Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The one unbelievable thing about Stargate SG-1

Long Suffering Spouse and I recently found Stargate SG-1 on Netflix.

We used to watch that show all the time. We started watching it again on Netflix. We found we still liked it. Naturally, therefore, it is being removed from the streaming service effective today. Anything we like is discontinued and/or canceled.

There are hopes to revive the show, according to recent news accounts. If the show does come back, a central premise of the old show will be discarded: This time, the Stargate program will no longer be a secret.

That was always one of the least believable aspects of the show anyway -- and I say this fully cognizant of the fact that the show was a splendid and unapologetic mashup of science fiction and ancient Egyptian (and Norse) mythology, complete with parasitic monster "snakes" who inhabited, and possessed, many of the bad guys (and some of the good guys, too -- Teal'c for one, and all the Tok'ra).

Ben Franklin said (correctly, I believe) that two people can keep a secret -- as long as one of them is dead. Yet, somehow, a few leaks notwithstanding, despite hundreds if not thousands of people directly involved in the program, who knows how many other members of the Deep State (the show really was ahead of its time on this) trying to horn in on the alien action, and hostile politicians concerned about costs and benefits, viewers were supposed to accept that the Stargate program remained a deep, dark secret. Even with alien invasions and battles in Earth orbit -- the vast majority of the world's population never had a clue.

But while the continued secrecy of the Stargate program was pretty hard to believe, it was not the most unbelievable aspect of the show.

No... the least believable aspect of the show was the premise that all this ancient alien hardware, often buried beneath rubble, or in a glacier, for thousands of years, nearly always worked. Network connectvity was never an issue. Just dig out the gate, dust off the DHD, and off we go! In one episode, the Stargate on one planet was hit squarely by a meteor, buried in rubble, and still worked like a charm.

And the alien equipment never needed updates.

The SG-1 team would come under heavy fire, race back to the gate, dial home, and -- after a big whoosh -- there was the wormhole straight back to the base.

Never was there an announcement before the whoosh: "An update is available for this Chappa'ai. Would you like to download this now, or postpone it to later?"

Once chevron 7 was locked, where was the video? You know... the one that said, "Your wormhole will begin after these ads."

Occasionally power went down -- at the base -- because human equipment powering the Gate failed. But if there was power available, there was always the appearance of blue, standing water -- never the spinning circle of doom like you and I get every other time we turn on our computers. Never once, after the intrepid SG-1 team dialed in, was there a message saying, "Your Chappa'ai has encountered a problem and must restart. Information is being collected about this failure to send to the Ancients."

Faster than light travel? No problem. Little gray men impersonating Norse gods? Totally understandable. Flying pyramids? Advanced aliens wearing suits of armor? All good here. But this Ancient technology always, always working? Impossible!

Monday, November 29, 2021

Facebook: Living your best lie

That's not a typo in the headline... it's kind of a click-bait play on words... it is supposed to put you in mind of the Oprah "best life" thing. Whatever. You're here. Stay with me and I'll explain....

That's a happy-looking kid, right?

It's the kind of thing you typically see on Facebook or Instagram these days: Happy people doing happy things. Celebrating. Enjoying each others' company.

Oh, sure, there's also the political dreck. Sloganeering. Shouting in the echo chamber. Racking up 'likes' from all those in your 'silo'. All those people telling you how right you are, though you've never met them. It makes it all the harder for you to understand why Cousin Bessie blocked you. Or your mother.

Today, I'm not talking about that problem.

Instead, I'm talking about all these happy people on Facebook and Instagram doing marvelous things. So enthused. So satisfied. They're all doing so much better than you are.

At least, it looks that way. And that sometimes brings you down.

But are all these people really as happy as they appear?

We're in the Holiday season now. You may have already gotten some Christmas cards. Some of these may have Christmas letters.

