Why I Skipped Watching the State of the Union

Last year I debated watching the State of the Union, a speech I’ve usually watched for most of the last decade, regardless of who’s in the Oval Office. This year I didn’t even think twice. Instead of watching, I was in bed before 10pm, reading a book and going to sleep.

Last year I wasn’t quite sure what a Trump State of the Union would be like. This year, I didn’t need to perch on the edge of my seat to wonder. I’ve seen enough of the man to know what to expect, and so instead of watching it, I read the transcript this morning. (It goes so much faster when you don’t have to listen to the interminable applause that goes on during that event. I’ve never liked that.)

Back when I taught Freshman composition, I would go over speeches with students, looking for the different uses of pathos (appeal to emotion), ethos (appeal to credibility), and logos (appeal to logic). The State of the Union was always an easy target to use as an example, and Trump’s speech last night was no exception. He had WWII veterans kids with cancer present to tug on the heart strings. He had a slew of data that he used to appear logical. And of course he has his persona, which demands that he be listened to because he is Trump. Some of that is because he’s the President now. Some of that is because people watched him fire people on The Apprentice for years.

But when I was teaching students, I didn’t just show the how to spot the different arguments. I wanted them to see how those arguments are sometimes used to manipulate an audience.

In the middle of a speech where you’re being applauded left and right, it’s easy to accept the facts you give as true, even if they’re not, for example. Trump’s often had a trouble with the truth, and he’s built his entire platform around a longing for yesteryear. “Make America Great Again” is nothing if not an appeal to emotion.

He’s not alone in the way he’s done this. Other Presidents did the same thing. Politicians pretty much across the board. But what particularly rankles me about Trump is his insistence that he doesn’t do it. That he always tells the truth, even when he’s lying that instant. He’s had problems with truth from his inauguration on, and I see no need to sit and listen to an inveterate liar be applauded for an hour and a half.

I’d much rather sleep. And so I did.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Good Intentions Don’t Make a Bad Law Better

A few months ago, a Maine lawmaker’s 12th grade son was assigned to read a graphic novel in school: Kafka on the Shore. It’s not an obscure book. It won the World Fantasy Award in 2006, appeared on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2005, and has received a fair bit of acclaim.

It also contains explicit depictions of sex and rape.

The lawmaker was shocked by the assigned reading, and so she decided to do something about it, proposing LD 94, a bill which would make it illegal to provide obscene material to children in school. (Which has since been amended to make it so educators must alert parents that materials have objectionable content, and parents have to opt in to let their children access it.) Educators who fail to do so can be charged with a Class C felony, which carries a sentence of up to 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

A few comments. First, I have not read the book in question. Frankly, I don’t think the specific book in question should enter into the discussion, since this isn’t a proposed law to declare Kafka on the Shore an obscene work. Rather, we need to look at what this law would do and what its implications would be.

I get very uncomfortable the moment laws start bandying around words like “obscene.” Maine already has a law prohibiting the dissemination of obscene materials to minors. (It has an exception for materials that are provided for educational purposes, so it exempts libraries, public school, universities, etc. from that law. This amendment looks to take “public school” off the list of educational exemptions, which is ironic.) In the law, “obscene” is defined as material which:

(1) To the average individual, applying contemporary community standards, with respect to what is suitable material for minors, considered as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
(2) Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive manner, ultimate sexual acts, excretory functions, masturbation or lewd exhibition of the genitals; and
(3) Considered as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

(And never mind that Kafka on the Shore wouldn’t qualify as obscene under this guideline, because as I said, this isn’t about the book in question. It’s about the greater implications of the law.)

This definition is hard to meet, making it really only applicable in blatant cases of obscenity. That’s just fine by me, because I have seen far too many examples of times when someone else’s definition of “obscene” was far different than my own. (True story: when I worked at Orem Public Library, there were numerous times people came to the desk wondering why we didn’t put ratings on the books. “Just like with movies.” They wanted some restricted so that certain ages couldn’t check them out. Pro tip: asking a librarian to start censoring the collection or limiting it in anyway is a good way to get ignored. We’re kind of all about freedom of information.)

