Monthly Archives: March 2014

Mud Sliding


The mid-term elections are upon us here in the U.S.  That means – as has been the practice for the past quarter century – that candidates shout at the voters in declaring why the other person is so much worse than they are.  This trend gained momentum during the 2000 presidential campaign in which then-Texas Governor George W. Bush narrowly triumphed over Vice-President Al Gore.  It was the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, and Bush couldn’t have won if his campaign staff hadn’t demonized Gore and ultimately convince the Supreme Court to circumvent the electoral process and proclaim Bush the winner.  Under the direction of Karl Rove, Bush’s campaign apparently had to besmirch Gore’s reputation, since Bush had no other redeeming qualities.  He was a failed businessman, a one-time failed congressional candidate and a former part-time owner of the Texas Rangers.  His years as Texas governor were pretty much uneventful and marked by only three notable highlights: an increase of the speed limit on Texas highways; a law legalizing the right to carry firearms; and the execution of a woman for the first time in over 130 years.  That was it; that was the extent of his professional resume.  If he’d tried to run on that legacy alone – and if voters had actually paid attention to it – Bush probably would have lost to Gore.

The Rove sludge machine didn’t stop with the 2000 presidential elections though.  They went on to denounce the reputations of other political candidates, such as Max Cleland, a military veteran who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War.  Cleland, a Democrat, had served as a U.S. senator from Georgia from 1997 – 2003.  But, during the 2002 mid-term elections, his patriotism was questioned – and he subsequently lost amidst a wave of hysteria following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  That a combat war veteran who nearly lost his life should have his patriotism and thereby, his credibility questioned against a president and vice-president who used just about every excuse imaginable to avoid military service during the same period is obscene and hypocritical.  But, that’s how the Rove gang operated; they couldn’t run a decent campaign to highlight their candidate’s accomplishments.

The same questions of patriotism befell U.S. Senator John Kerry when he ran for the presidency in 2004.  Also a military veteran who had served in Vietnam, Kerry came under attack from a group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”  The group of former Vietnam War veterans was convened strictly to help Bush defeat Kerry.  Financed by wealthy political donors, SBVT questioned Kerry’s credentials as a combat sailor during the Vietnam conflict and thereby insinuated that he wasn’t worthy of the Navy medals he’d received.  Among their benefactors was Texas billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens who added dirt to the mud pool by offering $1 million to anyone who could disavow the SBVT allegations.  When another group of Vietnam veterans finally proved that Kerry’s military credentials were impeccable, Pickens reneged on his challenge, saying the information wasn’t verifiable; thus proving no one is too old to be a punk.

Kerry, of course, made things bad for himself with his varied verbal fumbles – not nearly as bad as Bush, though.  At least Kerry knows how to pronounce the word “nuclear.”  Kerry initially didn’t authorize release of his military records to the public, even though it may have helped his campaign.  He finally released them in 2005.

There was a time that even I remember when a military veteran’s credibility was not something you questioned.  I also recall that politicians used to debate the issues and not each other’s reputations.  Things rarely got personal in high-profile political elections.  When they did, whoever made the unsavory accusation or dredged up some dirt from the past was pretty much shamed into obscurity.  Now, that seems to be the standard for running a campaign.

I still think the average American’s distaste for all things political began with the Watergate fiasco.  But, it reached its putrid zenith in the mid-1990s, when Republicans took over both houses of the U.S. Congress.  Already filled with vile against Bill Clinton, they did everything they could remove him from office; a scheme that culminated in Clinton’s 1998 impeachment over a tawdry sex affair.

As the political season got underway here in Texas late last year, the state Republican Party quickly found itself in a curious state of division.  In 2002, Republicans gained control over the Texas legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.  If you listened to the state GOP, they sounded like a group of impoverished Jews who’d finally defeated the Nazis in post-World War II Europe after a century of oppression and brutality.  But, the traditional Republican Party is now under attack from the “Tea Party,” a pack of extremists who formed in 2009 – conveniently – when Barack Obama took office.  The “Tea Party” clan has denounced all elected Republican officials as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).  In other words, the standard GOP isn’t right-wing enough.  It’s like Stalin calling Hitler a pot-smoking, tree hugger.  To me, the only different is that “Tea Party” Republicans haven’t gotten their required rabies shots yet and keep forgetting to wipe their asses.

