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Monday, April 30, 2007

New toys read brain waves
By RACHEL KONRAD, AP Technology Writer
23 minutes ago

NeuroSky worker Cynthia Lee wears one of their head sets at NeuroSky headquarters in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday, March 27, 2007. The startup company aims to add more realistic elements to video games by using brain wave-reading technology to help game developers make gaming more realistic. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - A convincing twin of Darth Vader stalks the beige cubicles of a Silicon Valley office, complete with ominous black mask, cape and light saber. But this is no chintzy Halloween costume. It's a prototype, years in the making, of a toy that incorporates brain wave-reading technology.

Behind the mask is a sensor that touches the user's forehead and reads the brain's electrical signals, then sends them to a wireless receiver inside the saber, which lights up when the user is concentrating. The player maintains focus by channeling thoughts on any fixed mental image, or thinking specifically about keeping the light sword on. When the mind wanders, the wand goes dark.

Engineers at NeuroSky Inc. have big plans for brain wave-reading toys and video games. They say the simple Darth Vader game — a relatively crude biofeedback device cloaked in gimmicky garb — portends the coming of more sophisticated devices that could revolutionize the way people play.

Technology from NeuroSky and other startups could make video games more mentally stimulating and realistic. It could even enable players to control video game characters or avatars in virtual worlds with nothing but their thoughts.

Adding biofeedback to "Tiger Woods PGA Tour," for instance, could mean that only those players who muster Zen-like concentration could nail a put. In the popular action game "Grand Theft Auto," players who become nervous or frightened would have worse aim than those who remain relaxed and focused.

NeuroSky's prototype measures a person's baseline brain-wave activity, including signals that relate to concentration, relaxation and anxiety. The technology ranks performance in each category on a scale of 1 to 100, and the numbers change as a person thinks about relaxing images, focuses intently, or gets kicked, interrupted or otherwise distracted.

The technology is similar to more sensitive, expensive equipment that athletes use to achieve peak performance. Koo Hyoung Lee, a NeuroSky co-founder from
South Korea, used biofeedback to improve concentration and relaxation techniques for members of his country's Olympic archery team.

"Most physical games are really mental games," said Lee, also chief technology officer at San Jose-based NeuroSky, a 12-employee company founded in 1999. "You must maintain attention at very high levels to succeed. This technology makes toys and video games more lifelike."

Boosters say toys with even the most basic brain wave-reading technology — scheduled to debut later this year — could boost mental focus and help kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and mood disorders.

But scientific research is scant. Even if the devices work as promised, some question whether people who use biofeedback devices will be able to replicate their relaxed or focused states in real life, when they're not attached to equipment in front of their television or computer.

Elkhonon Goldberg, clinical professor of neurology at New York University, said the toys might catch on in a society obsessed with optimizing performance — but he was skeptical they'd reduce the severity of major behavioral disorders.

"These techniques are used usually in clinical contexts. The gaming companies are trying to push the envelope," said Goldberg, author of "The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older." "You can use computers to improve the cognitive abilities, but it's an art."

It's also unclear whether consumers, particularly American kids, want mentally taxing games.

"It's hard to tell whether playing games with biofeedback is more fun — the company executives say that, but I don't know if I believe them," said Ben Sawyer, director of the Games for Health Project, a division of the Serious Games Initiative. The think tank focuses in part on how to make computer games more educational, not merely pastimes for kids with dexterous thumbs.

The basis of many brain wave-reading games is electroencephalography, or EEG, the measurement of the brain's electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp. EEG has been a mainstay of psychiatry for decades.

An EEG headset in a research hospital may have 100 or more electrodes that attach to the scalp with a conductive gel. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But the price and size of EEG hardware is shrinking. NeuroSky's "dry-active" sensors don't require gel, are the size of a thumbnail, and could be put into a headset that retails for as little as $20, said NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang.

Yang is secretive about his company's product lineup because of a nondisclosure agreement with the manufacturer. But he said an international toy manufacturer plans to unveil an inexpensive gizmo with an embedded NeuroSky biosensor at the Japan Toy Association's trade show in late June. A U.S. version is scheduled to debut at the American International Fall Toy Show in October.

"Whatever we sell, it will work on 100 percent or almost 100 percent of people out there, no matter what the condition, temperature, indoor or outdoors," Yang said. "We aim for wearable technology that everyone can put on and go without failure, as easy as the iPod."

