Saturday, December 30, 2006
In July, I grumbled about the fact that Indiana is one of only a handful of states that do not provide free textbooks to school children. Only 10 states charge a book rental fee, and some of them pay part of the fee for the parents. Indiana pays only for those who are on the free or reduced-price lunch program.
Also in July, I wrote about this guy in Canada who got the bright idea to trade a red paperclip for a house. He did it via the Internet, working his way up from paperclip to a fish pen to a clay doorknob, to a camping stove. Later, merchandise included a snowmobile, a van, and an evening with Alice Cooper. Finally, he traded a spot on a TV show for his sought-after house. What a deal!
I started off July with an intriguing story about two researchers who determined with mathematical certainty that every person alive on earth today is a descendant of someone who lived between 2000 and 5000 years ago. We just don’t know who, but he or she probably lived in Asia.
In August I wrote about some unbelievably naïve Californians who gathered at a chocolate factory to see a lump of chocolate drippings that had solidified on some wax paper underneath a vat of melted chocolate. The owner of the place thought the drippings resembled the Virgin Mary. So we had yet another virgin sighting in California; that is quite rare. But being made of chocolate, I wonder if we could call it a sweet Mother of God sighting.
And kids, there is one less planet you now have to learn in science class. In August the International Astronomical Union decided to downgrade the former planet Pluto to just a large asteroid.
In September, I wrote about Edinburgh’s Fall Festival Parade. Even though it’s a small parade that changes little from year to year, I enjoy coming together with the rest of the crowd and observing the event each year. I did get a couple of e-mail complaints, however, because I wrote that I didn’t see any purpose of having some annoying semi truck in the parade. After all, I see enough of them on the freeway.
In October I let out my frustration yet again at Pres. Bush’s education policy. Give me a break. The No Child Left Behind Act would be a joke if it were not hindering so many mainstream students in their quest for a good education. As a teacher, I know for a fact that putting too many resources into trying to bring the incorrigible kids into line and including so many special needs students in mainstream classrooms cheats the majority of students out of the attention and resources they would otherwise be getting.
In November, I lamented how Thanksgiving often gets left out. It is the poor stepchild of holidays, stuck halfway between two more popular observances, Halloween and Christmas. Even so, I love the turkey dinners.
I also complained about the trouble we seem to have doing elections. My plan would be to let people vote online. After all, they do everything else online, from renewing their license plates to booking air travel. Why would it be so hard to vote online?
I finished off the year’s columns with an idea to have a real jury trial about whether or not global warming is real. I believe it would be a slam-dunk case.
In an update, last week the Bush administration moved to place the polar bear on the endangered species list due to the lack of shelf ice in northern Canada. It was a backdoor admission that the climate is warming. Still, Bush did not blame the problem on human activity.
No matter how often Bush is wrong, he’ll never admit any of it. It’s in his nature. Let’s hope 2007 gives us some more Bush surprises like the decision on polar bears.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
Anyway, I’m browsing back through all my Over Coffee columns and blog entries this past year. It struck me that at the end of this coming June, the first decade of the new millennium will be three-quarters over. It seems like only recently that I was writing about the coming Y2K bug and advising people not to worry about it.
It wasn’t that long ago, it seems, that I had entered the ongoing debate over which year began the new millennium, 2000 or 2001. I’m sticking with 2001.
But getting back to the current year, which is now about to come to an end, it started out as most years do in Indiana, with inane proposals being bandied about the General Assembly and the governor trying to push his favorite projects through.
In January, one senator wanted to use ISTEP test scores as an evaluation tool for teachers. Give me a break; teachers cannot control a student’s success. They can only provide the guidance and the information needed to succeed. It’s up to the students to put it to good use.
One of the governor’s proposals, which eventually went down to defeat, was to increase the state cigarette tax as an incentive to smokers to quit. That was a good idea. But, like most good ideas that filter into the General Assembly, they get marred down in politics.
Also at the beginning of the year, I wrote columns condemning a Senate measure to support the Indiana House in its effort to start each session with a public prayer. If our legislators can’t find anything better to debate than that, they should probably just stay home.
February started off with news that the low-fat diet that has been around for decades is probably not all that healthy after all. That was good news for low-carbohydrate supporters like me. On a related topic, the General Assembly introduced a bill that would force schools to start serving healthier lunches.
In March, I wrote about the uproar in the Muslim nations about a Danish newspaper’s publishing of a cartoon that lampooned the Prophet Mohammad. It was just one more reason why religious intolerance, no matter what religion, is detrimental to mankind, not to mention cartoonists.
And March was when Indiana finally entered the twentieth century (Yes, I said twentieth) with regard to its timekeeping. All of the state for the first time in decades sprang ahead an hour to join the rest of the nation in observing daylight saving time. And the world didn’t come to an end.
April was filled with columns about a lawsuit that would force a change in the way Indiana funds education, more about religious intolerance, Bush’s right-wing agenda, and eating gopher.
In May I wrote about making English the official language of the U.S. It already is the official language of Indiana, but in some places it’s hard to tell.
And in June I wrote about how doctors wanted to put an extra tax on soft drinks because of the sugar content. It was, and is, a good idea. I also complained more about Pres. Bush and about how the Midwest is overdue for a big earthquake.
Well my coffee cup is dry and I see I’m already way over 500 words into my recap of 2006, so I’ll continue this retrospective next week, and next year. It’s time to click the send button on this one.
To all those who occasionally read this column in the newspaper or in my blog, I wish you a very happy New Year.
Monday, December 18, 2006
I had a semi-heated debate with a friend of mine recently over that very topic. His position was that global warming has not been proven; at least there is insufficient evidence to start changing national policy over it.
My argument was that the vast majority of scientists around the world agree that global warming is already here and that it will only get worse if we do nothing. I also tried to point out that even in the unlikely event that the temperature rise over the past 100 years is a natural phenomenon, taking steps to alleviate environmental pollutants would do nothing but help us in the long run anyway.
Now, the Bush administration wants nothing to do with global efforts to clean up the atmosphere. The president, whose policy gurus have pressured his science advisors to doctor the evidence on several science issues, claims that keeping in step with the rest of the world will lead to economic chaos.
Thankfully, Bush will be gone in a couple more years. Congress has already turned more liberal as voters turned away from many of his archaic policies. So there may be some hope for the future.
But for now, the U.S. is lagging far behind most of the world in environmental policies. Even China has a higher air quality standard than we do.
My contention is that there is enough evidence in favor of global warming right now that if the issue were brought before a court of law, a jury would decide in favor of the scientists and against the nay-sayers and Bush cronies, even if it were a criminal trial. A criminal trial has a higher standard of conviction than a civil trial – reasonable doubt versus a preponderance of the evidence.
In fact, we should have a mock trial just to prove the point. A real judge should be hired and a real jury convened. Real experts on both sides of the issues should be allowed to present real evidence in a courtroom environment.
Of course, the verdict would carry no weight. It would only be for show. But at least it would show where the American people stand after hearing all the evidence.
As for Edinburgh, no it wouldn’t be engulfed by the ocean like Miami or New York City would be in case the Greenland ice sheets melted, but global warming would most likely lead to considerable climate changes over most temperate regions. The climate of the Midwest would most likely become hotter and drier.
Al Gore presented compelling evidence in his recent documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Unfortunately, being a former politician, he is often not taken seriously. Most conservatives probably didn’t even see the film.
What the country needs right now is another Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov. They were scientists who had a way with the public. They could relate to the lay person and vice versa. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and companion book were big hits with the public. And Asimov, though not as flamboyant, was widely read and respected.
But, alas, we have no living replacement for those two popular scientists. So we have to settle for Al Gore to spread the news about environmental issues. And Gore probably won’t impress the Bush conservatives.
Maybe they’ll start to listen when Florida disappears under the Atlantic Ocean.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
People tend to be more generous and more caring. At the same time, they can also be surlier than at any other time of year. For some, it’s the coming cold, bleak winter that has them down. For others, the crowds of people they have to put up with while shopping for meaningless gifts drive them off the deep end.
It’s a schizophrenic time of year. And that applies not only to people’s moods, but to the holiday itself.
What exactly is Christmas and why does it have an entire season devoted to it. Most holidays get a single day; Christmas gets a whole month.
Charlie Brown, that affable but misunderstood Peanuts character was struggling with that question in the 1960s cartoon classic. Near the end of the program, Linus, the most insecure of the Peanuts bunch, swallowed his insecurities long enough to march out on the stage, in the spotlight, and recite a bible verse from memory. It was the biblical account of the birth of Christ.
It was not, however, the Christmas story. Linus mentioned nothing about Christmas in his monologue. The bible mentions nothing about it anywhere in any of its verses. So what is it?
