Friday, December 21, 2007

My Yule Log to You

Ah, fake fireplaces. Nothing quite says "I've given up on what is real and authentic" like a tinselly, aluminum, fire-like image, with a hair-dryer-like stream of dry air blowing into a room.

I recently discovered that the genius of American consumerism has improved on the fake fireplace system. If you don’t want the mess and cost associated with actual fake fires, you can now buy a Yule Log DVD, and have a simulated fire playing on your TV. I guess I should have seen this coming, but I do tend to live under a rock when it comes to consumer products.

However, it made me wonder why anyone should even go to the trouble of ordering a DVD, waiting for it to be delivered, and then exerting the effort to put it in a DVD player and press the play button. After all, the TV could be playing commercials and encouraging you to buy more stuff, so it seems wasteful have it play a video of a Yule log all day long.

My solution? Come to my blog whenever you want the cozy feeling of a Yule log. I am offering it free of charge from a YouTube video someone else went to the trouble of posting. It is even less work than a Google search. It is my present to you, for all your hard work of finding my blog, and reading this entire entry (so far):

Note: You may want to turn up the thermostat in your house for an even more realistic effect, or maybe put a small space heater under your computer.

Good luck and happy holidays. I'll return to posting after the New Year.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Replace a Wonderful Life with Millions

One reason to suspect that I am really a deeply undercover cold-war mole, and grew up outside western culture, is that I did not see It’s a Wonderful Life until I was in college. Even before cable TV, it was apparently hard to watch TV in December without seeing It’s a Wonderful Life playing on one station or another. Or so I am told. I only had a vague sense that it had something to do with banking.

I finally saw it when the Ryder Film Series of Bloomington, IN screened it in the mid 1980s, while I attended Indiana University. The Ryder Series was my first true education in film. It was mostly independent and foreign films of the day, but also showed classics on a regular basis and was not above showing lowbrow comedies. They rented out the IU Fine Arts Auditorium for shows, as well as a local bar/restaurant called Bear’s Place. I saw films like Koyaanisqatsi, Fanny and Alexander, and This is Spinal Tap via the Ryder, and also Citizen Kane for the first time when they screened it.

In fact, Jill and my’s first “date” was to Bear’s Place to see (gasp) Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School. It didn’t start out as a date – it was just a way to escape studying for summer midterms, and was the only movie playing within walking distance. However it ended as a date, much to my everlasting surprise. So, I remain forever indebted to the Ryder, even when they show crappy movies, because you never know. Although, I suppose the object lesson could go the other way: Don’t put yourself in a position where you have to admit that your first date with the love of your life was Back to School.

They screened It’s a Wonderful Life in mid-December (but of course). I don’t know if it was the relief of the end of that semester, or maybe that I was feeling alone and friendless myself at the time, but I think it was the first movie I ever got teary-eyed at. There’s nothing like realizing that the human condition is bearable because of our connections with each other, and that good things sometimes happen to good people because they are good. Yay schmaltz! It has been a Christmas staple for me from college onward.

Of course, time tends to erode the thrill of any experience, and so it has been for It’s a Wonderful Life. I tried to watch it with the kids a few years ago, but they were mostly just confused about bank runs and the Depression. The last time I saw it, I thought maybe I didn’t need to see it again for a few years.

Lately, when asked what my favorite movie is, I’ve abandoned the long-honored tradition of naming a movie that I think that particular person will be impressed with. Instead, I tell them about a movie that I’ve seen four or five times now and still enjoy it as much as I did the first time: Millions. I remain mystified as to why more people don't know about it, because it is such a gem of a movie.

It really isn’t a Christmas movie, but then again, neither is It’s a Wonderful Life. In fact, I wonder if the best Christmas movies are not really about Christmas, but just use it as a backdrop. Except for A Christmas Story. That one couldn’t work any other time of the year. In fact, I haven’t seen that in a few years either, so it might be time to see it again.

Anyway, Millions shares two things with It’s a Wonderful Life: They are both sappy, and they both involve banking during the Christmas season. But Millions is the kind of banking my kids can identify with (or would like to, anyway): What do you do with several hundred thousand English sterling that must be spent in a few weeks before the Euro causes them to become worthless? Amidst the chaos, a saintly little boy tries to do right when everyone around him is gleefully being corrupted by the sudden availability of money.

If you haven’t seen it, go rent it - you won’t be disappointed. The IMDB entry is here, and it was also shown at EbertFest, and I did a review of it here. I’ve decided that it is now The Christmas Movie at our house, and we will watch it ever year, until I inevitably get sick of it, or there is the usual insurrection in the family about not watching the movie Dad wants to watch. Then I’ll cave, like I usually do.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Maybe We Should Stay Anonymous

In an effort to be more open, I thought I’d share what my family looks like, to me, in the morning as they are trying to get me out of bed:

I’m not sure why the costumes are necessary, but it seems to be their way.

Here is my usual response, except without the dancing:

Monday, December 17, 2007

I am a Blogger

Other than my name being part of this blog’s URL, I’ve tried to stay somewhat anonymous since I began posting in early 2006. In fact, the only reason I put my name here at all was to provide myself motivation to not be a total crackpot. I believe in the principle that people behave better in community, where there is some semblance of accountability. That’s why there is so much nastiness in chat rooms and big cities, and such heroic efforts to provide the appearance of civility in small towns. For myself, I find that if my words can be traced back to me, it forces me to at least try to be reasonable.

But I also had good reasons to want to be anonymous. The main reason is that I was a partner in the software firm of SourceGear LLC. The last thing a small business needs is irrelevant reasons for people to not buy their products, such as one of the partners having a fixation on the faults of George W. Bush. This is especially important when the other partners are not terribly political, much to the frustration of said partner with fixation.

Another reason to desire anonymity is that although I tend to have strong opinions, I’m also a middle child, and not a natural attention seeker. I’m content to let the oldest children suck all the oxygen out of a room, or let the youngest entertain everyone with their well-honed skills for demanding scraps of attention. I’m happy to be the one that sits off to the side, observing and enjoying the chaos. I may be whispering snide comments to those snickering around me, but I do it quietly, so as not to draw attention to myself.

However, my personal situation has changed (except for the middle child part). Last summer, after a year sabbatical, I decided to leave SourceGear. This was a hard decision, not the least of which because I had the best two partners anyone could hope for in Eric Sink and Corey Steffen, as well as an incredibly smart and talented staff. Nonetheless, even though I had always found ways to be successful in software, my heart was never in it. The profession of software was mostly a strategy to avoid living in alleys and eating in soup kitchens, and in that sense, it suited me quite well. But, the mismatch in interests eventually caught up with me, and I found I could no longer put in the energy that it deserved.

So, with enormously mixed emotions, I sold my shares in SourceGear back to Eric and Corey (which I sincerely hope to regret someday, for their sake), and have a few years of breathing room to “pursue other opportunities.” I had spent 20 years fantasizing about “pursuing other opportunities,” but never had much idea what those specific opportunities might be, other than having nothing to do with software. If I were lazy or lacked a social conscious, it would probably have something to do with playing golf or honing my atrophied gaming skills. But, alas, I am cursed with the need to achieve positive things in life. Besides, although my buyout gives me a few years of breathing room, my wife won’t support me for too long without some value-add to the world.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, and that is where I plan to spend my energies for the next phase of my life (in addition to parenting, of course). However, the “occupation” box in my blogspot profile has confounded me for awhile, because “working on writing” and “being a writer” are two entirely different things. A “writer” has collections of words printed in publications where the bar is higher than the ability to press a “Submit” button. That’s why I have never thought of blogging as “real” writing. It may be good practice, but I can’t actually call myself a writer until I am able to exchange my efforts for something of value (money, space in a magazine, a goat, a barrel of oats, really, I'll take anything).

Regular readers have no doubt noticed that I’ve been blogging more in the last few weeks. The idea is that instead of getting mired down writing long, poorly conceived and worded essays, I use the blog to develop the disciple and craft of writing. It gives me the external pressure of deadlines, even though they are arbitrary and self-imposed and the "writing" sometimes consists of one sentence and a stolen YouTube video. I honestly don’t know how long I will try this, and I’m not even sure it is a good thing to publicly post pieces with such highly uneven quality, but it feels right for now.

