Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Her Daddy Wrestles Alligators, Mama Works on Carburetors

Well, it's happening.

The eight year old boy is questioning the existence of Santa.

He started in, innocently enough (and lucky for him, without his five year old sister in the car). "There's no way reindeer can fly," he tells me. Which led me down a line of questioning that demonstrated to him that he had no idea how anything could fly. He finished with, "There's just not enough force!" To which I replied, "Maybe they are Jedi reindeer." He laughed it off, "Not that kind of force, Dad."

Circumspectly, he's been undermining Santa, then checking me (or his mother) for reactions. He still composed a letter to the man, hope springing eternal, and put it in a Santa letter box he knows of.

Literacy, problem solving, sense of self: all these things he has done, and they indicate he is growing up; this is the first one that has made me wish he was not. When he asks me later this week, I'm not sure how I'll answer. But I know how I want to.

Many great things have been written, some of my favorites I've referenced before. This is another of my favorite writings. It makes me tear up a little, to think about a person writing such an eloquent response to a point-blank question posed by a young girl. To think about a young girl posing such a question to the newspaper, and hoping for an answer, makes me tear up a little more.

She got her answer, which I have copied shamelessly from The Newseum.
"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Published on Sept. 21st, 1897, the editorial was left unsigned. Seriously, though ... who was thinking about Santa in September?

Until another time,

Friday, November 12, 2010

Are Part of Being Young

Editing comes naturally to me.

I have a friend (I call her a friend), whose blog I started reading a while ago. Her blog is different than mine, and I'm sure it appeals more broadly. She allows for variances from the rules of writing; hers is more of a stream of consciousness flow, conversational in its manner. She writes while her emotions are still raw and powerful, and I would not be surprised to hear that her keyboard was wet from her own tears at the end of more than a few of them.

Without realizing how damaging this could be, I reflexively critiqued her writing, from placement of punctuation to spelling errors, typos and verb agreement, and so on. I didn't mean to offend her, and luckily, she knew that I intended no such thing. She politely notified me that she didn't think she wanted my help, and it was then I realized that I had been essentially editing her diary or journal.

Her thoughts, her feelings...shared with the internet, but still her emotions, laid bare. I had run roughshod over them, because while I was reading, my eyes would stumble over misused grammar, and it jarred me away from the perfect immersion of her story. I wanted everyone who read it to experience her weavings without interruption, and I had tried to change it to fit my view of what it should (or should not) be.

This revelation made me think about my friends (I call them my friends), and how we approach writing our blogs. Some write their blogs like journalists. They are art critics and sports beat writers, political strategists and foodies. Starting with a play or a plan or a plate, they explore each part of it with their words. Others still are travelers, whose blogs are a place to record what they experience on their journeys, so we might see the world through their eyes.

My writings? These are my essays, awaiting publication; my arguments, prepared to face attack; and my speeches, searching for the right audience. Each word is carefully chosen, every connotation is weighed carefully against the others. Even my mother tells me that my thoughts appear to have "boiled" for a while before I couch them here. I strive to be thought-provoking. The written word is more to me than just a tool to convey thoughts. It's the medium in which I choose to frame my existence.

An apology to my friend (I call her my friend) for trying to edit her soul from her blog.

Until another time,

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Each and Every Note Another Octave

I voted today.

My lovely spouse had gone before me (while I was taking the children to school), and called to say we weren't on the registered voter list. She mentioned to me that the volunteer had said that sometimes people just drop off the list. She reminded me to have my driver's license handy.

When I got there, I went to the registered voter line, organized alphabetically. I handed the volunteer my driver's license, so I wouldn't have to spell my last name (which is easily misspelled).

Still, it got looked up wrong, and I was told I was not registered. I pointed out the error, and after flipping back a page, my name was found, immediately following my wife's unsigned line.

Then I mentioned that my wife had already been there, and that she had been informed that she was not registered, and that she had registered again, and that she had voted. I was assured that her vote would count. Which makes sense, after all, it's a secret ballot, how would they know which one was hers? Since she doesn't plan to return and vote again under her registered name, I think she'll be able to vote in future elections, as well.

Our volunteer looked rather embarrassed about all this, so I told her that it was still pretty early, and she'd probably only had one cup of coffee so far. Her fellow volunteers laughed, and I went to retrieve my ballot.

How did it go, you ask?

I voted to increase the local property tax, because I have seen the school district budget, and I know how the state money has decreased, while the need to educate our children has not. Also, some of the school buildings are so old, they are out of code; they need repairs or replacement of certain fixtures.

I voted against all incumbents, because sometimes I'd rather have "the devil I don't".

I voted for everyone running unopposed, because they need affirmation, too.

I did not vote for anyone in the race that I had not researched (Judge 3, 10th District Court), a fact that bothered me. I should have looked at the sample ballot on the Secretary of State webpage, so I would have been better prepared. I won't be missing this one in 2012.

Until another time,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Like a Hurt, Lost, and Blinded Foal

My faith is like a single thread, stretching up from me, into blackness I cannot penetrate.

It wasn't always this way. I used to have a rope; a golden rope, that I would lean on, pull on, use to hold myself up if  I felt I was falling.

A slow erosion of reason wore against my rope, and a thread is all that remains.

So, I have a single silver thread, impossibly thin. Now I stand without aid, and without fear of falling. Still, I hold onto the thread.

Mass was held last night, at my son's religion class. I attended with him, performed all the usual rituals with him and the others in the church. I felt as though I had attached a cup to my end of the thread, and I had whispered into it, "Is anyone there?" I pressed my ear to the cup, and waited.

I'm still waiting, as I have always waited before.

...and will continue to wait, so long as a thread remains. For when it is gone, it will not be because I let go. It will be because whatever I thought it was tied to has gone.

Until another time,

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Inside This Ancient Heart

I have terrible dreams.

Lately, they've been about people dying. People I know. Sometimes individuals, sometimes couples, sometimes whole families; all dying.

But not me. I'm never the one that dies. I'm usually not even there when they die. Instead, I'm asked by the priest (rabbi, minister, etc.) to eulogize the deceased.

Each of these dreams has me going to the wake (visitation, calling, viewing, etc.) of the person (people) who has died, greeting and visiting with those who also knew him or her (them). I hear stories, all stories I've heard before, from the other mourners, and everyone has a favorite memory. We pray in whatever custom he or she (they) practiced in life. I am always the last to leave.

Then I go home (sometimes alone, sometimes to my family), and I sit down to write. I've gotten quite far into some, before I realize I'm apologizing for them. "I know that so-and-so had [some negative quality]," like, didn't share feelings well, or had an annoying speech habit that everyone but them was aware of. So, I make myself delete that, and change it to a positive story.

When a person dies, no one recounts the "bad" parts. When a person dies, we go into our memories of them with a cloth, and we buff out all the negative things, and we shine up all the positive things, until their memory glows in our minds, and we celebrate that part of them.

So...why don't we tell them while they are still alive?

Having realized this, in my dream I start to cry, and I can't write anymore. I wake up, feeling awful about anything I've ever said bad about anyone, and I steel myself to be more positive, to everyone.

My friends and family, go ahead and put me down as someone who will speak on your behalf, should you proceed me out of this life. I don't mind. In fact, I may be able to write it in my sleep.

Until another time,

P.S.  Please, play this song at my funeral.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Cry For Help, Look At Yourself

Critics drive me crazy.

The way I was raised, if you didn't have a better solution, you really have no right to go after the people implementing "bad" solutions. An example of this kind of behavior would be the Tea Party activists. Their rallying cries of "we're going to get spending under control" and "we're going to cut taxes" are just criticisms of government, not solutions to real problems.

The problems are very real. The solutions are not obvious. However, the screaming and clanging of bells tends to drown out the actual facts. I don't expect anyone besides me to actually read the budget of the United States Federal Government or the Statement of Public Debt, so I'll do my best to sum them up.

In the year 1998, the actual total budget authority (found in the 2000 Budget) of the US Government was about $1.6 trillion. Of that, about a quarter of a trillion was spent on interest. There was an actual surplus of about $69 billion. The actual debt stood at $5.5 trillion dollars.

To scale this back, suppose a household netted (after taxes) $35k. They have a mortgage (debt) of about $120k. They spent $6k on interest, but didn't pay down their mortgage at all.

In the year 2008, the actual total budget authority (found in the 2010 Budget) of the US Government was about $2.98 trillion. Of that, about a quarter of a trillion was spent on interest. There was an actual deficit of about $459 billion. The actual debt stood at $10.0 trillion.

Going back to our scaling example, our theoretical household is now a $60k household. They now have a $200k mortgage, and they just borrowed $10k to make ends meet (including paying about $6k on interest).

