Friday, December 21, 2007

Some Good Whale News

Just spotted this:
Giving in to U.S. pressure and worldwide criticism, Japan's government on Friday announced a whaling fleet now in the Southern Ocean for its annual hunt will not kill the threatened species as originally planned.
On the other hand,
The fleet will, however, kill some 935 minke whales, a smaller, more plentiful species, and 50 fin whales.
But they had planned to kill 50 humpbacks for "research," and now it appears they will not, at least this year.

Killing whales is still a bad thing, but this is an improvement. One can hope it signals a willingness to resolve some of the ongoing issues between the whaling nations (primarily Japan and Norway) and the rest of the world.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cancer Claims Another

Damn, but I'm tired of this.

Just saw a note that musician Dan Fogelberg died of prostate cancer over the weekend. I always admired the poetry of his music and lyrics, and I'm sad to see him go at such a young age (56, the same age my Dad was when he died of cancer).

Dan's own words:
Sometimes in the night I feel it
Near as my next breath and yet untouchable
Silently the past comes stealing like the taste of some forbidden sweet
And every ghost that calls upon us brings another measure in the mystery
Death is there to keep us honest and constantly remind us we are free
Stay healthy, get yourselves checked regularly, and live strong.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Failure of Imagination

That phrase was used to try to explain why the 9/11 attacks were able to happen and why the initial American response to it was so poor.

Well, it appears that lack of imagination is rampant in government:
All five voting systems used in Ohio, a state whose electoral votes narrowly swung two elections toward President Bush, have critical flaws that could undermine the integrity of the 2008 general election, a report commissioned by the state’s top elections official has found.

“It was worse than I anticipated,” the official, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, said of the report. “I had hoped that perhaps one system would test superior to the others.”

Wow. How dense does an elections official have to be to not get the gravity of this issue? If they don't take this stuff seriously, how can we expect voters to do so?

Here's the key: Those who run elections are paid to anticipate the problems in voting systems, be they verbal, physical, printed, or electronic. At this stage of the process with electronic voting, anyone who doesn't anticipate problems either hasn't been paying attention or is completely incompetent.

Knowing nothing about this Jennifer Brunner, I can't say one way or the other, but it doesn't speak well for her.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Meaningless Personality Tests

First, a quick introduction to my friend, JS Ouyang. I discovered his blog recently, and it's as eclectic and interesting as he is. I hired JS years ago at E-LOAN, and I think at this point he pretty much has my old job.

Perusing his blog, I found Yet Another Personality Test (but at least it's a very simple one):

What Type Are You?

I initially shied away from one image, and clicked one that turned out to be completely not me. ("Extroverted"? I think not!) So I went back and clicked the image that initially appealed to me, and it seems entirely accurate: "analytical, trustworthy, self-assured."
You appreciate high quality and things that endure. Consequently, you like to surround yourself with little "gems," which are often overlooked by others.

Culture and tradition are important to you.

You have found your own personal style, which is elegant and exclusive, free from the whims of fashion.

Your ideal, upon which you base your life, is sophisticated pleasure.
Sounds like me. Cool.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Belatedly Marking a Passing

I didn't know Dave well. I know a lot of people who did. We were about the same age, went to the same college, and cared about a lot of the same things.

I only found out recently that Dave had died. Today I learned the details:
When I finally meet the Doctor, he seems relaxed and happy to see me. I bluntly ask — is it a tumor? Yes. Is it malignant? Yes. Oh crap. I have cancer.
There's a lot more. It was quite an ordeal, with ups and downs, and it doesn't have a happy ending. Yet another friend touched (hard) by cancer.

Take care of yourselves, take everything seriously, and live strong. We can beat cancer.


Nice Job, Guys

My jumbo package of Microsoft security updates arrived this evening. Yipes! Twelve updates for a Windows XP Pro system with Office 2003 this month.

Then I read this in the Security Fix blog:
Of the seven patch bundles released today, only two did not affect Windows Vista systems, suggesting that the vulnerable components were carried over into Vista from older versions of the OS despite the multi-year secure coding review conducted for Vista. That said, two of the bundles were released to plug security holes that were found exclusively in Vista.
I know security is hard, and I know Windows is/was a mess, but really. Two years.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


Say it ain't so!

Just found this on the net:
Workers in the cocoa management bodies of the Ivory Coast have gone on strike. Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa, controlling almost forty percent of the global supply. A continued strike could lead to chocolate shortages this Valentine's Day or even sooner.
This could be dire. Thanks to PZ at Pharyngula for alerting me to the impending disaster.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Storybook Story

I've been meaning to write this for a week or so. *sigh* Life....

Anyway, last week I was relaxing by watching all the special features on the extra DVD for The Princess Bride (Buttercup Edition). I love that movie, have watched it far too many times (and yet somehow, not enough), but hadn't gotten to watching the special features. That was a blast! Gets a little repetitive (it was as if each documentary maker just had to show Billy Crystal snarling out through the peephole in the door), but quite a fun way to spend an evening.
By the way, if you love the movie of The Princess Bride but haven't read the book, you really ought to. It's very funny and well-written, and there is more to the story, including a lot more background on all the characters that explains some of the lines in the movie.
But out of it all, I came across several interesting bits:
  • Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes didn't know how to fence before the film (it's an important item for both of them), but both learned and did all their own sword work, which is quite impressive.
  • When Andre the Giant was a child in France, he was too big to ride in the school bus, so one of his neighbors who had a big car often drove him to school. The neighbor was Samuel Beckett. (No, not Sam Beckett!)
  • Wallace Shawn claimed he had no sense of humor whatsoever, and didn't get the jokes. He said he just played the role in ways that seemed to make people laugh.
But by far the most interesting to me was Mandy Patinkin talking about his role as Inigo Montoya, the Spaniard seeking revenge on the Six-Fingered Man who killed his father. Patinkin talked about how he had lost his own father, to cancer, and how Inigo's quest to avenge his father's death somehow became his own attempt to come to grips with losing his father to cancer.

[SPOILER ALERT -- Don't read the following if you haven't seen the movie!]

(Spoiler: You have been warned!) At the moment where Inigo finally exacts his revenge, driving home his sword into Count Rugen, who has offered him "anything" if he will spare his life. Inigo finishes with the memorable line, "I want my father back, you son of a bitch!" Patinkin says at that moment he felt his own kind of catharsis, that for just a moment he had brought his father back to him.

I mention this mostly because that scene and that line have always gripped me. I could sense and share the feeling Inigo was expressing, and had no way of knowing that Patinkin was acting out not just the scene in the story but a scene in his own life drama, which is one I can relate to all too well. That line has always brought tears to my eyes (even now, just writing about it), because there is nothing in the world I have ever wanted so much as my father back.

Maybe writing about it can help me drive that sword home and at least momentarily defeat the cancer that took away my dad. It doesn't dominate my life the way it does Inigo Montoya's, but certainly not a day goes by that I don't think about my dad and miss him terribly. It motivates me to stay healthy and make sure I will be around for a long, long time for my daughter, and it makes me nag all of you to stay healthy and support cancer research.

Live strong.

Friday, November 30, 2007

In Case You Weren't Sure

Irony is completely dead.

As evidence, I offer this: Evel Knievel died of (more or less) natural causes today.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Like Breathing

Saw a link to this article from the Washington Post today. Short version: Kids don't read. People don't read. This is bad.

