Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Year that Was 2006, part 2

Last week I started a retrospective of the year 2006 as perceived by me in my Over Coffee columns. I made it through June. So this week, while sitting in yet another coffee shop drinking a large decaf sugar-free vanilla latte with cinnamon, I’ll finish out the year.

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

The Year that Was 2006, part 1

I’m sitting here on the morning of Christmas Eve in a coffee shop in downtown Indianapolis, listening to my favorite mp3 play list. I would rather listen to Christmas carols, but I didn’t get the chance to upload any.

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

Trial for Global Warming

So is this global warming stuff real and, if so, will people in Edinburgh be affected by it?

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

The True Meaning of Christmas - Really?

There are fewer than two weeks until Christmas and the shopping season is in full swing, as judged by the difficulty in finding a parking spot at one of the malls or discount stores. There is something very special about this season on many different levels.

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.