Monday, June 30, 2008

Happy Progeny Day?

A few years ago, I wrote a column lamenting the fact that there are no holidays in the middle of summer, except for the Fourth of July. By summer, I am referring to those months that most people think of as being summer months: June, July, and August. And the middle of summer would include the period between July 4 and August 31.

Look on your calendar; there is nothing of any significance between those two dates. Yes, I know, it is summertime. We don’t necessarily need a holiday to celebrate fun in the sun. But, still, it would be nice to have something. That is nearly two whole months in which there isn’t even a minor holiday, like Groundhog Day. No other time of year is so void of formal calendar observations.

I looked it up just to be sure I didn’t miss something. I didn’t.

There’s Hoya Hoye Night, which is a children’s festival celebrated in mid-August, in Ethiopia. There is Ivan Kupala Day on July 7, which is a celebration of John the Baptist by the Orthodox Church in Russia. And let’s not forget Lughnasadh. It is a Gaelic holiday celebrated on the first of August, marking mid-summer.

There are several holidays celebrating the solstice, mostly in Europe. But these all occur on or around June 24, not within the two-month stretch I’m talking about. So that’s about it for summer celebrations anywhere in the world. I guess it’s just not we who have nothing official to celebrate during the middle of summer.

Our next official holiday is Labor Day. It is celebrated on the first Monday in September. So this year, it is as early as it can be, September 1. By then, school will have already been in session about two weeks in most places.

I think I probably mourn the dearth of summer holidays more than most people because I run a Web site devoted to holidays. I make money through the advertising that appears on those pages. So no holidays means less money. Sigh.

But at least it is summer. And, really, who needs an excuse to celebrate when you can go outside without a coat? That’s one of my least favorite parts about winter, having to wear a coat.

At any rate, I think there should be some kind of celebration in August. We don’t necessarily have to declare it a federal legal holiday. No, I want my mail delivered. It should be equivalent to St. Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day. After all, the card, candy, and flower shops desperately need another holiday when they get to sell stuff.

Maybe the Ethiopians have it right. We have a day in celebration of mothers, fathers, and grandparents. Perhaps we should have a day to celebrate kids (besides Christmas). We could call it Progeny Day. We could give them a festival of their own just before we send them back to school.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Scammed by the Plumber

You expect businesses to make a profit; that’s what they are in business for. You might even expect some of them to overcharge for goods and services, such as convenience stores or mom-and-pop shops. But you don’t expect a well-known operation that advertises on TV every day and touts their professionalism above all else to rip you off.

Well, I learned my lesson. I had a small leak from the supply pipe under my bathroom sink. I’m not handy, nor did I want to get down there and tighten it, lacking tools, so I called a plumber. It was Attaboy Plumbing in Indianapolis. One of their claims to fame is that there is no up-front service fee if they do the work.

So the guy comes out, tells me there will be no service fee and then looks at my pipe. “Oh yeah, that won’t be too bad. It’s pretty simple,” he said. So then he looks through his price list and shows me. “This is the discounted price I’m giving you,” he said as he pointed to what I knew had to be a misprint. It said $147.

“What? You’re charging me $147 to replace a five-dollar piece of copper?” I asked. “Why don’t I just pay you the $89 service fee that you’re NOT charging me?”

He said he couldn’t do that. I suspected as much.

So after I told him it had only cost me $69 in labor to install an entire toilet that I bought at Lowes, he called his boss. His boss told him to come down to the minimum amount they charge for anything, $131.

I had little choice. I could pay $89 for nothing and try to fix it myself, or I could pay the $131. I paid it.

So if you live in the Indianapolis area and if you ever need a plumber, call someone else and pay for the service call. Most places include at least 30 minutes worth of labor in that price. It took the guy less than 15 minutes to replace the pipe. Attaboy Plumbing has a nice scam going on.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Patriotism Runs Amok

I think I’m on solid ground when I say that most Americans tend to be patriotic, especially this time of year. We are right in between Flag Day and Independence Day. Our collective patriotism is so robust that it explodes, in the form of fireworks.