Researchers at NeuroSky and other startups are also building prototypes of toys that use electromyography (EMG), which records twitches and other muscular movements, and electrooculography (EOG), which measures changes in the retina.

While NeuroSky's headset has one electrode, Emotiv Systems Inc. has developed a gel-free headset with 18 sensors. Besides monitoring basic changes in mood and focus, Emotiv's bulkier headset detects brain waves indicating smiles, blinks, laughter, even conscious thoughts and unconscious emotions. Players could kick or punch their video game opponent — without a joystick or mouse.

"It fulfills the fantasy of telekinesis," said Tan Le, co-founder and president of San Francisco-based Emotiv.

The 30-person company hopes to begin selling a consumer headset next year, but executives would not speculate on price. A prototype hooks up to gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft
Xbox 360.

Le, a 29-year-old Australian woman, said the company decided in 2004 to target gamers because they would generate the most revenue — but eventually Emotive will build equipment for clinical use. The technology could enable paralyzed people to "move" in virtual realty; people with obsessive-compulsive disorders could measure their anxiety levels, then adjust medication accordingly.

The husband-and-wife team behind CyberLearning Technology LLC took the opposite approach. The San Marcos-based startup targets doctors, therapists and parents of adolescents with autism, impulse control problems and other pervasive developmental disorders.

CyberLearning is already selling the SmartBrain Technologies system for the original PlayStation, PS2 and original Xbox, and it will soon work with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The EEG- and EMG-based biofeedback system costs about $600, not including the game console or video games.

Kids who play the race car video game "Gran Turismo" with the SmartBrain system can only reach maximum speed when they're focused. If attention wanes or players become impulsive or anxious, cars slow to a chug.

CyberLearning has sold more than 1,500 systems since early 2005. The company hopes to reach adolescents already being treated for behavior disorders. But co-founder Lindsay Greco said the budding niche is unpredictable.

"Our biggest struggle is to find the target market," said Greco, who has run treatment programs for children with attention difficulties since the 1980s. "We're finding that parents are using this to improve their own recall and focus. We have executives who use it to improve their memory, even their golf."


On the Net:

NeuroSky Inc.:

Emotiv Systems Inc.:

CyberLearning Technology LLC:

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How Did He Learn to Speak Volumes With a Look?
By Rob Stein
Washington Post

As any poodle, spaniel or mutt owner knows, dogs have an uncanny ability to read human body language, whether it's following a finger pointing the way to an errant tennis ball or spotting a glance that signals an imminent trip to the park.

But animal behavior experts have debated for years how much of this dogged perceptiveness is inborn and how much is learned by being raised around humans. New research, however, indicates that the capacity to communicate with humans silently through gestures and glances has become an inborn talent as a result of the thousands of years that dogs have lived, worked and played with people.

"They don't speak like we do. But there is communication," said Adam Miklosi of Eotvos University in Budapest.

Miklosi is among researchers around the world who have been working to gain a better understanding of the talents displayed by man's best friend. Most recently, Miklosi and his colleagues conducted a unique experiment to try to tease out exactly how much of the capacity to interpret humans' subtle signals is instinctive.

"People usually assume that dogs got more stupid because humans provided everything. All they have to do is lie back and enjoy life," Miklosi said. "What we think is that dogs went through a re-evolution that started from some sort of wolflike animals. . . . They acquired skills that make them adaptive to the human nvironment. They interact with humans. They learn from humans."

To test his ideas, Miklosi and his colleagues designed an experiment comparing dogs with their closest relatives -- wolves. They took 13 wolf pups from their mothers when they were just four or five days old and raised them in human homes just like puppies. As adults, the wolves received intensive contact with their human caretakers, who literally carried the animals with them wherever they went.

Previous studies had shown that adult dogs were better than adult wolves at reading human body language. But it was unclear how much of that was inborn and how much dogs learned growing up around humans. This experiment was aimed at clarifying that point.

"The wolves got more human contact than the ordinary dogs got from their owners," Miklosi said in a telephone interview. "They were really thrown into the human environment."

The researchers then trained the wolves and various breeds of dogs to get a piece of meat by pulling on a string. After the animals learned how to get the meat, the researchers attached the string so that no matter how hard the animals pulled they could not get the meat.

