Monthly Archives: December 2014

Happy Pagan Christmas!

Pagan Christmas

Pagan Christmas

Many people talk about keeping Christ in Christmas, but it isn’t quite correct to say you want to keep something that was never really there in the first place. Christmas is my favorite pagan holiday. You might say that the original Christmas celebrations were Christ-free Christmases. What? Blasphemy! Sacrilege! Yes, Christmas was a pagan holiday that was slowly taken over by Christians. While it is now supposed to be a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, his actual birth month and date is unknown. December 25th was a made-up date by the Western Christian Church. In fact, Christmas combines the traditions of pagan, Christian, and secular themes. Greenery, candles, yule logs, gift-giving, merrymaking, and especially drinking were part of pagan celebrations for hundreds of years before the Christians adopted the practices.

Pagan Idol Tree

Pagan Idol Tree

Pagan Tree

Pagan Tree

The takeover of a popular pagan holiday did not occur without resistance from Christian leaders. Did you know that they once tried to ban Christmas trees for being pagan? Early Christian leaders also condemned the practice of decorating homes with lamps and wreaths. The early Puritans who settled North America banned the Christmas holiday for the same reason.

Many non-Christians enjoy the Christmas holiday. Should they feel weird about it? Why should Jews have to call their tree a Hanukah bush? It’s just a pagan tradition anyway. In fact, there are medical benefits to celebrating the holiday with everyone else, according to this article: Christmas Isn’t Only For Christians: Secular Celebrators Also Enjoy Mental Health Benefits Of Community, Giving.

The most fun things about Christmas today are the gift giving, decorations, music, food, drink, and festivity. All of these are based on pagan holiday traditions, not Christian ones. So, from now on, I’m not going to feel bad about celebrating Christmas without going to a church. Maybe I’ll even look into turning to paganism, like another blogger sick of hearing the hypocritical chant to keep Christ in Christmas. We don’t need any new made-up holidays like Festivus to get in the holiday mood. I’m getting Christ back out of Christmas and celebrating a Pagan Christmas! But no human sacrifices, of course–a turkey will do just fine.

Keep the Yule in Yuletide

Keep the Yule in Yuletide

Silly Christian!

Silly Christian!

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

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Non-Local Senses

Extra-Sensory Perception

Extra-Sensory Perception

Religious individuals believe in the ability to communicate with god through prayer and to receive messages from god or from the devil through a similar extra-sensory mechanism. This is supposedly how prophets and other lucky individuals receive revelations and how disturbed individuals hear evil voices that encourage them to commit terrible acts. Is it possible that communication through prayer or divine revelation doesn’t just occur by magic, but uses an actual physical mechanism? If everything else we do is confined within a well-defined set of physical laws, then why wouldn’t communication with spiritual beings make use of some physical law as well?

For that matter, is it also possible that experiences believed to be communication with god, the devil, or other spirits are actually communications with other humans, animals, extraterrestrials, or other entities who can also make use of this physical mechanism? If such a path for non-local communication between human brains and other entities exists, then is it also possible that this extra-sensory capability could be used in other ways and for other purposes? If god is always right, but the visions, revelations, or prophesies of some people are wrong, it could be that they are just insane, but maybe they are simply receiving messages from other sources that are just plain wrong.

Mind to Mind Communication

Mind to Mind Communication

Maybe god speaks to us on the equivalent an open citizens band radio channel or an online chat room, where any bozo who happens to be passing through and tunes to the right channel can intrude on his transmissions. In the world of radio communications, this is referred to as MIJI, or meaconing, intrusion, jamming and interference. If you have to know, meaconing is when someone falsely simulates the location of a navigation beacon in order to pull someone off course. Let’s use this as a metaphor for how false revelations can change someone’s life by deliberately pulling one in the wrong direction. For those of you too young to remember CB radio, it’s kinda like an anonymous online forum.

The ability for humans to perceive or influence events through some kind of non-local sense (i.e. other than sight, smell, sound, touch or taste) is well documented not only anecdotally, but also in scientific studies. Twins, as well a parents and children or married couples, often appear to have strong bonds that sometimes enable them to sense when something bad has happened to their loved one or when that person has just reached safety. Some studies with statistically significant results have shown the ability of spiritual healers to influence the condition of both human and non-human subjects.