I still have plenty of ideas for longer essays, and I keep toying around with the idea of a spiritual journey book, or maybe some short stories. I doubt I’ll make much progress on those if I blog everyday, but this might not be the time for them, until my prose and discipline improves.

So, until that day when I can legitimately call myself a writer, I’ve decided to simply call myself a blogger, which I can certainly do with integrity. I think of an independent blogger as ranking somewhere between “writer” and “submitter of angry letters to the editor of the News Gazette.” But at least I have a professional goal again - to earn the right to put “writer” in the occupation field in my blogspot profile.

So, in keeping with tradition, my first official statement as a blogger is to announce that I am taking a vacation. I'll try to post some silly Christmas stuff this week, but I doubt I'll post much, if anything, between Christmas eve and New Years.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Lazy Friday Video - The iRack

My brother recently reminded me about this MadTV skit from last year. It's my lazy friday video for this week:

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Colorado Church Shootings

I’ve been struggling to say something meaningful about last week’s Colorado church shootings. It is certainly a tragedy for all involved. And yet what keeps nagging at me is the revelation of armed security people in churches.

A quick background on the story: Matthew Murray had been involved with a mission organization called “Youth With a Mission” a few years ago, but “health problems kept him from finishing the program.” He came from a deeply Christian background, but apparently came to hate Christians, after his fallout with Youth With a Mission. He showed up at a YWAM house(outside Denver) just after midnight on Saturday and asked to spend the night there. They turned him down, and as they were looking for other options for him, he started shooting. He left, and showed up the next morning at the mega New Life Church and opened fire as a service was letting out. He was shot by a church member volunteering as a security guard. There were apparently 15 or 20 other security people at the church.

I know it is the gunman in the church that should shock me about this. And it does, of course, but I can at least see the progression of it. A man from a very strict religious background rebels against it, something in his mind snaps, and the cheap and easy availability of guns causes widespread tragedy. It’s depressing, but if it happens in schools, it is bound to happen in churches eventually too.

What really opened my eyes, though, is how very different mega churches are from regular churches. I can’t imagine a security guard roaming the halls of most churches, volunteer or not. It really underscores the reality that when you reach a certain threshold of property ownership, and you have enough strangers coming in the doors, security becomes an inevitable part of the operation. It also strikes me as being fundamentally incompatible with the message of Jesus, and inappropriate for a church to do. And yet, the security guard did likely save some lives by shooting the shooter. And yet again, killing him strikes me as the wrong answer, or at least the unchristian answer. So, I don’t know what to do with it – there’s no glib, easy lesson here, other than to recognize that faithfulness and effectiveness are sometimes simply not compatible.

I fear that this event is going to send shock waves to Christian churches throughout the country, and we’ll start seeing a lot more medium and large churches with security guards, which also seems like an unchristian response. When Jesus’ friends pulled out a weapon to protect him, he got angry and told them to put it away. This may be a harsh lesson, but it can’t simply be ignored or explained away, especially for those who claim to want to follow him and want others to follow them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

But I Thought They Hated Us For Our Freedom

From a recent New Yorker Talk of Town article by Hendrik Hertzberg:

According to Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes's "America Against the world" (2006), based on the Pew Global Attitudes Project, there was a time, not so long ago, when foreigners "found it easy to say their problem with America was really President Bush, not a considered judgment of the American people. But the results of the 2004 U.S. presidential election made that rationalization untenable."

An avalanche of new international polls—from Pew, the German Marshall Fund, the BBC, and others—show that anti-Americanism has reached astronomical levels almost everywhere and has solidified even in the Northern European belt from Britain to Poland. "Countries that would once have supported American foreign policy on principle, simply out of solidarity or friendship, will now have to be cajoled, or paid, to join us," Anne Applebaum, a conservative commentator not given to sentimentality about "world opinion," wrote recently in the Washington Post. "Count that—along with the lives of soldiers and civilians, the dollars and equipment—as another cost of the war."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Fourth Circle of Hell

Even though I don’t really believe in hell, I’m fairly certain that if it exists, one level must consist of The Damned looking for the broken bulb in a tangled mass of nonfunctioning Christmas lights, going through them one by painstaking one, even after buying the kind that are supposed to still work when one of the bulbs is broken.

The broken light strings never do actually work, of course, no matter how many times they are tested. But the hope would always be there. It is the hope that really crushes the spirit.

For good measure, Alvin and the Chipmunks Christmas songs are playing in a loop in the background, and the light bulb testing is done while standing in line at the mall with tired and hungry children, begging for candy. The candy is, of course, placed in its usual evil location: eye-level with people the size of children, right in front of the checkout counter.

Why, you ask? Why would such a cruel fate befall such lost souls?

Because it would be just like Satan to use Christmas trappings as eternal torment.

And, after a short search, I've found the level: It is the Fourth Circle of Hell, envisioned by Dante as reserved for The Gluttonous ,who must push great weights against each other until they crash together, and then start over again. I can't think of a more perfect place for all the bad parts of Christmas.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Free Rice

I knew had hit the mainstream when my daughter Chloe came home from school all excited about it. She’s in middle school, and the paradox of middle school is that nobody does anything unless everybody does it, and everybody is apparently doing Free Rice. I thought it was time to try it out.

It’s pretty simple. You play a vocabulary game, and a hungry person somewhere in the world gets 20 grains of rice for each definition you get right. You can play as long as you like.

I was immediately uncomfortable with this, and not just because my vocabulary is not very much good. I had visions of someone telling a poor child somewhere, “Sorry kid, Dan Schreiber of Champaign, IL, USA didn’t know that “trebuchet” means “catapult,” so I guess you’ll have to go hungry. Hopefully, he’ll get smarter soon, or not too bored, and then you’ll be able to stave off starvation.”

I also wondered how the economics worked here – in what way does my learning English translate into food for poor people? But, I guess this has long been a problem for anyone who does not directly engage in agriculture. How does smelting iron from ore generate food for the smelter? How does grading a test generate food for a teacher?

In this case, it turns out that is a non-profit that sells advertising. It attracts people to the site by providing a vocabulary game. Pretty ingenious. They have indeed figured out a way to generate money for poor people by getting others to learn English. It does make me wonder, though: who gets the rice when someone gets the wrong definition of a word? Are the officers of this non-profit collecting truckfuls of rice each day, skimming off the “wrong-answer” rice? I think an investigation might be in order.

What I love about this site is that it provides a real connection between my actions and other people’s food provisions. That’s one of the problems in the modern world - there aren’t enough visible connections between our choices as consumers and their effects on others in the world. That cheap sugar and coffee looks attractive at the store, but behind it are slave-like working conditions that we don’t see. We like to drive our SUVs down the block to pick up kids from school, but the gas for them will sometimes require invading other countries to ensure control of the oil supply.

What we need is the evil twin of this site. Hook up a poor person to a website, and if they get vocabulary words right, the price of our goods goes up to provide them living wages. The only problem is, I can’t think of a way to make money from such a site.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Lazy Friday Video

Lawrence Welk Meets Velvet Underground

I can't explain why this is so funny to me.

I also can't decide if Lawrence Welk is being defiled by Velvet Underground or if Velvet Underground is being defiled by Lawrence Welk.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Quotes on Idolatry

"The worst form of idolatry is not carving an image; it is the presumption that one has – or that a society has, or a culture has – the right to set terms under which God can be recognized."

- John Howard Yoder, Walk and Word

"Ecclesiastical claims to possess infallibility in any formulated version of Scripture and creed or in the articulation of any council, synod, or hierarchical figure are to me manifestation of idolatry. Such claims do not serve the truth. They serve only the power and control needs of the ecclesiastical institution. The church must embrace the subjective and relative character of everything it says and does. If the church provides security, it cannot provide truth. This is the choice that faces Christians today. I vote for insecurity and the pursuit of the truth. The alternative, I believe, is the security and the creation of a doomed idolatry."

