Sunday, August 27, 2006

#294 - Big Bad eBay?

I should know better, really. I'm on vacation, doggone it, and I should just know better than to visit email or blogs while I'm trying so hard to relax. (Relaxation, it turns out, is hard work. Go figure.)

Still, this item on ran me through the gamut of emotional responses, until my relaxation hormones kicked in and I was able to take a deep breath.

Seems the auction "behemoth" eBay (that's WND's description, not mine) has a policy that precludes the selling of teacher's texts, classifying them in the same category as drug paraphenalia and other such nonsense. This is, of course, of major concern to homeschoolers because many of them buy and sell curricula in order to keep their little home-based academies viable. So, on the surface, this policy smacks of prejudice against homeschoolers since most of them have no credentials or "proof of teaching employment."

Big deal.

eBay is, let's face it, a corporation. It has the same pressures to abide by certain rules and regulations as any other corporation, and because it has such high visibility throughout the community, those pressures are even higher than others may experience. In fact, it is widely known that eBay's policies have been modified from time to time precisely because their customer base complain - loudly - every time something questionable appears in an auction. And of course the definition of "questionable" changes every time this comes up.

So I was angry when I first read this article. How dare eBay dictate what we free-stylers can or cannot buy? What gives them the right to impede our God-given and constitution-guaranteed rights to educate our children however we darn well please?

Then I took the deep breath.

Of course eBay would have such a policy. Copyright laws are specific and dictate how certain materials may be transferred from one owner to another. But I don't really think copyright is the issue here. The issue here is guaranteeing that teacher materials - which contain answer keys and discussion texts that student materials don't - stay out of the hands of those students that are required to use their minds and study without such helps. It's really just that simple.

I certainly understand the concerns of homeschoolers who use eBay so widely to find those obscure hard-to-find texts, many of which are now out of print and unavailable elsewhere. The truth is, it would just be too hard for eBay to implement the kind of controls that would indicate who is buying what (privacy issues!), and whether the material is, in fact, sellable.

So homeschoolers must resort to other methods.

Mrs. Woody, for instance, has found many materials by dealing directly with other homeschoolers. Many of them advertise on their own personal websites and they assume responsibility for the appropriateness of their sales. Also, as the WND article pointed out, there are other sites that are more dedicated to curriculum sales that need - and deserve - homeschooler business. eBay is not going to lose sleep over a few thousand homeschoolers going elsewhere to find their textbooks.

What's needed here is a paradigm shift, and it doesn't need to be painful one. The homeschool community is not, by design, homogenous. We are joined only by our mutual desire to teach our children in ways that public schools either can't or won't. Otherwise, we tend to work alone or in very small groups. No one homeschool or group is exactly like another. There are as many ways to teach our children as there are children to teach, and no one method or curriculum is the most correct. What we need, as homeschoolers, is a better way of networking to keep our options open and available when it comes to keeping ourselves supplied with materials.

Such things have begun to take root. What's needed is better coordination, without the burdens of commercialism that inflict many of the bigger homeschool-themed organizations. Even the Homeschool Legal Defense Association suffers from this commercialism. Once you begin to act in behalf of the greater good, it seems, your altruism tends to disappear and you begin looking and acting like a corporation. "We are actively working on a solution," they say. Big hairy deal. Give me some detail, guys.

Anyway, I have no specific answers at the moment, but give me time. Paradigms don't shift overnight. Those texts are out there, begging to be used, and needed desperately by homeschoolers around the world. Let's get them into play as soon as possible.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

#293 - When Is Equality Not a Good Thing?

Depends more or less on how one defines "equality," I suppose.

Kim Swygert (or whatever her name is these days) is guest-blogging over at Joanne Jacobs whilst Joanne pursues wedded bliss. She returns to a subject that has been discussed many times before. We get so concerned that childrens' self esteem will suffer should they ever find themselves disappointed about something, that we educate the drive to succeed right out of them. Or so it seems to me.

The idea that we can "protect" children by never singling out anyone for extraordinary achievement (or, conversely, by singling out everyone) is probably one of the more damaging principles to creep into public education over the past several years.