Robert G. Jahn, director of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research Lab, has performed experiments that show a statistically significant effect when people attempt to influence the performance of devices such as random-event generators. Another experiment by Erlendur Haraldsson and Thorstein Thorsteinsson, documented in Reinventing Medicine, tested the ability of two spiritual healers, one physician (who also uses spiritual healing and prayer), and four students to increase the growth of yeast in 120 test tubes. The results showed statistically significant results affirming the ability of the healers and physician to increase growth rates beyond what would normally be expected. Also see Healing Beyond the Body or Entangled Minds. The use of non-human subjects is important because it removes an important variable–the possibility that people can heal themselves through meditation or prayer or can benefit from the efforts of their friends and family.

That Creepy Feeling

That Creepy Feeling

The bottom line is that living creatures may possess some kind of poorly-understood form of extra-sensory perception that is responsible for a wide range of events. I think it is likely that how we feel about someone we just meet is not entirely based on our normal senses. Most of us have experienced a creepy repulsive feeling about someone or an exhilarating feeling of attraction. Sure, maybe it was something physical related to hormones or other bodily emissions that we sense subconsciously, but maybe not. Maybe it is a mental connection.

Parapsychology Revolution

Parapsychology Revolution

It is certainly possible to study this. Maybe we can gather up a bunch of total losers from a high-security prison, along with some really lovable winners, and use them to test their physical and mental emissions. Or is this just too risky a topic for a well-respected scientist? I smell a future Nobel prize here. Is anyone up to the task?

New Religion for the Space Age

Virgin Galactic Spaceship

Virgin Galactic Spaceship

If there is one thing that most people can now agree on, it is that things are changing much faster than before and will probably keep changing even faster. Much has changed in human society over the past several hundred years, from slavery to female rights to freedom of speech, to subtle changes in religious dogma. Unfortunately, many of our moral values were shaped by ancient writers who may have had far different motives when establishing their holy rules. So, we can’t expect those rules to be the best possible way to shape the destiny of humankind through the next millennium. Now might be the time to consider carefully how we might craft a religion that is better suited to the future needs of the human race.

Scientology

Scientology

And no, I don’t think Scientology will fit the bill. Jamie DeWolf, the great-grandson of science fiction writer and founder of the Church of Scientology L. Ron Hubbard, spilled the beans on how and why this modern religion was started. Hint: writing just didn’t pay the bills and he wanted to get rich.

If I were to start a new religion, my first thought might be how to gain the maximum amount of control over my potential subjects in order to impose my values on them and increase my personal wealth. But, dictators have been doing that for years and it sometimes backfires on them or their less capable heirs. So, we’ve already been there and done that. Assuming I wasn’t doing this for me, but rather for humanity as a whole, I would evaluate the challenges before the human race and choose some rules, backed up with a currently unchallengeable set of assumptions, which would help us to meet those challenges.

One such challenge is that of interstellar space travel. Most of us realize that when you measure distances in light years, and your technology can only get you a tiny fraction of the speed necessary to get close to light speed, and we don’t think we can ever actually even get to light speed, that we have a problem when it comes to colonizing other worlds. Unless there is some way to move faster than the speed of light or to find wormholes that act as shortcuts between worlds, we will not have much luck. Colonizing Mars or maybe one of the moons of Jupiter or Neptune just doesn’t seem satisfying or useful.

So, if you believe that we, the human race, need to colonize other worlds before our own world is extinguished, how do you get people to volunteer for a one-way trip through space-time considering that they will never see their home again and never even live long enough to reach their destination? You can’t just trick them into thinking it will only take a few years to get there, since they will not plan properly for the journey. You need to give them a reason to want to live and die on a spaceship and to raise future generations who will gladly continue the mission.

Alien Lord?

Alien Lord?

