Oct 31, 2007

Possible Blog Hiatus

I am going in for surgery Wednesday to remove a kidney stone stuck in my ureter, so I might not be in the blogging frame of mind for a short spell.

The stone in question has been estimated by the radiologist to be quite massive, measuring some 11mm x 4mm x 5mm. The urologist will be using a variety of techniques to remove said obstruction, but the good news is that I will be under general anaesthesia during the ordeal. And, better still - we have long since met our annual HMO deductibles, so I will not be forced to succumb to a cash advance or hang out at the plasma center to pay for all of this.

I am sure the blogosphere will survive without me, though I strive to update this site at least twice a day. Maybe they will give me a digital copy of my CT scan - or some creepy photos during the cystoscopy - for a future blog post.

Oct 30, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: REBARBATIVE

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

rebarbative (ree-BAHR-bah-tiv) adj. irritating; repellent; forbidding; disagreeable to the senses.

Rebarbative comes to us from the French word rébarbatif ("grim" or "forbidding"), and its etymology can be traced further to the Latin barba ("beard"). I suppose that unshaven faces might be consided "prickly" or "repellent," though that does not stop me from growing the blasted facial appendages.

One might argue that I subconsciously grow facial hair as a deliberate attempt to repel unwanted conversation from passersby, but I prefer to think it is merely to accentuate the Chuck Norris that lurks within me.

Odd Laptop Problem - Screen Filled with Vertical Lines

While working on a PowerPoint presentation for one of the classes I teach, the screen on my laptop suddenly filled with vertical gray and blue lines, as pictured in the accompanying photo. None of the CTRL-ALT-DEL functions would snap this laptop out of its electronic fit.

I will have to remove the battery to get the machine to restart, and I assume that my PowerPoint will be eaten by the gremlins that lurk in my laptop.

Anyone ever see a similar situation? Feel free to leave advice or tips in the comments section.

Oct 29, 2007

Book Review: Savonarola and Florence - Prophecy and Patriotism in the Renaissance

Girolamo Savonarola, also known as Jerome Savonarola or Hieronymus Savonarola, an Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498 Weinstein, Donald
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970

Girolamo Savonarola, Italian Dominican priest and leader of Florence from 1494 until his execution in 1498

Weinstein’s book examines the life and significance of Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican priest who led a short-lived Florentine political and religious revolution in 1494 after the Medicean exile. Weinstein attempted “to treat Savonarola in rational-historical terms,” unlike many of his historiographical predecessors. Jacob Burckhardt, for example, made the following assessment of the preacher from Ferrara:
A more childish method of reasoning cannot be imagined. The simple reflection that the newborn antiquity and the boundless enlargement of human thought and knowledge which was due to it, might give splendid confirmation to a religion able to adapt itself thereto, seems never even to have occurred to the good man. He wanted to forbid what he could not deal with by any other means. In fact, he was anything but liberal, and was ready, for example, to send the astrologers to the same stake at which he afterwards himself died.
This view of Savonarola as a medieval reactionary to the Renaissance is contrasted by biographers such as Pasquale Villari and Joseph Schnitzer, characterized by Weinstein as the “New Piagnoni”. This school of historiographical interpretation (Weinstein refers to its adherents as “Savonarola cultists”) tended to view the preacher as a saint and a prophet, and religious zealotry takes precedence over critical historical examination, according to the author.

Weinstein first described the setting of Savonarola’s rise, which took place in the context of what he termed the “myth of Florence,” which was the idea held by many Florentines that the commune was a city of destiny, favored by God, that was both the offspring and heir to the Rome of antiquity. While not necessarily an advocate of this sense of destino di Firenze, Savonarola reached the height of his popularity just as the myth was in jeopardy, as the armies of Charles VIII threatened Florence. According to Weinstein, people turned to Savonarola “in this time of deep trouble…to hear more of what God had in store for them.” The author traced the evolution of Savonarola’s message, which changed from one of repentance and atonement to one of full-blown millenarianism. Savonarola, at the time of Medicean exile, preached that Florence could become the New Jerusalem if only the populace would embrace Christ’s teachings. If the Florentines continued their morally bankrupt ways, then God would use Charles VIII as gladius Dei (“the sword of God”) to exact his vengeance for the wickedness of Florence. Weinstein also traced the development of the Savonarolan prophecy that the French king was also the Second Charlemagne, who would renew the Church, free Europe from the forces of Islam, and convert pagans and Muslims to Christianity as part of the Biblical end times.

Charles VIII, called the Affable, who was King of France from 1483 to his death in 1498Charles VIII, called the Affable, who was King of France from 1483 to his death in 1498

The section entitled “Savonarola and the Laurentians” examines the relationship between the ostensibly scholastic monk and the neo-Platonic, Hermetica-fixated humanists in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Weinstein debunked the misconception that Savonarola somehow converted Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to religious orthodoxy, pointing out that evidence of Pico’s increasing devotion to a life of religious austerity and penance clearly preceded Savonarola’s arrival in Venice. In addition, Weinstein attributed the attraction of the Florentine humanists to Savonarola’s message as much to the turbulence of the times as to the preacher’s prophetic or oratorical skills. Weinstein also examined the role that Savonarola’s message was tempered and shaped by the humanists, as well as the commonalities between their respective visions; these were chiefly a conviction in Florentine destiny, a mutual aspiration for religious renovatio, and the shared millenialist belief that the Christian world was entering a new age.

Finally, Weinstein considered the Ferraran’s role in the formation of the new Florentine government and challenged some of the major historiographical conclusions about Savonarola. Unlike popular misconception, Savonarola was no radical demagogue with visions of proto-democracy; likewise, he was no unwitting dupe of the ottomati who preached what he was told. Instead, argued Weinstein, Savonarola espoused a conservative political approach with fairly modest changes to the Florentine republic while agitating for a vaguely defined monarchy headed by Christ. Good government would lead to better morals, and the improved morality of the Florentines would lead to divine blessings that would raise Florence up as a shining beacon for Europe and the world to emulate. Savonarola’s greatest impact on daily life during the theorepublic was in the realm of morals, as games of chance were shut down, elegantly dressed women were publicly admonished by Savonarolan street morality patrols, and a steady message of repentance and piety was preached from the pulpits.

The book presents a thoughtful evaluation of Fra Savonarola; there is ample documentation for Weinstein’s claims, including a wealth of Savonarola’s personal papers. Like a good detective, Weinstein disproved many of the traditional historiographical through careful examination of known facts and exegetical reading of the written sources. The author successfully achieved his goal of a rational and historical interpretation of the life and influence of Savonarola.

