Wednesday, November 28, 2007


"Today a reader, tomorrow a leader." -- Margaret Fuller

As a parent, most of the time, you feel pretty clueless. You do the best you can, try to instill good habits and manners with your child without stunting their creativity. So, it's gratifying when you have those seemingly spontaneous moments where it is obvious that you must have been doing at least something right. One of those occasions was last night about 7:00. It's prime TV viewing time and all three of us are sitting in the family room reading books ... by choice. Alex, at 6 years old, has become a voracious reader and is reading well beyond his age level. He'll probably be reading Harry Potter books within a year.

He could have been playing a game on a computer or watching TV, but he chose to read. But this is not the rule for most kids these days. I was listening to NPR the other day and they spoke of a recent National Endowment for the Arts study which I have excerpted here:

Washington, DC -- Today, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announces the release of To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, a new and comprehensive analysis of reading patterns in the United States. To Read or Not To Read gathers statistics from more than 40 studies on the reading habits and skills of children, teenagers, and adults. The compendium reveals recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society.

"The new NEA study is the first to bring together reliable, nationally representative data, including everything the federal government knows about reading," said NEA Chairman Dana Gioia. "This study shows the startling declines, in how much and how well Americans read, that are adversely affecting this country's culture, economy, and civic life as well as our children's educational achievement."

... Among the key findings:

Americans are reading less - teens and young adults read less often and for shorter amounts of time compared with other age groups and with Americans of previous years.

Less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers, a 14 percent decline from 20 years earlier. Among 17-year-olds, the percentage of non-readers doubled over a 20-year period, from nine percent in 1984 to 19 percent in 2004.

On average, Americans ages 15 to 24 spend almost two hours a day watching TV, and only seven minutes of their daily leisure time on reading.

Americans are reading less well – reading scores continue to worsen, especially among teenagers and young males. By contrast, the average reading score of 9-year-olds has improved.

Reading scores for 12th-grade readers fell significantly from 1992 to 2005, with the sharpest declines among lower-level readers.

2005 reading scores for male 12th-graders are 13 points lower than for female 12th-graders, and that gender gap has widened since 1992.

Reading scores for American adults of almost all education levels have deteriorated, notably among the best-educated groups. From 1992 to 2003, the percentage of adults with graduate school experience who were rated proficient in prose reading dropped by 10 points, a 20 percent rate of decline.

The declines in reading have civic, social, and economic implications – Advanced readers accrue personal, professional, and social advantages. Deficient readers run higher risks of failure in all three areas.

Nearly two-thirds of employers ranked reading comprehension "very important" for high school graduates. Yet 38 percent consider most high school graduates deficient in this basic skill.

American 15-year-olds ranked fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 industrialized nations, behind Poland, Korea, France, and Canada, among others.

Literary readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in positive civic and individual activities – such as volunteering, attending sports or cultural events, and exercising ...

The show went on to discuss the fact that reading online items is not a substitute. Studies of children who spend equal amounts of time online but one group also reads recreationally finds that the offline readers have drastically better reading comprehension and school performance.

So, for those people that think visiting everyday is all the reading you need, you are kidding yourself and you are limiting yourself. And believe me, there are people that think this and have told me so.

Should we be surprised that no one can find Iraq on a map or string together a proper sentence without saying "ya know"? Not in a society where 30-second YouTube clips and text-messaging are ubiquitous. Getting someone to sit down and do one thing for a half-hour is unheard of. We're becoming an illiterate society that laps up anything that our government or FOX News says because we have no historical perspective to compare it with. Anybody that has ever read 1984 or Brave New World can't help but see the parallels.

I'm not saying that you should abandon TV or shouldn't read online. There are great sources in both areas. Just don't shortchange picking up a good book. It's not supposed to be work - it's supposed to be fun. Pick up something you are interested in. Do yourself a favor and unplug once in awhile.

"Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere." -- Jean Rhys

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." -- Ray Bradbury

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Merry Chri$tma$

"Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends.... Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts." -- Henry David Thoreau

"Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need." -- From the movie Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk

'What would Jesus buy?' film asks:

Buy Nothing Day is getting a Jesus jolt.

New York-based performance artist Bill Talen assumes the persona of Reverend Billy, often accompanied by a gospel choir, to use the histrionics and cadences of a televangelist (think Jimmy Swaggart) in an anti-consumerism effort to convert people to his "Church of Stop Shopping."

