Repost: 9 years ago today

(The following is a copy-and-paste of what I wrote on September 11, 2006, thinking back to September 11, 2001. Last night I was discussing with friends where each of us was on that day, and decided to repost this description of my unique experience on September 11, 2001.)

I was a Mormon missionary in the former U.S.S.R from 2000-2002. My time was spent in areas reasonably close to the city of Moscow. From July 2001 until February 2002, I was in the wonderful and beautiful city of Minsk, which is the capital of the Republic of Belarus.

There are many different kinds of Mormon missionaries. The ones most familiar to most people are the guys in white shirts and ties, dark suits, with little black nametags that go from door to door proselyting. What many people don’t know is that there are also missionaries whose time is spent working on family history/geneology, some who work at church historical sites as tour guides or landscapers or any number of other things, some who work as humanitarian aid workers in places where there is significant need, and several others.

Most of my two year mission was spent as your standard nametag-wearing door-knocking proselyting missionary, but while in Belarus, I was a humanitarian aid missionary. One of the things that we did as humanitarian aid missionaries was travel around to schools, day cares, camps, hospitals, and other places where there were large groups of children, and put on puppet shows about the consequences of alchohol and tobacco use.

On September 11, 2001, we did a couple of these puppet shows at a facility of some sort just outside of Minsk. I don’t really remember if it was a hospital or a camp; it may have been a children’s sanitarium or other long-term recovery facility for sick children (This place was notorious for having rather rambunctions and ill-behaved children, so I’m not sure how sick they really were).

These puppet shows were scheduled for the afternoon and early evening. We met at our office with our driver, Joseph, and headed out to do our shows, which were uneventful. Arriving back at the office, I got into the elevator with one of the large prop boxes and headed up to the 7th floor to drop off the props at the office.

And then the world changed.

The elevator door opened on the 7th floor, and as the elevator was right across the hall from the office, the people in the office heard it open. My good friend Michael Trousdale, another humanitarian aid missionary, was in the office at the time. He ran out and began babbling about an airplane crashing into the World Trade Center. My first thoughts were of the July 28, 1945 accident at the Empire State Building, when a small plane crashed into the building causing minimal damage and killing 14 people – a tragedy to be sure, but not worthy of the kind of hysterics I was seeing from Michael.

Through some questining that seems rather heartless in retrospect, I discovered that it was not, in fact, a small plane, but rather two very large airliners. It was also not likely an accident as the 1945 incident was, but appeared that the two jets had been deliberately flown into the towers. I went into the office.

On the television in the office I saw the horrifying images that we have all seen one time too many. The first tower had already fallen. The office workers and missionaries in the office sat, horrified, staring at the television. Another missionary arrived soon with the other prop box, then two more missionaries and Joseph. This last group had barely arrived when the second tower collapsed and fell.

Being an expatriate at such times is an experience that’s difficult to describe. We’ve all seen news footage on television that is being taken from a local source in some other country. We hear the reporter speaking in a foriegn tongue we don’t understand, with a translator speaking over them and bringing us the news in our language. This was the same experience, except the local foriegn channel was CNN, and the unfamiliar language being dubbed and translated was English.

As the next infamous hour unfolded, I wasn’t sure how to react. My homeland had been attacked. Terrible things had happened in New York. NEW YORK! And Washington D.C. And Pennsylvania. Those places were all so close to home.

But home was so far away.

I’d been in Russia and Belarus for over a year. Those places really felt like home, and the tragedies on American soil felt like they had happened somewhere else to someone else. While I was shocked and horrified by what had happened, and felt the pain that all good people should feel when evil wins a battle in the eternal war, it seemed that emotionally, something was missing. To this day, I’m not sure what it was that I though I should have felt, but I felt a little guilty for not feeling it.

We felt that the event was over by around 9:15 p.m. All of the airplanes in America had been grounded, the three attacks had happened (I think we’d heard of the Pennsylvania crash as well, but I’m not sure of that), and it appeared no more could happen. As a rule as missionaries, we were to be home by 9:30 each evening, so we headed our seperate ways (nevermind that we also weren’t supposed to watch T.V…. Something about extenuating circumstances and all that….). I lived with my roomate, Matt Millett, about three blocks from the office, and we walked back to our apartment that night.

Belarus is not a country that’s particulary friendly to the United States. At least that’s true politically. The great experience of September 11, 2001 was my realization that national borders and cultural and language barriers are easily crossed and overcome by the fact that we’re all part of the great human family. Our faces were known in the neighboorhood where we lived – people knew who we were. They knew that Matt and I were Americans. As we walked home that night, political unfriendliness melted away as person after person stopped us on the sidewalk and told us of the pain they felt at what had happened to our country. They said how sorry they were. They said that no nation – not even America – deserved to be attacked like that. They said that we’re all brothers and one brother should never do that to another. They said that they hoped their would be a war on whoever did it, and they hoped Belarussians and Americans would fight together to stop it from ever happening again.

44 years of cold war and we really had no enemies among those wonderful people.

