Morning Music: Sam Baker

Say Grace - Sam BakerReader Ryan Hall introduced me to the folk/country singer-songwriter Sam Baker. He’s rather like John Prine in his approach to telling a story through music. But he’s less inclined toward traditional melodies with greater care in his lyrics — using a kind of talk-singing that is highly evocative. Apparently, when he was 32, he was badly injured during a terrorist attack while traveling in Peru. Many of those traveling with him died. His left hand was so damaged that he had to relearn the guitar with the other hand. Regardless, he’s just amazing.

Here is the title song off his album Say Grace. It’s about an older woman considering her life — past and present. Things don’t have to go wrong — they just get sadder inch by inch — and we push on. I especially like these lines: “The TV says war in the holy land; she looks at the wrinkles on the back of her hand.” Exactly.

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Birthday Post: Stephen Schwartz

Stephen SchwartzToday, the great songwriter Stephen Schwartz is 67 years old. At this point, his most successful musical is most likely Wicked. But I have never seen it or even listened to the original cast album. I know him from Godspell, Pippin, and The Magic Show. Actually, the last one isn’t all that good. But the first two are really great. Given that he started his career very early, there isn’t anything terribly interesting about his life. So let’s listen to some of his work.

First is “Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord)” from Godspell. It is a wonderful example of his ability to create a melody so strong that he can just repeat it over and over again.

Here is the most recent Broadway production of Pippin as they performed at the 2013 Tony Awards. It consists of “Corner of the Sky.” I loved it when I was a kid, but I actually think it is rather weak. The melody is strong, but the transition from verse to chorus drives me crazy. But then it goes into “Magic to Do,” which is a far better song.

After looking around a bit, I can’t find anything from Wicked that I care to share. The truth is that I’m not that fond of Broadway musicals at this point. They have gone in exactly the opposite direction that I had hoped they would go. They just become more involved and complicated — trying to compete against movies. And they have largely become soulless. And I don’t think that people especially like them. It’s just a thing. Musical theater could be something really special. Instead, it is as edifying as a sitcom. But at its best, at least the songs are well crafted.

Happy birthday Stephen Schwartz!

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Problems With MST3K Hosted Segments

Mystery Science Theater 3000I was watching a bit of Mystery Science Theater 3000 over the weekend. I used to be kind of an addict for the show. It does combine a lot of my loves: puppets, low budget films, silliness. It does suffer from one big problem — especially in the later years under Mike: it tends to put down the films as “bad.” But the films are not, in general, bad. As Mike has shown with his Riff Tracks, a great film can be mocked as easily as any other. It’s just that on MST3K, they were limited to low budget films because they had to buy the rights to them. Anyway, it is a minor complaint, but I’m very tired after all these years of hearing people claiming that a film is bad when it simply didn’t have a lot of resources. A lot of low budget “bad” films have far more creativity and wit than big budget films.

But in recent years, I’ve found another problem with the show: it’s hosted segments. These are the bits they do outside the theater during every other commercial break. They are often inspired and funny. One of my favorite examples is this bit, “Earth vs Soup”:

But more often than not, they miss. And even more important, they are never well crafted. They are clearly thrown together. For example, as much as I like “Earth vs Soup,” it’s an idea waiting for a writer. It is one of the longer hosted segments, but it barely mines the comic gold that is the idea of Crow trying to write one of those atomic age monster movies — except with soup. When they did the same thing with Crow’s idea of blaxploitation film, “Chocolate Jones and the Temple of Funk,” they didn’t even try:

Afros and a pimp hat? That’s it. Other than the title, which is brilliant, there is nothing there. The situation is even worse with the evil overlords. Dr Forrester and TV’s Frank work well enough, but the writing is always weak. It got even worse when Pearl took over. But I will admit, all the actors work really hard to get through the writing.

By far, the biggest problem with the hosted segments is that there is absolutely no effort to maintain the characters of Crow and Tom. The same problem exists with Gypsy, but she is gratefully not around enough to be much of a problem. And it is also true of Mike, but given he is always around the constantly changing Crow and Tom, it doesn’t stand out greatly.

