A Day of Silence at the Aerie

I just can’t listen to any more of it.

I’m home today, catching up on paperwork, yard work, and home construction chores that I’ve been putting off for too long. When I’m home — unless I’m writing — I almost always have the radio on with NPR (specifically NWPR) tuned in. I get the news from Morning Edition; listen to news analysis and opinions and learn about new books on The Diane Rehm Show; get more of the same from On Point, Here & Now, PRI’s The World, Fresh Air, All Things Considered, and Marketplace; and learn interesting scientific things on Science Friday. If I’m up early enough, I hear BBC World Service, which offers an interesting perspective on current events throughout the world and if I’m still tuned in late in the evening (at home or in my car), I listen to q from CBC. On weekends, if I’m tuned in, I really enjoy Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and a bunch of other entertaining and/or humorous shows, many of which I also listen to on podcasts so I don’t miss them. (I actually listen to quite a few NPR podcasts, but that’s a whole different blog post.)

NPR, which they say leans left politically, gives me a solid basis of information for me to form my own opinions. Because yes: I am one of the few Americans who can tell the difference between fact and opinion. And I’m among the group of even fewer Americans who actually cares.

But today things are different.

The Orlando shooting happened early yesterday morning, and it’s all over the news today. It’s the same old collection of politician and religious leader “thoughts and prayers,” ultra liberals demanding all guns be banned, ultra conservatives trying to place blame on Muslims, crazy Christians praising the killer for murdering gays, et cetera, ad nauseam. There’s a constant rehashing of what’s known and what’s suspected as the media and public try to figure out whether it should be labeled as terrorism or a hate crime.

As if it really matters.

50 innocent people were killed on Sunday morning and many others seriously injured by a man who apparently had only two guns on him. How does that even happen? How is it that we’re legally allowed to buy guns capable of killing that many people in that short a time?

And who cares whether this was jihad or he was Muslim or white or a citizen or hated to see men kissing. Who fucking cares?

The fact is, he was on an FBI watch list but because our laws don’t prohibit possible terrorists from buying guns, he was able to do so. That’s a fact. There’s no opinion there. He was on a watch list. Period. He was able to legally buy guns that he then used to kill 50 people. Period.

Am I the only person who sees a problem with this?

And the American people are powerless to make the killings stop. Why? Because the NRA buys more politicians than we can ever hope to. And those politicians kill any bill that would limit firearms sales.

Because back in 1791, after fighting a war to get our independence — a war that depended, in great part, on a citizen militia — the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted and it said:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Apparently, many people seem to think these 27 words mean that any American has the right to own any kind of weapon for any reason.

I don’t think automatic assault rifles used to kill 50 people in a bar is what our founding fathers had in mind.

But it doesn’t really matter what I think. I don’t have enough money to buy members of the Congress and Senate. The NRA does. And it gets that money from people who apparently think it’s okay to arm anyone with any weapon they like.

Because Second Amendment.

So the radio is off at the Flying M Aerie today. I simply can’t bear to listen to the news I’m powerless to do anything about.

It didn’t start that way. I listened to about 10 minutes of Morning Edition before I’d had enough and turned it off. I’ve got my aviation radio on instead. I can hear the few planes and helicopters call in as they land or take off from the airport 3 miles from my home.

Otherwise, silence.

Silence for the 50 people who will never speak again.

And the thousands of people killed in senseless gun violence in this country before them.

Twitter vs. Facebook: Ferguson Edition

It’s exactly what others predicted and I expected.

Last night, I was relaxing with a glass of wine, watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider on my big TV, when I happened to check Twitter to see what was new. The Grand Jury had just handed down its decision in the Michael Brown case: They were not going to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him. There would be no trial, no punishment for the man who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

On Twitter

The first Ferguson-related tweet I saw last night.

The first inkling I had of this came in a retweet made by a friend that was timestamped 8:06 PM (Pacific).

I already knew deep down inside what the Jury’s verdict would be. I think we all did when we saw how Ferguson was preparing before releasing the news.

I scrolled backwards through my Twitter timeline and saw dozens of tweets, many of them with photos of the rioting going on in Ferguson: looting, burning cars — including police cars and businesses, tear gas smoke, national guard deployments. The situation in Ferguson had gone to hell quickly, fueled by anger and frustration. In other cities — Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Oakland — protesters were gathering. Journalists out in the crowds reported dealing with close calls, injuries, and thefts. Meanwhile, bits and pieces of the documents related to the case appeared in tweets with commentary. The President’s speech, which I also missed, was quoted a handful of times.

