Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It never turns out like we expected

Friday should have been my last day at work. I had one last major project to complete and expected it to take up most of the day. I was ready to go. I had cleaned out my mailbox, taken home my personal stuff, returned all the company property that I had borrowed (except pencils and pens), and emotionally disengaged. I was ready to head out the door with a cheerful shout of "So long, you ungrateful bastards," and take a few days off before starting the search. At noon I met with my supervisor for an exit interview and he said, "maybe we didn't think this through..." I avoided the temptation to shout, "I could have told you that."

The job I had was one of those patchwork jobs that was made up of a number of responsibilities that had been swept together under my aegis, because I had the necessary skills and interests, not because they logically belonged together according to any sort of corporate plan. My job title was "John's Job" and I was the only one who really understood what that included. At one time I thought having an eclectic job like this carried a type of job security; that is, if the job is custom tailored to me and no one else can do it; I should be indispensable. I learned in previous jobs that I was wrong in that assumption. If none of my superiors understand what I do for them; none of them will act as my advocate when cuts are made. Silly me.

This time, however, I really did have one small indispensable skill. I'm a good writer and most of the responsibilities that I had added to my formal job description involved writing for a very demanding audience. The woman who took over my formal job description will be very good at those duties (and probably faster than I was), but she's not a writer and doesn't want to become one. They are going to need contract out the writing duties. It would be nice if they could find someone who knows the material, someone who knows the audience's preferences, someone who is familiar with their schedule and the personalities involved, someone who has already signed a non-disclosure agreement... someone a lot like me.

So I was back at work for three hours on Saturday. I'm still writing procedures and mailing them in from home. My former supervisor is preparing a new agreement to hire me as a specialist consultant whenever they need some writing. It won't be enough to live on--I'll still need a day job--but it will be a nice supplement. My few days off aren't as "off" as I had hoped, but my income hasn't been as completely turned off either. Now that I’m a little less stressed out over a looming financial crisis, maybe I can get a little writing of my own done.

The return of the Carnival of Bad History

The Carnival of Bad History decided to play snowbird and flew off to warmer climes for the month of January. Now it's back, tanned and rested, and ready to do that funky, bad history thing. This month Rob MacDougall does the honors at Old is the New New. Rob serves up a healthy plate-full of debunked quotes, urban legends, jaywalking historians, bat-men on the moon, and holocaust denial, with a nice tall glass of Kool-Aid to wash it down. You won't want to miss this one.

PS - We're still looking for a host for the March edition. Drop me a line if you're interested.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Another food question

My father grew up during the depression and served in the military during World War Two. As was common with that generation my mother was the cook and baker in my family. But Dad had a few food specialties that he commanded. One, of course, was the manly art of barbeque. Most men of his generation felt that the open flame was their special sphere of cooking. In those days, scorching a slab of lightly seasoned beef over a properly prepared grill was a man's role. Preparation, clean-up, side dishes, and dessert were women's work. But the scorching was manly. Not much has changed in many households since then, except that both the women and the men are less competent around raw ingredients than in my Dad's prime.

Among my own generation, I'm probably bragging to say that my Dad had a second specialty where our meals were concerned. My Dad fixed hot breakfast for us. He fried the eggs and made our pancakes whenever we were all up together at the same hour, which mostly meant holidays and camping trips. Still, I think of my Dad as not only the master of the grill, but also of the griddle and the cast iron frying pan.

This was brought home to me last Fall one day when I was visiting my widowed mother. My Mom is a world-class cook. When I was a kid, she baked our bread*, she canned our preserves, she pickled our pickles, and fixed us healthy and interesting meals on a tiny budget. Being at Mom's, therefore, I was surprised when we prepared to have a big breakfast and she suddenly handed me a pan and asked me to fix the eggs.

I murmured, "Okay," and pulled out the pan that I was most comfortable working with. We were all having fried eggs, so I pulled out a small, rounded bottom, saute pan, with a lid. I heated the pan and added a pat of butter. My mother looked disapprovingly at the butter and said, "At your age, shouldn't you worry about cholesterol?"

"Here," she continued, reaching for a brushed steel can, "use the bacon grease."

When I was a kid growing up, one of my mother's favorite expressions was "sarcasm is wasted on children." I was never quite sure what she meant by that. In any case, my sisters and I all grew up to be very literate and ironic in our humor.

Which brings me to fat, and the question of the day.

A few years ago, I was reading Paul Kovi's Transylvanian Cuisine, a cookbook of old Central European food that I bought when I worked in a bookstore in Alaska. The book includes about a hundred pages of essays about Central European cooking and over three hundred recipes. Most of the recipes consist of stuffing something with chopped meat and onions and covering the cooked result with sour cream and paprika. It is really more of an ethnographic study than a cookbook. How often does the modern (non-Alaskan) American find themselves with a bear's foot wondering how to cook it?

When I was studying Balkan history in grad school I read the cook book from end to end. Deep into the recipes I noticed something unusual. While most of the recipes involved frying something, they were very specific about what kind of fat to use in frying. At first, I thought the recipes were referring qualities of the oil, like the temperature at which they smoke. My experience in fast food restaurants in my twenties told me that most oils were flavorless mediums for frying. The main reason for choosing one oil over another was to find the oil that remained reusable at a given temperature. Finally, I realized that the difference that the Transaylvanian cooks intended was one of flavor. Wild goose fat gives a dish a different flavor than domestic chicken. I began to experiment.