Patriotism is defined as being the love of, and the devotion to one’s country. Since, it seems, that I typically find it necessary to take up a contrary position to the view of the masses, I will admit here that I am not particularly patriotic.

Oh, I enjoy the Fourth of July festivities. And I still find that a good rendition of America the Beautiful or the Star Spangled Banner can give me goose bumps. But I still refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I don’t pledge allegiance to anyone or anything. I’m my own person.

Drilling down into why I don’t claim to be patriotic requires a definition or two. If patriotism is the love of one’s country, then what is meant by the word country? Is it the land? America has some extraordinarily beautiful landscapes, but then so do many other countries.

Perhaps it is the people that make up the country. But America is probably more pluralistic than any other nation. We are a very diverse group of people. There are probably as many differences between the average San Franciscan and the average Iowan as there are between the average American (whatever that is) and the average German or Australian.

Perhaps a country can be defined as the form of government that runs it. I’ll grant that our Founding Fathers were really onto something. They wrote a brilliant document that we now call the Constitution, which outlines the basic premises that govern our nation. The fact this 200-year-old document is still relevant today speaks volumes.

But the Constitution is not the government. The government can loosely be defined as being those in charge. And personally, I’m not too proud of our government right now, especially the one in charge.

Most Americans, if asked why they are patriotic, would probably bring up our freedom. America is a free nation. It is the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” But come on. Does anyone believe that Americans are any freer than Canadians, Germans, Britons, or Italians?

Americans have their Bill of Rights. And while other countries may not have a two-centuries-old document granting them their rights, they still have basically the same rights as we do. There are many free countries in the world. And, frankly, some of them grant their citizens more freedoms than we in America have.

The truth is, I was born and raised in America and so I’m an American. But I would venture to say that I could be just as happy living in England, France, Germany, or Australia. And if I were living in one of those countries, I would not be patriotic toward them either, although I would thank my lucky stars I didn’t have a leader like George W. Bush.

Sometimes I think Americans overdo their patriotism without even realizing it. My daughter and I were sitting in the Arts Garden over Washington Street in Indianapolis recently. We were looking east and making a little game out of counting the number of American flags we could see. Within only two blocks, we counted an even dozen. These are permanent fixtures, not simply displays for the Fourth of July.

My daughter mentioned that during her trip to France last year, the only French flags flying were on the grounds of government buildings. Her friend from England said it is the same way there and she was amazed at actually seeing an American flag flying over McDonalds when she visited here.

Don’t get me wrong. Flying a flag is fine; it is what we do in America. Being proud of one’s country, however you define it, is fine, too. But from a historical perspective, when patriotism runs amok, it becomes nationalism. And in the past, that has been sufficient incentive for starting wars or otherwise being a global bully. And that’s how much of the world is starting to view us.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Why Should I Care what You Believe?

Over the years that I have been writing this column I have made my feelings about organized religion, any religion, abundantly clear. Those who believe in God should dump their religious affiliations in favor of fostering an individual spirituality and personal closeness with Him.

But when some readers believe that I have been too harsh on matters of faith and religion, I have been questioned as to why I care what people believe. This is a pluralistic society and a free country in which people are free to believe whatever they wish. And I have no argument with that.

But sometimes, probably most of the time, the belief of a person is based on the dogmatic teachings of whatever religious group he or she belongs to. And sometimes those belief systems are detrimental to society as a whole.

I was reminded of that fact again this week when I read about the Conference of Catholic Bishops that was held last week in Florida. At that conference the bishops voted, with only one dissension, to condemn embryonic stem cell research.

George W. Bush, in an executive order, has prohibited federal funding of embryonic stem cell research for years. He has twice vetoed bills sent to him by Congress that would lift or soften the ban. The most unpopular, and if you believe scholars of history, the worst president in all of U.S. history remains intransigent to the end.

Nevertheless, it is likely that whoever replaces him in office will allow stem cell funding, thus ending a U.S. scientific disadvantage in biological research.

