Conservatives Understand Oppression Outside US

Donald RumsfeldWhile no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime… And I don’t think there’s anyone in any of those pictures, or any human being who’s not free, who wouldn’t prefer to be free, and recognize that you pass through a transition period like this and accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.

—Donald Rumsfeld
Quoted in Remember When Donald Rumsfeld Stood Up for Rioting and Looting?

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Republican Global Warming Denial: We Are All Going Down Together

Climate Change Is a HoaxThis is time. And this is the record of the time.

I used to teach planetary astronomy. The interesting thing about it was how easy it was because of my work in earth sciences. Half the course involved the earth and moon. This is because — and this will surprise some — the earth is a planet. And it is the planet that we know the most about. It is also the planet that we care the most about. So when I started to hear conservatives a few years back grumbling about the fact that NASA spends a lot of resources studying the earth, I just shook my head. Even from the standpoint of exploring other parts of the cosmos, we need to understand the earth.

Of course, no one has a problem with NASA studying the earth. This is just a pretext to stop NASA — or anyone else — from studying global warming. I guess we were wrong all these years we have said that conservatives don’t have a plan to deal with climate change. They do! It is to pretend that it doesn’t exist. And as long as we deny it, it can’t be real. This is the “hide under the blankets until the most productive farm lands turn into deserts” plan. It’s brilliant!

Last Thursday, the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology voted along party lines to cut almost 20% of the current $1.77 billion budget for NASA’s Earth science programs. What’s more, the ranking Democrat on the committee said that the new budget proposal was kept from her and the others in the opposition until less than a week before the vote. She said, “After we saw the bill, we understood why.” As Michael Hiltzik put it, “The budget plan perfectly reflects the House GOP’s glorification of space exploration, which masks its disdain for research on climate change.” Of course, there is a lot more than just global warming research being cut. But what does that matter in the grand cause of denying a problem that fixing might interfere with the profits of certain rich people?

We’ve come a long way since the days when I was working in the field. At that time, the conservative position was, “We don’t know enough. We must do more research.” As a result, Republicans were arguably as good at funding global warming research as the Democrats. But now, the Republicans aren’t skeptics. They “know” that global warming isn’t happening. They’ve seen James Inhofe’s snowball. They once heard that scientists were using a “trick” with tree rings. And Al Gore made money on his documentary. Thus, global warming is a hoax. QED.

This is all deeply disturbing. I want my country back. I don’t mean it in the conservative sense that I want some fanciful notion of “America” that never actually existed. I can remember the America I want back. In it, Republicans commonly used racist appeals to win office. They ran crime syndicates out of the White House. And they were total hypocrites. But they didn’t deny reality. If we had had the modern Republican Party over the last 40 years, the claim that tobacco smoking causes cancer would still be reported as a controversy. The Republican Party really has become something that is a quantum state more dangerous than it used to be.

There were many problems with the founding of the United States. But there is no doubt that it was a political extension of the Enlightenment. But in modern America, we have a major political party — which represents half of our people — that is so done with Enlightenment. It is too liberal for them. They want to go back further — to the Iron Age Middle East. And like all flat earth folks everywhere, they want all the benefits of the Enlightenment — central heating, fresh food, advanced medicines — without any of the responsibilities that go along with them like having to pay attention to facts.

It’s too bad we can’t allow them to go off somewhere and destroy themselves. Instead, we are stuck with them. We are all going down, together.

This is time. And this is the record of the time.

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How American Christianity Got Corrupted

One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian AmericaI spend a lot of time around here complaining about the state of American Christianity. I am not a Christian, but I still admire it as one of the the great religions of the world. And what I see in America makes me sad. Generally speaking, Christianity here hardly qualifies as a religion. To give you some idea of what I think, all you need to do is read the title of one of my articles, American Christianity as Cultural Signifier. American Christianity is just what all right thinking people believe. This is why it seems more like a prosperity cult than anything Jesus might have intended.