Everyone is always doing so marvelously in Christmas letters. OK, yes, Dad died -- but the letter says that Mom has reentered the world with new energy and enthusiasm. She can't live alone anymore -- but the letter says that Mom is thrilled to be at Restful Acres with all sorts of fun and cheerful neighbors. And such wonderful activities! (They go on a bus to a casino once a month and everyone loses a cup full of coins in the cheapest slot machines. But the letter doesn't include that bit.)

And Junior? Well, he lost his job. And didn't get off the couch for a month. Didn't bathe for the first two weeks. But, with the bill collectors circling ever closer, he took a job flipping burgers for a fast-food chain. As a college graduate, he may eventually get a shot at management. Some day. (Though there is a PhD with more seniority working the french fry machine.) So the Christmas letter says Junior has changed careers and is now exploring management opportunities in the convenience dining sector.

Sis is miserable, having broken up this past Spring with the young man everyone thought was The One. Sis was distraught for the longest time. But she did go visit her cousin in Wisconsin over the summer. (They ate ice cream and cookie dough nonstop for a week.) So the Christmas letter says Sis is enjoying her freedom, traveling to see family and friends.

Those Christmas letters no longer fool you. You have learned to read through them. To read between the lines. They don't make you depressed like they used to; instead, you are filled with wonder at the creativity your Christmas correspondents possess and their skill at turning sows' ears into silk purses.

Well, Dear Reader, think of Facebook or Instagram as year-round Christmas letters. 24/7/365. You must see through these too.

Some of your Facebook "friends" really are happier than you. Or better off. But toilets still backup unexpectedly. Even at their houses. You just won't hear about it on Facebook. On Facebook you'll see a picture of your friends' kids dressed up for their darling Christmas photos. But no one will tell you that two of them puked on the morning of the shoot -- and the other one puked immediately after the picture was taken.

And some of your "friends"? If you knew what really went on in their homes in between those precious photos, your heart would break. From compassion, not jealousy.

You'd never know it from looking online... but life just sucks for everyone sometimes. Keep that in mind and you'll be happier. Not because you would revel in someone else's sorrow. That would be sick. No, you are happier because you realize you are not alone in having problems.

Meanwhile, you just took an amazing picture of your dog tangled up in the Christmas tree skirt. She looks so cute. Go ahead and post it on Facebook. I'll "like" it.

Yeah, in a sense, it's all a lie: The dog who looks so cute in this picture is the same mangy mongrel who pooped in the middle of the kitchen floor to punish you for being too long away on Thanksgiving. That beaming kid who is so proudly displaying the certificate he got for his art project is the same little monster who said he hates you because you would not let him stay out past 10:00 p.m. on Saturday. But you would be embarrassed and ashamed to burden the world with your troubles and I totally understand that. And I have troubles of my own, anyway. I don't need to hear about yours.

You put your best gloss on the posts you share with the world on social media. Just as your aunt sugarcoats the bejeezus out of actual events in her Christmas letter.

This isn't just a social media thing. Or a Christmas letter thing. You probably don't dress formally to go out to the store -- we live in a very informal culture these days -- but, unless you're hoping to be captured for posterity in one of those 'sights seen at Wal-Mart' websites, you at least comb your hair and wear presentable clothes. Since you don't "always" look like that, that may be called a "lie" also.

But your appearance is really an expression of your self-respect. You share your better self with the world.

And that's all your "friends" are doing on Facebook, too. Call it a lie if you must -- but it's just people sharing what they want you to know about their lives. Don't feel bad about how well everyone else is doing. When folks look at your feed, it looks like you're doing great, too.

Wow. Have you got them snowed! (*Clicking 'like' now on adorable kitten picture...*)

Friday, November 19, 2021

The Perils of Punditry? Knowing when... and how... to hold your fire

Stephan Pastis nails it again in yesterday's installment of Pearls Before Swine (image obtained from GoComics.com).

He does have a platform -- a daily comic strip -- from which to issue Important Pronouncements about the state of the nation and the world and the species. And, of course, from time to time, he does, usually in an amusing way. As he does here.

