace everything you do" and whose purpose is to "keep the country clean."

Earlier this year, I was at a fundraiser held at a bar where a Judas Priest tribute band played "Electric Eye." Listening to the lyrics, it suddenly occurred to me how prophetic the song turned out to be.

Surveillance drones such as the Predator first entered the public consciousness during the war in Afghanistan.  Their use rapidly expanded from just surveillance to actual combat capability, being armed with Hellfire missiles.

Drones have since become commonplace in what is commonly called "The War on Terror" here in the United States. In places such as the mountainous region along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, which were generally inaccessible to our soldiers, drones became both our eyes for tracking terrorist targets and our means of killing them.

Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan was frequently flown over by drones in the months before Seal Team 6 dropped in to pay him a visit.  Drones were also instrumental in the tracking and killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. Awlaki's death generated a bit of controversy, because he was an American citizen who was basically executed at the orders of the President of the United States.

Our heavy reliance on drones for striking at Taliban commanders in the mountains of Waziristan in Pakistan is also a sore point in our country's relationship with Pakistan, particularly when a drone strike results in the deaths of Pakistani civilians. 

The excerpt below from the website gives us an idea of what it is like to live in areas where our drones frequently operate:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

One could make a good case that the frequency of drone strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen undermine the legitimacy of their governments, which are viewed by their citizens as stooges of the United States and at the very least tacitly complicit in the deaths of their own people at the hands of U.S. drone strikes.

While we Americans are used to looking at drones as something employed by our government abroad, there is also a growing concern that the potential use and abuse of drones by federal and local law enforcement authorities here at home.

The ACLU has a web page devoted to the issue of the use of drones in the United States here, including a link to the organization's report on domestic drones.

The ACLU advocates for putting in place rules "to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this new technology without bringing us closer to a 'surveillance society' in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded, and scrutinized by the government."

With the ubiqituous presence of cameras on our streets and buildings, I would argue that we are already living in a surveillance society.  Here in Nassau County where I live, there's hardly a major traffic intersection that does not have a red light camera.  Several years ago, I myself was a victim of one when I made a right turn on a red light at an intersection in Hicksville.  It was a Labor Day weekend and there was no cross traffic when I made the turn.  I had also mistakenly believed that the cameras only targeted cars that drove through an intersection when the light was red and that they did not target right turns.  Lesson learned.

In a sense, thanks to the prevalence of security cameras, drones, and even the huge numbers of mobile phones with photo and video capability that people carry around with them, we have become like God.  For millennia, many humans were told and believed that some deity watched ceaselessly over them and took note of everything they did.   You would be told that though you might be able to commit a crime without the knowledge of your fellow man, somebody up in the heavens would know and remember.  Now, we don't need to pay any mind to the unblinking eye of an invisible divinity when human technology has reached a level where we can now watch each other.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Little Cayman - July 21 - July 28, 2012 - Life Beneath the Surface

As with last year's Bahamas trip, I brought my Sealife 1200 underwater camera to take some pictures of the marine life and my fellow divers.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to take as many pictures as I had wanted to because I neglected to recharge the battery after one day's use.  The next morning, when I was getting myself ready, I saw to my dismay that the batter was low, so I managed to charge it for a few minutes before I had to leave.  The camera had enough juice for just a few pictures before it conked out again.

Still, I managed to get some decent underwater shots, the best of which follow below. 

First up, my favorite dive site of the trip, Jackson's Reef, which we visited on Thursday, July 26.  What I really liked about it was that it featured a large open white sand bottom surrounded by large coral formations with lots of cuts, nooks and crannies that I like to explore and swim through.

I like the way this one turned out, with fellow diver Bruce parallel in the photo with the barracuda. I have to confess that this was entirely accidental on my part, as Bruce just happened to be in the right spot when I pressed the button.

I spotted this lobster early on in the dive crawling in a narrow crevice bathed in shadow.  I attempted several shots, but due to the fact that I did not have strobes, the lobster was barely visible.  A few minutes later, I went looking for it again and found it out in the open.  The photo above is one of three I took of it from different angles.

