Thursday, May 31, 2007

A new censorship argument

Laura Mallory is a mother of four in Loganville, GA who has dedicated her life to wiping out Harry Potter, despite the fact that she hasn't read any of the books (she says they are too long). So far, she has appeared before review boards--and lost--three times. Last October, appearing before the Georgia Board of Education, she argued that the Harry Potter books caused school shootings because they promoted evil. Her latest argument, presented to Superior Judge Ronnie Batchelor, has an interesting twist.
Laura Mallory, who argued the popular fiction series is an attempt to indoctrinate children in witchcraft, said she still wants the best-selling books removed and may take her case to federal court.

"I maybe need a whole new case from the ground up," Mallory said. The woman, who said two of her four children attend public schools in the county, was not represented by an attorney at the hearing.


At Tuesday's hearing, Mallory argued in part that witchcraft is a religion practiced by some people and, therefore, the books should be banned because reading them in school violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

That's right, any book which features characters who have a religion are a violation of the constitutional separation of church and state and must be banned. This could have some fun implications.

You have to feel sorry for her four kids. Not only is their Mom dangerously obsessed and a national laughing stock, but she has also shown that she would rather keep them dirt stupid than risk letting them be exposed to an idea that she might not approve of. However loving and attentive she might be, in my book that makes her a bad parent.

In our society, we allow a certain amount of bad parenting, both as a right of the parent and for the practical reason that we can't agree on all of the details of good parenting and no one wants to empower any agency with the kind of authority to interfere that would be necessary to enforce good parenting in all things. Laura Mallory is a perfect example of the kind of interference we aren't ready to allow. She thinks that good parenting means elimination of all mention of other cultures (even fictional ones) and frequent Bible reading. She's so sure she's right that she's gone before school boards and courts to force everyone else to raise their kids the same way she's raising hers. So far, the school boards, courts, and public have all rejected her demand. As long as they continue to do so, there's still hope for our country.

I'm sure she's really going to enjoy this summer's Potterpalooza of movie and book releases. It might not be a bad idea for the county social services to check in on her now and then to make sure it doesn't drive her over the edge.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Two questions about the heartland

Why are your counties so small? I'll assume that the answer is historical.

Now that your population is collapsing, why don't you save some money by combining a few of them? Is government patronage (that is, the Bureaucracy) the only source of jobs left? Don't tell me a single sheriff's department can't patrol a New Jersy sized county; we do it all the time in the West. Is it local pride by the last thirty people in the county seat, or are you just too conservative to make a change that might actually lower your taxes? Is it easier to complain about jhypothetical federal government spending, than to lower real local government spending?

As a third bonus question, have you ever noticed that people are almost universally in favor of "reducing the bureaucracy," less fond of "eliminating government services" that they use, and positively opposed to laying off "civil service employees" who are friends or relatives?

Ham on wry

This weekend, Ken Ham's creation Museum opens near Cincinnati. It features a Disneyfied approach to religion and science aimed at not very inquisitive kids. Ham might be sincere in his religious beliefs, but I don't believe his methods of proselytizing are honest. I believe that there are arguments that Ham knows are incorrect but that he continues to use because they are effective.

That is me. If you have a different opinion of Ham, or a comment to make about his museum opening, this weekend is your chance to have your say. Last weekend I wrote a small piece about Ham and asked PZ Myers if anyone was planning a coordinated response to the media circus that will accompany Ham's opening. PZ took the torch and ran with it.

That is what I was hoping for. I'm both too busy to be the torch bearer (Mom is going into cancer therapy again) and too small to be the torch bearer. Despite my light and sarcastic tone, I think that this is a very serious issue. America is a hotbed of misguided creationist support. Someday soon, I’ll write a post explaining why I think that is. Meanwhile, even if I wasn't busy, I would want someone with a high enough profile to attract to this issue the attention it deserves in the major media. That's PZ, not me.

And so, if you have something to say about Ken Ham, creationism, or his museum, send a link to PZ by Saturday for a one time Creation Museum carnival. If you have a cartoon, send a link to Left 'Toon Lane by Friday. They are having a cartoon contest, with winning entries sent to PZ for the carnival. See, without a word being published, that's already more attention than I could have brought to the issue.

