Feb 27, 2010

Luminescent Luna Pier Water Tower

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My wife was the first to notice the apparent change in the exterior of the water tower that supplies the southern Michigan community of Luna Pier. Perhaps it was just a combination of gray skies to the east and brighter light in the west, but the water tower seemed to almost glow in the early February evening as we passed it on Interstate 75.

To my eyes the water tower looked either like an inverted party balloon or the dropper that comes in those ear wax removal packages. Either way, for some reason the structure really caught our gaze late this afternoon as we drove to visit my grandfather.

I drive that way fairly regularly, and it would seem unlikely that I could have missed the water tower being painted. I also doubt that winter would be the best season to paint such a structure, though admittedly I am no exterior paint expert.

Feb 26, 2010

A Rib Fracture Story

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No, this is not an X-ray of my own ribs - I found a public domain image at Wikimedia Commons and posted it here. If I had actually posted my own X-ray, though, it would look like this.

I wish I had an exciting story to post, but I actually fractured my rib while sitting in the chair in my office. My dog kept bringing over a tennis ball for me to throw, and she dropped it about three feet away from the chair. I leaned over, and the arm of the chair mangled my rib as I awkwardly half-fell, half-sprawled out of my chair.

Luckily, the break did not protrude and puncture my lung, but who knew office chairs could be so dangerous? Friends: never play fetch with a dog while rolling around in an office chair.

Bad things can happen.

My ER visit lasted three hours, and I told my wife I would have been highly pissed if I sat there all that time to find out the rib will heal just fine while having the doctor prescribe ibuprofen or something. At least the physician was considerate enough to write a prescription for lodine and Tylenol-3. The combined analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of this pair seemed to take the edge off the pain quite nicely without creating a stoned effect.

Feb 25, 2010

Random Wikiness

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When I am looking for inspiration in my writing - or during those moments when I am utterly and completely bored beyond redemption - I visit Wikipedia and use the Random Article function. Located on the left sidebar of the main Wikipedia page, a click on the Random Article link is a journey into the millions of always-evolving Wiki articles that Wikipedians have created and edited.

I first visited via the Random Article a page dedicated to birds of the family Columbidae. The most common of these near passerine birds in the Columbidae family show no obvious links with other bird families, and their closest relatives are likely the extinct dodo and the Rodrigues Solitaire.

I next learned about Đà Lạt, a city of approximately 120,000 people that is the capital of Lâm Đồng Province in Vietnam. Đà Lạt is noted for its nearby pine woods, which are the basis for the translation of its name: "City of thousands of pine trees." Đà Lạt was also the capital of the Japanese puppet state known as the Federation of Indochina from 1939 to 1945 during the Second World War.

My next click took me to a page discussing American geologist, mountaineer, and art critic Clarence King, who lived from 1842-1901. I vaguely remember reading about King in a book by Aaron Sachs entitled The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. King was most noteworthy in his role as the first director of the United States Geological Survey and for his exploration of the mountain range Sierra Nevada. He published one of his most famous works in 1872, giving it the unassuming title of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada.

I ended my session of Wiki-surfing by reading a page about Grlevelx, which is a data processing and display program for weather radar data developed by Gibson Ridge Software, LLC. The principal users of Grlevelx are meteorological professionals outside the National Weather Service who employ the software for precipitation analysis, tornado detection, and hurricane strength. That being said, the company's website posts list pricing for GRLevel2 and GRLevel3 each at a reasonable $79.95, making their software affordable to true weather geeks like me. Even the cost and licensing for the high-end GRLevel2 Analyst Edition is only a few hundred bucks, and you could outfit quite a weather-chasing gig with this software.

Thus ends another expedition in Random Wikiness. I heartily recommend this feature for folks who are bored with the usual Facebook and Twitter silliness, and who seek a Web-surfing experience that is as edifying as it is entertaining.

Feb 24, 2010

Tips on Working from Home

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Pictured on your left is my office space in my house, a place where I typically spend 6-7 hours a day. Over the past few years an increasing amount of my work-related efforts occur in this 10' x 12' room, and I have been thinking a lot the past few months about the nature of working from home.

I am certainly far from being alone in my work-at-home capacities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2004 some 20.7 million persons performed some work at home as part of their primary job. These workers, who reported working at home at least once per week, accounted for about 15 percent of total nonagricultural employment in the United States. Interestingly, 8 in 10 of those engaged in job-related work at home used a computer in their work, suggesting that an increasing amount of tech-based work is being farmed out to consultants and part-timers.

The following is a short list of some suggestion that came to mind for people who are employed at least in part out of their homes. Feel free to chime in in the Comments section if you have other ideas or anecdotes you would like to share.

  • Reinforce to family members or roommates the need to respect your workspace and work time. In my own case my children have been the most frequent interrupters of my work at home, and sometimes I have to repeatedly remind them that "Dad is working." The temptation is quite strong to see you as your "normal" self and not as an employee performing the work that pays for their PlayStations and PopTarts, and it is important to set clear boundaries.

  • Create a separate work space, and avoid letting work expand beyond the home office. Ideally you will have a door to the office that can be closed, but if you have an open work area make sure that people know that this is not their personal office supply cache or a dumping zone for articles they are too lazy to put in their proper place.

  • Set regular home work hours. Yes, working from home has its advantages in that you can take a break and run errands or play with the dogs, but you need to create a schedule and stick to it. People who lack self-discipline or who thrive best in a structured environment tend to struggle when working from home.