And for this year's Black Friday shopping frenzy, Talen is upping his profile with a colorful campaign promoting a new documentary film about his efforts, "What Would Jesus Buy?"

It will feature "Four Horsemen of the Shopocalypse" riding down Madison Avenue in New York and "elves on strike" at the Grove outdoor mall in Los Angeles, said Morgan Spurlock, who produced the film.

Spurlock, known for placing himself in uncomfortable situations in 2004's "Super Size Me" and his "30 Days" TV series, isn't going with the immersion technique for this project.

"I've unplugged, man," Spurlock said this week. "I've started to walk away from this idea of getting credit card after credit card to get people more gifts."

Spurlock says the campaign and film should appeal to conservative Christians as well as to those on the political left.

"People on both sides of the fence can agree on one thing, and that's that the holiday's gotten out of control," he said.

"We've been convinced that the way to show your love for someone is by what you buy them, by what the price tag is, by what is represented on the receipt. And that's the wrong message to send out," he added.

A review of "What Would Jesus Buy?" in "Christianity Today" questioned whether Talen's act, poking fun at both religion and consumerism, went too far.

"Yes, it's condescending. Yes, it cheapens Christianity," the magazine said, before concluding: "But the whole argument of the film is that our commodity culture has already cheapened Christianity."

Buy Nothing Day was conceived by artist Ted Dave of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1992, and since then has been championed by Adbusters magazine, said Adbusters campaign manager Paul Cooper.

"It started off as a bit of a joke," said Adbusters editor-in-chief Kalle Lasn. "Environmentalists are really the core base of this movement. But after that there were religious people that came on board."

Cooper calls the day an "open source" event for all types of performance artists and activists. Any effort that generates thought about shopping and consumption is encouraged. Last year, one group wandered into stores wearing shirts that advertised 50 percent off everything in the store.

"There are a lot of people who don't like this weird tradition of hectic shopping and frenzied and angry crowds the day after Thanksgiving," Cooper said.

I'm hardly an off-the-grid type and certainly have not divorced myself from consumerism, but spectacles like Black Friday and the disgusting trend of stores putting up Christmas displays around Halloween sure makes one wonder what's it all about. I'm an atheist, but I can appreciate the complaint of some Christians that the point of Christmas has been lost. That "point" for them obviously relates to Christianity. My "point" is friends, family, food. Either way, the corporate, debt-producing, environment-wrecking, nausea-inducing Holiday season is not the answer for anyone. And any church, any leader, any media outlet or any acquaintance that tells you it is doesn't deserve your attention.

I'm sure I'm a raging hypocrite and you could probably find inconsistencies in my position over the years (probably on my own blog), but I'm trying. I'm still buying gifts but opted for Black Friday shopping in my skivvies, sitting at my computer. I'm going to try to buy local or used as much as possible. If not local, then non-profit, fair-trade, or organic.

Celebrate Christmas any way you want. Give gifts to friends and family if you can and because it makes you feel good, not because you feel society is requiring you to.

For like-minded people, here's a site with some great alternatives:

Buy Nothing for Christmas

"Who covets more, is evermore a slave." -- Robert Herrick

"The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied... but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing." -- John Berger

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Good Weekend

OK, my last 6 posts have all been about what I don't like (evangelizing, Myspace, lack of privacy, Glenn Beck, hubris). Lest you think I'm depressed all the time, here are some highlights of a bitchin' weekend:
  • -- Dinner out with E-Slice (Eric) and the family for his birthday at a small sushi place called Tokyo Lobby. Great straight up sushi plus some goofy specialties like Monkey Brains (deep-fried stuffed mushroom with crab meat and spicy tuna). Top it off with tempura banana with ice cream for dessert. yum.

  • -- One of the best special exhibits that we've ever seen at the Arizona Science Center - Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. It was instructive , had a lot of stuff (doors, windows, dishes, clothes, etc.) and was thematically well put together.

  • -- Lunch Saturday at Uncle Sam's in Phoenix. Big portions and some of the better hoagies and cheesesteaks in Phoenix.

  • -- Used book shopping at Bookman's (a local chain) and Half Price Books. I hit the jackpot today getting 3 Neil Gaiman books (American Gods, Neverwhere, and Good Omens), Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. I've been in a rut for the last couple of years of buying almost nothing but non-fiction. So, I'm trying to balance out with some good sci-fi.