The wolves just continued to pull on the string in frustration. But the dogs quickly stopped pulling when the string did not move and turned to look at the faces of the humans, the researchers reported in the April 29 issue of the journal Current Biology.

"The dogs gave up much earlier. They were, very quickly, looking at the humans, the owners, looking at their faces," Miklosi said. "That is what is interesting. That never happened with the wolves. They just kept pulling. But the dogs, what they did was basically look at the owners. If you observe this as a human, you would describe it as an asking-for-help gesture."

The experiment shows that "the dogs have adapted to use this channel" of communication, Miklosi said. "This has provided the opportunity to communicate with us. And the wolves have not," he said.

"The dogs have learned our language, to some extent. So we don't need to learn dog language. They can use our channels of communication, like vision," Miklosi said. "You can point for a dog and communicate with it. You can point for a wolf, but it won't understand what you are doing."

Brian Hare of Harvard University, who previously conducted a similar experiment that showed dogs were superior to chimps and wolves at reading human gestures, said the results show that "dogs really understand that humans are their partners in life. They can elicit their help and use them as a kind of tool."

"Wolves don't know that. They keep trying to solve it on their own. It's something that's programmed into their genes," Hare said. Hare is planning a follow-up experiment to try to determine why dogs are so much better at reading human cues.

"It could be that because there was selection for dogs that are smart -- dogs that can read human cues and figure out what they want," Hare said. "Those were the ones that survived and passed their genes on."

But another possibility is that dogs' ability is a byproduct of domestication. Hare tells the story of foxes that were domesticated in Siberia 50 years ago. Over the generations, the foxes developed physical changes, including floppy ears, curly tails, different colorings and smaller teeth and jaws.

The human caretakers of the foxes "weren't trying to create any of those changes. They were just trying to get friendly foxes. But when they bred them together they got these changes as byproducts," Hare said.

So, for dogs, "the alternative is that when dogs were domesticated," the capacity to pick up cues from humans "was just an accident -- just like the floppy ears," Hare said.

Hare plans to compare the domesticated foxes with dogs to try to find out. "If they perform like dogs on the test, then we know it's likely the dogs also changed as a byproduct," Hare said.

"The question is: How did the evolution happen? It's very rare that you can actually demonstrate what the selection pressure was," Hare said. "That's why this is so exciting. We're going to take a big step towards solving a mystery."

Marc Bekoff, a dog behavior researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said that Miklosi's experiment shows that "dogs aren't just dumbed-down wolves."

"A lot of people think that domesticated animals, when compared to wilder animals, aren't as smart," Bekoff said. "It shows that species adapt to the social niche in which they live. And the social niche for a dog would be its human companions."

Bekoff said this ability probably helps explain the sense that many dog owners have that their animals empathize with their emotions. Dogs can pick up the subtle physical clues that signal what their human companions are feeling, whether it's happiness, sadness, anxiety or anger.

"I think part of the reason there is this strong bond between dogs and humans is because we are empathetic to them and they show empathy to us," Bekoff said.

"We can never know for sure. But I've done a lot of work on animals' emotions. Animals and humans share a lot of the same neurological structures and the same neurochemistry. I think it's really dog empathy."

Monday, April 09, 2007

A Hart of faith
B.C. cartoonist has bigger panels to draw and fewer words to say
By John H. Adams
The Presbyterian Layman
Volume 32, Number 5

Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strip B.C., is planning his magnum opus. Actually, he has been planning it for a long time, even began drawing it on brown wrapping paper and hanging it around his studio.

But he quickly realized he was creating a 90-foot cartoon, and that was too long even for a magnum opus, so all the paper came down and he began editing the panels in his head. Now the projected strip is down to 20 feet. Maybe 30.

So what’s a 20-foot comic strip?

The story of the Bible, Hart says matter-of-factly, to be used in the 9th-through-12th grade Sunday school class that he teaches at Nineveh Presbyterian Church in New York.
Hart’s aim is to make the Bible simple, powerful, compelling, life-changing – and fun.

