Saturday, December 29, 2007

My Wish List for 2008

When New Year’s Day has come and gone I wonder how many resolutions will have already been broken. It’s one reason I don’t like making resolutions. It’s for the same reason I rarely make promises. Despite one’s best intentions, sometimes the saying is far easier than the doing.

But that doesn’t stop me from creating a wish list for the coming year. I did that last year, and as stated in my last column, very few of my wishes for 2007 were granted. Still, there was some progress on a couple. So I’ve decided to keep wishing for what I listed last year and add a few new wishes for 2008.

These, of course, represent things that I wish would come to pass. Others’ opinions will vary. Opinions are like, well, bowel movements. Everybody has them.

My first, but not necessarily most important wish for the coming year is for everyone to stop writing checks at the checkout stand. It’s woefully annoying to those standing in line behind the offender.

Don’t people understand that debit cards can be used exactly like checks, but they are much faster and easier? While waiting in line a Wal-Mart yesterday, I found myself in the express lane behind a middle-aged woman who was writing a check and conversing with the cashier at the same time. After writing in the name of the store, the amount, the date, and signing her name, she had to wait while the clerk ran it through the printer and then check her identification.

When it was my turn, I swiped my debit card while the clerk scanned my items. When she was finished, I was finished. All she had to do was give me my receipt. For those who like recording their transactions in a check registry, you can still do that. Just drop the stupid checks, please.

My second wish for 2008 is for people who haven’t mastered the nuances of driving to just stay off the road. I get tired of waiting behind people turning left at one of those traffic signals that have a left-turn arrow, but no red light for the turn. The rule of thumb is, if you don’t see a red light, you can go ahead and turn if there is no oncoming traffic. You don’t have to sit there and wait for the next green arrow.

Next on my list of wishes is one for education. I wish religious groups would stop trying to infiltrate public schools with their dogma.

There is nothing they won’t try. One evangelical organization has even built a fine museum in Kentucky. Its exhibits look as though they are based on real scientific principles. But nothing could be further from the truth. Everything in the museum, no matter how scientific it looks, is based on Scripture, which has no corroborating evidence other than itself.

If conservatives want to build shrines to their religion, that’s fine. Just label them as religious institutions so that children and naïve adults won’t get confused.

That brings me to my last wish for the coming year, one that admittedly is a pipe dream more than a bona fide wish. But I’ll wish it anyway.

I wish that all fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, or some other belief system based on the supernatural that also has a fundamentalist element would simply admit that everything they preach is nothing more than what I’m writing here, an opinion.

People ask me why I’m against religion so much. I tell them that I have no problem with people believing in whatever supernatural force they wish. It’s America and we have the freedom to believe in anything, or not.

My problem is that, although none of these fundamentalists have a problem saying their belief system is based on faith, they still insist that it is absolute truth. It’s fine to believe something to be true without evidence; it’s quite another thing, however, to call it factual.

Faith is what you believe without facts or evidence. You just choose to believe it, for whatever reason. Almost by definition, then, faith is opinion, because it is not support by facts or evidence.

I wouldn’t have nearly as much of a problem with churches and their museums if they all exhibited clear signs at the door saying that what is espoused therein is opinion, based on nothing but antiquated belief systems and not supported in any way by empirical data or facts.

I told you it was a pipe dream.

Friday, December 21, 2007

I Wished upon a Star, but Nothing

Last January I wrote in one of my columns that I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but I did publish a wish list for the coming year. This was a list of things from the local to the global level that I, personally, would hope to see some progress in.

Obviously, I wasn’t naïve enough to suppose that all my wishes would be fulfilled within 2007, but I was hoping there would be some progress made toward my eventual wish fulfillment.

So, in reflecting back on 2007, let’s take a look at what, if any, progress has been made toward making my wishes come true.

The short answer is, precious little. It’s no big surprise, but somewhat disappointing. Still I hold out hope and carry over these wishes into 2008.

Locally, I wished for increased growth and development within Edinburgh proper and the Edinburgh school district. I don’t see much evidence that significant growth has taken place over the past year. It is nice, though, to see new commercial development on the south end of town, including a mall expansion.

A wish I had for the state General Assembly was for it to pass, or at least begin considering, legislation that would ban all smoking in public buildings and within enclosed places, like cars, when there are children present.

The state has done nothing. But localities are continuing to jump on the no-smoking bandwagon. Bloomington is especially friendly to smoke-free environments as it is currently considering a ban on smoking in cars when children are present.

I was also hoping that, nationally, the new Democratic Congress would pass legislation overturning the decree of the almighty Bush monster that prohibited funding for stem cell research. And, in fact, Congress did pass such legislation, twice. But they didn’t have enough votes to override Bush’s veto. So his self-proclaimed, all-encompassing personal judgmental morality still reigns supreme.

I was also hoping Congress would allow the No Child Left behind Act to expire. Apparently, I won’t get my wish there, either. But there may be some changes in the legislation that may more closely reflect the reality of education instead of mandating a pipe dream.

I also wished that world leaders would get together and start seriously planning for the use of alternative fuels that won’t pollute the environment or exacerbate global warming. There may be a start in that area, but only a start. And the Bush administration is continuing to do whatever it can to make sure America doesn’t contribute to the progress.

After all, it’s the unspoken position of the Bush administration that we don’t need to save the future for our kids since the Rapture is surely upon us. Which leads me to my main wish for next year, and that is the next president will have a modicum of common sense and logic, and that his, or her, mind will be open to rational thought processes. He, or she, should also keep their religious beliefs out of the Oval Office.

But I’ll have a fuller list of wishes for 2008 coming up next month.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Dispelling Myths about Christmas

Christmas is the only holiday that is both a legal federal holiday and a Christian celebration. That’s probably because Christmas is two holidays in one; it has a secular component that includes Santa Claus, presents, decorations, and parties. It also has a religious component, which includes church services and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

But both sides of the Christmas holiday are fraught with myths and urban legends. So I thought I’d dig a little deeper into the history of the season to uncover my top 10 myths about Christmas. I’ll start with five urban legends about secular Christmas.

Myth 1 – The image of Santa Claus as a fat jolly man with a white beard and red suit and driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer has always been associated with Christmas.

Actually, Santa Claus is loosely based on St. Nicholas of Turkey. He was the patron saint of children and sailors. He was very pious and generous, but he was not fat. He was a very thin man. He drove no sleigh that anyone knows about, and certainly there are no reindeer in Turkey. The poem usually attributed to Clement C. Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published in 1823 and is the source of the modern conception of Santa Claus.

Myth 2 – The candy cane was invented by a candy maker in Indiana around the turn of the last century.

Candy canes were invented in France in the 1400s. They were solid white. A German cleric put the crook in the cane to make it look like a shepherd’s staff for the kids of the church. The red stripes were added in the early 1900s.

Myth 3 – Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem, “’Twas the Night before Christmas.”

Actually, the title of the poem is “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” And there is considerable doubt as to who its author is. Evidence also points to Henry Livingston Jr. as the author. Moore, himself, originally denied authorship.

Myth 4 – Poinsettias, the red-leafed houseplant that decorates many-a-home on Christmas, is poisonous.

Although it is not meant to be eaten, and it might give you an upset stomach if you did eat it, as would most other houseplants, the poinsettia is not particularly toxic. Mistletoe berries, however, are poisonous.

Myth 5 – Commercialism has spoiled Christmas.

Well, when you consider that prior to the Civil War, Christmas was a rather obscure holiday in America, which was scantly celebrated and at best was considered a minor holiday, commercialism may have actually saved Christmas. After the war, commercial interests found that by hyping Christmas as a time of giving, decorating, and having fun, they could increase their profit margins substantially. So, far from being ruined by commercialism, the fact that Christmas is now by far the most celebrated season of the year is thanks to commercial interests.

Now for the religious myths surrounding Christmas:

Myth 6 – Jesus was born on December 25 in the year 1.

Actually, no one knows when Jesus was born, nor even where he was born. The bible says that there was a census for the entire world, called by Emperor Caesar. In fact historically, there never was such a census, so it can’t be used to narrow down the date. Most historians believe he was born sometime between 7 and 1 BCE. And he was not born in December. Since shepherds didn’t watch their flocks by night in the winter, he was surely born sometime between April and October. The early church decided to hijack the pagan solstice celebration, which occurred in late December, and Christianize it.

Myth 7 – A bright star in the sky hung directly over the stable where Jesus was born.

There have been several hypotheses put forth as to what the star actually was. These include a comet, a supernova, and a planetary conjunction. But there are no astronomical events on record that could account for the star. The closest one is a planetary conjunction that took place in 7 BCE, but the conjunction did not hang in the sky over Bethlehem.

Myth 8 – Three wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus.

Actually, the bible doesn’t say how many visitors from the East there were. And biblical accounts (Matt. 2:11) suggest the visits were to a small child in a house, not a baby in a manger. So the visit must have occurred much later.

Myth 9 – The term Xmas is disrespectful to Christians because it leaves out “Christ.”

In fact, Xmas is derived from the Greek term, Xristos, which does begin with an X and is, indeed, a reference to Christ.

Myth 10 – Christmas has always been the biggest Christian holiday.

People always say, “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas.” But until the nineteenth century, Christmas was shunned in America. Early Protestants almost never celebrated it. In fact, for 25 years in the 1700s, it was against the law to celebrate Christmas openly in Massachusetts.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

What's Christmas without Traditions?

