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Archive for July, 2010

Note to the person who backed into my son’s bike and left it with a mangled wheel

July 17, 2010 1 comment

There are people who actually use bikes for transportation.  Their bikes matter, a lot.  They are as well-made as your car, because they’re purchased for an equally serious purpose.

And for that matter, so do the Wal-Mart bikes you see everywhere, rapidly decaying in place chained to badly-designed bike racks.  It’s not the fault of their owners that a giant discount store chain has cynically crapified what could be an important transportation channel in our overly oil-dependent country, leaving people (including you, apparently) with the impression that bikes are trivial.

Besides, if you damage someone else’s property, regardless of its virtues, you are obligated to make it right.  You stop, leave a note, pay up.

And while we’re at it, the bicyclist is doing a Very Good Thing for the environment you live in.  Of course, we could take a wild guess that you don’t care about that; let your grandchildren find their own way.  They won’t remember that the world was once bright and beautiful and had fish in the sea.  So let’s just leave it at: “They’re making your gasoline cheaper” and “not using up as much road-space as another car”.  All you have to do is pay attention when you drive, which you’re supposed to do anyway.

At the bike shop (where good bikes are found) one of the mechanics told me about a recent case they encountered.  A guy in a Suburban rear-ended a bike at a stop sign.  The wheel was destroyed and he said he’d pay for it.  But when the repair bill was $200 (on an $800 bike), he threw a fit, stormed into the bike shop, demanding everything from explanation to apology.  Why so expensive?!  Didn’t they know he could buy a whole new bike for a hundred bucks!

The shop mechanic pretty much told him; “Great, let’s call the cops then.  You can explain to them how you rear-ended a bicyclist in your 7,000-lb vehicle and don’t want to pay for the repairs.  $200 isn’t a lot of money considering you could have killed the guy.”

Someday people will look back on this age and learn that transportation almost universally meant burning huge amounts of fossil carbon fuels in multi-thousand-pound steel vehicles, and that few people got around by muscle power.  And they’ll marvel at the weirdness of it all.

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The Power of Positive Thinking

July 14, 2010 6 comments

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy we could have a pretty good time.”
- Edith Wharton

Once upon a time there was a deep philosopher named Norman Vincent Peale.  He believed that Positive Thinking could change the world.  It could change your life.  It could change YOU.  Thinking positive thoughts would make you happier, healthier, wiser, even wealthier.  It would clean up the streets, reduce crime.  It was The Key.

You might be thinking; “He must have been friends with Joel Osteen and Rhonda Byrne.”  And if he’d been contemporary with them, he most certainly would have been.  For 54 years he hosted a syndicated radio show called “The Art Of Living”.  He was pastor of a megachurch – five thousand people in those days – for 52 years.  He was editor of Guideposts magazine and among many other books, the bestselling Power Of Positive Thinking.  The philosophical infection he spread was driven deeply into American culture, with the full knowledge and support of politicians and corporations of the day.

Peal had many spiritual grandchildren.  If you’ve ever been annoyed by Happy-Happy talk, or told it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown, or that getting laid off is a great opportunity*, Peal is the man you secretly wanted to hunt down, cover with Karo syrup and stake to a fire ant hill.  He was the granddaddy of all the DVD, or Delusional Vacuous Denialism, that walked our country and our culture into one privvy-hole after another.  He’s the reason you’re an outcast if you raise objections to The Plan.

(Do I even need to say that Ronald Reagan loved Norman Vincent Peale?  Even awarded him the freaking Presidential Medal of Freedom.  The feeling was most assuredly mutual.)

Anyway, if you’ve been made to feel like a pessimist for pointing out one or more tragic flaws in The Plan, or for suggesting a more conservative approach than “never mind tires and brakes, full speed ahead”, you’ll appreciate this wonderful video on the delusionality, the cruelty, the immorality of Positive Thinking. 

h/t Coturnix

And since categorical pessimism is an opposite delusion, I recommend the alternative the author suggests.  Enjoy!

