Friday, December 14, 2012

Liberos Vivere Nec Mori Durum

On Tuesday, December 11th, 2012, a gunman walks into a mall in Oregon and opened fire with an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon. That same evening at California State University in Fullerton, SWAT teams shut down campus as they look for other gunmen involved in an armed robbery in Moreno Valley.
Today, I walked out of a morning viewing of The Hobbit and find out that a gunman killed some 26 people at an elementary school in Connecticut, 20 of the victims were students.

We have to be doing something wrong, here. Author Neal Stephenson wrote in his book Cryptonomicon a line that stuck with me. The gist of it is that guns may be all well and good for protection or self-preservation, but if the time comes where you need to use it, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

I fully anticipate that the gun control debate will flare in a fiery mess of facebook arguing and political soundbites shortly.
A debate? We're having a debate? What the fuck is wrong with us? A person could argue, "It's my 2nd amendment right to own a gun like an AR-15".  Hey, they're easy to get, too! Here's a website that shows 10 Brand Name AR-15 rifles for Under  700 bucks!
This gun was designed to be an efficient people-killer. Period. If it's a 2nd Amendment right to own a gun like this, where does the line stop? Should Charlton Heston raise an RPG above his head and yell "Not from my cold, dead hands"? Is a nuclear weapon a 2nd Amendment right? I defy you to argue that what happened in Connecticut wasn't mass destruction.

Since I'm fairly sure that everyone would agree the 2nd Amendment does not guarantee the right to own a nuclear weapon, we can't say that gun-control advocates are all about "taking away people's rights".  Make sense? Since we all agree that the right to bear arms doesn't include nuclear weapons, all of us are advocates for weapons-control. The disagreement in the debate is purely a matter of scale. I would encourage ardent defenders of the 2nd Amendment to keep that in mind as they toss their two cents into facebook comments - you don't think that everyone has the right to bear all arms either.

And since we all agree that we have to have at least some control over a citizen's access to weapons, let's try to respect and encourage our lawmakers' difficult decision in finding where the proper line lies between access and control. Should everyone have the right to own a handgun? Or just the people without a felony on their record? Or the people who don't have a mental illness?

Following the shooting in Colorado at the premier of The Dark Knight Rises, a friend on facebook commented that if gun control laws were less rigid then the tragedy wouldn't have happened, that someone in the movie theater would have fired back.
Two things occurred to me when I read that comment. The first is that a statement like that is a complete assumption with no basis of fact. Let's say that someone in the theater was armed and starts firing back at the gunman. And then let's say that the person managed not to hit anyone with "friendly fire" as he tries to take down the gunman. And then let's say that everyone else in the theater understands amidst the cacophony of noise and terror that of the two gunmen only one of them is trying to kill them. Add another innocent bystander with a gun. Does the conflict become easier to understand or more difficult? The answer is that we have no fucking idea and it'd be ludicrous to assume that if there were more people with guns fewer people would have died.
The other thing that occurred to me was actually a quote from Batman Begins, ironically enough. At the end of the movie Jim Gordon is talking to Batman.
 Jim: What about escalation?...We start carrying semi automatics, they buy automatics, we start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor piercing rounds...
 Let's say, for a moment, that the States relax their gun-control standards. Suddenly a larger portion of the population owns a gun. Let's say they loosen laws about carrying guns in public or concealment. Will that deter a person (mental problems or no) who is determined to kill a school or a shopping mall or a movie theater over a perceived slight? The idea of escalation says it won't. Not a bit.
And really, that makes sense. These tools were invented to create violence. You can't add more violence-creating tools and somehow come up with a difference. That's just simple math. If a weapon designed to kill is recognized by the symbol "x", and you add another weapon with a similar designation, the equation is x+x=2x. It's impossible for the answer to be zero.

Does that mean I'm an advocate for total gun control? Not a bit. I take our rights and freedoms as Americans very seriously, and don't want them taken away any more than I want to see people take advantage of those rights and freedoms to harm others. The difficulty that lawmakers have is finding how to guarantee the greatest number of rights and freedoms while simultaneously guaranteeing the least amount of danger to others.  That's a tough problem, and the answer is not a simple "Let everyone carry a gun" any more than the answer is "Let no one carry a gun".

In the meantime, maybe we should focus quite a bit more on an American culture that somehow takes an otherwise ordinary citizen and turns them into a killer. When people finally snap, they snap hard. And unfortunately, they've been snapping with regularity.
I don't believe it's any one thing that we need to fix and suddenly everything will be fine, but a combination of things that need close and careful scrutiny. Things such as the systemic bullying culture that permeates our schools. Things such as the massive increase in prescribed behavioral drugs. Things such as the disappearance of community. And yes, things such as the ease with which citizens can purchase weapons.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Telam Debitum

The concept of money is a bit strange. So strange, in fact, that most people don't try to understand what it is. I mean why bother? As long as your money rests safely in a bank and you can draw on it when you need to, what's to understand?

Well, the first thing needed to be understood is that your money is not like Harry Potter's stash of gold at Gringotts. You can't just walk into a bank and demand to see your money. They print out an account balance for you. Okay, but that money's got to be stored somewhere, right?

Actually no. When the dollar was pulled off the Gold Standard in the 1970s, your money was made by and out of debt. The very first bankers were goldsmiths. Their vaults were the most secure place in a town, due to the nature of their trade. When other people in the town had gold on hand they wanted to keep safe, they could store it in the goldsmith's vault for safekeeping.
Goldsmiths eventually discovered something interesting: not counting a strange economic disaster where everyone came to collect their gold at once, they only needed 10 percent of their gold on hand to give customers who wanted their deposits back. The rest of it they could loan out.

