Monday, August 31, 2015

OED in the dirt

Sir James Murray, author of OED
Future shock is not an occasional thing.  It’s become a daily event for me now.  Not a day goes by when I don’t have a little conversation in my head with myself of decades past.  The dialogue always starts the same way, “Do you believe it?  Did you ever think you would live long enough to see this?”

What set me off this morning was a sidewalk full of books.  Berkeley is a very literate place and ain’t nobody around who doesn’t love books.  You can find boxes of books laid out almost daily, just down the street somebody has come up with a delightful idea.  They’ve put a bookshelf out, decorated it, and labeled it “The Book Exchange.”  The idea is you should help yourself to any books you find, and you are encouraged to leave books in return.

The reason this works is that it’s increasingly difficult to sell your old books.  It’s even hard to give them away.  Libraries won’t take them.  There’s simply no place to put them.  There’s a big kerfluffle going on around the Berkeley public library because they tried recently to make space and give a whole bunch more books away than some Berkeleyites thought was proper for a library to do.  That battle rages on.  Meanwhile, you may find a used book store to hand your unwanted books off to, but even then, you need to be prepared for rejection when you show up books in hand.

The reason is no secret.  Here we are in the computer age.  Everything you might want to read is likely to be available online.  It may take some doing, but you’ll find it, eventually.  Some of it may cost you, but usually it’s not much.  Worth not having to use your shelf space to store it.

What prompted this reflection was the notice I read a while ago on my neighborhood chat line.  Somebody just up the street had decided to empty their attic of old books and laid them all out – hundreds of them, on what would be their lawn, if we in drought-cursed California still had lawns.  Mostly dirt.  Dirty dusty dirt.

There, amidst all the cook books and travel books and books on why one should not vote for Richard Nixon was a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  And right next to it, a complete multi-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Those are sets of books we would have given our eye teeth to own, once upon a time.  Sitting in the dirt.  Just splayed out like a tired old whore even fresh lipstick and a new coiffure can help anymore.  Such an ignominious end.

It wasn’t that long ago when I pooled resources with other faculty members in my department to get a hefty two-volume OED for the faculty library.  It cost a bundle, but we felt it was worth the sacrifice.  

That was then.  This is now.  I just stood there shaking my head and confusing my girls-on-a-leash, Miki and Bounce, and amusing the guy standing next to me.  Miki and Bounce because they no doubt smelled the attic dust and wondered why on earth I should want to be stopping there.  The guy next to me was a young man, late teens to early twenties.  He read my mind.  “It’s all on the internet now,” he said.  And we both moved on, leaving the complete Encyclopedia Britannica and the OED in the dirt.

As I sit here writing this, the little shit who sits on my shoulder and guilts me all the time is shouting in my ear, “Why are you doing your usual ranting instead of going over there with a big mail sack, scooping up those two sets of books and mailing them off to the public library in Tenkodo, Burkina Faso?  I'm sure they've got one.  Or maybe Mörön, Mongolia.  Someplace, anyplace, where people still read books and are not likely to have these things.  

I know.  Nowadays they are probably more likely to have the internet than to have a public library.

Serious future shock.

We’re not done with sending books to developing countries, of course.  Organizations like Books Outbound, Develop Africa, the African Library project and I'm sure there must be dozens more, are still actively engaged. 

I was able to come away with too many reasons for passing these books by.  Had to get the dogs home.  Had to get a haircut.  Didn’t have the time to get the mailbags.  Not sure I wanted to clean the dirt off and spend the money or the time to find a place that would take old OEDs and encyclopedias.  And, of course, the best reason – somebody else should do it – not me.  And still the brain kept churning them out.  Isn’t it a bit patronizing to think that out of date reference materials are what people need in rural Africa or Asia or Latin America?  Hell, what about rural anywhere?

The answer, I think, is no.  Not patronizing.  Practical.

Maybe next time I come across the OED in the dirt I won’t hesitate so long.  


