Monthly Archives: September 2013

Government Shutting Down?

Time is ticking away! (Daniel Kurtzman/Washington Post)

As I’m writing this, the U.S. Senate is meeting to determine whether or not to approve the latest funding bill—the one that also contains measures critical to the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare).

Just as a quick aside, I heard on NPR last week that something like 47% of Americans oppose Obamacare, but that only 35% or so oppose the Affordable Care Act… even though they are one and the same!

Either people just have no clue or worse, they oppose anything Obama supports. I only hope this resistance isn’t based on race, but I digress.

If our elected officials fail to agree on this bill and it does not pass by 11:59 p.m. this evening, the government will begin shutting down tomorrow.

In other words, you federal workers may want to pick up the latest installment of the video game Grand Theft Auto because (a) you may find yourself off work for quite some time (especially since Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything any more) and (b) some gratuitous and fictional violence might help alleviate some of the stress and frustration you’ll be feeling if our government has to “pull the plug.”

With regard to the image the United States projects to the rest of the world—which we all know isn’t that great since so many terrorists want to destroy us—all this bickering and blaming in Washington makes us look like a bunch of immature assholes.

Do Republicans really need to resist everything that’s good for America simply because it comes from Democrats? Are Democrats even willing to work with Republicans any more, given all this blind resistance?

It truly is an embarrassing situation, and one that’s growing even more embarrassing with each passing day. Unfortunately, this is the “passing day” that can make all the difference, so I sincerely hope these wonderful politicians can work out their differences and get on the same page for once.

In the meantime, though, we’ll just have to wait and see what tomorrow will bring. I only hope it brings another workday for our federally employed brothers and sisters.

My fingers are crossed for you!

Sextortion Case Revelation

The lovely Cassidy Wolf (Darren Decker/Miss Teen USA)

The other day, in a post entitled Reality Round-Up: Sex and the Naked TruthI wrote about Jared James Abrahams, a 19-year-old from Temecula, California who was recently arrested for hijacking the webcams of young women, taking nude photos without their knowledge and using these photos to extort even more revealing material later.

Among Abraham’s victims was Cassidy Wolf, the current Miss Teen USA. At the time of her harassment, she was Miss Teen California.

In a shocking new development—well, it’s not all that shocking, just interesting—it seems that Wolf actually knew Abrahams from high school. They rarely crossed paths, of course—he was a computer geek and I assume she was the homecoming queen or at least a popular chick (true to high school cliques and all… John Hughes would be so proud)—but they were at least familiar with one another.

I imagine the nerdy young man passing the gorgeous cheerleader (or whatever) in the hallway. She would be surrounded by shallow friends—maybe some kind of jock boyfriend—while he would be more-or-less invisible… a pimply faced dork with stars in his eyes for the unattainable beauty that floats past him, a trail of perfumed loveliness trailing behind her.

The nude photos and extortion were obviously Abrahams’ ways of lashing out after languishing for so long, in love with a woman he could never attain.

I am curious what he did with the photos and videos he extorted from these unfortunate women. If they met his terms and surrendered naughtier material, did he keep his word and actually keep it secret? Were the nude pictures used as tools while he was polishing his tool, if you catch my drift?

Inquiring minds want to know—I want to know.

At any rate, I do know that Wolf knew Abrahams and Abrahams knew Wolf, who didn’t know much about him at the time.

How confusing was that sentence? My bad.

What all of this does prove is what any law enforcement official can tell you: most crimes are committed by someone you know.

Great. That certainly is reassuring…

Romney’s Big Mistake

Romney struggles to explain his loss (PinIt)

In a recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney reflected on the “Big Mistake” from his 2012 campaign: the Hispanic community didn’t understand his stance on immigration.

“The largest strategic error was not investing sufficiently, particularly in Hispanic TV and Hispanic outreach to help Hispanic voters understand that ours is the party of opportunity.”

Hold on a second.

I may be way out of line here, but do Romney’s comments seem condescending and—in a way—insulting, at least with regard to our Hispanic brethren?

Is there something in Latin blood that makes them incapable of understanding half-ass, misguided political ideas? Of course not. My father was South American, so some of this blood runs through my veins, too. And I certainly had no trouble figuring out the truth about Romney’s immigration stance.

It just sucked. Deal with it.

Could Romney have done more to bond with Hispanic voters? (Lalo Alcaraz)

Could Romney have done more to bond with Hispanic voters? (Lalo Alcaraz)

Of course, Romney may also want to consider how he alienated nearly half of the nation when he made those jackass comments about 47% of  Americans being nothing but freeloaders. He was speaking to a group of supporters at the time and had this to say about those people:

“And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Yes, Romney can tell himself it was the Hispanic’s inability to understand his immigration stance that cost him the 2012 presidential election. Whatever helps him sleep at night. Once again, though, the truth of the matter isn’t hard to find.

He was just a jerk. Deal with it.