Pointing fingers (criticizing) is easy. Implementing change will be hard. No solution will be popular, because every good solution will be painful. Fixing the Social Security Ponzi Scheme will be an incredible task for any President. Health care is another issue that will likely be wrestled with again (and again).

Whatever mistakes have been made need to be corrected (without dwelling on the reasons the mistakes were made), and it's going to be more painful the longer we wait. In 1998, there was a budgetary surplus. For most of the 2000s, there was an actual deficit of $450 billion per year. The debt has climbed by over $1 trillion per year since 2008.

My solution would be to raise taxes, to reduce the deficit. Unpopular, yes. Would fix the problem? Also, yes. My original reason for looking up the budget was to find something to cut. Flat 10% across the board cut, and raise taxes. I don't have a solution. Before you vote this November (state and federal levels), please make sure the person you cast your vote for has a real solution, that addresses real problems; not just a "they screwed it up, elect me to fix it" platform.

I'd like to close with a statement from a Republican President (Theodore Roosevelt), on critics.
It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.
Until another time,

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

And Together We'll Spread The News

Some guy in Florida is looking to have a book-burning.

(apparently, his sudden notoriety has overrun his expected bandwidth, and the site is down. Maybe this Google cache link will work)

This country is big believer in rights. He has every right to do this; it's a mode of free speech. However, the rest of the world is going to do their best to shout him down; also, a mode of free speech.

I do not see how inflammatory actions like this will result in any kind of positives. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind (as is is believed M. Gandhi once said). This is not turning the other cheek, nor is it "spreading the truth," as he claims he is charged by the Bible to do. This is ideological warfare, and firing a salvo of insults that will be used for extremist propaganda is just poor judgment.

All that can be said on this has already been said, and much of it was said by people who are far more eloquent than I am.

However, I hope someone sets up 1,000 chairs for the event. So that when 900 of them are empty, they appear in all the media.

When Christianity turned 1400 years old, the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery were starting. The world as they knew it was being reworked. As Islam turns 1400 years old over the next 20 years, what changes will be brought to that culture?

Until another time,

Monday, September 6, 2010

I Must Have Done Something Right

Tuesday, September 7th, my girl starts school. 

I've known since I had this blog, that this would be the post today. I didn't trust myself to type it out, my eyes quit seeing so well about halfway through (same for the title song).

During the time I read to find this, and while I was re-parsing it, I found some people claiming it a poke at public schools, and that you should home school your children.

That is patently ridiculous.

Your child's ability to deal with other people in an environment that is not your home is completely up to you, the parent. My wife and I have done a spectacular job giving our children the tools they need (at least, what they need at age five) to make it in this world. I'm really terribly sorry if you're too selfish or protective to allow your children the independence they need to do things themselves. I feel bad for your kids, that they had such a horrible experience in school because you, as parents, failed them, so you took them back under your protective wings so you could shelter them for twelve more years.

I realize there are good home-schoolers out there. I wish you all well, and I'm glad you have the freedom to educate your children in your chosen method. However, when someone decries my lifestyle, declaring that all publicly educated children are being turned into robots by the institution, it breaks my "Be Nice" filter. Name-calling, fin (copyright: Dan Cook).

This is about growing up. It's about letting kids into the world, in a (reasonably well-) controlled environment, for six hours a day...and the things they will learn, that cannot be taught by a parent. I have a lot to say about this, but I'm running out of space. Know this, internet: my daughter will still sing "Paradise City" at the top of her lungs when it comes on the radio; she will still want me to catch moths and throw them into the webs under the eaves, so we can watch the spiders eat; and she will still do her best (not anyone else's best), because she is my child, and that is what we do.

So, here it is, the over-played, over-hyped, heard-around-the-country-on-the-first-day-of-school poem by Dan Valentine.
Dear World:

I bequeath to you today one little girl ... in a crispy dress ... with two blue eyes ... and a happy laugh that ripples all day long and a flash of light blonde hair that bounces in the sunlight when she runs. 

I trust you'll treat her well.

She's slipping out of the backyard of my heart this morning ... and skipping off down the street to her first day of school. And never again will she be completely mine. Prim and proud she'll wave her young and independent hand this morning and say "Good Bye"... and walk with little lady steps to the schoolhouse.

Now she'll learn to stand in line ... and wait by the alphabet for her name to be called. She'll learn to tune her ears to the sounds of school-bells ... and deadlines ... and she'll learn to giggle ... and gossip ... and look at the ceiling in a disinterested way when the little boy across the aisle sticks out his tongue at her.

And now she'll learn to be jealous. And now she'll learn how it is to feel hurt inside. And now she'll learn how not to cry.

No longer will she have time to sit on the front porch steps on a summer day and watch an ant scurry across the crack in a sidewalk. Nor will she have time to pop out of bed with the dawn to kiss lilac blossoms in the morning dew.

No, now she'll worry about important things. Like grades ... and which dress to wear ... and who's best friend is whose. And the magic of books and learning will replace the magic of her blocks and dolls.

And now she'll find new heroes. For five full years now I've been her sage and Santa Claus and pal and playmate and father and friend. Now she'll learn to share her worship with her teachers ... which is only right. But, no longer will I be the smartest man in the whole world.

Today when that school bell rings for the first time ... she'll learn what it means to be a member of a group. With all it's privileges. And it's disadvantages too.

She'll learn in time that proper young ladies do not laugh out loud. Or kiss dogs. Or keep frogs in pickle jars in bedrooms. Or even watch ants scurry across cracks in the summer sidewalk.

Today she'll learn for the first time that all who smile at her are not her friends. And I'll stand on the front porch and watch her start out on the long, lonely journey to become a woman.

So, World. I bequeath to you today one little girl ... in a crispy dress ... with two blue eyes and a happy laugh that ripples all day long ... and a flash of light blonde hair that bounces in the sunlight when she runs. 

I trust you'll treat her well.
(I'm of the opinion this piece is by Dan Valentine, not Victor Buono. You'll find mixed reports on this, but I think the evidence is in Mr. Valentine's court.) 

Until another time,

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We Provide a Vital Service to Society

Just thinking about others can provide me a great deal of happiness.

For example, I was at the health clinic the other day. I drove myself there, and walked around the van parked in front of the entrance that was unloading people in wheelchairs. Instead of being annoyed at having to walk around, I was happy I could walk in rather than be pushed.

At the check in, the attendant asked me if my insurance had changed. I said it had not, and she informed me of the $20 co-pay. I could have been bothered by the $20 charge to have the doctor look at me and tell me I still have allergies, but I was just happy that I have insurance when others do not.

I was initially troubled that the traffic was bad on my way to work, but I reminded myself that I was there to go to my job. I'm sure there are people who would take this problem in exchange for their problems; I'll be happy having a job, thanks.

My daughter's fifth birthday party is upcoming, with a Princess Tea Party theme. I'm happy to be able to pick up a costume for her, without worrying what fabric it's made of; it won't irritate her skin. The thought of trying to track down gluten-free tea cakes does not cross my mind, 'cause it is a problem we don't have.

The logistics of a Disney World vacation are quite daunting, but it's really a problem (set of problems) I'm glad to have. The planning ahead, picking parks to go to, trying to decide where to eat (getting mealtimes that range from 4pm to 7pm for dinners), gaming the up-and-down prices on airline tickets. Then there's the stuff that happens right before the vacation, wondering what clothes to pack, how to ensure we're going to drink enough water, etc. Again, I'm sure it's a problem that many would trade me for.

When it comes down to it, looking up never makes me feel better. It's when I look around at the other people suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortunes, I see that I have plenty to be happy about.

Until another time,

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

So, my son went to a Twins game.

A friend of mine notified me that he had some spare tickets. I checked with my wife, and we decided she had more interest in seeing the new Target Field than I had (and the friend is a mutual friend); she went with our son.

Our friend brought his nephew, who is about one year younger than our son. The boys got along great, as all boys who meet doing something they both enjoy will.

Now, what you can't find by searching for the game stats (which are here) is the weather from that night. It was warm and sticky all day, and when the sun started to go down, you could just feel the thunderheads forming. I knew what time the game was at. I checked the radar, and I added in the average time a baseball game takes.

I sent them with ponchos.

After finding their seats, they discovered they had a great view of the backside of right-handed batters (meaning they had an excellent view of left-handed batters...of which the Twins have several). Hot dogs and brats were consumed, and they had a fine time at what turned out to be one of the fastest games this season (third fastest game of the MLB season, as of the date of the game, I've read).

They also stayed dry.

Sensing the weather was closing in, as soon as the last out was called, the adults were up and herding the boys to the car that our friend drove to the game (my wife hates driving downtown), to try to beat the storms. They ended up driving right into the teeth of it, but didn't see any of the tornadoes that were running around the cities that night. Upon arrival, the two boys compared Pokemon cards before my wife and son called it a night and headed for home. As I said before, boys who meet doing something they both enjoy will get along just fine.