I would think the world was about to come to an end if I ever made it through the entire month of December without hearing someone say something like, “It’s time we started remembering the true meaning of Christmas,” or “Let’s put the Christ back in Christmas.” Others are appalled that we sometimes abbreviate Christmas as Xmas.
Of course, the people who say that are most likely not familiar with the history of the holiday. The Greek word for Christ begins with an X, and that is where the abbreviated form Xmas originally came from.
But when was Christ ever in Christmas? I mean, officially, it never happened if you go back to the source, the bible. Nothing in the bible tells us to honor Jesus’ birth. In fact, it was considered improper to celebrate anyone’s birth in the first centuries of the Common Era.
But the early Catholic Church was having some growing pains. The Romans celebrated their god Mithras back in those days to celebrate the return of the sun god in the sky. This happened in late December just after the winter solstice.
Church leaders were shrewd. They knew it would be difficult, if not impossible, to compete head on with such a well-established pagan practice. So they infiltrated it. They made up a holiday to commemorate the birth of Christ and called it Christ’s Mass. Never mind that Jesus was not born in winter, they needed it to coincide with the solstice.
So, originally, Christmas was a public relations ploy by the early church to infiltrate an already-established religious practice.
Now, let me quickly point out that I’m not against Christmas at all. It is still my favorite season of the year because it’s a time when families seem closer and the atmosphere is festive. What can be wrong with that?
But Christmas is, by and large, a secular holiday, not a religious one. It does not have its roots planted in the Christian bible. Churches embrace it because it presents an opportunity to provide outreach more so than at most other times of the year. But even most bible scholars will acknowledge the whole baby-in-a-manger story even as told in the bible is at least partly apocryphal.
So celebrate Christmas as you always would. But just keep in mind its true roots. They have more to do with public relations than with Jesus. That part of Christmas, which is really its true meaning, is still intact.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
Christmas, of course, is a time for giving. I don’t know if anyone keeps statistics on this, but I bet quite a few of those Black Friday shoppers took advantage of many of those special offers to buy presents for themselves. There’s nothing wrong with that; Christmas is my favorite time of year to buy myself a present or two as well.
Most gifts are bought for friends, family members, and coworkers. Few of the gifts were bought for strangers. But maybe that’s too bad. Remember the old expression that it’s better to give than to receive. That counts double when buying for someone you don’t know well or at all. When people are expecting you to buy something for them it becomes more of an obligation than a sincere act of kindness.
Several years ago in this column I related a story about how the Student Council at a school I taught at put on a canned food drive each Christmas. Dozens of boxes of canned and boxed food were collected from students. And the student council purchased turkeys or hams to place in each box.
The group then used names from the free lunch recipient list to determine whom to donate the food baskets to. Each year the students would take time to deliver all the food baskets, but only once do I remember actually getting a card of thanks from any of the recipients.
There were always several phone calls each year complaining that they got a turkey and wanted a ham or vice versa. Or maybe someone didn’t think the basket was as full as it was the year before. But gratitude was in short supply.
That made me think; maybe there should be a set of voluntary guidelines in place for both the givers and the receivers to make the process a little more charitable.
For example, if you are on the giving end, here are some things to keep in mind.
Give cheerfully and non-grudgingly. Do not expect to receive any thanks. Give anonymously when possible. Give useful items that are in good condition, not just the ones you are tired of or have no more use for. Give to those whom you believe need it most, not to those whom you like the best. Look on your donation as though it were a universal obligation rather than something coming from your great generosity.
And, personally, I would advise again giving money to churches since most churches have lots of overhead and building maintenance. Your dollars will likely to go to the church’s self-perpetuation fund rather than to people who really need it. Give canned goods to a church food bank instead of cash.
If you are on the receiving end of an unexpected gift, here are some guidelines for you.
Accept each donation with humility. Do not simply refuse a charitable gift if you don’t want it, but rather suggest an alternative recipient. Always thank the giver, if you know who it is. A card would be nice. Never complain about the gift you have been given, even if it is not what you want or think you deserve. And try to remember to “pay it forward.” Even if you can’t afford to buy a gift, donate your time or talent.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
But by then, stores already have their Christmas displays in full swing, nearly three months before the actual holiday.
I guess it makes good business sense. Statistics show that merchants make far more sales in the fourth quarter than any of the other three. A few make more profit during the fourth quarter than the other three combined. So it’s only natural they would like to get an early start, right at the beginning of the quarter.
Although holiday shopping probably starts earlier now than it did years ago, early Christmas shopping isn’t exactly new. In the 1930s, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the traditional date of Thanksgiving up a week so as to increase the length of the Christmas shopping season. It had been observed as the last Thursday in November since Pres. Lincoln proclaimed it so.
The public didn’t take too kindly to Roosevelt’s capitalistic tinkering with a beloved holiday, so he had to move it back a couple of years later. In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday of November to be Thanksgiving and that’s where it remains today.
But Thanksgiving remains almost an anonymous holiday. Unlike Halloween, Christmas, and even Easter, stores do not start putting out Thanksgiving merchandise two months early. In fact, there isn’t much Thanksgiving merchandise to sell. No presents, no baskets full of candy, no costumes to don. Thanksgiving’s biggest claim to fame is a turkey dinner and the traditional start of the Christmas shopping season.
But I guess that’s what makes it special. It has remained somewhat less commercial than most of the other holidays, though not entirely so of course. Caterers tend to do big business on that day. And, of course, the turkey and cranberry industries exist for this time of year.
Thanksgiving traditions haven’t changed much over the decades. Thanksgiving wasn’t officially observed until 1863 when Lincoln proclaimed it at the urging of lifetime Thanksgiving proponent Sarah Josepha Hale. Earlier presidents didn’t see the need to observe it at all. And one, Thomas Jefferson, even scorned the idea completely.
What we think of as the original Thanksgiving feast by the Pilgrims and Indians was actually a three-day celebration of a good harvest. It may or may not have included turkey. It most certainly didn’t include potatoes, milk, butter, baked goods, or cranberries. Pheasant, watercress, corn, venison, and lobster were on the menu, though.
Today, most families eat turkey or ham accompanied by lots of mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. This is after they wake up to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and the first appearance of Santa Clause. Then, they settle in with a full stomach to watch football on TV.
It’s cozy and comfortable. It’s a time for family and friends and relaxation. And it’s a time to forget you’re on a diet and just celebrate the warmth of home and family. And that doesn’t need a month of mercantile preparation.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
In my precinct there were three voting booths which were nothing more than tables with cardboard screens surrounding the top for privacy. There was one touch-screen electronic voting machine. Being the techno-geek that I am, I opted for the electronic touch-screen voting booth.
The precinct worker said that it had not worked earlier that morning and that he didn’t know how to turn it on, so he called in another guy who seemed to know more about it. He walked over and got a cartridge of some kind and plugged it into the machine. Nothing happened. He tried it one more time. Still nothing happened.
He then told me he was sorry but the electronic voting machine was not working and hadn’t been all day. I went ahead and voted the old-fashioned way by filling in the bubbles next to the anti-Bush candidates on my paper ballot.
The next day, I discovered that had I been able to vote on the touch-screen machine, my vote would not have been counted yet, and might never have been counted. Not only were the machines programmed to shut down at the wrong time, but most precinct workers didn’t know how to operate them.
I also learned that several dozen memory cards had been misplaced and not all of them had been found yet. The people who did manage to cast votes on the electronic machines might or might not have had their votes counted.
So, after staying up late the night before to see if the Democrats would regain control of Congress, I was disappointed that I had to wait until late the next day to discover that the last Senate race to be counted, in Virginia, finally went to a Democrat. And it wasn’t until the second day after the election that it was official.
It wasn’t as bad as the presidential election of 2000 when it took weeks to find out that George W. Bush had won the election in Florida, and then only because the Supreme Court said he did. But it is disheartening and embarrassing to know that in the 21st century, in a time of technological revolution, that this country still can’t count votes in an efficient and timely manner.
Are we a third-world country when it comes to determining election results? Sometimes it seems so. What is the problem?
Americans send billions of virtual dollars around the world every year from the privacy of their own homes and offices over secure Internet connections. We are able to purchase our license plates online. We can buy auto insurance online. We can even file our state and federal income taxes online. I’ve done it for years and have never had a problem with security.
Millions of Americans do their everyday banking without ever going to the bank. I’ve been paying my bills online since 1987, even before the Internet existed in its present form.
And all that begs the question: Why can’t we vote online? Why is it so important that we show up at polling places in our precincts where incompetent workers misplace ballots and can’t seem to figure out how to turn the machines on?
Why can’t we register online using our Social Security numbers and addresses, then on Election Day, vote online in the privacy of our own homes? For those who do not have computers, voting terminals can be set up at libraries or even at the typical precinct polling places. Forget the voting machines and paper ballots.