In the end, this bill is unnecessary and a huge overreach. It’s using a bazooka to solve a simple problem. There are already mechanisms in place for individual schools to have books challenged and decided on at a local level. There’s no need to blow up the entire system of how things work in public schools just because one parent didn’t like the way that system worked. The Maine Library Association spoke out strongly against this bill, and I’m 100% in agreement with them.

I have nothing against people deciding what sort of things they do and do not want their family to read, watch, or listen to. I was assigned a book my senior year of high school (Rabbit, Run, by John Updike). As I read it, I was uncomfortable with its depictions of sex. I went to my teacher and asked for an alternative assignment. She gave me Quentin Durward, instead. It was great. No big fuss needed. No big hullabaloo made. When it comes to my approach as a parent, I keep an eye on what my kids read and watch. I have conversations with them about things they’re consuming. I’m an active part in it. These days, my experience leads me to believe parents should be far more worried about what their kids can see online than what they’re getting in school. But if there is something that comes up that makes a family or student uncomfortable, there’s a system to challenge it.

Here’s hoping this bill comes to a quick and painless end.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Adventures in Cooking: Super Bowl Time

I watch very little professional football, but I do watch the Super Bowl each year. Why? Because I like all the stuff around it. The ads. The halftime show. Sometimes the game. Yesterday’s game left a fair bit to be desired, unless you love a great defensive showdown, which I don’t. I was rooting for the Patriots, because there are two teams almost everyone in this area loves. The Red Sox and the Patriots. And since there’s no way I could ever love the Red Sox, I choose to root for the Patriots. (Which makes me an extremely unusual combination: A Yankee/Patriots fan. Yes, somehow I’ve become a mixture of two of the most-hated fan bases in the country. FWIW, I like the Eagles more than the Patriots, so there’s that.)

But I digress.

One of the other things I love about the Super Bowl is the excuse for a good party. I’ve been going to Super Bowl parties for years and years. Even when there isn’t one to go to, I try to make the event special at home. This year we’d just done Groundhog Day, so the Super Bowl turned into a family affair. I had plans, however. Chili, corn bread, brownies, chips and dips. It was going to be great.

Except a key player in that plan was Denisa. I could do the brownies no problem. Dips? Sure. In a pinch, I could probably even do corn bread, though I’ve never done it before. But chili that doesn’t involve just opening a can and putting it in the microwave? Chili that involves . . . cutting onions AND celery AND carrots? And even mincing garlic?

That is decidedly in the Denisa Realm, a land of mystery and wonder, where magically delicious things originate, though we’re not quite sure how.

And Denisa, even though she doesn’t like football, was up for it. Until she got sick. It was at that point that I had to decide how much I wanted this to be a real party event. Just how committed was I to the cause?

I made my first chili-from-scratch yesterday. I also made brownies and corn bread. In the end, it all turned out well. Denisa wanted to make a vegetarian chili, which I stuck with. I burned the vegetables some, and I almost burned the chili to the bottom of the pot. I also discovered we were out of chili powder, but I called an audible and stuck some taco seasoning in, instead. I was fairly worried that instead of chili, we’d be eating taco flavored water, but in the end it all turned out fine.

Did I develop a love for cooking in the process? Reader, I did not. But I was proud in the end that it all turned out okay, even if I was kind of grumpy and pessimistic in the middle of the adventure.

Would I do it again if Denisa got sick and couldn’t cook? Sure. Maybe next time I won’t even burn the vegetables . . .

As for the game and party itself, it was all just kind of okay. The game was kind of boring, the ads were mostly meh, and I really didn’t like the halftime show. The food was good, though. So there’s that.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Don’t Jump to Conclusions: Mob Mentality on the Internet

It feels like we get a new story to be upset about every day. Some of them are local, some of them are national, and some are even international. And while I’m certainly not trying to say these stories are all fabrications, I know much of how the internet works these days (monetarily speaking) is focused around eyeballs. If you can get people to click through to your article, you get money. Take a stroll through established news sites and you’ll see this immediately.