The problem wasn’t that bad under Joel. But the longer the series went on, the more they reached for absolutely anything that they could fill up a minute or two of air time. So really, from segment to segment, Tom can change from an intellectual snob to a five year old. Crow tended to oscillate between good and bad id. But he became much less nice over time. In the first seasons, he’s kind of sweet. By the third season, when Joel asks him what he wants for Christmas, Crow says, “I want to decide who lives and dies!”

All this may seem petty, but actually, I like the characters. If you are going to have a television show, a big part of it is learning who the characters are. The hosted segments really should have used for that. And given that the hosted segments so often failed, they might as well have tried to create characters with some consistency. Not it stops me from loving the show. Here’s perhaps my favorite hosted segment:

Afterword

One other thing. With one exception, the puppetry on the show is annoyingly bad. For some reason that isn’t clear to me, Trace Beaulieu is actually quite a good puppeteer. I think he was a stand-up comic before the show. I assume he had no previous puppet experience. I don’t know what is wrong with everyone else. I assume that they just didn’t especially care. The soul of the show belonged to Joel Hodgson, but I’ve always thought a lot of it was Beaulieu as well (based on the credits).

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The Christian Justification for African Enslavement

Alexander StephensAs I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests? It is the first government ever instituted upon the principles in strict conformity to nature, and the ordination of Providence, in furnishing the materials of human society. Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system. The architect, in the construction of buildings, lays the foundation with the proper material — the granite; then comes the brick or the marble. The substratum of our society is made of the material fitted by nature for it, and by experience we know that it is best, not only for the superior, but for the inferior race, that it should be so. It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws. This stone which was rejected by the first builders “is become the chief of the corner” the real “corner-stone” in our new edifice. I have been asked, what of the future? It has been apprehended by some that we would have arrayed against us the civilized world. I care not who or how many they may be against us, when we stand upon the eternal principles of truth, if we are true to ourselves and the principles for which we contend, we are obliged to, and must triumph.

—Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America
“Corner Stone” Speech

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What’s the Matter With Ferguson — and Beyond

Police AbuseYesterday, Jenée Desmond-Harris at Vox wrote an excellent overview of the situation, The 6 Most Damning Findings From the DOJ’s Report on Racism in the City of Ferguson. I’m actually glad that we’ve gotten past discussion of Darren Wilson. There is no doubt in my mind that he, like more police officers than most Americans want to admit, is a villain who should never have been allowed to be a police officer. But I don’t think it is just to grab onto him as the ultimate problem. I’m sure that the Ferguson Police Department is filled with officers who would have behaved exactly the same way. So the focus is now where it should be — at least in one place.

The problem, of course, is that we are only looking at Ferguson because Michael Brown was gunned down by a pussy officer who clearly would have been better assigned to checking parking meters. How many other towns have similar problems? Well, certainly Ferguson seems to be an extreme example. Most towns don’t seem to be as bad. But it seems that this is a general problem. You may be aware of a cliche that security guards are particularly aggressive and unreasonable because of their inferiority complex with regard to not being “real” police officers. There is at least some truth to that. Well, I’ve begun to wonder if “real” police officers don’t suffer from something like this with regard to the military.

There was a lot of reporting regarding the militarization of local policing after 9/11. I don’t think the fact that they have tanks is the problem. But it feeds into a kind of fantasy world where the police are always under threat. It’s kind of like Bill O’Reilly claiming to be in war zones when he wasn’t. I’m sure in his mind, he was in war zones. And I’m sure that the police in Ferguson thought they were in a war zone. But there has always been an attitude in police forces that it is them against the rest of us. And clearly, when you have a large majority African American community policed by an overwhelmingly white police force, the situation is so much worse.