Reality Round-Up: Sex and the Naked Truth

A famous scene from the film “American Pie” (Universal Pictures)

Yesterday, I published the latest installment in my ongoing Reality Round-Up series, “Hump Day +1.” For those of you unfamiliar with RRU, it’s basically a way for me to connect news stories from around the world—normally based on strange similarities or other common factors—while also commenting on the world around me. In terms of blogging, I’ve found it to be a useful tool—the news never stops and I can always count on someone doing some crazy shit worthy of a post.

Of course, it’s rare for me to publish two Reality Round-Ups back-to-back since variety is the spice of life and I try to mix things up a bit more for readers—interspersing news commentary with original essays, inspirational stories and even the occasional short fiction or screenplay idea. Every so often, though, news stories converge in a kind of “perfect storm” and simply cannot be ignored.

And today, ladies and gentlemen, is one of those days.

As a result of passing out early on the sofa last night—I have no idea what time it happened, so I must have been more exhausted than I thought—I woke up earlier than usual and made it to work a bit early, as well. After preparing for my day and completing some other small tasks, I decided to start scanning the news sites for more blog fodder, again searching for themes that might connect some of them while also appealing to readers.

I like focusing on connections because it helps me illustrate the connectedness of human kind—how we are all brothers and sisters who, despite living on different sides of the world, still have more in common than we might think. This “brotherhood of man” approach has always been important to me because our differences make us unique, yet almost always lead to strife in one form or another. Focusing on the similarities between us, on the other hand, makes day-to-day life better because it shows how our struggles, joys, successes and failures are common and should bring us together. It’s my small contribution to the betterment of society, or so I like to think.

As I was surfing from site to site in search of a topic for today’s RRU, two buzz words seemed to hit numerous times in different stories: sex and nudity. Granted, this may seem like a good thing until you remember how news agencies tend to focus more on the negative than the positive. Yes, one of these stories does have a happy ending, but in most cases—and because of the darkness that seems to be spreading across the United States (and the world, for that matter)—I’m afraid the negativity still rises to the top. My hope is that this won’t ruin anyone’s day or start the weekend off on the wrong foot, but again, they were too disturbing, strange and even interesting to ignore. I hope you enjoy this edition despite the darkness that always creeps in to the Reality Round-Up.

BILLINGS, MONTANA

Not long ago, I wrote about a man named Stacey Dean Rambold, a former high school teacher who confessed to raping one of his students—Cherize Moralez—when she was only 14 years old. Before he went to trial, though—and given the psychological and emotional consequences of rape—Moralez committed suicide. She was only two weeks shy of her 17th birthday at the time.

Judge Baugh, Moralez and Rambold (Mankato Times)

Judge Baugh, Moralez and Rambold (Mankato Times)

Rambold’s case got national attention when the judge presiding over it—the “honorable” G. Todd Baugh—claimed his victim “seemed older than her chronological age” and sentenced him to only one month in jail—in legal terms, this is known as a deferred prosecution agreement. Rambold was placed on probation for the next 15 years or so and was also required to complete a sex offender treatment program. The stipulations of this program included no contact with children, avoidance of any area where children congregate and the relinquishing of all photo, video, Internet and cell phone capabilities. As long as Rambold lived up to his obligations, all charges against him would be dropped.

Unfortunately for Rambold, he fell short of some of his treatment requirements and prosecutors pushed for his sentence to be increased to 20 years in jail. Judge Baugh disagreed and again showed his level of incompetence when he made the following statement:

“He (Rambold) made some violations of his treatment program. They were more technical and not the kind you would send someone to prison for.”

Perhaps not, but I certainly think rape is a jail-able crime, even more so when it involves an underage girl who subsequently killed herself as a result. It’s too bad Baugh didn’t think this way because yesterday, Rambold completed his month behind bars and was released from jail. Yes, he’s on probation for a long time, but otherwise he’s a free man—which means he’s capable of doing this to some other unsuspecting girl.

After all, anyone who’s willing to rape a child is obviously sick and capable of doing it again and again, at least until someone stops him. And since our justice system failed miserably in the case of Rambold—a confessed rapist—I hope we don’t see his name in the headlines again for a similar crime… but I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

Of course, I would also like to see the following headline in the news: Judge Baugh Fired for Being a Complete Moron. This is more likely to happen, and I will be keeping my eyes peeled for it very soon.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA

Although I know better, I was hoping the days of Catholic priests molesting children were largely behind us. Sadly, this isn’t the case in Philly where Father Robert Brennan was just charged with rape, aggravated indecent assault and involuntary deviant sexual intercourse. His case is related to the 2012 child endangerment conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, the first church leader convicted of such a crime.

What I find most disturbing about Brennan’s case—aside from the actual crimes themselves—is that he was implicated in a 2005 case for allegedly abusing more than 20 children. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations had passed and he was never charged. The archdiocese stripped him of most of his duties shortly after these allegations came to light, but he was allowed to remain a priest and we see where that led. Had he been removed from the priesthood and jailed for his crimes, things likely would have been much, much different.

