Oct 30, 2010

Trying to Catch an Image of a Falling Leaf

I had this idea yesterday that I would run outside and take a few pictures of falling leaves. In my vision of the planned activity, I would just set up the camera, look for a leaf, and POOF! Instant image.

Reality, however, was a long distance from my simplistic plan.

For starters, leaves are in constant motions, and the first few images I took were quite blurry. After fooling with the shutter speed for a bit, I came to the conclusion that it would be virtually impossible to try and predict the sudden twists and turns a leaf might take, and that an automatic setting was just as good as trying to plan this shot. I wanted top contrast the bright blue sky with a red, yellow, or brown leaf as it wafted to the ground. Easy enough, right?

I snapped dozens of pictures, achieving clarity on some half-leaves while winding up with muddled, out-of-focus images of many other leaves. Finally, on what might have been my 50th image, I was rewarded with an image that, well, did not quite suck.

I did not get all of the stem on this one, but it satisfied my desire to capture the image of a falling leaf. After I finished, my neighbor said I should have just taken a picture of a leaf still attached to a tree and then cropped it.

I would have called him a wiseguy, but his method would have achieved the same effect in 1/10 of the time, and truth be told: it is more fun to simply watch falling leaves than to get irritated trying to preserve such images for posterity.

Oct 26, 2010

October Tornado Warning - Lucas County

It seems strange to think of tornadoes in late October, but the National Weather Service just issued a tornado warning for Lucas County in Northwest Ohio. The screaming sirens reminded me that we folks at the northern end of Tornado Alley can find severe weather in all seasons.

To the southwest the skies are darkening quickly, and this storm may bring winds of 90 mph, so if you are reading this post and live near Lucas County, consider taking cover.

I am herding my dogs into the house and getting ready to relocate to the basement if this storm rolls in as predicted.

Oct 24, 2010

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.

People need trouble: a little frustration to sharpen the spirit on, toughen it. Artists do; I don't mean you need to live in a rat hole or gutter, but you have to learn fortitude, endurance.
-- William Faulkner

Oct 20, 2010

Red-Tailed Hawk

I heard the Red-tailed hawk pictured on your left long before I saw the magnificent raptor circling over my house this afternoon while I was raking leaves. Also known by its scientific name Buteo jamaicensis, the Red-tailed hawk is one of the most common birds of prey in North America, though as someone who has spent most of his life in the city I still get excited to see one in my neighborhood.

I thought I lost the bird in the time it took me to run in and grab my camera, but a minute or two later I saw the hawk circling again, its four-foot wingspan large enough to create a shadow on the ground below.

I suspect that the hawks in the vicinity of my house have been feasting at times on the rats that have wandered into our neighborhood due to the recent construction on Secor Road, which likely disturbed rodent habitats in sewers. In 20 years of living in this West Toledo house I never saw a rat until this summer, and just this morning I found another dead rat in my front yard.

So I welcome the presence of these large raptors, which not only provide entertainment but likely keep down the population of unwanted pests.

Oct 18, 2010

On Moments of Sheer Beauty and Jackasses Who Disrupt Moments of Serenity

I paused yesterday afternoon for a few moments to appreciate to the red roses pictured on your left, a series of out-of-season blossoms from a rose bush that I may have tricked into thinking it is still growing season by extra watering. It had been a stressful and depressing week, and for a brief few moments the red roses seemed to auger the possibility of a period of better days.

I walked into the house to find my camera to record the moment, and as I snapped a few pictures I heard the sound of an approaching vehicle in need of exhaust work. It turned out to be an older model red pickup truck, and there were about five young men in the cab and the truck bed.

"Nice shirt you are wearing, faggot!" was the first words I heard, the jeering clown referencing the formal clothing I was wearing to go to a funeral a little later. Then the stupidity of the brave idiot was joined by other similar drivel from the chicken-shit occupants of the rapidly accelerating truck.

My first instinct was to throw down a challenge to the morons, but I thought that this course of action was pointless. At best I would just end up in a verbal exchange with a group of quasi-Neanderthals, and the worst case scenario would be that they would return in the middle of the night and vandalize my property.

So I watched the laughing fools drive off, continuing to shout at random people they encountered. I suspect that alcohol may have fueled the impulsivity and recklessness of the teenagers, but I was mostly disappointed in the disruption of my Zen moment. Yet the irritation soon passed, and the beauty of the red roses remained. I could choose to hold on to my resentment, or I could spend a few more minutes enjoying the warm fall afternoon with the unexpected pleasure of brilliant red roses.

