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Is Mass Surveillance in America Really That Bad? June 8, 2013

Posted by Dindy in barack obama, Current Events, iraq, Islam, Muslims, Politics, privacy, Right wing, Terrorism.
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Mass Surveillance in America

On Wednesday, the Guardian published a secret court order requiring Verizon to hand over data for all the calls made on its network on an “ongoing, daily basis.” Other revelations about surveillance of phone and digital communications have followed.

That the National Security Agency has engaged in such activity isn’t entirely new: Since 9/11, we’ve learned about large-scale surveillance by the spy agency from a patchwork of official statements, classified documents, and anonymously sourced news stories.

 

This is an example of the slippery slope. Almost all of Congress supported the Patriot Act when it was passed, and few Americans protested (yes, I WAS one of the protesters.) But now that we have started down the slippery slope that is the Patriot Act, they are finding more and more ways to infringe on our privacy. And at first glance, it seems fairly innocuous– they collect metadata regarding calls made in which one of the participants is outside of the US. Then they may initiate further surveillance and tap the phones. Who can complain about that?

Except my future son-in-law has family in the UK and calls them frequently. Now surely none of them would show up on the surveillance radar– but how do we know that, because we don’t know how they select the phones which will be tapped and whose phones they select? My almost son-in-law has a fairly common name, and we know from the experience my dh, Bill Robinson, has had at airports since 9-11 that merely having a name that is similar to someone who is on the Watch List is enough to warrant additional screening at the airport. Either that, or Bill, himself, is on the Watch list, which given his history of writing letters to the editor criticizing the Bush Administration is not inconceivable.

Then, I have another friend with family in Iran. They also speak frequently on the phone. Well we KNOW that anybody who lives in Iran is automatically suspect, right? (No, I don’t really believe that, but there are many who do!) So are they being tapped?

I have FaceBook friends who are from Pakistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. We became friends when I was playing Farmville and have remained friends. I’ve even chatted with a few of them on FB Chat. I don’t really know much about any of them, but what if by virtue of our FB chats and the fact that we are FB friends, any of us comes under suspicion?

Even if the current situation is not unreasonable, how do we know that the next permutation of this act won’t be? The Act started in 2001 allowing the sharing of “tangible” data such as tax forms,  books, business records and library check out records. It wasn’t till 2006 that we found out about the warrantless data mining of phone records. Then in 2007, the FBI and NSA started getting access to info from Microsoft, and in subsequent years Apple and Google. Well crap! That suddenly makes my Yahoo Account feel much more secure than the Google Account I’ve held for years as my very private email account. And with the purchase of my last Android phone and my iPAD, I now make frequent purchases through Google Check Out. So does that mean that the government now knows how much time I waste playing Angry Birds? Or are they tracking my purchase of John Denver Music with suspicion since he was known as a hippie peace freak?

The trouble is, it’s hard to argue with a program that has apparently been a factor in preventing further terrorist attacks in the US. It’s hard to argue with success. But how much are we willing to give up for that security? On the one hand, it’s easy for me to say that the government is welcome to look at any of my phone records, Amazon book orders and Angry Bird purchases they want– but there are a few problems with that– what if they start tracking what I watch on TV? What if they start instructing their satellite cams to zoom in on my house? How do I know they aren’t already doing so?

And what if they start taking a perfectly innocuous action of mine– and decide it’s suspicious? We’ve all had the experience of surfing the web and being pulled into a website we really didn’t want to see by inadvertently clicking on something else. Or, sometimes, in my attempt to learn about a subject, I might inadvertently  end up on a website the NSA has marked as suspicious. Will they then increase their surveillance of me? Start tapping my phones? Start reading my emails? Do I have anything in there I don’t want the government to read or know about?

Well, I have, on rare occasions,  criticized Obama. I’ve criticized Dubya and Cheney a lot, and if Cheney is still running things from his secret bunker as some have claimed, I might be in trouble. I have also frequently criticized the Patriot Act, right wing politics and Faux News. I’ve said, more than once, that Gitmo should be closed. Does that open me up to greater suspicion?

Many think that my aforementioned dh has become an apologist for Islam as he frequently argues against the anti-Muslim hysteria that we frequently encounter here in the US and in Texas. Does that automatically open him and me up to more suspicion?

It’s easy to scoff and say, “My life is an open book and the government is welcome to poke through my underwear drawer any time they like.” But are they really? If the organization doing the searching is determined to find something, I am not so sure that they won’t be able to dig up something. I did send a letter to President Nixon when I was a very little girl. In the letter I expressed my concern about the POW/MIA situation in Viet Nam. Clearly my anti-government tendencies go way back! (And no, I didn’t do it as a school assignment. It was of my own volition. I even got a letter back from him that my parents told me had his actual signature. I still have the letter somewhere.)

I do jaywalk rather frequently as it is the only way to get across the street in Fort Worth, and I have run the occasional red light and driven the wrong way down a one way street. I even go more than five miles above the speed limit on occasion.

I sent dirty letters to my husband when he was in Officer Training School in San Antonio, and I wore a black armband when Ronald Reagan was elected. I inhaled some second hand marijuana smoke while standing in line for a concert. I have muttered imprecations against the Catholic Church on more than one occasion. So I clearly am not as pure as the driven snow.