There is a certain heirarchy of leadership among missionaries. It helps keep things organized. District leaders supervise a handful (maybe 6-10) of missionaries. Zone leaders supervise a handful of districts. Presidents supervise a handful of zones, which constitute a “mission.” I was a zone leader at the time. Geographically, my zone was the entire country of Belarus. Not long after we got home, one of the president’s personal assistants called to make sure that we knew what had happened, and to give us some instructions. Interestingly, much of the news that he gave was actually not true. He told us that in addition to the attacks in New York and Washington, many other airplanes had crashed, and a couple had even been shot down. Of course, such speculation was very common in the days following, but it ultimately only served to lessen the severity of what actually happened: “Oh, only four airplanes crashed? I understood there were nine! Four is so much better than nine.”

The instructions he gave, on the other hand, came straight from the church leadership in Salt Lake City, and were good advice, I think. We were told to avoid conspicuously American places like the embassy or McDonald’s until further notice (McDonald’s was later taken off the forbidden list – unfortunately). We were to be more cautious in who we told that we were Americans (most Americans are mistaken for Germans when they speak Russian – some of us had developed good enough accents that people mostly thought we were from another part of the Russian speaking world).

Soon after that, came another phone call. This one from the American Embassy, with better information on what had happened, a list of emergency numbers in case anything should happen in Belarus, etc… They called me because I was the zone leader. I’m not sure how they knew that, as I had never told them. They asked me to relay that information to the other missionaries.

I called the district leaders and passed on the instructions we’d been given along with the best patch-together I could manage of the news I’d heard from Moscow and from the Embassy. Of course by doing this I just became another spreader of misinformation. Again, at least the instructions were good.

Over the next several days, the pattern of people approaching us on the street to offer their condolences continued. Other missionaries from around our mission shared similar experiences. I was further convinced that we had no enemies among those people – only their governments.

In retrospect, it’s easier to analyze what happened that day. As I conclude this post however, I’d like to share what I felt on that day, as I wrote it in my journal:

…We arrived at Sofia’s office after a puppet show, just in time to see the news broadcast of the World Trade Center attack. What an infamous day! We all huddled around the TV for about two hours watching the news. It was odd to watch it in Russian – it made it all so…foriegn. I don’t feel fear, but I’m apprehensive about the future of my beloved America. I have learned on my mission to appreciate America – her freedoms, her liberties, and her opportunities. God bless America.

And today, on September 11, 2006 (And 2010!), I pray again, may God bless America.

Bike Race

Years ago, we were in Burlington visiting family, and as we were leaving town I saw a big banner stretched across a highway overpass advertising the Memorial Day Weekend BIke Races in and around Burlington. I looked up the event online, and decided that someday I wanted to compete in the Wapello-Burlington road race. Yesterday was that day. Here’s how it went down:

We arrived in Wapello a couple hours early and checked in at registration, where they gave me an envelope with a whole bunch of numbers to pin on the jersey and one to put on the bike. Skinny guys like me had a hard time putting all the numbers on because there wasn’t that much jersey space! A nice guy named Josh who had parked next to us helped us get the numbers on just right.

I got the bike put together, made a couple of adjustments, and slowly warmed up. During the warmup laps I came across Josh again, and we went to the start together. After standing around in the sun (and then moving to the shade, and then back to the sun) for half an hour or so, the pro level racers came through town, and then our race started a few minutes later.

The start whistle blew and we rode a little ways as a “neutral” start, which is basically just everybody riding with no actual racing going on. Once we got outside of Wapello, the official on the motorcycle signaled that the race could begin, and immediately someone poured on the gas. I had started towards the back of the pack, but found myself right behind someone who jumped up to the front, so I just followed, and found myself in 3rd or 4th place very quickly.

At the front of the group, there were probably 6 or 7 guys who stretched out in a line, drafting off of each other, and took turns at the front. I took one “pull” (my turn at the front) for a minute or two until I started slowing down, and then backed off a bit and let a few people pass me and I got back in line. I was amazed at how long some of the guys could pull – one guy stayed at the front, holding pace, for probably 10 minutes!

Speaking of pace, I was astonished at how fast it was. I imagined the race would be a faster version of some of the group rides I take with friends around here, so I figured 22 or 23mph would be typical. Not so: As soon as the race really started, the bunch jumped up into the 28-30mph range and never really backed down. After the race I checked my speedometer to see what my top speed was, and at some point I hit 39.5mph. There weren’t any really long or steep descents, so I’m not sure where that was, but wow!

Anyway, back to the race. The road was only closed on one lane, and we were not allowed to cross the centerline. Doing so would result in instant disqualification. A couple of times there were large farm implements on the road that slowed us down, and we had to wait for the official (guy on a motorcycle) to clear us to cross the centerline to pass.

Another thing I wasn’t really prepared for was the physical tightness of the group. The largest group I’d ridden with was probably 8-10 people, and that was never a very aggressive ride. Thanks to some fast rides with the “Mercenaries,” I’d learned how to draft and how to safely follow just a few inches behind the rider in front of me, but I’d never ridden in a group this big (42 riders) and with guys so close on left and right that elbows and shoulders were frequently touching. That was rather nerve-wracking. One result was that I didn’t drink as much as I should have, because looking down to grab a water bottle meant taking eyes off the group around me for a second, which was scary. I only used up one of the two bottles of Gatorade I had intended to drink during the 33 mile race.

