Friday, May 30, 2014

John Oliver, John Boehner and Climate Change



In addition to the raunchiest faux-news segment in human history, the Sunday, May 17, 2014, edition of HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver swiped hard at public polling data showing one in four Americans skeptical of anthropogenic climate change.“Who gives a shit?” Oliver said of that particular Gallup poll’s findings. “You don’t need people’s opinion on a fact. You might as well have a poll asking: ‘Which number is bigger, 15 or 5?’ or ‘Do owls exist?’ or ‘Are there hats?’ The debate on climate change ought not to be whether or not it exists,” he continued. “It is what we should do about. There is a mountain of research on this topic. The only accurate way to report that one out of four Americans are skeptical of global warming is to say, ‘A poll finds that one in four Americans are wrong about something,’” he added. “Because a survey of thousands of scientific papers either took a position on climate change found that 97 percent endorsed the positions that humans are causing global warming.” And yet the public continually expresses skepticism of the science, Oliver said, perhaps assisted by cable news’ insistence on depicting a one-on-one debate between a “skeptic” (or “some dude”) and a global warming “believer,” most typically Bill Nye, the Science Guy. “If there has to be a debate about the reality of climate change, and there doesn’t, then there is only one mathematically fair way to do it,” he said before turning to Bill Nye himself for a more “accurate” version of how the climate change debate should occur.
Ninety-seven percent of scientists believe that man-made climate change is occurring. Two percent of scientists say that they do not know if it is man-made or a natural occurrence. Only one percent say that there is no climate change or that there is but it is not man-made. The challenge for the media is how to accurately reflect that consensus. Oliver maintains one way not to do it is to give equal time to climate science deniers. Unsurprisingly (yet tragically), that is the preferred strategy of most of the television news sources. False balance is alive and practiced at many news sources including CNN,  Reuters, Bloomberg, and PBS. Oliver maintains that for every three scientists on the news or on talk shows, ninety-seven scientists should also be present to debate the three. That would be "fair and balanced", the slogan of the Republican Party media propaganda mouthpiece, Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.
All scientists and media outlets should heed the “advice to climate scientists on how to avoid being swift-boated,” from History professor Juan Cole: “Any broadcast that pits a climate change skeptic against a serious climate scientist is automatically a win for the skeptic, since a false position is being given equal time and legitimacy.”
John Oliver 's statements and graphic display of what a ninety-seven to three might look like are on YouTube and various other sources. The video has gone viral and has reach about three million people since the broadcast.
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On May 29, 2014, Republican Congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives wade into the debate about climate change because the Obama administration is preparing to roll out new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants on June 2. You have to understand that when President Obama is for anything, the Republicans are automatically against it.  So, although the rules  have not yet been made public, they are already drawing criticism from congressional Republicans. In addition, many of the rules' opponents are not even convinced that the issue of climate change even needs to be address. These are many of the same people who do not believe in evolution, women's equality, etc.
 The Republican-led House Science Committee  (which does not believe in science) is holding a hearing on Thursday morning , June 5. The Republicans are already questioning the most recent scientific reports on climate change.
A reporter asked House Speaker John Boehner at the Republican leadership press conference if, given his stated concerns about new regulations, "Are there steps you would support to take action against climate change, and do you think that's a problem?" Boehner's response didn't exactly answer the question. He said, "Well, listen. I'm not qualified to debate the science over climate change. But, I am astute enough to understand that every proposal that has come out of this administration to deal with climate change involves hurting our economy and killing American jobs," said Boehner. "That can't be the prescription for dealing with changes in our climate."
The speaker's low estimation of his grasp of the science has not prevented him in the past from casting doubt on the idea that climate change is a problem that can be attributed to human activity, and particularly the burning of fossil fuels.
In 2009, ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked Boehner what the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions would be, and Boehner dismissed the concern. "George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical," said Boehner. "Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you've got more carbon dioxide." He went on to suggest, though, that Republicans would come up with a plan.

In 2012, without then having offered any such plan, he told USA Today, "I don't think there's any doubt that we've had climate change over the last 100 years. What has initiated it, though, has sparked a debate that's gone on now for the last 10 years ... I don't think we're any closer to the answer than we were 10 years ago."

