Monday, February 27, 2006


Lance Dutson of Maine Web Report has been following and investigating a seeming fiasco of conflict-of-interest, poor planning and mismanagement at the Maine Office of Tourism. And he seems to have almost single-handedly brought the program to a grudging halt.

He has nicknamed it Pay-per-Gate. Basically, the MOT had been buying pay-per-click ads on search engine pages. It seems to have had good success in winning the coveted top spot on search pages involving Maine towns and attractions. Dutson, being a web developer and marketer, knows more than just a little about the subject. He did some digging, and found out that the fellow who has been placing the ads has a conflict of interest. Here's an excerpt from a letter Dutson wrote to an official at the MOT:

I have attempted to have a dialogue with Steve Lyons, who I understand is in charge of your departmentÂ’s internet presence. Unfortunately, Mr.Lyons has been misleading in his responses to me, which can all be read at I feel the matter needs to be elevated.

I have discovered that the person handling your pay per click campaign is named Mark Wrenn. Mr. Wrenn is also running the pay per click campaigns for other businesses that compete for the same keywords. In particular, Northern Outdoors. He told me himself that he tries not to bid too high for terms like ‘Maine snowmobiling’ on behalf of the MOT. Northern Outdoors also bids on the term ‘Maine snowmobiling’. This arrangement can’t possibly be seen as ethical.

Mr. Wrenn is bidding from one company to the next, which is clearly an outrageous conflict of interest, and the relationship between the MOT and Mr.Wrenn needs to end immediately.

This is just the tip of the iceberg; this entire campaign is an unbeleiveable affront to the Maine taxpayer, as your office has used state funds to actively route internet traffic and tourism business away from Maine merchants. After diligent pressure applied to Mr. Lyons and Mr. Wrenn, we were able to get your office to discontinue itÂ’s in-state advertising, which certainyl cost taxpayers thousands and extended overtly beyond the mandate of the Office of Tourism. I am still awaiting information from Mr.Lyons about the amount of money that was misappropriated during this several-year advertising fiasco. Perhaps you can help me get this information, so the Maine citizenry can understand the state of mismanagement your office is experiencing.

Do go read the whole Pay-per-Gate series of posts. Lance has been doing a bang-up job for us Maine taxpayers.

This episode shows the enormous power that a concerned citizen activist can yield with the internet. Lance doesn't seem to be a journalist by training, but his expertise in SEO and his willingness to publicly confront Maine bureaucrats and state contractors have made him the perfect reporter for this topic. While much of what goes on in the blogosphere is just rumination and rumor-spreading, Lance's efforts show the promise of blogs as protectors of truth and transparency in democratic government.

Every blogger has the potential to be an advocate-reporter in a field where they have experience. Thank you, Lance, for stepping up to the plate on this issue, and hopefully stopping the squandering of the MOT's online ad budget. I'll be reading as you try to figure out how the whole thing happened.

Maybe the eventual solution will be to just do away with the Maine Office of Tourism. (Yes, it's a libertarian fantasy. So sue me.)

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

in the outer

Welcome to this week's blog tenant, the outer..., written by the bloke. It's an olio of musings on the bloke's life, work and spiritual journeys. the bloke seems to be a level-headed Christian in Australia whose background is interesting:

Born in Malaysia of Chinese parents, I found myself trying to fit in wherever I have been, but struggling to do so. At home, I had become a follower of Christ at an early age, and felt as if I had betrayed my Chinese heritage. Growing up, I felt awkward at having embraced a Western faith while claiming to be part of the local culture. Later, as I lived in Western countries, I found myself not really being accepted by Westerners, even though I ostensibly shared a little of their culture. Even when I am supposed to be most at home, among spiritual brothers and sisters, I found myself still, as it were, standing in the outer.

Do visit this well-written blog, and tell the bloke that Tor sent you!


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Other Buddha Boy Info

For those who are following the Buddha Boy saga, here's another news link from

I still say it's fraud:

Security sources say a large portion of the money and other offerings made at the meditation site and the amount collected from selling Bomjon's pictures, CDs and biography goes to the Maoists. "We have received information that 75 percent of this income reaches Maoist hands," claimed a security official on the condition of anonymity, "This is the main reason why the general public is discouraged from visiting the meditation site."


Two months back, a seven-member team headed by a Rimpoche from Pharping Monastery also observed Bomjon. A highly experienced Yoga practitioner himself with six years of meditation experience, the Rimpoche had said back then that Bomjon could not be taken as a Buddha, adding meditation was nothing extraordinary in Buddhism. "His body must be scientifically examined to know whether he has eaten or not," he said.


The meditation site has been cordoned off with ropes. The first cordon is 25 metres away from the actual place where Bomjon sits while the second cordon lies 50 metres away. It was only when people watching from beyond the second cordon started doubting that Bomjon was a human being did the committee allow for five people at a time to move to and observe from the first cordon. Each person is only allowed thirty seconds to observe Bomjon.



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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Evolution Sunday, Almost a Week Later

Since I'm not much of a church-goer these days, I totally missed the Evolution Sunday that many churches organized last Sunday. I found out about it in reading the sermon delivered by Rev. Ralph Moore of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Rockland, Maine (published in the Courier-Gazette, but -- alas! -- with no online publication). I wish I had gone.

Take a look at all these clergy who have, despite their Christian faith, maintained their mental faculties and accepted the fact of evolution and the usefulness of the continually developing theory which describes its workings.

