DOWNTOWN: All we need to revitalize downtown is a flux capacitor

The other day, and by that I mean today, the Odessa American started running a series on downtown Odessa, what it was, is and might one day be.

It’s a project that really grew out of the mind of city editor and fellow columnist Celinda Hawkins, who has her childhood and inherited family memory to draw on, but it’s funny because in my lifetime, downtown hasn’t been anything, and I hate the northeast sprawl more than most anyone I know.

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The world is filled with things that make you feel good

The other day the TV series “The Legend of Korra” ended its first season in a climactic two-part finale.

It’s a show about a girl who can move rocks and water with her mind and shoot fire out of her hands but is trying to learn how to do the same with wind, and struggling. On top of that, she has to struggle against a group that wants to take away her and others’ abilities to do what essentially is magic because many with those abilities have abused the power over those who don’t have it.

“Korra” is unsurprisingly aimed at children or young teenagers, but includes smart humor, plotting and generally witty writing so that adults don’t feel like wanting to inflict terminal harm upon themselves (see: “Pokemon: The Movie”). The Wall Street Journal runs a recap and analysis after each Saturday’s airing, the same as with more traditional adult programs like AMC’s “Mad Men.”

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Quiz : quizzical :: test : ___?

The other day, we talked about the legacy of Ray Bradbury’s most famous work Fahrenheit 451, especially as it relates to books, education and book learnin’.

Your homework assignment, faithful column readers, was to go online to the OA Education Facebook page and participate in the daily “Are you smarter than a..?” STAAR questions.

For those of you who did, I hope you had fun. I certainly do. One showed I was not, in fact, smarter than a freshman biology student.

Question: Like complex carbohydrates, proteins are biomolecules that serve many functions and can be chemically broken down and restructured. Both proteins and complex carbohydrates are which of the following?

A Polymers of smaller subunits

B Sequences of sugars

C Lipids of large molecules

D Nucleotides of DNA

I was stumped. Ninth grade is a decade ago, and biology is not something I can claim to have a penetrating interest in now. So I admitted I didn’t know the answer, and went to “the Google” to find out.

The answer is “A,” and some people got that right without needing even to guess (the trouble with multiple choice is it tests you on method of answering as much as what you know).

Eventually, I read a lot more about polymers than I intended, and it was all quite interesting.

Coincidentally, one of the most popular shows on the BBC is the Stephen Fry-hosted program “QI,” or “Quite Interesting.” Essentially, Fry hosts a group of comedians and asks them trivia questions, penalizing them when they give an apparently obvious, “common sense” answer which is actually incorrect.

“Which mountain’s peak is farthest from the center of the earth?” The answer is Chimborazo in the Andes because the Earth has a bulge at the equator, putting it farther way than Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Or, “When you shoot a bullet from a gun and drop a bullet from your hand at the same height, which hits the ground first?” The answer is that they’ll hit at the same time, acted upon equally by gravity. The fired bullet just goes a really long way as it drops to the ground at 9.8 meters per second, per second.

Some you’ll know, and some you won’t. But the point is, that’s how trivia works. They’re little points of information, not necessarily worth knowing in the hunter-gatherer sense of practicality, but they are pretty darn fun. Exciting. Enlightening. They give you things to talk about over coffee when you’ve not been tested in a standardized way for 20 years.

No one can know everything, but that feeling you had in first grade learning about snakes and subtraction wasn’t an aberration. Schools just beat it out of you over the next 12 years and made you think you learned stuff to pass tests, get a good job and make money. Which is the dumbest thing I can think of to teach people.

And the reason books are so important, the reason they provide something nothing else does, is because they’re organized to make it sort of difficult to find out what you want to know. Wikipedia is a thousand times more efficient (and equally trustworthy, but let’s not get into that).

But books tell you the thing you want to know in a sea of things you never cared even to wonder about. In doing so, you learn a lot of things you find out retroactively you really did want to know. And after the fact, more of it sticks in your head because great clumps of memory are all devoted to the War of 1812 or Algebra II or biology, rather than just one desolate, stranded fact.

Knowing that Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” is in fact a lot less satisfying than knowing where he was when he wrote it, why he did and what aspects of warfare in the early 19th Century the lyrics describe.

When all the tests are done, it doesn’t matter so much that you remember something, but how and why you do. With smart phones and the Internet making our memory increasingly external, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The printing press meant people stopped memorizing books in whole, after all. But learning things is a joy, not a chore.

As Bradbury said, his college was the library. And somehow he managed to be smart, happy and successful without a No. 2 pencil.

Neal Stephenson is the LeBron James of sci-fi

I know how you people are, so I know after the first 50 words, you stop reading my column and end up mistaking me for columnist Nathaniel Miller at the grocery store.

So this week, I want you to know you have a homework assignment. Go to, like the page and do your best to answer the STAAR exam questions education reporter Caylor Ballinger posts to the page each day. You will not be graded, but you may have the satisfaction of being able to say you’re smarter than a ninth grader. Maybe.


The other day, Ray Bradbury died at age 91.

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Our brains are funny things

The other week, or rather the one before last, I spent a lot of time traveling and being well away from home.

(Vacation is good work when you can get it.)

I drove to visit family in East Texas, then to a friend in Fort Worth to pick up a long-ago-lent book and finally to a friend in La Crosse, Wis., because the coin came up tails and heads was South Carolina/Georgia. All in all, I reckon I spent at least 55 hours driving in less than week, watching the dry flat plains peel away to fill rearview mirror and wandering a small amount around a tiny Oklahoma town where a layer of mist hovered a few feet above the wet soaked fields, ditches and ponds.

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