It was interesting to watch Texas Republicans try so hard to out-conservative one another.  Each one (a White male) running for a statewide office lambasted his opponent as a (gasp!) Washington liberal who doesn’t support traditional (Christian) values.  Ironically, they all had two things in common: they hate Obama and love the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Televised campaign ads showed many of them on hunting trips, waving guns like they were their penises.  As a writer and left-of-center blogger, I have a fetish for the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech and the right to vote.  But hey, I’m just kind of queer like that.

Last year I lamented how voter turnouts were lower in 2012 than in 2004 and 2008.  More importantly, on average, only about a third of eligible Texas voters make a concerted effort to get to the polls.  That explains why Texas appears to be a bastion of right-wing lunacy.  The lone Democrat running for Texas governor, Wendy Davis, has already been labeled a one-issue candidate (because of her filibuster last year of a restrictive abortion bill), but questions arose recently about the veracity of her life story.  Some were upset that she had said she was 21, not 19, when she and her husband divorced.  In fact, Davis and her husband separated when she was 19; their divorce became final two years later.  Do little things really mean a lot?  That she lifted herself out of poverty by forging ahead with a college education apparently says nothing about her personal fortitude.

Ben Sargent 012414

Image courtesy Ben Sargent.

But, instead of talking bad about their opponent, why don’t candidates promote what’s good about themselves?  Tell us voters what good things you’ve done for your community.  Although Texas has recovered more quickly from the recent economic downturn, what ideas does each candidate have to maintain that level of productivity?  The Republican candidates despise the Affordable Care Act, but what solutions do they have for ensuring that all Texans have access to health care beyond a hospital emergency room or Band-Aids from Wal-Mart?

Is it really too much to ask that these people show some level of professionalism and focus on the issues?  I guess so.

“Ugliness creates bitterness,” former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, a Texas native, once said.  “Ugliness is an eroding force on the people of our land. We are all here to try to change that.”

I truly wish that would happen.

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The First Laptop Computer


Here’s another gem from the early days of computer technology.  In 1981, Adam Osborne, a British author and book publisher, introduced the “Osborne 1”: the world’s first portable computer.  As with most technologies, the idea of a portable computer wasn’t new in 1981.  Such nerdy luminaries as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had conceived of it years earlier.  Osborne just had the good fortune of meeting a far-sighted engineer named Lee Felsenstein at the West Coast Computer Faire in March of 1980.  Osborne knew what he wanted: an affordable computer that people could carry around with them and the software to make it function.  Felsenstein had the skills and the same ambition as Osborne to turn that vision into reality.

On April 3, 1981, the Osborne Computer Corporation released the Osborne 1 – a device that cost $1,795 and weighed just under 24 pounds (10.7 kg).  With a tiny 5-inch display screen and its dependency on floppy disks, which limited its data space, the machine was somewhat impractical for most business functions – even back then.  But, after officially hitting the market three months later, OCC sold 11,000 of them within the first eight months.  Their profits soared, as did their staff – from two (Osborne and Felsenstein) to over 3,000.  Sadly, despite earning $73 million within a year after the debut of Osborne 1, OCC declared bankruptcy on September 13, 1983.


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No Postage Needed

I’m sure the thought of sending letters and other messages across a telephone line was as alien to people in the 1970s as a Negro winning the presidency was to many Americans in the 1990s.  Be careful what you think won’t happen because it probably will!

Since today marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s “Information Management: A Proposal,” which gave helped create what we now know as the Internet, I felt it’s appropriate to prove that the concept of electronic mail is not brand new.  In 1977, Honeywell, already a leader in engineering and infrastructure, pushed business towards the brave new world of digitalization.  At a time when phones were still tied to walls, this was unimaginable.  And, as this advertisement shows, it could also be intimidating.  It’s still amazing to realize that, in less than four decades, we’ve gone from just thinking about email to carrying computers in our pockets.


