A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the Divided Under God blog was seeking new writers, so after some thought about it, I decided to apply to them, sharing my old blog entry about John 3:16 to illustrate my overall writing style and opinions.

After a few days, I got a response asking me to join them.

I have since written two articles that have been posted there.

First, after I got the news that “god hates fags” pastor Fred Phelps was dying (but before he died), I quickly dashed off an article saying that here was a man whose import probably will be nowhere near as great as he himself would like. It went up a day before he actually died. Here it is…

The second article I actually wrote first. Surely I can’t be the only person who recognizes the difference, linguistically and practically, between “freedom of religion” and “religious freedom”, and it’s certainly not a coincidence that those who would impose their religious views on others use the latter phrase. Here’s why they’re wrong.

I’ve got one other article in, but the simple truth is, I don’t know when it’ll be published because a certain event that will happen sooner or later, needs to happen first.

Let’s see where this takes me, and let’s enjoy the ride while we’re at it.

An idea whose time has come

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in McCullen v Coakley. At issue in this particular case is whether a Massachusetts law that establishes a “buffer zone” outside of abortion clinics is a violation of the rights of abortion protesters who tend to make clinic visits more difficult to the patients who need to use the clinic for any reason (including abortions).

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment, which protects both the freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble peaceably. Abortion protesters more often than not do not assemble peaceably. They try to provoke and incite a reaction from others.

But they still have the right to say what they want to say. That doesn’t mean that I am obligated to listen to them or agree with them, though. And I certainly will maintain the right to think that they’re assholes for doing what they’re doing.

The reports I’ve seen generally seem to think that the buffer zone law is going to be struck down as unconstitutional. While I think that doing so could cause more harm than good, it’s probably the right thing all the same.

But if it does happen, I think it’s high time for the pro-choice side of the argument to take on the anti-choicers and play their game. I have seen these protesters outside of Planned Parenthood clinics as well as hospitals and OB-GYN offices holding up signs expressing their views.

Why, then, can’t there be protesters outside of Catholic hospitals or OB-GYN offices that are either affiliated with those hospitals or ones that simply don’t provide abortion services waving similar placards? If an anti-choicer has the right to tell a pregnant young girl that abortion is murder, why wouldn’t I have the right to inform any pregnant woman that the Catholic hospital considers the life of the parasite growing inside of her to be more important than her own?

There may be legitimate reasons not to have an abortion to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Even ones based upon religious beliefs. But I’m not a big fan of people imposing their religious beliefs on others as though they were the only ones who had a lock on what is right or wrong.

The simple truth, though, is that I, as a man, ought not to have much say in the question unless I were the father. And even then, my say probably isn’t as great as the say of the mother herself.

Is that really too hard a concept to grasp?

Shouldn’t we be bored with this stuff by now?

Whenever a celebrity “comes out” and reveals that he or she is gay, my opinion of them is not altered in the least. If I liked their work before they made the “big reveal”, I will still like their work after the dust settles. If I didn’t like their work before, the revelation won’t make me rethink anything. And if my reaction to hearing the news was “Who?” (as was the case with Robin Roberts when she came out), it will make me no more or less likely to seek out their work.

(In full fairness, the name Robin Roberts was familiar to me; I just didn’t know where I knew the name from…)

Right, wrong, or otherwise, we do admire celebrities. We sometimes find them interesting. And the gender — in very general terms — of the person that celebrity might want to have sex with ought to be one of the most boring aspects of anyone’s life (famous or otherwise).

Maybe I’m speaking from a position of privilege. After all, I’m a straight man. So I’m not complaining about when a celebrity comes out of the closet. If even one more young gay or lesbian kid is encouraged to do the same as a result, it’ll have been worth it.

For me personally, though, it changes nothing. If the celebrity happens to be a female about whom I might’ve harbored some (ahem) fantasies, I won’t even stop fantasizing. I figure my odds of getting with a female celebrity (straight or gay) are pretty much nonexistent, so if she happens to be gay, the fantasy won’t become any less likely. Of course, I don’t really reveal the celebrities I lust after, so it doesn’t alter my personal fantasies. I would always respect their wishes and I wouldn’t want to do anything that might offend someone in this realm…

It is enough, though, to make me wonder when a celebrity might come out of the closet and have it be as much of a non-news item as that same celebrity going grocery shopping.