Here are my previous thoughts on Ham's approach to the origins of species.

Mary Cheney gives birth to hammerhead shark

Or something like that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Virginia terrorist plot foiled

ABC News is reporting a terrorist conspiracy involving a student at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
Authorities arrested a Liberty University student for having several homemade bombs in his car.

The student, 19-year-old Mark D. Uhl of Amissville, Va., reportedly told authorities that he was making the bombs to stop protesters from disrupting the funeral service. The devices were made of a combination of gasoline and detergent, a law enforcement official told ABC News' Pierre Thomas. They were "slow burn," according to the official, and would not have been very destructive.

"There were indications that there were others involved in the manufacturing of these devices and we are still investigating these individuals with the assistance of ATF, Virginia State Police and FBI. At this time it is not believed that these devices were going to be used to interrupt the funeral services at Liberty University," the Campbell County Sheriff's Office said in a release.

The devices might not have interrupted the funeral, but the screams of those being burned to death might have interrupted it.

I should point out that my use of the word "terrorist" above is my own conclusion based on the description of a group of people trying to intimidate others into silence by using an explosive device to murder them. So far none of the news stories have used either the word "terrorist" or "terrorism" to describe the plot. I suppose that's to be expected; as we all know, it's not possible to be a terrorist if you are a white, Christian conservative.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What a great idea

PZ at Pharygula has offered to host a mini-carnival of posts about the opening of Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Cincinnati. The museum opens its doors next Monday and will be getting lots of news coverage because A) it's a freak show and B) it's a slow news weekend. PZ is hoping to get some quotable lines that reporters can clip into their stories. If you have a post (new or old) about the museum, send the link to PZ before Saturday and, even if you don't have a post, googlebomb the term "creation museum" so that it will be easy for reporters searching for material to find the carnival.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Ham's dino-follies

Next weekend, Ken Ham's Answers in Genesis Creation Museum is scheduled to open near Cincinnati. Ham expects the museum to be a big success and draw a quarter-million visitors the first year. That number might not be too far off since some tens of thousands are planning to check it out from sheer morbid curiosity. The second year's attendance will be the one to watch.

Ken Ham's version of Genesis appears to have been designed to appeal to second-graders. Not only are all of the neat stories in the beginning of Genesis literally true. In Adam and Eve's day all of the animals were friends. None of the carnivores ate meat, so they never hurt or scared the lambs or deer. Cats never chased mice and dogs never chased cats. Not only that, but people and dinosaurs lived together and were friends. The dinosaurs let people put dino-saddles on them and ride them around like ponies.

Despite--or perhaps because of--all of this promiscuous friendship, God decided to kill most of the people and animals. God decided to give the people and animals one last chance. He told Noah to build a big boat and take two, or maybe seven, of each animal to save them while He destroyed the world with a flood. Noah did as he was told and God did as he promised. Afterward, Noah let all of the animal couples go free to fill the world. Sadly, because the new world wasn't as nice as the old one, some of the animals became carnivores and started eating the others.

My tone might be disrespectful, but my facts are not inaccurate. This is the version of Biblical history that Ken ham is telling in his 60,000 foot, twenty-seven million dollar museum. This is no roadside attraction. The models and dioramas in Ham's museum have been built by some of the leading craftsmen in the field. But the story is still ridiculous.

Take the dinosaurs. After years of denying the reality of dinosaurs, most creationists have now accepted them and rearranged their theology to account for them. Ham has adopted a child-friendly dino-buddies in saddles narrative. The Bible says God commanded Noah to bring all of the animals onto the Ark and Noah was a righteous man, so there is no weaseling around and saying the dinosaurs went extinct in the flood. All species that have ever existed had to be on the Ark (although Ham's variety of creationists have some slick logic to reduce that number). Any extinction that has occurred had to have happened after the flood. Ham realizes that all of the dinosaurs couldn't have died the next day, so he says many must have lived into recent time, some might even be alive today. He basically endorses every monster and cryptozoological sighting in history as true in order to make room for his dinosaurs. Dragons? Real. Lake monsters? Real.