Father Robert Brennan, leave those kids alone! (CBS Local)

Father Robert Brennan, leave those kids alone! (CBS Local)

Is it me or does anyone else sense a trend here? Teenagers who are mentally ill but don’t receive the proper treatment arm themselves and start killing schoolchildren, while priests who molest children are allowed to continue so they can do the same thing to other victims.

Until we start acknowledging these kinds of issues and actually take action, all we’re doing is reinforcing the behavior we all want to weed out of our society… at least I hope we all do. Based on some of these recent developments, though, it seems as if the very system of checks and balances we use to prevent crime continues to fail, opening the door to even more crime in the future.

Something’s got to give, but until it does, expect to see more priests molesting children since we’re obviously doing very little to stop them.

TEMECULA, CALIFORNIA

On Thursday, 19-year-old Jared James Abrahams—a computer science student with a penchant for hacking—was arrested for allegedly hijacking the webcams of young women and then extorting more risqué photos and videos by threatening to release these images online. One of his victims, in fact, was none other than Cassidy Wolf, the current Miss Teen USA and—at the time of her harassment—Miss Teen California.

According to the latest reports, Abrahams hacked into the webcams of young women, took control of their computers and then used the cameras to snap pictures of them changing clothes. He told authorities that he had as many as 40 “slave computers”—as well as access to other electronic devices (like tablets and cell phones)—and in all controlled as many as 150 different devices at one time. Once he had the images he needed, Abrahams would then contact each victim and threaten to release the photos unless they sent him more pictures or videos via Skype. His general threat went something like this:

“Either you do one of the things listed below or I upload these pics and a lot more (I have a LOT more and those are better quality) on all your accounts for everybody to see.”

In the case of Cassidy Wolf, he added “and your dream of being a model will be transformed into a porn star.”

What a complete freaking loser.

Cassidy Wolf and Abrahams, her online tormentor (NBC News)

Cassidy Wolf and Abrahams, her online tormentor (NBC News)

Fortunately, Abrahams wasn’t a tech savvy as he thought and failed to cover his “online tracks” effectively. Investigators eventually discovered emails, IP addresses and other communications linking him to these crimes—as well as posts to online forums where he asked others about hacking into Facebook accounts, controlling webcams remotely and installing malware. He was also linked to at least eight other women from places as close as Southern California and as distant as Moldova. And they all told stories similar to Wolf’s.

The good news is that Abrahams “wised up,” surrendered to the FBI without incident and admitted his crimes. After appearing in court, he was released “on intensive pretrial supervision and home detention with electronic monitoring,” but his parents had to first sign bond agreements upwards of $50,000 to make this happen. Abrahams will now face federal extortion charges, which I hope will lead to some serious jail time. We’ll just have to wait and see, I suppose.

There is one more thing I should mention about Abrahams: he’s autistic. This information came out Thursday when his lawyer, Alan Eisner, spoke with CNN affiliate KTLA. In other words, here’s another teenager with mental illness who perpetrated a crime that, to me, could have been prevented.

When are we ever going to learn?

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND

In an effort to end this edition of the Reality Round-Up on a more positive note, I bring you a story from Brown University that proves there are still some decent people in the world.

To generate discussion about “power, privilege, race, class, gender, ability and… how they interact with nudity, body image and nudity in relation to sexuality,” students at Brown have organized Nudity in the Upspace, a clothing-optional event that includes yoga classes, open mic nights, body painting and the aforementioned discussion forum.

Nude yoga sounds a little sketchy to me—especially if you get stuck behind a less hygienic person—but to each his own.

According to the event coordinators—juniors Becca Wolinsky and Camila Pacheco-Fores—the hope is that Nudity in the Upspace will promote both positivity and education.

Come to Brown University for an education and some nudity to boot (Campus Reform)

Come to Brown University for an education and some nudity to boot (Campus Reform)

“It’s mostly the idea of talking about and addressing things that people don’t ‘normally’ address that can be stigmatized,” Pacheco-Fores said recently. “I hope that people will laugh when it’s funny and feel moved when that is appropriate. I hope that people will come out of the experience feeling empowered and feeling that bodies and people are beautiful whether naked or clothed.”

Personally, I’m sure I would be very moved if I attended an event populated with naked college girls. And I’m sure some male or even female students at Brown would feel the same, even though many Ivy Leaguers likely have more self-control. Either way, though, the event seems like a great idea since we often forget that “normal people” don’t look like the models, actors and other beautiful folks featured in the media. I commend these students for being willing enough—and courageous enough—to shed their clothing for such a great cause.

I’m also glad no cameras, cell phones or bags will be allowed at the event. Otherwise I’m certain there would be pictures of naked students all over the Internet… as if there aren’t enough already!