As we were coming into Burlington, we reached the area where we had two lanes of traffic instead of one, and things started getting really aggressive. One rider came up next to me and I think someone bumped him and he bumped me, then said “This is going to get really interesting.” This being my first race, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it sure seemed like the group in general was being pretty squirrelly to me.

About a mile and a half from the finish, things did get interesting. The road took a turn to the left (right around the intersection of Highway 99 (Bluff Rd) and Des Moines Avenue for you Burlington folk), and I think I underestimated the sharpness of the turn, or the rider on my right overestimated, or something. I’ll never know for sure. In any case, as we came around the corner, I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with the rider on my right, leaning on each other so neither of us would go down. He was a bigger guy than me, so his weight won, and he was pushing me ever so slightly to the left. Just as I was sure that I wasn’t going to crash as a result of this contact, I felt a terrible feeling: Somebody’s front wheel coming in contact with the left side of my rear wheel. Rule #1 in riding with a group is that you never overlap wheels – you either ride behind someone, or next to them. I don’t know how that wheel got there, but it shouldn’t have been there.

So I was being pushed from the right by the shoulder of the rider next to me, and had been pushed into (or otherwise come into contact with) the rider behind and to the left of me. As this point I was just holding on for dear life! Then I heard someone behind me, presumably the rider whose wheel was touching mine, say “No no no SH**SH**SH**!” and then the awful sound of carbon fiber meeting pavement in large quantities. My stomach tied itself in a knot as I thought about how fast we were going and the almost certainty that not all of those terrible crunching sounds were bicycle parts. The rider next to me (whose shoulder had been touching mine) and I exchanged glances and silently echoed the words of the riders who had gone down behind us.

I was pretty spooked by the crash, and how close I had been to being a part of it. As we rounded the last corner and came within sight of the finish line, the real sprint began, and I found myself with a little space around me. While I never expected that I would have an opportunity to win the race, my goals going into the day were two: 1. Don’t crash and 2. Don’t get dropped. Competitively, I wanted to finish somewhere in the vicinity of whoever won; I wanted to be in the lead group.

So as the final sprint began, I found myself in a little open space within the group. Still spooked by the crash, I decided that having only barely accomplished goal #1, I could just ride hard and safely accomplish goal #2, even if it meant being the last guy in the lead group. So that’s what I did. I rode just hard enough to still be considered part of that group, but no harder, and I was the last guy in the lead group to cross the finish line.

My heart goes out to the guys that crashed. As we were coasting out from the finish, I noticed that Josh, my friend from earlier in the day, who I hadn’t seen since the first mile or so of the race, wasn’t around. I worried that he had been caught up in the crash. As others came to the finish, I saw a lot of scraped elbows and knees. When I mentioned to Marcia that I was concerned that Josh may have been in the crash, she said “No, there he is,” and pointed at him down the road a bit. I went over and talked to him for a minute, and found out that he had just barely avoided the crash, putting flat spots on his tires stopping inches from the pileup. He said that there were some pretty bad injuries – one guy with a broken collarbone, the classic cycling injury. I’ve been there. Ouch!

I beat myself up for a while, going back over the crash in my mind, trying to figure out if it was somehow my fault. In the end though, I kept going back to why that wheel was there in the first place. As I said before, rule #1 in group cycling is to never overlap front and back wheels, not even a little bit. If that wheel hadn’t been there, chances are everyone would have finished the race. Could the crash still have been avoided? Probably. Perhaps if the rider to my right and I had both judged the turn the same and therefore had avoided the shoulder contact, the crash wouldn’t have happened. Ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that my inexperience may have been a contributing factor, but the cardinal rule was broken, and not by me, and so the crash was not my fault.

So, leaving the crash behind, I’m satisfied with the race. I proved to myself that I was able to keep up with the race leaders, and finished in the lead group. I took a couple of turns leading the race in the middle, and enjoyed the attacks and responses and just general racing fun at the front. I finished in 15th place out of 42 riders. For my first race, I’ll take it!