What about that sudden conversion to meat eating by all of the carnivores? That's a problem he doesn't talk much about. But think about it; it might help explain all of those extinctions. The day after the Ark landed all of the animals were walking around, stretching their legs after their long confinement. Mr. and Mrs. Tyrannosaurus Rex were feeling a little peckish and suddenly their old friends the unicorns looked awfully tasty. There's your first extinction. Within a few hours the ferrets ate the pixies, the coyotes ate the jackalopes, and the wolves disemboweled one of the Irish elk. Mammoths being smarter than most grazers headed north and stayed away from their old neighbors for a few years, but their days were numbered. I'm just guessing; maybe Ham has a better story.

Meanwhile a coalition of secularists, liberal Christians, and Atheists are planning to picket the opening. I have mixed feelings about that. While I agree with the sentiments of the protesters--the secularists and Atheists want to say that not every one in that part of the country is a credulous rube, and the liberal Christians want to point out that Ham doesn't speak for all Christians--I'm not sure protesting won't play into Ham's hands. Ham is a sophisticated media manipulator; his PR is anything but ham-handed (yes, that was intentional). The protest will bring profitable publicity and Ham will be sure to play the persecution card.

But no one asked me how to handle this, so let's just sit back and watch the show. This is not going to go away. The museum is Ham's move to become a major player in the culture wars. We'll have plenty of time dissect his arguments. Meanwhile, Memorial Day is one of the great yard work and barbecue weekends of the year. While Ken Ham loudly proclaims his martyrdom, let's take a moment to remember the folks who really did have the courage to die for what they believed. Ham compares rather badly to the real thing.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Looking for drowned mammoths

A series of enormous prehistoric floods that killed hundreds of innocent mammoths have been the subject of increased scientific and political attention this spring. The floods, known as the Glacial Lake Missoula, or Bretz, Floods, occurred twelve to sixteen thousand years ago at the end of the last ice age. They were among the largest floods known to geologic history and shaped much of the landscape of Eastern Washington. They were also incredibly cool.

Last week, Coturnix pointed me toward the following news release. It has mammoths, he said, I should comment on it.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory geologists have put out a call for teeth, tusks, femurs and any and all other parts of extinct mammoths left by massive Ice Age floods in southeastern Washington.

The fossils, in some cases whole skeletons of Mammathus columbi, the Columbian mammoth, were deposited in the hillsides of what are now the Yakima, Columbia and Walla Walla valleys in southeastern Washington, where the elephantine corpses came to rest as water receded from the temporary but repeatedly formed ancient Lake Lewis. PNNL geologists are plotting the deposits to reconstruct the high-water marks of many of the floods, the last of which occurred as recently as 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.

"Now is the perfect time to collect geologic and paleontologic data," said George Last, a senior research scientist at the Department of Energy laboratory in Richland, Wash., whose sideline is researching the ice-age floods. "Winter has eroded the slopes, exposing new evidence. We're interested in researching any known or suspected mammoth find, to collect additional evidence and to improve documentation of those sites."

This is more than a story about mammoths, it actually a story which combines several of my interests. Naturally, the fate of the mammoths is number one, but the Bretz floods are a close second. The Northwest has a fascinating geologic history and the floods are one of the most dramatic. I hope to make a couple of road trips this summer to look at, and blog about, some of the special topics in this story, but today I'll just mention the link between the floods and the mammoths.

The story begins just before the end of the last ice age. Obviously, the climate of North America was radically different at that time. Most of Canada was covered by ice sheets. The eastern and middle parts of Canada were covered by the Laurentian Ice Sheet, which was centered what is now Hudson Bay. In the west was the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, centered on the western mountains. While the Laurentian Ice Sheet crossed the Great Lakes and reached to about the line of the Ohio River, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet barely crossed the Canadian border to cover a sliver of northern Washington, Idaho, and Montana.