Nowadays, I use five different cooking oils: generic vegetable oil, olive oil, garlic butter, chicken fat, and bacon/sausage grease. At this point, I recall one of my grandmothers explaining that rendered bear fat (shot in the berry season) makes the very best pie crust.**

This, finally, brings me to the question. Who else uses that many different types of fat and oil, why do you use which one, and for what affect? Is rendered bear fat really better than vegetable shortening or lard? Is a pork chop fried in olive oil better than one fried in chicken fat? What about French fries? Share your fatty food knowledge before it passes away.

* Dad's pancakes and Mom's bread were all based on a sourdough culture that came out of Kansas in about 1958. Mom won an Honorable Mention for her whole-wheat sandwich bread at the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous on year in the late seventies. Winning an award for sourdough bread judged by Sourdough Alaskans is no small honor.

** Despite all of my years in Alaska, I was never able to test this. Bummer.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Why would any candidate agree?

This comes via Matt Stoller at MyDD. The answer to "how stupid can we get" shouldn't be this easy to answer.

First from Mediabistro:
Fox News Channel will host an August 2007 Democratic Debate in Reno, Nevada.

The network is working with the Nevada Democratic Party and the Western Majority Project to host the debate, "which is expected to attract the top Democratic contenders for President," the press release says. It will air live on FNC and FNR on Aug. 14 in Reno.

"Fox News is proud to be a leader in coverage of the 2008 campaign season and a co-host of this important presidential debate. We look forward to working with the Nevada Democratic Party and the Western Majority Project," Roger Ailes says...

And from the petition against it:
For an example of how disrespectful and counterproductive such Fox News-sponsored Democratic debates are, consider the September 9, 2003 Democratic debate in Baltimore, Maryland, hosted by Fox News in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus. Fox News graphics, as well as a banner over the stage, titled the event as the "Democrat Candidate Presidential Debate," a misconstruction of "Democrat" used as an epithet. Fox News then summarized the debate with a story titled, "Democratic Candidates Offer Grim View of America," continuing with such jabs as, "The depiction of the president as the root of all evil began at the top of Tuesday night's debate...."

Seriously, why would any Democratic candidate agree to this? It's the Anti-American Democrat Party debates brought to you by the God-Fearing Republican Party Information Bureau and Election Committee. I want a candidate who wants to win. Is that too much to ask for?

Update: Here's another petition.

Monday, February 19, 2007

T-Rex versus the sphinx

Sean O’Driscoll of the Associated Press just published a short article comparing two major museum events this spring that both deal with evolution. In one corner, we find the Hall of Human Origins, which opened last weekend at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It is the most comprehensive exhibit on human evolution ever to appear in the United States. In the other corner, we have Ken Ham's Creation Museum which will be opening near Cincinnati in May. It will be, undoubtedly, the most elaborate creation museum in the country.

O’Driscoll does a rather tongue in cheek comparison of the two shows, which will be sure to add to the persecution complex that fundamentalists feel whenever they show too much of themselves to "the liberal mainstream press." That can't be helped. Far from attacking Ham's entire show, I want to zoom in on one statement in O’Driscoll's description and comment on what it tells us about modern American Creationism.
[The Creation Museum] exhibits present genetic variation as occurring rapidly in the past 6,000 years. Various types of dinosaurs were saved by Noah’s ark and larger ones mutated from those. Dinosaurs died out in the last few thousand years, but some might still be around. Polar bears mutated from bears saved by Noah’s ark.

Notice the strategic use of the word, "mutated." This is the key to making it all work.

My first point involves fitting animals into the ark.

Ever since the book of Genesis became known to a broad audience, some twenty-four centuries ago, skeptics have questioned the possibility of fitting two of all species of land animals into a single boat. In the early days of the Church, apologists made a careful count of the number of species in the world (arriving at a laughably low number*), made the largest possible estimate of the size of the ark**, and carefully arranged the animals into that space along with enough food for a year and Noah's family. These methods were sufficient to satisfy the faithful until the Renaissance, when sailors began bumping into entire continents with hundreds, even thousands, of new species. Then scientists began finding hundreds of very large, extinct species. How did they fit into the story?

Biblical literalists have really been constrained by their core principle on this. They believe every word of Genesis is completely true and scientifically accurate as understood in common English. By their own rules, using a sophisticated linguistic gloss to say "that's not quite what the Bible means." If the Bible says the whole world was flooded and God commanded Noah to take all of the animals on board, it must be so. No fair saying it was a local flood and Noah only had to save Middle Eastern farm animals. The ark had to carry Argentine anteaters, Irish elk, Australian kangaroos, Congolese gorillas, Kansas buffalo, and Siberian woolly mammoths. And dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are a special problem. Dinosaurs, and other extinct animals known only by fossils, create a special problem. Not only do fossils multiply the number of animals that need to fit onto the ark; many of those fossil animals are very large. Some Biblical literalists chose simply to deny that they really existed. Others have suggested that fossils are the remains of a couple of practice creation that God did before making us. That idea has fallen out of favor, because it breaks the rules of taking the Bible at its word. No, the only real answer must be that dinosaurs were on the ark. This is the solution that Ken Ham embraces for his Creation Museum.

Modern Biblical literalists have found two loopholes that allow them to dramatically reduce the number of animals on the ark.

Their primary loophole is the concept of "kind." In most translations of Genesis, God commands Noah to take two (or seven) of every "kind" onto the ark. Creationists argue that "kind" is a different concept than "species." Species, they argue, is a false Darwinist concept that inflates the number of animals necessary for Noah to take. Kind is a much broader concept. If "cat" is a kind, then Noah only needed to take two "cats" on the ark. He did not need to bring a pair each of lions, tigers, pumas, jaguars, leopards, and kitties on board.