This eventually came to be known as "fractional reserve lending", where a bank lends out 90% of its deposits. The problem with gold is that there is only so much of it. At a certain point, there will be no more gold to lend. Credit, on the other hand, is limitless.

Check this out: Say you sell a house for $100,000. You deposit this money in your bank, and so the bank has $100,000 on its books. They lend $90,000 to a woman named Mary so she can buy a home from John. John takes that $90,000 and deposits it in the bank as well. So now the bank has $190,000 of deposits on its books. Where did that $90,000 come from? There was only $100,000, but now all of a sudden an extra $90,000 appeared out of thin air.
But wait. Say that Mary pays back her loan. At 6% interest for 15 years, she's paid the bank back plus an extra $46,700. So now $100,000 has become $236,700.

Except it's not, because the bank loaned out 90% of John's $90,000 deposit and magically created $81,000 when it gets deposited back into the bank. Plus, the bank reloans $90,000 from the original $100grand. And so on. And so on.

Do you see the problem? Banks can turn $100,000 into 1 million dollars out of nothing. There is no gold behind that money. There isn't even printed money behind that money. It's all merely ones and zeros on a computer that somehow we've determined has actual value.

This is the system upon which our economy is based. For our economy to grow, our debt has to grow. The problem with debt, however, is that it must be repaid. Go back to that $90,000 loan the bank invented out of nothing. The bank did a little sleight of hand and poof, here's 90 grand. The problem is that working at minimum wage (if you paid no taxes and didn't have to worry about cost of living expenses), that $90,000 is worth more than 12 thousand hours worth of work.

In a debt-based economy, in order for one person to pay down their debt, another person has to increase their debt. Absolutely no work is required to create the debt upon which our economy is based, but excessive work is required to keep our debt-inflated economy afloat. This is a really big, bad problem.

And this problem is even more complex than you think. The Federal Reserve System (which issues Federal Reserve Notes, which you'd call dollars) is the bank of the United States. Except it's not a bank, it's a system of 12 regional banks. And the stock holders of these 12 regional banks are all privately owned banks like Chase, and Bank of America, and Citicorp.
That's right, The Fed is a privately owned banking cartel, not a government agency.

When people mention how deep the government is in debt, who do you think America owes money to? Yep, the Fed.

Yet the problem is even more complex. Banks (yes, the private ones that make up the Federal Reserve) managed to come up with ways to take these loans and package them into derivatives and hedge funds and then make money off of them on the stock market. At least, they did before the first credit bubble - the housing market - popped. There's still a few credit bubbles left to burst, and the popping of only one triggered global recession.

It is vitally important that we understand this because we can't come up with solutions until we first understand the problem. And unfortunately, the solution is not to peg the dollar back onto gold. There isn't enough gold in the world to pay off our debts.

If you want to learn more, I strongly suggest visiting The Public Banking Institute and reading the very excellent book Web of Debt by Ellen Brown.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Gentes Testimonium

So on facebook one of the alumni from my high school started an event that was basically a high school reunion for the people that managed to get out of high school and still be a human being. That may sound like a weird statement to make, but then you probably didn't go to my high school. It's an uber-conservative, fundamentalist Christian, private education school tied directly to the church it shares a parking lot with. It was actually a lot like that movie Saved! which came out in 2004.

The event page then exploded, almost immediately, with comments and memories from different survivors, mainly talking about how silly the place was (to put it kindly, in most cases). But then some people started talking about their faith - their personal religious belief system - and started posting their testimonies. For those who don't know, your testimony is basically the story of how your eyes were opened and you accepted Jesus into you heart and blah blah blah.

There were a lot of ways I could've responded, and for the most part I responded with nothing (except once, but I was fairly restrained). And then for a laugh I thought I'd post my testimony, or the story of how my eyes were opened and I saw through all the bullshit. And then I realized the post would be way too long for facebook (and also not very funny), but not, incidentally enough,too long for my blog. I'd posted bits and pieces of this story around the internet in other places, but I don't think I've ever slogged the whole thing down in one gulp. Certainly I haven't done that here.

Before I go on, a little disclaimer: I don't really have a problem with other people's religion. I think it's fine, and in many cases that belief helps people live healthier lives. So if you're a follower of any given religion, please know that this post is not about your belief, nor is it meant to disparage your belief. This is about my belief, and what the hell happened to it.

There were two major events in my life that led to the moment I turned away from Christianity. The first major event started when I was six years old, and lasted approximately six years.
People claiming to be experts in the paranormal state that 3am is "Dead Time", or the hour when supernatural entities are at their most active. In the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose they called 3am the "Devil's Hour" when demons are at their strongest. I strongly believe this to be true, whether it's ghosts or demons or whatever, due to my own experiences.

I guess I'm what you might call a Sensitive. I have a high level of empathy towards people, and will often get weird feelings in various places. When I visited Auschwitz this past month there were several places where I could "feel" the horrors of the place.
Anyway, when I was a kid we moved into a particular house in Santa Ana. I'm fairly sure now that the house was haunted. I say "was" because it seems to have been demolished and a new house built in its place (and I wonder if the haunting was part of the reason for that). Whatever the type of supernatural force that lived there was, it was also evil. Here's what happened:

It was a hot summer night. That kind of sticky hot where you're more likely to kick off the thin sheet you're sleeping under. My bed was situated next to a thin floor-to-ceiling window on my right that looked like it was made out of the bases of yellow glass bottles. About four feet from the foot of my bed was my bedroom door.