The story the numbers tell, Gioia said, can be summed up in about four sentences:

"We are doing a better job of teaching kids to read in elementary school. But once they enter adolescence, they fall victim to a general culture which does not encourage or reinforce reading. Because these people then read less, they read less well. Because they read less well, they do more poorly in school, in the job market and in civic life."

This hits home, of course, because I come from a long line of book addicts. My house is full of books (kinda overflowing...sorry for those who have to squeeze into the guest room!). We read all the time; all of us.

Anecdote: Last week, we went for a parent-teacher-student conference at our (six-and-a-half year old) daughter's school. One of the exercises in the conference was for each of us to list strengths, challenges, goals, and action plans for our daughter. One of the things that surprised me when my daughter was listing her strengths was that she left out reading. That's probably the area where she excels most, and it could be called her defining characteristic. She's always walking around, carrying a book and reading it.

It occurs to me that she doesn't see this as a strength: everyone around her (at home, anyway) is always reading, too. It reminds me of an experience my wife related, where she was at a class, and people went around the room listing their hobbies. She was surprised how many people listed "Reading" as a hobby. She'd never thought of it as one, though she reads daily, because "it's like breathing, just something you do." It seems it's like that for our daughter, too. We have always read with, to, and around her. We read for pleasure, read for work, just read.

Now, I realize that this is atypical. We read far more than most people. But I also realize we're reading so much that we (and people like us) skew the averages upward. Which makes the overall decline in reading all the more disturbing to me.

So, go out and read a book in public. Support your public library. Support your local bookstores, especially independent ones. Make it visible; make it popular. Carry a book with you so people see what you're doing. Talk about what you read. Especially around young people. They need to know that reading is a Good Thing, and not just in the "taking your medicine" sense. It may not be as easy as watching TV, but it's much more rewarding.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Techno-Geezer Humor

This is a fairly amusing parody. The premise is that the TV show "24" is set in the year 1994.

I've never watched 24, but I thought it was amusing, anyway, in a weirdly nostalgic sense.

Oh, Those Good Old Days

Tom Tomorrow this week waxes nostalgic for those innocent days, back in the twentieth century, when we used to discuss how to parse "what is is" and what constituted sex.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Baffling and Mind-Boggling

I found a reference to this posting on LGM:
These are weirdest, most ill-conceived toys from around the globe. If you're about to say that they're "weird" only because of our own xenophobic ignorance of other cultures, well, we have two words for you: Poop toys.
I had heard of some of these before. I laughed a lot while reading the list and comments.

I have nothing further to add.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bad News, Bears

No, this is not a post about my favorite college football team, although the title might be apt.

Rather it is about actual bears, or more to the point, the fact that three quarters of the bear species on the planet are in danger of extinction:
Six out of the world’s eight species of bears are threatened with extinction, according to recent assessments by the IUCN Bear and Polar Bear Specialist Groups.
Those of you who know me probably know of my fondness for bears. That alone makes the news very sad to me. But beyond my personal preferences, threatened bears are probably an indication of great danger to the larger ecosystems in which they live. The common threat to most of the threatened bears is habitat destruction. If the bears can't live there anymore, it's likely an indication of general ecosystem degradation.

I may be wrong about that. For one thing, different kinds of bears play very different roles in their ecosystems. Polar bears, for example, are top-level predators, where black bears (not terribly threatened) are generalist scavengers, for the most part. Pandas are highly specialized, particularly with regard to diet. So threats to a particular type of bear might just mean that bear is too specialized.

I'm not an ursinologist (nor even a wildlife biologist), but I do know that bears are magnificent creatures, and it's sad that they're in decline. It might not be the kind of dire threat that the precipitous decline in sharks is, but still, it would tend to indicate problems.

It's the Incompetence, Again

(Updated below)

As you probably know, we had a fairly nasty oil spill in San Francisco Bay last week. I almost commented on the idiocy of the reporting of the event, as the initial news reports said it was 140 gallons of fuel, which later became 58,000 gallons of fuel, which later became 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel. But that's a detail, really.

No use crying over spilled fuel; just clean it up.


It seems we're not so good at that. Now, I realize that oil spills are nasty, devastating things, and rather hard to handle, but the first rule of such things is not to turn away the people who want to help, especially if they know what they are doing.

I get that it might be important to turn away the untrained, especially if they could make things worse for themselves or the overall situation. But to turn away the people who are specifically trained to handle just this scenario is moronic:
The city of San Francisco offered 150 specially trained municipal workers to help clean up beaches and save birds - but essentially got shrugged off by the Coast Guard, according to the city's acting mayor and the president of the Board of Supervisors.
The city workers are firefighters and workers in the health department "who have training to deal with oil-contaminated creatures and spills, but all they've taken from us is a handful," Dufty said, noting that only about six have been called out.
Apparently we learned nothing from Katrina. The combination of operational incompetence and P.R. bungling is deadly. It hurts the operation at hand and also poisons the attitudes of those whose support you need.

And there is a basic rule of the universe: when people show up to volunteer, find something for them to do, even if you really don't have anything meaningful for them to do. If it's too dangerous to put them out on the beach, then put them in an office, a warehouse, covering for the people who are on the beach. Don't just send them away.



Todd Woody of Green Wombat has a really good, first-hand look at the handling of the disaster and its response, with an eye toward how technologically backward the whole thing is.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Please Help If You Can

I'm finding there is very little awareness of (and little reporting of) the disaster currently taking place in the Mexican state of Tabasco:
A week of heavy rains caused rivers to overflow, drowning at least 80 percent of the oil-rich state.

Much of the state capital, Villahermosa, looked like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, with water reaching to second-story rooftops and desperate people awaiting rescue.
You read that right: 80% of the state under water. And an epidemic likely on the way.

Unlike New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf coast, Tabasco doesn't have the wherewithal to recover, nor does it have the attention of the world.

Bob Harris provides info on how you can help. Please do, if you can.

Here's another blog posting with lots of ways you can help.

The E-Voting Scam

Just when you thought I was never going to write about anything except torture, here I am, back on the subject of electronic voting.

Just read an interesting piece by "looseheadprop" at firedoglake on e-voting in New York, which includes this:

Remember HAVA? The totally misnamed, designed to do the opposite, “Help America to Vote Act”? It was passed in the wake of the 2000 hanging chad scandal. It appeared to have some laudable goals, such as forcing the states to make the voting experience handicapped accessible, and provided money to the states to “update” their voting systems to comply with its requirements. Coming from the Administartion that LUVS unfunded mandates, it sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it?

And by now you know why. It was yet another con, a really dangerous con if you believe in voting.

There's some great additional analysis. I recommend it.

While I'm on the subject, I should point out that the city of San Francisco is all agog over the fact that they have to hand-count all the results of Tuesday's mayoral election, and might not know the results for two to three weeks? It seems California's top elections official, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, ruled that although the City could use its electronic voting machines, they would have to hand-verify all the results, which will be a long and expensive process. On the plus side, the City is suing the manufacturer of the machines.

This is a story that is repeating itself in various ways, all over the country. At least Bowen is trying to ensure that the votes are counted properly, which is what really matters. It's a shame that it's such a costly process, but it is important to get it right.

I have no problem with the fact that it takes a long time to count the votes. It's a shame that the process is made less efficient by the very technology that was supposed to streamline things. But the goal of accurate vote counts is more important than the expense.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Not What I Wanted to Read

I was thinking this afternoon about a professor with whom I took four classes in my major field (Rhetoric) years ago. I'd been talking about him and one of those classes (Reader's Theater) with my wife the other day, and wondered whatever became of him. I figured (correctly) that he was long since retired.

