Insane, Ignorant, and Objectively Wrong

First, the insane: the charming folks at Westboro Baptist are thrilled by the tsunami because it killed lots of "fags and dykes," as well as an even worse breed of people: Swedes. (These are the folks who picket funerals of gay people, including Matthew Shephard, with signs reading "____ IS IN HELL.") Just once I would like to hear of a mainstream Christian pastor preaching a sermon about how evil these people are, but I'm not holding my breath.

Now, the ignorant: from an editorial in yesterday's New York Times: "According to a poll, most Americans believe the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent."

How fucking stupid are our fellow citizens? It's no wonder we see the voting patterns we do when so many people cannot flip the channel from the latest reality show to find out something about what their government is actually doing. They think we spend a quarter of our budget on foreign aid? A people that cannot be bothered to find out things that are easy to uncover about what is happening to their tax dollars don't deserve democracy. A national press that doesn't talk about this more is an embarrassment to the profession of journalism.

Finally, the objectively wrong: most bright people go through their Ayn Rand phase (usually around age 16-19) and then discover that they have a soul and grow up. Others go on be part of the Ayn Rand Institue, and write about why we should not give a penny is tsunami aid. Of course these are the folks who consider volunteerism immoral, so what do you want... but still.

Off to my flying tin can. Again - happy new year!

Incomprehensible

Like everybody else, I've been watching the news and seeing the photos and reading the newspaper articles about the devastation in Asia, and mostly feeling numb horror. Today, sitting reading the New York Times, it suddenly was very hard not to cry reading about it. Maybe it just takes time for something like this to sink in. Maybe it never actually does.

The Times today ran a set of before and after aerial photos of Banda Aceh, Indonesia that shocked me. The contrast - not just the destroyed buildings, but the way the shoreline by the city is just different than it used to be - gave me a sense of the magnitude of this disaster, and how its effects take many forms - the loss of life, the destruction of homes, but also how a the places themselves have been permanently altered.

I can only think that as the survivors struggle for the basics of life in the aftermath, they must feel like the living dead.

I couldn't find a page on the Times site to link to directly with the photos, but if you go here and click the "Asia's Deadly Waves" link in the right column under "Multimedia," you can see them.

Riding the Rails

The New York Times has been diligently writing about the state of our nation's rail system and how dangerous it's become, thanks to poor oversight by the federal government and the carelessness of commercial rail carriers. This is not a glamorous story or one that capture headlines around the country, but it is an important one.

In previous articles they've written about the system in which Amtrak is responsible for paying damages for accidents caused by commercial rail carriers (which means your tax dollars are paying those damages), and poor safety standards of the commercial carriers. In today's article they paint a frightening picture of the state of crossing signals, which often don't work, and whose problems, when reported, aren't fixed.

If you ride trains - or if you drive over train tracks, as anyone here in Houston does repeatedly - it's quite frightening. And it costs lives. (I'll be slowing down and looking more closely the next time I head down Heights Boulevard and over the tracks.)

I wonder when people voted for Bush for "smaller government" if they stopped to think that this is how government shrinks: the rail lines become unsafe. Drugs that kill you get approved by a weakened FDA. Consumer protections agencies don't have the resources to go after wrongdoers. Is that really the "smaller government" they wanted?

The Results of Ignorance

Okay, it' s not like I expect great feats of mental acuity and reasoned though from Phyllis Schlafly, but this piece on how evil secular left-wing destroyers of all that is good are "censoring" information on creationism is interesting because it's a handy summary of everything that is wrong and stupid about people who can use the term "creation science" without irony or humor. (Thanks to Jeff for the link.)

Isn't it interesting, given this supposed master plot to suppress criticism of evolution, that when some interesting new fossils are found, you read in the paper about how they've changed the way scientists think about evolution? This is a concept that the scientifically illiterate right wingers don't get - that theories are not something pulled out of thin air, but explanations that fit the evidence, and that must be revised (or chucked out) when new evidence is found.

