Back to the Basics

I’ve blogged before about WXPN the radio station in Philadelphia that, every year since 2004, has polled its listeners for a countdown that takes place in October.

Last year, I voted for the ten songs I felt were the best of the new millennium, and a few months later, I Summarized the countdown..

This year, they’re going back to their roots: what are the greatest songs of all time? But at the same time, they’ve added a new twist to it: what are the worst songs of all time? The day after the countdown is over, they’ll suspend their annual programming to play the top “worst songs” vote getters.

Let’s start with the five songs I voted for as the worst:

5. “Fun Fun Fun”, by the Beach Boys. I admit it up front: I’ve never been a fan of surfing music and I really can’t tolerate most of the music by the Beach Boys. (I know a lot of people love the album Pet Sounds, but the best thing I can say about it is it’s thankfully short.) “Fun Fun Fun” is just one of their most annoying songs.

4. “Everything Is Awesome”, by Tegan and Sara. This song was written for The Lego Movie, and I suspect that it was written to be as cloying and uninspired as possible. They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. I know that a lot of adults saw — and loved — this movie, but I just have to ask: did they see the same movie I did? Currently, it’s got a 7.9 rating, which I consider overly generous.

3. “Come to Jesus,” by Mindy Smith. Of the five songs I voted for as being among the worst, this is the only one where the music itself isn’t horrible. But when you factor in the message conveyed by this song, the embrace of a myth of pain and suffering intended to make someone feel better, that’s just plain irresponsible and it’s a song I’d just as soon not inflict on anyone, especially the child to whom the singer wrote this song.

2. “Hey Jude,” by the Beatles. I have long maintained that, once the members of the Fab Four went their separate ways, the least inspired of them, was Paul McCartney. While I can respect where this song comes from — an attempt to ease the mind of Julian Lennon as he watched his parents split up — the final product is probably one that’s best left between the songwriter and the person to whom it was written; leave the rest of the world out of it. (Not unlike a song that almost made this list, “Fix You,” by Coldplay).

1. “Roxanne,” by the Police. I admit it. I can count on one finger the total number of songs by The Police (or Sting solo) that I like. I’ve heard some covers of his music that I can tolerate, but Sting himself just brings down almost any song he sings. Still, there’s a special degree of torment inflicted upon anyone listening to this song. Could someone explain to me again, why he managed to achieve any fame in the music industry?

Now that that’s out of the way, here are the ten songs I voted for as being the best songs of all time. Unlike the worst songs, I will embed YouTube videos of the songs themselves where possible:

1. When I’m Gone, by Phil Ochs

2. Swan Swan H, by R.E.M. (I voted for this song ten years ago, too…)

3. River, by Jen Chapin

I couldn’t find a video for it, but here are the lyrics.

4. Hurt, by Nine Inch Nails

5. This Woman’s Work, by Kate Bush

6. Caught a Lite Sneeze, by Tori Amos (I voted for this song ten years ago, too…)

7. Serpents, by Sharon Van Etten

8. Sniper, by Harry Chapin (I voted for this song ten years ago, too…)

9. Haunted, by Charlotte Martin

10. Everything Alive Will Die Someday, by George Hrab

Let’s see what makes the final cut.

Good Night, Moonshine…

One June 1, 2001, I bought and moved into a condo in Horsham, PA. I was 29 years old and moved out of an apartment that I had shared with an old friend whom I had known since grade school. For the first time in my life, I truly lived alone.

My parents instilled a love of animals in me as I grew up, and, except for when I was in college, there was always some kind of animal in the house to keep us company. When I moved into that condo, I had no pet to take with me. So not only did I live alone, I was also alone from the perspective of not having a pet by my side.

Once I had established myself in that condo, I knew that I would need to adopt a pet to have as a part of my life. On October 9, 2001, I took the day off of work and drove to the Bucks County SPCA to see if maybe I could adopt a stray animal. Living alone and working long hours, I knew that my best bet would be to adopt a cat, rather than a dog.

While I was there, I was introduced to an orange-and-white kitten who was just getting over a bout of ringworm on his tail, named James Henry. I played with him for a little bit and put him back in his cage, unsure if I wanted to adopt him. While I was in the next room, someone came up to me and told me that the kitten I had been playing with, had been wailing for me ever since I had put him back in his cage.

So I returned to him and, well, long story short, I adopted him. I knew that I didn’t want to keep the name James Henry but I hadn’t decided what the right name for him should be.

About a week later, I found the name for this kitten. Thumbing through a compendium of Shakespeare plays, I found that one of the imps in Midsummer Night’s Dream was named Moonshine. I looked at the kitten and asked him if he liked that name. He meowed at me and we agreed that it would be his name.