The fact that American Christians seem to be more focused on abortion and homosexuality almost to the exclusion of caring for the poor should be clear enough. As I’ve discussed before, abortion was never an issue for protestants all the way through Roe v Wade. That was something that concerned the Catholics. What changed this was that white protestant churches — primarily in the south — did not want their tax exempt status blocked as a result of them running segregated schools. So they needed to get their congregations politically involved. But they weren’t going to do it based upon the actual issue: segregation; that wasn’t a winning strategy. So the church leaders picked abortion, and the rest is history.

The result of that history is what is found in, What’s the Matter with Kansas? We now have white evangelicals all over the country who vote for the interests of the economic power elite — all in the name of abortion. And what’s especially interesting is that the economic power elite have no interest in abortion at all. In fact, if they could make money off it, they would. Hell, let’s be clear, there are few American corporations that wouldn’t have been putting in bids for the gas chambers and incinerators for the Nazi concentration camps. That’s the thing about the legal definition of a corporation: it is amoral. So it is a supreme irony that American Christianity should be so critical in supporting the power of these amoral institutions.

Over at New Republic a while back, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig wrote a review of two recent books that look into this connection, Gods and Profits. It is subtitled, “How capitalism and Christianity aligned in modern America.” Of particular interest is the book, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America by Kevin Kruse. It looks at the history of American Christianity from the Great Depression onward. And it is sickening.

As you probably know, Christianity hasn’t generally been all that keen on capitalism. And you don’t have to go that far back: just look at William Jennings Bryan. I think that if Christianity hadn’t gone off the rails, today, Mike Huckabee would be a liberal. But instead, he believes in the title of Bruenig’s article: God and Profits. But in the opposite order. According to Kruse’s book, the wealthy were very concerned about economic populism, so they were looking for ways to fight back. And they bought themselves a preacher: James W Fifield Jr:

Fifield married Christian thought with a new era of economic development, and spread the gospel through his organization, Spiritual Mobilization. Its mission was simple: to stamp out Christian support for a generous welfare state — which paired naturally with New Deal concern for the poor, elderly, and vulnerable — and to advance a new theory of Christian libertarianism.

I will have to get the book. But it is fascinating because those in the Religious Right are the ones most inclined to talk about how America has been co-opted. But what has really been co-opted is American Christianity itself. And they are the ones who allow it, even while they focus on what the founding fathers did or did not really believe. It’s sad for them, but it has been devastating for America.

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Morning Music: Sarah Silverman

Sarah SilvermanFor no particular reason, I got Sarah Silverman running through my head. She writes very catchy tunes that are generally very funny. And there is something about her very sweet, positive sounding voice, and the really nasty things that she says with it. Our case in point today is, “You’re Gonna Die Soon,” where she cheers up some very old people with the thought of death. And why not? Death isn’t a bad thing — especially when you’re old. As it is, we die a little each day. Even at the relatively young age of 51, I can see that if I keep this up, I wouldn’t even notice a sudden change when I die.

It’s not cold in here; I’m just dying.

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Anniversary Post: Royal Greenwich Observatory

Royal Greenwich ObservatoryOn this day way back in 1675, King Charles II ordered that the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) be built. If you’ve ever wondered why we have the random Greenwich Mean Time, it is thanks to this iconic observatory — the first specifically built one in Britain. It really isn’t an observatory anymore. Slowly work at the RGO was moved to other, more appropriate locations. Since 1998, it is a museum. But what a museum! That’s my idea of a good vacation — as long as there are pubs close by.

Oh, what a long way we’ve come! Just 340 years ago we had kings who cared about theoretical and practical science. And now here in the United States, we have a major political party for whom science is but a play thing to be used when it furthers its ideological goals but mostly just ignored and treated with derision. A civilization cannot long flourish when half of its people look down on the smart people “who think they’re better than us.” I’ll be writing about this later today.

But it is nice to look back on a time when the power elite of the world weren’t quite so evil and parochial as we are here in the United States. I often wonder: would we be worse off with crazy King George III or with Jeb Bush (not to mention the others)? It probably would be the same. It doesn’t matter if a leader is insane or he simply thinks he must pretend to be to maintain power to do what he sees as his most important work: taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich.