What did my daughter and I do, you ask? We stayed dry too; we ate caramel puffcorn, and watched Disney movies involving princesses.

Until another time,

Friday, July 23, 2010

Watching Some Good Friends Screaming

I don't listen to as much talk radio as I used to.

This is a good thing, according to my wife; my blood pressure also thinks it's a good thing (I have less exposure to stupid people, who make me want to rant). However, I feel less informed about the world.

Maybe I have not mentioned that my car (whom I've named Bridget, just so you know) has Sirius Radio in it. Well, it does, and it came with a six month subscription. I really only listen to about ten stations, of which all but two are music (one is sports, the other is "golden era" radio re-broadcasts).

So, it took me a while to hear all these people whining that we can send a person to the moon, and we can make a phone call around the world, but we can't plug a leaking well?

I started a list of things that would compare and contrast these accomplishments. How many years of aerospace engineering went into putting a man on the moon? From Kennedy's promise to Armstrong's words, just over eight. How long did it take to lay the first Trans-Atlantic Cable? Eight years of failed attempts before one worked, and even that one failed within a year and had to be replaced. From Marconi first sending a wireless telegraph signal, to getting a wireless signal across the Atlantic: six years. These feats were over time spans not comparable to the blown well.

Regarding the well itself: it took them several months to drill it, what would make a person think it can be plugged in much shorter of a time frame? Additionally, it is over a mile underwater. This is not an insignificant distance, considering that it's through water, straight down. The pressure at that depth is something like a ton per square inch (depth divided by 33 feet [to get atmospheric pressure equivalency], then multiplied by 14.7 psi, the pressure at sea level). Yet, the oil just billowed out of it, indicating that the pressure on the oil was that much greater.

Now, since it's been capped, and they are monitoring the pressure of the oil on the cap, it's something like 3-4 tons per square inch. So, in just under three months, they managed to cap a blown-out well at one mile underwater, containing pressure of 6000 to 9000 psi.

Time span and difficulty aside, this is a human-caused disaster that is unprecedented. Should they have had a better disaster plan ahead of time? Yes. Should they have used better-quality material in the first place? Yes. Could this have been prevented? Ehh...that's harder to answer. A bubble of the size they estimate ruptured the well would have exerted something upwards of 50,000 psi....and that's a lot of pressure.

Until another time,

Thursday, June 24, 2010

If I Listened Long Enough

My mind does not accept "magic" as an explanation.

I suppose it was sometime in high school that I first realized this. Something in my head wanted more repeatability and consistency in my life. Coincidentally, I started dating at this time, which didn't add to my repeatability or consistency levels.

Now, I understand there are many events that are "non-repeatable." For example, my mom is never going to have another child like me (for which, I'm sure she is grateful). My wife and I aren't bringing any more children into this world, but other people can, and do, all the time. The "Miracle of Birth" is ... well, pretty commonplace. It's also pretty well documented and studied; we know how it happens.

On a grander scale, there has been (to our knowledge) exactly one universe ever created. We can't tell how it got here, or if there are others, because there's not enough information. In ancient times, when there wasn't enough information to determine a cause for an event, it was attributed to some deity (for example, the seasons in Greek times were thought to be caused by Demeter's daughter being taken to the underworld for six months of each year).

As time has gone on, we've gotten better about gathering information. Our toolboxes for studying things has gotten better. We understand that the seasons are due to the tilt of the planet, toward or away from the Sun; it's not because some kidnapped goddess ate some pomegranate seeds in Hades. Once other explanations became available, religions based on explaining natural events faded, and religions based on how to live surged.

The concept of God is something that I struggle with daily. I was raised Catholic, and when I went through the Confirmation Rite, I chose St. Thomas (the Doubter) for my saint name...I also chose St. George (of dragon slaying fame) for bravery, because I knew I wouldn't last long as a Doubter without some Bravery thrown in. I ended up studying many different religions (even attended services for a few) in high school and college, but nothing in particular ever grabbed me.

All the services I attended, bible study groups I joined, retreats I went on, times I was an server (or eucharistic minister, later) at Mass ... I never really felt connected to any deity. It is for this reason that I have not attended services regularly in some time. Maybe it's time to start again.

It's not that I miss God. I find that I miss the people.

Until another time,

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why So Many Lose, And So Few Win

Lightning struck a styrofoam statue of Jesus last night.

Let me relate some facts, now that I've done a bit of reading about this statue. It was only six years old. The church it was constructed in front of built it (using donations, none of the regular church funds) at a cost of something between a quarter and three-quarters of a million dollars (depending on the source). It was a metal frame (the only surviving pieces), wrapped in molded styrofoam, and then coated with a thin veneer of fiberglass, so it could be painted to look like stone or marble.

There was, of course, criticism when it was built. It was nicknamed, "Touchdown Jesus" by some people. Heywood Banks (a parody songwriter and folk singer) wrote a song about it, entitled "Big Butter Jesus." There were people asking, "What else could the church have done with the funds they used on that statue?"

Now that it's been destroyed, I'm really shocked at the amount of people who are willing to ascribe this to divine intervention. Shouldn't we be past the whole, "God Smites Wicked; Full Story At Ten" mentality? I remember when someone tried to attribute AIDS to God, something about vengeance on the wicked (this is trending down). I remember just a short time ago a scientific experiment was conducted to disprove a claim that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes.

Suppose there's a God (just go with me on this one), who spent a lot of time and energy between 6000 and 1400 years ago, sending the Divine Word to his creations. Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam; assume these (and their associated publications) are the attempts of a Deity to inform us of His(Her) Will.

As divine works, these have a lot in common. They all include a creation story, instructions on how to worship, rules for treatment of your fellow man, etc. They all say Good Things™ will happen, if you follow their commandments. They contain stories of vengeance, of compassion, of mercy, of rules broken and rules upheld. There are wise people portrayed, and there are also fools (there sure seem to be a lot of fools, lately, doesn't it?).

This kind of reading can make a person think, "Ahah! They are all so similar! They must all be the Divine Word of God!" Of course, it can also make a person think, "Plagiarism! Someone wrote down some good stories, and all the other religions copied them!"

As for me ... I hope their statue was insured.

Until another time,

Thursday, June 10, 2010

And Cheer Them With Fervid Elation

I was born during the winter in Nebraska in the mid 70s.

I like to tell people that my first words were spoken in the fall, and that they were "Go Big Red"; my parents assure me that was not the case. I'm told that my first words were, "Here's Johnny!"

I grew up feeling sorry for beating up Kansas, and worrying about Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. I hated all teams associated with Florida.

I considered a bit of a history lesson here, for context, but it's been done. The first article is (slightly skewed) from Sports Illustrated, the second is the Wikipedia entry for the (former) Big Eight Conference, and the last article is a timeline of events regarding (current) Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-10 teams, and the conferences they have been affiliated with. So, I'll just intersperse my growing up with the changes I've seen in sports. If you need more analysis, you might read some Writing For The Cycle. He's much more knowledgeable about such things, and I'm sure he'll get to talking about this.

I moved to Minnesota when I was nine years old, carrying my Husker pride with me (which was a good thing, the Gophers were terrible in the 80s). I was a sorta Orioles fan, since Omaha didn't have a MLB team (Omaha Royals are AAA, so I kinda followed KC), but then the Twins won the World Series in 1987, and I was on the bandwagon. They did it again in 1991.

I started to learn hockey during this time, and began following the North Stars. I was not as devastated as many of my friends when they moved to Texas, but I was not happy about it.

I went to college at Drake University, in Des Moines, IA, still cheering the Big Red in the Big Eight (which, for 20 years at the beginning of the century, included Drake). Baseball lost a lot of its shine for me in 1994. Even in Iowa, in the heart of Hawkeye country, I found fellow Huskers. We would gather on Saturdays, and watch the Blackshirts eat up offenses for most of the 90s.

I remember the outcry among the Iowa fans when Penn State joined the Big Ten conference. I remember it being a big deal, but I didn't really pay much attention to it, because it was Big Ten, and although I lived in the conference, I lived and died with Nebraska.

I learned to hate Texas for reasons unrelated to hockey, when the Big 12 Conference was formed in 1996. They were arrogant bullies, and everything I hated Florida for being, but now Texas schools were locked into schedules with Nebraska every year. Texas got them to move the conference seat from Kansas City to Dallas.

I married in the late 90s, and my wife still jokes that she's a Cornhusker by marriage, and roots for the team because it's in the marriage contract. Nebraska's fortunes went down, and Texas fortunes went up.