An old college paper has new relevance

I, by nature, am a procrastinator, and chronically late.  As part of an often-frivolous attempt to remedy this, the clock in my family room runs five minutes fast.  On Wednesday, February 26, the clock’s impatient hands struck 5:30, and found me seated in front of my television, miraculously five minutes early for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.  I suffered through the last 5 minutes of yet another asinine production aimed towards the degradation of American minds, and waited for a 30-minute synopsis of the most important events in the world.
As the syncopated cacophony of the trademark xylophone sounded through the television speakers, a faceless voice announced again that the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather was about to begin.  A few previews were shown, tantalizing the morbid part of me that yearns to know exactly how the United States will trounce Iraq, or how a 10-Billion dollar supersonic glider simply melted 36 miles above the earth.
Setting my humanity aside, I settled in for my half hour of “important things.”
I continued this pattern at 5:30 each day for a week, though I tried to forgo the five-minute prelude of tastelessness that I experienced that Wednesday.  The stories each day were the same: First was the latest non-news about the non-war in Iraq.  The first day, we learned the monumentous news that Iraq was positioning its troops in preparation for a possible invasion.  The highlight of this sadistic enterprise was a portion of Dan Rather’s interview with Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s internationally embattled dictator.  He was quoted as saying “No one destroys his own [oil] wells or dams,” and when asked if he would consider exile, he replied, “I will live in Iraq and die in Iraq, as decided by God almighty.”  France called the war that hasn’t happened yet “precipitous,” while another story described how the United States would control Iraq after winning the war.  By The following Monday, the last time I watched the news on television, the news had changed little.  Again, it was reported that Iraq was moving its forces into strategic defensive positions, and Hussein was being only marginally cooperative with outsiders. France called the war that still hasn’t happened yet “premature.”  A later segment described how the United States might handle the situation should troops have to invade Baghdad herself.
Other segments not advertised as “top stories” included some startling revelations: Credit Card fraud is real, and bad. Had NASA known that Columbia was in trouble before attempting to land, they may have been able to do something about it. Icy roads can cause car accidents, and caused 11 fatal ones in New York. An arsonist burned Connecticut nursing home to the ground, killing 10 patients.  Security at the country’s most secret laboratory is faulty.  Zoo animals are dying in Washington D.C.  Consumer spending is down, and the economy is getting worse.
The reader will have to forgive my cynicism.  With all of this bad news being thrown rapid-fire in my face, with the accompanying images and graphics to drive “the story” deeper into my soul, it’s a wonder I’ve kept the will to live.  Pessimism runs rampant through the news media, especially on television.  We can’t blame the journalists though; it’s not their fault.  They are whores to the statisticians at Nielsen, willing to do anything, include meet with Saddam Hussein or drive down the same icy highway that killed eleven other human beings, because people will watch.  Tucked in between these glamorous tragedies, there is humanity.  One story, and perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most, was of a young couple who are both in the army, stationed 45 miles apart in Kuwait, while their son celebrates his second birthday a hemisphere and 12 time zones away in the Midwestern United States.  Even the “humanity” is found in the midst of the war and international aggression.  Perhaps it’s not so humane after all.
I am bitter.  I realize now why I gave up on regular television news programs.  They bring out the worst in me, by showing me the worst in the world around me.  Somewhere, we became infatuated with things that are terrible.  Perhaps they make us feel better about our own lives.  Or perhaps they feed the paranoia that we experience as a result of our own deviance.  After all, with all of those people killing each other and threatening to remove each other from their positions of power, my own preternatural behaviors don’t seem quite so wicked.
Thursday morning, I secured a copy of the Chicago Tribune, almost afraid to find the same twaddle that had wasted half an hour of my life the night before.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of objectivity, and a sense of humanity, even in the more pessimistic stories of the front page.  This particular paper’s main story was about an exposed scandal involving guards beating prisoners at a Chicago jail.  While depressing, the article told the story from the points of view of both prisoners and guards, and offered enough facts that I was able to form my opinion about what I read, whereas the television was determined to keep the facts from me and tell me what my opinion was.   Other stories on the front page were about a new, uplifting design for New York’s World Trade Center, and the Supreme Court’s protection of certain rights of abortion protesters.  The next day, the jail beatings ran as the chief headline again, but what attracted my attention was a feature-length story on the life of Fred Rogers, an American Icon known for his optimism and, as one writer put it, “[daring] to be calm.”  Humanity may yet have a voice!
While the Chicago Tribune’s selection of stories was much more balanced, the writing was still on the misanthropic side.  Writers were skeptical about the possibility of democracy in Iraq, wondering in print if the Iraqi people just might hate America more than they hate Hussein.  In a slant untouched by the television broadcast, the monetary cost of an invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq was discussed.  Numbers in excess of $100Billion were printed, and a reporter wondered where the money would come from, when the national budget is already overdrawn, and the economy back home is failing.  I get the impression that the Tribune, perhaps echoing the feelings of most Americans, would rather America stay home and solve her own problems, rather than go and solve the problems of a nation that would rather not have our “help.”
Reading the Tribune, I found that the same stories from the television broadcast the night before were covered, but with much more detail.  The cynicism seemed intact, but there was balance.  There seemed to be just as much “good news,” as bad.  In the first section of the newspaper, where the most important things are usually printed, there was equal time given to the prison beatings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, a feel-good symbol of America’s resilience and determination to go on after tragedy.
As the week went on, I felt again and again that the television was trying to beat the independence out of me, forcing its opinions on me as if they were my own, all so subtly that I hardly realized it was happening.  The newspaper seemed intent on expressing its opinion, but it also calmly acknowledged that I was allowed to have my own opinion too.  It even went so far as to provide facts that may counter its own opinion, to assist me in forming mine.  This was a pleasant change from what I saw on television.
Because I’m chronically late, I tend to watch the clock with an obsessive eye.  One fact that can’t be denied is that reading the newspaper takes longer than watching the evening news.  This may be the major difference between the two mediums.  In an attempt to present the bare facts, the television news can lose sight of what is actually important.  When I sat down to watch 30 minutes of “important things,” I often wondered just how important this information was to me.  The newspaper, on the other hand, does not constrain my time.  I can read as little or as much as I like.  Because my priorities are different than those of the television producers, I find myself wanting information that they do not provide, and not wanting some of the information that they do offer.  The newspaper allows me to read at my pace, and absorb only the information that I decide is important.  The television never offered the right amount of information; there was either too much, or too little.  The newspaper seemed determined to err on the side of “too much,” and because I was reading, and could reread what I read (I did not record the evening news to take advantage of my “rewind” button), until I was satisfied, and then go on.  I never felt overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, by the newspaper, and when I was done reading, felt that I was a better person, or at least a better informed person, for having done so.  Television made me feel like a deviant and an antipatriot, because I did not agree with its opinions.
A standout among newspapers is USA Today.  I enjoyed the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times because their localized nature made them attractive as people-oriented publications; they often focused on how national and global issues affect individuals and groups within their respective areas.  USA Today, however, is a national paper, with a refreshingly optimistic sentiment.  It was mostly objective, focusing on national issues, and a “just the facts” attitude.  It would seem that when we simply look at the facts, the world doesn’t seem to be quite as troubled as CBS would have us believe.  It comes as a great surprise that Gannett’s USA Today is the most circulated newspaper in the country, according to a study by GlobalFor Media Services.  Its refreshing optimism and objectivity stands in dire contrast to the pessimism and forced-opinion reporting of the most popular television news programs.
The media is a whore.  She goes wherever the clients are, and does whatever they want.  Demographics are a fascinating science.  Why would the television cater to those who want fewer facts, less humanity, and more carnage, while newspapers strive to be complete, objective, and some even a bit optimistic?  I don’t know the answer to this question, but I know what I want.  I want facts, and I want lots of them.  I want to be able to form my own opinion, and discuss it with other people who also form their own opinions from the same facts.  I want to know what’s good about my country and my race, as well as what’s bad.  I believe that humanity is inherently good, and mankind carries the seeds of something greater than we can realize.  I want to see that face of humanity more than the evil of it.  I want objectivity, not sensationalism.  I want information, not streams of images moving too fast for me to comprehend.  Thanks to the Tribune, I realize what it is that I want.  I want Mr. Rogers.  I want media that’s not afraid to discuss the issues, but discusses them openly, optimistically, and without feeling the need to cater to those who have the attention span of a goldfish.  I want a medium that will, like Mr. Rogers, “dare to be calm.”