It seems kind of silly for me to be worried about this government erosion of our privacy, because I REALLY don’t have anything to hide. Yet, I am worried. How much more has the government failed to reveal about their data mining? And where do we draw the line and say enough is enough?

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2011 in review January 1, 2012

Posted by Dindy in Uncategorized.
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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2011. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

And a Happy George Day to All! November 26, 2011

Posted by Dindy in atheism, Christianity, Religion, Religious Right.
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The Thanksgiving leftovers haven’t even had time to get cold, and already the opening salvos have been fired in the annual war between those Christians who are outraged that people dare to celebrate the Yuletide season without reference to Christ and, well, everyone else. I see at least three posts a day from Facebook friends:

“I’m inviting all my Facebook family and friends to join me in returning to the traditional greeting of “MERRY CHRISTMAS” instead of the politically correct “Happy Holidays”!! If you agree with me, please re-post this message…..MERRY CHRISTMAS! We need Christ back into our lives GOD IS WELCOME IN MY HOUSE.”

This is actually one of the tamer of the Facebook posts floating around. Others are more emphatic, with one person shrilling, “People shouldn’t celebrate Christmas if they aren’t going to recognize Christ!”

Woof. Okay. So you don’t want anyone celebrating Christmas but Christians, but you want everyone to acknowledge and pay homage to YOUR celebration of Christmas. Gotcha!

Let me go on record here as saying I don’t really care what you call it. If someone wants to wish me a happy George Day instead of a Merry Christmas, I’m fine with that. I appreciate the sentiment behind it. Someone wants me to have a happy day. How nice. Not only that, but they want my cat, George, to have a nice day. I’m so glad they care about him, because he really is a very nice cat even if he does keep me awake at night when he does the monster mash on my chest.

I guess that’s where I just really don’t understand the Christians. Why is their happiness about the celebration of Christ’s birth dependent upon everybody else also celebrating that birth? Never mind the fact that Jesus is actually not the reason for the season, that the mid-winter festival was around for centuries before it was co-opted by the Christians who were trying to make their faith palatable to the pagans in northern Europe. For people who are supposed to be immersed in the joy of their savior’s birth, Christians seem to be mighty unhappy people. Instead of being glad that someone is giving them a pleasant greeting, they choose to grind their gears because they are not being wished a “Merry Christmas.”

As an atheist, I never used to mind it when people wished me a Merry Christmas. I admire many of the teachings of Jesus, and I don’t mind taking a day out to celebrate his birthday as a time of joy, love, peace and giving. However, I did think it was nice when merchants and other people started noticing that not all of their customers were Christian and started wishing people “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Now, though, when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” I stop to wonder if they are doing so to make a statement about how their religion should be the only one to be acknowledged. What I used to think of as a pleasant little greeting has been robbed of any nice sentiment it may have had.

Christians lament the “good old days” when nobody complained about being told to have a “Merry Christmas.” Well, there were a lot of things that people never used to complain about—blacks never used to complain about having to drink from separate water fountains, and people never used to complain about eating in restaurants without smoking sections. The world has changed, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that our society here in the United States is made up of people of many different beliefs, or no beliefs. So what if people never used to complain about being subjected to the religious practices of another group? Now that people have complained, it is just plain rude to continue to ignore the fact that other people may not wish to listen repeatedly to exhortations to celebrate a Christian holiday.

There are actually many celebrations that occur during December. Solstice, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Bodhi, Al Hijra, Hogmanay, Omisoka, St. Lucia Day, and La Posada, among others. For any group to insist that their particular holiday be celebrated among all others is not only arrogant, but short-sighted for those merchants who want to convey the message that they value all of their customers, not just the Christian ones.

However, it really is no skin off my nose if you want to wish me a Merry Christmas. I need all the good wishes I can get, so Mele Kalikimaka and a Happy George Day to you too.

Are Teachers Overpaid? By Some Standards, Yes November 13, 2011

Posted by Dindy in Schools, Uncategorized.
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A new study by conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, has concluded that public school teachers are overpaid compared to their counterparts with similar qualifications in the private sector. This is not a popular stance to take, of course, especially during this particular year when so many states have decided that one way to lower their expenses is to cut teaching jobs.

This happens to be a question that I can speak to somewhat knowledgeably since not only did I used to be a teacher, but I am a Human Resource wonk, with expertise in Compensation. In addition, I have spent most of my professional life working either in the public sector or the non-profit sector, both of which tend to have lower pay than the private sector.

So let’s look at the question of whether teachers are overpaid compared to comparable workers. When looking to see if different jobs are paid on an equitable basis, one of the things we so-called experts do is look at the level of education and experience required for the job. It is possible to walk into a teaching job with no experience, straight out of college. As long as one has a Bachelor’s Degree, one can teach.

Starting teachers in Texas make $40,000 to $50,000 a year, or even more, which isn’t bad for someone fresh out of college with no experience. It’s even better if you consider that this is for ten months of work. If you converted this to a full year salary for 12 months of work, you get $48,000, which, again, is pretty good for someone fresh out of college.

