Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What would Jerry Seinfeld (or you) do?

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that when we reach adulthood it's hard to add friends. It's not that people become misanthropic, but just essentially that we're creatures of habit and incorporating new people into the group's catchphrases, references, history and injokes is just too damned hard, which brings me to my latest California adventure. In one of my favorite episodes, the guy who cleans the pool at the health club Jerry belongs to starts imposing himself into Jerry's life (tagging along on shopping trips, wanting to hang out). Jerry eventually has to draw the line and shut Ramon out. Then sitcom mayhem ensues.

Sunday morning I was headed to Chinatown to get some authentic dim sum for lunch and then go see the Los Angeles Philharmonic with one of my former students, who's a student at UCLA. After spending 15 minutes looking for parking, we choose a bank's garage (just $3!!) in the southwestish corner of L.A.'s Chinatown (which is like a 20-ish square-block neighborhood in the north end of downtown). Neither of us knows Chinatown enough to have selected a place before heading out, so we decide that we'll just stumble upon something great (after all it was one day before Lunar New Year).

We find ourselves walking up and down the sun-drenched streets past standard Chinese restaurants, Asian grocers, fortune tellers, gift shops, Vietnamese Pho restaurants, clinics, legal services providers but oddly not really any dim sum places (at least non-take out dim sum places). After about seven minutes we see one across the street, but we're not at a crosswalk so we decide that we'll just find one that doesn't involve crossing yet another busy street. After another five minutes we head back to "across the street" place and are about to enter when we see the dreaded "C." As in, this restaurant received a "C" grade from the County Health Department's restaurant inspection bureau.

"I can't eat here," I tell M. "I can do a B, but no way am I eating at C."

We press on past more shops, restaurants and people. We make our way to Empress Pavillion, which according to the Net is very popular. However, when we get to the entrance there's a huge mob waiting for tables. It's now after 12 noon, so we decide to pass because we don't want to late to the Philharmonic show. While continuing to walk and search M sees a familiar face in the crowd of people walking against us on the sidewalk. It's a Chinese woman say in her late 30s, guessing based on the handful of grays streaking her hair. They exchange greetings and "I can't believe we bumped into each other"s. In L.A. this is ultra rare.

"What are you doing down here?" M asks.

"Well, it's the day before New Year's so I wanted to come to Chinatown just to walk around and see the scene," says woman, to whom I have not been introduced. "What are you guys doing?"

"We're looking for a good place to get lunch," M replies. "But we can't seem to find a good dim sum place."

"Oh," woman says. "I'm also going to get lunch ... We could all get lunch." She looks at us with an expression that is a cross between friendliness and loneliness (?) at least according to my admittedly American interpretation.

Um ... I haven't felt this on the spot since my seventh grade math teacher announced she was having a class party and went through the rows asking each of us what we would bring without having ever asked the class whether we wanted to get together at her house. I have one of those million miles a second moments ...

I look to M, who looks stupefied (pretty much exactly as I feel) and whom I get the sense wants me to answer.

Eventually (literally a second later, because any longer and the awkwardness of the silence might have caused me to combust) my aversion to being too much of a dickhead wins out.

"Sure, yeah. Let's get some dim sum." So we start walking south, again not really knowing where to. A couple minutes later, during which I try a couple attempts at small talk but her thick accent and the street noise render that pointless, we see a sign for dim sum just a block west. She and M are making small talk though. I pick up that they've ridden the bus together the Friday just two days before.

"By the way, I'm Mike" I say as I shake her hand. Unfortunatley, I can't really understand her name when she says it. I also ask if she goes to UCLA, and she says something that contains the word "uncle" in the response.

"Yeah, sorry about that but M's not really good at the intros obviously," I say wondering how I ended up about to have lunch with a stranger whose name I don't know even after she told it to me.

Once we put our name in at the dim sum place, we're told it'll be five to 15 minutes before a table for three is available. Now the awkwardness really kicks in. While we're standing outside waiting, we're not really talking. But unlike Uma Thurman observes in Pulp Fiction, this is not an "it's so cool that we can enjoy the silence between us" thing, it's a "we don't have anything really to talk about" thing. I know it wasn't dead silent during the entire wait for the table, but I don't really remember anything other than the awkwardness.

Thankfully once we're seated we have the acts of eating and ordering and declining food to occupy us. The woman (whose name I still don't know) also taught me something, add lemon to oyster sauce! MMMMMMMMM. When the meal is over and we're waiting around to ask for our check we get another chance not to have much to talk about.

The woman asks M for her phone number. M starts to tell her, but soon just writes it down along with her name (spelled out). "Ahhhh so your name is [name removed]."


"I'm [spells out her name then says it]." (for the rest of this entry she'll be Suzie.)