But I didn't want to know this:
Robert Beloof, a poet and friend to both Robert Frost and E.E. Cummings, died unpoetically in Portland on Tuesday, hit by a Volkswagen van as he crossed Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard on foot. He was 81.
Two years ago. Man.

This part is highly accurate:
“He didn’t make friends unless people were willing to be honest and frank with him all the time,” said son Doug Beloof, a Lewis & Clark College law professor. “My father had no patience for etiquette or pretense or show.”
In addition to Reader's Theater, I studied two terms of oral interpretation of literature (one each of poetry and prose) and an amazing class on symbolism, the last half of which was spent reading Moby-Dick intensively.

I think it's fair to say that those classes shaped much of my understanding of literature, and certainly trained my voice for reading. There is probably nothing I've enjoyed in this life as much as reading with my daughter, and I'm sure a part of that I owe to my training with professor Beloof.

He was an interesting man, apparently rather difficult to get along with. His office was down a different corridor than all the other faculty in the Rhetoric department, for example. At the corner, a hand-printed sign pointed one way as the "hall of light" and the other as the "hall of darkness." I don't think they were just referring to the afternoon sunshine on the west side.

But he was very curious about many things. We used do discuss computers, since he knew I worked with and taught about them, and he figured he should get one to use in his work, particularly writing.

I'm sure if he'd had the chance, he would have come up with some choice words to describe his untimely demise, but he didn't. Alas.

Hmmm. I guess I should read my alumni magazine more carefully, because they ran an obituary for him in November, 2005. I knew only part of this:
Robert, a resident of Berkeley, was chair of the speech department at Berkeley in the 1960s, a period when many universities were converting their departments to study communications. He pushed in the opposite direction, expanding the department to cover more humanities and to use a pedagogy derived from classical rhetoric, which explains why the department is now called Rhetoric.
Good for him! That's a terrific legacy.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

*sigh* At least, nobody expected it would reappear in the 21st century. In the United States.

As I wrote over a year ago, I can't believe we're having this discussion, much less a debate. For the U.S. Senate to be arguing with a nominee to be Attorney General over whether a technique directly out of the Inquisition constitutes torture is sickening. That there are people making not just legalistic hair-splitting arguments, but actual defenses of waterboarding, is appalling.

That one of my senators voted to approve said candidate's nomination is beyond belief. I thought it was bad when she voted to ban flag burning. I am deeply concerned that the moral underpinnings of this country may be lost, that there is not a sufficient number of people who actually understand what is happening to all of us and our reputation in the world.

Scott Horton has another excellent piece in Harper's today:
There is no respectable opinion that can hold waterboarding legal. It is criminal depravity. When we allow its justification as an article of polite conversation, we deal our society and its values a potentially mortal wound.

“Political language. . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” George Orwell reminded us in “Politics and the English Language.” In the waterboarding debate, Orwell’s warning has found its most literal application.

The ongoing discussion is worrisome, but I am encouraged that so many voices are being raised in opposition. Horton, of course. Christy Hardin Smith at Firedoglake today. Anonymous Liberal had a couple of good posts on the subject yesterday. And Keith Olbermann did another of his excoriating special comments last night. And the LA Times' media watchdog comes out strongly over how the debate is portrayed:
When the media characterize it as a political struggle between the White House and congressional Democrats or as a complex debate over national security in a post Sept. 11 world -- two convenient dodges -- they aren't being realistic or fair. What the media really are doing is engaging in a sophisticated fan dance -- a convenient act of concealment.

What's really at stake is whether this country will continue to stand with the framers of our Constitution and our authentic moral traditions or whether we now will allow Bush and Cheney to put us shoulder to shoulder with Pol Pot.
Wow. I hate that things have gotten to this point, but it is encouraging to hear people speaking out, and speaking out strongly. Keep it up! Public opinion is on the right track on this:
Asked whether they think waterboarding is a form of torture, more than two-thirds of respondents, or 69 percent, said yes; 29 percent said no.

Asked whether they think the U.S. government should be allowed to use the procedure to try to get information from suspected terrorists, 58 percent said no; 40 percent said yes.

Now, why a substantial majority like that doesn't translate into political action, it's hard to say. The invertebrates on Capitol Hill don't seem to get that it's us they need to listen to, not their own echo chamber.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Who'll Stand Up For Us?

Great. Just in case you were on the fence on this torture thing (maybe I should change the name of this to TortureBlog...), here's fine news about the U.S. State Department: In order to keep their own options open regarding torture, they are now unwilling to condemn the practice of waterboarding even when applied to U.S. citizens by others. In other words, they say it's OK for people to torture me, so long as they get to do whoever they want to torture, too.

From an article in Harper's (pointed out by Digby at Hullabaloo):
And the reason for the public contempt consistently shown Bellinger by the [international] legal community is simple: He finds it impossible to condemn torture. No legal adviser before him had any problem with that proposition.
The Bellinger referenced is Jim Bellinger, senior legal adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Read the rest. Read Digby's comments, too. Who's supporting the troops now, eh?

Nice: disdain and derision. That's just how I like to see my country's legal stands viewed elsewhere. I'm really looking forward to my next international trip.

It's going to take a long time to build a new reputation for this country. I hope we get the chance to do it.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

But Don't Take MY Word for It...

I keep harping on the fact that torture is wrong and doesn't work. But why take my word for it? I'm no expert. Guess what? Even professional interrogators say that. Here's an excerpt from a column by retired Army colonel Stuart Herrington, who "served 30 years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, which included extensive experience as an interrogator in Vietnam, in Panama and during the 1991 Gulf War."

The piece is called "Two problems with torture," and you may already have guessed what those two things are: "It's wrong and it doesn't work." Go figure.

Here's more detail on how it's supposed to be done, and how it's being done now:

In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners "guests" and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner's belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely "take off the gloves" and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our "guests." This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.

Persuasive? I'd always thought so, and it certainly worked for us in contingency after contingency in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But when I explained these immutable principles to an auditorium of young Army interrogators last year, one reaction puzzled me. "Sir," a young soldier queried, "that 'tender-loving-care approach' sounds all well and good, but it takes time. What do we do when the chain of command sends out a requirement and says they need the information by the end of the day, and that thousands of lives may depend upon it?"

The very question tells us that intelligence professionals have failed to educate their commanders that detainee interrogation is not like a water spigot. "Give the inquisitors the freedom to push the envelope of brutality and good information will follow" seems to have become the watchword since 9-11.

The blog post at LGM that pointed me to Herrington's article suggests that gathering intelligence isn't actually the point:
In fact, torture (in the contemporary American context) is designed to demonstrate masculinity and Will; to sort of those who are "serious" about protecting America from those who aren't.
I'm not sure I buy that entirely. Certainly there are some who use brutality as the ultimate form of bluster and swagger. But I tend to think it's more about putting up the appearance of effectiveness, in a shallow, TV melodrama sort of way. As anyone who watches TV these days can tell you, you just rough people up, they give you information, and you solve all your problems in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Never mind that this is not how the real world works: it's how a lot of people perceive the world as working. After all, the closest most of us will ever get to an interrogation is watching it portrayed on TV.

And as the self-same TV tells us, image is everything, and perception is reality.

But they are not. Turn off the TV and think a little, OK? Thank you.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Save the Sharks

No, this is not a post about ice hockey.

Went to an advance screening tonight of a really good movie called Sharkwater. Go see it. It opens across the U.S. on Friday, November 2nd. Here's the trailer.