Talk about a close encounter.  I was swimming above the coral when I found a narrow groove beneath me.  Being rather thin, I decided to descend into the opening.  When my fins touched down on the surface, I turned to my left and what do I see staring right into my face but this grouper you see above, with his mouth agape.  I fumbled for my camera as fast as I could and snapped this shot because I was worried he might swim away.  He was probably just as surprised by the encounter as I was.

On Friday the 27th, we revisited the Mixing Bowl, which we first dived the previous Sunday the 22nd.  I didn't take a lot of photos, but I was able to get a few interesting ones.

First was this sequence of shots I got of a Hawksbill turtle that I spotted after we had finished swimming along the reef wall.   I saw the turtle swim down towards this coral formation and stick its head deep inside as if it were trying to get something to eat.

I turned around and swam back to get a better view of it.  The turtle had by then changed position, with its body turned so that it was facing to the right of the direction it is facing in the picture above.  I managed to get right along side of it.

At that point, the turtle became aware of my presence and clearly didn't want to be in the presence of a large human being. 

And away it goes!

It took a lot of patience and failed attempts before I finally bagged this Yellowheaded Jawfish.  They're these cute little fish that dig holes in the ground, and when they feel threatened, they descend tail first into the hole.  Usually if you stay still and wait a few minutes, they'll come back out of the hole.

But the dive still had a surprise left in store for us.

A bunch of us spotted this Southern Stingray hiding himself undernearth the sand, with just his eyes sticking out.   I got myself into position and snapped this photo and then a split second later, the stingray shot up and darted away from us. 

I was able to get this photo of it as it was swimming away from us.

Besides the marine life, I also took a few pictures of some of my fellow divers under the water.

What should have been a good shot of David, Jeff's son, turned out poorly because on my first dive of the trip with the camera, I accidentally selected the option that you would use if the camera had strobes attached, so all of my shots on that dive were not properly lit.  David's turned out somewhat better than the others because he was closer to the surface than the other divers I photographed.

Susie, Larry's wife.  She was the one who organized the trip for us.  Even though Larry sold his dive shop, he and Susie still do dive trips with a bunch of us who were students or customers of his.

Like me, Tara became a regular starting with the Belize trip in 2009.  While she was a beginner like me back then, she has since gone on more trips and racked up more dives than I have. 

Here we have Ira, who I also first met on the Belize trip.

At the beginning of the dive at Mixing Bowl on the 27th, I spotted Larry above upside down blowing bubble rings out of his mouth while I was swimming some distance from the reef wall.  I got in a bit closer and hurried this shot because I didn't know how long he would keep doing it.  Had I been above him, the bubble rings would have been more visible.

I look forward to our next dive trip, which as I might have mentioned in a previous post, will likely also be in Litle Cayman, where I hope to improve my underwater photography skills.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Feeding the Hate Monster

This past Wednesday morning, I was walking up 7th Avenue to work from Penn Station.  When I was at Times Square, I glanced at a news ticker on one of the buildings and saw a headline that read that the U.S. ambassador to Libya had been killed.  I found myself doing a double take. 

When I got to the office, I went onto a news web site and read that the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and three other embassy personnel were killed in an attack by militants on the embassy in Benghazi. 

I had read about the crowd that had scaled the embassy walls at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt the day before in protest of a film supposedly being made in the United States insulting the prophet Muhammed, but what happened in Libya took it to a whole new level.

Now, in the wake of the Libyan attack, further riots have taken place in Muslim countries throughout the Middle East.

When I read about the attack on the Libyan embassy on Wednesday morning, I have to admit I felt an incandescent rage.  Here was a clear cut example of people committing murder in the name of religion.  It filled me with a desire to see Muslim people get hurt in retaliation.  "Why not fire missiles from Predator drones at crowds of crazy religious fanatics as they protest outside of our Middle East embassies?  It would teach them a lesson."