M laughs softly as I finally figure out that she has finally learned this woman's name, too. Suzie proceeds to give M her phone number. Then she turns to me and places the paper with M's phone number on it in front of me along with a pen. It's another million miles a second moment. I grab the pen (while inside my brain is screaming, what the fuck are you doing? you absolutely do not want her to call you so of course you're giving her your phone number). I write down my number and my name. I take care not to make eye contact of ask for her number. I even immediately reach for my wallet to change the subject to the bill and not phone number exchanges.

"So what are you guys doing now?" Suzie asks.

"We're headed to go see the Philharmonic." M says.

"Ohhh. Where are they playing?" At this point, I'm kinda seriously wondering whether she wants to tagalong.

"Disney Hall," I reply.

"The performance is at 2," M says.

"And we should probably get going," I add quickly as if M and I are just speaking different halves of the same sentence.

Suzie nods and smiles. I don't sense any disappointment from her (at least don't see any in her posture or expression), so I kinda feel a bit like a heel for thinking that she wants to fold herself into our day. But then again ...

So we leave and M and I note that we're actually just across the street from the garage where we parked. Suzie walks along with us to the garage. We bade each other farewell.

"What just happened?" M asks as we're walking to the car.

"I don't know" is all I can offer. "So how do you know her? Is she like in one of your classes."

"No, she was on the bus with me Friday." M proceeds to explain that Suzie was having some problems on the bus Friday morning trying to figure something out with the driver. But something wasn't quite coming through in the conversation with the driver. Eventually, Suzie saw M (the only other Asian) and with her assistance things got straightened out enough. Then even though the bus had just a few people on it, Suzie sat next to M and started talking to her (no biggie, she said). At least until she started with the questions.

What do you do? What do your parents so? Do they work? How much money do they earn? M tells me that she's way weirded out during this, though we both agree that someone would ask those questions, would also semi-invite herself to join people she barely knows for lunch. To make things even more bizarrre, that bus M was taking to her internship broke down. So that meant that M and Suzie got to spend like an hour chatting while waiting for another bus.

Now it all started to make sense to me, the lack of introduction when we first ran into Susie, the repeated awkward silences during our conversation which at the time I thought were weird between two people whom I thought were friends. As we're talking M says that one of the reasons she was so quiet because she kept running the scenario in her head and wondered what she could have said or done differently to prevent this entire thing from happening. As we replay everything, we can think of nothing save for one of us saying "No" when Suzie first asked if we could all eat together, which in retrospect neither of us felt like we could have pulled off.

"You said 'we're getting lunch'" I point out. "I guess when someone is not native to the States the subtlety of saying 'we're' gets lost. Don't feel bad. I would have handled it the same."

When we get to Disney Hall I check the time on my phone because my watch has stopped. I notice that I have a missed call. It's area code 626, a part of the county from which I know hardly anyone and have just one number stored in my phone. I show it to M and she confirms that it's Suzie who called. There is no voicemail.

M checks her phone and sees that she has a text message ... from Suzie.

Honestly, the entire thing was Seinfeldian.


My favorite newspaper piece in a while is this essay that appeared recently in the New York Times about the fundamental commonalities of science and democracy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Will The Daily Show work with a liberal president and congress?

... I think yes.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The children _are_ the future

Newspapers, radio, television and the web-based media have done a pretty fantastic job covering the inauguration. This flash-based photo gallery of reader images of the historic occasion has blown us away at the office during the past few days. But I'd feel remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to my students at L.A. Youth for their incredibly thoughtful and hopeful comments.

Recognizing the enormity of the moment, we sent out an urgent call for their thoughts Tuesday afternoon. By Wednesday morning a dozen had responded and by Thursday afternoon another handful. Here are excerpts from a few ...

I believe that he won’t help just the United States but everyone in the world. He definitely gave me hope that he will be able to fix the problems our nation is facing at this moment, from the economy to the war in Iraq and helping students afford college. He is an inspiration to everyone, especially minorities, and proof that anything is possible.
I am glad that I was able to volunteer for his campaign and took some part in helping him become our president and help have this historical day come. I believe that he will change this world forever. I will never forget this day and I am glad that change has finally come to America.
Hennessy Valle, 17, El Camino Real HS (Woodland Hills)

I’ve never had as much hope as I do right now. I have never believed in my peers more than I do, and hearing “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” echo through Washington, D.C. brought chills down my spine because I know that there is hope for everyone and that it lies in each of us. For the first time I understood why America is great and it has inspired me to work harder not for myself, but for everyone, because the one thing I have learned through Obama’s campaign is that it’s not just one person who makes things happen, it is all of us as a whole.
I wish I could have been one of the million-plus people standing in the crowds, but I know that it’s not about witnessing this in person. It has been about the whole journey from the beginning of this campaign to the four years that lie ahead. I’m inspired and I’m hopeful. YES WE CAN!
Devin Ruiz, 17, Ramona Convent (Alhambra)