You beg to differ, perhaps. You will not contest whether the strip is or is not amusing -- what strikes me as funny may leave thee cold -- but, you say, this strip does not make an Important Pronouncement.

But think for a moment: What he is saying here is that, sometimes, at least, it's OK not to be consumed with the Big Issue of the day. Sometimes it's OK not to expound on the same issue that everyone else is expounding (and pounding) upon. (Twitter may devour you for failing to Do Your Duty and foist your Proper Opinion on the rest of the world, but that's another story. And who are the Twitterati to tell us what to speak, and when, anyway?)

Sometimes it's OK just to think about obscure Scrabble words. Or something else that interests you. (I haven't actually checked to see if "crwth" is really in the Scrabble Disctionary. But I remember the rhyme from when I was a child -- The vowels are A, E, I, O, and U/ And sometimes Y or W. Perhaps this is the word where W serves as a vowel. There had to be at least one or it would never have made it into the rhyme... right?)

Fact is, we are all pundits these days, or we can be, with Facebook or Twitter or even Instagram or Tik Tok as our Public Platforms. I was already one among millions when I started this blog... now I may be just one among billions. My opinions are as strongly held as ever -- as Long Suffering Spouse would attest, when she sits with me during the evening news -- but they are mere drops of water in an endless ocean of online opinion.

I am grateful for the reiminder that I am under no obligation to share them all. Neither is Mr. Pastis. Neither are you.

That does not mean we should not speak our minds. But we can pick and choose our shots. Maybe even -- and I know this is crazy -- but maybe even when we're not shouting into the void... we might actually be able to listen?

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Another thing we never imagined we'd have to think about: "Reconnecting" with family after a Pandemic

My friend Steven and I were chatting on the phone the other day. Among other things, we discussed the forthcoming Holidays.

"My sister has decided to pass the baton," Steve told me, talking about who would be hosting his family's Thanksgiving dinner. One of their nieces had elected to step in. She's young, Steve said, but she and her husband have a big enough house for the extended family.

But there was a problem, he said: The niece and her husband are not vaccinated against COVID-19.

A few days ago, Steve said, he mentioned the possible dinner plans to his 30-something son. His son was quiet for some time, evidently weighing his words carefully. "Dad," he said, "I don't know if I can reconnect with persons who are not vaccinated...."

I snorted at that one. Reconnect? I hooted, far more mockingly than I should have.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Like my friend Steven, I am fully vaccinated. Or as fully vaccinated as I can be at this moment: I have not yet had my booster shot, though I will get one as soon as I can. I wear my face mask in public places, not because some idiot politician tells me to, but because, sifting through all the dreck on TV and online, I am persuaded it provides some protection against infection. At worst, it does no harm. In my opinion.

Nevertheless, I firmly believe that, just as blood is thicker than water, blood is absolutely thicker than some stupid virus. You don't jettison a family member because he or she has made what you think is a dumb, or even irresponsible, decision about vaccination.

Look at it this way: Suppose you are vaccinated and your cousin Farquar and his wife Fannie are not. They invite you over for holiday cheer. You have minimized your risk of getting the virus and protected yourself, as much as possible, against dire consequences should you catch the virus anyway. Farquar and Fannie don't care about getting the disease, and while you may potentially transmit it to them (the vaccinated can still spread the disease, apparently) they have assumed the risk of that unlikely outcome.

But what, you ask, about old Aunt Flossie, who lives with Farquar and Fannie, and who likewise has refused to take the shot? Because the consequences of Covid can be so much more severe for those who are older, some may see this as a tougher question.

I don't.