I chose the latter.

Oct 16, 2010

On Erie Orchards and Small Children

Like many Midwesterners, we heeded to the call of the cider mill this sunny October afternoon, taking a drive up to Erie Orchards to partake in the fall festivities. Normally I grumble a bit at the tackiness of some of these places, and certainly the presence of an Elvis impersonator and vendors selling plastic trinkets would normally rile up my inner curmudgeon.

Yet this was a different sort of trip, as we brought along my baby granddaughter Isabella and my niece's toddler, Lily (pictured on your left). Some of the activities that seem mundane or even kitschy take on a different meaning when you are accompanied by small children. For the kiddies such events are grand fun, or are at least new and exciting, so we can derive a different sort of enjoyment just being around the little rascals as they run in the hay, feed the reindeer, and fend off the yellow jackets.

Oh, and surprisingly we saw very few yellow jackets at Erie Orchards today. I am not sure if this was coincidental, or if the folks running the place actively suppressed the populations of hornets and wasps, but this was the first time I ever visited an apple orchard in which I was not at least momentarily annoyed by the persistence of buzzing pests.

Sun, cider, doughnuts, and good company were aplenty, and perhaps I turned the corner on being more amenable to the tradition of pumping currency into local apple orchards.

Oct 15, 2010

In Memoriam: Glenn J. Ames, Scholar and Mentor

It was with great sadness that I learned yesterday of the death of University of Toledo Professor Glenn J. Ames, my dissertation advisor and a longtime friend and mentor. I knew that he had medical issues, as I took over several classes for him this semester when he went on medical leave, but I was unaware of the seriousness of his health concerns; when I last saw him two months ago he looked fine.

Rather, in retrospect, I now know that he simply put on a brave face and convinced me he was fine, despite what turned out to be terminal cancer: this must have been the stoic New Englander in him.

Glenn Ames was a prolific writer, with six academic books and countless articles to his credit. Yet I will remember him most for his excellence in teaching and guiding his graduate students, and I know that I learned a great deal from him in the decade that I worked with him.

Glenn loved to make history relevant to students, especially non-history majors in the survey classes. He had a remarkable lecture style in the large section surveys, which often had as many as 300 students. He effortlessly blended humor, pathos, and history into lectures that were as entertaining as they were instructional, and when I was his teaching assistant in some of these classes students frequently described Glenn as their all-time favorite history teacher.

I liked working with Glenn at the graduate level, as his style fit my own approach to research and writing. He allowed his graduate students to find their own research topics, and he tried not to interfere with the academic self-discovery process that comes with working on a project like a dissertation. Yet when necessary he knew when to step in and redirect a struggling student, and he was quite helpful in navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy that goes along with completing a graduate degree.

I would be remiss in this brief panegyric if I did not mention my appreciation to Glenn Ames for his help in completing my own dissertation last year. He enthusiastically backed a project that is much broader in temporal and geographical scope than is typical for a dissertation, and he recognized that the dearth of comprehensive literature on my topic meant that this was a needed contribution to the historiography of European expansion. My research in many ways reflects the efforts of Glenn to guide me in the process of being a professional historian, and I will forever be grateful for his advice.

Glenn regularly attended commencement exercises at UT, even when he did not have a graduate student walking in the ceremony. You could always spot him in the crowd, as he wore doctoral garb from his alma mater, which featured the distinctive University of Minnesota colors. Little did I know that when he hooded me last year that he would be participating in one of the last graduations in his life.

One of my favorite Glenn Ames stories is related to a guest lecture he gave at a graduate seminar called "Teaching History in College." He was talking about teaching a large section of undergraduates in a survey (1000-level) class, and one of the graduate students remarked that it seemed daunting to teach in front of a crowd of hundreds of students. Glenn told the class: "Look, these are college freshman, and they know almost nothing about world history. All you really have to remember is that Hitler lost the Second World War, and even then: you could probably let him win it once in a while and none of the students would notice the error."

Glenn's point was not to trivialize history, mind you, but to remind the next generation of college history teachers that it is understood that a beginning teacher will forget facts or misspeak on occasion, and that generally survey-level students are unaware of minor weaknesses in a lecture. In fact, part of the process of becoming a teacher is to work through a screw-up and learn to better prepare for unanticipated questions and lecture gaffes: they will happen, and they can be opportunities to improve the next time you teach the topic.

