Word-a-day anger in the American Midwest

January 26, 2009

FROM JASON’S LACK OF IGNORANCE — I am going to rant a little bit about people who are willfully stupid.

A co-worker of mine has been trying to expand his vocabulary by having a word-of-the-day sent straight to his phone, and I give him kudos for the attempt at self-improvement. A couple of weeks ago, though, he decided to see whether I  could define “ossuary” (a repository for skeletal remains), and I could not comprehend why he became so angry when I tossed out the answer in an off-handed way without much thought.

He’s brought me a new word each day since, hoping to stump me and getting more irate each time I give the correct definition. It was not the reaction I expected. Competitive, maybe… but actually furious?

I tried to head off his growing head of steam today after nailing “mimetics,” explaining for the fifth time that I’ve got a BA in English. After all, I’m still paying down on the $68,000 I paid to learn those words, I told him.

It didn’t calm him down.

His attitude is frightening. This is a guy — an adult — who finds affront at the very knowledge he is seeking to gain. I could not grasp his outrage that I would simply hold a piece of information.

I tried soothing him by explaining how I pick apart the roots of the word to discover how the word works, first stripping away prefixes and suffixes and then thinking about the (usually) Latin or Greek at the heart. That didn’t work.

I tried to water it down by telling him that “mimetics” is really close to “mime” and “mimeograph.” That didn’t work either.

This is a man who never seized on the idea that you could actually apply the information Mr. Harrigan taught in seventh-grade English, or that anyone could have enjoyed doing so. He refuses to believe anyone would pay attention all those years ago, or care to keep all that “useless book learnin'” locked away and ready to access.

He cannot see the attractiveness of routinely flipping to the Discovery Channel for a quick documentary on the pyramids at Giza or how coral reefs form, or that such a thing to me is as fun as a beer and a football game.

This is a man for whom learning is torture, something to be avoided unless it comes in the near-painless dose of a text message once a day. I just don’t understand that mindset — anything more is unacceptable. I tried imagining what it would be like to be incurious, and I was horrified.

This is the blatant and god-fearing anti-intellectualism of the American Midwest. People here aren’t afraid of the unknown; they embrace it. They’ve been taught that mysticism is good, that their lord is in heaven and in control, and I’ve observed that that kind of spiritual dependence extinguishes the burning need to know more.

These are people afraid to speak precisely for the fear of being labeled “gay.” They avoid interest for fear of being “nerdy.” They refuse to exercise their minds so their friends don’t see them as “stuck up.”

This is why Paul Blart: Mall Cop is number one in the box office. It is why I weep for the future and pit myself so defiantly against the trusting apathy of theism. It is why I am forming a habit of buying neat books I hope will hook the children my wife and I will someday have.

My mother had a very limited education, but she made a decision early to make sure I had easy access to books about outer space, life under the oceans’ surface, and the peoples of far-away lands. It worked. There but for the grace of Mom go I.

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‘Futureland’ and a co-worker’s racism harsh my Obama high

January 21, 2009

futurelandFROM JASON’S GRITTED TEETH — My outlook swings day-to-day from gloriously optimism to blood-boiling pessimism.

Yesterday, watching Obama take control of the mess into which the executive branch had fallen, was a good day. In the evening, I told Andrew I believe we’ve done much more than we realize to eliminate racism in this country, or at least make it so socially odious that it might as well not exist.

Today, however, was a pessimistic day as my idealism was smashed. In the cubicle next door, I heard a co-worker raving about an encounter with a client he labeled “a damned Arab.”

“They’re all terrorists. Even the children… You can’t trust any of them. I don’t know why they have to call me, talking all Arab. We should blow them all up,” he said.

I am sheltered. I normally associate with people of extreme education, raised in a strict environment of social correctness. This co-worker’s words were alien and loathsome. There was nothing in them to which I could connect on any level.

They were not the starry-eyed hope I felt during Tuesday’s inauguration. This co-worker clearly does not agree with Obama’s words: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and latino America and asian America — there’s the United States of America.”

The fever of the inauguration had given me a temporary peace. But my co-worker’s words jogged me into a blacker vision for our nation’s future, one that’s been reinforced in the last week while reading an excellent science fiction work by Walter Mosley, titled Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World.

This dystopia is no Idiocracy; it’s a world of corrupt geniuses and the helpless victims pulled into their sphere of influence. Futureland is a place of designer brain-viruses, corporate city-states and megalomaniacal dictators, genetically-engineered slaves, and politically oppressed masses.