  • Make time for social interaction. Personally I am something of a reclusive hermit, so working at home appeals to me on an instinctual level. For the rest of the world, though, being isolated at home would be like solitary confinement. Spend a few minutes each day talking to neighbors, or make some quick calls to friends to get the necessary human connections. Even a curmudgeon like me winds up with cabin fever after a few days.

  • Dress in a reasonably professional manner. People who work out of their homes sometimes joke that they plod around in their pyjamas all day, but I find that I am more work-focused if I at least put on a dress shirt and khakis when working. I also shower and shave every day before work to put me in the focused mode. Besides, it is too easy to slip into slob mode by wearing pyjamas, and you should also remember that occasionally you will need to leave the house for unexpected meetings or work-related errands.

  • Set aside designated break times. The Internet can be a massive time-sucking entity, and a person can waste a tremendous amount of time on sites like Facebook or Twitter. Set attainable work goals for yourself and do not "play" on your computer until that goal is met. In my own case I often tell myself during course prep that I have to write 10 PowerPoints (about an hour's worth of work) before I can kill a few minutes in an entertaining pursuit.

  • Create an exercise and meal routine. Working at home can mean an increased amount of time sitting at the computer, which can translate into excess body weight quite quickly. In addition, back strain, eye strain, and carpal tunnel are very real possibilities, so make sure you get up from your work station at least once an hour. Eat a healthy breakfast, do not skip lunch, and make sure that you drink plenty of water.

  • Avoid returning to work after you have finished. That work desk can sometimes beckon you to keep working long after you have completed a solid day's work. Unless you have some emergency situations, make sure your free time stays that way.

  • Keep the rest of the house neat and clean. For me a messy house is a significant distraction, making me feel like cleaning instead of working. At a minimum I keep the dishes washed, trash emptied, and clutter picked up before I sit down for serious work, as that stuff will linger in my subconscious and annoy me until it is finished.

  • Keep family time exactly that. It is unfair to make the rest of the family suffer because you are behind on your work, especially if this is due to procrastination. I try to schedule the majority of my work when the house is empty, and this also makes sense in terms of a reduction in interruptions.

  • Eliminate potential sources of distraction. Ringing telephones always jar me out of deep thinking, and I recently engaged in a campaign to get removed from every telemarketing list. The number of incoming calls is noticeably down at my house, but if the phone is annoying to you, simply shut it off or unplug it. The same goes for televisions, doorbells, or any other devices that interfere with productivity.

Welcome to the Blogosphere, Mad Jack's Shack

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A longtime fixture on local bulletin boards and a friend of mine, the one and only Mad Jack, has finally started his own blog. Follow this link to Mad Jack's Shack to read the acerbic prose and political polemics of this code-cruncher-turned-author.

Mad Jack jealously guards his identity, and only red-hot fireplace irons in my eyeballs could get me to divulge his real name. Luckily for Jack I also wear thick spectacles.

Feb 22, 2010

On Wet Snow, Back Aches, and Unexpected Karma

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Left: less to shovel than expected

I'm in a momentary funk so I decided to focus on something positive in this short essay. My back has been killing me for over two weeks now, and I have been putting off making a call to my primary care physician. He will probably just take X-rays, refer me to a back specialist, and I would spend the next three months with office visits and physical therapy.

I am also avoiding the painkiller trap, as it is too easy to start munching the Vicodin pills like they were narcotic candies. Besides, when my lower back acts up, the opiated painkillers provide little relief, and I just end up being in a semi-stoned state and still stuck with a nagging backache.

So it was with wondrous joy that I awoke this morning and saw my neighbor's son and his snow blower attacking the four inches of heavy snow that accumulated overnight. This random act of kindness - he ended up clearing about half of my driveway - probably saved me from further aggravating my lumbar problems.

Of course, it was probably my stubborn insistence on shoveling the driveways of his mom and another older neighbor (in addition to my own) that caused the backache in the first place, but that is another issue. The point is that karma works in unexpected ways, and instead of being glum about events beyond my control I should spend a few minutes appreciating the way the universe balanced out.

All right: I am still in the midst of melancholia, but for at least the past 10 minutes I paused from my self-imposed glum-fest. Perhaps this exercise in mood management will be the spark from which a better frame of mind emerges.

Feb 21, 2010

"Do We Have to Read the ENTIRE Book?"

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shelf full of books; bookshelf with books; rows of literatureLeft: Some students view these items as "icky"

I am sure that the students in my college classes who ask me the question that is the above post title do not intend to sound whiny and petulant, but that is exactly the reaction that I experience when I hear this all-too-frequent student query. You would think I have just required students to wolf down a steaming, freshly deposited pile of dog feces by their crestfallen faces when I reply that yes: they do need to read the entirety of the assigned texts.

Now, there is nothing new under the literary sun when it comes to student distaste for reading, and I am not going to let this essay devolve into generational stereotypes along the lines of statements that begin with the phrase "students these days." Certainly in the years of my first foray into academia as a young adult I was less-than-dedicated to completing the assigned readings, and my ho-hum GPA at Michigan in the 1980s reflects my lackluster academic reading.

Yet I plowed right into the occasional college reading assignments that were actually entertaining, or those that spoke to me in some meaningful. I read with zest books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Tao of Physics, all of which I learned about in college.

As an instructor I always try to find books that balance intellectual value with readability, and when I hear my best students grumbling about a given text I take note and consider alternatives for future classes. Whenever possible I include works of quality literature (including novels and poetry) if they highlight an important component of the course objectives. For example, in an upper level undergraduate class at BGSU I am teaching called "Representative Personalities of the Twentieth Century" I assigned five mass market textbooks in the 150-200 page range designed for general audiences, and the rest of the readings I provided free of charge as online files.