That night, I abruptly woke up. Something I sit up in bed and check the clock: 3am on the button. I look out my bedroom door and I can see into the next room just across the hall, and I see Something appear. This Something looked human, but slightly transparent and glowing like the ghost of Obi-Wan, except the glow was purple and like the weird glow you see around a black light. It doesn't so much illuminate as it appears to be swallowing light. And the Thing felt evil. When It appeared I felt a sharp chill, like someone dropped a sharp icicle sliver down the center of my backbone and I could feel my hair stand on end.
And then It walked into my room and stood at the foot of my bed, glaring at me.

I was so scared, so terribly afraid. And it felt like the oxygen had been sucked out of me. I tried to call for help, but I could barely gasp out a quiet whisper of a plea - I was that frightened.

The Thing looked over Its shoulder into the room it had appeared in, then back at me. It grinned, and then walked back into the other room and disappeared. Now that Its gaze was no longer directed at me, I felt I could move again. Being the terrified 6-year old I was, I dove under the covers and curled myself into a fetal position.
There was just one problem: because it was a hot summer night, my covers consisted of a thin bed sheet. And because my bed was right next to a window, I could see silhouettes through the sheet. That sharp, icicle chill running down my spinal column still hadn't abated, and when I dove under the covers the feeling intensified.
Suddenly, I see the shadow of a hand, like Thing from The Addams Family "walk" on the pointer- and middle-fingers the side of my bed in front of my face. And then the hand would walk back the other way towards the foot of my bed. Back and forth the hand did this, like it was taunting me to move. I just knew that if I did, the hand would grab me and my life would be over.
So I mouth a prayer to myself, over and over and over. "Please God save me. Please God save me. Please God save me." And I mouth, over and over: "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave."

In the Bible, the book of Joel 2:32 (chapter and verse) says "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." The book of Romans 10:13 says the same thing. The book of James 4:7 says "Resist the Devil and he will flee." I was taught in church and school that if you believe in Jesus as the son of God and renounce your sin, we can command the devil to leave in Jesus' name and he must obey.

That night presented two possibilities to me: The first was that the Bible was full of shit. The other possibility was that my faith simply wasn't strong enough. I wasn't a true Christian.

Following that dreadful night, for the next six years I became too terrified to fall asleep. That Thing never corporealized in my room again, but every night, without fail, if I fell asleep I would start having a regular dream, and then I would feel that sharp, icicle chill slide down my spine and the dream's hard to explain, but it would darken. If that makes any sense. And then It would appear in my dream, and I knew if I couldn't wake up fast enough, I'd never wake up again. And I would literally kick and thrash my way out of dream-sleep, clawing my way into wakefulness.  When I would wake up two things would always be similar about those nights: It was always 3am, and my bedroom door was always open. Even if I shut my bedroom door and made sure it was shut when I would go to bed, if I didn't maintain vigilance and fell asleep, at 3am I would wake from a horrific, terrifying dream and the door would be open.

Six years of self-inflicted insomnia is a hell of thing to do to yourself, even more-so as a six year old kid. I tried talking to my parents about it, but they assured me it was just my (admittedly vivid) imagination and they were only dreams. I tried talking to pastors about it, and they would pray for me or show me all the stupid Bible verses (that never did any good) about how to protect yourself from demonic forces and whatnot.
And because my pastors and teachers made it all sound so easy, that all you needed was belief, I grew up thinking it was all my fault. I didn't have enough belief for God to save me. And I was pretty desperate for someone to save me.
Throughout the years, there were various church services where the pastor would ask if anyone was ready and willing to commit their lives to Jesus. Not every time, but quite often, I would stand or raise my hand or walk to the front (if I could get past my shyness). I think I was the most saved Christian in my class. Well, "saved" being a relative term I guess. Not going to hell after you die doesn't mean much when you go through hell every night while you're still alive.

Eventually, I ending up saving myself. When I was 12, I got into a fight at school. Well, it wasn't much of a fight. A kid was acting stupid, I acted stupid back, and he threw a punch. I remember that it didn't hurt. But that didn't stop my vision from going red. I don't remember what all happened after that, but I know that several kids had to pull me off him because I was straddling his back and beating the back of his head with my fist like it was a nail I could hammer into the ground. I was pretty small and weak at the time (I'm sure six years of insomnia didn't help my growth and development), so I didn't do much damage, thank goodness. But I do know that if those kids hadn't pulled me off him I would've kept swinging my fist until I couldn't raise it anymore. It didn't matter to me if he was alive or dead or if I wasn't hurting him at all or if I was killing him. I just wanted to destroy something.
That kind of rage frightened me badly. I knew I had to get a grip on myself before I really did hurt somebody. But I couldn't get a grip on myself until I got a grip on my nights.

So I did some serious logical analysis (I know, "well duh". Keep in mind I was only 12 at this time). I realized that while I'd been terrorized quite nearly out of my mind for 6 years, I'd never actually been harmed by the Thing. Maybe it couldn't. Maybe it just liked the fear it created. I came up with a term for it, all by myself - I called it a Feeder Demon. I realize I'm not the first person to come up with the term, but the shoe certainly fit. It would create an emotion in somebody and then "eat" the emotion to sustain itself, like a closed-loop parasite. So maybe all I had to do to beat this thing was stop being scared. Easy, right?
I'm not sure what I did, or how I did it, but somehow I managed to take all my emotions - everything this Thing could use to scare me - and locked them away. Fear, Hate, Love, Joy, Anger, Sorrow. All of it. Boxed up and hidden where no one could use it against me.
Not exactly the psychologically healthiest solution, perhaps, but it worked. I started sleeping through the entire night. My bedroom door would still be shut when I'd wake in the morning.
And I never lost my temper.

