May 31, 2008

Graduation Daze

Left: St. Francis de Sales seniors lining up outside Gesu Church

We had the good fortune to have two high school graduations to attend this year for our youngest children. Unfortunately, both events were held on the same day, and we spent most of ten hours shuttling between two graduation ceremonies and a graduation baccalaureate Mass, hence the wordplay in the post's title.

Being somewhat experienced as parents, we knew that the key to a successful ceremony is the strategic deployment of personnel to the various sites at least an hour before the festivities, and the rather fierce competition for limited seating at the Seagate Center, the Peristyle Theater, and Gesu Church was interesting to observe. I used the technique of placing jackets, programs, cell phones, and keys to "mark" the seats I was saving, but desperate people still tried to talk their way into the delineated spaces:

"Are these seats taken?"

Then there is the unique genre of the valedictory and salutatory speeches, each of which contained the idealistic sentiments of young people not yet beaten down by the harsh realities of a hypercapitalist world, and chock full of the sorts of tired clichés that would drive me crazy in a composition paper ("the first day of the rest of our lives" or "the best years of our lives").

Yet in a speech by a nervous high school senior, such rhetoric is forgiven, although I started to reach my limit after two valedictorians, four salutatorians, and a class president spouted off much of the same well-worn turns of phrase. Of course, this day is not about me, so it was just as well that I stifled my inner grammarian and played my proper role as a clapping audience member. Heck, if the world revolved around me, I wouldn't have even attended the ceremonies, and instead stayed home and debated the type of imported glass sink that would best highlight the terracotta tile in my commode.

Or something like that.

High school graduations always bring out the most diverse group of people imaginable, and I find myself fascinated with the different ways in which folks celebrate their senior's moment in the spotlights. There is the demure, polite-clapping crowd, who look down their noses at the people who excitedly shout "That's my boy!" or "Whoo-Hoo!" or "Nat-a-LEEEEE!!!" I'm in the middle of the two camps, and I am not above hollering my kid's name at diploma time.

And then there are the buffoons who bring air horns into a closed building - not cool, dudes.

So to the various Classes of 2008: study hard, enjoy your college years (in a legal and responsible fashion, mind you), and call your parents once in a while. If you do these things, I guarantee you will be a success later in life. This is coming from someone whose early college years (1982-85) did not closely mirror the above advice, so I know from whence I pontificate.

May 30, 2008

On the Nexus of Auto Accidents and Carnivals

The presence of a group of fluttering balloons near the pictured accident scene on Laskey Road today heightened my sense that I was witnessing a scene from the theater of the absurd. While an auto accident is never an event that could be described as "fun," there is something about the surreality of being in or near an accident scene that makes people behave strangely.

Including geeks like me taking photos.

At this particular accident, each of the drivers managed to call a respective posse to further add to the gaggle of spectators. I counted at least three additional vehicles arriving to survey the scene, offer their opinions on the guilty party, and generally make the work of the responding officers more complicated:

"Did you actually witness the accident, ma'am?" the cop asked of the pesky older woman poking her nose in the business of accident scene management. "If not, then please move away from the accident scene. Thank you!"

No carnival is complete without a freak show, and there were more than a handful of characters who qualified in this respect, though none were resplendent in bodystockings. At the top of the list was the long-haired, mutton-chopped flake driving an old Chevy pickup truck plastered with Confederate flag stickers. He seemed to believe he was some sort of rednecked master of ceremonies, moving from person to person and pestering the police officers with questions:

"I think you should do a Breathalyzer test," he asked the cop. "Are you going to do a Breathalyzer test?"

Personally, I think any tests that needed to be done should involve our inbred interloper, and they should be of a DNA-type nature, but admittedly I never had much use for fans of the Klan.

Joining Billy Bob in the freak show was the assortment of idiot drivers who seemed to think that their vehicular trips were important enough to try and squeeze between the officers, the damaged vehicles, and the bystanders. Far be it from Suzy SUV and Melvin Mustang to take a one-block detour so that the police and the drivers of the accident vehicles could sort out the mess.

Any good carnival also needs entertainment from the animal world, and our accident also provided such amenities. The smaller vehicle contained a good-sized dog, perhaps a Lab-shepherd mix, and he was sitting in the passenger-side front seat with the deployed airbag.

I don't know if Sir Pooch was in that spot during the accident, or if he found the spot more reassuring in the post-accident chaos, but he seemed fine.