I will have more to say about the movie and sharks and all that. I got into this screening because of a group I do some work with, the Center for Ocean Awareness, Research, and Education (COARE). COARE is working to reduce the demand for shark fin soup, because said demand is killing ungodly numbers of sharks. It is estimated that well over 90% of sharks are already gone, and nearly all are either killed as random bycatch or specifically for their fins and nothing else.

So, support groups like COARE and WildAid that are working to reduce the demand for shark fins. Don't buy shark products: no shark fin soup, no shark cartilage, no shark meat. Be wary of "fish and chips," because a lot of that "fish" is shark. They've started calling it "rock salmon" (really) or "flake" to hide its actual nature. But it's shark, and it's really bad for the environment.

Much more coming, but we aware: this is important, and improvement needs to happen fast. Public pressure has helped to save many other creatures, like whales and elephants. Sharks need our help, and we need sharks.

More Musical Geezers

I've been meaning to mention that I went to another concert last week. Yes, just eight days after seeing 60-year-old Jimmy Buffett play live, I saw 58-year-old Bruce Springsteen. Quite a contrast, that.

Now, I have to admit that I like Springsteen, but I don't consider myself a huge fan. I've enjoyed his music for years, own a number of his albums, and have now seen him live twice. In many ways, that's the key: Springsteen is legendary for his live performances. Though he's slowing down some (he no longer plays 4+ hours at a stretch), his current tour consists of well over two hours of nearly non-stop music. One song segues into the next with very little chatter. Even the obligatory guitar changes usually happen while someone is still playing, and then he counts off into the next tune.

It's really amazing. The energy level Bruce and the band maintain is beyond anything I've seen.

What's also amazing is the number of New Jerseyites (if that's the term) who pop up like prairie dogs to see "BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!" play. Riding BART to the arena for the show, eight or ten of the people standing near me were comparing notes about what part of New Jersey they came from. And when Springsteen called out from the stage to greet the bay area, he also called out to folks from New Jersey, and they were almost as loud, if not as numerous. One is not normally so aware of their presence, and I'm unclear whether they just follow the band (Bruceheads?) or whether they're always here, but usually quieter.

Anyway, it was a very good show. I enjoyed it more than the first time I saw him, which was outdoors at Pacific Bell Park (or whatever it was called that week). Springsteen really connects with the smaller audience. I'm told his solo acoustic shows are even more amazing. Perhaps I'll check that out the next time he does one around here.

Here's the glowing review from the San Francisco Chronicle the next day:
...somehow, some way, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band still stand for the same things, still shine the same beacon, still stay true to the dream. They are older, wiser men - joined now by women, Soozie Tyrell and Patti Scialfa - and they are slowed by time. .... The Boss himself couldn't quite put that harsh wailing urgency into "Backstreets," but just the fact that he was playing the song again for the first time in years said everything.
On the down side, I see indications today that some radio stations are trying to suppress some of the songs from Springsteen's newest album (although how you suppress the #1 album in the country, I don't know). Bruce has always been outspoken about things, and he makes no secret of his dislike or even disdain for the current U.S. administration. But truly, I find it difficult to believe that even to corporate conglomerates that run the radio business these days would try to suppress extremely popular music if there's money in it for them. Weird. I'll keep an eye on that.

Rock on.

Street-corner Discourse

Last night, we took my mother-in-law out to dinner to celebrate her birthday. We were in Berkeley, and parked the car right down the block from People's Park. (If that name doesn't mean anything to you, you're either far too young to be reading this, or you desperately need to go read the linked history! A somewhat more objective view is here.)

As I was attempting to negotiate my way into the parking space (always a treat parallel parking on the left side of a one-way street in an unfamiliar car), I rolled down the window to see how I was doing, and the vehicle was suddenly filled with the sounds of the "discussion" among several people on the sidewalk. Perhaps "argument" is a better description. I never did discern the substance of the disagreement, but whatever it was, it sounded as if someone were playing the soundtrack from Casino out there. (The MPAA rating noted "pervasive strong language" in that; I know there are plenty of other examples, but that one stuck in my mind.)

It was, quite literally, a conversation dominated by "F-bombs." Now, sitting there in the car with my six-year-old daughter, I wondered what this must sound like to her. It's not as if she's never heard one of us use the occasional profanity, but I doubt she's ever heard a torrent of that sort. As I finished parking, the participants headed off, still yelling, in the direction of the park.

As we sat down in the restaurant a few minutes later, my mother-in-law commented that she hadn't heard anything like that in quite a while. She used to be a teacher in an urban high school, and her husband spent many years in sports administration, so she has certainly heard her share of profanity-laced tirades. Even my niece, a college student who is more frequently immersed in the current coarsened idiom, noted that this was a particularly vehement example.

We discussed for a bit the fact that while one might use profanity as an intensifier in conversation, a "conversation" that consists of little but intensifiers expresses emotion at the expense of substance. The phrase that kept coming to my mind was "...full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Of course, the well-known context of that quote is " is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." And clearly, it is easy to dismiss the participants in last night's tirade as idiots with no meaning.

But the full context of the sentence in Macbeth's soliloquy upon learning of his wife's death, is not about the idiot, but about life:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
It's brilliant writing ("Duh,'s Shakespeare!"). The single line, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," is one of the greatest lines of poetry ever written. But behind all the froth and fume, what underlies it all is life.

Meanwhile, my daughter, immersed in a game of
Brickbreaker on mom's Blackberry, seems to have ignored the whole event and discussion thereof. I hope that's a good thing, but I can't help wondering what portion of the soundtrack penetrated her subconscious. I know she hears everything, especially when she doesn't seem to be listening.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Slightly Better Torture News

In fairness, not all the news on torture is bad. There is one participant in the Republican side of the race who gets it on this issue: John McCain:
Senator John McCain, who is perhaps the most forceful (and one of the only) anti-torture voices in his party, has sharply rebuked Rudy in an interview for suggesting yesterday that he didn't know what waterboarding is and that extreme interrogation techniques might be defensible in some circumstances.
On the other hand, McCain is notorious for saying very reasonable things, and then voting for just the opposite. I talk to a lot of liberal and Democratic voters who seem to think McCain is very reasonable and moderate. But if you look at his voting record, he's dead solid conservative. He just talks a good "moderation," and has a good P.R. machine.

And, I should point out, that although he speaks out rather forcefully against torture and related madness, his message doesn't seem to be resonating with the voters or the other candidates. His campaign seems to be doing an imitation of David Caruso's career. And none of the other candidates seems to have caught the meme.

But at least there is someone over there saying something good. So there is hope, however slim.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Torture and Popular Culture

[Never thought I'd see, much less write, a title like that.]

Digby over at Hullabaloo has a great, long post about torture and TV and stuff. It's not pleasant. As usual, Digby says everything I would want to say, and says it much better.

Just a reminder:
Cruel and unusual punishment is banned in the constitution for a reason --- it makes barbarians of all of us.
I really want to stop writing about this.


...but I can't. It's a big topic among those running for president these days, but at least some of the candidates trivialize it. Rudy Giuliani yesterday told a group in Iowa that
...they talk about sleep deprivation. I mean, on that theory, I’m getting tortured running for president of the United States. That’s plain silly. That’s silly.
No, that's torture. Anonymous Liberal, filling in for Glenn Greenwald at Salon this week, dredged up some actual descriptions of sleep deprivation being used as torture. It's grim, but it's worth reading to understand what people like Giuliani are trivializing:

Apparently, this is what it's like on the campaign trail:

Mr. Bashmilah was subjected to severe sleep deprivation and shackling in painful positions. Excruciatingly loud music was played twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week. Guards deprived him of sleep, routinely waking him every half hour. Initially, the cell was pitch black, his hands were cuffed together, and his legs were shackled together, severely restricting his movement and causing him pain. Later, he was chained to a wall and the light in his cell was left on at all times, except for brief moments when the guards came to his cell ... Mr. Bashmilah's psychological torment was such that he used a piece of metal to slash his wrists in an attempt to bleed to death. He used his own blood to write "I am innocent" and "this is unjust" on the walls of his cell.