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A Quarter Century of Webs

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 template for what would become the World Wide Web.  Image courtesy: World Wide Web Consortium.

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 template for what would become the World Wide Web. Image courtesy: World Wide Web Consortium.

On this day in 1989, the Internet, as we know it, was born – at least on paper.  Like film, radio and television before it, the Internet technically had a slew of birth parents.  But, for the most part, one man figures critically in its creation: Tim Berners-Lee.

Born in London in 1955, Berners-Lee graduated from Oxford University with a degree in physics.  Immediately after graduating, he went to work for a printing firm, but in 1980, he began working as an independent contractor for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland.  There, he had to consult with other scientists and researchers from across the world, which presented unique challenges with varying time zones, languages and communication methods.  To facilitate the process, Berners-Lee began working on a project based on the use of hypertext, a data-specific language developed by Ted Nelson, an American scientist, in the 1960s.

Born in New York in 1937, Nelson apparently was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a child.  His frenetic thought patterns (a hallmark of ADD sufferers) probably led him to create the hypertext system.

Berners-Lee called the prototype of his program “Esquire.”  He has been smart and gracious enough, though, to give credit to all of his computing predecessors, such as Nelson.  The concept of electronic mail (email), for example, was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a simple file-sharing system and first demonstrated in 1961.  That evolved into a system of message transmission MIT dubbed “Mailbox.”

Another early similar program was called “SNDMSG.”  That functioned in conjunction with another system called “Advanced Research Projects Agency Network” (ARPANET), which first appeared in 1971.

Accolades must also go to Douglas Engelbart who invented the computer mouse in 1963 and first demonstrated it five years later.  Like most inventors, Engelbart envisioned his creation in the usual manner: doing something completely unrelated.  In his case, he was driving to work when he imagined “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped.  Then they would communicate and communally organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility.”  But, even he can’t explain why he called his device (first made of wood) a “mouse.”

Berners-Lee took all of these ideas and materials and composed “Information Management: A Proposal” that he presented to CERN on March 12, 1989.  From that, he ultimately created the “World Wide Web.”  With the help of Robert Cailliau, a Belgian computer scientist, he presented the first version in 1990 and put it online the following year.  The first web page address was

His initial goal was merely to help CERN be more productive.  But, while Berners-Lee visualized a grander purpose for the “Web,” even he couldn’t predict the impact his creation would have on the world.

Douglas Engelbart presents the first computer mouse on December 9, 1968.

Tim Berners-Lee interview with C-Net.

World Wide Web Consortium

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Neon in Color

c. 1911-1913 First colour photograph of a glowing neon tube

This is the first known color photograph of a neon tube, taken around 1913.  The man is John Norman Collie, a distinguished scientist, writer, artist, photographer and mountaineer born in England in 1859.  He served as a professor of chemistry at the University College of London (UCL) from 1913 to 1928.  UCL was founded in 1826 as the first institution of higher education open to anyone, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic background.

He was the first to climb 71 peaks around the world, and has two mountains named after him, Sgurr Thormaid (Norman’s Peak) in Scotland, and Mount Collie in Canada.  Collie was a pioneer in chemistry research.  He also was instrumental in the development of the first X-ray in 1895.  There is even some anecdotal evidence that Collie was Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes.

In this picture, he’s perched next to a glowing neon gas discharge tube.


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I Heard Breathing


This is based on an actual experience I had some time in the fall of 1995.  Make of it what you will.

I heard breathing – heavy, steady breathing.  My eyelids jumped open, and I caught sight of the ceiling fan.  Where was I?  It took me a moment.  I was in my bedroom.

Breathing – breathing – slow – and steady.  Breathing – breathing.

What was that?  There was an animal in the room with me, beside my bed.  But, I didn’t own a pet. I was alone in my one-bedroom apartment.

I’d been fast asleep.  Then, the breathing woke me up.

I turned to my clock.  It was just after 3:00 in the morning.  Dead time.  When the spirits come to life.