Oct 28, 2007

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Do not wait for extraordinary circumstances to do good; try to use ordinary situations.
-- Jean Paul Richter

Oct 27, 2007

On Broken Teeth, Lawuits, and Honesty

Left: A fractured first molar, though not mine

One moment I was contentedly munching a steak sandwich, enjoying lunch with my wife, and the next I heard that dreaded C-R-A-A-A-C-K sound that can only mean one thing: a fractured tooth. The noise was loud enough through my closed mouth for my wife to hear, and my afternoon took a decidedly unexpected turn.

As a former multi-unit restaurant owner whose customers filed numerous food-based injury claims against me, I have to admit that my first thought involved getting witnesses and suing the restaurant. After all, this must be my turn to hit the insurance lottery, right? After all, I will never live to see the fruits of my life insurance, and it would be some well-deserved payback after all the dubious claims filed against my company, like the $4,000 paid out when a customer claimed a 1" x 2" piece of Saran Wrap "almost killed him" after he bit into it, or the lying thieves who tried to shake us down over a fictitious trip to the emergency room, and for whom the insurance company cut a check rather than fight in court.

Sigh. Such pleasant memories I have as a former business owner.

I spit out the food and began to dig through the half-chewed sandwich, eventually finding a half-inch piece of one of my maxillary first molars. I did not find any foreign objects or hard chunks of bone, and in thinking back I wondered if the food even caused the tooth to fracture.

My wife put my priorities in perspective for me.

"Look - we have dental insurance, and you had a crown on that tooth, so it might have had some hidden decay," she noted. "You probably wouldn't collect anything more than the repair cost, anyways. Let's just go home."

As usual, she saw through the temporary situation (my throbbing tooth nerves) and addressed the larger issues (integrity and practicality). I knew that there were reasons I married her beyond her beauty, brains, and an remarkable ability to work a table saw and a router.

So in spite of the fact that hot and cold foods send a shooting pain through my head, I get to enjoy the longer-term benefits associated with doing the right thing. Excuse me while I perform the Pious Dance and search for that bottle of Vicodin I was prescribed for the kidney stone still stuck in my ureter.

Oct 26, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: DOTARD

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

dotard (DOE-tahrd) n. one whose intellectual capacity has been reduced by old age, disease, or injury; a foolish and doddering older person; a person in his or her dotage.

I came across this word while editing another writer's work, and I was convinced that this was a typographical error. Alas, it was not, and "dotard" is derived from the Middle English doten. This evolved into the modern term dotage, which is a state or period of senility marked by a decline in mental acuity and alertness.

I now have yet another term to describe my gradual descent from the seemingly unlimited intellectual powers I possessed as a carefree youth into the overloaded mental processors that are the hallmark of middle age.

I have been unable to locate a source that links "dotard" and the offensive "retard," but I suspect that these two words share some etymological roots.

Oct 25, 2007

On Google, PageRank, and Corporate Arrogance


For those of you who pay little attention to the murky world of search engine optimization, you probably have no use for the news that Google updated its toolbar with new PageRank numbers. I will not be offended if the techno-challenged skip this post, though I argue there are larger issues at play here in the move by Google to punish website owners by lowering their PageRanks.

For the record, this particular website has seen PageRank drops from 6 to 5 and 5 to 3 during the changes to the Google algorithm. While this irks me, and inhibits my ability to sell advertising, it will not interfere with my desires to write and post my work online. I will make adjustments and learn how to play the game in such a way that I can make a few dollars while keeping pacified the Leviathan that is Google.

After all, my income from blogging is a small percentage of my gross earnings, and I am more interested in bringing my work to a wider audience than I am in scooping up nickels and dimes.

Google designed PageRank as a component of its classified search algorithm. PageRank itself is a complicated forumla, but its primary variable is the value of inbound links from other websites. Simply put, a web page with many external links pointing to it - especially from other pages with high PageRank - receive a higher ranking on a logartithmic scale from 0 to 10.

The purpose of the virtual spanking by Google appears to be in response to some combination of paid links and link farms. Of course, Google and its AdSense program - which is a blatant example of paid links - do not fall under the rubric of the retributive PageRank actions.

Why, after all, do the Google engineers get to determine the relative validity of paid and unpaid links? By what means do they determine which types of links are acceptable, and which ones are deserving of penalties? If I decide, for example, to write about Phoenix real estate, how is Google to know what my intentions are? We may never know, since Google rarely deems the public worthy of an explanation about its business practices.

Odd, isn't it, that many other publicly-traded companies find that corporate transparency is good business? We might be seeing a new corporate model at play here: the corporation that defiantly thumbs its collective noses at the very customers it purportedly serves. Perhaps, too, Google might be engaging in what might be construed as monopolistic practices.

The unilateral, mysterious, and arrogant actions by Google's leaders are indicative of a company that has lost touch with its customer base. My suspicion is that - despite its high-flying stock prices - Google's heavy-handed tactics will come back to haunt the company. There are already bloggers calling for a worldwide Google boycott, and the silence from Mountain View should best be interpreted as the height of hubris.

And you can ask Creon or Achilles about the value of hubris.

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Consider your origins: you were not made that you might live as brutes, but so as to follow virtue and knowledge.
-- Dante Alighieri

Oct 24, 2007

On the Fear of Parking Garages

Over the years I have developed an intense dislike for parking my car in the concrete death traps known as parking garages. I have been unable to locate the exact word for this fear, so I have coined the term stathmefsigkarazophobia to give it a name.

Phobias, however, are typically defined as irrational fears, so I am going to argue that my intense anxiety over parking garages may not be a true phobia. These buildings are rife with danger, as they tend to be filled with clueless simpletons who back out of their spaces without looking, as well as irresponsible maniacs who roar through the narrow traffic lanes with reckless exuberance.

And this sets aside the peripheral issue of criminal thugs who use parking garages as hunting grounds for autos, purses, wedding bands, and human victims of random violence.

Most recently I visited the perilous structure known as the Toledo Hospital parking garage. I cannot recall a recent drive more worthy of the term "white-knuckled" than this; on no fewer than six occasions did I encounter fellow motorists who seemed determined to wreak damage upon my vehicle and person. After my hospital visit was over, I began to debate the merits of waiting until after business hours to drive out of this treacherous edifice.

As I returned to my vehicle, which was strategically parked on the roof to avoid initial intra-auto collisions, I noticed that the owner of a Chevrolet Kodiak - perhaps the largest of large trucks - parked next to me. Not in any of the three spaces on either side of me, but right next to my passenger door. As I started to back out, sure enough a clown in a Mustang whizzed by at near-warp speed.

After navigating the four decks of looming annhilation, I made it back to daylight unscathed, but determined that henceforth I will avoid parking garages like I would bleeding Ebola patients.

Oct 23, 2007

Seeking Feedback on Learning How to Type

For all of my life I have been tapping away on typewriters and keyboards using no more than four fingers, mostly relying on my index fingers. My shameful secret has now been revealed: I am a hunter-and-pecker.