Not only could they borrow all of these books from the library or read online at Google Books (or purchase them used for a couple of bucks each from online retailers) I chose books with a high degree of reader friendliness such as Child of the Dark by Carolina Maria de Jesus and Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza. In a weird way it is almost insulting for a student to ask if the entire book needs to be read, as I painstakingly agonize over book selection for many hours when I design a course.

This is like sitting down to a five-course meal prepared by a chef and asking if you can order a pizza instead.

So yes, dear students: read the entirety of the books I assign if at all possible. Not only will your grades improve, but it is highly likely that the assigned books will speak to you in ways that will pay many dividends throughout your lifetimes.

And more importantly: you will not be that last-straw student who asks me this inane question on the day when I finally blow my stack and rain down heaps of abuse upon your woebegotten skull.

Feb 20, 2010

A Cute Wedding Gag

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I enjoyed a moment of levity during a wedding I attended today. I have seen quite a few wedding gags over the years, including the ubiquitous "oops-where's-the-wedding-ring" routine, but I saw a well-choreographed skit this afternoon that is worth mentioning.

At the moment the preacher announced "you may kiss the bride," groom Todd Hamilton paused, raised a finger, and turned to his best man. The best man pulled out an aerosol breath spray, gave the groom a quick freshening, and the groom returned to place a kiss on his new bride, Rachal Goodluck Hamilton.

Too funny and executed perfectly.

Anyways, I hope the best for the happy couple, and I pray that they have many wonderful decades together!

Feb 18, 2010

Joseph Andrew Stack III: Definitely Not a Terrorist, So Move Along, Folks

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Left: Smoking building that houses the Internal Revenue Service in Austin, Texas; photo by Jack Plunkett/AP

I have been scratching my head following the media coverage of Joe Stack, the pilot who crashed his plane into an Austin building that holds regional offices of the Internal Revenue Service. The disturbed rantings of the software engineer do not puzzle me, as most of us can examples of people who gradually lost their ability to handle reality and begin to see the government as an enemy that needs to be eliminated.

Like Timothy McVeigh, for example.

No, my bewilderment is the quick denial by a variety of government officials that this attack represents an act of terrorism. This denial has emanated from the top of the federal chain, with White House press secretary Robert Gibbs chiming in that Stack's attack "does not appear" to be terrorism.

Of course, defining terrorism is an intellectual exercise in itself, and if we put 100 terrorism experts in the same room, we would wind up with a massive catering bill but little in the way of consensus on a terrorism definition. Still, we have an enraged protagonist with a pathological hatred of government who flew an airplane into a building containing what he perceived to be his chief nemesis with the expressed purpose of deadly violence. He certainly was not offering fast weight loss tips, right?

Heck, Joe Stack even left a detailed manifesto that could have been penned by any international terrorist with the inclusion of a few "down with the U.S." statements. It certainly fits in with the anti-government ideology of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and elements of this manifesto fit the rantings of Unabomber Theodore John Kaczynski.

Yet to listen to government officials one would think that Joe Stack's actions had absolutely no political aims behind them, which is an important component of identifying a terrorist act. Stack's own words sound like the sort of rhetoric a suicide bomber would use: ""Well Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different: take my pound of flesh and sleep well."

I am not sure which approach to terrorism annoys me more: the Bush administration's near-constant mantra warning of terrorism lurking in every dark corner or the Obama administration's seeming unwillingness to use the word "terrorism" in an official pronouncement.

Time to move along now, kiddies: nothing to see here.

On ITune Singles and Music Collection Gaps

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For Christmas I received an ITunes gift certificate, and I used the card to purchase a bunch of single songs. Many of these were tunes by one-hit wonders in the distant past, though some were catchy songs recorded in the last few years.

I have owned an iPod for several years now, but up until recently I used the device mostly as a portable player for the hundreds of CDs my wife transferred to our external hard drive. I largely stayed away from significant purchases of digitized iTunes music.

I find useful this iTunes system of making available single songs as something of a throwback to my younger years. We used to purchase 45 RPM records for 49 cents at Kmart or Woolworth back in those olden days of the vinyl record player, and visiting the iTunes Store is a way to fill some of the gaps in one's musical collection without shelling out $15 for a new CD.

Here are some of the songs I downloaded:

  • "Lightning Strikes," Lou Christie

  • "Like a Stone," Audioslave

  • "Miserlou," Dick Dale

  • "Classical Gas," Mason Williams

  • "Five O'Clock World," The Vogues

  • "Pipeline," The Chantays

  • "Oh Babe, What Would You Say," Norman "Hurricane" Smith

  • "I'll Take You There," The Staples Singers

  • "Where Evil Grows," The Poppy Family
The downside to iTunes, of course, is that the software has limited portability and sharing in order to prevent unauthorized copying. Still, for the occasional song that you are just dying to access, the $.99 iTunes price is quite reasonable. I would, however, be irritated if I paid $15-$20 for an album on iTunes only to see its use be limited to the handful of media devices linked to my laptop, like if I ponied up for Quick Trim and could only use it on the days I ate carrots and beets.

Feb 17, 2010

Squirrel Ingenuity

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I knew that neighborhood squirrels had been raiding my bird feeders this winter, but I did not know the method by which the crafty rodents had been defeating my "squirrel-proof" feeder. It turns out that I placed a bird feeder just a few inches too close to the feeder, which allows a squirrel just enough space to lean over, grab the feeder, and shake the device, sending a cascading wave of sunflower seeds to the ground.