If anybody wants to believe any particular creation myth they want, that's fine with me. Just don't call it science. Picking out some data points that fit your myth and saying "See! There's evidence!" is not science.

Unfortunately, with Schlafly & Co. in political favor, we're likely to have a generation that's even more ignorant that the current American population. In my more hopeless moments I see this country heading into a period of ignorance and superstition that's frightening. Ignorant, superstitious populations are easily controlled, and I don't expect nice peace-loving people to be the ones feeding Americans their religious myths to keep them settled down and obedient fifty or so years from now.

Fortunately, there's a whole world out there, and one that often is more rational than the US. Between the rise of superstition, declining investments in education and science, and the mess that the administration is making of our financial health (which will be tough to dig out of) we're positioning ourselves to be a third-rate nation with a medium standard of living 50-100 years from now. Meanwhile, in Asia and Latin America the trend is toward progress and stability, and Europe continues to be better at preserving what they've already got than us.

So in those hopeless moments I think that at least if we blow it, somebody else will move ahead. And maybe in 100 years some executive in Buenos Aires or Lima or Beijing will be deciding to outsource the low-wage jobs to Arkansas.

Too Stupid for School

Remember when your teachers would assign you something to read that you thought was stupid or useless, and you'd moan about it? Of course you do. Then you read it, or at least enough of it to fake your way through class, and moved on.

No more! Today, you sue!

Apparently some students in North Carolina were horrified, horrified I tell you, because they had to read the Qur'an for school. Can you imagine that - the idea that educated people should perhaps have read a religious text that is part of a major world religion? Next thing you know, the precious minds of North Carolina's best and brightest might be expected to learn something about how people in other countries live! They might even have to learn French!

(Note that I also think that everyone in the US should read the Bible, or at least learn about it if they can't wade through the beats. It's worth reading because it's an incredibly influential text that is a major part of the culture we live in, whether or not we believe in its God who kills his offspring to save us.)

The student pictured in the photo in that article complained, "A lot of students feel like they are being discriminated against!"

This young man is just too fucking stupid to take up space at a university. I know, that is not very charitable of me, but I am having trouble giving the slightest benefit of the doubt to someone complaining that he is being exposed to new ideas at a university.

Okay, he probably only went for fraternities and keg parties, but did he wonder why they were making him get all those books?

This is actually part of a broader movement. I see it this way: Republican-leaning people by and large go off and make a lot of money, not something likely to happen as a university professor. Then, they complain that faculty at universities tend to be liberal.

There's a group called Students for Academic Freedom beating this drum. Interestingly, while many of their materials talk in lofty terms about pursuit of knowledge without regard to a scholar's political beliefs, and David Horowitz (who seems to be the driving force behind this) even goes on at some length in an editorial to explain that they are not trying to get anyone to achieve "balance" by offering viewpoints no matter what, but simply trying to ensure that a student's political beliefs are not used against them. Of course, at the top of the site, above his piece, is the subtitle: "You can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story."

Clicking through some of the links, it seems that about the only incident of major anti-conservative bias they could come up with was one course at a school in Indiana. The course sounded rather ridiculous, but they seem to be getting a lot of mileage out of it.

So this seems like the same conservative "we are an oppressed minority (who runs the country)" bullshit whining. It's horrible! Mean liberal professors tell them they are wrong! They make them read those dirty non-Christian books! Make them stop.

Particularly creepy is this article from Colorado, where an "academic bill of rights" has been put into practice (modeled on the SAF ideas). The creepy parts: GOP lawmakers urging crackdowns on professors who say the wrong things, and death threats against professors. (Why do conservatives always want to kill people they disagree with?)

Yes, pity the poor oppressed conservatives in America today, barely holding their own against the sea of liberalism.

The Blog Queen

Andrew Sullivan is off on some kind of extended vacation (apparently, once his readers gave him money, this did not make he feel like he ought to write something) and has left his blog in the care of a group of bloggers who make up in quantity of postings what they lack in thoughtfulness. It's no secret that I have my issues with just about everything about Sullivan (his politics, his dishonesty, his general petulance and shininess) but reading his guest bloggers makes me appreciate him a bit. At the moment his blog is looking as though a bunch of kids broke into his home, took his computer, and have been running wild. Perhaps it should be renamed "Home Alone?"