If we can use secure Internet technology to do everything else that requires precision and security, why can’t we use it to vote? It would be fast, easy, secure, and the election results would be known instantly after the polls close.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
But long before I wanted to be a science teacher I wanted to be a newspaper man or, perhaps, a radio DJ. When I was little, I used to type up a family newsletter on an old Remington typewriter we found in the attic.
Occasionally, I would get out an old record player and a walkie-talkie and play songs over the air for passing truckers within a few hundred feet of our house. Ok, so I was 11; I could have been doing much more destructive things than violating FCC rules.
Later, after I decided what I really wanted to have as a career, I still was fascinated with radio broadcasting and with writing for the newspaper. When I was 15 I wrote a daily column and weather forecast for the old Edinburgh Daily Courier. And when I went to college, I became an on-air “personality” at the college radio station, never mind that I could probably count the number of listeners at any one time with my fingers and toes.
It’s too bad I didn’t have access to what many people take for granted these days, the Internet. Today, if you want to have a radio talk show or play your own songs on the Internet’s version of a radio station, you can do it. If you want to publish a newsletter or a full-fledged newspaper, have at it. You might even start drawing an audience or readership.
Most folks who have been online at all in recent years know what a blog is. It is short for Web log, and it amounts to an online journal. You can publish pretty much anything you want, from personal accounts of your day, including photos, to real news stories that you go find yourself.
More recently, you can use the streaming audio equivalent of a blog, a podcast. I don’t like the name because it’s too device-centric. It’s named after Apple’s Ipod music player because when podcasts first became popular, most people would download them to their music player so they could listen on the run.
If you desire to produce and host your own radio broadcast, all you need is a digital recording device, a microphone, and something to record, like your voice. You can become the radio newscaster you always wanted to be.
Of course, you’ll also need access to a computer so you can upload your production to any of several podcast sites so that listeners can find it.
Despite my early predilection for radio broadcasting, I have as yet not developed my own podcast program. For now, I’ll stick to the print medium, though that could change at some point.
Some of the more popular podcasts have tens of thousands of listeners. Others may have only a handful of friends or relatives that listen in. But whatever the listenership, it’s bound to be better than the occasional trucker tuning into my old illegal walkie-talkie radio station.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
There are certain things that every rational person agrees is good or bad. All but psychotics and sociopaths would agree that thievery and murder are bad. And almost everyone agrees that having a good deal of wealth is better than living in poverty.
Those situations can be viewed from an objective standpoint. But even some subjective viewpoints can be generally agreed to by the vast majority of people. For example, almost everyone agrees that the sight of the Grand Canyon is awe inspiring. On the other hand, most folks would look with disgust at a puddle of fresh vomit.
What is most interesting, however, is that there are works of art or pieces of music that some people consider to be aesthetically very pleasing while others find them abhorrent.
Consider a famous painting such as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, for example. It is obviously appreciated by most art connoisseurs. And there must have been some reason for it to become a priceless work. But if someone unfamiliar with the painting were to view it, he or she might very well consider it quite ordinary. What quality or qualities about a work of art make it pleasing, or expensive?
The same is true of music. Some people love listening to the classics, such as the masterpieces of Mozart and Hayden. Others find them boring. It probably depends on what aspect of music one finds most enjoyable: beat, rhythm, melody, etc.
For example, I find most music that is played on any Top-40 radio station abhorrent. But obviously the majority of music listeners enjoy it or else it wouldn’t be in the top 40. To me, most modern Pop and Country music is simplistic and trite.
I also tend to really loathe songs about certain subjects, regardless of the genre. For example, I really can’t stand songs about vehicles. There were a lot of early Pop songs written about hot rods, and there still is a lot of Country music written about pickup trucks.
I also can’t stand songs written about or for dances. That would include songs like Do the Twist, Do the Locomotion, The Bump, or Do the Watoobee. And I also find songs written about a specific genre of music very uninspired, such as Old Time Rock and Roll, C-O-U-N-T-R-Y, or that old Country song from the ‘70s, Kindly Keep it Country.
It’s not that I only enjoy songs with more substantive value; I also like a few with frivolous lyrics. But I generally prefer music that requires some semblance of imagination.
With paintings, though, imagination is not a requirement. I like realism in a painting. I can understand Impressionism and admit it takes talent to pull it off, but when looking at a painting, I prefer the ones that appear almost photographic.
In art and music, as in religion and politics, there is lots of room for personal preferences. I guess that’s a good thing, because otherwise, there would be only one or two genres of music and all art would look the same.
For that reason, I guess I can admit that there is a place in the music world for Rap, as long as it doesn’t invade my ear space.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
When I was very young, I had no idea what the term meant. I thought it must have been just a single word: trickertreat. I didn’t find out until later, when I was an older kid and started going out on Halloween with my friends that I broke the term down for the first time into two concepts: getting treated or being tricked.
It was adult-sanctioned childhood extortion. What could be better?
Back in those days, if you didn’t provide the little fake ghouls with a treat, and a good treat at that, the kiddies would gladly soap your windows, toilet paper the tree out front, or throw eggs at your front door.
And it made no difference whatsoever whether or not you left your front porch light on as a welcome beacon. It made no difference whether or not you were even home. If the little extortionists went to your house and didn’t get a treat, you were in serious jeopardy of getting tricked.
Of course, the tricks were fairly benign. Soap washes off easily. Toilet paper decays away. And eggs are scrubbed off easily enough unless you allow them to get dry and hard. True vandalism, breaking windows, setting fires, destroying property, was rare.
Today, of course, the tradition is a little different. The rules of engagement have changed. Parents accompany their kids on their candy-seeking journey until they are almost too old to engage in such activity. And you never go to a house uninvited, one with the porch light off.
The term, trick-or-treat, has lost almost all of its former meaning. It virtually has become a single word. If kids come to your house and you’re out of candy, you can feel fairly safe that you won’t be tricked. Well, that is unless the trick-or-treaters are teenagers. Then all bets are off.
While younger kids and preteens offer little threat, teenagers often forgo the asking-for-a-treat part of the night in favor of concentrating on the tricks. They don’t need to dress like a dork and ask the neighbors for candy; their smaller siblings will provide a bounty for them.
And if you’re in certain larger cities, like Detroit, the tricks have often gotten out of hand. Older teens and even young adults find it amusing to go out on an arson spree on Halloween night. Thankfully, those kinds of serious tricks of outright vandalism are not common in most civilized neighborhoods.
I stopped trick-or-treating when I was about 12 or 13. These days, I often get visits from kids in their mid teens making their rounds. Some of them are simply taking their younger siblings around and so join in the act. Others go out in groups on their own.
Even so, I’ve been fortunate enough over the years not to have been tricked. My first year out of college I got my car egged. And there have been two or three less troublesome tricking events, but nothing major.
There was a time, back in the ‘80s, when the tide got turned and the treat givers started playing dangerous tricks on the costumed kids. Sharp objects such as pins and glass started showing up in apples and candy.
Although there have not been many reports of candy tampering in recent years, the incidence did spark a sense of heightened awareness by parents. More parents are checking the treat bag and more parents are taking their youngster around the neighborhood to trusted homes.
It’s just another way Halloween traditions have evolved over the years. We’ve come a long way from the ancient practice of beggars asking for soul cakes on Halloween in exchange for their prayers on behalf of the dearly departed. Today, a Snickers bar will do just fine.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
The college station was small and not very powerful. The AM side of the dial could be heard only on campus, but with a good radio and the right weather conditions, the FM signal could be picked up over much of Johnson County.
At first, the play lists were pretty much up to the DJ. There were genre guidelines, of course, but I could play whatever I liked. Back in those days, Country Music didn’t enjoy the popularity it does today, but that’s mostly what I played. It wasn’t cool, but it was better music than the assembly-line stuff that’s played on country stations today.
If I had my own radio show today, I would play jazz and the standard vocals. But I went the other way, opting to teach instead of broadcast.
These days, radio doesn’t play a big part of my life. I neither broadcast nor do I listen. I don’t know what has changed the most, radio and the music it plays, or my personal tastes. Either way, the stuff they play on most radio stations is not what I would play on my stereo system.
When I was in my teens, I listened to WIBC in Indianapolis a lot. They played a mix of popular songs. But mostly they played commercials. It was the bane of radio in the 1960s and ‘70s.
While in college, I listened to WIRE country AM. The DJs grew to be my on-air friends. Still, there were all those commercials. Typically, the station would play one song then air about three of four commercials. Then the DJ would talk for awhile before playing another song about 10 minutes following the last one.
In those days, most artists knew that if they wanted their song to be played on the radio, they would keep it below three minutes in length. That went for Pop and Country music.
Of course, there were those few progressive musicians that bucked the trend, such as Don McLean whose American Pie lasted well over seven minutes. Radio stations got around that flaw by playing only half of the song, then airing some commercials before finishing it.
