Saturday, February 02, 2008

Icing on the Hill

I've learned over the last week or two that this winter's snow isn't staying around for long. This morning we had a serious snow flurry for about an hour, but by evening little snow was left on the ground. Just down the hill in the Hillsdale Town Center, you'd never know it snowed at all.

I poked my head outside at mid-day and took these photos while there was still whiteness to record. The shrubs looked like someone had doused them with gloppy sugar frosting. The patio table was covered with a soggy snow-white table cloth. The bird feeder, full of seed, was glazed and unvisited. The birds have been noticeable by their troubling absence.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Screen time: How much and what kind?

I represent the media literacy group, Media Think, on a "screentime awareness" coalition consisting primarily of public health advocates.

Often, I find myself being the odd person out in the group. My colleagues are concerned primarily about the health consequences of excessive screen time for children. At the top of their list is childhood obesity and diabetes, both of which have been described as epidemics among today’s children.

I don't disagree with them, but we have a running debate in the coalition about whether, in addition to the amount of time spent in front of screens, we should be equally concerned about the content of the screen media. Should we make judgments about what is harmful and what is helpful, regardless of how much children watch it?

My cohorts don't want to go there. To make our task simple, they want to focus on limiting screen time, which is easily quantifiable. Our guide has been the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP says that children shouldn’t spend more than one or two hours a day with "quality programming" on screens. Children two years old and younger should spend NO time in front of screens. (Throw out the Baby Einstein, parents!)

The reasons to limit screen time are numerous. You can check them out on the excellent AAP Media Matters web site.

That said, I like to remind my colleagues that, as a community college teacher, I routinely make assignments that require my students to write on computers. They can easily spend three or more hours doing homework in front of screens.

I maintain that how we use screens (as tools, as entertainment, as teachers, as escapes, as addictions) is as important as how much time we spend with them.

Now comes an article in today’s New York Times about the growth of online schools. If a child is "in online school” for three or four hours a day, is that bad? Many educators and parents don’t think so.

I don’t think so either.

I’m not about to resign from our "screen time" coalition, but it seems to me that anyone working on media issues must be flexible and open.

Technology, education, ways of learning and even human behavior are constantly and rapidly changing. We need to be nimble and alert to the changes, and adjust accordingly and wisely.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Starbucks drops out of "Third Place"

Here at ground level in Hillsdale, it comes as no surprise that Starbuck’s is in trouble.

For several years, I’ve used the price of a latté at Starbucks as the basic currency for discretionary spending. To persuade a majority of folks in Hillsdale to tax themselves for undergrounding utilities in the Town Center, I paraded out the cost to each household in terms of Starbucks lattés. “For the price of two lattés a month for the next eight years, we can get rid of overhead blight of wires, garbage-can-sized transformers and poles,” I wrote.

People had no problem with the thought of giving up two lattés a month. A majority approved the undergrounding plan. Unfortunately, the city council shot it down for reasons I won't go into here, but they had nothing to do with lattés or Starbucks.

The point is that a latté, or whatever overpriced coffee drink Starbucks is pouring, is dispensable. If you buy three of these concoctions a week, as many do, it will cost you $10 minimum. That’s $520 a year.

So when the economy starts to tank and you are looking for ways to trim the budget, dispensing with visits to Starbucks is an obvious choice.

But there’s more. Starbucks increasingly has transformed its “third place” (home, office, Starbucks) into, well, just another store packed with branded, non-essential consumer enticements.

What Starbucks, and any other businesses for that matter, needs to do in a place like Hillsdale is make its store an integral part of the community.

It can begin with its name. Downplay “Starbucks” and play up “Hillsdale.” The local Hillsdale store works within the parameters set by “corporate.” When we have a community event, like the book sale or the pancake breakfast, we can count on the Hillsdale Starbucks to donate coffee.

But those occasional events aren’t going to seal the deal.

If you want to see how you get close to community in Hillsdale, look at Starbucks’ next-door neighbor, Baker & Spice. In a brief two plus years, the bakery-cum-coffee spot has become the “third place” of choice for most of us.

Why’s that?

First of all, Baker & Spice isn’t selling corporate accessories. The owners are on-site. You can watch the process of culinary creation (baking) as you wait to be served. Many of the tables are communal. Every manner of local communication is given a place along the sideboards. Local art adorns the walls. They’ve even named a bread after Hillsdale.

You may not own the place, but you know that somebody you know, or could know, does. And that somebody cares about Hillsdale. Ergo: I’ll spend my discretionary coffee money at Baker & Spice — even in the teeth of a recession.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A fearful invocation of King and RFK

Then there were three.