Well done, folks!



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Monday, February 20, 2006

Barbara Merrill's Book

I have read the entirety of independent gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill's campaign manifesto, Setting the Maine Course: We Can Get There From Here, and have much more positive than negative to report.

She is that rare liberal who understands and respects market forces, and the importance of free enterprise with few regulations. (I realize her concept of few regulations will be much different than mine, but her definition more nearly corresponds with mine than with Governor Baldacci's. Not that he'd ever try to achieve that.)

She recognizes Tax Increment Financing and Pine Tree Development Zones for what they are: protection for politically favored businesses, regardless of their economic benefit to the citizens of Maine. She has seen the poor track record of government in picking industries or particular businesses to support. She states as her goal the reduction of regulations and taxes for all businesses in Maine, and letting the market determine which businesses thrive. Music to a libertarian's ears.

She recognizes the flawed strategy of rewriting law to attract a few large businesses to employ Maine workers, when economic growth is better served by attracting entrepreneurs who will grow many small businesses into middle-sized businesses. A few of them will no doubt become large.

She actually believes Maine should become, in her words, become "the first 'free enterprise state.'" The fact that she recognizes that nowhere in the U.S. does a free enterprise economy currently operate speaks volumes about her economic understanding.

The major drawback of her proposals concerns education. She's a typical socialist when it comes to keeping state control of education, which is astounding, considering her appreciation of free markets. Her proposals in some ways are meant to provide more local control for public education, but will actually cause more of the centralization and depersonalization of our cookie-cutter McEducation system. Shifting funding for teacher salaries to the state coffers will inevitably result in less local control of hiring and make getting rid of bad teachers all the more impossible.

But I'm unaware of any candidate for governor (or any other Maine statewide office) who isn't in favor of maintaining our socialist status quo in education. So we'll just have to take some satisfaction in the prospect of Merrill's jousting with the teachers' unions to get any of her reforms through. Yes, I can find pure entertainment value in politics.

I can also find entertainment value in Merrill's apparent lack of a friend or family member who could proofread. Pundit Al Diamon already noted how his name picked up an extra "d" as a bookend to the first one in his surname. There are at least a couple of instances of superfluous (and meaning-altering) "d" placement in the word "averse." "Fair" serves as an ersatz "fare" at one point. Those are just the instances I remember, having taken no notes. Barbara, if you read this, I hereby offer my proofreading services for any written materials you may wish to distribute for your campaign, regardless of whether I end up supporting you.



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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Evolution Leads to Hitler?

There are apparently some entrepreneurial Intelligent Design and Creation Scientists out there. The Washington Post reports that some tour companies are taking groups of home-schooled children of biblical literalists through museums and offering the "correct" interpretation of the exhibits:

The tours are not all fun and games, with the guides claiming that evolutionist thinking supports racism and abortion. This happened on a recent [National Center of Atmospheric Research] tour, when [Rusty] Carter [of Biblically Correct Tours] told a dozen children and their parents abortion was an act of natural selection carried out by humans.

Other tours suggest Hitler was playing his version of survival of the fittest by favoring whites, and note that museum dioramas of early humans have black "subhumans."

"My contention is evolution kills people," Jack said in an interview. "It's not that evolutionists don't have morality, it's that evolution can offer no morality. Ideas have consequences. If you believe you came from slime there is no reason not to, if you can, get away with anything."

While it's true that the scientific investigation of evolution on this planet cannot be applied to morals, it's a big mistake to suggest that accepting the reality of evolution precludes morality. Morals are sometimes difficult to discern, and it can take a great deal of diligence to adhere to them. But the moral choice in any situation is independent of whether one views oneself as having descended from a long history of life forms on the planet, or as having descended from a few thousand years' worth of purely human lineage. Either way, morality is the same. The only difference is that, in the latter case, those with that view are willing to accept morality from authority, rather than morality discerned.

I fear there is something deep within the human psyche in general, and strongly affecting ID/Creationism proponents, that yearns for authoritative pronouncements about humanity's special place in the grand plan of the universe. I once spoke for a couple hours with Kent Hovind about a presentation he gave in Belfast, Maine. Even as a lay-reader of scientific articles in popular publications, I knew his talk had been riddled with errors and mischaracterizations of current scientific thought. But as we talked one-on-one, I came to realize that he would be lost in a universe that hadn't been created a mere six millennia ago.

People who have secular moral systems need to do a better job of explaining what morality means and why it is important to strive to be moral in the absence of punishment by deity.

The Post article also mentions some museums that are open now, or being planned, that cater directly to the ID/Creationist crowd. Nothing wrong about that; that's what makes America great. But over time, the "natural selection" that will occur when students who have been trained by ID/Creationist proponents try to enter careers in science will be fierce. There are only so many church-subsidized scientific organizations these days.



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Rockland's Pay-Per-Bag Policy

Rockland's city council has given its preliminary approval to a pay-per-bag garbage fee at the transfer station. I lived in Rockland for a few years of my adult life, and am a native of Rockland, so I have some first-hand knowledge of the matter.

It's really surprizing that bag fees weren't implemented long ago. In Liberty, we pay a per-bag fee when we take our garbage to the Tri-County Transfer and Recycling. Whenever I go to the transfer station, I see lots of folks have separated out their recycling.