And finally, as the scene wound down, along came the ice cream truck, providing an opportunity for refreshments if any of the participants or bystanders needed a cool drink or a Bomb Pop after the festivities. By this time, there were some 25 people milling about the accident, and I have to bet that the enterprising mobile merchant had to make a couple of bucks.

May 29, 2008

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 highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.
-- Baruch Spinoza

May 27, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: IDIOGLOSSIA

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.

idioglossia (ih-dee-oh-GLAH-see-uh) n. a secret language between twins; a form of secret speech or language, especially those invented by children; a psychological condition in which speech is so distorted as to be unintelligible.

Derived from the Greek root words idios ("distinct") and glōssa ("tongue"), idioglossia most frequently refers to the phenomenon known colloquially as "twin talk". These types of speech are also known as autonomous languages or cryptophasia.

Studies have demonstrated that some forms of idioglossia exist in up to 40% of all twins, but typically disappear within the first two years of life. There have also been documented cases where children - not necessarily twins - develop such languages when there is an absence of adult models from which to learn.

The 1994 film Nell, which starred Jodie Foster, is a fictional representation of a young woman who was raised by her mother in an isolated cabin, and whose unusual language ("Nellish") reflects the early years that she spent with a paralyzed mother with speech defects.

I do not know, however, if the grunted language among users of weight equipment qualifies as idioglossia, but one might make a convincing case for this.

May 25, 2008

Memorial Day: Busy as a... Well, You Know!

The Memorial Day weekend used to be a chance for people to catch up on a little sleep, or to travel and visit far-flung relatives. I've noticed over the last few years, though, that many folks end up using the holiday as a time to catch up on work.

Much like the image of the carpenter bee on your left that was working its way through my wiegela bushes today, most of us find the occasional three-day weekend to be little more than an extension of our regular workweeks.

In my own case, I'm using a good deal of my "free" time to fine-tune some distance learning courses I start teaching next week, as well as partaking in the usual lecture prep, grading, and other administrative duties associated with college teaching. In addition, my time was also spent mowing the lawn, planting tomatoes and peppers, and weeding the gardens, and I have yet to spend even one hour in an activity that could be considered relaxing.

A few of my neighbors are also hard at work on a variety of home improvement projects, ranging from new roofs to new decks to painting. The only neighbors who seemed to be taking it easy this weekend are the same ones who spend most of their time goofing off.

I'm just not sure if these people are the "lazy" ones, or that they have figured out something about the genius of slackery the rest of us could stand to learn. Maybe the rest of us are the fools, the ones who work seven days a week and spend too many of their holidays catching up on work that could just as easily wait until Tuesday.

Yet the carpenter bee drones on, milking my wiegelas and drilling holes in my garage or wine racks, no matter what the day of the week is.

May 24, 2008

On Canine OCD, Compassion, and Human Limits

I've not been much of a blogger the past few days, though I hope my excuse is a worthy one. Pictured on your left is Dutch, a year-old male terrier we have been fostering for Planned Pethood. He came to us under less-than-honest circumstances, as another area dog rescue worker assured us that Dutch was housebroken and relatively free from negative behaviors.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

Dutch, it turns out, has some significant neurological problems, most notably manifested with his obsessive desire to chase his tail. He spins in circle for 20-30 minutes at a time, frantically barking and whining and gnashing his teeth to get at the unseen demons that plague him. When placed in a cage, he throws himself about with such force that the heavy metal cage actually looks like it will topple over. Moreover, Dutch can leap over our 42" fence, so there is not even an outdoor respite for his behaviors.

We took the dog to the veterinarian yesterday, and Dutch was prescribed phenobarbital to help control his erratic, bizarre behaviors. To this point, the drug seems to only have a slight effect on decreasing the tail-chasing, though I did observe Dutch sitting a few times, which is something he did not do in the first 48 hours he was with us.

I'm now in a real dilemma, as I might be the last person on Earth who will be willing to put forth the effort needed to save the life of this dog. If I surrender the dog, he will surely be euthanized by the county dog warden, as no sane person would ever want to adopt this poor, miserable creature.

Yet at the same time his incessant barking makes it impossible for me to think, which is of course a necessary quality for a writer to have. Heck, I've hardly collected much sleep the last few days, let alone having much luck with work-related activities. But if I give up on the dog - even acknowledging that the person who dumped Dutch on me pulled quite a con job - I know that I am essentially signing his death certificate.