Hey, don't get me wrong; I went through my fair share of disappointment as a youngster. I was a skinny, geeky little kid, and the butt of more than a few jokes throughout my scholastic career. Valentine's Day was especially bitter for me, because I can probably count on one hand the number of Valentines I received in elementary school. Ever. Now, that could be a blow to the ol' ego, but (so far as I can tell) it didn't turn me into a bitter young man with dreams of becoming a disgruntled postal worker.

I was never the most popular kid in the class. My academic achievements were limited to showing up to class, except for those days when I could convince Mom that I was stricken with Dengue Fever. Nor was I a natural athlete. Any team on which I played generally lost. In fact, the only way I could be on a winning team was to play with kids that were at least two years younger than I was.

I'd say that I spent time in grade school dreaming of being the best at something. But I don't think I spent so much time dwelling on it that it became a crippling problem for me later in life. Truth be told, it just took me awhile to figure out where I did excel, and then to become comfortable that these achievements were indeed of worth. This isn't to say that I didn't spend some days crying on Mom's shoulder, but that's what Moms are for, and she always knew the right things to say.

It just so happened that public schools, especially thirty five years ago, weren't terribly well equipped to help with my peculiar abilities. Once or twice a week, some gracious lady would come to the school and take a few of us out of class. This started in the fourth grade for me, and I would take along my quarter-sized violin, sit in the cafeteria, and try to learn about playing violin while this same lady also taught kids with clarinets, flutes, trumpets, drums, or whatever. Mom and Dad knew that if I was to succeed as a violinist, I would need much more help than that. So they arranged private lessons with the concert-mistress of the Conejo Symphony, who also happened to be a friend of theirs.

My talent had begun to sneak out.

Of course, even with that knowledge I was still years away from being recognized for anything except underachieving. During the first Open House after I entered junior high school Dad (who had been a stud athlete in high school himself) walked up to my gym teacher and asked how his son, Woody, was doing in class. "Woody who?" was the response. I mostly excelled at being invisible to my teachers.

It was because of the local high school, really, that I began to earn some modicum of respect for my talents. I was still highly overrated as a student by any and all measures. Any report card that did not feature at least one "D" was viewed by my parents as worthy of being framed. But, I had some talent and was finally being recognized - even sought after - for it.

I was a performer.

I had started acting at age 11, taking advantage of a local summer drama workshop. I think probably I got in mostly because they needed Mom to play piano for rehearsals, but the die was cast. I took to the stage like deer take to running, and was recognized fairly early on by cast and crew alike as a natural. Unfortunately, these opportunities were, at first, limited to summer workshops. The junior high just didn't have much of a drama department to speak of. And then it happened.

The high school was about to do a performance of "Amahl and the Night Visitors," by Gian Carlo Menotti. To do "Amahl" one must have a boy soprano. And that boy had better be able to sing his way through an entire show. The director and music director had both worked with Mom in the workshops, and, just as importantly, they remembered me. Would I be willing to audition, they asked Mom. Oh, I'm sure he would, she replied. And so at the age of 12 I performed my first starring role as a crippled boy in the Holy Land who finds his life changed by a King he has never met. I also received more recognition than I had ever received in my entire life. And it felt good.

By the time I hit high school, I was a stage veteran. I was also the youngest kid to audition for and be accepted in the Madrigal Singers. (Later I would learn that this is because tenors are always at a premium. This is still true today.) So I did my plays and sang my concerts, and basked in the warmth of recognition (and even a little envy) showered on me by my contemporaries. None of this helped me land a girlfriend until my senior year (I was still a geeky-looking kid), but I had finally learned what it was that I was good at.

Once that part of me was defined, it was easier to find recognition by employing those talents. I was the go-to kid in Church for music and acting duties. I could, it transpired, even conduct choruses. I acted in roadshows and Stake musicals. I was never truly a Boy Scout, because the Scouts quite frankly didn't know how to handle me. But that was okay, too. I was developing different survival skills; skills that would serve me well on my mission and in countless situations since.