Teachers, quite rightly point to the fact that their job is not an 8 to 5  job, that they spend countless hours after school and on weekends grading papers and preparing lessons, that the importance of their job should be considered when making decisions about pay, and that theirs is one of the hardest jobs in the world (well, I might actually quibble with that last one because I have been a teacher and I can tell you that there are jobs that are MUCH more difficult). They will also tell you that they spend their summers working on their Masters degree so they can move into a higher level of pay and improve their level of knowledge, so it’s not as though they are lounging around the pool all summer sipping mint juleps. (Actually, when I was a teacher, I did spend my summers lounging around the pool and playing with my kids. I did not sip mint juleps, however.)

Nevertheless, let’s stipulate that teachers have  hard jobs and important jobs, so we can look at some other public sector employees. For instance, child protective workers. Child Protective workers are a lot like teachers in some ways. You can walk into a Child Protective Services job with a 4-year degree and no experience. The jobs are certainly important, and are difficult and often dangerous. Social workers often go into some of the worst neighborhoods at all hours of the day and night and talk to hostile, possibly violent people, to determine whether the conditions are severe enough to warrant removing a child from the home. Child Protective Service workers work 12 months of the year and frequently have shifts in the evenings or weekends. They are often on call 24 hours a day. If they want to get a Master’s Degree, they do so during their off hours, and once they attain that degree, it won’t necessarily improve their pay, unless they move to a higher level position.

For their trouble, entry-level Child Protective Services workers in Texas are paid about $26,000 to $30,000 a year. It takes them about ten years to get up to $40,000. If you compare hourly rates, beginning teachers in Texas make about $23.08 per hour, compared to $12.50 an hour for Child Protective Service workers.

Librarians are another public sector employee. The average starting salary for an entry-level Librarian in Texas is $40,000, which is comparable to our starting salary for teachers. However, librarians are required to have Masters level degrees. They work 12 months of the year and often work evenings and weekends. Many of them are not able to have two days off in a row on a regular basis because of scheduling issues at their work place. As someone who practically lived in my hometown library when I was growing up, I can attest to the importance of what they do.

So if we compare the hourly rate of a librarian to that of a teacher, the librarian makes $19.23 per hour, compared to $23.08 for teachers. Ironically, many librarians pick up their teaching certificates along the way so they can work as a  school librarian and make more money than their counterparts in the public libraries, while at the same time enjoying better hours and vacation benefits.

I’m not going to compare the salaries of teachers with those of private sector jobs because I think it is apples and oranges. It’s like comparing the pay rate of a police officer to a security guard. It just isn’t a valid comparison. However, it seems pretty clear that when it comes to public sector salaries, at least, teachers don’t do too badly when compared to other pubic sector jobs.

But that is just entry-level salaries. There is a problem with teacher salaries, but it’s not what people think it is. The starting salary for a teacher is actually pretty good, but if you take a look at teachers with ten or more years of experience in the classroom, their salary is not much higher than the starting salary. In Texas, teacher pay caps out at about $60,000 a year. Whereas most people who start a job after college and stay in the same career field can expect to see their pay rate climb as they move into higher level positions, teachers see their pay rate flatten.

The problem is that their job remains pretty much the same no matter how many years of experience they have. After the first three or four years, a teacher with five years of experience is doing pretty much the same job as a teacher with ten years of experience, who, in turn, is doing the same job as a teacher with 20 years of experience. If anything, their job has become a little easier because they can recycle their lesson plans each year instead of having to create them from scratch, and the more familiar they become with the material–  by virtue of teaching it over and over again–  the easier it is to teach it.

Sure, after a few years they might become a “Master Teacher” or they might pick up some additional certifications which they can use to boost their pay a little, but they are still teachers. If they want to make more money, they need to change their jobs: move into administration, for instance, or go into another profession.

Librarians are in a similar situation, but they do have some upward mobility in their jobs– they can become head of a section of the library, or specialize in a particular subject area. Child Protective Service workers rarely stay around for more than a few years, but the ones who manage to stick it out will generally move up into higher levels of administration and will see their pay increase accordingly.

Most teachers say that they want to stay in the classroom, that they went into the field because they wanted to teach and that there are rewards beyond money to what they do.  Having been a teacher, I can agree with that– not only did I love working with the kids and imparting knowledge to them, but I enjoyed being home when my kids were home, having summers off and two weeks off at Christmas. I never expected to make a lot of money as a teacher, and I didn’t.

Yes, in an ideal world we would pay teachers a salary that is representative of the intrinsic value of what they do. In the real world, however, their salaries are paid with taxpayer dollars and in this particular day and age especially, taxpayers are loath to part with those precious dollars to increase wages for those who work for them.

So back to the original question– are teachers overpaid? Well, looking at it using standard compensation practices, yes they are when compared against similarly situated public sector employees. However, I would prefer to say that the problem is not that teachers are overpaid, but that social workers and librarians are underpaid.

Despite what those of the American Enterprise Institute would have us believe, there is an intrinsic value to the services provided by teachers that is seldom matched in the private sector. They may not be underpaid, but most of them deserve every penny they get. To paraphrase the song, “They work hard for the money so you’d better treat them right.”

Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child? November 5, 2011

Posted by Dindy in Current Events, Parenting.
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In a video that has quickly gone viral, the daughter of a Texas Family Court Judge is savagely beaten with a belt by her father for the oh so horrible crime of downloading files illegally from the internet. The incident happened seven years ago, when Hillary Adams was 16 years old. The judge admits he did it and adds that he lost his temper and has apologized so it’s no big deal.

The video itself is very hard to watch, and I was only able to watch a couple of minutes of it. While some have speculated about Ms. Adams’ motive in posting the video, I applaud her for doing so, no matter the motive, for her video has brought to light an ugly part of parenting in America– far too many parents think that spanking is an appropriate means of disciplining their children.

Now first let me state that I do not think spanking is necessarily abuse– although the beating Judge Adams administered to his daughter was definitely abusive. However, spanking is not particularly effective, sends kids the wrong message that hitting is an appropriate way to handle problems, and can lead to increased aggression and actually lead to worse behavior on the part of the child.

I used to teach parenting classes to high school students and one thing I found is that many people very strongly WANT to hit their children. I used to ask my students, “What if someone could show you a way to teach your children how to behave well without having to spank them, would you use it?” Most of the students responded with a loud “No.” They would not even consider that there might be a way to raise their children without spanking, or even if there were, they still wanted to spank.

When I would tell students that I didn’t spank my kids, they would respond that my kids must be rotten brats (they weren’t) or that I was just lucky enough to have kids that were naturally well-behaved. It apparently never occurred to them that maybe my kids were well-behaved because my husband, and I found ways to teach them how to behave that did not involve spanking.

In a real-time study of parenting behaviors conducted by Gerald Holden of Southern Methodist University, parents were recorded in the process of slapping, swatting and hitting their kids.

While listening to his mother read The Tortoise and the Hare, for example, one boy began touching the pages, garnering a slap.

“At 2:03:31, the mother says, ‘No, Justin,’ and continues reading,” according to a transcription describing the incident. “Then at 2:03:34 she smacks him, and says, ‘No, Justin. If you want me to read, quit messing with the pages. Cause you’re moving it while I’m reading.'”

Now there were many ways the mother could have reacted when her son started touching the pages of the storybook. She could have stopped reading and just talked about the pictures to him. She could have closed the book and said, “I guess you don’t want to hear the story tonight. What would you rather do instead?” She could have said, “Oh, you want to play peek-a-boo with the tortoise!” and turned the story into a game. This mother was so focused on her goal of reading a story to her child, that she overlooked a wonderful opportunity to just have fun with the boy.

One time one of the teachers stayed after class to argue with me about spanking. He told me that some kids are just bad and need to be spanked. I disagreed with him so he gave me an example– “What if you had your two-year-old with you at a picnic in the park and you told him to stay away from the creek and then when you went to look for him you found him down by the creek?”

I asked him why the parents would take their eyes off a two-year-old when there was a creek nearby.

He didn’t like that, but he continued. “Well what if he ran down to the creek and then wouldn’t come when you called him?”

“Can your two-year-old run faster than you?” I asked him. Again, I pointed out that the parents should not be letting the child run down to the creek  in the first place. Someone should be watching the boy at all times, and if he has that big of a tendency to run away, the parents need to get a child safety harness.

The teacher finally stomped out of the room, upset that he could not get me to admit that this two-year-old needed to be spanked for going down to the creek.

Teaching children how to behave is not easy. Parents often have to be inconvenienced and often have to be creative. Sometimes they have to give up the things they really want to do so they can closely monitor their children’s behavior. And they need to start from the time their children are very young to help their kids learn appropriate behavior.

Some people have actually sympathized with Judge Adams. The daughter was downloading files illegally, they say. She was clearly out of control. I say that if a parent has to beat his child for misbehavior when she is in her teens, then clearly the parent lost control of that child a long time ago. There were any number of things the judge could have done when he learned his daughter had downloaded illegal material. He could have taken away her computer privileges or could have made her pay for the downloaded files. Instead he thought carefully about it, grabbed the largest belt he had, and beat her while yelling obscenities at her.

When we got our first computer, I was worried that my daughters would spend all their time after school playing on the computer instead of doing their chores and homework. I set up a password on the computer and changed it every day. The girls didn’t get the password till they had completed their chores and homework. Was it inconvenient to change the password every day? Sure. It was a pain in the neck. But we only had to do it for a few months until the girls had thoroughly absorbed the chores and homework first message. When we lifted the rule, we told the girls that if they stopped doing their chores or homework before playing on the computer, we would reinstate the password rule. We never had to do so.

So again, I ask: If someone could show you a way to teach your kids how to behave without hitting them, would you use it? Somehow I think Judge Adams would say “No.” Like the teenagers I used to teach in parenting classes, he seemed to really WANT to hit his daughter.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation or Don’t Sit on the Sting Ray September 12, 2011

Posted by Dindy in Animals, humor, Personal.
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A former boss once introduced me at a staff meeting saying, “Dindy has a love/hate relationship with animals. She LOVES them, and they HATE her.” I can see why he might think that as within the previous six months I had been bitten by a brown recluse spider and had also missed several days of work after my cat gave me a severe concussion by dropping a book on my head. I also have a scar on my stomach from when a different cat tried to eviscerate me when I tried to give him a flea bath. In addition, my current dog has on various occasions broken my glasses, given me a black eye, busted my lip, broken my toe (more than once actually) and broken my collar bone. And after tripping over a previous dog, said dog then proceeded to joyously ride my body down a tall, steep hill as though it were a sled, resulting in several cracked ribs on my part  as well as my losing copious amounts of skin on my knees, hands, face and other exposed portions of my anatomy.

