Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inflation and Values

At Borders, we recently moved around the shelves in the Children's section to allow for a lot more free space (presumably to put toys and displays in that area for Christmas, but that's another story). As I went into the kid's section last night to clean it up, I noticed that the kids (and their "adult" guardians) had strewn things all over that area. It was as if they didn't want to see the floor, were afraid of it. Open places and quiet spaces always get them down (Carpenters). Chaos seemed to be more familiar to them. Now whether the floor was a comparisons to the homes of the people that made the mess, I don't know. But it did bring about an interesting economics idea.

One of the biggest negatives about the Congress' bailout plan for Wall Street is the idea that flooding the market with that much money would cause inflation. Or to put it simply, adding more of something devalues its worth. To take a Duck Tales episode briefly, Scrooge found a place where bottle caps were prized as money. So when Launchpad dropped a whole plane full of them on the country, the bottlecaps soon became worthless. What would have bought a house would now have bought a stick of bubble gum. A simple and exaggerated definition of inflation.

Now, let's apply this to something other than money. Let's look at stuff. Thoreau, in the first chapter of Walden, ranted about the amount of "stuff" that each person had collected with them throughout their lives. It would be an ideal image to show a person walking through life with everything he owned on top of his back, and eventually, it would be impossible to move at all. The worth of these things is also effected. Would a cup, being the only one that you had to drink coffee out of, be more valuable to you than a cup in which you had 20 just like it. Now break that cup. Do you glue it back together? If that was the only one you had...yes! But if it was one out of 20, you'd just go get another cup.

The same idea is carried over with children. The items they see throughout the stores... those items aren't owned by them, they have no intrinsic value sitting on the shelves. And if this idea is propagated by the parents, who would just as soon sit a book (or a pound of hamburger) on a shelf someplace, or on the floor (which wouldn't matter for a book too much, but it would ruin the beef), then the children have no need to take care of all the items they see around them. The value of these things is less and less, the more they see. In fact, most things that are sold today are quite worthless, in the eyes of people. They are things to be used, manipulated, and tossed away when it no longer interests you (the sad thing is that this can also be applied to looking at other people as well.  If a child, having only a few toys, was told to value these things, because they could not be replaced, they would be much less likely to destroy their toys, and when at the store, would see an increased intrinsic value in the items on the shelves. But if a child had a million toys, what would be the harm in breaking a few, or destroying a few toys in a store, for it wasn't theirs, and they weren't really a big deal anyway, he or she had plenty at home.

And I see it everywhere, from badly folded Yugi-oh cards, to books that, when read, the readers fold the spine all the way back so they can read it with one hand (which drives me absolutely bonkers), to naked Barbie Dolls (their hair won't grow back).

We don't respect or value anything anymore, because it can all be so easily replaced. This includes people, if you want to stretch the idea to the increase of divorces in America, or to the idea of "consumerism" that I've ranted about on previous blogs. There is, in business, a desire to create things that people will buy, that they desire, even if it harms them in the process. Double Cheeseburgers are offered, and so they are bought. And then we get high blood pressure and cholesterol and are sent to the doctor where we pay more money, and bloodwork (more money) and medications (more) and join fitness programs (wasted money) and finally have to buy a large coffin because the regular size won't fit our large bodies. This of course, is an exaggeration, but it's worth looking at. Because, in my opinion, there are some businesses that see customers as a resource, a renewable one, that can easily be replaced by the normal propagation techniques.

Take Credit card companies for example. Why is it that Visa or Mastercard doesn't fight you when you file for bankruptcy because you own them thousands of dollars? Because they know that there are college kids just waiting to fill out those forms and get credit cards. You're old news, bad meat, and they can get fresh meat any time they want it. People are numerous, and inflation states that they are now more worthless than they were in times past, when fewer people shopped and ran the economy of the nation. The list of examples is endless on this.

It's more than just simple supply and demand that drives this idea of inflation. People must also have a value for items, people, ideas...etc... There is a value to books, even though there may be a hundred or a million like it, because of the information contained therein. One could get damaged in the rain, and while you would have to buy another one, it would still contain the same valuable information. My assertion is that there is a value for everything that can be measure in such fashion.