Their secondary loophole is hybridization. Just as horses and donkeys can crossbreed to create mules, so, they argue, other pairs of species must have crossbreed to create third species. In those days, "dogs" and "cats" could crossbreed to create "dats," a species much beloved of creationists.

The sum of these two loophole is a narrative of Noah only taking a few hundred species of animals on the ark. After the flood, Noah released all of these animals, who spread across the world in a wild burst of non-Darwinian speciation that only lasted a few hundred years. During that time all of the thousands of modern known species were created, along with thousands more who went extinct almost as soon as they appeared.

This, rather indirectly, brings me to my other point: when did this happen? The classic date, used by most American Biblical literalists, for the expulsion from Eden and the beginning of history is Bishop Ussher's 4004 BC or something close to it. If we read Genesis 4-7, and apply a little basic math to the generations of Adam, we can see that the flood happened in the 1756th year after the expulsion. That works out to 2248 BC, counting forward from Bishop Ussher’s date. For comparison, the accepted historical dates for Egyptian history have the pyramids being built around 2800-2600 BC. That is, four to six centuries before the flood of Noah.

We can push the construction of the pyramids forward, but we have a limited amount of space in which to work; by about 1400-1200 BC, we have to cover all of ancient history up to the Exodus of Moses and the Hebrew children from Egypt. In the mere 1000-1200 years that we have to do that we need to build the civilization of Babel and destroy it, confounding the languages of man. Some of those confounded men must move into the Nile valley and become numerous enough to become the original Egyptian civilization. That civilization needs to build the pyramids, collapse, rise again, collapse again, rise again, and enslave the Hebrews.

Meanwhile, during that same ten to twelve centuries, a couple of species of medium sized-dinosaurs need to speciate into hundreds of species of dinosaurs, some of them have to grow into enormous monsters, and then most of them need to go extinct and fossilize. The Egyptians and all other ancient civilizations had to accomplish everything the did in a very short time, all the while avoiding being eaten or stepped on by dinosaurs.

Ham teaches that a few dinosaurs hung on to provide dragons, sea monsters, and lake beasties right up to the present. Behemoth, Leviathan, and St. George's dragon were all dinosaurs according to Ham.

This is what he writes in his books and this, presumably, is what he will teach in his museum. He has confidence that this story makes more sense than Darwinism with all of those years. Personally, I like years.

* Citing Aristotle, they claimed there were only 550 species in the world.
** Origen wins hands down, making the ark twenty nine miles long. He did not explain how Noah found that much lumber in the Middle East.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rational and irrational

John Lynch has a short post up that mentions a symposium on "Science Literacy and Pseudoscience" held in San Francisco. Although he was unable to attend the symposium, he quotes the news coverage of it and has a short comment of his own on the significance of the topic.

First the coverage:
People in the U.S. know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.

In 1988 only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005, according to Jon D. Miller, a Michigan State University professor. He presented his findings Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


A panel of researchers expressed concern that people are giving increasing credence to pseudoscience such as the visits of space aliens, lucky numbers and horoscopes.

In addition, these researchers noted an increase in college students who report they are "unsure" about creationism as compared with evolution.

And now Lynch:
So, science literacy is clearly increasing ... but at the same time pseudoscientific beliefs are also increasing. It strikes me that this may be a problem for us as educators in that we might be teaching students (and thus the public) scientific facts but not teaching them how to think scientifically.

While Lynch's concerns might be well placed, they might not be. The article he quotes simply does not give us enough information to make a judgment. Science literacy is on the rise as measured by understanding of newspaper science articles. There is no measure of the quality or quantity of those articles. If one science topic gets intense coverage, and dominates newspaper science writing, most people will be able to say they have a basic understanding of "science writing." On the other hand, if a wide variety of topics are covered and most readers only understand one or two of those topics, then they will not be able to say they understand most science writing they encounter. By the same token, if most science writers were writing in depth articles on an early date and broad surveys at a later date, then most readers will claim a better understanding of science reporting on that later date, even though their understanding of science is no better than before.

I don't know if either of these actually is the case in the surveys mentioned in this article; the writer doesn't give us enough information to know what was being measured. While the science side of the equation is bad, the pseudoscience side of the equation is immeasurably worse (really, you can't measure it).

The AP article mentions a couple of pseudosciences and provides some data that belief in then is widespread and perhaps on the rise. While the article is able to provide an overall measure for understanding of "science," it's not able to provide a comprehensive definition of "pseudoscience," let alone a measure of its influence.

This is the problem with unorthodox beliefs. They have not generally been regarded as a fit subject for study. When a group of scholars began to study Jewish history in the last third of the nineteenth century, they created one of the first fields of non-national history. They defined Judaism as a rational social phenomenon. It would be almost a half-century before a scholar, Gershom Scholem, would manage to get a serious hearing for a history of the mystical--the non-rational--side of the Jewish experience. He essentially had to create a new field of study to pursue his interests.

What Scholem saw was that a movement toward the rational is often balanced by an equal movement toward the irrational. This is not true only in Jewish history, it is true, at least, in all Western history. The artistic rationalism of the Renaissance was accompanied by witch hunts and the growth of the inquisition. The scientific revolution in the seventeenth century also saw the birth of Rosecrusianism. The secularism of the French Revolution arrived at the same time as the birth of modern conspiratorialism centered on the Illuminati and other Freemasons. Finally, the triumph of scientific rationalism and bourgeois secularism in the second half of the nineteenth century was accompanied by spiritualism, Theosophy, and fundamentalism.