My parents live in another town that charges per bag. Even before the charges took effect there, that town's transfer station had one of the best-organized recycling centers in the state. Recycling is easy there, and everyone has to drive through the recycling area to get to the transfer hopper.

Rockland, however, is a great example of what happens when government does everything in its power to thwart market forces. When everyone in Rockland gets to throw away their trash for free, nobody has any economic incentive to recycle. And getting a permit to go into the transfer station was, at least when I was living there, illogically connected to a vehicle, rather than a resident. I lived within walking distance of the transfer station.

I often could take all my recycling on the rear panier rack of my bicycle (garbage collection was covered by my rent, but not recycling). When I went to the town office to get a permit, I was told that I had to have a vehicle registered in Rockland to use the transfer station. That involved a second trip to the office, since I had gotten there by bicycle, not by car. Then, when I received the permit, they told me I had to decide whether it would be used for the bicycle or the car. So if I wanted to keep the option of using both, I'd have to get two permits. I'd have to get a third permit if I wanted to just walk in with a small bag of recyclables.

At the time, Rockland had received poor marks from the state for its recycling as a percentage of waste. You'd think they would have acted happy that a concerned citizen who was trying to do the right thing for the environment wanted to add to the recycling percentage. But in typical bureaucratic fashion, the clerks acted resentful that I was even there talking to them.

So I decided to just get one for the bicycle. Then it was almost a year and a half before anybody at the transfer station ever asked to see my permit. And of course, I witnessed time and again the dumping of items I had dutifully separated for recycling into the transfer boxes.

If we can't trust government to handle our garbage correctly, why do we insist on trusting them with more important things? Like deciding there are too many taxis in town (see same linked story, above).



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Going Postal

I had to go to the post office yesterday to mail out something my lovely wife Rowan had sold via eBay. There was a small line that was moving along quickly, as it was early morning. Two ladies were conspicuously standing to the side of the service window, putting things in mailers and filling out forms on the counter. While they were doing this, folks standing at the head of the line were being served in the order they had arrived.

The ladies both finished with their mailing preparations at the same time. One of the ladies grabbed up her stuff and went to the end of the line. To her I offer my anonymous gratitude for civility and manners. The other lady ignored the line behind her and stepped up to the service window as soon as the customer at it was finished.

The rest of us were a bit taken aback by her self-centeredness, but were classy enough not to make a scene. We knew from experience that it wouldn't do any good. This lady had the tag of her expensive coat pulled out from her collar, so if you wanted to stand on your head you could see what brand it was. Of course we should have been doing that, rather than noticing that she was cutting in line.


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Friday, February 17, 2006

Maine Bookstores Don't Know Who's Running for Governor

I just got my hands on independent Maine gubernatorial candidate Barbara Merrill's book today, and will read it carefully and give my thoughts about her candidacy here soon. (Now that I'm back home, I've found out that she is offering the book gratis on her web site, as a PDF.) I just wanted to point out how hard her book is to find in Bookland and Mr. Paperback, and how easy it is to find in a particular independent bookstore in Rockland.

Mr. Paperback in Belfast doesn't seem to have it, despite assertions on Merrill's website. I scoured the Maine section a couple of weeks ago, and then had to leave, due to the noisome stench of coffee. (whoever decided that sickening your customers with vile odors was a way to get them to stick around and buy more stuff must have received a head injury some time ago.)

Breakwater Bookland and Cafe in Rockland tried to find the book for me, but was unsuccessful, even though their computer said they had copies. I looked in the Maine and nonfiction books sections to no avail. The fellow at the info desk seemed unaware of the book's existence, tho it is by a local woman who gained statewide press exposure about her bid for the Blaine House.

I did have fun walking around the store, which was formerly owned by a previous employer of mine. The building's new owners did an excellent job converting the lower floor to retail space.

The second I wandered into Reading Corner in Rockland, they not only knew of the book, but had it prominently displayed by the cash register with a "Local Author" sticker on the cover. There's some local Maine pride for you. If I ran a bookstore, that's what I'd do, regardless of my political agreement or disagreement with the author. I'd probably draw the line at holocaust deniers.

Looking at the table of contents of Merrill's book, I'm sure I'll find much to agree with, and much to groan at. With sections titled, "Why government fails in the marketplace," and "How government corrupts the free market," I'm already looking forward to the first debate she's in. On the other hand, she seems to be in favor of another exercise in rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic of our government-run educational system. I hope that, after reading the book, I'll have a better idea of whether to support her candidacy.

I already know Baldacci isn't an option for me. And no Republican candidate seems to have his act together at this point, either. Right now, the only other candidate who interests me is John Jenkins, former mayor of Lewiston. Last time he ran for governor, he didn't get enough signatures to appear on the ballot. But the first line in his press release called for reducing spending, so he's at least on the right track.

A warning to both Merrill and Jenkins: candidates whom I back tend to lose. If backers of either candidate want to encourage me to endorse the other, PayPal donations can be sent to my email address.



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Belfast Dodges the Bullet

Nobody blogging in or about Maine news can ignore the wonderful news that Bank of America will be keeping the MBNA site in Belfast open. I've refrained from blogging about this big story while the future was uncertain, due to the relationship one of my employers has with both MBNA and Bank of America, and the fact that another of my employers is married to the Mayor of Belfast. I will need to refrain from detailed blogging about it because that is still the case. However, I don't think I'll get into too much trouble by expressing my happiness for my friends and neighbors who work at the Belfast site. I'm sure that I'll be able to sense a great change in the atmosphere when I visit the site Tuesday morning.