So I can see where some people might get the idea that animals don’t exactly consider me to be their best friend. I maintain, however, that despite my various mishaps at the paws or mouths of various animals, their actions against me are not personal. Take, for instance, my experience with a sting ray in Jamaica. Yes, my husband and I finally celebrated our 25th anniversary with a week’s vacation in Costa Rica– almost. We were only six years late and 734 miles off, somehow managing to end up in Montego Bay, Jamaica instead. However, they say good things are worth waiting for, and this trip certainly was as it will probably be  25 years before we get another one.

From the moment we deplaned in Montego Bay, we were impressed by the beauty of Jamaica. Well, actually, we weren’t really impressed until we got out of the airport because it wasn’t particularly pretty inside the terminal. In fact, it was rather hot, muggy and uncomfortable. However, once we got onto the shuttle to our hotel, we realized we were in paradise. We realized it because our driver told us so. “Jamaica is a paradise,” he said. “Our beaches are better than those in the US because we don’t have anything here that can hurt you. No sharks, no jellyfish, no sting rays.”

During the course of our week, he was not the only one who would tell us that. Several tour guides said the same thing– “No sharks, no jellyfish, no sting rays.”

And they were right about Jamaica being paradise. It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen: a lush, tropical garden of fruit trees, ferns and palms, set in the midst of a sapphire sea. Our hotel was on the beach, and on our first day I waded out for a quick swim. The still water felt nice, peaceful and quiet. In fact, it was rather boring because there was no surf. I realized that this was due to a coral island about 40 yards from the beach that served as a barrier to the ocean waves. We could hear the surf but not experience it.

Well, that was okay. There were plenty of other things to do. We went tubing down one of the rivers and took a jeep safari and walked up to a nearby shopping center to stimulate the Jamaica economy. We swam in the pool, splashed in a mountain spring and sat under a waterfall. At night we sat out on the beach and looked at the night sky and listened to the distant surf while we chatted idly about nothing in particular. We noticed that there were Jamaicans on the little coral island, fishing in the surf, and as the days passed, I decided that I really wanted to go out to this little island.

Before I booked our hotel rooms, I read an online review from some travelers who said they had swam out to the little island one day. If they could do it, I decided, we could too, so on our last day my husband and I pulled on our swimsuits and water shoes, pointed ourselves at the island and took the plunge. It was a lovely day for a swim; the water was nice and warm and the pelicans circled idly over our heads and occasionally plunged into the water nearby to grab a snack. Bill and I alternated between the side stroke and a modified breast stroke, not in any real hurry, but just enjoying the water and the experience.

Then we felt something at our feet. It wasn’t fish, we realized quickly, but kelp. The water grew decidedly more and more shallow until we were no longer able to swim but were forced to wade through the kelp. Ewwwwwww! It felt pretty gross, actually, but we figured it was only about 20 more yards to the island so we squunched forward.

Then we hit something worse than kelp– silt. The last 10-15 yards to the island consisted of a thick layer of silt. Deep, oozy, sucky, squunchy, slimy, quicksand-y silt.We’d take a step and our foot would go down, down, down into the mud, mud, mud until we were sunk almost to our knees. We’d pull our foot out- pop! — and then have to bend down and find our water shoe, pull it out of the silt and put it back on our foot. Behind us were 5, 10, 15 yards of silt and then kelp. In front of us was more silt and then island. We discussed turning back but bravely decided we had come so far, we might as well go all the way, so on we went. Step forward. Sink in mud. Pull foot up. Pop out of mud. Feel for shoe. Put shoe on foot. Over and over and over again.

“This is great!” we said to each other repeatedly.

“An adventure!”

“And we’re really getting our aerobic exercise too!”

Finally we made it to the island. I admit, by that time I wanted nothing more than to fling myself down on the beach and sleep for about ten years, exhausted by my trudge through the silt. However, the surface of the island was not conducive to such activities as it consisted of rocks- large rocks. We couldn’t even sit on the rocks as they all had sharp, spiky, pointed surfaces that promised severe pain to anyone who attempted to perch on one of them. So instead we explored the island. We took 5 steps and were on the other side. There right in front of us, the waves crashed into the rocks, rolling in from the ocean deep. I watched happily for several minutes. Ahhh! This is what I had come to Jamaica for! Now my vacation was complete– crashing waves, the mist from the ocean spattering against my face, the fresh smell of the ocean breeze.

Finally Bill convinced me that it was time to go back. We stepped back to the other side and looked out at the deceptively tranquil surface that lay between the island and the shore. We were about to take the plunge again– 20 yards of hard slogging before we could get out of the silt and kelp and swim unimpeded to the hotel beach.