It’s a place where children are drafted into government cabals; where the race and gender divides have exploded; where the Supreme Court allows citizenry to be revoked from anyone the authorities deem socially dangerous; where property rights have been all but abolished; where pre-teens live in underground concentration camp castes while the rich cavorte in the streets above; and where science and religion have been merged into one InfoChurch to keep the desperate under thumb.

Some days Mosley’s futurescape seems laughable. Others — when a co-worker reveals such ill-masked, torturous hate — his grim vision seems as imminent as the vignets he ties together in this book. And then I wonder whether we’ve really progressed at all as a nation, or whether we’ve simply deluded ourselves into thinking our attitudes are evolving at all.


Obama’s eloquence straightened American spines today

January 20, 2009

165357FROM JASON’S LUNCH ROOM — Everyone today will have an Obama story.

Mine happened in a small, corporate lunch room where about 40 people gathered in absolute silence. Where mainly there’s a deafening rabble of voices, there was respectful silence. All mouths — from 18 to 65, black, white, brown, male, female, poor, less poor, smart, less smart — were clamped shut.

And every eye was on the LCD flat-screen on one end of the room. Every head nodded in unison as the 44th President talked about economic and military crises, and about unity in the face of very palpable threats. A buzz of electric agreement surged through the room when Barack Obama told us to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking.”

My co-workers are not people to remain quiet long; but for 30 minutes today, they listened without speaking. They agreed without dissenting. They prepared for hard work without grumbling.

One giant of a man, who looked like he could crush me with a glance, wiped tears away. When Obama finished speaking, a white man and black man at the back of the room gripped each other in a bear hug and then went separate ways without saying a word. At the end of the 30-minute address, there was no hooting or whistling in my lunch room; everyone walked from the room with backs straight, eyes thoughtful, and minds in a mutual alignment.

The word I’ve been avoiding here is “hope,” because it carries with it the weight of a political slogan. What I can say I saw instead in that room was an expectation of success.

After 12:30 p.m., it was finally right and prideful again to be an American. After eight long years of confusion and embarrassment, we were no longer ‘Merkans. There’s no more need to worry about “strategery.”

It was liberating, and for the first time (especially watching the faces of my black co-workers) I could start to scratch the surface of what it really means to live an historical moment. I thought to myself that if I could magnify my content by a thousand, it might come close to what our black brothers felt in 1964 when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

I couldn’t help questioning the ethics of the swelling patriotism I felt in that lunch room.

The day after the nation elected Obama, I asked a black worker what it felt like to have a black man become president. She told me it was a feeling I could never as a white person understand. She apologized, saying it wasn’t meant to be racist; just that I lacked the cultural lexicon necessary to get it.

This, she said, was validation that a person like her could achieve the highest level of power. All the doors were finally thrown open to her, not on paper but in practice.

She’s right, of course. I’m not sure that I can understand the spiritual release she experienced on election night, or at noon today. I’ve never been shackled with the onus of minority race.

But I can understand in many other ways. My family grew up in poverty. My family accepted government cheese. My family did not often have money for new school clothes, let alone luxuries. My family did not have money to send me to college, and so I paid my way on the sweat of my brow instead of the polish of my spoon.

And here is a man that embodies that golden American upward mobility, that seed of manifest destiny we all want to nurture in ourselves. When I watched President Obama’s address today, I saw myself on that stage even though my skin is white and my paycheck is small.


Read This: The Forever Formula

June 22, 2008

FROM JASON’S RECENT AMAZON ORDER — Extending the human lifespan sounds like a great achievement, right? A friend of ours recently linked to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about Resveratrol, a drug that significantly prolongs life and eases old-age ailments.

The write-up also hinted that pharmaceutical researchers are on the cusp — as early as two generations away — from making drugs that will push the average life expectancy to 100, or maybe 120, or even higher.

I was immediately reminded of a book titled The Forever Formula, written in 1979 by Frank Bonham. I had to read it again, and Amazon shipped me a copy. Typically labelled juvenile fiction, you could easily breeze through it in four hours.

The novel is set in 2164 and is seen mostly through the eyes of 17-year-old Evan Clark, brought forward in time from 1984 through suspended animation. When he wakes, he learns his father created a drug called Rejuvenal that allows people to live to 250 years old.

But the Rejuvenal treatments have exacted a horrible toll. Most other nations have banned the drug, but the United States gave rise to a Senior Party controlled by the superannuated. The birth rate has fallen, the elderly have stripped most young people of habeas corpus, and the oldest are dying of terminal boredom — a mysterious geriatric disease called the Logardo epidemic.

