More Strange Ingredients In Foods

Last year I talked about Natural Flavors and Other Strange Ingredients in a post.  At that time, I talked about an "All Natural" Snapple fruit drink, because it's what I happened to have at the time.  I wasn't trying to pick on Snapple, their drinks are comparatively healthy in relation to many of the processed foods on the market, just making my point about ingredients and their regulation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The FDA: Protecting corporations from consumers since 1906!

Just to show how many strange ingredients a processed food item can have, this time I'm going to show you the ingredients in a Don Miguel brand burrito, The Bomb, Green Chile flavor.  Now I'm not pretending to be a health nut or anything.  I like junk food in moderation, and I really like these burritos, which are available at my local Quick Trip convenience store, especially the Green Chile ones.  They're mildy spicy to give you that Tex-Mex flavor without being too hot.  And The Bomb is a nice, big 14 ounce burrito that will fill you up--I usually eat half and save the other half for later.  And now for the ingredients. They're separated into the beef, bean, and green chile filling, cheese sauce, and the tortilla. 

The Bomb is the bomb! Eating one of these will make you explode.

Don Miguel brand

The Bomb - beef, cheese sauce & bean with green chiles burrito


Beef and Bean with Green Chiles fill:
-Green Chiles,
-Modified Food Starch.

Contains 2% or less of:
-Tomatoes (Tomatoes, Tomato Puree, Citric Acid),
-Dehydrated Onion,
-Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten,
-Soy Protein,
-Wheat Gluten,
-Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil,
-Jalapenos (Jalapeno Peppers, Salt, Acetic Acid, Water, Calcium Chloride),
-Guar Gum,
-Cilantro Flavor (Dextrose, Modified Corn Starch, Extractives of Cilantro),
-Soy Lecithin,
-Grill Flavor (Maltodextrin, Salt, Defatted Wheat Germ, Natural Flavor, Corn Syrup Solids, Modified Food Starch, Tricalcium Phosphate).

Cheese Sauce:
-Pasteurized Blended Cheddar Cheese (Milk, Culture, Salt, Sodium Citrate, Enzymes, Apocarotenal (color)),
-Dehydrated Cheese Powder
--(Corn Syrup,
--American Cheese (Milk, Culture, Salt, Enzymes),
--Food Starch Modified,
--Partially Hydrogenated Coconut and/or Soybean Oil,
--Butter (Milk Fat),
--Nonfat Milk,
--Di-Sodium Phosphate,
--Sodium Caseinate,
--Mono and Di-Glycerides,
--Citric Acid,
--Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate,
--Sodium Citrate,
--Di-Potassium Phosphate,
--Natural Flavor,
--Natural and Artificial Colors (Annatto, Paprika, FD&C Yellow #5, FD&C Yellow #6, Beta Carotene),
--and Carrageenan),
-Modified Food Starch. 

Contains 2% or less of:
-Dehydrated Onion.

-Bleached Wheat Flour Enriched (Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid),
-Soybean Oil,
-Vital Wheat Gluten,
-Dough Conditioner (Inverted Sugar, Propylene Glycol, Water, Cellulose Gum),
-Baking Powder (Corn Starch, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Aluminum Sulfate, Monocalcium Phosphate),
-Emulsifier (Guar Gum, Mono-Diglycerides, Rice Flour),
-Guar Gum,
-Sodium Metabisulfite.

As you can see, it's stuffed full of strange-sounding ingredients: Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Guar Gum, Propylene Glycol, Hydrolyzed Corn Gluten, and other wonderful things.  I could go to the trouble of explaining the various ingredients, but there's so many here that it would take a lot of space.  Instead, as before, I recommend a Google and/or Wikipedia search for any of the listed ingredients--it's easy enough with the internet to discover why any of the less obvious ingredients are in there.  And if it bothers you, don't eat them.  But I like these things.


Revisiting Scooby Doo and Mystery Incorporated

Frankly, I've never been one to keep up with current trends and activities, and now as more options are available to us, thanks to technology, I'm even less concerned with keeping up to date culturally.  This means that when I discover something new to me, it may already be several years old, even if I'm not exploring something obviously historical, like Charlie Chaplin or Rudy Vallee. Case in point:  the animated Mystery Incorporated series, which started in 2010, and which I obviously had no idea about until just recently. 

No need for a caption - they already included it on the picture: Heavy Meddle!

Wikipedia tells us that is the eleventh incarnation of Hanna-Barbera's Scooby-Doo animated series.  Eleven!  I grew up watching and enjoying the original episodes, and while as an adult I realize they were really a bit on the simplistic side, they did have a certain atmospheric style and charm to them.  I still enjoy watching them for the nostalgia, and for my memories of Saturday morning cartoons while growing up.  This first animated series only ran for two seasons, although they were re-run for several years.  Subsequent Scooby Doo series just seemed to get sillier with each new show.  Even my pre-teen self thought that having "guest-stars" like The Harlem Globetrotters and Batman and Robin was just a cheap gimmick, and took the gang farther away from their atmospheric style.  And let's not even get started on Scooby Dum and Scrappy Doo.

The original show is the best.  Or it was till Mystery Incorporated came along.

So I rather figured that they'd never again do anything to match the original series, much less improve on it.  Some time ago, I thought I'd check out The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby Doo, and it just seemed to confirm my opinion.  I mean, half the gang's missing! And there are 'real' ghosts in it, both silly and serious.  And a new, young sidekick was introduced--viewer identification or something.  Just more kid stuff, and nothing like the original series.  Even though the addition of Vincent Van Ghoul (a take-off on Vincent Price) was a nice touch.

