The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Tue, 11 Nov 2003 Borders Employees Strike

I've spent a few hours tonight and last night on the picket line in front of Borders Bookstore #1 in downtown Ann Arbor. Of course, longtime residents know that Borders #1 was on State Street. But this is the relocated mother ship.

Borders employees are on strike, and as longtime fan of Borders I have chosen to show solidarity by picketing with them. It is well past midnight and time for me to go to bed, so I will not be able to write anything more detailed, but here is the note I sent to family and friends today:

When I first visited Ann Arbor in 1988 or thereabouts, one of the things I enjoyed most about the town was Borders: an independent bookstore on State Street with a cool escalator, a really knowledgeable staff, and an amazing selection.

The staff was so good that it was common to joke about them. They really knew their subject areas. A columnist in the Ann Arbor News wrote about trying to get decent help in another bookstore: "I began to suspect he didn't even have a Ph.D."

I moved to Ann Arbor in 1990 and can't even begin to estimate the time and money I've spent in Borders. A lot has changed: it is now a big chain. But Borders #1 is still in downtown Ann Arbor and it still has the Borders name on it, and it is still trading on that good name.

The corporation does not deserve to use that good name any more. It is just another massive chain, and like a lot of massive chain stores it is mistreating its employees. The employees at store #1 are on strike. Details may be found here:

Now, I myself am not always an unqualified supporter of all union activities; I think unions can be abusive. But I believe this is just about as clear an example as possible of employees striking for their livelihood. As one former employee puts it:

In 1994, the starting wage at Borders was $6.10 an hour.

In 2000, when I left, it was $6.50 an hour.

And it STILL is $6.50.

As goes Borders, so goes Ann Arbor and the rest of the world. As retail and service sector employees become an increasingly massive part of the economy, the treatment of retail workers is going to be the biggest labor issue of the '00s.

So please, consider boycotting Borders, Waldenbooks, and If you live in or near Ann Arbor, and you love what Borders once was, please also consider joining the picket line. I'll be on the line evenings this week from 8 to 11 as I can. My wife Grace and son Isaac will also be there as they are able to be. If you live near another Borders store, consider picketing them. Tell Borders management what you think.

Addendum 23 Mar 2004: the strike has been settled. Thanks for all your support.

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Sat, 15 Mar 2003 Mister Rogers: Stranger in a Strange Land -- Thank God

Rather than rant about Gulf War II: Electric Boogaloo tonight, I want to write down some ideas that struck me when thinking about the life and work of Fred Rogers; some ideas that I haven't seen mentioned in any of the writing either eulogizing or kind-heartedly (or sometimes, not so kind-heartedly) mocking him. His television show shares, among the tragically hip, an stereotype one might associate with the "special" individuals consigned to ride the short bus to school every day: "kind-heareted," hopelessly slow, doomed never to grow up, and therefore mired in an irrelevant past that has nothing to do with the world of arms inspections, Sept. 11th, Grand Theft Auto, botox, dot-bombs, and Internet-mediated one-night-stands.

But the real gift of Fred Rogers was that he had, in fact, a profound understanding about the medium of television and how to use it to convey his dead-serious messages to children. Marshall McLuhan spoke of hot and cool media; Fred Rogers realized that to use television, it was not necessary to introduce jump cuts and brightly colored fuzzy characters: instead, it was necessary to cool down the medium, to slow down the message, not to wind up children with candy and junk breakfast cereal and toy advertisements, but to speak slowly and directly, to introduce minimal props and a homey, comforting, and most importantly, consistent, environment.

Mister Rogers could have modernized; he could have introduced flashy animation and dancing bears; King Friday the Thirteenth, Daniel Striped Tiger, and Esmerelda could have become anime characters or green-furred muppets with tentacles or little Elmos or Pikachus, endearing, but ultimately vacuous. Instead he focused tirelessly on some very simple messages: sometimes the world is a frightening place; everyone gets frightened. It's OK. You can never go down the drain. You are special. (Not merely, ironically "special.")

Do a quick comparison between Mister Rogers' living room here, a suburban living room that is positively boring, but a calm and collected place to interact, and Elmo's living room, a technological marvel full of hyperactive objects, puppeteered in real-time by an entire team of human puppeteers driving computer-generated objects, that won't give Elmo a moment's peace. Which is going to give kids the time to reflect and understand that is necessary for developing a sense of self-worth and self-efficacy?