Thursday, May 29, 2014

English Language Humor: Many Questions, Few Answers




1. IS ATHEISM A NON-PROPHET ORGANIZATION?


2. IF MAN EVOLVED FROM MONKEYS AND APES,WHY DO WE STILL HAVE MONKEYS AND APES?


3. WHAT IF THERE WERE NO HYPOTHETICAL QUESTIONS?

4. IF SOMEONE WITH MULTIPLE PERSONALITIES THREATENS TO KILL HIMSELF, IS IT CONSIDERED A HOSTAGE SITUATION?


5. IS THERE ANOTHER WORD FOR SYNONYM?


6. WHERE DO FOREST RANGERS GO TO "GET AWAY FROM IT ALL?"


7. WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU SEE AN ENDANGERED ANIMAL
EATING AN ENDANGERED PLANT?


8. IF A PARSLEY FARMER IS SUED, CAN THEY GARNISH HIS WAGES?


9. WOULD A FLY WITHOUT WINGS BE CALLED A WALK?


10. WHY DO THEY LOCK GAS STATION TOILETS? ARE THEY AFRAID SOMEONE WILL BREAK-IN AND CLEAN THEM?


11. IF A TURTLE DOESN'T HAVE A SHELL, IS HE HOMELESS OR NAKED?


12. CAN VEGETARIANS EAT ANIMAL CRACKERS?


13. IF THE POLICE ARREST A MUTE, DO THEY TELL HIM HE HAS THE RIGHT
TO REMAIN SILENT?


14. HOW DO THEY GET DEER TO CROSS THE ROAD ONLY AT THOSE "DEER CROSSINGS" YELLOW ROAD SIGNS?


15. WHAT WAS THE BEST THING BEFORE SLICED BREAD?


16. IS THE ONE NICE THING ABOUT EGOTISTS IS THAT THEY DON'T TALK ABOUT OTHER PEOPLE?


17. DOES THE LITTLE MERMAID WEAR AN ALGEBRA?


18. DO INFANTS ENJOY INFANCY AS MUCH AS ADULTS ENJOY ADULTERY?


19. HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE A CIVIL WAR?


20. IF ONE SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMER DROWNS, DO THE REST DROWN TOO?


21. IF YOU ATE BOTH PASTA AND ANTIPASTO, WOULD YOU STILL BE HUNGRY?


22. WHOSE CRUEL IDEA WAS IT FOR THE WORD 'LISP' TO HAVE 'S' IN IT?


23. WHY ARE THEY CALLED "HEMORRHOIDS" INSTEAD OF "ASSTEROIDS"?

24. IF YOU SPIN AN ORIENTAL MAN IN A CIRCLE THREE TIMES, DOES HE BECOME DISORIENTED?

25. CAN AN ATHEIST GET INSURANCE AGAINST ACTS OF GOD?

26. WHY DO SHOPS HAVE SIGNS, "GUIDE DOGS ONLY"? THE DOGS CAN'T READ AND THEIR OWNERS ARE BLIND.

American Actors vs. Foreign Actors: A National Disgrace



What occupation in the U.S. has a 90% unemployment rate?

Right now, the U.S. has an around 7. 5 percent unemployment rate. At the same time, the average unemployment rate for actors, according to the Actor's Equity Association, hovers at around 90 percent. Whereas being unemployed is a rather new phenomenon for most of the workforce, it is a way of life for actors. Uncertainty is a way of life for actors."They endure long periods of unemployment, intense competition for roles, and frequent rejections in auditions," according to a report by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the same report, with acting jobs typically lasting from "between 1 day and several months" and "actors must hold other jobs in order to make a living" like waiting tables in restaurants, office temp work, etc.  The worst off are college graduates who have to pay off  big loans.

In most cases, in order to work as an actor in a play, television show or a movie in the U.S., you have to be a member of a union. You don't have to be a U.S. citizen to join Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and Actor's Equity , but you cannot just join the union. Union membership is only for professional actors and anyone applying needs specific types of experience to be eligible to join. Professional work in a foreign country does not count and non-union work in the U.S. cannot count. So, a non-American actor is not eligible to join the union so a foreigner cannot legally work as an actor for pay in the U.S. As with any foreign worker, a non-U.S. actor must acquire a visa, green card, etc., to work in the U.S. 

Here's what the SAG-AFTRA websites says concerning working as an actor in the U.S if you are not a U.S. Citizen or Resident Alien holding a "green card": The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), as directed by Congress, sets the visa requirements for alien performers who want to work in the United States. The INS allows performers who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents to audition on any visa, but in order to actually work on a film, television, or electronic media project like a video game, they must then get a very specific visa whether it is SAG signatory or not. Production companies, and sometimes talent agents and managers, apply for these visas on behalf of the performers. Due to the INS criteria and cost of transportation, living expenses, and legal fees, these visas are typically granted only to major-role principal players. You do not have to be a member of Screen Actors Guild to qualify for these visas. However, the criteria for the most common of these particular visas (the O-1) require that the performer has been recognized for his/her accomplishment of outstanding achievement (as closely defined by the INS) in a media similar to the one for which the visa is sought. Visas are issued by project, not by time period. Visas cannot be applied for until an employment offer is extended to the performer. O-1 visas are not available to performers who seem promising, but are not yet fully "proven". For further information about visas, you will need to seek out and make contact with an immigration attorney. We are not able to provide references. 

On the surface, it looks like it is tough for a foreign national to work as an actor in the U.S. But, as with everything else, there are loopholes. Here is how some foreign actors got their visa to work in the U.S.

Alexander Skarsgård He got his first role while he was on a "vacation" in LA. He went to see his working actor father there who introduced him to his LA manager who then let Alex audition for the film, Zoolander, which became his first US acting job. His father already had an EB-1 green card which in turn made his children automatically eligible to work in the US as well.

Naomi Watts & Nicole Kidman. Watts was already doing well as an actress in Australia before she decided to try her luck in Hollywood. However, her visit to LA is not exactly like the visits of the usual foreign actor. Naomi was flown in by her Australian friend who also happened to be in LA at the time. The friend was Nicole  Kidman who was at the time dating Tom Cruise. Kidman was born in Hawaii because her Australian parents were studying there at the time, so she automatically got citizenship. Staying with Kidman and Cruise, Watts got to meet everyone who was someone in Hollywood and that’s how she ended up being signed by a top notch talent agency. Since these agencies sponsor O-1 visas on a very regular basis, that is how the one she got one.