Ferguson Policing Was Racist

The specifics about what was (and I assume still is) going on are interesting. Let’s go through each of the six points. The first is, “In Ferguson, race had everything to do with who was stopped by police, and whom they used force against.” Much of the information here is probably stuff you’ve heard before, such as the fact that while 67% of the population was black, 85% of traffic stops were of African Americans. But a couple I hadn’t heard of, like the fact that every time a police dog bit someone, it was an African American. But this one really struck me:

The FPD brought certain charges almost exclusively against African-Americans. For example, in 2013 black residents made up a full 95 percent of manner of walking in roadway charges, and 94 percent of all failure to comply charges.

This reminds me of how the police were known to cite and even arrest hippies in the 1960s for trivial things like spitting. It’s the same thing here. The police hated the hippies then and they hate the African American community now.

It Isn’t Because Blacks Commit More Crime

Just like with the huge discrepancy with cannabis charges between white and black, the report found that blacks were not committing more crime — at least not enough more to explain the racial citation and arrest differences. Here’s an example, “Between 2011 and 2013, African-American drivers got 72 percent of the speeding tickets when radars or laser verification were used, but when tickets were based on officers’ personal observations, they got 80 percent of the tickets.” Not that 72% is close enough to the 67% of the population — although still high. The 80% is not just a fluke.

Police and Municipal Figures Exchanged Racist Email

I guess this is the most salacious of the findings. German Lopez compiled, Here Are 7 Racist Jokes Ferguson Police and Court Officials Made Over Email. Check out this charmer:

A November 2008 email said President Barack Obama won’t be president for long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”

In 2011, there was an email with President Obama depicted as a chimp. And as far as the investigators could determine, no one was ever even chastised about this. Indeed, many of these emails were forwarded around the government employees.

Police Arrested People Trying to Help the Injured

This one shouldn’t surprise anyone. When Tamir Rice’s mother ran to him, the Cleveland police threatened to arrest her. In Ferguson, one of the examples involves a guy trying to help his bleeding girlfriend. Instead of helping the woman, the police arrested the man while they waited for an ambulance to arrive. It’s pretty clear that the general attitude is that the Ferguson police consider the community to be made up of a bunch of animals. They have it exactly backwards.

The Department Abused Its Power

This is what we see everywhere. Our constitutional rights really don’t mean anything when we are dealing with the police. If they ask to search you and you won’t let them, they will use this as probable cause and search your car. Or as in once case in Ferguson, just arrest you. Or check out this charming story that sums up a number of problems with the police force:

After telling the officer, “you don’t have a reason to lock me up,” he claims the officer responded: “N*****, I can find something to lock you up on.” When the man responded, “good luck with that,” the officer slammed his face into the wall, and after the man fell to the floor, the officer said, “don’t pass out motherf****r because I’m not carrying you to my car.”

If you doubt that story for a moment, then you haven’t dealt much with the police. This is definitely not specific to Ferguson. The police believe they are above the law.

Follow the Money

As you probably have heard some reporting on before, the city basically used the poorest segment of their community to pay for the city functions via fines and other mechanisms. And this was not just something that happened. This was explicit policy. But what are you going to do? You can’t tax the rich!

This is not just about the death of one person. As Desmond-Harris noted, “Ferguson residents… saw Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Darren Wilson as just one example of the type of racially biased policing that made their city an unjust place for the 2/3 of its residents who are African-American and fueled their distrust of the police department.” Hopefully, this will improve things in Ferguson. But we have the same problems throughout the United States. And most people — white people — don’t want to admit that there is a problem. They just want to see it as this or that bad apple. No. The barrel is rotten and all the apples are poisoned.

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“Justice” for David Petraeus

David PetraeusJohn Adams once wrote, “A government of laws, and not of men.” That was what America was supposed to be. And I don’t mind it being aspirational. But it isn’t even that. It is just false. Take for example, David Petraeus. He’s the high level military and political hack who once had Washington swooning. But then he had an affair with his hagiographer. And then we found out that he gave her highly classified notebooks. One thing that’s clear about the whole thing is that Petraeus is not a whistleblower. He gave her the notebooks for his own personal gain — both in his sexual relationship and in getting out a book that painted him as a modern day Achilles.