This is the perfect job for a new space-age religion. A religion that tells us that god wants us to travel to the promised world even though we will never reach it ourselves. A religion pushing us away from the evil, decaying Earth and towards a land full of milk and honey waiting for our great, great, great, great … grand children to colonize. A religion that gives us the strength to sacrifice our very lives and those of our children and grand children in the pursuit of a far-off goal, even if it means we may have to expunge the promised land of nasty aliens when we get there. Getting people to sacrifice for each other is usually a challenge, but not so hard if they are sacrificing for an all-powerful ruler. I think we have plenty of experience that we can put to good use here.

Jedi-Sith Battle

Jedi-Sith Battle

There would probably have to be some pretty specific rules on board the spaceships regarding hygiene, diet and exercise to ensure the maintenance of health and reduce the chance of disease. Oh, and it would have to make sure they don’t all kill each other. And we would have to ensure that we don’t just dispose of deceased human bodies, but rather recycle all precious limited resources in the most useful way possible.

Since spaceships have limited space and resources, population control and careful attention to the gene pool will also need to be a key element of that religion. Perhaps a preference for monogamy will have to be displaced by a preference for genetic diversity. It may be necessary to require that all females produce two, and exactly two, offspring, each of which must be from different fathers. This assumes, of course, that all mothers and fathers are fertile, genetically acceptable, and free of undesirable mutations. If this is not the case, then someone else will have to make up for their shortcomings by producing other genetically-diverse babies. I’m pretty sure that, human nature being what it is, the leaders of this religion will probably grant themselves the special benefit of producing however many extra offspring are needed to meet the quota. And they will probably get their choice of females.

Kate Upton in Zero Gravity

Kate Upton in Zero Gravity

I know, I know, you are now cringing in horror at the mere thought of this sterile future and suspect it is just an excuse for a “man”-made religion designed to encourage polygamy. Is it my fault that nature favors diversity? What would you do if you were stuck on a spaceship with the Duggar family and you and your spouse could not even get pregnant? For those of you reading this in the future, when they are no longer front- page news, the Duggars are currently a family of 19 and I’m not sure they have stopped popping out kids yet. No mere human could get away with imposing such restrictive rules on reproduction. The Chinese already tried it with their 1-child policy, which hasn’t turned out so well. It would have to be a god.

How do we create such a religion? I certainly can’t say I’m an expert, but I know of plenty of experienced theologians who would probably give us a good leg up on the task. Some wackos even think that NASA is already trying to create a new religion for the Antichrist. Anyway, if anyone is in the market for a new religion, let’s get together and brainstorm this one before someone else creates a real monster. You know, the kind where everyone either kills themselves or tries to kill everyone else so they can get on to the heavenly afterlife.

NASA's Alleged Project Bluebeam

NASA’s Alleged Project Bluebeam

To Trust or To Anti-Trust?

Good Witch of the North

Good Witch of the North

“Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” asked Dorothy of the Good Witch of the North when she arrived. You see, there are two kinds and you can’t always tell. When the Sherman Anti-trust Act of 1894 was written, it was under the assumption that all monopolies are evil and therefore act in ways that always hurt consumers. They failed to consider the possibility that a company could be a good monopolist or a bad monopolist. We now have our answer.

After crushing traditional booksellers and establishing a dominant position in the market for books, Amazon.com released the Kindle e-reader, which has helped them to grab about 90% of the market for e-books. This is about as close to a monopoly as one can get. Only instead of taking advantage of this position to raise prices, they have actually lowered the cost of books for consumers to about $9.99 each.

Who doesn’t like lower prices? Book publishers, of course. They have been unhappy about Amazon’s use of a wholesale e-book pricing model, which has given Amazon the power to set its own prices, even if they are at or below cost. While the publishers still get a royalty for each sale, this practice has encouraged consumers to buy e-books instead of higher-priced physical books, which has lowered publisher profits. This was intentional on the part of Amazon, which has been willing to lose money to gain control of the e-book market. So, five of the largest book publishers allegedly tried to collude with Apple to switch to an “agency” model whereby publishers would have been able to set their own, presumably higher, prices. The US Federal Trade Commission brought an anti-trust suit against Apple and the book publishers, but ironically, the decision favored Amazon.com, the reigning monopolist.