This is the season of paradoxes. Christmas is a time for joy, warmth, and family coziness. The key word in most Christmas traditions is family. It is the second time within the span of a month when families get together to eat, play parlor games, and re-bond with each other.

On the other hand, Christmas is a stressful time. Shoppers who love to shop are thrilled with all the bargains that abound this time of year. But reluctant shoppers who would just as soon avoid the hustle and bustle of the malls often become stressed. Thankfully, Internet shopping has helped those who hate getting out.

And then there are those people who have no families or who are unable to connect with their families during the holidays. Few things are more depressing than being alone during the time of year when you’re supposed to be with loved ones and friends. Is it any wonder that the holiday season elicits more suicides than any other time of year?

I am fortunate enough to have a large family, and a large extended family. Typically, on the first Sunday in December, we all take a road trip down to Kentucky where we have a large dinner and mingle with, well, mostly strangers. I assume most of them are my relatives of one sort or another, but they are strangers to me.

When I was a young adult, we had a lot of Christmas traditions going on. Dad loved to decorate the house. It was very festive, if somewhat tacky. A few of us would gather on Christmas Eve for hot chocolate and snacks, looking forward to the big family get-together the next day.

Our tradition was for a huge Christmas breakfast, even though we held it closer to noon. Then, after we stuffed ourselves with scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, and pancakes we would drag ourselves into the living room to open up the huge pile of presents that surrounded a tree that was once visible.

We would spend the rest of the day sleeping or playing with some of the toys the kids got from Santa. We might end the evening with some kind of game, such as Trivial Pursuit.

Most years, the guys would get together one day between Christmas and New Years and have a night on the town. My brothers and I along with a friend or two and perhaps Dad would crowd into someone’s vehicle, usually our school bus camper, and head to the Circle City for dinner, followed by a visit to some entertainment venue.

But, alas, traditions are usually not forever. People get older, some die, others just get tired. We haven’t had a boys’ night out in years. Our huge pile of presents has grown much smaller, since we all realized we could save money by just drawing names. And all the grandchildren have grown up. That also means fewer cool toys for us adults to play with on Christmas, too.

Christmas is still a wonderful time of year for me. There are lots of great memories, and some of our traditions are still going strong, like breakfast. But it is also melancholy as I hark back to the days when Mom’s house was filled with grandchildren, Dad was still with us, and I could enjoy my long vacation from college or, later, teaching high school.

In spite of all the changes that are obligatory parts of growing older, the time between Thanksgiving and New Years Day is still my favorite time of year. I enjoy listening to Christmas carols; I enjoy all the beautiful decorations, and I still enjoy what remains of our family holiday traditions.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Indiana Day is Next Week, but Will Anyone Notice?

Are you ready for next week’s big celebration? Ok, so I’m being sarcastic. And, no, it has nothing to do with this month’s other big holiday, Christmas. December 11 is Indiana Admission Day, as will presumably be proclaimed by the governor.

When I was in the sixth grade, I remember being taught a subject called Indiana History. The whole course lasted only a couple of weeks and was part of our regular history class, except we used a different text.

I enjoyed the class. I liked learning about the corduroy roads that were built in the state back in the 1800s, or the fact that two of the nation's most important highways, the Michigan Road and the National Road, intersected in Indianapolis. That's one reason why Indiana was called the "Crossroads of America."

One of the things I learned in that sixth-grade history class was that Indiana became a state in 1816, on December 11. It took two attempts, but we finally made statehood.

It began in 1811 as a petition to Congress for admission. The original petition got lost in the shuffle due to the War of 1812. But then, in 1815 another petition was sent to Congress. That time, Congress acted and President Madison signed the enabling act in April of that year.

After the first Indiana Constitutional Convention in June of 1816, Indiana officially became a state on December 11, when Madison signed the Congressional resolution formally admitting Indiana into the Union.

Indiana's population at the time was only 63,000. Today, Indiana is still known as the Crossroads of America. Although in area it is the smallest state west of the Appalachians (except for Hawaii), it is an important state for manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

Unlike many other states, however, Indiana does not do much to commemorate its admission into the union. Some states take their admission day very seriously. Hawaii, for example, has declared it an official state holiday. And Nevada even holds a three-day celebration honoring its admission day.

Even though the governor is supposed to proclaim every December 11 as Indiana Day, few Hoosiers ever give it a thought. It will soon be Indiana Day again, but see if anyone notices.

For many years, from the 1960s up until 1991, Indiana Day did not officially exist, even though it was supposed to, as directed by the Indiana General Assembly in the 1920s. Former Gov. Evan Bayh began issuing the proclamation again in 1991 after a phone call from me to his staff reminded him of his legal obligations on the matter.

Since then, governors have been upholding the law by proclaiming Indiana Day. But the proclamation alone does nothing to make the day special to the state's citizens.

Indiana Day would have more meaning if more school children were required to take an Indiana History class. Some high schools offer the class, but only as an elective. It should be a required part of the curriculum of all high schools or middle schools. And students should be required to take it.

In addition, instead of requiring the governor to proclaim Indiana Day each year, the General Assembly should pass legislation permanently marking December 11 on the calendar as Indiana Day, not as a paid holiday, but as a day of recognition of Indiana's history. It’s part of our Hoosier heritage.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Even in Election Years Not Everyone has a Party

In little more than a month, the presidential caucuses and primary elections will begin. These are basically state-by-state competitions designed to narrow the field of candidates down to one from each party who will then run head-to-head for the presidency.

For the last 150 years there have been two major political parties in this country, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. People often identify with one party or another, and vote accordingly, but they may not actually be members of either party. Others vote only a candidate’s stand on the issues, without regard to party affiliation.

What does it mean to be a democrat or a republican?

To understand what the two major parties represent, it might be helpful to take a broader look at the entire political spectrum. It might help to visualize a long stick, like a yardstick, that is balanced in the middle by your finger. Everything to the right of your finger represents the "Right Wing" of the political spectrum, and everything on the left of your finger represents the "Left Wing."

Starting on the far right would be political parties such as the Nazi Party. Far Right-Wing ideology is generally termed fascism. Fascism, as it is typically defined, is marked by extreme nationalism, with a tendency toward a desire to create ethnic purity. However, it is also marked by varying degrees of capitalism, but not democracy.

On the opposite end of the stick - the far left - there is socialism, and its more extreme incarnation, communism. Communism is the philosophy that the community (or nation) is central, and that individuals are not so important. It contains the premise that each individual should labor according to his abilities and be paid according to his needs.

Even though fascism and communism are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, they both require an authoritarian form of government. Both forms of government repress the individual in favor of a centralized and all-powerful state.

Closer to the middle of the yardstick you will find the radicals on the left and the reactionaries on the right. These are the typical "left-wing" or "right-wing" fanatics. Those attached firmly to the left are often called liberals. Those on the right are conservatives. But it’s close to the center of the yardstick where one finds the more moderate forms of government that most Western nations enjoy.

But everybody in America is not exactly dead-center on the yardstick. Those that tend toward the right wing are republicans, and those that tip the balance slightly to the left are democrats.

Although this is an over-generalization, democrats tend to be more liberal. They tend to favor equality of status. And to achieve this goal, they vote in favor of laws that create social programs such as welfare, Medicaid, and affirmative action.

Democrats tend to favor less government and greater individual freedoms, at least in theory. Most minorities tend to be democrats.

Republicans are more conservative. They generally believe in equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of status. They are more capitalistic. They believe that everyone should have an equal chance to succeed, but that government has no place helping them out.

Republicans also tend to restrict certain freedoms that democrats tend to grant. These include things such as abortion rights and freedom to make certain personal choices.

And republicans tend to have less tolerance for religious differences, being more dogmatic. Most conservative Christians are republicans. And far-right republicans like George W. Bush believe it is their God-given imperative to intertwine their conservative Christianity with government programs.

The most thoughtful among us tend to take the best characteristics of both parties and meld them into a third option, that of being politically independent. Being independent doesn’t mean you have no opinions, it just means your opinions are strictly your own.

Independents never play party-line politics. Of course, they seldom get elected to office, either.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Can We be Too Politically Correct?

Nobody’s ever accused me of being too politically correct. When it comes to labeling people, I tend to be conservative. I think the political correctness craze is a fad that has overstayed its time.

First of all, with respect to gender differences, I realize that our society’s language has always been male-centric. In modern society, it is accepted that neither gender is superior over the other. But in the past, it has been a man’s world, so the use of male-centric terminology has prevailed.

The term mankind has always been understood to include women, too, as has the shorter version, man. Neil Armstrong used it when he first stepped on the moon in 1969 and nobody thought he was referring only to the male of the species. Humankind might be more politically correct, but females should not be offended by the term mankind, simply because of its historic use.

In historic English usage, it has always been correct to use the pronoun his when referring to mixed-gender situations. For example, in the past in a classroom of boys and girls, if the teacher said, “Ok, will everyone take out his textbook,” it was proper usage. Today, most authors prefer the more cumbersome, “will everyone take out his or her textbook.” But that is still preferable to the grammatically incorrect, “will everyone take out their textbook.”

From the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s to the political correctness fanaticism of the 1990s, many gender-centric words have been changed. “Chairman” has been replaced by “chairperson;” “workmen” has been replaced by “workers,” and “waitress” has been replaced by “server.” There are also no more stewardesses, only flight attendants.