So I suppose this post is just an opportunity to clear my thoughts and vent a little, and I thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have personal experience with a dog who has obsessive-compulsive or seizure-related behaviors like those of Dutch, feel free to leave suggestions in the comments section.

And if you believe God answers canine-related prayers, say a few for Dutch. This dog needs all the help he can get.

May 22, 2008

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.

A new idea is delicate. It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a quip and worried to death by a frown on the right man's brow.

-- Ovid

May 21, 2008

OPEC, SCHMOPEC - Buying a Beater and Saving Money

Yes, it has both gray and maroon colored fenders and doors, but I still think that this specimen of used vehicle was a steal at $800. This 1994 Saturn gets over 30 mpg, which is a vast improvement over the 12 mpg my wife was getting in her Suburban, and at 300 miles of driving per week, she will have a full return on investment in a matter of months.

Not to mention the assumed continuation of the older car's value, which ought not decrease much over that span of time. Heck, if gas goes up any more, this economical car might even increase in value.

Of course, many people are not as fortunate (or far-sighted) as we are, and the idea of scraping up even $800 is too much for people who are over-extended and getting clobbered by high gas prices. Still, if you can afford to yank some money from your savings account, this might be the time to scour the want ads for a car that can save you money in your weekly gas expenditures.

May 20, 2008

On the Appreciation of Sunsets and Sunrises

(Stony Ridge, OH) I had the opportunity the other evening to kill some time in rural Northwest Ohio at sundown, and I also had the foresight to bring with me my Canon SLR. I spent about 20 minutes snapping away and catching one of the most beautiful Ohio sunsets in recent memory.

I suspect that the urge to watch sunrises and sunsets must be hardwired in us, because the connection between spirituality and the activity of the sun stretches far back into human existence. Yet even within our highly scientific, rational, materialistic modern selves there lurks a desire to stare at the heavenly color extravaganza that accompanies a picturesque sunset.

Those of you who live on the coasts of an ocean or large lake, of course, get more than your share of stunning solar displays, and I will forgive you for yawning at this post. Still, despite my excitement over seeing the sun rise or set over open water, I would rather experience one of these moments across a vast expanse of land, like those found in places like Ohio or Kansas.

There is a greater sense of your infinite insignificance when standing alone in the middle of nowhere than along a beach, where you sort of stand on the edge of two worlds, and where you are likely to encounter all sorts of vegetation or signs of human activity.

There are few activities I enjoy more than watching the horizonal disappearance or reappearance of the celestial body we call the Sun, and I would hazard a guess that everything goes better with a sublime sunrise or sunset.

Except outdoor lighting.

May 19, 2008

All Time Best Pop Death Songs

As I have previously mentioned, even as a young child I had an affinity for dark and depressing music. I find sad themes to be strangely uplifting in the hands of a skilled composer, as though the misery of others somehow makes my own troubles seem less serious, or that the expression of the powerful emotions associated with trauma and loss touches me in a way that other genres cannot.

Color me then melancholic.

Anyways, here is a short list of some of my favorite songs of death, in no particular order. Surely no life event is as disruptive and profound as the death of a loved one, and listed below are some songs that I think capture the pain, loneliness, and desolation associated with an unexpected death.

Feel free to chime in with your own pop dirges!

"Seasons in the Sun," Terry Jacks - Yeah, I know - this song has become something of a cliché for sappy sentimentality, but I have always loved this song, and the protagonist-as-foreteller-of-impending-death still works.

"Last Kiss," J. Frank Wilson - Later covered by Pearl Jam, the original sounds like it was recorded in a graveyard under a full moon, and set the standard for all future teen death sonic dramas. The octave-higher female backup singers also added an ethereal touch that still gives me shivers.

"Tears In Heaven," Eric Clapton - This song - written by Clapton after the tragic death of his 3-year-old son Connor - is like a punch to the gut, given its origin. You have to wonder how Clapton could even choke out the lyrics the first few times he tried to sing it, though the hopeful longing of reunion keeps this song from spiralling into abject misery.

"Ohio," Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young - One of the angriest political songs in history, "Ohio" succinctly captured the collective outrage over the killings of unarmed protesters by National Guard troops at Kent State.

