The Lost Passion of Reading

According to a study profiled by the Daily Telegraph, "less than half of children aged nine to 14 read fiction more than once a month".

That's sad. Not in a pathetic sense, but downright gut-wrenching.

My wife and I recently organised our meager collection of books. Looking through them made us long for more time to read and also appreciate our parents for teaching us to love reading. There is satisfaction from finishing a good book that can't be mirrored in watching a good movie, wading through Wikipedia, or reading blogs and other articles. And yet I tragically find myself to be like the majority of youth. I love to read, yet rarely read more than a book each season. Why?

Source: Aha! Jokes
Part of it has to do with assigned reading in English classes in junior high and high school. Ironically, I probably read ten times the word count prior to high school than I did in and beyond. English class, while it exposed me to various genres, forced me to analyse literature. I no longer was reading for fun, but was required to find the deeper meanings in the text. It didn't help when a teacher interpreted something differently than I might. It wasn't that I couldn't understand what I read; that just wasn't my goal. Since reading was no longer chosen and performed for enjoyment, it quelled my passion for books.
Source: Immivasion
But for another large factor I can only blame myself. I love content absorption, and with so much quality content on how things work, on history, on language, and anything else simply a click a way on the internet, it's easy to fill my time learning. Often, though, the learning is surface deep, because the analysis is already done. I'm sure this will be even more dangerous for the generations to come, and I hope to teach my children, as my parents taught me, to love books as much I did then, thirsting for knowledge as well as wisdom and understanding. But above all, finding the lost passion of reading.
Source: CartoonStock

Thank You, Sterling...

The last post was written by Sterling, a friend and guest blogger. I hope to convince him to write here again in the future, so let him know how great his article was by commenting on it!

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Texting, Friends, and Scholars

I’ve written previously about the effects of texting on social behavior (Daily Universe, 10/19/2010), primarily citing an enlightening study published in a Wall Street Journal article (10/14/2010). While determining the long-term effects of texting on social behavior and norms requires more time and study—after all, texting is in its relative infancy—we can with some fidelity envision the results of certain trends.

The marginal moments seem to be quickly occupied with texting. In the past, these moments of idleness, at least in many situations, were used to get better acquainted with those around you. Recently I was perplexed at how the people near me seemed to be ever at the beck and call of some colleagues offsite. I was relegated, albeit unknowingly and inadvertently, to second priority. What little I had to say never seemed to take precedence over digital friends. Ironically enough, my relative importance would have likely been boosted if I texted my associates.

Observing people attempting to study has often been somewhat humorous. I recall seeing a young coed seated across from me in the library who couldn’t get through a paragraph of reading without responding to a text. This continued on for probably an hour or so. Admittedly, I was distracted by this curious behavior. I can imagine her questioning how she could do so poorly on a quiz after spending so much time reading and preparing!

What will these behaviors yield in the long-term? It’s not hard to imagine people with large pools of shallow friendships—relationships built on a core of brief digital transactions—and fewer genuine friends. It’s also not hard to imagine lower attention spans—and consequently lower academic achievement—across the population.

Perhaps a real premium will emerge for true friendship and true scholarship. Those willing to put in the time and effort to form deep and lasting bonds will be few and far between. Those willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become true scholars will likewise be rare. Only time will tell.

Response to a Misrepresentation of Muslim-Americans

I read this the first time a few years ago and again was sent it recently. Its true origin is unverified, but there are several overly-sensational points that undermine the very American principles we hold dear, not to mention logical fallacies, and I wanted to defend Muslim-Americans as the Americans they are.

The main issues I have with the document are as follows:

  • Arabs are equated with Muslims by the author. There are plenty of Arabs that are not Muslims, and there are plenty of Muslims that are not Arabs (only 12% of Muslims in the world are Arabs, and 75% of Arab Americans are Christian). An Arab belongs to an ethnicity; a Muslim belongs to a religion.
  • The facts have been distorted to be more dramatic: one male's throat was possibly cut, not "throats of women in front of children". I mean in no way to degrade the serious nature of 9/11, but this is a clear point in which we can question the author's credibility.
  • He asks how to tell the good Muslim from the bad. You might ask the same thing to someone of my faith: "How do I tell true Mormons from those that are polygamist and/or abusive?" Or: "How do I tell the dangerous thief from the law-abiding citizen?"
  • The distinction of "our" vs. "they" infers that American rights are not applicable to Americans of a certain race or religion. But an American is an American, regardless of background or superficial classification.
  • Sadly, millions of non-Muslim Americans also don't pray for this country and respect the flag and patriots. They too should be under condemnation.
  • Muslim leaders have come together across the nation and the world condemning violence and attacks in the name of their religion. There are many terrorists who kill in the name of some cause or another. How about the IRA, or the Oklahoma City bombers?
  • Proportionally, the number of Muslims that died in the 9/11 attacks (roughly 60, or about 2%) was a bit higher than that of Muslims in the overall US population (about 1.5% using higher estimates). There are about 15000 enlisted Muslim soldiers in the military. This was a national tragedy that cut a cross-section through every community and subculture.
  • To ask for hard facts on Islam is like asking for hard facts on Christianity, or Buddhism, or Hinduism. There is no centralized leadership with Islam, and as such the schools of thought are vastly diverse (as with nearly any other religion). We only have to look to the deviant offshoots of my own religion to see how interpretations can be twisted. Spread that out to Christianity as a whole, where love and peace and tolerance are taught, and explain the many cults and fanatics that are out there.
  • Of course, every Muslim knows someone on that list of 400 persons of interest...
  • The author doesn't seem to take issue with the burning effigies or flags we perform in our own streets, or in other non-Muslim nations. Compound that with the one-sided media the general populace in some other countries receives, and of course there are misunderstandings. But wait, weren't we talking about Americans in this article?

In the end, the author is the one who worries me. He has made up his mind that the idiomatic "innocent until proven guilty" can be disregarded should one member of a group be found guilty. Ignorance like this can only be dissolved by spending time among those we don't know and don't understand.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I've been incorrectly associated with groups simply due to the coincidentally shared history our church has with the FLDS and other splinter groups, and this has helped me better understand the danger of stereotyping before learning from your own personal first-hand experience.

I've also had the opportunity to teach and discuss among Muslims and Arabs alike, both here in the US as well as in France. I've met refugees who have left their own countries as victims of greater afflictions at the hands of terrorism, people who were overjoyed in tears with the news of an oppressor's downfall. Those that suffer most are those that share the culture and heritage of the guilty.

I hope most Americans don't lash out like the author does. Too often, people fight over differences (and often both sides are at fault) rather than finding commonalities.

You can read another response to the text here.

France and the Right to Strike

Last month, strikes nearly crippled the French economy, costing up to 400 million Euros a day. Unions vowed to continue until the bill in question, which would raise the minimum retirement age (with pension) from 60 to 62, was thrown out. Turnout peaked at an estimated 3.5 million (France has a population of 60 million), and even today strikes turned out 375,000 protestors despite the fact that the law has been passed by both chambers of parliament and simply awaits a signature from its most vocal proponent, President Sarkozy.

Source: CartoonStock
Now, strikes are nothing new in France. In fact, they're quite commonplace, the right being guaranteed in the current form of their Constitution. I do believe in freedom of expression, assembly, and speech. The irony in my mind is that these unions are making demands to the government by inconveniencing those that are not in charge. Shutting down transportation only hurts the common citizen, who is trying to earn his keep. What about the tourist, who is disgusted by the garbage piling up on his visit to a supposed magical adventure to France? As far as the government is concerned, other than political pressure, which becomes less and less powerful as the frequency of frivolous strikes increase, these things come and go and it's not too painful to sit it out. These days negotiation doesn't even begin until a strike is begun. In the meantime, France's credibility and attractiveness suffer.

Source: CartoonStock
Said Charles de Gaulle, first president of the current republic, "La France ne peut être la France sans la grandeur" (France cannot be France without greatness). It is positioned to help the world into the next great age. But it needs to live up to its potential.

To the people of France: we know you're upset. You have two alternatives: accept the reforms that are done for the long-term benefit of France, or vote in new leadership that believes as you do.

And, rather than biting the hand that feeds you, you could always join the private sector.

Source: fuffernutter

Our Society's Preoccupation with Diagnoses

Source: PHD Comics
I read a splendid article several months ago entitled "A 'Cure' for Character" by George Will, a prominent columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner. In it he criticises the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) for adding an astonishing number of tribulations which have cropped up over the years to afflict us. For example:

Today's DSM defines "oppositional defiant disorder" as a pattern of "negativistic, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures." Symptoms include "often loses temper," "often deliberately annoys people" or "is often touchy." DSM omits this symptom: "is a teenager."
Source: CartoonStock
My mention is no substitute for reading his article, so go read it. Psychology is not a quasi-science; there are definitely true cases of mental illness and depression. But when we start analysing the minute character flaws that are commonplace two major side effects occur (aside from the social and fiscal costs): it mutes the individual's responsibility to cope with superficial issues, and it hurts those who truly suffer from a mental illness by lowering the average severity. Robert David Jaffee illustrates this in one of his articles:

I don't doubt that our natural and technological environment can add to our problems, perhaps even traumatize us. I just don't think that such traumas rise to the level of pathologies, and I can't help but think that we really are over-diagnosing our children and our adults. While mental illness...is prevalent throughout the world, it should not be cheapened by the latest fads. Mental illness, at least as I have experienced it, comes from the core. It is not fashionable in any sense.
Source: ComicCartFans
George Will has written extensively about his son, Jon, who has Down syndrome. But he recognises his son's potential for a happy normal life. Wrote Will, "Jon experiences life's three elemental enjoyments—loving, being loved, and ESPN. For Jon, as for most normal American males, the rest of life is details." To me, the fundamental reasons for diagnoses lie in core problems with the first two items listed there: loving and being loved. Other character flaws are simply unimportant "details".

Without these flaws, though, wouldn't life be boring?

Source: The Boston Phoenix

On Politics

Most people fall into two extremes where politics are concerned: either they couldn't care less and are sick of hearing the word months ahead of elections, or they are closely (sometimes obsessively) following anything they can about the upcoming events.

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel
I don't mind the occasional political diatribe and I also sometimes participate. Disturbing to me, however, is the current trend of sore losers in politics. A friend of mine wrote about seeing a bumper sticker that said "I want my country back!". He notes the false implication that there was something fraudulent that happened in the last elections, when in fact a majority (slightly over half) of Americans are the ones who chose those in office. While belonging to the slight minority, I think it's ridiculous to place so much blame on the politicians themselves, as they were chosen BY THE PEOPLE.

This isn't to say we have to agree with the policies enacted, but it does mean we need to be civil and patient with the choices others make. We can voice our opinions and debate, and soon it will be time for the next elections, where we can vote our say. That's what a democracy and a republic demands. When a voter's side loses, it doesn't mean it was a wasted vote. It simply means the other side outweighed the first side for the time being, at which point the losing side concedes (some candidates don't know when to quit, though).

Source: Justice Today
There are also plenty of uninformed voters out there that don’t understand what they did vote for and what they will vote for when electing candidates. Sure, promises made by candidates are broken or stalemated, but the responsibility belongs to the people who vote (another reason to restrict this right to those who are citizens). And when the common voter doesn’t know what he voted for, he can’t hold his candidate responsible for doing something he didn’t want.

I think recent events have done both good and bad. Take the Tea Party: it has polarized politics even more (bad), but it has also encouraged the active role we citizens should be filling (good). We just need a better system of depolarizing the issues so we can talk and compromise across political stances without getting angry and excited.

Source: South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Some countries have a truly multi-party system; Israel, for example, has twelve parties represented in their Parliament of 120 people, with 21 more parties that ran last election and did not win a seat. However, this often complicates politics even further, and as we can hardly keep up with the issues of the two main parties in our country, two is enough. I like a primarily two-party system. It allows for a check and balance of policy much like the branches of the government. I don’t like the polar opposites people try to make from it. I really wish politicians would focus on the issues at hand that voters are passionate about, but politicians now generally avoid these key issues at all costs, making a superficial platform with a few shallow commitments. We need politicians that put wisdom above knowledge and selflessness above personal motivation.

Why do YOU like and/or dislike politics?
Source: JollyPeople.com

Illegal Immigration: Some Thoughts

The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, known more frequently as Arizona's Immigration Law (SB 1070, see here for the full law) has generated heated arguments on both sides.