These days, radio has caught on to what listeners were telling them. They play more music at a time. Oh, there are still plenty of commercials, but they are mostly lumped together in a five to seven minute block every half hour or so. In the mean time, the stations typically play at least three to five songs in a row without too much interruption.
That still doesn’t make the music worth listening to. Most stations play either Top-40 Pop or Country. I not only don’t like 95 percent of it, it actually upsets me that the majority of Americans would actually consider the stuff they play as real music. Of course, that’s just my opinion. The stations play what sells and most teenagers don’t care that their music is artistically anemic.
So I typically just leave the radio dial in neutral while listening to my personalized music on my favorite Internet radio station. It allows me to fine tune the music they play to exactly what I would play myself if I were still a DJ and had the freedom to make my own play lists.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
The other philosophy is that only the players who are more apt to provide a win for the team get to play. Coaches often send in weaker players only if the game has been wrapped up, or if there is no chance of pulling off a win late in the game.
Most coaches, parents, and psychologists would prefer the first philosophy. It’s only a kids’ game and it is far better to have fun with it than to take it too seriously.
But there comes a time, usually in high school, when student athletes must try out for the team, and only the better players are put on the field or the court, because by then, it’s more about the school, the team, and even the game than about individual players. After all, a lot of school pride and recognition comes from having a winning team.
And so it should be with academics.
When Pres. George W. Bush introduced his education policy to Congress back in 2001, the lawmakers passed his proposal, calling it the No Child Left Behind Act. The theory was, and is, that all children deserve an equal education and we must do whatever is necessary to provide that education for them all, regardless of ability or inclination to learn.
It sounds good. It sounds fair. It sounds like the right thing to do, at least on the surface.
But let’s face it; it’s not the right thing. It hasn’t worked and it isn’t working still. It not only has failed to provide equal and quality education for the underachievers and disadvantaged, it has gone a step further and diminished educational opportunities for the average and above-average students.
We must ask ourselves the basic question: Why do we educate our children in the first place? Ultimately, it is hoped that a better education will lead to better opportunities in the future. More education means better jobs and higher earnings.
Those assumptions are borne out by statistics. Students who stay in school and graduate earn more money over a lifetime than those who drop out, on the average. And students who graduate from college have a higher average salary than those who do not attend post-secondary schools.
But a good education is not only for the benefit of the individual. It is also for the good of society. That is why society pays for it. Even adults without children must pay school taxes, because all of society benefits from a well-educated public.
Bush’s No Child Left Behind program forces teachers and administrators to spend so much time, effort, and money trying to squeeze as much education as possible into those students who are not likely to ever contribute much to society that those more likely to learn are cheated.
Let’s face it, some students are going to end up in jail, on drugs, or become a burden on society. Some girls will become welfare mothers and baby factories no matter how much we attempt to rehabilitate them or educate them for the mainstream.
Our educational dollars and efforts would be far better spent helping the average and above average students develop their skills so that they can become productive members of society.
And that’s not to say we forget about the underachievers or those with mental disabilities. Of course we don’t. We do what we can, but we must realize there is only so much we can do without pilfering the resources used to educate the mainstream, those who will benefit most.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
A 12-year-old student gets out of school one afternoon and starts his trek home when he spots two of the school bullies that constantly harass him and other weaker students in his grade. They are on an approach vector and the young man starts to panic.
These bullies are not satisfied with just teasing him. In the past, they have attacked him physically, stolen money from him, and threatened his younger sister. He knows they are big trouble for him.
He remembers the cell phone in his backpack. He pulls it out of the side pocket and immediately dials his mom at home using speed dial. The bullies spot his phone activity and change direction. The mother, just a couple of blocks away in her car, speeds to his location. The young man is safe, thanks to his cell phone.
In a science classroom, a teacher is trying his best to educate the ninth graders in his charge about the periodic table of elements. In the back, a student has his book open and appears to be engaged in the assignment.
The teacher clandestinely strolls back to where the student is seated and spies a cell phone opened in his hands. The student is sending a text message to his girlfriend in social studies class down the hall. Despite appearances, he is completely off task.
School officials in most schools across the country, and here in Johnson County, cite the last scenario as an example of why they have banned cell phones in school. New York City schools have one of the most stringent anti-cell-phone rules in the country, and some parents are on the attack because of it.
Many parents would rather their children be allowed to carry cell phones while at school. While acknowledging that they should not be used during class time, and accepting the dolling out of punishment for such a violation, they claim cell phone possession should not be prohibited outright at school.
Indianapolis Public School bans all cell phones and other electronic devices, such as MP3 players, at school. Children are not supposed to have them in their possession.
Indiana had a state law that allowed for suspension from school for carrying cell phones or pagers. Edinburgh Community School Corp. still has such a policy on its books.
Detroit bans cell phones and the second offense means the student forfeits the phone to the school. Boston has changed its policy to allow cell phones in school, but not the use of them during class. Los Angeles has a similar policy.
In addition to the possibility that students may disrupt class with cell phones, schools point out that they are often stolen. And, some administrators claim that students have gotten by without them for hundreds of years, so there is no need to allow them now.
Humanity once got by just fine without cars or refrigerators, too.
Although cell phones can be misused and used at inappropriate times, the best solution would be to punish the offending behavior, not ban cell phones outright. I am both a parent and a teacher. I can see it from both sides.
I have confiscated cell phones from students trying to play games on them or send text messages during class. I have also seen students pull them out of their pocket merely to check the time. In those cases, I tell them to put them away because they are not allowed.
Cell phones can be life savers. They are one of the best personal security devices ever invented. And for schools to ban them outright simply because some students might misuse them is a sign the schools are out of step with reality and that their policies are anachronistic.
Sunday, October 01, 2006
On one episode of the Simpsons, little Lisa, bleeding heart that she is, decided she was no longer going to eat meat. Upon entering the cafeteria at her school, she asked the serving lady if each item she had on her plate had meat in it. The lady said yes to everything. “Does the bread have meat in it,” she asked. “Yes,” was the reply.
In desperation, Lisa finally asked her, “Is there anything that doesn’t have meat in it?” The grumpy serving line lady quipped, “You might try the meatloaf. It doesn’t have much meat in it.”
From late night talk show hosts to everyday students, cafeteria food is disparaged. Remember when Ronald Reagan wanted to include ketchup as a vegetable? Comedians had a field day with that one.
I, on the other hand, am not nearly so critical. Although I can’t say I am a big fan, I will admit that I have been served up several meals at various school cafeterias that were pretty darn delicious.
One example is the broccoli and cheese side dish they serve once in awhile at the school where I teach. It is one of the few places that cooks broccoli the way I like it, nice and soft.
When I was in first grade at Edinburgh I ate in the cafeteria for the first time. I took one bite of the mixed veggies and almost gagged. I boycotted the place until at least the third grade. After that, I don’t remember the food being so bad.
I especially liked the bread and butter sandwiches. They served them everyday. The serving ladies would always ask, “How many breads?” You could get between one and four sandwich triangles. I always got four.
No matter what else was being served, I could always count on those delicious sandwiches made from bread that was oh-so-soft, spread thinly with softened, but not melted, butter.
In college, we called our cafeteria Saga, because it was run by Saga Food Services. I think they still refer to it as Saga at Franklin College. That’s where my daughter is a junior; she complains often about the cafeteria food.
My biggest complaint, as I recall, was that their chocolate pudding was always lumpy. And I hated their eggplant dish. Other than that, everything was pretty good.
When I was attending school, they served food on real dishes, although plastic. We had to take our plates to the scrapers, students who scraped plates for free lunches.
Today, at my school, there are no real dishes. Everything is disposable, even the trays. Students just throw them away when they’re finished. And every kid gets a free lunch, although it costs me three bucks.
Going from a student in elementary school to high school to college and graduate school and then becoming a teacher, I’ve had to endure, or enjoy, school cafeteria food for most of my life.
One might think I would avoid the commercial cafeterias like MCL or Jonathan Byrd. But I can’t help it; I like what they serve most of the time. If you like your veggies overcooked and mushy and your meat filled with mystery filler, the cafeteria is the place to eat.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
Bush has made America a laughingstock of the world. We are an embarrassment to the civilized world. The United States, once a great leader of the world's democracies, has been relegated to the back burner of global civility and leadership.
Bush has also tarnished the office he holds. Once a symbol of America's liberty, the office of the president has lost its luster and will probably need years, if not decades, to rebuild its symbolism.
His absurd lack of mastery of the English language is but the tip of the iceberg, though most recognizable trait, of his ineptitude in office.
But don't let his infamous lack of leadership ability and stubbornness lull you into a false sense that everything will be alright when his term finally ends. He is the masthead of the growing religious right movement. He is also their poster boy.
The evangelical Christian fanatics have taken control of all three branches of the federal government and many state governments as well. Evangelical Christians are a menace to modern society, as they were in the Middle Ages and during the Crusades.
