Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 Movies List

Time for my annual list of movies I have seen during the previous year as well as the ones that I still want to see.

Have Seen

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Avengers: Age of Ultron
*Inside Out
*Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation
*Hotel Transylvania 2
*The Spongebob Movie
*Kingsman: The Secret Service
The Good Dinosaur
Fantastic Four

Want To See

*Jurassic World
*Furious 7
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
The Martian
*Mad Max: Fury Road
The Peanuts Movie
Bridge of Spies
Black Mass
The Man From UNCLE
A Walk in the Woods
Ex Machina
In the Heart of the Sea
Shaun the Sheep Movie
*Monkey Kingdom

* Means I own a DVD or Digital copy of the movie.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Mom's pie safe cabinet

Sugar & Creamer - violet (nested) - Erna Mae Thomas (Annabel Stocking - S.S. secret pal)
Sugar & Creamer - violets - Erna Mae
Butter dish lid - Grandma (Della) Johnson
Candle sticks - Louise Thomas (Jerry Thomas' cousin) from Czechoslovakia
Footed metal basket - Charlotte Gamison's mother (Erna Mae's neighbor)- England
Blue pottery vase - Made by Jerry Thomas 1964
Blue vase - Church rummage sale 1943 from Erna Mae
Blue ashtray - Red Thomas
Curved knife - Gene Thomas - Algeria WWII
Green cup and saucer - Jerry's from Jewel Bryan (Erna Mae's neighbor)
Gray Japanese miniature teapot and plate - Pearl Thomas Cole (Red Thomas' sister)
Blue salt and pepper shaker - Grandma (Lydia) Miller
Flowered plate - Erna Mae from Dorothy Gadbury (Sara Thomas' mother)
Footed cake plate - Grandma (Fannie) Elkins
Sugar bowl - Great Grandma (Mary Louella) Wynn
Glass tray with fruit - Grandma (Fannie) Elkins
White footed bowl - Betty Thomas made it 1970s

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

GenCon XVI

The summer before my freshman year in college, my friend Jimmy Miller invited me to go with him and his family to GenCon XVI, the major RolePlaying Gamers Convention in Wisconsin.
I was digging through some old boxes the other day and found my program for the event which I used to collect autographs while I was there. In the bottom left corner you can see that it was signed by the iconic Gary Gygax, creator of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Conn. Game - My Texas Observer article from Nov. 1991

I just thought to look to see if the Texas Observer had digitized all of its back issues and sure enough they have. So I was able to track down an online copy of the Nov. 2, 1991 issue that has my first-ever published article I did on the Connecticut state lottery in a futile attempt to dissuade the state of Texas from following suit and adopting its own state lottery. Following are the links to that issue and a pasted copy of my article.


Conn. Game
 Another state's lottery offers sobering lessons for Texas

"Gambling is actually the most regressive form of taxation that can be devised. It is designed to pick the pockets of the poor," — late Texas Congressman Wright Patman

Branford, Connecticut 
 ONE MORNING ON my way to work I pulled into one of those tiny gas and food stores. At $1.26 a gallon they seemed to have the cheapest gas in all of New England. After filling up I walked into the cluttered little store and saw a girl behind the counter busily scratching with a coin at what looked like a football ticket. "What is that?" I asked. A little embarrassed, she explained that it was an instant lottery ticket. The ticket had "Classic Connecticut" printed across the front of it with a picture of the historic old statehouse building in Hartford. "I never win anything," she said. "I don't know why I keep playing, but there is another girl who works here and she won $1,000 once." "I just moved here from Texas," I said. "Texas doesn't have a lottery. How much are those tickets?" "One dollar," she said. I paid for my gas and left.
Connecticut has been running its state lottery for more than 18 years now. The Division of Special Revenue, which oversees all of the state's gambling operations, reports that the lottery has grossed more than $4.1 billion since its inception. Approximately $1.7 billion has been transferred to the state's treasury. But despite this "easy" money, Connecticut faces a budget crisis even worse than the one in Texas. Connecticut's projected budget deficit is over $3 billion.
It's hard to find lottery tickets in the wealthier parts of Connecticut, but when you go out into the poorer areas then suddenly every little run-down gas station, liquor store and grocery mart has a sign in its window that proclaims, "Connecticut Lotto — You Can't Win If You Don't Play." Of course, you can't lose either, and that is what most lottery players do most of the time. According to ConsumerResearch magazine, lotteries have the lowest odds of winning of any form of gambling. State lottery officials report that the odds for winning something in the lottery are one in 30, but these are the odds for winning the smallest and most common prize of $3. A person who plays the lottery on a regular basis will likely spend a $3 prize on more lottery tickets. To win the really big money, the odds are more like 13 million to one. Since most people can't make sense of odds that high, lottery critics once tried to point out that by comparison the odds of a person being killed by a bolt of lightning are only 400,000 to one. The lottery industry later made light of this information by making a commercial in which an actor is struck by lightning right before winning the big jackpot.
Last April a man in South Windsor, Conn., won $3,600 in the lottery. The local media went out to interview him as they do every person who wins a big lottery prize, but instead of finding the typical happy, giddy winner, they found that this man was bitter and angry. It seems that he had been playing the lottery for 10 years and he had a habit of always throwing his losing lottery tickets into a crumpled paper bag. This was the first time he had ever won a substantial prize and out of curiosity he decided to go back and .see how many losing tickets he had collected. There were 10,000 of them. He said he felt like a sucker. Every outlet that sells lottery tickets is set up with an on-line computer terminal, which is hooked into the main lottery computer system and allows the state to keep track of when and where every ticket is sold and announce simultaneously to every distributor what the winning numbers were. These computer systems are made by companies like G-tech of Rhode Island and Scientific Games, a subsidiary of Bally Manufacturing of Atlanta. It is no accident that these same companies are also the biggest lobbyists for the expansion of lotteries into non-lottery states like Texas. Pro-lottery companies have hired some big-name political figures, such as former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes and former state Sen. Kent Caperton, to press their case at the Capitol.
In 1977, Connecticut commissioned Mark Abrahamson, a sociology professor from the University of Connecticut, to study the state's gambling operations. Abrahamson's study found that most forms of legalized gambling, including the lottery, were largely ignored by persons with college degrees and yearly incomes in excess of $25,000. Abrahamson concluded that Connecticut's state lottery "primarily attracts poor, long-term, unemployed and less-educated participants. It generates revenues in a regressive manner and should be discontinued."
 The study was not well-received at the state's lottery bureau, and John Winchester, the lottery director at the time, wrote a 25-page rebuttal that harshly criticized Abrahamson and his study, which was for the most part ignored by the state's legislature. A few years later a new study was commissioned, this time to be carried out by Economics Research Associates of Los Angeles, a company which had done many similar studies for other states with legalized gambling operations. That study whitewashed most of the concerns brought out in Abrahamson's study.