Flossie has made her decision and, if she still has command of her faculties (and especially if she still makes that delicious pumpkin pie), I say the calculus is the same. She has assumed the risk of contracting the disease from you, and you have minimized the risk to her by being vaccinated. Would you feel bad if she succumbed to the Covid a few weeks after your visit? Of course. But you can't know, and would never know, assuming you did not come down with a diagnosed breakthrough infection shortly after the gathering, whether she got it from you or while shopping at the local Wal-Mart. (And you should realize that the odds would favor her getting the bug at Wal-Mart.)

Maybe you think it a tougher choice if you are hosting. Because you are bringing Farquar and Fannie and old Aunt Flossie into your home with all your other, vaccinated relations, some of whom may be young children who can't be vaccinated.

As this is written, the Pfizer shot has been approved for children aged 5-11. Two of my eligible grandchildren have already received their first dose. The other two eligible grandchildren have their first shot scheduled. But that means that I have six grandkids who can't be vaccinated. So, yes, I have thought about this.

Here's the way I figure it: According to all I have read and seen, the very young are the least likely to get the disease or suffer serious consequences if they do. There's a reason why vaccines were prioritized first to the elderly and only now to children. The risk that Flossie, Farquar, and Fannie would pick up some non-Covid bug that the kids acquired in school or daycare seems much greater, to me, anyway, than the risk that the kids might pick up the Covid from Flossie, Farquar, or Fannie. Assuming of course that Flossie, Farquar, and Flossie aren't wheezing and sneezing when they come to your house.

Which brings up another point.

Remember those far-off, carefree days before the Pandemic when the Holidays rolled around and everyone in the house got sick? I do. How many times did we muscle through this -- I'm using the inclusive "we" here, meaning me and you both -- and persuade ourselves that the kids weren't too sick or that we could hold down the aspirin and cough syrup long enough to get through the family gathering?

We were such idiots.

Thanksgiving and Christmas will come next year, too. Probably. Unless the Chinese invade Taiwan and trigger nuclear Armageddon. Or Yellowstone erupts, and wipes out much of America. But the odds are pretty good that the Holidays will return next year, right on schedule.

Therefore, if you are feeling punk, or puny, or whatever euphenism you favor, don't go visit Aunt Flossie or Farquar or Fannie. Cancel the dinner at your home. Reschedule it. There are, as the song says, 12 days of Christmas. No federal laws will be violated if your Christmas feast is not celebrated exactly on the 25th Day of December.

That should always have been the rule. I'd have enjoyed a great many more New Year's Days if it had been.

But, if you're feeling healthy, and they're feeling healthy, see the family over the Holidays. Vaccinated or not. Because, in the long run, family is about the most important thing we have or ever will have in this world.

Just maybe don't talk about politics. Or vaccinations. And, under no circumstances, if you are in the Central or Eastern time zones, do not delay Thanksgiving dinner beyond halftime of the Dallas game.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

The contradictions in the recent Facebook meme on public education

This was making the rounds in my Facebook feed the other day. In light of the outcome of the Virginia governor's race this week, it may be particularly important to break the statements in this meme down.

Why tie this to the Virginia race? Well, the one-time governor, and one-time prohibitive favorite to be governor again, Terry McAuliffe, lost the election. It appears that he fared worse in prosperous Northern Virignia suburbs that had gone heavily for Joe Biden just a year ago. And, in particular, this statement, made by Mr. McAuliffe in the course of a campaign debate, has been linked to his downfall: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

On an individual level, this is surely correct: Mrs. Jones, the local chapter president of the Flat-Earth Society, can not demand that her little Johnny and all his classmates be instructed in her own peculiar brand of "science." Also, as the first paragraph of the meme above suggests, Mrs. Smith, who believes in Biblical inerrancy, is free to send her little Susie to a private school which respects that belief; she does not have the right to insist that Susie be instructed in these beliefs in the local public school.

But the second paragraph of the meme is where the problem comes in. It reads (with emphases as in original):

The purpose of a public education in a public school is not to teach kids only what parents want them to be taught. It is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client of the public school is not the parent, but the entire community, the public[.]