But then I saw something about the Mystery Incorporated series, and how it takes the gang back to their roots with a darker edge to it.  So I tried it, and wow, this is a good series!  It not only incorporates many of the elements of the original series, but also adds some new and interesting touches that are complementary to the series, instead of taking away from it.

First, the gang's all here: Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby Doo.  Second, the formula's there:  each episode generally consists of some weird creature trying to scare people away from something, the gang investigates, and in the end, they trap the creature and unmask it to reveal that it's just somebody pretending to be the creature, proving that nothing supernatural is actually happening.  They even use the "meddling kids" line at the end of each episode. 

But they add to the original series in various ways. First, they establish that the gang live in the town of Crystal Cove, "Most Hauntedest Place on Earth".  They are clearly teenagers, and are even shown in high school, at least part of the time.  We also get to see their parents, and a regular character .in Sheriff Bronson Stone (voiced wonderfully by Patrick Warburton).  There's also a certain amount of realism added by the awkwardly romantic relationships between Fred and Daphne, and Velma and Shaggy, with Scooby resenting Velma trying to take Shaggy away from him.

More importantly, there are continuing subplots that carry out over the season(s).  There are changes in the romantic relationships over time, and there is a mysterious character Mr. E who helps them on occasion, and who hints at a greater mystery involving the early history of Crystal Cove.  As the season goes on, we discover that there was a previous Mystery Incorporated team in Crystal Cove who also solved mysteries, but instead of a dog, they had a parrot mascot by the name of Professor Pericles, who also could talk, like Scooby.   In the second season, the mystery grows deeper as we discover that there have been several earlier mystery-solving groups in history, always involving two guys, two girls, and an animal mascot.

Right now, I'm still in the middle of the second season episodes, so I haven't finished watching to see how it all turns out.  But this is such an interesting series that I'm really excited about watching each episode.

And there's a certain continuity across episodes, as certain characters appear and reappear, like Hot Dog Water, originally the 'villain' of one episode who returns occasionally, and even replaced Daphne temporarily when Daphne didn't want to be part of the team any more.  Vincent Van Ghoul is brought back, initially as the actor in various old horror movies that Scooby and Shaggy like to watch (much like Vincent Price), and eventually is featured in his own episode where he's haunted by the creatures he had played in the movies.

Several episodes borrow from various horror concepts and aspects.  One of my favorites involves a Professor Hatecraft, a professor at a nearby college who also writes horror stories.  He's a take-off of the horror writer HP Lovecraft.  One of his students is one Howard Robertson, a reversal on the name of pulp writer Robert E. Howard.

Still, while the series is more realistic in some respects, it wouldn't be a cartoon if it weren't silly in some ways.  Fred's father is the mayor of Crystal Cove, and tries hard to promote the town as the "Most Hauntedest Place on Earth" to encourage tourist trade to the town.  Thus, he's usually unhappy when Fred and the gang prove that the latest weird creature was just another fake.  Sheriff Bronson Stone is not an especially smart, energetic or dutiful law enforcement officer.  He rarely wants to take the trouble to do a full-scale investigation, and he's often just as scared as Shaggy and Scooby when confronted with these strange creatures. 

The series makes fun of various aspects of the show.  They often play with the line "And I'd have gotten away with it, if it hadn't been for you meddling kids" in various ways.  And Fred's not just the guy who comes up with the traps, he's obsessed with traps.  He's a subscriber to the magazine Traps Illustrated, often admires various traps and the features that go into traps, and even has names for various types of traps.  Fred's also initially oblivious to the feelings that Daphne has for him, although that changes over time.

One especially fun episode has Scooby dreaming of himself teaming up with other Hanna Barbera sidekick characters, Captain Caveman, Jabberjaw, Speed Buggy, and the Funky Phantom.  As a nice touch, when Scooby starts dreaming, the animation reverts to a legacy animated style prevalent in the 1970s Hanna Barbera cartoons. 

On the other hand, some things remain mysterious about the show.  Like the original, the gang proves that the weird creature or creatures of each episode is a fake, yet before they do, we see allegedly normal people in costumes doing truly incredible things, great feats of strength and agility, and even flying in some cases.  When they're unmasked at the end, explanations are provided, but they don't seem adequate for the feats they performed.  For example, in one episode, some computer geeks dress up as tough but sensitive orc-like creatures and run around on motorcycles.  They stop at a roadhouse bar, get into a fight with the local bar patrons, and manage to whoop up on everyone in the bar.  Is it believable that wimpy computer geeks could do that, even with a scary costume that makes them seem bigger than they are?

Or in another episode, some college protestors dress up as strange sea creatures, and are able to do amazing things like stay under water for long periods of time without any apparent breathing apparatus or oxygen tanks.  They exhibit great strength when attacking a boat and an offshore drilling site, and are able to swim extremely fast and shoot themselves out of the water to great heights.  So while they are exposed as being merely humans in costume, their extraordinary feats are never adequately explained.

Furthermore, they never explain how Scooby can be an intelligent dog who talks, and they compound that mystery by introducing Professor Pericles, who is not only an intelligent parrot that can talk, but who also seems to be an evil genius, and not merely of average human intelligence, as Scooby is. Scooby's (and Professor Pericles') unexplained intelligence is the biggest mystery of all, and they don't even try to explain it! At least, not as far as I've watched--I've still got half of Season 2 to go through.

And frankly, while Mystery Incorporated is dedicated to solving mysteries, they show an amazing lack of intelligence at times, and engage in a rather haphazard investigatory style.  They also show an amazing lack of interest or curiosity in resolving the underlying mystery of Crystal Cove.  Mister E throws a treasure trove of clues and material at them, and they still have to fall back into that mystery in subsequent episodes by accident, instead of deliberately pursuing it.  It would be one thing if they stumbled on an episodic mystery while pursuing the Crystal Cove mystery, or if they were to admit they were stumped on occasion, and needed some help or an accidental discovery, but that's not the way they treat it.