I suppose I do not have the heart to move the bird feeder, at least not until the snow melts this spring.

Feb 16, 2010

Doppelgänger or Identity Theft? The Dole Salad Guide Dude is My Double

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The likeness between me and the Dole Salad Guide is uncanny (yes, an intended pun), and I suspect that Dole operatives have been stalking me in a concerted effort to usurp my identity. That is, unless I have a lettuce-hawking doppelgänger out there sullying my semi-tarnished name.

I am setting aside for the moment the inherent lack of value such theft would net the Dole Food Company as compared with, say, stealing the soul of Brad Pitt or George Clooney, two men with whom I am frequently compared. Clearly my visage must represent some sort of friendly and warm archetype for the Dole Food Company - could it be my years of experience teaching college students, or the fact that I helped raise a house full of children?

Perhaps it is my work with rescue dogs that makes my face the mug that Dole wants as a salad spokesperson. Maybe anyone who dogs love must have some secret marketing quality that endears salad-eating folks to trust his advice, like one would a person knowledgeable about the process of a CLA review.

At any rate, a hat tip to my sister Paula for finding this evil double. Now I am off to find out a way to profit from this eerie twin-and-famous brother I never knew I had.

Feb 15, 2010

The Story of a Pine Tree

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When we moved into our current home almost 17 years ago, the pine tree pictured on your left might have been 15 feet tall. To put this into perspective, this tree would have been 3-4 times the height of the white picket fence you can see at the bottom of the image on your left.

These days this pine tree is about 50 feet tall, and the tree regularly drains all groundwater within a 20 foot radius of its trunk. Any plants I would like to grow near this magnificent tree need extra water, especially in the months of July and August. I used to attribute the difficulty I had in getting plants to grow near the tree to acidity of the pine needles, but I have since learned that tall pine trees are quite the water siphoners.

This pine tree is home to all sorts of birds and squirrels, and rabbits sometimes burrow in the compost pile that I have created at the base. That is, until my dogs find them, and then the rabbits either dig a new hole (like an exposed acne scar on a supermodel's face) or find themselves victim to the latent carnivorous nature of my canine friends.

I regularly trim and prune this tree to keep its branches about eight feet high, and this also helps motorists whose view of the corner would be obscured by this tall tree. I figure that this also mimics the natural world this tree might have experienced if it grew in an area with antler-brandishing deer, moose, or elk.

I cannot imagine the way my yard would look without this pine tree, which has become a year-round fixture on my one-third acre of city land. I suspect that the tree will also outlive me, and perhaps one day someone will stare at this tree like I do and wonder about its history.

Feb 14, 2010

On Dr. Amy Bishop, Tenure Track Positions, and 9mm Solutions

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Police booking photograph of university professor Amy Bishop

I have been following with interest the case of Dr. Amy Bishop, the neurobiology professor accused of shooting six colleagues in a department meeting last week. Three of Bishop's university colleagues, including the department chair, are now dead, and three others are hospitalized with gunshot wounds in one of the most bizarre criminal cases in recent memory.

The dead victims were all biology professors at UAH: Dr. G.K. Podila, the department chair and a colleague who supported her tenure bid; Dr. Maria Ragland Davis; and Dr. Adriel D. Johnson, Sr. Two other biology professors, Dr. Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera and Dr. Joseph Leahy, and a staff member, Stephanie Monticciolo, remain hospitalized, and Leanhy and Monticciolo are in critical condition.

The case gets stranger seemingly every day, and news reports now detail a previous fatality involving Bishop and her late brother. The 1986 police report on a shooting involving the Alabama-Huntsville professor indicates that police investigated but did not charge Bishop with a crime in a shotgun fatality in which an "accidental" discharge by Bishop caused "a large chest wound" that ruptured her brother's aorta.

Bishop apparently seethed over a variety of conflicts with officials at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, not the least of which was the fact that Bishop had been turned down for tenure last spring. With a doctoral degree from Harvard, a respectable record of publications, and a history of bringing in revenue to the university with her research, it would seem that Bishop would be a slam-dunk for tenure, though of course departmental and university politics sometimes sink worthy tenure track candidates.

I certainly have witnessed some rather bitter political academic fights in the decade or so I have been in academia, but how a person could become so enraged over university politics is a mystery. I also scratch my head at the idiocy of a number of media outlets who suggest that the denial of tenure to Bishop meant that she would somehow never teach again. Perhaps Bishop might not have received another shot at the Holy Grail of academic tenure, but certainly a person with her talent level would not have remained unemployed for very long.

There is also a weird political angle to this story, as the district attorney at the time was Congressman Bill Delahunt (D-MA). Bishop was fairly well connected at the time, as her mother Judith was a city official in Braintree, and there are a number of media reports using the word "coverup" to describe the 1986 decision to release Bishop and close the case. This may be a Willie Horton moment for Delahunt, who no doubt will be grilled to explain how his office could fail to follow up on and prosecute what was potentially a murder case.

I cannot imagine the shock waves that this deadly shooting brought about, beginning with the families of the victims and extending through the many academic networks with which Amy Bishop was connected. In a few seconds of rage Bishop almost destroyed an entire academic department, and I suspect it will be many years before a state of normalcy will ever return to the biology department and UAH as a whole.