– John Shelby Spong, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Armageddon Might Be Delayed A Bit

There’s great news from the National Intelligence Estimate released on Monday about Iran . It said Iran had abandoned their nuclear program 4 years ago, and thus, effectively ends any chance Bush has of invading Iran before he leaves office.

The doomsday clock has been turned back just a bit, and Armageddon will have to wait until we elect a different bunch of crazy saber-rattlers. Actually, that might be a bit optimistic. All we can really say is that Iran's non-existent nuclear program will not be the immediate cause of Armageddon.

However, the best news here is that our intelligence community is apparently no longer beholden to neocon fantasies. To have a government report come out that undercuts what the administration has been saying for years about Iran is rather astonishing, and quite a change from the runup to the Iraq war. It gives me hope that the damage done by the Bush administration might only take a decade or so to fix, rather than a few generations.

I did enjoy Bush’s response to the report though, if only because it is exactly what I thought it would be. It is oddly comforting to have the false impression that I can predict some small part of the future:

Despite the intelligence community's new assessment of whether Iran was working to develop nuclear weapons, the president said, "the NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world."
I immediately thought of Stephen Colbert’s brilliant tribute to Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner:

The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Relativity of Intolerance

I just sent this off to the News Gazette:


I was amused to see Mark Lehman’s letter complaining that Muslims are intolerant placed right next to his fellow conservative Jim Pillar’s letter commending the intolerance of Pakistani cops for lawful protest. If only Pillar’s letter had also complained about the stereotyping of Christians, the unintended irony could have reached full-circle.

I guess the combined lesson of Lehman and Pillar is that it is bad for people you don’t like to be intolerant, but good for people you do like to be intolerant.

Mostly, I think it is more evidence that what bothers us most about others are the characteristics we share with them.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Merchandise Liberation

Sidetrack with Jason Croft” had an interesting little story about “Merchandise Liberation” Saturday on AM 580 (our local NPR station). A guy named August Bleed (a name he probably stole from somewhere), talked us through the “subtle art of shoplifting,” just in time for the holiday season.

Of course, he prefers the term “merchandise liberation.” He said: “I see it as a form of socialism – I think it evens out some of the things that are unequal in society.”

Great, just what we egalitarians need – someone who thinks he is on our side but instead reinforces the idea that socialism is petty theft. Thanks a lot “August” – uh, hey, could you maybe do us a little favor, and not talk into microphones for awhile or in front of TV cameras, perhaps ever? Thanks.

I wonder why he thinks merchandise needs to be liberated, anyway. Is a 19” TV really all that oppressed sitting in a Target? What needs liberation are people who are not paid living wages when making TVs or when working in stores, not the merchandise itself. I’ll admit that stealing from big, evil corporations like Walmart is different from stealing from old ladies at church, but it is still stealing, and it is definitely not socialism. Socialism tries to ensure there are not terrible inequities in society. Socialism is not individuals stealing stuff because they want it.

Rationalization is a powerful thing. It allows capitalists to feel like they deserve the wealth they often squeeze out of the lives of others, and it allows have-nots to justify simple theft. There may be times when theft can be justified, but stealing TVs from Target is not one of them.

Finally, in answer to the question of: Did Dan just write a blog post taking the controversial position that stealing is wrong?

Answer: Yes, I did.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Carl Levin makes me nervous. He is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and is against the war (one of the few who voted against it back in 2002). He also believes he must continue to fund the war, so that he can “support the troops.” My main concern about Levin is that if I hear him say one more time that he must continue to fund a war he is against so he won’t undermine the troops, I’m pretty sure that my hair will spontaneously catch fire and my head will explode.

On the upside, without a functioning brain, I might be able to accept his logic, which would then open the door to believing all sorts of fantastical things. I could finally live in that happy place where occupation is freedom, torture is strength, and my only responsibilities are to watch TV, spend money, and make sure my Escalade is always idling.

Since I still have a more or less functional brain, I wonder what other missions Sen. Levin would continue to fund in order to show his support for the troops:

  • Mission: Burn $100 bills and throw the ashes into the Grand Canyon until it is filled to the brim. Not sending soldiers $100 bills would surely undermine them and cause them to fail.

  • Mission: Invade the marshlands of Florida with tanks and cluster bombs until they are subdued. We would certainly undercut the soldiers’ ability to vanquish marshlands if we stopped giving them tanks and cluster bombs.

  • Mission: Attack the sun because it causes cancer and is a source of radiation that terrorists can use against us. It would be disrespectful to the soldiers we have already sent into the sun to not keep sending more until they succeed. If you disagree, you want the sun to win and America to lose.

Sure, we can argue whether these missions are analogous to the Iraq War, but that’s not really the point. All I’m saying is that supporting the troops demands that we not fund ill-conceived missions. And that Carl Levin is crazy if he thinks he is maintaining some kind of anti-war position.

Democrats had better get their act together. They aren't as loyal as Republicans are. It isn't going to take them six years to figure out that their leaders are unfit for power.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

God Is Better Than I Am

One reason I’m vaguely universalist is that I believe God loves people more than I do. Also, since I try to take seriously Jesus’ teachings on love and compassion, there are very few people I believe deserve to spend eternity in the fiery pit of hell. Hence, if God’s grace is more abundant than my own (and it most certainly had better be) it stands to reason that an awful lot of people are going to make the cut and get into heaven.

Sure, people are often selfish, wrong-headed, lazy, incompetent, and egotistical. But does that mean they deserve to be condemned for all eternity? I don’t personally know a single person who is unquestionably evil - someone I’d be happy to see in infinite, unbearable pain. There may be murderers, child molesters and conservative radio hosts who deserve eternal damnation, but I don’t happen to know them personally.

I also cannot imagine a loving God throwing entire religionfuls of people into a sulfurous lake of fire, simply because they don’t acknowledge Jesus as divine. If God is to cleave the saved from the doomed, I would think he would care a lot more about behavior than belief.

I know it is not for me to judge, but that’s the point isn’t it? I have to believe God would do a better job than I would. If God is truly our creator, I would guess he loves humans even more than I love my own children. There is very little my own children could do to deserve eternal damnation from me, although if they don’t stop bickering at each other soon, I just might threaten it, again.

So, I’m guessing almost everyone gets into heaven. And even the bad ones, like evil dictators and sugar plantation owners, should probably just lose their consciousness forever. Otherwise, it seems like revenge, which is the kind of thing I or my fellow humans might be tempted to engage in, not an all-loving and grace-filled God.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Seriousness of Human Rights

Bill Richardson was blasted after the Democratic debate the other night, not just by the corporate media, but even by Tim Grieve over at What was his egregious sin? Richardson said that human rights are, at times, more important than national security. This is apparently something that no "serious" person would say. I was glad to see Jane Smiley over at The Huffington Post defend him.

I can understand not wanting to choose which is more important. After all, look at Iraq. They had security but not human rights prior to our occupation, and now they don't have security or human rights, and neither situation is acceptable. You might argue that it requires security to have human rights, so security is more important, but I could argue just the opposite. Without human rights, you'll never have real security, because there will always be resistance to oppression.

What bugs me is the implication that no "serious" person would put human rights before security. To me, security is worthless if it isn't defending human rights. That's why torture and rendition are such cancerous developments. If we ignore the very values we claim to be defending in our desire for security, then our security is not worth much.

In the end, it is a false dichotomy, because you really need both to have either. Nonetheless, if I were forced to choose (say, at gunpoint, because Jack Bauer thinks I'm a terrorist and a nuclear bomb is about to go off), I would hope I would be a faithful Christian and choose human rights over security. Clearly, those were Jesus' priorities during his time on earth.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Let the Writers Eat All the Cake

The writer’s strike seems to be trudging on, with no end in sight. The main point of contention is that writers are not getting a cut of the internet revenue generated from their work. The media companies claim there is no revenue to give.