So there you have it, folks: the sex and nudity edition of the Reality Round-Up. I’m certain it won’t be the last…

Reality Round-Up: Hump Day +1

Han Lei in court to face his punishment (Xinhua)

Han Lei in court to face his punishment (Xinhua)

A lot of people refer to Wednesday as “Hump Day” since it’s the “hump” in the middle of the work week that, once crossed, means a downhill cruise to the weekend—and some much-needed rest and relaxation.

Sadly, there is no special name for Thursday that I’m aware of, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get at least some attention… especially today, when a number of strange and disturbing news stories caught my eye. Here are a few that seemed worthy of sharing.

Beijing Baby Killer

On July 23, Han Lei and his friend Li Ming were finishing dinner in the Daxing District of Beijing, China when they decided to meet some friends at a local karaoke bar. Unfortunately, parking near the bar was hard to come by, so they attempted to park at a bus stop. That’s where they encountered a woman—also named Li (which must as common as the names Jones or Smith in America)—who was waiting with her two-year-old baby Sun.

For some reason, Han accused the woman of blocking the parking spot with her stroller and an altercation erupted. As a crowd gathered around them, Han struck the woman in the face and allegedly threatened to hurt her daughter. Moments later, he followed through on his threat, grabbed the baby and hurled her to the pavement.

Sun sustained severe brain damage and died from her wounds less than three days later.

Needless to say, Han was arrested and despite claiming to be intoxicated and not thinking clearly at the time of the murder, a Beijing court found him guilty of intentional homicide and sentenced him to death yesterday. His friend Li Ming was charged with harboring a criminal and will spend the next five years of his life in prison.

Of course, some think a death sentence is still letting Han off lightly—and I tend to agree, to some extent. Consider what a person known as Xiongwoxi posted to the Chinese social media site Weibo shortly after hearing Han’s sentence:

“He deserves to be shot 100 times. Dying once is leniency.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Xiongwoxi!

 

Is this the face of a serial rapist? Do you know him? (NBC News)

Is this the face of a serial rapist? Do you know him? (NBC News)

Serial Rapist Terrorizes Masseuses

Police in southern California are on the lookout for a serial rapist suspected of assaulting more than 30 women at massage parlors in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties. The rapes began in 2009 and thanks to DNA evidence, authorities were able to link the multiple crimes together. They also have video footage of the suspect, a still shot from which I included here.

According to police, the suspect poses as a customer, enters a private room for a massage and then pulls a gun on the masseuse before raping her on her own table. And since he is still on the loose and capable of doing this again and again—as he has for the past four years—people in the area are obviously freaked out.

“It’s really scary to hear that because I had no idea that was even occurring,” a massage customer named Jamie Brownow said recently. “I’m going to be very cautious now when I walk into places.”

Being careful is important, of course, but getting this guy off the streets is even more so. If you live in the area, know this suspect or have seen him before, please contact the authorities as soon as possible. And remember this: just because he likes raping masseuses now doesn’t mean he won’t change his methods and start targeting women in other locations later. The heat is on him and since the cops will be watching massage parlors more closely, I wouldn’t be surprised if he altered his patterns simply to avoid arrest.

After all, he hasn’t been caught in four years, so he’s obviously more cunning than we might imagine.

Kid Killer

Last Friday—and after receiving some calls expressing concern—police in Henderson, Nevada entered an apartment on Eastern and Sunridge Heights Parkway and discovered the bodies of 40-year-old Elvira Canales-Gomez and her 9-year-old son Cesar Navarro. Gomez had not shown up for work and would not respond to calls from friends, while Navarro hadn’t been in school since September 17. And what’s worse was that the oldest child—16-year-old Adrian Navarro-Canales—was nowhere to be found. Police feared he may also be a victim, but eventually this changed and he became a “person of interest.”

Adrian with his mother and brother (Facebook)

Adrian with his mother and brother (Facebook)

An arrest warrant for Adrian was signed on Monday, but police didn’t run across him until several days later. He was sitting in an open-air food court in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip and was taken into custody without incident.

At this point—and despite charging him as an adult for two counts of murder—no one knows what may have led Adrian to stab his mother and brother to death. The murders occurred on the evening of September 17, but Adrian continued living in the house with the bodies for a short time afterwards—his brother was dead in the bathtub while his mother’s body was lying nearby with a knife sticking out of her chest. Adrian’s aunt mentioned how he and his mother often fought, though, and some of these altercations became violent. It’s likely he has some kind of mental illness working on him, too.

This may sound bad, but I hope Adrian is mentally ill. At least that might help explain why he reacted so violently and killed his entire family. Otherwise, his case will remain a mystery like so many others, including Adam Lanza, the teen responsible for the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School not too long ago.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: crime never sleeps and the daily news stands as a testament to how dark and demented some of our brothers and sisters can be—both here in the U.S. and around the world. It would be nice for this death and destruction to end someday, but we all know that isn’t likely to happen any time soon… if ever.