Coworkers and students described nothing unusual about Bishop's demeanor in the days and weeks prior to the shooting, but the professor obviously carried a deep grudge over events in the preceding year at UAH. While her mental state remains to be evaluated, it is clear that this was a premeditated act on the part of Dr. Amy Bishop, and I doubt that Alabama jurors will be receptive to attempts by defense attorneys to paint Bishop as insane.

Yet like the rest of the world I will no doubt continue to follow this strange tragedy, if for no other reason than to perhaps learn some clues into the behavior of people about to snap.

Feb 13, 2010

Stepping Out

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My wife and I spent Valentine's Eve endeavoring to put to use our nascent ballroom dancing skills at a social gathering tonight. No toes were broken, but I still need to be more cognizant of my elbows, which I sometimes think have been stuck in permanent box-out mode from my days as a elbow-wielding plodding power forward in pickup basketball.

Interestingly, there was a strange turn of events tonight: normally my wife is the one dragging me onto the dance floor, but tonight she was a bit self-conscious about trying out the new steps. Eventually enough couples filled the floor to make her more courageous, and we danced for the first time in public without an instructor guiding us.

And gauging from the comments of other attendees, we at least reached the level of "We Do Not Totally Suck."

Feb 11, 2010

On Purse Thieves, Pangs of Conscience, and Sociopathic Thuggery

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A colleague of mine recently had her purse stolen on an area college campus. I cannot imagine the horror of having such an important personal item ripped off. While I normally avoid gendered stereotypes, I think it is fair to say that many women carry much more of their lives in their purses than most men do in wallets.

If my wallet were stolen, the thief would get little cash (I rarely carry more than $5.00) one debit card (useless without a PIN), one HSA medical account debit card (only good on prescriptions and office visits), plus some pieces of identification and junk like my Kroger card and my Red Cross donor info. However, most women I know have veritable home offices in their purses, and losing a purse would be a nightmare.

There should also be a special place in hell for those who victimize fellow human beings in this manner. Now, I am not one to encourage lawlessness, but I have a lot less antipathy for a criminal who robs a bank or defrauds the government, since these are impersonal entities that frankly build such losses into their operational models. But stealing a purse? Egads - that is some serious sociopathy.

I am tempted to ask how a person gets past the guilty conscience associated with an act like purse-snatching, but this of course assumes that the thief has a conscience to begin with. Sure, a drug habit or some other money-hoovering behavior explains the why of thievery, but how does this type of criminal look in the mirror each morning?

My difficulty in understanding such a crime probably lies in the fact that I do not think like a sociopath. While I am occasionally given to moments of self-pride, at no time have I ever deluded myself that I was somehow better than other people, or that I mattered more than the rest of the schmucks out there. Even at my worst moments of selfishness I retained an ulcer-producing awareness that there were better ways to lead a life, ways deeper than wondering about getting the best deals on Enzyte.

To the purse thief who caused my colleague such distress: I am a firm believer in the principle of karma, and no doubt you will one day suffer mightily for your behavior. But for now I will simply say that no life traumas you may have experienced in the past justify the harm you brought to this innocent victim, and I hope that someday you develop what most of us take for granted: a conscience.

Feb 10, 2010

Rapid Rhetoric - RÉAUMUR

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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.

Réaumur (ray-oh-MYOOR) adj. of or related to a temperature scale in which water freezes at 0° and boils at 80°.

I came across a reference to the the Réaumur scale in a 1909 text on cheese-making. Yes, I need to get out more, but I had a legitimate research purpose in perusing the cheesey text - honest.

The scale is named after eighteenth century French scientist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, who developed the system of temperature measurement in 1730. These were the days when scientists were engaged in the pursuit of answers to questions a bit more substantial than the pursuit of the perfect acne treatment lotion, kiddies. The Réaumur scale enjoyed a measure of popularity in the eighteenth century, but the introduction of the metric Celsius scale doomed the work of Réaumur.

Readers obsessed with knowing the various temperature conversions will be pleased to know that there exist on the Internet charts to convert Celsius, Fahrenheit, Kelvin, Réaumur, and Rankine temperatures. Thus, 98.6° Fahrenheit represents a mere 29.6° Réaumur. Those of you too impatient to click on the converter link can use the following conversion formula:
Re = ( F - 32) / 2.25

Feb 9, 2010

Days of Snow

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I am not ready to holler "blizzard" yet, but Northwest Ohio is in the middle of a strong winter storm that will dump as much as a foot of snow on the region by Wednesday evening. I think about four inches have already accumulated in my neighborhood, though the blowing and drifting makes an accurate reading difficult.

I cleared my docket of most appointments that would require me to drive, but I had to keep an interview with a city council member for a story I am working on for the Toledo Free Press. The roads were lousy, but I lucked out and found a metered space right across the street from One Government Center.

And yes: I put money in the meter. No sense taking a chance on a parking ticket to save 50 cents.

I returned home to find that my earlier efforts to keep the driveway clear had been obliterated by another two inches of snow. I spent the next 90 minutes re-shoveling my driveway, then that of an elderly neighbor, and then re-shoveling my re-shoveling, but eventually I decided that this was enough physical exertion for one day. Heck, that time could have been better spent on something more substantial, like working on a BPI certification.

I suppose I am fortunate that all of this activity occurred on the one day per week I set aside as an "off" day, though I would rather have used the day catching up on the half-dozen minor projects that have been lingering. Still, some day I would like to have a real snow day, one in which I sit around and enjoy the silence and the beauty of a heavy snowstorm.

Feb 8, 2010

On American Core Values

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From time to time I work as a contractor for a firm that corporations use to help acclimate foreign nationals who move to the United States as part of their work. My role is to lead these new arrivals through an overview of American history, culture, and politics, and over the years this has been a fascinating opportunity to meet and talk with people from around the world.