The western part of Montana, between the Continental Divide on the crest of the Rockies and the Idaho state line on the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains--an area about the size of West Virginia--is drained by the Clark Fork River. Unlike most rivers in the United States, the Clark Fork flows north. It loops across the Idaho panhandle near the Canadian border and joins the Columbia River in the extreme northeastern corner of Washington. At the end of the last ice age, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet made a sudden lurch southward. A branch of the ice sheet called the Purcell Lobe pushed into Idaho near the location of the present day town of Sandpoint and blocked the Clark Fork. Behind the Purcell Lobe all of the drainage of the Clark Fork was damned up, eventually to form a Great Lake sized body of water called Glacial Lake Missoula. When the lake was full, the future location of the town of Missoula was beneath a thousand feet of water.

Because ice is lighter than water, an ice dam must be about ten percent higher than the water behind it to be stable. When the water that had been gathering behind the Purcell Lobe began to approach the top of the glacier, the situation became unstable. That situation was reached when the water was almost two thousand feet deep at the dam. The pressure at the bottom of the dam was enough for lake water to force its way under the glacier. The water then floated the southern tip of the Purcell Lobe and began to rush out under it. Within a few hours time, the glacial dam collapsed and was torn apart by the rushing water.

A wall of water almost a half mile high blasted out of the mountains into Eastern Washington. These are the floods. I call them the Bretz floods after their discoverer, J Harlan Bretz (the J doesn't stand for anything; Bretz's parents were too poor to afford a first name for him, so he only got a letter). Other writers call them the Glacial Lake Missoula floods after their source. Still others have other names. In any case they are among the largest floods in known geologic history and the most dramatic event in recent Northwest geology.

Most of Eastern Washington is a plateau formed by enormous volcanic basalt flows formed over ten million years ago. The Columbia River flows in a large loop around the northern and western sides of this plateau. During the ice ages a fine dust, churned up by glaciers in the Cascade Mountains had covered this plateau with an deep, rich topsoil. When watered properly, this land is incredibly fertile. Even in the close proximity of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet it would have presented an irresistibly attractive feedlot for grazing and browsing animals. Animals like mammoths and mastodons.

When the waters of Lake Missoula blasted into Eastern Washington, they skipped the loop of the Columbia and traveled across the plateau. The flood tore up entire counties worth of topsoil and carried it away. It deposited enormous gravel bars. It changed the course of rivers. It carved massive canyons in areas that are now desert. It drilled lake-sized holes deep into the basalt bedrock.

In places the flood is believed to have passed as a five hundred foot high wall of muddy water traveling at up to one hundred miles per hour. It pushed hurricane force winds ahead of it. The water itself was a churning brown mass the color and texture of a runny chocolate milkshake. It carried with it topsoil, rocks, trees, entire herds of mammoths, and the icebergs that had formerly been part of the Purcell Lobe. For two weeks, the Columbia carried several times more water than all the rivers in the world combined.

Where the flood ran into narrows, it backed up to form gigantic temporary lakes. These lakes backed up side valleys and there, when the water slowed down, it deposited some of its load of soil and rocks. The topsoil of Eastern Washington has made the valleys of the Yakima, Walla Walla, and Willamette some of the most productive agricultural area in North America, especially for wine. Geologists have named each of these temporary lakes.

The greatest of these stoppages happened at the point where the Columbia River leaves Eastern Washington and turns due West to form the Washington-Oregon state line. At this point, the Columbia passes through a gap in the Horse Heaven Hills. This gap--the Wallua Gap--is about a mile wide and a thousand feet deep. The floodwaters were so vast that they found this gap much too small to pass through. They backed up and overflowed the hills to either side of the gap. Channels carved into the top of the ridge testify to this. The lake that backed up into Eastern Washington is called Lake Lewis. This is the lake that Dr. Last has been studying.