Exercise for the reader: why does Sesame Street, designed for children older than Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is designed for, assume that the older children need such intense stimulation? Could it be that it is really the adults running the show who crave the stimulation they are putting on the screen? And which approach to educational television for young, vulnerable, easily confused, and easily over-stimulated children is actually deserving of your mockery? Discuss.

Fred Rogers wrote:

Whatever we do to show our children we love them, nothing can replace times when we give them our complete attention. I believe that the children who have learned that there will be such times for them are the ones who are at least likely to demand it and to compete for it.

If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.

We'd all like to feel self-reliant and capable of coping with whatever adversity comes our way, but that's not how most human beings are made. It's my belief that the capacity to accept help is inseparable from the capacity to give help when our turn comes to be strong.

As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has -- or ever will have -- something inside that is unique to all time. It's our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.

Fred Rogers was not a doddering, dull man, although it saddened me to see age dig its claws into his body. He was a rare man who was lucky enough to discover what he wanted to do -- what gave him joy and what use the world had for him -- and he did it. How many of us have what he had, and give the world something that it truly needs?

Addendum 23 Mar 2004: The Children's Television Workshop broke the link for Elmo's World; it attempts to forward, but to a bad URL. Elmo's World seems to be here now: but I was unable to find the "Elmo's Living Room" interface; it seems to have been replaced with a new interface to choose mini-games.

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Sun, 02 Mar 2003 What Would Jesus Eat?

A report on what the diet of Jesus would look like... in the unlikely event that Christians could ever actually agree on anything about the life of Christ.

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Tue, 25 Feb 2003 Got Shoe?

Nike basketball shoes are washing up along the northwest coast of North America, the result of a sunken cargo container. Allegedly, they are in wearable condition. The drawback? The shoes weren't tied together in pairs; there is nothing to guarantee that one shoe of a pair won't wind up on a beach in California and the other in Alaska. The solution would seem obvious: an online shoe-trading registry to match up the singles!

Addendum 23 Mar 2004: dead link, sorry.

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Sat, 01 Feb 2003 Hi, My Name is FAT

OK. Let's face it. I'm fat.

Not "mature." I'm fat.

Not "muscular." Not "beefy." I'm fat.

How many of ideas do you believe in?

The above are all, basically, lies. We as Americans are, truly, the fattest people in the world. We're seeing something quite new and disturbing: not just fat adults, but grossly obese children; rap stars dying of obesity at a young age, carrying hundreds of extra pounds; two- and three-hundred pound sixteen-year-old children who can't walk without canes. We can pretend that the problem is scrawny supermodels and their negative effect on our self-esteem, but the truth has more to do with the 90% of American children who eat at McDonald's at least once a week, the servings of fries that have gone from 200 calories to over 600 calories, and people who have time to watch four hours of television a day but apparently no time for exercise. I know the reason I don't exercise; these days I don't even walk to work. It has nothing to do with negative role models or low self-esteem; I'm lazy. I wasn't quite this lazy a few years ago, but paradoxically, when I was working out four days a week at a gym and biking, I weighed more. The body is a confusing thing, and getting it to do what we want is difficult.

Anyway, what brought on this rant? I've just been reading the book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, by Greg Critser. Think of it as a companion volume to Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, which I read last week. Whereas FFN focused specifically on the history and consequences of the fast food industry, Fat Land covers, literally, what its subtitle indicates, in a series of chapters on where the calories came from, how we came to eat them, why they stayed with us. The book is short and sweet; obviously a highly biased and antagonistic treatment of the subject, and Critser is not quite the investigative reporter that Schlosser is. But we don't necessarily need every detail of his argument to be correct; we need to get off our asses and stop believing that it is OK to be obese.