I recently added a component to my presentation that I call "American Core Values." I see this as a way to try and explain what it is that most Americans embrace as part of their American-ness: concepts most of share and beliefs most of us hold. Of course, each of these values is open to rather wide interpretation, but if you ask any American on the street about these terms, chances are that person will agree with these as core values. Unfortunately, when I surfed the Internet a bit to look for ideas, most of the sites I came across were highly political, like this site that lured me in with the phrase "American Core Values" that instead focused on perceived attacks on American core values without spending much time trying to define American core values.

I came up with the following list of values and how I describe them:

  • Individual freedom
  • - I think most Americans hold as a core value the idea that individual freedom should be protected and that the government should not have much involvement in individual decisions.
  • Privacy
  • - Most Americans share some concern about the perceived erosion of their privacy, and most would agree with the idea that government has little business in the private lives of its citizens.
  • Importance of family
  • The American nuclear family might not be viewed with the same cultural admiration as it might have in earlier decades, but I think most Americans believe that family is more important than all or most other aspects of their lives.
  • Freedom of religious faith
  • - Though Americans have not always been tolerant of different faith traditions, I think most Americans believe that freedom of religion is an important American value.
  • Patriotism
  • - It is the rare American indeed who is not moved by symbols like the American flag, the Statue of Liberty, or the Declaration of Independence. Politicians from all American political parties know the power of the colors red, white, and blue, and marketers also use patriotic imagery because most Americans instinctively react in a positive fashion to patriotic themes.
  • Achievement and success
  • - I think most Americans possess some level of desire for material success and evidence of achievement. Diplomas, awards, titles, and promotions are often the "proof" of our personal and professional successes, and as a people we tend to be quite fixated on exterior identifiers that demonstrate such successes.
  • Equality
  • - While we might disagree on the forms or means by which equality takes place, most Americans cherish the idea that all people are inherently equal, and that everyone should have the opportunity to achieve their goals.
  • Hard work
  • - Admittedly not all Americans toil at the same level of intensity, and some of us are downright lazy, but I suspect that most Americans embrace the idea that hard work is an important quality to possess, and that Americans are a hardworking people who can accomplish anything if they are motivated.

I am desirous to learn what other core American values readers think should be on the list, as well as any modifications in the general description. Please use the Comments section to offer thoughts about or critiques of this list. Thanks in advance for any suggestions for other core American values about which you think foreign nationals should be cognizant.

Feb 7, 2010

On India, Agni-III, Rogue Nuclear Programs, and Hindu Nationalists Who Despise Me

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I learned of India's successful test of its long-range Agni-III missile in an unusual manner today. The first clue was the sudden spike in blog visitors, and by noon today an extra 600 or so visitors surfed here to read an older post I composed about the test launch of the Agni-III in 2007.

The second was the receipt of an email by an Indian nationalist who calls himself "Jack Sparrow" and who denounced me as "racist" for calling India's nuclear program "rogue" in the 2007 post. My original point - and an argument I still hold - is that the U.S. is highly selective in denouncing some nuclear programs as "rogue" (like Iran) while turning a blind eye to the nuclear stockpiles of Israel, Pakistan, and India, all nations that chose not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Few blog posts I have ever written have generated more emailed responses than this rather short commentary to a news item I posted. I estimate I have received three dozen of such emails over the past three years, most of which I simply delete because of their anger, poor writing, and baseless accusations. Occasionally one of the emails displays some semblance of readability and civility; here is the text of "Jack Sparrow's" missive:
Hi Dr. Mike,

Hope you are doing well. I read your blog about Indian missile test. Don't you think you became racist as usual the American fan boys became always.

Now since America has the lagest stockpile of nuclear weapons as well as missiles and history proved how America has destroyed countries for their cheap interests say for example Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, now looking at Iran and now it is common saying that anyone who is between America and oil is a terrorist. I am not a muslim and I don't want to be either.India which is surrounded by 2 bastard hostile countries and if India test a missile it becomes a rouge country and as per your article rouge nuclear program.

My question is what makes you think Indian nuclear program is a rouge which has not attacked any country in its History till date but America is a good country which has killed millions of innocents worldwide.

Its easy to write blogs as their are lots of website provides you space to spit your bile as you are doing. But, the point is you have to be a man which you absolutly are not to face the truth.

US made nuclear deal with India on its own interest not a goodwill for India. India had resources before and India will get technologies even if deal fails. Its US who is at the loosing point at the rate of $35 billion a year if deal fails. So come out of your fools paradise and accept reality.
I find humorous Jack Sparrow's denunciation of me as a "racist" and then next describing India as a country surrounded by "2 bastard hostile countries," but I'll leave Jack alone on that point.

Jack's letter is typical of the numerous Indian nationalists (more accurately, Hindu nationalists) who have emailed me over the past few years to complain about what I wrote in 2007. I am going to restate some points here for future reference, so that I can just email back the link and not get into lengthy (and time wasting) electronic arguments with those who feel a need to debate me.

1. "Rogue" programs: simply put, I define as "rogue" any nuclear program that operates outside normal or desirable controls, such as the NPT. I chose the word "rogue" because President George W. Bush frequently used the word to describe Iran's nuclear program. Recently President Obama has also toughened his stance against Iran's nuclear program, yet neither president has uttered a public peep about the nuclear programs of Israel, Pakistan, or India, none of which is in agreement with international agencies. If India wants to legitimacy in its nuclear programs, it can simply sign the NPT. Unfortunately, President Bush changed the rules of the game with his unilateral India nuclear agreement, and this might have been the first act in the slow death of the NPT.