In this map, the light blue shows the furthest extent that the Cordilleran Ice Sheet reached about sixteen thousand years ago. Glacial Lake Missoula is the dark blue area on the left. The Purcell Lobe ice dam is marked by a yellow dot. The dark blue in the center is another ice-dammed lake called Glacial Lake Columbia. The floodwaters from Lake Missoula entered Lake Columbia near the present day site of the city of Spokane and immediately overflowed Lake Columbia's southern banks. The brown area in the center of the map is Lake Lewis formed by floodwaters backing up behind Wallua Gap. The gray area between Lake Columbia and Lake Lewis is the area torn up by the escaping Lake Missoula floodwaters, an area called the channeled scablands. The gray areas below Lake Lewis are the subsequent lakes formed as the flood moved on to the sea. Notice haw far the flood backed up the Willamette River valley into Oregon. (Map source)

Although Lake Lewis only lasted for a few days, it slowed the floodwaters long enough for some of the matter churned up and animals killed to settle out. What's more, the rapid silting buried the dead animals in conditions almost custom made for fossil preservation. It is this bathtub ring of fossils that Last hopes to study.

The Lake Missoula flood wasn't a singular event. After the waters rushed out, the Purcell Lobe pushed forward and blocked the Clark Fork valley again. The river backed up and formed a new lake. After forty or fifty years, it was deep enough to float the glacier again and flood the Columbia again. This cycle dominated the Columbia valley for over two thousand years. There is sedimentary evidence of between forty-one and eighty-nine floods, although at least two came from lakes other than Lake Missoula. Midway through the floods, Mt. St. Hellens was good enough to erupt and lay down a layer of isotope rich and easily dated ash to help geologists understand the sequence of the floods.

Last summer when I added the Bretz floods to my short list of current obsessions I immediately wondered how the floods might have affected the northwest mammoth populations. The first flood would have wiped out almost all of the mammoth population in the plateau and lower reaches of the Columbia River. With subsequent floods coming every forty years or so and mammoths having a very slow period of natural increase, I wondered if the population would ever have recovered. On the other hand, a few years after each flood, those valleys must have been filled with tender young trees and brush, which would have made them terribly attractive to grazers and browsers from surrounding areas, especially in Eastern Oregon, which is a continuation of the same plateau and would have hosted the same wildlife. That growth would have had the effect of luring the mammoths and mastodons back in just in time for the next killing flood, extending the population impact over a much larger area than that of just the flooded valleys. The floods must have had a major influence on wildlife populations all over the Northwest.

George Last tells me that these are exactly the questions he is trying to answer. I'm glad. I think that there is a lot to be learned from reconstructing the geologic and environmental history of the Northwest. Fifteen thousand years ago this region went through a brutal environmental change. The floods were only one part of a major climate shift that accompanied the end of the ice age. Over the next century the Northwest will go through another major change. That process of change began about two centuries ago when Europeans began to settle here, to place new stressed on the plant and animal resources, and to introduce new species into the local environment. Climate change is the latest phase of pressure that we have brought, but it is only part of the story. By understanding how the local environment responded to past changes we might better respond to future ones. Or not. At least by collecting all of the data we can, we'll have a good chance of managing the current one intelligently.

Last and I are not alone in hoping to increase awareness of the Bretz Floods. The Ice Age Floods Institute, with chapters in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana has been lobbying Congress for years to recognize the flood region as a significant part of the nation's, and the world's, natural heritage. Their main priority has been to get the Park Service to establish a system of official trails to protect key locations and create educational signage along six hundred miles of trails stretching from Montana to the coast. The trail plan only affects land already in the public domain; it does not seize any private land. The plan would cost eight to twelve million to establish the system, which is chickenfeed compared to many government projects. Last is an important member of the institute; I would be a member too, but I'm not joining anything until I get a job.

It's an idea whose time seems to have come. A number of trail guides have appeared in recent years that tell the story of the floods and guide hikers to some of more interesting artifacts of its passage, like giant erratic boulders and mysteriously dry waterfalls in the desert. Nova filmed an episode about the floods back in 1979 and has recently rerun it and released it on DVD. A collapsing ice dam and endangered mammoths were the main plot of the animated movie Ice Age 2.