Ethnonyms are words used to refer to a specific race or ethnicity. Due to fads and the political correctness movement, terms that used to be just fine with everyone are now considered defamatory. The term Oriental historically referred to someone from eastern Asia. It was not meant to be, nor was it taken to be offensive. Today, we best use the term Asian for fear of offending someone from that region.

Prior to the 1960s nobody who didn’t mean to offend would use the term black in reference to someone of African heritage. The correct term was Negro or colored person. Negro refers to someone of the Negroid race. But both those terms are now considered offensive. In the 1960s black became the new Negro.

Today, although black is not considered derogatory, African-American is the preferred ethnonym. And while it’s perfectly ok to say “a person of color,” it is derogatory to use the term “colored person,” the NAACP notwithstanding.

Two similar phrases, one is derogatory; the other is not. What’s the difference?

“Well, I’m not sure. We’re just going to have to assume there is one.” That’s a quote from one of the characters in Richard Greenberg’s play “Take Me Out,” who was responding to the same question.

I don’t mind most of the changes in usage; they are all rather innocuous, and if it makes people feel better about themselves, that’s fine. One ethnic term that hasn’t changed completely is the single one that I feel should have been changed a century ago. An Indian is really a person from India, not a Native American. And for sports teams to use an Indian, a Brave, or a Chief as a mascot should be severely frowned on.

I draw the line, however, at the ridiculous notions of some of the feminists of the 1970s when they attacked words such as hymn, menu, and history for being sexist.

And I had to laugh at the feeble attempt at being politically incorrect by some Republicans several years ago when they suggested renaming french fries to freedom fries. The term “french” with a small “f,” refers to cutting a food in narrow strips, not to the country of France.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Starting Holiday Early Means More Time to Get Sick of It

The Christmas season is the favorite time of year for many people, including me. In fact, I love the late autumn and early winter period, from October through December. It typically isn’t bitter cold, even in early December. There is a cozy crispness in the air. And I like the harvest symbols such as the cornucopia, the pumpkins, and the autumn colors.

The Christmas season has traditionally begun the day after Thanksgiving. It was the time when stores really geared up for the holiday shopping season by offering specials and by playing holiday music.

Many stores would always put up Christmas displays sometime in early November or even late October. But it was only to make sure everything was ready and in stock prior to the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

In more recent years, and this year in particular, it seems that the Christmas season begins the day after Halloween. Department stores have been pumping non-stop Christmas music onto the sales floor since November 1. All the holiday displays are up and have been for weeks.

Every holiday season, I always hear people protest that Christmas begins earlier and earlier every year. I don’t think that is the case. But over the past few decades, it is true that the retail side of Christmas has gotten earlier.

Back in the 1930s, Pres. Franklin Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving up a week, from the last Thursday in November to the next-to-last Thursday. His reason for doing so was to enhance the economy by making the Christmas shopping season last a week longer.

So the pressure has always been on for retailers to increase their revenue by starting the Christmas season as early as possible. A couple of years after moving Thanksgiving up, Roosevelt moved it back again, thanks to protests from those who didn’t think commercial interests should determine the date of a traditional holiday.

A decade later, Congress intervened and made Thanksgiving an official national holiday and set the date as the fourth Thursday in November, sort of a compromise. That’s been the official date ever since.

Thanksgiving is a holiday that often gets lost in the transition period between Halloween and Christmas. Halloween is second only to Christmas in the amount of decorations sold for a holiday. Many homes are strung with Halloween lights throughout the month of October. These are replaced by Christmas lights sometime during November. But there are no Thanksgiving lights, and few decorations.

Pumpkins, cornucopias, posters of turkeys and pilgrims are sometimes on display in homes and stores for Thanksgiving. But largely, the holiday has become just a kickoff for the Christmas holiday season. It is one of the most underrated holidays, owing to its calendar position halfway between the two commercial big ones.

It’s kind of like those unfortunate folks whose birthday falls on or near Christmas day. Even if they are given birthday parties and presents, it all just blends together into one holiday celebration and sometimes gets completely muddled.

I guess the question really is whether or not starting the holiday season earlier gives us more opportunities to enjoy and appreciate the most festive time of year. Or does it just give us more time to become sick of it before the big day even arrives?

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Format Wars are Disservice to Consumers

Format wars – they are a menace to the consumer and everyone knows it. Well maybe not everyone; there are, of course, the money-grubbing industry players who manufacture the warring formats of various consumer media products. The electronics companies have always put their own proprietary narcissism before the good of their customers.

Format wars are the things that make consumers choose between two competing formats of a particular technology, knowing that if they should choose the ultimate loser, they will have sunk perhaps hundreds of dollars into a device that is prematurely obsolete, not because of poor design or technological prowess but because of market pressures.

The first real format war in which there was ultimately a clear winner was fought in the 1970s and early ‘80s. Video tape recorders were just becoming popular among consumers, but there were two incompatible formats, VHS and Beta. VHS, which stands for Video Home System, is a system that uses the familiar video tapes everyone is familiar with. Tapes can store up to six hours of video and audio, typically television programming.

The Beta alternative was championed by Sony and could store only five hours. But, according to most videophiles, the Beta produced better quality video and loaded faster into its player.

VHS won that battle. The Beta was relegated to the also-ran hall of fame, along with the 8-track tape. So those who invested in a Sony BetaMax player were stuck with a $700 paperweight.

For audiophiles, the late 1990s brought the beginning of a format war that is still raging. Sony’s Super Audio CD, or SACD, is competing head-to-head against the industry standard DVD-audio format. SACDs look like regular CDs but they contain very high quality sound reproduction and, typically, six channels of audio for surround sound. The discs can only be played on SACD players unless they also contain a standard CD component. These are known as hybrid discs.

The DVD-audio discs are just like DVDs and will play on any DVD player. But to get the best sound reproduction, they must be played on a proprietary DVD-audio player, which delivers uncompressed audio in six channels. DVD-audio discs also typically have some video content, such as lyrics and photos. SACD discs do not.

The latest format war that consumers are now caught in the middle of is the one being waged between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. Both can produce high-definition TV pictures and surround sound audio. But you can’t play an HD-DVD disc in a Blu-Ray player and vice-versa.

Thanks to the Play Station game console, which also plays Blu-Ray discs, the Blu-Ray format has gained ground in the battle. But HD-DVD forces are not giving up. They have waged a counter offensive at Wal-Mart and Best Buy where one HD-DVD player is selling for under $100 for a limited time. The cheapest Blu-Ray player is still around $400.

Movie companies are taking sides in this battle. Most are lining up in the Blu-Ray camp, but some have opted to release their titles only in the HD-DVD format. Some release titles in both formats.

Both formats could coexist in the same market if player manufacturers would produce a hybrid player, one that will play either format. That is what has happened in the DVD-audio vs. SACD war. Several player manufacturers are now producing players that will support either format, so consumers can purchase either type of disc with the surety that whichever one ultimately loses, they can still play it.

So far, no company in the high-definition format war has waved a red flag nor offered a compromise hybrid player. Meanwhile, consumers are still waiting for things to shake out.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is the Printed Page becoming Obsolete?

From an early age both my daughter and my son loved to read books. My daughter consistently ranked at the top of the list in her elementary school in the number of books read. She was reading at a 12th grade level when she was a fifth grader.

My son has read books that are almost as thick as they are tall. Both read more fiction while they were in school than I have read in my entire life. They are now in their early 20s and still enjoy reading a good novel more than they like watching the movie adaptation.

I do most of my reading online. And I don’t like fiction. Whereas it might take me a week to get through a novel, I can watch the movie version of it in two hours. The rest of the time I would have spent reading the same story seems like a waste to me.

Most of what I read is non-fiction. I don’t particularly enjoy the act of reading, so when I do read, I want to have learned something I didn’t know before. Otherwise, I feel cheated.

And online reading is not just what I do; apparently, a lot of readers out there have switched to reading their fiction online, too. So-called e-books have been around for more than a decade, but they didn’t really catch on until lately.

For centuries, ever since Gutenberg, books have been the de facto standard for reading anything other than news. Libraries and bookstores are chock full of hardcover editions and paperbacks. But libraries are quickly adapting to the digital revolution by offering more and more online terminals. And some bookstores are fearful for their future. They see the writing on the wall.

J.K. Rowling aside, many authors now prefer to release their books in electronic form. Author Jimmy Lee Shreeve, who also writes under the pseudonym Doktor Snake, is a big believer in the e-book revolution, as he calls it. All of his Doktor Snake books of fiction are now released exclusively online.

Jeff Gomez, an advocate of digital publishing and the director of marketing at Holtzbrinck Publishers, says that paper books are on their way out. Newspaper readership has been on the decline for decades. Magazines are losing subscribers. But most periodical titles are now available online, too.

But people like to read their novels in all kinds of places, not just parked in front of their computer screen at their desk. It’s just not the same curling up in bed with your laptop. But the Apple iPhone and dedicated e-book readers are rendering the portability problem obsolete. Book publisher HarperCollins has launched a new e-book service that is designed to work with the iPhone.

The one thing that may stand in the way of the e-book revolution is pricing. Since e-books require no paper, ink, glue, and printing presses, nor do they require a distribution network, the cost of an e-book should be substantially less than a hardcover book or even a paperback. While that is typically true, it is not always the case. Many e-books sell for the same price, or even slightly more, than their paper counterparts.