Committed to Scripture
He is committed, ahem, Hart and soul to the authority and infallibility of Scripture, but the cartoonist emerges when he teaches. He sometimes takes poetic license with the text. Knowing that his students would never remember that Noah’s three sons were named Shem, Ham and Japheth, Hart changed them to Ham, Sham and Alabam – with apologies to Moses. He once used a cartoon illustration of Cain killing Abel with, you bet, a cane.

Hart, 68 and “going on 16,” is best known as one of America’s premier cartoonists. B.C. is published in 1,300 newspapers. He is the wordsmith with artist Brant Parker for the Wizard of Id strip that is run by more than 1,000 newspapers.

He is also known as an unabashed Christian, and he doesn’t apologize for being a Presbyterian, although, like other evangelical Presbyterians, he is dismayed when the denomination strays from its Biblical roots. When he served on the session at Nineveh Presbyterian Church, Hart was not above recommending a fiery letter to PCUSA headquarters criticizing some of the denomination’s off-the-wall hijinks.

Compressing the big thoughts
But today, he’s mostly focused on his Sunday school class and making the Bible come alive through a mural that will include, of course, cartoon characters wearing robes and sandals. More important than graphics, however, is that Hart is obsessed with compressing big thoughts into a few powerful words. Hence, his struggle to whittle the size of his Sunday school mural about the Bible.

“I just want to show them how incredibly simple the Bible is,” Hart said. He worries that young people will do as he did for years: “Start in the beginning and say to yourself you’re never going to read all this; it’s too thick.”

Well, Hart has probably read it all. A room in his house is a veritable seminary library. He also stocked a library at Nineveh Presbyterian Church with books, audios and videos. He did the design and carpentry for the library, saying he sensed the joy that Jesus felt as a carpenter and thinking that “it must have been hard for Him not to make the universe out of wood.”

Providential themes
Hart has been irrepressibly Christian since 1977, thanks to a couple of itinerant satellite dish salesmen. He speaks with an almost mischievous joy as he unfolds that story and its providential themes during an interview with The Presbyterian Layman.

He and his wife, Bobby, were living in Endicott. A real estate agent told him about a house in Nineveh on 150 acres, including a 28-acre lake. They bought it.

They began remodeling the house and building a studio with the help of a carpenter, who lived nearby and had a vacant lot next to his property. A satellite dish salesman asked the carpenter if he and his son could use the lot to set up a display. The carpenter agreed.

What’s more, the carpenter introduced the satellite dish salesmen to Hart, who realized that his new residence “had no cable system and no television reception and life can’t go on without television.” So he ordered not one satellite dish, but two – one for the house and one for the studio.

The job was complicated. “It took maybe a couple of months or more to get it set up by two guys, a father and son team who were born-again Christians,” Hart said. “They were running cables into the various rooms where I might have TVs. I have at least three over here in the studio and three at the house.

Religion or country music
“Every time I would walk through the place and they were testing the system they would be broadcasting the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were using a religious channel as a test pattern to set everything up. I said, ‘Guys, is this all we’re going to get?’ ‘Oh, no, no, Mr. Hart,’ they said, ‘we could use the country music channel if you want.’”

At that defining moment in his life, Hart chose TV religion over country music. “I’d sneak over and open the door a crack so I could hear the TV preachers,” he said. “I never let my wife know. That wouldn’t be cool. Our lifestyle was a tad different.”

Hart developed a hankering to go to church. The only one in town was Nineveh Presbyterian Church. “I drove by the Nineveh Church one Sunday morning. People were just getting out of church. It was a big white church with a little porch and a couple of parking lots on both sides. All the people were dressed up. The children were wearing little suits and little dresses and running around and climbing around cars. Something touched my heart. I remembered all the times in the South when we used to go to church, have dinner on the grounds, the flowery dresses, kids climbing trees, kicking each other.

Weird question, prayer
“I said to Bobby one morning shortly after that, ‘Hey, like to go to church?’ and she looked at me like I’m kind of weird and said, ‘No, not really.’ And I said, ‘I thought I’d just throw that out there.’ But I secretly prayed that God would touch Bobby’s heart, and only two weeks later, she comes bounding in and said, ‘Want to go to church?’ I said, ‘Naw, not really.’”

But Hart was joking. He quickly corrected his answer to yes and they were off to Nineveh Presbyterian Church. “We enjoyed the dickens out of the preacher there. Loved his sermon. He had a yoked thing going. He’d preach at Nineveh and then go do the same thing up the road at Afton.”