To establish the trail, both houses of Congress need to pass identical bills creating the system. During the last session of Congress, similar bills were passed in both houses, but Congress adjourned before a compromise bill could be agreed on. This year, identical bills were introduced in both houses--eliminating the need for a conference bill--and the Senate bill made it out of committee, but so far neither bill has made it to the floor for a vote. It has the support of the leading Democrats and Republicans in the Washington delegation as well as members of the Idaho, Oregon, and Montana delegations. The bills are and S 268 and HR 450 both entitled To designate the Ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail, and for other purposes.

This might not sound like the most important use of your activist energies, but, like piecing together the past, it's all part of a bigger picture. In this case, the trails are part of the educational side of the program. If you love mammoths, you'll write to your congresscritters and demand that they push this one through. And, if you happen to be passing through Eastern Washington and notice a dead mammoth by the side of the road, be sure to give Last a call.

Correction - George Last wrote to me point out that I had misidentified his title. He's not a Doctor, but he does have a Master's degree in Environmental Science (Hydrogeology Option). Sadly, there is no title for those of us with "just" Master's degrees. I once pushed for "Magister," a title that is still used in some European academic systems, as the best candidate. But, like most of my language suggestions, this one has not gained much traction.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

There are no Africans

Science Daily has an article about the The Louisville Zoo’s new baby pygmy hippo. It has pictures and the baby is completely adorable. The piece should be pure candy, but they ruined it with this sentence:
The Louisville Zoo’s female baby pygmy hippo heard her name for the first time—Isoke (ee SO keh), which is African for satisfying gift.

Let's see if I can say this without shouting, there is no language called "African." There is a language called "Afrikaans" and it's a dialect of Dutch, but that's not what they are talking about. There is also not a culture called African, nor is there a people/tribe/nation called African. What there is, is a continent called Africa. On that continent are over a thousand distinct cultures. Africa is home to half of the human languages spoken on this planet. While I'm on the subject, there also is no Native American people, culture, or language called "Indian."

When an American refers to something as being in the African language, they usually mean kiSwahili, a language spoken on the East coast of the African continent. KiSwahili is a trade language made up of a simplified grammar drawn from the Bantu subgroup of the Niger-Kordofanian language family (also called Niger-Congo B) and a vocabulary made up of equal parts of Bantu and Arabic with a smaller portion of Persian and English loan words. It is the one language from the African continent for which it is easiest to find a cheap dictionary in the United States. Just for the record, kiSwahili is spoken on the wrong side of the continent to be part of the heritage of slave-descended African-Americans. It is, however, part of the heritage of Barack Obama whose father came from East Africa.

When someone says that the Indians believe this, or that something else is a word in African they are speaking from ignorance and, worse, showing an utter contempt through indifference for the people, cultures, or languages they are supposedly quoting. Either that or they are doing it just to tick me off.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Jazz and soup

I've often heard that there are two types of people in the kitchen: bakers and cooks.

Bakers are not necessarily limited to people who make things out of flour and put them in the oven; a baker is anyone who who cook in precise, meticulous way. A baker knows what they want to do in the kitchen and does it exactly, and often spectacularly. They are the classical musicians of the kitchen. They can read sheet music.

A cook is a jazz musician. Cooks take the same old material and try to do something new with it. Cooks often have no plan when they enter the kitchen; they just start opening cabinets and checking out what they have to work with. Cooks are not always the best at following recipes. They want to substitute and improvise.

A baker will make you a flawless souffl├ęs: light, firm and filled with flavor. A cook will make you the best hangover scrambled eggs you've ever tasted.

I'm a cook. Yesterday, I cleaned the refrigerator and made soup. For a baker, those are two tasks. For a cook, it's one task.

I had a leftover roast chicken with garlic and rosemary that I didn't want to go bad so I took it out and put it on the stove. I always keep leftover roasted entrees in the roasting pan so I have all the drippings for future use. In this case I put a little water in the roaster, turned the chicken carcase so that the side with the most meat was in the water, and put the heat on medium. Then I returned to the refrigerator. We also had a few scraps from a store-bought rotisserie chicken so I shoved them into the roaster around the bigger chicken.

Behind the chickens I found a half of a carton of chicken broth that I used to make rice a few days back. There's nothing wrong with using chicken broth to make more chicken broth, so I poured it into the roaster and turned up the heat.