2. "Peaceful" India: Nationalists like to brag about India as a nation that has an unblemished record of peace. This idea of a peaceful India is especially laughable considering the recent history of warfare in the region, including the
Sino-Indian War, the various Indo-Pakistani Wars, and the Bangladesh Liberation War. Hindu nationalists, of course, like to blame the Muslims for all of the blame in these conflicts, but the argument that India somehow has a monopoly on peace is absurd. Also, are you really going to ignore the history of the Maratha Empire in claims that India has "never invaded another country"? Bonus points for Mohandas K. Ganghi, though, fellas.

3. U.S. history of bloodshed with nuclear weapons: no argument from me there. I have never supported the dropping of atomic weapons on innocent civilians at Nagasaki and Hiroshima (admittedly this happened two decades before I was born), and my fervent wish is to live in a non-nuclear world. I doubt I will see this in my lifetime, though.

4. Oh, and for the record I think India is a fascinating country with an amazing array of cultures and regional histories. I intend to travel to India someday and view firsthand the country I have studied from afar.

Feb 6, 2010

The Quote Shelf

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

When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Feb 4, 2010

On the Restorative Properties of Guitar Playing

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The Ovation 6-string guitar on the left has been a fixture in my musical arsenal for over two decades. My wife bought me the beautiful instrument in my younger years, back when dreams of making a career at music had not yet been beaten out of me by the harsh realities of life.

OK, that last line was a bit hyperbolic. If anything, I simply gave up on the idea that a person could eke out a comfortable living playing music, especially in this age of music emphasizing digital sampling and synthesizers.

A recent post about guitars on a local message board reminded me that it had been months since I picked up a guitar, much less my old friend the Ovation. Over the course of the last few days I played a little bit, finding out quickly how much I miss those callouses at the tips of my fingers.

I strummed through some chord progressions and simple riffs, intrigued that so much of music becomes instinctual. I belted out a few of my old standbys, much to the dismay of my dogs, though their tails wagged when I changed the lyrics to reflect their names: "Eddie, Eddie....Eddie Eddie EDDIE!"

I never made much money as a musician, probably less than two thousand dollars even including the times I busked for change. The future probably holds little promise for me as a musician, either, but this is irrelevant: I never approached music as a money-making scheme.

It was just for the joy and pleasure of creating a sound no one had ever before produced.

Somewhere on a dusty shelf in my basement are a few tapes of original compositions I created in my four-track studio in the 1980s (I sold the four-track recorder and much of my gear a decade ago in a period of poverty). Yet I am in no rush to dig up and digitize the music on those tapes for the simple reason that they are artifacts, snapshots from my past that bear little relation to the person I am today.

As I strummed this evening I created a half-dozen snippets of songs that I may never duplicate, and that is just fine. One of the pleasures of making music is that no two takes are identical, and at any moment a person can be on the verge of creating musical transcendence, sounds that can heal and touch and feel.

And if I am the only one who ever hears them, that is fine, too.

Meet Alfred, a Rescue Dachshund

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Pictured on your left is Alfred, a 12-pound male Dachshund who is about four years old. Alfred was rescued from a local pound last week, and he is a quiet and friendly little boy who has many years of love left to give.

When Alfred arrived the other day he was quite thin, and he probably needs to put on 2-3 pounds to be at his ideal weight. Other than his underweight status, though, Alfred appears to be in excellent health.

Unlike some Dachshunds, Alfred does not seem to be a dog who barks a lot. He has been at our house for two days and I have yet to hear more than a few quiet growls from him. Alfred is happiest when he is sitting on someone's lap, though he eventually got enough courage to explore outside this morning. Alfred does not chew inappropriate items, and he seems to understand where to do his business, although his new owners will need to be patient while Alfred adjusts to the routines at his forever home.

To learn more about adopting Alfred, or if you want to help financially support Planned Pethood's mission to rescue dogs and cats in Northwest Ohio, visit the Planned Pethood website for more information.

On Becoming a Queen

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Pictured on your left is Missy, a 7-year-old female terrier mix we fostered and later adopted through Planned Pethood. You can read the earlier posts about Missy's hellish past if you want to know the background of this abused dog, but suffice to say that this is one of the worst abuse cases I have ever seen in years of volunteering in pet rescue.

Anyways, Missy is doing very well these days, and since readers occasionally ask about her, I thought I would post an update. She gained back all of her weight and is now about 20 pounds, and her health is almost perfect. Yesterday she traveled for the first time to the groomer, and she walked out of the place looking positively radiant: shiny coat, clipped nails, and a new hairdo.

Missy has made a great deal of progress in socialization as well. Missy was previously locked 23 hours a day in a cage, so she was a bit clueless in interactions with non-abusive people as well as other dogs. While she is still a little jumpy, she now walks right up and seeks out affection when she needs it, and she rarely reacts aggressively toward the other dogs.

After so many years of abuse and neglect, this dog deserves the royal treatment.

Feb 3, 2010

Super Bowl Prognosticating - Will the Who Dat Nation Rejoice?

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As a lifelong football fan, I make it a point every year to weigh in with a prediction in Super Bowl XLIV. I see this year's contest as a relatively high-scoring affair, which should not be a shock to those who followed the NFL this season.