I realize that I am inefficient in my time on the computer, chained as I am to this pidgin-typing I have developed. I am particularly concerned about my doctoral exams in the spring, when I will be expected to churn out 60-80 pages of text in 2-eight hour sessions.

Thus, I am looking for suggestions from readers on effective programs to teach an old hound like me how to properly type. I am amazed when I see someone who can crank out 80 or more words per minute, while I am lucky to hit 25 per minute with my odd technique. If you know of a program that has worked for you, feel free to leave this information in the comments section.

That way, millions of others who live these lives of embarassed peckery might also join the world of rapid typists.

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.
-- Cicero

Oct 22, 2007

Skip is Looking for a Loving Home

Click picture for a larger image of Skip

Regular readers of this site know that my wife and I are involved with Planned Pethood, an animal rescue organization in Northwest Ohio. Pictured on your left is Skip, a 10-pound male Maltese-Shih Tzu mix.

Skip is only 5 months old, so we are working on housebreaking him. So far he seems quite willing to do his business outside, but he has had a few accidents since we picked him up Saturday. Skip likes to chew on rawhide, but has shown no proclivity to engage in undesirable chewing behaviors.

I have yet to hear Skip bark, though he does whimper a bit if I am in another room, such as the restroom with the door shut. He gets along well with our other dogs, and seems more inclined to be a friend than a rival to them. Our Puggle Eddie Haskell - who is notorious for his rowdy behavior with new dogs - seems to be cutting Skip some slack, which is an indicator that Skip can get along with any dog.

In short, Skip is a sweet little dog who enjoys the company of people, and whose easygoing demeanor makes him a desirable pet for adoption.

For more information on adopting Skip, or any other wonderful rescue dogs, see the Planned Pethood website.

Rapid Rhetoric: ALIQUOT

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

aliquot (AH-lih-kwaht) n. an integer that is an exact divisor of another quantity; a portion or sample of a measured substance; the measured portion of a sample removed for analysis.

Aliquot comes to us from the Latin words alius ("other") and quot ("how many"). As used in mathematics, aliquot refers to an integer that is any part of its integer proper divisors (3 is an aliquot of 9). Chemists use the term aliquot to mean a portion of the total amount of a solution, while pharmacists use the term to define a method of measuring ingredients below the sensitivity of a scale.

I came across the term in working with a bio-engineering student who was conducting experiments with E. coli. At first I thought that he had misspelled a word, but after consulting the dictionary, I learned a new word this morning. I shall repeat the word "aliquot" over and over until it is hardwired in my brain, a technique akin to treadmills for athletes.

Quirky Website: Improbable.com

The Quirky Website of the Week is a regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

Subtitled "Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK," the website Improbable Research is dedicated to examining phenomena unlikely to be studied by traditional researchers. One of my favorite studies is the series of Postal Experiments, in which IR researchers attempt to mail a variety of unusual items, including a $20 bill enclosed in a clear plastic envelope (it arrived to its destination, by the way).

Somewhat akin to the television program Mythbusters that you enjoy in your home theater furniture, Improbable Research combines hard science and humor in its quest for truth and mirth. The group also awards the annual Ig Nobel Prize to recipients whose research, well, first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine went to Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, for their cutting-edge medical report "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects." Read on for more hilarity, and remind your boss when you get busted for Net-surfing that Improbable Research is real, live science.

See how far that gets you.

Oct 21, 2007

Book Review: Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France

Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France, Louis XIV, baptised as Louis-Dieudonné, who ruled as King of France and of NavarreMettam, Roger
New York: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1987

Roger Mettam recently retired from Queen Mary, University of London, but his Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France remains an essential text in the study of the political phenomenon known as absolutism. Mettam argued that historians have traditionally relied too heavily on seventeenth-century government propaganda, court narratives, and outdated historiographical models that overstate the degree to which the reign of Louis XIV can be described as absolutist. Instead, maintained Mettam, the lengthy personal rule of the Sun King should instead be viewed as one in which the French monarchy simply recovered its traditional powers, and that the attempts by Louis to expand his power into new facets of French life – and thus achieve a greater degree of absolute rule – were largely unsuccessful. Moreover, argued the author, historians have misinterpreted the sociopolitical structure of seventeenth-century France, and French monarchs of the period should more correctly be seen as successful power brokers than as absolute rulers:
It was because of their greater skill in balancing and manipulating power groups, and not through any extension of their own absolute authority, that Henry IV and Louis XIV created the reputation which some historians have described as absolute monarchy.
Mettam began by providing readers with an overview of French politics in le dix-septième siècle, and the author defined a successful monarch in this period as “one who managed to keep all the volatile elements at court, and by extension in the country, in a state of equilibrium.” One of the strengths of Louis XIV, argued Mettam, was his ability to use his patronage as a means to “neutralize the power of his most ambitious subjects,” and the Sun King exploited client-patron relationships as a tool to achieve political equilibrium. Mettam held that French society in the age of Louis XIV was a “complex network of interdependent relationships,” unlike traditional historiographical accounts that depicted a world in which the kind was both the center and fount of all power.

The high levels of debt and poor creditworthiness of the French crown after decades of continental and civil warfare, argued Mettam, left Louis XIV with “a very limited range of options in 1659” as he prepared to assume personal rule. Moreover, the legacy of the Frondes – which Mettam argued was provoked by the French monarchy and gave “common grievance to many different sorts of people” – was that Louis XIV began his rule with clear knowledge that he must “proceed with caution, respecting traditional rights and privileges,” and avoiding the sort of arbitrary rule that would lead to a recurrence of united opposition against the monarchy.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French minister of finance from 1665 to 1683Left: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French minister of finance from 1665 to 1683

The personal rule of Louis XIV has been depicted by historians of absolutism as the apex of absolutist rule, and Mettam devoted a significant portion of his book to a careful examination of the nature of the authority of the Sun King. Mettam argued that Louis desired to “create the impression of a new beginning” by replacing a few prominent advisors, but that there remained a great deal of continuity in policy with his predecessors on the French throne. Moreover, the author argued that the earlier tendency by absolutist historians to describe the reign of Louis XIV as one filled with reform-minded and forward-looking les hommes nouveaux ("new men") was an overstatement, and that Jean-Baptiste Colbert was the only “real newcomer.” Mettam argued that Colbert, however, was an advisor prone to “continuing an established tradition,” and that “many of the principles underlying his plans for economic expansion stemmed from theories that had been current in the reign of Henry IV.” The author also rejected the claim by some absolutist historians that the intendants represented “cornerstones of absolutism” during the reign of Louis XIV, arguing instead that these crown representatives were viewed as outsiders by provincial elites, and that the intendants were largely ineffective as agents of change. Mettam held that, far from being an ideal of absolutism, Louis XIV maintained a “façade of change” and labored “to restore the traditional social order and to rebuild good relations with the provincial and institutional elites.” The author, however, paid little attention to such significant factors as the 1682 Declaration of the Clergy of France, the 1685 Edict of Fontainebleau, and the Code Louis in his assessment of French absolutism during the reign of Louis XIV, leaving knowledgeable readers with the impression that Mettam focused only on those aspects of the reign of Le Roi Soleil that fit his theory.