Dominic Purcell Another Australian actor but this time with a very different story. He won the Green Card Lottery! Yes, there really is a Green Card Lottery. The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program is a United States congressionally mandated lottery program for receiving a United States Permanent Resident Card. It is also known as the Green Card Lottery. The lottery is administered on an annual basis by the Department of State and conducted under the terms of Section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).It was intended to provide for a new class of immigrants known as "diversity immigrants" (DV immigrants). The Act makes available 55,000 permanent resident visas annually to natives of countries deemed to have low rates of immigration to the United States. (Like Australia??)

Evangeline Lilly This Canadian actress has a visa story with a lot of question marks. She has stated multiple times that she almost lost her part in Lost because her visa wasn’t approved yet. This is strange for various reasons. One, it would imply she was allowed to audition without a valid work visa and got the job without it too. Very few foreigners are allowed to do this and it is generally reserved for foreign performers who are already internationally famous. Two, it’s strange because she already had various minor and extra L.A. credits dating from years before Lost. So did she either work on those projects illegally or did she have some different kind of visa that needed extension back then?

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However, when it comes to American actors working in foreign countries, it is a different story.

Britain, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand do not offer the same opportunities to American actors unless they are big stars, and even then there’s lots of requirements to fulfill before any foreign actor can work in any of those countries. Why is that? Because they are protecting the jobs for their own actors, and they are not interested in providing foreigners with acting jobs in their countries. And, the U.S. does not!

An example of this a January 9, 2013, New York Times front page story by American actor, John Lithgow, who described himself as the ONLY non-British actor, out of hundreds of actors, now accepted in Britain's National Theatre, and only for a limited run of one play. I am one of only a handful of American actors to perform there during its 50-year history... There were roughly 150 actors employed by the National that [opening] day, working on [nine] shows in various stages of rehearsal and production. Of all of them I was the only American. Yet our American films, Broadway plays, TV shows and talk shows are overflowing with British, Australian and Canadian actors, newscasters, directors and talk-show hosts. 

Typical of this is the American NBC mini-series, Kings. All of the actors spoke with American accents. Most of the minor parts were played by Americans. Below are the major part actors and their nationalities played play in that series in order of their importance:

Christopher Egan (Captain David Shepherd) Australian
Ian McShane (King Silas Benjamin), British
Susanna Thompson (Queen Rose Cross Benjamin) American
Allison Miller (Princess Michelle Benjamin) American
Eamonn Walker (The Reverend Ephram Samuel) British
Sebastian Stan (Prince Jonathan "Jack" Benjamin) American
Sarita Choudhury (Helen Pardis, the king's mistress) British
Brian Cox (Vesper Abaddon) Scottish
Dylan Baker (William Cross) American
Wes Studi (General Linus Abner) American, Cherokee Nation
Macaulay Culkin (Andrew Cross ) American

Why is SAG-AFTRA and EQUITY so permissively allowing foreigners to end up with acting jobs instead of casting American actors? It is because American actors do not voice their anger and discontent due to the fear of being blacklisted by corporate executives  and producers. They have legitimate fears of possibly never ever working again in the industry that bows to the British, the Australians and the Canadians.

It is horribly sad that Americans do not protect their own. Maybe Americans should stop going to the movies and write the sponsors of TV shows and let them know you will not be purchasing any of their products unless they demand more Americans on those TV shows they sponsor. The only action producers and movie studios understand is the action that hurts the pocketbook. The time is way overdue to hit the studio and TV producers where it hurts.

Final Question: Do you seriously think that no American actor could play Dr. Gregory House on the Fox series House instead of a British comedian who sported a false American accent for 10 years (Hugh Laurie) or could play his underling, Dr  Robert Chance, except Australian (Jesse Spence)?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Elephants' Tribute



Lawrence Anthony (1950-2012) is a legend in South Africa. He was an international conservationist, environmentalist, explorer and the author of three books including the bestseller, Babylon's Ark, The Elephant Whisperer, and The Last Rhino. He was also the long-standing head of conservation at the Thula Thula game reserve in Zululand South Africa; the Founder of The Earth Organization, a privately registered, independent, international conservation and environmental group; an international member of the Explorers Club of New York; and a member of the National Council of the Southern Africa Association for the Advancement of Science, South Africa’s oldest scientific association. In addition, he bravely rescued wildlife and rehabilitated elephants all over the globe from human  atrocities, including the courageous rescue of Baghdad Zoo (the biggest zoo in the Middle East) animals during U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

On March 7, 2012, Lawrence Anthony died of a heart attack. According to his son, Dylan, two days after his passing, the wild elephants showed up at his home led by two large matriarchs. Dylan is quoted in news accounts as saying, "The first herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd a day later. They hung around for about two days before making their way back to the bush." Separate wild herds arrived in droves to say goodbye to their beloved 'man-friend'. A total of  thirty-one elephants had patiently walked over one hundred, twelve miles to get to his South African house.