Bill set out first– seeing as how he is almost a foot taller than me, he didn’t sink quite as deep as I did. While the silt pulled him in up to his ankles, it would grab me and suck me in up to my knees. Consequently he was able to keep his shoes on most of the time and was able to move faster than me. We were both focused only on one thing- getting out of the silt and kelp, so he moved rapidly ahead. He claims that he was unaware of how far behind I was, but it really wouldn’t have made any difference if he had. There was no way he could have prevented what happened.

So there we were again. Step forward. Sink in mud. Pull foot up. Pop out of mud. Feel for shoe. Pull shoe out of mud. Put shoe on foot. Except it was becoming more and more difficult for me to put my shoe back on because I had to lift one leg out of the water while the other leg was busily sinking into the silt, and because I was tired, I was having a harder time keeping my balance. So I added a new element to the routine. I started falling on my butt.

So the new gait went like this: Step forward. Sink in mud. Pull foot up. Pop out of mud. Feel for shoe. Pull shoe out of mud. Fall on butt. Put shoe on foot. Slow? Yes. Cumbersome? Yes. Effective? Actually, yes. Until the sting ray took offense.

I swear, I didn’t know it was there. How could I when all the guides had assured me that Jamaica was a paradise with no dangerous animals? No sharks. No jellyfish. No sting rays. And technically speaking, I guess the sting ray was not actually on Jamaica, it was in the silt surrounding an island off the shore of Jamaica. But whatever,  technically or non-technically, there it was, buried in the silt. The same silt through which I was slowly and tediously slogging with my version of the Jamaican two step. And since I didn’t know it was there, I wasn’t able to avoid it, and consequently I added a new step to my little routine.

Step forward. Sink in mud. Pull foot up. Pop out of mud. Feel for shoe. Pull shoe out of mud. Fall on butt. Sit on sting ray. Feel excruciating, taser-like pain shoot through my entire leg.

Mercifully, my entire leg and the right side of my butt quickly went numb, so I was unable to feel the venom surging through my veins. I decided that wearing my swim shoes for the protection of my feet was kind of a moot point by then so I took them off, and carried them as I rather more quickly slogged out beyond the kelp and silt to where I could swim to shore– albeit rather awkwardly since my right leg was completely useless. I kept telling Bill that I needed him to look at my butt because something had stung me, and while Bill is normally more than happy to look at my butt, for some reason he was reluctant to do so this time. I’m sure that this had nothing to do with the fact that we were about 20 yards off shore in water that was over both of our heads.

Once in our room, a hotel manager came up to render first aid, but when he realized where on my body I had been stung, he refused to look at my sting and started directing all his questions about the injury to Bill instead of to me. He called a taxi to take us to a local urgent care clinic where we received a fascinating tour of the Jamaican medical system. I’ll spare you the gory details of the ammonium bath to which I was subjected, as well as the absolutely delightful experience of getting on an airplane the next day and spending 8 hours trying to avoid sitting on the right side of my butt during the long flight home.

And yes, I am well aware that Steve Irwin died from  being stung by a sting ray. If I hadn’t known before, I certainly would now because every single person who has heard about what happened to me has mentioned it. I’ve also heard every variation of, “It will turn out right in the end,” that you can think of.

But back to the point of my story– the sting ray didn’t sting me because it hated me. It didn’t even know me. It stung me because there it was, minding its own business, taking a snooze in the ooze when I came along and sat on it. And I’m sure if I look back at all my previous mishaps with animals, the animals will all have perfectly reasonable explanations for why they have tried to kill me in various ways.

All except the concussion. That cat was just plain mean, and he hated everybody. Including me.

The Right to Be Insensitive September 8, 2010

Posted by Dindy in Church and State, Current Events, Islam, Muslims, Religion, Religious Right, Terrorism.
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In the short story The Accident, the great science fiction writer James White tells the story of the origin of Sector General, the interplanetary medical center created to provide medical care to aliens. The story tells of two war heroes of different species, Grawlya –Ki and MacEwan, who had been locked in mortal combat between their spaceships and both crash landed on an unknown world. Determined to learn all he could about his enemy, Grawlya-Ki boarded MacEwan’s ship. MacEwan was gravely injured, dying. Grawlya-Ki did not know when or if his distress beacon would bring rescuers.

After a 6-hour one-on-one battle, the two were probably going to die together. Because there was no longer anything left to fight about and because they had developed a respect for each other during the fight, they began to communicate and in so doing, found that the entire war between their two peoples had been based on a joint misunderstanding.

When the Orligian rescue ship arrived, the two were barely alive and beyond medical help so the Orligians put the control room of the spaceship and the two combatants into stasis and transported them to the central square of the planetary capital of Orligia where for 236 years it served as a very effective war memorial. When medical science finally progressed to the point where the beings’ wounds could be healed, they were released from stasis and eventually founded the Sector General hospital which brought peace to the galaxy through providing medical care for all.

It is to be hoped that something similar will happen with the Cordoba Center, which most Americans know as the Ground Zero mosque even though it is not actually a mosque nor is it at Ground Zero– but since when have facts ever stood in the way of a good sound bite?

There is a great deal of rhetoric slinging about the country about the Cordoba Center, which is actually a proposed Islamic Community Center that will not even be visible from Ground Zero. President Obama lost approval points and raised anew questions about his religious beliefs when he stated that he supported the right of the Moslems to build the mosque and dared to voice the opinion that freedom of religion applies to everyone, not just Christians.