Mettam followed a thematic approach in this text, which incorporates political, diplomatic, and sociological history in its examination of the rule of Louis XIV. The text contains few footnotes, and the accompanying bibliography is surprisingly thin on secondary sources. Of particular annoyance to this reviewer was the poor quality of the index of the book, which lacked entries for common terms associated with the reign of Louis XIV. Still, Power and Faction in Louis XIV’s France serves an important role in curbing some of the historiographical excesses by earlier writers, and the text should be considered an integral component of any serious reading on the subject of French absolutism.

Oct 20, 2007

On Kindergartners, Yard Signs, and Absurdity

Let me say from the beginning that I am proud of my children and their accomplishments, and I waste few opportunities to brag about the academic, artistic, and employment successes achieved by my kids. Furthermore, I listen politely when I encounter parents who are similarly enthusiastic about their progeny.

Yet I am a bit skeptical of the profusion of yard signs touting a new kindergartner entering school. After all, starting elementary school is hardly much of an accomplishment in a literate society. True, it is important to promote learning and scholarship, and to instill the value of education in our youth, but celebrating the start of kindergarten is like putting a medal around the neck of an Olympic hurdler for tying his shoelaces.

I also believe that a "Kindergarten Kid" yard sign will have scant influence on a child born to parents who place little or no value on reading, writing, and education. Children model their behavior on what they experience in their formative years, and if Mom and Dad are television addicts whose idea of reading does not extend beyond TV Guide, all the feel-good lawn signs in the world will not turn Kaitlyn and Connor and Hannah and Jayden into Rhodes scholars.

Once was the day in which parents silently shed tears over their babies growing up and starting school. Now we sing and dance over the mundane; will we next begin holding "starting school" parties for the over-pampered urchins, fêting them with presents, clowns, and pastries just because they are officially a part of the machine?

And, in a more sinister vein: do we really want to be broadcasting to potential pedophiles the location of the homes where small children reside? Now, I suspect that pedophiles are skilled at locating victims, and the presence of a seemingly inoccuous sign like "Kindergarten Kid" is not much of a tip-off, but do we have to make it any easier for pedos in their search for prey?

For all of you who are proud of the fact that Brianna and Aiden have achieved this important milestone of starting kindergarten, please forgive my peevishness, but know that I will be much more impressed when your little angels finish college and begin to contribute to society.

Oct 19, 2007

Colors on a Fall Walk

Left: Ash tree leaves in the fall

(Toledo, OH) One plans to see brilliant bursts of color from the leaves of trees during the fall season, but on a walk with one of my dogs today I encountered a variety of colors, both expected and unexpected.

These ash leaves were a beautiful blend of yellow, orange, and red hues, though I admit to wondering if their early coloration is a sign that the trees are afflicted with the dreaded ash borer. Still, color is color, and these ash trees might get chopped down in the next few years, so I suppose we should enjoy them while we still can.

Left: Patches of blue sky interspersed with dark clouds

The afternoon sky provided contrasting dark gray and brilliant blue hues today, as a cold front moved in bringing with it some heavy cloud cover. I enjoyed the cool breezes that occasionally rose in intensity to gale-force winds today, and it was refreshing to open the windows of my house to let in the fresh air.

The wind also brings forth a different sound: the creaking and groaning of trees in the strongest gusts. My dogs repeatedly barked at what sounded like the growl of a German shepherd on the driveway, not knowing that heavy branches on our red maple were rubbing together in a menacing-sounding fashion.

Left: Mallard ducks in a Toledo creek

Walking through Toledo's Foxglove Meadow park brought me into the presence of over one hundred Mallard ducks, with their emerald green heads, bright yellow beaks, and carrot-colored feet. My Puggle, Eddie, has taken an increasing interest in matters Mallard, but he was on the shortest of leashes as we approached.

The ducks are part of a large flock of Mallards that has taken up residence in this urban landscape, and who have become dependent upon the largesse of one of my neighbors. She purchases several pounds of corn and other seeds per week to feed these aquatic birds.

Left: Wild grapes in a city park

No fall trip to Foxglove Meadow would be complete without sampling some of the wild grapes that grow on the western edge of the park. While they contain more seeds than fruity flesh, I find it hard to resist eating a few of the products of the Vitis labrusca vine. How can one resist the frosty midnight blue of a fresh grape, with its waxy skin glimmering in the intermittent sunshine?

It is apparent that the nearby city-dwelling birds have also been feasting on these grapes, as the ground is littered with associated detritus. I suspect that the windshields of nearby cars and trucks are also colorful, though I did not follow up on this hunch.

Left: Solitary peach-colored rose

The most beautiful colors I encountered, though, were found on a late-blooming rose in the front yard of one of my neighbors as I walked home. Surfing on the passing gusts of wind, this lone blossom struggled to continue its broadcast of visual aesthetics on a fall afternoon.

Depending on the availability of sunlight, this rose exhibited a variety of hues, ranging from salmon to peach to tangerine in color. I paused briefly to smell what might be the last rose of the summer, savoring the olfactorial delights until my dog reminded me of our true mission, which involves sniffing rocks for the recent presence of other dogs.

Another thirty minutes and two miles later, we returned home, richer for the experience and not missing for a moment the spent time.

A Theory on Kidney Stones and Pseudoephedrine

As mentioned previously, I have been a long-time sufferer of kidney stones, which are also known by the formal name of nephrolithiasis. I currently have a stone lodged in my left ureter, causing me a considerable amount of discomfort.

While reading up on the topic, I came across an article on Medscape Today that suggests a link between kidney stones and pseudoephedrine use. I am also someone who consumes Sudafed for sinus congestion, so I was intrigued by this link.

Given the fact that the kidney stone pain has been most fierce in the late morning, I began to wonder about the effects that pseudoephedrine might have on kidney stones stuck in the ureter. I usually take Sudafed between nine and ten in the morning (one or two 30 mg tablets), and the pain becomes more severe between eleven and twelve o'clock. My theory is that - since pseudoephedrine narrows blood vessels - it might also narrow the ureter, making any stones lodged therein even more painful.

I read that pseudoephedrine is used to treat urinary incontinence, as it causes the sphincter muscles at the bladder neck to contract and tighten. Would it not follow that a similar mechanism is at work on the ureter in people taking pseudoephedrine?

At any rate, now that I have read a few warnings about pseudoephedrine and kidney disease, I shall cease taking said decongestant. Should my symptoms subside, I will gladly trade stuffy sinuses for searing kidney stone pain.