GAMBLING IS STILL controversial in Connecticut, but not the lottery. The lottery has become matter-of-fact, commonplace and ingrained into society. Lottery revenues long ago were absorbed into the state's bloated bureaucracy and now the state is hungry for more. The question of right or wrong has long been forgotten and the only issue now is how much money can be made. The state legislature wants to ban out-of-state lottery ticket sales for fear they will cut into the Connecticut lottery's gross sales. Several legislators are sponsoring a bill that would allow a South Carolina-based company to set up video slot machines across the state with the assurance that the state will get a 33 percent cut estimated at $64 million per year. Several jai alai frontons are located around the state where people can bet on games. One in Bridgeport isn't doing well, so its owners are seeking permission to convert it into a dog race track. There also are several off-track betting parlors where people can go to bet on out-of-state horse races and watch them on a large video screen. The biggest controversy has been over the efforts of the Pequot Indian tribe to build a gambling casino on their reservation in Ledyard.
In 1989 Duke University economists Charles Clotfelter and Philip Cook, in a book entitled Selling Hope, criticized the lottery as an inefficient way to raise revenue. They pointed out that while traditional taxes cost only one or two pennies per dollar to collect, lotteries can cost up to 75 cents per dollar of revenue raised. For each dollar spent on a lottery* ticket, 40-50 percent goes to prizes while 10-25 percent goes to administrative costs, vendors' fees, advertising and promotional campaigns.
 Lottery proponents argue that the lottery is a form of entertainment and not a tax, and therefore should not be judged on that basis. However, state governments usually begin to rely on lottery revenues as a substitute for other forms of taxation and thus its fairness and efficiency as a tax merits serious attention.

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM WITH the lottery from the state's point of view is that people tend to lose interest in it after a while. They require constant prodding by slick advertisements and promotional campaigns to continuously support the lottery at the level required to keep it profitable. This means that the state cannot simply make the lottery available to people who would be likely to gamble anyway. Instead it must aggressively market the lottery to people who otherwise would not normally choose to gamble. Connecticut now spends more than $12 million on its lottery ads, and the figure continues to climb every year. The 33 states with lotteries as of 1990 were spending more than $600 million a year combined on lottery. promotions.
The state of Connecticut, like most states with lotteries, hires major advertising and marketing firms to push its lottery. The same people who normally sell soft drinks and laundry detergent become pitchmen for the government. They know who their potential customers are and the ads are targeted accordingly.
A recent TV ad featured two elderly gentlemen sitting in a diner, drinking coffee. The first man has a pile of instant lottery tickets and is busy scratching them off while the second man acts uninterested. The first man then asks his friend if he plays and the second man replies "no" with just a hint of disdain in his voice. So the first man gives his friend one of the tickets from his pile, saying, "Here, try one of these. It's the new Classic Connecticut Instant Game." The second man scratches the ticket as the first man gets excited and says, "See there, we have a winner!" The second man replies, "What do you mean, `we?"' as he tucks the ticket into his shirt pocket. Besides promoting greed and selfishness, the ad implies that finding a winning ticket is very common. Nowhere in the ad are the odds displayed. A survey conducted by Clotfelter and Cook found that only 12 percent of lottery radio and TV ads reveal the true odds of winning. The underlying message of the ad is that people who do not play the lottery are missing out and therefore are behaving foolishly.
As a state's need for more revenues increases, the ads for lotteries become more desperate. One Connecticut TV ad showed an elderly gentleman explaining that he had won a million dollars by investing his money into lottery tickets rather than saving for his retirement. An ad for the New York lottery showed a woman telling her daughter she would not have to worry about getting a scholarship for school because Mom was going to win her college tuition money by playing the lottery. There was even a protest in a Chicago neighborhood when a billboard was put up urging the poor, black residents to get off of Washington Street and move up to Easy Street by playing the Illinois lottery.
 Without these advertising blitzes lottery sales tend to drop off sharply. Thus states that rely on lottery revenues find themselves trapped in a paradox pointed out by Clotfelter and Cook: "Here you have the same outfit that is trying to educate our children selling images and hyperbole rather than factual information and telling the public: 'Play your hunch, you could win a bunch.'" While the states might be desperate for the revenues lotteries can produce, the people on whom they prey are often even more desperate, down to the homeless people who collect and sell bottles and cans to make money to purchase lottery tickets.