If the Cordoba Center has served as a divisive political issue for the upcoming elections, it has also divided Moslems, many of whom have come out publicly against the proposed center, some on the grounds that it is insensitive and some who state that it is being built by radical Islamists who are thumbing their nose at the 9-11 tragedy.

It is the insensitivity of the proposed Cordoba Center that I keep coming back to. I can fully accept that the developers do not mean to be insensitive. I can completely accept that they mean it to be a center for people to learn more about Islam. However I also think they do not realize that Ground Zero has assumed a hallowed place in the mind of most Americans and that for most of us, 9-11 will forever be remembered as the day our world changed for the worst.  I remember the fear and sense of loss I felt after 9-11, not just for the lives that were lost but for the sense of security that we as Americans had lost. Never again would we be able to feel safe in our own country, on our own land. People who have grown up in places continually torn asunder by war and terrorism have never known what it is like to feel complete safe, but we did before 9-11.

Before 9-11, we were largely untouched by terrorism. We remember when we could board airplanes without having to take our shoes off and without having to discard all our liquids and without having our bags routinely searched. We remember when the New York landscape was dominated by the twin towers and the jarring after images of the cityscape with nothing where the twin towers used to be. We remember when we could check out library books without worrying that the FBI was checking our reading history, and we remember a time when we could buy airplane tickets without having to worry about a watch list.

Our world changed forever on 9-11 and Ground Zero is a continual reminder to us of not only the lives that were lost but the way of life that went with them. While I can wholeheartedly support the constitutional rights of the Moslems to build the Cordoba Center, inside I keep thinking that it is insensitive. I understand that they don’t mean to be insensitive, but it is.

But…

It was insensitive of the NRA to hold their annual meeting in Denver after Columbine, but they did so anyway, and it was their right to do so. We do not have a right not to be offended in this country, and there are no laws against being insensitive. And maybe, just maybe the Moslems supporting the community center are right to force the issue, to say, in effect– “Look, we know you blame every single member of the Moslem religion for what happened on 9-11 but that is not what we are about. We are about community, about learning, about families, and if you come to our center, you might learn something about us.”

It’s kind of the same strategy Rhett Butler made Scarlett O’Hara adopt when he had her wear the very daring gown to the party the day after she was caught kissing Ashley Wilkes. People are going to be talking about you anyway so you might as well give them something to talk about. And people are going to be fussing about Moslems anyway so you might as well give them something to fuss about.  So maybe fifty or one hundred years from now, school children will visit the Cordoba Center and learn about it in schools as a monument to peace and a tribute to how two vastly different groups of people were brought together to form a more perfect union.

The freedom of speech and religion that we have in this country did not come easily. We fought hard for our right to be a nation, for our right to govern ourselves and for our right to make our own decisions about religion. The peace that we usually enjoy in this country was also hard-won, and in many cases it is only a surface peace, hiding a roiling jumble of conflicts beneath. If some of us have to be offended today in order for there to be a chance of peace in the future, so be it. I support not only the right of Feisal AbdulRauf to build the Cordoba Center, but I support the Center itself. May it lead to greater understanding between our peoples.

If You Can Teach An Old Dog, Why Not Humans? September 6, 2010

Posted by Dindy in Animals, Books, Uncategorized.
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Parade Magazine had an article on 8/15/10 about the rehabilitation of the Vick dogs. I had already read a little about this in the book Dogtown, which I wrote about in an earlier blog. What struck me as I read Dogtown and again as I read the article in Parade is how the animal workers did what was thought to be impossible– they took dogs of a bully breed- pit bulls- who had been raised and contained in horrible circumstances as fighting dogs or as bait dogs, and rehabilitated them into companion animals or service animals. Of the 51 dogs seized from the Vick farm, all but 2 have been rehabilitated.

It was not cheap to do this. U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson ordered that almost $1 million of the Vick money be set aside for the rescue and rehabilitation of the dogs. The ASPCA assembled a team of animal behavior experts to evaluate the dogs, and the animals were individually assessed and treated.

I am in awe that there are people who cared enough not to let these dogs be destroyed, cared enough to turn these dogs into loving companions, service animals and family pets. It would have been very easy to say that these animals could not be rehabilitated, to order their destruction and not give it a second thought, however the judge and the animal workers involved chose not to take the easy road, and their rewards were infinitely greater.

Which leads me to wonder why we cannot do the same with humans. In 2008, there were 2,304,115 people incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States at a total cost of approximately $36 billion per year, a cost of about $15,624 per prisoner per year. To rehab the Vick dogs cost about $20,408 per dog. What if we were to apply the same sort of rehab philosophy toward human prisoners as was applied to the Vick dogs? What if instead of merely incarcerating prisoners, we took a real stab at rehabilitation? Not the joke that passes for rehabilitation today but a real effort that treats each prisoner as an individual person with individual needs and not a number. With almost 7 out of 10 male prisoners returning to prison within 3 years of their release, what we are doing is obviously not working.