I saw today that Colorado has left the Big 12 for the Pac-10. Nebraska is expected to announce it will join the Big Ten on Friday, June 11th, 2010.

I am not entirely sure what all the fallout from this will be. But I do know one thing: Nebraska already has one of these, which may help them get along with their new Big Ten brethren.

Until another time,

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Please Help Them With Your Youth

I like tricking kids.

When babies are just at that age where they realize that I can hide a toy with my hands but it's not gone (object permanence), this is my favorite baby age. They've learned something, and I'm making them use it.

Another great source of entertainment for me is when kids ask questions I know they know the answer to. For example, my son used to come in from playing outside, and find me reading National Geographic magazine. He'd say, "What are you doing?" and I'd say, "I'm baking cookies." Then he'd say, "No, you're reading your magazine." I'd agree, and smile, and ask him why he asked, then. Now, he asks, "What are you reading?" and we occasionally get into good discussions about plant or animal articles.

Mothers that would see us out with our two small children would say, "Treasure this time; it goes so fast!" Parts of it don't go fast enough. Dinner times, for example, are exceptionally slow, and there's not much to treasure about them ("Sit up!" "Drink your milk!" "Don't talk with food in your mouth!" etc).

I've mentioned before, I have a son (who is now eight) and a daughter (who is four...-and-a-half, if you ask her). I'm not a perfect dad, but I do what I can with what I've got. The most treasured thing that has happened between me and my kids is literacy.

Our family was big proponent of singing the ABCs. Then, when they had that down, we all learned our ZYXs, too (yes, my kids know the alphabet forwards and backwards). Shortly after that, we learned character recognition, and we'd drive around town doing errands, and finding letters on signs. They would practice forming letters (usually, the letters of their names) during coloring time. We would read to them often, pointing at the words as we said them.

Naturally, I'll put forth that my kids are geniuses, inheriting a great deal of natural ability from their parents. But the fact is, kids who are exposed to people who read, people who enjoy reading, and people who demonstrate to the kids that they enjoy reading, will be interested in reading. Kids who are interested in a topic will put forth effort to learn it, and any kid that puts forth effort is fun to teach.

The eight year old is well on his way to literacy, having gotten through the second grade this year. He reads longer books, with semi-complex plots. I make him read to me, now, because I enjoy hearing such great progress.

The four year old (FOUR AND A HALF, DADDY!), she recognizes letters, and knows their sounds. It's only a matter of time before she starts seeing words as sets of letters and sounds, and then by "smooshing" the sounds together, she will read words.

I cannot express how wonderful it is to see a child's face light up the first time they realize they read a word using letter-sounds. I still remember it from the boy learning, and I can't wait until the girl does it.

This is the time, for me, to treasure.

Until another time,

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Just a Little More Time Is All

I am a lucky man.

No, I didn't win the lottery (precisely), nor has my dream job as a professional mattress tester fallen into my lap.

However, I was born to two parents who are full of common sense, and instilled into all of their children the value of learning (even if it's not in a school), and taught us the rewards of having situational awareness. I was encouraged to try things, test limits, and take things apart (and put them back together).

This was possible, because my parents were born during the baby boom of the 50s, and they grew up in the 60s, when civil freedoms were finally (legally) pushed to the logical conclusions of frameworks laid down in the 1800s. They understood freedoms, and they understood prejudices, and they tried very hard to make sure they led by example, not judging people "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," as the good Doctor prescribed to the nation.

The baby boom of the 50s was due to the return of the men (and women, but mostly the men) who returned from Europe and the Pacific after World War II. Some of them brought brides they married afield, but many of them came back from their foreign service to girlfriends or fiances or wives; they started families.

But this past Monday, Memorial Day, is not a day to remember those that returned from that war, or any war. It's a day to remember those who have fallen, so that the others have somewhere to return to.

I'm happy I live in a country where I do not have to serve in the military. It's a volunteer militia, and I support them, even when I don't agree with the reason for action, or the deployment destination. It's not my job to decide how to protect the country, but it is still my country.

As short and as rocky of a history as this country has, it's seen a lot of fighting, and a lot of death. But every battle fought for freedom, for ourselves or others, we need to remember the price paid. I think #16 said it best, when he said that "The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

However, due to the influences of my parents, I still work towards a day when a military presence will not be required to defend freedoms for all to enjoy.

Until another time,

P.S.   Yes, I am quite pleased with myself that I managed to quote two of my favorite speeches in one post, thanks for asking.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Ain't Missin' Not a Single Thing

The air conditioner is on.

I've mentioned I live in Minnesota, and that I like winter. We had a bit of unseasonably warm weather here, and we turned the air conditioner on at home. It's not set real low, just cool enough that you don't sweat when you're inside.

It is on at the office, too. That one is set rather low. But it was so warm on Monday that by late afternoon, the office air conditioners couldn't keep the building cool anymore, and it warmed right up to 80.

However, I notice that all the men in the office still dress in slacks, and most of them still wear long sleeved shirts. Since the weather turned warmer, I've noticed the women have changed their dress style.

Then complain that they are cold.

I'm in favor of a comfortable workspace; if you dress appropriately, it is comfortable. Other than Monday afternoon, it's been a pretty predictable 69 degrees at work, which is fine for long pants (or a long skirt) and long sleeves. Yes, I know it's between 85-90 degrees outside.

But we don't work outside.

My wife said it best. "I can dress to be comfortable for my five minute walk from the office to the car, or I can dress to be comfortable for the nine hours I'm in the building."

I don't think I've ever been happier to have married a rational person.

Until another time,

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hear Every Thought, See Every Dream

For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice.
- John Burroughs

I have been married for thirteen years, today.

Anyone who tells you marriage is easy is either lying, or not trying. Don't get me wrong: it's been an enjoyable thirteen years. I wouldn't trade the time, or the person with whom I spent the time, for anything. However, there is no bargaining, haggling, or short-changing; the price to be paid is exactly as posted, due upon reciept, and payable until death-do-you-part.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and try an analogy: keeping a marriage happy is like keeping a cabin warm.

You need to burn wood to keep your cabin warm. In order to have wood, you have to collect it, or purchase it, or chop it yourself (usually a combination of all three). All of these things take time and/or money, and you need to have fuel, or your cabin gets cold.

Gathering wood takes time, and is pretty easy, but doesn't really provide good wood for heating. It's usually pretty small pieces, good for starting fires, but not much for maintaining them (enough symbolism?).

Purchasing wood is always an option, but if you only do this, you'll never learn how to chop it yourself. Whenver your woodpile gets low, you'll find yourself buying more wood, and there will come a day when there is not really enough money to buy more wood, and ... I'm just going to leave it at that.

Chopping wood yourself is hard work, but I feel it is the most rewarding. You can see the woodpile grow as you split the logs and stack them up. When you take the wood off the pile to burn it later, you might remember a particular log that was knotty and bound up your blade, but once you got through it, you felt accomplished. You might find yourself obliged to cover the woodpile with a tarp in bad weather, because you don't want to see something you worked so hard to create damaged in any way.

I admit there have been times I have let my woodpile get low. I've burned my hand trying to use gathered wood that was too small for the fire. I have had to work hard to coax flames from wood that was left out in the rain. I've wrangled with a lot of knotty oak.

Thank you, my wife, my friend, for tolerating my irregular wood-chopping, my poor stacking skills, and my occasional frustration at a tough chop.

Thank you for trusting me, that I want the warm cabin, and am willing to work, sacrifice, be patient, and love.

Until another time,

Friday, May 21, 2010

I Take Their Word For It

I have a terrible sense of smell.

I didn't really figure it out how bad it was until I was in college. There was a rendering plant near college, and sometimes, when the wind was just right (or wrong), the entire campus smelled like dog food...to me. To others, it was retch-inducing. I started wondering why it didn't bother me so much, and eventually I figured out that I just didn't have a very sensitive sniffer.

Now, I like to know my boundaries and limits, so a friend of mine and I sat down, and we really analyzed how my nose treats smells. Granted, I have no basis for comparison, but we both tried to be as objective as possible. We came to the following conclusions:

1. I can smell things.
2. My nose (sense of smell) tires easily.
3. I have smell-memories.

The first one isn't that big a deal. The second one is interesting; I usually only smell things for one breath. You know how when you rub your fingertip on a piece of fabric, back and forth, until you lose sensation in the skin on your fingertip? It's like that. I can smell; then, I can't. So, we called that, "tiring".

As for the third one, I have memories that are related to smells. I can recall smelling things while doing something. I even recognize smells (usually, strong smells: skunk, roof tar, natural gas, etc.).

Now, this might not sound too bad. I mean, I've got two children that both went through diapers. Guess which parent got the stinky ones, and guess who emptied the diaper pail? Even now that they are older, I do the garbage. I get the stinky rotten food out of the back of the refrigerator. It doesn't bother me, we all just do the jobs we're best suited for.