The following is a paper that I wrote for a political science class in February 2003. The assignment was to watch, read, or otherwise experience two very different forms of media, and compare and contrast them. I’ve decided to post this here today because this paper discusses the late Mr. Rogers, a children’s television host. Recently, a piece on Fox news discussed how Mr. Rogers was “evil” (yes, they actually used the E-word) for insisting that every child is “special,” even if they “didn’t deserve it.” Here’s my response, written 7 years ago:

Is the Media Cynical, or is it Just Me?

By Jacob Thurman

I, by nature, am a procrastinator, and chronically late.  As part of an often-frivolous attempt to remedy this, the clock in my family room runs five minutes fast.  On Wednesday, February 26, the clock’s impatient hands struck 5:30, and found me seated in front of my television, miraculously five minutes early for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.  I suffered through the last 5 minutes of yet another asinine production aimed towards the degradation of American minds, and waited for a 30-minute synopsis of the most important events in the world.

As the syncopated cacophony of the trademark xylophone sounded through the television speakers, a faceless voice announced again that the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather was about to begin.  A few previews were shown, tantalizing the morbid part of me that yearns to know exactly how the United States will trounce Iraq, or how a 10-Billion dollar supersonic glider simply melted 36 miles above the earth.

Setting my humanity aside, I settled in for my half hour of “important things.”

I continued this pattern at 5:30 each day for a week, though I tried to forgo the five-minute prelude of tastelessness that I experienced that Wednesday.  The stories each day were the same: First was the latest non-news about the non-war in Iraq.  The first day, we learned the monumentous news that Iraq was positioning its troops in preparation for a possible invasion.  The highlight of this sadistic enterprise was a portion of Dan Rather’s interview with Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s internationally embattled dictator.  He was quoted as saying “No one destroys his own [oil] wells or dams,” and when asked if he would consider exile, he replied, “I will live in Iraq and die in Iraq, as decided by God almighty.”  France called the war that hasn’t happened yet “precipitous,” while another story described how the United States would control Iraq after winning the war.  By The following Monday, the last time I watched the news on television, the news had changed little.  Again, it was reported that Iraq was moving its forces into strategic defensive positions, and Hussein was being only marginally cooperative with outsiders. France called the war that still hasn’t happened yet “premature.”  A later segment described how the United States might handle the situation should troops have to invade Baghdad herself.

Other segments not advertised as “top stories” included some startling revelations: Credit Card fraud is real, and bad. Had NASA known that Columbia was in trouble before attempting to land, they may have been able to do something about it. Icy roads can cause car accidents, and caused 11 fatal ones in New York. An arsonist burned Connecticut nursing home to the ground, killing 10 patients.  Security at the country’s most secret laboratory is faulty.  Zoo animals are dying in Washington D.C.  Consumer spending is down, and the economy is getting worse.