The theoretically inclined might call on Hegel at this point: every new synthesis is supposed to generate its own new antithesis for a new dialectic. I'm not prepared to say whether this is an iron law of history or merely a clever observation of how things have worked lately. In any case, it is true that a stong tradition of irrationalism has accompanied rationalism for the last three or four centuries. The problem is that historians and sociologists have focused more on the history of rational thought than they have on the history of irrational thought to the extent that we don't really even have the data to make a comparison of their basic strengths.

These days, I like to think of myself as a historian of the irrational. I hope that my small contribution to these debates will be to help provide a basic understanding of the question itself. If I can't do that, I, at least, want to make sure that some ripping good stories aren't lost.

Mangled metaphors

I think we have a contestant for the worst metaphor of the year.

Laura Sessions Stepp is a lifestyles editor for the Washington Post. She has written a new book called Hooking Up, in which she tut-tuts for 288 pages about the loose morals of modern girls who don't save it for marriage. According to this review, she raises all of the old talking points about the female body as a commodity that can be devalued by too much use, worries about the long term psychological effects of youthful promiscuity (only in women), throws in a good dose of shame, and finishes with a letter to young women that includes this gem:
Your body is your property. . . . Think about the first home you hope to own. You wouldn't want someone to throw a rock through the front window, would you?

Let me see, any sex is the equivalent of a violent act of destruction and should only be allowed to your loving life partner, right?

Obviously, I'm not the only one puzzled by this metaphor. Other writers have tried to improve on it.

Kriston at Grammar.Police:
Your body is your property. . . . Think about the first home you hope to own. If you're ever in a bind you can always take out a mortgage.

Matthew Yglesias:
Your body is your property. . . . Think about the first home you hope to own. You want to have a big party and invite all your friends over.

Commenter Gussie at Grammar.Police:
Your body is your property. . . . Think about the first home you hope to own. Don't you want the pizza guy to deliver?

Commenter Gussie at Matthew Yglesias:
Defenestration never sounded so hawt!

I’m sure you guys can do better.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A vexicological moment

Mustang Bobby points out that today is Flag Day in Canada. On this day in 1965, the Canadians formally adopted their attractive maple leaf flag (not to be confused with the Maple Leaf Rag, which is something else altogether). In the summer of 1965 my family spent our vacation in British Columbia. I remember being hyper-aware of the flag because it was something we'd learned about in school that spring. That was probably the start of my lifetime interest in flags.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Dangerously wrong

John Lynch at Stranger Fruit has discovered another greenhouse denialist making the same religious arguments that earned Frosty Harbison his fifteen minutes of fame here in Washington. Chris Allen is the weatherman for WKBO in Bowling Green, Kentucky; he attends a fundamentalist church, and doesn't believe God would let us change His world.

WKBO gives him a column on their website that he calls, predictably, "Chris' Corner" where he expounds on his views about the burning weather issues of the day. Along with his literalist fundamentalism this week's piece, entitled "Still Not Convinced," manages to hit all the notes of arch-conservatism, anti-intellectualism, macho posturing, and conspiratorialism.
I suppose now that hundreds of scientists have "taken the question mark away as to whether global climate change is caused by humans" I should just roll over and play dead. After all, they are the scientists - the sacred brain trust of environmentalists everywhere.

...Dr. Heidi Cullen of The Weather Channel's "Climate Code" program stated recently that any sealed meteorologist who doesn't fall in line with the man-made global warming marching orders should have their seals revoked! Well, who is she?? Just because "Dr." is in front of her name doesn't mean we all should sit up and take notice.

Sneering anti-intellectualism--check.
Their conclusion has been heralded as "we've spoken...you will obey!" (They don't know me very well do they?)

But I will tell you, the ones waving the global warming banner are hoping you'll ignore my stand on this...

Yes, Chris, the IPCC issued their report for the sole purpose of trying to convince Chris Allen. The Fools! Check on conspiratorial sense of self importance.
Last week, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - a by-product of the United Nations) released the first volume of a study which states that humans are "very likely" the cause of global warming and climate change.

Use of the UN as a conservative punching bag--check.
But, just because major environmental groups, big media and some politicians are buying this hook, line and sinker doesn't mean as a TV weatherperson I am supposed to act as a puppy on a leash and follow along.

Faux manly standing up to the powers that be--check.
[I]magine if environmentalists had existed during the prehistoric era there might have been signs that read "Save the dinosaur!"

Usually at this point, the essayist should point out past incorrect predictions to show that the alarmists are always wrong. Since the dinosaurs did go extinct, I'm not sure what the point of this comment is. Still, he gets another check for mocking alarmist environmentalists, although I should probably lower it to half a check for the poor execution.

My accusers, please pay attention...

Now, I am the one being attacked.

I know this post will bring more fire and brimstone from the "greenies"...

Assuming a martyr posture over his plain spoken "common sense"--check.

[T]he ones waving the global warming banner are hoping you'll ignore my stand on this and send them lots of money...because without your funding they tell us "we're all gonna die or burn up in 10 years" or the "damage" that's been done will be irreversible.

I think in many ways that's what this movement is ultimately out to do - rid the mere mention of God in any context. What these environmentalists are actually saying is "we know more than God - we're bigger than God - God is just a fantasy - science is real...He isn't...listen to US!"