A comparison

On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush took the oath of office and became the 43rd President of the United States. In the nearly thirteen years that have passed since then, countless world leaders (both sitting and retired) have died. Two of them (Ronald Reagan in 2004 and Gerald Ford in 2006) were former US presidents. For the purposes of this essay, I’d like to focus on everyone other than Reagan and Ford.

Some of those leaders had been our allies, others our enemies. Some, like Benazir Bhutto, were assassinated. Some died in accidents, such as the plane crash that killed many members of the Polish government. Some, like Yasser Arafat, died in under questionable circumstances. And, of course, some, like Margaret Thatcher earlier this year or Boris Yeltsin a few years ago, died more or less natural deaths.

Of all of those deaths, though, I can only think of two foreign leaders whose deaths resulted in the then-sitting president to declare that American flags be flown at half-staff in honor of the deceased. One each under Bush and Obama. And the contrast between the two can’t be any more stark.

Under the Bush presidency, the death was Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2, 2005. Under Obama, it was Nelson Mandela earlier this week.

Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wotyla) may have been a leader of a country because Vatican City became its own nation under Mussolini’s Italy, but his legacy — even at the time — was the perpetuation of AIDS in Africa and an attempt to impose Catholic doctrine and dogma in places where it was neither welcome nor wanted. While he may deserve some credit for the overthrow of the communist / totalitarian regime in his native Poland, I regard his legacy as more negative than positive. This has since been borne out in greater detail as his knowledge and attitude made the child sex abuse scandals by pedophile priests has come to light in the years since his death.

Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter. The group he founded may have committed some violent acts while he was in jail, but he is still the model not only for peaceful protest, but also for a lack of desire for retribution when he was finally released. He led South Africa out of a brutal, heinous period in its history and it has emerged, for the most part, better as a result of his leadership.

Ordering the flag flown at half-staff may be one of the most symbolic measures a leader can take. George W. Bush also ordered the flag to half-staff after the September 11 attacks and the 2004 Indian ocean tsunami. Obama did the same after the Sandy Hook massacre and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Without regard to anything else either of these two men did (or didn’t do) as president, without regard to politics and political opinions, and without regard to the greater legacy of either man relative to the history of the nation, it’s clear to me that, at least on this particular matter, Obama is the better man. At least he honored the more worthy foreign leader in death.

Voice Recognition Technology

Everyone knows about Siri, the voice recognition software that, over the course of the past two years, has gained some pretty impressive capabilities. Google Voice has some equally impressive technology behind it, too. (Although its transcription process is far from perfect. The Humanist Hour Podcast sometimes makes fun of what they call the “Google Garble” for its mistranscriptions…)

But those are some of the more visible examples. There are companies that have replaced the old “Press 1 for This Department” with a voice recognition technology.

This, then, leads me to a telemarketing call I received earlier today; this is not the first time I’ve gotten a call like this, but it’s the first time I put a hypothesis I’ve had, to the test about it.

It always starts off the same. A male voice that definitely sounds like it’s been recorded says “Hi, this is {the name changes each time}. How are you today?”

Because it sounds recorded, my response has been consistent: “Are you a human being?”

With a somewhat stiff-sounding laugh, “he” says, “Yes, I’m a human being” and proceeds with the spiel.

This is where I should mention that I can’t hang up on people. That’s how my parents raised me and I can’t break it, even on people who deserve it. I have no such compunctions, though, about computers.

Usually about a sentence or two into the spiel, I come to realize that it’s a recording and I hang up. I didn’t do that today. I said, “I don’t believe you.”

That set the voice recognition technology a little bit off and it tried to get back into the spiel. That’s when I pushed it and said, “Name the President of the United States.”

It objected to that question on the grounds of professionalism.

I said that I wouldn’t believe that it was a human being unless it told me the name of the president of the United States.

It reasserted that it was a human being.

I repeated my stance. If the entity on the other end of the phone was really a human being, it would need to name the President of the United States.

That’s when the entity on the other end terminated the call.

However annoying that whole exchange was, I’ve got to admire the voice recognition technology in light of the fact that I’m obviously not the only person who thinks that the “person” who called me, is a computer…

And now I know how to handle it next time…

A Response from Senator Toomey

Back on September 29, I blogged that I had sent an email to Senator Pat Toomey in response to one of his regular emails to his constituents. While I can’t be certain how he obtained my email address, an educated guess would be that he received it as a part of the transition to senator from his predecessor, Sen. Arlen Specter.