Given that the Obama administration has been vicious in going after leakers, one would think that Petraeus would be deep trouble. After all, this administration sentences John Kiriakou to 30 months in jail for leaking one name (never published) to a reporter in his effort to get out the story of our torture program. Similarly, Stephen Kim got 13 months for discussing a classified report with a journalist. So what did the government do to the disgraced Petreus? Ten years? Twenty?! Well, no. Actually, he won’t spend a second in jail. He won’t even have a felony on his record:

Petraeus pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of retaining classified information. Prosecutors agreed not to charge him with more serious crimes, such as obstruction of justice and lying to the FBI, the Justice Department announced.

Petraeus agreed to pay a $40,000 fine, and prosecutors said they would recommend that he receive probation instead of prison time.

Peter Maass at The Intercept reported, Petraeus Plea Deal Reveals Two-Tier Justice System for Leaks. He highlighted the difference in the way that top officials get off light. In some cases, like Alberto Gonzales, they get “admonished but not charged.” How Scooter Libby ever managed to get sentenced to any time is beyond me. Of course, his sentence was commuted, so he didn’t actually go to prison. The main thing is that “we” — the right kind of people — don’t go to prison. We only put the prols in cages!

Edward SnowdenIt’s also the case that Petraeus is rich. He’s worth at least $2 million. But that rather small sum for the right kind of people, will expand now. He is a partner in a private equity firm. The power elite understand how leaking secrets is just one of those things that happens. The reporter is smoking hot and she’s willing to jump your sagging bag of bones. Who could resist that? Certainly not a “patriot” like David Petraeus.

Welcome to modern America. If you are poor — and especially if you’re black — just accept the fact that whether you live and die is a matter of dumb luck. If you are rich — if you have the right kind of friends — it doesn’t much matter what you do. Now that I mention it, Edward Snowden is crazy to consider coming back to the United States. If they gave John Kiriakou 30 months, Snowden is looking at something like the 35 years they gave Chelsea Manning. Snowden is very clearly not the “right” kind of leaker. Isn’t that obvious? He didn’t leak those documents to get laid or to puff up his already unbelievably puffed up reputation. What’s more, Snowden isn’t partner in a private equity firm. He’s the “wrong” kind of leaker. He’s screwed.

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Morning Music: Darius Milhaud

Darius MilhaudI do not want to limit the music I present here to “popular” music. In particular, as you probably know, I have a great love of “classical” music — especially of Classical and early modern periods. And it is this latter period that I want to highlight today by way of a wonderfully charming piece of music by Darius Milhaud, Suite for Clarinet, Violin and Piano. It was composed in 1936 and combines Milhaud’s usual complex, but fundamentally tonal, harmony and singable melodies.

The format of the piano, violin, and clarinet trio is really a twentieth century invention. It’s a curious combination and so I’m not surprised that it didn’t become a thing earlier. But it works remarkably well. And it really took off in the 20th century — to such an extent that there are number of established trios. Now you might think that this would be a problem, given that most of the repertoire consists of very recent pieces. But this is probably seen as an advantage. In my experience, performers don’t much like playing the old stuff. They usually most like playing music that I can’t really “hear.”

But there is no such problem with this piece. Milhaud has been quoted as saying, “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody.” That’s definitely true here, although I must admit that some of his later works are pretty difficult for me.

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Birthday Post: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo PasoliniBefore I get to the regular birthday post, I want to wish my little sister a happy fiftieth birthday today. We are almost as close in age as two siblings can be without being twins. Growing up, most people thought that she was the eldest because I was such a scrawny runt. But now I’m both taller and fatter, so who gets the last laugh, am I right?! So happy birthday Kim!