But knowing this, the bishops decided to send a clear message to the people of this country, especially those who are Catholic, that the pope disapproves of embryonic stem cell research. It has something to do with it being a sin to destroy a ball of cells that, under different circumstances, might potentially be able to develop into a person.

Of course, this is the same Catholic Church that also condemns any kind of birth control, because, “Every sperm is sacred,” as the Monty Python comedy troupe so adeptly sums it up in the movie, “The Meaning of Life.”

So now, if you are thinking straight, without bias, and from a perspective on an alien visiting Earth for the first time, you will understand just how silly such religion-inspired dictums really are.

How can anyone believe that God is so petty as to care whether or not we use birth control, or use stem cells from embryos that are destined for destruction anyway, or for that matter, whether or not we eat meat during Lent or consume the flesh of an animal without cloven hooves?

Stem cells may be the next great breakthrough in medicine, but how will we know if we can’t do the research? But we can’t do the research because of the closed-minded thinking of people like our president and like the leaders of the Catholic Church.

We can’t even teach our kids good science in school without the moaning and groaning of religious fundamentalists who keep insisting that our four-and-a half-billion-year-old earth is only 6,000 years old. They’re still trying every trick in the book to teach their religious fantasy story as legitimate science.

So that is why I keep harping on religion. It is not what people believe that offends me; it is the fact that so many of them try to turn it into something it is not and force it upon everyone else. And, yes, that upsets me. It should upset everyone.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Street View is Great, but Stay Off Private Drives

Back in February, I wrote a column about a relatively new technology that lets you go online and take a look at your house, your car, or even yourself if you happened to be outside when the picture was taken. It is a feature of Google Earth called Street View.

Google has been busy driving through every street in its attempt to photograph every building and intersection in America. But there have been a few potholes in its way. The detractors are those who claim Google has violated private roads or driveways, and from those who don’t want their pictures or the pictures of their children posted online for all to see.

In the mid-1990s, I was editor of Edinburgh’s weekly newspaper, Tricounty News. Every issue had a feature photo on the front page. The feature photo often included kids doing cute things. Although most of the photos were of local people, none of the people were asked to sign a consent form. That’s because when people are in public places, it is legal to photograph them.

Google is just simply doing what most newspapers do, but on a grand scale. People who complain are those who are caught skipping work or walking out of strip clubs or bars, or otherwise doing something that might be embarrassing to them. Then, along comes Google’s van with its fish-eye cameras mounted on top and snaps a picture of the embarrassing activity and places it on the Internet.

You can’t blame those who are photographed in that manner for being upset. But if they are afraid of getting caught by the camera, maybe they shouldn’t have been engaged in the embarrassing activity to begin with. If they get caught, they just need to get over it and chalk it up to experience.

Recently, a community in Minnesota kicked Google’s camera-mobile out of town. The mayor sent a letter to Google demanding that it remove the pictures of the town’s streets from its Web site. Google complied. It has a policy of removing individual pictures if requested and if there is a good reason. But it has never been asked to remove the pictures from a whole town.

Apparently, the village’s streets are privately owned. It is a separate town with a name, North Oaks. But it is much like a gated community without the gates. It has a population of 4,500.

Since its streets are privately owned, the mayor said that Google was trespassing when it photographed the town for its Street View service.

Earlier this year, a couple sued Google for posting a picture of their house on its Web site. The house, the couple claimed, was at the end of a private driveway, not a public street.

Private property should be respected. If Google’s van is driving along private drives or in gated communities without permission, then it is trespassing. So, some people do have legitimate complaints in certain rare instances.

For the most part, however, Google’s Street View is performing a marvelous service that could only be dreamed of just a few years ago. It’s one thing to be able to find a location on a map. It’s even better if you can use Google Earth to see the neighborhood from space. But the ultimate tool for the traveler is to be able to see real photos of the streets and buildings before you make the trip.

Street View lets you take a virtual tour of almost every street in most cities, with more streets being added all the time. Eventually, every street in America will be included. You can then take a road trip and see all the sights without ever leaving the comfort of your easy chair. Then you can decide if you really want to go there.