Apple Monopoly?

Apple Monopoly?

Apple contends that they did not care what prices the publishers set for content and just wanted to make sure no other retailer, such as Amazon.com, received a better wholesale price. It doesn’t even make sense that Apple would have tried to gain market share by raising prices. How do you encourage consumers to switch to e-books and gain market share over a competitor by selling the same product at the same or an even higher price? Apple apparently just wanted to make sure that no other retailer could get a better wholesale price.

The publishers may have wanted their e-books sold at higher retail prices, but there was no way to guarantee that this would happen. One publisher even admitted that they were afraid Apple would just match Amazon’s low prices, leaving them no better off. Nevertheless, the FTC decided that the negotiations constituted collusion that was not in the best interests of consumers. In other words, monopolist Amazon.com was declared to be a good witch, but does that necessarily make Apple a bad witch? The real effect of this case may be to hurt competition, which will ultimately hurt consumers.

Ironically, Apple did the same thing for downloadable music that Amazon.com did for e-books, which was to lower prices for consumers. Steve Jobs fought hard to change the business model that the music labels had held onto for so long in order to create the iTunes store where people could buy music for only $0.99 per song. He did so over the objections of music labels that wanted to keep the prices for albums high or set different prices for more popular songs. The lower prices on iTunes finally got many consumers to switch to digital music and to slow the trend to illegally share music online. But the music labels have been trying to break Apple’s near monopoly on digital music sales so that they could negotiate better deals with retailers. They turned to Amazon.com to try and break Apple’s monopoly, but instead of raising prices, Amazon has been allowed to lower them even further. I guess that makes both Apple and Amazon.com good witches.

Google: Don't Be Evil

Google: Don’t Be Evil

What about Google? One of their most famous company values is “Don’t be evil.” Google’s Android phone operating system is the only real competitor to Apple’s IOS, but they give it away for free, along with tons of other web-based services, which are mostly funded by advertising. Google has stimulated competition in most of the markets it entered and has benefitted consumers greatly. People use their services because they are damn good! Google even refused to bow to Chinese pressure to censor web searches at great cost to their market share in China. Google must be a good witch too.

Google Anti-Competition Case

Google Anti-Competition Case

But that hasn’t stopped the FTC or the European Union Competition Commission from investigating Google for allegedly abusing its 90 percent share of the online Internet search and advertising market. The FTC already settled its case, with little to show for it. The EU still isn’t happy and wants Google to suggest ways to overcome their concerns.

 

Inspector Clouseau

Inspector Clouseau

Perhaps Google should just offer to create something called Google Light, a dumbed down search feature just for Europe. For instance, every once in a while, it would answer a French query with “Pardon me, but I can’t understand your ridiculous French accent! Please visit our unrestricted American site for better search results.”

What is going on in the American technology industry? Aren’t there any bad witches anymore? I guess Microsoft was the last one, at least according to the FTC. Remember the long, drawn out anti-trust suit brought against them for bundling and giving away the Internet Explorer browser for free, which helped to destroy Netscape’s business? In retrospect, it doesn’t sound so evil. Maybe Microsoft was also a good witch after all.

Sure, the millions spent on attorneys and time spent in court fighting the anti-trust case was probably a major hassle for monopolist Microsoft. But the case was more like an annoying insect that would not leave them alone than a major threat to their business. What has really hurt Microsoft has been the pressure put on them by the three new good witches. Sales of the Windows operating system are being crushed under the weight of IOS, Android, and the Kindle.

Antitrust laws exist for the benefit of consumers, not as a tool to try and bring down market leaders or competitors. The following quote from the Supreme Court decision in the case Spectrum Sports, Inc. v. McQuillan states this clearly.

“The purpose of the [Sherman] Act is not to protect businesses from the working of the market; it is to protect the public from the failure of the market. The law directs itself not against conduct which is competitive, even severely so, but against conduct which unfairly tends to destroy competition itself.”

FTC's Weapon

FTC’s Weapon

Maybe it is time for the Federal Trade Commission, the Attorney General, and European Commission to step out of the way and let the good witches battle it out by themselves. No matter which giant monopoly wins or loses, consumers still seem to win. Government action seems to be more anti-consumer and an irrelevant, expensive, and distracting annoyance than anything else.