Sure, Islamists are more overtly dangerous to the world. But evangelical Christians are like snakes in the grass, or 1950s-style communists. They infiltrate slowly into schools and into the government, until they are ready to take total control and turn this country into a Christian theocracy, the antithesis of fundamentalist Islam.
What's at risk is the Constitution of the United States, a document that never mentions a thing about God or a Creator, much less Jesus Christ. Even the Declaration of Independence was edited to include the term "Creator" which was purposely omitted in the original draft.
Contrary to the baloney espoused by Christian fundamentalists, America was never founded on Christianity, but on liberty. Bush is doing his best, in the name of his main constituency, to undermine our Constitution and turn over the leadership of this country to the business of Christianity. And I say business on purpose, for that's what it really is.
And just as the German people were duped by Hitler into believing that they were the master race and the Jews were evil, American evangelicals have been duped into believing the superstitious nonsense of their businessman leadership that these are the end times and that they are the ones being persecuted by the godless liberals.
If Christian values were all it took to be civilized, why is it that secular nations like Japan and the Scandinavian counties have a much lower crime rate, less drug use, and less teen pregnancy than the near-theocratic Christian United States? And why is it that the more liberal blue states have a better-educated public with less teen pregnancy and less crime than most of the conservative red states?
The conservative Christians helped to put Bush in office. It is up to the freethinkers, the mainstream Christians, and the more educated members of society to rally themselves and vote in every election up until November 2008 to make sure that the successors of Bush and his cronies are finally eliminated from leadership roles.
It's going to be a long
Saturday, September 16, 2006
Parade? Was it that time of year again already? The Edinburgh Fall Festival had completely slipped my mind.
I always attend the festival, at least once during its run each year. I was happy my mom had decided to give me a call. So I called home and told my daughter to get ready, because we were going to see the parade.
It’s not that the parade itself is really spectacular or anything. I mean, I was at the Indy 500 Festival Parade last May and even it didn’t raise any goose bumps. And I knew what to expect; after all, I had attended the Fall Festival Parade almost every year since I was in high school.
You expect to see certain things in small-town parades that perhaps you wouldn’t see in the larger parades in cities. There are always the fire trucks, police cars, and other noise makers. There are high-school bands, cheerleaders, football players of various ages, and queen contestants.
In past years, there were kids on decorated bicycles or with dressed-up pets, but not this year. There were some pretty imaginative floats, though.
Of course, there are always the obligatory men with big hats driving tiny little cars. And it just wouldn’t be a parade if it weren’t for the classic cars and a few horses with men carrying flags.
What I have never been able to figure out, however, is why there are entries such as the semi truck. Seriously, I see enough of those annoying beasts on the Interstate without having to see and hear one in a parade.
Then there were the motorcycles. Big deal. And what about the occasional car or pickup truck that seems to have nothing special about it at all, other than maybe some giant tailpipes sticking in the air and a noisy muffler? The one I saw in the parade Saturday wasn’t even clean. Maybe it just joined the parade by cutting in at an intersection somewhere.
It’s not that I’m whining; I just don’t think the parade was so short or lacking in entries that commercial vehicles, motor cycles, and dirty loud pickup trucks spewing exhaust fumes had to be accepted.
Anyway, when the parade was over, we went over to the midway. It was pretty much the same as I remember from pervious years. There were lots of people and plenty of food booths.
I enjoy seeing folks I haven’t seen in a year or two. And on a nice day, the midway is so alive and colorful. It’s a nice atmosphere: The food odors, the game barkers, the screaming kids having fun on the rides. It’s what the festival is all about.
But I miss the nightly entertainment that used to bring in hundreds of people to participate in karaoke or show off their talent. Those events don’t happen on their own, though. It takes dedicated people willing to put in a lot of effort.
The fall festival has been a tradition in Edinburgh for more than 60 years. Different sponsors come and go. The quality of the affair waxes and wanes every few years. But it’s still a tradition I enjoy. And it doesn’t hurt that it takes place at the beginning of my favorite season of the year.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
The Town of Edinburgh is getting ready to upgrade its monitoring system just as Indianapolis plans to install its first set of security cameras.
The new system to be installed by year’s end in downtown Indianapolis is being funded by a grant of $1 million in federal homeland security money. The tiny cameras will point to street corners, sidewalks, and sports venues. Some of them will even be portable so that they can be taken to where they are needed most.
Cameras of this type were instrumental in helping to solve the London subway bombings. And they have been installed in other large cities in the U.S. over the past few years, some of them with software that can pick faces out of crowds that are on police databases.
There are still some groups who consider it a violation of privacy, especially if faces are compared to a database. But the benefits far outweigh any risks to personal privacy. If a person is walking a public sidewalk or attending a public event, that person has no expectation of privacy anyway. Privacy violations would only come into play if a government entity had cameras trained on private homes. And that isn’t happening, nor would it happen without a court order.
Private businesses have employed security cameras for decades, but more recently, they are everywhere. Once upon a time, only banks had old-fashioned film cameras installed over their doors. They were bulky things.
Now, minuscule cameras are hidden behind tinted domes in department stores or behind mirrored glass at ATMs. In some cities, cameras are mounted on streetlight posts at intersections so that they can snap a picture of cars that run red lights.
Even private homes now have security cameras that they can buy at places like Wal-Mart for less than $100. Two of them guard my house; one is out front trained on my porch and the other is out back looking at my garage.
The terrorism consultant hired by the City of Indianapolis says that the city’s new camera system will not only get a bird’s-eye view of potential terrorists, but will catch people engaged in petty crimes as well. And with the violent crime rate hitting a high this summer in the capital city, it is about time a high-tech solution was put into play to help prevent it in the future.
The images can also be streamed over the Internet, so that law enforcement agencies that have an interest can monitor the situation from anyplace.
It might elicit shades of George Orwell’s “1984,” but there is a big difference. Government officials aren’t interested in whether anyone is complying with directives from Big Brother while in the privacy of their own homes, but in the scofflaws that make the rest of us uneasy when we go out at night.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
“Either repent (your) misguided ways and enter into the light of truth or … suffer the consequences in this world and the next.”
The speaker was introduced as a man of faith who wants to bring his people out of the darkness and into the light. His message was called “an invitation.”
On the other hand, those who oppose this man called his message “propaganda.”
Is this man a Christian missionary in another country, a TV evangelist in America, or an American who has converted to Islam? If you answered the latter, you would be correct.
His name is Adam Yahiye Gadahn, also known as Azzam the American, who is from California but who is now a respected voice of al Qaeda. In fact, his video message, titled An Invitation to Islam, was introduced by al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahri.
“Our brother Azzam the American is speaking to you out of pity for the fate that awaits (unbelievers) and as someone who wants to lift his people out of darkness and into the light,” al-Zawahri said in his introduction to the video.
Of course, Gadahn’s words could have been spoken by a Christian missionary or even a TV evangelist. The rhetoric is pretty much the same. And to those who oppose those religious views, the speaker could be accused of being a propagandist. And, in fact, the FBI wants Gadahn for questioning. They called his video tape propaganda.
Imagine for a moment that a Muslim in Iraq, Iran, or any one of the Middle Eastern theocracies were to convert to Christianity and start spreading the Gospel in his native land.
I’m sure he would be wanted by the authorities of his country, too. He would certainly be questioned, and then probably executed for heresy. And, although the FBI doesn’t want to execute Gadahn for producing a proselytizing video tape, the parallel is striking.
Gadahn appealed to Americans to adopt a hands-off policy toward Islamic nations. “But whatever you do don't attempt to spread your misery and misguidance to our lands,” he said.
Most Americans, particularly Christians, view Muslims as misguided, in misery, and in need of salvation. Gadahn wanted to set that assumption straight, too. “Those who think that democracy is synonymous with freedom are either people who haven't experienced life in America or Americans who haven't lived abroad,” he said.
Now, before anyone starts thinking that I’ve converted to Islam or even that I’m pro-Gadahn, let me set the record straight. I believe Gadahn is a propagandist for al Qaeda. Although some of what he said was true enough, his motive was subversion.
At the same time, his message forces thoughtful people to consider the motives of America’s leaders as we encroach upon the sovereignty of nations whose forms of government run on different sets of paradigms. It also should open the eyes of the evangelicals that there are others in the world who hold their own religion as dear and true, and they have their own holy books to back up their faiths.
So many wars have been fought over issues of faith throughout history, wars that could have been avoided if believers would simply have acknowledged that perhaps other faiths are just as authentic and genuine as their own.
And modern holy wars and threats of terrorism could also be avoided by accepting that, perhaps, belief systems are not as black and white as one might imagine. Or maybe, we should realize that all belief systems are archaic artifacts of our human civilization and that we all might be better off by stripping them from society once and for all.
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Actually, when I was growing up, computers were owned by governments and big corporations. They were often the butt of jokes on sitcoms of the 1960s and ‘70s.
