Thursday, May 24, 2007


There are two episodes to go. Christopher has left us, to join Adriana in the great beyond. Who else is going to die?

Meadow is the only innocent Soprano, so either she will survive because of that, or if they go for the meaningless of life approach, she will buy the farm and the others will survive.

There is talk of a Sopranos movie, so I would be surprised if Gandolfini gets offed, but maybe he gets killed and AJ takes over, a la The Godfather.

Silvio could carry a spin-off if they ever wanted to do that and he is generally portrayed sympathetically, so I doubt he dies. AJ would need him as consigliere.

Carmela is worse than Tony. I say off her.

Bobby is sort of good, so he will survive, but Janice will leave him to market Christian contemporary music with her former born-again narcoleptic boyfriend and her son, Harpo. Leotardo will definitely die, unless they are thinking of a movie.

I think Paulie Walnuts will die. Junior will live but still be stuck in the asylum.

I mean it is kind of funny, because who thinks of the Jersey mob being able to take on one of the Five Families, although the New York mob families aren't what they used to be. It would be an interesting twist to see the entire Soprano crime family rubbed out, to let us know that we have spent 9 years and 7? seasons watching minor league gangsters. (What mob boss bets the standard spread? I thought that was just for dirty cops).

I know I am hedging my bets but I am still hoping for either a movie or a spin-off.

Health, Science, Lies and Truth: The Nanny State and Demon Rum

Health, Science, Lies and Truth: The Nanny State and Demon Rum
One of the somewhat distressing trends in American society over the last 30 years is an apparent increase in the level of what I will call "busybody nannyism." It is a favorite hobby by both the right and the left, although they differ in what they want to control, either by overt messages or legislative penalties.

People on the left tend to worry a lot about people eating things that are bad for them and about commercials that our children watch and certainly tobacco.

People on the right worry about people looking at too many pictures of naked people, although looking at pictures of dead naked people may be O.K. with them. Tobacco doesn't bother them so much, but marijuana and other drugs tend to put people on the right into fits and conniptions. (perhaps such pleasurable conniptions that people on the right don't need to use illegal drugs?--just a hypothesis).

Alcohol is probably hated by both the right and the left. Certainly, it is the greatest killer of all ingested mood-altering substances. But one thing that is particularly distressing about the American approach to dissuade people from drinking(as well as marijuana) is that it is often based upon providing people, and minors in particular, with either misleading or outright false information.

With respect to marijuana, the Bush administration states over and over that it is one of the most dangerous drugs of all and that this is proven by the fact that more people seek treatment for marijuana dependence than any other drug. This may be true, but the Bush people neglect to point out that virtually all of the treatment is court-ordered for people who would end up in jail otherwise. Their little statistic is not very impressive once one understands (as any criminal defense attorney can tell you) the true workings behind it.

Getting back to alcohol, the connumdrum is that alcohol appears to be healthful in restricted amounts, but it is unclear exactly what amounts constitute excessive use. American doctors tend to recommend no more than 1-2 units for women and no more than 2-3 units for men. Surprisingly, or rather, not surprisingly, governments in France and Europe tend to recommend the larger amount of no more than 3-5 units for men.

In terms of weekly recommendations, when compared to the countries most like the U.S., which are probably Canada, New Zealand and Australia, these nations have recommendations from 20 percent to 40 percent higher than the American recommendation for weekly consumption.

Even worse, the United States, together with several of the other nations that flirted with prohibition during the last century, flatly lies to women regarding the reasonably anticipated dangers of drinking alcohol during pregnancy and recommends total abstinence during pregnancy. Only the UK and Australia provide women with recommendations regarding drinking alcohol during pregnancy, which are based upon science. The Australian recommendation is no more than 2 per day for pregnant women and no more than 7 per week.

Here is the reality:

The American College of Obstreticians and Gynecologists concludes that "there is no evidence that an occasional drink is harmful. Women who drink heavily throughout pregnancy may have smaller babies with physical and mental handicaps, but women who drink moderately may have babies with no more problems than those women who drink rarely or not at all."

This group of medical specialists points out that "It's hard to determine the amount and timing of alcohol consumption that puts the fetus at risk. One study shows that women who drank only occasionally and moderately (described in this particular study as between 1 and 45 drinks spaced out over a month) had babies with no more problems than those women who drank rarely or not at all. There were no differences either in size or nmber of babies' handicaps bwtween the women who drank moderately and those who abstained or drank likely."