On this day in 1922, the great filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was born. Many also consider him a great poet, but I have not read any of his work — even in translation. So I will forget about that for now. And sadly, I don’t know his film work all that well. This is primarily because I haven’t had access to it. In particular, I’ve long wanted to see his Oedipus Rex. Let me offer you just nine minutes from the film. It’s thrilling movie making. I especially like the use of back lighting to obscure the violence. But there is much to admire:

The only film of his that I’ve watched seriously and recently is, The Gospel According to St Matthew. I wrote about it recently, Pasolini’s Atheistic Tribute to Christianity. Pasolini was gay and a Marxist. As a result, he made perhaps the best film ever about the life of Jesus. He just sticks with the Gospel of Matthew. That’s an interesting choice. It is definitely the one I would choose. Given that it is the one with the Sermon on the Mount (much of the text of it is found here and there in Luke), it probably appeals to leftists like us. If you want to watch it — and I really recommend it — click over to my article and there is a full high-definition YouTube version of it.

In 1975, Pasolini was brutally murdered at the age of 53. Then his body was run over several times with a car and then burned. It appears it was some kind of an organized crime “hit.” Maybe he was the victim of some extortion. It really isn’t clear. He had been working very productively up to the end. So in addition to his death, we have missed out on what would almost certainly have been great work.

Happy birthday Pier Paolo Pasolini!

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Why I Am Not a New Atheist

Four HorsemenI was just listening to a lecture by PZ Myers about the Backlash Against the New Atheists at Skepticon 2 back in 2009. That’s actually a bad title for the talk, because Myers is really discussing the claim that the New Atheist movement is doomed to failure. In particular, some have argued that the movement is already fracturing into a bunch of subgroups who fight with others. Myers pooh-poohs this idea because atheists are not in open rebellion — as though Baptists and Jehovah’s Witnesses couldn’t all get along at a conference where all they did was mock atheists.

The truth is that there is a problem in the New Atheist movement. I am an atheist. Yet I won’t self-identify as a New Atheist. For one thing, I don’t want to be associated with Richard Dawkins, who seemed to think that totally legitimate complaints about sexism in the movement were invalid because western women’s genitalia aren’t being mutilated. Dawkins waited three years before offering the most pathetic of apologies. Unfortunately, the truly vile public statements made by Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris will never even get that. In Harris’ case, I’m afraid we will have to live through decades of him finessing his racism.

But my problem with the New Atheist community is much deeper than this. As long as the movement is talking about religions, it is okay. But once they start talking about what they believe in, they show the true depth of their thinking. The following is a condensation of everything that you will hear at Skepticon about what atheists believe:

I believe in rationality. I only accept things that have proof.

This is patently false. Think about the Big Bang. As a physicist, I think it is reasonable to say that I know a lot more about it — especially the reasons why it is our current best theory for the origins of the universe — than the vast majority of atheists. Yet my knowledge is still based upon my faith in a whole lot of other people. I haven’t read Penzias and Wilson, much less Doroshkevich and Novikov. And because I have been on the inside of it, I have a much more skeptical attitude towards the scientific process than most atheists. But I do have faith in it because it works. The plumbing in my house works. The lights go on when I flip the switch. I have good reasons for believing, but believe I do.

I’ve long said that the strongest argument for creationism is “God is testing me!” It goes like this: God doesn’t want to make it easy for me to get into heaven. So he created the universe 6,000 years ago — Saturday afternoon — about tea time. And he did it in such a way as to make arrogant science types like myself just think that the universe is 14 billion years old and that humans evolved from single cell organisms. I’m not joking: this is the strongest argument for creationism. The reason it is strong is that it can’t be argued against. It might have happened. And unlike the “missing transitional fossils” and other creationist arguments, it never has to be updated.

If we go even deeper, we see that humans are not nearly as rational as we think. And atheists understand that to one degree or another. They understand that regardless of how much they try, their decisions about what president you vote for will not be rational. But they will doubtless be able to rationalize it. So why is it that religious faith is so important to condemn but not political faith in choosing a president? Most religious people are not fideists. I’d be happier if we stuck to attacking that, but the assumption in the New Atheist community seems to be that any religious person is a fideist, and that is not, you know, a rational or “evidence based” assumption.