I can only remember seeing a couple luna moths in my life. Gorgeous insects that glow in any light. Suffice it to say they are more rare than the common gray moths that fly around the porch lights at night. Now, what if that thing of beauty was as common as a sparrow, say. Would they be any less beautiful? Would you become blind to their beauty because of their commonality?

Take people for instance. A person should be valued as an individual, not for the money that he or she makes, or the items that he or she consumes, but rather for the thoughts and emotions that are inside of them. This is where the Borg got it all wrong. That an individual is more important as an individual, with memories and lessons and thoughts and feelings, not just someone who can by a cheeseburger. Is a person not considered valuable, even though there are millions of them upon this Earth?

If I were to teach children about value and inflation, I would teach them how to look at the value of an object indifferent to the number of them that are around. The toy to you is commonplace, banal, but to someone that has very few toys or treasures in this life, that toy would be just as valuable as a piece of fine jewelry. Separating the value of an object from the object is the best way to learn this lesson. Therefore, the books would be cleaned up, the meat put back in the freezer so someone could buy it, the person cared for, the college student warned of the problems of credit cards...etc... It is probably the most valuable lesson we could teach our children, because it impacts the way we look at the world. It brings things back into focus, and the important things of life become important again.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tending Our Gardens

I woke up this morning with (little Prozac left in me, and realizing we were out of eggs....etc...) this realization that the economy is going down the toobs (sic), and that soon places like bookstores and luxury items will become very much luxury items. At least, that is what the media would have us believe. The doomsayers and the democrats would have us believe that everything is going to hell in a handbasket (I love using cliches), and the government is the only thing that can save us all from ourselves. Meanwhile, Atlanta is suffering from unexplainable gas shortages (Conyers seems okay), and people are out blaming every politician they can find.

But before we all start jumping out windows, let us focus on what really matters. At the end of the day, all that matters is the family we go home to, putting food on the table (not going out to Applebee's or having organically made food with no preservatives), and being with the people that we love. Maybe it's time for the people that have become so dependent on fast food, fast internet, instant communications via cell phones, to come home, fix a PB&J, read a book, or play a board game, or something like that.

And if I may suggest, everyone should pick up a copy of Voltaire's Candide, which is a magnificent work of satire and a hilarious work of literature, as well as very fitting for today's world. The main characters go all around the world, having adventures, meeting all these people, just to find out what true happiness is. And in the end, they come home with their friends and maintain that true, pure happiness does not exist. Rather, hard work and being close with the loved ones in your life is what keeps us going. It has to. They do this by tending their gardens. They grow food to eat and to sell, and that is how they live the remainder of their days.

The image of the garden is so poignant, for it is used everywhere as a symbol of the sustenance of life, be it religious, or in history, or in literature. It's what makes this whole civilization we have possible. If not for food grown from the ground, we would still be hunting animals and gathering wild berries. With a garden, Thoreau was able to observe the very essence of life. Emerson called it "Self-Reliance," and that's what I say we need to do. Be self-reliant in what we do, from actually growing a garden, to doing our jobs and earning money and spending it wisely on the people that we hold dear. We must tend our gardens, as Voltaire says, and only then will we survive whatever the economy or life throws at us.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Good bye to Summer

Well, I went outside today and felt this unusual chill in the air, the kind of chill that sends the lake water to coolin' down, and the people rushing out to buy firewood (they could use the stocks they just lost, that would work too.) So good bye to summer. I wish I could have done more with it. Gotten a tan, lost some weight, made a friend or two. But it's okay... there will be other summers.