I wonder what Giuliani writes on the walls of his $4,000-a-night hotel rooms.

I'm sick of this, I tell you. Even when Giuliani says right-sounding stuff about torture, like this:
So I think America should never be for torture. America should be against torture. It violates the Geneva Convention. Certainly when we’re dealing with armed combatants, we shouldn’t get near anything like that.
That's pretty good, but his very next words were:
There is a distinction, sometimes, when you’re dealing with terrorists. You may have to use means that are a little tougher.
And later, this:
So let’s be careful on how we define this. And, sure we should be against torture. But we should not be against aggressive questioning. And the line between the two is going to require some really difficult decisions about drawing it and kind of trusting each other with the discretion for the president to make decisions about what has to be done in the interests of the American people.
This insistence that somehow it isn't torture if you're doing it in a good cause is sickening. Or that good people might sometimes torture bad people, and that's somehow all right. Sick. And sickening.

We have no business discussing the nuances of when and on whom we should be allowed to
use "aggressive questioning." A civilized society doesn't work that way, doesn't go there, doesn't even think seriously about it.

That used to be us. It can be again.

The Price of Ignorance

I stumbled onto this column by Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday. I had given up reading his work a few years back because I found it too snarky (really! too snarky even for me) and rather repetitive and self-congratulatory. So I was pleasantly surprised to read this and find it serious, reasoned, and missing any gratuitous references to sexual lubricants. Maybe the guys has grown up. Or maybe this is an anomaly...who knows?

Anyway, the point of the article is that the current generation of kids is growing up horribly uneducated. And yes, you can blame TV and bad parenting and too much junk food, but the part he really stresses is that we've basically gutted the educational system.
We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.
Scary stuff, that.

This is arguably the biggest threat to our way of life. Not war, not terrorism, not health care or the economy. Those are all important topics, hard to solve and all that. But if we don't educate the populace, it is hard to see how we can address those issues, much less solve them. A generation that grows up without quality education or even a sense of the value of education is unlikely to recover from that.

The benefits of public education were spelled out by one of its early advocates, Thomas Jefferson:

"The less wealthy people,... by the bill for a general education, would be qualified to understand their rights, to maintain them, and to exercise with intelligence their parts in self-government; and all this would be effected without the violation of a single natural right of any one individual citizen." --Thomas Jefferson: Autobiography, 1821. ME 1:73

Perhaps the greatest benefit of an education is the appreciation of education and learning. I can't deny that the children of the wealthy and privileged will pretty much always get a decent education. But lest they find themselves isolated in a sea of ignorance, we need to ensure the education of all (or most).

My home state, California, used to rank at or near the top of national rankings of education and per-student expenditures. Now it ranks near the bottom. If the largest state in the nation, the home of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, can't bring itself to educate its children, what hope is there?

I'm bummed.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Barbara Lee Speaks For Me

The title of this posting is the slogan my Congressional representative uses on her bumper stickers and posters (it's also the name of her campaign website). It is a sentence I have often been proud to utter, most notably as she has stood up for individual rights and against war and torture.

And today, she stood up and spoke out against one of the senators from our state, Dianne Feinstein, who promoted the nomination of an arguably racist judge to serve on a federal circuit court:
Let me also say that as a Californian and as an African American, I am incredibly disappointed that a Senator from my home state, Senator Feinstein, would not only vote for confirmation but would be the one to effectively bring this nomination to the floor by voting with the Republicans to approve the nomination in committee. It is particularly disappointing given California’s diversity and our history of leadership on issues of civil rights, women’s rights, worker’s rights and the basic commitment to equality before the law, all areas where Judge Southwick’s record is, quite frankly, sadly lacking.
Ms. Lee continues the proud tradition of her predecessor, Ron Dellums, for whom she worked for many years. Neither one is known for taking stands that are necessarily popular, but they are courageous and important. And I'm proud that they represent me.

I've been corresponding with a friend of mine about the lack of backbone in Congress of late. I believe I accused the leaders of both houses of Congress of being invertebrates yesterday. It is gratifying when my representative shows some spine (and she does this often!).

[Hat tip to Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake for pointing out this bit.]

Monday, October 22, 2007

Another Quiz

It's not my fault. Laura started it!

And I don't think I've ever scored 100% on any of these before:

Which Star Trek: the Next Generation character are you?
created with
You scored as Geordi LaForge

You are good-natured and quick thinking. You are good at figuring out puzzels and building things.

Geordi LaForge




Jean Luc Picard


Deanna Troi




Beverly Crusher


William T. Riker


At least none of us are Rikers....


Friday, October 19, 2007

Music that Makes Me Happy

Last night I had the roughly annual pleasure of seeing Jimmy Buffett live. This was the second time he's played at the historic Fillmore Auditorium (They no longer have their own website, darn it, so you'll have to settle for this Wikipedia article for now.), and the second time I've seen him there.

It was a good show, but it can't live up to the Really Awesome Show he put on the first time he played there in 2005. That was a terrific experience. He was obviously thrilled to be there, and had put together several special numbers with the band that resonated with the venue, covering tunes by the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young in addition to his usual fare. Last night he managed to put in a few specials, but he mostly stuck to the set list he's been touring with.

I suppose the other "special" aspect of the first show, other than it being such a first, was that the show was a fund raiser to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has a special place in Jimmy's heart, as he grew up on the Gulf coast, so it was pretty cool to help him try to help those folks.

Being in a smaller venue (I believe the Fillmore holds something like 1200 people) means the concert is a much more intimate experience than the ones in the big barns with 15,000 people. It makes it possible to watch the faces and interactions of the band members, which is fun. And it lets you just space off with the music. Toward the end of the show, he played the song "One Particular Harbour," which always transports me:
And there's that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
I remember quite vividly seeing my one particular harbour on my first trip to Palau. It was our "honeymoon" (a year before the wedding), and we went past this absolutely perfect, gorgeous little spot on one of the islands. I later found out that's where one of the Palauan chiefs lives (or one of his places, anyway). Just a small, simple house with a beach, surrounded by palm trees in the tropical sun. Nice.

But I digress....

Anyway, Jimmy did some fun stuff. In place of his traditional "Why Don't We Get Drunk?" song, he commemorated the 21st birthday of one of the attendees with a serenade from Bob Dylan, which I never knew was called "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35." But the crowd all seemed to know the chorus really well. And he kicked off the second half of the show by performing "God's Own Drunk," which he rarely does any more. That's a fine old bit (originally by Lord Buckley), featuring a moonshiner, a still, and a bear. Doesn't get much better than that.

Except they followed it with a solo number by one of the long-time backup singers for the band, Nadirah Shakoor. She covered one of Buffett's older, less well-known songs, "Wonder Why We Ever Go Home," and I must say, it sounds quite a bit different when she does it. Quite nice.