The environmentalists are either just in this for the money or to destroy God, but, in any case, they are cynically working for an unspoken ulterior purpose. More conspiracy mongering--check. Bogus quotes--check. Exaggerating the other side's argument--check.

Now we get to the fundamentalist meat of his argument.
My biggest argument against putting the primary blame on humans for climate change is that it completely takes God out of the picture. It must have slipped these people's minds that God created the heavens and the earth and has control over what's going on. (Dear Lord Jesus...did I just open a new pandora's box?) Yeah, I said it. Do you honestly believe God would allow humans to destroy the earth He created? Of course, if you don't believe in God and creationism then I can see why you would easily buy into the whole global warming fanfare.

This is the same argument that Frost Harbison wanted to see represented in is daughter's classrooms: the climate is changing because it is God's will and not because of anything we are doing.

A variation of this argument has been around in various scientific contexts since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. When scientists first began to recognize that many fossils were the remains of animals for which they could find no living representatives, at first they be;lieved that these animals must still exist in a distant, unexplored corner of the planet. As the numbers of such species continued to add up and the unexplored corners continued to shrink, scientists like Baron Cuvier advanced the idea of extinction.

The idea that ever single member of a species could die without issue was not only difficult to grasp, it was scandalous. To many it implied an intolerable degree of imperfection in God's creation. Thomas Jefferson was an extinction skeptic and fully expected Lewis and Clark to find mammoths and giant sloths in the far West. By the time they returned to the East, it was fats becoming difficult to deny the reality of extinction. Religious thinkers dealt with this new concept by incorporating it into the idea of the Fall. Eve's disobedience not only corrupted mankind, it corrupted the whole world, which has been slowly falling apart ever since.

Harbison and Allen's idea that "God [won't] allow humans to destroy the earth He created" is not just an old-fashioned idea, it's a dangerous idea. It not only absolves us of any sense of guilt or responsibility for the results of our actions, it encourages a denialist mindset. Nothing we do could possibly be that dangerous, since God reserves that kind of destructive power for Himself. It's also fatalistic. If the current climate change is God's will, then nothing we do will change it for better or worse. We may as well keep on doing things as we have been.

Allen is right about one thing. We really do wish he would shut up, and if he can't shut up, then we hope no one listens to him. He's not just a goofy loudmouth, he's a goofy loudmouth with a bully pulpit, and that's dangerous combination.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What do I do

Several of my friends have pointed out that it might be easier for friendly readers to help me find employment if I told them what I do for a living. Unfortunately, that's an easier question to ask than to answer. I'm a modern sort of person. I don't have anything so old fashioned as a career, within which I only occasionally move from job to job, gradually increasing my experience, and collecting gradually increasing rewards. I have a set of evolving skills that I try to tto the rapidly fluctuating job market as I am shuffled from job to job against my will.

Although I have had thirty two jobs in my life (which puts me a few jobs ahead of Coturnix, but only because I'm much older), I like to thing of my core skill set as centered on research and writing. I have a Masters in Balkan History and I did all of the class work for a Doctorate, but never completed the hoop jumping that goes along with writing a dissertation. The writing was not the problem. I wrote a Master's thesis on the way to my degree.

Since leaving graduate school, I have worked for an HMO writing bylaws for two hospitals. I have been a senior technical writer for a company building backend processing services for internet commerce. I have freelanced for various computer related businesses writing online help files, installation procedures, marketing materials, white papers, and UI text. I have also written book reviews, created technical graphics, and drawn cartoons. Lately, I have been a librarian for a property management service and have written descriptive essays for items in private art and rare document collections.

I like books, politics, science, and history and the collisions of any combination of these topics. I am a font of useless information and will kick your butt on five of the six traditional Trivial Pursuit categories. I would like to find employment that involves writing content at least part of the time. I am smarter than most furniture and able to learn most skills that do not require good eye-hand coordination. I will make a new pot after taking the last cup of coffee.

Happy 198th Birthday

On this day in 1809, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born. Each one had an incalculable effect on the shape of Western Civilization in the Twentieth Century. Each one was adored and despised in their own lifetime and after. Both have been the subject of ridiculous myth-making since they died. The legacy of both is being targeted by reactionary Republicans in the US and their allies in other countries. Today is the day to stand up for their legacies and say, "Thanks guys; we appreciate it."

Almost as cool as the Junior Woodchucks

I was a lifer in the Cub Scouts and went further than it is even possible to go nowadays (there were four levels them, but only three last time I looked). I tried the Boy Scouts, but they beat me up, so I quit. I've applied for membership in the Order Of The Science Scouts Of Exemplary Repute And Above Average Physique*, an organization whose main function seems to be awarding merit badges to science geeks. Maybe this will wipe out the trauma and shame of my retreat from the BSA without any badges.

So far, I think I'm already entitled to:
  • The "talking science" badge
  • The "I blog about science" badge
  • The "arts and crafts" badge
  • The "I'm pretty confident around an open flame" badge
  • The "inappropriate nocturnal use of lab equipment in the name of alternative science experimentation / communication" badge
  • The "sexing up science" badge
  • The "I can be a prick when it comes to science" badge
  • The "will glady kick sexual harasser's ass" badge
  • The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge (LEVEL I)
  • The "has frozen stuff just to see what happens" badge (LEVEL II - dry ice)
  • The "I work with way too much radioactivity, and yet still no discernable superpowers yet" badge
  • The "I've done science with no concievable practical application" badge
  • The "I know what a tadpole is" badge
  • The "experienced with electrical shock" badge (LEVEL I - shocker)
  • The "experienced with electrical shock" badge (LEVEL III - shockee)

I'm working on:
  • The "MacGyver" badge

* I feel safe claiming a right to join as long as they don't actually define the average physique against which we're being measured.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Important question

When baking a potato, do you cover it with oil or foil?