The greatest joys in Glenn's life were his two children, Miranda and Ethan. When he taught summer classes, the kids were frequently guests in his classes, and he frequently talked about the children in and out of class. Glenn used to have this ongoing gag that he worked with his son in which he would supply Ethan with a couple of answers to obscure questions he would ask in the class. When the students would be clueless, he would have Ethan supply the answers. Imagine the looks on the faces of the college students when a kid of eight or so would nail the answers to these difficult questions.

I am glad that Glenn got to spend so much time with his children, as he was able to take them to places like India and Portugal when he was working in archives. Yet it seems patently unfair that a guy of only 55 years of age should be called away while he was still so young; my heart goes out to Miranda, Ethan and the rest of his family, whose own pain must be excruciating.

The world has lost a good person, and while Glenn Ames might not be a household name, I am sure that the many thousands of students he taught in his 22 years at the University of Toledo would agree that he was an extraordinary individual with a love for life. Adeus, meu amigo.

Oct 11, 2010

Yellow Archangel - Lamiastrum galeobdolon

I have a few shady spots in my yard that I have called "dead zones" over the years for their seeming inability to sustain any significant ornamental plant growth. This year I decided to try out a few hardy perennials in an effort to dispel the notion that these places must forever remain barren.

One of the most successful of the additions has been yellow archangel, pictured on your left. Also known by the scientific name of Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this rhizome-based plant appears to be thriving in a nutrient-poor area under a maple tree in my yard. I started out with a handful of small plants I ordered on eBay, and in just a few months I have cultivated a pair of thick 6-square-foot stands of yellow archangel.

Yet not all horticulturalists and botanists love the lowly yellow archangel, and it is considered by some folks to be a noxious weed for its invasive tendencies. I can see where this plant would be difficult to control by a casual or lazy gardener, as it sends out tendril-like vines that spread fairly quickly, and the plant can be propagated by even the smallest piece of the rhizome.

So if you are thinking of adding this plant to your garden, be aware that yellow archangel should be isolated from other plants and that you may need to be aggressive in controlling its spread.

Oct 9, 2010

On Rich Iott, Nazi Uniforms, and Imploding Campaigns

Pictured: Rich Iott, second from right, in a Nazi Waffen SS uniform; photo courtesy of The Atlantic

I have been watching with some amazement the news reports related to the revelation that congressional candidate Rich Iott has participated in historical re-enactments as a Nazi soldier. For at least four years Iott was a member of the Wiking Historical Re-enactment Society, which is dedicated to the study and re-enactment of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.

Let me begin by saying that as a historian I see significant pedagogical value in historical re-enactment, and that participants can learn a great deal about the periods and peoples they are covering. And no: I do not believe Rich Iott has any Nazi sympathies. Moreover, as a voter I had yet to decide (until this debacle, at least) whether I would vote for Marcy Kaptur (thus preserving the Toledo area's influence in the powerful House Appropriations Committee) or Rich Iott (who at least talks about a return to fiscal responsibility).

That being said, there are few controversies that Kaptur operatives could dream up that would be as effective as the gift that Rich Iott provided them with these Nazi uniform photos. I can just imagine Kaptur campaign aides sitting around the table when word of the photos emerged:

"Let me get this straight: we have photos of Rich Iott in Nazi regalia? Not Photoshopped, right? Hmmm...... HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

And so on.

Here is how this will probably play out: Iott will spend an entire week just before the election backpedaling and denying he is a Nazi. Kaptuir will take the high road, saying something like: "I have no reason to think Rich Iott is a Nazi sympathizer, and it is perfectly acceptable for historical re-enactors to wear period clothing, like Rich Iott and his son when they wore Waffen-SS uniforms for several years." She probably will not even put a loaded qualifier in there, like "Rich Iott needs to come clean to the voters about his views on the Nazis," because the photos are enough of a bombshell.

But the coverage from newspapers, television programs, radio talk shows, and Internet blogs and message boards will inevitably cement the terms "Rich Iott" and "Nazi" in the minds of voters. Military veterans and adherents of the various forms of Judaism will be the groups most likely to turn away from Iott, of course, but the word "Nazi" does not play well with very many voters. Just turning away a few thousand voters offended by pictures of Iott in a Nazi uniform is highly significant in an off-year election in which the total vote will probably be 220,000 or so.

What is going to hurt Iott more from this is the slowing of the money spigot in the remaining weeks. The last-minute cash that would normally be thrown at what seemed to be a fairly close race is going to drop off to a trickle, as no one likes to toss money into what is perceived to be a doomed campaign. Let's face it: for the next 3-7 days there will be thousands of news stories and blog posts with images of Rich Iott in a Nazi uniform, and only the most true-believing of Iott supporters are going to cough up cash as this story continues to circulate.