LAST YEAR, CONNECTICUT'S lottery produced a record $525 million. Sales are down slightly for this year, which a state gambling official blamed on the recession. "The average person who plays our lotto products is a blue-collar worker," said Bruce Cowen, chairman of the state Gaming Policy Board, in a recent newspaper interview. "When they're collecting unemployment checks it's a little tougher to get people to buy lottery tickets." But he predicted another record-setting year in 1991.
 People who believe the lottery is the best way for Texas to solve its budget problems and avoid an income tax should take a close look at Connecticut. Here you have a state suffering through one of the worst recessions in years, struggling to pay off the biggest budget deficit in the state's history at the same time the lottery is raking in more money than ever. But it has not helped the state avoid a major budget crisis. On Sept. 1, 1991, Connecticut began levying its first-ever personal income tax.

Former Texan Mike Thomas is a writer who lives in Connecticut.

 MIKE THOMAS Bushy Hill Market in Branford, Conn. — one of about 2,600 lottery agents with an on-line system

Monday, September 07, 2015

A debate on the death penalty

Note: The following is an exchange between myself and the author of a conservative blog who went by the name "Alamo Commando" in which we debated the death penalty. It was done sometime in 2004.

Arguments against the death penalty

The death penalty is a barbaric relic of our ancient past. 

The fact that it is still practiced today is a measure of just how far we still are from being a truly mature society.
There are two ways in which the death penalty can be debated - a secular argument and a religious argument. Neither holds up very well for death penalty proponents.
First, and perhaps most significantly, are the countless studies that show that the death penalty is not a deterrent against crime. The United States is one of the last Western industrialized nations in the world to have a death penalty and we still have the highest homicide rate in the world.
Since most murders are so called “crimes of passion” committed in the heat of the moment, the consequences of such action play little if any role in the outcome.
Then there is the arbitrary and unfair manner in which the death penalty is applied through our justice system which gives those with means an advantage over those without.
It has also been shown that the death penalty is more costly to carry out than life imprisonment.
“In Texas the cost of capital punishment is estimated to be $2.3 million per death sentence, three times the cost of imprisoning someone at the highest possible security level, in a single prisoner cell for 40 years (Dallas Morning News, March 8, 1992; Dieter, R.C. 1994. Future of the Death Penalty in the U.S.: A Texas-Sized Crisis. Death Penalty Information Center. Washington, D.C.).”
Some of this cost is due to the lengthy appeals process which prompts death penalty proponents to advocate eliminating appeals and speeding up the time between conviction and execution. But this would only exacerbate the potential for making mistakes that would result in killing innocent people.
Executing the innocent is the biggest drawback of the death penalty because its finality leaves no room for error - and we do make errors.
So why do we risk killing innocent people to maintain a type of punishment that is more costly than life imprisonment and has no deterrent effect on crime?
There is only one answer to that question and it is the only thing that death penalty proponents have to hang their hats on. The answer is ‘vengeance.’ We want revenge and that means taking a life for a life. As the Old Testament states - “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...”

So that brings us to the religious side of the debate.
There is no question that the death penalty was practiced in Biblical times. The Old Testament lists more than a dozen crimes for which a person could be put to death including everything from murder and kidnapping to speaking blasphemy and breaking the Sabbath. The executions were then carried out using some of the most cruel and painful methods ever devised including stoning, impaling and burning at the stake.
Then of course there was crucifixion - a horrific form of capital punishment - which was used to kill Jesus Christ and most of his disciples.
Indeed, it was Jesus - a victim of state-sponsored execution - who adamantly rejected the Old Testament adage about an eye for an eye and instead preached about mercy and forgiveness: Turn the other cheek, forgive those who persecute you, do unto others as you would have them do unto you...
Does this sound like the teaching of someone who would be in favor of the death penalty?
In the one clear instance where Jesus came upon an execution about to take place he stopped it from happening. He did not inquire about the guilt or innocence of the person - in this case Mary Magdalene. He didn’t care that her crime - prostitution - was legitimately punishable by death according to the laws of the time. He said “whoever among you is without sin, let that person cast the first stone.”
How is it that Christians today can still support the death penalty?
Ultimately, I believe we are conditioned to support capital punishment by our constant exposure to violence on television and in the movies. Most people have never been witness to a murder, and yet we all feel like we have because we have seen them so many times in the movies and on television. In those cases, you are right there when the act occurs. You see it happen and there is no doubt who the perpetrator is. Then for the rest of the movie we are left with this need for closure until the hero finally satisfies that urge by offing the bad guy in some satisfyingly gruesome way. “Go ahead. Make my day.”
But real life is not like that. There are rarely any reliable witnesses to a murder and we are left grasping at circumstantial evidence to try and determine who the guilty party is. Even scientific tests are not always 100 percent accurate so it often boils down to who can make the better argument before a jury - a prosecutor whose political career is often boosted by the number of capital convictions they achieve, or the often overworked and underpaid court-appointed defense attorney.
But even if you are certain about a person’s guilt in a case, I believe it is still wrong to carry out the death penalty. What right do we have to determine that God has no further use for someone? There are many sad examples of death row inmates such as Karla Faye Tucker and James Aldridge who turned their lives around while on death row and would have devoted the rest of their lives to ministering to other inmates while serving out their life sentences. Instead, we killed them.
What purpose is there to being here on Earth if not to do God’s work by spreading love and compassion to all of his people? Why do we doubt God’s ability to transform the lives of even the most hardened criminals and bring about some good in them before they die? Take the case of the Apostle Paul who authored so much of our New Testament. Before his conversion on the Road to Damascus, he was a chief persecutor of Christians during that time. While there is no direct reference to his actually committing a murder, we do know that at the very least he stood by and held the coats of those who took part in the stoning of Saint Stephen. And yet God chose this man to be one of the chief architects of the Christian faith.
We shouldn’t be in the business of limiting God’s choices. 