As an atheist, I can't understand how people can get so violent over religion.  I suspect that less than 1% of the Muslims rioting over the movie has even seen the trailer.  All they likely know is that someone in America made such a blasphemous film, which means in their eyes that all Americans are responsible for it.  Evidently, they don't understand the concept of free expression that we have in this country, a right that applies to American Muslims as well.  If they had not rioted and gone crazy, I doubt I would have ever heard of this movie, which by all accounts is a cheap and shoddy piece of crap.

After my anger had abated somewhat and I got to thinking about it some more, I recalled an episode from the original Star Trek series titled Day Of The Dove.  In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves locked in perpetual combat with a band of Klingons on the ship, unknowingly goaded on in their hostilities by an entity that draws strength and nourishment from hatred and violence.  Below is a clip from the episode where Captain Kirk tried to convince the leader of the Klingons that they are all being manipulated to fight each other by the alien entity.


Eventually, the Enterprise crew and the Klingons drive the entity off the ship with laughter.  If only life were that simple, but hey, it's a television show.

The lesson that can be drawn from the episode though is that there are forces at work in our world constantly trying to manipulate us.  Of course, I'm not talking about aliens, demons or supernatural forces.  Such things are not necessary, when simple human malevolence will do.  There are groups of people in the Muslim world who want to harness hatred towards the United States, Israel, "the West," or just non-Muslims in general, so they seek to push the emotional buttons of their fellow brethren to urge them to violence.  Likewise, there are groups of people who seek to manipulate us to hate all Muslims and support violence against them.  Thus, we find ourselves all locked into a cycle of animosity and death. 

Hatred is a monster that requires constant feeding.  Some people are happy to feed the Hate Monster willingly, while the rest of us feed it without realizing it.  Tragically, knowing that the Hate Monster is real is not enough to stop most of us from feeding it.  It is difficult to resist the temptation to think that if we just punish the "bad guys" hard enough, they'll cower in fear and no longer be able or willing to try and hurt us anymore.  But even if by chance it works, there will always be some other group of people who will fill the role of the enemy who must be fought, guaranteeing the Hate Monster with an endless supply of food. 

I don't claim to have the solution to all of this.  All I can do is diagnose the sickness.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Little Cayman - July 21-28, 2012 - The Pool's Open

Diving from a land based resort had its differences from the liveaboard experience I was used to, though I couldn't say if the way it was done at Little Cayman Beach Resort is representative of all land resorts.

Early on the first morning, they take the gear bag you left outside the front door of your room and place it on the boat to which you have been assigned.  Our group was put on a boat called Holiday Diver II.  For most of the week, our crew members would be Clive, who grew up in Zimbabwe, and Aly, from British Columbia in Canada.  On our first day of diving, Sunday the 22nd, Clive had the day off and his replacement was another guy named Craig.

When you get on the boat, your bcd and regulator are already set up, with the rest of the gear stowed away underneath the seats.  When I first got on the boat, I couldn't find my where my stuff was at first.  And then to my horror, just when we were getting ready to shove off, I realized I had forgotten to put my dive skin in the gear bag, so I notified the crew and made a mad dash back to my room to get it.  While I had did my diving in the Bahamas last year wearing mostly a shirt and shorts, the main deck of the boat where our gear was stowed was uncovered and I wanted to make sure my pale skin was not exposed to the hot sun, so I wore the new full body skin I had bought.

The day's first dive established the routine that would follow for the week.  The boat would head out and turn west past the western tip of the island, then turn north and then east until we entered Bloody Bay Marine Park, off the north central part of the island.  All of our dives would be at one of the sites within the confines of the park.  We would do two dives in the morning, head back to the resort for lunch, and then go back out again for one dive in the afternoon.  On the two liveaboards I was on, most days there would be up to five scheduled dives.  The resort's dive shop did offer a night dive and a dusk dive during the week for an extra fee, but they were contingent on enough people signing up for them.

Once the boat would be moored at the dive site, one of the two crew members would give a dive briefing on a small white board.   Upon the conclusion of the briefing, one of them would invariably announce, "The pool's open."  When you were ready to go into the water, you would walk to the back of boat and start putting on your fins.  One of the crew members would bring over your bcd, regulator and tank and help you put it on.  Then you would get up and go in.