Source: Immivasion
While this law is currently not in full force due to legal challenges, it and other ones from over twenty states are attempting to tackle immigration issues (with a majority support by their residents) by cracking down on lax immigration policy enforcement. Americans all around the nation are faced with these issues. Since it's impossible to cover all angles, I'll just make four points:
  1. An illegal immigrant is just that. Illegal. The federal government requires the registration of any immigrant who is in the country for 30 days or more. Any law seeking to enforce registration or expel those that violate an already-existing law is most certainly valid, even if it is practically redundant.
  2. Some people push for amnesty for illegal immigrants. At least to me, rewarding an action that is not just illegal by the laws of the land, but violates the virtues of honesty and integrity, is clearly a mistake. The action of coming into the U.S. is not a technical mistake but instead requires calculated effort, often with falsified documentation. Beyond that, they fail to pay taxes but continue glean the benefits of government-funded education and other services. Just as a criminal in prison has no right to expect parole, illegal immigrants have no right to expect amnesty. And yet Congress has passed seven amnesties since 1986, encouraging the illegal behaviour.
  3. The rationalisation that the illegal act was done for the benefit of the family or children may be true. Would one also be justified in robbing a bank to save their family from fiscal responsibilities, or murdering an abortionist to save unborn children? Tho' the situation may be rationalised in the mind of the perpetrator, the ends do not justify the means.
  4. America is open to those that come legally, with over one million migrants admitted yearly. One person I associate with spent 15 years earning the proper cards and renewals and eventually becoming a citizen. While this shows there are flaws in the system, it frustrates him most to think that people can simply come to the country illegally and be treated as equals. Is that fair to those that work their way through the proper avenues?
Source: Independent Christian Voice
I've had some exposure to the difficulties faced in entering and residing in the country legally. My brother-in-law is one of over 30 million legal immigrants in the U.S. and will soon become a citizen, and I'm proud of his achievements. I also understand that there are millions who are here peacefully and their only crime is their illegal entry into the United States. I'm not afraid to have them here as honourable workers and contributors to society—after they return to their country and reapply legally. I do believe there needs to be reform, as do Democrats, Republicans, and probably any other party. Until U.S. government starts showing that they are willing to enforce the current laws and any future reforms, though, there will be no change in (and no incentive to change) the real-life illegal immigrant behaviour.

Environmentalism or Conservationism?

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, known for its environmental awareness and activism in the United States. I spent years hiking with my family in the mountains, enjoying unspoiled nature in its raw beauty. From a young age, my parents taught my siblings and I to separate newspapers, bottles, plastics, and other paper into their appropriate bins (even now, I feel guilty throwing something away in the trash can when I know it could be recycled).

Pogo: Earth Day 1971 by Walt Kelly
I want to be very clear that I am supportive of effective and efficient ways to conserve. I applaud the research efforts that push the limits of creativity in order to find ways to incorporate better practices in our lives. The materialism of today's society pushes for the selfish exploitation of any resource at our disposal. One of my favourite quotes on this subject is from LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley: "I deplore waste. I deplore extravagance. I value thrift."

What I do have issue with is environmental extremism. I identify said extremist groups as follows:
  • Eco-terrorism, which results in millions of dollars of damage in the name of the environment. Often targeting luxury and commercial sites, they not only make victims of the owners with no regard for human life but also fail to think of the surrounding environment (for example, the potential consequences of firing rockets at a nuclear power plant). Despite being built specifically to be green, the luxury homes of Seattle's Street of Dreams (linked above) were burnt to the ground. Some of this extremists, like James J. Lee, who took a group of people hostage at Discovery Channel, go so far as to claim that humans should stop procreating in order to restore balance in the environment.
  • Eco-freaks, who seek to force impractical and costly practices onto the everyday user, through pressure or policy (even when the reasoning behind it is severely flawed). It's not like Americans dislike being environmentally friendly. Sometimes it's just better to choose to be so than to be forced. Ironically, the environmental issues Americans are most concerned with are the least important to the news and political agendas.
  • Greenwashers, who exploit the "green" craze by claiming their products are better for the environment. According to one site, ninety-eight percent of green products employ at least one deceptive tactic of greenwashing. I'm not too concerned about the detailed reasons as to why they should or shouldn't be considered green, but instead the focus companies have solely on their outward "green", "organic", or "all-natural" image. Below pretty much sums my thoughts on that:
Source: Joy of Tech
In one of the above links, Nicolas D. Loris wrote that "producers and consumers do not need government mandates and subsidies to be more energy efficient. If being energy efficient saves consumers money or reduces costs for businesses, they do not need the government mandates or the taxpayers’ help." In the same vein, there are plenty of ideas out there that, if truly innovative and implemented efficiently (like paperless banking), will easily supplant our more wasteful practices. Economic prosperity does not always result in destructive environmental practices. Instead, they often have a symbiotic relationship.

While we are supposed to be stewards of the earth, nature is there for our benefit. It is there for us to enjoy and preserve rather than collect and set aside. That to me is the difference between conservationism and environmentalism: the former is appreciation of and harmony with nature, and the latter is prioritization of the environment over all other issues.

Comments are Fixed

Sorry about the problems with comments on my blog. This should now be fixed, so feel free to comment on my "Friends" and "Education" posts!

Schooling and Our Expectations

I've been thinking about education a lot lately, and came to a few conclusions primarily regarding K-12:

1. Despite what people say throughout the world, schools in America work. They could be better, but in the end who cares about test scores across the world when in the real world (post-school) we produce more patents, more research, and almost more anything per capita? There's a reason why, regardless of the "low" scores (which don't take into account technological training, group collaboration, or any number of arguably more important things that one can't test), people come here to study, and we shouldn't be trying to copy what other schools around the world do when ours are obviously outputting as good or better end results. The traditional philosophy in the United States on schools has been to inspire productivity, adaptability, and creativity (albeit a recent push away from this); elsewhere, they often cram facts and numbers. The keyword there is inspiration. I argue it's more important to have the former attitude, because with it you will end up with any conclusions the latter does, along with unique paradigms and ideas.