I only follow 193 Twitter accounts — many of which are product-related or not very active — and my timeline was packed with a never-ending stream of #Ferguson tweets, many of which were retweeted by NPR News. When I scrolled back to the most recent tweets, each time I refreshed another few tweets about Ferguson would appear. Intermingled with those were non-related tweets; more on that in a moment.

I turned off Lara Croft (who was enjoying a luxuriant bath after successfully destroying a robot in her own home) and tried to pick up “antenna TV.” No joy. (Note to self: get a decent antenna for the TV.)

On Facebook

I went to Facebook. It was like stepping into another world. Only one of my Facebook friends — a woman who lives in St. Louis — was posting updates related to Ferguson. The same updates appeared in her Twitter stream on my Timeline. On Facebook, however, she was the only voice talking about Ferguson among a stream of people sharing cat videos and blown out HDR photos and lists of Top 10 Spelling Peeves and links to link bait content.

Were these two social networks operating on the same planet?

Content Filtering

This tweet appeared in the NPR article; it summarizes exactly what I observed last night.

The difference between Twitter and Facebook feeds did not really surprise me. Only hours before, I’d shared a link (on Facebook, ironically) to an NPR article titled “Silicon Valley’s Power Over The Free Press: Why It Matters.” The article discussed how the media has lost control of distribution by allowing social networks to fill a void they left by initially ignoring social media as a distribution method. The danger to the public is that social networks have the power to control what you see in your social network. Nowhere is that more apparent than when comparing Twitter, which doesn’t (currently) filter timelines, and Facebook, which does.

From the article:

Algorithms and protocols that run social platforms affect discourse, and the engineers behind those protocols don’t have to think about journalism or democratic responsibility in how news is created and disseminated.

A prime example of this is the first nights of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. If you were on Twitter, you saw an endless stream of protest photos and links. If you were on Facebook, you saw nearly nothing. All because engineers decide what news you see.

We already know that Facebook has manipulated our timelines in an experiment about emotions. Clearly, they’re also manipulating our timelines to filter news about specific topics. Does anyone actually think this is a good idea?

Back to Twitter

This tweet promoting Wenatchee appeared in the middle of a long string of tweets about burning cars, vandalism, and an injured journalist. The first word I think of when I see this tweet in that context: uncaring.

One of the things I noticed — and I have to admit that it bothered me — was that among all the horrific news and photos coming out of Ferguson there were cheerful tweets — many of them “promoted” (i.e., ads) — pushing products or websites or Twitter accounts. They revealed social media marketing efforts for what they are: a completely detached, automated scheduling of advertisements aimed at whoever follows the Twitter account.

I wasn’t the only person to notice the problem with scheduled tweets.

I wasn’t the only person to notice this. One of my friends retweeted a comment by another observant Twitter user who advised social media workers to check scheduled tweets. Did any of them do so? Who knows.

A U.K. Twitter user doesn’t think too highly of what’s going on here.

I fell asleep a while later, but woke up around 1 AM (as I sometimes do) and decided to check in on the Ferguson situation on Twitter, which seemed to be my best source. I think it was 3 AM back there and things were settling down. Many of the protesters had gone home. The U.K. was awake — I follow several people who live over there — tweeting about U.K. things. The few tweets about what was going on over here were not complementary. The world apparently sees the U.S. as a hotbed of racism.

Jim Henson is probably rolling in his grave.

And maybe it is. This morning, I was horrified to find an update, 10 hours old, with the image here at the top of my Facebook newsfeed. There were 11 likes. Needless to say, I don’t follow the updates of the person who posted it anymore — and am actually ashamed that he’s one of my real-life friends.

What’s More Important: Your Beliefs or Your Follower Count?

Should you really be worried about losing followers for voicing your opinion on blogs and social networks?

About two weeks ago, I linked to a story on NPR.org titled “Redefining Empathy in Light of web’s Long Memory.” The basis of the story is the sad fact that people have been losing their jobs or having old personal information resurface publicly because of information posted on the Web. This information isn’t usually damaging when looked at objectively, but when taken out of context or examined through magnifying glasses wielded by small-minded people, they can be embarrassing — or in one instance covered in the story, ruin someone’s life.

