I’ve been meme-ifying over on Facebook lately. Just little nothings I tinkered up in Photoshop, and most of them no great shakes in the graphic design department — or even in basic message.

Apparently you have to click on an image, and then click on it again, in order to see any one of these full-size.

The top three are the coolest. If you have time for nothing else, take a look at those.


Free Online Movies, Including One on Atheism

Things to be found on this newfangled Internet:

535 Free Movies Online

Including this one: Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief

With the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the emotional whiplash that followed, the monotheistic religions of the West took a more stridently political turn. It was in this context that Jonathan Miller, the British theatre and opera director, felt compelled to create a three-part documentary tracing the history of religious skepticism and disbelief.

Broadcast by the BBC in 2004 under the title, Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief, the series wasn’t broadcast by PBS in America until 2007, and only after “Atheism” had been removed from the title and the word “rough” changed to “brief.”

The complete program is in three segments, each an hour long.


Pain and Healing: Rotten Charities and Wonderful Puppetry

Couple of things caught my attention this morning.

One is a list of America’s Worst Charities — thanks to the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Imagine a “charity” that takes in tens of millions and gives out nothing — zero — in direct cash aid to the cause it supposedly champions. It’s on the list: Project Cure of Bradenton, Florida.

Since 1998, Florida-based Project Cure has raised $65 million to lobby Congress and educate the public about alternative treatments for cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

But its office off Interstate 75 south of Tampa is little more than a storage unit filled with plastic bins, unused furniture and Christmas decorations.

Percentages of direct aid range from 10.8 percent on the high end to zero on the low … and Project Cure is not the lone zero. Missing children, sick children, children with AIDS, burned firefighters, diabetes, cancer, disabled police officers, they’re all represented here … by parasites who bleed off our warmest feelings for the less fortunate, stealing-by-misrepresentation millions, over the years billions, in scarce money and resources.

Project Cure’s longtime president, Michael S. Evers, is paid about $200,000 a year.

[… ] Reached at the house he rents about five miles away from his group’s office, Evers, 60, said he frequently works from home. “It’s not necessary to go into the office,” he said.

When asked for details about how he spends his time, Evers ended a phone interview, saying he was “in the middle of editing a new report on Alzheimer’s disease.”

Oh shit. Is there enough pain in the world for someone who does something like that? But Evers and others like him sleep well every night, I’m sure of it.

On the other hand, there’s this. King Kong the musical, with a giant gorilla puppet that you just fall in love with.

Back to My Redneck Roots … Maybe

Those of you who knew me as the Blue Collar Atheist, and who lament this high-falutin’ “Citizen of Earth” business, I may be getting back into the red-necky-blue-collary stuff in the near future.

Currently I drive a van for a drug and alcohol rehab facility. Five days a week, I drive more than 350 miles, round trip between my upstate New York town and New York City, to fetch and return rehab clients.

The work is interesting, sometimes fascinating. I’ve expanded my human horizons in that I’m interfacing with a demographic I’d never really dealt with before.

Oh, boy, have I wanted to write about them. But I haven’t, mainly because they’re humans, not … you know, things. Blog-fodder subjects I can casually deconstruct or joke about. Even at several removes on their identities — not telling you exactly where I’m working, not telling you their names, or any specific personal details — I would still feel uncomfortable relating any of their personal stories.

Mostly, as I’ve discovered, these are normal people with this Problem. Alcohol. Heroin. Crack. Xanax. Stuff I never heard of. And some have additional physical troubles such as a positive HIV status or hepatitis or … could be anything. But still, just people.

I have met a very few — maybe 3 or 4 in my 1.5 years of doing this — I might consider sociopaths, someone for whom the entire universe was created so they could be the center of it. You’d think someone like that would be some big ugly guy, but no, not generally. More often (in my sharply limited experience), they seem to be uber-charming, lovely young women. And I say I only “might” consider them sociopaths, because I carefully hold back on that judgment, fully aware that the field of drug addiction contains vast truths of which I am still pitifully unaware. I can’t begin to understand what drives one might come to have under the merciless lash of addiction.