If book publishing follows the lead of the music industry, paper books may be on their way out, just as CDs are now largely obsolete. I haven’t purchased a CD in years. I, like so many others, prefer to create my own music mix by downloading it and transferring it to my mp3 player.

Those who grew up in the electronic age will have little problem giving up paper books. Most see them as a waste of resources anyway. Why flip pages when you can download works by your favorite author from the Internet and read it on your iPhone or portable reader?

Still, I don’t see an end to the printed book anytime soon. They may never disappear entirely. Star Trek fans know that Captain Picard still reads printed books, even in the 24th century. But the electronic alternative is gaining ground and may soon replace the printed page as the default medium for text-based information and entertainment.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

No Tax-Supported Dogma at School Please

Some of the topics I write about in this column are controversial; others are not. When I choose to write my opinion about a controversial subject, I often get responses via e-mail, letters to the editor, in person, and even an occasional phone call informing me that my opinion was absolutely false or that they disagree with me about it.

And that’s fine. I expect it. By definition, the term controversial means that not everyone will share my opinion.

Speaking with my detractors in person allows me a chance to debate the issue, if that’s what they wish to do. But I almost never respond to a letter to the editor that disagrees with me. This column is not meant to be a debate forum. I figure if I use this space to espouse my opinions, others have the same right to respond in kind.

Sometimes, however, I feel an opposing response may be due to a misunderstanding of my original meaning. Maybe I didn’t explain my position clearly enough to begin with, or maybe a more detailed explanation would have taken too many column inches.

This seems to have happened with the column I wrote regarding a magazine, called Discover, that was dropped off in my mailbox at school a couple of weeks ago. I have been chastised more than once by readers for what they regard as an inappropriate reaction to the situation.

Briefly recapping, I found a blatantly religious publication dressed up like a science magazine in my mailbox at school. It was not just one copy for me, but a classroom set that I was supposed to hand out to my science students. Another mailbox contained the same offending material. So I removed the magazines and tossed them in the trash.

But some of my readers, including one letter to the editor, claimed that I was using my own personal form of censorship to deny other people their right to read the magazine or pass it out to the kids in their classrooms. Or maybe some thought I was denying the rights of the students to choose to read the material if they wanted to.

So I must make this perfectly clear. Although I strongly disagree with the publishers of the magazine representing the biblical flood and Noah’s Ark as provable fact, I do not disagree with allowing children to read the story. My kids read it when they were young. I had no problem with that. I still don’t. They eventually grew up and discovered that it was only a story, a fable. Even the majority of Christians do not believe it literally happened.

My main point of concern is that a religious group was using a tax-supported public school to distribute their religious propaganda to students. I also object to it being disguised as science. It only confuses the students and does them an extreme disservice.

The public schools are supported by all taxpayers, not just the fundamentalist Christian ones. Mainstream Christian denominations who strongly believe in the separation of church and state would object to these magazines being distributed at school. In fact, a fellow science teacher, while objecting to the magazine’s distribution at school, said that she sometimes uses them in her Sunday school classes.

Other taxpayers are not Christians at all. Some are Muslim. Others are Buddhists or Hindus or agnostics or atheists. I’m an agnostic and I certainly don’t want a single penny of my tax dollars going to provide class time for teachers to distribute religious propaganda.

If parents want their kids to read this magazine, let them order a subscription. I think they’re free. Or they can use them in Sunday school. Or they can send their kids to one of the many Christian schools where it’s legal to substitute religious dogma for real science. But it is not legal in public school. And I’ll do my best to make sure it doesn’t ever happen.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

People Eat the Strangest Things

Sometimes people eat the strangest things. But most don’t even realize how strange it is until someone from outside their social circle tells them so. So, perhaps the strangeness of what they eat depends solely on who’s observing it.

I’m not talking so much about the people in Japan who eat poisonous blowfish or those in China who might eat dog meat. I’m not even talking about the French who suck down snails. There are different cultures in the U.S. that have their fair share of strange delicacies, too.

Ok, so let me start with a confession. I did not realize until my post-college life that some of my favorite bedtime snacks were considered strange by some folks. I just figured they were standard fair.

When I was young my dad used to eat white bread in milk. He just called it his milk and bread. Take a couple of pieces of bread and pull it into bite-sized junks, put them in a tall glass and fill it with milk. I picked up the habit from my dad and I discovered that it makes a delicious snack.

In fact, you can substitute almost any bread, even crackers. And if your choice of bread is the biscuit, you can substitute sweetened coffee for the milk. I still enjoy that treat occasionally. My daughter always got a kick out of me when I ordered coffee at Cracker Barrel because breakfasts always come with biscuits there. And she knew how I would finish off my meal.

That’s right. I would drink about half the decaf from my cup, put a couple more creams in it, about 4 packs of sweetener, and a pat of butter. Then, I would crumble in a biscuit. It was yummy.

Cornbread in milk works great. Crackers and milk is another variation. And, if you don’t mind the extra work in preparation, you can cut a couple of pieces of toast into strips and dunk them into your milk.

Ok, go ahead and laugh. You won’t be the first. Or maybe you eat the stuff yourself.

It’s funny how people throughout history have decided what can be eaten and what can’t, or what shouldn’t. Take the potato for instance. Early on, people wouldn’t eat it because they thought it was poisonous. It makes sense, because the potato is a member of the nightshade family and the leaves are poisonous.

How many folks have died over the centuries trying to determine what is poisonous and what is delectable? I certainly wouldn’t want that job.

But even foods that have been determined to be perfectly edible and healthy are often shunned. There are few things I wouldn’t at least try. But I probably would not try insects. I hate bugs. I have eaten fried caterpillars though. They were awful.

The truth is, worms and bugs are probably much more healthful to eat than the bread I used to dunk in my milk. Overly processed carbohydrates, partially-hydrogenated oils, and preservative-filled meat products are slowly killing us. But they are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult not to eat them.

I just finished off a slice of chocolate mousse cake with a nice tall glass of milk. It was delicious. But I can’t say I feel healthier because of it. And all those snacks of milk and bread or coffee and biscuit have come back to haunt me as I’ve gotten older. I believe they are all still here, around my mid-section.

Oh well, I guess we all deserve a treat now and then. Some treats are just weirder than others.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Religious Propaganda in My School Mailbox

Something scary happened to me at school last week. I went to the office to check my mailbox like I always do before classes start and what did I find? I found a stack of what appeared to be science magazines. At first I was happy that I could give my students some reading material. Maybe I could work an article or two into a future lesson plan.

The magazine was called Discover. But then the tiny subtitle caught my eye. It was printed in a cursive-like font that was a little tough to read, but I did pick out the words “scripture” and “kids.”

I opened it up and saw an article on the Great Flood and how so-called experts were finding more and more evidence in support of it. On the next page, there were bible verses. Near the back was a bible quiz about the flood.

I couldn’t believe that this right-wing propaganda actually made it into my school mailbox. If I hadn’t paid attention to the contents, I might well have distributed it to my classes. I began to wonder how many other schools in the district, and all over, had received a similar present, and how many might actually be distributing it to their kids.

I reported it to my assistant principal. She told me I should never have gotten them and that they should be thrown away immediately. She took them from me and said she would dispose of them.

Later in the day, I went back to check my mail again and saw a larger stack of the same magazines in a community mailbox, so that all teachers could take whatever they needed. I removed them all and immediately called one of the investigative reporters at a local TV station so that he could use his resources to find out if our school was the only one to receive this overtly-religious propaganda.

All across the country, public schools are targets, both from private religious organizations like the one that published this magazine, or from elected officials, like George W. Bush, or the governor of Texas. He recently signed a law that would require every school in that state to provide a few minutes every day so that students could lead themselves in prayer, or in sermonizing.

If you are a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, a Catholic, a Jew, or a Muslim, or if you are agnostic or atheist you probably do not want your kids exposed to religious fundamentalism in a public school where all religions are supposed to be equal. But that’s what is happening all over the place.

Some fundamentalists say that God is losing ground in America and that is the cause of all our problems. Well, let’s take a look at another country for a second and see if they may be correct.

The Global Peace Index ranks Norway as the most peaceful country in the world. Every year for half a decade, Norway has ranked number one in standard of living, life expectancy, literacy, and education. The unemployment rate is half that of America, its crime rate is low, and it has the second highest gross domestic product.

Norway is a model country. Yet more than 70 percent of its population claim to be either atheist or agnostic. Only 26 percent of Norway’s population believe in God.

Norway had Christian roots, even more so than the United States whose Founding Fathers purposely left religion out of the Constitution. But Norway has shed its religious upbringing and has become one of the safest, most progressive, and most peaceful countries in the world.

In the United States, fundamentalists are trying to do just the opposite to our country. They are sneaking their intolerant religious messages into public schools through every means necessary. The biggest threat to this country, from both inside and outside its borders, is from religious extremists.

And not all of them carry bombs. What I found in my school mailbox last week is just as dangerous to our freedom.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Top 10 Advantages of 8-track Tapes

I’m sitting here in my favorite coffee shop on a Sunday morning in downtown Indianapolis listening to my favorite music mix on my mp3 player. Right now, Michael Bublé is singing.