There is nothing at all wrong with striving to excel at something in life, although I know some people who would rather not. For those who wish to, there are so many different areas in which to excel, and public school cannot possibly prepare us for each and every one. But there's nothing wrong with recognizing achievement. Even if others may not get recognized. Not this year, anyway. Their times will come later. Perhaps much later. But they will come.

The idea that we need to make everyone "special" only dilutes the power of that word. That idea is useful in the context of a Special Olympics, where even to participate is tantamount to scaling Mt. Everest. But to believe that everyone is equally special has little value anywhere else. Even in religion.

That may sound funny, but it's still true. The apostle Paul knew this principle when he taught that the Lord "gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." (Eph. 4:11-12) In other words, there are many different offices in the Church. Each calling is unique and carries with it different responsibilities. Those who serve in those offices use the talents given to them to help them serve. We can't all be prophets because we don't all have the prophetic gift, but we can still minister to others. The talents we possess carry with them the ability to uniquely bless the lives of others.

So recognizing someone for having a unique gift is nothing from which to shy away. No, unique abilities should be recognized, and even encouraged, so long as those abilities are used to bless, rather than curse.

Note to Chris Blomquist: Yeah. That was a lot of typing. Lose my message? ;-)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

#292 - Thoughts on The Plot

With the thwarting of another terrorist plot to blow more Americans into Mohammedan confetti, I see four possible responses:

1. Conservatives will shudder at how close we were to losing more lives to terrorists, and will continue to support those who fight against terrorism.

2. Liberals will assume the whole thing smacks of "interesting timing" [insert favorite Rovian conspiracy here] and blame the administration.

3. The New York Times will not rest until the intelligence used to break up this plot is fully exposed, thus rendering it completely unable to thwart any future attempts. They have a reputation to protect, after all.

4. Dave Barry will blame the squirrels.

#291 - Way Off Bass, As Usual

Cam does liberal math. As usual, he gets it spot on.

#290 - It Doesn't Say That in My Bible!

I've been watching the emasculation of press photo agencies with great interest these past several days. Between the blatant Photoshop®-ing and the customizable photos to dress up any war story, the mainstreamers actually remind me of certain fundamental Christians in their attitudes.

One of the hazards of being a missionary for the LDS church is the fact that, given our rather unique qualities, someone, somewhere, is going to disagree with you. Perhaps even vociferously. The classic story is told about having a discussion with, probably, an ultra-conservative Southern Baptist and quoting various Bible verses (they won't listen to anything else) to prove our doctrine. During the rather heated exchange, the missionary says, "But that's what it says in the Bible! Right here!" The other participant reaches down, rips a page out of his own Bible and says, "Well, it doesn't say that in my Bible!"

Now, I'll grant you this story may be squarely placed in the realm of LDS lore and legend, but the attitude still rings true of many people's feelings regarding what we teach.

To refute us, LDS Salvationists (they are "concerned" for us, doncha know?) always - but ALWAYS - quote scripture out of context to show just how wrong-headed we Saints are. They reach waaaay out to obscure quotes - also generally taken out of context - to show that some of our leaders weren't exactly consistent in what they taught. Brigham Young is a favorite target because, let's face it, Brother Brigham could occasionally be a bit - oh - colorful in his descriptions of eternal principles. And so we find that many of our detractors really have to work hard to manufacture a version of our teachings that ably demonstrates just how quickly we're going to Heck, and which routes we'll be taking. (Mine will likely be through the Mojave Desert. Never been closer to ol' Scratch than I was there.)

So how does this compare to the current "fauxtography" scandals we've been entertained with of late? Well, let's consider:

The media - those bastions of objectivity and reality - have a paper to sell. Ostensibly their only purpose is to be the eyes and ears of the public interest so that we can be informed. After that it should be our own responsibility as to what, exactly, we do with this knowledge. In reality, however, the mainstreamers have a problem: the very public in whose interest they work has become so jaded over time to the horrors of war, disease, and poverty which have been so relentlessly described to us that we no longer react to the stories when told in bald detail. We've seen it all, and not just in the news. As Hollywood's descriptive powers become more digitally enhanced with each passing year, their ability to literally shock-and-awe their audiences is overwhelming. We find ourselves working harder and harder to remind ourselves that these images are just computer-generated madness. We suspend the suspension of disbelief so frequently now that it becomes second nature. When confronted with any horrible image, even a live one, we block it from our minds, or stick our fingers in our ears and hum. Whatever it takes to remind ourselves that it simply isn't real.