I started to live like a human being again (a weird emotionless one, true). I started doing better in school. I started to develop physically. And through it all I continued to feed on and regurgitate the extreme right-wing Christian Fundamentalism ("we put the mental in fundamentalism" could've been their logo) being taught to me at church and school.
Fast forward to the end of high school. I've got great grades, I'm accepted into a four-year private University with some kick-ass scholarships, and I'm a Believer. You know the type. I had a Bible verse ready for any situation. I could pray and worship with the best of them. Democrats were godless, Socialist sinners.

And then I go to this private four-year University, and boy-oh-boy was that an eye-opener. For the first time, my education and my religion weren't coming from the same place. Not only that, but my education had many different points of view, many different beliefs. My naive, innocent, virginal Christian self was a bit overwhelmed. It wasn't that I started going crazy in the opposite direction or anything. It was just the first time my beliefs were really being challenged.

And then the second major event that contributed to giving up Christianity as a belief system occurred. A very close friend of mine and I were hanging out, and he decides to come out of the closet to me, and tell me that he finds me incredibly attractive.
And to my eternal shame, my very first thought was, "Oh no, my friend is going to hell." It wasn't gratitude that he trusted me enough to reveal something incredibly personal (and for him, deeply shaming, since he was a Christian as well).  It was immediate judgment and condemnation, like a reflex action.

To my credit, my very next thought was, "Holy shit, I'm a dick!" I had no right to make those judgments, the Bible says "Judge not." I had no right to condemn, Jesus charges his followers to live with compassion and acceptance for their neighbors, relatives, and friends. But my upbringing taught me otherwise. Taught isn't even the right word. Brain-washed. That's the word.

And so I started doing my research. Casting off the shrouds of right-wing religious fundamentalism. The Bible was the first to go.  There's some value to the book as a manual for moral teachings, but there is so much that it gets wrong, and also, the God of the Old Testament is kind of a prick. The only person who ever really showed me the God of the New Testament was Jesus. All the other books were about teaching me how to believe in and follow the God of the New Testament.
And there's Science and Philosophy and Art, and they taught me more about life and living in four years than my entire K-12 religious schooling. I became, essentially, a deist. And I found myself in very respectable historical company.

That's the story. My heathen testimony. I know some people who keep praying that I'll find my way back to God, but they don't understand that I never left God. I just left them.
There were some amazing psychological repercussions from boxing away all my emotions, but I eventually got past it. I feel like a relatively stable human being now.

I'll still get those sharp, spine-icicle dreams from time to time, but they happen only very rarely any more. I usually wake up from them on my own with no problems (strong flight reflex, how's that for childhood development?), but sometimes a girl I happen to be seeing at the time will shake me awake. After one of those dreams once, a girl told me I was whimpering in my sleep. That sounds about right.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Úvahy o Praha

The last time I went to Europe I was too young to appreciate it, and really it was so long ago I barely remember most of it. I'm not so sure it was a sign of how I've grown when one of my first thoughts upon seeing Prague is, "This city has tons of Vantage Points!"

Once a nerd, always a nerd, I guess. The thought never really left me, but luckily I was drawn into the history, culture, and life of the city such that it wasn't my only thought about the city.

I fell in love with this city. With a good pair of shoes, it's very walkable, but the public transportation is also highly efficient.
It was a medieval city that managed to avoid destruction during World War II so much of its architectural history remains intact. It's become an interesting meld of past and present, with tourist sites and local secrets, and it just felt good to be here.
There's maybe 12 dollars of beer at our table right now.
Another plus about Prague is things run generally cheaper here. A half-liter of beer (if you avoid the touristy pubs) costs between 25 and 40 Czech Crowns, which is less than 2 bucks. The food is also quite delicious, but you should probably be a fan of meat and/or potatoes.
I'm sure there's some down-sides to Prague, but god only knows if I ran into any. Apparently the winters get bitter-fucking cold.
Winter Prague by Edgar Barany
The Fringe Festival showed me a great art scene in the city. The theaters also have a cafe/bar, so when shows end the party can keep going. I've always wanted to be able to pull off my costume, wipe off my make-up, and step outside and immediately have a drink with the people who've sat through a performance. Wish granted!
Prague is quite the smoking city (which isn't really a problem for me), so if you don't like your clothes smelling like cigarettes consider yourself warned.
See what I mean about Vantage Points?
I'm going to miss Prague. I'm going to miss the wonderful people I met and got to share my week with. I'm going to come back. Soon.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Aktualizovat z Prahy

Greetings, world, from a different corner of the internet, today!

I'd been hoping to give you an update from Prague a lil' sooner than today, but life is pretty fucking crazy over here. Now that we got our first performance out of the way, however, I'm hoping I can give you a few more updates ere I return to the States.

First things first: the show.
Following our final rehearsal for Venus and Adonis before we left, I felt really confident in our play. We tell a great story, the abstract elements provoke some thought, and the thing moved smoothly. When we got here, though, I started feeling the pressure ramp up. For one thing, there's posters with my face on them posted all over the city. It's a weird feeling, walking around a foreign city and sporadically seeing your face taped on a wall.
Guy Roberts, our host and head of The Prague Shakespeare Festival, has worked his ass off promoting our show. He's a PR machine. He's also, incidentally, a kick-ass individual. But, he'd also never seen the show. He was putting a lot of blind faith in our ability to show up and do something amazing.
The final bit of pressure was that, well, when we originally staged the show I start the play completely naked, facing away from the audience. Through the course of my actions in getting dressed, the audience may get a glimpse of dick. The day before I left, I check the Prague Fringe site, and our show is advertised as having full frontal nudity. Er... So when I meet up with my director in Prague the first thing he says to me is, "So they've been advertising our show as having full frontal nudity." Okay, after he said "hi" it was the first thing. So we changed the start of the show just a bit. When the lights come up, I'm greeting the audience in a pose reminiscent of The Vetruvian Man. It's honestly not too bad (though I guess I can't speak for what the audience thinks). The weirdest part of it all is when the audience walks in, the front of the stage is covered in a plastic sheet we're projecting faces onto. As the play starts, I walk in between the projector and the sheet so my shadow gets thrown on the screen. I hit my pose, Venus rips the screen away, the lights come up, and the show begins. What's weird (and funny, I admit) is my shadow hits the screen at exactly the right height so my penis is in the same spot as the mouths of the projected people. And there I am, a shadow with his arms thrown wide, like I'm getting blow jobs from a whole bunch of random faces.