“I said to Bobby, ‘Want to have some fun? Let’s run up to Afton and see if he screws up. We went in and sat down about halfway back, and he comes walking in and does this incredible double-take and asks us ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘We’ve come to hear you preach. We want to see if you do it again the same way for Afton.’”

That began a long friendship. Sadly, Hart says, the young minister and his wife were later divorced. “That happens in a church when the devil really gets in there. But I think the interim ministers actually sparked the church and we are flourishing spiritually now, with a new young pastor.”

Incorrigibly optimistic
Change doesn’t seem to faze Hart. He is incorrigibly optimistic. “I think God arranges these things. It’s something the church needed.”

Hart loves the Nineveh congregation, and especially his Sunday school class. Two of his former students are in seminary. But he doesn’t take any credit – not even for their attendance. “Do they come because of my infamy? No, they come because their parents tell them to come.”

But his class also attracts a few adults who attend without marching orders from parents.

“I try to widen their eyes, anything I can think of to do that,” Hart says. His favorite lesson series is to do an overview of the Bible, which itself is “like a banner, a long drawing that starts with Adam and runs through the New Jerusalem.”

Hart begins verbally constructing the panels for his great Bible mural: “There’s Adam and Eve. They screwed up. They had children. One was good and one was bad. Ultimately, God had to clean them up with blood. They all goofed up and were born into sin. God knew it. He knows everything that happens. The blood sacrifices extended the lives of all humanity. There’s no remission of sin without the shedding of blood. Finally, God says, I am going to shed my blood for them. I will take their sins. I will give them my righteousness. They’re invited into my paradise with me.”

At this point, Hart is talking a mile a minute. He’s almost breathless.

But not all share his enthusiasm for the Gospel.

B.C. too much for L.A.
For the past four years, The Los Angeles Times has refused to run his cartoons with an explicitly Christian message. For a while, Hart was peeved, and even called his syndicate to suggest that they not sell the strip to The Times. The syndicate suggested otherwise, and Hart calmed down. But upon reflecting on what it means to be a Christian, Hart says he’s now delighted to sell to the The Times even though they still yank his Christian messages. He’s killing The Times with kindness. More than 90 percent of the mail on the controversy is on Hart’s side. Thanks to The Times Hart’s Christian cartoons are often repeated in stories about the brouhaha. The Gospel spreads far beyond The Times’ censorship.

The strip that started the flap with The Times was for Palm Sunday. It had Wiley – a wannabe poet in B.C.’s cast of characters – sitting against a tree, tablet in hand, writing a poem titled “The Suffering Prince:”

The Suffering Prince
Picture yourself tied to a tree,
condemned of the sins of eternity.

Then picture a spear, parting the air,
seeking your heart to cut your despair.

Suddenly – a knight, in armor of white,
stands in the gap
betwixt you and its flight,

And shedding his
‘armor of God’ for you
– bears the lance
that runs him through.

His heart has been pierced
that yours may beat,
and the blood of his corpse
washes your feet.

Picture yourself
in raiment white,
cleansed by the blood
of the lifeless knight.

Never to mourn,
the prince who was downed,
For he is not lost!
It is you who are found.

‘Running from Nineveh’
Nineveh, just by its name, has something to do with Hart’s commitment to Jesus.

“We’re all running away from Nineveh,” Hart said in an allusion to Jonah. “But look at Jonah. He says eight lousy words and saves an entire city, a city so big that it took three days to walk across.”

So, considering himself a latter -day Jonah, belched up on the outskirts of Nineveh, N.Y., Hart is trying to figure out a way to say more with fewer words, trying to get his banner down to a few feet, trying to create the next cartoon with simply a line for the horizon and a word or two.

That is, if a picture is worth more than eight words.

Johnny Hart: Not Caving In
The cartoon characters of "B.C." reflect their imaginative creator, Johnny Hart. Especially his unapologetic faith in God.
by Joe Maxwell

Johnny Hart's house is about a half-mile from any paved road. His mind, meanwhile, is several millennia away: back in the cave man days—dwelling with his friend, B.C. The two of them took up residence together several decades ago, with the consent and support of Hart's wife, Bobby. Then came another comic strip pal, "The Wizard of Id." Today, there's a communal cheer in the leafy woods where the Harts reside in rural New York State.