Most of the children affected by FAS in the United States come from either African-American or Native American households and the condition was caused by drinking patterns far, far in excess of the stated recommendations, truly by a pattern that most people would characterize as chronic alchoholism.

Alcohol is not, unlike say LSD or cocaine, a substance without a long history of human use. When taken to clear excess, it can result in blood poisoning, violent behavior, severally impaired coordination and cirrhosis of the liver. Women who become pregnant and who are chronic alcoholics run a heightened risk of delivering a child with FAS.

Nevertheless, alcohol has been prevalent in virtually every culture for thousands of years. It has nutritional value, particularly when consumed in the form of dark beer or red wines and is certainly here to stay. Given this reality, it seems that the more honest and prudent approach is to provide Americans with correct and accurate information, based upon science, not upon prohibition.

I will post a link below to the book, the French Paradox, which has some interesting viewpoints about the scientific studies done thus far. In a nutshell, it can be argued that the current daily recommended units could be almost doubled without harmful health effects. Second, there is an interesting hypothesis that alcohol only begins to cause damage to the human organism after someone reaches a blood alcohol content of .046. If correct, a person could conceivably drink far more units per day safely, provided he allowed his blood alchol content to wane before ingesting more. Two glasses of red wine at lunch, followed by two glasses at dinner and one after-dinner drink could conceivably be harmless, even healthful, given the beneficial substances contained in red wine.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


After considered thought, research and contemplation, it appears difficult to find much biblical textual support for the doctrine of Hell. Others have written eloquently on this topic, both from a Christian perspective and from a Jewish perspective.

To me, the evidence seems quite strong that the concept of Hell and dualism in general, was brought back by certain Jewish sects during the Babylonian captivity and subsequently infected Christianity, while fading from the Jewish tradition. Ultimately buttressed by the writings of Dante and the Book of Revelation, (certainly the most bizarre and suspect text of the New Testament) the doctrine of hell continues unabated torturing millions of people in Christian nations with the concept of a God so steadfast (headstrong?) as to perpetually torture his own creation after granting them a mere handful of years to accept his gift of eternal life. Religions may not be based upon logic, but certainly few people perceive much fairness in these purported methods of the Most High, even leaving aside the troubling doctrine of Calvinistic predestination.

But wait, the fundamentalist Christian apologist says. God puts no one in Hell. People put themselves in Hell by exercising their free will and rejecting God's gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. While God is love, they say, he cannot not abide sin, and therefore is constrained to throw the billions into constant torture in the fires of Hell. Now, apart from the conundrum that the very creator of Lucifer and sin, is somehow unable to co-exist in the same plane with the sinful, let's look at the fallacious notion that God is just in placing people in Hell since any individual has true free will to opt for the gift of salvation or not.

While, perhaps, today with modern media, most people do indeed have a chance to hear some version of the Gospel, the notion that therefore God is just in casting away non-believers simply does not hold up.

Each person has a variety of experiences in life and we each have a different amount of time in this world. Some of us only live a few years; some forty; some live a hundred years. Some of us may be mentally incapacitated in some way--can a person with Alzheimer's be saved?--that prevents us from accepting the purported gift of eternal salvation.

People who live in "Christian" nations will have far more opportunities to hear the salvation message and will have access to the great evangelical persuaders such as Billy Graham and Billy Sunday, while people living in Asia or Muslim countries may have far fewer encounters with the gospel. Tribes hidden in Amazonia may still conceivably have none.

All of these facts certainly point to the notion that true free will is something that only exists on a sliding scale. But ultimately, all of these apologies still fail, because God refused to give any of us (as far as we can remember) the choice to opt either for existence or not.

Not a single one of us asked to be created.

There was no Rawlsian veil of ignorance where we could before birth decide whether or not we would choose to be born.

Such would embody a truly free choice: weighing a decision between existing and running the probable chance (some Christians claim virtually everyone will end up damned) of ending up in Hell, or saying:

"No thanks, Yahweh, this non-existence thing is working pretty well for me and while the heat down in Miami is one thing, I don't think I would fair too well down in Hell. It's just too risky. The returns just don't justify taking the plunge, and even though I don't exist yet, I am pretty sure that I would be good at risk-reward evaluations."