That first morning, I was a little edgy, as I had experienced problems on my first dives on both the Belize and Bahamas trip.  The site we were diving at was called Sarah's Set.  Like all of the first dives of each day, it would involve going down to the reef wall where we were permitted to descend as deep as 110 feet.

Thing did get off to a bumpy start, though thankfully not for me.  David, Josh's son, was the first to giant stride into the water, and as soon as he was in, his regulator started free flowing.  Then another diver in our group, Dick, had problems with his bcd.  But once everything got sorted out, we were finally on our way. 

I don't really remember anything remarkable about the first dive, though it was great to be back in the water again.  Everything went rather smoothly for me, and when I got back on the boat, I was relieved that my first dive jinx had come to an end. 

We also adopted a new member into our group.  The first evening we were at the resort, during dinner, my wife and I noticed a young Asian female by herself, who I could have sworn was only a teenager.  She ended up being assigned to our boat, and on the way to our first dive, Ira and I struck up a conversation with her.  Her name was Jill, and it turned out she was actually from the Philippines (seeing her from a distance, I had thought she was Korean) and was now living in Canada.  She had noticed my wife the previous night and noticed she was Filipino as well. Jill was also much older than my initial impression, being a few days shy of turning 33.  She would be diving with us for a couple of more days before leaving to spend the rest of the week at Grand Cayman.  She had a low key but friendly and ingratiating personality to her and before she left for Grand Cayman, she had expressed an interest in joining us on our next diving trip in 2013.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Little Cayman - July 21 - 28, 2012: Yeah, Another Goddamn Scuba Diving Trip

This year, the destination for our group's annual summer scuba diving trip was the Little Cayman Beach Resort on the island of, well, you probably guessed it, Little Cayman.

Unlike the previous two diving trips I went on, which were on liveaboard boats, this time we would be staying at a resort on the land, except of course when we went diving.  Also, this time I took the entire family with me.  I told my wife they had a spa and a hot tub, which was all she needed to hear.

One improvement over last year's trip was that our flight was out of JFK airport instead of Newark.  Since my wife and I both had monthly LIRR passes, we decided to use public transportation to get to JFK while the rest of the group either drove or paid to ride in a van.  Most of the gang from last year's trip was in attendance, Larry, Sue, Tara, Nina, Jeff, Ira, and Bruce.  Also joining us was Jeff's son David, George, who the rest of the group knew from the Honduras trip that I didn't go on in 2010, Dick, who I remembered from the Belize trip in 2009, and a newcomer named Chris, who was one of Larry's recent students.

The flight down to Grand Cayman went rather quick and smooth, about three hours.  We then had to wait the better part of the afternoon for our connecting flight to Little Cayman.  If I recall correctly, it was originally scheduled to depart around 2:30, but didn't end up leaving until 3:45.  The flight to Little Cayman was very short though, about 45 minuters, and we got to the resort around 5 p.m.

In the lobby, we each took turns getting our room keys and filling out the necessary paper work.  After the wife, kids and I got settled into our room, I went down to the resort's resident dive shop, Reef Divers, to complete their required forms.  When I returned to my room, as instructed, I left my dive gear in a gear bag outside by the front door.  We were in one of the Oceanfront rooms on the second floor, with a balcony facing towards the beach to the south.

Our first evening was rather uneventful.  We ate dinner and my two kids made the most of the resort's small pool.  The next morning, after breakfast was served, would be diving time.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Couple of Random Observations

Some of my fellow atheists like to point out that if God is punishing America with tornadoes and hurricanes and so forth because he is angry with us for things like gay marriage, abortion and secularism, then why do these natural disasters frequently afflict parts of the country where so many Gawd fearin' types live.

After all, if God hates homosexuals, then why not cause gay men to spontaneously combust whenever they engage in acts of sodomy?  Why not strike down abortion providers with bolts of lightning whenever they are about to perform an abortion? 