NOTES:

  • *If your manager inexplicably gives you a crappy little book called Who Moved My Cheese, start sending out resumes.

  • (I did laugh out loud when the speaker got to her description of a certain former president.  I shall forever think of him that way now.)
  • Paradoxically, I think Peale created a deep well of unhappiness and dissatisfaction in the American psyche by creating, through tireless effort, the obsession and expectation of happiness. 
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Academic Freedom?

July 11, 2010 3 comments

Kenneth Howell, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, was told this week that his contract would not be renewed.  That isn’t unusual; universities are relying more and more on non-tenured professors to control costs give them more flexibility.

What is (hopefully) unusual about this non-renewal is that the professor in question seems to have been let go for offending someone.  He sent an email to his students, expounding on the application of Catholic doctrine to homosexuality.  The question that prompted the message came from one of his classes; “Introduction to Catholicism” and “Modern Catholic Thought”. 

So it isn’t difficult to say that he was let go for teaching… the subject of the class.  In fact I’m having a hard time seeing it any other way.  The complaining student accused him of “hate speech” (read the email and see if you agree). It seems he was offended by the actual content of the class he signed up for.

If nothing else, the university has handed conservative bloviators something to yammer about on Fox.

NOTES:

  • Conservative pundits also love to bemoan the allegedly all-liberal makeup of college faculties, but it’s all in their fevered minds.  Most college faculties are a mix, perhaps intentionally so.  Working on a campus I know a lot of professors; if it takes all kinds, we’re in good shape.

  • To say that I disagreed with the professor’s email would be quite an understatement, but never mind that. One of the reasons for going to college is to encounter people who actually do understand the world in a very different way than you do.
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Oh, were you trying to read that book?

July 7, 2010 5 comments
From Cats

She’s doing better, Holly is. We really thought we’d lose her earlier this year.  She was SO sick, couldn’t even raise up her head.

Amazing thing about cats, apparently they can recover from diabetes.  But it did some damage; the vet says her eyes are not in good shape.  In fact overall he said she seems more 17 or 18 than 15, which is her real age.

This is not her first close call either.  She had an awful infection in her leg some years back, from another cat that chased her and snagged her in the hind quarters..  I gave her injections every day for – what was it? – 2 or 3 weeks, directly into the site.  She was an awfully good kitty; she’d holler but never once tried to scratch or bite me.

Trouble is, the antibiotic was Baytril, which has many side-effects including damage to joints, tendons, and retina.  We took that risk, without being able to explain it to her, to save her life. 

So I really don’t know how well she can see.  Seems to get around all right, but she studies visual problems for a long time before attempting a solution.  One thing has not changed: if you are eating something that smells good to her (like buttered toast), she wants to examine it more closely.

(Cross-posted to MrsDoF’s Dear Ones)

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Movie Review: “Be Kind, Rewind”

July 5, 2010 1 comment

I just finished watching Be Kind, Rewind starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Melonie Diaz and Mia Farrow. 

Glover owns a VHS video-rental store in a condemned building in a run-down neighborhood.  He has one employee, Def, who seems to be mildly retarded but not without common sense.  Def’s friend Black is paranoid delusional and tends to break things unintentionally.

Black, attempting to sabotage a power substation (because he thinks its electromagnetic waves are controlling his brain) accidentally becomes magnetized, erasing all the tapes in the store.  Worse, Glover is out of town visiting friends, having left Def in charge with one instruction; to keep his friend out of the store.

They set about re-making the movies, eventually involving almost everyone in the community as actors with hilarious results.  They call the cheesy remakes “Sweded”; a cult following develops, and people come from as far away as New York to rent tapes.  It begins to look as if they might earn enough money to save their building and their neighborhood from the developers.

And that’s when Sigourney Weaver shows up as an MPAA lawyer with a court order to destroy all their work and confiscate the money they made from it.  In a completely realistic scene, she arranges for a steam roller to flatten all the tapes as the neighborhood’s residents – nearly all ad-hoc actors now – watch in horror.  At least, it’s realistic given how the MPAA reacts to any other use of movie content but meek consumption. 