On November 8, I received a response from him, quoted verbatim below:

Dear Mr. Phynn,
Thank you for contacting me about the government shutdown and the debt limit. I appreciate hearing from you.

Recently, an impasse over the funding of the president’s health care law resulted in a government shutdown. Some members of Congress pledged not to support legislation to fund the government (a continuing resolution or any other appropriations legislation) that did not include language which completely defunded the president’s health care law. While I staunchly oppose the president’s health care law and support its full repeal, I believe it was impractical to expect President Obama to sign legislation that would effectively negate what he considers to be his signature accomplishment.

In an attempt to break the all-or-nothing standoff, I proposed a way to fund the government and to repeal some of the most egregious parts of the president’s health care law. I sought to offer three amendments to the Senate’s proposed continuing resolution: the first would have repealed the medical devices tax that is costing Pennsylvania jobs; the second would have provided relief from the infringement on religious liberty in the health care law; the third would have delayed the individual mandate for one year. All three items had bipartisan support, could have passed the Senate, and might well have been acceptable to the House. Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership would not permit me to offer these reasonable amendments, and the impasse was not resolved in time to prevent the government from shutting down on October 1st.

After sixteen days of negotiations, Senate leadership was able to produce legislation that garnered enough support to temporarily fund the government until January 15, 2014. The major redeeming aspect of this bill was that it reopened the government, and I am glad it got the shutdown behind us.

Unfortunately, the measure also included a provision to suspend any limits on the government’s ability to accumulate debt through February 7, 2014. One of the reasons we have a debt limit is that it forces Congress to debate and re-examine the policies that have put our country so far in the red. Since arriving in the Senate I have argued that spending as usual is very damaging to our economy, and have advocated for using the debt limit as a reasonable opportunity to push for serious fiscal reform. In 2011, the president was willing to negotiate with members of Congress. In exchange for the $2.1 trillion in new debt he sought, the president agreed to limit future discretionary spending in the Budget Control Act (P.L. 112-25). Unfortunately, this fall, the president refused to even discuss any curbs on spending.

I could not support piling hundreds of billions of dollars of new debt on current and future generations of Americans without even a sliver of reform or any new spending restraints to start putting our fiscal house in order. It is for this reason that, on October 16, 2013, I voted against the final bill which passed the Senate by a vote of 83-18. Shortly after, the House passed the measure by a vote of 285-144, and it was signed into law by the President early on October 17th.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.

I think it’s safe to say that Sen. Toomey didn’t read the email I had sent to him. This is little more than a regurgitation of the talking points he has espoused in his numerous public appearances and on the various news outlets willing to give him a visible platform. And it galls me to think that he is trying to come off as sounding like a hero in staving off a longer shutdown that he helped to bring about in the first place.

I think the most ridiculous part of the whole thing is his comments about the infringement upon religious liberty that has been caused by the law. Is he serious? Freedom of religion doesn’t give anyone the right to impose their religion on other people. There are no encroachments upon religious liberty when you ask that women have access to basic healthcare services, such as birth control. Where do you draw the line here? Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions, but I would think that an insurance plan that didn’t cover that would be not only medically negligent, but also criminally negligent. What about Scientology’s distaste for psychiatry? Should they be allowed to keep mental health clinics out of their plans? Let’s take that to an extreme. Some Orthodox Jews take Leviticus 19:19 seriously and do not mix their fabrics. What kinds of impositions would an Orthodox Jewish health care plan impose upon the garb of doctors and nurses in the operating room? Would the mixture of latex gloves and cotton scrubs be a problem?

Whatever good or bad things are in the healthcare law — grandfather clauses or not — the question of religious liberty is not one of them. Exceptions are granted to churches but just because someone happens to follow a certain faith does not give them the right to impose the teachings of that faith upon their employees. This is not standing up for religious liberty. It’s being a dick.

But then again, I’d expect no less from Pat Toomey.