While QB Drew Brees will no doubt torch the Indianapolis Colts secondary for some scores, Peyton Manning certainly matches well against the New Orleans Saints QB. Manning is playing as well as he ever has in his career, and there has been a look of determination on his face throughout the playoffs. Cool under pressure, Manning rarely makes mistakes, and he has been able to seemingly will his team to victory in some games that appeared lost this year.

For the Saints to pull out a victory they will have to rely on their defense and special teams to make some game-changing plays. Luckily for the Saints they led the league in defensive touchdowns with eight, and they also generated 39 takeaways during the regular season (second best in the league). The Saints have had a knack for coming up with interceptions and fumble recoveries at key moments, but unfortunately the Colts are an excellent team at protecting the football.

One key factor in the Super Bowl is the ability of Colts DE Dwight Freeney to shake off injuries and play with the skill and intensity he has during the rest of the season. Reports are out that Freeney suffered a torn ligament in his right ankle, and losing one of the NFL's best pass rushers could weaken the Colts and their ability to disrupt the passing game of the Saints.

I am going against the point spread and predicting a Super Bowl victory for the Saints, who will defeat the Colts in a nail-biting 37-34 contest. The Saints will take advantage of a pair of Colts turnovers, and the Saints special teams squad will contribute with a touchdown. I am going with my gut instinct here: statistically this looks like a 37-27 Colts victory, but the Saints always seem to come up with a big play at just the right moment.

The Who Dat Nation will be mighty pleased on Sunday night.

On a side note: I am now 4-0 in predicting the winners in the last four Super Bowls since I started this blog tradition. Here are my predictions and the actual scores:

2009 Prediction: Steelers 27, Cardinals 21 (Actual 27-23 Steelers win)
2008 Prediction: Giants 27, Patriots 24 (Actual 17-14 Giants win)
2007 Prediction: Colts 27, Bears 21 (Actual 29-17 Colts win)
2006 Prediction: Steelers 24, Seahawks 17 (Actual 21-10 Steelers win)

Feel free to leave predictions and homer hate mail in the Comments section.

Feb 2, 2010

On Returning to a Semblance of Normalcy after Many Years of College

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From 2004 to 2009 I went full-time year round in pursuit of my MA and PhD is history, successfully defending my dissertation and graduating seven weeks ago. Prior to that I spent 2001-2004 finishing my BA in history. What I am re-learning as the post-commencement euphoria disappears is just what it means to live like a normal person again.

Now, as an admitted geek, the word "normal" is a heckuva stretch in describing me, but for the first time in almost a decade I can concentrate simply on working and enjoying life a bit. There are no looming research paper deadlines, dissertation and thesis defenses, or comprehensive exams to keep me awake at nights, and I can spend my time in ways I only imagined up until recently.

In some ways this is a very new experience for me, as prior to returning to school I worked 60-80 hours a week as a business owner for most of the 1990s. I was employed for most of the 1980s at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and worked far too many nights and weekends.

As an example of "normal life" I point to the fact that I will be watching the season premier of the final season of Lost tonight. I never watched the series on a first-run basis, but recently I downloaded seasons 1-5 on Netflix to catch up on the show. It has been many decades since I regularly watched a television program on its appointed night, although in the last year I did get addicted to watching The Office via cable and Web reruns.

My wife just returned to the university to work on her second MA, this one in applied mathematics, and I have been taking care of more of the domestic chores to free her up for her studies. Yesterday I went to the grocery store (another "normal" activity) and found myself struggling to locate an item on the shopping list: Ramen noodles. I walked up and down the soup aisle several times before figuring out that Ramen noodles might be in the pasta aisle.

Voila!

These are just a few "normal" experiences in the past few days that I have encountered, and I look forward to many more years of "normalcy." I originally toyed with the idea of adding a second MA in geography to my academic portfolio, but I might just find "normal" life to be more appealing than another two years of hitting the books.

Besides: at 45 years of age I lack the desire to put in the 12-to-16 hour days that can be the bane of a graduate school experience, especially on top of the significant work in teaching and research I already put forth.

Life should be enjoyed, not endured.

Feb 1, 2010

On Memory Lapses and Coping Mechanisms

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Left: I am a prisoner of reminder notes

Over the past few years I have noticed a gradual decline in my ability to store information in my head. In particular my short-term memory faculty is susceptible to annoying lapses, and I have also noticed a decline in my episodic memory. I am running with the theory that my brain has maxed out its storage capacities and that bits of data are getting randomly discarded inside my head.

I have some health issues that may be contributing to my less-than-ideal memory, but let's face facts: at age 45 I am past my peak years of instantaneous information retrieval, though I am not quite ready to start funeral planning. I have been experimenting with methods by which I might work around momentary memory glitches and function at the level to which I am accustomed.

I have lately been in the habit of carrying around a small notebook to jot down ideas, anecdotes, and appointments that I used to file away in my head. This system works well on the days I remember to bring the notebook, but of course there is irony in the fact that I often forget to use this tool.

Today I scratched my head trying to remember for the umpteenth time the telephone numbers and procedure for my university voicemail. My brain simply refuses to recall the Audix number and my 5-digit extension (though I am fine with the password I chose). I came upon what I thought was a foolproof solution: type this information into a Word document, print the page, and the cut-and-tape the reminder to my work desk.

So I reached for my cell phone a few minutes ago and started dialing. The funny-pathetic part of this story is that at some point in the recent past I programmed all of this Audix information into my phone, and I today I completely forgot about the new voicemail memorization mechanism I just designed.

Good news: I guess this would be an example of memory compensation redundancy, though my forgetting of the recent cell phone programming is still irksome.