Support For The Death Penalty

Wow, it certainly looks like you have done your homework. You make several credible arguments, unfortunately they are the wrong arguments for this debate.

I will first take a look at the issue of deterrence even though it has nothing to do with the death penalty. You have said that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, especially those classified as a crime of passion. There is proof to the contrary. Is her testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homelandy Security (April 24, 2004) Joanna M. Shepherd of Clemson University said the following: "Modern studies have consistently shown that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect, with each execution deterring between 3 and 18 murders. This is true even for crimes that might seem not to be deterrable, such as crimes of passions." But as I said earlier I don't necessarily support the death penalty because of it's deterrent effect. I support the death penalty because it serves justice; that is the end that it serves. There are some crimes that are so heinous that justice demands the life of the perpetrator. The English philosopher John Stuart Mills said "Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property, or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as reasonable is to think that to take the like of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary...our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself and that while no other crime that he can commit deprives him of his right to live, this shall." So Mike, it has everything to do with justice and respect for life, and nothing to do with vengeance or even deterrence.

Let me now address the issue of cost. I agree with what you say, it costs more to put a person to death than to keep them in prison for life, but since when did we put a price on justice? Let me put it another way. Let's say we decide to abolish the death penalty because, as you say, the cost is prohibitive. Can we then also start skimping on the money we spend for incarceration? Would you mind if in the future prisons were simply a large, walled compound where the inmates slept in tents or even on the ground? We don't do incarceration on the cheap and therefore it stands to reason that we will not to justice on the cheap either. In addition, the appeals in a capital case are necessary to insure that only the guilty are put to death.

Finally, for now, let me address the issue of Christianity and the death penalty. You specifically cite the case of the prostitute who was about to be stoned, and Jesus said "Let him without sin cast the first stone." but this story was not an indictment of the form of punishment; rather Jesus was talking about hypocrites. Take a look at Matthew 7:1-5 "Judge not, that you be judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Mike, that is all I have for now. I look forward to your response. 

The Quality of Mercy

If the death penalty is not about deterrence, or cost, or any of the other multitude of issues at hand, but is simply a matter of justice, then what exactly defines justice?
John Stuart Mill's simplistic notion of justice as taking life for life to show respect for life falls short on many levels. If the death of one person requires another death to achieve justice then what about mass murders? Can justice ever be achieved in a case such as Timothy McVeigh's where one man was deemed responsible for the loss of hundreds of lives?
And what of mercy? Are mercy and justice mutually exclusive? Can we not have both? Life imprisonment without parole offers us both the opportunity for justice and mercy. While it is clear that mercy was not present when the killer comitted their crime, it needs to start somewhere and that should be the role of a mature and just society - to show mercy to the criminals while also protecting society from future harm.

I am not surprised that you are able to find someone working at a conservative think tank who will argue that capital punishment is a deterrent, but I just flat don't believe it. I've seen far too many studies that come to the opposite conclusion. Plus, if it were truly the case that every execution deterred 5-18 more homicides then Texas should have the lowest homicide rate in the nation - and instead we have one of the highest.

Finally, while Christ did come down hard on hypocrites, I don't think that was his sole point in the parable about Mary Magdalene. Otherwise, why didn't Christ cast the first stone himself? Instead he forgives her and tells her to sin no more. Sounds to me like someone who didn't think the death penalty was a just form of punishment. He chose mercy and so should we. 

Mercy & Justice - You Can Have Both

I guess the only things we will agree on are that you have experts that agree with you and I have experts that agree with me; you have studies that back you up and I have studies that back me up. So now what? I think all that is left is the broader philosophical debate that we have now arrived at: what is the relationship, if any, between the death penalty, mercy and justice.

Let me try to answer that. In your first post you mention that some condemned killers accept Christ while they are on death row. I say praise God, but that does not negate their obligation to answer for their crimes while here on earth. If praying the sinners prayer should get somebody off the hook for the death penalty where do we draw the line? If somebody is caught stealing and during trial they find religion do we stop the trial and let them go? No.

And this brings is back to Jesus and the prostitute. The story has everything to do with hypocrisy and nothing to do with mercy because if only the sinless can punish sinners then everyone goes free! So, what I take from the story is that people can still face human justice for crimes they have committed, but only God can judge their souls. So what does this have to do with our debate? Well, it goes back to why I support the death penalty: justice. Let me give an extreme example. If Dr. Billy Graham were to be found guilty of murdering somebody tomorrow he could still be sentenced to death, and I think we would both agree that he would still go to heaven if he asked for forgiveness.

The ultimate rejection of mercy

First let me say that I am not advocating that criminals who repent of their sins and accept Christ should get off the hook. Punishment should still be meted out for their crimes regardless of their religious convictions. What I am saying is that the death penalty is an unjust and unmerciful form of punishment that should be replaced with life without parole for all offenders regardless of their religious affiliations or lack thereof.
The death penalty is the ultimate rejection of mercy because it deprives that person of any future opportunity for getting right with God or turning their lives around. I believe that God wants everyone to have that opportunity. I agree with you that we can have both justice and mercy at the same time, but we cannot have both the death penalty and mercy.
The example of Karla Faye Tucker was to say that she might have served a good purpose for other inmates while carrying out her life sentence, not that she should have been let off with no punishment.
What I am saying is that we do not have to murder a murderer in order to achieve justice. Locking them away in prison should satisfy that ideal for all but the most vengeful sorts. Consider how we measure out justice for other crimes. If someone breaks into your house and steals your TV, they are likely to get a fine and jail time. The judge does not say, OK, now you get to break into their house and steal their TV.
As for your final example, I do not believe the death penalty is promoting justice regardless of who the perpetrator is - be it Billy Graham or Scott Peterson. If we have the option of life without parole, then there is no excuse for executing someone.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2015 Rock Hall of Fame

The inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for 2015 were announced today. It was a fairly decent lineup compared to years past.