Picture credit:  The photo of the original compiler of the OED, Sir James Murray, is from a 2009 Daily Mail article.  Murray took decades to compile millions of little pieces of paper into his dictionary.  The thought of him walking past and seeing those books in the dirt gives me a headache.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

God is not an American

It's painful to have to watch how the right manipulates the religiously fearful.  A dear member of my family who identifies as a born-again Christian likes to post messages on her Face Book page which support her religious views.  The fact that I do not share her beliefs is neither here nor there.  I'm with Thomas Jefferson and the argument he made in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, that
it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
But I am bothered by the kind of misinformation the religious right flings around with great abandon, and I decided I had to respond to this young lady a couple generations removed from me when she urged me to listen to and pass on a song by the Christian country music group Diamond Rio called In God We Still Trust.  Nice music, if you like rock country and messages where religion and jingoism get smooshed together.    She spoke of it as “the song most radio stations are banning in the USA.”  She didn't indicate, however, how she learned that the song is actually being “banned,” so I decided to check it out.  Sure enough, has the scoop here.  It was never banned; it simply never made the cut.

The remainder of this post is a selection of my response to her:

...There’s a world of difference between choosing not to play a song and banning it.  
... But there’s another issue at stake here, which has to do with this wonderful thing we have in America called the freedom of religion.
 Have a look at some of the lines of the song in question:
  • There’s no separation – we’re one nation under Him.
  • There are those among us who want to push Him out
  • From the schoolhouse to the courthouse they’re silencing His word 
  •  Now it’s time for all believers to make our voices heard.

It’s quite evident this song was written by somebody who buys into the ideology that this is a Christian nation founded by Christian people for Christian people – and by “Christian” they mean their own brand of fundamentalism of the American variety – not the Greek or Serbian or Armenian or Coptic or Russian or Roman Catholic churches.  Not the Mormons.  Not the Unitarians, who deny the Trinity.  Not the many Christian denominations that deny the divinity of Jesus.  Not even mainstream Episcopalians, Lutherans, Quakers, or other denominations.

There is a terrible irony in that misunderstanding.  The religious freedom clause of the Constitution was put there by people who knew how divisive religion could be.  They were intimately familiar with the centuries of religious wars in Europe and wanted to cut the potential for a continuance of such conflict from the start in America.  The only way to do that, they understood, was to give no religion precedence over others and no state support to any religion, including religion proper.  Only by this hands off policy, they understood, could we hope to have free and uninhibited practice of religion for all time in America.  There will never be a law telling you you cannot pray – to any god, or any understanding of a God.  You will always be free to worship and share your beliefs with others.

The price of that freedom is that others must have the same freedom.  They must be free from pressure or intimidation by you to believe as you do instead of following the directives of their own hearts and conscience, misguided though you think they might be.

The reason we do not allow prayer in schools is that kids who choose not to pray will be set apart, made to be seen as a minority of “outsiders.”  This should not happen to any American child.  A Jewish child learns from his religious tradition that the Christians are mistaken in thinking that Jesus is the Messiah.  According to the Jews, the Messiah has not yet appeared.  When you pray, you customarily end your prayers “in Jesus’ name.”  That puts your religion up against a Jew’s religion. And this applies as well to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and members of all the other non-Christian religious groups to which Americans are free to belong.  It makes an “in” religion and gives it precedence, and leaves non-Christians at the back of the bus, outsiders, “non-standard” Americans.  The Supreme Court has found such action to be unconstitutional, and even without the dictates of the Constitution, non-Christians deserve our respect and consideration as fellow-Americans, don't you think?

Right-wing Christian groups have made an issue of this.  As the song says, “there are those among us who want to push him out.”  Think about that.  It’s not true.  Nobody is pushing God out of the classroom.  Nobody is prohibiting prayer in the classroom.  As some wise person once pointed out every time there is a test there is a whole lot of prayer going on in America’s classrooms.  What isn't happening is the prioritizing of one group’s religious practices over another’s.

“From the schoolhouse to the courthouse they’re silencing his word,” the song goes.  Well, no.  They are not silencing his word.  Bibles are being published by the millions.  Gideon keeps putting them in hotel rooms, every library and bookstore in America has the bible available, both the Mormons and Bibles for will send you a free bible in the mail.  Nobody is “silencing” his word.  They are making a place in the public arena – public schools are public places, remember – where people who associate the Bible with mischief or foolishness, or who simply find it irrelevant to their lives, do not have to be expected to treat it as a holy book.  One person's "freedom to" is another person's "freedom from."