Obviously it’s much easier just to lock the criminals away and throw away the key, but in so doing, we are also locking away potential. Individual assessments and rehabilitation plans, addressing the issues that made these people turn to crime in the first place might go a long way toward turning them around and making them into productive members of society. We’ve shown it can be done with dogs that most people thought could not be saved. Why can’t we do it for people as well?

If You Don’t Agree Just Delete August 30, 2010

Posted by Dindy in Politics, Religion, Religious Right, Uncategorized.
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I am regularly bombarded– okay, slight exaggeration here– at least once a day I receive an email from a friend or acquaintance that contains a rant or diatribe, generally political, pseudo-patriotic, or religious in nature, containing a bunch of unsubstantiated statements and/or opinions and generally ending with some variation of the phrase, “If you agree, pass this on. If you don’t, simply delete.”

These type of chain emails really tick me off, and it is the last statement that really bugs me because the sender is, in essence, saying, “I don’t really give a flip about your opinion, and I don’t want to hear it even though I’ve just regaled you with a piece of my mind.”

Excuse me? So you get to drop a piece of propaganda in my email box and expect me to read it and then if I disagree, just quietly delete it and not let you or anybody else know how I feel about what you have said? What makes you think I am interested in what you have to say if you aren’t interested in what I have to say? Why is it okay for you to push your opinion on to me but not okay for me to push mine back at you?

This is part of the reason I have become more militant at rebutting such emails with facts from www.snopes.com and www.factcheck.org. For emails that are just opinionated rants with few facts, I’m starting to hit Reply All and give the sender and other recipients the benefit of my [much more informed and well thought out] opinion.

Sorry folks, but I have just as much right to force my opinion on you as you do upon me. If you are going to subject me to your idiotic viewpoint, then you are damn well gonna be subjected to mine. Of course, I can’t force you to read it or to agree with me any more than I can force an imbecile to think.

Taking Care of Business the Private Sector Way July 25, 2010

Posted by Dindy in Uncategorized.
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How often have you heard somebody declare the government should be run like a business? They think that if government were run the way businesses are run that taxes would automatically be lowered, government spending would drop and government efficiency would increase. Well all anybody who thinks that government should be run like a business has to do is look at the recent travails of companies such as BP, the Texas Rangers, General Motors or AIG. The business news is replete with companies that have needed government bailouts because they couldn’t meet their obligations, or indictments of high level officials because of illegal activities, or companies going bankrupt because of poor spending practices.

Those who advocate running government like a business say that these companies are the exception, not the rule, but they overlook some key differences between government and business. First and foremost, businesses exist to make money. Governments exist to provide services for citizens. Some of the most expensive services provided by government do not bring in any money– security (Police), protection (Fire), defense (Military), infrastructure (roads, highways, bridges.) Local government can charge for providing water, sewage and trash pick up but at the most they can only charge enough to break even on these services. User fees for Parks and Recreation Services, Community Services, Museums and Libraries do not begin to cover the cost of maintaining these services.

So right at the outset we have two very different organizational models. If something is not profitable for private business, they are going to unload it, but just watch what happens when a municipality announces that it is cutting back on Police or closing down swim pools or reducing Library hours.

The other problem is that private business does not have the sae standards of accountability as government. If a CEO wants to promote his son to a VP position, he can do so, and not many people are going to say anything about it to his face. If a mayor or City Manager were to make his daughter the head of a government department, there would be plenty who had something to say about it. While it is possible for public officials to make some crony appointments, because their appointments usually have to be approved by a legislative body of some sort it is much harder to do than if you are the CEO of a company who only has to face stockholders once a year at an annual meeting.

Public organizations also have to go through an open bid process for purchases. If a CEO is at a trade show and sees a computer system he likes, he can go ahead and spend millions of dollars on it without having to check with anybody else. Heck, if his wife runs a computer company, he can spend millions of dollars on her system without having to check with anybody else. A public official, however, has to post a request for bids, listing the criteria under which bids will be evaluated and then have a committee examine the bids and give input into which one should be awarded. Then the bid still has to be approved by the legislative body.

If you apply for a job in the public sector and don’t get it, you can file an open records request and get information about the other people interviewed and the one who was hired. You can receive candidates’ answers to interview questions, notes from the selection committee, the employment applications and even the list of selection/rejection reasons. If you apply for a job in the private sector and don’t get it, you can try calling the hiring manager and asking why you didn’t get the job, but she doesn’t have to take your call and she doesn’t have to respond to your question if she does.

Private sector organizations can engage in backroom negotiations, washroom conferences, and conduct business on the golf course. Public sector organizations have this little thing called Open Meetings or Open Government where most meetings have to be announced in advance with an agenda posted, and the meetings have to be open to the public. If it’s not on the agenda, it can’t be discussed.

I have worked in both the public sector and in the private sector and in my experience, people who come from the private sector into the public sector have a difficult time making the transition because they aren’t used to conducting their business in public. They want to make shortcuts, make purchases without going through the bid process and hire who they want.

So for those who say they want government to operate like a business, think about it. Do you really want government to conduct business in private? Do you really want to lose that public accountability, the right to make sure that you can view your government in action on any given day and time? Do you really want to remove the system of checks and balances under which government operates? Yes, you may get a lean, mean government machine out of the deal. But you could just as easily get a BP Oil or an AIG.