I suppose I’ve known a few alcoholics in my life, but before this job, I can’t say I’ve ever really known a drug addict.  And even among the supposed alcoholics, I’ve never known one who lost a job or had other serious problems from it. So this is mostly subdimensional physics to me — a parade of people who will always be mysteries, interesting and sometimes sad beings who pass through my day, touching me only very slightly.

One part of the larger therapeutic environment is that bit based on 12-step programs, with liberal amounts of God and Jesus and Higher Powers sprinkled in. Knowing full well that my job is transporting these vulnerable people, with no scrap of it containing any right to meddle in their heads, I have given no hint to either clients or co-workers that I have the convictions you know I hold. And though other clients in the van might casually ask them what their drug(s) of choice are, or which prisons they’ve resided in, that’s stuff I’m careful never to do. Mostly I try to be nice to them, and smooth what is already a stressful day — a stressful life! — with music, a little tour-guiding, a listening ear, and lots of companionable silence for the long drive.

I can feel myself already getting tired of it though. There’s a certain strain in interfacing with addicts for many hours each day, day after day, week after week. And the job certainly doesn’t pay enough, even with benefits, to get me through my life in any halfway comfortable fashion.

So: I’m studying to get my CDL license, and sometime later this year I’ll be out hunting for truck driving jobs. Hopefully long-haul stuff, hookup-and-go loads along the interstates. There are a lot of hoops to jump through before it happens, but I think I’m headed that way.

I have to make a living, and I haven’t been very good at that for several years. I want to be able to pay my bills again, and get some dogs again, and live somewhere out of a city, where said dogs can enjoy some off-leash outdoor time and maybe a nearby creek.

I have several books yet to write, as I think I’ve told you, and I want nothing to get in the way of that. But book-writing for most of us is not a bill-paying enterprise. (You knew about this one, right? Hint, hint.)

Even if I break new ground in my book about dealing with death as an atheist (out sometime in 2014), it’s probably going to be anything but a bestseller. Who wants to buy a book about death and dying? Not even me, really … but there are still some things worth saying, and I think SOMEBODY has to do it. You know, for our people. For us.

I also want to carry on writing about — and hopefully speaking about — Beta Culture. Because I think it’s important, really important, and I’d like to see it actually happen.

But anyway, this time next year, I might be a trucker. Brace yourselves.

Hell, I might go all the way — pick my Southern accent back up, and start writin’ trucker love songs.

Baybuh, you done me wrawwnng,
Cain’t even think where to start,
I jist know I’m cryin’ tears,
For how you  jack-knifed my heart.

Whoa. Eat your heart out, Johnny Cash!


A Young Artist’s Heartbreak

You ever have the experience of finding something in your head you didn’t know was there?

I just had one of those moments. I’m not totally surprised to find it there — it’s based on a memory, after all. But it’s a leftover from, oh, about the age of 6 or so, and at my current age of 60, it’s just curious to find it still in there somewhere.

It has to do with how I felt about Crayola crayons. And the memory bubbled up at this bit on the ColourLovers site: All 120 Crayon Names, Color Codes and Fun Facts.

You remember when you were a kid how much you loved your Crayolas? You could do anything with those great colors. I wasn’t much of an artist when it came to creating original works on blank coloring paper, but I was pretty good at picking realistic colors to fill in pictures in coloring books.

I couldn’t match Michelle, of course. Michelle was the little girl in my class – maybe in every class – who could color things perfectly. She was the Winslow Homer of coloring books, so good at coloring she wowed even adults.

I still remember the alien perfection of her coloring. She not only picked the right colors, she had this way of bearing down at the edges of each coloring block so that it gained a special brilliance. Under Michelle’s hand and eye, simple line drawings in coloring books took on a life beyond what their creators dreamed, leaping off the page at you in smooth chromatic brilliance. She even put in extras, added lines of shading or definition to give depth to the flat images of kittens and frogs and cowboys.

And whereas I, with my 6-year-old hand-eye coordination, sometimes slipped and let the waxy color wander over a line, when the Crayon was in Michelle’s hand, not an atom of color lapped over.

Worse, she wasn’t even snotty about it, so I don’t get to remember her as a nasty little brat. She was sweet, even generous, about showing others how she did what she did. (Pfft. Rotten little minx. Today she’s probably on the board of Crayola, or a member of the Presidential Commission on Coloring Books.)