If that’s the case, you have to wonder why media companies don’t just trick the writers and give them 100% of internet revenue. After all, 100% of zero is still zero. Writers are well-known for their lack of math skills, so it might seem like a good deal to them.

I can survive without most TV, but am really missing the Daily Show. Instead of the real thing, I’ll have to settle for segments like this:

With their usual devastating truth telling, they point out that Viacom is suing YouTube for a billion dollars of lost revenue. A different Viacom exec has publicly estimated that internet revenues for Viacom will reach $500 million dollars. “Of course, to a pessimist, that’s like half of NOT a billion dollars.”

My favorite strike-related quote is from Steve Bodow on the picket line: “Warren Leight—a playwright who’s now show-runner on Law & Order: Criminal Intent—was there, and he offered a protest chant: “What do we want? For the girls in high school who rejected us for the jocks to finally see how wrong they were! When do we want it? Then!” It didn’t quite catch on, but only because it doesn’t rhyme.”

If the Daily Show writers continue to produce segments like this, and put them up on YouTube, I would be willing to send them a check for one dollar per segment, and also try to convince a million of my friends to do the same.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Poet Herds

I often enjoy the daily humor piece over at McSweeney's. Here's one by John Moe on the Ripple Effects of The Writer’s Strike. My two favorite worst case scenarios:

Grocery-store produce managers
Unable to skillfully phrase sales like "Grapes—$1.99/lb.," retailers panic and choose instead to throw fruits and vegetables at customers while screaming, "MONEY NOW!" Frightened by the prospect of facing a grocery store full of wild-eyed produce managers clutching rotten bananas while cloaked in ersatz-broccoli cloaks (fashioned after long bouts of existential madness), customers stay away. Consumer economy collapses.

With their natural predators, the screenwriters, out of the literary ecosystem, poet herds thrive and proliferate, soon overrunning their native habitats and exhausting their food supply. Before long, having any unlocked windows in one's house becomes an invitation to poets to bust in, which they unfailingly do, spouting some goofy-ass nonsense while grabbing whatever is in the fridge. All are shot on sight, of course, creating an unwelcome sanitation problem.

I'll have to alert dw, the only poet I know, to be careful from now on when rooting around in my refrigerator. It would be a shame for something bad to happen, especially since it would be his his own beer that he would most likely be grabbing. Having just sent for the roto-rooters today, I've learned that I don't like sanitation problems in my house.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Bridge World’s Dixie Chick Moment

The US Bridge Federation is sanctioning its women’s championship team for displaying a small, handmade “We did not vote for Bush” sign during their awards ceremony at the world bridge championships in Shanghai. The sanctions include a one-year suspension (which means one year of lost wages, since they are professionals), 200 hours of community service, an apology and a statement ratting out whose idea it was and when they decided to do it.

From the NY Times:

Ms. Greenberg said she decided to put up the sign in response to questions from players from other countries about American interrogation techniques, the war in Iraq and other foreign policy issues.

“There was a lot of anti-Bush feeling, questioning of our Iraq policy and about torture,” Ms. Greenberg said. “I can’t tell you it was an overwhelming amount, but there were several specific comments, and there wasn’t the same warmth you usually feel at these events.”

Ms. Rosenberg said the team members intended the sign as a personal statement that demonstrated American values and noted that it was held up at the same time some team members were singing along to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and waving small American flags.

“Freedom to express dissent against our leaders has traditionally been a core American value,” she wrote by e-mail. “Unfortunately, the Bush brand of patriotism, where criticizing Bush means you are a traitor, seems to have penetrated a significant minority of U.S. bridge players.”

It should not be a surprise that one of the natural outcomes of our broad policy of scorning international cooperation, as well as specific policies like interrogation (known as “torture” in civilized countries), is that it causes people to question the integrity of individual Americans. As it should. It is being done in our name, so we should be answerable to it. That’s the price of allowing it to happen in a democracy.

These women were trying to tell their international community that they don't support the instigator of these policies. In fact, holding up an anti-Bush sign at this point is about the most patriotic thing a citizen can do, since it indicates some level of interest in the rule of law and human rights as core American values.

Nonetheless, I do understand annoyance at the politicization of a non-political event. I would be annoyed if I were playing bridge at a tournament and someone was wearing an “Club Gitmo” T-shirt. It is hard enough to bid and count cards without all the emotional baggage of playing against an enthusiastic supporter of torture.

But, if politics is to be banned, then it should be part of the bylaws of the organization, and should include everything from “I support the troops” to “Save baby whales,” as well as banning the use of flags and patriotic songs. You either allow politics in, or you don’t. You don’t discriminate based on the specific politics being expressed.

I especially enjoyed this tidbit though:

Robert S. Wolff, one of the country’s pre-eminent bridge players said ...“While I believe in the right to free speech, to me that doesn’t give anyone the right to criticize one’s leader at a foreign venue in a totally nonpolitical event,” he wrote by e-mail.

He believes in the theory of free speech, but apparently not the practice of it. Or, more accurately, he believes in freedom of thought, not freedom of speech. Maybe he should work on getting that pesky constitution changed. After all, it's only a few words.

If the ladies end up caving, I think they should do their 200 hours of community service for the ACLU or Amnesty International. Perhaps they can be put to work by doing training seminars for American bridge players who confuse the exercise of liberty with "conduct unbecoming a federation member."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Price of Sugar

I was in Boston this past weekend and jumped at the chance to see The Price of Sugar, since it will be showing in Champaign-Urbana probably never. It is a documentary about sugar cane workers in the Dominican Republic that I had heard about on NPR. It was certainly a sober counterweight to our recent Halloween excesses. I came away thinking that perhaps I should never use sugar again, or anything that contains sugar, or anything that might bring me joy, if even for a moment. When I mentioned this to my wife on the phone, her only comment was that she would try to make sure our sugar supply was gone by the time I got home.

The story is actually as much about immigration as slave-like working conditions. Dominicans apparently hate Haitians, since they are poorer and darker, and one of the few groups that Dominicans can look down on. Haitians are willing to work for a lot less, so sugar plantation owners illegally bus them across the border and into the plantations. The plantations provide squalid living conditions under the constant threat of violence and don’t even provide enough food for the workers to eat. If the Haitians manage to leave the plantation, the Dominicans arrest them for being illegals. When a local priest succeeds in raising the Haitians’ standard of living a little, the Dominicans hold protests that the Haitians are stealing their jobs. It all seemed so depressingly familiar, but with much worse conditions and more nastiness.

I know this is incredibly naive of me, but I just don’t understand why it has to be this way. It can’t take that much money to provide workers with basic housing and food. I doubt the sugar plantation would lose any competitive advantage in treating their workers humanely, rather than as medieval serfs. What possible rationalization justifies the added wealth brought about by the complete dehumanization of workers? That’s one area where the documentary disappoints, because it only shows the workers being abused, and not the bigger picture of why. If it is simply that plantation owners are evil, then I want to see them sniveling and rubbing their hands greedily into the camera.

So, my question of “why are people bad?” must remain open for now. And sadly, I’m not really going to stop using sugar. It is hard to resist something so ubiquitous that also tastes so good. The problem isn't the sugar itself, but that our entire economic system is designed to produce low prices, rather than fair and just working conditions for workers. The best thing I can do is buy fair trade sugar, chocolate and coffee, which only takes more work and money on my part. More work and less money for me doesn’t sound so bad compared to what sugar cane workers have to endure to provide a steady supply of cheap sugar to the world.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Keyword Search Mania 3!

These keyword search posts are so easy that they feel cheap. And, they are probably getting a little stale, like a Church Lady skit from in the mid-90s.

So, this might be the last one. But, I feel honor bound to do at least one more, since I'm sure everyone has been waiting with mouse-baited breath for the answer to "How Long Do Dead Mice Stink?"

The answer: About a week. Wisps of dead mouse did linger for a lot longer. I'll have a spreadsheet graph made available for those interested in the full logarithmic decay.