The really good news is that opening night went really really well. The audience seemed to love it, and we got a pretty kick ass review in The Prague Post. The after-party was a holy fuck-balls avalanche of drinking in a German beer hall that's been around since 1499 followed by a stumbly trip to a vodka bar.

But that also means you might have to wait until later to get a pictoral rundown of the first couple days. It's 3:30 in the afternoon here and I'm still a wee bit hungover.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Vilia Miretur Vulgus

"Let base-conceited wits admire vile things,
Fair Phoebus lead me to the Muses' springs."
--Christopher Marlowe

A little less than a year ago Tom Bradac, the artistic director of Shakespeare Orange County, approached me about an interesting opportunity: He was working with Guy Roberts, artistic director of the Prague Shakespeare Festival, to bring an adaptation of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis to Prague to perform in the Prague Fringe Festival (which is next week, crikey!). In addition to being an actor for SOC, for the past eight years I've also been the technical director for the company, in charge of facilitating all the technical needs of each production. So my initial thought was that Tom was asking me to handle the technical aspects of the show.


He asked me if I wanted to play the part of Adonis. What the... Hell yeah, I did!

There was just one hitch. Well, hitch-ish. I realize that self-perception nearly always differs from how others see us, but Adonis in the play is essentially a sex-object Venus throws herself at. I've never viewed myself as a sexy hunk of man-flesh. I don't see myself in the mirror and think, "yeah, I'm what the ladies want."
Granted, this is a play. It's not real, it's pretend. So actually being a sex-object isn't necessary.

But I'd be lying if I said it wouldn't nice.

So I thought that for this play, part of my process would be to examine some of the physical things about me that I felt could use some improvement and work on them. It wasn't necessary, but it also couldn't hurt right? Especially after my director told me that I'd be starting the play completely naked.
At the same time, however, we started rehearsals 6 months before the performance dates. I didn't want to undergo some crazy workout and diet regimen that would drive me batshit crazy for ten months (I started this at the end of August). When you see actors in the movies undergo those crazy workouts (like the actors in 300) they have three advantages over me: a) they are provided a trainer, b) they are paid to do it, and c) very often they can devote themselves to it like a  full-time job.
I already have a full-time job, and while it can be fairly active, it won't ever result in six-pack abs (not that six-pack abs are the goal, mind you. It's just an example. Geesh). And since I didn't want to drive myself crazy and/or miserable following a maddening diet or gym schedule, I thought to myself, what are small, achievable changes I can make that can provide the best possible results? And what I thought I would do is track my progress. So here's me in August last year:

Warning: topless fuzzy male.

You'll probably notice two things right off the bat: I need to clean my mirror and I'm pretty lousy at taking pictures. Okay, so objectively speaking, I'm not obese. There's a little jiggle in the middle and the saggy jaw has always bugged me, but really, not too shabby. So here's me today (literally today):

Now with cleaner mirrors!
Alright, so there's some visible difference! I'm a little flatter in the middle with more muscle definition through the chest and shoulders. I'm not sure what I'm doing with my neck in my profile pic, but my face is a little thinner also, it seems (though genetics will have damned me with a saggy jaw for the rest of my life). How much work did I do?

Not a whole lot, really. I took a lot of my cues from The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss.
The changes I made were fairly small, but very significant. Ferriss' book mentions, quite often, the MED: the Minimum Effective Dose.
"If you need 15 minutes in the sun to trigger a melanin response, 15 minutes is your MED for tanning. More than 15 minutes is redundant and will just result in burning and a forced break from the beach. During this forced break...someone else who heeded his natural 15-minute MED will be able to fit in four more tanning sessions. He is four shades darker, whereas you have returned to your pale pre-beach self. Sad little manatee. In biological systems, exceeding your MED can freeze progress for weeks, even months." --from The 4-Hour Body [emphasis mine]
I haven't seen much change in my weight. Weird, right? I took more than an inch off the circumference of my waist, had to drill a new hole in my belt so I could tighten it more, and I jiggle a lot less when I run. When I started this project, I weighed between 212 and 215 pounds (depending on the day/scale). The last time I weighed myself (less than a month ago), I was about 207-210 (difference of scales). And I only lost about 5 pounds in 10 months? This little detail is what frustrates so many people who don't see much change in their weight when they get a gym membership.
The big difference is to focus not on weight loss but weight recomposition.

If you're interested in finding out more specifically what changes I made, drop a comment. But what's most important to me is that because these changes were small they were also easy to keep doing. So while I'm incredibly pleased in the results of my little experiment for this role, it won't stop here. There are still some small changes I would like to make (and giving up beer is not, was not, and will never be one of them), and so the improvement is on-going.