Green Day
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts
Lou Reed
Ringo Starr
Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble
Bill Withers
The “5” Royales

I had complained for years that Stevie Ray Vaughan was overlooked, so I am glad that he got in this time. Same with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Green Day is a worthy first-ballot inductee in my opinion. And I am happy that they have capped off their Beatles tribute by giving individual recognition to Ringo Starr.
I was never a fan of the Velvet Underground, but I did get into Lou Reed in the '80s when he came out with his New York album.

Looking ahead to next year, the list of first-time eligibles for 2016 is pretty week in my opinion with only Pearl Jam as a possible first ballot inductee. And there are still a lot of worthy contenders that have been left out including:

Deep Purple
Cheap Trick
The Cars
J. Geils Band
Los Lobos
Steve Miller Band
Def Leppard
Electric Light Orchestra
Bachman-Turner Overdrive
Peter Frampton
Jim Croce
The GoGo's
REO Speedwagon
Paul Revere and the Raiders
Billy Squier

Friday, December 12, 2014

2014 Movies List

There are just a few movies left to be released in 2014 that I have any care about, though I will probably not see them for awhile.
Here is the modest list of movies I have seen so far and the more extensive list of movies I would like to see at some point.

The LEGO Movie
Big Hero 6
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Rio 2
Mr. Peabody and Sherman
Edge of Tomorrow
Penguins of Madagascar

Movies I want to see:

Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Captain America: Winter Soldier
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Amazing Spider Man 2
The Nut Job
Planes: Fire and Rescue
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Muppets Most Wanted
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Boxtrolls
The Book of Life
John Wick
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Night at the Museum 3
Into the Woods
The Theory of Everything
The Imitation Game

2013 Movies

Catching up on my lists of movies I have seen.... Here are the 2013 films that I have seen and the handful that I still would like to see at some point.

Iron Man 3
Despicable Me 2
Man of Steel
Monsters University
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oz the Great and Powerful
Star Trek Into Darkness
Thor: The Dark World
World War Z
The Croods
 The Heat
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2
The Lone Ranger
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters
Jack the Giant Slayer
Escape From Planet Earth
Free Birds
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Gangster Squad
Walking With Dinosaurs

And the ones I still need to see:

Saving Mr. Banks
Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Great Gatsby
American Hustle
The Wolf of Wall Street
Now You See Me
Captain Phillips
Olympus Has Fallen
White House Down
The Smurfs 2
Ender's Game

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Baseball thoughts

It’s been another really disappointing baseball season in Texas. The Houston Astros did ever so slightly better this year, managing to not finish in dead last place for the fourth straight year. Instead, the Texas Rangers ended up as the league’s cellar dweller. 
But the Astros are still pretty pathetic, finishing tied for the fourth worst record. 
Being dead last for the last three years has meant that the Astros have gotten the top draft pick for three years in a row, but so far that hasn’t made much difference. They used their three consecutive picks for Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa, and pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken. Correa and Appel have both been plagued by injuries while in the minor leagues and have yet to make a significant impact in the majores. Appel didn’t even sign with the team.
 The big problem, I think, is the Astros’ horrific ownership which has tried to get by with the smallest payroll in Major League Baseball. And as the old adage goes... you get what you pay for. The Astros’ team payroll this year was $44.5 million, which ranked them dead last in MLB. To understand how ridiculous this is, consider that the third lowest paid team - the Tampa Bay Devil Rays - has a payroll nearly twice that of the Astros. Two-thirds of the team makes abouth the league minimum.
As long as the team is being run by Ebeneezer Scrooge, I don’t hold out much hope that we will see them get much better.
Houston, you have a problem.
So now we are down to four teams in the MLB Playoffs. On the National League side it is the same old, same old - Giants vs. Cardinals. Those two teams have dominated the NL this entire decade. The Giants won in 2010, the Cardinals in 2011, the Giants in 2012 and the Cardinals in 2013. So I guess it is the Giants’ turn again. Yawn.
But the American League Playoffs are a bit more interesting with two teams that haven’t made it this far in the postseason since the mid-1980s. The Kansas City Royals’ last World Series appearance came in 1985 and the Baltimore Orioles last went in 1983.
So I will probably be pulling for the AL team this year on principal. But it will be hard to keep up with the series since Texas has pretty much lost interest in baseball and turned its full focus to football. The local paper devotes just one page to baseball amongst all the high school, college and professional pigskin coverage. 