I must, if somewhat grudgingly, given their own scriptural problems, tip my hat to the Church of Latter Day Saints, for correctly understanding this fundamental problem regarding pre-existence and having a doctrine to deal with it, which I had been unaware of, before writing this piece. When I speak of fundamentalist Christianity, I do not include sects with radically different viewpoints regarding the essence of Christ and salvation, but point towards what are generally now non-mainline Protestant churches, whose beliefs preserve the fundamental viewpoints of the reformation and the thought of Calvin and Luther.

Essentially, fundamentalist Christianity teaches the story of a fumbling creator who inadvertently creates sin, either through Lucifer or Eve, and who then periodically decides to destroy his creations in the Old Testament, as depicted in the stories of Noah and to a lesser extent, Sodom and Gomorrah. After leading the Children of Israel from Egypt, Moses has to talk Jehovah out of destroying his chosen people. Finally, in the Book of Job, God actually uses Lucifer as his agent to torture Job and his family. Apparently, at this time, God could abide sin in his presence. Perhaps this is why Hell is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament.

But suddenly, in the New Testament, this formerly angry and edgy creator, all of a sudden becomes a model of platonic perfection. Somehow, though,while he is now painted mostly as a peace and love kind of god, who leaves the destruction and killing to Christ and the Angels in the Book of Revelation, he also apparently can no longer tolerate sin in his presence and decides in his second testament to cast the overwhelming number of his creation into the eternal torture of hellfire.

While I welcome any reconstruction of the doctrine of the justness of hellfire, It seems clear, to me, at least, that the fundamentalist notion of a permanent Hell as something fundamentally just, simply fails. Linguistic, historical and textual evidence all point towards the irrelevancy and antediluvian nature of the fundamentalist Christian doctrine of eternal damnation. Trying to paint the doctrine as somehow epitomizing fairness is no more persuasive than any of the other dilapidated defenses of one of the most pernicious doctrines to ever pass for religious thought.

The Wonder Years

I have always been a fan of the somewhat corny, with its incessant voice-overs, sitcom The Wonder Years. I don't think it quite reaches the levels of truly great television programs like Andy Griffith or Mash, but it is a pretty interesting slice of life of the Johnson-Kennedy years, where I first began to have memories.

What truly amazes me, though, is after watching an episode, I walk to the computer, which rouses itself from sleep (remember when you had to boot up?) and type wonder years in google and an open source encyclopedia built upon the donative efforts of ten billion souls (at least they are all eligible to write something--see if Brittanica will let you do that) and immediately a staggering number of documents come up. We are truly in a new age where people will write and research differently based upon these enormous collaborative efforts. Here's a link of all of the Wonder Years episodes which people have put up just out of their own good will.

Ten billion people writing about different, often essentially useless stuff, for free! This brings to mind an important point that I believe will begin to divide more and more those scant numbers of people who call themselves libertarians.

We need to always remember that libertarianism or love of freedom, is a far different thing from capitalism. In fact, many economists, even free market economists, argued in the past that such public goods needed government subsidies because otherwise no one would have the incentive to produce them. Obviously, these were the type of scholars who spent way too much time in their offices.

People do things for free just out of the joy of living--and that is the true expression of freedom. Capitalism is nothing more than an unimportant by-product of freedom. Let freedom ring and write!

Monica Goodling and Larry David

With the Bush Administration embroiled in yet another scandal, something that I recall from the Larry David's inspired Seinfield show comes to mind.

At one point on the program, realizing that his life is a total shambles, George Costanza begins to implement a personal policy of always doing the opposite. The opposite of what? The opposite of what he would normally do. Whenever George had new decisions to make, he began to analyze what his instincts would tell him to do normally and then (for that episode) decided to do the opposite. Miraculously, George's life completely turned around.

Well, you can see where I am going with this. Maybe another George could try the opposite policy. Whatever it is that Bush thinks best or whatever God tells him to do, go with the opposite. I mean, come on, he couldn't possibly do any worse. We've had 6 1/2 years of living by George Bush's gut instinct--let's take 18 months and try the opposite--what have we got to lose?

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pre-paid Stamps-- A Good Investment?

Maybe the Post Office isn't as bad as we have been lead to believe in terms of holding the line on prices....

Headphones and Sound Quality

I don't know if any readers ever listen to an iPod at home, but surprisingly an iPod can actually drive some brands of audiophile headphones. I have a pair of AKG 501 headphones and the difference in sound from the stock headphones is spectacular when doing an A/B test. For anyone who spends much time listening to an iPod-type device at home, test it out. It is difficult to go back to the stock headphones after trying out a pair of AKG or Grado headphones, which generally run from $50 to $500, with the best values in the $50 to $150 range.