Oh well, I guess that just shows that while this is a good animated series, it's *still* just a cartoon.  Well worth watching if you can find it on dvd or reruns on a cable channel or somewhere.  This series only lasted two seasons, with the last episode aired in April of 2013.  Hopefully, they will make more Scooby Doo episodes in this style in the future. 


Another Matter of Perspective - Viewing Reality

  I recently re-watched James Burke's excellent video series, The Day The Universe ChangedA very interesting and enjoyable series, and well worth watching, and/or reading the companion book that came out with it.Basically, Burke notes how changes in how people perceived reality caused dramatic changes in society, often in unexpected ways.  However, Burke wasn't merely trying to entertain the viewer--he was trying to make a point.  Ultimately, he seems to be holding to a relativistic view of reality:  "The universe is what we say it is."  I believe this is not correct.

While Burke correctly points out that knowledge is man-made, he mistakes our view of reality for reality itself.  Yes, our understanding or perspective on reality affects our lives and our lifestyles, but it is merely our view or perspective of reality that has changed, not reality itself.

"Starbuck's Pebbles", from the Principia Discordia, a book written by Greg Hill and Kerry Windell Thornley, illustrates this distinction between reality and one's view of reality, I think.

"Do these 5 pebbles really form a pentagon? Those biased by the Aneristic Illusion would say yes. Those biased by the Eristic Illusion would say no. Criss-cross them and it is a star."

My point here is that both views, as a pentagon and as a star, are an illusion, a matter of one's perspective imposed on reality.  The reality is that there are simply five pebbles in a particular arrangement, each in a certain relation to the other four pebbles.  It may help to view them as a pentagon or as a star, but it is a mistake to believe that the pentagon or star are, in fact, reality.  This is the mistake that Burke makes.  He would say that it is a pentagon if you say that it is, or it is a star if you say it is, when neither is true.

Truth and reality are not relative, and do not change simply because our perspective on truth and reality have changed. We can make changes to particular parts or circumstances of reality--we cannot change reality itself. Our perspective of reality may indeed be relative, but that hardly means that all views of reality are equally valid or true.  It is important to learn how to assess the value of different perspectives, and since value is subjective, that means deciding which view will best let you accomplish what you want to accomplish.

It's a mistake to consider everything as either relative or fixed, subjective or objective.  There is a complex, interactive dynamic between objective reality and our subjective views and desires.  If truth seems relative, it is because we mostly spend time in society with other humans, all attempting to gain their own subjective values.  But objective reality is firm, and some people are better able to achieve their desires than others because they have chosen a more appropriate, objective means towards their desires than the others did. Only you can decide what you value, but having determined that, reality forces you to choose an appropriate means, or else you will fail to achieve your desires.

You want to be a millionaire?  You can do it, IF and only if you are willing to do whatever it takes to become a millionaire.  Many people, whether they admit it or not, are simply not willing to go that far; they have other goals and desires that they value more highly.


Catching up on Star Trek Fan videos - Hope for the Future

  I grew up watching Star Trek reruns (i.e. Star Trek: The Original Series) as a kid in the 70s, and loved it.  While I never considered myself a full-blown Trekky (or even Trekker), I was pretty excited when they started the Star Trek movies and then came out with Star Trek: The Next Generation series.  Alas, as the series went on, it seemed to lose that something that made Star Trek great, and I didn't stick with it faithfully, although I tuned in for the finale of the series.

I gave DS9 a shot, but didn't follow it closely, and I don't even think I gave Voyager a decent shot, only seeing the occasional episode now and then.  Likewise, the movies seemed to lose their way, and switching to the TNG cast for movies didn't help.  Worse, JJ Abrams' take on the franchise, while good action movies, seems to have no idea what makes Star Trek special. 

Ultimately, Star Trek is about hope for the future, exploring the nature of humanity and how we might successfully deal with the various problems and moral issues that we face.  Dark and gritty versions of Star Trek, while they may make for exciting action and adventure stories, tend to lose that "hope for the future" part.

Given the latest two Star Trek movies, and the fact that there has been no Star Trek TV series for several years now, is there any hope for the future of Star Trek's 'hope for the future'?  Surprisingly, the answer is 'yes', but from a rather unexpected source: Star Trek fan videos.

I'd tended to avoid Star Trek fan fiction (especially prose) not only because fans tend to be amateurs, but also because they want to play too much with the various Star Trek elements, trying to put too many references in, and engaging in overly-ambitious ideas that their skills simply cannot handle very well.

And with the development of computer technology and digital video and effects, there are more fan videos (both live action and animation) than ever before.  Many of them suffer the same problems as any other fan fiction, but with the added problem of amateur acting and directing, not to mention limited funds for production.

Happily, I've recently discovered a few that have overcome these problems.  "Of Gods and Men" is fan-fiction only in that it was not officially sanctioned and was not intended to make a profit.  With several professional actors involved, including Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, and with Tim Russ (Voyager's Tuvok) directing, it comes off surprisingly well, and much closer to the heart of Star Trek than the two Abrams movies.  Better still, Tim Russ has a new project called Star Trek: Renegades, and has been busy creating a pilot episode as a proposal for a new TV series.  This indeed is hope for the future of the Star Trek franchise.

There are also fan-produced Star Trek series out there of high quality.  The best of them, I think, is the more recent Star Trek Continues, with Vic Mignogna being the main guy behind it, as well as doing a great job of playing Captain Kirk.  ST: Continues attempts to continue where the the original series left off, and succeeds at many levels at obtaining the look and feel of the original show: great sets, great costumes, good acting, good, meaningful stories, even the lighting of the original series was recreated to mimic the original show.  Yes, there are certain nitpicks one could complain about, but it really does match the tone and style of the original show--you could almost believe these are "lost" fourth season episodes that never got aired. The actors are mostly professional actors, even if they are not well-known or big name actors.