But, I kept thinking – it was an animal.  But, what?  What kind?  What animal had made it into my apartment and curled up beside my bed?  At this time of the morning?  I never left the window or the patio door open.  The front door was always locked, especially at night.  I lived in a nice suburban neighborhood.  It was a quaint little apartment complex.  No one bothered me, and I bothered no one.  It didn’t back up to a stand of forest, or a farm.  Hardly anyone here had a pet.  So, what animal had managed to sneak in here?

No, I thought.  No animal.  Dead time.  A spirit.  Oh, God!

I listened to it for the longest time.  Something was there – lying on the floor.  It was on the left, next to the clothes hamper – and close to the doorway. Should I decide to make a run for it, I’d probably have to jump over it.

That’s if I could move.  And, I couldn’t move.  I was frozen beneath the single sheet – stiff – paralyzed with fear.  My heart started to thump hard against my chest.  My throat undulated, and my hands trembled.  I wanted to move.  But, after glancing at the clock, I couldn’t.  My body had stiffened.

I was in the midst of a nightmare, I told myself.  Yes, that’s what it was.  I was having a really bad dream.  I’d been having a lot of those lately.  What with problems in the family and the stress at work – I had trouble sleeping.  Yes, it was a stupid nightmare.  A nightmare – in slow motion.  But then, why did I look at my clock?  Unless your dream involves Salvador Dalí, how would a clock come into the picture?

It was still breathing.  Whatever it was – it was sleeping – or waiting.  Oh God.  Waiting for what?  I couldn’t move.  It could take me now.  This wasn’t a dream.  Something was there.

And, I got the sense it was something – bad.  Something – evil.  What demonic entity had entered my bedroom at this time of night and camped out on the floor?

I kept listening to that steady breathing – and wondering what it was and why it was there.

Then, it dawned on me.  I’d been so depressed.  My entire life had been turned upside down by crap at work and things in my family.  Everything seemed to be going out of control; occurring without my input, without my permission.  It had plunged me into a state of despair.  I was angry and upset all the time.  The only things that soothed my mind were jogging and jujitsu.  I’d run for miles.  I’d beat the crap out of a punching bag.

But, it didn’t settle my beleaguered mind.

So, I thought…well, it’s not worth it.  This world wasn’t worth the trouble.  Nothing – and no one – is helping me.

So…more than once…I thought…just end it.  I had to stop the agony somehow.  I had to bring an end to it.  Nothing was going right.  It wasn’t worth it.  I could stop it all on my own.  I could bring an end to this miserable shit.  And, no one would care.  No one would miss me.

Breathing – breathing.  Long and steady.  It was still breathing.

And, as I listened to it – whatever it was – I suddenly realized – it wasn’t right.  I couldn’t just end it.  I was educated and smart.  I still wanted to travel.  I had a lot I wanted to get done.

And, I couldn’t do it dead.

More importantly, there were people who really cared for me.  Family – friends.

It’s not right.  I couldn’t just end it now.

My heartbeat slowed, and I began breathing normally.

I realized – I was worth something – to myself – and to so many people.

It’s not right.  I can’t do that to myself.  Or to my family and friends.  I couldn’t leave that legacy for them.  I just couldn’t.

And, whatever it was – on the floor next to me – it had been waiting for me to jump off that cliff.  And, into its jaws.

My left leg twitched slightly.  And then, my right one.  Then, I could shift my pelvis.

And then – the breathing.

It slowed.

And, it stopped.

I turned my head to the doorway.

Something lifted up – from the floor – a lumpish dark form.  It got up – and slinked away.  Through the open bedroom door.

I wasn’t dreaming.

Something had been there.

And, whatever it was – it saved me.

© 2014


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Downton Abyss

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Crotchety Violet Crawley doing what she does best – smirking.