Witnessing this spectacle, humans were obviously in awe not only because of the superior intelligence and precise timing that these elephants sensed about Lawrence's passing, but also because of the profound  memory and emotion the beloved animals evoked in such an organized way. The elephants walked slowly for days making their way in a one-by-one queue from their habitat to the house.  But, elephants have long been known to mourn their dead. For instance, in India baby elephants are often raised by a boy who becomes their life-long "mahout". The pair develop strong bonds and it is not uncommon for one to lose the will to live and waste away after the death of the other.
Lawrence Anthony's wife, Francoise, was especially touched because she knew that no elephants had not been to his house prior to that day for well over three years. Yet, the elephants knew where they were going. The elephants seemed to want to pay their deep respects and honor their friend who had saved their lives. The elephants stayed for two days and nights without eating anything. On the third morning, they left to make their long journey back home.
So, did the elephants actually  make a two-day trek from their game preserve to the house because they somehow knew that Anthony died?  Or, was it just a coincidence? Who knows?  As with so many things, it depends on what you believe and/or want to believe. However, as South African Rabbi Lelia Gal Berner, PhD, correctly observed about this strange event, "If there ever were a time when we can truly sense the wondrous interconnection of all living things, it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula." Perhaps some things in the universe are deeper and greater than human understanding, comprehension and intelligence.
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Quotes by Lawrence Anthony
"I have never understood the saying 'To think outside the box.' Why would anyone sit inside of a box and then think outside of it. Rather just get out of the box."
"There is more to life than just yourself, your own family, and your own kind."
"If there is one thing I disapprove of it's the unnatural capture and taming of wild animals, whether an elephant or a bird. To me, the only good cage is an empty cage."

Monday, May 26, 2014

Poem: The Great Buddha at Nara


Poem: The Great Buddha at Nara
A haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1752-1827)

Out of the hollow
Of great Buddha's nose
Flies a swallow.


Poem: Give Me Your Hand


Poem: Give Me Your Hand
by Maya Angelou (born: 1928)

Give me your hand

Make room for me
to lead and follow
you
beyond this rage of poetry.

Let others have
the privacy of
touching words
and love of loss
of love.

For me
Give me your hand.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Shinto: The National Religion of Japan



Shinto is the native religion of Japan. It is also the cornerstone of Japanese culture. Formed from the nature-worshiping practices of the ancient Japanese, Shinto has no weekly service, no holy book, and an untold number of deities. It stands apart from other religions because of its inclusive nature, inviting people of any faith to participate in its rituals.

Shinto focuses on carrying out ritual practices diligently in order to establish a connection between present-day Japan life and Japan's past. According to Japanese mythology, Shinto started in 660 BC. Shinto practices were first recorded and codified in the written historical records of the Kojikiand Nihon Shoki in the 8th Century AD. Shinto today is a term that applies to the religion of public shrines devoted to the worship of a multitude of gods (kami), suited to various purposes such as war memorials and harvest festivals. Practitioners express their diverse beliefs through a standard language and practice, adopting a similar style in dress and ritual, dating from around the time of Japan's Nara and Heian periods (710-1185AD).

The word Shinto  means "way of the gods". The word Shinto was adopted from the word  as Shindo which in turn was taken from the Chinese word Shendao. The word Shendao itself is a combination of two words, shin meaning "spirit" and dào meaning "a philosophical path" or "study". In Japan, Shinto is practiced by nearly 80% of the population, has 100,000 shrines and about 20,000 priests.