Try them on for size.

President McCain

President Clinton

President Obama

How do they feel?

Ill-fitting? Tentative? Weird? A whole lot better than what we have?

Frankly, I was pulling for a President Edwards or a President Gore, but none of the candidates are much interested in what my fellow Oregonians and I think, thanks to our after-the-fact May primary.

I suppose President Gore is still a possibility, particularly if there is a stalemated convention and political justice in the world (fat chance), but he’s a long shot.

Of the three live candidates, Obama is the only one who was, and is, right on the defining issue for me, Iraq. (Obama believes we should never have gone there and need to get out pronto.). McCain wants to stay and suffer the chaos. Clinton still finds it beneath her to admit to the folly of authorizing the invasion in the first place. Her stance is sheer arrogance.

Now that Edwards has withdrawn, the latest round of polls show Obama picking up most of Edwards’ support. I was starting to lean away from Edwards even before he withdrew. I found myself being drawn to what seems like an Obama mystique.

Obama infuses his speeches with an almost transcendental, soul-directed quality. When he won in South Carolina, he described our divisions as being as much within us as individuals as they are within us as a nation. We need to health ourselves. The senator’s timing and phrasing are eerily like that of Martin Luther King Jr. Clearly he has so assimilated King’s speeches that they are part of his marrow.

Then there are the comparisons to Bobby Kennedy, his fervor and his sense of mission. That same "why not?" fire seems to burn in Obama.

A caution. Four paragraphs ago, I used the word “live.” These three candidates are obviously more than politically alive. They are literally alive, and they are vulnerable in a world of hatemongers, some with celebrity status (Yes, Rush, I mean you). I’m old enough to have lived through the anguish of 1968. It is a year one wants to forget, but never can. We bear its scars. Invoking of the names of King and Kennedy is apt and good, but the invocation is tainted with fear and grief.

It is one thing to have to wait for May and then November to choose among these leaders. It’s quite another to have to have the choice stolen by madness, hatred, conspiracy or terror.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Summertime" in January

Glory, hallelujah!

Somebody captured on video the late, great Gene Harris' tantalizing, stoked-up, soulful take on "Summertime."

It's a roaring fire on a winter's night.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Forging a stage to plunge into battle

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, from Section V, An approach to style:

Rule 18: Use figures of speech sparingly. … When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.

From the Front page of Sunday’s New York Times:

Senator Barack Obama won a commanding victory over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, forging a coalition of support among black and white voters in a contest that sets the stage for a state-by-state fight for the party’s presidential nomination.

In a bitter campaign here infused with discussions of race, Mr. Obama’s convincing victory puts him on equal footing with Mrs. Clinton —with two wins each in early-voting states — and gives him fresh momentum as the contest plunges into a nationwide battle over the next 10 days.

Metaphor, figure or speech and cliche tally:

“commanding victory”
“forging a coalition”
“sets the stage”
“equal footing”
“fresh momentum”
“plunges into battle”

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Protecting our public privacy

I don’t get many responses to posts on the Red Electric, but two readers have responded to last night’s essay about recorded voice ads on the Portland Streetcars.

I appreciate the comments, even though I disagree with them.

Both reflect the reaction I got from the Portland Streetcar Citizen Advisory Committee when I complained about intrusive voice sponsorships of trolley stops.

I have the sense that the committee, and my two readers, wonder what planet I had been living on. Their view seems to be: “Ads are everywhere; get used to it.”

Well, believe it or not, there are societies that respect the privacy of citizens even when they are in public places. Some societies do not treat our need to use public transit as an opportunity to sell us out to commercial interests. And yes, public officials can find other ways to financially support mass transit. In fact, Portland's trolleys are largely supported by parking meter fees.

That said, most transit systems have visual advertising. At least they can be screened out. You don’t have to look at billboards or placard s(you can always read a book), but it is impossible to not hear recorded messages (Wait, maybe that’s why they invented iPods!).

As noted, I also resent the ads' suggestion that publicly, tax-payer financed street intersections are “sponsored” by advertisers.

In the end, the Red Electric’s two readers and the citizens’ advisory committee are politely telling me that I am fighting a battle that has been lost.

So be it. But with the defeat, and those that follow it, go, over time, the idea that there is a “Commons” — places (schools, parks, libraries, streetcars, airports) that belong to we, the People. Beyond that, the notions of government of, by and for the People, of community and the common good are certain to be eroded.

At some point, my critics may, just may, decide to draw the line — and wish that that had done so sooner. Like now.