Oh, and if you want to know what a professional thought of the show, here's the review from the San Jose Mercury News. See? it wasn't just me! It was a great show.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Travel Annoyance

Airport security is a weird, kabuki dance that has nothing to do with actual security, for the most part. It's mostly designed to keep passengers docile and afraid. Indeed, it has much more to do with bureaucracy than with security: You have to play by their rules; arguing has no benefit, and could have annoying (or worse) consequences. So you go along. Baaaa-aa-aaahhhh!

This rant was triggered by my reading a pilot's discussion of the stupid things they have to do, like removing their shoes. Not that they actually need to screen the shoes, but they're worried that metal in the shoes might set off the metal detector. Brilliant. So they have to take off their shoes, too.

But my favorite has to be this comment left in response to that:
Heard in a European airport, by an agonized traveler to the US speaking to a security guard: "It's not a gel, it's Camembert!"

Sunday, October 07, 2007

No, Really: Don't Call

Of course, I don't mean you, dear readers. I'm talking about the National Do Not Call Registry, a fine setup created under the Federal Trade Commission about five years ago. Basically, it's a list of phone numbers that telemarketers are not supposed to call.

Now, about that five years ago thing: it turns out that for no particularly good reason, requests to be on the list expire after five years. I say no good reason, because numbers already come off the list when they change owners, which seems fair. But it's hard to imagine that when we all signed up, five years ago, we were thinking that in five years' time, we'd be missing all those calls during dinner, so wouldn't it be nice to have people call again?

I don't get it, other than telemarketers wanted another opportunity to piss people off. Why in the world they would want to call people just because their registration had expired is beyond me. But they got that little sunset provision in there.

So if you registered back when they first started up the list, you need to re-register. It's easy and quick. And well worth it. I remember how awful it was to get all those calls, and how nice it's been lately to not get them.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Revisiting Torture

When I first started blogging, I used to write on torture a fair amount. More than I'd like to, because I don't like the topic at all. My views on the subject should be very clear to all who read this: Torture is wrong, always.

Now the subject rears its ugly head again, and brings to mind Yet Another Reason why torture is wrong: it makes people lie. When people are doing something they know is wrong, they tend to lie about it. And then when caught, they sometimes say it wasn't wrong at all. I know this. My six-year-old knows this. That "adults" somehow think we won't notice or care is stunning.

It was encouraging, once upon a time, to hear my nation's government denounce torture. It is sad to learn now that at the same time it was doing that, it was sanctioning the use of torture.

Like slavery, torture is an institution that has no place in modern civilization. Those who advocate it or try to minimize its harms have no place in high office or polite society.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Global Warming is Good for You! ...Maybe

I'm currently in the middle of reading Storm World, an interesting work about whether and how global warming and tropical hurricanes interact. It's a good read, though it might be a bit tedious for those not already interested in climate science.

But big storms aside, it appears that global warming is good for some, at least. Brain-eating amoebas are cool, in the abstract. Don't think I want to meet them in person, though.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Things to Do on a Wet Day in Seattle

Continuing on my theme of Seattle tourism, we had Sunday to play with, too. After yet another visit to the Pike Place Market (delicious breakfast goodies from the Russian bakery next to the original Starbucks, called Piroshky Piroshky...cinnamon rolls to die for!) we decided to head over to Seattle Center to maybe go up to the observation deck of the Space Needle. But being a gray, overcast day, we decided that blowing $16 each to look at rain and clouds didn't seem very attractive.

So instead, we decided to check out the Science Fiction Museum. That was a blast. Kind of a pilgrimage, since both of us are lifelong readers of SF, as well as fans of SF movies. We were pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was. We'd been expecting something a little cheesy, maybe over-the-top fandom. But it really was more of a museum, investigating the role of SF and speculative fiction in society (and vice versa). Truly, it's worthwhile, whether you're interested in the intellectual aspects, or if you just want to see the artifacts (like original tricorders and phasers from Star Trek, costumes from Star Wars, first editions of classic SF books, and so on). It was really a fun afternoon, and a great way to get out of the rain.

Did I mention that we finally got rained on in Seattle?

After several hours, we wished we had more time, but I had arranged to meet an old friend and coworker for beers and football, and my wife needed to go to a cocktail thing for the conference.

Short description: Go! It's really fun.

Playing Tourist in Seattle

My delightful spouse has to be at at conference in Seattle this week, so I joined her for the weekend. We had passed through Seattle very briefly a couple of years ago as part of our 2005 World Tour, and enjoyed it a lot. So we were looking forward to a chance to play tourist again.

Saturday morning, we wandered out from our downtown hotel toward the Pike Place Market, because we'd missed it last time, and because it has the terrific reputation. I'm told it's the model for what San Francisco's Ferry Plaza.

That comparison flatters San Francisco's entry (nice though it is) and drastically shortchanges Seattle's. The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Marketplace has a terrific farmer's market, and provides a pleasant venue for some local (and national chain) shops, it has neither the physical scope nor the democratic presence of Seattle's market.

First, the farmer's market. There are wonderful stands with produce displayed lovingly and artistically; that's a show in itself. There are fish markets that appear to be as much a floor show as a food source. And the flowers are amazingly plentiful, colorful, and reasonably priced.

Then, the market. It's crowded on the weekend, with locals mingling with tourists. There are shops upon shops upon shops, ranging from musical instruments to clothing to collectibles. There are restaurants of various stripes. It's rather daunting how much is there.

And then there is the public market, where tables are rented by the day, and people of all sorts hawk their wares. Arts, crafts, foods, name it! It's just a wonderful, vibrant place, and different every day. We had a great time wandering around there.

In keeping with our tourist theme, we decided to walk over to Pioneer Square and do the Underground Tour. It's really more stand-up comedy routine than historical tour (or "historical satire," as they call it), but it really is interesting to visit the portions of the city that were initially built above ground, then rendered subterranean when the city decided to regrade part of itself, raising the street level 10-18 feet (and eventually also raising the sidewalks to the same level, some four years later.

It was a good insight into the history of an interesting city and some of the characters that built it.

We spent the evening with friends who were celebrating their wedding anniversary, at a terrific restaurant called Crush. Very tasty!

All in all, we find Seattle to be as we did before: easy to get around on foot, with lots of fun things to see and do. A great example is a little toy store by Pioneer Square called Magic Mouse. They have lots of wonderful stuff, all arranged rather whimsically over two floors of an old building. It was really fun to wander around.

Another Phil Frank Note

I just read this morning's column by Jon Carroll in the S.F. Chronicle. Obviously he, and a lot of others, shared my fondness for Phil Frank and especially his bears:
I think maybe we all wanted to be the bears. Farley was smart, but he was lonely. Baba was crafty but not warm. The bears were a family, eking out a living in the Northern California landscape, forever adopting hopeless causes and embracing obscure passions. If I had to live a comic strip life, that's the one I'd choose. Free food, lots of friendship and a six-month nap every year.
The bears were the best. *sigh*

I should mention that Jon Carroll, too, is a fine local institution. I've met him a few times, and he's a very nice, funny fellow. If only he didn't write so much about his cats.... (inside joke)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Very Sad Note

I hate to get maudlin, but this makes me very sad:
Phil Frank, whose cartoons graced the pages of The Chronicle and other newspapers for more than 30 years, died Wednesday only a few days after he announced his retirement because of illness.
Phil Frank and his characters have been an important part of my life for a long time, and I will miss his work. I first became away of Frank and his character Farley back in the 1980s, when his comic strip, Travels with Farley, was nationally syndicated. I loved the way Farley could leave his regular job as a reporter to work for the summer as a ranger at Asphalt State Park. The wonderful bears he introduced at the park, always scheming ways to get food from the tourists, are among my favorite cartoon characters ever. Think Yogi Bear, but with much more complex characters.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the bears are die-hard San Francisco Giants fans, like yours truly.