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Thursday, February 16, 2006


Say hello to One Man Bandwidth, this week's renter from BlogExplosion.

If you check out Lonnie's profile, you'll quickly understand why I eagerly accepted his blog as a tenant, even before any other bidders surfaced. The American professor living in China says this about himself:

Lonnie does SEO for corporations and bloggers large or small. To date his clients hold over 30,000 keywords indexed in #1 positions on major search engines world-wide.

He was one of the original members of Delta Force (not the special forces group) the Army war College’s experiment in 1979, via genius Dr. Bob Parnes, that really became the backbone of the Internet.–That means he is really OLD!

He doesn’t use spell-check on his own blog and it shows.

Oh contrayre, mone frayre. You have a very humorous, well-written and interesting blog, spelling notwithstanding. And your personal expertise in such matters makes your posts on the Chinese internet access situation all the more revealing.

Lonnie's blog is not just dry geeky stuff. He presents a lot of slice-of-life scenes from China. Check out his post on the Toilet Bar. Or the youth of China who are professional video game players.

This one's a keeper. Straight to blogroll.



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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Seeds of Peace

One of the saddest ramifications of Hamas' election victory last month is the extra work that the Seeds of Peace summer camp will have to do to get Palestinians to attend. According to today's Bangor Daily News (story not found online):

If necessary, the selection of Palestinian attendees for the summer camp could bypass the government formed by the Islamic militant group by going through private schools, said Janet Wallach, acting president of the association.

One excellent result of the camp's short existence comes from the perspective that some former Palestinian attendees were able to offer:

Hazem Zanoun, a Palestinian Seed and a senior at the University of Southern Maine, believes most Palestinians who voted for Hamas were focused on domestic issues, not its call for the destruction of Israel...

Fadi El Salameen, another Palestinian Seed, also is optimistic that Hamas will become more moderate.

"It's a political question: If I recognize your existence, what do I get in return?"

The aims of the camp are extremely noble, and in the long run the safety of our country depends greatly on the efforts of it and similar groups. Personal interaction tends to have a mollifying effect on tribal hostilities, be they racial, ethnic, religious or nationalistic in nature. Considering the innumerable ways that
leaders of nations seemingly conspire to promulgate war, we ordinary folks need all the Seeds of Peace we can get.



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From Turin to Tor-Ino?

Why is it that everyone who, just mere months ago, was satisfied to refer to a certain Mediterranean city as Turin, now seems so enamored of Torino? I'd like to think that the growing popularity of Tor's Rants has had something to do with it. Nice blog, nice namesake city.

But I recognize that Americans are now rightfully eager to show the world some humility as its international stature wanes. In that spirit, I'd like to suggest one further way that we Americans may regain the esteem our European friends.

Gents, when you take your sweeties out tonight for Valentine celebrations, be sure to splash some Koeln on your faces.



P.S. The spell checker knows "Turin," but not "Torino."

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From Netflix to MovieBeam

When I first got the email from Netflix months ago, explaining the existence of the class-action lawsuit against it and my eligibility to join the class action, I deleted it. My first gut reaction was that Netflix had been doing okay by me, and someone was trying to read too much into the "unlimited rental" claim. I almost blogged about the avarice of the folks who were pursuing the matter.

Then I read this. It seems Netflix was caught "throttling" the flow of DVDs to some customers who had heavier-than-average rental patterns. Now Netflix, tho it originally denied the practice, has changed its user agreement to reflect that accounts could be throttled.

That is dishonest. I have signed up for the class action. It seems lawyers will get millions of dollars, and my wife and I will get a month of service at a higher level. What good having an extra DVD will do if Netflix decides to throttle our account is
beyond me, tho.

In the end, even with the throttling, Netflix is still a good deal compared to other rental options. Assuming an average rental price at a local store of three bucks, and generously rounding up the most popular Netflix service level to twenty-one bucks (to capture some sales tax, and also because it makes the math lots easier), the average Netflix user who watches and returns more than seven discs in a month will come out ahead. That's not too hard to do. Two discs a week.

I really hope the revised settlement will have Netflix explicitly state the number of discs at each service level that will trigger the throttling. They already do that for the ten-dollar level of service. It's only fair for the consumer to know what level of service they can expect, rather than being vaguely told that the vendor can make a determination of what constitutes "excessive account activity."

Of course, what would be even better than a class-action lawsuit would be for more credible competitors to enter the market. But with easy downloading of high-quality digital movies over souped-up satellite or broadband connections just around the corner, Netflix (or at least DVDs) may soon go the way of Woolworth's.



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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Get Well, James Randi

When I wrote the previous post, I hadn't yet heard the news of James Randi's bypass surgery. Get well, Mr. Randi. We still need you.



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Bless Me, Buddha Boy

Via The Age of Australia comes this story from Nepal about a 15-year-old boy who is becoming one of that country's highest-paid magicians:

For the past nine months, [Ram Bahadur Bomjan] has sat, meditating at the base of a peepal tree in Nepal's Bara District, without food, water, sleep or the need to use the toilet. If that was not remarkable enough, on January 19, he spontaneously combusted, burning off the clothes he has worn for nine months but leaving no scars. Lest there be doubters, his followers caught that combustion on video and plan to present the footage, seen by The Age, at a news conference in Kathmandu, soon.