This is a test post to start using the title field. This should improve the way the blog feeds into some RSS readers. The comments are open to you views on potatoes, foramtting, and RSS feeds. Or none of the above.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Another housekeeping post
Last night I upgraded my blog. I clicked the button to move to the new blogger. After seeing the horror stories about the big kids trying to move over I was ready for the worst. I copied my template and saved my old posts to text files on my machine at home. I remember that Atrios was off line for most of a day before his attempt to move failed. For me, it took less than five minutes and everything moved perfectly.

I now have labels. Over the last few days, I've been updating my blogroll. Unlike the big kids, I didn't use this moment to forgive myself in advance for dropping a lot of small people. I tried to make changes to include the people I'm really reading at the moment. I still need to go through all of the addresses and make sure I have the current URLs for everyone.

Next, I plan to update the functionality of the site to better use things like feeds and recommendation services. I'm rapidly moving into last year. This is all typical of my approach to technology. I like advanced technology and new toys, but I'm fairly frugal (cheap to you non-Scots). I'm happy to have the latest goodies for things I use, but I'm slow to move into other fields.

Thirty years ago, I was an audiophile and had the best stereo I could afford. By the nineties, I was slow to move into CDs for the simple reason that I had 285 albums, many were not available for replacement, and I couldn't afford to replace them even if they were; I was a graduate student at the time. I finally went CD only when my turntable broke. I was still using a manual typewriter in 1988, but within three years I had not only gone electric and moved to a computer, but I had the best computer among my graduate school crowd (and stayed ahead of the others for almost six months).

On the other hand, I don't like phones and being available for every idiot on the planet to annoy. When I leave work, I want to be unavailable. I still don't have a personal cell phone and, although my job issued me one, I turn it off as soon as I get home. They can pester me on the commute, but as soon as I see a cat, they no longer own my time (as a wage earning contractor, I think they should pay for any time they use, so if I'm off the clock, I'm off the phone). I didn't have a good camera, so I was an early adopter of digital cameras. I spent 700 dollars for a low resolution camera that used a floppy disc and could only hold twenty pictures on a disc.

I place myself on a spectrum between complete Luddites and indiscriminate technophiles. I am neither smarter nor more practical than other users. I like technology, but I don't believe I have enough money to embrace new ways to spend what I have without being convinced that I have a good reason to spend in that direction. I'm also old and lazy in my habits.

Those last two do the most to explain the state of my blog and its features. Despite all of the griping that people do about Blogger and Blogspot, I do feel that I am getting my money's worth from them. The main reason I don't add more bells and whistles to my blog is mostly that my blogging guilt is primarily directed toward the amount of writing I do and not toward the functionality of the site. What this means is that I'll continue to pick at the site, but if I find myself with a lot of time and energy, I'll spend it writing about Nazi mammoths in flying saucers and their effect on the 2008 presidential race, and not on enabling the site for 3D podcasts.

I trust you will tell me if you think this is the wrong course to take.
A bad month for John McKays
I've mentioned twice now the fact of my impending unemployment. After four and a half years as a contractor at my current job--time enough to feel like one of the team, just lacking paid time off and benefits--my position fell victim to a budget adjustment and I was told my services would no longer be needed after the end of February. What I haven't mentioned is that I have also been sick and physically miserable for the last month. I started the new year out with a flu and followed it with a head cold that simply will not go away. The guy I share a work space with had both and strep throat, too. Clever Wife just had the cold. I guess that makes me the Mamma Bear of our shared germ culture.

Every morning I wake up and think, "I'm too miserable to get up." Then I have to go through this careful self-analysis. Am I sick or am I depressed? If I'm depressed, I have to go to work. If I'm sick, I have to decide if I'm sick enough to stay home. I almost always have to go to work, a fact that is both depressing and sick.

And, with my head full of snot most days, I haven't been able to post more than off-the-cuff comments on politics, between sinus attacks. The last day I was marginally competent was the day I finished making my recommendations for Coturnix's best of the science bloggers anthology (which you should go buy here). The day I finished reading all of the nominees, I wrote up my recommendations, mailed them to Coturnix, and went to bed for sixteen hours. Since then, the book has been completed, published, I've received my copy, read it, given it to my mother, basked in her praise, and I still have a head full of snot.

This morning I went to work, feeling fairly well, and had a sudden sinus attack. I was sneezing nonstop, both hands were full of kleenex, and my eyes were watering so much that I couldn't read my computer screen. The guy I share a work space with told me to go home; I wasn't getting any work done and I was scaring people. Certainly the freeway was a much safer place to have a person in my condition. Fortunately, the freeways in Seattle rarely move faster than a school zone, so I got home okay and so did everyone else who shared the road with me. The closest I came to an accident was when a police car made an illegal U-turn a couple blocks from my house.

As long as I had made it home alive, I decided to take a look at the local news. But first, the mail arrived. We had a certified letter from the IRS telling us that we still owed taxes on the almost worthless stock options that we cashed out after both of our cool jobs in the internet boom went pop after 2001. The amount given in the mail to pay our obligations, was for last November, so I called the regional office get the correct amount. I spent a while listening to Tchaikhovski and Mozart symphonies before my question was answered.