One of the things that has always distressed me about Sullivan's blog is that his previous writing has demonstrated that he is capable of structured thinking, but it's absent on the blog. However, the steam of consciousness posting that the substitute blog urchins are putting there makes Sullivan's usual blogging look downright organized.

However, these boys have studied at the knee of the master. In a post complaining about the liberal bias of a list of top movies of the year in the New York Times, once thing is strikingly absent: the list of notable movies expressing conservative social values that were overlooked.

The only thing missing is getting a dig at Paul Krugman into the post. They've got the bleat mastered, I'm sure more such will follow.

Oh, and memo to Andrew & the Sullivanettes, is it really that hard to provide permanent links for individual posts, rather than lumping a bunch of unrelated things together? If a 13 year old in Ohio blogging about Britney Spears can master the technology, why can't you?

Ukraine: How Close is Close?

Can someone explain this to me?

In an election that appears to be clean, Viktor Yushchenko seems to have won the presidency of Ukraine. The vote split appears to be about 52/44, leading the New York Times to observe:

"His victory was clear, but it was not as overwhelming as voter surveys at the polls and early tallies had suggested. With the prime minister receiving more than 44 percent of the total, it was evident that a good part of the country opposed the presumptive future president.

"Moreover, the results showed a deep geographic split, with the south and the east voting for Mr. Yanukovich by wide margins.

"Mr. Yushchenko, facing a polarized electorate, must now select a cabinet and a prime minister and begin trying to forge a new, post-Kuchma identity for the country."


Here in the US, our president was elected in a contest that broke 51/48 - much closer than the Ukrainian election - with similar geographic splits. Mr. Bush views this as a mandate, "political capital" that he is going to spend.

Is Mr. Yushchenko smarter than Mr. Bush overall, or just better at math?

Must See TV

The UK has always had a really weird system of television licensing, where everyone who owns a TV pays a license fee to support public broadcasting (rather than just burying it in the national budget somewhere). So what if you don't own a television? Better be prepared to prove it, the New York Times reports.

I'm pretty sympathetic to the no-TV folks though I'm not one of them. (Very much not one, I guess, since I have a TV, Tivo, and a satellite dish.) But this made me think about how people watch TV.

I watch TV the way I read books or go to movies. When there is something I want to watch, i turn it on and watch it. Otherwise, it's off. I find a TV on just to be on irritating, and channel surfing gives me a headache - I have to leave the room if someone's doing it. I love Tivo because it lets me watch things on my own schedule.

When I was a kid we pretty much weren't allowed to watch much TV, which was great (in retrospect) because both my sister and I read like fiends. To this day a television on while it's still light out feels kind of wrong to me.

I think this is not typical modern American behavior, however, and I have lots of smart, articulate friends who use their televisions in ways that are completely distressing to me and would make me leave the house if I lived with them.

My problem with the no-TV approach is that I think it makes you culturally illiterate in a way. For better or worse, what's on TV is part of our national culture. I already feel out of it because people will talk about TV shows when I'm around and I have no idea what the hell they are talking about. "What do you mean, you have never seen 'Full House?'" Um, sorry. I think if I had no TV I'd be so out of touch with the people around me that it would become a problem.

What I do works for me, but again, I'm quite aware it's not typical. Do you have a TV? Do you watch it? How? If not, why not? Do you see any downsides to a TV-less existence?

SUV - Stupid Useless Vehicles

From the Washington Post, a story noting that in the hands of inexperienced drivers, SUVs are very dangerous (as opposed to just somewhat dangerous).

It's interesting that the family of the teen whose death is the lead of the article comments that the Ford Explorer was "too much car" for her. Actually, it was not enough car. Poorly engineered, top-heavy, and unstable, it's the typical SUV: lots of metal, low performance, low efficiency. Dumb.