  • -- Plus, Thursday, I went to my first Suns game of the year - a win versus da Bulls.

So, I do occasionally enjoy myself between bouts of pulling my hair out over our country going to hell in a hand basket. "Can't rain all the time ..." as the Crow would say.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Jesus Saves

A good friend of my wife's, a Southern Baptist, said the oddest thing (maybe not odd for those of her beliefs) in reponse to a tragic event the other day. Her neighbor's 4-year-old had been killed by the family dog - a tragic event that I won't get into the details of as they are not relevant to the story. The friend had went to the funeral service this last weekend and lamented that there had not be enough speaking by the pastor. "All they had done was have friends and family talk about the life of the little girl" (paraphrasing her friend). She said that the time would have been better spent preaching to the people there because at a funeral service is the only time some people get to church. In other words, the time would have been better spent proselytizing. Now, I wasn't there when the friend said this to my wife and if I had, I cannot even imagine my response. But my wife, even though she considers herself religious, just about came unhinged. They argued on the point for several minutes before my wife, in the interests of maintaining the friendship, decided to let it go.

Add on to this the conversation of today that she had with the same friend: Her friend was commenting that their 6 year old son is not eating well, causes trouble and has sleeping issues. In the same conversation she talked about how they go to church every single night of the week and often do not get home till 9:30 or 10:00 at night. She did not see any apparent connection between the two.

A large portion of evangelicals seem to be living a life where your sole purpose is to evangelize and bring more into the fold - ignoring real life, parenting, those around you that don't believe the same. Please explain to me how this is different than a cult.

And my wife's friend is not some crazy person divorced from the rest of society. She is a genuinely nice person who watches Alex whenever we ask. That is the scary part -- she's not the lunatic fringe, she's representative of a lot of church-goers.

I don't want to tell anyone how to live their life, but my thinking is that if you want to attract more people to Christianity, you would be wise not alienate the youth that will be your next generation by shoving religion down their throats 24-7. And secondly, I'd advise not being so strident in interactions with run-of-the-mill Christians who would otherwise be sympathetic to your cause (my wife). And before you accuse some atheists of being strident (Dawkins, Harris), I will grant you that point. But there is a difference, they are not trying to engender a certain belief. There is no fold that they are trying to get you into. They are trying to get you out of the fold ... to look at things objectively.

But even the concept of evangelizing is strange to me. Call me crazy, but you either believe or you don't believe. Someone can't convince you that you believe. Or if you could, would that really count? Would God really buy it if someone had to twist your arm? It even seems to be less about the person being saved and more about the person trying to save someone. This same friend brags about how she goes to church every day and all the things she does at the church as if there is some kind of cosmic score card that will get your more bonus points in heaven because you got all your Christianity merit badges on earth.

"At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity, idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols." -- Aldous Huxley

Monday, November 12, 2007

Not in our town!

"If you want to feel rich, just count the things you have that money can't buy" - Proverb

Tony Adkins and his wife, Tracy, began the evening of Sept. 23 at a birthday party for a friend at the Scottsdale Princess Hotel, a 10-mile drive from their luxurious neighborhood near the southern flanks of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

But a few hours later, Adkins, 51, would be running for his life from two armed 18-year-olds from nearby Fountain Hills.

The seed for that night of violence was planted at a party given by the couple's teenage daughter while her parents were at the Princess.

The Adkinses knew nothing about the party, but the noise aroused neighbors. They called Scottsdale police, who sent the teens home about midnight, and summoned the Adkins home.

By 1 a.m., Scottsdale police would be back.

Word of the party had spread fast on My Space, luring more than 100 teenagers, including the armed 18-year-olds, C.J. Norrick and Justin Hansen, and a 17-year-old

...Police told Adkins that would-be robbers troll sites such as MySpace, looking for crowded parties at upscale homes with high-end loot.

Norrick later admitted to police that he and his crew cooked up a home invasion-style robbery of the Adkin's plush 6,000-square-foot home after the party broke up.

...Crime remains rare in Scottsdale. But in the area surrounding 128th Street and Shea Boulevard, crime is so insignificant it is barely a blip on Scottsdale's overall crime statistics.

That is the kind of neighborhood the Adkinses were looking for.

"I came here," he said, "for the peace and quality of life."