So the media resorts to trickery similar to the Hollywood (or bible-thumping) approach of manufacturing a reality that fits with the kind of image they want us to see. They need us to believe their reports, or all is lost. Whether they do it for idealistic reasons or merely to sell papers makes no difference. Like Tinkerbell and other fairies, they need us to believe or their light is forever extinguished. So what if it means enhancing an already horrible image so long as we understand how horrible war is? Who cares if they have to stage the pulling of bodies from rubble, so long as we remember that to fight a war is to destroy life? Obfuscating the story is their way of ripping a page out of scripture just so they can say, "That's not what it says in my reality!"

Unfortunately, whether they ever intended to or not, the real message we get from these shenanigans is that integrity is not as important as telling the story. And the minute we understand that message, the Old Media (and any other media that uses the same tactics) has already lost their moral high ground. For, instead of being properly horrified at the killing of souls, we become even more disgusted at the prostitution of a news organization's integrity.

And their message is forever lost in the fallout.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

#289 - Ok, NOW I Miss the Eighties

Attention Scion owners: You're driving a box.

Sorry to break it to you, but it's true. That xB model you think is making a statement is in fact stating that you are driving in a box that appears to have all the aerodynamic properties of a brick. With windows.

That's why I miss the 80's. Not for the poofy hair, or even necessarily the music, but for the aerodynamics. Because suddenly, just in the past couple of years, the entire country seems to be buying cars that look like they were losers in last year's Technology Fair at the local high school.

Not that I should talk. I bought my first car in 1982 with Mom and Dad's help. Oh, it was aerodynamic enough. It was the legendary (notorious? infamous? nefarious?) Chevy Vega; a car capable of speeds of upwards of 26 miles an hour before the aluminum engine block warped and various fluids and smoke (not steam) began issuing from the hood. Perhaps it should have tipped me off that I courted my ex-wife in that car. No marriage could have survived that thing.

The Vega had a unique ignition system. To start the car, you simply put the key in the ignition, turned it to the "Acc" position, popped the hood, took the screwdriver that is always kept in the glove box out, shorted the solenoid to actually start the engine, ran back to pump the accelerator a time or two to let the car know you were serious about going somewhere, then closed the hood and drove off. Sometimes you made it, sometimes you were calling Triple-A. But it was a car and it was mine. And, as I say, it was aerodynamic. This was a good thing, because it needed all the help it could get.

I paid $900 for it and sold it to the junk dealer who towed it off the freeway for $35 cash two years later. I consider that a respectable return for a '74 Vega Hatchback.

With the exception of my '81 Chevy Blazer - Tahoe Edition, which was an even more gutless wonder than the Vega but failed to entirely sour my relationship with Chevrolet, each car I've bought in my adult life has had an aerodynamic look to it. Even my old Chevy station wagon had a sleeker hood and body than the old fake wood-panelled wagons of the 60's and 70's. (Ok, that one finally soured me on Chevy. I will probably never buy another one in this lifetime, if I can at all help it.)

But lately, I've noticed that more and more manufacturers, even the luxury makers, are going for the "box" look made so popular by Hummer. I don't know if you've noticed, but even Cadillac, which has always struggled with a boxy look, is more and more resembling a steam locomotive these days. Why pay upwards of thirty thousand dollars for the privilege of driving around in something that looks like you could convert it into a duplex? ("Cadillac: Still Built Like a Box so You'll Know It's a Cad!")

