Now that I’ve shed my skin completely,
One true reality alone exists.”

Zen saying

Zen monk: “How should I escape birth and death?”
Zen Master Shih-kung: “What is the use of escaping it?”

“In this world, we eat, shit, sleep and wake up. After that all we have to do is die.”


Once again it’s Groundhog Day, which was nothing more than a rather witless locally-oriented celebration (and an American example of the widespread, traditional pre-scientific practice of using animals’ behavior to forecast the weather)…until Harold Ramis’ brilliant movie of the same name. It became — and still is — my all-time favorite message film.

Groundhog Day explores the everydayness of life with an ingenious premise worthy of Kafka, Camus, or Ray Bradbury: an arrogant newsman from Pittsburgh (Bill Murray, named Phil, as in “Puxsatawny Phil,” the groundhog) finds himself trapped in Puxsatawny, PA, where, over and over, he wakes up at 6:00 a.m. to Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You, Babe,” and he and his producer (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman have to do the same local-color Groundhog Day story, day after day after day.

At first he can’t believe what’s going on. When he does catch on, he uses his newfound “power” to learn more and more about an attractive local woman (who’s always meeting him for the first time) and get laid. Of course, that’s what any guy would do.

Coping strategies

He then decides: what the hell? He becomes a libertine, a freedom-abuser. He consumes large quantities of sugar; he smokes. He even tosses a live toaster into his bathtub.

He realizes he can do anything – even kill himself — and still wake up to Sonny and Cher the next morning. There’s no way out.

So bit by bit, his coping strategies turn positive. He starts to acquire wisdom. His Groundhog Day broadcasts become more thoughtful and philosophical. He starts to take piano lessons (every lesson is the “first” one for the teacher) and gets better and better. He rescues people from predicaments that he knows are going to happen.

He makes many attempts to bed his beautiful producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and, after many slaps in the face, sheds his arrogance and snarkiness, becomes a real person…and one day awakes to Sonny and Cher – with Andie in bed beside him. Something has changed!

Existential message

Think of it: you will awaken tomorrow morning, with the same fundamentals all in place: the same mind in the same body with the same partner (or no partner) beside you, in the same house, with the same job and relatives. The people around you will continue to be who they are. If your boss was a demented tyrant yesterday, he/she will still be one today.

The macro environment changes a little, but it doesn’t affect many of us directly. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, politicians will preen and spar, insane religions and political doctrines will still have the same powerful grip on the human mind. Muslims will still be killing each other, Christians will still be trying to take over the US, and people of all “faiths” will continue to believe literally in their holy texts.

Ancient superstitions and rivalries will be as strong and destructive as they were yesterday. The battle between scientific truth and religious fantasy will continue unresolved. At least a dozen Muslims will blow themselves up, and Americans will continue to die in foreign wars. A maniac with an automatic weapon will slaughter a dozen or more defenseless people.

People will continue to blather about saving the planet even as they destroy it. Politicians will promise change, but the only change will be that government will get bigger, and there will be more war.

Reactions to life

Marvelously predictable, isn’t it? And we react just like Phil – we can’t believe it (SURELY my wife/kid/boss/situation can change; it MUST!). We can’t believe there’s no way out.

We try all kinds of things to get away from it. We go to bars, football games, churches, and casinos. We run away to addictions of all kinds. Anything to “get away.” We even try to kill ourselves, quickly (suicide) or slowly (drugs, alcohol, work).

But perhaps on Groundhog Day, we can realize, as Phil eventually did, that through it all, the only thing that we can certainly change is our own mind and behavior. Like Phil, all we can do is keep at it until we get it right.

Remembering Bill Perlman

February 1 is the anniversary of the death of my father, Hyman William Perlman (1910-80). He was indirectly responsible for this blog – and in fact for all the secularism, skepticism, atheism, and humanism that have been the foundation of my intellectual life. He was the first skeptic I ever met, and the effect was lasting. Every time Mom would babble on about “God’s will,” he would snap back, “What’s God got to do with it?”

What indeed. Things may happen for some reason or for none at all. There is certainly no guiding intelligence, let alone the nutjob main character of the Abrahamic religions. Bill understood that. Continue Reading »

Happy Hanukkah – sort of

“If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.”


“Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness.”

Christopher Hitchens

“Hanukkah is…the Feast of Lights.
Instead of one day, we got
Elight CRAZY nights!”

Adam Sandler

Hanukkah, which this year began incredibly early, on Thanksgiving, is one of those holidays that serious humanists could just as easily do without. But because of our Christian friends, it has perhaps a hundred times the importance it deserves. It is the ultimate “coattail” holiday. It thus merits brief consideration here.