Johnny often rises at four in the morning, trying not to wake the wife of his youth (they've been married 44 years). He sneaks into the cool pre-dawn as geese honk down the hill on his lake.

He winds about a quarter of a mile around his lake ("As the crow walks," jokes Johnny), past his boat house, through some woods, up another hill, and—voila!—there in his studio they wait, his old pals.

"I wash my face and brush my teeth and it's dark out and I get to watch the sun come over the lake and it's really very blissful and fun," he says.

Johnny spends early mornings with his two-dimensional friends. B.C. is more than just a paper-and-ink cartoon. With the mirror-like quality of the lake by Johnny's studio, B.C. reflects Johnny. No, Johnny does not always pick up his pen and draw, rapturously ripping paper from his artist's board, discarding one idea for another. Those days are gone now, as unnecessary as practicing lay-ups might be for Michael Jordan.

Instead, most mornings Johnny collects his ideas, then he'll draw a week's worth of strips in a mere matter of hours, deftly moving from a pencil sketch to a final, inked version. Johnny—like Michael—has moved to the higher stages of his star-studded game; he wishes he could tell friends and inquirers that he doodles for hours every morning, but it just isn't so. Johnny's mornings often materialize into a high grade of sheer nothingness.

"I know how I waste a lot of my time," he cracks while hanging around his studio one cool day. "I just sit and think, who knows what, and it all gets logged up there, and I guess I draw on it. Sometimes I don't go home until six or seven o'clock at night, and sometimes I don't eat at all. That's what's wrong with me: my brain is plodding, and very often it's plogging, too!"

As casual as Johnny seems, his life is anything but laid back. From his earliest days struggling in tough New York City for his break in the cartooning world, to his mid-career rocket to fame, creating several working auxiliaries of himself, to his more recent recommitment to the Christian faith of his youth, Johnny has never been one for sitting on a stone and plogging; that, he leaves for B.C. or his caveman friend, Wiley.

On the contrary, Johnny is busier than ever carving out, if you will, a career he hopes glorifies God. His work has reaped rewards but also heavy costs.

Preaching in panels
Today, the gray-haired "gag man" (his own description) draws a caveman with ever-growing convictions. Hart believes the Lord put him into the cartooning world for a reason. Every prudent chance he gets, he takes advantage of it.

On Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter—and many days between—Hart's characters offer messages reflecting the cartoonist's own firm belief in the gospel message. "I find myself trying to put the gospel into practically every strip I create without being obvious about it," he says.

Hart says he wants to create a "spasm" in his reader, putting a new twist on an old truth. He's been creating nationwide twitches for years now, and his peers often have paid him homage:

—Best Humor Strip in America, six times (The National Cartoonist Society)

—The Reuben—Cartoonist of the Year (The National Cartoonist Society)

—The Yellow Kid Award for Best Cartoonist (The International Congress of Comics)

—Best Cartoonist of the Year (France's highest cartooning award)

—The Sam Adamson Award, twice (Sweden's international award for graphic artists)

—The Elsie Segar Award (King Features Syndicate).

In many ways, Hart is a preacher, only his congregation absorbs his message via America's mainstream newspapers as he brings light into the often dark daily news. People who don't read the Bible or attend church services often do read Johnny's comics.

He was gratified when a woman wrote to say that a "Wizard of Id" strip kept her from committing suicide. "The strip had no real mind-jarring message," says Hart, "so I just knew that [it was] God [who] had used it to reach that precious soul."

B.C. vs. The Times
Johnny's work stirs more than a love for life. For some, Johnny's bent has become too religious and/or political. While other cartoonists' characters get away with blatant statements reflecting non-Christian views, over the past few years a different standard has been applied by some newspaper editors to Johnny's cartoon figures.