"Eleanor Rigby," The Beatles - Whether you view this as biting social commentary, or just a sad song about a lonely woman, "Eleanor Rigby" still digs at your soul, doesn't it? The innovative use of a double string quartet added a jarring, driving sound that sounded almost alien on the pop stations that played it in 1966.

"Alone Again (Naturally)," Gilbert O'Sullivan - In the span of 3:41, O'Sullivan sings of being jilted at the altar, the death of his parents, and of his own desire to throw himself from a tower. Yet this is a wry, somewhat understated, and highly literate examination of a bleak life that still resonates with me some 35 years after its release.

And your favorite death ditty is....

May 18, 2008

Book Review: A World on the Move - The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America 1415-1808

Russell-Wood, AJR
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 290 pages

Russell-Wood is one of the preeminent scholars on the Portuguese Empire, and he has been a fixture in the history department at Johns Hopkins University for over three decades. Unlike monographs that examine narrow aspects of the Portuguese empire, A World on the Move uses the theme of movement to present a holistic synthesis of the Estado in which the author surveyed the intra-imperial exchange of people, flora, fauna, commodities, pathogens, and ideas. Monographs on the Estado da India, argued Russell-Wood, tend to place emphasis on specific regions, while suffering from what the author described as “over-zealous attempts at periodization.”

After a brief introduction, Russell-Wood began his examination of Portuguese movement with a chapter on the means by which this peregrination occurred: transportation. The innovations of the Portuguese in developing ships such as the nao, argued Russell-Wood, brought about a “revolution in the increased volume of merchandise which could be transported” in the emerging global trade networks. In addition to the carreira da India and the carreira do Brasil – the two most important trade routes established by the Portuguese – the author noted that Portuguese ships also participated in a number of regional trade networks in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Moreover, despite the traditional view of the Portuguese Empire as one that was in large measure a seaborne enterprise, Russell-Wood noted that Portuguese merchants and officials also made significant use of overland and river-based routes, as well as demonstrating the ability to adapt to local modes of transportation.

The Portuguese empire also fostered the movement of people between continents, not the least of which was the role of Portugal in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Russell-Wood, however, chose to devote only a few pages of his narrative on slavery, focusing more attention instead on the movement of settlers, state officials, church representatives, and merchants. One of the salient features of human mobility in the Portuguese empire, argued Russell-Wood, was what he described as its “multi-continental quality.” The author provided many examples of individuals who began their imperial careers in one outpost, traveling to Portuguese holdings elsewhere, and ending up in colonial setting far removed from both Portugal and their earlier postings. In addition, the demographic shortages in Portugal meant that indigenous peoples were needed to fill positions, as was the case with the training of native peoples as priests throughout the empire. Another source of labor for the empire was the use of degredados, or exiles from Portugal who could be assigned to the most inhospitable colonial destinations:
There was a ranking of places of exile from the acceptable to the least desirable: Mazagão in Morocco was close enough to give hope of return; Angola, Benguela, and Mozambique were so unhealthy as to be tantamount to a death sentence; and Brazil, the Maranhão, and India held little hope of return to Portugal.
Finally, most impressive in the imperial accomplishments of the Portuguese, noted Russell-Wood, was the fact that the population of Portugal was so much smaller than that of its European competitors, ranging from approximately one million people at the beginning of the fifteenth century to some two million by 1640.

One topic that received only a cursory examination in A World on the Move was the movement of infectious diseases between regions of the Portuguese empire. Russell-Wood did provide a general outline of the some of the major pathogenic transmissions in which the Portuguese played a critical role, such as the introduction of forms of malaria into the Americas by Portuguese carracks and caravels carrying African slaves. The author did not address the Portuguese role in the introduction of cholera into continental Europe, Africa, and the Americas, although admittedly this would have largely occurred at the end of and beyond the period Russell-Wood profiled.

Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcutLeft: Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, in a seventeenth-century woodcut

Russell-Wood argued that the 1497-99 opening of the sea route to India by Vasco da Gama “did not usher in a new age of an influx of commodities hitherto totally unknown to the Portuguese,” but rather meant that goods already familiar to Europeans could now be obtained in greater quantities and at more favorable prices. Portugal also became an important player in the intra-continental trade networks between European nations, and Lisbon grew in importance as a port in which a wide variety of European commodities and products were exchanged. The 1693 discovery of gold in the Brazilian region of Minas Gerais, argued Russell-Wood, was a mixed blessing for the Portuguese crown; the short-term infusion of precious metals helped reduce an unfavorable balance of payments, but Brazilian gold brought with it unforeseen consequences:
Nations other than Portugal were the prime beneficiaries of the flood of Brazilian gold. It has been estimated that from between one-half and three-quarters of all gold entering the Tagus, went to England. Much was squandered on projects of immediate personal gratification than on long-term investment in the nation’s future, the stimulus for embryonic manufacturing enterprises was weakened (a trend only to be reversed in the 1770s with Pombal’s initiatives), the transition from a barter to a monetary economy was slowed, dependency on Great Britain increased, and the State was permitted the luxury of postponing the introduction of much needed reforms.
A World on the Move contains dozens of pages of images that add a visual dimension to Russell-Wood’s text, and especially intriguing were contemporary illustrations of life in the Portuguese Empire. The author also included a number of useful maps that highlighted trade routes, ocean currents, and other information related to the theme of imperial mobility. Citations are provided in an endnote format, and Russell-Wood provided readers with a lengthy bibliography of monographs and primary source collections for further research. While prior familiarity with Portugal and the Estado da India would be helpful for readers, A World on the Move is a book that is accessible to the general reader while providing Portuguese scholars with a different perspective on topics related to the development and expansion of the world’s first global empire.

May 17, 2008

On Perennial Flowers, Yard Work, and Personal Energy

For years I have shelled out money each spring for flats of marigolds, petunias, and other annual flowers to brighten up our .33-acre patch of urban landscape, spending many hours digging holes, transplanting starter plants, and dutifully watering the young annuals into adulthood.

This year, though, I am changing direction in favor of a larger number of perennials. Pictured is a nondescript patch of Châteaux Brooks in which I planted a packet of California poppies, the first of what I hope to be several dozen sections of perennials that will require less work for summertime beauty.

Part of this decision is based upon the matter of time, as this summer proved to be a bonanza in adjunct college-level teaching. I managed to scrape up five courses at various area institutions this semester, and the amount of time I can spend on my gardens will decrease.

But part of this, too, reflects the fact that I simply find myself with lower levels of energy than I did even ten years ago. On top of this, a late-spring bout of the flu has left me even further sapped for energy, and I find that I can no longer go gung-ho for six or eight hours in the yard like I once did.

For the first time in my life, I am recognizing that I am not superhuman.

As a younger man, I could plow through 80-hour workweeks as a franchise owner like a feisty mule, and I was able to function well on six hours of sleep. These days I seem to burn out when I cross the 55-hour threshold, and I am cranky as hell when I get less than seven hours of sleep. After the 90-minute grass-cutting chore each week (we have a double lot) I feel drained, and it takes me 20 minutes or so to recuperate from this not-really-so-vigorous activity.

Thus, I am hoping that the assortment of poppies, daisies, carnations, and convolvuluses in which I invested will bring many years of low-maintenance color to my yard. Otherwise, I'll have to break down and reconvert my garden space into green grass.

May 16, 2008

George Carlin - "America is Tyranny"

One of the funniest - and most deadly accurate - commentaries about the good ol' US of A that I have seen in quite a while. I should warn readers that Carlin's 4:41 monologue is laced with some graphic language, so those whose ears burn at profanity should be prepared.

May 15, 2008

Quirky Website - OurStrangeWorld

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

Billing itself as "Your Portal to the Unknown," the website known as OurStrangeWorld documents the most unusual news stories regarding such topics as the occult, extraterrestrials, and paranormal activity. Posts on the site range from links to strange news stories to original articles by contributors, while brief roundups of unusual news can be found on the recurrent feature known as the Odditorium.

I found the site to be a useful diversion from academic research and mainstream news saturation, kind of like the reason I turn on some of those Most Extreme Cop Video shows: to drain my brain.

May 14, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: LAPPACEOUS

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.

lappaceous (lah-PAY-shoos) adj. bur-like or prickly; covered with forked points.

The English word lappaceous is an almost direct appropriation of the Latin form lappaceus. Typically used to describe botanical features, lappaceous is an apt word to described the pesky capitula of members of the burdock family.

However, I propose an expansion of the term, as I have known a number of people over the years for whom "lappaceous" would be an appropriate adjective. Here, then, is a suggested usage of the word in a corporate setting:

Martin, a fiery regional vice-president who was unusually quick to terminate his subordinates, was a lappaceous sort of boss whose arrogance stuck to his staff like burdock on a peasant's trousers.