And with the end of summer comes football season, and last week's Monday Night Football game was the first game I'd seen of any major importance. Dallas Cowboys against the Philadelphia Eagles. Later, I heard the game was seen by more people than any other cable show had ever been. So naturally with a game that big, they had to pick some upstart pseudo-pop singer to sing the National Anthem. It was horrible, terrible, an offense to the American Flag and the citizens of the US. And after she was done, you could distinctly hear boos in the crowd. Here they are, in Texas Stadium, in the middle of the country, the heart of conservatism and patriotism, and they pick someone who mangled and tortured the national anthem. It would have been much better to have picked someone with a few years singing experience. A country group, perhaps. Everyone should stop trying to outdo Whitney Houston and just sing the song with pride in their heart.


I subjected myself to Star Trek Nemesis recently. A horrible plot with enough holes to drive starships through. The characters are hollow, the lines forced, and it looked like Data was hemorrhaging through each scene. Perfectly awful. I only watched it so that if any of the books that take place after it reference happenings inside of it, I'll know about them. Hopefully JJ Abrams can breathe some life into that wonderful universe.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Book Review: _Islands in the Sky_ by Arthur C. Clarke

When George Lucas was filming the first Star Wars film, and the government authorities had to take a look at the plans for the X-Wing fighter to determine whether government secrets had been leaked out, they missed the boat by about 30 years. Science fiction writers had been guessing the state of things for ages, and it's truly a remarkable experience to see just how right they were. I just read the late Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, and was fascinated with the intricate descriptions of the Space Shuttle, weather satellites, communication devices, ideas of orbiting solar energy panels, space stations..etc... all written in 1952! Simply amazing. How one man could think of the entire world so far ahead, and then live long enough to see it come to fruition. And we did go to Venus (although not a manned outfit) by 1985, but found it incredibly hot and uninviting. So the time frame was off a little, but the ideas were sound.

Another aspect was how similar this book is to Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. I know this comparison has been made before, some even suggesting that OSC copied it from Clarke (which is not true at all, but instead points to how amazingly accurate Clarke was when developing the science behind the novel). It is a homage to Clarke for Card to be so directly compared with him. The orbiting space "hotel", with it's rotating gravity wells, is almost identical to the military training station in Ender's Game. Also the ideas about where "down" was in space. There is room enough in this world for both novels.

One day, when the fascination for things of fantasy fade, when dragons are asleep on their hoards, and vampires are safely stored in their coffins, and wizards study the stars rather than alchemy, the jewels of science fiction will come back to enchant children once again. Islands in the Sky is currently out of print, and I only hope that one day that return to join the classics of the age, never to go out of print again. In fact, there are quite a few novels now that teenagers and kids can read from the masters of science fiction. They are valuable resources for teachers who want to incorporate science and math into reading. I'm gonna list some of them here, and will work on it more as a resource for teachers that come to Borders.

Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

Red Planet also by Heinlein

Dolphin Island by Clarke

And every student should be exposed to the short story "Cold Equations," by Tom Godwin. Not to mention stories by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Passions and Self-control: the Rock in the Storm.

If you ask me my favorite poem, or what poem I think is the best ever written, I will tell you without hesitation that it is T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I say this not only because of the endless references to cultural and literary events and works (which Eliot took to it's logical extreme in "The Waste Land), but also because it signifies a change in human thought. It is as important to the philosophical world as Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man" or the early works of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Basically, it tells of a man in a mid-life crisis, of a person who, while socializing with women, would be thinking of grandiose phrases and philosophical ideas after "the taking of toast and tea," only for the woman to say, "that is not what I meant at all," meaning some trivial aspect of the world. But on the other hand, the same man would be walking down the stairs, with nothing but the bald spot on his mind, while the women "come and go, talking of Michelangelo." There is a definite lack of communication here, and that is precisely what from World War I to the present can be typified as. Even in this world of mass communication devices, where the world wide web has made the world flat (Friedman) and cell phones has made the distances between us unimportant. But yet there is a certain communication breakdown that makes conveying of meanings and emotions very hard to do in these times. And for that discussion, we would have to go back to Neil Postman's ideas of the Medium and the Message. But I want to go in another direction.