I guess it was my having lived through the Energy Crisis of the 70's. Detroit finally responded to hordes of American consumers snapping up every cretin import to come along (anyone remember Yugo?) by designing their lead-sleds with sleeker, more aerodynamic looks to them. Thus was born an entire generation of American automobile that looked great, but still had mileages comparable to Sherman tanks. But we didn't care; we were buying American Cars again, and proud of it, too.

I suppose it was only the fact that these cars started breaking down about two weeks after you drove them off the lot that once again pushed American consumers in the direction of Japanese imports that (at the time) looked funny but lasted for decades rather than days. At least, that was how I responded. I owned a '79 Toyota Corolla that was my pride and joy for several years. It was a little sluggish for a Toyota by the time I bought it, but it was a sporty car and worked fine for the entire time I owned it. Likewise, Mrs. Woody brought to our marriage the '84 Honda Accord that she bought in '83 brand new, and now has over 212,000 miles on it. This is the car we will trade in for a mini-van sometime in the next year or so, but only because it doesn't have air conditioning. In my advancing age I must have air conditioning, so the Saturn stays.

The Saturn, too, is a sleek looking little car. It's a '97 model year car, and qualifies as the only "brand new" car I've ever owned (although we bought it in Mrs. Woody's name for reasons that are, frankly, none of your business). It has lasted nearly 10 years now and just rolled 100,000 on the odometer a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, it follows in the same tradition as its ancestors by being mostly a gutless wonder. But it has been our vacation vehicle nearly every vacation we've ever driven, and it has earned every one of those 100K miles.

As I say, we'll be in the market for a mini-van soon. My sister-in-law is trying to sell me on Dodge, but I'm still eyeing the imports. They're just built better, in my opinion, and you don't have to pay so much overhead to cover union negotiations.

Although, should Detroit ever return to their aerodynamic roots, I might just bite. Maybe build a van with fins. Yeah, and maybe a spoiler on the back end.

Whatever they do, just so they don't make it look like a brick.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

#288 - Why I Don't War-Blog

Cameron, who is back to form over at Way Off Bass, has a fairly decent sampling of current Middle East blogging. Cam spends way more time than I do going after the more thoughtful (or, at least, thought provoking) commentaries out on the 'sphere, so I don't have to.

Generally speaking, I am not a war blogger. Two things about me are pretty much all you need to know concerning my feelings about the Middle East today:

1. I absolutely believe that the Middle East generally represents the worst of extremist thinking, and therefore we can expect conflict there to continue pretty much until one race or religion has virtually wiped out all others. (When I was called to serve a mission in Central America, Dad snorted and said something about revolution being the national sport down there. He hadn't seen nothin' yet.)

2. I can support the idea of a war against terrorism, especially since terrorism has decided to attack us on our own shores. We spent an entire Cold War making sure we were protected from the Big Bad Commies, only to have lives destroyed on American soil by crazed Islamic extremists who learned how to use our own lifestyles and systems against us.

Since these two thoughts are basically conjoined twins, and since we have continually demonstrated that we in this country are more interested in fighting amongst ourselves than in prosecuting a war against a dangerous idealism, I also don't expect this "problem" to be resolved within my lifetime.

One might argue that I lived to see the fall of the Soviet Union, and that we therefore Won the Cold War.

I might argue in return that we have not won the Cold War; that the Cold War does, in fact, still exist and that we have lost our focus on such loose cannons as North Korea, China, and of course Cuba. Oh, they turn our heads from time to time. North Korea gets a little testosterone in a bottle and starts test firing badly designed rockets to make everyone nervous for a few weeks. Then everyone calms down and re-focuses on something More Important - something like Cindy Sheehan and her Mushroom Induced Jihad Against Bush. Before long, North Korea gleefully rubs its collective hands and plans its next test firing which will then remind us that there's still at least one nut job out there who does not thump a Q'uran but who nevertheless still wants to eradicate us.

So tell me again how we "won" the Cold War. And then explain to me how appeasement is ever going to resolve anything in the Middle East.