Since 2010, “Downton Abbey” has been one of the most popular dramas on television.  It’s enjoyed high ratings here in the U.S., which surprised its British producers.  I’ll concede that the production values are extraordinary: the period costumes and set design are as appealing as the beautiful cinematography.  I also love seeing those vintage automobiles.  My parents are modest fans of the show, but I’m not.  In fact, I actually loathe it.  The concept of upper-class Britons spending their time delivering snarky comments to one another, while haggling over what attire to don for the latest high-society ball, bears no sense of originality or purpose in my view.  But, “Downton Abbey” actually serves a greater, if unintentional purpose: it represents what is wrong in the U.S. from a cultural and economic standpoint.

In one episode, I happened to overhear the character of Violet Crawley, portrayed by the exquisite Dame Maggie Smith, lament that life in England was pathetically different than it was before the “Great War,” a.k.a. World War I.  She desperately wants to see it return to “the way it was before.”  That’s how some White conservative Americans view this nation; they want to see it return to the way it was before the 1960s, when droves of Negroes, Hispanics, Indians, women and queers dared to demand equal treatment.  It’s one thing that makes Ronald Reagan so popular among White conservatives.  The “Gipper” (a failed, divorced actor) had always believed America was just fine before c. 1963.  Reagan’s British counterpart and political soul mate, Margaret Thatcher, apparently felt the same.  Aside from their subtle distaste for equality, both enacted legislation to crush unions and subsequently impede workers’ rights.  Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981 for going on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions.  Thatcher systematically destroyed coal miners’ unions; coming close to bringing in the military to help put an end to their relentless strikes.  Consequently, labor never viewed either Reagan or Thatcher with much adoration.

It’s these latter antics that brought both countries back to an earlier time when large companies could do what they wished to their workers with little regard for their health or safety.  And, it’s where “Downton Abbey” plays out – during a period in which the wealthiest citizens managed to insulate themselves from “The Rest of Us” and stay above the fray of everyday life.  “Downton Abbey,” with all its vivacious costumes and sumptuous furnishings, is emblematic of the very real and extraordinary economic disparity in the U.S.  We’re still suffering the ill effects of dramatic deregulation of the banking and housing industries that the Bush Administration enacted more than a decade ago; irresponsible actions that, along with two unfunded wars and disparate tax policies, almost completely destroyed the U.S. economy by the end of 2008.  It lingers as a financial hangover for us common folks.

Still, Peter Augustine Lawler, a conservative professor of government at Berry College, celebrated the “astute nostalgia” of “Downton Abbey” in an editorial in “Intercollegiate Review,” a publication of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.  ISI promotes limited government and free market economies – hallmarks of conservative ideology that leave no room for individual freedom, despite their claims to the contrary.

Wrote Lawler: “Everyone – aristocrat or servant – knows his place, his relational responsibilities. . . . The characters aren’t that burdened by the modern individualistic freedom of figuring out one’s place in the world. . . . Many of the customs that seem pointlessly expensive and time consuming, such as dressing for every dinner, are employment programs for worthy servants given secure, dignified places in a world where most ordinary people struggle. . . . The nobility of living in service to a lord. . . . What aristocracy offers us at its best is a proud but measured acceptance of the unchangeable relationship between privileges and responsibilities in the service of those whom we know and love.”

Notice how Lawler mentions the term “place.”  It’s a common designation the upper classes often bestow upon their lowly minions.  It’s a word many Whites in the U.S. have used in conjunction with non-Whites; what some men have often said to women.  Everyone supposedly has a “place” in the human food chain and they shouldn’t dare to undermine that structure; lest they be denounced as heretical and banished to social obscurity.  Regardless of race or ethnicity, though, Lawler coldly declares that the aristocracy of any nation should be able to preserve their right to a privileged state without impediments and damned the rest of us.  In other words, we’re supposed to accept such conditions without question; it’s just the way things are and too bad if we don’t like it.

There is no “nobility” in a life of servitude – whether to the lord of an antiquitous estate or a bully boss in a Fortune 500 company.  It’s one reason why I’m strongly opposed to illegal immigration.  Aside from the legality question, illegal immigrants are easy prey for unscrupulous employers who force them to work in the worst of conditions and sometimes fail to pay them; they then threaten the individuals with deportation if they have the audacity to demand the promised compensation.

