Prayers for Houston

Like a lot of people, I’ve been following the news of the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey.  Unlike a lot of people, I’m not praying. Prayer doesn’t put a family in a home, clothe the needy, or feed a child.  So when someone sent this “prayer chain” request on Facebook today, I responded respectfully, but honestly.


I’ve visited the websites of a lot of popular charities. Americares, American Red Cross, Save the Children, etc. I’ve noticed they ask for a lot of things. Money, food, blood, clothing, and more. What you never see (or at least I’ve never seen) is a button saying “click here to send prayers.” Why? Because it’s useless. Prayers didn’t stop the storm, and it’s not going to clean up the mess.

Now, I know this person, and they are among the kindest, most gentle people I’ve ever met.  So it was a little embarrassing having to respond to such a thing. They had simply forgotten I was a non-believer, and later apologized.  I told them not to worry, and thanked them for thinking of me just the same.

But I do want to say that, in times of tragedy like what we are seeing in Houston and surrounding areas, what is needed is not prayers, but money, manpower, and supplies. If you live in the Houston area, you can personally reach out to local organizations. If you live across the country like I do, the best thing you can do is send cash to the groups on the ground.

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How I Found Out My Rabidly Anti-Gun Control Friend Actually Supports Some Gun Control

A friend of mine, who I’ll call Chase, proudly proclaims himself to be very anti-gun control. Whenever there is a highly publicized story of a mass shooting, for instance, Chase is one of the first people I know who will say we need more guns, less gun control, and will seemingly share anything on Facebook that makes it appear that President Obama is a gun grabbing tyrant in disguise.

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino massacre here lately, the subject of gun control came up once again. This time, in an effort to back up his ongoing point, Chase posted a meme that included a quote by the actor Samuel L. Jackson.

“I don’t think it’s about more gun control,” Jackson said. “I grew up in the south with guns everywhere and we never shot anyone. This [shooting] is about people who aren’t taught the value of life.”

samjacksonguncontrol

I verified that the quote was real.  A few years old, but real.  And while I may take some exception to his statement that they “never shot anyone” despite all the guns around (Tennessee, where Jackson grew up, has long had among the highest murder rates in the country, and it’s safe to assume that at least some of those murders were shootings), I decided to reply to the post.

“Even so,” I commented to Chase, “I’m kinda worried about people who don’t know the value of human life having lots of guns, aren’t you?”  Surely, I thought, he could be sympathetic to that.

“They shouldn’t have ’em to start with,” he said, and intimated that that is what the government has been pushing for.

Could it be true? After all this time of anti-gun control Facebook posts, and saying that more people need more guns, was Chase really in favor of at least some limited form of gun control? He seemed to be, even if I’m not sure he knew it. I told him I agreed, and stated my opinion that this is one type of restriction it sounds like we both support.

That’s what gun control is to me. It isn’t about confiscating weapons from law-abiding citizens. It’s about keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and other dangerous people. In two quick Facebook comments, then, I found out that even my rabidly anti-gun control friend does, in fact, seem to support some measure of gun control.

So, it turns out, does Samuel L. Jackson.

In the same interview from which the quote in the meme was pulled, Jackson, speaking about the 20 children and 6 adults gunned down during the Sandy Hook massacre, acknowledges that certain restrictions on guns, such as closing the “gun show loophole,” and requiring increased background checks, could help reduce gun violence.

“We need to stop deranged people from getting access to guns,” he said.

I agree, Sam. I agree.

In Defense of Ashley Madison

Ashley Madison, the social networking and dating website that encourages married people to have extramarital affairs, was hacked recently, and the customer databases of around 37 million people has potentially been compromised.  The hacker group involved, who call themselves The Impact Team, gave Ashley Madison an ultimatum in an effort to teach them a lesson about security:  shut down the site, or we will release the private information of your clients.  They did not comply, and according to recent reports, some of their users’ information, which may include real names and addresses, emails, nude photos, and credit card numbers, began appearing online.

The public reaction to the news has largely appeared to be positive, with many folks cheering the Impact Team on.  Those people cheated on their spouse, the sentiment seemed to be, they deserve what happens to them.  Well, I disagree, and I’m going to shock some of you by taking the side of the cheaters against the hackers.  Not because I condone cheating, mind you, but because I respect the privacy of the folks involved.  Let me explain.