2. The second shortcoming is the seeming decrease of responsibility of parents to their children. There is so much emphasis on putting kids into school for more hours, but would it not help more to have the kids around their parents to learn directly from them? These days, so many parents push off the responsibility of education to schools, whereas I argue schools are simply there to maintain a basic minimum standard as well as provide creative and adaptive interaction, and little more. We don't need more money for schools (although perhaps the money could be better allocated), more time in schools (although this is on Obama's agenda, or more facts and work in school, and rarely do we need the school to bend over backwards to cater to the individual students. The flaw often lies in the parents themselves, who fail to educate in the home and thus fail to ignite the spark of loving to learn for learning's sake.

3. Never let school get in the way of your education, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Formal schooling is helpful to the extent it should be (that is, enforcing a minimum standard of knowledge and understanding as well as providing an environment for students to grow as a group and learn to adapt to others), but once again, education is far above schooling. Part of the reason I never bothered to finish high school is the lack of return I felt from going. Some of the greatest minds began in a one-room school, and those that succeed in the world of academia often learn parallel to higher education, not as a direct result of it. An inward motivation fostered by a mentor's enthusiasm is all it takes to excel and progress your education.

Some people think that schools shouldn't have competition, and that what matters most is that a student gains self-esteem. I disagree (reread point 2). Others argue that mediocrity can be fixed with more money, smaller classrooms, or rather choose to blame failure on societal prejudice. A lot of fingers point toward teacher quality degradation (however that can be quantified). I don't think that even if these were valid points they would attack the issue at the root.

A cross-discipline of basic schooling, continuous learning, and real-world experience and challenges will continue to bring out the best minds in our world today. A focus or failure in any of these categories will stunt the growth and productivity of an entire generation.

What Is a True Friend?

Commonplace are the following phrases:

  • "Hey, are you friends with me on Facebook yet?"
  • "He's just a friend from back home."
  • "Make any new friends tonight?"
What are the characteristics of a friend as described above? I see an attitude of shallow interest and normality. Sadly, I think this often describes our relationships with many of those we call our friends. We've created this hierarchy of friendships: acquaintances (this now almost feels cold), friends, best friends...

Personally, I've never really been good at making friends. That isn't to say I was lonely, outcast, disliked, or neglected growing up. I haven't suffered in the least for lack of company. I've spent much of my life alone, working on this or that project, enjoying the sights and wonders all around me. All in all, life is and has been wonderful. I get along with people, love to serve and be helpful to those around me, and I enjoying learning and growing from their experiences. To me, however, the intimate title of friend is bestowed upon few. Each of those few add a dimension to me that I try to continue to develop.

Part of the reason true friendship is so lacking these days can be blamed on the social stimulation we tap into as a digital society. We now have the ability to connect with whoever we want whenever we went. Whoever we want means we chose (and limit) the type of people we associate with. Whenever we want means there is potential for selfish motives. When I was growing up, the friends I had were friends of circumstances. We went to the same school or the same church, we lived in the same areas. Because of this, I was forced to adjust to the varying situations and tolerate the strengths and weaknesses of those around me. I never had aspirations to have everyone be like me: my friends and I were a group with each individual bringing in something irreplaceable. I would like to believe that every single one of us benefited from the others.

But when we start choosing our own groups and associations, we often lose the diversity and thus the character that a group could hold. The minute details become more important, the toleration levels go down, and relationships can't run deep because they only require a slight bond when everyone has the same personality traits. The few differences noticed tend to be more annoyances than interests. On top of that, rarely are relationships of this nature one-on-one personal relationships.

Why are true friendships so important? Because they have the potential to uplift and support emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, and creatively. Because they are, in form of families, the basic unit of society. And in my case, I find in my wife my best friend with whom I can stretch to reach any goal.

I do regret the "loss" of friends I've had due to separation and negligence over the years: these are people who I still call friends for several reasons, including the fact that they shaped who I am today (and I hope they would say the same), and that they were an integral part of my activities during that stage of life. I'll always be grateful for those friends even if we are no longer as close as once we were.

I posit that while being friendly with all and serving one another are upright and honourable goals, we should seek to develop lasting friendships over time with those already around us. We don't need to look for friends, but instead need to be a true one.

My Lorem Ipsum Post

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