In my mind, I’m reminiscing about how I used to listen to my portable music. I’m remembering back to around 1970 when listening to music became important to me as a teenager. I wasn’t a typical teenager, at least not when it came to my taste in music. I appreciate the sounds of CCR, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the Beatles far more today than I ever did back then.

At any rate, the portable music device of choice back then was the relatively high-tech 8-track tape player. But you had to have a vehicle if you wanted to listen to your favorite music away from home. It wasn’t like you could strap it around your neck.

The new-fangled music device was meant to eventually replace the venerable vinyl disk, but the technology lasted less than 10 years in its heyday. Stereo cassette tapes wiped them out in the early 1980s. Then cassettes were eventually relegated to history by CDs, as was the vinyl disk.

The iPod and other mp3 players might eventually consign the CD to oblivion. They have huge advantages over all previous music media, including the 8-track player. However, the 8-track player did have a few positive points worth considering, in case you’re still trying to decide on which technology to go with. Here is my top-10 list of advantages that 8-track players had over mp3 players:

10. Your 8-track player was not as easy to lose or misplace because you would know immediately if it wasn’t in your pocket, given its size.

9. If you are into opera, the 8-track tapes had a lot of built-in vibrato.

8. You could get some interesting sound effects from your 8-track simply by applying a little upward pressure on the tape while it was playing.

7. The tape inside an 8-track cassette had a cool shiny piece of aluminum foil that told the player when to switch tracks.

6. It was much easier to make up your mind what song to play, since the 8-track tape could hold only about 11 or 12 songs.

5. Most commercial 8-track tapes had at least one song that faded out at the end of one track and faded back in after it switched to the next track. That made it much more convenient in case you needed a bathroom break while listening.

4. If you had a large collection of music, you needed a huge 8-track tape case, which you could use to impress your friends by its sheer size.

3. The 8-track player was the first portable music device that let you listen to actual stereo in your car.

2. It permitted you to recycle your plastic Dairy Queen spoons, because you needed them to wedge underneath the tape while it was playing to prevent the other tracks from bleeding over.

And the number one advantage that 8-track players had over the modern mp3 player: None of them came with rap music.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What if We All Believed the Earth was Flat?

There is a group of several thousand people in the United States who are members of an organization knows as the Flat Earth Society. They believe what the organization’s name suggests, that the earth is not a sphere, but that the surface is actually coin-shaped.

According to flat earthers, the North Pole is at the center of this disk and a high ice-covered mountain range surrounds the disk at its edge. Beyond the edge is just space.

The sun and moon are balls that behave as spotlights located 3,000 miles up. Each is 32 miles in diameter. The stars are just lights that are situated 1,000 miles above the sun and moon. The sun and moon circle the disk of the earth at the equator, which is a circle situated halfway between the north poll and the edge of the earth.

Earthquakes and volcanoes occur because the earth is a very thick disk, much like a cylinder. And the sensation of gravity is caused by a constant acceleration of the earth upward.

This whole idea sounds silly to most rational humans. It could represent the setting of a science fiction story. It might seem logical to a child. It certainly sounded plausible to early humans prior to the invention of flight. But even Eratosthenes, 5,000 years BCE used geometry to prove that the earth was a sphere. And, contrary to popular myth, the sailors on board Christopher Columbus’ ships already knew the earth was not flat.

But the members of the Flat Earth Society are serious. They have answers to all the round-earth “proofs.” Most of their answers, however, involve unproven nonsensical beliefs and government conspiracies.

Okham’s razor is a principle that’s been around since the fourteenth century. It states that the simplest explanation for any phenomenon, and the one that requires the fewest assumptions, is usually the one that is correct. Flat earth reasoning flies in the face of this principle, requiring conspiracies and unknown forces of nature.

Yet people still believe it. Why?

There is no real reason why people would find a need to believe something as tremendously outrageous as a flat earth, except that it started out in the nineteenth century as a way to reconcile everyday observations with one interpretation of the bible. After all, how could Jesus have stood on a high mountaintop while the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the earth unless the earth were flat and coin-shaped? This is but one example of the bible alluding to a flat earth.

Thankfully, the Flat Earth Society is limited to a few thousand crazy zealots who have no political power. And, although they would love to have their so-called theory taught in public schools, their numbers fall far short of what it would take to lobby for it.

But what if their numbers grew to several million? In a hypothetical America where, say, 51 percent of Americans became flat-earth believers, science classes would be in trouble. After all, a majority does not the truth make, even if it happens to be a large majority. Hundreds of years ago, a large majority did believe the earth was flat. But they were wrong.

A recent Gallop poll showed that a slight majority of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.

We think of the ancient people who believed the earth to be flat as quaint and naive. In another thousand years, how quaint and naïve will we appear?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

What Education Really Needs: Money

Back in the 1980s, during my first stint as a teacher, I remember watching a movie with Nick Nolte and Judd Hirsch called “Teachers.” It wasn’t critically acclaimed, but I enjoyed the movie as I could relate to some of the characters, at least a little.

Most of the characters were caricatures. There was a teacher they simply called Ditto, because he continually hogged the copy machine. There was the obligatory jelly-spined whiner that couldn’t control his class. And there was the physical education coach whose hobby was getting students pregnant.

The movie was recently released on DVD so I felt compelled to watch it again. Although the movie reflected only a superficial resemblance to school life back in the ‘80s, I was struck by how much teaching has changed over the last two decades.

Back then, I could see how it might happen, despite the movie’s hyperbole. Today, it could easily be a satire.

My second career as a teacher began about four years ago. The students are different, because the environment is different. Instead of teaching average suburban kids in high school, I’m now teaching inner-city eighth graders. But I’ve taught eighth graders before, and there isn’t that much difference.

In the movie, the school is being sued by the parents of a student who graduated without the ability to read or write. He couldn’t even fill out a job application. The mentality of the administration, from the superintendent down to the assistant principal, was that the job of the school was to get as many kids through the system as possible, as quickly as possible, knowing full well that a good number of them would slip through the cracks.

The main goal of the administration was to appease the parents and keep any bad news out of the media. So instead of firing and prosecuting the perverted gym coach, they simply transferred him to a different school.

In the move, the education of the student body, if it occurred at all, was just a positive side effect of self-preservation.

Of course, today, schools and administrators are forced by the No Child Left behind Act into an opposite situation that may be just as detrimental to education. Theoretically, the kids come first with every decision made.

The unfortunate side effect of this policy, however, is that the vast majority of students who are most likely to benefit from a good education are being cheated by a mandatory focus on the underachievers and the incorrigible.

Schools are obliged by law to improve their students test scores and other indicators every year. It’s called Average Yearly Progress, or AYP. If a school fails at this for more than four years straight, the state can come in and take over the school. Schools try to avoid this as it could lead to a lot of jobs being lost.

But it is nearly impossible for some schools and school districts to meet AYP because there is no money to hire enough teachers, to fund needed programs, or to even buy enough basic supplies that teachers need, such as paper. Ditto, from the movie, couldn’t survive in today’s climate.

So, on the one hand, teachers are told they have to find ways to increase test scores and attendance. On the other hand, when a science class has 44 students on the roster in a classroom that was meant to hold 24, the learning environment becomes problematic at best.

If education really is a priority, as it should be, then the state and federal governments must make funding them a priority as well. Whatever it takes, more teachers must be hired to avoid the huge class sizes, science labs must be appropriately equipped, and the blame for poor test scores must be removed from the teachers, who are doing the best job they can under the circumstances, and placed where it belongs. The real blame is a severe lack of funding.

Some say throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away. But if the money is used for the right stuff, I disagree with that assertion. Money, and lots of money, can make the biggest difference in the world. Just look at the success of schools that have it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Using Signs of the Weather

Weather is the condition of the atmosphere at a particular place and time. Lore is a traditional belief. From these two definitions, we get weather lore, which is a collection of proverbs and sayings that have been passed on from generation to generation over hundreds of years, generally in rhyme.

The purpose of weather lore was to instruct early farmers, sailors, herdsmen, and others on how to predict the weather. Its poetic nature made it easier to pass on to later generations. People who make their living outdoors depend on the weather. That has always been the case. Today, meteorologists make use of satellites, weather balloons, super computers, Doppler radar, and a complex communications network to produce reasonably accurate daily weather forecasts.

In earlier times, however, folks had to rely on other weather indicators to advise them on what kind of plans to make. Some of these indicators have a true correlation with factors that do affect the weather. Others have no relationship at all to the weather.

Many weather signs and sayings can really be used as a guide to how the weather is likely to develop 12 to 24 hours in the future. By making correct use of weather lore, you may find yourself with the ability to outguess the real weatherman with your own forecasts. At any rate, it may provide you with a greater appreciation of how the weather is interrelated with other elements of the natural environment.

An example of a saying that might hold some scientific validity concerns the house cat: “If the cat washes her face over the ear, it’s a sign the weather will be fine and clear.”

Cat fur can build up static electric charges when it gets very dry. During times of low humidity and fair weather, especially in the winter time when it is very dry, a cat may lick its fur in order to moisten it. Moist fur will shed electric charge and prevent static discharges, which annoy the cat.

Or consider this one: “When sounds travel far and wide, a stormy day will betide.” Sound travels better in air that is heavily laden with moisture than it does in dry air.