Years ago, a couple of his bears were made into plush toys. I have a doll of Alphonse, wearing antlers and a t-shirt depicting one of his classic moments, standing next to a "Do Not Feed the Bears" sign in the park, holding a sign of his own that reads, "I am not a bear." My daughter still loves this joke. So do I. (And here is one such bear that recently sold on eBay.)

And no mention of Phil Frank and his work would be complete without a mention of his puns. Between the last frames of his comics, he always put some kind of appropriate pun, and many of his comics featured them, too. One of his books of collected comics, for example, was titled "Fur and Loafing in Yosemite." And once when a guest chef (a vulture from Death Valley, I believe) was coming to work at the bears' restaurant, the Fog City Dumpster, he was unable to bring his own ingredients on the plane, because of the limit of "two pieces of carrion per passenger."

I always respected Phil Frank's decision to stop drawing a syndicated comic because he wanted to be more spontaneous. He could deliver strips to the Chronicle a day before printing, rather than a couple of weeks before printing for the syndicate. This allowed him to produce very timely, local comics, even though it put him on a very tight work schedule.

Although I am deeply saddened by his passing, my life is much richer for having known the work of Phil Frank. I will miss him, but will always cherish the memories he provided.

I must also note that Mr. Frank died of a brain tumor, and chalk this up as yet another of the ways cancer has affected my life. Please, let's all take care of ourselves, and try to wipe out cancer.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

This Explains a LOT

Picture taken last month at the World Famous San Diego Zoo:

All I can say is, now I know why they're going extinct!

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Goodness. A couple of my friends have done this, so now I guess I have to, too. says I'm an Uber Cool Nerd God.  What are you?  Click here!

So for those keeping score at home, I'm cooler than Rod, but nerdier than Laura. So proud....

Friday, August 31, 2007

Stars, Salmon, and Fruit Pies

Got back from dinner tonight before the moon rose, and the stars were just stunning. That's another of those things we tend to forget about, living in the city. There are so many beautiful stars! The other night we sat out and watched the moon come up over the mountain range, then took a walk and admired our moon shadows. Tonight we marveled as the rising moon washed so many of the stars out of view.

And we heard a bat flutter by. Very cool.

This afternoon, on our last full day in town, we biked over to the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. They had spawned the last of their adult salmon earlier in the week, so all we could see was juvenile salmon in the outdoor ponds.

It's quite a process, hatching and growing salmon. Rather daunting to see how much humans have impacted the fishes' world over the last century or two. Fish populations are way down (from an estimated 6 million salmon in 1800 and 1900 to only about 1 million in 2000), while human population has dramatically increased.

The hatchery has some really interesting and thought-provoking displays about the differences between hatched and wild salmon, and how fish raised at the hatchery are at a competitive disadvantage once they get out in the wild, and might possibly dilute the gene pool by breeding with wild salmon. On the flip side, if it weren't for hatched salmon, there might not be significant numbers of salmon in Washington at all. That's a daunting thought to those of us who love to eat salmon.

Dams, development, erosion. All bad for the fish. It's tough out there for a salmon.

They also had an excellent display commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson (who once worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries--now the Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the hatchery). Most people know her as the author of Silent Spring (which is still excellent, 45 years after its original publication). But she wrote about many other things, especially the relationship of humans to nature. I have one of her books on the ocean working its way to the top of my reading queue at the moment, and want to find one she wrote about the sense of wonder that we should be fostering in children (and adults).

And finally, on a lighter note, last night we finished off an excellent marionberry pie. We had gone into a local bakery looking for a berry pie, and found that. My wife always reminisces about childhood visits up here, and remembers picking berries and eating berry pies. Berry pies hold a special place in her heart.

Earlier in the day, while sharing a delicious local nectarine, we wondered as a group why we never see nectarine pies, when there are peach pies galore. Well, lo and behold, the bakery had a nectarine-blueberry pie, so we had to get that, too.

Turned out the nectarine pie wasn't so great. Didn't seem to have been cooked thoroughly, so it really wasn't all that appealing. The marionberry pie, on the other hand, was wonderful, and we thought seriously about going back for another, but there wasn't time. Alas; vacations are so fleeting. Although my wife pointed out that we can probably get tasty berry pies at home, too.

[Side note: Having lived in the District of Columbia in the 1980s, it is still a little hard for me to take seriously the fruit called the marionberry. Maybe that's just me. But the pie was really great.]

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Creek

[Details largely dictated by my daughter]

One of the nicest things about this house in the country is that it is near the end of a road, and the road ends at Icicle Creek (which flows into the Wenatchee River, which in turn flows into the Columbia River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. Salmon use all those paths to get back here to the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, which is on Icicle Creek, up the river from here.

Nearly every day, some or all of us venture down to have adventures of one sort or another at the creek.

Before we got up here, Grandma and my daughter were spending a good portion of each day down at the creek. When we arrived, they had caught and brought home a good-sized bucket full of minnows, who seemed happy enough to be living in the living room, but the first evening we were here, we took them back to live in the creek.

At this point in the year, Icicle Creek is pretty small and quiet. You can pretty much walk across it, even if you're about 3-and-a-half feet tall, like my daughter (if you pick your route carefully). One of the joys of a low river filled with sand bars and things is the way you can poke around and dig and make channels and bays and all sorts of water works. We've had a great time digging with sticks and hands and things to make extensive works. And every day, we get to do some more.

And there are things living in the creek. On one of her trips down there this visit, my wife saw a log in the creek. Except the log started swimming. Apparently this log was actually a fish. We suppose a fish of that size in this creek must be a salmon, but we're not entirely sure. In any case, a chase ensued, with the salmon swimming into shallower and shallower parts of the creek, but the people kept digging channels for it to swim through into the deeper parts, and blocked behind it with a log and pushed with hands to make sure the salmon would make it farther along.

That evening, there was no sign of the salmon, so we hope it had continued up the creek to the hatchery via the deeper water where it could swim.

Grandma and my daughter have also fashioned pens for the minnows, using sand to create channels, walls, and pens. Water can flow in to nourish the minnows, but we hope the minnows have swum out into the creek by now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bees, Wasps and Hornets

Ever since we arrived here last weekend, we've seen a LOT of bees around. Actually, they are what I've always called Yellow Jackets, and it makes me curious about the distinctions among bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. But since I don't have reliable access to the Internet here, I will have to wait until we get to the library again.

Meanwhile, we've had the Pump Guy help out by shooting Magic Poison from a Can into a big nest in the back yard, and Grandma has taken care of some of the critters on the porch by spraying Wasp Stuff at their known nests after they go to bed for the night. I even located a small but growing nest under one of the chairs on the porch. Man, they're everywhere!

So of course, today, after we rode our inner tubes down the Wenatchee River for a couple of hours (a very pleasant float we've done before), we were relaxing and waiting for Grandma to pick us up after taking Sugar (the very old, very sweet Samoyed) to the vet for her checkup. Sipping cold drinks and munching popcorn is very pleasant when you're still soaked with cold river water, but sitting out on a warm afternoon.

So my wife kicked off her sandals and was swinging her feet in a relaxed, summer afternoon sort of way, when she suddenly winced in pain. Well, "wince" doesn't really cover it. I'm not sure there is a word that describes someone's entire body wincing, but that's what she did. Eventually we were able to get her to speak, and tell us she thought she had been stung, and please go inside the snack bar for some ice.