Then I had that "Eureka!" moment.  There's a reason why God afflicts the good Christians of America with natural disasters.  And that is because he is just like the drill sergeant in the movie Full Metal Jacket.   When Private "Pyle" continues to mess up in spite of the drill sergeants constant badgering and cajoling, the drill sergeant tries a new tack, as shown in the scene in the Youtube clip above.  He announces to the platoon that he will no longer punish Pyle for his mistakes.  Instead he will punish the rest of the platoon, which causes them to beat poor Private Pyle with bars of soap wrapped in towels.  Consequently, Pyle becomes a better Marine, well, at least until he ends up shooting the drill sergeant and then himself.

So maybe that is why God punishes the Bible Belt states of America with wild fires, droughts and other natural disasters.  They are not doing their job to get the rest of us sinners right with Jesus.  He is just trying to motivate them to try harder to ban abortion, roll back same sex marriage and eliminate access to contraception.  If that is the case, I think God needs to give them some more motivation.

On a different note, I recently received the 25th anniversary edition of Condé Nast Traveller magazine.  The magazine has a fold out page with some travel related facts, including comparison of some statistics from 1987 and 2012.  For example, in 1987, there were 701 million rolls of camera film sold in the United States, whereas just 15 million rolls were sold in 2012.  While the number of rolls of film sold has obviously plummeted, the year 2012 still had 5 months left to it as the magazine went to press, so the total for the year could go up to maybe 25 million.

The foldout section also lists the five highest and lowest states by percentage of population with passports. 

The five highest states by percentage are:

New Jersey: 50%
Massachusetts: 46%
New York: 45.2%
Connecticut: 43.5%
New Hampshire: 43%

And the five lowest states by percentage of the population are:

Mississippi: 13.1%
West Virginia: 13.9%
Arkansas: 16.6%
Alabama: 17%
Kentucky: 17.2%

The top five states are all located in the northeast of the United States.  I was surprised that California didn't make the the top five, as I would imagine that states with a high percentage of foreign born U.S. citizens would be more likely to have a greater percentage of passport holders, as foreign born Americans and their families would travel frequently to their countries of origin. 

The bottom five states are mostly rural with less ethnic and religious diversity in their populations. Citizens of these states also travel abroad less, which also minimizes their exposure to peoples of other cultures.    Maybe that is what Sarah Palin meant when she spoke of those little pockets of what she called the "real America."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Platform Preacher

When you walk the streets of Manhattan, it's not uncommon to see some street corner preacher type bellowing out Bible verses and exhorting people to accept Jesus.  While I find it slightly annoying, it's tolerable when you are just walking by and will soon be out of ear shot of windbag for Jesus.

This morning at the Hicksville train station was a different situation.  I had ascended the platform and made my way towards the middle to catch the 7:57 AM.  The 7:57 is a double decker train that is much shorter than the rest of the train, so you have to walk all the way to the middle of the platform just to be able to be in position to enter the rear car.

Anyway, seconds after finding a spot to stand and await the train, I hear not to far from me a man talking in a loud voice.  I looked to my left and saw a young Asian man holding a Bible in one hand and reading out loud to no one in particular.

I sighed and walked over to him.  I don't recall my exact words, but in general I tried to tell him that he was making a nuisance of himself because he wasn't taking into consideration whether or not the other people on the platform wanted to hear what he had to say and that most of the people within the range of the voice already knew what the Bible was anyway.  He stopped to listen to me and for a brief moment, I thought my entreaty had gotten through to him.  However, no sooner had I walked back to where I had previously been standing before he resumes his Bible bloviating.

I let out an even louder sigh, more of a groan actually, and after about a minute I walked back to him again.

I tried a different tack this time.  I explained to him that some of the people on the platform were Jews, Muslims and Hindus and that it was insensitive to their feelings that they should have to hear him when they were basically a captive audience.  Because they were waiting for their train, they had no escape until the train pulled in. Asian Preacher Man replied what he was doing was motivated by love.

"Maybe to you it might be," I replied, "but that is not how they perceive it."

I asked him how he would feel if a Muslim started preaching from the Koran outside of his church, though in retrospect, a better example would be if the Muslim bellowed his Koran verses at Asian Preacher Man and his friends at their church picnic at a public park.  He didn't really respond to that and I don't remember what else he said.