This statement, too, is substantially correct, in my opinion. The purpose of public schools is to produce good, productive, patriotic citizens, the kinds of persons who will hold good jobs in an increasingly complex economy. People who will respect the law and support the Constitution. People who will be kind and generous and sympathetic to the plight of their less-fortunate neighbors. People who will be proud of their communities, local, state, and national, and who will make their communities proud in turn. The types of people you'd like to live next door to, and associate with, and do business with.

At least, that's what any healthy society would want, and demand, from its public schools.

But, again, the above statement is only substantially correct because it fudges on clearly saying what society should demand of its schools, saying only that the purpose of the public schools is to teach students what society needs them to know.

How do we determine what society needs our public school kids to know? We determine it from collective expressions of public policy: State statutes, to start with. The several states have always had principal responsibility for public education in America. And every state has many laws dictating what the public schools must teach. Gym classes, perhaps (so that future grown-up citizens are healthy) or financial literacy classes (so future grown-up citizens understand how to write a check, or the uses, good and bad, of credit cards). Most states have specified required courses that must be taken, and passed, in order to obtain a high school diploma.

And here's where we run into trouble... certainly the person on whose Facebook feed I first saw this would be fundamentally opposed to any law purporting to ban the teaching of "Critical Race Theory" in the public schools. My Facebook friend would feel quite strongly that states should not carve out whole topics or areas of instruction as forbidden. I tend to agree with her. But if the client of the public school is not the parent but the entire community, and the entire community enacts such a law through its elected representatives, isn't that the end of the discussion?

Yes, the parents alone are not the community. But they are a part. The teachers alone are not the community. They are also merely part. Also part of the community is the grumpy old couple with no children who always oppose school bond issues. And the parents who send their kids to private schools. And the seniors worried about what sort of stuff is being taught to their grandkids. We are all a part of the community and we all should have a say in what is taught. And it is not offensive to nature, or good order, or to the Patriot Act for persons who have a particular interest (e.g., parents) to demand to know what goes behind closed school doors.

But all of this controversy, all of this anger, all of this angst can be substantially reduced if only all of us can recall the purpose of public schooling. I've given you my understanding. Let me give it to you again:

The purpose of public schools is to produce good, productive, patriotic citizens, the kinds of persons who will hold good jobs in an increasingly complex economy. People who will respect the law and support the Constitution. People who will be kind and generous and sympathetic to the plight of their less-fortunate neighbors. People who will be proud of their communities, local, state, and national, and who will make their communities proud in turn. The types of people you'd like to live next door to, and associate with, and do business with.

Can we agree on this much? If not, what should be added? What should be taken out?

One thing we should be able to agree on: The public schools should not be used to teach kids to hate America, or each other, or themselves. Our nation is not perfect. No human thing is. We can always learn from our mistakes and grow from them -- if we don't ignore them, that is -- and I firmly belief that we have learned and grown as a society in my lifetime. We can, and must, continue to grow and learn and adapt. But we need to work together.

Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Do you know where your children and grandchildren are getting their news?

The headline sounds rather like those grim and accusatory later-night TV announcements of my youth: "It's 10:30 p.m. [curfew]. Do you know where your children are?"

You're here online... looking for something, presumably... so you are a step ahead of so many of our fellow citizens who consume news only from television.

You have perhaps already noticed... and rebelled against... your being funnelled into tribal groups in ways that surpass anything that poor, crazy Howard Beale imagined in the eerily (and presumably unintentionally) prophetic movie Network. Fox News... OAN... MSNBC... CNN... the demons on one network are the plaster saints on another. Shades of gray are ignored and overlooked. Matt Taibbi has written extensively, and persuasively, on this subject (see, in particular, Taibbi's book, "Hate, Inc."