Judging from how I see drivers of all ages operating their SUVs, however, I have to conclude that "inexperience" goes on far beyond the age of 20.

There are people who have a good use for SUVs, and make an intelligent decision to buy a gas guzzling, poorly-handling vehicle to accommodate those needs. There are people who just like them, and that's fine, as long as they don't then whine about all the gas they are buying (that goes into the "well, duh" category).

But the auto industry has been remarkably successful at selling the idea that SUVs are safer than passenger cars, though statistically, it's just not true. Their success, unfortunately, does make driving less safe for everyone else. Not to mention the whole fuel consumption issue.

Yes, people have a right to drive what they want, but a society in which people are driving around in Navigators, Escalades, and Hummers to go to the mall or pick up their dry cleaning has a problem. I can understand the desire to have the truck-like legroom and height that many of them offer, but you can get that in a much smaller, more economical vehicle. The gigantic-SUVs are just dumb, dangerous vehicles, and when I meet someone who drives one, I'm immediately wondering what kind of personality disorder led to the purchase. I won't deny there's a certain "wow, fun!" feeling to driving around in a tank like thing for a little while, but I'd hope an adult making a decision about spending tens of thousands of dollars on something they will have for a few years at least would be able to think beyond that.

Muckraking

Courtesy of John at Onanism Today, a handy guide the the government that helps you keep track of which members of Congress and the Cabinet are actually reptilian, as well as which are aliens or controlled by aliens. For those times when you can't remember whether Hillary Clinton is an alien and Kay Bailey Hutchison is supported by aliens, or if it's the other way around, this is the site to turn to. And let's be honest - John McCain's classification as "alien hybrid" explains a lot, doesn't it?

Speaking of Senator Kay "Democracy - it's not for everyone" Bailey Hutchison, has she no staff to answer constituent correspondence? I dutifully wrote to her (along with John Cornyn and Sheila Jackson-Lee) with my thoughts on social security privatization, and haven't gotten even the "thanks for your input, you America-hating pseudo-Texan" response I was expecting. I feel slighted. C'mon Kay, talk to me!

Waves

This grim story, inescapable today, is a reminder of how uncontrollable and random the world is, and what a fragile perch in it we occupy. In a perverse way, this kind of tragedy - caused by no one, preventable by no one - is more more disturbing (in the sense of "disturbing to mental equilibrium" rather than as an description of the degree of horror at the results) to me than the worst genocides or terrorist attacks or other examples of the human capacity for evil.

It's frightening and horrible to think that someone would try to destroy you or your family or your people, but it's paralyzing to think about how easily pure chance could accomplish the same thing. I'm not surprised that most of us see this kind of news story, think (sincerely) about how terrible it is, then move on. Thinking about it is unnerving, and when it comes to "random natural events that kill you," the best strategy is generally to not think about it at all, until you have some specific useful information ("Run now!").

Washingtonia

One of the good things about getting away from home for a few days is the opportunity it presents to dive into the long books that you're put off starting. Right now I'm about halfway through Personal History, the autobiography of the late Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

It's interesting reading; her life, because of the Post and because of her family wealth, was wrapped up in the doings of the country's most influential people. Fortunately, the book is not an endless series of incidents - "here's when I met Thomas Mann, here's when we hung around with the Jack Kennedy, etc." - but includes fairly thoughtful introspection about how her life both limited her and made it possible for her to move beyond those limits.

One topic that keeps bubbling up, but about which Graham said little, is the District of Columbia. There's lots about Washington, the capital city, but not so much about DC, the actual city. Early on, there's mention of how the city's newspapers ignored anything that happen in black Washington. There's a passing reference to "improvements of Southwest Washington" (that would be the total destruction of the neighborhoods there) and the Home Rule act. There are some references to Graham's work on charity for poor Washingtonians.

But mostly, DC sits in the background, never really mentioned. It's emblematic of the city's ongoing problem; nobody really cares, and the wealthy and the intelligentsia of the city are so caught up in Washington the Capital that Washington the District languishes. I don't think I've ever seen a place where the major industry and the things that draw people in from all over the world are so separate from the city's daily life.