Happy anniversary Royal Greenwich Observatory!

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There Is Nothing to Wake Up to

Waking Up - Sam HarrisThis is the third article I’ve written about Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up. The subtitle of the book is, “A guide to spirituality without religion.” And that’s something I’m really interested in. One of the big problems of the modern atheist movement is that it is populated by reductionists. That in itself is not necessarily a problem — I too am a reductionist. But they tend to use it as an excuse to be really boring. And Sam Harris — who I have many problems with — has shown himself to be admirably open minded about the kinds of ontological questions that fascinate me, which have caused so many atheists to label me an agnostic.

Harris’ main concern in the book is the nature of consciousness. Although this isn’t my main issue, I’m really interested in it. And the parts of the book that deal with this issue are well worth the price of admission. But the rest of the book is largely a muddle. Much of the time, it reads like a memoir. The rest of the time, it reads like a self-help manual on meditation. That’s all fine, but I’m not really very interested in getting life lessons from Sam Harris. But if these parts of the book lead to even a few New Atheists not being quite so boring and closed minded, then it is a good thing that the book was published.

The curious thing about the parts of the book that matter to me is how Harris and I seem to completely disagree. Harris believes that the riddle of consciousness may never be figured out. Unfortunately, he isn’t terribly clear about this aspect of his discussion. He just takes it as a given that consciousness is something other than a mechanistic process. I share his awe that consciousness seems to be this thing that sits on top of the brain rather inside it. But I don’t see the problem.

I realize that it is very unhip to analogize the human brain to a computer. But I think I approach it from a higher level than it usual is, so forgive me. A computer is not a CPU. The CPU is simply what brings most of it all together. Instructions come from it. But it is rare that a computer will, for example, push a character onto a text screen directly by putting it there. Instead, it will talk to the BIOS and tell it to display the character. The CPU doesn’t have to worry about how it gets done. Similarly, if I want to scratch my nose, I just decide to do it and the details are worked out for me.

But I am not suggesting that consciousness is the CPU in this analogy. Consciousness, instead, would be the software that is running on the CPU. And it does rest in some netherworld that isn’t the brain but which most definitely exists because of the brain. And this leads to a subject that Harris never even touches on: that consciousness could just be an evolutionary trick — something that helps us survive but isn’t “real” in the sense that our bodies are real.

Let me step into Neuromancer for a moment. In it, Dixie Flatline’s consciousness has been stored in cyberspace. When it is reactivated, it disappoints him to learn that the person he thinks he is is dead. But the computer program that he now is seems to exist without a will. So he asks that the program be deleted after the job is done, because he doesn’t like existing in this state. This, of course, goes right along with Schopenhauer’s thought. According to him, the only reason we continue to live is because of the will pushing us on. It is irrational.

And that’s where I’m left. I have a very hard time believing that my consciousness is anything other than a mechanical construct. It is a matter of faith, of course — something that most New Atheists are blissfully ignorant of in their own lives. But I see no reason to believe that science will not one day show that what it is to be “me” is not something that I will find by drilling down one level. Ultimately, we drill down far enough and we get to the level of the cell. But there is no there there — or at least no end point. I’m all for meditation. But it isn’t how we will find our true selves, because there is no such thing.

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Looking on the Bright Side as a Tool for Happiness

Sam HarrisAs I was working to finish this book, we experienced a series of plumbing leaks in our house. The first appeared in the ceiling of a storage room. We considered ourselves genuinely lucky to have found it, because this was a room that we might have gone months without entering. A plumber arrived within a few hours, cut the drywall, and fixed the leak. A plasterer came the next day, repaired the ceiling, and painted it. This sort of thing happens eventually in every home, I told myself, and my prevailing feeling was of gratitude. Civilization is a wonderful thing.

Then a similar leak appeared in an adjacent room a few days later. Contact information for both the plumber and the plasterer was at my fingertips. Now I felt only annoyance and foreboding.

