Sunday, August 31, 2008

Patriotism or Pablum?

Got this in my e-mail inbox yesterday:

In September of 2005, a social studies schoolteacher from Arkansas did something not to be forgotten. On the first day of school, with permission of the school superintendent, the principal, and the building supervisor, she took all of the desks out of the classroom. The kids came into first period, they walked in; there were no desks. They obviously looked around and said, "Where's our desks?"

The teacher said, "You can't have a desk until you tell me how you earn them."

They thought, "Well, maybe it's our grades."

"No," she said.

"Maybe it's our behavior."

And she told them, "No, it's not even your behavior."

And so they came and went in the first period, still no desks in the classroom. Second period, same thing. Third period. By early afternoon television news crews had gathered in the class to find out about this crazy teacher who had taken all the desks out of the classroom. The last period of the day, the instructor gathered her class.

They were at this time sitting on the floor around the sides of the room. She said, "Throughout the day no one has really understood how you earn the desks that sit in this classroom ordinarily. Now I'm going to tell you."

She went over to the door of her classroom and opened it, and as she did 27 U.S. veterans, wearing their uniforms, walked into that classroom, each one carrying a school desk. And they placed those school desks in rows, and then they stood along the wall. By the time they had finished placing the desks, those kids for the first time I think perhaps in their lives understood how they earned those desks.

Their teacher said, "You don't have to earn those desks. These guys did it for you. They put them out there for you, but it's up to you to sit here responsibly, to learn, to be good students and good citizens, because they paid a price for you to have that desk, and don't ever forget it."

Snopes even says it's a true story. It's almost worse that the event actually happened. That means it's not just some constructed e-mail intended to influence people. Someone actually took the time to try and inculcate kids with an inaccurate worldview. If a teacher of my child tried to pull that kind of crap, I'd pull him out in a New York minute. You can teach and you can honor without scaring kids with tricks like this that don't even make any sense. By this teacher's logic, you could reason that anything we do on a daily basis is only "because they paid a price for you to have that ____". In what way is a soldier fighting in Iraq making it easier for my child to learn here? I'd suggest that it is exactly the opposite. With the amount of money spent on an unjustified and unneeded war, less kids are able to get the best education they could. There have been no wars in my lifetime that helped preserve any rights we hold here.

I understand the sacrifice that our men in uniform have made and do make. But do incessant, trite anecdotes like these honor them in any way? I think it trivializes them. It makes service into a Hallmark greeting or a punchline. Real soldiers wouldn't seek or value this kind of recognition.

When I get an e-mail that begins, "You have to read this", or "Please forward this to everyone you know", or that says that someone is trying to take away the flag, Christmas, guns, etc. [fill in the Right Wing topic of the day] -- I can't delete that e-mail fast enough. Sometimes I wonder what type of people are influenced by this type of manipulation. But it's obvious what type of people are influenced by this. There are 60 million of them. They all voted for Bush. Hopefully in the last 8 years, enough of them have grown a brain and won't make the same mistake. I just quoted this last week, but it deserves repeating: "The wise understand by themselves; fools follow the reports of others".

So, who was this easily-duped reader who sent me this e-mail? Who was this person, despite having known me for a long time, that actually thought that this was something that I'd find poignant or inspiring? I'll tell you. It was a veteran of the first Gulf War. A veteran, to this day, still suffering from PTSD. A person in the middle of an ugly divorce, unable to see his daughters, out of work, and relying on the largess of strangers. Someone who has found it hard to cope in the non-military world, yet harbors no ill will towards those who would put him in harm's way for no reason. Quite the contrary, he finds meaning and comfort in the banal. Who is he? My one and only sibling, my brother. I didn't have the heart to shatter his illusions.

Friday, August 29, 2008


We're back among the world of pet owners. It took awhile for us to get over the loss of Duchess about a year and a half ago. But a great local pug rescue organization, the Arizona Pug Adoption and Rescue Network, was recommended to us from one of my clients who owns two pugs.