Obviously, most of the readers of Graham's book are far more interested in how she and her husband influenced Cabinet appointments than the location of the Kennedy Center, but I hoped that a woman whose life so revolved around Washington would seem to have bee a little more aware of the city that was her home.

As a side note, this is the same kind of benign neglect one sees from the Washington Post even today, with its awful coverage of city affairs and condescending cheerleading for the current mayor.

The Palms of Hell

Last night was the night that I reached that moment in every family visit: the point where you look around and say, "this is my family?" and the whole situation just seems surreal. It's the moment that you realize how much you've all changed over the years, how many things that would make you insane if anyone but your family did them are going on around you, and how strange it is that these are the people who shaped your earliest years. I retreated to my room and read an interesting article in Texas Monthly about the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, along with a scary article about how terrorists could launch an attack in the Houston Ship Channel that would kill 10,000 people.

Merry Christmas - as the song stuck in my head all day says, the year has been good but days are just so.... well, today, I don' t know. My father and I did our usual Christmas Day drive. I could film this drive and I would call the result "From Target to Prada." Or maybe just "The Palms of Hell." This is what we do: we head south from the retirement-oriented spot where my folks live. This involves passing some very nice places, all nice in different ways, and some very scary places, all scary in different ways. Every time we take this drive, it ends in Palm Beach. Each year, it's a little more exciting, as my dad gets a little more distracted while driving. (My mother does not come along, and wouldn't take on the driving anyway, as she has decided to no longer make left turns.)

Palm Beach always looks like a movie set. Probably for a horror flick in which aliens or zombies or robots take over some upper class town by working their way through the social register. It's frighteningly orderly, with an incredible number of women who have their hair done up like battle helmets driving Bentleys. (Can hair crack up against leather headrests?)

On the other hand, the beachfront is quite nice. Unlike so many South Florida communities, they haven't turned their beach into a row of atrocious high rise condos; there's a well kept stretch of grass and sidewalks along the main street, and it tends to be filled with pedestrians. Being Palm Beach, it tends to filled with vacationing pedestrians with accents of unknown but vaguely European origin. And honestly, after a few days of seeing people in giant pickup trucks with confederate flags on them cutting off little old men in giant Cadillacs with New Jersey plates, there's something nice about being on foot and seeing Latin boys with pouty lips perched on benches by the beach, smoking their cigarettes in a world-weary way and looking bored behind their exquisite sunglasses and perfectly tousled hair.

When you cross back over the bridge into the city of West Palm Beach, you get to see the latest attempt to inject urban vitality into a decaying corpse. Dr. Frankenstein, now a city planner, is trying again, this time by redoing all of the downtown streets, with confusing signage that makes it completely unclear where you can turn and where you can't and whether you're about to drive into a ditch. Shockingly enough, the streets were empty of all signs of life. How did that happen? Just north of there, you can see the neighborhoods where the gay boys are turning former crackhouses back into delightful bungalows surrounded by flowering bushes.

But then it's back to real Florida - the unreal part - that is, a vast expanse of tract housing arranged in developments with names like "Captain's Cove" or "Seagrape Haven" or "Pelican Droppings," each lying behind a big gate with a guard house, but with convenient access to supermarkets, golf courses, and book/music superstores.

I know, just by looking at demographic data, that there is more to South Florida than this, but this place manages to hide it quite efficiently from visitors. In fifteen years of coming here I've never gotten more than a faint glimpse of something that felt like real life to me. Today, I did find decent Thai takeout, so I consider that a small victory for the forces of good in the world.

Tomorrow I will be in Fort Lauderdale visiting friends. Then Monday, mercifully, back to Houston.

Dress Your Family in Dudgeon and Pique

There's nothing like a good holiday incident of outrage, and so yesterday this item about NPR supposedly editing out the "gay part" of David Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries" starting making the rounds of blogville.