Well, I'm jumping on an airplane tomorrow to go to Prague (stay tuned for updates from that little corner of the world), but I wanted to share my little project with you for your enjoyment. If it provides a lil' bit o' inspiration as well, then that's good too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Secretum Vita

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited." --Albert Einstein, 1931

"Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds." --Albert Einstein, 1940

Every year it becomes increasingly clear to me -- as we humans race merrily along our path toward self-destruction -- that religious and political establishment don't care about saving us, that as a society of communities we must save ourselves. I know making such a statement will raise a few eyebrows and prompt a few comments along the lines of "a bit extreme, don't you think?" but it's also the sort of statement that requires either enslavement to or freedom from delusion. Nay-sayers will say that I'm deluding myself, that we're fine and that our religions and our governments care about us. Yes-sayers will say that nay-sayers are deluding themselves, which is a sort of nay-saying in and of itself.

Strowde: Look at the moon rising. Time on the move! Can you bear the sight of it?
Serocold: Just...if I keep busy.
Joan: And she's dead, poor thing.
Strowde: A shining nonentity....still going on her ordered way.
Serocold: The moral's plain as the moon is, thank you.
-- from The Secret Life (1922) by Harley Granville Barker

Substitute "America" for "moon" in the Barker quote and you'll get an idea of what I'm thinking. Here we are, moving forward in all our glory, not realizing we're a pitiful reflection of the real glory waiting to come up just past the horizon. Religion would have you believe that real glory is the glory of the after-life. Well, I'm sorry, but after I'm gone there are still people who need food and shelter and medicines. Saving souls is merely fine and dandy, the hard truth is that the after-life just means there's one less mouth to feed.
And how do we feed those mouths? With genetically-engineered, petroleum-based corn products; is that what we're happy with: we must destroy the world to save the world? We must pollute our air and water, destroy our ecology, fill our dirt with trash and our mountains with nuclear waste because of what reason? Because we need to survive, or as Garrett Hardin wrote in his 1968 essay The Tragedy of the Commons, "Injustice is preferable to total ruin"?
I reject the assertion that those are the only two options. I refuse to believe that the only way to stave off the self-extinction of humans is to go about it more slowly.

And yet, so many people think this is the way civilization works! You have to poison the planet to be healthy, you have to go to war to bring peace, you have to give up freedom to have liberty. It brings to mind another quote from Barker's The Secret Life:
Strowde: Scratch off our clothes and instead of the savage it's likelier you'll find nothing at all.
Salomons: But my dear good heroic fellow...why not be content with appearances?
 That is the question I feel Religion and Government ask of us: "Why not be content with appearances?" (Note: Now, I know that when I say "Religion" a lot of religious people start revving up their protest engine. So let's be clear: Religion is an establishment that has very little -if anything- to do with personal belief. Just like Government has very little to do with governance.) The answer is simple: it euthanizes our imagination and our will to improve. George Bernard Shaw wrote in his play Major Barbara (1905), "You see things as they are and ask 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and ask 'Why not?'."

"By nature you're all for absolute values, for rooted virtues: flourish or perish! You're capable of suicide and murder and of all extremes... But don't you want to see heroism and patriotism and altruism - all the kingdom of heaven that's within you - turned to some practical account?" -- Barker, The Secret Life

"But," you might ask, "are things really all that bad?" Yes, they really are. Think about this: Pollution particles in the air create haze clouds that prevent sunlight from getting through which can unnaturally cool the planet. 
Planet cooling? Scientists actually call it global dimming. Here's the problem: in the 3 days after 9/11 when air-flight travel was suspended, scientists discovered that the global dimming caused by air pollution is slowing the effect of global warming. Destroying the world to save the world.
This isn't an environmental problem, as strange as that may seem. It's a moral, psychological and ethical problem.
"How we treat nature is how we treat ourselves. If we exploit nature to extinction, we are exploiting the human species to extinction. The outer world is a reflection of our inner lives. Americans have become fat and even 'morbidly' obese in unprecedented numbers because they carry a perverse and gluttonous mentality. Not only are they addicted to oil, but to isolation, political corruption, and a permanent war economy that trains people for its dastardly deeds at universities. The rising of the seas from the melting ice caps, the loss of paradise islands in the Pacific, 'dead zones' in the ocean, and the increased severity of storms and droughts around the world are all caused by living in a destructive, chaotic pattern of development."
--Doctress Neutopia,

What we need is a complete change from the way we've been operating, a conscious decision to alter our course. The trick - the really big seemingly-impossible trick - is that it's not enough to change ourselves. Look around your neighborhoods, we're a civilization of individuals enslaved to a means of transportation that reinforces the idea of the individual: the automobile. There's no concept of humanity or nature in our community. Change means reaching out to find the faces in the people around you.

"The key to government is self-understanding, which must mean, in terms of a community, mutual understanding." -- Harley Granville Barker, The Exemplary Theater (1922)

Every community is different: different cultures with different needs. We complain about the government in Washington, D.C. and how they don't do anything for us. We look at the State and wonder what cave they're living in to be so out of touch. But our communities are different. We're all people that commute to work and scrape together change to make ends meet. We go to school and send our children to school. We get along because we have to. Now it's time to change because we have to.

Take part in your community; you're a partial owner of it, after all. Work towards and have a commitment to social justice. Recognize that just as we are inseparable from our planet we are also inseparable from each other.

"I do not want to wage war against what is ugly, I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish only to be a Yes-sayer." -- Nietzche, 1882 New Year's Resolution (emphasis mine)

Monday, March 12, 2012

Oleum et Aqua


Lately, Republicans have taken to lambasting Irish President O'Bama for the high gasoline prices we're subjected to. Cheapest gas I can currently find is $4.25 (and 99/100s. Why don't they just say $4.26?) per gallon. The average price per gallon in Orange County is $4.38. In December of 2011 (just 3 months ago) the average price was $3.50.
Two questions: What the hell happened? and Why are the Republicans acting like Obama is somehow a gas price Czar that can bring prices down through force of will?