The modern political and media landscape reminds me of the child's game, Mad-libs, where random nouns and verbs and adjectives are inserted into unseen sentences (unseen until all the blanks have been filled in, that is) to alleged comic effect. In my real life I get emails from all sides of the political spectrum. They are typically chock-full of overwrought, hysterical, the-sky-is-falling rhetoric -- it seems that only the proper nouns differ -- Pelosi is used in this one, Trump is used in that one, and so on. But the sentences are otherwise the same. They could be written by the same person. For all I know, they may be. I'd accuse that hypothetical person of being a Russian... but then I'd be stooping to the same level, wouldn't I?

Anyway, some people go trustingly into tribes. You, reading here, are resisting the siren call of one side or the other. (Here, you're in a no-tribe zone. Not because I'm so rational or anything; it's just that neither side would have me.)

It seems that a lot of people resist being placed into tribes. Many folks, apparently, have simply lost trust in the media, doubting everything they read or hear or see. Chaos ensues.

Our kids and grandkids never had trust in the media to lose. We may have become disillusioned with the 'dead tree media' and or the 'MSM' but our young people never paid attention to either. They get their news... if they get it at all... online. I remember my Oldest Son's snide remark while visiting one day, seeing the Sunday Tribune on the couch in the living room: "Look at that!" he said, feigning astonishment. "They've put the Internet on paper so old people can read it!"

Long Suffering Spouse, a middle school Spanish teacher, always asks her students for names of people important to them so that she can incorporate the names in games or skits teaching conversational skills. Some years ago, the names suggested for these lists moved from sports figures (though admittedly there are still some every year) or TV stars to YouTube or Instagram or, increasingly, TikTok "influencers." I know, because she brings home her list every year and makes me Google the names.

Every now and then some weisenheimer will try and get a porn star included on this list -- or nominate some persons whose views are wholly inappropriate in my wife's Catholic school. I'm not talking about these.

What this tells me is that people still crave information and knowledge of the world beyond their immediate circle. But, increasingly, they are seeking that information and knowledge from sources we never heard of and could not imagine.

Weird stuff follows. Because reporting what those crazy young people are up to -- especially if it's done in a snide and superior tone -- has a long-standing tradition in this country. An online outfit called Distractify published a list of school challenges allegedly making the rounds on Tik Tok. The article claims that Tik Tok users are challenging school kids to perform these tasks (and post their results) during the 2021-22 school year:

September: Vandalize school bathrooms

October: Smack a staff member

November: Kiss your friend’s girlfriend at school

December: Deck the halls and show your balls

January: Jab a breast

February: Mess up school signs

March: Make a mess in the courtyard or cafeteria

April: “Grab some eggz” (another stealing challenge)

May: Ditch day

June: Flip off in the front office

July: Spray a neighbor’s fence

It is my duty to report that Internet debunker Snopes.com found little or no evidence to support the contention that these 'challenges' are indeed making the rounds. (The linked post deals specifically with the October 'smack a teacher' challenge.) On the other hand, there were considerable media reports of school bathroom vandalism during September... even some relatively minor damage to a couple of the bathrooms at my wife's school... and the Tik Tok challenge was cited as an inspiration.

I don't know what's really going on with or on (Chinese-owned) Tik Tok. But I have come to realize that it has outsized importance among our kids and grandkids. That concerns me.

When I was a kid I listened to music that my parents did not like. But we watched the same newscasts, read the same newspapers (there were lots more of them, then). We even watched a lot of the same TV shows. We may have drawn different conclusions from what we read, or saw, and, of course, we often did -- but we were starting with the same raw material. We grown-ups dither now about the gaps among us, locked in our 'silos' or tribes, to the point where we do not seem to notice that there is also a gap between old and young -- and it's not just about music any more. It's about everything... and that frightens me more. Because we are not using the same raw materials to develop our own, unique world views.

Which brings me, at last, back to the Candorville comic (by Darrin Bell) at the top of this post. Long Suffering Spouse, for example, would not 'get' this. Even though one of the kids in her homeroom last year had 5,000 followers on Tik Tok. I think it's pretty funny. Funny... and a little scary, too.