One thing does make me wonder though. You see, not having a good sense of smell lends itself to not having a good sense of taste.

I can taste sweet, and salt, and spicy. Bitter doesn't really register (grapefruit juice is like a 'dry' orange juice to me), and sour isn't really there, either. I like a curiously strong mint. But I don't pick foods by flavor, usually, I really pick much of what I eat by texture, or how much fun it is to eat.

Now, I started talking to my mom about this, and she mentioned that my uncle (her brother) had a tasting issue also. He went and had some surgery on his nasal cavity, and voila! He can taste his food! I believe his exact quote was, "I'm going to weight 800 pounds!"

So, right now, I eat just about anything. I try to do so in moderation, or eat things that I know are good for me. I'm worried about looking into this surgery, 'cause I'm afraid I won't like some foods that are "fun" to eat, like hot wings, or spicy asian stir-fry, or grapefruit juice.

On the other hand, people tell me the difference between a still-warm, freshly-baked cookie and a cookie from the jar is amazing.

Until another time,

Monday, May 17, 2010

Something the Prince Never Knew

My daughter dances.

Let me rephrase that. My daughter is in a dance class. She does whatever the instructor does. But, you have to start somewhere. She's only four years old; expectations must be kept reasonable.

Some time ago, the instructor sent home a sheet with her that announced there would be a Daddy-Daughter dance number in the recital. My child said would you, I said of course I would, and so she and I started going to extra practice nights for this dance.

Now, the choreographer printed off sheets of dance steps for the dads to learn their dance from, in addition to us walking through/dancing them during our rehearsals. I really enjoyed the rehearsals, and we would practice it at home with the sheet. Over, and over, and over again, like good dance students, until we could do it without the sheet.

Recital weekend came. In fact, it was just this past weekend. The regular students (like my daughter) were scheduled to perform in two different recitals. Hers happened to fall on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening.

The first item on the Saturday program was the Daddy-Daughter dance. I knew my part (admittedly, it was only one verse and one chorus), and she did her part with minimal cues from me. Afterward, I took my seat, and she went back to the dressing rooms.

For the rest of the show, I watched each class perform two routines (tap/jazz and ballet), with the  "competition" teams each doing three. For the younger girls' numbers, the instructors stood in the wings and demonstrated the dances there, and the girls would look over if (when) they forget what came next. My daughter spent a good deal of time looking at the wings to figure out her next move during her dances (she is in the youngest class, most of her class did this).

In the interest of full disclosure, I don't know a whole lot about what makes a dance "good". I know it's athletic, I know it's rhythmic, and I know there are certain postures/poses to be held/struck. I don't know what posture/pose fits any given dance type, or what makes one dance better than another.

What I do know, is fun. I recognize fun, I pursue fun, I create fun...if anyone could be called an expert on fun, it'd be me.

I realized there were some girls dancing, who were not having fun. I am not sure why they were there, but it was obvious they were not there for fun. I also saw other girls who were having so much fun, it oozed from them. It was infectious! Once I noticed this, in each dance I saw, I sought the dancer(s) who danced with joy.

Like I said, I can't talk much about good dancing...but those girls having fun convinced me: their dancing was "good", and they were loving every second of it.

By the time the Sunday show came, and I got on stage for the Daddy-Daughter number, I had decided I was not going to think about the steps. I was going to have fun, and everyone that watched us would see that I could not imagine anything more fun than dancing with my little girl. So I smiled at her as the curtain opened, and we danced as if no one was watching.

And I hope to have the opportunity to do it again.

Until another time,

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Some Days It Don't Come At All

I've made no promises, but I've tried to come up with posts two times a week.

An amusing anecdote, something that happened that triggered a chain of thoughts, a stand on a current event. Nothing has happened lately that I have wanted to write about, or I thought worth writing about; which is roughly the same thing.

I like music, all kinds of music. I don't typically care for cry-in-your-beer country music or curse-every-other-word rap, but every once in a while, one sneaks up on me. It hasn't happened lately, or I might have written about it.

Anyhow, kudos to you, if you know what Grammy-winning song this post's title is from, without looking it up. It pretty accurately describes how my creative juices have been (not the whole song, just that one line, taken out of context).

Until another time,

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Female of the Species is More Deadly

I mentioned that I was buying a new car. I have now done so, and am the proud owner of a silver 2010 Volkswagon Jetta TDI (with 6-speed manual transmission).

I traded in my blue 1997 Saturn SL1, who, unknown to my children, had been given the name Stacy shortly after I had made the purchase (before they were born). My son said, "Your car was a GIRL?" and I said, "Yes," and that was the end of it.

This got me thinking about gender conventions in language. I took German for several years in high school, and another term or two of it in college. At one point, I had a reasonable grasp of the language. There were a few things that were difficult for me; one of those was gender of inanimate objects.

I'd been thinking about naming the Jetta, and I'd only been thinking of traditionally feminine names. That got me thinking, "Why does my car have to be a girl?" which got me thinking, "Why are all ships/boats girls?" Supposing that it was a holdover from older languages, I looked up German, French, and Spanish translations of "the boat", "the ship", "the auto", and "the car" (mainly, because I know the genders of "the" in those languages).

It was a dead end. In German, they are all neuter (das),  the Spanish made everything male (el), and the French only had "car" as feminine (la).

So, with my BS detector firmly in hand, I ventured out onto the Internet to ask my question, "Why are ships/boats/cars all feminine?"

Some guessed what I had, it was from when all nouns had gender in language, and the boats (and by corollary, automobiles) had been feminine (maybe in Latin/Greek?). Having already explored much of this, I clicked the next link.

Another posited that in ancient times, ships were consecrated to goddesses, so they were referred to as feminine. That didn't sit well with me, since the medieval period was extremely good at wiping out all non-Christian references to the past. Next link, please.

There was a page that suggested that since these kinds of machines were temperamental, they were similar to women, so they were "she." If this were the case, then by extension, computers would always be female. Since they are not, I moved to the next link.

I was directed to the personal blog of a sailor in the US Navy (red flag #1), who claimed that a superior officer had given a brief (red flag #2) speech on exactly this topic (red flag #3), and he would relate the bullet points in his post. Many were rehashes of what I saw elsewhere, a few were funny (which was the only reason I kept reading), and near the end, there was one point that was "probable."

The probable source (and I'm going with this until proved otherwise) is that sailors knew that the sea was a dangerous place. You were not going to survive long in it without aid, much like a baby or child. So, they referred to the ship as "mother," and eventually that changed to just "she." However, this did not change the fact that a woman was bad luck to have on a ship. I'm not sure about the source of that, but I can imagine that in a place where everyone has a job to do to keep them afloat (on a ship), "distraction" would be bad.

The funny part was "It's not the initial investment, it's the upkeep."

Until another time,

Monday, May 3, 2010

Not Like the Brazen Giant

Sorry I'm really late with this, but reading immigration text makes me dizzy (from all the "spin") and it is also very boring. If you don't know why I'm reading (and writing) about immigration, you're reading the wrong blog; I'm not news, I'm commentary.

Several states have tried immigration laws in the past, but a landmark Supreme Court decision dating from 1849 has determined that immigration is "foreign commerce," which is spelled out in the Constitution as business reserved for Congress, not individual states. This is probably sufficient grounds to overturn it, in time.

To the best of my knowledge, the first Federal immigration law in the United States was passed in May of 1882. For a relative timeline, that's less than 100 years after the ratification of the Constitution, 17 years after the abolition of slavery, and about 38 years prior to the founding of the ACLU. It was a law that prevented immigration from China, canceling a 14-year old treaty with China that had been amended just two years prior.

This law (the Chinese Exclusion Act), started a period of about 40 years of immigration laws creating various exclusions from various countries, followed by 20 more years of bureaucratic maneuvering, which brings us into World War II, where Japanese-Americans were interred in "relocation" camps, because of fears that they were still loyal to Japan (hey, I know it's not related to immigration, but I felt that as long as I was showcasing xenophobia, I thought it met the criteria).

At this same time (1943), the drain on labor caused by the war gave way to the "Bracero Program," which was a guest-worker program that the Mexican and United States government agreed on, to funnel workers from Mexico to work on farms and the railroad. The official end to the program was in 1964, but it was during this time that the groundwork was laid for future "undocumented workers."

Now we finally get to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and four more years of qualifying legislation, to close any gaping holes (for those of you keeping score at home, that's about 100 years after slavery was abolished).

The Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act was passed into law during this time, in 1965. It got rid of all the immigration exclusion laws that were based on nationality and gender, and introduced laws based on family unity, refugee status, and "needed skills." It set the visa quota at 300,000 per year, 170,000 of which could be from the Eastern Hemisphere, and no more than 20,000 from any single country (but unlimited for family reunification).

300,000 per year. In 1965. Back when the world population was estimated to be about 3.3 billion. It's double that, now. Assuming that interest in immigrating to the United States has remained a constant percent starting at 300,000 that first year (we've hit the quota every year, I can't find anything to the contrary), we've got a backlog of visa applications that would amount to a minimum of 6.9 million (assuming a linear progression) applications...which would take 23 years to work through...if we didn't get any additional applications.

They are already here. Many of them hold jobs. Yes, they need medical care; yes, they need education (English, written and spoken). Probably in that order.

Blanket legislation targeting an entire population because of a few bad apples has never gotten us anywhere, and it won't get us anywhere now. So what can be done?

Deportation? Attempting to send just over 11 million illegal aliens back to their country of origin would be a task of Herculean proportions (the illegal immigrant rate from 2000-2008 was approximately 1,250 per day). Supposing the process was streamlined so that you could arrest and deport 3880 persons a year for immigration violations (the regular arrest rate in the US is about 38,800 per day, so a 10% increase), it'd take about 11.5 years to arrest them all, assuming nothing else changed. Cost? It'd be 10% of whatever the current expenditure on law enforcement is, plus transportation, less fines collected. Personally, I believe that since the time taken to remove them all is so spread out, the impact to the economy of removing some 8 million workers would be somewhat mitigated.

Amnesty? This is a solution I could get behind, if there were some kind of penalty (monetary, not incarceration) before enactment. The problems with this solution, I think, are a little less severe than the deportation solution, but the future ramifications are potentially worse ("Hey, I broke a law, and got forgiven! I wonder if I can do it again..."). I don't think the tax revenue streams would increase by much, but I'm not certain how usage of low-income supplemental programs would change. I think it would be a generation before the impact of this was truly felt.

Ultimately, it will be some suits in Washington who will decide, after all the soundbites and posturing is done. It's not up to a statue on an island; she made her statement 124 years ago.

Until another time,

Monday, April 26, 2010

Allow Me To Be Wrong

It was just a matter of time before I got around to a religious topic; the only question was what would trigger it.

My son is receiving his First Communion in two weeks. My wife invited our extended families to celebrate this occasion with us, followed by a luncheon. Knowing that parts of our families have incompatible belief systems, she carefully worded the invitation to state that you don't have to go to the church, it would be fine to just come to the house for lunch.

Our families run the gamut from "fairly devout Christian" to "atheist". One of my brothers publicly declined the invitation, referring to the Eucharist as "ritualistic cannibalism." I, for one, was somewhat amused by this, but I knew that it offended other family members. I can't blame them; religious mockery is a far cry from religious tolerance.

I've been wrestling with issues of religious tolerance for some time (Is it measurable/quantifiable?). Engineering jokes aside, I've always thought that tolerance of any religion other than your own would imply some doubts about your own religion. After re-reading parts of Acts (a book in the Christian Bible), I see that the Apostles allowed for some religious tolerance in Acts 13:51. Paul and Barnabas left Antioch, leaving the Jewish population to their beliefs, but not before declaring them unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46). It makes me wonder if this really is an example of religious tolerance, or if it was more, "We can't do anything about it, so we're walking away." Maybe religious tolerance can only be displayed by the group currently in power.

A great deal of my time has been spent studying various religions, starting with my roots in Roman Catholicism and general Christianity, inspecting all the Abrahamic Religions, researching the major Dharmic Traditions, and ending with deism and some Native American culture. The fact that all these religions refer to some sort of supreme being is not lost on me. Instructions on how to treat other living creatures is also a common thread among them, especially in dealing with other people (even if there is frequently a 'them/us' division). With so many faiths having that much in common, I find it extremely difficult to dismiss the idea of God outright. However, a person could make the argument that an omnipotent deity would have found a way to communicate his/her will with his/her creations a little more consistently.

I try to treat others' belief systems with respect. They might not mean much to me, but to them, they must be important, or they wouldn't be telling me about them. I always listen to another person's reasons for why they believe. In the best case, they give me something to think about. In the worst case, they allow me to work on my polite nodding skills.

There's a saying about not discussing religion and politics in polite company. I welcome all persons to speak with me about their faith. Please don't be offended when I don't agree with you.

Until another time,

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I'll Take My Chances

I accept a lot of information at face value.

Specifically, I'm thinking about the news. If someone comes on the radio or the television and says, "There was an apartment fire, and four people were rushed to HCMC, two have since died," I don't really feel the need to call up HCMC and ask to speak to the burn unit about new arrivals. I just accept it.

On the other hand, if someone come on a thirty-second advertising spot, and tells me that their brand of automobile has the best mileage in its class, I feel a need to find out what that exactly means. For example, what class are they talking about? Are they speaking on average, of their whole fleet in that class; perhaps they mean that in that class, they have the vehicle with the best mileage? I need to know.

Choice of words can affect how I think about an ad, too. There's a carpet cleaning company now, ZEROREZ, that claims to use no soaps or detergents, instead using "Empowered Water™," which is an "innovative, non-toxic water based cleaning agent." Now, I'm no chemist, but this just seems...dodgy (thanks for the perfect word, Dan). I, for one, am less likely to use their services after such language.

Of course, any time someone puts REAL numbers in a spot, I'm instantly suspicious. There's a spot out now for CurrentSafe, a service sold by Muska Electric. The spot has facts such as "99 out of 100 homes have an electrical defect" and "there are more than 68,000 reported home electrical fires in the United States each year."

Now, I like numbers, but I like them better with sources. The USFA (United States Fire Administration) has a page that is exactly this information! After some searching around, I found that the most recent year I could get data for from this source was 2007. The document itself expresses that it is not 100% inclusive of all fires, that participation by fire marshals and other state agencies provide this data completely voluntarily. However, it's the best compilation of data I could find.

In 2007, there were 260,471 residential fires reported to NFIRS. Since CurrentSafe refers to "home electrical fires," I'm going to equate those. Of those fires, 6.6% were attributed to "Electrical Malfunction," which figures to be roughly 17,191 fires. Not really close to 68,000 (26.1%). 2.1% were attributed to "Appliances." Now, not all appliances are electric, but, let's suppose they are, and add that in (if you're keeping score, we're up to 8.7%). 3.2% were caused by "Equipment Misoperation/Failure," bringing our total to 11.9%. I can't really see a way to get many more of these sources to be "Home Electrical Fires," so let's quit thinking rationally, and start being silly.

18.4% of the fires reported have a cause of "Unknown." Adding that in brings the total percent to 29.3%, which is a little high...about 3.2% high....which is, coincidentally, the percent of fires attributed to "Equipment Misoperation/Failure." I wonder how Muska got their numbers.

Now, none of this has any context without knowing the number of homes in the United States (there are 110,692,000 regularly occupied housing units, according to the 2007 American Housing Survey). This means, supposing that every fire reported as "Residential" was occupied (which gives us the largest percentage), 0.2% of residences experienced a fire. Using CurrentSafe's numbers, 0.05% of residences had an electrical fire (using government numbers, 0.02%). For the mathematically challenged, your odds are 1 out of every 2000 homes, or 1 out of every 5000 homes, respectively. 

Considering that 1980 out of 2000 homes (or 4950 out of 5000 homes) have an electrical defect according to Muska, I think we'd all be better served spending our time money improving our culinary skills (32% of residential fires are attributed to "Cooking").

Until another time,

Monday, April 19, 2010

Cat's In The Cradle

My elementary school teachers used to say all the time, "You are unique."

I know my son is getting that, too, because he made a comment about it while watching "The Incredibles" during the scene in the car after Dash got picked up from detention, and the mom says, "Everyone is special, Dash," and he faces the window and mumbles, "Which is another way of saying that nobody is."

The Cub Scout Motto is "Do Your Best." Even before I was in Scouts, my dad was always telling us kids, "You can't compare what you do to what anyone else did. You have to decide you did the best you can, and leave it at that." If I was ever down about my performance in a class or competition, he'd admonish me with, "If you did the best you could, then there's no problem. If you could have done better, then you have something to be sorry for."

I worked as a counselor at a residential summer camp, and I was reasonably well-known among the staff for being full of bad puns and terrible plays on words. Whenever I got a particularly loud groan or boo from the staff, I'd to say, "If you think that's bad, you should meet my dad!" No one believed me, until one weekend, when my dad came to pick me up. I was not quite packed to leave, so he was invited into the staff lodge while I went to my tent to finish packing. When I returned, I waved to him through the window, and we left. He drove me back to camp Monday morning. As I made my way up the stairs to the staff lodge, the camp director met me halfway up. "Having met your dad," he started, "You make a whole lot more sense."