We visited the pug we ended up adopting at her foster home on Wednesday, thought it over and called the same night to confirm that we wanted her. I picked her up this morning. She's 5 years old, very affectionate, and has more than a passing resemblance to Duchess. But, she's a good dog and it feels good to give her a home. So, here she is, Sadie (with apologies to our dear blog friend Sadie Lou, the original Sadie in our books). It's not our fault ... she was named when we adopted her and it'd be tough to get her used to another name.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


First of all, Sunshine had something going for it by having Danny Boyle as the director. Admittedly not the first person you'd think of to direct a sci-fi movie, but he does a nice job. He directed one of my all-time favorites, Trainspotting, and has other good movies on his resume, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later, etc. Anyway, I'd heard about the movie when it was in theaters but never got around to seeing it. I was at Blockbuster this week and bought several used DVD's including this one, Once, and American Gangster (I'll try and watch and review those two later this week).

The premise: "50 years into the future, the Sun begins to die, and Earth is dying as a result. A team of astronauts are sent to revive the Sun - but the mission fails. Seven years later, a new team are sent to finish the mission as they are Earth's last hope.(IMDb)

It looks good, has a nice cast of foreign actors playing American (Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh) and does what all good sci-fi movies (and books) should do - ask questions not just about science, but about the human condition. Namely:

- What role should man take in controlling nature?
- Is our existence pre-ordained?
- Is the wonder of nature and our universe the "face of god" or just something else for us to study and understand?
- What effects do isolation have on the mind and our ability to deal with others?

As they near the sun, it comes to represent not just a physical entity that they must deal with but, to some of the crew members, a spiritual one. The sun is really the source of life on our planet and as such comes to represent a "maker" of sorts. There are some moments of suspense and action, but it's the moments of psychological tension that really propel the movie.

Like a lot of science fiction movies that involve a long mission, closed quarters, a computer and a small crew, there are undeniable similarities to 2001. That says more about how seminal 2001 was than that Sunshine is copying it.

Now, I've said before that I like all sci-fi movies, even bad ones, because they all, by the very nature of sci-fi, aspire to be more. But I like Sunshine not just because it is sci-fi, but because it is genuinely a good movie. Grade: B

"Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth." -- Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Imagine No Religion

When I think of freedom of religion and freedom from religion, I, unfortunately, don't usually think of my hometown. Post-9/11 there were numerous episodes of violence against Muslims in Phoenix and surrounding areas. As for atheists and agnostics, you don't even hear them acknowledged. But, evidently, someone thinks it's a good place to test out the following billboards:

'Imagine No Religion' signs to go up around town
by Astrid Galvan, the Arizona Republic

A national organization that promotes freedom from religion and separation of church and state is hoping to get Phoenix commuters talking with five controversial billboard ads that will go up this week.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., paid advertising company CBS Outdoor to put up five signs that read "Imagine No Religion."

The message on the billboards will start to go up Monday and will remain there for a month, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation ...

Phoenix will be the first city to have as many as five signs.

But getting the billboards up did not come without hurdles.

The five sites chosen by the organization were changed after CBS Outdoor said they had to be 1,000 feet from any schools or churches ...

The organization, comprised of 12,000 atheist or agnostic members, aims to promote free thought and separation of church and state ...

A billboard reading "Keep Religion OUT of Politics" is currently displayed in Denver and will remain there throughout the Democratic National Convention.

So far, Gaylor said, there has been little opposition to the billboards, and she doesn't anticipate any issues in Phoenix.

"The free thought movement has never been stronger in this country," she said.

Bob Mitchell, senior pastor at Central United Methodist Church, on Central Avenue near McDowell Road, said he's also noticed an increase in atheist activism.

"I don't have a problem with people expressing their points of view in public," Mitchell, whose congregation has around 420 members, said.

Mitchell said he hoped there would be no backlash against the billboards but wouldn't be surprised if there was.

"I would prefer that there was serious tolerant dialogue that might emerge from this publicity campaign because it is much needed," he said.

But state Sen. Linda Gray, who represents the Northwest Valley, was more critical of the organization and its billboard ads.

Gray, a Republican, thinks the signs will be offensive to those who believe in God.

"The FFRF fails to acknowledge history which recognized the strong Christian commitment of those who attended the Constitutional Convention," she wrote in an e-mail.

For Harold Saferstein, of Scottsdale, the billboards are a step forward in making the idea of freedom from religion more public.

Saferstein, who is part of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, an organization that promotes humanism, donated money for the billboards.

He said several members of his organization also donated.

"I think (the billboards) are going to alert people to the fact that there are organizations that support lack of believe in a supernatural being," Saferstein said.