Personally, when I first heard this news, something about it really bothered me.  On the one hand, I think many of us can agree that cheating on your spouse is wrong.  It can destroy relationships, and oftentimes ruins the ability many people have to trust.  Anyone who has gone through it themselves, or knows someone who has, can probably attest to that.  On the other hand, however, hacker groups aren’t exactly paragons of virtue in many cases, either.  In this case, the Impact Team committed a crime, stealing information they had no right to, and are now acting as a moral arbiter.  There is something wrong with this picture.

Aside from that, there are many other issues involved in this story which bug me.  While I can’t exactly support cheating, I also think we have to stop looking at this issue through such black or white lenses.  I am of the opinion that marriage can be complicated, and not all extramarital relationships are as horrible as they may first appear.  Some, in fact, wouldn’t even be considered “cheating” at all.

For instance, some of the folks whose spouses have memberships with Ashley Madison could very well be aware of it already.  Many couples choose to have open relationships, wherein the partners sleep with other people outside the marriage.  The partners consent to this, and often there are rules involved that each must follow.  Perhaps they agree they cannot sleep with anyone the other knows.  Or, maybe the spouses must inform the other before the sex takes place.  Different couples have different rules, and while I personally wouldn’t be comfortable with an open relationship, there are those who are.  I can respect that.  Supposing that some of the customers of Ashley Madison enjoy this lifestyle, should they have their privacy destroyed simply because a hacker group wanted to cause a stir?  Should their names, addresses, nude photos, and credit card information be revealed to the public just because you and I might prefer monogamy in our relationships?  I don’t think so.

Some situations, however, may be sadder.  There are marriages that are marriages in name only, degenerating into loveless, even sexless relationships that are kept together solely for the sake of children, or any of a host of reasons.  Others may involve a person who is impotent, or has simply lost the desire for sex in their later years.  And what about violent marriages, where sex is taken rather than shared, considered a condition of matrimony lest the other receive the back of a hand?  I’m sure you can think of others.  Now, again, I’m not saying it is necessarily right to have an extramarital affair in those cases.  But I am saying I would understand them wanting to pursue sex elsewhere, and I don’t feel as if they should be publicly humiliated for doing so.

But let’s be honest.  These situations I’ve mentioned thus far aren’t the ones many of us first envision when we think of a site like Ashley Madison.  No, instead we think of the dutiful and loving wife who worships the ground her husband walks on, all while he is busy sleeping around behind her back.  Truthfully, many of the spouses of the clients of Ashley Madison may well be involved in situations just like that.  They truly are victims of deceit, and I feel bad for them.  But be that as it may, is this how we want them to find out?  By being alerted that their husband or wife’s naked photos were put online in a hacking case?  That their address and financial information is available for anyone with an internet connection to find and use?  Speaking only for myself, I don’t think I would like to find out my wife was cheating on me that way.  That wouldn’t just humiliate and harm them.  It would humiliate and harm me as well.

Regardless of the people involved, or the situation they are in, there is one more reason that I am against the release of private information in the Ashley Madison hacking story.  Hopefully, it is a reason we can all share.  The fact is, the marriages and extramarital affairs of others is simply not our business.  It is not yours, and it is not mine.  Unless we are the husband or wife involved, or are close to those who are, there is no reason for us to know about it.  We simply have no right to snoop around in their lives for our own enjoyment.

I don’t like Ashley Madison any more than you do.  But the Impact Team, in my opinion, has behaved worse than those who cheat on their spouses.  They have stolen and released information they have no right to, creating the potential for a great deal of harm, and all the while pretending to have the moral high ground.  While I’m sure these hackers believe that they are doing the right thing, as far as I can see nothing much positive will come from their crime.

I’m a Macbook user who just purchased a Chromebook, and I’m seriously impressed

When my Macbook crapped out on me a few weeks ago, and the repairs were looking likely to cost several hundred dollars, I began to get more and more desperate for a usable but inexpensive alternative for my computing needs.  After extensive research into a variety of options, I ultimately settled on the Acer Chromebook 11 CB3-111.  And you know what?  It’s pretty cool so far.

At only $199, this Chromebook is not only affordable, but allows me to take care of all the basic functions I was using my Macbook for.  Off and on all evening I’ve been grabbing it to read articles online, check my Facebook and email, and even watch Youtube videos.  I’m also typing this short blog post on it.  In fact, after multiple hours of use tonight, chromebookI still have 6 hours of battery life left.  At this rate, I may not have to charge it up for another day or two.  That feels pretty good after dealing with the short battery life on my Macbook for the past couple years.