I linked to the story on Twitter because a very close Twitter friend, who is new to social networking, had been making foolish comments on Twitter and Facebook — comments far more likely to get her in trouble than the examples in the story. But it was another Twitter friend who replied:

That article is a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online. I’ve had followers drop me for posting religious

The tweet was cut off by Twitter’s 140-character minimum, but you can end it with the word “views” or “articles” and you’ll get the gist of what he was saying.

Indeed, I know exactly what he means. Although he and I share general religious views — that is, we’re non-believers — he had a tendency to link to the more radically inspired content online, content that could be seen as seriously offensive by believers. (Hell, some of it even offended me to the point that I stopped following his links.) While it’s one thing to read and link to logic-based arguments against religion by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, it’s quite another to read and link to “radical atheist” content. It’s one thing to say, “I don’t believe and here’s why;” it’s another to say “You’re a moron for believing.”

I did notice that he’d stopped tweeting so many of those links, but it wasn’t until his response above that I realized why.

And this got me thinking about something else: why we blog or participate in social networks.

Does Follower Count Matter?

Follower count is never something that concerned me — especially on Twitter. The vast majority of people on Twitter don’t actively participate. How can they when some of them are following hundreds or thousands of people? Twitter would become a full-time job if you actually read the tweets of more than 100-200 people.

(This, by the way, is one of the reasons I’ve never followed more than 140 people at a time and am constantly dropping noisemakers in favor of thought-provokers. I actually read the tweets in my timeline. You can read more about my thoughts on the follower count game in “Twitter is NOT a Popularity Contest.”)

So if so few followers actually read and respond to what you say, the overall value of followers is diminished. You’re not networking when the communication is ignored. That leaves me to wonder why people should actually care about how many followers they have.

After all, it’s not the quantity of your followers, it’s the quality. I’d rather have just 10 followers who interact with me daily than 5,000 followers who seem to ignore everything I say. It’s the networking aspect of Twitter that attracts me.

Should Your Social Networking Activities be a Lie?

So that brings up the more serious ramifications of my Twitter friend’s tweet: changing what he tweets to preserve follower count. Even though he reads radical atheist content and obviously feels strongly about it — strong enough to share it, anyway — he stopped sharing it because he doesn’t want to lose followers.

“…a good reason for not posting politics or religious views online…” are his exact words. But I’ll argue this: if your political or religious views are important to you, why should you hide them? They are part of your personal makeup — they’re what make you who you are. To pretend that they’re not is akin to lying about who you are.

To omit them from your social networking activities will prevent you from finding other people who share the same views you have. And isn’t that why we participate in social networks? To meet and interact with people who share similar views?

The Special Case of Bloggers

Bloggers, of course, face this dilemma in a much more magnified way. Our blog posts aren’t limited to 140 characters a pop. We can go on and on about any topic we like, linking to content, quoting content, opining on the values of that content. We can make complex arguments for or against anything we like. Or we can simply share a link and let our readers do their own homework, forming their own opinions about a topic without help from us.

Either way, the blog post is out there and it stays out there. It’s not 140 characters that flit through the Twitter timelines of the people who follow us, disappearing almost as quickly as they appeared. It’s out there, archived, accessible, searchable. There are comments associated with it, RSS feeds that direct to it, other blogs (and even feed-scraped sploggs) that link to it.

Should bloggers be concerned about sharing their opinions on controversial topics such as politics and religion?

It all depends on what they’re trying to achieve with their blogs. If their blogs exist to voice opinions on these topics, being shy would defeat their purpose. If their blogs exist as a personal journal of what’s going on in their lives and minds (like mine does for me), hiding their thoughts about these things — especially when these things are important to them — would be akin to putting up a false front to their readers — and betraying themselves. But if their blogs are intended to showcase a product or service or way of life, adding their opinions on non-related controversial topics is probably not a good idea.

The Importance of Being True to Yourself

And then there are people like me: people who have non-mainstream opinions but, because of their work, should probably present a mainstream face to the public. I’m sure there are a lot of us out there, but it was only recently that I found someone with a situation so similar to mine that I took great comfort in his blog’s existence. (I’m referring to Ted Landau‘s Slanted Viewpoint.)

While I don’t consider my opinions extreme, I know they’re not mainstream. They are shared by quite a few people, but usually not the outspoken ones you see on television. (It’s ironic to me that the “conservatives” are the loudest, most outspoken Americans; what’s that about?) Still, when I write a blog post voicing my opinions about something like religion or politics, I get a lot of nasty, hateful feedback from readers who seem to have gone out of their way to visit my blog and blast me. The most obvious example, which amazes me to this day, is the outrage of “Christians” over my post, “The Bible in the Refrigerator.” These people got so abusive in comments that I had to shut the comments down. (And don’t bother entering a comment about that post here; it won’t appear.)

So what do I do? Betray myself by pretending not to be outraged by the stupidity and ignorance I see in today’s world — just to make the mainstream happy? Pretend that I’m not offended by having someone else’s religion thrust on me every day of my life? Pretend that I’m content with a political system rendered ineffective by partisanship bullshit?

Does the world really need yet another middle-of-the road blogger? I don’t think so.

But what’s more important is this: Do I pretend I’m someone I’m not just to maximize the appeal of my blog to readers? Do I sell myself out just to give all the “fans” of my books a warm and cuddly feeling about me?

The answer, of course, is no. Because just like Twitter follower count, the number of blog readers or subscribers is meaningless to me. What matters is the quality of the readers, not the quantity. I want my blog read by people who are smart, people who can think, people who can comment with their opinions — whether they agree or disagree — in a clear, unoffensive way that furthers the discussion and makes me — and other readers — think.

So I’ll put that question to everyone who participates in social networking: What’s more important, your beliefs or your follower count?

Don’t Tell Me What to Eat

Why should I listen to you, anyway?

Since being interviewed for an NPR piece about diet books (read/listen to “Diet Books: Fat On Profits, Skinny On Results?“), I’ve received numerous e-mails and other contacts from folks offering me advice on my diet. Here’s one from today’s e-mail:

I caught the interview you gave on NPR about dieting books.

If you want to learn about health and nutrition read “The China Study”, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD.

All diet books are wrong, because they are about eating less of the same, unhealthy food. If we base our diet on whole, plant-foods, we will drastically reduce our risk of chronic diseases and as a side effect, lose weight. This book shows the huge amount of science available, and it’s really, really interesting!!

Ironically, he recommends a diet book and then says that “all diet books are wrong.” I guess he means all of them except the one he’s recommending. How many other people are saying the same thing with another book? All of them.

I can’t tell you how annoyed I am by this. I began to write the guy a response, but I figured it might be better to just post it here, so everyone can read it:

My friend Tom gave me a copy of The China Study. I gave it away. I am not interested in diet books at all. Period.

And frankly, I’m pretty sick of strangers telling me what I should and shouldn’t eat. You don’t know a damn thing about me. Why do you assume that I eat “unhealthy food”?

I eat fresh vegetables, both raw and cooked simply. I eat fresh fruit, plain yogurt, whole grains. I eat grilled meats and fish. I don’t fry, I don’t eat much processed food, I don’t eat ANY fast food. I don’t drink soda or energy drinks and I don’t use artificial sweeteners. I minimize salt usage and season with fresh herbs whenever I can.

I eat healthier than 90% of the people I know. The other 10% are either vegetarians or misguided fools who follow the advice of books like The China Study and give up the foods they love, hoping to extend their lives by a few years through that sacrifice. All you have to do is eat a nicely marbled grilled steak in front of them to see how they’re suffering.

Life is short. Why shouldn’t I eat what I want to eat — especially when there’s nothing really wrong with it? I don’t want to live forever and I want to enjoy my life. Eating is one of my simple pleasures.

My weight problem — which isn’t even serious, according to my doctor — is due to inactivity and midlife metabolism change. Simply said, I need to eat less and exercise more. But don’t most Americans?

Sorry if I seem angry, but I’m really bothered by strangers trying to advise me when they know absolutely nothing about me.

This is what I wrote, but I didn’t send it. In fact, I didn’t answer the e-mail at all. Maybe he’ll see the response here. Maybe he won’t. I don’t really care.

I guess my point is, you’re wasting your time if you try to advise me on issues relating to diet, weight loss, or eating habits. Enough said.

And Tom, if you’re reading this, do treat yourself to a good steak once in a while. It really won’t hurt you. I’m sure the person I gave the book to will get a lot more out of it than I would.

The Flat Belly Diet

Don’t waste your money.

I am an idiot. Throughout the past ten years or so, I’ve been conned by at least a half dozen “best-selling” diet books. I thought I’d learned my lesson. But when I picked up The Flat Belly Diet book at a Borders bookstore last week, I said “this is the last diet book I’ll ever buy.”

I should have quit with the previous one.

Another “Breakthrough Diet Plan”

The Flat Belly Diet is yet another attempt — apparently successful — to sell America’s overweight women on an easy way to lose weight. Trouble is, there’s there’s not much that’s either easy or effective about it.

Every “breakthrough” diet has a gimmick. This one has three:

  • The Four-Day Anti-Bloat Jumpstart. This is a mind game, pure and simple. You follow a strict and not exactly convenient diet plan and keep a journal of your thoughts, feelings, and challenges for four days. The goal? Lose your water weight. Up to 7 pounds of it! Well, that’s what one person on the plan lost, anyway. I’m not stupid enough to confuse water weight and bloating gas with fat.
  • MUFAs. This is the biggie. MUFA (pronounced MOO-fah) stands for monounsaturated fat. It’s the “good” fat and The Flat Belly Diet presents one example after another to prove why MUFAs are healthful foods. (Okay, I get it already.) But this is a gimmick with real punch for women — after all, dark chocolate is a MUFA! Yes, ladies, this diet lets you eat chocolate. How can you resist?
  • Get a flat belly without doing “crunches.” Yes, like most diet books, this one promises again and again that you can flatten your belly without exercise. But then it includes an exercise program — if you want better results. Better results than a 6-pound loss in 32 days? What the hell do you think?

Of course, the book is only part of a huge marketing machine. There are already add-on pocket guides and cookbooks. There’s also a Web site, which is offered on a free “trial” basis to book readers. After that, you have to pay. And pay, and pay. After all, isn’t that what “breakthrough diet plans” are all about? Creating a money-making machine to separate desperately overweight people from their money?

When will we see MUFA-fortified “snack packs” on supermarket shelves in yellow in pink packaging? Give them a month or so — they’re probably in production now.

Reality Check

Here’s the reality of dieting and weight control for middle-aged women. You put on fat when you consume more calories — the energy in your food — than you burn in your daily life. As you age and your hormone situation changes, your metabolism slows down and you burn fewer calories. You start fattening up.

If you want to lose weight, you need to take in fewer calories than you burn. You can do this three ways:

  • Eat less of the same stuff. Let’s face it: portion control in this country is a joke. We often choose restaurants based on portion size for the money spent rather than quality or flavor. It’s the American Way of eating. Next time you sit down at a restaurant with a typical portion in front of you, cut it in half and take half home for tomorrow. At home, simply make less food. Use smaller plates. There are many things you can do to eat less. Stop making excuses and just do it.
  • Eat smarter food. Yes, a bag of potato chips is a wonderful-tasting snack. And yes, it seems to “satisfy” your hunger better than a handful of carrot sticks. But guess which one has fewer calories? Duh. Read the damn labels on the food you eat — choose foods with fewer calories per serving. Eat more unprocessed foods, like salads and fresh vegetables and fruits.
  • Get more exercise. Take a walk around the block at lunchtime. Walk to do your errands. Walk your dog. Take a hike with your spouse or kids or grandkids. Take the stairs at the mall. Park on the far end of the parking lot rather than in the closest space. These little bits of exercise can make a huge change in your metabolism if you simply keep moving.

The thing that got me to buy The Flat Belly Diet was the fact that it mentioned calories. (So many diet plans don’t — they lead you to believe that you can eat as much as you like of certain types of food — the hell with balanced diets!) Its diet plan is pretty simple (after the first four days): four meals a day, 400 calories per meal, 1 MUFA per meal. Do you really need a book to tell you that? Of course not. I just did.

But I’ll tell you this, too: 1600-calories a day might not be the right number for you. I know it’s not the right number for me. I don’t lose weight until I drop down to 1000-1200 calories a day. This is probably why so many people on The Flat Belly Diet only lost 5 or 6 pounds after 32 days of dieting. I can lose 5 or 6 pounds in a week and not even feel it — that’s normal body weight fluctuation for me.

In defense of The Flat Belly Diet, they’re trying to convince you that following their plan helps you make a lifestyle change. 1600 calories a day is doable, they argue. It won’t hurt. Is that true for you? I know it’s not for me. When I want to lose weight, I quickly get frustrated when I hit a plateau and stop losing. I know 1600 calories a day won’t do it for me — not unless I take up jogging.

And here’s another thing: I’ve looked at the book’s recipes and menus and portion sizes and guess what? They cover the first two points of my Reality Check list above. This is common sense stuff, ladies! This is the same thing you’d learn in Weight Watchers or by consulting a dietician. Eat less, eat smarter. Toss in one or two good, brisk walks a day and you’ll be able to lose weight without yet another fad diet guiding your meal plans.

What will I be doing with my copy of The Flat Belly Diet? Donating it to my local library. Hopefully, I can save some of my neighbors a few bucks.

And the Rockets’ Red Glare…

…the bombs bursting in air…

Over the years, I’ve forgotten what the Independence Day celebration is all about. Or maybe I never knew. Sure, it’s a day off and sales at the stores. It’s picnics in the park and a fireworks display. It’s time with your family or friends doing fun things.

But that’s not what it really means.

Independence Day is a celebration of the birth of our country and our freedom from a tyrannical ruler.

Want to really understand Independence Day? Read or listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence. I listen to NPR’s reading every year and it brings tears to my eyes. (This year, it was worse, since I realize that President George really has committed several of the same offenses as King George III.) The Declaration is a document that simply declares that the people have had enough abuse and want independence.

“Church bells rang in Philadelphia,” NPR reminds us at the end of the reading. The people were celebrating the adoption of this document 232 years ago. What would follow was a war to achieve the independence we had declared. A war we very nearly lost.

On Friday, July 4, 2008, I had the pleasure of watching the fireworks display hosted by the town of Brewster, WA. Brewster is a small town at the confluence of the Okanogan and Columbia Rivers at Lake Pateros. It’s filled with fruit orchards growing cherries, apples, pears, apricots, plums, and more. The majority of residents are farm workers and, this time of year, many are migrants who have come to Washington to pick fruit. They’ve brought along their children, who are likely to follow in their footsteps as migrant workers in years to come.

Mike and I made our way to a park along the edge of the lake. A huge crowd was gathered and there were lawn chairs and blankets all over the grass. Kids ran and played, carrying or wearing glowing toys. In the open areas, people were shooting off their own fireworks; unlike every other place I’ve lived — New York, New Jersey, and Arizona — fireworks are both legal and easily obtained here in Washington. These little fireworks shows added to the party atmosphere. Rather than putting on fireworks displays at their own homes, these people were sharing their fireworks with everyone.

It was a real community event. The air was thick with celebration.

Fireworks in BrewsterAnd then the main fireworks display began. It started at 10 PM sharp with a continuous display of large fireworks over the lake. Somehow, we’d managed to get a perfect spot in the park. We were both comfortable in our chairs and had unobstructed views. I’d brought along my camera and tripod in an attempt to capture some of the fireworks in pixels. This shot, taken with my fisheye lens, isn’t very good, but it gives you an idea of our surroundings: the people around us in the park, the water of the lake, a high tension powerline tower all illuminated by the rocket’s red glare.

As the main fireworks display ended at 10:30 with a 2-minute finale and the crowd began to break up as people walked back to their cars, the smaller fireworks displays all around the park started up again.

And that’s when it hit me — that’s when I felt what Independence Day was all about.

Reality Check

Are you as sick as I am of the media spinning what it wants to turn into issues?

I’ll admit it: I listen to NPR. (That’s National Public Radio, for those of you who spend more time in front of a boob tube than looking outside your own windows.) Not only do I listen, but I’m now a member of two NPR stations: KJZZ in Phoenix and Northwest Public Radio in Washington State.

Yes, I know NPR leans to the left. So do I. But I think it’s far more thought-provoking than just about every other media outlet out there. And it spends more airtime talking about what’s important in today’s world — world politics, the economy, etc. — than any other media outlet.

Let’s face it: does it really matter to you whether Britney has custody of her kids? Or who won American Idol? Or what happened on last night’s episode of [fill-in-the-blank mindless television show]? And do you really need to know about the fire that leveled an apartment building or the drug-related killing in the city?

This morning, I was pleased to hear two essays on NPR that echoed my sentiments about certain issues almost exactly. I’d like to share them with you as examples of how listening to something with substance can help peel away the bullshit doled out by many other media outlets.

The Truth About Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Endures Public Scrutiny” is an essay by Diane Roberts. In it, she discusses the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s wife — a controversy which has been manufactured entirely by the right-wing media (i.e., the Fox network) and other media outlets who apparently have nothing better to talk about.

Ms. Roberts uses sarcasm to poke fun at this controversy, but she states the truth when she points out:

Where Laura Bush is all pastels and soft-focus, Michelle Obama is strong lines and high def. Where Cindy McCain is a frat boy’s dream girl — a blond beer heiress from the golden West — Michelle Obama is a tall, clever Ivy League lawyer from the South Side of Chicago.

So why is the media so dead-set against her? I think they feel threatened. Michelle Obama is apparently too real, modern, and smart for their tastes. So what do they do? They cast doubt on her character by spreading rumors and interpreting words and actions out of context and in a way that supports their claims.

Frankly, I like what I’ve seen of Michelle Obama. She’s a breath of fresh air — not a phony, old-fashioned “help-mate” living in the shadow of her husband. If Hillary Clinton had been more like Michelle Obama when she was First Lady, I think she would have earned a lot more respect — and more votes — in the primary season.

I’ll go a step further. I believe Michelle Obama is an excellent role model for girls and young women. Sadly, I can’t say the same about either Laura Bush, who can barely read a speech in public, or Cindy McCain, who seems like she’s just along for the ride. While I’m sure she does have her faults — we all do, don’t we? — she certainly doesn’t deserve the abuse she’s getting from the media.

It’s unfortunate that someone as well educated and intelligent as Michelle Obama has to play games to make herself seem worthy to doubters. I think she probably has a lot better things to do with her time than appear on a talk show like The View.

Acts of God? Think Again

Daniel Schorr is NPR Weekend Edition’s senior news analyst. He shares his commentary on NPR every Sunday morning, as well as other times.

Today’s commentary touched on something that has been bothering me: the acceptance by the Midwest’s residents that the recent flooding was an “act of God.” I was especially bothered by an interview earlier in the week during Talk of the Nation. In that interview, an Iowa farmer with 640 of her 800 acres of farmland under 15 feet of water insinuated that the flood was God’s will. She then turned her interview into a preaching session, telling listeners how good God was because he’d sacrificed his only son for our salvation.

Give me a break. She could have made much better use her time on a nationally syndicated radio show to explain what the rest of the country could do to help folks in situations like hers.

This, of course, came on the heels of still-President Bush’s comment last Sunday where he said,

I know there’s a lot of people hurting right now and I hope they’re able to find some strength in knowing that there is love from a higher being.

(I blogged about that comment because it bothered me so much.)

Daniel Schorr, in “Why Are There So Many Natural Disasters?” pointed out research and public statements by scientists who have studied the effects of man’s impact on the earth. These men have found that the flooding was caused, in part, by the land having been “radically re-engineered by human beings.” Farmland is getting ever closer to water sources, removing the buffers between creeks and rivers and farm fields. If the Iowa land were left undeveloped, it would be covered with perennial grasses that have deep roots to absorb water.

I can confirm how man’s changes to the landscape can affect flood waters. As I reported in my blog, my neighbor’s removal of naturally growing trees, bushes, and other plants from the floodplain near our homes changed the course of the wash that flows through it, causing extensive damage to his property — and mine. The lesson to be learned from this: don’t mess with the floodplain!

But in the midwest — and elsewhere in our country — cities are built in known flood plains. The residents depend on levees to hold back floodwaters in the event of a flood. They bandy around terms like “400-year flood” to give people the idea these floods only occur ever 400 years. Yet some towns can tell you that they’ve had several of these floods over the past 20 years. When the water can’t soak into the ground and is funneled through a series of levees, there comes a point when the levees simply can’t handle floodwater volumes. The result: levees break, towns and cities built in the floodplains flood.

Is this God’s will? Did God remove natural vegetation buffers around streams and rivers and replace it with plowed farmland? Did God build towns and cities in the floodplain? Did God build the levees that failed?

Daniel Schorr doesn’t think so. And neither do I.


Is it too much to ask for people to think? To consider all the information that’s out there and form conclusions based on the evidence?

Or will you simply believe the hate messages and excuses you hear on network television and read in viral e-mail messages?