If such a medical study examining the relationship between pseudoephedrine use and kidney stone pain has been completed, feel free to link to it in the comments section of this blog. If not, and you are a researcher in urinary medicine, be sure to cite this blog as inspiration for your future award-winning experiments proving or disproving the link.


Oct 18, 2007

Support Your Local Public Radio Stations

It is that time of year again: the fall membership drive us underway at the nation's public radio stations. As much as I find it annoying to hear the repetitive pleas, I understand that this is the price to pay for non-commercial programming.

I plan to phone in tomorrow morning with my pledge, and I am a bit embarrassed to admit that a few years have passed since my last donation. If it has been a few years for you, or if you have never donated, follow this link to the WGTE membership page.

I wake up under reduced home lighting to NPR's Morning Edition, and I occasionally tune in Car Talk, A Prairie Home Companion, and local classical programming on WGTE-FM. When I receive decent reception from Ann Arbor, I also tune in the BBC World Service on WUOM.

Even if you can only spare a few bucks, send what you can. Public radio is one of the few alternatives we have left to the monotony of corporate radio, excepting those stations available on satellite.


Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

omphaloskepsis (ahm-fell-oh-SKEP-sis) n. the act of gazing at one's own navel in order to aid meditation; excessive self-absorption or inward focus.

The word omphaloskepsis is a fairly recent combination of the Greek words omphalos (“navel") and skepsis (“the act of looking"). Typically the term is used in a derogatory fashion to describe someone who is inordinately self-focused.

I have been unable to locate a meditative tradition in which navel-gazing is a proscribed technique, but if you learn of such a spiritual custom, feel free to leave a link in the comments section of this post. You can also leave stuffed animals if you can figure out how to get them into the computer.

Oct 17, 2007

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

The populace is like the sea motionless in itself, but stirred by every wind, even the lightest breeze.
-- Titus Livius

Oct 16, 2007

On Pregnant Women, Smoking, and Minding My Own Damned Business

I was getting some repair work performed on one of my vehicles the other day when I noticed a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette outside the lobby of the auto repair facility. I have to admit that my first thought was quite judgmental, something along the lines of this: "What an imbecile, and I sure feel sorry for the unborn child she is carrying."

The CDC is among those groups that actively discourage pregnant women from smoking, and they cite statistics that associate smoking during pregnancy with premature birth, low birth weight, and an elevated risk of SIDS.

Yet the more I thought about the subject, the less comfortable I felt with my snap judgment. Perhaps this twenty-something mother is an otherwise model example of prenatal care, eschewing alcohol, drugs, and other substances with more deleterious effects on the fetus. Perhaps she is trying to quit, and has weaned herself down to a half-dozen cigarettes a day.

I then began to examine the thought processes behind my initial assessment, and came to the conclusion that government and anti-tobacco propaganda has not only influenced my thinking, but has also instilled in me a sense that pregnant smokers are somehow heartless, selfish dangers to unborn children.

My own mother smoked a pack of cigarettes each day through three pregnancies, and each of us turned out to be law-abiding citizens who have amassed six college degrees between us (seven, if you count my in-progress PhD work). Of course, in the 1950s and 1960s there were no official studies linking cigaretes and birth problems, let alone public service ads decrying the pregnant mothers who smoke.

And I should not forget that I was once a pack-and-a-half a day smoker, though my wife never let me puff the addictive coffin nails around the children. I found that quitting cigarettes was among the more difficult tasks I have endured, with cravings that lasted weeks after the initial desire to claw off one's own face passes. Even to this day, some eight years after the last time I quit smoking, I catch the occasional wafting of an aromatic Marlboro and feel a slight twinge of temptation.

Thus, I am glad that I kept shut my trap when those sanctimonious thoughts popped into my head the other day, and I vow to mind my own damned business should I come across another pregnant woman lighting up.

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

What was to become of Rome when she should no longer have any state to fear?
-- Cato the Elder

Oct 15, 2007

On Personal Ambition and Human Limitations

Those who follow this blog with some regularity know that its author has interests in a wide variety of topics and literary genres, and the posts that appear here reflect to some degree the intellectual pursuits that I undertake.

As much as I enjoy the freedom associated with a blog format, I am also challenged to keep the site fresh and vital. These goals have been compromised by my academic endeavors, especially my roles as a college instructor at a number of area institutions and as a doctoral candidate in history.

To get to the point, I am tired: not in the intellectual sense, but that overwhelming, creeping feeling that you can no longer control the direction you are headed.

One of the problems I face is self-induced, as I have an almost compulsive desire to answer each and every email request or blog comment that hits my inbox. This, of course, is sheer insanity, as on an average day I receive 20-25 electronic messages directly related to this blog, and these numbers are over and above the many messages I have to read and answer from students, colleagues, and employers.

As I peer into the mountain of virtual correspondence so neatly organized for me by Microsoft Outlook, I realize that I will spend the next three hours trying to catch up on all the requests for information, collaborative offers, and pleas for help from people around the world. Most of these will be a simple matter of declining the particular opportunity, yet part of me feels guilty for not being able to help or accommodate the myriad problems that blog visitors seem to think I can fix.

Christ, there are days when I can't even find a matching pair of socks - how the hell can I help someone who is wrongly incarcerated, screwed by the government, or who would like me to write about their missing child? As I write this, my three dogs are barking like hounds treeing a bear, the sink is full of dishes, and my lawn has not been cut in ten days; in some respects I should be the last person to provide advice, save for my occasional ability to string a few nouns and verbs together in unique ways.

And frankly, I'm not even sure why I am writing this post, except to vent my angst and to think out loud. It's not as if I am going to stop blogging, or as though I can suddenly develop a more narrow worldview that will limit my readership to a few dozen friends and acquaintances. I suppose this is both a backhanded apology to those who might feel ignored by my virtual silence and a post to remind myself that it's perfectly acceptable to be normal.

And then I recall the one-legged panhandler I encountered at the Corey Road exit from eastbound I-475 Saturday, a pathetic-looking (and yet oddly proud) man with a knotted-up leg on his greasy blue jeans standing with the help of aluminum crutches in a cold 45-degree wind. My troubles seem decidedly ordinary in comparison with those of this nameless soul, but thanks for indulging me in this moment of self-evaluation and navel-examination.

Book Review: Decisions for War - 1914

French heavy cavalry parade through Paris on the way to war in August 1914Wilson, Keith (ed.)
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995

Left: French heavy cavalry parade through Paris on the way to war in August 1914; click for larger image

Keith Wilson is a professor of international politics at the University of Leeds, and in editing this text he selected historical specialists who provided insight into the motives behind nine of the belligerent nations in the First World War. Organized in a thematic fashion on a country-by-country basis, Decisions for War 1914 offers in-depth perspectives that are sometimes lacking in other books on the origins of the war that are designed for general readers. In a similar vein, readers of this text benefit from these individual analyses, which attempt to show the way the world looked in 1914 from the perspective of decision makers of the featured European nations.