A month later, the horror movie began in earnest: a pipe burst, flooding six hundred square feet of ceiling. This time the repair took weeks and created an immense amount of dust; two cleaning crews were required to deal with the aftermath — vacuuming hundreds of books, drying, and shampooing the carpet, and so forth. Throughout all this we were forced to live without heat, for otherwise the dust from the repair would have been sucked into the vents, and we would have been breathing it in every room of the house. Eventually, however, the problem was fixed. We would have no more leaks.

And then, last night, scarcely one month after the previous repair, we heard the familiar sound of water falling onto carpet. The moment I heard the first drops, I was transformed into a hapless, uncomprehending, enraged man racing down a staircase, I’m sure I would have comported myself with greater dignity had I come upon the scene of a murder. A glance at the ballooning ceiling told me everything I needed to know about the weeks ahead: our home would be a construction site once again.

Of course, a house is a physical object beholden to the laws of nature — and it won’t fix itself. From the moment my wife and I grabbed buckets and salad bowls to catch the falling water, we were responding to the ineluctable tug of physical reality. But my suffering was entirely the product of my thoughts. Whatever the need of the moment, I had a choice: I could do what was required calmly, patiently, and attentively, or do it in a state of panic. Every moment of the day — indeed, every moment throughout one’s life — offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.

We can address mental suffering of this kind on at least two levels. We can use thoughts themselves as an antitdote, or we can stand free of thought altogether. The first technique requires no experience with meditation, and it can work wonders if one develops the appropriate habits of mind. Many people do it quire naturally: it’s called “looking on the bright side.”

For instance, as I was beginning to rage like King Lear in the storm, my wife suggested that we should be thankful that it was fresh water pouring through our ceiling and not sewage. I found the thought immediately arresting: I could feel in my bones how much better it was to be mopping up water at that moment than to be ankle deep in the alternative. What a relief! I often use thoughts of this kind as levers to pry my mind loose from whatever rut it has found on the landscape of unnecessary suffering. If I had been watching sewage spill through our ceiling, how much would I have paid merely to transform it into fresh water? A lot.

—Sam Harris
Waking Up


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More on Teleporters: It’s Murder!

TeleporterBack almost two years ago, I wrote an article, Using a Teleporter Is Suicide! It was about some scientists who had written a paper looking at the enormous amount of information that would have to be transmitted for a human body to be “transported” from one location to another. It turns out that it is enormous and so it is likely that teleportation would never be practical. As the title of my article suggests, I think this is all nonsense. All a transporter does is kill you and create a copy of you somewhere else. The fact that the resulting copy thinks that it is you hardly matters to the dead (nonexistent) you.

So I just read Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up. (I plan to write about it later today.) And in it, he discusses a transporter thought experiment by Derek Parfit. It comes to the same physical conclusion, but takes it in a very different direction. But I think this way of thinking about the basic case makes it crystal clear that anyone who decided to use a transporter would be insane:

[I]magine a teleportation device that can beam a person from Earth to Mars. Rather than travel for many months on a spaceship, you need only enter a small chamber close to home and push a green button, and all the information in your brain and body will be sent to a similar station on Mars, where you will be reassembled down to the last atom.

Image that several of your friends have already traveled to Mars this way and seem none the worse for it. They describe the experience as being one of instantaneous relocation. You push the green button and find yourself standing on Mars — where your most recent memory is of pushing the green button on Earth and wondering if anything would happen.

So you decide to travel to Mars yourself. However, in the process of arranging your trip, you learn a troubling fact about the mechanics of teleportation: it turns out that the technicians wait for a person’s replica to be built on Mars before obliterating his original body on Earth. This has the benefit of leaving nothing to chance; if something goes wrong in the replication process, no harm has been done. However, it raises the following concern: while your double is beginning his day on Mars with all your memories, goals, and prejudices intact, you will be standing in the teleportation chamber on Earth, just staring at the green button. Imagine a voice coming over the intercom to congratulate you for arriving safely at your destination; in a few moments, you are told, your Earth body will be smashed to atoms. How would this be any different from simply being killed?

Shockingly, for Parfit and Harris, it is different. And their reason for thinking so is akin to my reason for suggesting that it might not matter, “There is no stable self that is carried along from one moment to the next.” I put it differently. I suggested that perhaps on a quantum time level, we are constantly being replaced. But that is a rather different — and highly speculative — idea. What I think is far more likely is that the continuity of our cells (atoms) is what matters.