The New Atheist community would be better off with this statement of belief, because it is more defensible:

I believe in things that work.

Of course, you have to be careful even there. I’m constantly amazed that people say things like, “Placebos don’t work.” That’s actually something you hear quite often from skeptics. But the truth is that placebos do indeed work. If they didn’t work, then scientists wouldn’t have to include them in their drug trials. The point of such trials is to find out if some expensive drug works better than a placebo, not to see if it works at all. The brain is complex and it is able to do amazing things.

Sam HarrisSo I think the question here is whether religion works. And I think, for many people, it does: for both good and ill — often in the very same person. And to not admit this strikes me as a very unappealing form of closed-mindedness. Probably the best example of New Atheist irrationality is the notion that there will come a day when people get beyond religion. The evidence for this? Zip. It seems much more rational to me to believe that in the year 2525, man will not still be alive.

But I don’t want to give the impression that I am more rational than the rest. It’s most likely that I have rejected the New Atheists because I feel rejected by them. Ontology-ignorant New Atheists (about as close to a redundant phrase as you get) love to tell me that I’m not really an atheist. Instead, I am supposedly an agnostic. For the record, I am as agnostic about God as I am about whether World War II took place.

Penn JilletteThe point is that there are divides in the New Atheist community. Why are the members of Atheism Plus going to want to continue to affiliate with the likes of Sam Harris and Penn Jillette? Movements are based upon what people believe. And ultimately, people who believe in social justice will care a whole lot more about that than in what happens to religion. And Penn Jillette will care more about keeping his taxes low. And Sam Harris will care more about his guns or whatever it is he’s into these days. What is this great thing that the New Atheists believe in? Evolution? So do Catholics! What does that prove? I know a whole lot of Republicans who believe in evolution, but that doesn’t make me a Republican.

I don’t see the New Atheist movement dying out. But I also don’t see it taking off. Even while America gets less religious, it doesn’t seem to be getting more atheistic. It will always be like libertarianism — a small, but important group — mostly because it attracts wealthy and privileged people. But I suspect that the New Atheist movement gains members at roughly the rate that it loses members — like me.

Afterword

The image at the top of this article is of the “four [straight white] horsemen”: more or less the very definition of New Atheism. Notice that it consists of two bigots, one sexist, and Daniel Dennett.

After Afterword

I finally listened to the rest of the lecture. Most of the rest of the lecture is even worse. It amazes me that someone as smart as PZ Myers could be so clueless when he gets out of his area of expertise. I think the people arguing for the end of the New Atheist movement are wrong, and yet his counter arguments don’t hold up. It may be due to the fact that making good counter arguments would reveal just what an elitist (and thus limited) a movement New Atheism is. Regardless, you can’t counter a likely evolutionary basis for religious belief with, “But life would be better without religion!” Life might be better without meat too, but I still think that vegetarianism will always be a minority position.

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Robert M Price on Historical Analogy

The Human BibleMy favorite example of the principle of analogy is this. Suppose you come into your house or apartment from a long day’s work. You just plop down on the chair, click on the TV with the remote — you don’t notice what channel it is — you weren’t the last one to use it. The first thing you see on the screen is a giant reptile looming above the Tokyo skyline — stomping the buildings into matchsticks. What’s your first reaction? “Oh, CNN!” No. You realize, “Okay, I got the SciFi channel” — or whatever they’re calling it now. It’s Godzilla. It’s The Lost World — something like that.

Well, you don’t know that! There you go with those presuppositions again — your anti-monster dogmatic worldview! It’s conceivable. I can imagine Gojira coming out of the water and all that. I don’t know how it would be, but I can’t rule it out. But I can’t take it too seriously either. Because I know of no experience by any reliable — Or unreliable! — witness. I do know of plenty of cheesy Toho Studio flicks in which this happens. So I have to assume this is another one. I could be wrong. It’s a probabilistic judgement. But what are the chances? And that’s all you’ve got.

—Robert M Price
Jesus is Dead

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