November 02, 2009

The Wages of Fear - My Entry in the WaPo Pundit Contest

I'll never forget the first time I saw a mosque. I was about 12 or 13 years old and my father was driving around with me and my uncle in Jonesboro, Arkansas. I can't remember where we were going or why, but that funny-looking building eventually became my sole surviving memory from that day. I can still hear my dad saying, somewhat derisively, "Oh, and there's the mosque."

It did not compute, that funny, colorful building in marked contrast to the rest of the landscape. "What's a mosque?" I asked. I don't recall exactly how my father answered, but the lasting memories of that day tell me that not only did I understand that it was visually different, but that it somehow clashed philosophically with everything I had learned until then. At that time, my father was a Southern Baptist minister, and the world was clearly divided into two groups: born-again Christians and then everyone else, with everyone else consisting of witches and devil worshipers. In our world, not only were they non-Christians, but they were actually "against God" and, by extension, against Christians.

That was the first time I was ever confronted with the Other, ie. those against our values. I remember quite clearly thinking "Why are they here?" As in, why don't they go back to their own people and country - some place where they wouldn't torment those of us perfectly content to live in the world we had spent so many generations constructing.

Since then, I've had many opportunities to confront the Other and to get to know the Other. I've read much in the news about tea parties, birthers, town hall crashers, and many more who have been described at various turns as racists, crazies, wingnuts, and lobotomized dittoheads. Except for a few fringe groups who do meet those criteria, the sum of the rest of those who sympathize with these fringe elements are afraid of the Other. In their lifetimes they have witnessed demographic shifts that have brought the Other "intruding" into their daily lives. And in Barack Hussein Obama, they see a living manifestation of "The Other."

Hell, he's so Other, he's the Other's other: born in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia, and had a Muslim stepfather. This otherness drives the fringe stark-raving mad. This man, who so clearly is out of step with our vision of America, how dare he inhabit our throne? You can hear them ask, “Why is he here?”

March 10, 2009

Things I Learned in High School: Critical Thinking

There were many things I heard in high school which have long exited my brain, seemingly never to return, but some things have managed to stick. Like the time in 10th (11th?) grade honors English class, when our teacher, Ms. Hutchison, had us read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. We came to a point in the reading where Ms. Hutchison pointed out to us that Shakespeare wasn't actually writing about ancient Rome and the age of Caesar. Well, he kind of was, but only as an allegory for Elizabethan England. Shakespeare was delivering a message to his contemporaries encoded in the form of a historical play. That "Aha!" moment has remained etched in my memory. It had never occurred to me before then, being not very well read, to search for the hidden truth lying behind an author's slight-of-hand designed to force the reader to look at an issue from a new perspective.

Thinking in that way forced me to go through the process of trying to understand just what message Shakespeare was actually trying to deliver to his fellow inhabitants of Elizabethan England. And so began my introduction to literary criticism and critical thought in general. From there, it becomes a fun exercise to deconstruct old Westerns and understand them in their proper context – that of commentary on the times, ie. the cold war period, with an implicit yearning for simpler times and depictions of an obvious enemy in a black hat. In this context, it's easy to understand the messages about racism intended by the creators of “Planet of the Apes.” In the midst of the civil rights struggle, depicting apes fightings against oppressed humans was a clear allegory to our own civil rights struggle. There are several other examples - Idiocracy comes to mind. And everyone knows that futuristic sci-fi is really about us and our worship of technology, but not so much about the science of the future... right?

Once accustomed to understanding criticism and critical thinking, it's a subtle logical shift towards decoding messages from public figures, parsing statements and realizing what is left unsaid is every bit as important, if not more, than what is stated.

I bring this up because we're still dealing with the aftermath of what happens when you don't think critically and understand the "meaning behind the meaning." How hard did we really try to understand the motivation behind the invasion of Iraq? Did we honestly believe that the Patriot Act and looser torture regulations would make us safer? I think about this often, because I sometimes wonder if I'm one of a rare few who attempt to decipher the code of messages we receive. That's an arrogant thing to say, but I can't help but think that far too many don't bother, or that there aren't enough teachers who bother to make this point to their students. I often wish we had a few more Ms. Hutchisons, because that might save us from a lot of unnecessary effort spent fixing mistakes which could have been foreseen. Now that we're living through The Greatest Economic Crisis of Our Lifetimes(TM), it might be a good time to remember this lesson.

March 09, 2009

Diigo Bookmarks for johnmark

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

February 13, 2009

Diffing the Many Versions of the Stimulus Bill

If you've been following the trajectory of the Stimulus bill as it winds its way through the house, senate, bicameral committee, back to the house, and then on to the senate for one final vote before going to the president, you might have a bit of an interest in the following:

  • just what is in the dang bill
  • what exactly has changed between each version
Well, huzzah! Thanks to the open source version control tool Subversion, it was a rather simple task to whip together a repository of the bill and track the various changes between each version. See links below:
To check out your own version of the repository, here's your handy command:
svn co
And off you go!

February 10, 2009

7 things you may (or may not) know about me

...and may not have wanted to know. The illustrious Sara Dornsife tagged me - like, eons ago - to blog about the 7 things you may or may not know about me. It goes without saying that you may not have even wanted to know this, in which case you should avert your eyes now. I throw out tons of garbage on my twitter feed, with a high noise to signal ratio, so it's quite possible that nobody knows anything about me. Well, no more!