Of course I was proud and pumped up as well, but not to the point of thinking that he was going to bring immediate results right after he placed his hand on the Bible. Sometimes I think that people are expecting way too much from Obama, and soon it will seem as though his promises weren’t adequately met. Some people make it seem as if America’s economic crisis and war situation will be resolved in minutes, paying more attention to the "change we can believe in" rather than the "it will take time" to accomplish this.
Jisu Yoo, 16, Glendale HS

To read the rest click here
. They were so excellent that it was one of those times when Amanda (one of my co-editors) and I couldn't help but pinch ourselves that we get to work with these students every day.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Talk isn't cheap

Text of Barack Obama's inaugural address

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our healthcare is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land -- a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America -- they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted -- for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act -- not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise healthcare's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions -- who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them -- that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works -- whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day -- because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment -- a moment that will define a generation -- it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends -- hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed -- why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Monday, January 19, 2009


HOPE. I feel it. In ways, I've never felt it before. Not at high school graduation. Not at college graduation. Not when I got my master's degree. Not when I decided to quit my job and move to California nor even when I was driving I-90 West with nothing but my future ahead of me on endless stretch of asphalt. Those were all important events in my little life, but events turns that merely changed a few lives in small ways.

In less than 14 hours Barack Hussein Obama will be sworn-in as the 44th President of the United States of America, the country is going to change in a big way. And so will the world. Sure, he's been the President-Elect for months but the officialness of tomorrow's ceremony and festivities will be more than symbolic. It'll be the turned page, the new course and so many other clichés.

[ chided the Washington Post today for going overboard in describing Sunday's scene at the Lincoln Memorial. The WP slathers on the groan-inducing imagery in its Page One story: "At times, the multitudes seemed to dance as one, Americans from every corner of the country, of every generation." I am going to defend the Post. On a basic journalism 101 level, this was a description of the scene. Sure it's a little clichéd, but why must any reflection of hope be criticized as "groan-inducing"?]

I wish I had been there Sunday and I wish I could be there tomorrow. At least five friends (with some significant others thrown in) will be there, and ultimately more I suspect (as I've got other friends in the greater D.C. area who may not have mentioned their attendance). Should I not have squirreled away some money to be there for history? I've justified so many expenses in my life as once-in-lifetime purchases of occassions, and now there's the most significant one of my life and I'll be at my office not working, just watching our small television.

OK enough unfocused rambling.


More reasons why newspapers are great:

This amazing story in the NYT about Barack Obama's love of books and ideas and how language and reading has influenced him. If anyone who reads this is a parent, then save this article for how to answer your kid when s/he asks "Why do I have to read?"

A strong story in the LAT about the prospects for our economy and the world economy in the next few years contained this terrifying nugget: Although U.S. consumers constitute only about 4.5% of the global population, they bought more than $10 trillion worth of goods and services last year. By contrast, said Roach of Morgan Stanley Asia, Chinese and Indian consumers, who together account for 40% of global population, bought only $3 trillion worth.

Who else is doing this for the democracy? When I read these stories and hear about continued layoffs in the industry, I feel badly about having cancelled my LAT subscription (actually I dropped down to just Sunday). At the same time, do I want to reward a company that continues to do its job worse and worse?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why I heart the Internet

First off, it's because of the Internet that I started using "heart" as a verb.

Second, this amazing NYTimes story about how the United States denied an Israeli request for a bunker-buster bomb as part of an Israeli plan to strike against Iran's abilities to construct a nuclear weapon, because the U.S. already had more covert plans in motion.

This Lily Allen cover of Britney Spears's "Womanizer":

And finally today, I have to pass along this blog ... amazing combination of Buffalo, NY, design, books, music and really funky, cool toys. I bought some of my fave xmas cards ever at the retail store in Buffalo.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Stand up and be counted

In today's episode of gutless, the people who put Proposition 8 on the ballot in California (the one that stripped the right of same-sex couples to get married, even though they'd been getting married for five months without causing the end of the world), are suing to shield people who donated to the cause from being held accountable.

The group wants to change California law, which states that anyone who gives $100 or more to a state campaign must disclose name, address, employer. They are claiming that harassment and threats are behind their decision to sue. They aren't wrong, I suspect. And I don't condone threats.

But if you're going to support stealing someone's civil rights because you're too narrow-minded to acknowledge a different form of love, then stand up and let your hate shine publicly.