Anyway, coming across that listing of all the crayon colors, I felt a moment of … hurt.


My family was poor. Not starving and freezing poor, but raggedy-ass hand-me-down poor. Occasionally even charity-case welfare poor. I never lacked for my own socks and shoes, but until I was 13 or so I don’t think I wore a single shirt or pair of pants that hadn’t been worn by one or both of my older brothers. My “rich” uncle once bought me a chemistry set for Christmas that cost all of $15, and I felt like I was king of the world for months after.

The relative poverty played out in other ways. Toys were all hand-me-downs, or Goodwill acquisitions, and even so, there weren’t many.

Which leads me to Crayons.

They came in different-sized boxes. Still do, in fact, but I’m relating the memories of the 6-year-old at the center of this memory.

There was the 8-crayon box, which anybody could afford. Crayola says “8 ct. Crayola Crayons are the classic kids’ art tool. They are the colors generations have grown up with — includes red, yellow, green, blue, brown, black, orange and purple!”

There was the 16-crayon box, which included the coveted gold, silver and copper. There was the 24-crayon box, and then 48, which moved into ethereal realm of colors called yellow-green and sky blue and flesh.

There was the 64-crayon box, which I think I saw only a handful of times in my entire life, so I can’t say what colors it contained.

And then there was a box that contained 96 crayons. Ninety six!! Tangerine! Jungle Green! Fuschia! Red Violet! Royal Purple! Pacific Blue! Sea Green, Dandelion, Sepia!

The colors were ranked in disciplined rainbow rows in the huge box, like an invading Crayola army.

This was WEALTH. Raw, in-your-face goddam opulence.

Only two kids I ever met had it. Michelle was one. (The other was a kid in the 6th grade, long after any of us really cared about such things, so he doesn’t count.)

The first time that box came to school, it nearly caused a riot. Unheeding Miss Calvert’s orders, we left our seats to crowd around and gawk. There were gasps. There were wows. Even fat old Miss Calvert waddled over to marvel.

When Michelle opened that box for the first time, a kind of glow emerged, something like really religious people might imagine emanates from holy shrines. It wasn’t just glorious, it was Glory itself. Thinking about it now, I even seem to remember a sound, the distant choral notes of a heavenly choir (although this may only be the constant tinny whine in my aged ears) that accompanied the opening of the full 96-crayon box.

A brand new box of 96 crayons, in untouched splendor. Pristine tips. Not a scratch, not a tooth mark. Perfect, unpeeled paper covers. Unbroken. And the colors! None of us dared touch them, but Miss Calvert and Michelle read off their names as the rest of us stood in stunned, slack-jawed silence. Periwinkle? Cerulean? We’d never even heard of them.


Eventually I went back to my desk and my own coloring book. I opened the page to the horse. I opened my own box of crayons. They were new and perfect, just as unbroken and unblemished as Michelle’s. But when I looked at my color selection, there was only red, yellow, green, blue, brown, black, orange and purple.

I had the 8-color box.

Sweet, wealthy Michelle might have colored her horse brick red or mahogany, desert sand or almond, but I had only brown.

The memory ends there. Surely I picked up the brown and started coloring, doing the best I could with what I had. Even at the age of 6, you know life doesn’t end just because it hurts. And there’s a hazy something in my head that suggests that later in the year, Michelle even lent out certain colors to special friends, and that once or twice I qualified to borrow her sunset orange, or silver, or even copper.

But carried unnoticed and unsuspected across half a century, there’s still a tiny little wound on the heart of that 6-year-old boy.

Being poor sucks. Certainly there are plenty of children in the world who have less, and the sensible-adult me of today well knows it.

But 50-plus years later, there’s a 6-year-old in me that still yearns, impossibly and hopelessly, after Crayola’s Big Box.

And I still have no idea what periwinkle looks like.


[Afternote: I looked up the history of Crayola on Wikipedia, and I’ve misremembered some of this. The 96-box came along well after I was in first grade. It was the 64-box I recall.]