In a world where 80 is the new 21, overpopulation is a cancer that eats away at the young. Only the truly elderly are allowed to live under plastic domes and breathe purified air. They have the best food. They play croquet, attend eternal gin parties, squabble with their equally old neighbors.

And worst of all, Rejuvenal has warped their bodies, draining skin of its firmness and color. It leaves users with gelatinous, see-through skin stretched over clearly-visible muscle and sinew. The side-effect is called Guppyism.

Meanwhile, with the elderly sapping the best resources, the young live in the moldering wrecks of cities, their air drained of oxygen because ocean plankton are all but extinct. Roaches and rats overrun everything outside the domes and voraciously attack people. Impoverished vendors sell oxygen on the streets and the government has planted miles of cloned tree farms.

In real life, the idea of overpopulation is a ludicrous one because there is so much landmass in the world completely uninhabited. Right now, more than half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the East or West coasts.

But as Scott Rubin of Geeknights is so fond of pointing out, the problem isn’t so much overcrowding as it is a) finding ways to distribute food from rural farms to urban population centers, and b) dealing with the byproducts of those centers.

Let’s spin some numbers. The global population in 1950 was about 2.5 billion, and today it’s reached 6.7 billion. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts there will be 7.9 billion people by 2025 and 9.3 billion by 2050.

The US is growing at a faster rate than any other industrialized nation. The country has swelled by about 100 million people in the past 41 years and US census experts estimated that the population hit 300 million in October 2006. If it continues to accelerate at a steady rate, it will top 400 million sometime around 2040.

But let’s say the average lifespan did, as Bonham worries, go from 75 to 250 years. Those numbers would exceed the already-burdened curve we have now between supply of essentials and demand for the same. Things get even worse in The Forever Formula when Evan learns the American president, Charlie Fallon, wants to scan his brain for the recipe of another drug Evan’s father was working on — one that would make Man immortal.

A group called the Juvenile Underground decides that such a formula would mean Seniors would establish a permanent slave underclass among the young and consume all the country’s remaining resources. They help Evan escape his hospital cell and go on the run.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than to say it comes close to being great, except for a deus ex machina that leads to a (for some) happy ending. It’s all a little too convenient, and manages to candy-coat some pretty grisly deaths. I think Bonham would have been better served penning the last few chapters bluntly and bloodily.


Pew report shows Republicans are fleeing sinking ship

April 3, 2008

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FROM JASON’S BALLOT CARD — After several posts about my indecision, I don’t think I told you all that I voted for Obama in the Ohio primary last month. I was pretty proud. In my pokings around the Intarweb this week, I’m discovering just how not-unique that makes me.

For years, I’ve self-identified as a Republican because I believe markets should be free, government should be small, and that defense should be strong. I’ve disavowed myself in the last few years because under Republican leadership markets have been controlled, government has grown at its fastest rate in 30 years, and we’ve waged another offensive (and expensive) war.

And that’s not even taking into account my distaste for the Republicans’ continuing retreat into the folds of homophobia, xenophobia, and religious zeal.

I’m not the only one drifting. The Pew Research Center released a study March 20 saying that since 2004, six percent fewer people are calling themselves Republicans. And since the start of 2008, 36 percent of those surveyed say they are Democrats while 27 percent say they are Republicans. That’s a 16-year low for the Grand Ol’ Party.

Even swing voters aren’t swinging so far to the right anymore. Four years ago, a roughly equal number of undecideds were leaning toward each party. Now, though, the Dems hold a 14-point advantage among swing voters, Pew said (51 percent are leaning toward voting Democrat while 37 percent are learning toward Republican).

The numbers are pretty clear: In battleground states like Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — where margins were extremely close in the 2004 presidential vote — electors now favor Democrats by enough to be declared blue states in November.

That means the Democratic nominee (it will be Obama) will become president.


Does being the economic superpower excuse American self-interest?

March 14, 2008

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FROM JASON’S SHREDDED NATIONALISM — This depiction of the US appeared a while ago on the Strange Maps blog, but I colored it in Photoshop and I feel that gives me the right to resurrect it. The map labels states with the names of nations that have similar economic output and I find it fascinating.

Not long ago, a Canadian friend of mine referenced this map and asked whether the data excuses Americans for “being so self-interested… It certainly explains a bit, and makes the rest of us feel a bit small,” he wrote. I’ve been beating that question around in my mind for the past three days and doing stupid amounts of research to satisfy my curiosity.