Divine beings in Shinto are called kami, and are often referred to with the phrase “yaoyorozu no kami" which literally means "eight million kami", though a better translation would be simply “many kami". While there are traditional personified gods in Shinto, kami also include spirits that embody natural forces like wind and fire, animals, or an aspect of the landscape deserving of respect or awe, like mountains or waterfalls. Humans can be revered as kami after they die if they lived great or especially pure lives. An important distinction between Shinto’s kami and the deities of other religions is that kami are not perfect, infallible beings, but are of a dual nature, sometimes gentle and generous and sometimes destructive and violent, just like the changing faces of nature.
For all of the kami in Shinto, the sun goddess Amaterasu is easily the most important. According to legend, Amaterasu was born from her father Izanagi’s left eye as he washed to purify himself after visiting the underworld. Upon seeing her warmth and blinding light, Izanagi sent her to rule “Takamagahara,” the high celestial plain. Along with her siblings, she created ancient Japan by painting it into existence. Amaterasu then sent her grandson, Ninigi, to Earth, and it is through him that the royal family claim kinship to the sun goddess. She also gave a sword, a jewel, and a mirror to her grandson, and it is these items that make up the Imperial Regalia of Japan.
Amaterasu may light the world, but Inari feeds it. The god of rice, wine, prosperity, foxes, swordsmiths, and merchants has over 32,000 of Japan’s 75,000 Shinto shrines in his name. Inari has no one form, and has been described as both an old man and a young woman, but the one constant is that he almost always comes bearing rice in some form. But in modern times, Inari has taken the shape of a fox for some worshipers because of his mythical association with the creature. Indeed, Inari’s shrines can be identified by the pair of fox statues that guard the entrances. Inari’s main shrine is Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, noted for the large number of “torii,” or entrance gates, that lead to it.
Ise Jingu is the most sacred Shinto shrine in all of Japan, dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. The Ise Jingu complex is made of about 120 shrines and buildings. The most important shrines are the inner shrine, Naiku, and the outer shrine, Geku. Though the site was founded in the fifth century, the shrines in Ise Jingu are no more than 20 years old. Every two decades a new, identical shrine using new materials and ancient techniques is built adjacent to the old shrine in a ceremony called “shikinen sengu.”
Once construction is complete, the old shrine is torn down and the site where it stood is strewn with large, white pebbles. A tall post is erected in the center of the plot, and a protective box is built around it to keep the land sacred for the next 20 years until shikinen sengu begins again.
One of Shinto’s core tenets is the idea of purity and cleanliness of mind, body, and spirit. This is perhaps the most pervasive idea of Shinto, easily observable in everyday Japanese life, from the removal of shoes at the door to the reluctance of the sick to take organ donations from the dead. “Tsumi” translates to sin in English, but the Japanese definition encompasses a larger meaning, including not only spiritual sin but also pollution of the body from contact with actual dirt, the sick, or death. For this reason, purification rituals were developed to cleanse the body and spirit. The simplest and most common ritual is “temizu,” the washing of the hands and face to achieve purification before approaching a Shinto shrine.
Another common ritual is “shubatsu,” which is when salt is used to cleanse not only people but also the ground it’s sprinkled on. Notably, sumo wrestlers practice shubatsu before the start of a match to purify the ring.
Even though there is no weekly service, Shinto priests are kept very busy. They greet visitors, perform ceremonies, get involved with local festivals and national holidays, and keep up the shrines. But, with only one priest for every four shrines, most priests only work part-time at individual shrines. They are often assisted by young girls called miko, who are usually either high school girls working part-time or relatives of the priest. Traditionally, miko served a much larger role, performing a dance called kagura to entertain the kami or entering trances to communicate with the spirits. Some larger shrines like Ise Jingu still have their miko perform the traditional dances.
Every Shinto shrine has at least one stall which is usually run by the shrine’s miko. At the stall, visitors can purchase omikuji, omamori, and ema. Omikuji are paper fortunes drawn at random.  Sometimes they are good; sometimes they are bad.. The message is believed to come straight from the kami and thus is sacred. Once drawn, the omikuji is traditionally tied to a tree near the shrine. This serves to either make the good fortune come true or to wish away the bad fortune. Omamori are amulets or charms to draw the good graces of the kami. The omamori can grant protection, ease or cure illness, or even offer good luck. The charms must be kept close at hand and come with a time limit, after which they need to be returned to the shrine for disposal. Ema are wooden boards on which prayers and wishes are written and then hung up at the shrine for the kami to see.
In the sixth century, Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea and China. At its introduction there was immediate disagreement in the royal court as to whether the Emperor should adopt Buddhism, but the massive influx of immigrants to Japan held the religion sacred, and slowly but surely Buddhism began to influence the country. Though Japan never fully converted to Buddhism, its complimentary teachings blended with Shinto; Buddhist temples sprang up next to Shinto shrines and kami were said to defend the Buddhas.
There was backlash from time to time especially during the Meiji period, when Shinto was installed as the state religion and there were attempts to strip Buddhist influence from Shinto. But public demand has since brought Buddhism back partly because there is no funeral ritual in Shinto but there is one in Buddhism. So, many Japanese live their lives following the Shinto religion but are buried in accord to traditional Buddhist rituals.
The most important holiday in Shinto is the New Year’s Day celebration. On New Year’s Eve, the local Buddhist temple rings its bells 108 times, once for every sin, with the last peal at exactly midnight. Then, for the first three days of each new year, people gather together to celebrate the new year by eating, drinking, and being together. The entire house is cleaned of the previous year’s dirt and decorated. One of the most important things to be done during these three days is to visit a shrine. Nearly 98 million people across Japan visit shrines during the celebration, with three million alone attending the Meiji shrine to pray for good luck and buy charms for the new year.
The royal family of Japan used to claim lineage to the sun goddess Amaterasu. During the Meiji Era, Shinto became the state religion as part of the government’s efforts to rid the country of foreign influence. The Emperor used his divine lineage to establish himself not only as the ruler of the country, but also as the head of Shinto. It was during World War II that Shinto was laced with nationalist propaganda to gain public support. After Japan’s defeat, the Bunce Directive issued by U. S. General Douglas MacArthur separated Shinto from the state and the Emperor relinquished his divine status. With the nationalist agenda removed from Shinto, the religion was handed back to the people to worship privately as they saw fit.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Alcohol Consumption Worldwide