Never give up hope, though. Nowadays that might be all we really have left.

Grisly Details in Anderson Case

Christina and Ethan Anderson (Fox-5 San Diego)

In early August, 16-year-old Hannah Anderson of California was kidnapped after cheerleading practice by 40-year-old James DiMaggio, a family friend who once seemed more like an uncle to Hannah and her brother Ethan. The ensuing manhunt led authorities to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho, where DiMaggio was subsequently shot and killed.

Hannah was, of course, rescued. Unfortunately, the fates of her mother and younger brother were much different: their charred remains were discovered in the burned-out shell of DiMaggio’s home in nearby Boulevard, California.

This week, details about the murders of Christina and Ethan Anderson—as well as their subsequent autopsies—were released by the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office. And believe me, they were pretty gruesome.

According to the report, Christina’s feet were bound at the ankles with a plastic cable tie and duct tape had been wrapped around her mouth and neck. Her head had been bashed in at least a dozen times and there were fractures to her right arm and both legs. She also had a cut on her neck.

Christina’s body was found in the home’s garage, alongside their family dog, who had been shot.

Ethan’s body was discovered in a different part of the home and was burned beyond recognition. He also had some bone fractures, but authorities believe it was the fire that killed him.

Hannah today (People)

Despite being more than a month removed from this terrible tragedy, it is still hard for me to understand what drove DiMaggio to turn so violently against a family he once cared for deeply. Yes, I know he was in love with Hannah and that this provided the impetus for his actions. I just can’t comprehend what happens inside someone’s mind to make this kind of violence seem like a good idea. There were obviously more deep-seeded issues at work.

The good news is that Hannah is alive and doing well—as well as can be expected of someone who lost half of her family in a brutal and highly publicized way. She is a survivor, and even she recognizes this fact.

“In the beginning I was a victim, but now knowing everyone out there is helping me, I consider myself a survivor instead,” Hannah told NBC News recently. “My mom raised me to be strong.”

And if her mother were here, I know she would be proud of her daughter. I’m proud of her and we aren’t even related!

Pop-Up Post: Shut It Down!

An employee hangs a sign on the door of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington on November 14, 1995, marking the start of the government shutdown.

Is a government shut down on the horizon? (Doug Mills/AP)

Only one week remains before the U.S. federal government faces yet another possible shut down. Why? Because true to form, Republicans and Democrats cannot agree on a damn thing.

It’s the same old song-and-dance, of course, but one that I as an American am getting pretty tired of hearing.

Oh, how I long for the days when the government served the people rather than the special interests of every jackass politician in Washington. People seem much more focused on their own needs than those of the citizens they were elected to serve. And instead of collaboration, teamwork and actually doing what needs to get done, politicians would rather bicker and whine about everything that crosses their desk.

It’s enough to get Americans packing as they seek out a country—and a government—that is less contentious and more helpful… a government that functions more as it was intended to function, in other words.

Does such a government exist, though? I seriously doubt it, so perhaps a different approach is needed.

I say shut the federal government down, but only after you lower the salaries and “kickbacks” to politicians so they can actually experience what the rest of us experience… for a change.

The economy is slowly turning around, more people are being employed and generally, things seem to be looking up in this country. Granted, we still have a ways to go, but we seem to be off to a good start.

Or at least we did.

I know the feeling (Some E-cards)

A government shut down would erase all this progress and replace it with a host of other issues: closed national parks, furloughs for federal workers, no gun permits (which actually seems like a good thing), the inability to obtain a passport for international travel and much more.

Of course, the biggest consequence will be financial. During the two previous shut downs in 1995 and 1996, the cost of getting our government back up and running was roughly $1.4 billion.

Does this seem like an amount our struggling economy can afford to lose, especially with millions of people out of work and fighting for their day-to-day survival?

We all know the answer to that question. I only hope our elected officials can figure it out before they dig the hole a little deeper for the rest of us.

Death on the World Stage

The siege on a mall in Nairobi (Jerome Delay/AP)

The siege on a mall in Nairobi (Jerome Delay/AP)

Despite life in my world being rather uneventful at the moment—and Monday bringing the start of another tedious work week (for lots of people, I imagine)—events around the globe continue to result in the deaths of innocent people. Check the latest news stories from nearly any source and you will notice just how destructive life has become in some parts of the world… so destructive that in many cases, life itself may be in jeopardy.

About the only good news to be found comes from Nairobi, Kenya, where a standoff with Somalia-based Al-Shabaab terrorists seems to be coming to an end. The terrorists took control of Westgate Shopping Mall last Saturday and launched a siege that killed roughly 62 people. Negotiations began and some hostages were freed, but apparently things weren’t moving fast enough for authorities. Security forces moved in Monday and based on the latest reports, authorities now have control of the four-story building.

None of this changes the fact that more than 60 people died in this deadly attack.