Something like that.

May 13, 2008

Buckley's Cough Syrup: Vile, But Effective

No, this is not a paid promotion.

I've been sicker than a coolant-lapping hound the past week with the flu, and one of the nagging symptoms of this wicked ailment has been a scratchy throat. I've tried a few over-the-counter medicines to help soothe and quiet my irritating cough, but none have yet worked.

As someone who has to lecture for hours on end, my voice is one of the few parts of me that needs to properly function in order to teach my students. So it was with a touch of desperation that I asked the pharmacist for advice, and he recommended Buckley's cough suppressant.

Now, I have seen the Buckley's commercials, and they always play up the fact that the medicine does not have a pleasant taste. I've consumed my share of foul-tasting medicines over the years, but I was wholly unprepared for the utter repugnance of this concoction.

As I typed this post, I took a small swig of this loathsome product to refresh my memory. I will next try to capture via the written word the experience of taking a teaspoon full of this swill:

A salty-sweet-hot taste sensation blended with a minty camphor, plus hints of Castor oil, oregano, and old sweat socks.

In a word: blecch!

Yet, the medicine most definitely quiets a nagging dry cough, and soothes a person's irritated throat. One hint: as much as you will want to chase down this appalling liquid with a glass of water, Buckley's works better if you tough it out for a few minutes. The bonus with a putrid product like this is a person would never have to worry about addiction and drug rehab, since even a hard-core junky would not want to repeatedly quaff this medicine.

May 12, 2008

On Fermi II and Nuclear Fears

Left: Enrico Fermi nuclear generating station

(Newport, MI) Admittedly, I grew up during the Cold War, and my suspicious attitudes toward nuclear power also reflect the fact that I lived during the media frenzies surrounding the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Moreover, as teenager I went to see the 1979 film The China Syndrome, which frightened me far more than any slasher film ever could.

So it is in the context of these lifelong doubts about the safety of nuclear power that I made a trip to view the Fermi II nuclear plant up close.

Before arriving I had visions of being swarmed by armed security personnel demanding my ID and confiscating my digital camera, all in the name of homeland security. Unfortunately for my paranoid fantasies and photographic plans, the plant stands over a mile away from the entrance checkpoints, and my naive thoughts of sauntering up and staring up at the cooling towers were set aside by a concrete-barricaded guard facility.

I settled instead for a few shots on a dirt road overlooking a corn field, and the only people remotely interested in me were the farmers on Leroux Road whose dinner I might have interrupted, had they bothered to notice the bespectacled interloper on the side of the road.

No clandestine trips to Guantanamo Bay for me tonight.

Thus, my efforts to stand face-to-face with a source of latent fear came to naught, and the mile-high steam clouds wafted to the east over Lake Erie, never even dropping a few stray radioactive particles on my head, and - if I was the subject of curiosity by security personnel - I could have only merited the recording of a license plate number.

I'll let you know if my trips to or from Europe this summer include special attention by customs officials. If having pictures of nuclear plants on my flash drive
puts me on a watch list, I would bet that passing through customs will be an interesting excursion.

May 11, 2008

Woodpecker's Lair

I came across this dead tree in a local metropark yesterday, and I attempted to get some pictures of the woodpecker that had been engaging in architectural modifications on the 20-foot high rotting trunk. Unfortunately, the bird was not interested in my photographic endeavors, and it ducked inside the avian sanctuary to get away from prying human eyes.

As I reviewed my digital files later. I thought that the tree trunk bore more than a passing resemblance to a medieval castle battlement, offering shelter to inhabitants while making the work of intruders like me more difficult. The pecked holes looked like crenels, though I did not see any projectiles hurtling toward me via angry woodpeckers.

Then again, I've been fighting off a flu bug for the past few days, so I readily admit my interpretation of the tall stump might border on the delusory. Of course, being under the waeather means that my appetite has decreased, making me less likely to search online for diet pill reviews.

May 10, 2008

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.

In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known -- no wonder, then, that I return the love.
-- Soren Kierkegaard

May 9, 2008

Meet Godfrey, a Rescue Dachshund

Godfrey (German for "God's peace") is a 3-year-old, 19-pound Dachshund who was rescued from a local dog pound. He came to Planned Pethood a bit overweight, so his new family needs to closely monitor his food intake and to make sure that Godfrey gets plenty of exercise. Godfrey's energy level is not very high, so he would probably be best matched with an older couple or with people who share his love of a laidback lifestyle.