..."I've never heard of such a crazy thing in my life," Adkins said of that violent night. "It's also a wake up call. I no longer believe, 'It can't happen to us.' "

Now he protects his home with a sophisticated $10,000 security system, including cameras and monitors that call his cell phone when they detect movement around his home.

"I'm trying to provide my family with as much peace as I can," Adkins said.

Scottsdale people are funny. Oh my god! Crime in Scottsdale? They didn't tell us about that at the rich uptight white indoctrination meeting when we moved here. The line by one of the commenters on the article is pretty funny, "Is that alarm to protect his family - or to protect his home from his dumb teenage daughter?"

A couple of details in the story are telling. A room at the Scottsdale Princess resort goes $300-600/night in non-busy times. Secondly, who needs a 6,000 square foot house for 3 people? It gives you some idea of what is valued by this family.

Now, I'm not wishing crime on anyone and I'm glad no one was hurt. But, come on. No where in this article is it mentioned that the main cause of the problem was them having no control over their own spoiled kid. What kind of moron would post the address and directions to their ritzy Scottsdale home on the online meeting place of every teenage gutterball in America? I'll tell you what kind of moron ... a moron that has parents that give their kids everything they could possibly want materially but none of what they actually need - boundaries and common sense.

The Stepford types that get behind the walls of these gated-communities and think they can just ignore the real world or pretend it isn't there are kidding themselves. They'd be better served saving themselves a few bucks, live somewhere else, and engage themselves in the community around them. That line in The Graduate, "I want to say one word to you. Just one word ... Are you listening? ... Plastics", takes on a new resonance. Originally intended to convey the hopelessness of a world set out for you, it fits here on many levels. First of all, the originally meaning, in that people here believe that money and where you live defines you. Secondly, in a more literal sense, by the preponderance of people with plastic surgery and who use their plastic (credit cards) to live a lifestyle they can't possibly support.

I know it's not fair to paint a whole city with a broad brush, but from 15 years of living in the Valley, I have found very few people who live in Scottsdale who break out of the stereotype of rich, entitled and arrogant. One of the funniest things is all the 30K millionaires. There are a lot of people who live in Scottsdale, are leveraged to the hilt, in debt, and insist on keeping it up just so that people will think they are rich.

They like to profess that Scottsdale is one of the most "livable" cities in America and at some point they must have appeared on some list (but I could find no current lists that say so) because of their schools, so-called lack of crime, and fancy resorts. But it hides an uglier truth of a city hung up on image and schools with well-to-do kids selling heroin and soma.

It's great to take pride in your cities for the right reasons - arts and culture, truly good schools, lack of crime, fair and affordable housing for all income types, etc. Square footage and checkbook balance are not.

"Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant." -- Epictetus

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Say Goodbye to Privacy

"Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds." -- John Perry Barlow

A top intelligence official says it is time people in the United States changed their definition of privacy.

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguards people's private communications and financial information.

Kerr's comments come as Congress is taking a second look at the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act ...

Alright, then. That makes me feel a lot better.

Aristotle once said, "He is his own best friend, and takes delight in privacy whereas the man of no virtue or ability is his own worst enemy and is afraid of solitude." Hopefully, I am a member of the former. I fear these dimestore security bureacrats are members of the latter. They take no solace in privacy and figure that no one else does either.

While it's becoming almost impossible to maintain any kind of privacy in our modern world with cameras on every corner, frequent shopper cards, companies selling personal info to othere companies, etc. - it's not the right tact to give the lock and key to those who have consistently shown:

- no ability to keep secrets truly secret
- a proclivity for using personal info for political purposes
- absolutely no ability to analyze the relevant terrorist data that they do obtain

"He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither", generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but there is no proof that he ever said it. It matters not. The statement is correct and certainly shows a sentiment that he would have agreed with.

It's a scary world out there but it is made even scarier by insecure tyrants who believe they hold the public's best interest at heart. No, W, I'm not talking about you (this time), but rather Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf - yet another tinpot dictator that we are propping up.

Cartoon courtesy of Chris Slane at MSNBC

Monday, November 05, 2007

Glenn Beck

Apparently, it pays to be stupid (from NY Times):

On his daily radio talk show, Glenn Beck portrays himself as an average guy, a recovering alcoholic and a comedian who regularly injects humor into his conservative politics.

This week he can add another description: very wealthy.

Premiere Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications, is expected to announce today that it is extending Mr. Beck’s contract. Two sources with knowledge of the deal said it was valued at $50 million over five years, through a combination of salary and profit-sharing from syndication.