1. from the age of 8 until 12, I was basically homeschooled. Ok, so it was actually a tiny fundamentalist Christian school with about 9 or 10 other kids, but my father was the principal, my mother helped with teaching, and the other volunteers were mostly other kids' parents, so it sure felt like home-schooling. When I was 12, we moved to hell^H^H^H^HCorning, AR, for which I never forgave my parents, and I attended a public school, where I soon learned the reward for being completely isolated from modern secular culture: incessant carping, bullying and a general sense of not belonging. There are those advocates of home-schooling who insist that socializing with other kids either doesn't matter or can be ameliorated via other means. I beg to differ. The key is unsupervised play time. Home-schooled kids just don't get enough of that - although I'm sure there are some enlightened parents out there. In any case, I always felt that those years left me at a disadvantage socially, an area where I didn't feel "caught up" until my mid-to-late 20's. I never did shake the feeling of isolation or not belonging, which I carry to this day.

2. As mentioned in #1, I was raised in a fundamentalist protestant - Southern Baptist, to be exact - family. When I see documentaries like Jesus Camp, I completely identify with those people, even though I rejected the religion of my youth long ago. When I see paranoid morons going off half-cocked on cable news shows, I understand them completely - because I used to be one of them. I will always have a soft spot for children who believe in creationism, because I remember what it felt like to be "under siege" from the unsaved, to know that scientists were conspiring against God, to know that "the others", ie. other colors, other religions, other nationalities, were assaulting our religious freedom, and that we had to prepare for the end times, assuming they weren't already here.

3. On account of #1 and #2, above, I was either born with or acquired at a very early age the desire to evangelize to others. In earlier days, it took a religious form, but now it takes the form of convincing others to embrace whatever I embrace, which are craft brewing, soccer, open source software, or whatever political arguments I've crafted. If I discover a new book or piece of music or interesting free software tool, then I want you to enjoy it, too. This is why I excel at my job - online community management (or "community organizing" if you will) and grassroots marketing.

4. I am a shameless and unapologetic beer snob and am only too happy to lecture you ad nauseum about the joys of traditional Belgian brewing styles. Nothing raises my ire more quickly than that poor, unsuspecting Belgian person who doesn't know their own country's place in the pantheon of beer... and tells me Stella Artois is a pretty decent beer. Like hell, it is. And I especially enjoy being the killjoy who gets the honor of informing ignorant Germans or English that their brewers are, with a few notable exceptions, stagnant, bland, and behind the vangaurd of American brewers. Tee hee... Oh, and then there's the matter of both countries killing off many of their traditional styles *sigh*.

5. I enjoy finding the flaws in other people's logic and clobbering them over the head with it. Especially when they're ideological, free-market worshipping Republicans. And *especially* when they're dittohead, cult-of-Rush koolaid drinkers... but then that's like shooting fish in a barrel.

6. I had an existential crisis when I was 12. I couldn't convince myself that I wasn't living inside someone else's imagination - that everything I saw, smelled or touched wasn't a complete fabrication inside someone else's head. I finally got over it by deciding that I had to roll with it, whether it was someone else's fabrication or "reality." When I was 14, I couldn't stop counting the number of letters in words I spoke or thought about and trying to find the right words that would make the letters per word average out to an integer. In both cases, I never told anyone until long afterwards. In the latter case, I sometimes still do it.

7. I have somehow managed to find another human being and convince them to stay with me, even though she long ago caught on to my imperfections. God knows why. This is our 12th year, and it astounds even me. Before I met Cathy, I never lived in the same house for more than 2 or 3 years at a time, and we're now in our 8th year in our Bay Area house. I still yearn to be a rolling stone, but I've learned the advantages and disadvantages of each.

And, golly gee, but I guess I can't stop talking about myself, so here goes...

8. I continue to aspire to political office and have for many years. In fact, when I was 5 or 6, my 3 possible vocations were 1. scientist, 2. football player and 3. politician. My goal is to hold some office by 40. I still have 5 years :)

Rules of this game according to @SaraD:

  • Link to your original tagger(s) and list these rules in your post.
  • Share seven facts about yourself in the post.
  • Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.
  • Let them know they’ve been tagged.

So herewith, I tag the following victims (name, twitter ID, blog URL):
  1. Stephen Walli @stephenrwalli (blog)
  2. Stacey Schneider @sparkystacey (need to start a blog?)
  3. Lisa Hoover @lisah (blog) oops, she's already been tagged. It's a good read :)
  4. Joseph Arruda @zeruch (blog)
  5. Tony Guntharpe @fusion94 (blog)
  6. Jeff @toxic (blog)
  7. Angie Danielson-O'Keefe @SadieBug (blog)

February 01, 2009

The Free Software Song in a Previous Life

All I can say is.... holy christ, this was 9 years ago. And it's still just as embarrassing today as it was then - but because I'm further removed now, I can LMAO about it :)

January 31, 2009

Gotta Love a Band that Understands the Interactive Web

Nice little widget from a band I had never heard of before today - Annuals.

January 30, 2009

Washington Post: Activist Parents and School Boards

Here's an interesting article I just discovered on the washington post all about how parents are using the internet to organize campaigns designed to influence their local schools. This can naturally be a positive thing, but also not.

Read the full article here.

This appears to be the worst of both worlds: 1. the school system is just closed enough that only the most well-connected parents with free time (read: wealthier) can break through to school administrations and 2. the school system is just open enough that these online campaigns do make an impact once off the ground.

This type of impact can be positive, but it can also be short-sighted and geared only to the success of a select few. It would seem to me that the obvious solution is to create a truly open community for every school district on the web that engages with all parents, but somehow I don't see most public school systems being that engaged or forward thinking - yet.