Of course some sayings make no scientific sense at all and if they do predict the weather it is only by accident. For example, many people repeat the old adage that the darker the woolly worm in the fall, the more severe the winter. But there is no scientific evidence that woolly worms know what the winter will bring.

Although weather lore can still be fun, and in some cases even accurate, knowledge of how weather works is much more reliable. Knowing, for instance that weather systems generally move from west to east is helpful if you know what the weather is like to your west.

That knowledge is easy to come by in this day of instant communication via the Internet. The Weather Underground site at is one of several sites that can show you what the weather is like anywhere. It even lists dozens of live outdoor cameras that ordinary people share over the Internet so you can actually see what is happening in any part of the country. I have my own weather camera listed.

I’m still afraid of severe weather, mostly high winds. But I know as long as I stay indoors, lightning is not likely to be a threat. So it’s only high winds that bother me now. The rest of the weather still fascinates me after all these years.

For an extensive list of weather sayings, visit SkyWatch: Signs of the Weather.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Just Two Foods and a Drink Please

Kids are really great at playing make believe. It’s sort of what they do. But even as adults some of us like to imagine various “what if” scenarios. One of my favorites concerns food.

No, it’s not imagining what if I could eat all I wanted of anything without any ill effects on my weight or health. That’s fun to imagine, but it doesn’t involve much thought. A better question that I sometimes ask friends and family is, “If you could pick only two foods and one drink to consume for the rest of your life, what would they be?”

Ok, first some ground rules: Water is not a food product and we will assume, for the purpose of this exercise, that water will always be available. Secondly, condiments are not food products. We can use whatever condiments we wish to dress up our chosen foods. And finally, a food product cannot be an aggregate of several different food products. For example, you cannot select lasagna as one of your chosen foods because lasagna consists of pasta, beef, cheese, and tomatoes. That’s four separate food products.

Now, when I ask people this fun question, I get lots of various answers. Most often, though, people tend to select the foods they like best. My daughter chose chocolate and pasta as her foods with Coke as her drink.

But remember, the game rules state that you must survive on your choices for the rest of your life. That means you should pick items that you’re not likely to get tired of too quickly, that you can prepare in a variety of ways, and most importantly, that will actually sustain your existence.

When I reminded my daughter that neither chocolate nor pasta had any significant vitamins and that she would likely develop scurvy in short order, she had to rethink her choices.

Many people love potatoes. Potatoes can be prepared in myriad different ways, so there is not as much chance you will tire of them over time. You can have baked potatoes, home fires, french fries, mashed, scalloped (but only if your other food choice is cheese and your drink choice is milk), or potato chips. But it’s doubtful you could get the entire spectrum of nutrients from potatoes alone. Still, it might be a good choice, depending on what you pick for your other food and drink.

Pasta is another possibility because, again, it can be prepared in a number of ways. But, like potatoes, pasta is nutrient poor. A lot of the world’s population relies on rice as a staple, so you might think rice would be a perfect choice. But that’s only if you eat the long-grained brown rice, since all of rice’s nutrients are in the husk.

I’ve thought about it, and personally, I’ve decided on two foods that I enjoy eating but can be prepared in numerous ways and are also likely to sustain me for a long time, along with my drink of choice.

The first food I would select is cheese. There are all kinds of cheeses and they can be prepared in a lot of different ways in combination with my second food choice. That second food choice is the egg. I love eggs and I love cheese. So I can make scrambled eggs with cheese, boiled eggs, omelets, pepper jack eggs, and so on. Eggs are perfect protein foods. Cheese has a lot of calcium for my bones and teeth. Eggs have a nice supply of omega-3 fatty acids.

But what about my vitamins? That’s where my drink choice comes in. I love vegetable juice. I would pick V8. It has lots of vitamins and anti-oxidants. Plus I love it.

I had no problem picking cheese as my first food choice, because cheese is one of my favorite foods. But my second choice was a toss up between eggs or fish. I like them both, and fish is probably healthier, but eggs are more versatile. So the scales tipped in the direction of the incredible, edible egg.

Thankfully, though, back in the real world, nobody has to make those choices. I can eat both eggs and fish. But it’s sometimes fun to imagine.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

What a Difference a Lifetime Makes

I know I get people of all age groups reading these little columns of mine. I think, but don’t know for sure, that most readers are middle aged or older, but I know there are some high school students who are regular readers even if they’re not exactly fans.

So to that broad spectrum of readers, especially the older ones, it should come as no surprise that getting older changes your perspective on things. At least I know I’ve changed my viewpoint about myriad issues since I was in college, and even more so since elementary school.

For instance, when I was in college, I was a big tree-hugging liberal environmentalist. I even sent a long telegram to Pres. Richard Nixon (much to the dismay of my father who had to pay the phone bill for the telegram) urging the president not to approve the proposed Alaskan oil pipeline because it might hurt migration routes of the caribou herds.

I still like trees, of course, and I think we all should be environmentally aware. But I’m no longer an activist. Some of my youthful idealism has been replaced with a little conservative pragmatism.

I’ve become more pragmatic in my religious conviction, too.

Way back when I was in elementary school, there was this bully who confessed to a group of us, his rabble of victims, that he didn’t believe in God. He was moved to make this confession because the kid he was victimizing at that moment uttered a two-word curse at him, the first word being “God.”

Now, those of us standing around watching the mayhem were shocked and awed that one of us, even if it was our most dreaded bully, did not believe in God. To me, and most of my cohorts at the time, God was a given.

Now, of course, as I near the middle of my sixth decade of life, I realize the bully was probably not alone in his opinions. Or perhaps he was just way ahead of his time. A small but significant number of Americans, and an even larger number of Europeans, don’t believe in God at all and many more are open to the possibility that there may not be such an entity, and that even if there is, we can know nothing about him/her/it. I’m part of that second group.

As it turns out, surprisingly, so was the woman who spent most of her life taking care of the poor and hungry in Calcutta, India. Letters written by Mother Teresa, and recently published in a new book by her close friend, Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, indicate that she was suffering from a huge crisis of faith that spanned four decades. In her letters, about 40 of them, she admitted to having serious doubts about the existence of God and heaven. Her public exuberance for her religion, she admitted, was a façade.

Mother Teresa started her work in India around 1950, about the same time she started having doubts about God. She is being considered for canonization by the Vatican. A British newspaper says that the Vatican indicated the newly-published letters will not hamper progress toward her sainthood.

Ironically, years after my elementary school experience, I happened to see this same bully at a funeral. I didn’t run away as he seemed to be dressed appropriately and was acting civil. As it turned out, he had become a born-again Christian. I recognized the symptoms when he started thumping his bible at me.

Yes, things can sure change when you get older, sometimes in very unexpected ways.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

My Love-Hate Relationshiop with Summer

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the summer season. Going back to my childhood, I remember loving summer because, well, school was out. Summertime meant I had free time to play and have fun without having to worry about homework or studying for tests (not that I really worried about those things too much anyway).

It was no different when I was in college and, later, when I became a teacher. Summer was my free time. And except for those years when I was working on my master’s degree, I always took the entire summer off. There were no part-time jobs for me. I enjoyed my free time too much.

I look at summer break as kind of an annual preview of retirement and I’ve come to realize that, unlike a lot of retirees like my mom who must find a part-time job to retain their sanity, I believe I can remain perfectly sane and never work again. But I digress.

The other aspect of summer I have always enjoyed is that it is vacation season. As a kid, summer vacation meant going to visit relatives in Kentucky. We never went anywhere else. I spent my entire childhood in and around Edinburgh with a couple of trips to Kentucky each year.

When I was old enough, I started planning vacations for the family. I had the entire itinerary written out for a trip to Florida. We never went. Finally, the summer after I graduated, Dad finally took us on a vacation to the state in the opposite direction of Kentucky. We went to Michigan, more or less following my pre-planned itinerary.

So summer really has its good side for me. The free time, the vacations, and did I mention the free time?

But then there is summer’s other face, the Mr. Hyde of summer. I have always really hated heat. There are a few people who don’t mind the hot, humid days of summer, but I’m not one of them. Most people admit they don’t like it hot and humid, but they accept it because it’s part of Indiana’s climate and there’s not much that can be done about it.

I can’t do anything about the climate either, but I probably have always hated heat and humidity more than most Hoosiers, even as a kid. Kids care nothing about the heat. When I was a preteen, I don’t really remember caring how hot it got as long as I could go out and play.

But somewhere during my teen years, the summer heat really started to bother me. I became interested in the weather back then. It was my main hobby. I would keep weather records every day and report them to the state’s climatologist as a voluntary observer. And I became keenly aware of the variations in temperature.

Summer temperatures were no fun. I remember long stretches of days in the 90s. I can even remember a few when it got about 100 degrees. I yearned for a return to the cooler autumn weather, even if it did mean going back to school.

In central Indiana, it gets to 90 degrees or higher an average of 17 times during a normal year. Recently, most summers have had fewer than 17 days of 90-degree weather. We’re making up for it this year. And I hate it.

School is back in session; that typically heralds a return to cooler weather. But my classroom is in a building that is undergoing major renovation, and I have no air conditioning. So not only is the worst part of summer still upon us, but I have to endure it while in school.

Ok, so there are worse things than having to endure a hot classroom for a few weeks. But as I’m sweltering in the heat while trying to keep 35 eighth graders in line, I can’t really think of what those things might be.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

New School Year, Same Old Focus

This week, and for the last two, we’ve seen the longest streak of 90-degree weather in decades. Summer shows no signs of waning soon. Yet, for kids and teachers, summer is officially over. School has started.