State Senator Linda Gray can always be relied on to push the rote Republican/Christian line, "The FFRF fails to acknowledge history which recognized the strong Christian commitment of those who attended the Constitutional Convention". Equating patriotism and our Founding Fathers with Christianity always makes me smile. It's a rhetorical device that puts those who may not be Christians on the defensive. If you don't believe in a Christian God, then you must be against America. Give me a break. If your faith is as strong as you profess, what do you have to be afraid of? Thankfully, all Christians don't think like her.

"Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today ..."

Imagine - John Lennon

Friday, August 22, 2008

Science Fiction?

Science close to unveiling invisible man
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

Invisibility devices, long the realm of science fiction and fantasy, have moved closer after scientists engineered a material that can bend visible light around objects.

The breakthrough could lead to systems for rendering anything from people to large objects, such as tanks and ships, invisible to the eye – although this is still years off.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, whose work is funded by the American military, have engineered materials that can control light’s direction of travel. The world’s two leading scientific journals, Science and Nature, are expected to report the results this week.

It follows earlier work at Imperial College London that achieved similar results with microwaves. Like light, these are a form of electromagnetic radiation but their longer wave-length makes them far easier to manipulate. Achieving the same effect with visible light is a big advance.

Underlying the work is the idea that bending visible light around an object will hide it.

Xiang Zhang, the leader of the researchers, said: “In the case of invisibility cloaks or shields, the material would need to curve light waves completely around the object like a river flowing around a rock.” An observer looking at the cloaked object would then see light from behind it – making it seem to disappear.

Substances capable of achieving such feats are known as “meta-materials” and have the power to “grab” electromagnetic radiation and deflect it smoothly. No such material occurs naturally and it is only in the past few years that nano-scale engineering, manipulating matter at the level of atoms and molecules, has advanced sufficiently to give scientists the chance to create them.

The tiny scale at which such researchers must operate is astonishing in itself. Zhang’s researchers had to construct a material whose elements were engineered to within about 0.00000066 of a metre.

The military funding that Zhang has won for his research shows what kind of applications it might be used for, ushering in a new age of stealth technology.

I really dig when the science reality of now approaches the science fiction of my youth. An amazing amount of stuff many thought of as far-fetched then seem eerily prescient. The next 50 to 100 years should be exciting as long as we don't destroy ourselves or our planet.

It is sad that some of the most exciting advances come about because of a perceived military need.

"O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible and hence we can hold the enemy's fate in our hands." -- Sun Tzu

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Going Green Update - Clothes

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." -- Mahatma Gandhi

I'm not a clothes-hound. Anybody that's met me can attest to that. But occasionally, I need to get some new clothes (or at least new to me). Recently, we've decided that, as much as we are able, any new clothes purchases we make should be organic, comprised of recycled materials, or used.

Trying to disregard the fact that a mall is an ugly symbol of consumerism, we decided to go to our closest one because several major retailers are starting to carry some organic lines. Bought a few t-shirts at Macy's and a woven organic shirt at JCPenny's for work. We even found a few cute shirts for Alex:

Being a little activist already at age 7, they were fitting.

Despite the growing "green" movement, organic clothes are still pretty hard to find. And when you ask the help at any of these places, responses will range from:

  • "What's organic?"

  • to

  • Rolling of eyes and the implied, "Here we go, some freaky liberals trying to save the planet."

  • to

  • "Yes, we do have organics. We can't keep them in stock because so many people are asking for them."

As time goes on, hopefully the last response will be more common. Even end of days religious freaks and "slash and burn" conservatives see dollar signs. If enough people express a desire to buy something, retailers will ignore that fact at their own peril.

I've really been researching shoe brands trying to find ones that use recycled materials. We saw these at the Birkenstock store (big shocker) but I'm not quite ready to fork over $120 for shoes yet. I've seen a few online that I think I'd like for half that price, but I'm a bit reluctant to buy something that I wear without having seen it.

Honestly, no big company (or anybody else, for that matter) really cares what the hell I wear or where I shop. The world doesn't stop spinning because dbackdad in the big AZ decides to not shop somewhere. But it matters to me. By the choices we make each day, we are approving or disapproving of the practices of those companies. When you shop at Wal-Mart, you are saying that it's OK to treat your employees like crap and to tell them who to vote for.

But we live somewhere that we can choose an alternative. Some don't always have the luxury of choice. My folks live in a smaller town and shop Wal-Mart regularly. They have a fixed income and Wal-Mart is one of their only low-cost alternatives. I tell them we don't shop there but I don't try to preach to them that they can't.