Atheists at Albany Pride

My atheist Meetup group, Capital Region Atheists & Agnostics, rented a booth for Albany, New York’s Gay Pride Day.

Whew! Fantastic event! My own personal thank-you to all who organized the thing, and all who attended, and especially to the members of CRAA who made it all happen. (I’m hoping some of them will chime in here and tell me who sent all the great atheist/agnostic/humanist stuff that covered the table and caught so many eyes.)

Photos follow. In order to see these large, you have to click on a photo, then click again after it opens in its own page. (I’m sure there’s some easier/better way to do this, but I haven’t figured it out yet.)

There was an eye-catching banner donated by one of the founding members, Rick Martin, “Why Are There Atheists at Gay Pride Day?” fliers written by Mike McElroy and designed by me, and just a whole mess of people who showed up to man the booth and offer moral support. Rick, Mike, Nick, Rich, Rajesh and Dan were some of the core booth-minders and crowd-schmoozers.

I’m ashamed to say that I had a “Proud to be an Atheist” button that I didn’t put on until I got into the city park where the event was held. Old habits, I guess, grown out of the goddy Deep South swamp I grew up in. But I’m proud to say that I did wear it all the way home.

There were plenty of people who came to the booth and asked questions or voiced support. There were also a certain number who came by and looked but walked away without speaking, some with doubtful expressions. But at least while I was there, there were no strongly negative reviews.

One thing really caught my eye — the number of churches and goddy organizations in the parade, all with messages of inclusion. I noticed it for two reasons — one a criticism, one a speculation.

The criticism is that churches were definitely part of the historical problem with acceptance of gay rights, and it’s interesting and wonderful, but also sort of annoying that some of them are now so big-tent buddy-buddy. That this group once cast out of churchy society is now welcomed in makes me feel less that there’s some inclusionary goodness happening, and more that a predator running short of its natural prey has decided to accept new kinds of meat.

The speculation is in regards to that very inclusionary phenomenon: If churches can evolve to accept and welcome the LGBT community, they can evolve to accept others. Except that’s not ever going to happen with atheists, is it? Because by our very nature, we’re not a group subject to that sort of inclusion— not by a church, anyway.

Which means, again, that we have to build our own culture, our own venue of social inclusion.


Side note to all the dog owners and dog lovers there today: MOST of the dogs I saw there weren’t having a very good time. It was a bit too hot for dog comfort (I hope you were all giving them nice cold water when I wasn’t there to see), but the music was also screamingly loud. Hey, it hurt my ears sometimes, and I have some hearing loss; can’t imagine what it must have been like for sensitive doggie ears.

I saw some dogs dragging on leashes looking like they wanted to be somewhere else fast.  I guarantee you, your dog would much rather be hiking in the woods with you, somewhere near a nice cool creek, than in a crowded city park on a hot, humid day.

A Window Into Past Lives

Here’s a video simply titled “England, Edwardian Era around 1900 (enhanced video).” No idea of its provenance, but it was apparently uploaded on May 17, 2011. The caption reads:

This video has been dramatically enhanced in quality, using modern video editing tools. The film has been motion stabilized and the speed has been slowed down to correct speed (from 18 fps to 24 fps) using special frame interpolation software that re-creates missing frames. Upscaling to HD quality was done using video enhancer software.

I have been told that at least part of this film was shot in Cork (Ireland). The music is “Chanson du Soir” and “Arco Noir” from Harvey’s Strings of Sorrow album.

The phrase that ran through my head as I watched it was “Everybody you see here, and everybody who ever knew them, is probably dead.” That may not be strictly true — some of the youngsters in the film probably produced grandchildren, or even children, who are still alive. But it’s mostly true.

It’s a moving piece, for me. I see attractive slim-waisted women, handsome mustachioed men, happy children, and even old people, everyone wearing fantastic hats and all vigorously moving through their days and lives — long-passed days and temporary lives. How many of them are gay? How many are servants of the others? How many would be atheists today if they’d had that choice? Dressed in what would otherwise appear to be costumes, but which are everyday attire for them, they stride busily about, thronging the streets in numbers that make it look as if some special event is happening, but which is probably just everyday street  traffic in their time and place.