When I was growing up, my dad worked "with computers" (that was my understanding of it). We had some computers at home, I learned some basic programming, but I swore up and down that I was not going to get into programming for a living. I was going to blaze my own career trail, and I ended up going to college intent on majoring in Physics (figuring that was a good science to start in before getting a Masters degree in a narrower field).

I never finished that degree, and instead I ended up with a BSE, an educator's degree with an emphasis in mathematics. I got my teaching license, and started teaching math to seventh and eighth graders.

After three years, I quit. If I had 27 kids in a class, there were three that were great, three that were awful, and 21 that were "just there."  I really value the time I spent teaching. If I learned anything that I could apply as a parent, it's that I need to show my children that I am interested in their education, and that it is important to me. I'm not particularly concerned about my children being the smartest in the class; I will be proud of my children as long as they are the ones putting forth the most effort (you know, doing their best).

That summer, I got a temp job doing data entry. A friend of mine heard I was looking for work, and contacted me about a job opening where he was currently employed. Paraphrasing, he said to me, "You can think in a straight line, you can get a job programming here."

With a few misgivings about it, I did. I learned that I ... really liked it. I got into databases, and optimization, and it really scratched an itch I didn't know I had. The immediate gratification moving from "your program doesn't work" to "your program works" could be had in a day, much different from the full year required to move a class of kids from "you don't know algebra" to "you know algebra."

While working there, I referred my dad to a job opening in the data storage group. One of the company executives commented that it's the first time in his experience he'd heard of a son getting their dad a job.

Until another time,

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Think About The Reasons, Not The Numbers

I think about taxes about three times per year.

I think about them in September/October, because there are candidates running for office trumpeting their fiscal skills and tooting numbers that appeal to the masses. I think about them in December, because I need to get all my ducks in a row. The last time I think about them is generally in March, when I submit my tax forms to the respective state and federal government agencies.

As I drove to work, I heard an ad on the radio, for a website, "Tax the Richest". It's just a website, full of hyperbole, doom and gloom, and really large numbers. I could criticize that they provide no solutions, only a blanket rallying cry. I could also take cheap shots at their site design, but instead, I'd rather talk about "The Facts", as noted on their site, on the header menu bar. The document they reference is MN Dept. of Revenue, 2009 Tax Incidence Study (the top link, page 44 in the document, but page 58 in the PDF). But they don't link it, they don't want you to read it for yourself. They want you to take their interpretation, and believe what they want you to believe.

Their spin is that the lowest earners pay the highest taxes...let's check it out.

Let me get into some estimated numbers (you see, this is all estimated on 2011 numbers, which hasn't happened yet). The MN Dept. of Revenue estimates there will be 2,575,557 taxpaying Minnesotan households in 2011, 57% of which will find themselves in the lowest two income deciles (that is, 20%). This 57% of the population will provide $4,759,459,000 of the estimated $21,675,104,000 taxes collected in the year 2011, which is about 22%.

(Those of you thinking critically will say, "Wait, 22% is more than 20%, they really are paying a larger share of the taxes on their share of the income!" And you'd be right. So, we see their facts point to a flaw, but it's not nearly as big as they want you to think.)

It's generally accepted that a sales tax is regressive (meaning it costs the poor more and the rich less), because a poorer family will have to spend more of their income, exposing them to more sales tax (percentage-wise). However, the income brackets they have chosen are by population decile (10% segment). Since nearly 60% of Minnesotans find themselves making the lowest quarter of incomes in the state, this skews the data significantly. If you shift your perspective to income decile (back to the MN Revenue link, page 54 in the document, but page 68 in the PDF), you'll see that almost the entire skew of the "Percent of Income Spent As Taxes" comes from the sales tax issue.

2% is almost exactly the skew from Sales Tax being regressive. Suppose then, that instead of a 7.75% sales tax on purchased goods, we abolish the Sales Tax, and instead increase the State Income Tax by 2.2% (the state average sales tax paid). This would decrease the (estimated) tax burden on the lowest two income deciles by .5-1.5%, and increase the (estimated) burden on the highest two income deciles by .8-1.3%.

Look, a possible solution, to an identifiable problem, achieved through critical thinking!

A possible hangup with this solution, might be the loss of revenue from out-of-state persons who had been paying sales tax, and now are not liable for it (and who obviously don't pay our state income tax). I'm having trouble finding those numbers, though, so if anyone has a finger on those, that'd be great. I can't imagine it's more than .5% of the state income. I hesitate to say, "Raise Taxes on Business" because we all know they just raise prices and pass their costs directly to the consumers.

You know, we could use some critical thinking in politics. I'd run for office myself, but I doubt my platform of "Cut Spending and Raise Taxes!" would be very popular...but we wouldn't be worried about a deficit, or foreign powers owning our debt, or a myriad of other large problems you don't hear about from mainstream politicians.

Until another time,

Monday, April 12, 2010

That's The Way I Like It

I'm in the market for a car.

I know many people take meticulous care of their vehicle, get regular maintenance, keep it clean, and avoid mashing it into other cars/wildlife. However, accidents happen. Also, there are other people who are less consistent with the regular advised maintenance of a vehicle. This group of people tend to have the mentality of, "I put gas it in, it should just keep going!"

So, I guess for the reasons I outlined there, I could amend my opening statement to, "I'm in the market for a new car."

Yes, the arguments to purchase a used vehicle are known to me. A new car, purely by driving it off the lot, loses X% of its value. I am aware that there are 153-point inspections performed by a trained individual or team on all used cars sold from X location, granting them a "Certified Used" status. I know there are 12 month warranties on many used cars. Many dealers will provide a free CarFax History report for the VIN of a used car so you can see its history.

None of this makes me feel any better about used cars. Even the fact that they often cost half as much as they did new doesn't help. Look, I'm going to buy a new car. There's very little you can do at this point to dissuade me.

I currently drive a blue 1997 Saturn SL1, with a manual transmission. Being a driver of a manual transmission car puts me in an extreme minority. As I told the sales rep at a dealership I was courting, "I'll drive an automatic transmission car when my left leg stops working."

So, now I'm on to, "I'm in the market for a new car, with a manual transmission."

Many of the reasons for driving a manual transmission car have gone away. Automatic transmissions are pretty savvy shifters, and the improved mileage you could get from wisely driving a manual has eroded to negligible. Most dealers don't even charge for the automatic transmission anymore, it's just included in the cost. I must admit; when I bought my Saturn, I bought the manual because it was $900 cheaper, and that was a big deal to me back then. For this next purchase, I could probably afford it, but I'm not going to. In addition, my very reliable Saturn has 230,000 miles on it (very nearly a one-way trip to the moon). It still gets 35+ miles to the gallon.

I suppose at this point, "I'm in the market for a new, high-efficiency car, with a manual transmission and is pretty reliable."

I don't want any chrome, or funny wheels, or spoilers, or a sunroof. No extra lights, it can't have an exterior color that is either white or black (I swear, if someone comments about white and black not being colors, I will not publish it), and I don't really want a car with the fuel intake on the passenger side. I don't want to ...

At this point, I feel this post is really long. I'll go into the craziness of actually buying a car another time. So -- 

Until another time,

Friday, April 9, 2010

Let Them Eat Cake

I like grapefruit.

I recently got a Harry and David grapefruit shipment. No one else in my immediate family cares much for grapefruit, so...this is a lot of grapefruit for one guy to consume.

It got me thinking, though (what doesn't get me thinking?). Who decided to cultivate this oversize, bitter, hard-to-eat citrus? I suppose it appeals to a certain segment (heh). I mentioned it to some friends, and one of them mentioned almonds. Almonds come in two varieties, bitter and sweet. One releases hydrogen cyanide, one does not, and it is important to know which you have.

Of course, this led me to thinking about other things.  Now, I know that many things we take for granted were created accidentally (famously: vulcanized rubber, dry cereal flakes, microwaves; perhaps most famously: penicillin), but seriously, the number of food innovations is staggering (alcohol notwithstanding).

Speaking of alcohol, how many failed fermentations ended in vinegar? Who first pickled food with salt and vinegar? What made them think this would be a good idea? I envision someone hiding something in a salt pack, and discovering that it dried and was preserved...but who thought of trying the vinegar solution?

Cooking meat in a fire? Ok, this isn't really that much of a stretch, but the logical leap from "fire hurts" to "dead things put in fire taste better" is still pretty significant.

Who took grain seeds, ground them up to a powder, mixed them with various liquids (milk, eggs, water, etc), then put them on controlled heat? Who discovered leavening (chemical or biological?)? And refined sugar?