The whole thing sounded bogus to me, and sure enough, buried deep in the comments on some of the postings are people mentioning that they heard the piece on NPR this year (they have aired it for the last 12 years) and it is intact. (That follows dozens of comments in which people are so outraged by the obvious republican-fascist tendencies of Cokie Roberts that they're planning the public lynching, although it's occurred to no one to check and see if the story is, well... true.)

(And folks, a reality check: David Sedaris is suddenly too gay, but you can solve that be cutting three paragraphs? Um, right.)

There's nothing like a fake controversy for the holidays! Meanwhile, in a surprise announcement, the Pope says the world needs Jesus, so if you picked this year in the "when will the Pope become a Buddhist" pool, you're out of luck.

And over at Reuters, they've come up with the most unintentionally funny is a sick kind of way lead for a story: under the headline Christmas Brings New Hope of Peace to Bethlehem, we read that everyone is excited by the death of Yasser Arafat. (The story contains no actual news, although the Pope shows up here too; his spokesman takes the bold position that the violence has "lasted too long." You think?)

I get the point but there's something a little weird about the juxtaposition, and I imagine "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" gaining new life as a holiday song.

Merry Christmas!

More on Red Amazon

While digging around for more information on Amazon.com's Republican donations, I am across this blog post that details the specific contributions. As I suspected, they have more to do with who's got their hands into decisions about taxation of Internet purchases and expansion of internet infrastructure into rural areas and that kind of thing. In other words, your basic self-interest donations.

While I'm glad that Amazon is supporting Republicans for very simple reasons of self-interest, rather than because their management supports GOP social agendas, it's still troubling. I'm reminded of the segment of the film http://www.thecorporation.com/ where the filmmakers, reasoning that since corporations now have the legal rights of individuals, it's fair to analyze them as if they were people, do a quick psychological assessment of the corporate "personality" and conclude that we'd diagnose it as psychotic, in part because of its inability to concern itself with anything but its own self interest.

So in those terms, Amazon's donations are sensible and not evil, but one has to ask, is this any way to run a democracy? Should a corporation like Amazon be empowered to act as an individual in our representative democracy?

Today I am reading Toxic Sludge is Good For You, a fascinating little book about how corporations and business groups create "astroturf" (vs "grassroots") fake citizen groups to manufacture support for their positions. The chapter on how they used this technique to kill health care reform in the 90s (even though most citizens actually liked the Clinton plan, when it was described to them without the "Clinton" label) is particularly chilling.

So again, is this any way to run a democracy, and if not, what do we do when this kind of power is easily available to those who will pay for it, and the media is completely failing us on digging beneath the surface to find out who they are really talking to?

Giant cockroach!

An expedition of caves and cliffs, led by the Nature Conservancy, also said it saw previously unknown fish and plants.

"In just five weeks, the expedition team discovered numerous new species previously unknown to science," the conservancy's Scott Stanley said.

"Who knows what else is out there?" he added, calling for the area surveyed in East Kalimantan to be preserved.

"If something is not done soon to protect these areas, dozens of species could disappear before anyone knew they ever existed."

Borneo is one of the world's richest regions, in terms of biodiversity, but the area had no special status that might have protected it against illegal mining or logging.

The team of scientists explored four "karst" systems of limestone caves, cliffs and sinkholes in the Sangkulirang Peninsula, about 1,200km (750 miles) north-west of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta.

At 10cm (4in) long, the newly-discovered cockroach is believed to be the largest in the world.

As well as the "monster" cockroach, the scientists reported a new "micro-crab", a pure-white 6.5cm-long millipede, two new species of begonia, two new species of snail and several new types of fish, the conservancy said.
They had to go all the way to Borneo to find this baby, along with some other interesting stuff: Giant cockroach among jungle find

But am I the only one a bit disappointed to read the size of the "giant" cockroach? It doesn't sound that big to me. Have been overestimating the size of the ones I've seen scurrying around these parts?