Prufrock and the ladies he courted had a major flaw. Not only was there a lack of communication, there was a lack of emotion as well. Prufrock dared not disturb the universe, and fretted over whether to eat a peach. The women would rather talk about idle academic subjects or hold hollow conversations than looking into the grandiose ideas (of insidious intent) that Prufrock dared to think of. In the 20th century, and even into the present, the idea of emotional thought, anything past the artificial acts of outrage and commercially caused tears from movies on Lifetime, is hard to locate. Especially with guys, and children (especially boys) are taught that emotions are a sign of weakness. Even women, when given to emotional states, is looked down upon. I have been astounded to see family members whose son or daughter had been shot, and to see very little crying, and more outrage, more anger, coming from the surface, easy to express and quick to dissipate. And afterward, trips to the psychiatrist are taken, where powerful prescriptions are given to stabilize any emotional swings, effectively zombiefying the person until such time has passed that the emotions no longer well up, like some waves on a shore before a storm.

I would assert that the control of emotions, with certain exceptions throughout history, has been of the utmost priority. Religions have been created solely around the ideas of meditation and the control of emotions, striving toward a higher plain of existence. Even in the literary world, characters such as Jane Eyre, are constantly striving to hide any emotional outbursts and subdue their passions. It is this that makes Charlotte Bronte's novel so appealing. Contemporary cultural icons also exemplify the struggle between control and passion. Gene Roddenberry used Spock (wanting to be less human) and Data (wanting to be more so) as a way to experiment with the ideas surrounding emotional expression and control. It's what makes these characters so powerful, that the passions that lie within them have to be repressed, to be replaced by discipline and conformity to society. And it's so wrong, that people are considered weak if they cannot control their emotions. We are taught from when we are children that men do not cry. They must stand firm, stolid, like a rock in a storm. And while it will offer shelter, it will not offer support. It will not keep someone warm and safe while the storm rages overhead. It is one of the biggest failures of our society, to use our emotional strength to bring love and support to those that need it.

It's also wrong to have emotions controlled by religion, or prescription medication. It's the latter I want to look at, because the first would take so many volumes of useless rhetoric. As a culture, we have taken to the idea that medication, that science, will solve the problems of our inner selves. As we battle against our own consciousness, no longer is religion the rock by which we cling. We are weak, as a society, because we cannot face our own futures. We cannot face them alone. We wind up going to psychiatrists, who, for their own benefit, will prescribe medications that will mask the effects of our weakness, keeping us stable, but still struggling, against the problems that we have. And while I am not advocating being off our medications, because I will defend to the death the effectiveness and the necessity of Prozac in my life, I understand the disadvantages to hiding behind medication instead of facing our fears and weaknesses head on.

A hundred indecisions, And a hundred visions and revisions... ((sigh)) I guess what I'm saying is that we are all trying to find that support in the storm, and medication isn't going to help that. An umbrella will only keep so much rain off, and soon you'll be as drenched as if it were not there. A truly strong person will be able to shed tears, to hug and hold someone through the hardest of times, as well as be that rock that will weather all problems, and be there when the sun comes back out again.

I only hope that I will be able to be that person for someone, and that the people that I love will be able to do the same.

[This blog didn't go as I had planned it. It started out academic, cold, as a professor in a classroom, but melted as I understood what I was actually saying.]

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Book Review: _Dove_ by Robin Lee Graham

If Thoreau had lived during the 20th century, filled with materialism and media, I doubt he would have lived near Walden for any appreciable amount of time before going crazy, or having some developer come and tear down all the trees. In these days, he would have had to migrate north to Canada, or become next door neighbors with the militia groups in Montana.

Robin Lee Graham, in 1965, decided to sail around the world, in a sailboat, with little money, and with the rebellious attitude that prevaled in these times. And Dove, the name of the ship, is the book about those adventures. I picked this book up long ago, seeing in it some Thoreauesque themes in it, a Romantic look at the world aboard a boat. I bought it several years ago, but only read it recently.