Worldwide, people 15 and older consumed 6.2 liters of alcohol per person in 2010, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report. Alcohol, in turn, contributed to some 3.3 million deaths as of 2012. In some countries, consumption, and the resultant health problems attached to drinking, were worse. In 10 countries residents consumed more than 13 or more liters per person as of 2010. In Belarus, the heaviest drinking nation, residents consumed 17.5 liters on average. Based on figures from the WHO, these are the countries with the highest per capita consumption. Nearly all of the countries with the highest levels of alcohol consumption are located in Eastern Europe. They include Russia and other former Soviet Union nations such as Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine. The only top-consuming nation not located in Eastern Europe is Andorra, a principality located between France and Spain in the Pyrenees.
According to Tom Donaldson, president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS), historical and societal factors explain why certain countries have higher rates of consumption. Residents in many of these areas may also lack the information necessary to make informed health decisions, Donaldson said. In some of those areas, there are no public health awareness efforts whatsoever about the effects of alcohol consumption, Donaldson added. Eight of the nations with the highest consumption did not have public policy initiatives to address the effects of alcohol consumption on the general public.
Residents in these countries were also often among the most likely to suffer from alcohol use disorders. Five of the heaviest drinking countries also had among the 10 highest prevalence of alcohol use disorders. These include alcoholism and other forms of health-damaging use of alcohol. Such disorders lead to physical problems such as liver cirrhosis and mental illnesses such as depression. The three nations with the highest rates of alcohol use disorders, Hungary, Russia, and Belarus, were all among the 10 heaviest drinking nations.
Of the 3.3 million alcohol related deaths worldwide, a third were caused by cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Unintentional injuries accounted for 17.1% of alcohol-related deaths. Various types of cancer, gastrointestinal diseases, and intentional self-harm were also common causes of deaths related to alcohol. In five of these nations, 30% of deaths in 2012 were alcohol related, compared to 5.9% of deaths worldwide. And, a number of serious diseases are largely caused by alcohol. Half of all deaths due to liver cirrhosis are attributable to alcohol. Similarly, more than one quarter of all cases of pancreatitis and various types of mouth cancer are attributable to alcohol use. Finally, life expectancies in the nations with heavy alcohol use are also shorter. The average life expectancy at birth in high income nations was 79.3 years as of 2012, far higher than in almost all of the heaviest drinking nations. In Romania, the average life expectancy was just 68.7 years. In Russia and Ukraine the average life expectancy was below 72 years as well.
While men in these countries drink much more than women, women in these countries are also heavy drinkers compared to women in other countries. The heaviest drinking countries overall include six nations where women consumed the most alcohol. Moreover, “Alcohol use among women has been increasing steadily in line with economic development and changing gender roles,” according to the WHO. This presents major health concerns for women who tend to be more vulnerable,  physically and socially, to alcohol use. Women in these countries may also not be aware of the dangers of drinking during pregnancy and the health risks of alcohol on infants in utero. There are no public health efforts to educate women on fetal alcohol syndrome, Kathleen Mitchell, vice president and spokesperson for NOFAS said. What it takes is a compilation of public health measures and awareness for people to change their behavior or take notice.
Based on figures from WHO’s recent Global Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 reviewed the countries with the highest rates of alcohol consumption. Per capita consumption figures are based on a combination of average recorded consumption between 2008 and 2010, as well as unrecorded consumption estimates as of 2010. Figures on alcohol use disorders, which includes drinking behavior that can lead to health problems and alcoholism, heavy episodic drinking or binge drinking. And, data on the relative contribution of alcohol to mortality as of 2012 is also in the report.
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These are the heaviest drinking countries in the world:
1. Belarus:  Belarus had the world’s highest level of alcohol consumption, with 17.5 liters of alcohol consumed per capita. The country’s high level of consumption has had serious health consequences on its residents. Belarus trailed just two other countries, Russia and Hungary, with 17.5% of the population suffering from an alcohol use disorder. In all, alcohol was a factor in nearly 35% of all deaths in the country, the most out of any nation in the world. Belarus has publicly and aggressively cracked down on production of bootleg alcohol. Alcohol produced illegally accounted for 3.2 liters of per capita consumption on average, among the highest levels in the world. Despite a low unemployment rate, Belarus’ economy is heavily state-controlled and often considered inefficient. The country has suffered from extraordinarily high inflation for years as well.

2. Moldova: The Republic of Moldova’s economy is relatively underdeveloped, with GDP at just $3,562 per capita in 2013. A sluggish economy and high poverty rates, 16.6% in 2012, the highest rate in Europe , may make it more difficult for residents to acquire alcohol through legitimate channels. Moldova was among the only countries where illicit alcohol consumption exceeded government sanctioned alcohol consumption, with the population consuming 10.5 liters per capita on average of illegal alcohol. Roughly one third of all deaths in Moldova could be linked to alcohol, more than in all but two other countries. Moldova’s consumption of alcohol trailed only Belarus in the WHO’s most recent study. Consumption rates, however, are projected to reach 17.4% by 2015, ahead of the prediction for Belarus. While increases in consumption rates are expected to continue well past 2015, the country adopted the National Program of Alcohol Control in 2012 to reduce harmful alcohol use.
3. Lithuania:  Lithuania was second only to Austria in terms of the percentage of drinkers who engaged in binge-drinking. In fact, nearly one-quarter of the women in the country engaged in binge drinking, more than women in any other country. More than 30% of deaths in Lithuania were related to alcohol consumption in 2012, a higher percentage than all but three other countries reviewed. Nearly 10% of the country’s population suffered from an alcohol use disorder, among the highest out of all nations reviewed. Although Lithuania does monitor alcohol consumption and measures its social and health consequences, drinking is still a national problem. In March, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius announced that his office is working with the country’s liquor industry to draft a new excise tax on alcohol as a way, in part, to fight alcoholism and help decrease the amount of alcohol sold illegally.
4. Russia: Russians drank 15.1 liters of alcohol per capita in 2010, among the highest averages in the world. And annual consumption is expected to remain high in the future, staying roughly around 15 liters per capita through 2025. With 18.2% of residents suffering from alcohol use disorders, more than any country except Hungary, alcohol abuse had adverse health effects for the Russian population. As of 2012, 30.5% of all deaths in Russia were related to alcohol consumption, among the highest rates in the world. A recent study in the acclaimed British medical journal, The Lancet, noted that “Russian adults have extraordinarily high rates of premature death” and that high levels of vodka consumption contributed to higher risks of early death in the country.