Wrong Side of the Tracks



Tonight I went to Mama Ninfa's - the original one on Navigation Boulevard - with an old coworker and her husband and son. (Ninfa's is the only Mexican place where I'm ever tempted to order fajitas - while I usually reject it as a weird American invention, Ninfa's is the first place in the US that ever served them, so at least it's their invention. And actually, most of the stuff at Mexican restaurants is American invention anyway.) The food was great as always, and we left. They turned one way to drive back to Sugar Land and I headed down the weird little street that leads to I-10, past the weird big lofts I almost lived in.

Except the train was coming, so I had to wait. Not a big deal. I was the second car in line, it was a nice night, and endless cylindrical containers with the Archer Daniels Midland logo were plodding by on the train. "Isoflavones!" I thought.

Two guys were standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross the tracks. A third guy wandered up. Now, the neighborhood around Ninfa's is transitional, shall we say. There are a few things like the new lofts and some new townhouses. Mostly it seems to be very poor, and people tell me it's not terribly safe there. It certainly doesn't have the feel of danger that I remember from various places around DC, but it's clumps of residential streets surrounded by warehouses and train tracks. Glamorous it is not.

So these three guys are standing there, all twenty-something black guys dressed in a vaguely thuggish way, which does not particularly set off alarm bells for me though I suppose it might for some. They were hanging out and talking as train car after train car emerged from between two warehousy buildings. You can't really see how much more train is coming from that spot; it's snaking its way between buildings.

Someone else wandered along on the other side of the street. Then a few more cars pulled up behind me. It was becoming quite a scene, all of us waiting for the train to go by so we could continue on our way. Oh, and the train seemed to be slowing down.

Then came the more interesting addition; two Mormon missionaries, in their formal dress, wearing their gold nametags, carrying their shoulderbags. They stood on the corner and frankly looked a little nervous. They probably figured they'd just walk back to wherever they were going quickly through the dark, but now here they were, standing on the corner in a seedy area trapped by the train. (I am comfortable calling it seedy, because Ninfa's has a cop guarding their parking lot, and the loft building has a police substation in it that's manned 24x7. These are things that tell you someone is concerned about safety. I wouldn't walk there at night, personally.)

The three black guys got tired of waiting, especially with the train slowing down. One of them walked right up to the track, and hopped onto the train. I was surprised then I saw what he was doing; he was just crossing through the part between the cars, hopping on, sliding over, and jumping off on the other side. The train was going slowly enough at that point that it didn't move more than about five feet before he was through.

The other two guys looked at him, looked at each other, then went for it. About a minute passed, and then the two Mormon missionaries looked at the train, looked at each other, and did the same.

Within a few minutes there were no more pedestrians around. Of course those of us in cars were stuck. Then the train stopped.

This is when I made a U-turn and went around the back way to the freeway. I think the train part was half my ride home, actually.

(At Ninfa's I had a combo plate with a beef taco, cheese enchilada, and pork tamale. And of course, rice and guarro beans. And a margarita. Yum!)

And Next We'll Save Football and Television

One of the most irritating (in that low-grade, it's not that important, but boy it gives me a headache kind of irritating) things popping up all over the news is the "Christmas is under attack from evil secular lefties!" bullshit that's going around.

The New York Times ran a good little summary of this "controversy" yesterday: Holiday Wars: Does Christmas Need to Be Saved?

With no less a celebrity than Bill O'Reilly (apparently with some time on his hands, as he's had to stop calling up his female employees to tell them how he wants to rub falafel on their genitals) taking up the cause of rescuing soon-to-be-extinct Christmas, this is big news.

And I write this while sitting in a Starbucks sipping out of a Christmas themed cup while Christmas music plays and the entire little strip mall where it's located is done up for Christmas. But hey - clearly it's about to vanish forever. Could someone give these folks a big old reality pill?

On the one hand we have take-it-all-baby Christians who simply will not be happy till every living being in the country is piously paying tribute to their religion, and thus fondly remembers Dec. 25 as the birthday (except oops, it's the wrong day) of their sacrificial god/man offspring who was tortured to make us all free.