Our next bit of international chaos comes from Islamabad, Pakistan. Sunday morning, members of All Saints Church in northwest Pakistan were attending morning services when suicide bombers entered the building and detonated their explosives among the congregation of 500 people present there. The attack left roughly 120 people wounded—at least ten of them in critical condition—and killed 81 people, including children.

Protests erupt in Islamabad (AFP)

Protests erupt in Islamabad (AFP)

The attack is being hailed as one of the deadliest against the Christian community in Pakistan. It was perpetrated by a Taliban splinter group who claimed the attack was prompted by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

“Until and unless drone strikes are stopped, we will continue to strike wherever we will find an opportunity against non-Muslims,” a spokesperson for the group said recently.

I guess what bothers me most—aside from the loss of innocent lives—is that drone strikes don’t happen in a vacuum. They are prompted by violence and destruction that warrant the use of armed retaliation, in this case armed and remote-controlled retaliation. Personally, I would love for drone strikes and other military action to never be necessary. Unfortunately, this likely will never happen since violence seems to perpetuate more violence. And until one side is willing to lay down their arms and seek more peaceful resolutions to the world’s problems, you can’t expect the other side to do the same.

Something has to give, though, because too many people are dying simply because others are too resistant to real, lasting and nonviolent change.

Our final example of “death the world over” doesn’t involve foreign governments, terrorist attacks or military actions; it involves Mother Nature.

Flooding from Typhoon Usagi in China (Aaron Favila/AP)

Flooding from Typhoon Usagi in China (Aaron Favila/AP)

The people of southern China were just slammed by yet another typhoon, this one known as Typhoon Usagi. The powerful storm with sustained winds over 100 mph made landfall late Sunday and has thus far ended the lives of at least 25 people. Usagi also left several people dead and others missing in the Philippines, while injuring a handful of others in Taiwan before finally reaching China. It has currently weakened into a tropical depression, but sadly, the damage has already been done. And there is always a chance the death toll will rise before the waters of this terrible storm recede. Let’s all hope that doesn’t happen, though.

Life is hard for many of us, but we should always remember that things could be much, much worse. The victims of these terrible events understand now just how quickly life can change, and we can all benefit from learning this valuable lesson before something similar happens to us.

Get Out of Blogging Free

Get out of blogging free card

Exercising those blogging rights (Emilienne Ireland)

Against my better judgment, I have decided to follow the example of fellow blogger Angry Brown Butch and to play one of my “Get Out of Blogging Free” cards.

Please know that this is not something I take very lightly. When you’re initiated into the blogosphere, you are allocated only so many of these Monopoly-themed cards, so you have to consider a number of factors before choosing to relinquish one of them.

My decision today should come as no surprise to those of you who read yesterday’s post, “The Return of Grand Theft Auto.” Yes, I admit it. I’m getting lazy today so I have an excuse to keep playing Grand Theft Auto Vand I’m certain I’m not the only one. I agree this is selfish of me—and I apologize to any readers I may have disappointed—but you have to understand that games like this come along once in a lifetime.

In the case of GTA V it’s more like once in five years, but you know what I mean.

To say that I’m obsessed with the game would be an overstatement, I’m afraid, because I simply haven’t logged enough playing time. A few hours on Friday and a few on Saturday are all I really have to show for it, aside from half an hour earlier today.

Back to Los Santos I go! (Rockstar Games)

But I tell you what: that half hour was enough to leave me wanting more. And that’s essentially why I’m “copping out” today—pun intended, of course (even though it’s kind of a stretch—Grand Theft Auto is a crime… criminals get chased by cops).

Whatever.

The important thing to remember is that it’s Sunday, a day for rest and relaxation just before the work week begins anew. NFL football is on television—thankfully all my teams suck so I don’t have as much riding on it this year—the weather is nice and all is right with the world.

And I have GTA V whirring in my PlayStation 3… calling to me… beckoning “play me, play me”…

I’ll catch up with you peeps tomorrow…

The Return of Grand Theft Auto

GTA V is the latest in the controversial video game series (Rockstar Games)

GTA V is the latest in the controversial video game series (Rockstar Games)

Unless you have been living under a rock, on a desert island or in some underground bunker cut off from the rest of the world this week, you are likely aware that the latest installment in Rockstar GamesGrand Theft Auto video game seriesGrand Theft Auto V—has been released and is selling faster than any video game in history.

In its first day, the game often blamed for inciting real-life violence—especially in children or nearly any mentally disturbed individual who chooses to take innocent lives—made a whopping $800 million worldwide. This was twice as much as most analysts predicted, but GTA V still has momentum and in only three days topped the $1 billion mark—roughly one-fifth as long as it took Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 to reach the same milestone.

Think of it like this: One of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of all time—The Dark Knight—made just over $1 billion worldwide, while the James Cameron epic Avatar cleared almost $2.8 billion. Both of these figures should be easy enough for GTA V to eclipse, and some expect this to happen as early as November.

By a video game!