The reader will have to forgive my cynicism.  With all of this bad news being thrown rapid-fire in my face, with the accompanying images and graphics to drive “the story” deeper into my soul, it’s a wonder I’ve kept the will to live.  Pessimism runs rampant through the news media, especially on television.  We can’t blame the journalists though; it’s not their fault.  They are whores to the statisticians at Nielsen, willing to do anything, include meet with Saddam Hussein or drive down the same icy highway that killed eleven other human beings, because people will watch.  Tucked in between these glamorous tragedies, there is humanity.  One story, and perhaps the one that has stuck with me the most, was of a young couple who are both in the army, stationed 45 miles apart in Kuwait, while their son celebrates his second birthday a hemisphere and 12 time zones away in the Midwestern United States.  Even the “humanity” is found in the midst of the war and international aggression.  Perhaps it’s not so humane after all.

I am bitter.  I realize now why I gave up on regular television news programs.  They bring out the worst in me, by showing me the worst in the world around me.  Somewhere, we became infatuated with things that are terrible.  Perhaps they make us feel better about our own lives.  Or perhaps they feed the paranoia that we experience as a result of our own deviance.  After all, with all of those people killing each other and threatening to remove each other from their positions of power, my own preternatural behaviors don’t seem quite so wicked.

Thursday morning, I secured a copy of the Chicago Tribune, almost afraid to find the same twaddle that had wasted half an hour of my life the night before.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a degree of objectivity, and a sense of humanity, even in the more pessimistic stories of the front page.  This particular paper’s main story was about an exposed scandal involving guards beating prisoners at a Chicago jail.  While depressing, the article told the story from the points of view of both prisoners and guards, and offered enough facts that I was able to form my opinion about what I read, whereas the television was determined to keep the facts from me and tell me what my opinion was.   Other stories on the front page were about a new, uplifting design for New York’s World Trade Center, and the Supreme Court’s protection of certain rights of abortion protesters.  The next day, the jail beatings ran as the chief headline again, but what attracted my attention was a feature-length story on the life of Fred Rogers, an American Icon known for his optimism and, as one writer put it, “[daring] to be calm.”  Humanity may yet have a voice!

While the Chicago Tribune’s selection of stories was much more balanced, the writing was still on the misanthropic side.  Writers were skeptical about the possibility of democracy in Iraq, wondering in print if the Iraqi people just might hate America more than they hate Hussein.  In a slant untouched by the television broadcast, the monetary cost of an invasion, occupation, and rebuilding of Iraq was discussed.  Numbers in excess of $100Billion were printed, and a reporter wondered where the money would come from, when the national budget is already overdrawn, and the economy back home is failing.  I get the impression that the Tribune, perhaps echoing the feelings of most Americans, would rather America stay home and solve her own problems, rather than go and solve the problems of a nation that would rather not have our “help.”

Reading the Tribune, I found that the same stories from the television broadcast the night before were covered, but with much more detail.  The cynicism seemed intact, but there was balance.  There seemed to be just as much “good news,” as bad.  In the first section of the newspaper, where the most important things are usually printed, there was equal time given to the prison beatings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center, a feel-good symbol of America’s resilience and determination to go on after tragedy.

As the week went on, I felt again and again that the television was trying to beat the independence out of me, forcing its opinions on me as if they were my own, all so subtly that I hardly realized it was happening.  The newspaper seemed intent on expressing its opinion, but it also calmly acknowledged that I was allowed to have my own opinion too.  It even went so far as to provide facts that may counter its own opinion, to assist me in forming mine.  This was a pleasant change from what I saw on television.

Because I’m chronically late, I tend to watch the clock with an obsessive eye.  One fact that can’t be denied is that reading the newspaper takes longer than watching the evening news.  This may be the major difference between the two mediums.  In an attempt to present the bare facts, the television news can lose sight of what is actually important.  When I sat down to watch 30 minutes of “important things,” I often wondered just how important this information was to me.  The newspaper, on the other hand, does not constrain my time.  I can read as little or as much as I like.  Because my priorities are different than those of the television producers, I find myself wanting information that they do not provide, and not wanting some of the information that they do offer.  The newspaper allows me to read at my pace, and absorb only the information that I decide is important.  The television never offered the right amount of information; there was either too much, or too little.  The newspaper seemed determined to err on the side of “too much,” and because I was reading, and could reread what I read (I did not record the evening news to take advantage of my “rewind” button), until I was satisfied, and then go on.  I never felt overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, by the newspaper, and when I was done reading, felt that I was a better person, or at least a better informed person, for having done so.  Television made me feel like a deviant and an antipatriot, because I did not agree with its opinions.

A standout among newspapers is USA Today.  I enjoyed the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times because their localized nature made them attractive as people-oriented publications; they often focused on how national and global issues affect individuals and groups within their respective areas.  USA Today, however, is a national paper, with a refreshingly optimistic sentiment.  It was mostly objective, focusing on national issues, and a “just the facts” attitude.  It would seem that when we simply look at the facts, the world doesn’t seem to be quite as troubled as CBS would have us believe.  It comes as a great surprise that Gannett’s USA Today is the most circulated newspaper in the country, according to a study by GlobalFor Media Services.  Its refreshing optimism and objectivity stands in dire contrast to the pessimism and forced-opinion reporting of the most popular television news programs.

