Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Happened Next Was Amazing!

As I have always been a connoisseur of Internet trends, I feel that I must bring your attention to the recent wave of dramatically overstated media captions. You have all seen them; most of you have probably posted them. They have the exact same setup sentence with just a slight variation on the punchline. The setup sentence will briefly describe an event:
  • A Retired Gym Teacher Has Dinner at Golden Coral……
  • A Kindergarten Class Visits a Federal Penitentiary……
  • Two Hungarian Waitresses Spray Paint an Elephant…..
  • An ASE Certified Mechanic Contracts Syphilis…..
  • This Group of Lutherans Attempts to Purchase Hummus…..
These teaser sentences will culminate in one of two ways:

No One Expected What Happened Next!

What Happened Next Is Amazing!
First of all, if no one expected it then why was someone filming it in the first place? I am not suggesting that everyone featured in the clip was in the know, but generally speaking people don’t film random strangers paying for gas unless they have reason to believe that something more entertaining is likely to occur. Secondly, perhaps we are playing it too fast and loose with the word amazing. If everything that carried this label was truly amazing the word would lose its relevance. Amazing is an adjective best used sparingly.

Personally, I have been accused of overusing the word “fascinating” to describe documentaries, but I wish to succinctly make a case for my stance.

Here are a few things that “fascinate” me:
  • The Changing Demographics of Middle Class America
  • The Logistical Complications of Mounting a Successful Bid for the Presidency
  • Crime Statistics as They Relate to Socioeconomic Status
  • Long Term Effects of Radiation on Plant Life
  • The Unprecedented Rise of Non-denominational Mega-Churches and Those Who Helm Them

Here are a few things that “amaze” me:
  • Dubai’s Construction Budget
  • Bears Using Kitchen Utensils
  • Celebrity-endorsed Mobile Homes
  • Racist Pigeons

Generally, I am fascinated by acquiring unexpected information concerning a known subject whereas I am amazed when I am confronted with something that defies logic or I did not know to have previously existed. This is why I can be “fascinated” by documentaries on prison recidivism rates while being “amazed” when a Shitzu successfully lands a helicopter.

While I am on the subject of Internet trends, I am starting to see more and more use of the word “THAT” to imply widespread infamy involving a public figure. It implies that while something insignificant is currently being reported, it is occurring in close proximity to an event that has become inexorably linked to that person’s image. This technique is most widely used on magazines and websites that publish and disseminate celebrity gossip:

  • Kim Kardashian Unlocks Her Car after THAT Trip to Whole Foods
  • Ryan Gosling Discusses THAT Drawing on his Etch-A-Sketch
  • Nicole Kidman Scratches Her Ear after THAT Altercation with a Hummingbird
  • George Clooney Spotted Drinking Electrolytes after THAT Bout of Dysentery

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pearl Jam: A Brief Appreciation

I am currently in the midst of a complimentary three-month trial of XM satellite radio. One of the many perks of this is access to the Pearl Jam channel, a 24-hour celebration of all things awesome. While I can neither claim to be their biggest fan or their most astute historian, my admiration for these Seattle rockers began when I first heard Ten and has continued unabated since then. Now in their third decade together, Vedder, McCready, Gossard, and Ament (with the welcome addition of Cameron in 98) have skillfully avoided the pitfalls that claimed so many of their grunge brethren. One by one, their contemporaries succumbed to addiction, infighting, and F.E.D.S. (Front-man Early Demise Syndrome) before transforming into half-hearted attempts to restore their creative peaks.
To be fair, I have heard many people argue that Pearl Jam peaked early (“they haven’t made a good album since Ten” / “I just can’t get into their new stuff”) and if you dove into their subsequent catalogue seeking a band desperately trying to recreate their groundbreaking debut it only stands to reason that you would be disappointed. However, I would argue that it was (and is) their reluctance to embrace commercialized nostalgia that made them something far more than a reliable rock band, they became an interesting one.   

That isn’t to say that Pearl Jam’s adventurous philosophy prevents creative missteps (remember “Bugs” from Vitalogy?) but it does bring the promise of continued brilliance unbridled by adherence to formulaic expectations. I may not love every song (or album) that they release, but that was never my expectation. Instead, I get to witness a creative process robust enough to put “Lukin” and “Off He Goes” on the same album without a whiff of artistic contrivance. If I need to hear Eddie opine about insects over a sickly accordion for the opportunity to sing “Unthought Known” on a road trip with my wife, then so be it.