When I got back to the news, I was surprised to see that John McKay losing his job was a major story in the local paper. I did once manage to get a letter to the editor published, but I didn't realize that doing so made me an important opinion maker to be watched. I eagerly read the article and discovered that it did not refer to me.
Seven months before he was forced to resign as U.S. attorney for the western district of Washington, John McKay received a glowing performance review from Justice Department evaluators.

"McKay is an effective, well-regarded and capable leader of the [U.S. attorney's office] and the District's law enforcement community," the team of 27 Justice Department officials concluded, according to a copy of their final report obtained by The Seattle Times.

Yet on Dec. 7, Michael Battle, director of the Justice Department's executive office for U.S. attorneys, called McKay and asked him to step down.

"I was told to resign by the end of January," McKay confirmed Wednesday. "I asked what the reason was, and they told me there was none.

"Ultimately, I serve at the pleasure of the president," McKay said. "I accept that now and I accepted that then, and that's why I resigned."

For those keeping count, John McKay is another statistic in the ongoing purge of US Attorneys.

John McKay is a painfully whitebread name. There are four John McKays in my immediate family and quite a few more in my further family. During the 2000 Florida vote recount, the majority leader of the Florida state senate was a John McKay. At one time there was a John McKay who was Tory member of parliament in Ontario. When I was studying history in graduate school, there were at least two John McKays who were practicing historians in the United States, one in a subject very close to mine. Back in Alaska when I was in my early twenties, there was another John McKay who ran in the same political circles I did. I regularly met people who would claim that we had a common friend. "Hi!" they would say, "I'm a friend of so-and-so's. You two served together on the board of the public television station." I'm sure he had the same experience. People must have met him at political events and said, "Hi! I'm a friend of so-and-so's. You two once got lip walking drunk together at the Fly-by-Night Club." So-and-so was occasionally two different people. After the other John and I finally met*, we exchanged phone numbers so we could direct misdirected people in the right direction.

I've never met the other John McKay in Seattle, so I have not been able to offer him that same deal. And that's a shame, because as soon as I got home alive today, following my tax adventures, I received a call for that John McKay.

Unfortunately, I said, "Sorry. That John McKay is probably unlisted."

The caller said, "You'd be surprised."

I said, "Yeah, heh-heh,"

At that point, my brain, on the far side of about six pounds of mucus, said, "If that's a reporter, you might be able to get your own unemployment situation added to his story as a human interest note." But it was too late; the call was over. The French have a name for this. They call it esprit d'escalier. It crudely translates as "stairway wit." It's a phrase we really need in English. It is a phase that describes all of the clever things we realize we should have said as we are leaving a party. It describes the first pang of pain over lost opportunities.

As long as I have been aware of him, I have believed that the other Seattle John McKay and I have little in common. He is a member of a socio-economic strata several degrees above mine and I believe he is as far to the right as I am to the left. Which doesn't mean we don't have anything in common. I have had many friends on the right. As long as neither of us has tipped over into that creepy, and personally insecure, extremist zone where we will only associate with people who support our views, I have always been happy to sit down with people I disagree with on some issues and look for something we can agree on, even if it is just music, movies, or beer, though the latter mattered more in my twenties.

If the other John McKay is looking for work, here's my thought: we should take to the road in neo-vaudevillian act like G. Gordon Liddy and Timothy Leary did or Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin did with their Yuppy-Yippy debates. Two of those four are still alive and only one of the dead committed suicide. That means we would each have a fifty-percent chance of dying of natural causes is if we took to the road together. I'm sure that there are other advantages to taking to the road together, but my brain is too full of snot at the minute to think of it.

* A story which is part of the greater Mike Gravel story.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Let the stupid season begin
Whether we like it or not, the 2008 presidential primary season is upon us. My first temptation was to sit back, let some of the candidates eliminate themselves, and deal with the survivors in the fall. I don't have a strong favorite yet and I haven't eliminated any Democrat, except Mike Gravel*, but with the stupid comments already flying, I might have to change my plans.

"Slave state" Biden was thoroughly and properly raked over the coals last week for his clean and articulate Negros comment last week. This week, we have Clinton bringing up 9/11 in response to question about Iraq, and acting like she was the only one affected by it.
"As a senator from New York, I lived through 9/11 and I am still dealing with the aftereffects," Clinton said. "I may have a slightly different take on this from some of the other people who will be coming through here."

I'd just like to point out that, as a technical writer from Seattle, I lived through 9/11 and I am still dealing with the aftereffects. I may have a slightly different take on this from some of the other people. In fact, I think you might find about three-hundred-million different takes on 9/11 in this country. If we go abroad, we might find a couple more takes.

* There's a story here.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Madatory Superbowl post
The Superbowl is tomorrow. The Bears and the Colts are playing. Mom says they sound like nice people and she hopes one of them wins. That pretty much expends the complete Superbowl knowledge of Mom, Clever Wife, and me.

When I was young and foolish I picked out the Corn and Rice Chex from the party mix and only ate them. Now, I am older and wiser and like the Wheat Chex best.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

An embarrassing confession
For the past thirty-five years, one of my favorite albums has been the second album by the San Francisco group Quicksilver Messenger Service, entitled Happy Trails. In the original vinyl version--which, of course, is all there was thirty-five years ago--the A side of the album consisted of a twenty five and a half minute live jam on the blues/rock piece "Who Do You Love." This piece was also recorded by Eric Clapton, The Doors, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. These days, you can hear it in the background of the Samuel Adams beer ad on teevee where the founder of the brewery is shown smelling hops.