Why newspapers matter (and why the NYTimes is the best in the world)

This story about how the South Korean and U.S. governments tacitly orchestrated a ring of Korean women who served as prostitutes to U.S. Army soldiers during the Cold War, shows why journalism is honorable and vital to democracy and a civil and just society.

Here's the heart-breaking excerpt ...

Many former prostitutes live in the camp towns, isolated from mainstream society, which shuns them. Most are poor. Some are haunted by the memories of the mixed-race children they put up for adoption overseas.

Jeon, 71, who agreed to talk only if she was identified by just her surname, said she was an 18-year-old war orphan in 1956 when hunger drove her to Dongduchon, a camp town near the border with North Korea. She had a son in the 1960s, but she became convinced that he would have a better future in the United States and gave him up for adoption when he was 13.

About 10 years ago, her son, now an American soldier, returned to visit. She told him to forget her.

“I failed as a mother,” said Ms. Jeon, who lives on welfare checks and the little cash she earns selling items she picks from other people’s trash. “I have no right to depend on him now.”

“The more I think about my life, the more I think women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans,” she said. “Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s.”

Challenging assumptions in the town square

I loved this story in the NYTimes Wednesday about atheists in London, who are taking out ads to place on busses.

My fave excerpt:

But something seized people’s imagination. Supported by the scientist and author
Richard Dawkins, the philosopher A. C. Grayling and the British Humanist Association, among others, the campaign raised nearly $150,000 in four days. Now it has more than $200,000, and on Tuesday it unveiled its advertisements on 800 buses across Britain.

“There’s probably no God,” the advertisements say. “Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Spotting one of the buses on display at a news conference in Kensington, passers-by were struck by the unusual message.

Not always positively. “I think it’s dreadful,” said Sandra Lafaire, 76, a tourist from Los Angeles, who said she believed in God and still enjoyed her life, thank you very much. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I don’t like it in my face.”

But Sarah Hall, 28, a visitor from Australia, said she was happy to see such a robust example of freedom of speech. “Whatever floats your boat,” she said.

Inspired by the London campaign, the American Humanist Association started running bus advertisements in Washington in November, with a more muted message. “Why believe in a god?” the ads read, over a picture of a man in a Santa suit. “Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

I was discussing the story with one of my favorite conversationalists (and former students) DangerWu and while she thought the atheists were very funny but questioned the constructiveness of their methods, I asserted that the provocativeness was genius. (Although, I didn't use that word.) I honestly try to be very live and let live (which I think is a Bible thing, ironically), but I'd be lying if I said part of me wasn't offended by the assumption of the properness of religion and faith in the public square.

That there's prayer at public events all the time. That it was a great post 9/11-moment when the members of Congress sang "God Bless America." That "under God" appears in the Pledge of Allegiance. That witnesses swear on a Bible and recite the words "so help me God." What the fuck makes any of that more ethical or binding than not saying those words?

I've seen entirely too many 90-minute a week Christians and poseur faithers in my life to think that religion is the cure all for society's ills.

So hooray for the London atheists (who have better senses of humour) and their cheekiness.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

In response to a blog post (!)

Dear Jaimie,

You're officially the like third random person to comment on my blog. HOORAY! And double HOORAY because you're from Western New York. You asked what I did in Los Angeles ... the answer is that I work as an editor at L.A. Youth, the country's largest independent newspaper written by and about teens.

Check it out at and also here for some video reports on what we do, but the best way to learn is just read the students' stories.


Damn you, better blogger

I don't have anything to add to this great blog post (By Greg Wyshynski, Yahoo's Puck Daddy) about Buffalo Sabres goon/enforcer Andrew Peters getting bit (literally) in the finger by Ottawa Senators VirginiaChina Jarkko Ruutu.

I shall embed the video here though.

Monday, January 05, 2009

My new favorite member of Congress

Pete Stark, a democrat from the northern California city of Fremont. He's the only out-and-not-ashamed-or-apologetic non-believer in Congress. He's considered the highest-serving atheist in the United States. It's all here in this L.A. Times story about the religious demographics of the 111th Congress.

Sadly ...

Nearly 60 members of Congress were nominated. The coalition sent them surveys, and Kaplan said that when he interviewed the lawmakers, 22 confided that they did not believe in a god. Fearful of exposure, all but Stark told the group to keep quiet.

"The perception is it's politically dangerous" to be godless, Kaplan said.

Indeed, a USA Today/Gallup poll in early 2007 showed that atheism would be a huge obstacle for a presidential candidate: 45% of respondents said they would vote for a nonbeliever, compared with 55% for a gay person, 88% for a woman and 95% for a Catholic.

I know many non-Christians who all live in this extremely Christian country. And they are among the most ethical, humanistic and generous people I know. They give to charity; they believe in equal rights for all; they respect differences and embrace intellectualism. Why can't more people bother questioning?