Again: the body on Mars is a copy. Let’s suppose that the original version of you were then killed by being burned alive. Would that not have happened just because there was another copy of you happily terraforming Mars? Or what if the original copy of you wasn’t destroyed? Is that Martian who thinks he’s you really you? I think we can argue that she is. But what we can’t argue is that the person who pushed the green button isn’t also you. And we certainly can’t argue that the person in the example above wasn’t being killed.

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We Have Not Been Doing Enough for the Poor

David BrooksOne of the best articles I ever wrote was, I Was a Middle Class Food Stamp Kid. In it, I discussed how my parents owned a 7-11 when I was a kid. There were lots of people who lived near by and they spent food stamps to pay for stuff. That helped them, and that was great. But the truth of the matter is that those food stamps helped everyone — most especially my family. I estimated that 5% of the store’s gross income came from food stamps — probably more than our entire margin. It is a sad thing that people like me tend to look down on poor people who are dependent upon SNAP benefits, even while they help us as much if not more.

On Friday, David Brooks wrote, The Nature of Poverty. As the totally clueless commentator that he is, he thinks he has a big ol’ scoop. You see, silly people like Jon Stewart complain that we aren’t doing enough about poverty in this country. But Brooks has some news for you, “Since 1980 federal antipoverty spending has exploded… in 2013 the federal government spent nearly $14,000 per poor person.” If we just gave that money to poor families, they would be middle class!

It should come as no surprise that Brooks concluded his column, “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology.” That’s because it isn’t his conclusion. This is his unspoken postulate mascaraing as a conclusion. Where have we heard this sort of thing before, “Individuals are left without the norms that middle-class people take for granted.” Oh, that’s right: the last time David Brooks “tackled” the issue. It’s always about social dysfunction among the poor — the causation never goes the other way. Why would it? The whole point is to tax the rich as little as possible and to tell the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

But as Dean Baker was quick to point out, Brooks’ statistic was nonsense, David Brooks and the Federal Government’s $14,000 Per Year Per Poor Person. A shocking 40% of it is in the form of Medicaid. That is money that doesn’t go to the poor but rather “directly to doctors and other health care providers.” It is true that the poor get medical care, but the cost is so high because doctors make twice in America what they make in the rest of the advanced world.

So this is a situation like mine growing up in a 7-11 store. What we have here is welfare for the well off that people like David Brooks pretends is done for the poor. To him, somehow doctors’ salaries would go down if only poor children did better on the marshmallow challenge. This is just a way for rich people to justify doing nothing while pretending to care.

As for the other 60%, well, it isn’t as Brooks claimed either. That total $14,000 claim is based upon taking all of the money that we spend on programs for lower income people, and then dividing it by the much smaller number of people below the poverty line. So they don’t actually get that much money. As Baker noted, we are a stingy society, “The average family of three on TANF gets less than $500 a month. The average food stamp benefit is $133 per person.”

Paul Krugman later pointed out that the funding for these programs have all basically been flat — except for Medicaid, and it has only been going up because healthcare costs are going up, not the amount of service. He provided this helpful graph:

Non-growth of Welfare State

So people like Jon Stewart are right. And David Brooks is just a jerk.


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Morning Music: Worst Pies in London

Sweeney ToddI don’t quite know why it came into my mind, but I was talking to a friend about the song “Worst Pies in London” from the filmed version of Sweeney Todd. On stage, it is nothing special: just a pretty and amusing song. In the film, it is something quite different: an interesting contrast between the beauty of the song and the reality of mid-19th century London. The pie filling looks like it is something dredged from the sewer; cockroaches the size of mice are everywhere; and the actual pie seems to have mold on it. “It tastes like pity?” I think that is a decidedly optimistic appraisal.

Regardless, I love the song. I love the movie. It is extremely rare that a Broadway musical is brought to the screen so successfully. I can only think of two films off hand: West Side Story and Cabaret. Just the same, I can rarely get myself to watch Sweeney Todd. I admire it, but it is hard to take. It has a lot of great moments, however. And this is definitely one of them.