The ballots are too darned long

I love politics.
I have covered it as a news reporter, commented on it as a columnist and blogger, and participated as a voter and activist.
But sometimes it can be too much.
Maybe I’m getting cynical in my old age, but I don’t feel the same excitement I used to as election time approaches. Now I just feel overwhelmed.
The problem, I think, is that we ask too much of our electorate. There are too many races and propositions to vote on. Even a political enthusiast such as myself can’t keep up with it all.
I looked up my sample ballot for the upcoming general elections in November and found that I have 56 races where I can cast a vote. (Fortunately, there is just one proposition this time, but I have seen as many as a dozen during past elections.)
Who could be expected to keep track of 56 political races with 134 candidates?
I imagine there are very few people able to make truly informed judgments in all of these races. Most people are doing good to keep up with a handful of the more prominent ones.
At some point, even the most informed voter will get to a point where they are just voting based on party affiliation or name recognition. And all that does is propagate a system that favors the very wealthy who can afford to contribute lots of money for campaign ads and signs. That is no way to run a democracy.
You wouldn’t run a small business like that. If you were starting a company and needed to hire 56 people, would you just take the first applicants who came in the door? Of course not. You would want to interview them and look at their resumes and references. But that takes a lot of time and work and very few people are going to go to all that trouble just to cast a vote. And choosing not to vote just leaves the decision up to a smaller pool of equally uninformed people.
The answer, I think, is not to scold people for being uninformed about elections. Rather, it would be better to pare down the ballots and make the elections more manageable.
I propose that we only elect people who are in representative positions. That would include the governor, lieutenant governor, senators, congressmen, state reps., county judges, mayors, school board members and so forth. The other positions – especially all of these judges – should be appointed by the people we elect to represent us.
I say this as someone who has not always been happy with our state and local leaders. So people will need to take this into consideration when they vote for the people representing them who will be making these appointments. I believe having judges appointed will help take some of the corrupting influence of money out of the judicial system.
Paring down ballots so that there are fewer people to vote for will allow people to make better informed voting decisions at election time and will thus strengthen our democracy.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

This I Believe

I believe there is more to life than meets the eye.
I believe there is a deeper meaning to most everything that we encounter.
I believe that we have an existence that goes beyond this physical reality.
I believe that God is greater than anyone can imagine.
I believe that our attempts to define God have been inadequate.
I believe that love is the key to knowing God to the fullest extent that we are able.
I believe that Jesus came the closest to knowing God and I have no problem calling him the "son of God."
 But I do not believe that Jesus' intent was for everyone to worship him. Nor do I believe that he would condemn those who do not.
I do not believe in "hell" or any kind of eternal damnation.
I do not believe that God is as egotistical and jealous as the Old Testament makes him out to be. I believe those passages are an example of the authors trying to define God in their image, rather than the other way around.
I believe that God wants everyone to be "saved" eventually and is patient enough to see that happen. 
I do not believe that any of the man-made religions or philosophies, either individually or taken as a whole, have discovered or revealed all that there is to know about God.
But I do believe that most religions serve a good purpose and that there is a communal benefit to worship, praise, Sunday school, Bible study, prayer groups, and so forth.
I believe that science is the best means for explaining the physical universe, while religions are the best means for explaining the meta-physical universe.
While I believe that the Bible is a wonderful book that should be read and studied, I do not believe that it is something that should be worshiped and idolized. I believe the Bible was written by people to express their faith and their understanding of God. I believe that some of the Bible was inspired by God, but it is not by any means inerrant or infallible.
I believe that what we think we believe is not as important as how we live our lives and how we treat other people.

Enough already!

Note: This is Robert Shearer's response, dated Sept. 7, 1986, to my second essay and marks the end of this first exchange on this topic.

Dear Mike,
Enough already! We're going to pummel each other to death with essays. I can see the paper now;

Ex-debators never know when to stop"

Dallas — The incredibly handsome and world-renowned debater Eddie "Phred" Shearer was found dead in his tastefully decorated studio in Plano yesterday by an adoring fan. Collin County Coroner Jack O. Lantern in his autopsy report filed late last night (waiting for which, we held the presses) stated that Shearer died from typist's cramp of the pinkie while preparing another essay on an old high school buddy's idea of God.
While the FBI did its best to keep the buddy's name secret, it was leaked to an angry mob that Mike Thomas, a Fascism student at Texas A&M, was to be the recipient of the essay that caused Shearer's death.
The mob found Thomas sodomizing freshmen corpsmen on the A&M campus. He was summarily tar and feathered, drawn and quartered, burned at the stake and force fed Chicken McNuggets before his remains were recovered by National Guardsmen using riot gear. The exact whereabouts of the body are unknown, but sources with the Guard, speaking on assurance of anonymity, say that it was flushed down a toilet in the quartermaster's bathroom.
The Reagan administration issued a statement of condolences to the family of Phred Shearer, while at the same time revoking citizenship rights of Thomas' family.
In a related story, the entire cast of the Kilgore Rangerettes checked into the Phylis Schafley Convent of Women Who Have No Plans For Children.

Do you want that on your conscience? And what are you doing sodomizing freshmen?
No, I am not, nor have I ever put you in the category of religious fanatic. Au contraire, I admire the way you have tempered your faith with reason. I wish I could say the same about my college professor friend. I sent her both your and my essays, and I got her reply yesterday. She is an atheist. She referred to your essay as "worthless drivel," and was equally uncomplimentary to you. Being your friend, I naturally defended you (I told her that you had been unable to think clearly since you had got herpes of the earlobes) But seriously, she really hated it - so much so that she didn't - no, refused to - finish it. You really don't want to know the rest.
She did like mine, though (Nya, nya!).
The subject won't die, however. Note my version of "My Philosophy" at the end. As you can see, it is complete. By all means, complete yours - I am intrigued....

My Philosophy

Not believing in God is no guarantee he will leave you alone.

R.E. Shearer

In Answer to a Refutation (Aug. 1986)

Note: This is the second part of my response to Robert Shearer's refutation of my previous essay all of which is posted below.