For the keyword searches, "Mennonite porn" continues to be a popular way to reach this blog. I am now number two for google search results for that phrase (yes, I checked), and number one when it is fully spelled out to "Mennonite pornography." Hurray for me! I'll have to write mom about that - she'll be so proud that I'm number one among people who are more or less literate.

My favorite this time around is "congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested exiled or hanged". Three separate people entered that phrase somewhere, or one person who really liked what I had to say about it. I'm not sure I would say it exactly that way though. I'd probably word it more like "Congressmen who have courage to do the right thing and cut off funding for an illegal and immoral war should be given flowers and kisses." I can see why someone would come here for guidance on what to do in that situation though.

Also, three people were very concerned about why Mennonites are so arrogant. It may have something to do with why we look so perfect (one person) and our secret "mennonite juice" (one person). I think it is because we are going to heaven, unlike everyone else we know.

OK, here they are, The Most Interesting Keyword Searches that have led people here since the last time I did this:

Mennonite Porn (11)
mennonite pornography
mennonite sex
why do the mennonites look so perfect
jesus violent Mennonite
minor chords in mennonite
just a little talk with jesus nwc
black specks in bowel movements (3)
poor vs wealthy pictures
dead bat in side walls stinks
mennonite stereotypes
mennonite of the Midwest
Mennonite movie
dead mouse in the wall stinks- what to do
famous amish figures
john howard yoder jokes
ritual around mascot in sport event
why do people want hillary clinton as president
need an essay on how peanuts makes us healthy
mennonite stereotypes (2)
possessed computers
committee jokes
head injury cartoons
a day in the life of a mennonite teenager
journey of salvation colors
tightly squeeze image
why are mennonites so arrogant (3)
ways to find a person who drunk beer
dead puppy pictures
irony in the fugitive
minors right to money
reasons for not being able to grow facial hair
phrase on the prowl
ten thousand villages exploit
wash away your sins with nun in a soap
what do mennonites look like
mennonite heresy
mennonite sex scandal
who was the 7 headed hydra’s parents
mennonite juice
democrat dark dungeon
amish medication
dirty mennonite
congressmen who willfully take actions during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs and should be arrested exiled or hanged (3)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Congress Finally Accomplishes Something Useful

Since I moan and complain so much on this blog about misguided or absent social policy, it is only fair to point out when Congress actually accomplishes something worthwhile. Sure, they consistently abdicate their constitutional responsibilities and stubbornly continue to fund a God-forsaken occupation, but I can now happily report they have finally made a positive contribution to American life: establishment of a reasonable weekend on which to end daylight savings time. Yea for Congress!

For any family that participates in Halloween, this is huge. Daylight savings time has traditionally ended the last weekend in October, just before Halloween. This means that not only are children an hour more tired than usual on Halloween night, but it is also an hour colder and darker during trick-or-treating. So, in order for the kids to stay warm enough (due to the extra dark and cold) to avoid frostbite, they must cover up their beloved costumes with big wool coats or parkas, which invariably ends with them crying and stamping their feet (due to the extra fatigue). Sometimes a parent (say, me, for instance) will give in and let them go outside without a coat, which ends with them crying and stamping their feet (because they are cold and tired, see above).

This year, by order of Congress, daylight savings time has been moved to the first weekend in November, which is now after Halloween. Plus, they had the foresight to do nothing about global warming, which means it is much warmer on Halloween than it used to be, so the costume/parka issue did not even come up this year (in Champaign, anyway). Parents have less cold, dark and exhaustion to deal with, and can now spend all of their time and attention on bringing their children down from their sugar highs before bed, which is what Halloween should be about.

Speaking of which, the last two years on Halloween we’ve hosted some families and individuals from outside the US (Ireland, Kenya, China, and Tanzania). To a person, they all thought Halloween was at least very weird, and at most, that something is very wrong with Americans. I’ve had a hard time explaining the custom: Well, see, we let kids dress up as dead people or princesses, and then they go to the houses of strangers and beg for candy, and if a house doesn’t have any, they are in danger of being “tricked”, by which we mean various unlawful misdemeanors, and then we have some apple cider, after which all the children melt down, each in their own way. Also, the children will be generally misbehaved for the next month while the Halloween candy works its way through their systems.

When explained this way, I have a hard time justifying it myself, except to use the misdirection trick of “it’s just tradition.” Some cultures throw virgins into volcanoes, and we do Halloween. So, it’s not so bad, really.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Peer Pressure for the Good of America

Due to some scheduling serendipity while visiting family, I was in Chicago last Saturday for the big peace march (which happened in 11 cities throughout the US). I was wavering on whether to go until Patrick Gabridge publicly implied I would be a coward if I didn’t. Technically, he was talking about himself, but Pat has always been an inspiration for me on social action, so I can’t let him call himself a coward without including myself too. I also can’t let him one-up me on social justice causes.

Competition and peer-pressure may not the best motivation for attending rallies, but it worked pretty well for me this weekend. I was going to go by myself until my peacenik niece Britta decided she really wanted to go too. But she wouldn’t go unless Jasmine went, and if Jasmine and Britta went, then Anthony wanted to go, and if Anthony was going, Jeff wasn’t going to stay at home, which meant that Uncle Marcus needed to go as well, to provide more adult supervision. This was the peer-pressure situation at breakfast.

By earlier afternoon, after two soccer games, Jeff had melted down too much to go anywhere, and peacenik Jasmine still wanted to go, but only if Britta went, although now Britta only wanted to go if Anthony went. Anthony decided it would be fun. So, four extra people were delivered to the Chicago rally via peer pressure (five if you include me via Pat). This is critically important, since we need the extra people in order to be accurately undercounted.

Like Pat, I was disappointed with the media coverage. I didn’t get the Sunday Tribune before we left, but the on-line story was quick balance out the 5,000 people at the march with the 20 counter-protesters making the usual silly claims about not supporting the troops. The Champaign News Gazette, unsurprisingly, did not mention anything about it.

You’d think that an estimated 100,000 people gathering in 11 different synchronized rallies would be newsworthy, especially for the liberal, America-hating media, which we all know would do anything to poke America in the face with a stick.

Marches like this may not accomplish much, but I think they are still important to attend. We need to stand up and be counted, even if we are ignored by those in the power. The powers win when we completely give up.

In any case, the march may have been worthwhile just for the cute kid pictures it generated.

Here's me and Jasmine and Anthony. Someone gave Anthony fake money to symbolize corporate greed as the root cause of global conflict. He is holding it up because he thinks it is cool.

Here's Marcus with Jasmine, Anthony and Britta. The march isn't as much fun at this point as they thought it was going to be.

Here's what the march looks like while we are marching. We have no idea of scale, of how many people are there. But the Sears Tower is cool to look at.

Here are our little peaceniks on the way home, happy to have done their part, and happy to be on their way home, where they will take a break from resisting global domination by eating pizza and watching Shrek 2.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Charity and Justice

My friend Bob, in an attempt to expose what he believes to be liberal hypocrisy, inadvertently highlighted something that many conservatives don’t get: the difference between charity and justice.

Bob wants me to pay for his health insurance because I advocate for universal health care. He thinks that because I believe in justice (enacting social policy that is fair and humane) that I should be willing to take on any case of charity (a one-way act of benevolence).

This often comes up in arguments about social policy (not with Bob, necessarily, but in general): "If you want to help poor people so much, why don’t you give all your money to them?" This is only slightly more mature than the schoolyard taunt: “If you like poor people so much, why don’t you marry them?” Or, the conservative version: "If you hate government so much, then don’t drive on public roads and don’t call the fire department when your house is on fire."

Taunting aside, the answer is simple: One person giving away all their money doesn’t really help poor people all that much. It will temporarily help a few poor people, which is good. But without structural changes in how resources are distributed, its main effect will be to make the person who gave away their money less able to influence society in ways that would help everyone.

More importantly, it is charity, not justice. Charity is a good thing a lot of the time, but it is not an unmitigated good. Too often, it is demeaning to the receiver and provides the giver unwarranted feelings of superiority. Charity depends on the whims of those who have the money, and on one’s access to them, which is not a very effective way to provide justice in the world. Charity merely allows those with power to grant favors to those without power, without really challenging the basic inequity of power.

