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.