Critser is not quite a scientist, and this shows; some of what he says about saturated fats and carbohydrates will be disputed and is still controversial. Sometimes he is glib; it's a short book, and he breezes by his discussion of (for example) the Atkins diet. He can be taken to task for some of his elisions and omissions. A reviewer on Amazon, Joel M. Kauffman, notes, in a comment about glycemic index, "One of the things that creates high (bad) insulin levels is high blood glucose levels. Since all the common complex carbohydrates (starches) in foods are polymers of glucose, and some of them are metabolized very rapidly, and we eat more of them by weight, the contribution of wheat, corn, potato and other forms of high-GI starches to poor health is greater than that of the simple sugars."

It's true; Critser's brief analysis focuses primarily on high-fructose corn syrup as a factor in causing the development of Type II diabetes. Perhaps in looking for a smoking gun here he should have been focusing a bit more on the french fries as well. But to Critser's credit, the pronouncements made by health "authorities" can be endlessly confusing; researchers with advanced degrees do not necessarily agree, and apparently we are still discovering fundamental issues in the way humans metabolize fats and sugars. The general public hears that that best way to lose weight is by following the Atkins diet, eating minimal carbohydrate, and all the protein and fat we want, without reducing our overall calorie intake. Or they hear that we should follow the Ornish model, a very low-fat vegetarian diet with lots of carbs. My doctor told me my LDL was a bit high. Is it all about the carbs? The protein? Or all about the fats? How many servings of whole grains are we supposed to eat? Is pasta bad for you? Over the course of my lifetime I've heard that the best fat is polyunsaturated, unsaturated, monosaturated, or just plain saturated. Is saturated fat the antichrist, or is hydrogenated fat the great Satan? Weren't trans-fatty acids the problem? What about non-hydrogenated saturated fats like coconut oil? Should you ban butter from your diet? Can you eat avocado? Should you cook with olive oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, rapeseed oil, grapeseed oil, or bacon grease?

I grew up eating skim milk and skinless chicken breasts; my wife was raised on greens, heavy cream and bacon fat. She was an athlete in college; I was a sedentary computer geek, for the most part. I believe our diet is generally pretty good these days, and I've been losing weight, but she's continued to gain weight while eating considerably less than I do. Should my diet be very different from my wife's diet?

It's all very confusing: but to debate endlessly the metabolic pathway taken by high-fructose corn syrup, the glycemic index of french fries, our fat-gram count, our resting heart rate, our VO2 max, or the merits of eliminating carbohydrates is, quite possibly, to miss the forest for the trees: we're eating too damned much, given our level of physical activity. One side, or preferably, both sides, of the equation desperately need to change. And yes, it is hard. Especially hard for people who have grown up thinking life should be quick, clean, and convenient, but above all, that we should be able to have it all, our way, and quickly. Hard enough that we start to believe our bodies are not on our side -- and they may not be, given our various genetic predispositions to store calories rather than burn them, and after the various ways we've damaged ourselves with gluttony and sloth -- or that there is a magic bullet that represents "the secret" of why we got this way and how to fix it. There isn't. There are a number of key insights, but we ate all those fries, and no one else can sweat for us to burn them off.

Particularly disturbing is the chapter on what obesity does to the body; the relationship between class and obesity is the fascinating subtext here, especially when it comes to the vast differential in the deployment of medical intervention. It used to be that the rich were fat; now the poor whites, but especially Blacks and Latinos, are the fat ones, and they aren't being helped. It doesn't take a Faith Popcorn to predict that as the costs of health care and the increasing lack of access to involved and concerned physicians hits people in the upper classes, rich white males like me also won't be hearing much in the way of useful health information over the din of food advertising and the self-serving infomercial telling us how we can eat all we want as long as we also purchase product X.

Of great interest to me was the history of how American guidelines and standards for physical fitness have been eased, and eased, and eased, and eased again. I grew up with the dreaded President's Council of Physical Fitness tests, and flunked the pull-up in grade school; I was the kid, not fat but weak, who couldn't climb the rope. (These days I could probably do the pull-up, but the rope climb will likely forever elude me). Yes, PhysEd class did turn me off exercise for many years, and I was humiliated at dodge ball; but in no sense can this be a justification for throwing the fat baby out with the bathwater; children must be encouraged to earn their self-esteem by gaining strength and endurance. Myself, I learned later in life the fitness activities I enjoy: weightlifting, biking, and hiking, instead of competitive team sports. These are things I can do my whole life, but (thank god) the dodge ball days are long-gone.

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