Charity is not a substitute for justice. In fact, it often gets in the way of justice, because it allows those in power to wipe their hands from larger problems, pointing out that, after all, they gave money to a friend of theirs. Justice is taking the decision out of the hands of the powerful, and guaranteeing that everyone be provided basic protections, rights, and material well-being. Justice needs a social policy that will require all people to abide by their social responsibilities. It does not depend on random and sporadic charity.

This is a good thing, because you don’t want justice to depend on charity being doled out by someone like me. I’m too biased. For example, if I decided to offer my benevolence to someone, like, say Bob for his healthcare, it would be according to my own criteria. The problem for Bob here is that I have a bias against giving my money to those who would advocate for conservative causes that give more money and power to those who already have it, as well as those who don't have much respect for multiculturalism. My biases matter when it is “my” money.

Back to health care: I believe that a supposedly great and civilized nation should provide basic, universal health care for all its citizens. But such a policy should not be subject to my own personal bias, because tax dollars come from everyone. So, public policy should dictate that you can’t discriminate against anyone based on political beliefs, religion, skin color, sexual orientation, personality defects, or even against those who don’t agree that they should be getting health care from tax dollars.

So, sorry Bob, I’m not going to personally pay for your healthcare. I suggest that you engage in some social justice action with your employer or with your congressperson. Doing so might even look good on your next application for The Minor Mennonite Benevolence Fund for Do-Gooders. :)

Epilogue: So, I thought I was being pretty clever just now by typing “Charity is not a substitute for justice.” That’s quite good, I thought. Suspiciously good. After a 5 second google search, yup, there it is, none other than St. Augustine himself, 1500 years earlier, and also better: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

Why can’t I think of anything new? It is almost as if there is nothing new under the sun, and while the truth will set me free, I have to be careful to not be an old dog learning new tricks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Crazy Talk

I got a call yesterday that was a pre-recorded message from the United States Chamber of Commerce. It was about the S-CHIPs program, which helps poor families afford health care for their kids. Bush just vetoed an expansion of it to working families who are not impoverished, but still cannot afford health insurance.

The USCOC claimed SCHIPs would give free health care to people making 80K/year (a lie) and then said something about it being government run health care (another lie). Then they ended with the request that I contact my congressman to support health care for poor people by not supporting S-CHIPS. I didn't know much about the US Chamber of Commerce before now, but I guess it is good to know that they are apparently evil.

Later I was in the car, and heard a clip from Bush about his SCHIP program veto, saying something like “we need to protect poor children.”

But even that isn’t the worst of it. The right wing slime machine (Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, others) then started a smear campaign, featuring more lies, against 12 year old Graeme Frost’s family, who delivered a radio address describing how S-Chip helped him after his brain injury from a car crash.

This is simply perverse. Why is the right so unhinged about this? Not content to merely veto and lie about the program, Bush and his minions must also claim that it helps poor people to do so, while going after a brain-injured 12 year old’s family. That’s insane.

I can't help but wonder if they are just terrified by the prospect that a government program might actually help someone, and that the person helped might not be completely destitute. I know that’s a crazy explanation, but crazy seems to be order of the day, and who am I to resist?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Beyond Metaphor

Has Secretary of State Condi Rice come down with a case power-envy?

The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has amassed so much central authority that the power-grab may undermine Moscow's commitment to democracy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

"In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development," she told reporters after meeting with human-rights activists."I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin ... Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media and there are, I think, questions about the strength of the Duma," she said, referring to the Russian parliament.

Luckily, the Bush administration has never tried to concentrate power in the presidency, so the moral weight of their criticism must really sting those backward Russians. After all, the Bush Administration would never do things like pack the judiciary with partisans, or intimidate the press, or use signing statements to undermine legislation, or invoke executive privilege to hide their tracks, or crassly break the law without fear of reprisal from a toothless congress. Their “commitment to democracy” is absolute, especially the kind where the Supreme Court forbids recounts.

Seriously, are these guys not aware of the delicious ironies they serve up on a regular basis? I remember when Bush was threatening Syria because they were “interfering in the internal workings of another country.” I can’t even come up with a metaphor that gives that justice, because the best description of it is that it is like Bush accusing someone of interfering in the internal affairs of another country. Or Rice accusing another country of increasing the power of the presidency.

At least they’ve finally accomplished something interesting – they’ve now gone beyond irony AND metaphor into a kind of Escher-like, self-referential, folding-in-upon-itself unreality.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Gore Wins Nobel!

Wow - Al Gore just won the Nobel Peace Prize (along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change):

The Norwegian Nobel Committee characterized Gore as "the single individual who has done most" to convince world governments and leaders that climate change is real, is caused by human activity and poses a grave threat.
Good for him. Instead of slinking away after the 2000 election debacle, he decided to devote his fame and power to advocate for stewardship of the planet. I think the Nobel committee is exactly right that he has been the catalyst for a lot of the political movement we are now (finally) seeing on global warming, largely because it is harder to ignore an Al Gore than a body of scientists (depressing as that is).

Of course, now we have to endure even more frothing at the mouth from the conservative blogosphere. But that's a small price to pay for more acknowledgement of the problem. Our civilization and our species need to confront global warming, or we run the risk of losing both.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tortured Logic

The Daily Show's report on Words That Have Bravely Sacrificed Themselves in the War on Terror, and who have lost the only thing they have to give: their very definitions.


What would we do without the Daily Show...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Halo as Church Recruiting Tool

I was directed to this NY Times story via a post over at the Young Anabaptist Radicals site: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church.

It describes how churches are now using Halo 3 (an ultra-violent video game) as a recruiting tool to attract teenagers into church (who are often too young to legally buy it). Some excerpts:

At Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., Austin Brown, 16, said, “We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson,” explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels “between God and the devil.”

Players of Halo 3 control the fate of Master Chief, a tough marine armed to the teeth who battles opponents with missiles, lasers, guns that fire spikes, energy blasters and other fantastical weapons. They can also play in teams, something the churches say allows communication and fellowship opportunities.

. . .

John Robison, the current associate pastor at the 300-member Albuquerque church, said parents approached him and were concerned about the Halo games’ M rating. “We explain we’re using it as a tool to be relatable and relevant,” he said, “and most people get over it pretty quick.”

David Drexler, youth director at the 200-member nondenominational Country Bible Church in Ashby, Minn., said using Halo to recruit was “the most effective thing we’ve done.”

In rural Minnesota, Mr. Drexler said, the church needs something powerful to compete against the lure of less healthy behaviors. “We have to find something that these kids are interested in doing that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol or premarital sex.” His congregation plans to double to eight its number of TVs, which would allow 32 players to compete at one time.

. . .

In one letter to parents, Mr. Barbour wrote that God calls ministers to be “fishers of men.”

“Teens are our ‘fish,” he wrote. “So we’ve become creative in baiting our hooks.”

Sure, it is a just a video game. It isn't really violence. In exactly the same way that pornography isn't really sex. And movies with drunken teenagers doing mean and dumb pranks to each other is just fiction. After all, if you want to be "culturally relevant" in order to attract more bait, er, I mean teenagers, wouldn't an even more effective method be to buy them beer and let them watch porn? But of course that would be outrageous, because we all know that sex is so much more outrageous than violence.

Toleration for violence among modern American Christians continues to amaze me - it is as if most people are simply unaware that Jesus was an avowed pacifist. If the goal is to attract more people to Jesus' way of radical love towards everyone, perhaps it should be done in a way that doesn't feed on people's worst impulses for even passive violence.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Misunderstood Commercial

I had to watch this a second time to get what it was really about. At first, I thought it was just very, very funny. I should have known, though, since Germans are so much more than just natural comedians.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Meme: Five Things That Are Lame About Me

Finally, a meme I can sink my teeth into: List 5 things that are lame about you that you are nonetheless proud of.

