Don't let your kids read this
February 20, 2007
The best children's book published last year begins with a passage about a rattlesnake that bit a dog named Roy right there on, um, the first page. Right there on ... the passenger's seat of a '62 Cadillac. OK, OK. On the scrotum.
We'll venture that your reaction to finding the word scrotum on the editorial page is a lot like the average 4th grader's reaction to finding it in the second paragraph of the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, "The Higher Power of Lucky." A little gasp, maybe a snicker.
But you're still reading.
A number of school librarians apparently never got past page one of the book, though, and they don't think its targeted audience of 9- to 12-year-olds ought to, either. Many say they won't buy it for their shelves. "Because of that one word, I would not be able to read that book aloud," one of them explained, calling it "a Howard Stern-type shock treatment." We have three words for that: Oh, come on.
"The Higher Power of Lucky" is about a scrappy 10-year-old who eavesdrops on 12-step meetings as she struggles to take control of her listing life. It's a tale that could have been told without the word scrotum, but it's pretty tame compared to the in-your-face potty humor of Dav Pilkey's wildly popular "Captain Underpants" series or "The Day My Butt Went Psycho" by Andy Griffiths.
Author Susan Patron, a 35-year veteran of the Los Angeles Public Library whose job is to select children's books, said she wanted to create characters that rang true to her young audience. The word scrotum, she wrote, "sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much," a perfectly pitched line even if it does sound a little like one of Pilkey's snot jokes.
Scrotum isn't a dirty word; it's a precise clinical word for a body part and a lot milder than the other words a 10-year-old (or Howard Stern) might use to describe that body part. Half the kids that age actually have a scrotum, and all of them are getting to the point where they're going to start asking questions. This is no time for the adults to get squeamish.
If librarians don't want to answer those questions, we have three more words to suggest: "Ask your parents."
So long, Aunt Flo
June 7, 2007
Our Little Redheaded Cousin is here for another visit, if you know what we mean, and we are not happy about it. We are crampy, we are bloated, we are tired, and the next person who leaves a dirty glass in the sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher is either headed for divorce court or grounded for life and don't you dare suggest this has something to do with our "time of the month" or we'll set your hair on fire or cry.
Procter & Gamble has just the thing for days like this: a chirpy Web page that celebrates "being a girl," full of helpful hints about selecting the right feminine hygiene products and e-mailable postcards so you can "wish your friend a happy period." Really. We suppose the e-greetings could be faintly amusing, in a girlfriend-to-girlfriend, what-are-these-people-smoking kind of way. But guys, don't even think about it.
Wyeth Pharmaceuticals has a better idea: a curse-bursting birth-control pill called Lybrel. Instead of mimicking a 28-day cycle, complete with a fake menstrual period, Lybrel dispenses with the periods altogether. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug last week, but women have been on to this fix for ages. Resourceful brides manipulate the dose of traditional birth-control pills to keep Aunt Flo from crashing the honeymoon. Female combat soldiers apply the same strategy to avoid sharing a foxhole with their Little Friend.
Still, the idea of putting Mother Nature on hold indefinitely gives some women pause. They forget that Mother Nature's plan was for women to spend their reproductive years either pregnant or breast-feeding, not shopping for maxi-pads. Thirteen menstrual cycles a year is at least 12 more than what Mother Nature had in mind.
All that menstruation causes problems most people never contemplate. A couple of years ago, Kotex introduced "quiet pad wrappers" to mute the incriminating crinkle caused by opening a feminine-hygiene product in a public restroom. Last year, the makers of a washable, reusable menstrual device promoted their Diva Cup as an earth-friendly alternative to the tons of disposable feminine products crowding our landfills. Who knew?
So let's hear it for Lybrel, the first birth-control pill that prevents unwanted pregnancies, reduces noise pollution and fights global warming. Best of all, it ensures that you don't have to have a happy period unless you damn well feel like it.