See Also

We All Deserve to Die
The Nice Side of All Deserving to Die

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Anniversary Post: State Sales Taxes

Sales TaxIt is very possible that on this day in 1921, West Virginia enacted the first broad sales tax. Do you know who loves the sales tax? The rich. I’m sure that the push to get sales taxes all over the United States was the result of the federal income tax enacted in 1913 via the Sixteenth Amendment. The federal income tax remains the only truly progressive tax in the United States. And the sales tax is regressive. This is why conservatives always go on about the federal income tax. They are just fine with the state sales taxes. In fact, many of them want to get rid of the federal income tax and replace it with a value added tax — basically a federal sales tax.

I should be clear, however. West Virginia legislated the sales tax at that time. But it apparently took the state forever to actually getting it working. That great bastion of liberty and supporter of the “common man,” Mississippi was the first state to actually get it going — in 1930, just when the common man could least afford it.

Here in the United States, we have a taxing system that is a mess. It is designed so as to take the maximum amount from the poor, but not make it look like this is what is happening. So everyone focuses on 15 April — the one day when our only progressive tax is collected. But every day — Every minute! — the poor and middle classes are being regressively taxed. But that’s just fairness. Unlike that terrible federal income tax, which is downright un-American!

Happy anniversary to the first broad-based sales tax — the beginning of a terrible American tradition.


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Odds and Ends Vol 15 — Cool Images Edition

Odds and EndsThis is a special edition of our Odds and Ends posts. I’ve been collecting random images from the internet. I’ve been wanting to do something with them, but I haven’t found a use. And they are sitting around in the place I put temporary images before uploading them to Frankly Curious. So they are just in the way. And if I find a permanent place to store them, they are as gone as if I had just deleted them. But they are pretty good. I’ll do my best to provide context.

Nixon: Prince of the Deep

First up is an image from The Daily Show in a segment called, Start Wars — a pun on Star Wars. It is about the Iran nuclear deal, noting the hypocrisy of Republicans in wanting to control the president regarding treaties but not wars. One of those treaties is the Law of the Sea Treaty. James Inhofe said that it would make us relinquish sovereignty of “70% of the world.” Jon Stewart responded, “As you know, America currently owns the oceans ever since President Nixon blew on Neptune’s fabled conch shell and became Prince of the Deep.” That went along with the following wonderful image:

Nixon as Neptune

Bigotry Buddies

Next we have two images from The Nightly Show. The first is from a bit on Ferguson Police Bias. During it, Larry Wilmore joked about a television series featuring George Zimmerman and Darren Wilson called, “Bigotry Buddies.” I’d watch it:

Bigotry Buddies

Blacks Do the Darndest Things!

The second is from Tuesday night’s excellent show on the Baltimore situation, What a Riot. A Fox News commentator said, “We got two stores right now, this guy’s walking out with a Colt 45 poster and then he’s burning it but you certainly got a lot of free liquor there that’s going on in the five finger discount here.” Wilmore responded that the clip was from the new show, “Blacks Do the Darndest Things!”

Blacks Do the Darndest Things!

Mystery Insect

This next one comes from a great photographer I follow on Google+, Robert Langdon. He is out of Florida, and does these amazing backlit shots. I don’t know that much about photography — just enough to be really impressed by his work. One day recently, he posted the following unidentified insect. But even more than the identity of this little charmer, is what that silver ball is underneath her. If you all have any thoughts, let me know.

Mysterious Insect by Robert Langdon

You can also check out Robert Langdon at Fine Art America.

Hipster Flintstones

And finally, we have have something that came to me from someone I follow on Google+, but I don’t remember who it is. But it is everywhere on the internet. Still, I thought it was pretty good. It is also self-explanatory. But I will note one thing: there is nothing to indicate Jesus in this image. Perhaps they are just celebrating the winter solstice?

Hipster Flintstones

That’s all for now kiddos. But we’ll be back later with another loose collection of things whenever it seems appropriate.


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