I challenge you to count the fat people. I noticed three who might qualify as overweight, but nobody really fat. It may have been thrift with food, but it was most likely the daily exercise required of average people living in their time. There are a certain number of horses and bicycles in the streets, but the vast majority of people are walking, walking, walking.

The Rochet Cars sign surprised me at 1:02 — “Motor Vehicles — Electric, Steam and Petrol System.” Even though there’s an electric car in an engineering museum here in Schenectady from 1917, I still have a hard time thinking of electric cars in earlier times. And steam cars? Isn’t it intriguing that you can’t even get them anymore?

The panoramic shot of the city (how did they get that?) shows air filled with smoke. See if you can catch the wagon sign “Henry O’Shea’s Bread” after the pan.

I love the open looks of curiosity on so many of the people, and how casually they bump into each other in their desire to know more. I wonder just what they were seeing — something like this stilt-legged hand-cranked movie camera?

Heh. Looking at all the horse-drawn vehicles on the streets, I know that if I was dropped back there into that past, with my years of draft horse driving, I could at least find a job.

Then again, maybe I would have been one of the legions of shovelers.


Prairie Dogs are Calling You Fat

I don’t think I ever got to meet this guy when I lived in Flagstaff and edited an arts and entertainment magazine for 3 years, but I wish I had. He’s doing some amazing work.

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D., assisted by students at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, has managed to decode some of the content of prairie dog language. As it turns out, they’re pretty expressive.

You might not think it to look at them, but prairie dogs and humans actually share an important commonality — and it’s not just their complex social structures, or their habit of standing up on two feet (aww, like people). As it turns out, prairie dogs actually have one of the most sophisticated forms of vocal communication in the natural world, really not so unlike our own.

After more than 25 years of studying the calls of prairie dog in the field, one researcher managed to decode just what these animals are saying. And the results show that praire dogs aren’t only extremely effective communicators, they also pay close attention to detail.

Working with Gunnison’s prairie dogs, Dr. Slobodchikoff studied their alarm calls, recording and analyzing the calls, but also noting the conditions during which the calls originated. What he discovered is that prairie dogs can not only tell the difference between a coyote and a similar-appearing domestic dog such as a German shepherd, they can express that difference clearly in distinct warning calls.

Turns out they can make similar distinctions between humans wandering into their territory, even going so far as to describe the human’s size, shape and clothing color!

Watch the video (or read more about the critters at Wikipedia).


Neuroscientist: Fundamentalism As Mental Illness

A HuffPo article from yesterday (Friday, May 31) says:

Kathleen Taylor, Neuroscientist, Says Religious Fundamentalism Could Be Treated As A Mental Illness

An Oxford University researcher and author specializing in neuroscience has suggested that one day religious fundamentalism may be treated as a curable mental illness.

Kathleen Taylor, who describes herself as a “science writer affiliated to the Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics,” made the suggestion during a presentation on brain research at the Hay Literary Festival in Wales on Wednesday.

In response to a question about the future of neuroscience, Taylor said that “One of the surprises may be to see people with certain beliefs as people who can be treated,” The Times of London notes.

“Someone who has for example become radicalised to a cult ideology — we might stop seeing that as a personal choice that they have chosen as a result of pure free will and may start treating it as some kind of mental disturbance,” Taylor said. “In many ways it could be a very positive thing because there are no doubt beliefs in our society that do a heck of a lot of damage.”

Though in this story she’s quoted as saying she’s not speaking of “obvious candidates” such as radical Islam, another story on the subject is titled Science ‘may one day cure Islamic radicals’.

Muslim fundamentalism may one day be seen in the same way as mental illness is today and be “curable”, according to a leading neuroscientist.

Heh, that’s gonna go over really well in the middle East.

But it’s an idea I’d like to see propagated. I’ve long said I think it’s a shame there’s no category of mental illness named “religious illness” (as far as I know, anyway). I mean, look at some of the more obvious examples in the U.S. — the Phelps clan, Pat Robertson, Ken Ham — some of those people are crazy as hell. I couldn’t say whether it’s that mentally ill people frequently model religious memes, or whether religion drives people bonkers. Either way, it should be addressed, don’t you think?