Hanukkah actually got a boost from the Christians, first because it happens to be a winter festival of lights. Jewish kids needed something to celebrate in the lands of the diaspora in which Christianity predominates – otherwise, as I can attest from personal experience, Christmas feels like a gigantic party that you are not a part of. South Park’s Kyle spoke eloquently for many of us when he sang of how tough it is to be a Jew at Christmas. But Adam Sandler redeemed our respect with his Hanukkah Song (”don’t smoke marijuanica”), in three versions, yet. Indeed, Adam Sandler is our Hanukkah miracle!

The second boost came when the gift of gelt – i.e., cash, a tradition which still persists – morphed into actual gifts, again in imitation of the Christians. Now Jewish kids could get gifts on eight nights!

Return of the Taliban

Sigh. Hanukkah celebrates, in part, the rededication of the temple in the second century CE by a bunch of Jewish Taliban. It was the restoration of the old-time religion. Once again, the relatively primitive, tribal Jews were in (temporarily victorious) conflict with a secular, rational, cosmopolitan culture, this time the Greeks. (We were the hillbillies of the ancient world, but we caught up quickly once the Enlightenment opened up secular opportunities.)

The eight-night thing comes from a generally Jewish tradition of weeklong seasonal celebrations. The political triumph, then, was grafted upon the already existing Winter Lights Festival, and traditions were added along the way – the dreidel, the eight-night miracle, and many others.

Hanukkah’s OK

Hanukkah is OK, insamuch as I see nothing wrong with celebrating light in midwinter, as long as it is metaphorically taken as manifest in the humanistic virtues. Thus, we can rededicate ourselves to being better human beings and to improving the world (the traditional Jewish ideal of tikkun olam). This includes advancing the cause of reason, opposing the many offenses and excesses (and the tax-free status) of religion. As we near the darkest point of the year, let us resolve that the darkness of religious ignorance go no further, that it begin to yield to the light, starting with this very day.

You might dedicate each of the eight candles to one of the humanistic virtues: love, courage, compassion, tolerance, reason, dignity, generosity, charity, and whatever personal quality one is working on that year.

Happy Hanukkah to one and all. Time is passing way too fast.


Alan M. Perlman has a PhD in linguistics. He is a secular humanist speaker and author — most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to

“If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will be cried up as erudition.”

– Charlkes Cleb colton, 1825

“Immature artists imitate;. Mature artists steal.”

–Lionel Trilling, Esquire, 1962

All of a sudden, it seems, the search term Plagiarism Rand Paul gets over 40 MILLION Google hits. But the charge is somewhat bogus.

Plagiarism, in my experience, is one of those charges that are meant to question someone’s basic integrity. Whether true or not (and it’s hard to decide; see below), the mere accusation brings stigma. I have more than once been consulted about a plagiarism charge, groundless upon investigation but meant to be part of a general moral attack. Let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

The gold-standard definition of plagiarism, as we all learned in high school, is the deliberate and dishonest appropriation of another’s words and ideas; it’s taking credit for yourself, failing to attribute originality to others.

The definition immediately breaks down when we try to apply it.

First, there’s the phenomenon of independent creation. Different people can indeed arrive at the same idea independently – and not just in art and science. How many times have you thought of an “original” idea, then read it in a magazine? More evidence: look through a book or online list of quotations on any subject. You will often find the same thing said by different people, the same idea “discovered” again and again down through the centuries.

Another source of plagiarism accusations is faulty attribution mechanics. How faulty? Nebulous quantitative judgments may come into play. A student who fails to attribute once or twice in a paper loaded with properly-attributed quotes is not necessarily guilty of plagiarism (unless what he/she fails to attribute is a truly – or even fairly – original idea). But when sources are not given for half of the quoted material…well, that’s a different matter.

The frequency and pervasiveness of unattributed quoting is what seems to be plaguing Rand Paul. And rightly so. There’s a cumulative effect of presenting others’ good ideas and articulate words as your own. You start to seem smarter or more compelling than you are.

Not that it’s necessary in this case. Paul has enough smarts and charisma – not to mention ex tempore speaking ability – that he can correct his mechanics and give others credit for their ideas. There are many ways to do this in a speech. There’s no excuse for failing to do it, in either an oral presentation or written work. Unless you consider…

The public domain – that’s where our shared language lives. The notion of “public domain” (roughly, “Yeah, everybody knows that – or could look it up.”) has been exploding since the printing press, accelerated a millionfold by the Internet. So when is something “common knowledge” that can be stated without attribution?

One of Paul’s examples that made the news was the unattributed quoting of Wikipedia material on the movie Gattica. There is nothing novel about this factual information. Any account of the movie would include it.

So Paul is allowed to use it in a speech – just don’t use the same words as Wikipedia (or anybody else), because that sets off people’s plagiarism alarms, even though the material itself isn’t novel.