Take Your Dog to Lunch Day
September 9, 2007
It was news to a lot of people that dogs aren't allowed at sidewalk cafes in Chicago. It's hard to get a table on the patio in some neighborhoods without stepping around a golden retriever or on a Chihuahua.
Metromix, RedEye and other arbiters of hip hot spots regularly publish lists of bars and eateries that welcome dogs to their outdoor (and sometimes indoor) seating areas. The complimentary steak tartare doggy treats at Brasserie Jo have gotten a lot of ink. The Web site DogFriendly.com has an extensive listing of Chicago restaurants that allow diners to bring their dogs.
So it was a surprise when the City Council started talking about an ordinance to permit the practice, and an even bigger surprise that so many people -- cat people, we suspect -- were vehemently opposed. Dogs don't belong at eating establishments, they protested. They'll fight, they'll bite, they'll bark. They'll steal the burgers off our plates and relieve themselves on our shoes.
A Health Department official warned that dog hair and saliva would contaminate tables, floors and anything else that touches the dogs, including the wait staff. Dogs carry fleas and germs and "may have feces on their face," Frances Guichard, director of food protection, told a council committee.
Aldermen were grossed out, but their concern was fleeting, probably because they know the dogs are already under the tables and none of that scary stuff is happening. So beginning Jan. 1, it will be perfectly legal for Bowser to join you at the corner coffee klatch, just as he's been doing all along. Of course, now there are rules, but nothing worth growling about: Dogs can't sit on tables or chairs or eat off the china. Their vaccinations must be current. Employees must check the rabies tags but aren't allowed to touch the animals -- how's that going to work? -- and the restaurant must post a sign warning that dogs are allowed on the premises.
Chicago offers a lot of reasons to wag your tail, if you have one. There are bark parks and dog beaches, dog boutiques and doggy day-care centers. Some luxury hotels provide a pet concierge or set aside floors where dogs are allowed to roam freely. There are taxis that cater to four-legged passengers and real-estate networks that match renters with dog-friendly landlords. There are canine cruises along the Chicago River and the Lake Michigan shoreline. A whole industry has grown up around dog-walking, dog-sitting and dog-washing. There are even services that contract to pick up the poop in your yard. Some business districts have communal water bowls on every corner.
It's enough to make you wonder who's running this town -- the dogs or the Democrats? -- but in either case, it's pointless to fight the pack. If you don't want to dine with the dogs, then steer clear of the places that invite them, the same way vegetarians avoid steakhouses and Baptists avoid brew pubs. Everyone else can sit and stay.
'Infelicities in attribution'
October 12, 2007
Any college student knows better than to turn in a term paper that contains passages lifted from another source. In this age of cut-and-paste Internet research, it's extremely easy to do -- and easy to detect.
Even in the Dark Ages, circa 1984, students who cribbed from others' work did so at their peril. A teacher who found repeated examples of unattributed verbatim text could not be expected to accept a student's stammered explanation that it was all an accident. A student could expect no mercy.
But things were different at the state's second-largest university in those days, or so we're told. Standards were inconsistent, definitions were unclear and style manuals weren't mandatory at Southern Illinois University when Glenn Poshard, now the university's president, was laboring over his doctoral thesis.
That was the finding of a faculty committee that reviewed Poshard's 1984 dissertation after the president was accused of plagiarism.
Though it dances delicately around the charges -- the Best Euphemism for 'Plagiarism' Award goes to the review committee for coining the phrase "infelicities in attribution" -- the report does conclude that Poshard committed "inadvertent plagiarism." Based on the report, SIU's board of trustees decided Thursday that Poshard can keep his PhD and his job if he cleans up the paper and resubmits it.
The committee's findings are consistent with what Poshard has maintained all along, except that he doesn't think what he did should be called plagiarism. He admits his paper includes many sections for which he failed to credit the authors. Sometimes he left out the quotation marks; sometimes he forgot to do a footnote. But never on purpose! And besides, the instructors supervising his work never found fault with his citations.