Granted, GTA V cost as much as many motion pictures to produce—somewhere in the neighborhood of $140 million—and took longer to get done—the Rockstar people have been working on it since releasing the mediocre GTA IV in 2008—but it certainly seems to have paid off. Of course, it isn’t without its share of controversy.

Hell, it wouldn’t be Grand Theft Auto if it didn’t piss off somebody along the way.

At the moment—and despite carrying a rating “M” sticker indicating it is only for mature audiences (which could actually disqualify many adults, too)—GTA V is being criticized for the usual suspects: violence, language, misogyny, sex. But some key features, scenes and missions really have people fired up. Animal rights folks have asked for the game to be boycotted since it allows players to run over, kill and even behead animals. However, most of the negative attention has been focused on one mission in particular known as “By the Book.”

This torture scene has human rights groups up in arms (Rockstar Games)

This torture scene has human rights groups up in arms (Rockstar Games)

In “By the Book,” players—and their in-game doppelgängers Trevor and Michael—are commanded by the FBI to extract information from a suspect by means of torture. Beating, pulling teeth and electrocuting the prisoner are all options as players try to squeeze names, locations and other vital data out of him. The scene is supposedly very gruesome and, by the end, rather unnecessary since the captive likely would have “spilled his guts” without all the pain and suffering. Of course, the character of Trevor addresses this very issue in the game:

Torture’s for the torturer. Or the guy giving the order to the torturer. You torture for the good times! We should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”

Now I’ll be the first to agree that glamorizing torture—or even violence in general—is a bad idea. However—and having played GTA since its inception in 1997 for the first PlayStation game console—I don’t think that’s what the people at Rockstar Games are doing. Yes, things like sex, violence and destruction help sell more video games—not to mention books, films and a host of other consumer products—but there is an obvious reason for that: it’s what people see in their daily lives!

Turn on the news and you are likely to encounter some of the same evil and violent acts seen in GTA V and most of its predecessors. One of the fundamental rules of any creative field is to focus on what you know, what you see and what you experience. For writers, it’s the “write what you know” advice you often receive from more seasoned veterans. So when you drop everything, take a look around and try to determine what it is you actually know—as well as what your intended audience or customers know—sex, violence and even torture inevitably appear.

In America, for instance, there have been countless news stories about our government’s use of torture methods like water boarding. But we also hear about the torture and abuse being perpetrated by governments all over the world, sometimes against their own citizens. Then we hear an account of some unlucky American journalist who is abducted by Islamic radicals, tortured endlessly and finally beheaded on camera for the whole world to see.

Los Santos or Los Angeles? You be the judge (Rockstar Games)

Los Santos or Los Angeles? You be the judge (Rockstar Games)

These things make an impression, wouldn’t you agree? And while it might be in poor taste to allow video gamers to participate in torture simply by pressing some buttons on a controller, it is much better than having them wield a machete to perform the same gruesome and criminal act in reality. And to me, that’s Rockstar Games’ angle. What they do is more social commentary than violence promotion, and it’s obvious their formula works. Otherwise we wouldn’t be buying it and talking about it so much, would we?

To me, Grand Theft Auto has always been more about catharsis—a purging of anti-civilization and misanthropic feelings through the artistic medium of the video game. Whether or not we care to admit it, we all experience moments when our positive, uplifting thoughts are replaced by dark, evil ones. Someone pulls out in front of us and we mutter how we wish they were dead. A guy flirts with your girlfriend, so you threaten to rip off his head and shit down his neck if he doesn’t back off. Does this mean you would actually do something so violent and—let’s face it—gross? Of course not, but the thoughts sometimes cross your mind.

Parents aren't too fond of the sex and nudity in GTA V, either (Rockstar Games)

Parents aren’t too fond of the sex and nudity in GTA V, either (Rockstar Games)

And that’s the big difference to me: GTA V is a game. It can be violent, there is some sex and every other word sounds like it comes from the mouth of a sailor, but I could say the same for some films and television shows I’ve seen, too. I should also mention that GTA V operates well within the system we as a society have created for it. The game is intended for mature audiences and has been labeled as such, which is no different from rating a film with an R or even an X. Does this mean some kids won’t sneak into a movie theater, search for porn online or even play GTA V? Of course not, but until we can control everything—which I certainly don’t think should be our goal anyway—we need to remember that art isn’t the problem; we as a society are the problem.

So how about we stop blaming video games like GTA V for everything? I think taking a long, hard look at ourselves would be much more productive.

A SEMI-QUICK (and PERSONAL) SIDE NOTE:

As I mentioned earlier, I have been playing Grand Theft Auto since its early days—when the graphics and game play were terrible, but still the best thing around at that time. And I remember when Grand Theft Auto III came out and changed the face of gaming forever. Hell, I still return to my old PlayStation 2 to enjoy it and my personal favorite—Vice Cityon the rare occasion.