At least he has some level of integrity. He doesn't want to be called Buddha Boy!

Last November, he briefly emerged from his meditation to announce: "Tell people not to call me the Buddha, I do not have the Buddha's energy, I am only at tapaswi level." A tapaswi is a sage who practises austerities.

Like any good magician, he knows that staging and audience perspective are everything!

At the site, a series of fenced alleys loop through the forest, directing pilgrims in a one-way stream past the open front of the peepal tree where the boy, with distinctive sloping shoulders, sits slumped inside. Pilgrims are kept at 30 metres distance as they walk past the donation boxes stuffed full of Nepalese rupees.

Thirty meters (not quite 100 feet) ought to be plenty close for fraud-detection purposes, right? Especially when, "At night the forest site is dark and only his supporters stand guard."

Medical teams have not been allowed closer than 5 meters (about 15 feet). Think about how a good magician can fool you right under your nose. Certainly it wouldn't be hard for James Randi or Penn & Teller to pull off this scam with such a setback distance. Think about the stunts David Blaine has pulled. He must be envious. I bet he's en route to Nepal right now to see if he can get his own peepal tree.

And as for the so-called "spontaneous combustion":

The last message from the tapaswi, after he spontaneously combusted, was addressed to those who doubt him, saying the fire showed the reality of his power and he would use it another three times during his meditation.

Translation: "I've got three more bags of flash powder in my stash, and it's harder for my confederates to get way out here in the sticks of Nepal than food is."

It's time for all rational Buddhists to denounce this charlatan. Taking money from superstitious peasants is a terrible way to advance spiritually. And lying about one's spiritual attainments was an offense worthy of casting from the Sangha for early Buddhists:

Should any bhikkhu, without direct knowledge, boast of a superior human state, a truly noble knowledge and vision as present in himself, saying, "Thus do I know; thus do I see," such that regardless of whether or not he is cross-examined on a later occasion, he — being remorseful and desirous of purification — might say, "Friends, not knowing, I said I know; not seeing, I said I see — vainly, falsely, idly," unless it was from over-estimation, he also is defeated and no longer in communion.

The seriousness with which the Buddha regarded a breach of this training rule is indicated by his statements to the original instigators:

"You misguided men, how can you for the sake of your stomachs speak praise of one another's superior human states to householders? It would be better for you that your bellies be slashed open with a sharp butcher's knife than that you should for the sake of your stomachs speak praise of one another's superior human states to householders. Why is that? For that reason you would undergo death or death-like suffering, but you would not on that account, at the break-up of the body, after death, fall into deprivation, the bad bourn, the abyss, purgatory. But for this reason you would, at the break-up of the body, after death, fall into deprivation, the bad bourn, the abyss, purgatory... Bhikkhus, in this world with its devas, maras, and brahmas, its generations with priests and contemplatives, princes and men, this is the ultimate great thief: he who claims an unfactual, non-existent superior human state. Why is that? You have consumed the nation's almsfood through theft."

Perhaps one day a Nepalese sitcom will make light of this boy, much like the episode of Bless Me, Father in which a priest tries to perform a convincing miracle so he will be on the road to canonization after death.

Hat tip to Authentic Personality.



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Saturday, February 11, 2006

An Atheist and a Priest Go into a Courtroom...

No, it's not a joke. But it's extremely entertaining. Too bad it's tying up a courtroom and taxpayers' dollars in Italy.

An atheist is suing a Catholic priest for falsely asserting that Jesus Christ existed as a historic person:

Cascioli claimed that Righi's assertions violated two Italian laws: one barring "abuse of popular belief," or fraudulently deceiving people; and another barring "impersonation" or personal gain from attributing a false name to someone.

The case has been dismissed by the first court, with a recommendation that prosecutors examine pursuing slander charges against Cascioli. Cascioli seems to say he will press on through the court system with his case.

There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Christians believe in the historic truth of the existence of Jesus Christ. Just as most Buddhists believe in the historic truth of the existence of Gautama Buddha.

Speaking as a Buddhist, I profess skepticism as to the historical existence of any of the major religious traditions' founders. Robert M. Price put forward the cold, hard facts several years ago:

An earlier generation of Western scholars of Buddhism, including R. Otto Franke, did relegate Gautama Buddha to the same bin and believed Gautama Buddha to be just a collective name for earlier generations of unnamed Buddhist teachers who, being vigorous opponents of the ego, would hardly have troubled themselves to be remembered as individuals. That must be true in large measure any way you cut it, since on anyone's reading virtually none of the teaching ascribed to him in Buddhist scripture, all of it written down only some centuries after the traditional date of the Buddha, can possibly be his. What did the Buddha himself actually teach? There is even conflict in the texts as to whether he taught the now-central Buddhist tenet that there is no individual soul (atman), or whether, like all yogis, he simply refused to identify such an exalted entity with the ego-personality.

He similarly summarizes the case against the historical existence of Moses, Jesus and (dare I say it), Muhammad.

The best way to regard religions and their texts is as blueprints for personal, spiritual growth, not as historic documents. I understand that many fundamentalists from many traditions feel that if the "historical truths" of their texts are invalidated, that the spiritual truths are therefore invalidated. I say, not so. Moreover, there is great danger in trying to impose mere historic truth on their texts, because that will negate the greater spiritual truth that the texts convey. Metaphor is more powerful than true stories. That is why even true stories often need to be exaggerated, or at least oversimplified, to become compelling narrations. As long as we make sure that we know what purports to be historic is different from what purports to be spiritual metaphor, we'll be all set.