When I went to work for the United Nations in Saudi Arabia back in the 1970s, I was visited by a member of the U.S. Embassy who invited me to come over on Sundays for one of two “meetings.”  There was Meeting C and Meeting P.  In Saudi Arabia, it was against the law to have religious services that were not Muslim, so there are no churches in Saudi Arabia, and the American Embassy, in deference to Saudi sensibilities, doesn’t use the word “church services” or “mass” to refer to what goes on in “Meeting C” and “Meeting P.”

Compare that with what you see in any city or town in America – row after row of churches, often side-by-side with mosques and synagogues and Buddhist and Hindu temples.  We have freedom of religion.  It is total, and absolute.  But so is the right of all Americans not to be pressured by another person’s religion.  That’s what is meant when we have “moments of silence” instead of public prayers in schools.  We have moments for the free exercise of religion.  

When Diamond Rio sings “there’s no separation – we’re one nation under him” they are showing their ignorance of history.  There most assuredly is separation of church and state in America, despite the efforts of some groups to impose their religious view on everybody.

Look it up.  You will find all sorts of comments by the founding fathers that show they had no intention of making this a country run by the churches.  You put your hand on the Bible (or not, if you prefer not to) and swear to uphold the Constitution.  Nobody swears by the Constitution to support the Bible.  Those who in colonial days did believe in an invisible extraterrestrial Creator were likely to be Deists, people who believed God set the world in motion and it was now up to us.  They saw nothing to be gained by prayer, since God worked through the laws of nature and it was a waste of time to ask him to put those laws aside.   

Without going into a whole history lesson on the founders of the American democratic experiment, just look at this page I also found on Face Book this morning:

If you want to check out the sources of these quotations, they are easily found.  Just type in the words in Google and they will lead you to the sources.  The second panel, featuring John Adams, our second president, is particularly apt.  It is from the Treaty of Tripoli.  You might also enjoy the larger context on religious freedom in which the Madison quote is to be found here.

My point in saying all this is that I hope you will not fall prey to those who are fanning the flames of resentment and paranoia by trying to generate a fear that Christians are under attack in this country.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The people this song is demonizing are not your enemies.  They are good Americans trying their best to assure that all Americans are free from religious persecution and intimidation.  Don’t be misled when the fans of Diamond Rio rise up to cheer when they sing their song.  People have always been misled by those who play on their fears.  Use your critical faculties.  Ask yourself why these videos (and so many megachurches, for that matter) appeal to your patriotism and your inclination to feel grateful to soldiers who die in America's wars.  Why they almost inevitably mix together the Statue of Liberty, the American Eagle and the Cross - the protestant one, please note, not the crucifix.  Get informed.  Stay informed.  God is not an American.  And you are not a lemming.

All good wishes,


Monday, August 17, 2015

One mile north of Piedmont

Now I don’t want to get all down on the city of Piedmont, California, or anything, but what the hell is this nonsense from all those local TV stations reporting that the earthquake this morning was centered “one mile north of Piedmont, California”?

For those of you who don’t know Piedmont, it’s a lovely tree-lined place with row after row of elegant houses.  On the 4th of July they have the kind of parade that makes you think you are in Sweetcakes, Nebraska – or practically any other small American town in the 1940s or 50s.  All neat and tidy.  No trash.  No street people.  Just a bunch of fat cats who decided in 1907 that they didn’t want to be part of Oakland, California and built an invisible wall around themselves to keep the riff-raff out.  It was once the American town with the most millionaires.  Now that the average price of a house in Piedmont is $2,121,750 and the median is $2,235,000, that number must be bumping 100%.

I’m as American as the next guy, so I don’t see anything wrong in getting rich and living well.  And there’s no reason Piedmont should have a Mexican part of town.  Hell, they don’t even have billboards.  Just single-family dwellings.  Like this one:

Price History for 636 Highland Ave
Price Change
SFAR (#431189)
County Records

It just bothers me that the local television stations seem to be treating Piedmont, population just over 10,000, including 141 African-Americans  and six native Americans, as a major reference point, and ignoring Oakland, the city you have to pass through to get in and out of it, population more like 400,000 plus.  Forty times the size.

At 6:49 this morning, I was rudely awakened by my dogs barking.  By the time I got my eyes and the rest of my head working I realized we were having an earthquake.  I hopped out of bed and turned on the TV, thinking wow, this one must be close.