When I was a student at Edinburgh I remember hating Labor Day. It was my least favorite holiday. The reason was that we had just started school after a long summer break. I was eager to get back into the swing of things, get to know my new teachers, and get reacquainted with some friends I hadn’t seen all summer. But just as school started, here we were on another vacation, albeit only a day.

That was back when school began the week before Labor Day. These days, as a teacher, the time between the beginning day of school and Labor Day Weekend seems painfully long.

I’m not really sure if there are any more days in the school year now or whether they are just distributed differently. Schools must conduct school for students on at least 180 days during the year. Teachers usually get a few more for meetings and record keeping.

In Indianapolis, a handful of students were supposed to return a month early, because their schools had failed the requirements of the dreaded No Child Left Behind Act. It sounds good, but is woefully flawed and can never really reach its lofty goals.

As a teacher, my contention is if students can’t learn the curriculum in 180 days, they probably won’t learn it in 210. It’s not a matter of total time at school; it’s a matter of time on task, focus, and parent involvement.

At any school, there are three groups of students, considered academically. There are those at the top who would learn regardless of the situation. The best thing teachers can do for them is not screw them up. Then there are those at the bottom of the ladder who show no inclination to climb it.

The vast majority of students are somewhere in the middle. They are certainly not going to learn on their own, but they are all open to being taught. These are the students who can be helped the most by a good teacher.

Obviously, there are teachers who have a special talent at reaching those students on the lower rungs of the ladder. But those teachers are so rare that when one emerges, they make movies about them (such as the Ron Clark Story). And when a classroom contains a mixed bag of students, from all three levels, the teacher who concentrates so much on inspiring the low-achieving students invariably under-educates the larger group of students in the middle, the ones who will benefit the most from their teachers’ attention.

I’m not advocating ignoring the severe underachievers. But we must acknowledge that, regardless of our good intentions, some of them are going to be left behind. There will be those who will drop out, those who will be incarcerated, and those who might struggle through the years, but never graduate.

The best thing teachers can do is to motivate the middle students to learn. If all students in the middle group could be encouraged to improve their standardized test scores by 10 percent, few schools would be in trouble with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The students in the top group are already passing tests such as ISTEP+. Students at the bottom would still flunk it even if they did manage to increase their scores by 10 percent. So that large group in the middle is definitely the group to target.

Increasing the length of the school year will be of little or no value. Focusing our efforts on the area where we have the greatest impact on students will make the most difference in improving school performance.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Making Rocket Science of Dining Out

I eat out a lot. In fact, until I moved into my new place last week, I seldom cooked anything at home aside from the occasional egg or omelet. Heating up a can of soup or popping a packaged dinner into the microwave was my idea of cooking at home.

It’s not that I can’t cook. I used to enjoy cooking and even making up recipes. But cooking for one can become a drudgery; it’s far easier simply to go out for food.

But eating out has its disadvantages, even for the bachelor who would rather not bother to cook at home. First of all, it can get expensive. My daughter is home for summer break from college and she refuses to eat fast food, which really inflates the dinning out budget.

Beyond the expense, however, is the fact that restaurants don’t always get the food right. In fact, I would say they get it wrong more often than right.

The less expensive, family-style restaurants do a fairly good job of preparing ordinary home-cooked meals like meat loaf or manhattans, but they often stumble when preparing specialty dishes, such as fish. I’ve learned that if you want a good fish dinner, most of the time you have to go to a restaurant that specializes in seafood.

I don’t eat at the high-priced five-star restaurants where you need a reservation and where the appetizers cost more than the entrées at Denny’s. But I occasionally eat at the marginally upscale restaurants. My daughter’s favorite is the Cheesecake Factory.

Admittedly, they have a huge menu selection and their portion sizes are grand. But, for my taste, the meals are substandard for the price. Like most of the more expensive restaurants, they always undercook their veggies.

That seems to be a trademark of most general-menu restaurants, regardless of how upscale they are. They tend to severely undercook their vegetables and overcook their meat, chicken, and fish. I don’t eat steak, but ground beef should be cooked medium for full flavor.

Chicken and fish should be cooked just until the last bit of pink turns white. Every second of cooking after that point results in overly-dry, tough bites. In fact, I like my salmon cooked so that a bit of pink remains.

Vegetables, on the other hand, need to be tender. I know it’s personal taste, but serving crispy hot vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower is unacceptable. I might as well just eat a warm salad.

Restaurants cook for the masses. So obviously, either the masses have different tastes than I, or they are less picky about what they eat before complaining. If I order a dish a certain way, and it comes back differently, I have no reservations about sending it back, even multiple times if necessary. I figure if I’m paying good money for a meal, it had better be the way I like it, not the way the average customer likes it.

In general, I’ve learned that the lower-priced restaurants or family-style diners tend to serve up better fair than the more expensive places. It’s not universally true, but a good rule of thumb.

But I’ve eaten out enough to know that if I want good, inexpensive fried fish to go to Long John Silvers. If I want good seafood in general, I go to Red Lobster. The best spaghetti is at the Old Spaghetti Factory. The best biscuits and gravy are found at Sunshine Café. The best omelets are at Café Patachou. The best chopped steak dinner is at Grindstone Charley’s. The best potato soup and salmon are at O’Charley’s. The Greek Island on South Meridian is the place to go for good Greek fair. The best chili is at Charlie and Barney’s. For the ultimate salad bar, go to Ruby Tuesday. And the best grilled catfish is at Cracker Barrel.

Oh, and if you love burgers, definitely go to Steak ‘N’ Shake. Their Frisco Melt is heaven on a plate.

Ok, now I’m hungry.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Incentive to Move Lessens as One Accumulates Stuff

I hate moving. And yet, here I go again. It’s moving day.

Some people, after they reach adulthood, get a job, and move into their first house or apartment, pretty much stay put for years. As their career takes off and they make more money, get married, and maybe have kids, they may want a bigger house or a different neighborhood, so they move.

For many people, this relocation of the family may take place two or three times during their entire lives. For others, though, it may take place two or three times in any particular year.

I fall somewhere in between those extremes, but the trend for me has been much closer to the latter scenario. This was especially true when I was a young adult.

Let’s see, after I graduated college and joined the real world of work, I moved from my parent’s home in Edinburgh to an apartment in Indianapolis. Length of stay: about 3 months. Then it was off to a second apartment where I finished out a year.

Then I got married. So we moved to another Indianapolis apartment where we lived about six months. Then it was about 3 months in a duplex and six months in a rental house before I got a new teaching job in Goshen on a temporary contract. We were there a full year, wow!

After that, it was back to Edinburgh for three months then to my new teaching assignment in Lake County. We lived in a small rental cottage for a month then moved to a mobile home in Portage for eight months, then back to Edinburgh for three months, then back to Portage for a year.

We then moved into a duplex in Lake Station for a full three years before moving to another rental house a block away where we stayed about a year or so. Then we moved across town to another rental home for about two years, then to another duplex in New Chicago for a year before moving back to the previous house.

After that it was a mobile home in Valparaiso for a year. Finally, I decided it was time to buy a home. We bought a small vinyl-village home in Hobart where we stayed for three years. We sold it and moved to Franklin after I changed jobs again.

A year later, it was back to Edinburgh. We lived in a mobile home for about three years in a park south of town. We then moved the mobile home to another park in town where we managed to stay for a whopping eight years. That made 11 years in the same dwelling.

When I went back to my teaching profession and got a job for Indianapolis Public Schools, I rented a house in the same neighborhood I lived in the first time I rented a home in the city.

I’ve lived there for three years, but then I felt ready to buy my second home. This one is on the south side and has never been lived in before. Who knows how long I’ll stay there; I’m holding out for 12 years. By then, I’ll be ready for retirement.

So, even though my length of stay at any one place has gradually increased over the years, so too has the amount of stuff I’ve accumulated and must therefore move or throw out. The packing and sorting is no fun. So my incentive to stay put has increased proportionally to the amount of stuff I’ve acquired.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

For Baseball, Once a Year is Enough

I was never really involved in athletics when I was in school. For one thing I was not good enough. For another, I was not interested enough.

When sides were chosen for basketball games at recess when I was in elementary school or during PE when I was in junior high, I was one of the kids who was picked last. That’s another reason I didn’t play much.

Oh, I played in the neighborhood kickball games and played a bit of scrimmage against a couple of friends, but that’s about it. The only organized team I ever played on when I was a kid was in Little League baseball, and I don’t even remember the name of the team I was on.

The first year I played Little League, when I must have been eight or nine years old, I remember going to bat only once. I struck out.

I played several subsequent seasons at Irwin Park. I didn’t improve much, but I do remember hitting a double once. It was a major rush. Unfortunately, I was tagged out at third base on the next play.

Although I sort of enjoyed playing the game, it was more the general camaraderie that I liked. And when we won a game, we were invariably treated to Dairy Queen. It almost made the embarrassment of striking out worth it.

About once per season, we were treated to an Indianapolis Indians game at Victory Field. No, it wasn’t at the new, improved Victory Field, but the old one on 16th Street before they changed the name.