The Greatest Musical Letdown

A few months ago, I blogged that WXPN‘s top 885 countdown this year — which has become somewhat of a tradition over the course of the past decade — would be the greatest songs of the new millennium. The only requirement for voting for a song this year is that it must have been released on or after January 1, 2001. Apart from that, it was an anything-goes list, not unlike the first one back in 2004 when they had the greatest songs countdown.

For a quick overview of how the voting works in these countdowns, each participant would vote for ten songs, ranking those songs from 1 to 10. The song that a person voted for as number 1, would get 10 “points”, 2 would get 9 points, and so on down the line. (Or, to use the formula that the computer software behind the scenes undoubtedly uses, if R is the rank on a particular voter’s list, then that song will get a score of 11 – R for the final tallying that, once it’s scrubbed for typos and other variations between different voters’ choices for what is undoubtedly the same song…)

In the end, the highest ranking song turned out to be “Rolling in the Deep”, from Adele’s second album, 21.

Don’t get me wrong. I like “Rolling in the Deep”. It’s a fun song. But somewhere long before the they revealed the number one song, I predicted that it would come out on top. By the time they entered into the top ten and this song hadn’t yet been played, I was certain that it would be number one.

But the countdown as a whole was more than a little bit underwhelming. I had one song I voted for make the final list: “Breathe Me,” by Sia came in at number 259, but the final placement of the songs that I personally voted for doesn’t really factor into how I feel about the countdown. After all, I’m not complaining about the fact that quite literally none of the songs I voted for in ’04 made the final list (a fact that I consider surprising considering that I voted for songs like “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the Boomtown Rats, “Hard to Handle” by Otis Redding and “Swan Swan H” by R.E.M. that year.)

No. It’s underwhelming more because of how monolithic the entire countdown felt. John Mayer was the artist most predominantly represented in the list, with 20 songs. If you want an artist whose music is virtually by definition unchallenging and poppy to the point of being boring, it’s Mayer. Yes, I respect that there’s a place and time for that kind of music, but more than 2% of a “greatest of” countdown really isn’t it.

Some really horrible music placed really high up on the list. Back in 2005, I blogged that the worst album of the year, I thought, was Coldplay’s X + Y. In that blog entry, I mentioned that the only good song from that album, was “Speed of Sound”. What I didn’t mention was that I felt the worst song from that album, was “Fix You”, an overproduced work that I’d be embarrassed to put my name on if I were Chris Martin or any other member of that band. (I did, however, mention that a couple of years ago when I listed my opinion of the songs you need to hear before you die. It placed at number 18.

There were way too many songs that got excessive airplay. These are songs that I don’t inherently dislike, but, by virtue of having been played excessively, I can’t really listen to them any more. The highest ranking of the songs that fall into this category was “Crazy,” by Gnarls Barkley, which came in at number 6. (It’s also worth noting that I considered the album from which it came, St. Elsewhere, to be the worst album of the year, primarily because of how poorly produced it was. The volume level on consecutive songs was horrible. One song was far too quiet and the next excessively loud. At the time, I had two young children, ages 2 and a newborn, and I couldn’t listen to the album in the car with them, the transition between tracks was just so jarring… And yes, that, too, brought down the song in my opinion…) Also in this boat was “Hurt,” as performed by Johnny Cash, and “Hey Ya” by OutKast.

Then there were the artists that were completely shut out of the countdown. Where were the Dresden Dolls? Cousteau? Tim Minchin?

And finally, there’s the really bizarre ranking of songs by artists that did make the final list. I happen to be a pretty big fan of the Decemberists, but I don’t quite get how “O Valencia” could actually place higher on the list than both “The Crane Wife 3″ and “The Engine Driver”.

In the end, I fear that people who listen to the songs on this list will think that music over the course of the past twelve years was by and large uninspired, boring, and, well, not as stylish or artistic has previous eras in terms of musical accomplishment. The reality, despite the list itself, is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. You just need to look elsewhere.