It’s somewhat similar to what’s occurring now in the American workplace, as the economy remains fragile.  Corporate executives threaten employees with layoffs or termination if the latter won’t accept harsh working conditions, low pay and / or cuts in benefits.  I was threatened with my job at an engineering company in 2010; at the height of the “Great Recession.”  It worked, as I kept quiet and searched earnestly for another job.  So were most of my colleagues.  Everyone seemed unhappy, but could do nothing about it.  Our supervisor once mentioned in a meeting, “I wish you could see the number of applications on my desk.”  As her boss sat there nodding, we all comprehended the subtle threat.  Despite working so hard, though, four of us were laid off that fall.  My only consolation is that the supervisor and manager ended up losing their jobs, too.

The skewered viewpoint of the “Downton Abbey” gang is courtesy of principal writer Julian Fellowes, a private school graduate who holds a seat in England’s House of Lords.  Most writers compose what they know.  I’ve lived all my life to date in Texas; raised in a middle class household with two working parents in a good suburban home.  So, that’s who my characters are.  They may encounter some unusual events (since I have a fetish for the supernatural), but they’re generally working folks.  That’s my view of reality – and it’s a more accurate assessment than the world according to Fellowes.  He grew up in a golden bubble where his family obviously had privileges.  He never questioned the veracity of that lifestyle – why should anyone else?

Well I do – and I have no problems questioning it.  Violet Crawley (the name sounds as wretched as the character looks) reminds me of former First Lady Barbara Bush and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.  After Hurricane Katrina devastated the American Gulf Coast in August of 2005, Bush and her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, visited the Houston Astrodome where many New Orleans residents had been evacuated.  Observing the masses of people who had lost everything to floodwaters and high winds, Mrs. Bush quipped, “Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.  And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Schlafly came to prominence in the 1970s when she vehemently opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would have guaranteed complete and total equality to everyone in the U.S., regardless of gender.  Schlafly warned that women’s traditional roles were under threat from the proposed amendment: protective orders for sexual assault and alimony would be eliminated; women would no longer automatically be granted custody of their children in divorce cases; women would be drafted into the military; and unisex public restrooms would become mandatory.  With a law degree in her background, Schlafly often opened her speeches with gems like, “I’d like to thank my husband for letting me be here tonight.”

In the narrow prism through which Bush and Schlafly see the world, everyone has their proper place, and challenging it would simply disrupt the natural order of things.  Because of the near-total economic collapse, the U.S. now has the greatest wealth disparity since the 1920s.  It’s a trend that actually began years ago, but became more pronounced by the end of the previous decade.  A 2011 study by the Congressional Budget Office found that, between 1979 and 2007, after-tax income for the nation’s wealthiest 1% grew by 275%.  For the rest of the populace, it increased during the same period by an average of only 40%.  Although the “Great Recession” technically ended in 2010, unemployment remains stubbornly above 6%.  It’s been a “jobless recovery,” a term no one I know had ever heard until now.  It’s an oxymoron – how can an economy recover from a recession if so many people can’t find work?


In January 1952, two young men, Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado, launched a road trip across South America on a motorcycle.  Their purpose was purely hedonistic; their youthful vigor infused with a craving for adventure and fun.  But, as they traveled from one town to another, Guevara in particular noted the gross economic disparities between the elite European-style upper classes and the downtrodden indigenous populations.  He became disillusioned with a world he thought was just and righteous.  He turned his anger to the written word in a chronicle he dubbed “The Motorcycle Diaries: Notes on a Latin American Journey.”

“And then many things became very clear… we learned perfectly that the life of a single human being is worth millions of times more than all the property of the richest man on Earth,” wrote Guevara.  Later, the would-be medical student metamorphosed into the revolutionary Che Guevara – and would be murdered because he dared to challenge the elitist authority.

But, that happens when a country’s finances become skewered to favor the most affluent and their puppets in government.  People like Violet Crawley may feel safe and comfortable in their diamond-studded estates for a time.  But, we all die at some point – and whatever money and jewels we possess won’t go with us into that abyss of the next world.

Graph courtesy Congressional Budget Office.


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