Stereo, CD's, iPod's and Headphones

It is always interesting to observe the ways in which certain technologies ebb and flow. About five years ago, it looked as though stereo (i.e. two speakers emitting two different channels) was about to become passe. It had only been about ten years since television had begun to broadcast in Dolby, and surround systems with multiple speakers were beginning to become a big deal. As part of this, the music industry (RIAA) was aiming to phase out the CD in favor of SACD and DVD-A discs, which offer surround-sound, superior bit rates, and copy protection.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Two things happened in parallel to prop up the stereo format.

First, customers balked at moving to a new recording standard. Compact Discs had been marketed to Americans as "perfect sound forever." Americans willingly dumped their cassettes, 8-tracks and vinyl and bought new players and often purchased anew album titles that they had already owned in other formats. The RIAA stomped out the threat of Digital Audio Tape by basically crippling the sales of the machines before they could take hold. CD reigned supreme, just as the industry had wanted and as part of the marketing of the CD, its sound quality was vastly oversold to the public. Until about 1998, such tactics juiced sales and the Recording Industry began to believe that gravy-train would last forever.

The only problem that the RIAA had not adequately foreseen was the downloading of digitized music on the internet, a problem that began to make DAT tapes look appetizing in retrospect.

The industry was unsure how to proceed.

Surely, every download was a loss of sales for the industry. The industry never apparently realized that many of the downloaders would never have purchased music anyway, many indeed would go on to buy after sampling a few hits and that some were simply downloading songs that they already owned, just for the convenience of the digitized recording.

The author himself, had the Beatles' album, Revolver, on cassette, vinyl record and CD. Just to ensure more profits, the Recording Industry filed lawsuits against their potential clients and also lobbied Congress to go change the laws to extend copyrights so that they could continue to sell more of the same old music again and again, with more monoply profits ensured. This is the Republican and RIAA version of capitalism.

Well, it still wasn't enough, so then around the turn of this century, the recording industry tried to come back and tried another tack, saying, "guess what, here's something even better," at the same time that many rap, hiphop and audio enthusiasts were making known that vinyl records were better sounding and more useful in many ways than were CD's.

Not surprisingly, SACD and DVD-A discs arrived with a big thud, in spite of their technical superiority to the CD format. People already believe that CD was the golden standard, as FM and MP3 were often said to have CD-like sound. Because of the copy-protection, the disks lacked portability with MP3 players. Furthermore, most DVD players would not play either SACD's or DVD-A's and many high-end audio enthusiasts thought that vinyl still sounded at least as good. Remarkably, the DVD-A's came with oversized jewel case packaging that would not fit in a standard CD bin storage slot.

Thus, this multichannel format debacle formed part one of the survival story of two channel stereo, just as it had survived the "quadraphonic" assault of the mid-70's, stereo, at least in the music world, had survived the multi-channel enslaught.

Second, as anyone who hasn't been living under a rock knows, Apple re-invented the wheel and somehow gained a virtual monopoly on sales of something that had been around for several years and used to be called an MP3 player.

Dubbed the iPod, the Apple product came out right when storage space began to really go down in price and the iPod became a big splash, and was directed almost entirely towards two-channel audio: two ears--two earpieces. Recording studios were loathe to go to the extra expense of mixing recordings into surround if most people were only going to be listening in stereo anyway.

As a final more minor factor, some sound enthusiasts discovered that a home theater set-up sounded almost as good in stereo as it did in surround and stereo brought three advantages: you didn't have to pay thousands to have it installed in the walls and ceilings, or you didn't have cords and speakers and sub-woofers all over the floor (I call this the wife factor) and the guy could pick the system he wanted, rather than the all in one systems sold by the big boxes and actually save money. With respect to large HD televisions, any included speakers pretty much by definition had to be stereo, as they were placed above, below and on both sides of the picture.

So, remarkably, here we are in 2007 and we see that stereo remains alive and well and it is the surround-sound format that is gasping for air, relegated primarily to the ultra-high-end. Vinyl is the only tangible format that actually is increasing in sales, with new albums by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Death Cab for Cutie among many others, being issued in the century old circular format.

One can only wonder how many industry prognosticators back in 1982 at the advent of the CD format could have predicted that 25 years later, both stereo and vinyl records would be alive and well. As noted economist F.A. Hayek taught, predicting such matters is near impossible, but such is the nature of a market economy.