The chapter on Austria-Hungary was penned by Fritz Fellner, and the author was critical of Habsburg leaders for what he described as “frivolity and arrogance” in launching a third Balkan War that would be used by German leaders as an opportunity to further their geopolitical aims in a wider global conflict. Fellner is a proponent of the “blank check” theory as a cause of the First World War, in which the agreement by Kaiser Wilhelm II to support Austria-Hungary in the event of Russian intervention in the Balkans was viewed as a reckless move that turned a localized conflict into a global war:
But it must be the case that immediately after the German Emperor had given the Austro-Hungarian envoys the assurances of his support for the military action against Serbia, the machinery was set in motion in the German Empire that – without regard for the interests of its own ally – was to start a preventive war against the other great powers.
The book’s analysis of the German decision makers was completed by John C.G. Röhl, a professor of European history at the University of Sussex. The author described German policy during the July 1914 crisis as “one of the great disasters of world history,” placing primary blame for the First World War on the Kaiser and his military and civilian advisers. German leaders, Röhl argued, were convinced that a war with Russia and the Triple Entente was inevitable, and that Germany’s best hopes were to be found in a preventive war that took advantage of “what appeared [to German leaders] to be extremely favourable circumstances.” This approach, one that expresses the view that German leaders such as Jagow, Stumm, and Bethmann Hollweg willfully sought war in 1914, differs from historians who argue that the German leadership was only guilty of poor leadership. This willfulness, argued Röhl, was the “true purpose behind German policy,” and the author maintained that the actions of the other European powers should be seen as responses to belligerent German foreign policy. Röhl, however, skirted around the issue of whether there was any merit in the belief by the German leadership that Germany was being hemmed in by powerful enemies.

Dead soldiers on the battlefield after the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914Left: Dead soldiers on the battlefield after the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914; click for larger image

Mark Cornwall examined the responses of the Serbs in light of the July 1914 crisis, and one of the author’s goals was to rehabilitate the historical reputation of Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić. Contemporaries of Pašić generally villified the Serbian leader; Cornwall noted that Italian journalist Luigi Albertini argued that Pašić did “little or nothing to avert the Austrian démarche,” while Serbian Prince Djordje accused Pašić of “kissing the hand which will strike us.” Pašić, argued Cornwall, attempted to walk a tightrope between election-year nationalism at home and conciliation with the Habsburgs after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Moreover, Pašić received reasuring signals from the other Great Powers, which Cornwall argued led the Serbian prime minister to believe that there would be formal intervention by France and Russia to help defuse the crisis. Finally, argued Cornwall, the 48-hour ultimatum and wholly unreasonable demands by the Austrians left Pašić with little choice, as “the document contained demands that no sovereign state could accept.”

Russian historians, argued Keith Neilson, have traditionally depicted the Tsar’s participation in the First World War as a function of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Neilson described this tendency as “inadequate and essentially sterile,” and argued that understanding the Russian decision to enter the war necessitates that scholars grasp the contextual roles of the Russian economy, military, foreign policy, and decision-making processes. Contrary to traditional depictions of the Russian economy as backward prior to 1914, Neilson argued that Russia was “typical of the rapidly growing economies of the era,” and that “the Russian economy before 1914 was sufficient to support Russia’s status as a Great Power.” The Russian military, Neilson maintained, had “recovered from the debilitating experience of the Russo-Japanese War,” and that Russian diplomacy “was no longer precluded by military weakness.” Moreover, argued Neilson, Russian diplomacy “had a decade of failure behind it,” and Russian embarassments in the 1911 Moroccan crisis and in the First Balkan War “engendered a growing sense of irritation in Russia.” Finally, the author noted, ministers such as Stolypin and Kokovtsov – who had previously steered Russia away from European conflicts – had been replaced with ministers much more willing to risk war. Seen within this context, Neilson argued that the Russian decision to support Serbia against the Habsburgs was “almost a foregone conclusion,” and the Russian government was prepared “to risk a conflict rather than abdicate its position as a Great Power.”

German civilians killed in East Prussia during initial conflict with Russians in 1914Left: German civilians killed in East Prussia during initial conflict with Russians in 1914; click for larger image

John F.V. Keiger examined the history of the French decisions during the July crisis, and argued that there were two significant factors that influenced the policies of President Raymond Poincaré and his advisors. The first of these was the French state visit to Russia and the Scandinavian countries, which kept Poincaré and Premier René Viviani “literally and metaphorically at sea.” Keiger noted that Berlin and Viennese diplomats deliberately waited until Poincaré and Viviani sailed from Russia to issue the infamous ultimatum to Serbia, effectively crippling the ability of the French and Russians to coordinate a response. The French decision to enter the war, argued Keiger, was also predicated by the strategy of “ensuring that any decision for war should be perceived as being defensive by both domestic and foreign opinion.” This posture served two purposes: the French government could count on a unified nation desirous of repulsing a foreign invader, and British support would be more likely to materialize if the French were seen as victims. Poincaré, argued Krieger, was “constrained by events into taking his country into war – a defensive war,” and the French President’s “freedom to choose a different course of action was severely limited.”

Given the fact that their country was invaded, argued Jean Stengers, the Belgians did not decide to go to war, and their decisions were limited to “whether to resist the invasion, and if [Belgium] did resist, how?” Prior to the invasion, noted Stengers, Belgian neutrality was never questioned, but the country’s ability and will to defend itself were not taken seriously by either France or Germany, and thus the attitudes of the Belgians should war break out “could not be fully forseen.” The Germans failed to anticipate the high degree of resistance and outrage that would be displayed by ordinary Belgians, and the German ultimatum sent to the Belgians on 2 August 1914 was a “terrible psychological blunder” that could have been better handled by simply invading the country and later explaining the move as a necessary pre-emptive military action.

Austrian soldiers executing Serbian POWs in 1917Austrian soldiers executing Serbian POWs in 1917; click for larger image

Wilson, editor of this fine anthology, contributed an essay on the British decision-making process in 1914. The author eschewed the broadly contextual approach used by most of the other contributors in favor of a style that reads in an almost epistolary fashion, weaving narrative with excerpts of diplomatic and political documents. While this technique means that the essay necessarily sacrifices some analytical structure and cohesiveness, Wilson created a compelling exposition of the frenetic efforts by British leaders such as Sir Edward Grey. The author also worked to redeem the historical reputation of Grey, who has been maligned by the likes of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and General Sir Henry Wilson. The author depicted Grey as a dedicated public servant whose primary goal was to develop a non-partisan, unified response to the crisis, and who showed courage and resolve in moving toward a war stance “as soon as the Russian government made it clear that they would not tolerate a forcible Austro-Hungarian solution of the Serbian problem.”