Edinburgh’s police chief at the time, Winfrey “Wimpy” Burton, who was a league supporter, treated us to a game one year. Not only did he take the team to the game, he gave each and every player a whole dollar to spend on goodies. In those days, you could actually get something to eat at a ball game for a buck.

Another perk of being on a baseball team, even if your value as a player was questionable, was that we periodically got invited out to the Amos Estate for a dip in their pool. Like the trips to the Dairy Queen and the Indians games, the swim-fests were, to me, more fun than actually playing a game. It didn’t involve competing on my part.

These days, I still don’t particularly care for sports. I like the local professional sports teams. I don’t often attend the games, though.

I like it when Indianapolis teams win. I was as happy as any true sports fan when the Colts actually won the Super Bowl. And I followed the Pacers when they were one of the elite teams in the NBA a few years ago.

And, although I’ve been to see both the Pacers and the Colts in action, I guess my favorite team to watch in person is the Indianapolis Indians. Perhaps it’s because of the nostalgic value, harking back to my Little League days. It can’t be the game itself; watching baseball on TV, for example, is in the same league as watching paint dry.

But I’m going to a game today. The weather is nice; the new Victory Field is awesome, and I might even get a free baseball cap. I try to make it to a game at least once per summer. And today’s the day for this year. Go Indians!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Protest Another Example of Christian Intolerance

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate opened its session for the day with a prayer. That’s nothing unusual; it always opens with prayer. The difference was that the leader of the daily invocation was a Hindu chaplain. It was a Hindu prayer.

Congress, consisting of two elected bodies that are charged with passing the laws of this nation, probably shouldn’t be opening its sessions with a prayer because it comes very close to violating one of the primary tenets on which our country was founded, separation of church and state.

However, it has been decided by those who know more than I that, as an autonomous body, the Senate and the House of Representatives have the right to conduct business according to the rules they, themselves, decide on. And if the membership agrees that an opening prayer is in order, then there’s not much anyone can do about it.

But, just as a judge ruled last year with regards to Indiana’s General Assembly, prayers in open session should always be ecumenical, favoring no particular religion over another, if the U.S. Senate insists on opening its sessions with a prayer, then those prayers should also be representative of all faiths.

But, alas, the right-wing component of the Christian religion doesn’t see it that way. While the Hindu chaplain was saying his prayer, a group of protesters disrupted him, calling his prayer an abomination and chanting slogans like, “There’s only one true God.”

The group was arrested and charged with causing a disturbance. But the demonstration epitomizes the intolerance that is deeply ingrained in the religious right movement in this country.

To many of them, and I know this because some of them have told me, the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendments simply means the freedom to choose whichever evangelical Christian denomination one wishes to belong to. It doesn’t mean, they say, the right to select other “heathen” religions or, gulp, no religion at all.

But America is an eclectic nation, inhabited by individuals of every conceivable religious faith, including Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, Shinto, Native American religions, and Christianity. About 15 percent of us profess no religion at all. I belong to that 15 percent.

Having no religion doesn’t necessarily mean a disbelief in God. Only about five percent of Americans confess to being true atheists. The rest of the non-religious crowd is either agnostic, like me, or believe in a spirituality that doesn’t fit into any organized religion.

If the Senate wishes to open its sessions with a prayer, then it should do so as the representative body of all Americans, not just the Christian ones. Prayers should either be non-denominational, or every religion should have the opportunity to participate on a rotating basis.

That’s what the Senate seems to be doing, but they need to be left alone by the zealots who believe that their faith, and theirs alone, is the right one. That is, of course, their right to believe such nonsense. And I don’t have a problem with people’s beliefs per se. I do, however, have a big problem when they go beyond considering their religion a belief system and start viewing it as absolute truth to the disparity of all other belief systems.

Nobody has that much knowledge about God. In fact, the real truth is, nobody has any knowledge whatsoever about God; they only think they do. That’s why they call it faith.

It was Bertrand Russell who said, “I would never die for my beliefs, because I might be wrong.” If only everyone thought the same way, there would be far less religious intolerance in the world.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Death and Taxes are Certain, Especially Taxes

It’s a trite old expression: Nothing is certain in life except for death and taxes. But that expression has stood the test of time because it rings so true.

But one day, maybe sooner than most people think, the first certainty in that pair may not be inevitable. Researchers are starting to find the reasons why people age and die and they have discovered that there is no death gene. We are not, as it turns out, genetically programmed to die after a certain length of time as it was once thought.

That means, if we can eliminate the things in our environment that damage our tissue, and mitigate those damages, the only thing that would kill us would be a fatal accident. People could live hundreds of years without having such an accident.

If it ever came to pass that scientists could invent a method of cheating death, then the second part of the axiom, taxes, would be the only sure thing in life. And, in fact, there doesn’t seem to be any hope of ever eliminating those. It seems we may have better luck at eliminating death than taxes.

In Indianapolis last week, protests were held by homeowners who are understandably upset about the drastic increase in their property taxes this year. Some homeowners are facing a 100-percent increase. Most increases are on the order of 30 percent, but it still marks the second time in two years that property taxes have gone up substantially.

Income taxes already take a hefty bite out of everyone’s paycheck. The federal government gets the biggest share, but the state and even most counties have their hands in our cookie jars too.

Then there are gasoline taxes. Everyone who drives has to pay that at the pump on top of the price of fuel. And we pay sales tax on gasoline, too, as well as federal tax. We’re paying triple tax on gasoline, and since sales tax is charged as a percent of the total price, and not per gallon, it results in a windfall profit for the state.

Our system of taxes in Indiana is in desperate need of an overhaul. One of the most inequitable tax arrangements is that local property taxes are used to fund school districts. That means districts in towns or neighborhoods where there are lots of older homes or manufactured housing are not funded as well as schools in areas with large, newer homes or where there is a lot of industry.

It means students in some schools have old, deteriorating classrooms without air conditioning or decent lab facilities while students in other schools have all the educational amenities, such as computers for each student and modern science labs.

Many years ago, Indiana also had a personal property tax. Not only did you pay taxes on your home, but on everything in it. Until a year ago, businesses still had to pay taxes on unsold merchandise, warehoused items, and equipment.

A better solution, and a much more equitable one, would be to eliminate all property taxes for everyone and eliminate the income tax. Instead, the state should fill its coffers with taxes on purchases. Charging sales taxes and excise taxes is a more reasonable method of taxation than the current system.

Keep the taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and alcohol. Charge a fair sales tax. Charge a flat-rate tax on license plates. That’s’ it. No income taxes or property taxes are needed.

The people who buy more will pay more in taxes. If you want to avoid paying taxes, don’t buy expensive items.

We’ll still have to pay taxes, of course, but we’ll have more control over the amount we pay.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

England Banned Smoking. Why Can't We?

As of last Sunday, July 1, nobody is allowed to smoke in any bar, restaurant, or public building anywhere in the country. The country I’m talking about, unfortunately, is England, not the United States.

England joined with the other UK nations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in enacting a total smoking ban in public buildings, including bars and pubs.

And that affects us how? It doesn’t unless you’re planning a trip to the UK. I’m not.

But it does lend us a good example. In this case, our friends from across the Atlantic are acting as a positive role model. If only this country had the guts to pass such a law….

But, alas, it probably will never happen, or at least not in the foreseeable future. Big Tobacco is much too strong an entity to allow anything as sensible as a smoking ban in public places. After all, the tobacco companies are still trying their darndest to hook kids on their lethal products.

So in the U.S. we must rely on communities and localities to pass smoking bans. It leaves us with a hodgepodge of smoking-prohibited places scattered amongst a larger matrix of smoking-allowed places. And even the smoking bans that do exist are not uniform. Some places, such as Indianapolis, allow smoking in bowling allies for some reason. Bowling allies are often filled with kids and teens.

Some local bans even include outside common areas, such as parks. Most do not. And for those who travel frequently, how does one know if a community or county has enacted a ban or not? There typically are no road signs announcing whether a community is smoker-friendly or not.

I eat out a lot. But when I come to Edinburgh and eat at one of the restaurants near the mall, I’m asked if I prefer smoking or no-smoking. It’s a question that I haven’t had to answer for many months in Indianapolis. It’s a question I keep hoping restaurant hosts and hostesses will never have to ask again, anywhere, at some point in the near future.

We all know the dangers of smoking by now. We all know that second-hand smoke is at worst, a killer, and at best an annoyance. And yet, when I’m in a restaurant in or near Edinburgh, I continue to see adults light up around their kids.

I am not in favor of a total ban on the sale of tobacco products. That didn’t work for liquor sales in the 1920s and it won’t work for cigarettes today. In fact, I not only believe that cigarettes should remain legal to buy and sell, but I believe marijuana should also be legal, not because I use it; I don’t and never have. But banning it by law creates many problems. Banning cigarettes would result in the same problems for tobacco enforcement.

We spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars in this country to stop marijuana use. It doesn’t stop it, but simply makes it go underground. Marijuana is only slightly more harmful than cigarettes and that’s mainly because it is filter-less. Legalizing it, taxing it, and controlling its distribution would make it safer.

In any case, neither marijuana nor cigarettes should be sold to minors. And nobody should be allowed to smoke either in public buildings or common areas. The law should be universal, not just in certain localities.

England’s lawmakers claim their ban is the biggest step forward in preserving the health of their citizens in decades. Why can’t the U.S. take a similar, bold step?