Godfrey is the prototypical "people dog," and he follows me around the house all day. In a perfect world, Godfrey would have a human hand rubbing his stomach 24 hours a day, and he reciprocates with affection to those who give him pets and attention.

Although he does not bark a great deal, Godfrey does seem to enjoy carrying on conversations with people, especially when he wants to be petted. He will make a playful "rowrrr-rowrrr" sound if you ask him questions like "Do you want some pets?" or "Who's a good boy?"

The only behavior that we have seen that needs some training is his dislike of people putting things around his neck, like his collar. He struggles quite a bit with this, which suggests that he had a bad experience at some point in the past. Godfrey is also clueless about the leash, and we are working to get him acclimated to the idea of walking on a leash. He is housebroken (although he marked indoors a few times when he first arrived), and has been sleeping in a crate since he went to his foster home.

Godfrey is a lovable little dog who would be an excellent companion for someone looking for a calm and affectionate younger dog. For more information on Godfrey, or any other rescue dog, please visit the Planned Pethood website.

May 8, 2008

On Shrinking Food Supplies and Personal Preparedness

I have never really known true hunger. Sure, there was the time that I was flying back to Toledo from Dallas after losing my wallet, and I had to con my way into some free food during a two-hour layover in Atlanta (I told the food court people that an employee mistakenly threw away my tray).

And as a child growing up in a blue collar neighborhood of Detroit during the 1960s and 1970s, I knew the meaning of being poorer than some of my acquaintances, and my brownbag lunches usually featured peanut butter or baloney instead of the fancier food some of my classmates brought in their shiny cartoon character lunchboxes.

So it is with some bewilderment and a lack of personal familiarity with malnourishment and starvation that I continue read of the phenomenon of food riots in places like Somalia, Haiti, Côte d'Ivoire, and Myanmar. Moreover, I have never lived in a time of such widespread fear and hunger around the planet, and the idea of mass starvation - even in nations with advanced infrastructure - is frightening to me.

I know that we are in for tough times when my wife came home with a 20-pound bag of rice the other day. She is sunny by nature, and usually takes an optimistic view of life, but media reports of escalating food prices and global grain shortages have even caused this sober-minded woman to stock up on basic foodstuffs.

And yes: I know that any fear-based hoarding by people like me contributes to global shortages and price increases, and that if enough people like me stock 100 pounds of rice and flour in their pantries, chances are that global hunger will only increase.

So be it.

I cannot save every person on the planet, but I sure as hell do not want to see my family starve. These are strange times, and I simply do not wish to pretend that we are not living in a time of significant scarcity.

May 7, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: SALTIRE

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.

saltire (SAHL-teer) n. An X-shaped cross with diagonal bars of equal length; (heraldry) an ordinary in the shape of Saint Andrew's cross, formed by the crossing of a bend and a bend sinister; the national flag of Scotland, featuring a white diagonal cross on a blue background.

Saltire comes to modern English via a curious path, most recently from the Middle English sautour and Old French saultoir, both of which mean "stile," and tracing its roots back to the Latin saltare ("to jump").

Scottish tradition holds that in 832 CE a decisive battle was fought near Athelstaneford. A combined army of Picts and Scots under the King of Alba, Óengus mac Fergusa, led an invasion into Northumbrian territory.

Unfortunately for Angus, his forces were surrounded by a much larger army of Angles and Saxons, and the king turned to prayer. Angus claimed he received a divine sign when he saw above him a blazing white cross like that associated with the martyr St. Andrew. The king vowed that if he secured victory, then Andrew would then become the patron saint of Scotland and his saltire cross would be forever the flag of Scotland.

May 6, 2008

Another Split Decision: Obama and Clinton Trade Victories in NC, IN

Photo montage courtesy of ABC News

To the surprise of almost no one, senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama each won a state primary tonight, meaning that the deadlocked battle for the Democratic nomination will likely fester for a few more weeks. Obama started the day with some 1,745.5 delegates - while Clinton had 1,608 pledged delegates - out of the 2,025 needed for the nomination.