My son turned eight at the end of last month. We ate cake at the celebration. However, it wasn't until I was eating my third grapefruit this week that I thought about how unlikely a food cake ever was.

Until another time,

PS And Salt!  Who went around licking rocks and deciding which ones would work with their fire-burned dead things?

Monday, April 5, 2010

It Hasn't Stopped Since

It started with a sandwich. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, specifically, one that was made for me, not by me.

I very distinctly remember (which will shock many of you familiar with my usually porous memory), I was in the 4th grade. I do not remember the name of the instructor, but I do remember that it was not my regular 4th grade teacher (Miss Nelson) nor was it the enrichment teacher (Mr. Yencho). I even remember the layout of the classroom.

There were five of us, seated at chairs on the long side of one of the rectangular tables that were common in my elementary school. The instructor had some paper plates, a loaf of bread (sliced, in a bag), a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a butter knife on the table in front of her. She said, "Imagine I'm from another planet. I understand your words, and can do the actions you tell me to. I need you to tell me how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich."

One kid immediately spoke up, and said, "Well, you put the peanut butter on the bread, and--" and then the instructor picked up the jar of peanut butter and MASHED it down in the middle of the loaf of bread.

We were stunned. She said, "Did I do something wrong? I did exactly what you said!" We all nodded, slowly. Another person said, "You need to take the bread out of the bag, first." So, she moved the peanut butter jar, tore open the plastic on the top of the bag, dumped all the bread slices out, and set the peanut butter jar back on the bread.

We looked at each other. We were uncomfortable being so wrong about how to go about this. The instructor cheerfully said, "Would you like to start over?" We all nodded. She swept the bread off the table into a trash can, and produced another loaf of bread from a grocery bag under the table. She repeated her initial statement about being from another planet.

No one wanted to give the first instruction. We kinda looked around, and then I said, "If I asked you to open the bag from the tied end by untwisting the tie, would you be able to do that?" She smiled, and said, "Yes...but part of the fun of this is doing what you say. The idea is that you say what you mean, and are careful with your words, because words have many different meanings. Checking to see if what you said is what you meant should be done in your head, not by asking me after you say something. Maybe you would like some paper to write things down?" We all did.

We went to work on paper. Some of us wrote numbered lists of steps, others drew pictures on theirs. We talked to ourselves, and we didn't listen very well to what the others were mumbling. The teacher made busy pretending not to listen to us (yes, 4th graders can tell).

After a few minutes, she asked us to finish up. Then she picked someone to go first (it wasn't me), and she would not listen to instructions from anyone else, but we were all welcome to watch, and learn from the others' mistakes. It was a series of mistakes ("Get some jelly from the jar and put it on the bread," and the instructor reached into the jar, and blopped a big scoop of jelly on the bread), corrections ("Stop! Using the knife, get some jelly from the jar."), more mistakes ("Using the knife, get some peanut butter from the jar," and the instructor started to try to pry the lid off the jar), and finally, degrees of success.

When we all had something to eat (I hesitate to call them all sandwiches), we discussed what might have helped us get closer to what we had in mind. Like how to describe the action "spreading," using more adverbs (gently, slowly), and we talked about order (first...then...after that...).

I didn't get a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich that day, none of us did.

What I did get, is I got a brain that started putting value in watching other people so I could learn from their mistakes, in establishing a baseline for understanding, in assuring precision in language, and in critical thinking about problems.

Until another time,

Friday, April 2, 2010

Keeping Expectations Low

Well, I never thought I'd make it to five posts, much less in just two weeks.

My original (unstated) goal was to post two times a week, because my friends who are writers told me that setting goals and deadlines will make you better at writing. This is probably true, if you're a goal-driven or deadline-driven person, but I thought I'd give it a try anyhow.

Funny, though, that I started this as a critical thinking exercise, I've not really had a lot to discuss. I mean, sure, the Health Care Reform bill passed, and was amended. But there's already a ton of press about that, and in my humble opinion, if both sides are screaming about it, then the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, which is where it should be. I'll probably get to more political items later, but I don't want to drive people off too fast with polarizing topics.

Onward. I signed up to be a Cub Scout leader, starting this summer. I was a Scout from about age seven up through eighteen, and a few years past that as a Scout Camp counselor. There are many things this pack does that is different from how my pack was run when I was a kid. Most of it is just that, different. Some of it is just plain wrong, and I plan to try to help them correct these things. As I've been talking to the other leaders, I've found out that none of them were Scouts when they were youth. That hasn't prevented them from leading with the enthusiasm and energy required to work with young boys, and they are the kind of people I want my son to be around.

I keep comparing this to when I coached the Community Ed baseball team. I never played organized ball as a kid, so all I had to go on was, "Well, they need to throw, catch, and hit. Let's work on that." I read a lot of articles on coaching, and drills, and teaching techniques. We worked hard, we played hard; I don't think our team won two games in two seasons. But I like to think the boys had fun.

So, I'll be the third leader in three years for my son's den, who will be 3rd graders in the fall.  This makes them Bears in the Cub Scout program, the last year before the "real" work as a Webelos starts. I didn't want to be a Scout leader, originally. I just wanted to show up, maybe help if I knew something of use. Now that I've actually signed up to lead, I'm having a hard time keeping my growing enthusiasm in check.

I hope I can help make Scouting as much fun for these boys as it was for me. That's not expecting too much, is it?

Until another time,

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Deep Down, I'm a Horrible Person

I live just north of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. The winters are long and cold, the growing season is short and mild, and I like it this way.

I have seasonal allergies.  Actually, I have a lot of environmental allergies, but the pollen and mold spores are by far the worst. I help my wife in the garden, not because I like to garden, but because I think my kids need to see living things nurtured and helped to grow (and because it makes my wife happy). So, you see why I like winter...and now, it's ending.

This past Saturday, Minnesota hosted Louisiana Tech in a baseball game in the new Target Field. The Gophers lost, 5-2. Most of the articles I read were about the stadium, not the about game. How nice it was outside, how this was a dry run for the Twins, to see how crowds would be handled, and logistic sorts of things.

I'm not going to lie to you, I was not in favor of a new stadium. When they decided not to put a roof on it, I was completely opposed. However, the trickle-down effect to a local economy from a professional sports team is undeniable, if somewhat incalculable. So, in the long run, it's probably not a bad thing to have (and, it's not my county with the elevated sales tax).

But the whole idea of building a new stadium, so you can offer more amenities (and charge more for them), so you can take in more money, so you can pay better players, so you can have a more successful team, so demand goes up for the tickets, so you can charge more, so you can pay better players, ad infinitum... it just seems like it never really works out that way for teams, you know?

Starting sometime last week, we've had a stretch of good weather here. In fact, the high today (Wednesday the 31st of March) is forecast to be near 80. On the days the Twins have two exhibition games scheduled (Friday and Saturday), there is rain predicted both days.

Don't get me wrong, I don't wish for it to rain on ... yeah, I kinda do wish for rain. But not because I want the fans and players to get wet. Not because I want the game canceled, which would lead to make-up games, which usually leads to double-headers, which would make a friend of mine near-giddy. A side reason I want rain is I'd like to know the color and/or pattern on the tarp they use to cover the infield.

No, the real reason I want rain, is because I love the sound of unreasonable people shouting at other unreasonable people...and a rained out game at the new roofless field would likely cause that. I told you, I'm a horrible person.

Until another time,

Friday, March 26, 2010

A Better Night's Skeptic

We don't watch much TV in my house. What we do watch is the occasional PBS cartoon (think "Clifford" or "Fetch!"), some "Jane and the Dragon" on qubo, and sports. Any sport. Using our house rules definitions, figure skating and ballroom dancing are sports, but only at the national competition levels.

I was watching a basketball game with my seven year old son, and we were discussing the rules. Why the three-point arc doesn't touch the free-throw circle, why some fouls give free throws and some do not, why do they have to keep tucking their shirts in, etc. They got to the point where they need to take a TV timeout, and went to commercials.

NCAA playoff games are not marketing vehicles to the under-ten crowd. I was pretty certain I would not see Pokemon or GI Joe. I knew there would be a Cialis or Viagra commercial, but those are usually really circumspect, and he doesn't really watch that closely. When a network commercial gets thrown in for a somewhat suspenseful/violent show or movie (CSI, NCIS, and so on), I tell him, "You might cover your eyes for this," and he typically does. He's rather sensitive to that.

A commercial for mattresses came on. It must have been a Sleep Number commercial, because the tag line was "A Better Night's Sleep". The commercial ended, and my son huffed. I asked him what was wrong with the commercial, and he says, "Ha. A Better Night's Sleep. They just say that to try to get you to buy it."

Marketers of the world, beware. A seven year old boy is onto your scheme to try to get us to buy your stuff.

Until another time,