Here's the bottom line: Israel and Lebanon should by now have amply demonstrated that, American presence or not, fighting will continue in the Middle East. (And don't give me all that "moral equivalency" nonsense about Israel using American made war materiel. You really think we're the only game in town that Israel would buy from?) Iran and Iraq had been at each other's throats long before we ever established a "No-Fly Zone." Syria has been a breeding ground for terrorists of all stripes for decades; Jihadists, Sinn Fein, you name it.

Imagine for a moment that the more liberal elements of our nation get their way. Yippee, Murtha and Kerry have their moral mandate. Even if we pulled completely out of that region and said to the infant Iraqi government "fare thee well," does this solve anything? Not yet? Oh, that's right... we still need to cut off all ties with Israel. Ok, fine. We have Murtha-Kerryites running things now, that shouldn't be a problem. Sorry, Israel, you're on your own now. Does this mean that bin Laden will release another bunker tape, finally proclaiming that the Jihad against American imperialists is finally over?

Or will we all profess shock when the next bomb goes off in a major U.S. city, even after we did everything that bin Laden and Hezbollah ever wanted? I mean, hey, we still have all those Jews living in the United States. We still haven't done enough to satisfy Osama.

Appeasement: Recreational pharmaceutical of the new millenium.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

#287 - Mel Gibson: Roadkill

Fodder for a made-for-TV movie, I suppose.

Mel Gibson gets drunk, races around Malibu (where all the chic Hollywood alcoholics can be fashionably arrested these days), blurts out a few drunken slurs against Jews, and will now end up being more heavily analyzed in the media than OJ Simpson.

Here are a few things that bother me about this whole affair, listed in no particular order:

1. Mel is an actor for whom I have harbored some respect. I say this strictly as a technician: I am a (strictly amateur, overrated) actor myself, and I like his technique. I'm not always crazy about the material he chooses, but I'm sorry that a good actor can't just stick to what he knows best.

2. For all the coverage I heard on the radio this afternoon, you would never have known that: a) we're still fighting a war in Iraq; b) Israel and Lebanon are fighting (again!); c) global warming may or may not be a problem and is or is not responsible for the current heat wave across vast sectors of the country; d) the price of gas is still ridiculously high with only two and a half weeks remaining before our family vacation this year; and e) President Bush GAINED 4 POUNDS OVER THE PAST YEAR.

That's right, Mel's drunken racial slurs were more important than the Leader of the Free World gaining as much weight in one whole year as I can gain over dinner tonight. Imagine that.

3. Jim Thornton, who is easily the cheesiest of the local talking-head radio news anchors in Los Angeles was positively wetting himself over the thought that they will pursue this story until we are so sick of Mel Gibson that we will offer him in trade for Lebanese prisoners of war. Do us a favor, Jim. Go back to traffic reporting. At least when you anchored the morning commute, traffic actually got covered. Now you guys have that lame "Extended Traffic on the Fives," wherein you never ONCE mention my freeway in the 45 minutes it takes me to drive it. Like today, when my freeway actually had an accident that tied up the 22 for a solid five miles, which is the only reason I had resorted to listening to your station in the first place this afternoon. This is why I listen to KUSC most days. Mmmm. Rachmaninov.

4. Someone needs to explain to me, please, why the idea that the police debated whether to "release" Mel's drunken tirades is evidence of a "cover up." Covering up what, precisely? Does that mean that the police have the responsibility - nay, the duty - to release every drunken tirade by every gangsta, doper, con, prostitute, or murderer that they happen to arrest? Or is this the media's tantrum over not having papparazzi in place to photograph the whole sordid affair so we can be bombarded with this story seventy-two times a day for the next three months? Hint, media guys: WE DON'T CARE. Really. Just drop it. You have our permission. Go back to faking your photos of Qana.

5. NOTE TO JEWISH COMMUNITY LEADERS AND ACTIVISTS: Mel has apologized - profusely, by Hollywood standards - and asked for forgiveness. Don't you people have much more repugnant enemies out there that really need your attention and energy? Move on, for corn's sake.

So, I will have to avoid radio news for the next few weeks, much as I was forced to during the entire Michael Jackson Show Trial. At least this time I'm not worried about Mel sleeping with young boys at his ranch.

But heaven help them if they get in the car with him.