Friday, December 31, 2010

Rereading Harry Potter, Part 1

A few years after my first read-through, I'm re-reading the "Harry Potter" series to my kids. This morning, I just finished book 5. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, and I'm ready to start posting about my reaction the second time through.

This book (#5) was the one that changed me from avid Harry Potter fan to lukewarm Harry Potter fan. My first reaction to this book was "OK, she finished the set-up in the previous book, and it's too early to start on the wrap-up, so she's killing time between books 4 and 6. And yet it's still I-don't-know-how-many-hundred pages long." My reaction this time? The same, except that I was less annoyed/disappointed this time because of my lowered expectations going in. I was able to just enjoy the episodic ride because I wasn't thinking "Sheesh, do we have to plod through every date on the school calendar before the final chapter where Dumbledore explains everything...?"

Now, I'd like to go over some of my main criticisms of the series. But before I begin, I want to make it perfectly clear that I don't want to see any angry comments about what an evil hater I am for not liking the Harry Potter series. I do like it, and I'm enjoying re-reading it to my kids. Please review my parable of criticism as a compliment. I wouldn't bother to critique/analyze the Harry Potter series if I thought it were just a pile of scheiss.

Also, I'd like to draw your attention to some other critiques made by fellow-blogger friends here and here. These are interesting points, and I have nothing in particular to add to them.

I could swear that I read Holly say somewhere that the "magic" in Harry Potter is not at all magical, but I can't find the link. That is quite a valid and interesting point. Yet, I'm actually kind of intrigued by Rowling's conception of magic as being kind of like science/technology. Indeed, it's interesting how she presents the wizards as sticking with outdated technologies like quills and ink bottles because -- once they've found a way of bewitching a "muggle" technology to their liking -- they have no reason to switch to the latest thing. It creates a situation where sometimes it's actually not clear that the wizarding community's ways are better or more convenient -- just different, and existing in parallel with more familiar ways. So the author's unorthodox conception of magic isn't what I particularly object to.

To be continued. ;^)

Monday, December 20, 2010

(dreaming of a) a white-on-white Christmas!

I was planning to deconstruct "Frosty" this year (since my "popular posts" widget tells me that my posts on Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey, The Grinch, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and The Polar Express are among my most popular posts), but...

I was too busy trying to wrestle this dry-powder snow into the snow-mom-and-baby you see here. And, sadly, this is the only picture my Nico managed to take before the other kiddies knocked 'em down. :-^(

Please bear with me as I celebrate a minimalist Christmas this year. As some famous guy once said, "I'll be back again someday!" :D

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Me, on Star Trek!!!

I've mentioned a few times that my brother and I produced a 13-episode community-cable Star Trek parody series (way back when we had just graduated from college). Well, I finally found a friend who knew how to convert the DVDs to YouTube-friendly format (and another who knows his way around YouTube), so you can see the show for yourselves!

I'm starting with episode 6 because the the early episodes have really poor sound quality and other technical problems, and I'd rather introduce the series with one that we filmed after a few episodes worth of on-the-job training. ;)

Saturday, December 04, 2010

And now my immense psychic powers will make this blog more relevant to your life!!

Check this out!! In the course of livening up the ol' blog, I've added this this fab new sidebar widget --> to psychically *cough* randomly *cough* select a batch of amusing old posts just for you!

After a bit of playing with it, it's kind of making me want to go back and delete all of my less-interesting filler-posts. Like this one. ;)

p.s. If any of the posts it chooses really are eerily relevant to your life, please leave a comment! I'd like to build up some (self-selection-biased) evidence to prove that my psychic powers really are amazing!!! :D

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I got a comic published in Sunstone Magazine!!

Sunstone's big comics issue just arrived in the mail -- including the above comic by yours truly!!

As you may recall, the deadline was too short for me to have time to draw something just for Sunstone, so I took the lazy-artist's route, and sent in some illustrations from my novel ExMormon with captions supplied by readers. As you can see, the winning caption was provided by Sabayon. (Note to Sabayon: I wrote in my bio sketch that you provided the caption, but the editors cut that part off, so all I can really offer you is the joy of knowing in your heart that you've been published in the Sunstone comics issue -- sorry!)

Here are the other panels I submitted, which didn't make the cut:

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Another good question about exmos?

Why are so many young people leaving the church these days? At first it seems like a simple question, but if you think about it, it's not. the question started on the LDS blogs, but they didn't have the stomach to see it through to the end, so, naturally, we've picked up the slack at Main Street Plaza. :D

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why are exmormons so sexy?


I cannot help but ponder this question. Also, who is that sexy guy standing next to Chino? Is he exmo too?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Scene at the Bahnhof

Part of the reason I'm so hard on the US is because I actually follow US politics. I read the stuff about the anti-immigrant laws in Arizona or Tea Party's latest antics, and it makes me want to tear my hair out -- it leaves me with the impression that the US must be the most militantly, wilfully ignorant country on the planet.

Then I remember that it's easy to wander around Switzerland with the (mis)impression that everything is candy-canes and lollipops -- as long as you don't speak German well enough to understand what people are saying...

Sometimes bad stuff is hard to miss, though -- for example, the cutesy-cartoon-racist political posters that are often plastered all over town. (I posted about them once before here.) Lately we've been treated to a new version of the "white sheep kicking the black sheep our of Switzerland" poster:

I was waiting at the train station with my son the other day, and the only free bench on the train platform had the white-sheep-black-sheep poster behind it. But my son wanted to sit down, so we did (with me muttering to myself about having to sit by this racist poster).

The interesting thing, though, was that apparently folks hadn't let this message pass without comment. There were three messages written on it in ball-point pen:

Naturally, since I have the wrong skin color, I'm a bad person. And naturally I chose my skin color! (originally: Naturlich habe ich nicht die richtige Hautfarbe, also ich bin eine schlechte Person. Und naturlich habe ich meine Hautfarbe ausgewählt!)

Thanks a lot, SVP! They're so intelligent! (originally: Danke schön zu dem SVP! Sie sind so intelligent!)

I suffer every day because of my skin color... I didn't need a poster like this one to remind me. :( (originally: Je souffre tous les jours à cause de ma coleur de peau... Je n'avais pas besoin d'une telle affiche pour me la rappeler... :()

I don't really have anything to add -- I just found it to be an interesting urban dialog.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mommy and Daughter

This reminds me of my first post at The Hathor Legacy Do boys like stories about girls?

In truth, more often than not, my boys invent male characters in their imaginative play. But today Leo decided that the above Lego Heroes are mother and daughter. (Hint: Mom's on the left and daughter is on the right.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Faith vs. Bias

My earlier post on faith was apparently confusing (judging from the comments). No wonder -- it was a bit of a double-negative: I wrote something negative about what faith isn't. To compensate, I'd like to say something positive about what faith is. (People of faith: please feel free to correct/clarify in the comments -- I don't claim to be an expert on this subject).

I'll start with a definition from my own tradition (Alma 32:21):

faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.

So what is the justification for believing something that's not "seen"? (Here, I assume that things which are "seen" means things which are measurable via the standard senses and/or scientific instruments.)

Here are some possible justifications for believing a given proposition:

  1. Spiritual/Miraculous Witness: "I have experienced spiritual or miraculous manifestations that defy natural explanation."

  2. Hope or Leap-of-Faith: "I'm totally sure that X is true, however I think X deserves the benefit of the doubt, so I believe X."

  3. Unintentional Bias: "I want X to be true, and my bias prevents me from approaching the question with any kind of even-handedness or objectivity."

  4. Wilful Dishonesty: "I want X to be true, and I feel justified in believing whatever I want because I'm sure that everyone else is biased or dishonest too."

Now, the whole point of my earlier post (and its predecessor) was that options #3 and #4 are not "faith". If you are a person of faith, and you think that either #3 or #4 is a reasonable description of how "faith" works, then you should do a little introspection and perhaps hold yourself up to a higher standard of honesty. And when you accuse atheists of having "faith" of varieties #3 and #4 above, you are not paying your own faith a compliment.

Now how does atheism [lack of belief in God(s)] fit into the above four categories?

Atheists are all over the map, so they can potentially fall into any of them:

  1. Spiritual/Miraculous Witness: This is the one atheists are most likely to reject, yet there do exist people who believe in the supernatural without believing in God(s).

  2. Hope or Leap-of-Faith: There are perhaps a few atheists here, but I think most atheists fall into a related category which I'll call category 5. Weighing Naturalistic Evidence: "I'm not 100% certain that X is correct, however, I have examined the evidence, and of all the possibilities, I think X is the most likely." (That's pretty much how science works in general.)

  3. Unintentional Bias: Atheists are only human, so some of them almost certainly fall into this category. (I'm not claiming 100% certainty here though! ;^) )

  4. Wilful Dishonesty: As with #3, there are probably some here too.

Note that's it's also possible to consider a question even-handedly and still make an honest mistake. That can account for some of the disagreement in the world.

Also, IMHO, category 4 (I want X to be true, and I feel justified in believing whatever I want because I'm sure that everyone else is biased or dishonest too) is the one that is truly repugnant. All the others are either right or potentially honest mistakes.

I think that it's probably impossible for humans to overcome (or even recognize) all of their biases 100%. However, there is a very big difference between honestly trying to compensate for your biases and deliberately not trying.

It's like what I said about racism: It is probably impossible for humans to completely avoid mentally grouping people into stereotyped "other" categories. But that's not an excuse to throw in the towel. Addressing your own biases and prejudices is a lifelong effort. But it's a necessary and worthwhile effort -- that is, if you're curious about the universe, the world, and the people in it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Turnip-Lantern Parade!!

It all began many years ago, when I tried to explain the "story of Halloween" (or lack thereof):

Sure, today it seems pretty odd to carve a face into a pumpkin, of all things. But today any object humanly imaginable -- of any size, shape, color, shininess, sparklitude, and luminosity -- can be manufactured for pennies in China. So you'd have to be pretty crazy to just spontaneously decide to waste your time carving vegetables.

But think back to what it was like for people at the time when the jack-o'-lantern tradition arose. Just because they were peasants with no access to the magic of cheap Chinese manufactured goods didn't mean that they didn't want festive decorations for their holidays.

And think what they had to work with: dirt, vegetables, maybe some rusty tools if they were lucky, and candles. Under the circumstances, carving vegetables into lanterns seems like a perfectly obvious thing to do, hardly requiring any kind of excuse or explanation.

Note that I mentioned carving "vegetables" and not just pumpkins. That's because I've always liked reading about the history/evolution of holiday traditions (see here), and I'd read at some point that instead of using pumpkins, a lot of people in centuries past would carve their holiday lanterns from turnips!

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this tradition still exists! In fact, my family and I were even invited to participate in a "Raebeliechtli-Umzug"!! (Online translation tells that me means "Turnip-moving," but I think would be more accurately rendered as "turnip-lantern parade".) (Also note: my Austrian friends claimed the lanterns were rutabagas, but sadly my ignorance of the subtleties of root vegetable species prevents me from telling a rutabaga apart from a turnip.)

Here's what the Raebeliechtli were supposed to look like (shown on the wagon that led the parade):
Raebeliechtli Swiss turnip lanterns

And here's what mine looked like:
Now I know what you're thinking: It doesn't take a vegetable expert to tell you that's not a turnip. But I couldn't find any turnips! Note I also carved a face into it, which you're also not really supposed to do, but old habits die hard. Anyway, now that I know what they're supposed to look like, we'll do it better next year.

One of these two Raebeliechtli is not quite right

As for the story of the Turnip-Lantern Parade? Even Wikipedia doesn't seem to know. My Austrian friends said that the tradition exists in Austria as well, and may have something to do with the harvest. (Maybe kids were motivated to come up with creative alternate uses for turnips to avoid having to eat them...?) Who knows?

But now it's a tradition. And as long as I'm living with kids here in Raebeliechtli-land, I'm going to follow it!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


You remember my usual reaction when people of faith start accusing atheism of being a "faith"-based belief or a "religion"?

Well, Jesus and Mo have now made the same point in comic form:

(Hat tip too many tribbles.)

Monday, November 01, 2010

Career women vs. SAHMs round II: There Can Be Only One True Choice!

See Round I

Throughout my life, I've been happy and pleased with how much our culture has improved from a feminist perspective. [When I say "our culture" here, I'm sticking to my own experience, hence I'm talking about the US and Europe.]

The kids of my generation (Gen X) were brought up with expectations that were dramatically different than the expectations that our parents had been raised on. If a girl decided she wanted to grow up to be a scientist or an astronaut, she could expect to be encouraged, not shot down with "Honey, don't you think you'd rather be a nurse or a mommy?" Boys, too, were finally brought up with the expectation that a father is responsible for his share of the childcare and housework. In the fifties, if a man was pushing a baby carriage, it was the set up to a joke -- it was almost the equivalent of dressing him in a flowery dress. Today, you constantly see men taking care of babies and children, taking them to school, etc. It's expected.

In my feminist world, the women of the twenties and earlier showed that a woman could do a man's job, but they typically had to choose career or family because back then -- to have a brilliant career and a family -- you needed to have a wife back home. The natural next step (for a feminist born in 1971 like me) was to try to build a world where a woman could reasonably expect to have both a successful career and a successful family. With the right support network, it's possible. And -- as an added bonus -- the father gets the opportunity to play a more hands-on role in raising his kids, rather than just being expected to bring home the bacon and then go smoke his pipe in his den while the mom rears the kids.

As much as things have changed for the better, traditional roles have obviously not been thrown out completely with yesterday's trash. Traditional expectations about men and women are alive and well, even among liberals and feminists. Here's my impression (and feel free to disagree with me in the comments):

I think that -- even in our enlightened day and age -- men are judged more for their career/worldly success and women are judged more for their marriage and family.

Here's a taste of what I mean: If there's a couple who are both doing great in their careers -- and they have a baby and toddler at home -- nobody is going to say to the man "Don't you feel guilty or selfish spending so much time on your career while your baby is raised by strangers in day care? Don't you think maybe you should take a year or two off from work, or switch down to part-time?" Whereas you can bet your bonnet that the wife will be getting that critique from some of her peers, friends, family, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, if both parents are unemployed (or underemployed), and they can't afford decent food, clothing, and shelter for their kids, the man is the one who will be judged as a failure for it. As for women who choose to remain single, your career has to be pretty spectacular before people will stop pitying you as the poor, old maid who was too unattractive to land a man.

Now, many men do take time off and/or reduce their hours when their babies are small, and many women are largely or primarily responsible for paying for their their kids' food, clothing, and shelter. But it's like those things are often viewed as a charming plus, and not viewed as being your real responsibility.

This whole elaborate prologue has been to explain why I hate it when people pretend that career women and stay-at-home-moms are mortal enemies, locked in some eternal, petty cat-fight.

If you're a straight woman with career dreams and ambitions, you might magically get lucky and find a husband who will take primary responsibility for child-rearing and who will put his own career on the back-burner in order to support your career more fully. But don't count on it. A successful man, OTOH, can absolutely count on finding a wife who pick up whatever slack is needed to allow him to "have it all" -- the happy well-cared for family and the brilliant career. (The men on the bottom end of the success spectrum can count on having neither one.)

If you're a straight woman who wants a family, then, in our current society, you're almost always faced with a balancing act. You might want to devote yourself full-time to your career and also devote yourself full-time to your kids, but you can't do both. Whatever balance you come up with, you're almost certainly going to feel some regret about the things you chose not to do. You'll occasionally feel like "I wish I didn't have this proposal due tomorrow morning -- I should be reading my daughter a bedtime story right now," or "If I weren't stuck at home covered in baby vomit 24/7, I'm sure I could have earned that promotion!" (Naturally the balancing act is that much worse if you're not in the privileged set, and you need to work to put food in your baby's mouth, when meanwhile people are judging you as a negligent mother for working when you should be taking care of her.)

Regret often leads to defensiveness. You hear a woman at a party talking about her exciting new project at work (respectively, talking about all of the amazing educational activities she did with her kids last week), and you start to think she's talking directly to you, judging you and your choices as inferior. Occasionally, this defensiveness can lead to a vicious circle where some women start to believe that their own choices are the only valid choices for mothers period, and career women are all selfish bitches (respectively SAHMs are all brainless layabouts).

I don't like to take it there. If you feel good about your own choices, then you have no reason to feel defensive about other women's choices. (And if you really regret your choices, lashing out at other women is certainly not going to improve the situation...)

I have so many friends who are moms, and they're all over the map when it comes to working outside the home. Some work full-time, some are full-time SAHMs, and some -- like me! -- have reasonably successful jobs outside the home, but choose to work part-time in order to devote some time to homemaking. All of these ladies are intelligent, responsible, fun, etc. I'd rather say, "Look, we all have a difficult balancing act to perform, and how we manage it depends on our opportunities, skills, and temperament. The right choices for me and my family will almost certainly be different from the right choices for you and your family, and that's OK."

I'm glad when there's a variety of possible choices. Even if not every choice is equally empowering or "feminist," it's feminist to respect grown womens' ability to make good choices for themselves and for their families.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Finally updated my masthead!!

I've been living in Switzerland for three years now, so it was getting to be time to replace the old masthead that I drew for France (the one with the word France crossed out and Switzerland written in). I spent all morning on this one, but I'm not totally thrilled with it. I'm thinking maybe I should try again...

*** ETA: OK, I redid the masthead. Here's my first attempt:

The second one is better, don't you think?

BTW, here's mo old masthead, for comparison:

Also, I've thrown away all of my sidebar junk, and I'm slowly replacing it with updated stuff. Bear with me for the moment on the missing blogroll, etc.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

My favorite grammar rules!!!

Folks, if you follow this blog, you know I love language. (Yes, even German, though I've got a bit of a love-hate relationship with that one.) I love the way a language evolves and changes -- so something that's "wrong" in one century can be A-OK in another. And as I've said, I like my grammar rules descriptive rather than proscriptive, and I love the way -- in English, at least -- it's OK to play with the language and break the rules in fun and amusing new ways!

Then I saw this video slamming grammar pedants:

Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language from Matthew Rogers

The thing is that I agree with almost everything he says, and yet... it's just so negative. It's too easy to be so gratuitously mean to the poor little grammar pedants, whom everybody just loves to hate! It makes me want to argue the other side. (Yes, I'm just that ornery!!!)

So now I'll tell you about some proscriptive grammar rules that I like:

#1. Words getting new meanings: I love words getting new meanings when it enriches the language, but I hate it when they get new meanings that just increase ambiguity. Here's an example:

"Hopefully he'll finish the job by tomorrow."

Now, I know that in some theoretical sense "hopefully" is supposed to mean "in a hopeful manner." But the meaning of the example sentence is totally clear, and the obvious alternative ("I hope he'll finish the job by tomorrow") doesn't mean quite the same thing. Plus, you can still use "hopefully" to mean "in a hopeful manner" -- it's generally clear from context which you mean. So, thumbs-up on the sorta-non-standard use of "hopefully."

This one, on the other hand, is just sad:

"She was literally fifty feet tall!"

Now, I hate to be the pedant, but it's so nice to have one simple word that you can count on to mean "You may think I'm exaggerating or speaking in metaphor, but I'm not." 'Nuff said.

#2. The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. I know, I know, it's just those mean old pedants who insist that when you put something in quotation marks, that means that somebody said or says it. Yet it's still hilarious to make fun of the signs where people screw this one up!!! ;^)

#3. "Between him and I." This one, IMHO, is the funniest grammar rule of them all. It's the mark of the grammar pedant's victim. It's like someone has heard too many teachers say "Don't say 'Me and Sally went to the store,' it's Sally and I." Then the grammar-pedant-victim starts to imagine that the rule is "Whenever you think you might want to say 'me and X' you should instead say 'X and I'."

And the funny part is that it's not such a stupid mistake if you think about it. It's actually possible for a human language to have a rule like that where you use one pronoun when grouping with a conjunction and a different pronoun without one. Hell, German has pronoun-usage rules that are way crazier than that one!! (I kid. I kid because I love.)

Anyway, I've actually even heard pseudo-grammar-pedants enforcing the above (imaginary) rule! Yes, indeedy! I heard someone say something like "Don't say 'He spoke with Sally and me' -- it's 'Sally and I'." That one made my inner anthropologist's day, for some reason.

Do you have any faves?

Friday, October 15, 2010

One Million Hits!!!

Yep, this past week my humble little blog-and-novel combination reached that magical milestone of one million hits! That's not a million different readers, BTW -- just a million page loads. My novel ExMormon, however, has been read by more than a thousand different people (and the gratuitous love scene by more than two thousand), and that's a lot of pages, so I guess that explains a lot of the pageloads.

I'm happy, though, because -- ever since I stopped reading my blog stats religiously -- I started getting this (wrong) idea in my head that nobody reads my blog anymore.

Why did I stop poring over my pageload information? Three reasons:

1. I'd learned about as much as I could learn about what draws people to this blog,
2. Further poring over the logs was kind of a waste of time, and
3. It was causing me unnecessary stress about stuff I can't control (like who is/isn't linking to me). Then I would stress some more about all the time I was wasting on reading my stats.

The downside is that I'm no longer inspired to do those amusing search query posts...

Long-time readers may have noticed that a couple years ago I was manic about blogging, and now I'm far more laid-back. The thing is that when I first started blogging, part of the challenge was figuring out the strategies for building up an audience. That has been an incredibly fun learning experience, but one of the things I learned is that it takes a ton of work all the time. There isn't a magic formula that will make your blog popluar without daily effort.

Now, I'm not allergic to hard work -- far from it -- but I found it happening more and more frequently that I'd think of a project I want to do (artistic, professional, or around-the-house) and I'd say, "Ah, I can't ever do that -- it would take so much time, and I can't squeeze it in with my family, work, and blogging..." And I realized that I can't let blogging be something that limits me. If I did, I'd eventually have no life left to write about!!! (Actually, I still have yet to figure out how other bloggers get around this conundrum.)

I thought long and hard about it, and I realized that I love blogging in the sense that I love being able to write up my thoughts in a careful way and then bounce them off the wonderful folks on the Internet, and get good feedback, etc. What I don't love is the pressure of feeling like I have to post X times a week -- whether I feel inspired or not -- because people will unlink me and stop bothering to read my blog, so no one will be around for the times when I do feel inspired.

So, I guess what I'm saying is that I hope people will subscribe to this blog and/or follow it -- just don't expect me to post as often as I wish I had the time/energy to do it. ;^)

And, from my stats (which I exceptionally took the time to review today), it looks like that's what folks are doing, thanks!!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Is anti-bullying education possible?

I've been hearing a lot in the news lately about anti-bullying education in schools. I have to admit that I was surprised when I first heard about it because bullying was always one of those "kids are like that" sort of things that I'd never questioned. But now that I'm thinking about it, I'm thinking that maybe it is possible to change it.

Let's start with the reasons why I'm a little sceptical of the whole idea:

I remember, when I was in elementary school, having a weekly educational program called "Project Charlie." The idea behind it was to have kids play self-esteem-building games in order to avoid later using drugs. And I remember -- as a fifth and sixth-grader -- thinking that this was the dumbest program that I could possibly imagine. It wasn't the usual "stuff grown-ups want us to do is by definition dorky" kind of assessment. It's that the program was a series of social games where the popular kids were encouraged to take center-stage as usual, and no effort was made to draw out the less-popular kids and make them feel included.

As an example, they would start every session by choosing one kid to come to the board and compose a sentence starting with "You are someone special..." Naturally, the popular kids were selected early and often. When I finally got a turn, kids from the class teased me and mocked my sentence. This wasn't surprising -- I expected to be teased and bullied for anything I did in front of the class -- but it kind of left me going "What the hell is the purpose of this exercise?!" And I learned the lesson that the phrase "You are someone special" is just words when it's coming from an institutional program.

Fortunately, in my own home, I was never made to feel like I deserved it. I come from a long line of nerds, so being bullied was just one of those things that you expect to have to cope with, like really cold weather in the Minnesota winter. The coping mechanisms I was taught (or figured out) were the following:

* Ignore it, if possible; attempt to pretend you don't even hear it,
* try to blend into the crowd; don't give the mean kids any reason to notice you,
* keep in mind that when you are older and out of school you will not have this problem.

Following these strategies, already by high school it started getting a little better -- Jr. High was the worst.

But bullying isn't just a question of a handful of bad-apple mean kids. Once an outcast has been selected, joining the group in mocking that person (or at least being obviously complicit in it) becomes a badge of belonging for everyone else in the group. And kids who are bullied will often give back as good as they get, when they get the opportunity. That was one of the more disturbing things I discovered when I re-read my early-teen journals as an adult. My actual teen and childhood memories were full of vivid, horrible scenes of being that outcast. Yet I found that when it came to writing my stories down (in my good little Mormon-girl journal), I was far more inclined to recount the few incidents when I was on the bullies' team against someone even more socially rejected than I was. This is, quite frankly, because I had internalized the idea that there's far more shame in being the outcast than in tormenting the outcast. (This is illustrated a bit in the story Young Womens'.)

As I grew up, I learned from experience that being a bully is more shameful than being an outcast. But I'm sure I could have learned this lesson earlier if the adults around me had thought it was an important and valuable lesson to learn.

Just because Project Charlie was poorly designed and implemented, that doesn't mean that it's not possible to design a good program. And targeting the specific behaviors of bullying -- teaching kids that it's not OK to do that -- may well be a more realistic goal than the rather nebulous goal of "raising self-esteem."

Kids' expected behavior (and their corresponding actual behavior) can change pretty dramatically from one generation to the next. Reading some kids stories from the American frontier, it's kind of shocking the degree to which it was just expected that little kids would fight each other for dominance, to determine which one was the toughest. Parents of the time probably just figured "Hey, kids are like that," and maybe gave them some pointers on how to win. But even if it seemed like "that's just the way kids are," modern society has clearly shown that this behavior is not immutable.

The more I think about it, the more I think it might work. The key is to change people's expectations. If adults see taunting and bullying and turn a deaf ear, thinking Ah, kids..., then kids learn that it's acceptable. But if you train everyone in the school (adults and kids alike) that certain behaviors aren't acceptable, it stands to reason that the behavior will change. (And according to this answer sheet that's the kind of program that works.)

One can argue that this addresses only the symptom. After all, even with no bullying, it's not like the popular kids were going to like me or pick me first when choosing teams in gym class. But, y'know, I could totally accept that I'm never going to be prom queen. Just not having kids shove you and laugh about it or make up a mean song about you for the rest of the class to sing in unison -- already that would make a big difference.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

blogging/blogroll update from Outer Blogness and beyond!!

As you may have noticed, the service that was hosting Outer Blogness has vanished in a puff of smoke. Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll was using the same service, and has plans for something new. I'll probably use whatever service he finds (or founds), but that solution isn't coming any time soon.

In the meantime, if you have the Blogrolling code for Outer Blogness on your blog somewhere, please remove it and just link to Main Street Plaza instead. The whole blogroll is there. I'll try to come up with a nice button graphic for it soon. :D

While I'm at it, I'll probably try and update the ol' blog here, too (the way we spiffed up MSP). That code was the only thing keeping me from switching from an old-style blogger template to the more modern version (with "widgets" to choose from instead of just mucking around in the html code!). Maybe I'll even be inspired to create a new masthead -- something a tad more relevant to my current life here in Switzerland. We'll see if I manage to come up with something!

Naturally, it's getting to be about time to update my own blogroll. There are plenty of blogs on it that have kind of petered out, and there are plenty that I read regularly now (through my RSS reader) that I've neglected to add. So if you read this blog -- and have a blog yourself -- please leave a comment here so I'll know to put (or keep) you on my upcoming new-and-improved blogroll. Thanks!

*** Update ***

As I'd hoped, my fellow MSP permablogger Chino Blanco prepared some lovely buttons!!

If you're a part of Outer Blogness, I'd like to ask you to please link to Main Street Plaza, and perhaps even use one of these lovely images!

Either save your favorite image and link it to MSP on your own, or copy this code into your blog template:

<a href=""><img src="" /></a>

Thanks, and I hope to see you in Outer Blogness!!

Friday, October 01, 2010

Locked away in a Lego tower!

Now, I know you're probably all wondering, "What has Chanson been up to lately?" Here's the scoop:

In addition to my usual adventures at Main Street Plaza, plus promoting my last Java book (and tech-reviewing a new one for someone else), I've been very busy building a giant Lego tower:

Maybe if I lock my little son up in it, some princess (or ogre) will come rescue him or something. Hope he doesn't get away! ;^)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Summer Family!

Here's a fun memory from this past summer:

As usual, my parents wanted a group photo of all their grandkids. But, as my sister pointed out, "How do you take a picture of 7 kids? That's 14 hands, 14 eyes, and 7 smiles. All moving at the same time in different directions." (See her post for some of out initial failed attempts, plus the portraits from previous years.)

Then my SiL Louise had a brilliant idea: giant rainbow lollipops! Decorative in the photo, plus they keep some of those little hands occupied. Here's the result:

I know the baby is still screaming (and the toddler looks worried), but they were like that in all the photos. This was the best one. Not too bad, IMHO. Note: the baby has two legs, even if it's not clear from the photo.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Esperantist strikes back!

I got an interesting comment on yesterday's book review. Interesting because I essentially agree with everything the commenter said except that first line where he says I'm being unfair to Esperanto. As far as I can tell, he repeated a lot of the same points I made. The main difference is that he's actually lived the Esperanto experience, whereas I just read about it in a book. I actually don't see that he's contradicting anything I said, but maybe you guys can help me out:

I think you're being a little unfair to Esperanto. Of course there are words in every language which look or sound like rude or amusing words in English. The word 'penis' which you cited simply means '(somebody) tried'. For a fair introduction to Esperanto, go to Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing - and sung in it - in about fifteen countries over recent years.

Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past few years I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan and Douala in Cameroon in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on.

Of course Esperanto cannot compete wwith English but it remains useful and has a steady speaker population, with people happy to meet and talk to you and me in places where it would be hard to find a speaker of English.

Now, was I making a little fun of Esperanto? Yes, of course! IMHO, Esperanto is one of those hobbies that you kind of need to have a sense of humor about. And I'm not saying that in a mean-comment-hey-can't-you-take-a-joke sort of way. As someone who has starred as a Romulan in a community-cable Star Trek parody series, I mean it in a sincere gentle-ribbing-among-friends kind of way.

Frankly, there's a limit to how many people you'll attract by taking Esperanto's noble purpose too seriously. However, you can make a very strong case for the claim that Esperanto is fun! And the Esperanto community is fun too, isn't it? Allow me to quote the letter that Esperanto's inventor (Ludwik Zamenhof) composed and encouraged people to send to their friends:

Vi rigard-os la sub-scrib-o-n kaj ek-kri-os: "Cu li perd-is la sag-o-n?"

Which translates as

You will look at the signature and cry out, "Has he lost his mind?"

So, a little light-hearted self-deprecation has been part of Esperanto's marketing strategy from the beginning, and is probably one of the main reasons that Esperanto is the most successful invented language ever. Go to the lernu website and try it out!

p.s. On a totally unrelated note, this other website has guessed that my blog is "probably written by a female somewhere between 26-35 years old. The writing style is personal and happy most of the time." Exactly what I wanted to hear on my thirty-ninth birthday! I hardly feel a day over thirty-five. :D

Supergeekland!!! "The Land of Invented Languages," by Arika Okrent

How times change! It wasn't long ago that flying across the Atlantic with my two toddlers was a horrific experience. Now that they're not toddlers anymore, my kids can entertain themselves so well that I can read a whole book during my flight!! During last year's trip to the US, my husband bought In the Land of Invented Languages, but he left it there at my parents' house. It was clearly the perfect choice for my flight home to Switzerland this year.

What comes to mind when you think of invented languages? Esperanto? Klingon? Well, it turns out that those two have a special distinction: They are probably the only two wholly-invented languages that have live speakers who can carry on a real conversation in them. Esperanto even has a handful of native speakers -- people who were brought up with Esperanto as a first language!! It's an astonishing feat, considering how many hundreds of languages have been invented, published, and forgotten. Heck, my brother and I invented one ourselves when we were kids. I also tried my hand at translating a few sentences into Klingon and Esperanto when I was in High School.

Arika Okrent tells a fascinating story about how people's ideas about language changed through the ages, and how that evolution, in turn, changed the types of languages that various mad dreamers invented. She also tells the story of how Esperanto achieved (relative) success, despite being arguably inferior to some of its close competitors. Essentially, the inventor of Esperanto wrote an amusing chain letter illustrating how easy (and fun!) it is to understand Esperanto if you already know one of the languages of western Europe. Then, once it has even a handful of speakers, it becomes the obvious choice if you want to learn an invented language. (That's why I tried it out in High School. Then I showed one of my translations to my mom, and -- instead of being impressed! -- she made fun of the fact that some perfectly ordinary verb translates, in Esperanto, as "penis." I kinda stopped bothering with it after that.)

One of the problems with Esperanto, as Okrent explains, is that it was created with an idealistic (yet not currently realistic) purpose. You want a language that has a relatively simple grammar, that is kind of halfway between the romance languages and the Germanic languages, and that people from all different countries can use to communicate with each other? Well, you've got it. It's called English. Esperanto has some theoretical advantages over English, but if you think it's a serious competitor against English's billion-or-so speakers and thousand-year literary tradition, then you come off as, well, a little batty.

But Okrent explains a different (and arguably reasonable) motivation for learning Esperanto: Over the years, the Esperanto community has developed its own culture -- one which sounds fascinating and fun! If you're thinking of backpacking across Europe (or some other continent), the Esperantists have a whole network of folks who are willing to host you wherever you go (on the condition that you speak to them in Esperanto). And their conferences sound way more fun than a Renaissance Festival or a Star Trek or other geek conference. For a short while, Okrent had me totally tempted to pick up some Esperanto books and try again to learn it. That is, until I remembered that I have only so much time and so many brain-cells to devote to foreign languages, and I really, really, really need to learn German.

Klingon, by contrast, skips the crazy idealism and goes straight for what works: fun!!! They've got a whole ridiculously silly (invented) culture and history to go with the invented language, which makes it a great (geeky) idle pastime. Naturally, the Klingon speakers do wildly frivolous things with the language like writing operas and translating the Book of Mormon into Klingon. Esperantists, being slightly more practical, have regular songs, and -- while there may or may not be an Esperanto translation of the BoM -- you can at least read the Book of Mormon's Wikipedia page in Esperanto (not true of Klingon!).

Okrent covers a whole bunch of other fascinating invented languages, and compares them with similar language innovations like symbolic languages that are used to introduce language to handicapped kids and like the revival of (once dead) Hebrew. But I don't want to give everything away, so I'll let you read the book for those! If anything I've said here intrigues you, you'll love this book. It's clear, entertaining, and informative.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"I wish I were Harry Potter..."

So, my kids have discovered Harry Potter.

During our recent visit to Minnesota, Nico heard part of an audio-book his cousin was listening to, and away he went! Fortunately, we happened to have all of the Harry Potter books and a few of the movies already (since my husband and I had read them ourselves).

Now my two little boys are going around drawing red-marker lightning-bolts on their heads and waving magical chopsticks at each other.

Personally, I'm glad to see my kids getting excited about a story in a book. They've learned an amazing amount of science from videos on YouTube (I should post some of Nico's drawings of whale evolution), but I'd like to see them want to read for pleasure. So far it's just been me reading to them a chapter at a time (plus my Mom read to them during our visit), but Nico has picked up the book and read bits of it.

For the moment, I don't mind just reading to them myself because I'd like to start by building up the idea that a story read from a book is fun and exciting. These are the sorts of crazy new challenges modern parents have to navigate! Plus, it's fun to spend the time reading with them. I hope eventually, though, they'll get the idea that they don't need mom's help, just as they finally learned to swing by themselves (and stopped asking me to push them).

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

"Prospettive" vs "Gatti neri Cani bianchi"

Comics are a great tool when learning a new language!

For Italian, as I've said earlier, I like Diabolik, but... it could be better. The main problem is that the setting is so generic. Even though Diabolik is an Italian comic series, I think it's actually supposed to take place in England. But it could just as well be taking place anywhere. It's a standard international crime/action story -- like a reverse James Bond story (reverse because the criminals are the protagonists). But when I read a foreign comic book, I'd rather taste a bit of the culture as well as the language.

So, on my recent trip to Italy, I picked up two new Italian graphic novels: Prospettive and Gatti neri Cani bianchi. Both stories are about twentysomething Italian women, moving from one boyfriend to the next, contemplating life and (especially) death. Despite these similarities, they're surprisingly different from one another.

Prospettive has more a sense of place. This story is grounded in Catania, a city in Sicily, in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the most active volcano in Europe:

I can read ordinary Italian (in comic book form), but when they start slipping into Sicilian dialect, it gets challenging...

One thing that surprised me about Prospettive is that the main character, Agata, seems very open and curious about people, and yet she can't bear the thought of leaving her home town. She's rather leave her beloved fiance than leave Catania.

Gilla, the heroine of Gatti neri Cani bianchi is just the opposite:

"I was born here, but this city seems foreign to me. So I said to myself... If I'm going to feel foreign, I might as well be foreign for real."

It's not even clear which city in Italy she's from.

So she packs up and moves to Paris:

Gatti neri Cani bianchi has kind of the same problem as people discussed in Eat, Pray, Love. Gilla has no responsibilities of any kind, she arrives in Paris and gets a free, furnished apartment, complete with an amazing vintage fashion wardrobe, and luckily she happens to have the Barbie-doll bod for it. So she mostly wanders around Paris talking to ghosts. I'd be tempted to call it "self-indulgence as self-discovery" except that it's not clear she discovered anything. Not to be mean to the book or anything -- it's an entertaining story with beautifully researched and executed artwork.

The thing I found most interesting about it, though, is that part of the reason she has these particular adventures is because of her beauty and her level of privilege -- yet she doesn't seem to be aware of it. The closest point was when a French student who was working his way through school called her leisure a luxury -- and she sarcastically responded, "What do you expect? We Italians are so superficial..." Which kinda left me going, "Um... being Italian's got nothing to do with it..."

Interestingly, while Gilla's beauty was ever-present yet unmentioned, it's the opposite for Agata. Other characters say she's beautiful, but she's not really:

It's one of the things I like about graphic novels as a medium -- there are things you can show in images that you can't express in a natural way with words.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Minnesota Trains!!

As everyone knows, a vacation is not complete without trying out the local public transportation!

Here in Minneapolis, there's now a light-rail line. (Yes, there's just one line, but from there you can transfer to buses and such.) So I decided to take my sons and my niece Emily on a little ride. My brother Ben and his family came along too.

My nieces were excited to ride the train, but by sons were pretty blase about it:

Oh, boy! We get to ride a tramway almost exactly like the one we ride every day back home in Switzerland.

My kids just wanted to go because they're interested in unusual coins, and Louise (my SiL) told them that the ticket machine gives dollar coins as change.

I also learned an important lesson that day: If you're wearing beige pants, don't put your black camera-case in your lap just before handing someone your camera to take a picture.

Yes, I am wearing pants in this picture.

The verdict: Better than nothing, but not quite the same level of convenience as the transportation in Zurich. ;)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Our Heavenly Nico!

OK, so now I'm in Minnesota where my parents have been taking care of my kids for two weeks during our trip to Italy.

Upon arriving in Minnesota, I was a little jet-lagged and not quite in line with the local schedule. So I warmed up some leftovers for a solo meal (while chatting with family in the kitchen), and just as I was about to eat, my 8-year-old Nico suddenly announced that he was going to say the prayer!

Naturally, I was a little shocked (this is what happens when the atheist family leaves their kids in a religious household for two weeks?), but I didn't object or try to stop him.

Nico started by explaining that everyone has to be quiet until he says the magic word: "Amen!" Then he began his prayer:

"Our Heavenly Nico..."

He then said a few things about the food and about being thankful that Mommy could come. Then he gave a bit of a pause (as if waiting for a drumroll) and gave an enthusiastic "Amen!"

It was kind of a cute approximation of a standard Mormon prayer. It had the same basic structure, but he didn't quite use any of the standard phrases. Notably, he didn't close "in the name of Jesus Christ."

Later my mom took me aside to explain that they didn't tell him that he needs to pray or anything like that -- he was just spontaneously imitating what they do at their house. I replied that it's totally obvious that they hadn't actively taught him to pray. If you teach a kid about prayer, the one thing he's not going to mess up is who the prayer is addressed to!!

It seems pretty clear that it was just a question of "when in Rome..." Nico -- being a curious kid -- wanted to try out the strange customs of this new household. I imagine he'd heard my dad giving a prayer (starting with "Our Heavenly Father") and cleverly guessed that that was the spot where you insert your own role. (OK, he was wrong, but it was an interesting guess nonetheless.)

And, ultimately, I want my kids to learn that different households and different people do things differently; that the way Mommy and Daddy do things is not the only way. And I think we're on track. We'll have plenty of opportunity to discuss "What is prayer?" with Nico and Leo as they grow and have more experiences, and it's great for them to discover things on their own.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Italy trip tips #4: graffiti!!

OK, this one isn't really a tip. I just wanted to highlight some amusing graffiti we saw. For example, this ordinary traffic sign in Florence was (for some unknown reason) transformed into a crucifix:

Also, what's up with these space invaders???

I saw this one right by the famous Spanish staircase in Rome, and I saw another one on my recent trip to Paris as well (though I don't remember exactly where it was).

Also -- this is a bit of a tangent, but -- I want to throw in a picture of my husband so you can see that he really was there with me:

My sweetie and Hercules battling a centaur

As usual he doesn't show up in that many photos because he tends to be on the other side of the camera. ;)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Italy trip tips #3: Souvenirs!!!

And I thought Lourdes was great for souvenirs -- with their unending supply of Catholic kitsch!!!

The thing about Lourdes, though, is that there's really no reason to go there unless you're Catholic (and/or happen to be visiting an aunt who's a nun, like we did). But with Rome? There are so many reasons to visit, many of which have nothing to do with Catholicism! (Catholicism and Christianity became important largely because of Rome, not the reverse...)

The hilarious result is that the souvenir stands have all of the Catholic devotional made-in-China souvenirs, with the secular-questionable-taste items displayed right beside them! One very popular item was boxer shorts with the genitals of Michelangelo's David printed onto them. And the souvenir shop across the street from our hotel had a whole selection of rosaries on one shelf, while the shelf just below it was cartoon figurines of gladiators and of the emperor giving the "thumbs down."

Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera handy when I was at that shop. But maybe you can make out the pope plates in this one, featuring the current pope putting on his best trying-not-to-look-like-the-evil-emperor smile:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Italy trip tips #2: Beware of the dome!

Recall from tip #1 that we were wandering aimlessly around Italy, visiting anything interesting that we noticed in our path.

Well, in Florence, we noticed this rather remarkable dome:

On one entrance, there was a sign that said "Visit the dome." Sounds interesting, we thought.

Now -- this is perhaps silly of me -- but my initial assumption was that this was just an entrance to go into the cathedral "Il Duomo" and look up at the dome. Then, as we were buying our entrance tickets, I noticed a sign that said there were four-hundred-sixty-three stairs, hence the visit is "not appropriate for people with heart conditions." That warning went right past me. I don't have a heart condition, and I can climb four-hundred-sixty-three stairs without the slightest difficulty.

It wasn't until I'd passed the point of no return that it hit me that this wasn't quite the same as climbing four-hundred-sixty-three stairs in a modern stairwell.

The problem is that the path to the dome is a long, dark, narrow, cramped stone tunnel. There's a huge line of people in front of you and behind, and the corridor is so narrow that two people can't pass each other (except in a handful of isolated wider points). In particular, you can't turn around and go back out the way you came -- the only way out is to continue to press forward through the cramped tunnel, and who knows what's up ahead??

I normally think of myself as only mildly claustrophobic. (Of course I had a weirdly similar scare at that polygamist church service...) Even before I got to see the dome, I was already starting to get very, very nervous. If someone were to have a heart attack in the middle of the visit -- which I could totally see happening!! -- how could that person (and everyone else) be evacuated?

Then we stepped out onto the balcony of the dome:

It's actually quite amazing! It's apparently the largest purely-masonry dome in the world. Here's looking up:

And here's looking down:

This is why, naturally, you don't want someone freaking out, ruining the visit for all of the normal people.

The balcony along the inside of the dome is made of stone, but is encased in glass, and is still so narrow that it isn't possible to pass anyone. And it was rather unfortunate for the tourists ahead of me in line -- who wanted to stand there at leisure admiring the ceiling -- when I gently suggested that they please step away from the exit because I have to get out of here now.

I climbed down the earliest exit possible (there were only two choices), but my husband continued on up the second path to the visit to the outside terrace:

If it had been necessary to go up there, I'm sure I could have done it without a major incident. But I'm glad I didn't have to, and boy was I ever happy to be out of that towering dungeon and back on solid ground in the great out-of-doors!

Later we happened upon a museum of medieval torture devices. On that one, they were careful to post a warning that the visit wasn't recommended for people who are "very sensitive or claustrophobic." Of course, merely by reading that it's a display of medieval torture devices, I already know I don't want to see that.

But I appreciated the careful warning. ;)