5. Romania: Drinking rates among younger Romanians were particularly high. More than 37% of teenagers between 15 and 19 years old had engaged in binge drinking in the last 30 days, more than in all but a handful of countries. As is usually the case, alcohol consumption was more of an issue among males — more than 55% of Romanian men ages 15 to 19 said they had engaged in binge drinking in the previous 30 days, considerably higher than most other countries. Binge drinking may be associated with alcohol related fatalities in the county. Nearly 9% of all deaths in 2012 were alcohol related, more than in all but a handful of nations.

6. Ukraine: In addition to its current political turmoil, Ukraine has struggled with the effects of heavy alcohol consumption for some time. Only Belarus had a higher percentage of alcohol-related deaths than Ukraine. Spirits were the drink of choice in the country, accounting for nearly half of the alcoholic beverages consumed. Additionally, only people in the Republic of Moldova consumed more illegal alcoholic beverages per capita than in Ukraine. The country also had high percentages of both males and females 15 years of age and older who engaged in binge drinking.

7. Andorra: Unlike many countries with high levels of alcohol consumption, Andorra’s economy is fairly prosperous. The small principality, located between France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountains, has an exceptionally strong tourism industry, which accounts for the majority of the country’s GDP. Illegal alcohol production was less common in Andorra than in many other heavy drinking nations, accounting for just 1.4 liters of per capita consumption. This may mean demand for alcohol is readily met through legal channels. Andorra’s population consumed 12.4 liters per capita on average when only legitimate purchases were measured, higher than all but two other countries. Most Andorrans prefer wine over other alcoholic beverages. Country residents were also considerably less likely to binge drink — just 4.2% of residents 15 and older engaged in binge drinking in the previous 30 days.

8. Hungary: Hungarians consumed an average of 13.3 liters of alcohol per person in 2010, less than just seven nations. No country had a higher rate of alcohol use disorders than Hungary, where 19.3% of the population abused alcohol in some form. As many as 32.2% of Hungarian men and 6.8% of women suffered from alcohol use disorders, the highest among countries reviewed. The country is also cited by the WHO as lacking key notifications on beverage containers, including labels for alcohol content.

9. Czech Republic: Only Austria and Lithuania had a higher percentage of binge drinkers than the Czech Republic. Czech males took the top spot in binge drinking, and Czech females drank among the most alcohol per-capita out of the countries reviewed. According to WHO data, Czechs prefer to drink beer over any other alcoholic beverage. One factor that could contribute to the country’s heavy alcohol consumption is its lax alcohol policies. The Czech Republic does not have any systems in place to monitor the health or social consequences of alcohol consumption, nor does the government regulate the sale of alcohol.
10. Slovakia: Nearly 8% of deaths in Slovakia were alcohol related in 2012, one of the highest proportions among countries reviewed. By contrast, just 3.2% of deaths in the U.S. were alcohol related. In general, residents had bad drinking habits. More than 10% of people 15 years and older in the country had alcohol use disorders, including alcohol dependency. The rate for men was considerably higher, at 19.1%. Residents prefer spirits — which include distilled beverages such as vodka, considerably more than other forms of alcohol such as beer or wine. According to the WHO, Slovakia has also had issues with the use of alcohol not intended for human consumption, such as alcohol that is used for industrial purposes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Earthly Entrances to the Afterlife


We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?- Noel Coward (1899-1973)