Decisions for War 1914 also includes essays on the Japanese and Ottoman decisions to enter the war as allies of, respectively, the Entente and the Central Powers. The inclusion of these contributions helps readers better understand that the European war quickly assumed global dimensions, and that the decisions made by a few handfuls of European diplomats, politicians, and generals affected the lives of tens of millions of ordinary people on six continents. The only significant omission from this text would be a chapter on Italy, whose decision to avoid war in 1914 deprived the Central Powers of an important ally, while ultimately leading to an Italian entry into the Entente a year later.

Oct 14, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: WHIGMALEERIE

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

whigmaleerie (wig-muh-LEE-ree) n. a whim, a moment of caprice, or a fanciful notion.

The word whigmaleerie began to appear in Scottish literature in the seventeenth century, though its etymological origins are unknown. The term is also used to describe knick-knacks, and has become the name of a drinking game.

The Scottish poet William Soutar composed a poem entitled "A Whigmaleerie." Here is the poem in its entirety:


There was an Auchtergaven mouse
(I canna mind his name)
Wha met in wi a hirplin louse
Sair trauchled for her hame.

"My friend I'm hippit; an nae doot
Yell heist me on my wey"
The mouse but squinted doon his snoot
And wi a breenge was by.

Or lang he to his ain door
Doun by a condie-hole;
And thocht as he was stappin owre
"Vermin are ill tae thole !"

Oct 13, 2007

On Empty Leashes, New Homes, and Heavy Hearts

Those of you who avoid the literary genre known as "weepy pet stories" ought to skip this post, as I am about to engage in the sort of maudlin soul-baring that is typical of the aforementioned style of writing.

For me it is a form of cathartic therapy, an exercise in splenetic exorcism.

James Taylor is a 18-month-old Dachshund-Schnauzer mix that came to our home about ten days ago as a result of our work with Planned Pethood, an animal rescue organization in Northwest Ohio. J.T., as we came to call him, instantly bonded with me, and followed me every waking moment, and I knew that saying goodbye would be difficult when this handsome dog found a forever home.

Our relationship entered a different phase when J.T. became quite ill last weekend, and it turned out that the skinny dog had a severe case of canine whipworms. There is an odd connection that happens between patients and those upon whom they vomit; I suspect that if you can tolerate being the target of someone's bilious eruptions, you simultaneously prove your unconditional love.

At least that's what I remember from the night I chucked on my wife, but that's another story, and she might tell it in a different manner than I.

J.T. and I had to say goodbye this morning, as he was adopted by a wonderful couple who live in Temperance. I am sure that he will be loved and spoiled in the manner that he deserves, but hearing J.T. whine when I said told him to "be a good doggie" and walked away from him caused tears to well up in my eyes.

And let us not overlook the power of an empty leash to serve as a cruel reminder of our losses. J.T.'s leash sat on the front seat of the car as I drove home, and every glance at the blasted thing brought another lump in my throat.

Yes, J.T. my friend, you are an exceptionally sweet boy, and I am blessed to have made your acquaintance. Your new owners are a lucky pair, and now I will hug my dogs and play some depressing songs on my iPod as I wallow in my momentary grief.

Quirky Website: MonoBrow.com

The Quirky Website of the Week is a regular feature on this site. Feel free to recommend other quirky websites in the Comments section.

Also known as the "unibrow," a monobrow is a pair of eyebrows that have grown together. MonoBrow.com celebrates "the unity of your eyebrows," and

On the site you can enjoy such features as the game Mono Match, in which you have to remember the location on the game board of famous monobrows. Be sure to also view the "Mono Bro of the Week" and "Mono Movies" when you visit the site.

And yes: as a dedicated monobrow owner, I refuse to shave, pluck, or otherwise modify my God-given extra facial hair, and wholeheartedly commend MonoBrow.com for its efforts to de-stigmatize those who possess a unibrow.

Oct 12, 2007

Ignorami Versus Ignoramuses

Little did I know when I posted about bibliovandalism and selfish ignorami that I would be stepping on such a rhetorical landmine.

Kate Gladstone of Handwriting Repair emailed me about the possibility that the plural form "ignorami" is incorrect, and that one of her teachers would likely have beaten me with a yardstick had I attended the same school as Kate:
Dear Mr. Brooks —

The word "ignoramus," a Latin verb-form meaning "we do not know," has no Latin plural-noun form. Therefore, when used as an English noun it correctly pluralizes as "ignoramuses."

(Or, as I learned from a teacher who showed more erudition than tact: " 'Ignorami' is used by ignoramuses.")

Kate Gladstone
Handwriting Repair
Kate is correct that "ignoramus" is the first person plural of the Latin verb ignorare ("to not know"). In my defense, I relied upon the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which lists ignorami as an acceptable plural form of ignoramus.

Yet even Merriam-Webster has trouble reaching a consensus on the ignoramuses versus ignorami debate. In the 1994 Dictionary of English Usage, the editors at Merriam-Webster specifically argued against the much-maligned "ignorami." However, in the interest of throwing the weight of this mighty little blog on one side, I suggest that diligent writers resist the urge to use ignorami, except as a weapon to tweak the cheeks of grammar mavens, or if you want to puzzle the employees of a real estate franchise.

On the Futility of Declaring a War on Leaves

I have a number of neighbors whose efforts to handle the annual falling of leaves can best be described as "combative." Pictured is the temporary fence one of my nmilitant eighbors erects each year in her hopes of providing a security barrier against dreaded leaf blow-back.

I have other gladiatorial anti-leaf neighbors who run their riding mowers with the leaf vacuum attachment every other day from the end of September through the beginning of December, staying on near-constant patrol against the invading leaf menace.

I, however, see little use in such extreme measures against a biological foe that will always win. I prefer to run the lawnmower two or three times in the fall, grinding the leaves up as mulch for the lawn. Come mid-November, when all the leaves have fallen and the city's leaf trucks are expected, I rake the rest up into a few curbside piles. Any leftovers sit until spring.

Voila! I expend much less effort, provide my lawn and garden with extra nutrients, and have more time available for the truly important things in life, such as spending an hour online researching the best radar detector or feeding my fantasy football addiction by scouring the waiver wire for a running back.

Yes, the leaves will fall on your lawn, clog your gutters, and drift away from even the most complicated anti-leaf barriers. Better to sit back and enjoy the colors of fall, and rake the leaves in a few weeks.

Besides - you could be the beneficiary of one of those gale-force winds that scours all of your loose leaves and deposits them on your neighbor's well-manicured lawn.

Oct 11, 2007

On Bibliovandalism and Selfish Ignorami

Left: A textual abomination

On occasion I will purchase used books, only to find that one of the previous owners has marked up the text with highlighter or some other implement of penmanship. While I have never been one to mark up a book, I suppose that ownership brings with it certain prerogatives, and as merely the latest in a chain of book owners, far be it from me to be critical.