Attention

As a kitten, he loved pouncing on unprotected feet and enjoyed playing with all manner of cat toys, especially loving the red dot that bounced across the wall. I had a screensaver on my computer called Atlantis that had fish and dolphins swimming across it; he tried on many occasions to catch those water creatures.

Moonshine fish

He was always very polite. If he wanted or needed a scritch behind the ears, he would slowly approach you and pat you on your hand until you gave him what he wanted. He was a very loving cat and occasionally got an expression on his face that betrayed the fact that he worried about the safety of his human. It’s stressful having a human pet.

Moonshine bathroom

When the girl would would become my wife moved in with me, she brought with her three cats of her own: Max, Cassie, and Sabrina. Moonshine was a gracious host in our home. Sabrina, being the youngest of the three, was the most playful, but he also loved wrestling with Max.

Dont go

Wake up

Cassie died in October, 2006. Max in June, 2011, and Sabrina last August. For the first time since he was barely a year old, he was the only cat in the household. That’s when I learned that he was actually a social eater. He would only eat his food when either I or a member of my family was nearby.

Late at night on Sunday, June 22, 2014, Moonshine started making some strange noises. The following day, he was very lethargic and didn’t move around very much, limping when he did move. I thought he had somehow hurt his paw. I vowed to keep a close eye on him and bring him to the vet within the next day or two if necessary.

When it was time to go to bed on Monday, I asked him if he wanted me to bring him upstairs to the bed with me and he squeaked a very faint meow. I carried him up to bed and he snuggled in between me and my wife. Technically it was Tuesday, about 12:30 am.

Three hours later I woke up. I’m not entirely sure what actually woke me up, but out of instinct and habit, I reached forward to scritch him behind the ears.

He didn’t respond to my hand.

While I don’t think I’ll ever know what exactly happened, he was gone. The first pet I could ever truly call my own — and not anyone else’s in my family — was gone. And I will sorely miss him. It’s taken me two weeks just to build up the strength to write this.

The house has been far too quiet these past two weeks.

Earlier today, I adopted a new kitten. He’s a pure black short-haired cat whom we have named Ninja. He seems to get along well with my family and he’s already showing signs of a playfulness not unlike what Moonshine had. Although Ninja can not and will not replace Moonshine, he is a welcome addition to my home which, once again, has someone of the feline persuasion roaming and owning its halls.

Death Is Not Final

On May 7, 2014, the Intelligence Squared US website hosted a debate that covered the thesis “death is not final”. Arguing for the thesis were Eben Alexander, the author of the popular book, Proof of Heaven and Raymond Moody, who for the past four decades, has been studying and reporting on people’s near-death experiences. Opposed to the thesis were CalTech physicist Sean Carroll and Steven Novella, the Yale neurologist who made a name for himself as as a contributor to both the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast and the Science Based Medicine blog.

It’s an important question, and undoubtedly one that we, as a species have been asking for as long as we’ve been capable of asking questions: what happens when you die? It is not a very satisfying answer to be agnostic about this question: saying “I don’t know” — for however much it’s a sign of humility to admit to lack of knowledge — doesn’t really answer the question at hand. It’s natural to be afraid of, in the words of musician Harry Chapin, “that black implacable wall of death.” (from the interview clip entitled “My Grandfather” from the Gold Medal Collection album.)

Indeed, it’s not entirely unreasonable to think that attempts to answer this question by saying that something — be it the afterlife, resurrection, or some other concept or even a combination of them — happens after death, is one of the foundational concepts of virtually every religious tradition, past or present. While the world of the 2009 movie The Invention of Lying is not exactly realistic, the way the concept of heaven first got formed very well might have been as it was presented in that movie.

(If you haven’t seen the movie, Ricky Gervais’s character is literally the only character capable of speaking something he knows to be false. As his mother lay dying, he invents a paradise to ease her anguish and fear over the finality of death. This kind of catches on and becomes a problem he has to deal with as no one else has any reason to doubt him…)

About three years ago, Sean Carroll wrote an article in Scientific American, in which he pointed out that the after-death persistence of a life energy violates the laws of physics, most specifically, the Dirac Equation. In the debate, Carroll reiterated the greater thesis of that old article. Novella, to buttress Carroll’s argument, pointed out that all of the evidence of modern neuroscience, holds that the mind and the brain are one, and there is no evidence that the mind can exist outside of a functioning brain.