In signing the deal, Mr. Beck, 43, becomes the newest — and youngest — entrant into an exclusive club of highly compensated radio stars. The new contract would make Mr. Beck the third highest-paid talk radio host, surpassed only by Rush Limbaugh, the most popular terrestrial talker for two decades and whose show is also syndicated by Premiere, and Sean Hannity, whose Citadel Broadcasting show is routinely ranked second.

The salaries apparently mirror Arbitron’s radio audience measurements, which show that Mr. Beck is the third most popular radio host in the advertiser-friendly 25- to 54-year-old demographic ...

Well, maybe he's not stupid ... but he certainly assumes you are. I don't fault guys like Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh for making money. I fault you guys for continuing to listen to them. These companies wouldn't pay them this kind of money unless they were getting people in the attractive 25-54 demo - the fat, stupid, middle-aged white male. You perceive a country overran by immigrants, blacks, women seeking more rights and you are scared. Glenn Beck comes on the radio, purporting to be a "common man" while making $50 million, and tells you it's alright to be xenophobic and prejudiced.

Shows like his don't assume any intelligence on your part (like Colbert or the Daily Show). They know you are not smart enough to understand nuance or satire. So they deliver it all to you in handy little sound bites so that you can parrot your other stupid friends and have pretend arguments with liberals.

I've always considered myself an optimist and I generally believe there is good in all people, but there are days when I certainly have my doubts. And this is one of them. Don't give guys like Beck, Hannity and Limbaugh a forum for their hate by continuing to listen to their shows and buying their sponsors' products. I certainly believe in free speech and these people have every right in the world to say whatever they choose. But don't make it so that it's profitable for them to do so. In their own vernacular, "let the free market speak". Confine them to low power radio stations and late night cable access channels.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

If a tree fell in the forest ...

... and no one was there to hear it, did it really make a sound?

Have we become so inured to the vagaries of this administration that episodes of the caliber we have witnessed the past couple of weeks don't even cause a ripple?

That a government agency (FEMA) would purposely and without guilt fabricate a news conference with the express purpose of misleading the public is bad enough (we would expect no less of FEMA). That the latest "Mouth of Sauron", White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, would pass it off as an "error in judgement", is priceless. Despite the pretty face, she is the embodiment of evil and makes me almost long for the days of Tony Snow and Ari Fleischer.

On another day, the State Department chose to give blanket immunity to Blackwater guards who were involved in the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians, effectively protecting those guilty from prosecution. It was said that the government did this so as to "get to the bottom" of the episode. A ludicrous explanation, akin to giving a serial killer immunity from prosecution so as to find out why he killed.

Yet another occasion saw the Department of Justice Voting Rights Chief, John Tanner, commenting that "minorities don't become elderly the way white people do: They die first." An unfortunate and uninformed opinion not said in private or off-the-cuff, but repeatedly to conferences of minorities. He used his sharp analytical skills to argue that Voter ID requirements will actually hurt whites more than blacks.

Now, most people, when confronted on such an idiotic remark, would recant or apologize. But, that's not what this administration does. When faced with overwhelming evidence of guilt, they will positively refuse to admit any culpability.

These episodes would be humorous if they weren't completely representative of the last 7 years. You could be sitting outside on a clear day and comment the sky was blue and these jokers would hire people to lie to you and tell you the sky was purple. When you confronted those people, they'd wouldn't admit it was blue but would apologize for you being offended by them calling it purple. Then everyone involved would get a raise and a promotion. It's Machiavellian and Orwellian all at once.

"In times of universal deceit, telling the truth will be a revolutionary act." -- George Orwell

"Politics have no relation to morals." -- Niccolo Machiavelli

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Today's Shut the Hell Up Award goes to ...

Pat Robertson.

The surest way of assuring a secular future for our country is to alienate our youngest generation and suck the life out of everything that they may enjoy:

Halloween: Mistake for Christians

No, Pat, you are the "mistake" for Christians. So, keep up the good work, and keep driving people to our side.

You can't ruin our Halloween, though. We had a great time. Alex dressed up as a doctor. I asked what kind of doctor he was. He said he didn't know. I suggested gynecology. Thankfully, he's not old enough to get that joke yet. Michelle is, however, and was not amused.

I carved a sufficiently cool pumpkin, also.

"Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world.
-- William Shakespeare