Plagiarism is nothing new. It is our modern notions of intellectual property and copyright that are recent. Early English dictionaries grew mainly by incremental plagiarism of the previous author’s word list.

And it’s all around us: satires/parodies, songs that borrow from other songs, stories that copy older stories, and, of course, the rampant academic cheating made possible by the Internet. Guardians of academic originality constantly develop new software to search huge numbers of documents and root out the plagiarists.

But politicians should attribute carefully and not use too many quotes, lest they seem intellectually threadbare. And they need to be on constant guard against accusations of intellectual dishonesty. There’s already enough doubt about their integrity.

Get God out of Government!

“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

– Thomas Jefferson

Jesus H. Christ!! I cannot believe that the Supreme Court is AGAIN about to debate the legitimacy of the spouting of religious BS in governmental settings. WHY have we not got this resolved by now? It’s not as if several prominent Founders weren’t atheists - do you think they would have agreed to a religious state?

Anyway, here were are in 2013 arguing what should have been decided long ago, except that the weight of tradition is very heavy, and religious people, in smug possession of the truth, won’t quit. Inertia, ignorance and stubbornness — bad combination. Continue Reading »

My first choice, when I rag on religion, is Judaism, just because I know it first-hand. Of course, there’s always more to learn. Through my current wife, I became aware of what goes on in Jewish enclaves/ghettos (depends on who’s herding Jews together, Jews or gentiles) — the threats, the ostracism, the mind control, the obsession with ritual (these people REALLY observe all the Sabbath and milk/meat separation rules, and it is a major pain in the ass).

I also became aware of sectarian rivalry — no, make that contempt — between the two major Jewish gene pools, the Ashkenazic (Eastern Europs/Poland) and the Sephardic (Spain/Muslim world). My wife’s family includes rabbis from both. The Sephardic one thinks the Ashkenazic a bunch of dolts who can’t read or understand Scripture and commentary properly. I would assume the disdain is mutual. At least they don’t blow themselves up. Continue Reading »

There is nothing that is too obvious of an absurdity to be firmly planted in the human head as long as you begin to instill before the age of five by constantly repeating it with an air of great seriousness.

– Arthur Schopenhauer

Followers of the riveting “Zachary’s Brain” series of posts will know that the narrative is not a gothic horror tale…but something that is just as disturbing: resisting the religious programming of a child.

His step-mother, belonging to a vanilla-Jesus sect, got Dad involved, of course, because he wants to be on the right side of her, though while married to my wife, he was a lapsed Catholic, a confirmed skeptic/deist who refused communion and mocked the Pope.

So now there’s a lot of church in Zachary’s life – church activities, services, quite a bit of Christian BS. My wife weeps over the cruelty of making a child believe lies. And she acts. There is no WAY this boy is going to grow up into a Christian. Continue Reading »

“To lead an uninstructed people to war is to throw them away.”


“Youth is the first victim of war; the first fruit of peace. It takes twenty years of peace or more to make a man; it takes only twenty seconds of war to destroy him.”

King Baudouin I of Belgium

Another Memorial Day, another orgy of mattress sales and of reveling in the glory of war and sacrifice for freedom.

What a steaming crock of shit! As George Carlin would say, fuck military glory. Continue Reading »

I was contacted by this new internet portal featuring experts talking on their field of expertise. I decided that my field of expertise would be “what the Torah really says,” since I am one of the few laypeople who has actually bothered to find out, along with related questions about atheism, blasphemy and the “clear alternative to the Torah” (SCIENCE!).

The questions were partly supplied by me, generally softballs, and the answers were, I hope, unexpected. When the interviewer asked me about blasphemy, I replied that calling God the CEO from hell was just telling the truth. As for the arguments for atheism, I dealt with the philosophical ones but added that I’ve found it to be a freer, happier life, not worrying about what God thinks or wants — as well as a more dignified one, not groveling to him all the time.

The interviews are divided into eight segments. I hope they get seen a lot, but I’m aware that everybody’s famous for 15 seconds now, as attentions spans continue to shorten.

Anyway, here are the links, followed by the notes I wrote out as prep and followed pretty closely in my replies. Whatever happens, I finally got my thoughts and images into cyberspace. Once again, the truth is out there. Continue Reading »

On the Persistence of Religion

Professionally I advertise myself as a “language expert,” which is quite accurate (see ), and I get a wide range of contacts from attorneys and private citizens regarding anonymous letters, plagiarism, contract interpretation, copyright infringement, and other issues where money, reputation, or something else of value is at stake.

I also get questions about grammar and usage, which I answer gratis, just to shed a bit of linguistic insight on issues that usually cannot be resolved definitively because language is flexible and variable, and there just isn’t one right answer.

But a few days ago, I got this, which is indeed in a class by itself: Continue Reading »

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