Mike Kueber's Blog

December 29, 2012

Airbrushing Obama’s diction

Filed under: Media,People,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:41 pm
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In commenting on the prospects of averting the fiscal cliff this weekend, President Obama said he was “modestly optimistic.”  When I heard the comment, I immediately concluded that he meant to say “moderately optimistic” because “modesty” is totally inappropriate as a modifier in that context. 

Can you imagine how much fun Maureen Dowd and the NY Times would have with George W. Bush if he made a similar mistake?

So what did the Times do this time?  Not surprisingly, it airbrushed the mistake, even though the term was inescapably critical to news headlines around the nation.  According to the NY Times News Service, which was used in papers across the country (including the SA Express-News), what Obama actually said was the following:

  • President Barack Obama said Friday evening that progress had been made in make-or-break talks on the fiscal crisis, saying he was cautiously “optimistic” as Senate leaders worked furiously on an agreement toward a bill to avert the worst of the economic punch from landing Tuesday.”

Conservative pundits often accuse the Times and NBC News of being extensions of the Obama campaign staff, and there seems to be some truth to that.

Armed school guards

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 2:17 pm
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Shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, I was having a couple of drinks with one of my sons when he emotionally suggested to me that America should place armed guards in elementary schools.  My mind immediately went to the over-the-top security at airports, so I quickly rejected his idea as a maudlin product of a mind with one too many drinks.   Imagine my surprise a couple of days later when the president of the NRA made national news by calling for armed guards in elementary schools. 

Upon further reflection, the idea isn’t crazy.  Schools seem to have become targets for crazed gunmen, who predictably prefer using their guns at places where guns are outlawed.  America has security at so many places that adding elementary schools to the list should be no big thing.

But my vote on this issue remains, “no.”  Security in America is already too stringent for my taste.  I would prefer to return to a life with more freedom, even if it means slightly more risk.  Of course, my kids always criticized me for enjoying Sunday drives in “lawless” south San Antonio; and for going downtown at night; and for crossing the Rio Grande.

December 28, 2012

Am I a racist fan?

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 9:59 pm
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During a recent Happy Hour, during which my friend and I were discussing NFL football, we started talking about rookie phenom Robert Griffith, or as he is better known, RG3.  Aside from having a phenomenal year, RG3 has been in the news lately because a black pundit on ESPN questioned his blackness.  The basis for this questioning was that his fiancée is white and there are rumors that he is a Republican. 

My friend loves RG3, and for good reason.  In addition to his football talent, RG3 seems to have loads of admirable traits, such as a strong belief in Christianity and education.  And his dad is retired Army.  If you throw in Republican values and a Texas/Big XII pedigree, what’s not to love?

The problem for me is that I don’t love him or root for him.  Instead I root for Andrew Luck to win this year’s Rookie of the Year honor and for Tony Romo’s Cowboys to defeat RG3’s Redskins on Sunday.

When I admitted to my Happy Hour friend that I tend to root for white quarterbacks, he asserted that I was racist.  I challenged his assertion by pointing out that a racist believes a particular race is superior to others and that my rooting for white quarterbacks is almost reverse racism – i.e., whites do so poorly at pro football (and basketball) that I end up rooting for them as underdogs, and the quarterback position is one of the few positions in pro football where they are able to compete. 

There is a dictionary definition of racism, however, that is problematic for me. Although the principal dictionary definition of racism is someone who “believes that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others,” the secondary definition of racism is “discrimination or prejudice based on race.” 

Technically, my tendency to root for white QBs is discrimination based on race, but I think it is OK to root for them because they are athletic underdogs.

December 27, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #58 – Les Miserables

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 8:43 pm
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Les Misérables (2012) is a new musical that was released Christmas weekend.  The movie is based on an all-time great French novel of the same name by Victor Hugo in 1862, and its plot revolves around the French revolution.  I almost never see a musical, but I was on a date (with a former flame) and the girl wanted to see it.  Good choice. 

Who’d a thunk Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway could sing?  I had read that Russell Crowe, despite his Academy Award-winning credentials, had to audition for his part, but that certainly seems reasonable considering that the movie has almost no dialogue and is almost exclusively singing – 49 songs. 

Although the book – at 1400 pages – is one of the longest ever, the 160-minute film effectively captures the essence of the book’s storyline.  Amazingly, I was so captivated by the story that this old guy was able to stay wide-awake despite the movie’s 11 pm starting time.  Of course, the company of an enchanting woman probably had something to do with that.  

My date was someone who I previously thought so much of that I considered her to be a strong marital prospect.  But I was reluctant to pull the trigger (commitment-phobe?), and she has since moved on to greener pastures.  Seeing her again, however, caused me to reflect on what I gave up with her and two others in very similar situations.  (Coincidentally, two of the three were commited urban girls who subsequently took up with farmboys like me.  That reminds me of the Adele song, Someone Like Me.) 

This reflection was aided because, coincidentally, I have been reading a book that I Christmas-gifted to my youngest son.  It is titled The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything by James Martin, SJ, and the relevant section concerns what the author calls “Six Paths to God.”  Along with the paths of Belief, Independence, Disbelief, Return, and Confusion, there is a path called Exploration that seems analogous to my path to finding my soulmate. 

According to author Martin, the path of Exploration, with questioning and research, is consistent with common American values.  The benefit of Exploration is that, after a serious search, the explorers may find a tradition that is ideally suited to their understanding of God.  But there are pitfalls, too:

  • The danger of not settling for any religious tradition because none is perfect.
  • Not settling on any one tradition because it doesn’t suit them.
  • Lack of commitment.  Your entire life may be one of exploration – constant sampling, spiritual grazing.  When the path becomes the goal, rather than God, people may ultimately find themselves unfulfilled, confused, lost, and maybe even a little sad.

I suspect that these pitfalls are hindering my search for a soulmate, and I will keep them in mind as I roll into 2013.

Getting back to Les Misérables, the Rotten Tomato critics score it at a modest 73% and the audience gives it a stellar 86%.  I agree with the critics and give it three stars out of four because musicals aren’t my cup of tea.

December 26, 2012

Evolutionary biology explains….

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 10:16 pm
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A few days ago, there was an op-ed piece in the NY Times on one of my favorite subjects – evolutionary biology.   The piece, titled “The Moral Animal,” by British rabbi Jonathan Sacks begins with the premise that religiosity has been declining in Britain and America and then argues that this decline, if it continues, will not bode well for those countries.  What makes Rabbi Sacks’ argument unusual is that it relies on evolutionary biology.

Sacks’ starts his syllogism by stating that man often acts altruistically, even though evolution tends to favor selfish, ruthless behavior.  According to Sachs, this dichotomy results because, as scientists have determined, the human brain has two modes – “The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational….  The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive.  The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.”

Rabbi Sacks supplements the science of the two-speed brain by suggesting that religion tends to amplify the role played by the slow brain – i.e., reflective and rational:

  • “[Religion] strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.”

According to Sacks, the connection between religion and altruism is undeniable:

  • “[Research shows] that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes logically that, because altruism is undeniably a good thing (unless you ask Ayn Rand), religion is an essential foundation to a good America:

  • Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”

My first thought in reading the Sacks op-ed piece was that his logic didn’t depend on the existence of God, but rather only on people’s belief in God.  That reminded me of the Karl Marx quote – i.e., religion is the opiate of the masses.    

On second thought, I was reminded of the old saying that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God.  And that, too, would be consistent with evolutionary biology.

Although Rabbi Sacks surprised me by making a non-theological argument, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd made up for that omission in her column today titled, “Why, God?”  In the column, Dowd and her pastor struggle to understand why God would allow the Sandy Hook massacre to occur.

Good luck with that.

December 25, 2012

Sunday Book Review #93 – Barack Obama by David Maraniss

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 5:10 pm
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To all those conservatives who complain that Barack Obama has never been properly vetted, this 571-page tome by an acclaimed biographer will surely disappoint.  David Maraniss has previously written thorough biographies about Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi, but he decided that this book would not be a traditional biography – “It begins long before Obama was born and ends before he entered politics.”  Instead of providing his readers with encyclopedic information about Obama’s life, Maraniss attempts to describe the influences – nature and nurture – that formed the man who currently presides over America.

In the introduction, Maraniss refers to Faulkner’s saying that, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even the past.”  This saying reflects the two cornerstones to Obama’s life – (1) he is forever trying to come to terms with the brilliant, irresponsible father who abandoned his mother and him; and (2) he has a detached, observational nature that he inherited from his unconventional, anthropologist mother.

The most fascinating aspect of the book occurs when Maraniss points out inaccuracies in Obama’s memoir, Dreams from my Father.  Although Maraniss considers the book “unusually insightful,” he declares that it is clearly “not history and autobiography, and should not be read as a rigorously factual account”:

  • The themes of the book control character and chronology.  Time and again the narrative accentuates characters drawn from black acquaintances who played lesser roles in his real life but could be used to advance a line of thought, while leaving out or distorting the actions of friends who happen to be white.”

After skimming this book (there is no way that I could devote 571 pages of reading to a single subject), I have more depth of understanding about Obama’s parents and grandparents, but my impressions of them and the President are remarkably unchanged.  Progressives will find evidence in the book that Obama is brilliant, charismatic, post-partisan, idealistic, and cosmopolitan.  Conservatives will find him to be un-American, cold-hearted, cynical, and opportunistic.

My conclusion – he is what he appears to be.

More problems in the land of opportunity

Filed under: Education — Mike Kueber @ 4:12 am
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 Earlier today, I blogged about a NY Times article that reported on the difficulty of some poor kids in south Texas getting through college.  The kids were previously enrolled in a federal program called Upward Bound, which is intended to get disadvantaged kids to college, but apparently it fails to get them through college.   

In an amazing coincidence, an article in today’s San Antonio Express-News reports on the same problem, except that the failing program is not Upward Bound, but rather nationally renowned charter school – KIPP.  According to the E-N article:

  • While the Knowledge Is Power Program seems to have cracked the code on preparing low-income students for college, fewer than half of the youngsters who started middle school in KIPP have graduated from college within 10 years. KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg wants that number to reach at least 75 percent, meaning the charter school system must figure out how to help its students overcome the obstacles that make them so much more likely to drop out of college.”

KIPP has received a three-year, $3.3 million grant to figure out why its students fail to achieve a college degree.  When they crack that nut, they should share their insights with Upward Bound.

December 24, 2012

America as a land of opportunity in south Texas

America’s title as a land of opportunity has been challenged in recent years.  The media and politicians continually warn that America’s next generation will probably not have lives as good as their parents.  If this weren’t bad enough for America as a whole to have a shrinking pie, there are also reports that social mobility is declining.  This means that Americans in the lower class are more likely to remain there than are residents of many western European nations.  How can that be? 

Social mobility has been a fundamental American attribute throughout its history and it is commonly believed to flow from its corollary, equal opportunity.  A recent article in the NY Times, however, shows that equal opportunity is not enough.  The article focuses on three young Hispanic women in south Texas who have the opportunity to succeed, but seem unable to pull it off because their support system isn’t strong enough.  This raises a troubling question – how much of a role should the government have in creating a level playing field?  Is it enough for people in the lower class to have the opportunity to move up, or should the government engage in aggressive affirmative action to ensure that lower-class kids can move up?

My use of the term “affirmative action” is prompted by studies reported in the Times article showing that social class, more so than race or ethnicity, is a better predictor of who will struggle academically.  As with many studies, this result is something that most people have intuitively known for many years.  I have seen so many kids without a good support system who head off to college, thinking a college degree is “the great equalizer,” but then either fail to get their degree or don’t know how to take advantage of it when they get it.  Key paragraphs from the article:

  • “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”
  • The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed. It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.
  • In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.
  • “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”

The three girls in the article got to know each other through a federal program called Upward Bound.  The objective of the program is to help low-income kids with non-college-educated parents, especially in rural areas, get to college.  Coincidentally, I enrolled in an Upward Bound program at UND when I was in high school, but dropped out after a few days because I got homesick.  (One of my counselors was famed basketball coach Phil Jackson.)  Despite dropping out of the program, I subsequently enrolled at and graduated from UND.  Based on the experience of the three amigas in the Times article, perhaps Upward Bound should focus more on achieving success at college instead of getting to college.

The article concludes with the following lament from one of the protagonists:

  • I could have done some things better, and Emory [University] could have done some things better,” she said. “But I don’t blame either one of us. Everyone knows life is unfair — being low-income puts you at a disadvantage. I just didn’t understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome.”

Life’s playing field will never be level.  On average, the kids of successful parents will always have a huge advantage in life over the kids of unsuccessful parents.  But government can, and should, do non-discriminatory things to level the playing field.  The Times article reveals that the cost of college attendance is one of things that created huge challenges for the floundering young women, and that is something government should fix.  Kids should be able to get a degree at a public school without becoming majorly in debt.

That would be a good start toward returning to a land of opportunity.

December 22, 2012

Saturday Night at the Movies #57

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 11:09 am
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Because Clint Eastwood is one of my all-time favorites, I saw Gran Torino (2008) shortly after it came out and recall enjoying the movie, but not being enamored of it.  I must be getting sappy because I watched it again last night and loved it. 

The movie is based in Detroit and begins with a crusty retired autoworker (Eastwood as Walt Kowalski) burying his wife.  When he returns from the funeral to his old, middle-class home, we see the neighborhood being over-run by Hmong Americans (an ethnic group from the mountains of Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and China).  His Hmong next-door neighbors are being threatened by Hmong gang, and despite Kowalski’s transparent bigotry toward his neighbors, he eventually warms to them and tries to help them succeed.  Among the transcendent moments:

  • A lady’s man.  While trying to help the neighbor boy to court girls, Kowalski says that he might seem to know nothing about girls, but he had at a younger age noticed the most wonderful woman in the world, courted her, and persuaded her to marry him, and that should give him some credibility on the subject.
  • A sinner.  Kowalski’s dying wife had urged the local priest to get Kowalski to go to confession.  Against all odds, the priest eventually succeeds and learns of Kowalski’s three sins – (1) he once failed to report $900 of profit for selling a boat (same as stealing, according to Walt); (2) he once kissed another woman at a work party while his wife was in another room; and (3) he wasn’t close to his two boys.  Kowalski admitted that these failings bothered him every day of his life.  

In the end, Walt, who was a Korean War hero, realizes that the Asian immigrants living next door to him reflect what is good and great about America, while his extended family seems to have no heart.  The film, which was Eastwood’s biggest-grossing movie at $270 million, scored 80% with the Rotten Tomato critics and 90% with the audience.  I’m with the audience and give it four out of four stars.

Regarding the movie, Click – one of my favorite philosophical discussions concerns whether a life in pain is worth living.  For most people, the context for this discussion involves a person with a terminal illness.  I, however, sometimes take these discussions in a different direction by asserting that I would rather not live those days when I am in the throes of a bad flu or cold.

Most people initially react by scoffing at my assertion because no reasonable person should want to die because of a relatively mild, temporary affliction.  But then I explain that I’m not talking about dying; rather, I’m talking about fast-forwarding past those uncomfortable days.  My point is that because of my low pain threshold, those days with a bad cold or flu are so bad for me that I would rather not live them.

An even easier example for me is the week or so following my motorcycle accident back in 1980, when I received a bad case of road rash that required my then-girlfriend to rip off the bandage several times a day and scrub the rash with a brush.  No question about fast-forwarding past those days.

Last Thanksgiving weekend, I was having this philosophical discussion with two of my sons when the eldest, Bobby, told me that he had seen a movie called Click that is based on nearly the same philosophical premise.  Although I was initially disappointed to learn, once more, that my original thought is not original, I was even more excited to see the movie.

Click (2006) is a sci-fi comedy drama starring Adam Sandler as a workaholic who receives from Christopher Walken a magical remote control that enables Sandler to fast-forward past times that he deems not worth living.  Not surprisingly, Sandler uses the device too often and ends up missing most of his life.  Critics note that the movie seems to rip-off, unsuccessfully, It’s a Wonderful Life and Back to the Future and give it a middling Rotten Tomato score of 33, but its audience likes it better at 72. 

I like Click about the same as the Rotten Tomato audience and give it three stars out of four.  Although it started slows (probably about two), it finishes strong (four stars) by making me re-think my life philosophy.  Although I doubt that I will ever be able to soldier on through a terminal illness like my dad did, I will be a helluva a lot more motivated to get something positive out of all each one of my days, even those filled with, but not dominated by, pain or drudgery.  

Although I got steered in the right direction with Click, I definitely took a wrong turn when my sons suggested The Campaign.  This comedy starring Will Farrell and Zack Galifianakis is so disappointing, partially because it isn’t very funny, but mostly because neither star is worth rooting for.  They are both losers and neither deserves to win.  The cast includes Dylan McDermott, Jason Sudeikis, John Lithgow, and Dan Aykroyd – what a waste!  The Rotten Tomato critics give it 66% and the audience likes it less at 54%.  They are too generous – I give it one star out of four.  

Pure Country (2002) is a romantic drama about a country singer (George Strait) who loses his love for his music because his manager (sultry vixen Leslie Ann Warren) over-produces him with smoke and lights.  Although the movie was a box-office flop ($15 million), it is a staple of TV (like It’s a Wonderful Life), and as I was watching it pre-Christmas with a couple of my sons, we found each other pre-discussing many scenes before they actually occurred.  We loved everything about the movie, including Strait’s acting, but especially his singing.  Although the Rotten Tomato critics scored it only at 20%, its audience scored it at 88%.  The audience is correct because this is easily a four-star movie.  P.s., Strait’s best friend in the movie is played by John Doe, who should be famous for his version of I Will Always Love You that plays on the jukebox in the famous Kevin Costner – Whitney Houston dancing scene in The Bodyguard.  P.s.s., the father of Strait’s love interest is Rory Calhoun, a famous cowboy actor from the 50s and 60s.  All of his movie-star looks are gone by the time of this, his last movie before dying in 1999 at the age of 76.   

Red River (1948) is a classic Western directed by Howard Hawks and starring John Wayne in his prime.  The story revolves around a cattle drive led by an intense, hard Wayne until his adopted son (played by Montgomery Clift) leads a mutiny of the drovers.  As with most great movies, romance is a critical component of Red River.  Early in the movie, Wayne sacrificed a romantic relationship because of his dominant interest in establishing a cattle empire.  At the end of the movie, he recognized the error of his ways and helped his adopted son avoid the same mistake.  The Rotten Tomato critics love Red River – giving it 100% approval; the audience gives it 83%.  I agree – four out of four stars. 





December 21, 2012

Conspicuous consumption

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 11:17 pm
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Conspicuous consumption is defined as the acquisition and display of expensive items to attract attention to one’s wealth or to suggest that one is wealthy.  When I was going to college in the 70s, conspicuous consumption was one of those things that our generation promised to marginalize, and since then I have tried to do my best to wage war against this indefensible behavior. 

In the 90s, whenever friends (or even acquaintances) pulled out an American Express card, I invariably challenged them about their status-conscious conduct.  In the 00s, whenever they moved into a 4,000-sq.ft. mcmansion, I asked them how they used all that space.  And whenever they talked about buying a Mercedes or BMW, I grilled them about what was special about the cars.  Unfortunately, I suspect I failed to alter any minds.

In constrast to conspicuous consumption, there is theoretically a possibility that something less expensive is junk while something more expensive will actually last longer or serve you better.  That is why Levi in the mini-series Centennial spent the extra money to get a better team of horses to go West with.  But nowadays I think most expensive items include a conspicuous-consumption surcharge that renders them bad values.

As Christmas approached this year, I started thinking again about conspicuous consumption and decided to refer to my Bible – Wikipedia.  There I learned that my generation did not discover either the concept or the term.  Indeed, the term was first used in 1899, although at that time it was directed exclusively toward the behavior of the nouveau riche.  Several decades later, the concept was extended to the middle class by economists who suggested that conspicuous consumption might provide motivation and an insatiable desire:   

  • “… changes in the style of life, made feasible by the economics of the industrial age, had induced to the mass of society a “philosophy of futility” that would increase the consumption of goods and services as a social fashion; an activity done for its own sake. In that context, ‘conspicuous consumption’ is discussed either as a behavioural addiction or as a narcissistic behaviour, or both, which are psychological conditions induced by consumerism—the desire for the immediate gratification of hedonic expectations.”

Coincidentally, several weeks ago I blogged about a book titled How Much is Enough, which deals with the apparent failure of successful capitalism to improve happiness. 

In addition to providing a solid discussion of conspicuous consumption, the Wikipedia article describes some related concepts:

  • Invidious consumption.  This is a specialized sociological term, denotes the deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.
  • Conspicuous compassion.  This term emerged in the early 21st Century, describing a variant consumerist behavior wherein one makes public disclosures of financial contributions to charity not due to altruism but rather to attain social status. 

Last week, shortly after I had pontificated on this subject, someone asked me about the ostrich-quill Lucchese boots that I was wearing.  Although I could have make some specious defense about the strong, yet soft leather, I simply responded with, “Touché.”

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