Unfortunately, we all continue to suffer through the asinine zero-sum game of Pearl Jam Fans Vs. (no pun Intended) Nirvana Fans; as if enjoyment of one constituted a dislike of the other. I am fully capable of owning and appreciating Nevermind and Unplugged in NY without ever being convinced that Kurt Cobain was the greatest rock front-man to emerge from 90’s. At the risk of blasphemy, I would venture so far as to say that I have benefited more from the byproducts of Nirvana’s disbanding than I would have from their continuation. But I digress….

No discussion of Pearl Jam would be complete without mentioning their prowess as live performers. I have had the privilege of seeing them several times, and they are unquestionably talented musicians who remain demonstrably grateful for their fans and each other. That is no small feat in modern music where bands charge their attendees exorbitant fees for the dubious honor of watching the original members conceal their contempt for each other in exchange for large paychecks.   

In closing, thanks for a career of fearless songwriting, blistering live performances, and providing much of the soundtrack of my youth. Keep it up guys. Music still needs you.

A Truncated Listening Guide:

  • Alive (particularly the brilliantly-adapted outro solo of the MTV Unplugged performance)
  • Dissident
  • Of The Girl
  • Release
  • Indifference
  • Corduroy
  • Daughter
  • Brain of J
  • Go
  • World Wide Suicide
  • Unthought Known
  • The Fixer
  • Mind Your Manners
  • Yellow Ledbetter (Tibetan Freedom Concert)

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Hobby Lobby & The Supreme Court

In a deeply-divided 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of craft-chain Hobby Lobby in regards to providing certain forms of birth control under the Affordable Care Act. Supporters of Hobby Lobby cast the company’s executives as stalwarts of religious freedom while detractors saw the case as a small group of entrepreneurs attempting to force their religious views upon their workforce.
The majority opinion was based on interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act which was largely enacted to protect Native American religious practices. Indeed, it was widespread Congressional outrage with a 1990 Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division v. Smith that led to the bipartisan effort to pass the RFRA. The Smith Case involved two Native Americans who were fired from their jobs for testing positive for peyote and were subsequently denied unemployment benefits by the State of Oregon. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the firing and denial of benefits to these two Native Americans for the practice of their religion was so widely derided that the effort to pass the RFRA was supported by both the ACLU and the National Association of Evangelicals. The irony of this same act being cited by the very court it was meant to repudiate is stunning. The fact that the act was used to partially overrule the very legislative body that created it is politics.

The core of the ruling is whether or not the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring medical coverage of any FDA approved birth-control method “substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” In Hobby Lobby’s case, they argued that the use of both the “morning after pills” (Plan B, Ella, etc.) and IUDs were tantamount to abortion, which the company’s owners objected to on religious grounds.

This was part of a larger “birth begins at conception” movement which raises an interesting question about what Hobby Lobby considers “conception”. The “morning after pill” simply prevents the woman from ovulating thereby keeping the sperm and egg from ever meeting. I could find no scientific evidence that it was effective at preventing an already fertilized egg from implanting. Essentially, this makes it no different than the condoms, spermicide, traditional birth control pills, tubal ligations, or vasectomies that Hobby Lobby is willing to cover. The only difference here is that the “morning-after” pill works after coitus not before or during. One could even argue that by allowing access to emergency contraceptives that prevent ovulation now, we are essentially reducing the number of actual abortions being sought later.

While the debate about the “morning after” pill is well publicized, I was surprised to find Hobby Lobby’s objection to IUDs (intrauterine devices) since they are actually more efficient at preventing fertilization that condoms or pills. While just 9% of American women currently use them (compared to 41% in other developed nations) they have been gaining in popularity here due to their low instance of side effects and ability to conceive immediately upon removal. Hobby Lobby doesn’t wish to cover them because it is possible to use certain IUDs as an emergency contraceptive if it is inserted within five days of intercourse and they could prevent implantation of a zygote in some cases. Not only are IUDs statistically unlikely to be utilized in this method, most gynecologists test for pregnancy before they will even insert the device. Perhaps if Hobby Lobby wished to prevent this use they could cover IUDs with the requirement that the physician perform a pregnancy test prior to insertion.  