On the other hand, we have the basically brainless "If we don't say the C-Word it's cool!" folks who can talk about a "Holiday Tree" without feeling silly. Hello, we all know that it is a Christmas tree. We have never seen a Hannukah Tree or a Kwanzaa Tree or a Festivus Tree, so calling it a Holiday Tree doesn't make it non-Christmasy, it just makes it dumb.

(And could someone please tell me what the hell dragging trees into your living room has to do with the birth of a savior?)

If some devout Christian out there wants to "save" Christmas, here's a recommendation from someone who really doesn't care about it, and thus perhaps can see things a bit more clearly. If Christmas is your big religious holiday, perhaps you should start a campaign to make it a time of reflection for people who share your faith, so that they might celebrate it by thinking about Jesus instead of going into debt to buy a plasma screen TV.

You lost Christmas the first year that CVS was putting up candy canes the day after Halloween.

Although if you get too religious, you'll run into a little detail: Easter is actually a far better candidate to be the main religious holiday for Christianity. (If someone could explain what bunnies have to do with the resurrection of Christ I'd appreciate it.)

One final note: I am not a Christian but I don't feel particularly oppressed by the annual consumerist orgasm it brings - just a bit revolted. On the other hand, I was raised Christian, and thus have never had the experience that someone of another faith might have in our majority-Christian country. If anyone has any comments from that point of view, I think it would be an interesting discussion. Do you feel better with a "holiday tree" in the town square than a "Christmas tree?" Are you ready to scream if you hear "winter wonderland" one more time? Or does it all just seem hopelessly silly?

Wankers!

Note: sex talk ahead.

You find the funniest things on the internet.

Yesterday, I was up bright and early (too early) to drive a friend to the airport. As we zipped up the freeway into outer suburbia, we chatted away, somehow landing on the subject of masturbation.

"I hate doing it," my friend commented. To me, this was the kind of jaw-dropping comment that nearly made me fly across three lanes of traffic.

"You hate it?" I asked, bewildered. Now, to me, masturbation is one of those miracles of the human condition. Think about it: every person on this earth has a built in capacity to experience incredible pleasure, accessible any time they have a few minutes and a little privacy (and for some the privacy is even optional). I know that this is just a side effect of the built-in instinct to reproduce, but when you think about it, it's really quite amazing. We are driven to do all kinds of things that produce relatively little pleasure, yet here's one where we might have wound up with a tremendous urge to seek sexual activity without all that pleasure. But no - we've all got a built-in pleasure machine that just takes a free hand to activate. This, to me, is proof that the universe is an interesting and surprising place to live.

"Do you hate it because it feels like a weak substitute for sex?" I asked. Yes, my friend said, that really is what it is; it makes him miss the real thing. I thought that was interesting, because I don't see it that way at all; to me it's just something different. Yes, it lacks the intensity and the emotional component of actual sexual activity with another person, but what it lacks in intensity is made up for with a certain simple perfection; it's there all the time, and you generally know exactly how to bring yourself pleasure. And at its best, it's got an element of self-exploration that is quite wonderful.

I've always hated the clinical term for it, and the way that it's used as a metaphor for pointless activities: "that's just mental masturbation," and so on. The slang words are a lot more evocative and get closer to reality.

The British has some lovely terms - wanking, tossing off, and so on - and so when I clicked the "next blog" button on a blogger.com blog (as I sometimes do just to see what comes up next) later that day, I was amused my the coincidence, given the morning's conversation, of what came up next: The Wank Blog, the writings of two gay boys in Birmingham, England. They call themselves "Wanker" and "Tosser" and the header states, "Hopefully, every wank should end up here."

Now, I don't think someones diary of their wanks is something that will make exciting reading over a long period of time, but I actually love the happy, "ain't this grand!" tone of what they've done. "I had a few minutes, so I closed the door and opened my jeans...."

They've been at it for three months now, meaning that they've been more consistent about recording their jerk off sessions than many would-be bloggers are about recording their deep thoughts, political broadsides, or accounts of the lives of their cats. I guess it's a topic that never gets old - at least if you're the wanker.

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