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Friday, February 10, 2006

Maine, the Minimum Wage, and Tax Breaks for Film Companies

The Maine House, at Governor Baldacci's urging, has passed a plan to increase the Maine minimum wage to $7/hr by 2007. Senate passage seems likely.

This, right on the heels of an excellent study of what happened when "living wage" legislation was implemented in Santa Fe:

Dr. Yelowitz found that the likelihood of unemployment for employees in Santa Fe went up by 3.3 percent. For less-educated employees, however, the results were much higher, with their likelihood of unemployment increasing 8.3 percentage points. In addition, the usual hours of work fell by 1.0 hours for the full sample and 3.2 hours for less-educated individuals...

...Santa Fe's living wage increase led to significant and negative consequences for employees in the city-particularly the least skilled employees. The increased likelihood of unemployment and a decreased number of hours worked were all highest for low-skill employees. Furthermore, there is significant evidence to suggest the displacement of adult employees by unmarried high school age employees. These are all unintended consequences that should give pause to any claims of success of the ordinance.

In a nutshell, minimum wage laws hurt poor folks. This is not really a surprize to anyone who has taken Economics 101. The only utility of minimum wage laws is to make the people who pass them feel good about themselves, even tho they are hurting the people they profess to help. Of course, these are the same people who stand ever ready to increase social programs, and thus dependency on the dole, for those poor folks whom their minimum wage legislation is hurting.

The best way to help poor people increase their income is to increase the number of jobs that need workers. The best way to do that is to lower the cost of doing business in Maine. For all businesses, not just the few that are politically connected or favored.

This leads us to the proposal to create special tax breaks for the film industry in Maine. Why the folks in Augusta feel they are any more enlightened than the folks living and working in the real world, I'll never know. By definition, if you give one industry tax breaks, all other industries are being treated less favorably. It should be the goal of the legislature and the governor to lower taxes dramatically for all Maine businesses, not just for celebrities who are making their millions.

Don't get me wrong: I don't begrudge the filmmakers their earnings. And I think it would be a wonderful thing for more films to be shot in Maine. But don't do it on the back of the little guy (namely, me). Let's lighten the load for everbody, not just for the folks who can get the pols to give them "incentives" or "tax increment financing."



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Thursday, February 9, 2006

Do Android Dinosaurs Help Children Have Sweet Dreams?

Ever since the old DOS program Eliza was talking to me on the TRS-80s in 5th grade, there has been a sector of technology that has aimed to emulate human behavior. Fuzzy logic enables the Google program Picasa to have an "I Feel Lucky" button on its photo-editing panel. The program does a pretty good job of making an average photo look above-average with a single click.

Now fuzzy self-programming will be used to help gadgets learn about human emotional response, and try to emulate it. A little robot dinosaur called Pleo will be hitting consumer electronics shelves soon.

The idea that robots will be able to reprogram themselves on-the-fly to "better serve" humanity seems a little scary to me, since I read every science fiction horror story I could get my hands on when I was in grade school. Of course, as long as they make the robots this small and without opposable thumbs, I guess we'll be all right. When they start making true androids with this sort of capability, I say we're screwed.

But I do hope that my prejudices will be ill-founded. One of the earliest texts of Buddhism begins:

1. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.

2. Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow

I wonder how Mind and mental states apply to robots. Will they be happy if they seem happy?



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Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Another Reason to Hate Internet Explorer

Geez, it only took me a few weeks to figure out how to get rid of an annoying bug that you definitely noticed if you read this blog with Internet Explorer. There was something funny going on with the background color at the top of the top post. It wouldn't stay up as high as it was supposed to, but if you scrolled down and went back up, it would go up to where I wanted it -- but not stay there.

I knew the problem was only with the IE browser, and not with the Opera or Mozilla/Firefox browsers. Sunday night at the theatre, I found out that one of my coworkers had some knowledge of the bug, even tho he is a Mac user. Tonight, I did some searching based on his recommendations, and found two solutions. The latter one didn't work for me, and I had to do a customization of the former to get it to work. But it does work, and now I'm generally happy with the tweaking I started some time ago.

Thanks for the help, Josh.



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Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Ecoterrorism or Vandalism?

"Ecoterrorism" is one of those words that should have been used for something different than what it ended up meaning. When I hear the word, my mind conjures up some Lex Luthor character scheming to release radioactive killer bees or to pollute a city's drinking water supply.

But it's come to be defined as "to injure someone or cause property damage with the intent of intimidating or coercing the conduct of a business or organization," that is, vandalism, under a proposed law in Maine.

Of course vandalism should be illegal. But the one thing I've never understood about our current legal system is why intent should matter at all in prosecuting crime. If someone vandalizes a place of business, or a religious site, or a person's home or vehicle, the law should hold them accountable and fine them or jail them. Vandalism is by definition a malicious act against someone's property. Who cares why it's perpetrated?

If the current penalties for vandalism seem insufficient, stiffen them. But do it across the board, not just for certain acts of vandalism. Especially when the acts have some philosophical or political rationale behind them.