Dance for Money

Dance for Money

Dance for Money

In a previous post, I discussed how free stuff is worth every penny. An alternative to free stuff is discounted stuff. There has been plenty of discounting going on before and after the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping “holidays.” But this isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about discounts that are only offered if you are willing to perform a task.

Sometimes you are lucky enough to get a discount just because you were in the right place at the right time and it was available to everyone. But more often, you have to perform a useless task to qualify for it. Take these activities, for instance: clipping coupons, finding online coupon codes, cutting out special box top offers, wearing a specific color of clothing on a particular day, writing an essay, giving out your contact information, or submitting a rebate form. Entire companies, such as Groupon and Living Social, have been built on the idea of offering discounts to help companies obtain new customers or get existing customers to shop more often. All these gimmicks are part of a strategy for enticing consumers to buy a product or to offer discounts to some people but not everyone.

Groupon

Groupon

These tasks provide no productive benefit to anyone and, in fact, cost time and money, which effectively increases overall prices. Somebody, after all, has to process the coupons, forms, or applications. Companies even outsource these tasks to other companies since they are too much trouble to bother with themselves. The sole purpose of this activity is usually to separate the people who are most price sensitive from those who are less so. It is an innovative way of selling products at more than one price at the same time by letting people decide which price they want to pay. To keep everyone from choosing the lower price, they require a trade-off that only some self-selected low-income (or cheap) individuals are willing to make. Economists call this price discrimination.

Time is Money

Time is Money

Clipping Coupons

Clipping Coupons

The trade-off, of course, is time–a resource that is even more precious than money. Consumers must surrender some of their most valuable limited resource to get a lower than average price. Overall, consumers pay a slightly higher price to pay the costs the business incurs to run the special promotions. Usually, the value of time is most appreciated by those who have a higher-than-average abundance of money. The more money one makes, the more likely one is to pay others to perform tasks that can be accomplished at a lower rate of pay or to forgo activities that might get them a discount.

But who pays the cost of these time-sucking activities? They are passed on to consumers, as usual, while all the benefits go to the business. Consumers who pay full price subsidize the cost of consumers who pay the discounted price. The older I get and less free time I have available, the less I participate in such nonsense. I have self selected myself out of the game and resigned myself to paying higher prices.

Haggling

Haggling

The timeless traditional solution to the problem of getting the maximum amount of money out of a sale has been to start with a high price and allow people to haggle until an agreement is reached. In some countries, this is still standard procedure. This also requires a sacrifice of time, but impacts both the buyer and seller. It can take time for a buyer to wear down a seller to get the lowest possible price. It also requires more skill and incentive on the part of the negotiators, so it does not scale well for large businesses. They simply cannot expect to find or train a large number of low-wage retail workers to succeed in such an environment. For high-priced goods, such as cars and homes, it is still a valuable tactic for selling to price-sensitive consumers.

Dance for Scholarships

Dance for Scholarships

Even the cost of college can be reduced by performing useless tasks. There are now many scholarship web sites and mobile phone applications that allow people to search for thousands of “scholarships” that are awarded on criteria that has nothing to do with academic or athletic achievement. They are usually available to people who are willing to submit information about themselves for a random drawing and may have a specific selection criteria, such as race, gender, religion, or interests. Many are contests of academic or creative skill that require one to write an essay, draw a picture, make a video, or perform some other task that is then evaluated, judged, and used to select a winner. These are not necessarily all useless tasks and may perform a function that is valuable to someone. They might generate marketing information or content that can be used to further market a cause or promote the interests of a company or non-profit organization. However, they may be nothing more than a random selection mechanism for channeling a limited supply of money to people who feel they need it.

As a society, we keep finding new non-productive ways to channel money from those who have enough to those who do not (or are willing to trade their time). It starts with higher tax brackets for those who earn more, but this is supplemented by price discounts for low-income or other targeted groups, and self-selected discounts. Productive paid work is slowly being undermined by alternatives that involve non-productive work.