My good friend Patrick Gabridge tried to get me to say nice things about myself earlier (list 5 of your strengths as a writer). But I would have none of it. I would have just listed all my insecurities and faults, and tried to pass them off as strengths. Or maybe I would have come up with some actual strengths and then explained why they are self-defeating or otherwise not useful or bothersome. Either way, it wasn’t in the spirit Pat was going for, so I studiously ignored it.

But 5 lame things about me? I could do that in my sleep. And I often do. The only hard part is paring it down to just five. Nonetheless, I think I can manage. Here they are:

  1. I am unable to publicly acknowledge 5 good things about myself. This makes me feel more Mennonite. Mennonites are only allowed to be proud of their humility, and they do it exceptionally well.
  2. One of my favorite movies is Return To Me. What can I say - I am a sucker for Minnie Driver and Bonnie Hunt. A sappy movie about good people doing nice things for each other is certainly both lame and secretly fulfulling.
  3. I am Eric Foreman from That 70’s Show. This is mostly just lame. I really enjoy the show, since it reminds me so much of my own high school experience in Indiana (except without all the sex). But I always found the Eric Foreman character to be totally annoying, and never understood how Donna would be even remotely interested in him. Then I was horrified when all my high school friends remarked how similar I am to him. Dang. I hate being Eric Foreman. I want to look like Kelso and have Hyde’s brains and self-assurance. The only silver lining is that I did actually marry a Hot Donna in real life, and am still mystified as to how that happened.
  4. I read Harry Potter to my kids even though they aren’t always into it. It is tough having kids in elementary school that are already cooler than me. But I don’t care. I still love to read it to them.
  5. I make other people answer the phone. I don’t like answering the phone – it may be someone who wants something from me. So even if I’m right next to it, I wait for someone else to pick it up. I can’t find anything in this to be secretly proud about, but thought it seemed like a sufficiently lame personality quirk.

I guess with Memes you are supposed to tag other people and then have them blog about it. I’ll just say that if you are reading this and want to join the fun, please do, and let me know about it so I can make fun of you on your blog. And for those counting at home, yes, that would be a sixth thing I am being lame about.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

“How long do dead mice stink” and other searches

It is time once again for what I expect will become a regular feature of this blog: The Most Interesting Search Strings People Have Used Lately To Find This Blog.” As with the last time I did this, these are all real searches with real people on the other end, God help us all.

I was inspired this time around by two things. First, I was reminded of interesting search strings when I entered “How long do dead mice stink” into google myself today. It being autumn and our home being the older, holey kind, I will let you guess why I would enter such a string.

A bit of advice: Try using traps before going directly to the poison. But I can’t complain too much, since the poison did what it claimed it would do: kill the mice. The problem is that the inside wall of our bathroom now really, really, really, really stinks, and not because the flu is going around or we live in unsanitary conditions (until now). So, now we just want to know when the mice’s revenge will subside. After a scientific search of the best internet blogs available, it looks like anywhere from one week to seven years. I’ll keep you informed in the next installment of Interesting Search Strings.

The second reason for this entry is to report the surprising number of people who apparently come to this site looking for porn. I’ve had just over one person a week reach me via “Mennonite porn,” and one person, who apparently wasn’t satisfied with those results, via “Mennonite porn help.” While many regular readers might equate the quality of my work with simple pornography, know that this isn’t a literal comparison.

However, the best thing about listing all of these here is that it will make it more likely that wierd and disturbing search strings will reach this blog in the future. So, I can only cross my fingers and hope that the next time someone wants to know about “black specks in bowel movements” or “spitwad blowers” that they come here, especially now that they are mentioned twice in this post alone.

So, here they are, with helpful numbers listed after the ones that were the result of multiple searches:

mennonite porn (9)
Mennonite porn help
mennonite beer
mennonites law enforcement
do mennonites drink beer
mennonite national anthem
joke shunning
mennonites want money
mennonites heresy
socialist party united states america Mennonites
most impeachable president
black specks in bowel movements
dodge church buses
dodge ram caught fire (2)
smurfit stone building lots and bats
projecting words on the wall for singing
could open veins happen in America
spitwad blowers
kids survive apocalypse
interesting ways to blow stuff up
violence, revenge and the amish
mennonite jewelry
attraction to teenagers (3)
inappropriate attraction to teenager
mennonite teenage boys
mennonite scandals
non violent extremist
minor candy companies
growing corn in the tropics
fiction children survive apocalyptic
what do native americans say about adultery
mennonites Hitler
americas immoral deeds
amish milkman murder
silly departments
social interactions of Mennonites
new communism in venezuela threat to America
mennonites torture us civil war
mennonites casket

Monday, September 24, 2007

Something Old and Something New

Here’s Old: Blackwater guards running around Iraq, shooting up people for no good reason, of which there have been reports for years. No End In Sight had a disturbing video of it:

I was glad to see the Iraqis have finally had enough. I hope the Iraqi government actually has enough power to do something about it.

Here’s New (to me at least): American snipers engaged in “baiting” by leaving explosive wiring and detonators in the road, then killing Iraqis who come by and pick them up (assuming that if they pick them up, they must be terrorists). The soldiers are currently on trial, and say they were ordered to do this.

We’ll see what comes out at the trial about orders, which wouldn’t surprise me. But at some point, don’t people need to take responsibility for their own actions? If given an order to murder people whose only crime is curiosity, shouldn’t you just say no, sorry, I’m not going to do that, and instead, report it up the chain of command?

Friday, September 21, 2007


Without much background information, it was hard to get excited about a show called “N*gger, W*tback, Ch*nk,” (or simply “NWC” to the nice ticket lady at Krannert). It just sounds too much like smart-alecks trying to get attention for their play.

Then came a moderate-sized stink about it here locally, as a number of people found the title offensive and propagating stereotypes rather than challenging them. It is obvious that our Chief Illiniwek wounds are still pretty raw.

Nonetheless, I intentionally tried to stay away from the controversy so I could see the show without much baggage. This is course a fool’s errand – an American trying to experience a play about race without baggage.

The show was written and performed by 3 young men who met at UCLA, one black American, one Ecuadorian, and one Filipino-American (Miles Gregly, Rafael Augustin and Allan Axibal). It was essentially 3 intertwining one-person plays, each telling their own stories, with the others comparing notes on race and stereotypes as they go.

It is tricky to talk about stereotypes, and an effective way to do it is to simply talk about personal experiences. My friend Pat Gabridge wrote a great playabout race from the perspective of a white guy (Pieces of Whitey) which I think works because it draws from his personal experience as a white father of black children. In NWC, the stereotypes are much more visceral, because they apply to the performers themselves as minorities. The stories they tell are not hollywoodish moments of racial hatred against them, but examples of how labels define and confine them. They may be simple things, but they are nonetheless powerful enough to be seminal moments in their search for identity – the Filipino wanting to be Tom Cruise in grade school, the black schoolboy reading Huck Finn in a class filled with white kids, and the Latino being told not speak Spanish by his dad for fear of being deported. Even positive stereotypes are revealed as limiting, and ultimately dehumanizing, which is a message Illini Nation especially needs to hear.

And yet, somehow they manage to make it all really, really funny. For example: Who is allowed to say the N-word? Anwser: Not sure, but we know Kramer isn’t. It plays up stereotypes in ridiculous ways, so that we laugh at the stereotypes, not at the class of people the stereotypes are directed at. Then it breaks them down at the end, revealing how stereotypes are not terribly true. In one particulary poignant scene, they each talk about the positive aspects of each other's cultural groups that seem invisible to the wider culture, and that sometimes (sadly) it would be liberating to simply have a different stereotype than the particular one you are saddled with.

NWC succeeds in challenging stereotypes, despite the controversy of its title. It also gets people to talking about race, which is good. By laying bare their experiences and lives, the performers are asking us to see them as human beings, rather than as caricatures. It succeeds on-stage, and I wish it would succeed more often in life.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Freedom in America

Wow - this is disturbing. A student asks questions (albeit, obnoxiously) at a John Kerry forum, and ends up getting tasered:

So, if you go over your time limit in a public forum, and the police come to drag you away (is it illegal to be a conspiracy nut now?), and you object, expect to be legally tasered. I'm guessing the officers will not get in trouble, since they were probably following "proper procedure."