Prior to the Nazi photos I saw this race as something like a 53-47 Kaptur lead, but after the next week those numbers are going to move decidedly in Kaptur's favor, and I suspect Kaptur will wind up in the high fifties after Nazi-gate. Unless the Iott campaign has its own nuclear option, like a picture of Kaptur in a BDSM outfit or one of Kaptur tossing puppies off a bridge, Rich Iott is doomed. And the PMA scandal seems to have zero traction in this race, so Iott is wasting his time trying to beat this dead horse to pull the campaign plow.

Things look pretty grim for Rich Iott based on the New York Times and their FiveThirtyEight Forecast for Ohio's 9th congressional district. They are predicting a 61-36 victory for Kaptur (margin of error at the moment is 8.9 percent) and they give Kaptur a 99.7 percent chance of victory.

Pictured: Rich Iott in a Nazi Waffen SS uniform at an undated Wiking ceremony; photo courtesy of The Atlantic

Imagine if Iott had collected and released a bunch of images from his re-enactment events and included the so-called Nazi image in its proper context: as part of a larger interest in military history. Then pundits who took the Nazi image out of context would look like people deliberately twisting an innocent image for political gain, and this "story" would have little effect (I do not believe for a single second that Rich Iott is a Nazi sympathizer or fetishist).

Instead, we have Iott scrambling to explain why he is in a Waffen-SS uniform, and this will dog him for at least a few days. Moreover, the repeated airing of these images will stick to Iott in subtle-but-substantial ways among undecided voters.

In my opinion this is a significant PR problem for Iott, and unfortunately it was handled stupidly. This is yet another race that should have been focused on issues, but instead will be derailed by poor planning and irrelevant Internet history.

Moral to the story: if a politician has anything that could be twisted and used as political hay, it is best to get it out in the open and "own" the material. Getting it sprung into the campaign by a political opponent almost always guarantees that the candidate will be on the defensive addressing the charge, and this is a waste of both financial and political capital. Also, just deleting material from a website doesn't make it disappear, as tools like the Wayback Machine theoretically keep Internet material alive forever.

In the case of Rich Iott, the Internet images he thought had been erased are going to sink his campaign.

Oct 8, 2010

A Tale of Gubernatorial Debates, University Administrators, Lowly Adjuncts, and Misplaced Priorities

Left: Governor Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich at the University of Toledo's Driscoll Alumni Center; photo courtesy of AP/Andy Morrison

I did not watch the debate between Governor Ted Strickland and challenger John Kasich last night. The reason, though, had less to do with political disinterest and much more to do with extra work I created for myself by standing up for the rights of my students.

And also, because of my proclivity for being bull-headed.

I arrived about 8:40 am on Wednesday for my scheduled 9:00 am class in the University of Toledo's Driscoll Alumni Center. I am a full time faculty member at Bowling Green State University, but I agreed at the last minute this semester to take a teaching assignment that unexpectedly opened up at UT, the institution at which I earned my doctorate. This is kind of a Yoda-Young Jedi situation of sorts, except that I am more like a middle-aged and graying Jedi whose powers are mostly limited to those involving PowerPoint and dry erase markers.

Anyways, I was immediately bombarded by students who told them that construction contractors were telling them to go to a classroom in the Memorial Field House. The contractors said that the classroom was going to be used for the gubernatorial debate. Neither I nor my TAs received any notice of this. No emails, no memos, no text messages: no communication whatsoever.

Even worse is the fact that I was giving a scheduled midterm exam that day to my class of 240 students. In a logistical sense this took priority over simply canceling class, because it would be a full week before class meets again, and frankly I have never unilaterally cancelled a class in my teaching career.

So I first had to retrieve the 80 or so students mistakenly sent a quarter mile away to the Memorial Field House, and they were understandably angry about the disruptions. Even stranger was the fact that my students were directed to a room that already contained a class in session, so two classes were simultaneously disrupted for the price of one.

I had a rather heated exchange with one construction worker who marched into the class just before the test to tell me I wasn't supposed to be in my own classroom (admittedly my less-than-cordial discussions with the construction workers probably fueled their irritation, and I am a long ways from the sort of Gandhi-esque Satyagraha that might have been a more useful approach, but I digress).