Next I found a third of a bottle of white whine leftover from dinner last Friday. This presented a real choice. I could add the wine to the broth, which is very tasty, or I could save it for the cook to use when tasting the soup later on. Actually, I did neither. I decided to save my rum ration for the day to toast my dad in the evening (see previous post).

Now I turned to the vegetable crisper. I found a limp heart of bunch of celery and some carrots (real garden carrots, not "sweet baby" carrots or giant masses of orange fiber). No problem there, both got diced and thrown into the pot. At this point I have to transfer the whole mess to a stock pot.

When I was a kid, we believed that celery leaves were poisonous. Big kids told little kids never to eat them and we didn't. It never occurred to me to ask why the stores sold them to us if they were so deadly. If I thought about it at all, I probably chalked it up to grown-up cluelessness. Today, I always use celery leaves as a seasoning in soup. Did anyone else grow up with that myth?

At this point I was almost done. I rounded up a big yellow onion, diced it, and threw it in the pot. I pulled the chicken carcases out, let them cool, and stripped off the meat which went back to the pot. I added a few more seasonings, salt, pepper, and oregano. I took the garlics from the roast chicken, smashed and diced them and returned them to the pot. Finally, I added a bit more water, turned the temperature all the way down and took a nap.

When I woke up, we had soup.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A good day for birthdays

Today should have been my father's eighty-fifth birthday.

He died on my birthday in 2001, two weeks before 9/11, and so missed the horror of the last five years. That's probably a good thing. He outlived the Cold War. His kids were all doing well and Mom was healthy when he died. He spent that day doing some chores around the house that he had been putting off and was just walking over to light the barbeque when he had a stroke and died.

We took his ashes up to the family cabin in Alaska and flew a piper out to send him off. People from the nearby cabins who remembered came over and joined the family. We burned the ash container in a camp fire afterwards. My mother wanted me to say a few words. I got a glass of good Scotch, poured it into the fire, and repeated one his favorite toasts.

This afternoon I went out and bought a bottle of Islay malt to toast him again. If Dad was here I'd say to him, "What would you say to wee glass of malt?" He'd answer, "I guess I'd say 'Hello, wee glass of malt.'" And we both chuckle like we'd never heard that joke before.

I see that today is also the birthday of Bora Zivkovic, better known as Coturnix, and to Melissa McEwen, aka Shakespeare's Sister. Both of them are good people and great bloggers. All in all, I think that makes today a good day for birthdays.

Bora, Melissa, I poured you each a drink, but I had to drink it for you. You'll be pleased to know that it was delicious.

Mission accomplished

Dick Cheney on FOX News this morning:
We didn’t get elected to be popular.

Stolen from Mustang Bobby.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Iraq goes NIMBY

Republican politicians and conservative pundits have been refreshingly open over he last few years about our strategy in Iraq: it has been to invite all of the terrorists in the world to come to Iraq and spill Iraqi blood rather than coming to America and spilling American blood. This "fight them over there" strategy might sound good to some cowardly or consciousless Americans, but the Iraqis are less than fond of their role in that plan. Today, their democratically elected parliament asked for a change in that strategy.
A majority of Iraqi lawmakers endorsed a draft bill calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and demanding a freeze on the number already in the country, lawmakers said Thursday.

The legislation was being discussed even as U.S. lawmakers were locked in a dispute with the White House over their call to start reducing the size of the U.S. force in the coming months.

The proposed Iraqi legislation, drafted by the parliamentary bloc loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was signed by 144 members of the 275-member house, said Nassar al-Rubaie, the leader of the Sadrist bloc.

The Sadrist bloc, which holds 30 parliamentary seats and sees the U.S.-led forces as an occupying army, has pushed similar bills before, but this was the first time it garnered the support of a majority of lawmakers.