And not all big companies are the same. You can choose the lesser of evils (Wal-Mart vs. Costco).

It's not about cutting yourself off from civilization, eating nuts and berries, and selling all your earthly possessions. It's just about thinking about what you are buying. What went into making what you buy? How far did it have to travel to get to you? Is there a local or organic alternative? If you can afford to, choose that alternative. Recycle and buy recycled items.

"Your descendants shall gather your fruits." -- Virgil

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Know-Nothing Politics

"The only way to comprehend what mathematicians mean by Infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity." -- Voltaire

My favorite economist and all-around smart guy, Paul Krugman, has a pretty good take on the politics of stupidity:

So the G.O.P. has found its issue for the 2008 election. For the next three months the party plans to keep chanting: “Drill here! Drill now! Drill here! Drill now! Four legs good, two legs bad!” O.K., I added that last part.

And the debate on energy policy has helped me find the words for something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Republicans, once hailed as the “party of ideas,” have become the party of stupid.

Now, I don’t mean that G.O.P. politicians are, on average, any dumber than their Democratic counterparts. And I certainly don’t mean to question the often frightening smarts of Republican political operatives.

What I mean, instead, is that know-nothingism — the insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise — has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: “Real men don’t think things through.”

In the case of oil, this takes the form of pretending that more drilling would produce fast relief at the gas pump. In fact, earlier this week Republicans in Congress actually claimed credit for the recent fall in oil prices: “The market is responding to the fact that we are here talking,” said Representative John Shadegg.

What about the experts at the Department of Energy who say that it would take years before offshore drilling would yield any oil at all, and that even then the effect on prices at the pump would be “insignificant”? Presumably they’re just a bunch of wimps, probably Democrats. And the Democrats, as Representative Michele Bachmann assures us, “want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, take light rail to their government jobs.”

Is this political pitch too dumb to succeed? Don’t count on it.

Remember how the Iraq war was sold. The stuff about aluminum tubes and mushroom clouds was just window dressing. The main political argument was, “They attacked us, and we’re going to strike back” — and anyone who tried to point out that Saddam and Osama weren’t the same person was an effete snob who hated America, and probably looked French.

... What’s more, the politics of stupidity didn’t just appeal to the poorly informed. Bear in mind that members of the political and media elites were more pro-war than the public at large in the fall of 2002, even though the flimsiness of the case for invading Iraq should have been even more obvious to those paying close attention to the issue than it was to the average voter.

Why were the elite so hawkish? Well, I heard a number of people express privately the argument that some influential commentators made publicly — that the war was a good idea, not because Iraq posed a real threat, but because beating up someone in the Middle East, never mind who, would show Muslims that we mean business. In other words, even alleged wise men bought into the idea of macho posturing as policy.

All this is in the past. But the state of the energy debate shows that Republicans, despite Mr. Bush’s plunge into record unpopularity and their defeat in 2006, still think that know-nothing politics works. And they may be right.

Sad to say, the current drill-and-burn campaign is getting some political traction. According to one recent poll, 69 percent of Americans now favor expanded offshore drilling — and 51 percent of them believe that removing restrictions on drilling would reduce gas prices within a year.

The headway Republicans are making on this issue won’t prevent Democrats from expanding their majority in Congress, but it might limit their gains — and could conceivably swing the presidential election, where the polls show a much closer race.

In any case, remember this the next time someone calls for an end to partisanship, for working together to solve the country’s problems. It’s not going to happen — not as long as one of America’s two great parties believes that when it comes to politics, stupidity is the best policy.

Vote for whoever you want. I'm not going to try and tell you who to vote for. Just don't vote for someone for the wrong reasons. Educate yourself. Don't make a bad decision because you were misinformed. Don't rely on anyone, especially a politician, to give you the whole truth. Most of them assume you are stupid. Don't prove them right again.