What happens when we die? It’s a question that has long haunted mankind, and while it seems unlikely to be definitely answered anytime soon, different cultures have always found their own ways of explaining where a person’s essence goes when their body ceases to function. And for many, the door to the afterlife was extremely close.
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Lake Avernus, Italy
Lake Avernus in Italy has long been mythologized as a gateway to the underworld. With the Greek expansion into the territories that are now Italy, the lake was on the edge of their world and therefore closest to the underworld. Its dark appearance, dead volcanic craters, still waters, deep caverns, and occasional gas-spitting fissures, made it completely believable that visitors would see Hades striding through and disappearing back into his domain. Birds and other small animals give the lake a wide berth or fell dead from its toxic emissions.
Mentioned by Virgil as the gateway to hell and visited by figures like Heracles and Odysseus, caves around the lake also lead to deep tunnels and the homes of oracles. Cicero makes mention of otherworldly activity such as ghosts around the lake, but so shrouded in mystery was the presence of the oracle that there are no accounts of anyone actually consulting with her. Subterranean lakes were said to be the sites of necromancy, and the caverns were thought to allow dreams and nightmares alike to pass from the realm of the dead to visit the living in their sleep.
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Pluto's Gate, Turkey
Greek and Roman mythology is a somewhat strange mix of the real and the imagined. Mount Olympus, home of the gods, is a real place, so why should not the gateway to Hades also be a real place? And, it was. Pluto’s Gate, also known as the Ploutonion at Hierapolis, was the entrance to the Greco-Roman underworld.
Long unknown, the site of the cave has been found in Pamukkale, once the ancient city of Hierapolis, which also has hot springs and the reputed burial site of St. Philip. Located in an ancient temple where pilgrims sought visions and prophecies, the gate was supposed to be protected by toxic fumes, which would kill any non-priest who tried to enter. An inscription at the mouth of the cave refers to this legend. The deadly fumes are still there, carbon dioxide gases that kill living creatures that get too close.
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Twins Cave, Israel
Of all the religious traditions and stories that Israel and Jerusalem are associated with, perhaps the least well-known is their connection to Hades, Persephone, and Demeter. As the story goes, Hades fell in love with the beautiful Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter, who he kidnapped and took to the underworld. Before her mother could find her, Persephone ate the seeds of the pomegranate and was forever bound to the underworld. She would spend three months with Hades during which time there was winter because Demeter grieved. During the rest of the year, there was warmer weather because Persephone was with her mother. Caves were long thought to be entrances to the underworld, and archaeological discoveries in the Judean Hills’ Twins Cave show that it was the site of numerous pagan rituals. Roman lanterns, placed to help guide Demeter to the underworld in her search for her daughter, were found throughout the cavern.
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Hekla, Iceland
The active Icelandic volcano Hekla has been viewed as an entrance to the underworld ever since violent eruptions began in 1104. Five kilometers (3.1 miles) long and seated on a 40 kilometer (25 miles) wide volcanic fissure, Hekla was once said to be spitting hellfire and spirits back onto the Earth. Close to populated areas, Hekla didn’t just bring fire down onto the surrounding landscape. It also caused countless deaths, violent earthquakes, and devastating famines even in the years after an eruption. So it’s not hard to see why people thought it was a gateway to Hell.
Balls of fire and lava that hissed as they hit the cold Icelandic air created the sound of the damned screaming in agony, and it was the perfect place for witches to meet and cast their evil spells. Uneven, deadly terrain was said to have been created by a war between the immortals. Even William Blake has immortalized the dark side of Hekla in his poem To Winter.  In his poem, Hekla is the site to which the monstrous Winter is driven, banished along with his storms and long, dark days.
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St. Patrick's Purgatory, Ireland
The story of St. Patrick’s Purgatory centers around Station Island on Lough Derg in the county of Donegal. The story goes that St. Patrick was preaching on the island and was met with overwhelming skepticism from the locals. He turned to prayer, asking how he could get the stubborn islanders to see the truth of his sermons. In response, Christ appeared to him and opened up a gateway to purgatory. A single man was sent into the long, deep pit, where he saw what waited for non-believers as they paid their dues in Purgatory. In other versions of the story, St. Patrick himself experienced the vision of the afterlife, and was also given a book and the staff that is traditionally associated with him. The cave said to be the gateway has long been sealed off and shut to the public, but there are still regular pilgrimages to the island.
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Houska Castle, Czech Republic
Houska Castle is a 13th century castle in the Czech Republic. While most construction projects have a logical explanation for their location, Houska Castle sits in a place that gives it no strategic value, no access to goods or resources, and isn’t even near a water source. It’s also oddly designed with few outer defenses and many features that appear to be constructed to keep something inside.
Legend says that the castle was built over a pit into Hell itself. Locals have long been said to be witness to strange, flying creatures and long lines of tormented souls chained together and begging for mercy. At one point, criminals were offered a pardon in return for being lowered into the pit to figure out just where it went, a project that was inconclusive and short-lived. Once the castle was built, stories of strange noises, screams, and apparitions of otherworldly monks continued. The castle was also occupied by the Nazis during World War II. As a result of that, there are claims of hellish tortures and experiments having taken place in the castle.
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Lacus Curtis, Italy
Now little more than a slab of pavement and whispered stories, Lacus Curtius was once a deep chasm with several similarly-themed stories associated with it. One says that when an oracle told of the looming fall of Rome, the chasm to the underworld opened in preparation to receive a sacrifice. That sacrifice was one of Rome’s finest warriors, a man named Marcus Curtius. He gave the chasm his name when he rode into it, giving his life to appease the gods and prevent the fall of his country. A different account credits another family member with giving the pit its name. In this story, Mettius Curtius fell into the chasm during the battle that followed the Rape of the Sabine Women.
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Masaya, Nicaragua
Letters from 16th century explorers in the New World told of great volcanoes that turned the night into day and lakes of fire that never stopped burning. Those brave enough to climb the Masaya Volcano described fire, smoke, and a seemingly endless abyss beyond the crater mouth. It’s easy to see why they started referring to the volcano as the Mouth of Hell. But, European explorers weren’t the only ones to think that. For generations, the native people believed that the volcano was one of the forms of a god, and volcanic activity was a sure sign that he needed to be appeased. Young women and children were thrown into the volcano as sacrifices.
The volcano was also supposed to be the home of a powerful sorceress who was consulted on only the most important matters. The description of both the sorceress and the deity were so similar to the European’s ideas of what the Devil looked like.