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.