I sincerely appreciate R.E. Shearer taking the time and effort to write his refutation to my essay entitled "Refuting Secular Humanism." It has given me the opportunity to see how many of my ideas were unclear and could be easily misunderstood. I would now like to expand on some of my ideas, clarify others, and refute the arguments brought up in Shearer's paper entitled "Refuting Thomas' Refuting Secular Humanism."
One of the first things that Shearer brings up in his paper is my use of the "dangling preposition." In response to this I ask — Is it not the author's privilege to create his own style of writing? Perhaps "dangling prepositions" are my style, then again maybe I just goofed. But this is not an important issue here so I will drop it.
I would like to begin by clearing up a few points about my idea of faith. In my first paper I was trying to point out that faith is a necessary thing and all people are compelled to have faith in something. Since I was limiting my discussion to science and religion, this statement was not sufficiently supported. I will expand on it with the following two points; 1) There are other things that you can have faith in besides science and religion, some examples are - money, democracy, communism, the overall goodness of man, the overall rotteness of man, and so on. 2) You can have faith in more than just one thing and in varying degrees as well.
Shearer is not happy with my attempt at defining faith as an antonym of doubt. I admit that it is difficult to come up with a working definition of a term like faith, but my point is that when you put your faith into one idea you are at the same time denying the opposite of that idea. Shearer argues that this statement is invalid and cites an example of an indecisive motorist trying to get on a freeway. This argument does not work because though it is true that the motorist can change his belief in the blink of an eye, he cannot hold, let us say, a positive and negative belief of the same idea at the same time, unless of course he is for some reason mentally unsound. But all of this seems hardly relevant to the theme of the paper and might prove to be, as Shearer stated, "space eating rhetoric."
My next point under attack is that a person who denies God is leaving a large gap in his faith and must find something to put his faith into. Shearer claims this statement to be a fallacy and cites an example where he says that "...greed has sufficiently taken the place of faith."
This is actually an example of someone placing their faith in money, thus the faith is still there misdirected as it is.
My statement that "blind faith is not good and should be accompanied by reason" is not very clear since blind faith = faith - reason. It would be better stated as blind faith is not good, faith should be accompanied with reason. Therefore I assume that when Shearer talks about "...reason accompanying blind faith..." which doesn't make sense, he means reason accompanying faith. Shearer rejects my idea that science requires a certain amount of faith to be believable and uses gravity for his example. I don't doubt that the law of gravity works whether you believe it or not (Arthur Dent may disagree) but think of the scientists who are using faith everytime they make a hypothesis. Everything cannot be empirically proven to the full satisfaction of everybody so there are many things that must be taken on faith. Very few people have actually seen an atom, or even a germ for that matter, but they have enough faith in science to believe that they are there. He also rejects that "blind faith is not good and should be accompanied with reason" but I feel that his idea of blind faith is similar to the idea of common sense and it could very well be defined in that way. My idea of blind faith is an ignorant kind of faith that can be very dangerous. It occurs when people stop thinking for themselves and just believe what they are told. I believe that it was faith suach as this that was a major factor in Hitler's Nazism.
I enjoy Shearer's sense of humor in his next argument, but I don't feel he has made a very serious attempt to refute or understand C.S. Lewis' ideas. It was not the definition of opposites but Lewis' sense of right and wrong that eventually led him to become a Christian. In his argument, Lewis is comparing the 'good' world to a straight line and the 'screwed up' world to a crooked line. He then asks - How is it that we consider the world we live in to be the crooked line? Where did we get our sense of what the straight line should look like? It would make more sense if we, being a part of the world, called it the straight line the way it is now, but we don't.
Shearer states that "Deities were invented by the ancients to explain all sorts of natural phenomena for which they did not understand." This is very true, but if Shearer will study these deities and religions more closely he will be able to see the difference between the deities who were products of the people (Zeus, Odin) and the people who are products of their God (Jews, Christians, Muslims).
Shearer then asks if " will finally reduce the number of gods to zero...", I am afraid that it cannot however what would be tragic is if the number of people believing in God were reduced to zero. But I can assure you that this will never happen during my lifetime.
I was very much surprised by Shearer's next statement "...a person who thinks he can reason everything out without a faith in something not only has 'thought about it enough' but has accepted the limits of his thinking and ignores the rest." I personally am offended by the idea of a limit to my thinking and could never accept such a limit. (To think there is a thought that I could not think) I don't claim to be able to answer all of the world's problems but I would not shrug my shoulders and quit thinking about it. And to ignore the rest!? Where do you think the word 'ignorance' comes from? This is the kind of thought that is often used against believers and here it is now being used as an excuse to deny God.
I still believe that the question why is an important question. It is also a disturbing question. It is always present, it can't be ignored, and it can't be shrugged off as being insignificant. The situation for which why is asked might be insignificant to your or even to everybody, but the question why will still be there. It is disturbing because we don't always have an answer for it and though we may not need the answer we still feel insecure in our ignorance. Faith in God does not mean that you stop asking the question why (or any other question), such a state of consciousness is reserved for those with the infamous 'blind faith'.
I had asked what the consequences of of a complete faith in science are. I will rephrase that to say what are the consequences of having no faith in God? The answers that I gave, and which I still stand by, are not meant to imply that this iw how people behave and act, but that these are the ultimate realities that they will have to face if they really believe what they think they do. I will change my first one to say that man has no immortal soul.
Shearer asks "...what makes him think that life has meaning anyway, and what is it if there is?" I've tried to explain a little of what I think in "My Philosophy", also, C.S. Lewis had a good argument that I might not have explained clearly in my first paper. He asks if life has no meaning then how is it we were able to find out that it has no meaning? He then uses the analogy that if no one had eyes we would not know that it was dark and dark would have no meaning. But we do have eyes and we can see that ther is darkness, we also have something about us through which we can perceive meaning.
I notice that Shearer likes to quote Tolstoy. Here is another quote from Tolstoy... "If the thought comes to you that everything that you have though about God is mistaken and that there is no God, do not be dismayed. It happens to many people. But do not think that the source of your unbelief is that there is no God. If you no longer believe in the God in whom you believed before, this comes from the fact that there was something wrong with your belief, and you must strive to grasp better that which you call God. When a savage ceases to believe in his wooden God, this does not mean that there is no God, but only that the true God is not of wood."
An important and often asked question that Shearer brings up is "how much sense does it make that a good and just God allows so much suffering in the world?" God does not allow suffering in the world, we do. As I explained in "My Philosophy" we are the ones that make evil in the world through the choices that we make with our free will. For God to end all suffering on Earth, he would first have to take away our free will and force us to obey his laws, but he is not going to do that. Instead, God has provided us with the means to end all the suffering on our own through the teachings of Jesus Christ. If everyone lived by Jesus' teachings there would be no more suffering on earth. As it is though, even the people calling themselves Christians don't follow Christ's teachings. Only a few people have ever come close to following Jesus' example - Gandhi, Marting Luther King Jr. to name a couple.
Shearer's next statement is what inspired me to write "My Philosophy" because I could see that he was becoming prejudiced and starting to categorize me with all of the other stereotypical evangelists and bible-thumpers that he has been exposed to. As it is I do not believe that God manipulates everything. He set life into motion and does not need to manipulate everything. And as I have stated before, I believe that man has free will. I ask Shearer to justify how he can conclude that man has free will and choice if everything that man does and thinks is the result of chemical reactions in the brain following the particular DNA structure in his genes?
In Shearer's conclusion, he states that "A man of God must hide his head in his faith that God has a reason for all things..." A man who believes in God does not hide his head in his faith, rather he rejoices in his faith. The only thing that he must believe is that God loves him. If God does have a reason for and/or divine answer for everything he has not told me and I am free to contemplate what I will.
Shearer continues to say "The secular humanist is not shackled to this or any answer; he has a choice of answers and is free to create his own reasons and act on them as he sees fit." Would you consider it being shackled to an answer if that answer were the truth? Once a person has the true answer why would he want to choose another one? A person who creates his own reasons is not interested in knowing the truth. He reasons would be different from someone else with different perspectives on life and until he can take into account everybody's perspective he will be far from knowing the truth.