Right this instant, CNN is running the following stories on its front page: “5 Ways to Understand Cory Booker’s Presidential Chances.” “She Ate 501 Wings in 30 Minutes.” “Drought Woes? This Tech Can Literally Make It Rain.” Fox News has more of the same: “Here’s Who Really SHOULD Run for President.” “What Patriots Star Did for Bullied Girl QB Will Make You Smile.” I could go on, but we’ve all seen how click-baity things have become. These are sites that at least some people in the country consider reputable, non-“Weekly World News” sources of information. And they’re all designed to get people to click through so they can sell more ads.

And to be truly successful (to prompt other people to share the stories and encourage them to go viral), nothing’s quite as effective as outrage. Write a story and slant it in a way to provoke an immediate response of anger, and you’ll quickly enflame a group of people who have lots of like-minded friends who’ll want to share that story onward. All sorts of eyeballs just waiting to be mined. This happens on both ends of the political spectrum, and it happens daily.

I’m not going to list specific stories here, because to me, it’s not about the stories. Some of the stories are accurate and justified. Some of the stories are biased smear pieces designed to do nothing more than enrage. What I’d like to focus on is how we respond to any story we come across. Speaking as an information professional, I’d like to suggest a couple of things we should do when we’re presented with a story that just makes our blood boil:

  • Take a step back and look at the story with a critical eye. Are both sides of the story portrayed? Why or why not? Could there be more to the story than you’re aware of? Do you really have all the facts? When I come across an account of a story, I like to discuss the concept at the core of it, rather than the specifics of that individual case. If I don’t know the details of an incident, I don’t feel qualified to speak to those details publicly. I’ve read a single article about the story? That doesn’t make me an expert, though I definitely feel free to talk about the concepts that article may bring up.
  • Try to get more information. Look for the other side of the story presented elsewhere. Search out unbiased sources that aren’t clamoring to be shared on social media. Inform yourself about what’s going on.
  • Avoid falling for any immediate “call to action” sort of things. Often these stories are presented in a very clear cut right/wrong sort of scenario. The right decision is so painfully obvious, it’s shocking that anyone in the world would have made a different decision. In these cases, it can be very tempting to call for consequences as quickly as possible. “That person did WHAT? They should be fired.” This sort of flash-mob, viral justice mentality does no one any favors, and often ends up doing far more harm than good.

I’m always careful to acknowledge when I don’t know the whole story. I’ll discuss the principles behind a story without calling for actual outcomes for the specific story in question. Why? Because my experience leads me to believe clear cut right/wrong cases are few and far between, but it’s quite simple to portray something in that light. An author gets to select what details to include and what to exclude, and through that process, the reader can be fairly easily manipulated.

I’m not saying I never fall for the technique, and there are probably instances where I should have spoken out more strongly than I did, but I believe on the whole, my approach has served me well. We can call for more understanding and civility in the world and around us without making specific “Off with their head!” accusations in stories where we know only what a single writer has told us.

The trick is we *want* to be upset. We *want* to rush in to the victim’s aid, especially when it’s *so clear* who the victim is. That’s a good trait to have, and I wish we’d see it more in the here and now instances where witnesses watch events unfold first hand. That’s the time to speak up. To call people to account. You’ve got far more facts than a person sitting in front of his computer reading about the story a week or two later can ever have, and you have a far better chance of actually doing some good. You don’t have to be a jerk about it, but you can say things like, “I hope I misheard you,” or “I might not have the whole story, but it really seems like . . .”

There have been a number of stories I’ve seen circulating online the last few weeks. These are the thoughts they’ve kicked up with me. Thanks for listening.