Volunteer

Volunteer

All this wasteful make-work activity makes me wonder if there is there a way to channel these discount tactics into useful activity. How about channeling it into public service? Instead of spending time clipping coupons or performing other tasks, maybe people could be directed to help out at local food banks, homeless shelters, schools, or veteran’s hospitals in order to obtain credits that could be used like coupons. Charities have a difficult time getting people to volunteer, but imagine how much help they could get if major companies partnered with them to offer useful service-based discounts.

Volunteer Web Site

Volunteer Web Site

Here is how it would work. Companies or non-profit organizations would create service work that has some practical use and register these in an online service catalog. Companies who want to offer discounts or “scholarships” would select those activities that interest them and offer discounts to people who earn community service “coupons” through actual useful work. Want to get a discount with a company of interest? Sign up with the service and check the catalog to see what kind of work you have to do to quality. Then volunteer your time, get credit for it, and trade in your work coupons to get the discount.

What would these earned discounts be called? How about Service Discounts or Community Coupons. No, there has got to be something snappier. How about Volunteer Rewards? Kind of ironic though, since volunteer work isn’t really supposed to be done for monetary reward. Money for work is usually just called WORK. Many of us do it every day. Let me know if you think of a better name. Then I’ll get a trademark and find some venture capitalist who wants to back the next Groupon-style startup! The whole point is that some kind of productive work has to be done to earn the discount. No useless make-work. Everyone benefits. Charities get more volunteers and companies get to offer discounts to a self-selected group of consumers who are willing to put in the necessary time and effort. Sure, somebody has got to run the thing. Most of it can be automated, but someone also has to check for fraud to keep organizations from making up fake work and offering fake coupons.

Greek Money Dance

Greek Money Dance

Dance for Money

Dance for Money

I know–this is probably just wishful thinking! Unfortunately, real volunteer work might require far more time and effort than just clipping coupons. The work required has to be somewhat proportional to the benefits, but it is hard to compete with the limited effort required to clip coupons or fill out rebate forms. Companies don’t care about the actual work involved–only about how the marketing affects their bottom line. As long as companies are satisfied offering discounts for small amounts of time or information, they will continue to require trivial, time-sucking, make-work activities. Maybe it would be better to just make people dance and sing for money. Not only will it screen out people who can afford to pay full price, it will also provide entertainment for the rest of us. It wouldn’t be good entertainment, since most people can’t really sing or dance. It would be the kind of entertainment you can’t help but watch because it is just so bad–like a car crash or a train wreck. Like The Gong Show.

So, here is my challenge to retailers. Do you want to continue the tradition of driving lower-margin sales through the destruction of human productivity or do you want to start a new tradition of rewarding productive behavior? With some creative accounting, you might even find a way to write off your social contribution discounts as charitable donations. So, what’s it going to be? Real work or The Gong Show? It’s up to you.

The Gong Show

The Gong Show

APPENDIX

Mini Case Study of a Typical Rebate Program: 

Consumer Costs:

  • Time to fill in rebate form (on paper or online) and assemble documents
  • Cost to copy form, UPC code, and receipt (paper and ink)
  • Cost to mail in rebate application (envelope and postage)
  • Time to follow up on denied rebate claim and/or cost to resubmit forms

Retailer Costs:

  • Cost to develop rebate program and web site (labor, equipment, materials)
  • Cost to distribute rebate forms with products (paper, ink, labor for packaging)
  • Cost to process rebate forms (labor or outsourced work)
  • Cost to prepare and mail rebate check, card, or code (labor, paper, postage)

Expected Benefits:

  • Increased sales from consumers expecting a lower price (company profit)
  • Consumers who actually obtain the rebate (consumer discount)
  • Consumers who never actually obtain the rebate (more company profit)

A rebate program is a bit of a gamble. The amount of profit generated depends on the costs of running the program minus the number of rebates issued. If the number of rebates can be minimized, then the result is higher profit. The more time and effort required, the lower the redemption rate and the higher the profit. Most consumers never apply for or get the rebates to which they are entitled, which makes them a great marketing tool, but not such a good way to get a lower price.