Let’s deal with the premise first. Americans are self-interested. I’ve complained before about Americans’ xenophobia and ignorance of geography. A survey by the Rand Corporation shows only 14 percent of respondents could give a rough estimate of the global population (about 6 billion people at the time). Only 6 in 10 Americans ages 18 to 24 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, a 2006 study by National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs found.

The Pew Research Center said last year that 68 percent of Americans know the US has a trade deficit, but only 32 percent knew that Sunni was a branch of Islam. The best educated Americans got their primary news from The Daily Show, that report said. Another non-partisan research group, Public Agenda, found that most Americans did not know who Yasser Arafat was, and the Harris Poll Group had 57 percent of respondents say they “dislike learning about political issues in other countries.”

Still not convinced? Watch Rick Mercer have his way with clueless Americans (including then-governor Mike Huckabee) on Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes:

So back to my Canadian friend’s question — is that American ignorance justified by our economic superiority? Call it childish if you must, but Andre the Giant’s line from The Princess Bride kept ringing in my head as I thought about it: “It’s not my fault I’m the biggest and strongest. I don’t even exercise.”

We are the biggest and strongest, at least as an individual nation. Take a look at Gross Domestic Product information for some of the most advanced countries via the CIA World Factbook:


GDP by purchasing power
US – $13.86 trillion
China – $7.43 trillion
Japan – $4.35 trillion
Germany – $2.83 trillion
United Kingdom – $2.15 trillion
France – $2.07 trillion
Italy – $1.8 trillion
Russia – $2.08 trillion
India – $2.97 trillion
Canada – $1.27 trillion
Australia – $766.8 billion
GDP per capita
US – $46,000
China – $5,300
Japan – $33,800
Germany – $34,400
United Kingdom – $35,300
France – $33,800
Italy – $31,000
Russia – $14,600
India – $2,700
Canada – $38,200
Australia – $37,500

To be fair, the US is outclassed in terms of per capita GDP by Luxembourg, Qatar, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore — but that gets into some tricky statistical business.

The US continues to dominate as a production powerhouse, and as a single nation it is the superpower. But the European Union with its 27 member nations has already surpassed the US in cooperative production with a combined GDP of $14.45 trillion in 2007. No wonder the Euro is devaluing the dollar so efficiently. So far, we’ve managed to stay ahead by translating technological advances into corporate productivity, the New York Times argues.

No throne is ever 100 percent secure for life, and this is why the pesistent American attitude of unalterable, isolationist superiority and willful disregard of world affairs has me worried. True, the US continues to profit from huge consumption spending but high trade deficits and federal debt are perched to trump that and destroy our meager 2 percent annual growth rate.

That’s why the value of the US dollar is falling so quickly — and why it should be. One of the things that truly irks me about my fellow Americans is an attitude that the US deserves by the sheer force of its reputation to retain its position as the sole, indefatigable superpower. But as other nations reach post-industrial status, there will have to be a major shift in global economic balance.

Take a quiz

It’s intended for children, but I’m curious how well the blogosphere will perform: Try the GeoNet Game.


Do Not Call List is permanent now

February 20, 2008

telemarketer.jpgFROM JASON’S JADED LITTLE WORLD — Years from now, when Andrew and I are in some petty little Internet political debate and he challenges me to name one — just one! — tiny shred of good done by George W. Bush, I’ll have an answer ready.

Friday, the bastard-in-chief signed the House’s Do-Not-Call Registry Fee Extension Act of 2007 (H.R.3541) and the Senate’s Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007 (S.781).

In plain English: He helped Whack-a-Mole telemarketers over the head with a shining mallet of privacy.

The Do-Not-Call list was established in 2003, and marketers were banned from calling any U.S. citizens who chose to enroll — at least for three years. After that, you had to sign up or your home phone was fair game again for armies of crapsters hucking insurance, phone services, “special” offers, and pyramid schemes.

Not anymore. Now, once you sign up, that phone number is on the Do-Not-Call list as long as you have it. No more pitches for you, my friend.

Not only is this a win for Bush (though it doesn’t exactly make up for… oh, I don’t know… IRAQ), but it’s also a victory for Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. You might remember him as the strapping young gentleman who thinks the Internet is a series of tubes. Hey, even a broken clock….

For my part, I haven’t been bothered by a telemarketer now in more than four years. Most of the time you’ll find me arguing for a laissez faire approach to government — the fewer laws and the fewer regulations on the economy, the better — but here is one instance where I think government interference has actually been positive.

It pains me to say that.

If you’re an American, you can sign up here.

God, I’m practically humming Stars and Stripes Forever over here.