San Andreas was also pretty good, but like many of you, I was disappointed by GTA IV. Some spin-off games like Liberty City Stories were okay, I suppose, but I was really looking forward to GTA V. The way I figured, all the annoying little things about the last few games would be worked out and from there only improvements could be made.

In other words, GTA V would be the game that finally got it right… that saw all the little pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place.

The first Grand Theft Auto seems like eons ago (DMA Design/BMG)

The first Grand Theft Auto seems like eons ago (DMA Design/BMG)

Whether or not GTA V lived up to the hype I (and others) created for it, I can’t say. Unlike those hardcore gamers out there, I didn’t preorder it or stand in line Monday night to pick it up once it hit store shelves. The “old me” would have done that, to be sure, but he’s long gone. I still game, mind you—most frequently on my cell phone in the form of Words with Friends or The Sims Freeplay—but those Mountain Dew and cigarette-fueled marathon gaming sessions of my youth have been replaced by work obligations, weekend plans and a host of other activities.

I still enjoy the occasional destruction of GTA, though. And from what I can tell, GTA V is everything I imagined and more.

For whatever reason, I bought the game yesterday morning—along with some meds for an upset stomach that kept me out of work for the day—and fully intended to get some serious game time in. After opening it and setting it beside my PS3, though, a funny thing happened: I didn’t touch it for the next nine hours. It was 10 p.m. before I finally installed and launched the damn thing.

At the time, I wasn’t sure why I delayed my GTA V experience because I filled the time with other tasks that demanded my attention. There were some house chores, a few last-minute things for work, a couple of errands thrown in… nothing out of the ordinary, but all somewhat more important than gaming, at least to the middle-aged man in the mirror. And I even finished everything in time to start playing by late afternoon, but it still didn’t happen.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I know how I am… or at least how I used to be… when it comes to video games. I already have an obsessive personality—definitely a mild to average case of OCD—with ADD that I medicate and some other “eccentricities.” Who doesn’t, right? When I’ve played Grand Theft Auto in the past, then, I have always done so to the extreme. Hours turn into days. Days into weeks. Weeks into months. I ignore the people around me, lose interest in how I present myself to others and obsess over completing every nit-picky detail of whatever game sucked me into its nightmare at the time.

It is not a pretty sight, to say the least.

So before sticking that CD into the console, I thought twice about it. I also took some time to see what others were saying online about their first experience with GTA V. And what I learned kept me away from the game a little bit longer: everyone loved it! Not only that, but they were playing so much that cheats were already being discovered. For those of you who don’t know, most of the cheats in GTA games involve specific button sequences you can enter for free weapons, ammunition, armor, vehicles and other advantages. Figuring them all out can be tedious, but those who seek them often post their results online pretty quickly.

A great game that I’ve been waiting years to play—coupled with all the great things people were saying about it and all the time they were spending actually playing it—freaked me out a little. Once I started playing, and knowing my sorted past, would I be able to stop? Would I find the game as enjoyable as everyone else, or was this really setting me up for a huge let-down?

By 10:00, I realized that I was over-thinking this far too much. I pumped myself up and it was finally time to see what GTA V was all about. I opened the case, carefully extracted the game and loaded it into my PS3, ready to see what happened next.

Boom. Software update.

Since I broke my old habits of gaming all the time, it’s been a while since I played my PS3. A software update was required, so I went ahead and got that done. Moments later it was back to the game. I was still pumped, mind you, only slightly less than before. It did feel good to see that Rockstar logo flash across the screen again, so I was gearing up to start wreaking havoc.

Boom. Installing the game.

The original Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games)

The original Grand Theft Auto (Rockstar Games)

This process took a little longer and I found myself staring at GTA V scenes and listening to funky music for quite some time. I spent some of that time refreshing myself on the controls—which button you use to shoot, which one operates the hand brake and so on. You’d be surprised how quickly this comes back to you after you’ve logged thousands of hours of game time. It’s like riding a bike, only much, much easier.

Time passed and finally GTA V was ready to play. Since this was my first time experiencing it, I watched all of the introductory scenes that many gamers skip past, interested in knowing the story since fellow writers took the time to create one. It isn’t all about carjacking and strippers, after all.

The opening scene was pretty intense: several masked robbers breaking into a bank. I was enjoying the action until I suddenly realized something: I was supposed to be playing as one of the characters!

I was hooked immediately.

To be perfectly honest, I only played for a few hours last night and still haven’t played the game today. I plan to, of course, but had a few things to accomplish first. At the moment I am able to control my marathon gamer tendencies, but I’m not sure how long this is likely to last. GTA V is tremendous and there is a lot to do—from jet skiing and golfing to missions and chaos—so I have only scratched the surface. But I can say this: those two hours were tantalizing and the game has been calling to me ever since.

I’m off to answer that call now, but please do me a favor. If you don’t hear from me for a few days, let someone know. By then I’ll probably require medical attention or at least professional help—as will millions of other gamers around the world, I’m sure… but GTA V is worth it!

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