A state court order forced Indiana polls to remain open until 7:00 pm CST to handle the high voter turnout. This extension did not help a group of 10 retired nuns in South Bend, who were denied ballot access because they could not produce a photo ID.

Despite an overwhelming victory for Obama in North Carolina, the Illinois senator once again failed to capture an important Rust Belt state, and Clinton's arguments about Obama failing to connect with white working class voters gained some credibility tonight.

So Americans face at least four more weeks of this electoral stalemate, and the only people who are happy about this prospect are John McCain supporters. There have to be quite a few smiles at the Republican national headquarters over another month of the two Democrats attacking each other and spending tens of millions of more dollars that cannot be saved for November.

The only bright spot for me is that tonight's results were decisive enough so that I did not have to stay up past midnight waiting for the news. It's time to shut off MSNBC and get back to my research.

Return of the Crabapple Blossoms

Among the annual color extravaganzas I await each year is the blossoming of my crabapple tree, which sits in the backyard outside the window of my office. For several days the air near this tree is filled with a cheerful aroma.

I noticed that the flowers bloomed about four days later than they did last year, and I wonder what signals the tree recognizes before shifting into "spring" mode. This winter was warmer than past winters, though the snowfall was heavier, and we had some late March snow that might have interfered with the biological processes through which seasonal expression occurs among crabapple trees.

Or maybe the tree flowers when it damned well feels like it.

May 5, 2008

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.

Man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain't no good.
-- Bruce Springsteen, "Highway Patrolman"

May 4, 2008

On Black-Capped Chickadees and Identifying Bird Calls

Left: Black-capped Chickadee

(Toledo, OH) I have been carrying on a whistled conversation with some songbirds in my neighborhood the past few weeks. Typically the song is a two-note ditty, with the first whistled note being a D - located two octaves above middle C - while the second note is a B, three steps below the D note.

Identifying the bird, however, proved to be difficult, and I spent far too much time scanning websites with digitized bird calls trying to match a bird with the song I kept hearing.

I was flipping through an interactive book that features North American songbirds the other day when I came across the creator of this song: the Black-capped Chickadee. You can follow this link to hear a sample of the male chickadee's two-note whistle.

Another bird call mystery is solved, and I now know the name of another of the avian visitors to my backyard feeders.

Nesting Killdeer

Left: nesting female killdeer

While standing up in a wedding this weekend, I came across the ground-nesting bird pictured on your left. My later research led me to the conclusion that this is a killdeer, which is a non-passerine bird that prefers to live near marshes and bodies of water. Its nests, however, can be found quite a distance from feeding grounds.

The eggs of the killdeer are white with dark brown spots, and predators can easily mistake killdeer eggs for stones. The killdeer is also noted for its ability to fake injury in an effort to distract predators away the nest.

May 2, 2008

On Old Barns and Photo Editing

Left: Unedited image of an old country barn

(Ida, MI) On my way to work I often pass the dilapidated old barn pictured on your left. I find rundown barns to be interesting, in part due to their longevity and also because of the sense of continuity that old barns have with the past.

Moreover, an old barn becomes a home to a wide variety of animals after its years of regular service to humans ends. I think that creaky old barns are rarely torn down, but that the earth slowly swallows them up.

So I paused yesterday to take some photos of this particular barn, a building that is more than an acquaintance to me since I have looked at it many dozens of times.

Left: Edited image of an old country barn

After I uploaded my images, though, I began to experiment with my image editing program. When I turned the image into a black-and-white photo, adding a touch of contrast and reducing the brightness, the result was an image that was almost frightening.

The once-friendly old barn seemed to take on an air of menace, and the shadows could be hiding almost any lurking terror. The barn now seemed like part of a set on a film like The Blair Witch Project.

I no longer want to ask the owner for a tour of the barn.

May 1, 2008

Department of Visual Proverbs

(Lambertville, MI) My habit of carrying a digital camera with me on my travels often yields opportunities to take unusual pictures that might otherwise be missed. The scene on your left is from a stable on Secor Road a few miles north of the Ohio border, and my equine subject was kind enough to provide an example of the old adage about greener grass and the other sides of fences.

Of course, only geeks like me waste their time making these sorts of mental connections, and I sometimes wonder if life would be more rewarding if more of it was being spent on living in the moment, instead of searching for meaning and insight all the time.

Smile, pet the friendly horse, feed it a carrot, smell the alfalfa - that sort of thing.