Consider the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany. They spread anti-Nazi leaflets and defaced public and private buildings with spraypaint to encourage Germans to resist the Nazi regime. Under Maine's proposed law, these folks would have been felons. Of course, they wouldn't have been executed, as they were by the Nazis, but still, that's no way to treat heroes, is it?

And of course, as several testified in the hearing covered by the BDN, you can have all the laws you want if you can't catch the transgressors.

Just to be clear, I am not equating the proposed legislation with Nazism, nor am I saying that the actions of the vandals of the Plum Creek sites were justified or justifiable. Similarly, people who spike trees to make areas of forest unharvestable because of the risk of human injury should be prosecuted. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the Plum Creek vandals see themselves as defenders of something they hold dear, and which is threatened by the forces of big government and big corporations. I hope the vandals will turn themselves in, renounce violence as a means of political gain, or at the very least turn their energies to actions that will more likely bring about the results they desire. Until they do so, they are in the same category as President Bush.



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Idiot Gummint Driver

Today's Idiot Driver is brought to you by the State of Maine.

A small green car with tag number 181-154 ran a red light in downtown Rockland at the intersection of Main St. and Tillson Ave. this afternoon. The plate identified it as a state vehicle.

Way to go, gummint worker. Just imagine the accident you could have caused by speeding up when you saw the light turn yellow so you could run the red light. My Range Rover was in your line of sight, so you couldn't have seen whether there were any traffic on Tillson Ave. raring to go when the light turned green. Or if there were a pedestrian already crossing in front of me. (Yes, it's illegal even to pass a car that's stopped at a pedestrian crossing, regardless of the light, you bureaucratic bozo.) I'd really like to know what gummint function was worth endangering your fellow human beings so cavalierly. I didn't get a good look at you, since you were on the opposite side of the vehicle from me, but I'm pretty sure you weren't Jack Bauer.



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He Only Wanted to Speak Spanish

Here's an inspiring story about a paralegal in Maine who is looking out for the rights of migrant workers. Danny Mills works with them and with Native Americans on immigration, employment and discrimination cases.

Danny works for Pine Tree Legal, which cannot represent illegal immigrants. (Note in the story that even the BDN has taken up the catchphrase "undocumented workers.") I imagine that even the most rabid conservative would have to applaud Danny's efforts in helping foreign workers get legal assistance in their immigration efforts. Certainly Danny's take on the subject has a distinctly libertarian air to it:

"I like things to be fair," Mills, 48, said recently when asked what he found rewarding about the job. "When a person does work, they should get paid what they were promised and they should get the treatment they were promised."

By treatment, he is likely referring to housing conditions, judging by the rest of the story.

Danny, congratulations on receiving the honor of the John W. Ballou Distinguished Service Award! And sorry to hear you're no longer playing klezmer! (Heard him live once. Great clarinetist.)



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Kubby Update 2/7

Steve Kubby now has a blog on MySpace, which, in combination with his website, should be the easiest way to find out about his current condition. Sounds like he's doing much much better, but is in need of funds to pay for medicine.



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Friday, February 3, 2006


It's BlogExplosion blog rental time again; here's a rundown on the candidates and the successful renter.

Artistic Bytes from the 3rd Eye is a beautifully designed, well-written blog by Jayne d'Arcy that intersperses eclectic musings with a nascent creative writing project called "Shadow Falls." Check out her Cafe Press store.

21st Century Mom is also well-written, and also seems to cover an eclectic mix of things that interest the author. One particularly good post concerns Richard Dawkins, religious fundamentalism, Buddhism and what one of my religion professors called "questions of ultimate concern."

The rental agreement for the week has been awarded to C-O-N-spiracy. Well-written (notice a pattern here?), this blog won the spot due to its exceptional post about Tara's personal experience with interracial dating.

I've been really pleased with and humbled by the quality of the blogs that have applied for the little square on my page the last few go-rounds. I encourage everyone to look into all three of these fine blogs.



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Kama Sutra Kaput

As I predicted, the Kama Sutra worm has been a bust so far.

Told you so,


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Thursday, February 2, 2006

Spellbound Again

I couldn't help but notice, while reading the Maine Christian Civic League's blog, continuing harassment of the Spellbound lingerie store in Augusta. Unbelievable. Seems some topless photos of the lingerie models were taken for some of the ladies' personal use when the store was closed. To quote the League's blog:

After it was learned that nude photos were taken on the premises of the Spellbound lingerie store in Augusta, the Augusta Police Department was interested in interviewing the owner, Felicia Stockford, on Thursday of last week. Stockford wrote on her online blog that the police were scheduled to visit her store on Thursday to take statements from everyone.” The outcome of the visit was apparently that no crime had been committed, since the whole affair occurred out of sight, before the store opened for business.

It's interesting that the League omits in its account that Matthew Hein, one of their own, is the one who called the police after seeing references to the photos on Stockford's blog. Welcome to the blogosphere, Felicia! Sounds like you have some of Augusta's finest citizens reading your blog! MCCL reviewed it thusly:

To find proof of this we need look no farther than to the Spellbound lngerie shop on Water Street in Augusta. The behavior of the owner Felicia Stockford has gone from disgraceful, to repugnant, and now can only be called abominable, in the true and proper sense of that word. Her online ravings and rantings have long since left the realm of human sexuality, and now are exploring a darker side of mankind better left to priests, well-trained medical professionals, and yes, even exorcists. It is simply impossible to describe her writings here.

