Saturday, October 20, 2007

"The Pen" isn't enough

You may want to check out my thoughts about commercialism in Portland's public schools as they appear here in yesterday's Portland Tribune.

My colleagues at the Coalition for Commercial-Free Schools get pretty excited when things like this get published.

I'm more skeptical. The pen may be mightier than the sword but....

Change results from civil engagement and finding agreement. If the school board is willing to meet with the coalition over this issue, we have the possibility of change.

At best, the article may get the board's attention and offer a basis for discussion.

I might add that while newly elected board member Ruth Adkins, who is from Hillsdale, didn't oppose the deal that slathered the Blazer logo on 10 school basketball courts, she agrees that creeping commercialism in the schools needs to be addressed.

The coalition is hopeful Ruth will provide a forum for establishing a school board policy eliminating such blatant commercialism in our schools.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Starving on eating menus

I’ve taken to downloading lectures into my iPod so that I can feed my brain while I exercise my body at the Southwest Community Center.

Among recent downloads have been talks by the late Alan Watts. Watts, who died in 1973, was a great popularizer of Zen Buddhism in America.

You can listen to many of his lectures here.

A week ago, as I was running on the treadmill, I heard Watts say the following. The fact that I was on a treadmill at the time of hearing this was purely co-incidental and, frankly, weird. As you will see, Watts speaks of the Westerner’s need for control systems. What greater control system is there than the treadmill?

Anyway, here’s what he said:

The assumption of Judeo-Christian culture is that man in his nature is sinful, and therefore can’t be trusted. The assumption of ancient Chinese culture is that man in his essential nature is good and therefore has to be trusted. They say to us, if you can’t trust your own basic nature, you can’t really rely on the idea that you are untrustworthy. And therefore you are hopelessly fouled up.

This different assumption has amazing political and other consequences. If we say, no, we human beings are fallible and basically selfish and really, really fundamentally evil, we need law and order. We need a control system to put us in order. And then we project these control systems into the church or into the police or into somebody, who are really ourselves, disguised.

It’s like daylight savings time. Everybody could simply get up and hour earlier, but instead of doing that, we alter the clock because the clock is a kind of authority. We say, well, the clock says it’s time for us to get up. The Ameri-Indians laugh at the pale faces because the pale face doesn’t know he is hungry until he looks at his watch.

And so in this way we become clock-dominated. And the abstract system takes over from the physical organic situation.

And this is my big pitch, if I’m going to make a big pitch: We’ve run into a cultural situation where we have confused the symbol with the physical reality, the money with the wealth and the menu with the dinner.

And we are starving on eating menus....

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Delightful, mysterious encounter

I’ll play along with the author of the four-word comment to yesterday's post about David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times.

The comment's author purports to be Johnston himself.

Maybe, maybe not.

The comment seems slightly off, as seemed the original “Johnson” e-mail I wrote about yesterday.

The comment reads:

Delightfully hilarious and whimsical. —David Cay Johnston

So what’s the "off" part?

For one thing the words read like one of those snippets in ads for Broadway plays.


"Delightfully Hilarious! Whimsical!"

For another, when isn’t “hilarious” delightful?

For that matter, when isn’t “whimsical” delightful?

Then again, if you are at your New York Times desk with a full day of investigative reporting ahead of you, maybe you don’t take the time to trim one liners dashed off to skeptical bloggers in the hinterland.

One other scrap of evidence: When someone posts a comment on this site, I get an e-mail copy. The return address for this comment led me to a vacant blogger profile site titled “DavidCay.”

Go figure.

So it comes down to this: David, if you are the comment's author, all is forgiven — I promise to check out your new book and share my trenchant observations with Red Electric readers and any wayward search robots that drop by.

In the meantime, we are counting on you, David, so get back to work!

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Robotic correspondence

In my e-mail in-box this morning was a note from David Cay Johnston, the Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times reporter.

The e-mail bore the note line “NOT for posting.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of the contents, which I will dutifully not post. But I will give you the gist of the brief message allegedly from Johnston.

First a little background.

Nearly four years ago Johnston wrote an incisive, upsetting book, “Perfectly Legal,” about how corrupt our tax system is. The book’s subtitle is “The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich - and Cheat Everybody Else.”