My list of all ten countdowns, with my votes and how I fared, is below:

Year Topic What I voted For How many of my items made the list?
2004 Greatest Songs
  1. “Fallen Icons,” by Delerium
  2. “Idol,” by Amanda Ghost
  3. “Wicked Little Town,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch
  4. “Chimes of Freedom,” by Bob Dylan
  5. “Sniper,” by Harry Chapin
  6. “My Mistake,” by Marvin Gaye
  7. “Swan Swan H,” by R.E.M.
  8. “I Don’t Like Mondays,” by the Boomtown Rats
  9. “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” by Tori Amos
  10. “Hard to Handle,” by Otis Redding
None of them
2005 Greatest Albums
  1. Emmet Swimming — Wake
  2. Poe — Haunted
  3. Harry Chapin — Danceband on the Titanic
  4. Phil Ochs — In Concert
  5. Delerium — Poem
  6. Beth Orton — Trailer Park
  7. Tori Amos — Under the Pink
  8. Nine Inch Nails — The Downward Spiral
  9. John Lennon — Plastic Ono Band
  10. R.E.M. — Lifes rich pageanT
Five (Poe, Tori Amos, Nine Inch Nails, John Lennon, and R.E.M.)
2006 Greatest Artists
  1. Harry Chapin
  2. Tori Amos
  3. Delerium
  4. Phil Ochs
  5. Nine Inch Nails
  6. Portishead
  7. Idina Menzel
  8. Emmet Swimming
  9. Jen Chapin
  10. R.E.M.
  11. Marvin Gaye
  12. Def Leppard
  13. Alice in Chains
  14. The Who
  15. John Lennon
  16. Lennon Murphy
  17. Sarah McLachlan
  18. Hungry Lucy
  19. Hole
  20. “Weird Al” Yankovic

(Harry Chapin, Tori Amos, Phil Ochs,
Nine Inch Nails, Portishead, R.E.M.,
Marvin Gaye, Def Leppard, Alice in Chains,
The Who, John Lennon, Sarah McLachlan,
and “Weird Al” Yankovic)
2007 Most Memorable Musical Moments I didn’t vote N/A
2008 Essential XPN songs I didn’t vote N/A
2009 Desert Island Songs
  1. “The Blue Tree,” by Silverman
  2. “There Only Was One Choice,” by Harry Chapin
  3. “Don’t Follow,” by Alice in Chains
  4. “Wolves,” by Josh Ritter
  5. “Bus Mall,” by the Decemberists
  6. “Yes, Anastasia,” by Tori Amos
  7. “Swan Swan H,” by R.E.M.
  8. “Crucifixion,” by Phil Ochs
  9. “Crushing,” by Tapping the Vein
  10. “I Am the Walrus,” by the Beatles
1 (“I Am the Walrus”)
2010 Road Trip Songs
  1. “Daylight,” by Delerium
  2. “Out Here at Sea”, by Karen Kosowski (this includes the untitled hidden track after this song on the album
  3. “Glory Girl,” by Amanda Ghost
  4. “Danceband on the Titanic,” by Harry Chapin
  5. “Gimme Shelter,” by the Rolling Stones
  6. “River,” by Jen Chapin
  7. “Yes, Anastasia,” by Tori Amos
  8. “Float Away,” by Marah
  9. They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Ahhhh!” by Sufjan Stevens
  10. “Idiot Wind,” by Bob Dylan
1 (“Gimme Shelter”)
2011 World Cafe Artists I didn’t vote, although I vaguely remember doing something about Fisher’s performance N/A
2012 Greatest Rock Songs
  1. “Love, Reign O’er Me,” by The Who
  2. “Filthy Mind”, by Amanda Ghost
  3. “Holiday,” by Green Day
  4. “Coma White,” by Marilyn Manson
  5. “Change (In the House of Flies),” by the Deftones
  6. “Breathing,” by Kate Bush
  7. “Piece of My Heart,” by Big Brother and Holding Company
  8. “Instant Karma!” by John Lennon
  9. “Crazy on You,” by Heart
  10. “No One Like You,” by the Scorpions
4 (“Instant Karma!”,
“Crazy On You”, “Piece of My Heart”,
and “Love Reign O’er Me”)
2013 Greatest Songs of the New Millennium
  1. “Love & Bandaids”, by Karen Kosowski
  2. “Confessions”, by Tim Minchin
  3. “Heaven Must Be Boring”, by George Hrab
  4. “Hurry Up Sky”, by Jen Chapin
  5. “Sing”, by the Dresden Dolls
  6. “When the War Came”, by the Decemberists
  7. “Gravity”, by Vienna Teng
  8. “Hasa Diga Eebowai”, from The Book of Mormon
  9. “Breathe Me”, by Sia
  10. “Float Away”, by Marah
1 (“Breathe Me”)