The media is a whore.  She goes wherever the clients are, and does whatever they want.  Demographics are a fascinating science.  Why would the television cater to those who want fewer facts, less humanity, and more carnage, while newspapers strive to be complete, objective, and some even a bit optimistic?  I don’t know the answer to this question, but I know what I want.  I want facts, and I want lots of them.  I want to be able to form my own opinion, and discuss it with other people who also form their own opinions from the same facts.  I want to know what’s good about my country and my race, as well as what’s bad.  I believe that humanity is inherently good, and mankind carries the seeds of something greater than we can realize.  I want to see that face of humanity more than the evil of it.  I want objectivity, not sensationalism.  I want information, not streams of images moving too fast for me to comprehend.  Thanks to the Tribune, I realize what it is that I want.  I want Mr. Rogers.  I want media that’s not afraid to discuss the issues, but discusses them openly, optimistically, and without feeling the need to cater to those who have the attention span of a goldfish.  I want a medium that will, like Mr. Rogers, “dare to be calm.”

Epilogue

The professor’s comments at the end of the paper read “You have a great writing style, and I have to admit I laughed out loud a couple of times – a rare event in reading term papers. (Crying is somewhat more common – just kidding). Anyway, good discussion of your media experience.”

Obechi: new game for iPhone/iPod touch

From the creators of the Flash sensation Boomshine comes a devious new game where hand/eye co-ordination and a lightning-quick reaction time spell the difference between success and failure. Hundreds of colorful particles floating in the ether – and it’s your job to put them all together. Click and hold down the mouse button to make a ring around the dots, and watch them all gather in the center. With every ring you create you’ll get closer and closer to your target… but miss the target, even by one, and the nucleus is ruined. How quickly can you complete all fifteen levels without making a single mistake? The challenge is on…

Danny Miller and I just released a new game for iPhone called Obechi. It’s a native iPhone version of the flash game at http://www.k2xl.com/games/obechi, and it’s quite addictive.

Find it on the iTunes App Store.

Sandwich Cookie Showdown

scs jacob start scs mee up next

It’s well known among our readers that we are, in fact, a couple of nerds. Being nerds, we like to apply science wherever we can. Tonight, we used science to finally answer a question that has long plagued mankind: Are Oreo brand cookies really better than their store-brand equivalent?

scs the competetors
scs cookies3 scs cookies 2 scs cookies1

Here we present our methods and our findings for peer review.

Our experiment was conceived when Marcia (hereafter known as “Subject B”) acquired a package of Oreo cookies as “payment” for babysitting the daughter of some friends while they went roller skating. Since we usually purchase the store brand cookie from Wal-Mart (because it is less expensive), we began to wonder if there was really a significant difference between the two products. We devised an experiment where each of us would sample different cookies blindly, in a random order, and rank them on flavor.

The materials for our experiment were as follows:

  • Two Oreo brand sandwich cookies
  • Two Wal-Mart “Great Value” brand sandwich cookies
  • Two Hy-Vee “Dunkster” sandwich cookies
  • One black sleep mask
  • Water
  • Digital Camera
  • Paper plates

scs before start

Subject A (AKA Jacob) was the first to undergo the rigorous test. He put on the sleep mask and then took a small drink of water to clear his palette. One of each type of cookie was placed on a paper plate. When Subject A was ready, he was given the first cookie. After taking one bite of the cookie, he took another drink of water, and then repeated the process with each cookie, until he had sampled each one.

scs jacob eats

scs jacob tastes

scs jacob drinks

Subject A then wrote his results down and hid them, so that he would not influence any other subjects.

The experiment was then repeated with Subject B, who also wrote her results without influence from any other subjects.

scs mee tastes

scs mee chews

scs mee contemplates

scs mee drinks

The subjects sampled their cookies in the following order:

Subject A Subject B
1. Great Value Oreo
2. Dunkster Great Value
3. Oreo Dunkster

scs judgement time

When the subject’s results were compared, they ranked the cookies in the following order, from best to worst:

Subject A Subject B
1. Oreo Oreo
2. Great Value Great Value
3. Dunkster Dunkster

scs bitten samples

Each of the subjects independently ranked the cookies in the same order, with the Oreo cookie best, the Great Value cookie second, and the Dunkster cookie third. When the subjects’ notes were compared, each agreed that the Oreo was the best cookie, and the Great Value cookie was a very close second. The flavor of the Oreo and Great Value cookies was nearly identical, but the Oreo cookie prevailed in texture and “mouth feel.” The Great Value cookie was drier and harder than the Oreo. The Dunkster cookie’s flavor was less sweet, one subject described it as “more like baking chocolate.” The texture of the Dunkster cookie was described as “almost stale-like” and “waxy or greasy.”

The bottom line:

All subjects agreed that when a sandwich cookie craving needs filling, the Great Value cookie is an excellent choice for its relative price and flavor, but when the full sandwich cookie experience is of the utmost importance, the Oreo brand cookie is an absolute necessity.

Dead and Deader

Last Friday (June 12), I went out for an afternoon bike ride, and when I got home, the monitors connected to my main work computer were dark. I wiggled the mouse to bring them back to life, but they did not revive. The computer had crashed.