For four years now, The Los Angeles Times has refused to run certain "B.C." strips containing witty Christian messages during holiday seasons. In March 1996, when the Times refused to run his Palm Sunday strip, a national uproar ensued, reaching even the Washington, D.C., talk show circuit. The strip had Wiley—a brooding, poet-wannabe in B.C.'s cast of characters—sitting against a tree, tablet in hand, writing a poem entitled "The Suffering Prince":

Picture yourself tied to a tree,
condemned of the sins of eternity.
Then picture a spear, parting the air,
seeking your heart to cut your despair.
Suddenly—a knight, in armor of white,
stands in the gap betwixt you and its flight,
And shedding his 'armor of God' for you—
bears the lance that runs him through.
His heart has been pierced that yours may beat,
and the blood of his corpse washes your feet.
Picture yourself in raiment white,
cleansed by the blood of the lifeless knight.
Never to mourn,
the prince who was downed,
For he is not lost! It is you who are found.
Spokeswoman Gloria Lopez of the Times says Mr. Hart's strip isn't the only one that has been pulled. Other examples of edited strips she cited include "Doonesbury" and "The Far Side." Says Ms. Lopez: "The bottom line is the editors reserve the right to edit."

Johnny believes such treatment is symptomatic of the battle for America's soul, and he likes the idea that his recent flaps with the Times "have gotten Christians up in arms. That's what they all need."

A lifechanging TV link
Johnny admits that for years he was anything but serious about his own walk with God. He sought pleasure, enjoying the luxuries his successful career offered.

Johnny had made a commitment to Christ in his earlier years, but never lived it out. "Bobby and I had backslidden and fallen into a life of drinking and partying," Johnny recalls. They ran with the "Hollywood types," yet he was becoming less and less satisfied.

Then Johnny had a satellite dish hooked up at his estate. A Christian father-and-son team installed it, and temporarily lived on-site with the Harts. The two workers were always flipping the dish to a Christian channel, "constantly using PTL as their test pattern," quips Johnny. And the cartoonist began viewing the shows as well.

"I became interested by osmosis," says Johnny. "PTL was always on."

Challenged by what he was hearing, Johnny and Bobby began looking back into the Scriptures. Today, he cracks, "I use TBN (the Trinity Broadcast Network) as a night light."

With time, the couple's commitment to the Lord solidified. "Probably the biggest realization—and it came to me very subtly—was that the Bible is the Word of God. I didn't have an 'experience.' Everything in my dealings with God has always been very gradual. I attribute that to my own spirit muddling things: personal resistance; me interfering."

Nevertheless, Johnny and Bobby now have set their lives on a course of service. Both teach Sunday school at the Presbyterian church in the small town of (get this) Ninevah, New York.

Faith not rocket science
Whether or not the press ever starts showing more respect to outspoken Christians, Johnny doesn't plan to change his ways. He'll keep exploring the rock-solid truth that finally was hammered into him and his Stone Age friends. And he does more than deliver the message through his comic strips. As opportunities arise, Johnny shares personally the hope of Christ with fellow cartoonists as well as executives at the news syndicate that represents his work.

Perhaps a caveman with convictions can help awaken Christians to challenge today's prevailing culture: it's not rocket science after all. Sure, some matters of faith are complex, but many are as straightforward as … as if they were chiseled in stone.

Johnny would tell you that. You see, years ago he barely passed high school and went no further in his formal education. Says Hart: "I have always been stupid … I don't have a good memory, so when I read anything, whenever I get to a word I don't know, I stop and look it up. I've looked up every word in the dictionary almost twenty times."

His lack of eloquence continually discouraged him. Even when his career was skyrocketing, he would sit down to read "just a normal book," he says, "and in one paragraph I'd have to look up five words. And I'd think, man, will I ever have a vocabulary?"

Today, it is his eloquence that has incited both his troubles and his tremendous career. Johnny Hart says he still feels "inadequate" as a verbal communicator. But he's hard on himself, he admits, "because I've been given a gift and I don't want to just fluff it out and use it indiscriminately. … I still have the same fervor today for each strip to be the funniest and best strip ever, just as I did when I started."

And so, at four a.m. on many nippy New York mornings, Bobby Hart senses her husband slipping out of bed. Through the frosty woods he goes, up a hill to meet his muse—a caveman who transcends time. Sitting together, a caveman and craftsman share life, and even at times a visit from pal Wiley, who might wax poetic on how his two friends seem one as they watch the sun rise and offer praise to the Son.

A comic at ‘Hart’
Interview with cartoonist Johnny Hart
by Robert Doolan

Dinosaurs, dictionaries, and dental floss. Pizzas, 'prehistoric' animals, and post offices ... Evolutionists may not believe that all these existed alongside early humans, but that doesn't stop multi–award–winning cartoonist Johnny Hart from putting them in his comic strip titled B.C., which is enjoyed by more than 100 million readers world-wide.