I continued by acknowledging that I understood how he felt, that he believed he was in possession of some wonderful truth that he felt he had to share with the rest of the world.  I pointed out to him that reading from the Bible in public didn't accomplish anything useful and that his time would be better put to helping to feed homeless people or picking up litter.  Unfortunately, at that moment, the train was pulling in to the station and the sound of it would have drowned out any further conversation.  I shook his hand and told him that I wasn't trying to put him down but just to try and make him understand that he should take other peoples feelings into consideration.

I stepped into the train car without looking to see if he was getting on too or if he was going to remain behind to continue with his Bible reading.

While I doubt I swayed him from conducting any repeat performances in the future, I can still hope that I had an impact.

Though it isn't exclusive to religious people, it can't be denied that quite a few individuals, pumped up by their zealous faith, seem to feel it gives them a license to make a public spectacle of themselves.  The atheist equivalent would be to stand outside of a church and accosting people on their way to and from mass, telling them that they're wasting their time and that the god they pray to does not exist.  That would be an incredibly dickheaded thing to do.

The vast majority of us just want to go about our daily business without being disturbed by others.  I don't think it is too much to ask for.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

I Guess They Didn't Pray Hard Enough

From Bangladesh, more evidence that being a devoutly religious person doesn't result in your God enveloping you in some kind of magic shield to protect you from harm.

"At least 13 devotees have been killed by lightning outside a mosque in northeastern Bangladesh.

Local police chief Bayes Ahmed says 20 other people were injured by the lightning late Friday in Sylhet district. The victims were struck by the lightning as they were exiting the mosque following special prayers tied to the holy month of Ramadan."

Monday, August 13, 2012

How To Tell Your Religion Was Created By A Man

Here is Augustine on the creation of the human race:

"Therefore, God created one sole individual, not that he was meant to remain alone deprived of human companionship, but in order that the unity of society and the bond of harmony might mean more to man, since men were to be united not only by the likeness of nature but also by the affection of kinship.  God did not even wish to create the woman who was to be mated with man in the same way that He created man, but, rather, out of him, in order that the whole human race might be derived entirely from a single individual."*

* City of God, Book XII, Chapter 22.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Augustine and the Limits of Knowledge

About two and a half years ago, I wrote this post about Augustine and his famous work City Of God.  Unfortunately, at the time, I was reading a copy I had borrowed from the library and I never really got more than halfway through it before I had to return it.

Several months ago I purchased my own abridged version of City Of God and finished it.  To my annoyance, some of the parts that were cut out, based on the brief descriptions of their content, looked like they would be of interest to me and I shall have to see if I can find the full version online so I can read them.

At any rate, one of the things that provided me some amusement was reading what Augustine got so horribly wrong, particularly when he spoke with such authority and assurance about the Earth. 

Thus, in Book XVI, Chapter 17, Augustine declares that "Europe and Africa together take up one half of the world and Asia the other."

Augustine evidently did not know how vast Asia was, as he writes of an Assyrian ruler who "subdued the whole of Asia except India."  Evidently, the ancient Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Indonesians erased their conquest by the Assyrians from their historical records!

Our learned Christian scholar, in Chapter 9, also dismissed "the nonsense about their being antipodae, that is to say, men living on the far side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets for us...that is utterly incredible."

He goes on to add "it does not follow that the other hemisphere of the earth must appear above the surface of the ocean; or if it does, there is no immediate necessity why it should be inhabited by men.  First of all, our Scriptures never deceive us, since we can test the truth of what they have told us by the fulfillment of predictions; second, it is utterly absurd to say that any men from this side of the world could sail across the immense tract of the ocean, reach the far side, and then people it with men sprung from the single father of all mankind."

So, by adhering to closely to his holy book, Augustine effectively rules out the existence of Australia and the Americas and the people who inhabited them, sprung from common human ancestors, though of course not a Biblical Adam.

I'll have more on Augustine's City Of God to add in the coming days.