While such a thing had never happened with this particular computer before, we’ve all seen random system crashes, and I didn’t think anything of it. I had saved all my files before going out the door, after all.  I pushed the power button on the computer case to shut off the machine and reboot it…

…And nothing happened. The case LEDs were still on, keyboard LEDs still glowing. The machine had all the appearances of being alive, but was dead. I tried again. Held the power button down for 15 (it should turn off after 10), 20, 30 seconds. No response. It wouldn’t turn off.

Hmm. This is strange.

I flipped the rocker switch on the power supply and the machine shut off instantly. After a short wait, I flipped it back on and pressed the power button.

Nothing happened.

Again, I pressed and held the power button. No case LEDs, no keyboard lights, no fans spinning up, nothing. Great.

I love the small town where we live, but one of its downsides is that there’s no decent place to buy computer parts in a pinch. Thankfully, there’s a big internet electronics warehouse store that’s located such that when we order things with the cheapest UPS ground shipping, we almost always get them the next day. But, it being late Friday afternoon, I knew anything I ordered wouldn’t actually ship until Monday, so I wouldn’t get it until Tuesday. Oh well, at least I still have the laptop to keep me on top of things.

I decided that the power supply was fried, so I ordered a new one, which arrived tuesday afternoon, just as expected. Tuesday evening, I sat down with the ailing computer and swapped out power supplies. I got it all plugged in and put together, and hit the power button.

Nothing, again.

Dangit! For those of you lucky enough to have never had a computer die, here’s a hint: When you have a computer that’s just dead, the culprit is almost always either the motherboard or the power supply. In this case, I had good reason to believe the power supply was the problem. Apparently it wasn’t (or at least it wasn’t the ONLY problem). Now I need to order a new motherboard.

Again, it’s after shipping time, so anything I order will ship Wednesday and arrive Thursday. Fine. I ordered a new motherboard, and went back to work on the laptop (which, by the way, is a Mac, and doesn’t have all the Windows software I need to work on my main business projects). The new motherboard arrived Thursday afternoon, and went easily into the computer case

Cross fingers. Say a prayer. Do a rain dance. Push the power button.

It booted right up. No other hardware damage, no data loss.

The rest of Thursday was spend installing new drivers for the new chipset and audio all that stuff that comes with a new motherboard, and Friday I was finally back in action. A full week without my main computer was quite a bit of lost work, and put me behind schedule, but I’m catching up quickly.

The moral of the story: While I didn’t lose any data, it made me take a good look at my backup strategies. While the source code that keeps my business running was always backed up in two different places, other things (like iPhone app sales records) were not. If there had been a hard drive problem, some important things could have been lost.

So please take this opportunity to review your backup strategy and make sure that everything important is backed up and will survive a hardware failure or worse (Question: what would happen if your house burned down while you weren’t home? Would you still have your precious data intact?). We work way too hard on creating our digital lives to have them vanish at the whim of a few faulty bits of silicon. Be careful!

Blame Drew’s Cancer

“On May 20th, 2009, Drew Olanoff was diagnosed with cancer: Hodgkins Lymphoma.

“Ever since that day, Drew has blamed everything on his cancer. Losing his keys, misplacing his wallet, Twitter being slow, the Phillies losing, etc.

“Why? Because you have to beat up on Cancer to win… and you can help out.

“Blame Drew’s Cancer for everything you want….”

It takes a strong guy to take his cancer diagnosis and turn it into a viral internet phenomenon. People by the thousands are using twitter to blame Drew’s cancer for their problems, and we can see them all at http://blamedrewscancer.com.  They’re hoping that some nice companies will donate a dollar for every person that blames something on Drew’s cancer to the American Cancer Society or the Make a Wish Foundation. Sounds like a bit of fun and potentially a good cause….

Marcia blames Drew’s cancer for the squirrels that keep attacking our garden, and I blame Drew’s cancer for every software bug I’ve fixed since May 20th.

Thankfully, Hodgkins Lymphoma is one of the most curable kinds of cancer, with a 90%+ remission rate. Still, Drew will have a tough road ahead, and we wish him the best.

So if you use Twitter, go and #BlameDrewsCancer for something.  Then watch http://blamedrewscancer.com for yours to pop up (mine took about 10 minutes to show).

Our story

Marcia decided that we are going to start keeping a family journal.  I think this is a great idea, except she keeps insisting that we can’t actually start it until I write my version of how we met and fell in love and got married. Every time I sit down to start writing that story (and while she won’t believe me, I have started many times), I realize that there needs to be even more back story, and I give up and scrap what I’ve written.

So tonight, I decided to take a different approach and instead of writing a novel, I started writing it in the style of a children’s book. Marcia rejected it for inclusion in the family journal, so here it is:

How we Met

One day in church there was a pretty girl named Marcia.  We skipped a church dance together and walked around outside.  I liked her.  We went back to her apartment and…

played cards.

Then I went on a mission.

Then she went on a mission.

Then I got back.

Then she got back.

Then we dated for like 5 years.

Then she moved away.

And I missed her.

So I asked her to marry me.

She said yes.

And we got married.

And I liked it.

THE END

I wouldn’t look for it in the Scholastic book catalog any time soon.