Unfortunately, like all discussion involving abortion and religion, we are forced to split hairs. The Green Family, which controls Hobby Lobby, happens to interpret their religious convictions through the lens of Pentecostalism. They believe that while certain forms of birth control (condoms, vasectomies, tubal ligations, traditional birth control pills) are consistent with Christian faith; others (IUDs, Morning-After Pills) are forms of abortion. In many cases, this means that their distinction between prudent family planning and pre-meditated murder could be simply a matter of minutes.

If the Green Family happened to be devoutly Catholic instead of Protestant, they would likely consider any interference with the reproductive process immoral. If Hobby Lobby had been started by a Jehovah’s Witness family, they might have balked at covering lifesaving blood transfusions. Had the Greens been Muslim, perhaps porcine heart valve replacement would have been a sinful use of the company’s money. Scientology would have exempted them from being forced to cover anti-depressants or medically treat PTSD. I say that not to diminish anyone’s religious views, but to remind you that we are legally placing ourselves in a position to allow someone else’s convictions regarding morality and medicine to limit the choices available to others simply because they share a payroll system.

Theoretically, if everyone who worked at Hobby Lobby already held the exact same religious convictions as the chain’s proprietors, this ruling would be unnecessary since no one would take advantage of these contraceptives anyway. The ruling is necessary precisely because not everyone under their employ shares their views on religion or morality. The Greens (as individual citizens) were under no personal legal obligation to utilize any form of FDA-approved birth control any more than I have a legal obligation to drink liquor simply because I eat dinner at a restaurant that serves it.

The polarizing question is whether or not you believe the religious freedoms granted to individuals should be extended to the for-profit corporations they helm. Personally, I am not convinced that limiting thousands of employees’ access to a highly-effective form of birth control simply to relieve the moral discomfort of a handful of people is what the founding fathers had in mind. The fact that they were legally obligated to do so by Federal law does little to diminish this. After all, Federal law also dictates that Hobby Lobby pay all of their employees a set wage for the hours that they work even though it is entirely possible that some of those same employees could be utilizing that money to fund an extra-marital affair or gambling habit (both of which I suspect The Greens would find morally reprehensible as well).  

Many see the ruling as a victory for Christianity (I personally don’t feel qualified speaking for Jesus concerning ovulation) while others see this as yet another example of women’s healthcare choices being suppressed by a panel of men. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, this ruling set a legal precedent whose reverberations we cannot possibly fathom from this point in history. Perhaps, as the majority opinion insisted, this was a narrow ruling directed at privately-held for-profit corporations strictly in regard to contraceptives and will never be broadly interpreted in the future. I fear they may be overly optimistic.

Friday, June 27, 2014


“Philosophy is a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.” – Ambrose Bierce

“If you’re famous and on Twitter, you’re a moron.” – George Clooney

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” - C. S. Lewis

"One of the most important things you learn from the Internet is that there is no "them" out there. It's just an awful lot of "us" - Douglas Adams

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.– Winston Churchill

“You should always leave the party 10 minutes before you actually do so.” – Gary Larson

“Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell the name will carry.” – Bill Cosby

"Elijah Whiting, now nearing one hundred, had not succeeded in killing his wife with the shovel, nor had he recovered from the disappointment." - Richard Russo (from Empire Falls)

“Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way” – C.S. Lewis

"The best time to add insult to injury is when signing someone's cast." - Demetri Martin

"Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes" - E.M. Forster

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction. - Blaise Pascal

Where lipstick is concerned, the important thing is not color, but to accept God’s final word on where your lips end.” - Jerry Seinfeld

 There is no off position on the genius switch.” – David Letterman

“Jesus is our God come looking for us” – Von W Unruh

You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.– George W. Bush

“Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.” - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” – James Hollingworth

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. – Erma Brombeck

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” – Albert Einstein

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” – Douglas Adams

“Parenthood remains the greatest single preserve of the amateur.” – Alvin Toffler

“Teaching is the only vocation where one consistently steals supplies from home to take to work.” - Unknown

“Never trust an animal that’s surprised by its own farts.” – Frank Skinner