There's a lot of disagreement about how much effect commodities trading has on gas prices. According to Dr. Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America oil speculation added $600 to the average family's yearly gas tab in 2011. Other reports say the effect is negligible. Okay, so let's not get into a debate about whether or not Wall Street has been bad for the economy (ahem).

Funny enough, the Republicans are right. There are some things Obama can do to reduce gas prices at home, but if Obama tries to take any of these steps (he won't) the Republicans won't like it.

1. The easiest and most immediate way we could see gas prices drop is if we ended the sanctions and stopped threatening Iran with attack. War and rumors of war always drive up gas prices, especially if it happens in the Middle East. This is because OPEC is in the Middle East. Duh.
"But they are building a nuke," you say. Not according to every American intelligence agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who are responsible for inspecting nuclear facilities. "But wait," you ask. "Why would the news and the government say they are building a nuke if they aren't?" History repeats itself. This is the exact same windup for the pitch that got us into war with Iraq. And once again, Americans are biting into it hook, line, and sinker (sorry for mixing a baseball metaphor with a fishing one).
I want to ask "how stupid do we have to be to fall for this again," except the answer is "as stupid as we currently are."
And even if Obama wanted to soften his stance on Iran, do you think Republicans would go along with it because it'll lower gas prices? If you do think so you probably sent the Nigerian princess money, didn't you?

2. Another easy way to lower gas prices? Stop exporting gas.
In 1977 the first barrel of oil was pushed through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, which was built amid similar protest and controversy as the Keystone XL Pipeline. It was supposed to help end dependency on foreign oil. And yet between 1996 and 2004 almost a 100 million barrels of oil were exported to Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and China. The direct exporting of this oil was eventually banned by Congress, but not the direct exporting of refined products, including gasoline, heating oil, and jet fuel. Gulf Coast refineries will ship gasoline to Latin America rather than hiring American tankers and shipping crews to move it to the East Coast. These oil refining companies find it more profitable to export oil products, so America has to rely on foreign oil (and foreign oil prices) to keep their cars running.
This is a tricky situation. Forcing refineries to sell only to America inhibits the free market in a bad way (and yes, I think there is a good way to inhibit the free market). And Republicans refuse to do anything that might inhibit the free market.
On the other hand, if America is going to buy oil, it should strive to buy American oil first. But the trouble with a "Drill, baby, drill!" attitude is that refineries aren't going to sell any increase in oil products from new oil sources (like Keystone XL) at a discount lower than world-market price. So increasing production won't significantly lower price in America until the global market price drops.

3. Strengthen the dollar. The value of the dollar continues to erode at a steady clip. The problem is that oil is traded on the dollar, so the weaker the dollar the more expensive a barrel of oil becomes. The easiest way to strengthen the dollar is to raise interest rates. "But raising interest rates will stifle economic growth," you might say. That is potentially true, on the other hand, interest rates have been at rock bottom for nearly the entirety of the current recession and we haven't seen any real improvement. Part of that is because when the housing bubble burst there wasn't a whole lot lower for interest rates to go anyway.
Another way to look at it is that raising interest rates will lower the price of oil, and a lower price oil would also strengthen the economy. Since low interest rates aren't doing the job, maybe low oil prices will.


There is a mentality that unborn life is sacred. A lot of people (mostly conservatives) are fighting hard to keep it sacred. The trouble is that many of the steps they take make it seem life is only sacred until you're born.
Then all bets are off.
It's kind of hypocritical. Well, not really even kind of.

There are laws being proposed and passed by states that force women to get ultrasounds before they can get an abortion (including highly invasive transvaginal ultrasounds where they shove a stick up a woman's vagina to check things out from the inside). Arizona just passed a law that protected doctors from getting sued if they withhold medical information that might have convinced a woman to get an abortion. Seriously. A doctor can withhold medical information and not get sued for malpractice in Arizona.
Because life is sacred.

Act of Valor opened on February 26, being toted as an action movie starring real life Navy SEALs. Essentially it's the ultimate recruitment poster. But if life is sacred, maybe recruiters should be veterans with missing limbs suffering from PTSD. Maybe recruiters should explain to children (how many recruiters go to high schools where not everyone they talk to are legal "adults" at 18?) and their parents that the dehumanization that happens during basic training often puts cadets at suicide risk. There's a Russian proverb that says, "Every bullet finds its target in a mother's heart." Maybe that should replace "Semper Fidelis."
Because life is sacred.

Since 1976, almost 1300 Americans have been executed from the death penalty. The state won't talk to the mother about the sanctity of life then, will they? Should wardens/governors/executioners be forced to listen to the heartbeat?

And somehow, through all of this, everything is the woman's fault. I'm not really surprised conservatives feel this way. They've been blaming the woman ever since Salome asked for the head of John the baptist, since Queen Jezebel put on makeup to face her execution, since Eve gave Adam an apple. Gimme a break.
You want to reduce the number of abortions? Start by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. Duh.
You could tell woman to keep an aspirin between their thighs (if you want to sound like an uptight prig with no grasp of reality), or you could lobby for companies to stop using sex to sell every product on television. You could demand better and more (not worse and less, dumb-asses) access to contraception. You could properly educate teens about sex rather than try to make them scared of it.
Doing it your way is like a company that makes a faulty product that it prevents stores from selling, when they could solve everything by fixing the faulty product.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mutare Ludum

It's not just for nerds anymore.

Science fiction, I mean. It's not just for nerds anymore. Don't get me wrong, there's still plenty of the Star Wars vs. Star Trek debate or the plausibilities of faster-than-light travel, but a lot of the blushing that comes from admitting you like science fiction has gone away. It's become (gasp!) mainstream.