I ran (as best I could in the borrowed water shoes that don't quite fit) back into the shop, asked for a cup of ice for a sting. As the young man scooped some ice into a cup for me, he said he had something to help take the pain out of the sting, and returned quickly with a little glass capsule thing. Running back, I quickly read the directions on the sting-out thing, crushed the little capsule, and gave it to my wife to help with the sting. It seemed to relieve the pain a bit, as did the ice. We then noticed that another bee (I'll just call it a bee for now) seemed to be hanging around the sandal that was still off her foot. We theorize that there's something sweet smelling on the sandal, which attracted a bee, which happened to be in an inopportune spot when a foot came swinging by.

A helpful nurse sitting on a nearby bench offered some advice about hydrocortisone and such, after receiving reassurances that none of us are terribly allergic to stings. We elected to move back indoors, however; in spite of the cool air conditioning and general noise level, we deemed it preferable to sitting out with more bees.

As we're waiting for dinner (local pizza parlor delivers out here--yay!), my wife calls the local medical facility to discuss the intense pain that keeps coming in waves. She's taken ibuprofen and antihistamine and put some salve on the toe to draw out the poison, but wonders if there's more she could or should do. The guy helpfully says no, that she should just expect it to hurt like the dickens for another 2-3 days. How very reassuring. Pretty good pizza, though.

Now it's a number of hours later. Several doses of ibuprofen and some other medications have relieved some of the pain, and I'm hoping my wife is already asleep when I join her in a few minutes.

In the mean time, I'm still wondering about whether we're talking about bees, wasps, hornets, or yellow jackets. Or whether there is a meaningful distinction among all of those. Definite research topic for our next visit to the library.

Rube Goldberg Lives in Rural America

Living in the country for a bit brings home just what a complex web of services we take for granted in the city.

For example, late Saturday night I went to turn on a faucet, and found there was no water. OK, I know we're on a well, and sometimes the pump goes out or something. We suspect maybe a breaker has gone out on the pump. Find the breaker box. Find breaker(s) loosely labeled "Pump" (as in, there is a sticker that says "Pump" somewhere near a couple of the breakers). Feel brave, bite the bullet, and flip the breakers. Reward is the click of a relay back in the pump closet. Water flows from the tap. All is well.

Until the breaker blows again in the morning (now it's Sunday). And again. And again. And (you get the idea: it's pointless).... Helpful neighbor who actually understands pumps and such comes over to help. Concludes that it's really something wrong. Better call the Pump People on Monday morning.

In the mean time, we can hook up a hose from the irrigation system to feed back into the house system; can't drink it, but it's fine for toilets and showers and such. [Rant for later on what a waste it is for the rest of us to use potable water for such things.] In the short run, we decide that running a hose from the irrigation system into the main bathroom of the house so we can refill the toilet tank is the easiest solution. Of course, that means running the irrigation system all the time we want to use any running water. But we can try it for a bit.

Come back from dinner to find a note saying the irrigation system had to be turned off because earlier in the day when the Helpful Neighbor (see above) took down a dead tree, it seems to have broken a pipe in the irrigation system, which is now pumping water into the air and flooding another neighbor's yard. Right.

Fill enough buckets to use for flushing purposes overnight. Make sure we have water for washing hands and such. Make a note to deal with the irrigation system on Monday, too.

Monday morning, the pump guy shows up bright and early (well, that is certainly something different from city life!). He's even familiar with the property, having grown up in the neighborhood; he used to mow the lawn years ago. [Future thought, on how Grandma seems to know people all over town, even though she hasn't really lived her for ~50 years.] As he heads back to the pump house, he notices a BIG nest of "meat bees" in the ground, says he has something to handle it in the truck, and he actually does, which is cool. Fewer bees is good, because there are a LOT of them around here this summer.

He determines that the problem is that there is air in the pump, mainly because we've been drawing too much water from the system. We're not used to a well/pump system, so we've been doing things like taking back-to-back showers, which really need some time to recover from. Oops!

OK, so suitably chastened, we now have water for the house. Cousin who lives in the basement has looked at the irrigation issue. Her dad was a pipe fitter, and has taught her about the irrigation system (which is good, because she lives here all the time, and needs to take care of it, which she does, very well). She is able to patch the pipe back together (not actually broken, just pulled apart at a point where she can patch it back easily), so we have a full irrigation system again, too.

Wow. Lots of action for a weekend in the country, and all for stuff we totally take for granted back home. I now have a greater appreciation for both the level of care people have to take for their own operations here, and also for the care people take for each other.

Somewhere in the course of all this, it turns out that the flush mechanism in one of the toilets is running and wasting water (which we clearly don't want, given how precious the pumped well water is!). At last! Something I actually know how to fix. Quick stop at the hardware store (run by people who live down the street, of course, and who know Grandma when she walks in...see above) gets me a set of replacement parts, and in the next day or so, my daughter and I will fix it.

Whew! That's a lot of water issues for just a couple of days. Makes me want to go back to the fair and watch the bunnies.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Few Vacation Notes

I'm largely disconnected while off on vacation this week, but I thought I'd provide a few little slices of life here in North Central Washington.

We arrived at Pangborn Memorial Airport in Wenatchee the other day, and found that the little cafe in the airport has free wireless Internet, so we got a few last e-mails read before heading off into Rural America.

On the drive over to Leavenworth, where the family has property, we spotted several promising spots for later visits, including Tom, Dick and Harry's Fabulous Burgers (on Easy Street in Monitor), which promises "Durn Good Burgers" on the sign over the door. More on that later. And of course, the tour of the Aplets and Cotlets Factory in Cashmere.

As it turns out, we've done both of those, and we've even been to the burger place twice, because it was...well...durn good! And Boswell's Furniture across Easy Street is a really good store, too.

But mostly we've been relaxing, playing games, reading books, and riding bikes (rented from Das Rad Haus...did I mention that Leavenworth styles itself a Bavarian village?). Tonight we'll be going to see the local theater company's production of Camelot (The Sound of Music, staged outdoors at the ski hill, is sold out).

Still to come, inner tubing on the river, and probably some other stuff I've forgotten.

I'm writing this in the library, which turns out to have free wireless Internet (yay!), while the rest of the family plays in the public pool.

Nothing weighty on my mind right now. Just ready to sign off, ride home, and maybe take a nap before the show....

Oh, wait! How did I forget to mention the North Central Washington District Fair? Best. Corndogs. Ever. Actually, the Lions Club calls them Pronto Pups, but they're really, really good. They make the batter right there. And where else can you watch angora yarn being spun right off the bunny? It was a lovely, if windy, day in Waterville, WA.

Friday, August 17, 2007

And a Quick E-Voting Note

A friend pointed me to this article, in which Diebold, a leading purveyor of electronic voting systems, is sort of, almost, spinning off its elections unit. Buried in the story is this gem:
Voting technology updates were encouraged by $3.9 billion of funding for the Help America Vote Act of 2002, following the disputed presidential election in 2000 that came down to a highly scrutinized recount of punch-card ballots in Florida.
Not that I'm suggesting that anyone would rush to market a product that didn't work very well, just because there was a lot of money available for such products.... Well, yes I am. $3.9B is a lot of reasons to sell junk. Of course, there is also this:
Diebold has often defended its voting machines and its own business intentions, even after its former chairman and chief executive, Wally O'Dell, sought with little success to convince critics his Republican politics and fundraising for President Bush were not the motive for the company's involvement in elections.
Political motivations can be almost as strong as financial ones.