But in 1969, Americans were awed by the spectacle of a human-built spacecraft landing on the surface of the moon. Many were also struck by the fact that an onboard computer did much of the work during that descent.
The computer on board the Eagle was nowhere near as powerful as even a handheld scientific calculator of today. But it didn’t have to be. It had one basic job to do and it did it well.
It wasn’t until a decade later that computers were small and cheap enough for me to be able to afford one. It was my fourth year out of college. I was teaching upstate in Goshen and I decided to take out a small loan and purchase the first TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack. It cost $699 including a black-and-white monitor and a portable cassette recorder for storing the data.
It had no disk drives and the computer itself was built into the keyboard unit. And it had a whopping four kilobytes of memory. For those who are not that familiar with computer terminology, that’s enough memory to store about 4,000 keystrokes. The memory card in my digital camera has the capacity to store the equivalent of half a billion keystrokes. And most modern desktop computers can store about two billion keystrokes in their onboard memory.
In the early 1980s, Timex-Sinclair came out with a tiny computer that was somewhat smaller than most of today’s laptops. It had a membrane keyboard but you had to connect it to a television set to view its output. A cassette recorder was needed to store programs.
It was tiny, but it was also fairly useless, as was the TRS-80. The radio shack computer could play some games. And I liked to program it in the BASIC language that I picked up in college. But the Timex-Sinclair with its one kilobyte of memory could do very little.
Those early computers were primarily for hobbyists. There was really not much practical reason to own one. Some of them had productivity software that could, say, calculate your taxes, but very few people actually trusted them at the time.
In the mid-1980s a format war erupted between those who liked Apple computers and those who liked the IBM-compatible PCs. IBM allowed other companies to clone their PCs, but Apple strictly protected their proprietary system. The result was that PCs flourished and Apple’s sales sagged.
There is still a dichotomy of preference today over which is better, the Macintosh, a descendent of the early Apples, or the PC. Most businesses and household users prefer PCs because they are cheaper and will run more software. But Macs are more prevalent in schools, with graphic designers, and among those who can afford to pay extra for styling and simplicity.
To me, it’s still fascinating that I can sit here in my easy chair, typing on my laptop, and knowing that I have far more computing capability in my lap than was on board the early space shuttles.
That fascination seems to be lost to the younger generation who grew up with computers and think nothing of them except as just another tool or game machine. Yes, that’s what they are designed for, but I am still fascinated by them and how far they’ve come since that first TRS-80 I tinkered with.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
When the Shaw was deposed and Islamic fundamentalists took over control of the country, student militants quickly took 66 American diplomats and citizens hostage at the U.S. embassy. The crisis lasted 14 months, with a symbolic ending when they were released after Pres. Ronald Reagan was sworn in.
Although there was a period of time when U.S.-Iranian relations seemed to be relaxing, those days are over. With a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is firmly in the camp of Islamic fundamentalists and who has a plan to bring his country into the nuclear age, Iran and Washington have done nothing but engage in inflammatory rhetoric.
Iran wants to build nuclear power plants. I don’t know why since it is the world’s third largest producer of oil, but that’s what Ahmadinejad says he wants to do. He claims his uranium enrichment program is not meant to create fuel for use in nuclear weapons.
But that is exactly what the U.S. fears Iran’s nuclear program will spawn, weapons of mass destruction that can be aimed at America’s buddy, Israel.
So with Iran staunchly refusing to give up its uranium enrichment program and the U.S. firmly dedicated to stopping it from proceeding, the matter ended up where most such impasses get a hearing, the U.N. Security Council.
The Security Council comprises 15 members, including five permanent members and 10 elected members that serve two-year terms. Any one of the five permanent members, including the U.S., Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and China, can veto any resolution simply by voting no to it.
And, by virtue of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the five permanent members are the only country’s allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Of course, other countries do, but that’s because they either pulled out of the treaty or because they haven’t admitted to possessing nuclear weapons.
So when a country, especially a third-world country like Iran, makes nuclear overtures, the Security Council invariably must get involved.
Iran is a signatory to the treaty. However, the treaty itself is weakened by a clause that allows nations to leave the treaty if it is in their national interest to do so. Iran has not petitioned to leave.
In fact, Ayatolla Ali Khamene’i has issued a fatwa that prohibits his country from producing, stockpiling, or using nuclear weapons. And the treaty does allow signatory nations to develop nuclear technology for peaceful uses.
U.N. inspectors have not turned up any evidence that refutes Iran’s claim that their nuclear enrichment program is for anything other than clean energy. But the Bush administration isn’t buying it, just as it didn’t accept the U.N.’s contention that showed Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.
So Bush is now pushing for sanctions against Iran and for the freezing of its assets, a move that could trigger a retaliatory cutback in oil output by Iran. And that would send gasoline prices even higher.
The Security Council members are not in agreement over sanctions. The U.S. wants them; Britain and France are not quite sold on the idea, and Russia and China are firmly against sanctions at this time.
The fact is, however chilling a nuclear-armed Iran would be, there is no more evidence that Iran is making nuclear weapons than that Iraq was making them prior to the ongoing war we now have with that country.
Now Bush wants to form yet another coalition of the willing to enact sanctions against Iran for doing nothing more than what it has the right to do as a sovereign nation under Security Council rules.
Not only is Bush an obstinate, unyielding leader who believes that he has a better grasp on reality than all the rest of the nations of the U.N. and who would like nothing better than to turn this country into a Christian theocracy, he also seems not to be able to learn even the simplest lessons of history. So here we go again.
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Before that, back in ancient times, astrologers looked to the night sky and thought they saw images of animals, people, or gods that were familiar to them. What they saw as the tail of a great bear, we typically see as the Big Dipper. The identity of the image mainly depends on who’s doing the looking.
In California last week a candy maker, Martucci Angiano, who runs Bodega Chocolates, thought she saw a figure in the chocolate drippings underneath a vat of chocolate. She believed it bore a resemblance to the Virgin Mary.
Melted chocolate sometimes drips onto wax paper beneath the vats. Typically, they do not produce anything but random patterns. Last week, though, Martucci noticed the figure produced by the drippings and thought it resembled the image of Mary as depicted on her prayer card.
She said she always had believed in the Holy Virgin, but this image was striking to her. It quickly caught the attention of her workers.
One of the kitchen workers said it was a sign. Another claimed it renewed his faith in God that had been waning due to hardships in his life recently.
Martucci’s chocolate boutique is a gourmet shop that features booths at star-studded events, such as the Emmys and the Golden Globes. She is used to meeting famous people. But she said she felt especially struck by this two-inch mound of chocolate.
My question is, are people really so starved for faith in the supernatural that they can see images of saints and deities in everything? Over the past several years, the mother of God has appeared as a road salt stain on a bridge abutment, as a film on the outside of a Florida office building, and on a piece of toast that was sold on eBay for hundreds of dollars.
Workers at the boutique spent most of the day praying to the little chunk of chocolate, placing rose petals around it, and lighting candles next to it. The owner delicately wrapped it and preserved it under refrigeration, and shows it to those who request to see it.
To me, the tiny confectionary statue is clearly the image of a sleeping owl. Maybe it’s a sign we should be spending more time trying to save the spotted owl. It makes as much sense as whatever alternative sign the randomly-produced drippings might evoke.
For one thing, nobody knows what the real Mary looked like. We don’t even know what her son, Jesus, looked like. Yet everybody can recognize the Europeanized version of his likeness wherever it is displayed.
Both Mary and her son were Middle Eastern Jews. They would have looked like any other Middle Eastern Jew of the era, rather short, dark skinned, black hair, prominent proboscis.
The images we recognize were created by early European Catholics, so they look like handsome Europeans. And so, when we happen to see one of the random images in the clouds, the stars, on a building, or in a chocolate dripping, what we’re really worshipping is the image produced by some European artist who was simply trying to please his pope and his ruling dictator, Constantine.
And if another image of a holy figure appears in a piece of candy, someone should simply shrug, eat it, and say that godly figure was delicious. It’s not blasphemy; it’s simply common sense.
Saturday, August 19, 2006
If you were awake during any science class from the second grade on, you know the answer to that question is nine. More people are probably aware of the number of planets in our solar system than are aware of the number of continents on Earth. That number is seven.
But by Friday of this week, there is a very good chance that the number of officially-recognized planets will have changed. No, none of them are going to fly off into interplanetary space nor fall into the sun. And new ones are not going to be created via some Velikovskyan collision of worlds.
Rather, the International Astronomical Union has proposed a new definition for planet. The proposal will not really change the official definition, since there has never actually been an official astronomical definition of the word, only a popular one.
It seems rather unusual for scientists of any discipline to have never officially defined a term they have used for hundreds of years, but so it is with planet. But a committee of the IAU has now proposed a definition, one which the American Astronomical Society fully supports. Their recommendation will be debated this week at the IAU general assembly in Prague, with a vote expected on Thursday.