There are no doubt thousands of events that contributed to sci-fi going mainstream (including technological advancements), but I believe two key catalysts were the television shows Firefly (2002) and Battlestar Galactica (2004). These shows were game-changers for the genre.


When Firefly burst onto the scene in 2002 it arrived as a breath of fresh air in the sci-fi for television genre. For one thing, there were no aliens. With Star Trek being the primary example (since so much of science fiction on television was either a spin-off, a rip-off, or heavily inspired by the show), alien culture pervaded every aspect of human life. Hell, even the way humans managed long-distance, long-term space travel was accomplished through alienum ex machina. We'd never have gotten as far as we did without first contact from the Vulcans (er...spoiler alert? Nerd alert?).
Firefly's world-building occurred without aliens or alien technology. And you can really see the manner in which humans evolved in the world they live in. It's not clean, or sleek. It's technological innovation by virtue of necessity. The universe of Firefly is heavily influenced by a mash-up of American and Pan-Asian cultures and then injected with a huge dose of Western genre.  Yup. The Western genre. As in guns, saloons, horses, and the tipping of hats. Only in space.

The idea of Firefly came from the mind of writer/director Joss Whedon, excels at genre-bending ideas. Rather than follow the over-used Star Trek model of "going where no man has gone before", Whedon created a series that went where men and women have always been. His vision of the show was of a universe where "nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today". Then he took that macrocosm idea of the universe and stuck it on the microcosm of a ship of "nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things".
Copyright © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
 When Star Trek premiered its first season in 1966 (with actually two different pilot episodes occurring in 1964 and 1965), the year the show took place in was 2266 A.D. At that point humanity more or less had things figured out and was in the process of bringing peace to the rest of the alien universe. Awfully nice of us. Firefly was set in the year 2517, two hundred and fifty years later, and it's obvious there that humans still haven't figured things out. That was a big game-changer. Humans in Firefly weren't just the benevolent protagonists. They were also the antagonists, the apathetics, the collateral damage. They were humans.

What was so amazing about Firefly is that I could recommend the show to someone who did think that sci-fi was just for nerds, and a week later after they blew through the series (and cried through the movie), they were more than just fans. They wanted more. Sometimes, they wanted more Joss Whedon, and the next day they'd be humming a melody from Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-long Blog. Other times, they'd be susceptible to reading. I'd loan out a copy of Ender's Game, or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, or the Foundation series (depending on what parts of the show they liked the most), and if they found they enjoyed reading I'd move them on to Snow Crash or Neuromancer and really blow their minds.

Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica was another big game-changer for another reason: it wasn't a science-fiction show. It was a drama that just happened to be set in space. And it totally destroyed the sci-fi formula.
The vast majority of sci-fi on television was episodic in structure. What that meant was that each episode was a self-contained story. The S.S. Enterprise visits planet A, does action X to solve the problem, episode ends. Only rarely did the actions of previous episodes carry over to later ones. Very occasionally, characters from previous episodes were brought back for cameos. Don't get me wrong, there was character development in these shows, but that development didn't drive the story forward.

Battlestar Galactica differed in a big way. They still had an episodic structure, but it was paired in between two other story arcs. There was a season arc that tied each episode together from first to last. As far as I know that's never happened on a science-fiction show before, certainly not with that kind of success. The other arc was character driven. The characters on the show started episode 1 with their own set of beliefs, morals, psychological make-up, etc which determined how they interacted with each other and viewed themselves. Every event through the season arc and every episode affected these characters. So much so that who they were at the start of the season wouldn't recognize who they became by the end of the season. There was a sense of growth to this show that I'd never seen before. And it changed the rules of science fiction.

The Get Up

For the past couple of months I've been working a 12 -issue comic with several other writers (Marcel Losada, James Ninness, and Joe Pezzula) called The Get Up. This isn't the first project we worked together on, but we wanted to come up with a great science fiction story in the comic book format. It actually was tougher than it sounds, and if it wasn't for Firefly and Battlestar Galactica changing the game it would've been a hell of a lot tougher.
To build our universe and characters we modeled our world-building using some of the same ideas as Whedon did in Firefly. By ideas, I don't mean story ideas either. We invented four distinctly different alien cultures and explored how they technologically and culturally evolved to the "Now" of our story. And while we may not have had Whedon's character modeling specifically in mind, we ended up creating five characters who all looked "into the blackness of space and [saw]....different things". James wrote a bit more detail about our characters on his blog. You should check it out if you're interested. We had a blast writing these characters and this story.
One of the strengths in our story, I believe, is what made Battlestar Galactica so great: It's not just a character piece, or an adventure story using some stock characters and stereotypes. It's a mixture of both. We wanted an intense adventure story that propelled forward with each issue, but we wanted to write it through the eyes of characters you could really care about and watch grow and change with each event in the story that happens. And forget about stereotypes! We demolish those pretty handily.

I know I kind of co-opted the blog to do a little self-promotion, and I hope you don't mind. We're working really hard at trying to generate excitement and interest in our project, and I know people (quite a few, actually) that are resistant to the idea of science fiction and/or comics because they feel it's somehow only for nerds and geeks. So really, I wanted to address that fear a little bit, and if in the process I can manage to spark your interest about a labor of love I've been working on, then that's okay too.

The Get Up is completely written, by the way. Currently an amazing artistic team comprised of Chris Burkheart, James Hiralez, and Benjamin Glibert are hard at work putting together the art for our first issue. Once we have a completed issue we can submit the entire story to publishing companies for distribution, but unfortunately we need to have the issue done. To get the issue done, we need to pay the artists. If I did manage to pique your interest we do have a kickstarter page to help raise the funds to pay the artists. Check it out if you like.