Because this laptop uses Google’s own operating system, Chrome OS, it helps to be familiar with the Chrome web browser, GMail, Google Docs, and other such Google applications.  Because I was already using many of them regularly, transitioning from my Mac to the Chromebook has been pretty easy.  Save for a few minor adjustments, such as using different trackpad gestures and getting used to a new keyboard, the whole thing has been just about seamless.  Even setting up the machine straight out of the box was simple!  It booted up quickly, took me through a brief menu, asked for my Google username and password, and I was set.  I am by no means a computer guru, and I’m telling you there was nothing to it.

So, what are its downsides?  For me, not many.  But I’ve read reviews where people have complained about the matte screen and the design being largely plastic.  I researched this Chromebook before I bought it, and knew about these “limitations” going in.  I could not care less.  It’s a lightweight, eminently usable little laptop and, best of all, at this price tag I feel like I’m going to get my money’s worth and much more.

I still plan to get my Macbook fixed eventually.  But while a couple weeks ago I felt desperate for something to tide me over, I’m now thinking the Macbook can sit on the shelf and collect dust a little while longer.  The Chromebook and I are getting along just fine.

Joan Rivers Is Burning In Hell and Laughing About It

Joan Rivers died last week, as I’m sure you’ve heard.  She had gone in for what was supposed to be a minor outpatient procedure, but went into cardiac arrest in the middle of it.  She leaves behind a daughter, a grandson, and scores of family, friends, and fans who cared about her.

It sucks.  I really liked her.  She was one of the few comics around nowadays that you could say was a true trailblazer.  Not just for women in comedy, but for everyone in the entertainment business.  She went places onstage that few dared to go, and made many of us laugh and feel a little better about the everyday tragedies that happen in life.  Up until the very end, she was kicking down doors and overturning conventions.  I respected her so much for that.  I wish she had more time to do it.

credit:  eurweb.com

credit: eurweb.com

Was Joan Rivers perfect?  Hell no.  She made me laugh for decades of my life, but she pissed me off for just as long.  Sometimes she could come across as mean-spirited, and she didn’t always handle some of her controversies well.  Then again, she was a comic, and it was her job to cross the line occasionally.  That’s how we figure out where the line is.

Personally, I wasn’t a fan of her desire to wear fur, though she apparently stopped buying it, and even began working with PETA.  I can’t sit here and say I’m perfect, but I do try to be mindful of the suffering of animals.  I could never flaunt wearing foxes or whatever else around my neck as a fashion statement.  That sickens me.  Had I been in Miss Rivers’s inner circle, I’d like to think I could have gone to her and, echoing her own famous line said, “Joan, can we talk?”

Some have said her death was karma for statements she made recently about Palestinians.  That she had it coming, and is burning in hell right now.  I’ve had people personally reply to comments I’ve made about my love of Joan Rivers to tell me life support was wasted on her.  I disagree with them, but of course they are free to feel any way they would like.  I, too, am free to feel the way I like.  And the message I have for those folks is simply this:

Fuck you.

Go look up the word “hypocrite” in the dictionary.  You don’t get to wish death on someone, or dance on their grave, all the while claiming some kind of moral superiority.  You don’t.  It doesn’t work like that.  Whether you hate Joan Rivers because she dissed your favorite actress’s dress, or because her comments about Palestinian casualties in Gaza were dreadful, it’s a shitty thing to do.  It makes you look like a shitty person.

We’ve got to be better people to one another.  You don’t have to like Joan Rivers, or think she was some kind of saint.  Sometimes I flat out hated her guts.  But if we really want a better, more polite society, we each have to take personal responsibility for it.  We have to stop being assholes.  We can acknowledge the ugly things people say, and even fervently disagree.  But being openly gleeful over another human being’s death?  That does little more than make you look like a heartless fool.  Miss Rivers could have done better to learn this lesson herself.

Maybe we should all just learn to laugh a bit more, too.  I’d like to think that Joan Rivers thought so.  I know I do.  I don’t believe that things happen for a reason, but I do believe you can take a lesson even from tragedies.  If there’s anything I’ll take from her death, it’ll be that.

Thanks, Joan.  You made me laugh and pissed me off for a couple decades of my life, and I’m grateful.  I’ll miss ya.

Help! I Don’t Understand These Comforting Christian Cliches!