If the full body accepts the recommendation, as expected, then every new science textbook will need to be updated with a new count for the number of planets in the solar system. And every school child from now on will have to learn that there are eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
That’s right; Pluto will likely be downgraded by the new planetary definition. It will, instead, become a pluton, a new term that defines an object that is larger than a comet or an asteroid, but not big enough to be a full-fledged planet.
Most students now learn that Pluto has a single moon, called Charon. But that will also change. Since Charon and Pluto are so similar in size and they both orbit a common center of gravity that is in space between the two bodies, the correct term for the pair will be a double pluton.
The asteroid Ceres will also be a pluton, as will the newly discovered planetary object orbiting far beyond Pluto, unofficially named Xena. At least a couple dozen other very large asteroids may be reclassified as plutons as well.
So what is the newly-proposed official definition of a planet? If the proposal is accepted, a planet will be defined as “a celestial body that has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium shape and is in orbit around a star and is neither a star, nor a satellite of a planet.” In other words, it has to be big enough to have enough gravity to hold itself together as a sphere.
It certainly is esoteric-sounding enough to be a scientific definition. I’m not sure most lexicographers would accept it as being in standard form, though, since it actually uses the word planet in the definition of the word planet. Otherwise, it seems accurate enough. It is the definition that I have supported for years even before I knew anyone was trying to define a planet, although I would have used fewer words.
So, with the crack of a gavel or the show of hands, or however they do votes at the IAU general assembly, the world view of the solar system will be all new. Our solar system will now be taught as the sun, around which orbit eight planets, four plutons, and hundreds of thousands of comets and asteroids.
It’s striking to contemplate that we Earthlings may be the only beings in the entire universe to know about the drastic change in the solar system, or to care.
Sunday, August 13, 2006
Well, not the Ghost Busters. But you might consider calling on a group of paranormal investigators from the Edinburgh and Columbus area to do a workup of your property in order to rule out or confirm your suspicions of paranormal activity.
Three brothers and a friend of theirs, all of whom are interested in the paranormal based on personal experience and interest, formed Hoosier Paranormal Research in 2005. Since then, they have traveled to many destinations with their modern electronic ghost-hunting equipment to verify the existence of spirits or apparitions.
On their Web site, hoosierparanormal.com, they claim their mission is to, “…investigate allegations of ghostly or paranormal activity and to help people better understand it.”
The three brothers are also brothers of mine, and they have invited me along on their ghost-hunting adventures. Being an unwavering skeptic, I’ve always declined their invitations, so I do not know by first-hand experience what ghost hunting is like. But to the Hoosier Paranormal researchers, it is both fascinating and, occasionally, mystifying.
Robert and Ken Wilson from Edinburgh along with their brother Greg from Columbus and friend Shanon from Columbus make up the Hoosier Paranormal Research group. Shanon doesn’t wan’t to reveal his last name because he is involved in a church group that might not understand his paranormal research hobby.
Ken became interested in the paranormal after seeing what he describes as a well-dressed old man sitting in a chair in the living room where he had been asleep on the couch. He claims to have been wide awake when he saw the image. It was very unnerving for him.
Greg’s interest in the paranormal began in the mid-1990s at his former residence. He kept hearing strange noises in the other room. Although he never really felt in danger, it did kindle an interest in ghostly phenomena.
Robert had never experienced a paranormal event prior to his association with the research team, but he has always taken an interest in the paranormal, reading all he could find about the subject.
Shanon’s interest in the paranormal began in his first home back in the early 1990s. He tells of how items would continually come up missing; clocks would start and stop without explanation, and pets would exhibit strange behavior. He even occasionally saw a shadow of a small child out of the corner of his eye.
Since the four men teamed up to start ghost hunting, they have performed research at several private residences, the Crump Theater in Columbus, the Story Inn in Brown County, and the Gettysburg battlefield in Gettysburg, Pa. They have visited several cemeteries in the state.
They will make a presentation to the public at the Bartholomew County Public Library in October. And they are scheduled to do an investigation of the Willard Library in Evansville next year. So the group keeps rather busy chasing down spirits and such.
During their investigations, they have captured images of lights and orbs that they can’t explain. They also have several recordings of EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, which they offer for download on their Web site.
The team’s members are quick to point out that, although each of them believes in paranormal phenomena, they first seek to discover natural causes for anything unusual they find. They do not try to prove that an unidentified phenomenon is of paranormal origin until they can first rule out all natural explanations.
The group does not charge a fee for their services and they do not perform exorcisms or try to rid the property of ghosts. But they claim they can put people in contact with those who can help in that area.
They get satisfaction out of helping their clients understand what is going on in their house or business. And ultimately, they claim what they do is a great amount of fun.
Saturday, August 12, 2006
That’s the plot being perpetrated by the oil industry. We all know the oil industry’s profits have soared over the past couple of years. And we all know the oil exporting companies have reaped a giant windfall because of the inflated prices. And yet, when the price seems to drop a few pennies and stabilize for a couple of weeks, we still feel relief.
And that’s what the industry wants the consumers to feel. Gasoline has been roughly stable at just under three dollars a gallon for the past month or so. It’s far too high a price to pay, but when it spikes at $3.19 and then comes back down a few days later, we smile and pay it.
Now that British Petroleum has decided to close down the Alaskan pipeline due to corrosion, even though a small minority of our oil comes from that source, it will surely be the next excuse the oil industry will use to hike prices yet again.
If motorists are reluctantly willing to pay three dollars a gallon for fuel, it’s high time that fuel was switched to something other than imported petroleum. Indiana produces a great deal of coal. Although coal cannot be used to power internal combustion engines per se, it can be converted into a petroleum-like product through a process known as coal gasification. This can then be refined to produce gasoline that can power our vehicles.
Then there is ethanol. Indiana produces a lot of corn, and corn is one crop that can be used to produce ethanol, a type of alcohol that can be mixed with gasoline to power a so-called flex fuel vehicle. Flex fuel vehicles are becoming more common.
Gov. Mitch Daniels wants state vehicles to be flex fuel vehicles. He wants more ethanol plants to be built in the state. There have already been 11 built in the last year, with the twelfth and largest being built in Mount Vernon.
In the mean time, Wal-Mart is considering selling E85, the fuel mixture containing 85 percent ethanol, at its out-lot gas stations. If that happens, drivers will have ready access to the new fuel mixture nationwide.
Ethanol is not the perfect fuel. It is non-polluting and it burns efficiently enough. But some energy analysts claim it takes as much or more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol as we ultimately get from it. However, once mass production truly starts, and we begin using switch grass and corn stems to make ethanol instead of the grain itself, the energy balance should swing to the positive side.
Daniel’s energy plan, which also includes using more clean-burning coal from Indiana, will not only mean more abundant energy, but it will result in the creation of more Hoosier jobs. Indiana now gets only half its coal from within the state.
Of course, his plan has its critics, mainly from the Democrats. They say it’s a plan for the future, but that consumers need help now. They want the governor to eliminate the gasoline sales tax.
The problem with a sales tax on gasoline is that it is taken as a direct percent of total sales. That means the state gets more money when the price of gas is three dollars per gallon than when it was two dollars. In other words, as the price of gas goes up, the state reaps a windfall from its own consumers.
If the governor believes the state needs to maintain a sales tax, he should introduce a plan to the General Assembly that would charge sales tax based on the gallons consumed, not the price per gallon. In that way, the up-and-down vacillation in gasoline prices would not cause an equal swing in the amount of sales tax paid.
But at least the state is planning for its energy future. So are the country’s automakers, who have said they plan to produce more flex fuel vehicles in the coming years. And if giant national chains like Wal-Mart agree to start selling E85, it will eventually mean we will have relatively abundant fuel that won’t pollute the environment.
It will still cost three dollars a gallon or more. But we seem to be used to that price by now.
Monday, August 07, 2006
One of my favorite parts of the movie was when Farrell’s character said grace at the table. It was an in-your-face satire of the Bible Belt, and one that is well overdue.
Ted Baehr reviewed the film on Movieguide.org, which claims it is a, “… ministry dedicated to redeeming the values of the mass media according to biblical principles, by influencing entertainment industry executives and helping families make wise media choices.”
Baehr took no prisoners. He hated the film and called for a boycott of it, saying, “A satire of the NASCAR racing scene, the movie is a racist, bigoted work that ridicules the Bible Belt, Southern white men, Christianity, Jesus Christ, the family, and American masculinity.”
But it was drop-dead funny. And if the southern conservatives can’t take a little ribbing, then let them make a film making fun of mainstream intelligent Americans.
Baehr also had this to say of Farrell. “Apparently, Will Farrell, who co-wrote the movie, is saying that anyone who believes in such moral absolutes, such as the biblical admonitions against fornication and homosexuality, or the moral superiority of Christianity, is an idiot.”