(I don’t think “Sweding” a movie would really be a copyright infringement but of course, I’m not an MPAA lawyer.)

With all hope lost and destruction of the building only a week away, the whole community makes one last movie; a fictitious retelling of the life of Fats Waller, a Jazz musician.  With wrecking balls hanging alongside the building, they show it in a sweetly triumphant ending.

And the fate of the building?  Left to the viewer’s imagination.

It’s a goofy plot with even goofier characters.  But it’s easy to care about them, and share in their despair and triumph.  OK, it isn’t The English Patient but it’s fun.  I’m likely to watch it again sometime.

Will I watch The English Patient again?  Not likely; I didn’t even finish watching it the first time.  Guess that tells you something about my taste, or lack of taste, in movies, so you are forewarned.

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A day in patriotic space

July 4, 2010 2 comments

I’ve spent most of the day relaxing and reading Inside The Outbreaks, the story of the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.  And over the years they did a fantastic lot of good, though not as much as they could have.  And while the contributing writers are justly proud of one, they are painfully conscious of the other.

Right now there are fireworks going off outside, which is neat and everything but I’m probably headed off to bed soon.  As tired as I am, they won’t keep me awake.

But I did spend some time today on the question: is patriotism even really a virtue?  I mean, it’s obvious why everyone thinks it is.  Basically it’s distilled in-group identity with a dash of xenophobia.  We are “Us” and they are “Them”, right?

OK, I am patriotic, in this way: I want my country to prosper and to live honorably in the human family.  The second part is a limiting factor on the first. 

Put it in logical perspective: would you want your family to prosper by selling drugs to school children?  I hope not.  But the US exports drugs it won’t sell within its borders.  For that matter, US tobacco companies market directly to third-world children.  That’s human suffering for profit, plain and simple.

Would you want your state to prosper by polluting the state next door?  Because that’s pretty much what happens when you fill up on cheap gas from Nigeria.  Oil pollution only makes headlines in this country when our own waters are involved. 

Yes, I recognize our country has done many things that are unequivocally good.  EIS investigators taking a major role in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh to help eliminate smallpox from the earth, for one shining, but not at all uncommon, example.  There’s just no downside to it.

But it’s also patriotic to recognize when our country has done some things that are of mixed value or unequivocally bad.  Failure to see our faults is actually harmful to our country in the long run.  It’s analogous to not being able to feel pain; sooner or longer it will cause disaster.  A nation needs a conscience just like we need nerves that sense pain.

The news found timely release this week that when Thomas Jefferson was working on the Declaration Of Independence, he first wrote “subjects”, but scratched it out and wrote in “citizens”.  It’s as if he got to thinking about he implications of each word.

A citizen takes part freely and gladly in the common good.  But lately we’ve gotten into the mental habit of thinking of ourselves as “consumers” instead of “citizens”.  Consumers are not really responsible to anyone.  Consumers make decisions on the cost to them, not the cost to others.  Consumers are, today,  loyal subjects to corporate brands, which discourage questions about the greater good.

As consumers only, we cannot live honorably in the human family.  It cannot be patriotic to accept prosperity on such terms. 

Of course, I’ve had enough of these discussions to know the next question is; “Well who decides the common good, smarty-pants?”  I’m gonna suggest that question is not nearly as damning or as difficult as it is always imagined to be.  But the answer does require imagination.  It requires imagining, for a moment, not being afraid of the Other, and thinking of Us and Them as sharing human identity as well as terrestrial space.

NOTES:

  • Wikipedia: Citizenship status, under social contract theory, carries with it both rights and responsibilities. “Active citizenship” is the philosophy that citizens should work towards the betterment of their community through economic participation, public , volunteer work, and other such efforts to improve life for all citizens. In this vein, schools in some countries provide citizenship education…”
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