In contrast, Alexander relied upon his own experience in which he nearly died to support his certainty that the afterlife of some sort might exist. While I don’t doubt Alexander’s sincerity, the most disingenuous of the arguments of the debate came from Moody. Moody tried to move the goalpost by arguing that the question of whether death is final, is not one that can be answered by science.

There are assertions that can be addressed by science (the age of the universe comes to mind) and others that can’t (such as the attempts by creationists to explain that dinosaurs were placed where they are in sediment by a god that’s trying to trick us). But Moody’s attempts to argue that science can’t answer the question at hand, were not only directly refuted by Carroll’s arguments, but also the most intellectually lazy part of the whole argument.

I don’t fault anyone whose fear of death, might lead someone to think that something might exist after death. There’s a little bit of a conceit to it all, but it’s no different, really, from anything else we might do in our lives to ensure that something about our all-too-brief lives might have an impact beyond our natural years. That desire is all in our minds, though.

And, as Dr. Novella pointed out in the debate, the mind and the brain are the same thing. No matter how much we might want something to be true, that doesn’t make it true. So it gives a good perspective on the Emo Philips joke: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

If you want to watch the whole debate, you can watch it below:

Outrageous

Back in 2005, I sent an email to Arlen Specter to express my disappointment, at the time, in his decision to vote for a proposed constitutional amendment banning flag burning. The amendment was a direct response to Texas v. Johnson, the 1989 Supreme Court ruling that declared a portion of a Texas law that banned flag desecration, unconstitutional. I don’t feel the need to go too much into that particular ruling other than to say that anyone who supported this amendment, obviously didn’t read the Supreme Court ruling.

Ever since then, I was on a mailing list for Sen. Specter. In 2010, he changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democratic, lost in the Democratic primaries to Joe Hoeffel, who in turn, lost to Pat Toomey, a darling of the Tea Party. And my presence on the mailing list transferred to Toomey.

I’ve written before about my distaste for what Sen. Toomey has said and done.

So I got a new email from him today (May 9, 2014), and it has sunk to a new low, even by Sen. Toomey’s standards. The subject line of his email, was “Outrageous.” Here’s what he said, verbatim:

The Internal Revenue Service – the agency responsible for collecting taxes – is rewarding employees who violate its own laws.

A recent Treasury report reveals more than $1 million in cash bonuses was awarded to 1,100 IRS employees with federal tax compliance problems. $2.8 million in monetary awards was given to 2,900 employees with recent conduct issues resulting in disciplinary action.

This is absolutely outrageous.

If anyone is wondering why Americans are so mistrustful of government today, he or she doesn’t need to look any further than the IRS. Hardworking Americans who lawfully pay their taxes should not be funding the bonuses of IRS employees who fail to do the same.

I have contacted IRS Commissioner Koskinen demanding the agency do all it can to rescind these bonuses and stop such awards in the future. Rest assured that I will be looking into this troubling issue further.

First off, Sen. Toomey, I strongly recommend that you read the report to which you’ve linked and which raised your ire. While there may be some inconsistencies in the way the 1,100 IRS employees filed their taxes, the report clearly states that their bonuses were consistent with Federal guidelines. Inconsistencies in their tax reporting, then, is by and large attributable to things they do on their own time. Being outraged at this would be tantamount to being outraged that an Apple employee buying a Microsoft product.

Second, do the math. A million dollars distributed among 1,100 employees works out to less than $1,000.00 per employee. Ditto for $2.8 million distributed among 2,900 employees. Let’s assume that the average IRS employee earns about $75,000.00 per year, and everyone gets a bonus at the end of the year, not unlike what might happen in the private sector. At salaries at this level, less than $1,000.00 in bonuses is extremely low, not high. I would imagine that this is what happens for the lower performers; the top performers are undoubtedly receiving much more.

Third, as a related point of the math, let’s round the total amount across the two bonus pools, up to $4 million and contemplate the fact that there are more than 300 million residents of the USA. That averages out to just over a penny per taxpayer. I sincerely don’t know why these politicians have such outrage over what is literally nickels and dimes in the budget while allowing huge expenditures — especially for military budges which the military itself hasn’t asked for — gets nary a blink of the eye.

I’d like to propose an alternative, Senator, to your hypothesis of why Americans are so mistrustful of government today. It’s because the Republican leadership in both houses of congress would rather spend time wasting votes to repeal Obamacare, deny the scientific consensus on climate change, force religious thoughts into parts of life where it’s not welcome or desired, and form yet another committee to research what happened on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi, Libya, even though every prior committee has already answered it pretty thoroughly.

But then again, that would require you to actually listen to your constituents, wouldn’t it, Senator?

Bloggery

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.