I don’t know what Mr. Farrell has to say about that, but I’ll come right out and say it myself. Anyone who does believe in the moral superiority of Christianity and in the concept of absolute morality is either exceptionally ignorant or an incredibly self-righteous pompous ass, like Baehr.
Saturday, August 05, 2006
A study by researchers at the University of Leicester in England compared 174 countries, using 100 different social and economic indexes, to come up with a happiness index. The researchers then listed the countries in order of happiness based on this index.
The happiest country in the world is Denmark. The least happy is Burundi in Africa. The United States came in fairly happy at number 23. The United Kingdom was only moderately happy with a ranking of 41.
The study found a correlation between how happy a person rated his or her life and three main variables. What affected happiness most was a country’s health care system, the gross domestic product per capita, and the educational system.
“There is a belief that capitalism leads to unhappy people. However, when people are asked if they are happy with their lives, people in countries with good healthcare, a higher GDP per capita, and access to education were much more likely to report being happy,” said study author Adrian White.
Of course, the researchers also concluded that there is a connection among these three variables as well. “The three predictor variables of health, wealth and education were also very closely associated with each other, illustrating the interdependence of these factors,” White said.
In general, happier countries tended to be more capitalistic. But the countries of the former Soviet Union are quite unhappy. Perhaps they are pining for the old dicatorship, or maybe they just haven’t gotten their new-found capitalism fine tuned enough yet.
Among the happiest 50 percent of the countries, there also seemed to be some correlation with religion. The top 10 happiest countries generally had a higher percentage of people who did not belong to any particular religion. Only about 25 percent of Denmark’s population believe in God, for example. Switzerland, Austria, and Iceland, which are among the top five happiest countries, also have a low rate of religousity.
The Scandinavian Countries, all in the top 10, are decidedly non-religious. And Canada, which ranked number 10 in happiness, has a far greater percentage of people who claim no religion than the U.S.
But it certainly isn’t a single factor that determines happiness. Japan, for example, ranked fairly high in the three leading factors with an average life expectancy of 82, a high degree of education and a relatively high GDP per capita. Yet the Japanese tend to be very unhappy. Japan ranked 90 in the study.
Communist countries tended to have fairly unhappy people, as would be expected. But it would be interesting to compare the happiness level of the former Soviet Union with what it used to be when it was a communist country.
The most unhappy people in the world, by far, are the African nations. The happiest country in the whole of Africa is Nambia, which ranked 74. The five most unhappy nations are in Africa.
Most Islamic countries in the Middle East are not happy at all. The exceptions are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait. Of those, only the UAE is happier on average than the U.S. with a ranking of 22.
The Leicester study was the first comprehensive study of its type. So it cannot be compared with any historical accounts of happiness.
It would also be fascinating to see how the happiness level of the U.S. changed as different presidents came into office. For example, were we as a nation happier when Clinton was in office or are we happier now with Bush?
I think I know how most Americans would answer that question.
Friday, August 04, 2006
I dine out a lot, typically at least once a day. And, although I have my favorite restaurants, I do like to mix it up now and then. But there is one thing I’ve learned about restaurant-prepared broccoli and other fresh vegetables; restaurants tend to undercook them.
It’s not just broccoli, although broccoli tends to be undercooked more often than most other side dishes. Sometimes cooked green beans come back a little on the crisp side. And carrots are seldom prepared to perfection. Even cooking spinach is problematic.
No I don’t have a broccoli fetish, nor do I have an obsession with it. It’s just one of those little things in life that can become annoying when it happens over and over again. And I have been served undercooked broccoli often enough that I have decided to do something about it.
First let me say that I do like raw broccoli, in salads or as a dipping veggie. I don’t eat much of it because it tends to be a little too hard for my personal taste. But I have nothing against it, per se.
But when cooked, I want my veggies, including broccoli, to be soft. I don’t want even the slightest hint of crispness. I don’t want to hear it crunch in my mouth. I even want the stems to be so tender that I can easily squish them in my mouth with my tongue.
To me, that’s how broccoli should be prepared. But in restaurants, it seldom is. Restaurants almost always undercook their broccoli and overcook their fish. It must be some unspoken restaurant rule.
I believe people from different parts of the country have varying expectations for their cooked vegetables. I used to watch a PBS cooking show called the Frugal Gourmet (back before cable gave me more options) whose host insisted that vegetables and most meats, should not really be cooked at all, but merely threatened with heat.
He was from Washington State. Yet he related a story of how his mother used to cook vegetables in a pot until they would literally fall apart. He scoffed at her cooking methods, but I would have rather eaten one of her vegetable dishes than his.
Especially in soups, broccoli and other vegetables should be completely tender. I went to a restaurant in downtown Indy the other day and ordered their broccoli cheese soup. The stock was delicious. But the broccoli seemed to have been added after the soup was cooked.
At a famous spaghetti restaurant they offer a side dish of broccoli. Every time I order it, I tell them to steam it well done. And so far, I’ve had to send it back every time. Once I had to send it back twice. The second time the waiter told me, “This is as well done as the cook says he can make it.” It was barely cooked within acceptable parameters, so I didn’t have to ask him what he meant by that remark. No matter how well done it is, you can always cook it longer.
In fact, from now on, when I order a side dish of broccoli, I usually just tell the server to inform the chef that when he thinks the broccoli is perfect, steam it at least another minute.
Maybe I’m the only one who likes his veggies cooked to a very tender condition, but I don’t think so. I think most people just go ahead and crunch away, though they would prefer not to have to.
If you agree, or even if you don’t, post a reply to this entry. Maybe I’m in the minority.
Sam Gugino, a cook and author agrees with me. On his Web site, he says, regarding cooking broccoli, “And don't undercook it because, well, because raw or undercooked broccoli just doesn't taste very good.” And its mouth feel just doesn’t go with the rest of the meal.
So if there are any restaurateurs reading this column, please, for my sake, cook your veggies. Otherwise, to me, it’s just like eating a hot salad.
Saturday, July 22, 2006
What is also inevitable, unfortunately, is that our so-called free education system will be charging parents exorbitant fees for textbook rental. A family with three school-aged children in various grades might expect to pay more than $500 or $600 for textbook rental fees. It doesn’t sound free to me.
Approximately 30 percent of school families will have the rental fees waived. That’s because these families qualify for free or reduced price lunches because their total family incomes are below federal guidelines. But the remaining 70 percent of families with kids in school must fork over the full amount of the rental.
In a 2001 policy statement the Indiana Department of Education laid forth reasons why Indiana should remain one of only 10 states that force their school children to pay fees for mandatory textbooks. In other words, their conclusion was that the vast majority of states must be doing it the wrong way.
At the time the policy statement was issued, the Indiana General Assembly was considering a measure to pay for all mandatory textbook fees with tax dollars. But the DOE nixed that idea.
The biggest reason cited for not supporting tax-funded textbooks was the cost. In 2000 Indiana’s expenditure for school textbooks to low-income families exceeded $16 million. The DOE estimate was that if textbooks were supplied free to all one million Hoosier students the cost would skyrocket to $74 million, and would continue to escalate every year due to inflation.
But in the big scheme of state expenditures, the difference between 16 and 74 million is not that crucial. It might be if the new expense were for something inconsequential, but the education of Indiana’s school children is of the utmost importance and should never be the target of penny-pinching.
A DOE survey that led up to the policy statement showed that, in many states that have no textbook rental, books were sometimes 10 years old and in poor shape. The study also found that not every student had access to some textbooks.
Although that might be true, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a matter of proper implementation of policy. In states that allow their textbooks to become antiquated or that purchase less-than-adequate supplies of books, the effort should focus on improving their funding formulas. It’s a problem that doesn’t have to happen in Indiana.
Another concern by the DOE is that in states where students receive their textbooks for free, they are less likely to take care of them. As a teacher myself, I know that students in Indiana don’t always take care of their textbooks either. And regardless of whether the books are paid for by parents or by taxpayers in general, students who lose or abuse their textbooks are still charged for the damage. It’s a non-issue.
The 2000 survey showed that four states paid for textbooks from state funds. The remaining states without rental fees paid for books with a combination of state and local funding. And even in some of the 10 states that have rental fees for textbooks, the state chips in a little so the parent doesn’t have to foot the entire bill.
But in Indiana, the onus is entirely on the parents. And that is bad policy.
Taxpayers who do not have children may complain that they should not have to help to pay for books for other people’s children. But they are paying for the tuition. The state constitution mandates a free education for all children because the framers recognized that educating our children is important for all of society.
A well-educated public is a public that enjoys a higher standard of living, less crime, and longer life expectancies. If the state mandates that all children be educated at state expense, it only makes sense that it should also pay for textbooks that are mandatory to achieving that education.