My Philosophy (13 Aug. 1986)

Note: The following is the first part of my response to Robert Shearer's refutation of my earlier paper, both of which can be found below.

Preface: I think that it is important that before I begin my refutation of your refutation I write down clearly and concisely what my personal philosophy is. This is so you won't stick me in your Swaggart & Falwell file. You will have to build a whole new filing cabinet for me. Note that these ideas are my own and not simply regurgitated material from Kung or Lewis.

My philosophy centers around the major themes of God's love for us, our free will and our individuality. Now before I begin I want to point out the difference between believing something and knowing something. When I say that I believe something it is like my hypothesis or my best guess and when I say I know something it is unshakeable truth. Under this definition it would be wrong for me to say that I believe in God. I know God. I also know that Jesus is the messiah referred to in the old testament. It is beyond the scope of this paper for me to separate and list all of the things I believe or know, so with this point established I will continue.
I believe that God made man because he wanted something to love and something to love him back. It was not enough to simply create something that would love him because that is what it was created for. In other words, if we had no choice but to love God, it wouldn't mean very much. This is why God gave us free will, so that we would not be forced to love him but could do so on our own.
God really did have to love us a lot to give us free will because free will allows for disobedience, sin and evil. You see, God did not make evil, he gave us free will and we make the evil through the choices that we make. Saint Augustine separated evil into moral and physical. I don't accept the idea of physical evil (hurricanes, floods, drought, earthquakes, plague, etc.) Real evil requires free will.
I do not believe in predestination. To say that God knows everything we will do before we do it would be to deny that we have true free will. God knows everything that there is to know, but is also open to learning new things. He knows everything you do and think. He can help you, guide you and tell you what to do, but he won't make your decisions for you. An idea I got from Joe is that God has changed his method of dealing with us as you can tell when contrasting the old and new testaments. I think that when God first put us down here he wasn't sure what to do with us. He gave us strict laws to follow and when we disobeyed he punished us with plagues and floods (a really big flood) but as he became more experienced with us he adopted different methods like we see in the new testament.
I know that Jesus is the divine son of God. Through Christ God has sent his grace that encompasses all of mankind. I feel that Christ's divinity is important, but I think that many religions today are so intent on stressing it that they are not paying enough attention to his teachings. The result is so called Christians who kill hundreds of people with car bombs and other such violence in Ireland and the Middle East. And Christians in the southern U.S. who for over a hundred years saw nothing wrong with slavery. This list goes on today. I think that by loving your neighbor (neighbor = everybody in the world) you are showing your love for or indirectly loving God. Jesus speaks often of when you do something for someone you are also doing it for him.
I think that we are all individuals with our own ideas and perspectives of the world. God realizes this because he made us this way. We are all going to have our own perspectives of God and our own ideas of how to worship him. God knows this and expects it. This is why no one religion is going to have the one and only right answer. Most religions contain different perspectives and ideas of the same truth. We can all worship God in our own way. It is not necessary to go to church to worship God, but I personally like to go to learn more about God, listen to other people's thoughts, and to enjoy the social contact.
I think that the Bible should be the guideline that we use to live our lives. I don't believe that any one person can interpret the Bible for the rest of the world. Since we are all individuals, we should read the Bible and adapt it to our own lives as we see best. For those people who are too lazy to do this they can always let the preacher interpret it for them. I believe that most preachers have good intentions and won't steer them wrong, but some might. This is the chance that these people will have to take if they don't read the Bible for themselves. I think that the most important themes in the Bible are clear enough for everyone to understand. We should not fight amongst ourselves over the interpretation of the rest of it. (I do not consider arguing and debating to be fighting.)