"Starship: Farragut" is another web series that has some kind of relationship or ties with the Star Trek Continues people.  I've only seen one episode of it so far, but while much of the production values are similar to Continues, it lacks the professional actors of Continues, and suffers by comparison.  Still enjoyable, but it takes more suspension of disbelief to "buy into" the reality of the show.

Continues and Farragut are both relatively new web series.  An older and more established fan series has been Star Trek Phase II.  James Cawley is the main guy behind this series, and he, too, plays Captain Kirk in the series.  Being the obsessive-compulsive that I am, I started watching with the pilot episode, and that was very nearly a mistake on my part.  It's very much an amateurish, fan video, and barely worth watching.  The second episode was overly-ambitious, and tried to do too much with too many references, but it was definitely a better production, and much more watchable.  The third episode, which is the last I've watched, was better still, and much more like a typical Star Trek episode.  According to reviews and comments I've read, later episodes are also good (there's something like ten episodes altogether), but I haven't watched them, yet.

Phase II also suffers from amateurish actors, but two or three of them are pretty good, and most of them are good enough to get by, especially with quality of the rest of the production.  All these series have decent CGI effects, but that's almost a given for any modern fan series worth watching.

There are plenty of other Star Trek fan productions, but I believe that the ones mentioned above are the best of them.  However, it's possible I've missed some other high-quality productions.  If you know of an especially good one, mention it in the comments, so I can watch it.

Given the fandom of Star Trek, it's inevitable that people with professional skills can get together to make high-quality fan material like these, and their dedication to Star Trek ensures that they will do their best to capture the heart of Star Trek, that hope for the future I was talking about.

Given crowd- and fan-funding, and improved technology, semi-pro and professional web series may indeed be the future of Star Trek.  With lower overhead expenses, there's no need to create JJ Abrams-style box office extravaganzas, and less concerns about making a profit means they can concentrate on making better Star Trek stories for Star Trek fans, without being overly-concerned about the mass consumer.


Natural Flavors and Other Strange Ingredients

Somehow, I happened to have a Snapple juice drink, and noticed that it says that it is "All Natural".  The Snapple slogan is "Made from the Best Stuff on Earth."  This one is the "Naturally Flavored" Snapple Apple flavor.   But what does it really mean to be "naturally flavored"?

First, it really does taste--and smell--like a fresh apple, and not so much like apple cider or something.  Food manufacturers are well aware how much our sense of smell affects our taste of foods.

Second, let's look at the ingredients.   It contains Filtered Water, Sugar, Apple and Pear Juice Concentrate, Citric Acid, Vegetable and Fruit Juice (for color), and Natural Flavors.  The label says that it contains 10% Juice, which means that it's almost 90% water and sugar!  The Best Stuff on Earth, indeed.  While it doesn't specifically say cane sugar, that would be a good guess, because it doesn't specifically say fructose, dextrose, or High Fructose Corn Syrup, the latter being a common ingredient in soda pop and other cheaper juice drinks.  All Natural it may be, but that doesn't make it all that healthy as a drink.

And vegetable juice for color?  Which vegetable or vegetables?  It doesn't specify.  Yum--shades of V8!  Citric acid, on the other hand, is no big deal.  It's an acid, yes, but it's a weak acid, and commonly used as a preservative and to give a bit of a kick to the flavor of foods.  In my home cooking, I've discovered that vinegar, another weak acid, also provides a tangy taste to foods.

The real kicker on the ingredients list is "natural flavors".  Since it sounds okay, you probably don't even think twice about it.  But the list has already mentioned apple and pear juice concentrate, citric acid, and some unspecified vegetable and fruit juices for color.  What OTHER natural flavor could they possibly be adding to this juice drink?

Well, according to Wikipedia, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations describes a "natural flavorant" as:
the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

So Snapple could be adding just about anything derived from natural sources, including meats, eggs, or dairy products.  We simply don't know based on the term "natural flavors".  The only way to be sure would be to contact Snapple and ask them what specifically was added, as the FDA regulations don't require such specific information on the label.

And you thought that the FDA was here to protect the consumer?  Well, that may be their alleged purpose, but given a label like "natural flavors", one has to wonder how protective of consumers the FDA and the government really are.

Now admittedly, no food manufacturer is out to deliberately harm or kill their consumers--anybody who thinks so has got to be a real conspiracy nut.  Harming your customers is bad for business.  However, that doesn't rule out unintentional harm to consumers, or even just simple misleading information.  Suppose one of those natural flavors was from a meat or poultry source, and you're trying to be a good vegetarian, for example?  Or it might truly be something harmless, but which would seem terrible to your average consumer.  Castoreum, for example, is one natural flavoring that is extracted from the dried glands and secretions of a beaver’s rear end.  Sounds disgusting, doesn't it?  But it really is harmless, and adds certain flavors to foods and drinks.

Now I'm not trying to pick on Snapple--one of their products just happened to be on hand--most food manufacturers use natural flavors and a variety of other strange-sounding ingredients to improve the shelf-life, longevity, color, texture, and taste of their foods, because they know consumers won't drink an apple juice that doesn't smell or taste like apples, or eat a fruit pie that has an unappetizing-looking, strangely-colored amorphous blob for fruit.

Still, if you really want to know what you're consuming, you can't trust the FDA to protect you.  Check the label for the ingredients and if you find something you don't recognize, look it up on the internet.  If it really bothers you, contact the company, or else just don't buy that product!  If nobody buys it, the manufacturer will change it or stop selling it.   It's really that simple.