I’ve never met Johnston, and I’m certain he didn’t sit down at his computer yesterday to write me this note, which is nothing more than a pitch to read (and comment on) his next book. It is called “Free Lunch” and will be published in December.

That last sentence is pretty lame “buzz” if that’s what the e-mail was trying to generate. Who knows how many thousands of bloggers found the same message from "Johnston" in their in-boxes this morning.

The e-mail also included three links to recent stories Johnston has written for the Times. I’d read all three when they were published. I do admire Johnston’s work.

Several things about this missive give me pause.

It addresses me as “Mr. Seifert,” which a computer program obviously can do. It also makes reference to the fact that the new book starts with a story out of Oregon. Again, a computer can search blog authors’ profiles for that kind of information and then tailor a letter accordingly. I believe the word in the trade is “personalize.” I call it computerized pandering.

But then, in the middle these machinations, there’s a typo. A glitch. I often make those here when I am rushing to get something posted. Glitches like this aren’t made by computers. At least not normally. Could this be a contrived error, for verisimilitude? Anyway, the typo, whoever or whatever made it, did make me wonder, momentarily, whether possibly, just possibly, a person might behind this letter. Not Johnston himself, but someone paid to pump these little promos into the blogosphere.

It’s all quite clever and probably sells books. or jewelry, deodorant or political agendas.

Am I not now writing about “Free Lunch,” if only in an off-hand way, making it part of your consciousness? Given what I know about Johnston’s work, it may well be worth looking at.

Faint praise to be sure, but praise none-the-less. Better than nothing.

Finally, there’s another concern. I’ve mentioned before that I have a site meter recording the number of visits to this blog. It is running, on average, about 50 a day, but I have no idea what that means. Old Internet hands have cautioned me that many of those “visits” are by “bots” or robots. I’m certain that a searching, computer-driven “bot” discovered my “David Cay Johnston” tag from an earlier post, gathered in “Oregon” from my profile and then spewed out the letter, or the raw material for a letter.

So will 50 of you read this post?

I doubt it, and my doubt is greater today than it was yesterday.

As for those visits by sentient beings, I’m certain one by David Cay Johnston isn’t among them. Johnston has better things to do than to write me about his latest book. At least I hope he does.

I would suggest, however, that he take a moment to question the wisdom of allowing his publisher’s promotion department to send out fabricated e-mails purporting to be written by him.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Billion is the new Million

Those of us in our sixties like to tell ourselves that 60 is the new 50 (or 40 or 35).

Well, maybe, but today’s Oregonian reminded me of another “new.”

Consider three front-page stories:

Lorry I. Lokey, who made his fortune starting the PR-mongering Business Wire, gives $74 million to the University of Oregon, bringing his total gifts to the university to $132 million in the last four years.

Let’s write that in its full glory $132,000 times 1000.

Presumably Lokey has kept enough to pay for his room and board.

Moving right along, Danaher Corporation of Washington, D.C. pays $2.8 billion (that’s with a “B”) to buy Oregon technology icon Tektronix Inc.

Let’s write THAT out in full: $2.8 million times 1000.

Finally (and we still are on the front page of today’s paper) the estimated cost to build a new bridge (and improved approaches to it) over the Columbia River is $4 billion. That is 4,000 times $1 million. (Have you ever sat down to count to 4000? Try it. If you count by seconds, it will take you better than an hour. In other words, BOOOR-rinnnng.)

Is anyone blinking at these numbers? (Don't get me started on what each minute of America's Democracy-building presence in Iraq costs. It is shaping up to be a trillion-dollar war. $1,000,000,000,000. That's a million millions.)

I, for one, am having trouble wrapping my brain around bridges that cost $4,000,000,000 and people who can write checks for $132,000,000 to a university, as worthy as that may be.

Sixty may be the new 50 or 40, but I’m stuck in an era when a million bucks was a lot of money. Now it’s pocket change.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Murder on my mind

Last Thursday night at about 11:45, a man was shot in the Hillsdale Shopping Center parking lot “just west of the Wild Oats grocery store…” according to a sketchy story in Saturday’s Oregonian. He died soon after.

I’m weighing the details, trying to decide whether I should find out more about the murder.