However, what most disturbs me is the repeated interruptions by University officials and construction workers during the exam. Several times UT officials walked into the room and asked questions like "what time are you going to be finished" and "I thought this class was cancelled," while the construction workers seemed to be going out of their way to make as much noise as possible. Saws and drills continued in the hallways and entranceways, bulky equipment kept being noisily dropped, and I could see that a number of my students were irritated at the chaos.

I will pause and point out that the sole exception to the institutional insanity was C. Vernon Snyder, the University's Vice President for Institutional Advancement. He walked into the room, told me that the exam could go on as scheduled, and seemed to be one of the few people in this saga who understood that educating students should be UT's top priority. Unfortunately, the marketing/communications folks and construction workers more than made up for Snyder's voice of reason.

This situation was almost like the Keystone Kops in its unfolding, except for the fact that my students are real human beings who pay a great deal of money for the privilege of attending classes at UT. Surely they deserve at least as much notice of the disruption as the aides to the candidates, and undoubtedly the planning for this event began months ago.

Left: screen shot of a spreadsheet I received several hours after my class detailing the proposed shifting of classes to accommodate the gubernatorial debate

So now I have a class of angry and confused students, and I will inevitably wind up with extra work in trying to make things right (drawing up replacement exams, working with the Testing Center to schedule retakes, determining the statistical effects of the disruptions on exam scores, developing a reasonable scoring adjustment, and manually changing 240 grades). It would have been easier to simply cave in and reschedule the exam, but there were larger principles at stake.

While this is not quite a David-and-Goliath story, I write this post with the full recognition that my words might one day haunt me. Perhaps I might some day seek full time employment teaching at UT, or perhaps on another job search this type of post will mark me as a malcontent. However, occasionally we need to take public stands when we encounter wrongheadedness, and to my way of thinking the importance or teaching and learning at a university trumps the fleeting publicity associated with hosting a gubernatorial debate.

But enough about me: this is a class largely composed of first-year students new to college life, and for many of these students this may have been their very first college exam. I ask what it says about a university when no one bothers to take the time to give advance notice on room cancellations, or when televised political debates are more important than what is supposed to be our principal mission: educating students. In addition, a total of 14 classes and approximately 2000 students were inconvenienced through this decision by university officials, and these problems could have been avoided had the university simply used one of its existing non-academic auditoriums, like the Doermann Theater.

Or better yet, simply passing on the event. After all, other than a few brief mentions during coverage on C-SPAN and local television, the University really received little publicity from this event.

In all my years in academia as a student and as an instructor I have never seen a series of events more dysfunctional and ill-conceived than this decision, and I think the University's half-hearted, after-the-fact mea culpa via email to me rings hollow. It seems that it is more important for UT to garner a few moments of televised publicity than to concentrate on its core responsibilities to students.

Yet to be fair I was in some ways blessed yesterday morning: the teaching assistants assigned to the class - Stephanie Crawford and Emily Ruckel - kept their cool while the course professor fumed and muttered, and they helped brainstorm ways to deal with the chaos. At one point I was reluctant to leave the stage at the front of the classroom, perhaps irrationally thinking that if I walked into the hallway someone from the university would grab the stage and announce the closing of the room. The TAs gave me the figurative and literal muscle I needed to manage a multi-faceted maelstrom, and ultimately the exam happened.


Oct 5, 2010

Lost Dog, Secor-Laskey Area 10-5-2010

Pictured on your left is Buddy, a Puggle we are fostering with Planned Pethood. He escaped earlier this afternoon in the Secor-Laskey area.

Buddy is a five-year-old male Puggle who weighs about 40 pounds. He is gentle and friendly, though sometimes a bit of a fraidy cat around strangers. Unfortunately, he is wearing his old name tag and collar, so people who find him might try to return him to the house of his deceased owner.

If you find Buddy, you can email Planned Pethood at pets@plannedpethood.org or call 419-826-FIXX(3499), or you can email me at mebrook@bgsu.edu. Thanks for any help you can provide!

Oct 3, 2010

Out Sick

Sorry for the lack of posts the last few days, as I have been hit by a wicked little influenza-type bug. I did get the combination influenza shot this year, which is normally the epidemiological equivalent of gold bullion, but over the past two days I have been lethargic, achy, feverish, and flat-out grumpy as heck.

This short post is the first moment in the past few days in which I can stay upright for more than 10 minutes at a stretch, so perhaps I am on the mend.

I trust that your visiting of this site will not result in acquisition of the contagion that sidelined me.