One other thing I've noticed on the Snapple bottle is a K in a circle, with the words Kosher Pareve next to it.  This is apparently a private certfication symbol of the Organized Kashrut Laboratories signifying that the product is neither meat nor dairy, nor prepared with either meat or dairy products.  That is, it's kosher, and meets certain Jewish dietary requirements.  Thus, I think we can assume that the natural flavorings in my Snapple Apple are not from any meat or dairy source.  Imagine that--private certfication.  What a concept!  Exactly why do we need the FDA? More importantly, how can we trust the FDA to do the job right?

an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end - See more at: http://foodidentitytheft.com/%E2%80%9Cnatural%E2%80%9D-can-run-the-gamut-from-bugs-to-beaver-butts/#sthash.wJwfov6F.dpuf
an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end - See more at: http://foodidentitytheft.com/%E2%80%9Cnatural%E2%80%9D-can-run-the-gamut-from-bugs-to-beaver-butts/#sthash.wJwfov6F.dpuf


Protecting Our Liberty

Twice a year we think of our armed forces.  On Memorial Day, we honor those who died while serving our country, and on Veteran's Day, we think of those who lived to tell about serving our country.  But what are we honoring?  Do the armed forces really protect our liberty?  Sure, it's safe to say that they have protected us from foreign invasion, but there are greater threats to liberty than merely foreign invaders.

Criminals are also a threat to our liberty and our property, and thus we have the police to protect us from criminals.  However, both the military and police are provided by the government, with our tax money.  Who will protect us when our liberty is threatened by our own government? 

Today, even in the so-called liberal democracies, we live in a world proscribed by government, where we must have the government's permission to do many things, and where we pay many taxes for the privilege of doing so.  The military and the police might seem like good things that we need to pay for, but they are only good as long as they are doing what they are intended to do, protecting our liberty and our property. 

But whose side are the police on when the local bureaucrats tell you that you need a license to operate a vehicle, engage in certain types of occupations, or start various types of businesses?  Licensing is a privilege, where the government gives you permission to do certain things, and without that license, you are legally restricted from doing those things.  Are the police protecting your liberty when they support licensing and prevent you from doing things without the "appropriate" license?  Furthermore, we get to pay for all of these licenses and privileges. 

When the military is busy protecting "our way of life", does that include licensure and taxation, too?  Our government requires us to pay a tax for having a job and making an income,  for buying goods and services from businesses (sales tax, VAT), and even makes us pay a "property tax" for things that we supposedly own, like our homes and land.  Can you really be said to own your own home if the government can take it away from you for not paying your property taxes?

In a very simplistic form, socialism is where the government controls everything, and communism is where the government owns everything. Exactly what is the difference between owning and controlling?  Doesn't ownership imply control?  And if one cannot control his property, then "ownership" is a hollow term that merely means you have the deed or title to the property, while someone else controls what is done with it.

Here in the United States of America, an alleged liberal democracy and capitalist nation where individuals are supposed to be free to own and control property, the various levels of government exhibit a surprising amount of control over its citizens and their property.  If, for example, our military had failed us, and the U.S. had been taken over by the former Soviet Union, Americans would no doubt have been subject to heavier controls over their lives.  There would have been more licensing, and heavier taxation.  But note that this would have been a matter of degree, not kind.  We simply would have been subject to more of what we already have, more limits on what we can do with ourselves and our property, and not subject to something we had never experienced before.  Does the military protect our freedom, or does it merely protect us from foreign control over our restrictions?

Our liberty *is* restricted, and the rest is just a matter of determining to what degree it is restricted.  It's nice to think of our armed forces protecting us from foreign invasion, but it's not so nice to think of them protecting the licensure and taxation that we have to endure every day.  It's nice to think of the police as protecting us from criminals, but not so nice when the "criminals" are simply people who haven't gotten the government's permission to do something, or who have failed to pay their taxes on their income, their purchases, or their property.  And isn't it called a "protection racket" when someone coerces you into paying for protection?  Are the police merely a criminal gang with the legal authority to act as they do?

Licensing and taxation are nothing new--they've been around for thousands of years, or really, as long as governments themselves have been around.  What is new, or at least fairly recent in human history, is the idea that the purpose of government is to protect the rights and liberties of the individual, that the individual is important.  Converting government from an authoritarian overseer to a rights-protecting agency has been a slow and difficult process.  Indeed, given the fundamentally coercive nature of government, it may well be impossible for it to be limited to nothing but the protection of rights.  

After all, a government is essentially the organization in society that has been granted the legal authority to initiate force, and it is the initiation of force that is inimical to liberty, as any criminal or foreign invader knows.  Yes, we want protection from foreign invaders and criminals, but that is not enough for the protection of our liberty.  We must also be protected from all forms of initiation of force, including the politicians and bureaucrats who force us to do things "for our own good". 

The rules and restrictions of Obamacare are merely the latest in a long line of attacks on our liberty, and in that respect, there's nothing new about them.  President Obama is merely the latest in a long line of politicians who would whittle away at our freedoms "for our own good".  More importantly, we as individuals must understand that it is not merely "bad" politicians or bureaucrats, Republicans or Democrats, who are the main threat to liberty.  Everything is *not* okay if we simply get the "right" people into office. It is government itself that is the greatest threat to our liberty.  The organization that has been granted the legal authority to initiate force is a poor tool for minimizing and preventing the initiation of force in our society. 

Furthermore, because government is fundamentally flawed in this way, no amount of reform will fix it.  Government can never successfully police itself, no matter how it is organized or divided, and no matter how many constitutions or bills of rights are written up.  In order to protect our liberty, we must stop forming governments, and start forming different kinds of organizations and associations for protecting our rights and liberties. 