I guess I'll have to do some searching for blogs written by exorcists to see if that is true. And I would pay a great deal to get such a review from the MCCL. I would exhibit it proudly on my front page.

And now the Christian Right in Maine plans to protest the business on the day they hope to have big sales for Valentine's Day. What a classy lot. I've done some protesting in my time, and I'd never suggest that people don't have the right to do that, but don't these people realize that they will be putting Stockford's sales through the roof? She couldn't possibly afford all the advertizing they're giving her for free in the state's news media!

Advice from a non-Christian Mainer to Mike Heath: Stick to the more interesting Venezuelan Oil Deal research. Though what that has to do with spreading Christian ideals in Maine, I don't quite get.



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Peter Stewart: We're Watching You Now

My old former Shebang Street Theatre buddy and near-neighbor Peter Stewart (aka Bull Roar) has found out (surprize, surprize!) that his Maine Coalition for Peace and Justice has turned up in an FBI file. Seems a broadcast email from the group was of interest:

The announcement that ended up in the FBI file appeared to have originated in Canada and called for an "Anarchist feeder march" to join the Million Worker March scheduled in Washington. The invitation made only passing reference to the war in Iraq and the U.S. government, and announced the time, date and location for the start of the march.

"It was an innocuous call for people to attend. There was nothing terribly specific about it," Stewart said. "Oftentimes, we'll just pass something like that along."

Didn't the feds learn decades ago that the American people refuse to be afraid of them? And that the American people know that there's nothing to fear from allowing all political gatherings to happen? And that we have plenty to fear from having government at all levels collect information about our every activity?

I have a very vivid memory of Peter's interaction with a state trooper (now deceased) who came to respond to one of Shebang's unpermitted assemblies on Lincolnville Beach. The trooper was in the nearby parking lot, taking down license plate numbers. Peter approached the trooper and loudly demanded to know several times what the information was going to be used for, since many of the cars didn't belong to anybody involved with the bonfire on the beach. I had a little fun while this was going on, pointing out inspection stickers and registration stickers, and whether they were valid. The trooper finally relented and went off to sulk with his partial list.

At least the trooper identified himself when we asked him who he was, which is more than the local constabulary did. They illegally refused to provide ID, so we refused to follow their orders. One of them said repeatedly, "We don't want to have to arrest you."

Even when we asked what we would be arrested for, he would just repeat, "Well, we don't want to have to arrest you."

Then one of them lied, expressing concern about stories that children had been kidnapped for satanic rituals. We were performing a vaguely wiccan/primitive animist ritual, but not satanic. And since we were doing it on the beach (the ritual, I mean), it wasn't like we were exactly trying to hide any criminal activity like murder or child torture.

So now Peter Stewart's name has appeared on a blog entry, along with satanic ritual, murder and child torture. Wonder how the FBI will react to that.



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Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Why the Hysteria?

Why does it take media hysteria to get people aware of their computer security issues? I even got an email from my mom about it, so I know it's penetrated the consciousness of the general public.

Fortunately, the same old practices that have done well by computer users in the past will keep this worm from doing any harm. You know, like not opening unexpected attachments from known or unknown senders. Keeping antivirus programs updated. And backing up important files.

The real threats these days, in my opinion, come from malicious code on web sites that upload Trojan Horses onto our machines through broadband connections. Twice in the last month or so, we've had to get Trojans off our new computer here at home. The first one was really hard to eradicate, as it had slipped on two days before any of the antivirus firms distributed definitions for it. Antivirus programs do a great job keeping things off, but can have trouble getting things off that have worked their way on. If you ever find yourself in that situation, check out Castle Cops. But be prepared to do some real work.



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Kubby Appears in Court

Steve Kubby had an arraignment hearing yesterday. The next court appearance is on Friday the 3rd. One interesting point from the article in the Auburn Journal: "Jail officials are forbidden to answer direct medical questions, but have said Kubby is receiving medical treatment as necessary and is being cared for as all inmates are."

While things may have changed after his interview Sunday with indybay, at the time Steve was painting a distressingly different picture:

PM: So, let me get this straight again. They have not tested for
blood in the urine yet?

SK: No, they have not.

PM: I see, Steve.

SK: The only follow-up I've had in three days was a blood-pressure check today.


Edibles refers to having marijuana mixed into his food. He is currently receiving an inadequate dose of Marinol, which is helping with the nausea somewhat, but Steve needs a lot more medical help than the jail medical center can give him.

To me, this is such a disgustingly unnecessary no-brainer. The man has stabilized a medical condition for decades with the help of the "demon weed." Most folks with this sort of adrenal cancer would have died long ago. Even if we are skeptical, as we should be, that his treatment regimen has been the cause of his longevity, what is the harm in allowing it to continue? Why throw this man in jail to die alone?

This is one of those areas where my skepticism and my love of freedom wrestle. I don't like to use the phrases "alternative medicine" or "conventional medicine." To me, there is medicine that has proven itself, and medicine that has not proven itself. Kubby's anecdotal evidence should be studied for wider practicality. Even if it is shown subsequently (as many "alternative" therapies are) to be fraudulent hokum at worst or wishful thinking at best, in a free society, diseased individuals should not be made criminals because they are desperately seeking relief from their symptoms. Snake-oil salesmen should be held accountable for the claims they make about their wares. Snake-oil drinkers should be left the hell alone.



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