I do protest, however, when I come across a library book upon which some blithering fool has etched lines, illegible scribbling, and other post-printing desecration to a text that is supposed to be public property. The accompanying photograph is from a book by historian Roger Mettam entitled Power and Faction in Louis XIV's France, which takes a contrarian stance to the idea that the Sun King's reign was exemplary of early modern absolutism.

At some point in the book's sixteen-year lifespan at the University of Toledo's Carlson Library, one of the readers decided that their needs outweighed those of other readers, especially those who: a) dislike books being marked up; or b) might not mind a book with a few choice highlighting efforts, but who do not agree with the wholesale underlining of entire paragraphs.

Thus, throughout the first few chapters of this book I have to cope with the heavy black Scripto marks that occasionally run through words the ham-fisted imbecile intended to underline. Given my aforementioned preference for books without marks, I find myself increasingly irritated and distracted by this literary outrage, and thoughts go through my head of what I would do to this person with a red Sharpie marker were I to locate and corner said churlish dolt.

Rapid Rhetoric: GALLEASS

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

galleass (GAH-lee-ess) n. an armed 16th-century warship featuring both oars and sails.

Also spelled "galliass," the galleass combined features of oared galleys with those of sailed ships, such as the galleon and the carrack. Oars allowed a galleass to maneuver during unfavorable winds, while sails permitted the galleass to travel greater distances than a traditional galley.

Galleasses were typically three-mast ships often equipped with a forecastle as well as an aftcastle. These ships were most likely to be found in the Mediterranean, although at least five Neapolitan galleasses participated in the 1588 Spanish Armada. The galleass played an important role in the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, sinking at least two Turkish galleys, damaging others, and disrupting the Ottoman ship formations in the Gulf of Patras.

Oct 10, 2007

On the American Cult of Individuality

There is a pestilence on this land, a cancerous, festering philosophy that threatens the future of the country. It is not al-Qaeda, dear friends, nor is it necessarily the province of the major political parties. For lack of a better term I am referring to this plague as the American cult of individuality.

This is the worship of the individual, a sort of self-deification in which adherents believe that their lives are immeasurably more important than others. These are the people who demand that they receive their birthday off from work, or who wait until they reach the service counter before they begin to collect their thoughts about their transaction. I am not writing about our cherished individual freedoms or human rights, but rather the rise of the individual as the Alpha and Omega of human existence, and the sole focus of one's daily efforts.

Part of this cult is driven by our consumerist society, as music, fashion, and technology capitalize on self-worship to move merchandise. Yet the cult of individuality has roots deeper than Madison Avenue, and even deeper than the rise of capitalism, which Marxists sometimes blame for the evolution of self-worship.

I would wager as I look back across several millennia of human history that the problem of narcissism is a recurrent one, and we trace the etymology of this phenomenon to the Greek myth of Narcissus. Of course, the Greeks were wise enough to recognize that self-worship is a destructive force to both the self and to society.

Yet in American society we seem to have have lost the balance between the individual and the community, and my perception is that each of the most recent generations has shown an increasing atomization and self-absorption. We wander around in our own isolated iPod worlds, wearing expensive clothes that are supposed to highlight our uniqueness (but which demonstrate we are slaves to fashion), and look upon communal activities as a drain upon our oh-so-important self-time. Mass transit? Hell no! Give us eight cylinders and the biggest freaking truck we can buy, because the individual is king in the United States.

And everyone has to have a blog. Ahem.

The height of the cult of the individual might be exemplified by a recent driving experience on Secor Road in Michigan. While driving on this stretch of rural highway, I came upon a slow-moving vehicle whose driver appeared to be fumbling for a CD. After a few moments of driving 10-15 miles below the 45-mph speed limit, I decided to pass the car.

Yes, I too was in a hurry, and I am as prone to the cult of the individual as the next shlep, so turn the blinding quoizel lighting my way.

The driver of the car in front of me, in a fit of hyper-testosteronity, took offense to the fact that he was about to be passed by a 4-cylinder Hyundai, and floored his accelerator. Not wishing to play with the self-absorbed twit, I slowed down, but Mr. Racey-Boy wanted to demonstrate that HE was in control, and he slowed to match my speed.

I speed up, he speeds up. I slow down. He slows down. Speed up. Slow down. The game continued for him for almost a half-mile before an oncoming vehicle necessitated that I come to a complete stop and let him get ahead. Not exactly a white-knuckle moment for me, but unnerving enough, and I am too old to be getting into road-rage incidents with self-absorbed idiots.

And until I see otherwise, I remain convinced that this uniquely American cult of individuality looms over this nation like a portentous storm cloud, poised to undermine - through our obsession with the self - the collective strengths we have demonstrated so many times in the past.

Oct 9, 2007

On Whipworm and Dogs

Life cycle in canines of the whipworm, Trichuris vulpisLeft: Life cycle in canines of the whipworm, Trichuris vulpis

We have been canine foster parents with a group called Planned Pethood for many months now, and have provided a temporary home for 15 dogs in that time. We took in a handsome Dachshund/Schnauzer mix on Friday who was given the name James Taylor, and we noticed over the weekend that he was looking somewhat listless.

By Sunday night he began vomiting, and over the course of the next day he lost his appetite and developed diarrhea. I took JT to the vet today and tests showed that he has a severe case of whipworms, also known as Trichuris vulpis.

This nasty intestinal parasite can be deadly if untreated, and it is clear that poor JT will need some time before he can be adopted. Given the fact that whipworms are highly contagious - a dog need only ingest one whipworm egg to become ill in a matter of weeks - I was concerned that our other dogs would develop the disorder.

Fortunately, after calling our veterinarian, we learned that the heartworm medicine we regularly give our dogs also protects against roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms. We have been using the Interceptor tablet, which contains the active ingredient milbemycin oxime.

No, this is not a paid plug, just a piece of advice from a pet owner who is grateful that he doesn't have to shell out several hundred dollars for preventive medicine to treat his dogs for whipworm. That will be more money I can spend on items such as fishing tackle next spring.

After the Passing of a Heat Wave

Northwest Ohio, like much of the Midwest, experienced an unseasonably warm and muggy spell over the past week, and temperatures rose to 90 degrees yesterday. Yesterday afternoon I was feeling almost wilted sitting in my hot car, and I began to think that there would be no end to what has been a hot summer. I was so uncomfortable on Friday that I shaved off my beard, vowing not to grow it back until I am certain the hot weather has disappeared.

This morning, though, a front of cooler air passed through the area, and temperatures will continue to drop over the next 24 hours. It was refreshing to step outside and feel temperatures in the mid-50s, and to no longer feel your shirt sticking to you with the slightest exertion.

And even though I have reasons to be grouchy, I can't help but feel reinvigorated by the cool breezes that arrived today. Fall is my favorite time of the year, and I feel safe in declaring that it has finally arrived.