Here is more from The Oregonian story:

The victim was listed as a Michael Christopher Mason, 25, “who was on probation for failure to register as a sex offender stemming from a 1995 juvenile sodomy conviction in which the victim was a younger relative.”

Mason’s most recent address was “along NE 162nd Avenue.” He also faced “possession of meth charges from last July.”

That was what we learned on Saturday.

I’ve been watching the newspaper for the past two days for a follow story but so far nothing. I put out a call today to our local crime prevention officer, Michael Boyer, as he is a good source who first alerted me to the story on Friday.

FOX news loves stories like this and could be a place to watch, but frankly, I can’t bring myself to monitor FOX for its breathless tabloid reporting.

Still, because I put out a little on-line newsletter, called the Hillsdale News, the murder story is testing my mission for the cyber-publication.

How much does its 200 readers need to know about the murder of a pedophile/meth head who apparently lived 10 miles from here?

I could apply some textbook news “values “ to the story as it stands:

Is it timely? Yes but the most significant event has been reported.
Is it nearby? Yes because it happened here; no because the victim doesn’t seem to be from here.
Does it involve someone prominent? Apparently not.
Does it have an impact on readers? Seemingly not.
Is it unusual? Yes, murders are rare here.

The story gets a middling score, if you accept these traditional news values as being valid. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

Unless there is more to this — I know it may sound crass —this is a story for curiosity seekers and Rupert Murdoch.

Still, a few questions come to mind, the answers to which might elevate the story to significance. What was Mason doing here? Passing through? Did he present a danger to the neighborhood? Who killed him? Someone from around here? And why? Could his murder have resulted from a meth deal gone bad?

There is another curious angle. According to the Oregonian story, after Mason was shot, someone dropped him and a woman companion off at the Hopewell House Hospice in Hillsdale. Apparently the driver thought the hospice was some kind of medical facility. (“Hospice?…Hospital?…Whatever!”)

The story gave the driver’s name as “Jason,” but “Jason” didn’t stick around to see what would happen to the mortally wounded Mason and the woman, whose name, for some reason, wasn’t given in the story. As of Saturday, the police were trying to find “Jason,” who was reportedly driving a white Ford Focus at the time of the murder.

So here are more questions: Have the police found “Jason”? Where does HE live? Is he a suspect? Are there any suspects? And what about the woman? Who is she? What does she know? Was she a witness? What was her relationship to Mason, or, for that matter, to “Jason.”

Finally there’s the question that only I can answer: In light of the Hillsdale News’ mission, which is to help inform the community about events and developments important to its progress, does Mason’s murder matter?

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

On being one

Quakers often speak of the “Inner Light” and “that of God in each of us.”

In the last couple of days I’ve been led, in a Quakerly manner, to think more about divinity and spirituality and where they reside.

In an all-encompassing universe (a UNI-VERSE) that defies human notions of “place” and separateness, I believe we are blinded when we posit our spirituality here or there or anywhere.

Some belief systems place the spirit within us (in the heart or the solar plexus or in the center of the forehead). Some project a part of the spirit into an exterior place (a sanctuary, a shrine, a house of worship, to a Rome, Mecca, or Jerusalem) or into a person (Jesus, Mohamed, Buddha etc.)

But the spirit isn’t “place-able,” because it is in every person, every place, every thing — all at once, everywhere.

It is everything.

Even as we Quakers speak narrowly of the “Inner Light,” we practice silent worship that moves us “out” as well, to include a vast oneness.

Dispensing with words in the silence is a huge step because words separate through definitions. A “tree” is not a “rock.” “You” are not “me.” A “Jew” is not a “Muslim” — who is not a “Christian,” who is not a “Buddhist,” who is not an “atheist,” and, yes, who is not a “Quaker.”

Moreover Quakers (or “Quakers,” if you will) worship as a community, a form that acknowledges a spiritual oneness, however narrowly defined it may be by our “Quaker” beliefs. As a community, we can say we are parts of a whole that is speaking to itself through each of us, but by seeing ourselves as parts, we become separate, even in our coming together.

As Quakers, indeed as human beings, we find it difficult to express what it means to be “of everything.” We are not “part of” everything. We do not “join” with everything.

Rather, we ARE it.

If only we could say and affirm that—as one.

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