For all of these years I have thought the composer of that piece, one Ellis McDaniels (according to the album cover), was a member of Quicksilver Messenger Service, even though all four members of the band were pictured and named surrounding the credits on the back of the album cover. None of them was named Ellis McDaniels.

Today, I looked up another song of the same name, just because I was curious to see if there was a connection. I discovered that the author of "Who Do You Love," Ellis McDaniels, is Bo Diddley. Thirty-five years of listening to the bomp, de-bomp bomp, bomp bomp rhythm never clued me in. This is like listening to "Caravan" for decades and not realizing that the "Edward Kennedy Ellington" listed in the credits is also known as the Duke.

Please, tell me an embarrassing story that will make me feel better.
This explains why I never win
Former Vice President Al Gore has been nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize by two Norwegian lawmakers. The stated reason for his nomination is his work to make people aware of the dangers presented by climate change.

For each Nobel Prize, the Nobel Committee sends nomination forms to a group of people deemed "competent and qualified to nominate" in that category. The Committee does not disclose the list of nominees, though they do not prevent the nominators from disclosing their choices. The Committee also does not accept unsolicited nominations.

This brings us to Rush Limbaugh, a hateful and self-satisfied drug addict. Landmark Legal Foundation, which calls itself the "conservative's American Civil Liberties Union" and has filed lawsuits against labor unions and school desegregation, has nominated Limbaugh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Since LLF is not one of the qualified nominators, this nomination will go exactly nowhere. I'm not sure what they expect to get out of this silly PR stunt.
Converts are the worst kind
By now, enough has been written about Dinesh D'Souza's new book The Enemy At Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11 that I don't need to go into a detailed description of its failings. We've all noted the irony of the fact that, since 9/11 right wingers have taken to calling the left "the blame America first crowd," and that when one of them writes a book about 9/11, his thesis is to blame Americans. We've all noted that this is a divisive, dishonest, and essentially anti-American argument. We've all noted the additional irony of him embracing the critique of American culture put forth by radical Islamists, in an effort to "blame the victim," while claiming to defend American culture against those same radical Islamists.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that someone as obsesses with identifying the causes of the decline of Western Civilization as D'Souza keeps an enemies list.
D'Souza identifies more than 100 people and organizations as part of a "domestic insurgency" that is "working in tandem with [Osama] bin Laden to defeat Bush." Among them are such well-known terrorists as Sharon Stone, Henry Louis Gates and Cindy Sheehan. If you've ever given money to Planned Parenthood or the ACLU, D'Souza wants you to know, you've been aiding groups "at least as dangerous as any of bin Laden's American sleeper cells."

Anyone the least bit familiar with the basic dishonesty of all D'Souza's arguments will also be unsurprised to find that he manages to accuse us of "working in tandem with bin Laden" in one breath and then say, with a straight face, "I am not accusing anyone of treason or even of anti-Americanism." Ed Brayton does a superb job of picking apart the dishonesty of that approach and deconstructs his list.

I first became aware of D'Souza in 1991 or '92. He came through the place I worked on a book tour and no one showed up for his talk, so a bunch of the bookstore employees sat in on his talk to fill chairs. Although he was selling his book Illiberal Education at the time, the gist of his talk was practicing the anti-affirmative action arguments for is next book The End of Racism. D'Souza's act was to play the wide-eyed, naive foreign guy who thought America was a land of perfect equality, and that inequality was something that he had never seen in America, but only read about in history books. Since none of us knew his background, our first impression was to think his naiveté rather precious. Later a couple people got curious enough to look into his background and figured out that it was all an act.

I bring this up, because D'Souza represents, to me, a dangerous type of standard character in history: the nationalist convert. D'Souza is an immigrant to the United States. He was born in a different culture, to parents who were part of that culture, and not part of American culture. Despite his origins, he has embraced American culture with the passion that only a convert can muster. He feels that he is qualified to write books defining real American culture and to excommunicate anyone who he feels is bad for the culture that he has defined. In his zeal he has become the worst kind of nationalist chauvinist. The problem is that the culture he defined does not, and never did, exist.

The nationalist convert has been a dangerous figure in Europe and other areas for the last two centuries. The founding father of this mindset was Napoleon, who was born in a non-French border region of the empire and oversaw the creation of the modern form of statist nationalism. The most notorious nationalist convert was Hitler, an Austrian who sought to define Germany. Most countries of Eastern Europe have experienced members of the diaspora who returned to have an outsized influence on the politics of the old country. Many of the architects of apartheid in South Africa were first generation immigrants.

Nationalist converts come upon their dangerous illusions by worshiping from afar. The state or culture to which they attach their affections is an intellectual construct, a figment of their imagination. They fail to recognize the compromises and varied interests that exist in any vibrant, living society. When they actually enter that culture, they are shocked and offended that the pure ideal of their dreams does not exist and they dedicate themselves to purifying the culture by removing the influences that they deem foreign or contaminating. Not all nationalist converts are genocidal maniacs. In fact, most content themselves with far more mundane forms of bigotry such as banning foreign words, dictating a heroic history curriculum for the schools, and sticking national symbols on every surface the can.

D'Souza, as a new citizen, has every right to participate in American culture. And that includes free speech, which in case is the right to spout his inane and dangerous ideas (just as much as I have to call his ideas "inane and dangerous"). He has just as much right as the Hispanic new citizen who wants to demand bi-lingual education for his kids. Of course, I know which one of those new citizens I'd rather have as a neighbor.