A friend of mine is going through a divorce.  While I haven’t been involved in one myself, I understand how incredibly difficult this time must be for her, not to mention her husband.  No doubt, it’s tough.  You go through a lot of emotions and, especially when there are children involved, things can get complicated.  Sometimes people use their kids to get back at their exes, the relatives of the couple divide into tribes, and vicious things that can’t be taken back are said in moments of anger.  In times like these, you rely on your family and friends to help get you through.

credit: Christian Piatt

credit: Christian Piatt

In this particular case, she has used her Facebook page as catharsis, sharing her troubles with those that know her.  She spoke about issues she is having with money, how difficult it is to be without her children half the time, and the increasingly complicated relationship she now has with their father.   I myself left a fairly lengthy comment, along with the promise to check in on her from time to time, and to offer any support I could.  It isn’t much, I wish I could do more.  Being that she lives out of state, it’s the least I can do at the moment.

Many of her other friends and family commented as well.  But I noticed that a lot of what many of them wrote seemed to me to be trite, practically meaningless cliches that evidently were supposed to offer some kind of spiritual and religious comfort.  What struck me is that they said nothing specific about any of the problems she mentioned, nor were they offering any kind of solutions.  Instead, they seemed only to be telling her to get with Jesus and pray to God more.

Now, I am an atheist.  I don’t believe in the Christian God, or any God for that matter.  But I do seek to understand those that do a little better.  So, I’m writing this to ask for help.  I want to know what some of these phrases mean, and how exactly they are meant to help solve her problems.  Here, then, are several of the instructions offered to my friend, along with what they appear to mean to me.  Please let me know where I may be wrong, and help educate me so I can better understand these things going forward.

                                                                                                                                             —

“Let go and let God”
At first glance, this appears to be a sentence fragments to me.  Let God…do what?  But even if I’m wrong about that, I still don’t understand what it means exactly.  You “let go” of your troubles, I assume, and God takes it from there.  So, you just kind of sit there and wait for God to intervene, I guess.  You do nothing, is that right?  Where am I going wrong here?  Help me.

“Run toward Jesus, not from Him”
Okay, this one at least seems like a full sentence to me.  Even so, I need help figuring out what on can expect once you move toward Jesus.  I’m guessing it means that, in times of trouble, some may forget their relationship with their lord and savior.  But by “running toward” him, perhaps through prayer, you can expect comfort and healing.  Am I at least on the right track?  If so, should my friend “run toward” Jesus, how long can she expect to have financial and personal difficulties?

“God is in control”
This one sounds a little bit like the “let go and let God” one.  But, if it’s true that God is in control, why is he putting my friend through a divorce?  Is God punishing the decision to divorce with financial woes, and taking away her kids half the time?  I always think that, if God is truly in control, he has a lot of explaining to do.  Not for people’s choices, so much, but for cancer, child birth defects, plane crashes, and the natural disasters he occasionally throws our way.  But be that as it may.  God being in control kind of blows the whole idea of Free Will out of the water, doesn’t it?  For, if God is controlling everything, what does it matter what we choose?  Or do we not choose anything at all?

“Look up for comfort”
I’ve heard celebrity astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson use a similar phrase from time to time, but I don’t think he means it like these folks did.  Tyson says that too many people think about the size of the universe and feel small, whereas he feels big.  The variety of atoms that make up our bodies, science tells us, are the same atoms found in the stars.  As Carl Sagan put it so elegantly, “We are made of starstuff.”  So, while it’s possible the people on my friend’s Facebook page were telling her to grab a telescope and head outside, I tend to think that instead they were telling her to look to God.  But, once again, I fail to see what that means, or how it helps.  Teach me.

                                                                                                                                             —

Make no mistake, I am being sincere.  I truly do want to understand.  Before I wrote this, I consulted both the internet, as well as a close friend who was once a devout Christian.  Neither was of any help.  My friend didn’t understand the phrases either, and at one point actually said, “I just don’t get it.  Let god what?  Let go and let god laugh while you plummet?”  A few internet sites even chided Christians for offering cliches to people in times of need.  I admit it.  I’m lost here.

So, if you are a Christian, someone who considers themselves faithful or, heck, even an atheist who may have some insight, do feel free to let me know what I’m missing.  When these comments were left on my friend’s Facebook page, they received multiple “likes,” so I have to assume they are meaningful to people, and that it is me that is missing something.  Or, is it that we really speak in sort of a different language?  I ask for your help in figuring that out.

Thanks for reading.