It was close.  Three miles southeast of my house.  And that’s by road.  As the crow flies, it’s much closer.  Right there by Holy Names High School (for girls), leading me to conclude that God must be punishing us for lesbianism again.

As might be expected, the early reports were scattered.  One said it was a 4.2 and was centered in Berkeley.  But it wasn’t long before they started reporting that it was a 4.0 centered “about a mile north of Piedmont.”

Well, honey lambs and darlins of ABC news, “one mile north of Piedmont” is Oakland!  What's Oakland, just a potted plant?

OK, maybe I'm being unfair.  First off, it’s confusing, even to us locals, to have a town completely surrounded by another town.  Not only that, but just north of Piedmont is the well-known Piedmont Theater.  Was there the day before yesterday with friend Jason to see Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes.  Marvelous movie.  Highly recommend it.  It’s on Piedmont Avenue.  And the Piedmont Theater is in Oakland.  As is the whole of Piedmont Avenue. And Piedmont Avenue doesn’t run into Piedmont; it runs alongside it.  Parallel with Oakland Avenue, which is the main street of Piedmont.   You get my meaning.

Anyway, if you trust the Earthquake Data Center (it is in Southern California, so you might not want to), the epicenter was located at
37 deg. 50.2 min. N (37.837N), 122 deg. 13.9 min. W (122.232W)
Now if you type those coordinates into Google Maps, as I did, (type in : 37.837N 122.232W) you will see that puts you just behind St. Theresa Church on Mandalay Road, in Oakland, behind some houses across from Holy Names.  Dig down three miles and you’re there. 

The San Jose Mercury writes: USGS: Piedmont-based earthquake was shallow    The article gives this detail: “A locked-up patch of rocks a mere 3 miles under Piedmont suddenly broke loose along the Hayward Fault, triggering a wake-up call felt from Santa Rosa to Santa Cruz.”

This part of Oakland is only a mile from the Piedmont line, so I guess it’s close enough for government work to refer to it as Piedmont.  But unless the Earthquake Center’s coordinates are wrong, it happened in Oakland, thank you very much. Just as it if had happened a mile east of Piedmont or a mile West of Piedmont or a mile south of Piedmont.  

Ari Sarsalari of (how’s that for a web address?) informs us there was a “4.0 Earthquake Near (sic) Oakland, California.”  “Near Oakland?  Near Oakland???”  His map shows Oakland with a big red blotch – and no other name on it.  The caption reads “1 mile north of Piedmont, California.”  In his report, though, he declares that it took place “three miles northeast (sic) of Oakland.”  About ten miles north and east of San Francisco proper.  “A lot of people live there." 

That's true.  A lot of people live in cities with a population of 400,000.  Ari, Ari, you look like a swell fellah, but you really need to do your homework.

CNBC declares “Magnitude 4.0 earthquake widely felt in San Francisco; damage not immediately clear.”   Well, that’s OK.  When I’m on the other side of the world (or in Canada) I also say I’m from San Francisco.  But this article then also goes on to say:
The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake struck a mile north of Piedmont, California, at 6:49 a.m. PDT. Originally reported as a magnitude 4.2, the earthquake was adjusted to a 4.0.
Piedmont is in the East Bay, 13 miles east of San Francisco, four miles from downtown Oakland and five miles southeast of Berkeley.
I think it’s time to admit this is not a battle worth fighting.  No reason why the media have to specify that the epicenter was "in Oakland, just a mile north of the Piedmont line."  To most people in the world probably even "the East Bay" has little meaning.  Only us locals are going to notice this shorthand.

We had an earthquake this morning.  They say it took place in Piedmont.  Not the part of Piedmont where the kids of Piedmont High school used to host the Leonard J. Waxdeck Bird Calling Contest every year, whose top three winners used to appear on David Letterman.

Happened in Oakland, actually.

The Oakland part of Piedmont.

Where you can find lots of houses for less than two million dollars.  Where Oakland taxpayers pay to maintain the Oakland library which Piedmont folk use, just as they use the shops on Piedmont Avenue.  Which is in Oakland.  Did I tell you that?

Nobody was hurt.  Some pictures fell off the wall.  Some broken glass.

map of Oakland, including Piedmont: source