Johnny's B.C. characters live in a world where dinosaurs rush to get ready for Noah's Ark, where 'primitive' people give thanks to God before their meals, and where cave–men philosophers discuss creation and evolution.

Johnny can't remember when he first introduced creation/evolution themes into his comic strips. But as a Bible–believer he doesn't accept evolution.

'I believe the Bible is the Word of God,' he said, 'and I see all the foolishness in evolution theory. The main thing of course is that evolutionists have never come up with one indisputable piece of evidence. The top one is the “missing link”. Something is always missing. The absurdity of it all is beyond reason.'

A few evolutionists have angrily written to him to say evolution is the only explanation for why we are here. However, when his strips on creation/evolution and other Bible themes appear, he mostly receives 'lots of nice letters' from people pleased to see him speaking out against 'such foolishness'.

He has several books on the creation/evolution issue, including The Genesis Solution by Ken Ham and Paul Taylor.

Johnny Hart has been receiving major cartoonist awards spanning almost 30 years. Yet B.C. was rejected by five syndicates before it was accepted. He invented the characters for B.C. and The Wizard of Id (his other highly successful comic strip, which he does with Brant Parker) shortly after he finished high school.

'Brant began drawing cartoons for the local newspaper while I was in high school. I entered an art contest which he was asked to judge. He was fascinated by my work, and we got along really great together.'

Brant, who had worked for the Disney Corporation, began prodding Johnny to become a cartoonist, and finally Johnny came up with the idea for B.C. It became hugely successful. Four years later he thought up the idea for The Wizard of Id, and asked Brant if he would do the drawing for it if Johnny came up with the gags. They have worked together successfully since.

Most of Johnny's strips are simply meant to make people feel better. He doesn't see himself as a crusader, but occasionally he does inject some poignant analysis of subjects he feels strongly about.

One of his cartoons that featured on the notice board in the lunchroom at Creation magazine headquarters was an anti–abortion cartoon about the abortion pill RU486. Johnny's comment was 'RU486—Are you for stiffing the kid?'

He received flak from abortionists over it—'telling me what an idiot I was'—but the cartoon was popular with pro–lifers.

Johnny tells an interesting story about how he came to the Lord.

'Salvation? The reason Jesus died? Grace? These are things I didn't know. The first thing had to be—which is exactly what you guys [at Creation magazine] are doing—to be convinced that the Bible is the Word of God.'

He had moved with his wife Bobby to a town called Nineveh in New York— 'A little, one–horse town up above Binghamton'. One day he bought a satellite dish for their house and another for his studio.

'These guys were out here wiring up for a couple of weeks, and they were born-again Christians. They used Christian TV as a test pattern, so every time I walked through the room in which they were wiring up a TV set, I'd see this and say, “Is that the only thing we are going to get?”

'They'd say, “Oh, we're sorry.” And I'd say, “Just kidding.” So I was listening to the preaching coming from the TV set and eventually became fascinated by it. One day my wife said, “Do you want to go to church?” I said, “Certainly.” Now we teach Sunday school and do all sorts of things. I have a lot of fun drawing for the children.'

Where does Johnny get ideas to feed 1,100 newspapers daily with his comic strips?

'I have help. Two of my friends are very funny guys. You surround yourself with people who amuse you. And our big thing is humour. These guys were very inventive and creative, and I turned them into gag–writers.'

What advice does he have for budding young cartoonists?

'Draw, draw, and draw. Things are getting tougher all the time, so you have to be good to make it. But pray that your work will be accepted, and then send it in. And go out and buy a new suit of clothes ...'

Monday, April 02, 2007

Indian Couple Commits Suicide Over the Death of Their Dog
Fox News

Unable to come to terms with the death of their pet dog, a childless couple in southern India hanged themselves.

The bodies of 67-year-old retired soldier C.N. Madanraj and his wife, Tarabai, 63, were found Sunday in their home in a suburb of Hyderabad.

Police said the childless couple had held a burial ceremony for their dog of 13 years, called Puppy, and hosted a feast for friends before hanging themselves in their bedroom.

"The couple described the grief over their pet dog in the suicide note they left on March 29," said police inspector V. Anantaiah.