I’ve Just Been Plagiarized – But It Turned Out Okay

Plagiarism is a problem no matter where you find it.  When it is uncovered, it can end journalism careers, sully the reputation of novelists and, if it happens in the academic world, get you kicked right out of school.  Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out recently an article I wrote a couple of years ago had been plagiarized by a fellow blogger.
plagarism
This past Sunday, I was interviewing Benjamin Radford about his new book for Strange Frequencies Radio.  During the course of our discussion, we talked about how frustrating it can be when, while researching a particular topic, you come across websites or even books which contain not just poor scholarship, but so-called “research” which has just been copied and pasted from the internet.

Paranormal sites, it must be said, are often repeat offenders.  Over the years, I’ve found a great number of ghost hunting websites whose articles and terminology pages have been lifted, word for word, from other similar websites.  After the interview was over, while my co-host Bobby was uploading the recording we made to our server, I was checking out the internet when I noticed I had a new comment here on my Fortean Squirrel blog.  A reader named John was informing me that, while reading an article I had written about fraud in the paranormal community, he noticed some similarities to another article he had read online about the same issue.  He linked me to the blog post in question and I went to check it out.

What I read was stunning.  Large portions of it sounded very familiar.  I opened up another page with my own article to check exactly how familiar it was.  With only a cursory reading it quickly became clear that, not only did I write my piece a full year before this one, but that entire passages had been copied word for word.  It was as if the blogger had simply copied and pasted sections of my article right into her own, not bothering to reword anything.

For instance, in my post, “A Picture of Paranormal Fraud,” in which I document a ghost hunting team called Ghosts of New England Research Society (G.O.N.E.R.S) passing off a fraudulent ghost photo as authentic, I write:   “The story soon went viral and Ghosts of New England Research Society took the image down, apparently not commenting publicly on the matter.  Many in the paranormal community have taken this incident to be the prime example why paranormal investigation is not accepted by the scientific mainstream.”

Furthermore, I wrote:  “Ghost hunters, by and large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to operate under proper scientific methodologies or even to control their experiments.  The evidence they put forth is not given credibility because it isn’t evidence.  At best, it is often just anomalies they found on their digital voice recorders or readings they took on their EMF meters.  Anomalies which, by the way, have been explained countless times by science-based investigators.”

Here are partial screenshots taken from the blogger’s page, which includes not just these two paragraphs, but some other portions of my work as well:

plagiarism1
plagiarism2
This is not exactly the first time this has happened to me.  As I mentioned earlier, plagiarism and copying is rampant in the paranormal community, and I have found entire blog posts I have written elsewhere on the internet without any attribution whatsoever.  Even the Richard Dawkins Foundation once copied an entire interview I did as a contribution to The Bent Spoon Magazine, pasted it to their own website, and all I got was a tiny link way down at the bottom of the page which was nearly impossible to notice.  Why someone would click that link to read my source article when they’ve already been able to read it in its entirety on Richard Dawkins’ website is a mystery.  Still, while this sort of thing has happened to me before, this particular instance felt somehow worse.  I guess I was happy someone liked my writing, but it just felt so dishonest and sneaky to steal it and pass it off as their own.

I contacted the blogger, Pam Wellington, and chided her for her plagiarism.  I explained how dishonest it is, and told her that it is shockingly ironic to be writing an article about fraud and poor research when she is fraudulently using my work as her own.  She actually got back to me within about 24 hours and was, I felt, sincere in her contrition.  She apologized for what she had done, and thanked me for calling her out on it.  She said that, while she is normally very meticulous, she had probably rushed this particular article.  I was not clear how simply being in a hurry led her to copy whole portions of my work into her own, but be that as it may.  She promised to delete the sections she had plagiarized, and I’ve remained in contact with her to make sure of that, since she doesn’t seem entirely confident on what she stole and what she didn’t.

I’m satisfied with the outcome thus far, and I thanked Pam for being receptive to criticism.  She owned her mistake, and I appreciated that, even if I wasn’t happy with the situation that led to our correspondence.  Some will say I let her off easy, and maybe I did.  The truth is, I could have just made her delete the whole blog.  But I didn’t really want that.  I just wanted what was fair.  If my rebuke leads to her being more careful about citing her sources in the future, and ensuring the work she says is her own really is her own, I consider that a win.

Plagiarism will likely remain an ongoing issue, particularly in the paranormal community.  The one thing I think we can do is to call it out when we happen to find it.  Tell the writer it is unacceptable, and affects your decision on whether you will continue reading their work.  I haven’t always had good luck getting a response from people who I have found to have stolen my work before but, at least in this case, the outcome appears to be headed in a more positive direction.