However, we don't really have to start from scratch in creating these non-governmental organizations and institutions, for they, too, have been around in human history, and still exist today, even under the weight of governmental rules and regulations.  Human creativity and ingenuity apply to more than just art and entertainment, and people have found many ways to solve the basic problems of society, even when governments attempt to regulate and restrict human behavior. 

Businesses and charitable organizations have always tried to meet the needs and desires of people, and always will, if we allow them to.  The standards so useful and necessary to the various industries have almost always come from private organizations, even if governments tended to adopt them.  Emergency services have been provided in various ways, even when governments have been unable or unwilling to provide them.  Various types of voluntary certification have existed, and could exist, to provide for the competency and security to consumers of professionals and businesses, and provide it in a much more satisfactory way than governmental licensing can. 

Even in the area of law and legal matters, private organizations and solutions have arisen, where not restricted by governments.  Merchant Law, and the various arbitration and mediation services, provide examples of the creation and enforcement of non-government laws.  The history of law itself has always shown two tracks:  that which kings and rulers have taken upon themselves to create and enforce, and that which the mass of common and ordinary people have done to protect themselves, their property, and their interests.   In English legal history, the differences between the King's Law and common law are very telling.

Okay, this article is getting a little long, and I guess I need to wrap it up. 

In short, government, licensure, and taxation are restrictions on liberty, not protections of liberty.  Government is not a necessary evil, and humanity will be immensely better off without governments, without licensing, and without taxation.  Nevertheless, we will continue to be burdened with government until a significant number of people realize these basic truths, and start denying the legitimacy of government. And hey, don't forget to do your income tax return!  After all, you have to pay for the privilege of having a job and working, remember?

Sheesh!  This stuff makes my blood boil.  It's much more fun to write about comics, I think.


Obamacare turns innocent citizens into criminals

Yes, you read the title right.  By legally requiring citizens to purchase health insurance, that part of the Obamacare plan turns harmless, innocent people into "criminals", subject to punishment by the law.  Isn't it just *wonderful* to be an American citizen?  To live in the "land of the free"?  Oh sure, there are plenty of countries that are worse to live in than the United States, but I'm not talking about being relatively free.  I'm talking about the liberty to do as one wants as long as one is not doing harm to other people.   Real freedom, true liberty. 

Mandatory national health insurance as Obamacare calls for is a clear and obvious violation of the individual rights and liberties of the citizens of the United States.  Have the American people become so cynical and jaded that they cannot see such a simple and obvious point?

Sure, we can say that most Americans already have health insurance of some kind, that only a limited number of Americans are actually being affected by this requirement. We can even say that the penalty is simply a relatively small fine, payable through their income tax returns--it's not like the non-compliers will be rounded up and sent to Guantanamo, or even to their local jail.

Nonetheless, rights are still being violated, however mild the penalty.  Furthermore , since the law allows the government to act if someone doesn't comply, the penalty could be changed later, if the government deems it necessary. 

Of course, some people will want to be pragmatic, practical.  They say that we *have* to do this, in order to bring down health care costs.  They will think that the coercion involved is justfied by the results the law brings about. 

The problem with this is that there is no reason to believe that it will actually lower health care costs.  The use of coercion tends to have unintended consequences.  By forcing people to do things that they would not normally do, you are upsetting the equilibrium of the economy.  The economy will react to this coercion, and a new equilibrium will be reached, but it is difficult to say exactly what this new equilibrium will be.

Given the complexity of legislation like Obamacare, there are many possible ways for people to react, many possible unusual consequences and undesirable results.  People may fraudulently claim to be one of the exceptions to the legal requirement, for example, as they seek a way to meet the legal requirement while still trying to get the services they actually want from the medical community.  Medical providers may charge differently, knowing that everyone has, or is supposed to have, health insurance.  And since they're being paid by insurance, what the insurance company says becomes more important than what the patient says or wants. 

And certainly insurance companies will react to the changes caused by the legislation.  The insurance companies will do what the legislation requires, regardless of their customer's wishes or desires.  They may have to charge more in order to meet the legal requirements.

Insurance, properly understood, is not merely spreading the risks among a larger pool of people.  It involves statistical and actuarial data, and when done right, an insurance company already knows how much they can be expected to pay out in a year, and they charge their premiums to different homogenous groups according to those statistics. If the government steps in and requires insurance companies to treat heterogeneous groups like homogenous groups, or if they require uninsurable people to be insured, this will create a higher degree of risk and uncertainty, not only for the insurance companies, but for their customers. 

Insurance companies should be allowed to provide real insurance, and not merely be used by the government as a way of shifting health care costs, which is essentially what mandatory health insurance will result in, causing higher, not lower, health insurance and health care costs for most Americans. 

In short, mandatory health insurance is not only morally wrong, but is an impractical way to reduce health care costs and relieve the burdens of American citizens. It will interfere with the market's ability to satisfy consumers, and will increase the difficulty and frustration of getting good health care.  And when the results of Obamacare are seen to be undesirable, as they inevitably will be, the government will undoubtedly step in and take more drastic regulatory measures to try to fix it, and thus create a vicious cycle of even more problems with health care in the U.S. 

But don't take my word for it.  We're all about to live with the consequences of this far-reaching, devastating legislation.  And I won't say "I told you so" if you'll wake up to what's wrong with it, and help me try to reclaim our liberty and support individual rights.


The Emergence of Marvel Comics and the Silver Age

I was a child of the 1970s, and didn't really get into comics until the summer of 1978, the time of the DC Explosion, quickly followed by the DC Implosion.  Nonetheless, while I tried various comics in my early stages, DC, Marvel, Charlton, etc., I tended to prefer the DC comics to the others.  This, of course, was before the internet, but I still found out about comics history through back issues, reprints, fanzines and the like.  I loved how DC had incorporated the Golden Age characters they had absorbed from other early comics companies into a multiverse.  And I hated how DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 retroactively erased all that previous multiverse continuity they had developed over the previous twenty or so years.