Such is state of free speech in our country.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Obligatory Friday Post

It's Friday already and recent company and life have conspired to prevent a blog entry this week. So, instead of the usual blathering, here's an Opus from a few weeks ago that I particularly enjoyed:

Sunday, September 09, 2007

No End in Sight Review

Here's my review of No End in Sight, over at the Unofficial EbertFest blog.

It is a documentary about the decisions made in the runup to, and early stages of, the Iraq War. It will disabuse anyone of the notion that George Bush is some kind of modern day Abraham Lincoln. If you wonder why I would bother even mentioning this, you don't read the letters to the editor in the News Gazette very often. Which is probably a good thing.

Friday, September 07, 2007

It's Our Image That's the Problem

From news reports of yesterday’s Jones Report:

“A panel of retired senior military and police officers recommended Thursday that the United States reduce its presence in Iraq to counter the image that it is an "occupying force."

"The force footprint should be adjusted in our view to represent an expeditionary capability and to combat a permanent-force image of today's presence," said retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones, who led the 20-member commission. "

This reminded me of the South Park episode where the Catholic Church is very concerned by news reports of child molestation by priests. “Yes, this is a very serious problem. We've got to find out why these children are suddenly finding it necessary to report that they're being molested. Stop the problem at its source.”

This report is certainly a step in the right direction, but I can't shake the feeling that they believe our problem isn't our presence there, but the perception of our presence there.

Still, the best way to "counter the image" that we are an occupying force is to not actually be an occupying force. Even if we reduce our footprint, we can't have hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands of troops in Iraq without being an occupying force, even if those troops are mostly supplying logistical support to an Iraqi-veneered army. The only way to truly combat the image that we are an occupying force is to not be there.

I also noticed this tidbit: "We believe that all [U.S.] bases in Iraq should demonstrate evidence of Iraqi sovereignty," including flying the Iraqi flag, the report says.”

Again, wouldn’t a better way to “demonstrate evidence of Iraqi sovereignty” be to simply hand the bases over to Iraqis, rather than to slap Iraqi flags on them? Or do we define "Iraqi sovereignty" differently from how we define "American sovereignty?"

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Why Newton Would be Rejected by Modern Science

Ben Stein, Intelligent Design Champion, says “In today’s world, at least in America, an Einstein or a Newton or a Galileo would probably not be allowed to receive grants to study or to publish his research.”

I think he is right, although not for the reasons he thinks:

Dear Mr. Newton,

Your work on planetary motion and mechanics has an elegant simplicity about it, but we feel it is not advanced enough for this peer-reviewed journal. In fact, it appears to be nothing more than simple high-school level physics and calculus. It is almost as if you are unaware of 300 years of advancement in scientific theory. If this is a joke, we are not amused.


The Journal of Orbital Mechanics

Friday, August 31, 2007

I Like Mary Pipher

I’m enjoying a great book about writing: “Writing to Change the World” by Mary Pipher. She also wrote “Reviving Ophelia”, a book my wife read a few years ago about the maze of conflicting messages that poison adolescent girls against themselves in our modern society. I need to read that soon, now that my oldest daughter has just entered the jungle of junior high.

“Writing to Change the World” reminds me of things I should already know, but only spottily do. Like treat those who disagree with you with respect. Write what you alone can say. Write bad first drafts. Move the world just a little bit.

Here’s her take on success:

“Success means we have done our best. We have not squandered our gifts or ignored our responsibilities. We have given our time and talents to help others. We have used our freedom to free someone else. Success is not fame or awards; it is having our ideas discussed by other people.”

This sounded good, until I realized it is probably much harder to be responsible and use privilege for good than it is to get published somewhere. Defining success by quantity and fame would allow me to play guilt-free golf all day if I could just get someone to give me some kind of award.

I didn’t know much about Mary Pipher before picking up this book, but recently noticed a news item that she had returned an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation. The AMA shamefully continues to allow professional psychologists to take part in interrogation techniques that include torture, and she returned her award as a symbolic protest.

I must say I am duly impressed. She is an engaging writer, a social activist and someone to emulate. I hope she plays golf too.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Money for Love

I heard this NPR report yesterday on efforts to win hearts and minds in Iraq:

The idea is to pay Iraqis a huge amount of money to cleanup garbage in their village - $10/bag, which is an entire day’s wage for a government worker. It is a quintessentially American way to solve a problem - shower someone with money and expect love and devotion in return. Or, perhaps more charitably, we offer them the thing we most value to get the thing we most want.

And yet, even then, we go about it all wrong. American soldiers arrive in town “perched warily behind 50 caliber machine guns” while they negotiate with the locals. When a villager balks because he doesn’t feel he has the authority to make a deal (after he is mistranslated), the soldier in charge get impatient and says “I want to show him the money before we leave. I want to show him what a dumbass he is.”

They finally get arrangements made, but the soldiers are offended when the Iraqis then make their kids collect the trash, while the Iraqi men complain to the soldiers about their lack of health care, fuel and clean drinking water. When it is time to be paid, the soldiers tell them to line up. When they don’t, they tell them to move back unless they want to be shot.

What I found most ironic was the soldiers’ offense at making the kids pick up the trash. And yet, isn't this a perfect metaphor for the plight of the American soldier in Iraq? They are stuck grunting it out and picking up the trash for the neocons and oil interests that started this whole mess, and continue to profit from it.

Corey Flintoff’s commentary is quite apt:

“Soldiers do what soldiers do. They are trained to be forceful to get results. Villagers do what villagers do. They try to get maximum advantage from an unpredictable source of bounty and they try to do it within the structures they understand – the family, the tribe. In terms of numbers, hundreds of bags of trash, dozens of villagers paid, the patrol’s mission seems to have been accomplished. The village is slightly cleaner but it seems unlikely that civic pride will keep it that way. The residents have some very easy money and while that may promote cooperation, it’s unclear whether hearts or minds have been won on either side.”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sweet Land Review

I've decided to post some occasional movie reviews at the EbertFest blog site, for those rare instances that I actually see a newly-released movie (or newly enough released on DVD and it didn't play in Champaign-Urbana). I'll link them from here when I feel inspired enough to do a review. I've enjoyed doing reviews during EbertFest, but want to get better at it, so will be practicing occasionally to get into better movie-review shape, so to speak. Call it trying to get rid of my movie-review pondus, or adding to it, depending on which meaning of pondus one likes.

As a counter-example, I was recently dragged to Transformers mostly against my will by some 8 year old boys who shall remain nameless. They enjoyed it immensely, which is not a surprise, since it seemed targeted directly at 8 year old boys. The characters talked the way 8 year old boys talk when fighting each other's action figures. The character names were ones that 8 year old boys would come up with if they didn't have very much imagination or had ingested a lot of lead paint and asbestos as toddlers. I won't be doing a review of Transformers.

However, I did do a review of Sweet Land, which is newish on DVD, and I don't remember it playing here. The short review is: Good movie, go rent it. The full review is here.

The slightly longer mini-review is: Good movie about a post-WWI German mail order bride coming into a Lutheran Minnesota farming community and which deals with issues of immigration and community. Of interest to this blog is that the community in this movie could have easily been Mennonite as Lutheran, especially during that time period, when Mennonites were very isolated and suspicious of outsiders. For hard-core Mennonites, imagine a movie about a Mennonite General Conference (GC) bride entering a Mennonite Church (MC) community, or vice versa, circa 1925 and the suspicion and wariness that would naturally ensue. It may sound absurd, but no more so that Lutherans who are afraid of Germans. Anyway, it’s a nice, wholesome, sweet movie.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Second Hand Pants

Just the right touch of that goofy, good-natured Mennonite humor that I enjoy so much, and for a good cause to boot. I especially enjoyed the unflinching portrayal of the scandalous nature of pleated pants.

As good as it is, it's not quite the best video of all time, which still must be Leonard Nimoy's rendition of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins: