You Are What You “Eat”

I totally get why this country is so divided. It is really easy to hang out in a news realm that confirms what you want to believe. For every Fox News, there’s a Huffington Post. For every Breitbart there’s a Natural News. If you really want to know what’s going on in the world, you might want to consider avoiding sources with such obvious agendas.

A longtime reader whom I now consider to be a friend (waving at Linda) pointed out to me that the term “You are what you eat” also applies to food of the mind. The information you take in, after all, can change who you are and the way you look at the world. If you are spoon-fed hate speech with your pablum, is it any wonder you grow up to become a skinhead?

This concept is known on a basic level by the majority of us. It’s why cults try to control their follower’s access to information. It’s why fundamentalists of every stripe want their children to only learn what they believe, regardless of whether it’s based on fact. It’s why the present Grand Poobah is trying to get us to distrust the press. Beware of those who try to prevent the spread of facts.

Our current political climate has overtaken us at a time when digital information flow is at its height. That’s a toxic intersection. It means that misinformation from both ends of the spectrum is also running rampant.

Be careful. Question everything. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Most of all, use your common sense.

Below is a handy chart that has been floating around Facebook that gives you an idea of some of the more popular media outlets and their individual biases. I am making a concerted effort to stick to that inner circle and its upper halo whenever I can. From here on out, I’m going to try to only share Facebook fodder from these sources as well. I encourage you to do the same.

That is, unless you enjoy being the human equivalent of a genetically modified organism…

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You Learn Something New Every Day

Uh oh. Now I’ve done it. I’ve stumbled across a website that is sure to suck up huge chunks of my time. Because it’s fascinating. Zidbits.com is what I found when I Googled “I want to learn something new.”

The fact is, I always want to learn something new. And this site promises that you’ll learn something new every day. And with just one visit, I already have.

On my first encounter with this site, I came across articles that answer a whole host of questions it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask.

Does a diamond really last forever?

Why didn’t the Europeans get wiped out by Native American diseases?

That red juice in your meat isn’t blood?

What is the hardest language to learn?

Do salt and fresh water drown you in different ways?

Can your hair turn white from fright?

That’s it. I’m officially doomed. I shall forever wander the zidbits website. But I’ll be learning all sorts of new stuff in the process. When all is said and done, that’s not such a bad way to go.

diamonds

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Gaps in Knowledge

It always throws me for a loop when I discover something that I should have known all along. For example, I’m mortified to admit that I’ve been spelling President Obama’s first name incorrectly during the entire course of his administration. Someone finally pointed that out to me the other day. I really have no excuse.

I try to comfort myself with the fact that I’ve encountered much worse examples of swiss cheese knowledge. I once met a woman my age who had never heard of the Beatles. Had she been living under a rock? Even people in outer Mongolia have heard of the Beatles. And I crossed paths with a full grown man who thought the sun revolved around the earth. How is that even possible in this day and age? I bet he’ll vote for Donald Trump.

And the older I get, the more I lose touch with pop culture. That’s to be expected, I suppose. But there is a basic font of information that everyone should be able to access. For example, the earth isn’t flat. Fruit will eventually rot. The sky is usually blue (unless you live in Seattle, where it’s usually grey).

The thing is (yes, my favorite missing commenter, there’s always a thing), when you don’t know something you should know, you aren’t aware of it. That makes me worry about what I’m missing. What basic knowledge am I somehow functioning without?

All I can say is that it’s a huge relief that my heart and lungs know how to do their thing without any input from me. Oh, and sorry, Barack.

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Homunculus

Had any of you heard of the Zika virus before about a month ago? I sure hadn’t. But now, understandably, it’s all over the news. I always find this quite disconcerting, when information seems to pop up everywhere all at once, fully formed, as if there’s this mind-speak going on, and we all have the same thoughts at the same moment.

I remember the exact day when credit card swipe machines appeared at cash registers. The day before I ran several errands and no one had them. The next day, every store I went to had them, and the first one had to instruct me how to operate this newfangled contraption. It was as though the entire world turned a financial corner simultaneously, and these machines popped up like mushrooms overnight.

It was the same thing with tilapia. One day I didn’t even know such a fish existed, and the next, it was displayed prominently in the grocery store and on a restaurant menu, and after that it seemed like you couldn’t sling a dead cat without hitting a tilapia.

I was thinking about all this last night because I couldn’t sleep, and that brought on the vague memory of an old belief that it’s possible to be born as a fully formed (albeit tiny) human being. So of course I googled it (and that made for some weird search terms) and came across this Wikipedia article on the homunculus.

Sure enough, in the 16th century, some people believed that a man’s sperm contained itty-bitty, teeny-weenie versions of that man, each one called a homunculus, and he simply planted them inside the woman and one would grow. (Of course, that didn’t explain why children often looked a great deal like their mothers, but this fact was conveniently overlooked.)

So there you have it. The Zika virus was not the first fully-formed thing to spring from the mind of man. Kind of makes you wonder what’s coming next. I hope whatever it is is a triumph, not a tragedy.

(Incidentally, I learned something else that is totally weird while researching the homunculus, but it deserves a blog entry all its own. Stay tuned tomorrow!)

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[Image credit: wikipedia.org]

Little Brother is Watching You

While social media may be sucking the life force out of us in many ways, it also has its advantages. I am convinced the holocaust could never have happened in 2016. Those of us who legitimately didn’t know what was going on back then would know now, and those of us who were pretending not to know would have no excuse. And holocaust deniers would look even more idiotic than they already look, if that’s possible.

Everyone who has a cell phone or any internet device is now a potential reporter. That’s why the bad cops among the good ones are getting so much attention. Like cockroaches, they don’t do well in the light.

The Arab Spring would not have spread to so many countries a half century ago. There was no easy way to pass the word. There was no way to let others know that you felt the same way about things as they did.

Before police jurisdictions could share information about unsolved cases, it was easier to be a serial criminal. And while the rich and powerful still seem to be able to do their dirty deeds with impunity, the power of public opinion gets stronger with time. Little Brother is watching you.

The thing that countries that like to censor their citizens don’t seem to realize is that sharing information is always a good idea. Unless, of course, your motives aren’t pure. But censorship is a lot harder when the number of avenues of communication are increasing by the day.

I genuinely believe that the reason we as a society seem more cynical and dissatisfied and put upon than ever isn’t that things have gotten worse. It’s that it’s more obvious now. Even if it has been forever thus, one of the things we’re more readily able to share these days is that we’re pissed off.

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[Image credit: swtnlaw.com]

Academia

Recently I had the pleasure of walking through the gorgeous campus of the University of Washington here in Seattle. (Go Huskies!) It gave me butterflies.

Not only did the stately brick buildings make me feel like I’d stepped into Hogwarts, but also I got that old familiar feeling. Call it academic fever if you like. The sense that there was information all around me, and I was on the verge of being let in on the secret. The heady sensation that I was a part of something much bigger than myself. I was flooded with feelings of possibility, potential, and opportunities for the future. People were learning in this special place.

I thrive in academia. I always graduated top of my class. It’s not that I’m smarter than the other students (although I’m pretty darned smart), it’s more that school is an environment that appeals to my sensibilities. The rules are clearly defined. You are told exactly what you have to do in order to be successful. If you choose not to do those things you have no one to blame but yourself. You are also encouraged to ask questions and seek explanations. Help is there when you need it, and friendships are readily available and extremely intense. Bullying, for the most part, is a thing of the past. Who has the time? Everyone should go to college at least once in their lives.

Would that the real world were the same way. Here, the rules frequently change and are often illogical. Success is usually more a function of personality, connections, and being in the right place at the right time. People in positions of authority often become irritated when you ask questions, and explanations are regularly withheld. Help is not something you can count on, and it’s harder to make friends because people are busy, and/or have already established lives, families and routines.

As I walked through the UW campus, I felt like I was coming home, even though it’s not my alma mater. And I also felt kind of sad, because I know that aside from the odd community education pottery class, my school days are over. Three worthless degrees and their subsequent crushing student loan debts are more than enough for me.

I wanted to grab every single student I saw and shake them and say, “Savor this. Take advantage of every opportunity. Take nothing for granted. You’re never going to have this again. You may feel stressed out now, but you’ll miss it later, and for the rest of your life.”

[Image credit: staff.washington.edu]
[Image credit: staff.washington.edu]

Go Ahead. Ask.

I’ve moved to Seattle, the most liberal city in the entire United States, and yet I’m finding that from a social standpoint, folks around here are pretty conservative. That makes it hard to make friends. And for the first time in my life I feel kind of pushy. Little ol’ me.

Here’s a prime example of the difference between Seattle and Florida: Whenever I’m at work on a hot summer afternoon, I have to go out and measure the gaps on my drawbridge. We do this because metal expands when it gets hot. If you try to open a drawbridge that has expanded too far, it can jam. That’s not very good for the structure. So you have to keep track of these things.

Here in Seattle, when I’m crouched down on the sidewalk, tape measure in hand, and writing on a clip board, pedestrians eye me curiously. But they never ask what I’m doing. On the other hand, when I did the same thing in Florida, child, please, people would be all up in my business. “What on earth are you doin’, girl?”

But here’s the thing. I liked it when people did that. I’m proud of my job. I enjoy talking about it. I like giving people information that they didn’t previously know. I’ve met a lot of really fascinating people that way.

As a general rule, people like being put in a position of expertise. It’s a comfortable place to be. And it shows that you’re interested in them. It’s a great way to break the ice with someone.

So if you’re curious about something someone is doing, go ahead. Ask. The worst that could happen is they’ll say it’s none of your business. Or you might just learn a thing or two and make a new friend.

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Urban Legends, Falsehoods, Satire and Lies

Now that we’re all happily speeding along the cyber highway, word spreads more quickly than it ever has before. For the most part, that’s a plus. Unfortunately, just because it comes at you at a furious pace, that doesn’t guarantee that the quality of the information is high. It takes even more effort to wade through the B.S. than it used to. Sadly, not everyone makes that effort.

Here are some basic ways to weed out the stupidity before you post it on your Facebook page and look like a dope.

Consider the source. Ask yourself where this information originally came from. There are several humorous satire pages out there that report things with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks for the laugh factor. The Onion, which calls itself “America’s Finest News Source” is one of these. I actually love reading the Onion, but it’s not meant to be taken seriously. This article called Faux News will direct you to many other satire sites. Know them. Enjoy them. But don’t take them as fact.

Then there are other news sources that claim to be true and want desperately to be believed, but cannot be trusted because they’re pushing a warped agenda. If Fox News is the only one who is reporting on an issue, it’s most definitely suspect. CNN is getting to be just as bad. And I have absolutely nothing against religion, but I tend to seek outside verification for any news item from any religious news network source. There is a difference between fact and faith, and when a reporter does not know or refuses to acknowledge that difference, I find it rather scary.

Also, at the risk of incriminating myself, don’t quote blogs as fact without verification. Any fool can have a blog. I could tell you the moon is covered in a thick layer of cocaine, but I don’t recommend that you send your favorite drug mule there. He’d be pretty pissed off at you by the time he got back. (But then, he’d also have plenty of time to detox, which is a good thing.)

Another thing that should have you bobbing in a sea of red flags is any news that implies a major conspiracy. It’s human nature that a secret can’t be kept by more than two people. If a story is going around that an entire agency or organization or country has been sitting on a secret for decades, the odds are that this story is extremely exaggerated at best. For example, I used to know someone who genuinely believed that there are secret concentration camps all over America and that US Citizens are disappearing at an alarming rate. My response to that is, if so, why are no one’s friends, relatives and Facebook followers screaming bloody murder? Do you think in this day and age, when we are linked together in so many complex ways, a large number of adults could simply go poof and no one would be the wiser? Poppycock.

Also, it’s very irresponsible to pass on a product warning without being sure that it’s true. Before you go boycotting Brand XYZ, make sure it really deserves such treatment. While I’m not wild about corporate America, you have to remember that many people just like you and me depend on these companies for their livelihood, and if too many people mistakenly think there’s nuclear waste in their pie filling, it’s those everyday pie fillers who will be laid off. The corporation itself will grind happily on.

One excellent source for verification is Snopes.com. They often track down the sources of misinformation like no one else can. When all else fails, check Snopes.

Also, if you receive an e-mail full of capitalizations and spelling errors and exclamation points, warning you to do, or not do, something, such as “IF YOU GET A E-MAIL FROM XYZ, DONT OEPN IT!!!!” Don’t panic. Use your common sense. It’s stupid to open an e-mail from an unknown source under any circumstances.

If a story begins, “This is a true story,” it most likely isn’t a true story. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Listen to your inner voice. Be skeptical. Don’t pass things on without verifying them.

I just love The Onion!
I just love The Onion!

Life is for Learning

Someone said to me recently, “Life is for learning.” Very true, my friend. The common thread that flows through every life experience is the opportunity to increase your knowledge, should you choose to accept it.

The ability to absorb information– what a gift! Even if it’s just your basic, “Maybe I should never stick my hand in a fire again,” it is more valuable than gold. On a fundamental level it is how we survive. Even plants know to turn toward the sun. As we grow more sophisticated, it helps us strive to become our highest self.

There are people out there who take a hostile stance when it comes to knowledge. They try to make intellectual a dirty word. They don’t want you to think, or worse, they prefer to tell you what to think.

In the spiritual realm, these include those religious groups that strongly discourage you from questioning anything. They give you a very clear cut set of beliefs, and they expect you to strictly adhere to their dogma. Your compliance will make you one of the chosen ones. Any deviation relegates you to an eternity of suffering of one form or another. To these people I say that we were given a brain, so I assume we were expected to use it.

In politics, ignorance seems to be the default position these days, but especially avoid those parties that want to keep you in a state of fear. Fear makes you easy to manipulate. But the more you know about something, the less you fear it. So it is in their best interest to get you to turn away from knowledge. They especially hate science. Heaven forfend we believe the results of reasoned research! That might mean we have to do something! Much easier to bury our heads in the sand and maintain the status quo. (The status quo that they want to maintain, anyway.)

In relationships, the most toxic ones are those where your partner expects you to shut up and do what you’re told. They are the men who want to keep the little woman at home, and the women, too, who rule with an iron fist. Also avoid those people who are so comfortable in their routines that if a loved one wants to take up a new interest, they strongly discourage it. A truly loving individual will not only delight when you spread your wings, but he or she will help you to fly.

Grab every opportunity to learn. Value education, but also take something away from every experience you have, even the negative ones. They, too, have something to teach you. Every person who crosses your path is a teacher as well. Actively pursue knowledge. Be a sponge. Read everything you can get your hands on. Exercise your curiosity. Stick your head below the surface, but don’t leave it in the sand.

Seek. Inquire. Delve. Share. Expand. Take advantage of this gift we have been given, and question any person or group that attempts to discourage you from doing so. Knowledge really is power.

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[Image credit: fikapdx.com]

Service of Bibliomaniacal Proportions

According to Wikipedia, and contrary to popular belief, library usage is on the increase in spite of, or perhaps because of, our kindles and our nooks and our laptops. Unfortunately many local governments still target libraries first when they need to make budget cuts. The services a library provides can seem intangible to the public. They don’t rescue people from burning buildings or fill potholes or keep crime off our streets.

Unfortunately many libraries seem to be lax in promoting themselves, and that’s a tragedy because they provide a lot of amenities. Everyone knows that libraries are places where you can check out books and DVDs and use the internet, but there’s more to them than that. Many libraries offer research assistance, tax preparation assistance, homework assistance and a wide variety of classes from adult literacy to yoga to cooking to computer classes. They often host community meetings and conferences and are voting sites as well.

More and more libraries are also housing used book stores and cafes. They are great sources of genealogical information as well as archives of local history. They often provide programs to spark an interest in reading in children as well as book clubs for adults. Many coordinate summer reading programs.

Not satisfied with your library’s collection? Most of them participate in an interlibrary loan system and can get the material you desire that way, and they are also usually quite open to suggestions as to purchases they should make. People often don’t take advantages of this.

I recently convinced my library to buy the book “Crazy Town” by Robyn Doolittle, about Rob Ford, the crack smoking mayor of Toronto. I was very excited when it came in, not only because I then got to read it, but also because everyone who checks out that book from now on will have been influenced by my suggestion, and that’s a wonderful feeling.

It’s hard to put a price tag on information and knowledge and entertainment, but if we don’t support our libraries and actively participate in their programs, we will feel their loss acutely. So go to your library today, and bring a child or a friend with you. While you are there, thank the librarians for their service, as their praises go mostly unsung.

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[Image credit: librarything.com]