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
*Mad Max: Fury Road
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Want To See

*Jurassic World
*Furious 7
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
Black Mass
The Man From UNCLE
A Walk in the Woods
Ex Machina
In the Heart of the Sea
*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.