The metaphor for life running throughout the book is obvious. It's a great book for giving to graduates, who should be tired of Dr. Seuss by now. The book also makes a great argument against the current education system in America (which would also have made Thoreau nauseated). As a teacher, I found several students with great intelligence, but only in the Tactile areas. They had to have motion, do things with their hands. They were great artists, and will become mechanics or some such. But the school system has failed them, requiring them only to sit, read, write, and regurgitate material ad infinitium. To sail around the world, to experience the life of a traveler, the depths of loneliness, the joys of gratitude and the simplistic things of life. It would be the most idyllic existence, and no one could ask for anything else. Students should be interacting with their world, not programmed by books and teachers with facts and figures.

The one thing that Graham talks about most of all, and what I found most enduring, was the feelings of loneliness, especially after finding the love of his life. It mirrors the depths of a hollow heart, after a love has gone. Simple writing style, honest, pure. It seemed only at the end, when trying to convince us all of the harm we are doing to the environment does the writing get complex, and more tedious. I wonder if the co-writer didn't do more of that part. There is a follow up book, Home is the Sailor, which was made, but I've never seen it myself. But I'm sure it's available online."

Monday, September 1, 2008

College Football...finally!!!; Celebration in Sports.

Football season, 2008, has finally gotten underway, thank all that is righteous and holy, and I no longer have to search through the myriads of infomercials, reality TV shows, and reruns of Home Improvement just to find something to watch. Nor, if in need of background noise, do I need to resort to having Headline News or (gulp) CNN on to try and brainwash me on how bad things are. Now all I have to do is turn on ESPN and there will be a college football game on of some variety or quality for me to watch (or not watch.) Back a few years ago, football was only on the weekends (and occasionally Thursdays). Now it's on almost every night, and all weekend long (including the NFL games.) You could actually get the ESPN U service and have football games on 24/7, all week long, if you wanted. Ah, the shear bliss of it all. Would that the Romans could see Christians being eaten all week long (but then, there'd be no Christianity to keep things half way stable around here.)

This first week, it was the nearly endless parade of powerhouses inviting Po-dunk U to their houses for endless amounts of cash, just to beat up on them for practice before the actual games begin. It's always been done, but now it's done more. And the great thing is that, while usually it's a sure thing, occassionally... It's all because of parity. With the sole purpose of most guys' dreams to become an NFL player, there are myriads of really good players out there (that could be for good or ill, but that's another blog). And the main teams can only have so many players on their teams, so the trickle down effect makes even the bad teams not so bad. I call to attention the historic upset of then (5) Michigan to 1-AA Appalachian State. So it was with baited breath I waited for something like that to happen the first week of this year. It almost did, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Arkansas, with new coach Bobby Patrino, fresh from his dumping of the ailing Atlanta Falcons (and who had also dumped a great Louisville team just so he could coach Mike Vick and the Falcons, a dream that went to the dogs), were trailing Western Illinois until the very last second, when a field goal kept them from the depths of disaster. Oh well, it would have been just delicious to see W. Illinois beat up on the Razorbacks.

Another aspect in the news was the supposed crackdown of celebration of NCAA players after plays or touchdowns. I mean, anything gets flagged for 15 yards. I agree completely with the sports broadcasters, who saw this move by the NCAA as a feeble attempt at controlling their players, who can't be controlled off campus (often getting in trouble), but are under strict control on the field. The players can't have any fun, and the audience is kept from sharing in the joy of a play, a celebration of an athlete's culmination of a lifetime of training for a few minutes in the limelight. Knowing that most won't get to the NFL, it is natural for the players to celebrate their achievements. In every competition, there are winners and losers. Let the winners cheer and dance, and let the losers work harder, so they will be able to dance later. If there's no difference between winning and losing, then what does it matter. The day the players are forced to score points and walk calmly off the field and sit down like programmable drones is the day I stop watching football. And if they are going to be that strict, I see no reason why the best athletes shouldn't go to the NFL without finishing their degrees, where they can have fun doing the thing they most want to do in life. The NCAA, with this ruling, is making players forfeit the back-up careers just because they can't express themselves on the field. To me, it's a violation of their first amendment rights, to express themselves. As long as it's not harming the other players (taunting), then let them have their fun, and let us have ours.

And yes, I am ready for some Football. :)