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

For Decluttering to Really Work, We Need to Cut It Off at the Source

I’m taking about 50,000 Magic: The Gathering cards off to sell at a local store today, bringing to a close a two year project I took on when I bought around 100,000 of the things for $100. (All told, I think I’ll have made around $1,000 off the purchase, so I didn’t do too bad for myself, financially speaking. But was it worth all the time and headache? I’m not sure.)

Now that I’ve got them out of the house, I can turn my attention to decluttering other things. I really like the Marie Kondo “Spark Joy” mentality, though I recently came up with a different approach on my own. I take a look at the stuff I have and ask myself “If I lost this in a flood or a fire or some other accident, how upset would I be?”

In some cases, I’d be pretty upset. If I lost some of my favorite shirts or my media collection or favorite books, I’d be really bummed. But there’s plenty of things (*plenty*) that I’d just sort of shrug and not worry about for another second.

Why in the world do I still have those things, then?

Some of it is due to the cost of having to make decisions about things. I don’t just want to get a big dumpster and toss in everything I don’t want. I want to get rid of things responsibly. Some things we’ve been working on selling: furniture we’re not using anymore, high quality things that would be worth something to someone else. We’ve made some significant progress with that. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s hard to sell, or that really isn’t worth much to begin with. There are also things that aren’t important to me, but which might be important to someone else in the house. It’s hard to just go through and get rid of things left and right. Each item turns into a committee of decisions.

But really, one of the biggest things to help cut the clutter would be to just not buy the stuff in the first place. That’s an area where I have issues (obviously: if I have clutter, it’s coming from *somewhere*.). Many times I’ll buy something because I want it, or because buying it makes me happy. (Let’s not get into a psychoanalysis of where that consumerism comes from for now.)

So what steps can I take to make sure I stop buying things today that I’m going to just want to get rid of tomorrow? As I’ve thought about that problem, I’ve come up with a few approaches:

  • Look at the things I’m needing to declutter. Stop buying more of those things. This means board games that I’m not 100% sold on, kitchen gadgets of questionable worth, clothes that aren’t needed, and pretty much anything I’ve bought on an impulse. (So I’m going to need to work on impulse control, as well. Great.)
  • Add a mandatory waiting period before I buy something. Ask myself if it’s something that’s going to replace something I already have and use (in which case, I need to discard the thing that it’s replacing once it arrives.)
  • Don’t buy things for birthdays and holidays just so I can give something. This might be one of the biggest offenders. Kids have birthdays. I want to show my kids I love them, so I want to get them something. They’re American kids, so they want to *get* something. But a lot of the times, “something” just ends up being nothing more than that: a thing they get and then don’t use. Sure, giving money seems like a cop-out, but one thing I’ve never felt like I’ve had too much of is money. I could also give stocks or experiences.
  • Don’t bring home presents for the kids when I go on business trips. I’ve started bringing home a box of Dunkin’ Donuts instead. That usually goes over just as well, and it automatically declutters itself within a day or so.
  • Conversely, I shouldn’t ask for things for my birthday or holidays just so people have something to give me. This is actually one area where being a Magic: the Gathering collector has really helped. The things I really want tend to be no bigger than a playing card. I get them, and I’m happy, even if the people who give them to me don’t understand why.

It’s easy to look at my kids’ stuff and tell them they need to declutter as well, but I personally don’t feel like I have the right to do that until I’ve decluttered my own stuff. How can I tell them their room needs to be spotless when my own room is littered with Stuff?

In the end, I’m sure if I can just cut the source of the clutter out, then I’ll be able to get on top of things over time using normal decluttering approaches. I still have plenty of low hanging fruit. The biggest offender I hold onto is stuff that I keep “just in case.” Chargers and cable connectors that I “might need one day.” Almost everything I buy ends up coming with its own cables and chargers. And what’s the worst case scenario? I have to buy one thing one time?

I think that’s a risk I can handle.

Anyway. That’s where I am mentally around decluttering today. I’m looking forward to getting more stuff out of my house and freeing up more space inside my house to just live and relax. As long as I keep that vision in mind, it should be easy. Right?

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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