The first meeting of the Silver Age Flash and the Golden Age Flash in 1961--the beginning of the DC multiverse.

One of the things that always puzzled me is how Marvel Comics rose to popularity so quickly in the early 1960s.  Sure, I had read some reprints of the early Marvel comics, and I already had developed a soft spot for Kirby and Ditko thanks to their work at DC in the 70s, like Omac and Shade, but frankly, the early Marvel stuff just seemed rather crude and undeveloped to me.

Jack Kirby's Omac.  One of my favorite comic series

Steve Ditko's Shade.  Another of my favorite comic series
Many years later, I've finally had a chance to read more of both Marvel and DC comics from the late 50s and early 60s, and I've discovered some interesting things, including why Marvel's popularity took off the way it did.  DC comics had gotten complacent, stultifying, repetitive, and downright boring in the early 60s.  They were doing imaginary stories, silly stories, and soap opera stuff with their superheroes.  Things like Superman keeping Lois Lane from discovering his secret identity, Batman and Robin having to put up with Bat-Mite, those kinds of things.  Frankly, I'm surprised the Aquaman series managed to survive long enough to get better, although it eventually did get better as the 60s went along.

Aquaman #1 from 1962.  "Thrilling" is not a word that I would use for the story.

Marvel came along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the revived Captain America, etc, and while the stories and art were a bit crude, (Kirby and Ditko had yet to reach their artistic peaks at this point), they were exciting, and full of action, as the heroes went head-to-head against powerful villains, not knowing if they would be able to defeat them.  Furthermore, the heroes had more realistic problems that they weren't sure they could overcome, not silly soap-opera problems.  The Fantastic Four fought amongs themselves, Spider-Man was a troubled teen wanted by the police, Iron Man had to always worry about his chest-plate and protecting his heart, Bruce Banner couldn't control what he did as the Hulk, and usually couldn't control when he became the Hulk, etc.

Given the context of what was going on at DC, it becomes obvious why Marvel became popular.  Not that there weren't *some* bright spots at DC.  The new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern were both interesting and enjoyable, and The Doom Patrol were an interesting and unusual superhero group, for example.  

My Greatest Adventure #80 (1963) - Introducing The Doom Patrol, the World's Strangest Heroes.

Furthermore, the rise of Marvel gave DC a jolt, and throughout the 60s, DC tried different things to keep up with their competition, although what finally worked for DC was simply getting new, younger writers and artists in the late 60s and early 70s.  Plus, the Marvel formula was getting overworked and overextended by the late 60s, and the initial excitement they generated just wasn't sustainable.

Another interesting point is how Marvel's, or rather Atlas', monster and alien stories fed into their superhero foray.  Atlas?  You see, Marvel wasn't really a new company in the early 60's, that was just their latest company name.  They were originally Timely Comics back in the 40s, changed to Atlas Comics in the 50s, and became Marvel Comics in the 60s.  Stan Lee was no newcomer, either, as he had started with them back when they were Timely, and thus was quite familiar with superheroes.

Marvel Comics #1, published by Timely Comics (Not Marvel Comics) in 1939.  It includes The Human Torch, Namor the Submariner, and Ka-Zar, all characters to be revived by the later Marvel Comics company.

When Superman appeared in 1938, it started an explosion of superheroes and superhero comics.  There were several comic book companies in the 1940s, and they all had their superheroes among their other comics.  However, as the 1940s went on, superheroes seemed to be a dying trend. Most superhero titles were cancelled, and the surviving comic book companies continued by publishing various genre comics: westerns, romances, teen, funny animals, crime, horror, etc.  It was the crime and horror comics that especially disturbed Dr. Fredric Wertham, and which led to Congressional investigations and the development of the Comics Code Authority, a self-policing group within the comics industry.

Strange Tales #28 from 1954 - An especially scary cover pre-Comics Code Authority.  Notice the Atlas logo.

Ironically, it may have been thanks to Wertham and the Comics Code that superheroes made a comeback.  With the restrictions put upon comics, the crime and horror comics had trouble sustaining their popularity, and a return to superheroes allowed the comics companies to do something interesting and exciting while still staying within the limits of the code.  Superheroes could fight supervillains with stylized violence that didn't call for blood and gore.  However, DC didn't merely revive the Golden Age versions of Flash and Green Lantern, but created new versions of them.  When these did well, DC created the Justice League of America, a new superhero group, instead of trying to revive the Golden Age group Justice Society of America.

The first appearance of the JLA in The Brave and the Bold #28 (1960).  Superman and Batman were also part of the team, but de-emphasized for some reason.

It was the popularity of the JLA that led Martin Goodman, publisher at Atlas/Marvel, to ask Stan Lee to come up with a version of the Justice League.  Instead, Stan and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four, and thus began the Marvel Age of Heroes.

Atlas, like the other publishers of the time, was publishing genre material like westerns, romance, and humor comics.  But because of Wertham and the Comics Code Authority, they had switched from doing straight horror and crime stories to stories mostly involving monsters and aliens. They did a LOT of monster and alien stories. So when Goodman wanted them to switch to superheroes, it was like they carried that monster and alien sensibility over to their superhero stories.

An early Tales to Astonish issue, Groot is both a monster and an alien!  But still approved by the Comics Code Authority.