Anyone can make a mistake. But 30 times in 111 pages? That's what SIU's student paper, The Daily Egyptian, reported in August. Some of the examples might have been a little nit-picky, but it does strain our credulity to imagine that Poshard simply forgot, all those times, that the words he was typing were not his own.
His apologists on the review committee chalk it up to "the academic culture in that period" and note that a style manual that spelled out the rules of proper citation was "available at the time but not required." Poshard clearly had a passing familiarity with those rules, since he sometimes followed them, sometimes not, and for that reason the committee decided his actions should be described as "inadvertent" instead of "uneducated" plagiarism.
After examining several papers written about the same time, the committee concluded that "quite a few" students employed deficient citation methods similar to those used by Poshard, and that these were accepted by dissertation committees.
All of this is supposed to make us feel better about the fact that a university president was awarded a doctoral degree based on a paper in which he copied the work of others, left and right, and presented it as his own. It doesn't. Instead, it spreads the blame to the institution in a way that undermines the value of all the diplomas earned at SIU, past, present and future.
The assertion that doctoral students and their professors were largely ignorant of the rules of attribution -- and that such deficiencies can be remedied by patching up the footnotes decades later -- is an unwarranted indictment of the school's academic standards and integrity. We'll wager that if we polled SIU alums who earned their degrees around the same time Poshard was earning his, we'd find little confusion about what is, or isn't, plagiarism.
Hugo Chavez, scarier than hell
December 4, 2007
With last-minute polls showing his constitutional reforms teetering on defeat, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez pulled out all the stops, warning that a vote against his socialist agenda was a vote for the devil himself.
"You know that those who vote 'yes' are voting for Chavez," he said during a three-hour news conference Friday, "and those who vote 'no' are voting for George W. Bush."
Bush-bashing is generally a guaranteed applause line for Chavez, whose proudest moment on the world stage was the day he called the U.S. president "Satan" in a speech at the United Nations. But voters apparently decided they'd rather take their chances with eternal damnation than with Chavez's "21st Century Socialism." The 69 amendments that would have allowed Chavez to serve as president for life got only 49 percent of the vote on Sunday, handing Chavez his first electoral loss.
Chavez, a devoted protege of Cuba's Fidel Castro, already controls all three branches of government and is hard at work nationalizing major industries, silencing the free media and expelling critics from the country. His tight-fisted hold on one of Latin America's most vibrant democracies is testament to his enormous popular appeal. He has spent billions in oil revenues on social programs for the poor, many of whom regard him as a Christ-like figure. Businesses, foreign investors and middle-class workers, meanwhile, have watched his power grab with growing alarm.
This time, though, Chavez finally overreached. The proposed reforms would have given him a virtual blank check to run the country as he sees fit -- controlling the country's currency reserves, declaring national emergencies at whim and expropriating private property without a court order. Instead of leaving office at the end of his second term, Chavez could serve indefinitely. On Friday, he said he'd like to be president till 2050, or age 95.
At first, Chavez was confident of victory. History suggested that his supporters would march meekly to the polls to vote "yes" while his opponents stayed home and sulked. But suddenly his reforms were under fire, from college students, business leaders, a former army loyalist and the Catholic Church. The opposition, once so lame it boycotted the 2005 parliamentary elections, was growing legs.
With Election Day approaching, the president seesawed between Good Hugo and Bad Hugo. One day he insisted that a vote against the reforms was a betrayal of the homeland. The next he swore to "enter a period of profound reflection" if his agenda failed and to have his suitcase ready when his term expired in 2013. On Election Day, he warned that if opponents took to the streets to protest the election results, "you are going to regret it."
"This revolution is peaceful, but not unarmed," he said.
Within hours, Chavez had surprised the world twice, first by losing, then by humbly conceding defeat. "Those of you who were nervous I wouldn't recognize the results, you can go home quietly and celebrate," he told his adversaries.
Celebrate, yes, and rest up for what promises to be a continuing struggle. The very next morning, Chavez was feeling like his old self.
"I want you to know that I don't take back even one comma from this proposal," he said. That doesn't sound like a man who is packing his suitcase.
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