"The wise understand by themselves; fools follow the reports of others" -- Tibetan proverb

Tropic Thunder

OK, guys, now's your chance to prove me wrong. I saw a test screening of this movie a long time ago (February) and was not thrilled with the product, despite it's lofty aspirations. Here's my review from then:

Tropic Thunder

And before you accuse me of criticizing the movie for political correctness reasons, read my review. I get what points the movie was trying to make. I just believe that it wasn't effective and that it seems to celebrate the very things it's trying to satirize.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Growing up

An eventful week for my little guy. First, some sweet lower level seats for the Arizona Cardinals first pre-season game last Thursday:

Then, today, his first day of 2nd grade:

"People like you and I, though mortal of course like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live...[We] never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born -- Albert Einstein in a letter to Otto Juliusburger

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Just Finished Reading: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

This is, quite simply, one of the most important books I've read in years. It's the kind of book that you'd recommend to your friends that aren't necessarily environmental. They may not be going in, but I'd be surprised if they didn't have a different viewpoint after reading the book.

The central concept of The World Without Us is what would happen to the planet if, in an instant, all humans disappeared. As Weisman says in the Acknowledgments of the book:

"It was a deceptively simple question that ... lets us view our Earth's current myriad stresses from the disarming vantage of a fantasy in which we supposedly no longer exist, yet somehow we get to watch what unfolds net. Watch, and maybe learn ..."

Through exhaustive research and interviews with experts in many fields: architecture, geology, biology, zoology, archaeology, etc., Weisman has created a unique thought experiment that shows how destructive we've been (and will continue to be beyond our demise), but also how quickly the earth would eat up signs of civilization. He goes all over the planet - downtown New York (with scenes reminiscent of I am Legend), the oil fields of Texas, the cradle of life in Africa, etc.

It's an idea that is not that far-fetched. Seemingly successful cultures in our past have mysteriously disappeared:

"When you examine societies just as self-confident as ours that unraveled and were eventually swallowed by the jungle, you see that the balance between ecology and society is exquisitely delicate. If something throws that off it can all end. Two thousand years later, someone will be squinting over the fragments, trying to find out what went wrong." -- Archaeologist Arthur Demarest

It's a fascinating, yet scary, book that packs in a bunch of science but not so much that the lay person couldn't understand it. And it's so well-written that it reads more like fiction than dry history. If you want to give someone a different perspective on the ways in which we affect our planet without beating them over the head with environmentalism, recommend this book.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Just Finished Reading ...

With all due credit to Cyberkitten for his idea (and apologies, since mine will pale in comparison to his), I'm going to take a wack at reviewing a couple of my recent reads (check some of his out here):

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

Ostensibly about baseball and the economics that control player drafting and acquisition, Moneyball follows how a highly touted "golden boy" prospect, Billy Beane, went from a disappointment as a major leaguer to being one of the youngest major league General Managers and turned baseball convention on its ear.

Billy Beane and the A's ushered in the current era where you are just as likely to see a General Manager with a Harvard mathematics degree and no experience in baseball than by your classic "baseball guys". With a payroll a third or less of the big guns like the Yankees, the A's have been able to consistently go to the playoffs and have a profitable team. They did it by taking emotion, feeling and experience out of the job of picking players. By applying rationality and deep statistical analysis of all the minutiae of players, they were able to pick out undervalued players that weren't viewed as classic ballplayers because of the appearance, their age, whatever.

You can really take from the book an approach to certain life situations. Way too many people allow their ingrained prejudices (from religion, family, experience, etc.) to inform decisions where a rational, detached approach would serve their interests better.

I thought it was a great book and offers insights to people who don't even like baseball. I could especially see it useful in a business environment. Obviously, others agree as he's been called upon to advise others outside of baseball, including a software company and an MLS soccer team.


21: Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich

This is the book that the movie 21 was loosely based on. Over the last 20 or so years, a secret group of M.I.T. math geeks have been tearing it up in Vegas at the blackjack tables through a sophisticated counting procedure and elaborate team play with spotters, dummy players, etc. -- all filling roles benefiting the the team as a whole. Bringing Down the House is the true story of one of those groups.

Counting cards is not specifically illegal because you are not influencing which cards are dealt, but casinos are within their right to ask you to leave if they catching you doing it. And if they repeatedly catch you doing it, the level of intimidation and coercion that they will proceed with varies. The casinos will employee security companies and private investigators to determine who may be taking their money.

Again, much like in the previously mentioned Moneyball, attacking a problem with deep analysis and rationality allowed this group to succeed. And that methodology can extend beyond the gambling arena. The main subject of the book, Kevin Lewis (real name: Jeff Ma), has done consulting work with the Portland Trailblazers (NBA) and San Francisco 49ers (NFL).

It reads like fiction with suspense, action, violence and egos. A very good book that keeps you entertained and that I read in a relatively short time (a couple of days).