The early Fanstastic Four shows this monster and alien sensibility.  The Fantastic Four were less like the Justice League and more like the Challengers of the Unknown, a title Jack Kirby had created for DC a few years before, but the FF had superpowers, whereas the Challengers were ordinary humans.  The FF's earliest foes were monsters and aliens; one of their members, the Thing, was for all intents and purposes, a monster, although he fought against bad guys. They didn't even have costumes until the third issue.

Fantastic Four #1 - No costumes as they fight a monster from the underground.

This monster and alien sensibility wasn't so strongly felt in other titles, but it was there.  Spider-Man runs into his share of monsters and aliens, too.  Thor's first Marvel appearance involved an alien invasion.  The Hulk was himself a monster, moreso than the Thing, because you couldn't be sure if he would do good or evil.  And even the Hulk encountered aliens early in his publishing history. 

The Hulk fights the alien Toad Men in his second issue, 1962.

But eventually, Marvel developed a more superhero sensibility, although monsters and aliens never completely left.  Once they had established enough superheroes, they even came up with their own version of the Justice League with the Avengers title.

Avengers #1 - Okay, they're fighting Loki, a Norse God, but technically he's still an alien to Earth!

But I still consider myself more of a DC fan than a Marvel Fan.  Sorry Stan!


A Matter of Perspective

I found a great deal at the local dollar store.  I found a package of chip bag clips for a dollar.  Fifty of them in the package!  For a dollar!  Wow! 

The only thing I can't understand is why they called them "wooden clothespins"...Ha!

The clothespin with a 101 uses.

But seriously, I've tried those plastic chip bag clips, and while they're colorful, they're just not as strong as the even cheaper wooden clothespins, nor do they last as long.  The plastic ones tend to break too easily.

The cheap, plastic, breakable Chip Clip.

Furthermore, I use clothespins clipping all sorts of bags, and occasionally find other uses for them.  One use I *don't* have for clothespins is hanging wet clothes on a clothesline.  I can't recall ever using clothespins for their designed purpose, and I know few people who don't use an electric dryer to dry their clothes.

Even when my dryer was broken, I'd just hang my clothes over doors, chairs, shower curtain rods, and other places, and still didn't need clothespins. 

These are not the clothespins I am talking about.

So how about you?  Do you have things that you put to uses other than their intended use?  I bet you do. 


My Variant on Eight Ball Pool

  Thanks to my girlfriend's nephew and son, I've been stuck with this pool table in my living room for some time now.  Yes, that would be great if I were an avid pool player, but really, I'm just an occasional, or "social" pool player.  Nonetheless, since it's so convenient, I've been playing more pool lately, and thinking about it. And, as I am wont to do, researching it.

  Pool is part of a wide variety of cue sports, and includes billiards, snooker, and carom.  Hey, I  used to have a carrom game when I was a kid, although I probably didn't play it according to the rules.

The cheap, Americanized version with the plastic rings that also lets you play chess, checkers, and backgammon on it.
More importantly, there are several different games and rules that can be played with a standard pool table and set (16 balls, 15 colored balls numbered 1 through 15 and a cue ball). The most popular version is Eight-Ball, which you've probably played yourself many times.  One player has to knock in the solids (balls 1 - 7) and the other player has to knock in the stripes (balls 9 - 14), and only once you have dropped all your balls can you go for the 8 ball.

One variant I've played since I was a kid, especially when playing by myself, is simply that you have to knock all the balls in in numerical order.  You have to drop ball 1 before you can go for ball 2, and so forth, until you drop ball 15 in last.  In this game the 8 ball is nothing special, just another ball to knock in after the 7 and before the 9.  I mistakenly called it Nine Ball, but apparently, that's a rather different game than what I played.

Pictured: A Nine-Ball rack

Much more recently, I came up with a simple variant on Eight-Ball that I rather like, based on the colors of the balls. At first, you can knock in any ball you want to, except for the 8-ball, but when you knock in one ball, you have to go after the other ball of the same color before you're free to shoot at any other balls.  So, for example, if you knock in the 10 ball, which is blue, you have to go after the blue 2 ball before you're free to shoot any other balls.

Furthermore, if, while going for the 2 ball, you accidentally knock in the green 6 ball, you now have to shoot for the blue 2 and the green 14 ball before you're free to shoot at any other balls.  Any other player can shoot your balls in for you with no penalty, but then, why would they want to help you?  ;-)  Once all the other balls are in, then the players can shoot for the 8-ball.

  This variant has several interesting features.  For one thing, it's just as easy for 3 players to play as it is for 2 or 4 players, as there's no need for teams.  It also creates a tremendous but temporary challenge as you are restricted to getting both balls of the same color before being free to shoot at any other ball. This variant also makes a good handicap game for widely mismatched players, as a good player could knock in most of the colored pairs, but still lose if the weak player ends up knocking in the 8-ball at the end. Unless you want to keep track of how many colored pairs each player knocks in.  Then, of course, the stronger player has the advantage.

Obviously, these rules aren't set in stone, so feel free to modify them as you see fit.  But I think it's a nice variation, especially if you're just playing for fun.

Upon checking, I found one variant that is somewhat similar to mine, although not exactly the same:  Cribbage Pool. In Cribbage, instead of knocking in pairs of the same color, you have to knock in pairs that add up to 15.  For example, if you knock in the 6 ball, you next have to knock in the 9 ball.  There are some other differences, as well, but it is at least similar to my variant. 

I gave it a try, and I'd say Cribbage is much more difficult than my variant.  With my variant, if you don't drop the matching colored ball, then you just keep trying (when it's your turn again) until you do.  With Cribbage, if  you don't make the matching ball, then the first ball that you dropped gets put back on the table.  If you're not very good at pool, a Cribbage game can last a long time.

So go play some pool!  And let me know if you like my variation on Eight-Ball in the comments.  Oh, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and all that stuff...