This would appear to be a put up or shut up time in our relationship with Iraq. Is Iraq a free and sovereign democracy whose people are allowed to decide what their best interests are and how to pursue them? Or is Iraq a US puppet whose governing bodies are for show only? Of course, there is a third choice that avoids the showdown. Bush could use this as a teaching moment to instruct al Maliki in the theory of the unitary executive and the generous use of signing statements. Let the people and their representatives say whatever they want while the executive will do whatever he (or his owners) want. It's a win-win situation; the people get to have their say and Bush gets to have his way.

The Blair years

This morning Tony Blair made the long anticipated announcement that he will step down as prime minister on June 27. He was the longest serving Labour PM, having been in power for just over ten uninterrupted years. Reporters, historians, and bloggers will all try to evaluate the Blair years over the next few days (and then do it again next month). It's a hopeless task. Ten years is a long time and people's memories are short. It takes time and distance to develop any sort of historical perspective. It's no coincidence that he waited till this week to announce his final day. The Irish settlement allows him to go out on an accomplishment and perhaps leverage a little good will out of those who will be evaluating him.

A lot has happened during his ten years. Just off the top of my head:
  • Three sequential election victories
  • Devolution in Scotland and Wales
  • Beckham being Beckham
  • An economic boom, recession, and recovery
  • Continued problems with the health care system
  • Various European Union developments
  • Reorganization of the House of Lords
  • The rise of reality TV
  • Kosovo intervention
  • The death of Princess Diana
  • The cash-for-honors scandal
  • The emergence of global warming as a major political issue
  • Kylie Minogue's breast cancer
  • Millennium festivities
  • Hoof-and-mouth disease crisis
  • The Pinochet arrest
  • Ken Livingstone as London Mayor
  • London chosen to host 2012 Olympics
  • A new settlement in Northern Ireland

I'm sure I missed a few things.

Of course none of this matters. For the next generation, the Blair years will mean one thing: Iraq with its "sexed up" dossiers, David Kelly's suicide, being mocked as Bush's poodle, alarms, arrests, and tightened security. After thirty years, Nixon's presidency is still defined by that "third-rate burglary." Blair faces the same problem.

Blair's still fairly young; he might live to see some broader perspective emerge on his term in power. But I wouldn't count on it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Romney in space

Many bloggers are not taking Mitt Romney seriously as a Republican candidate. They give him derogatory nicknames like "Multiple Choice" Mitt to highlight his attempts to run away from his past as a politician from a northeastern liberal state. They wonder aloud if anyone could really vote for someone who seems to named after an article of baseball equipment. They point out that many on the religious right believe his religion (LDS or Mormonism) to be a non-Christian cult.

Till now I have though that they were wrong. Mitt is a good looking, bland guy and, if he can stay out of the way long enough, he could emerge as everyone's second choice should the Giuliani and McCain forces either deadlock or destroy each other. I'm not saying this is my prediction of what will happen; I'm just saying that it's a possibility of what could happen.

Running a campaign based on denouncing the state he used to represent (Massachusetts) is certainly tacky, but it's a state that Republicans love to hate, so Romney won't lose any points there. Suddenly changing his positions to appeal to the base is certainly hypocritical, but none of the other front-runners are any more genuine to the base and the base hadn't heard of him back when he held his old opinions, so he might come out okay on that one. Many of his flip-flops are more annoying to those of us on the left than to the right. As for the religious right, they are only a block to the nomination if they are active in the primaries. If they sit them out, then their disapproval doesn't hurt any of the candidates.

Meanwhile, Romney isn't taking the religious right for granted. He's aggressively courting them just like he has the other Republican base, special interest groups.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) did not discuss his Mormon faith as he continued his outreach Saturday to conservative Christians in a graduation speech at Regent University, the school founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.

Instead, Romney, who is intensely courting this key segment of the Republican base in hopes of winning the party's 2008 presidential nomination, expounded on conservative themes such as the importance of child-rearing and marriage and the presence of evil in the world.

"There is no work more important to America's future than the work that is done within the four walls of the American home," Romney said. He also criticized people who choose not to get married because they enjoy the single life.

"It seems that Europe leads Americans in this way of thinking," Romney told the crowd of more than 5,000. "In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past."

If you are like me, you read that phrase "marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms" and your brain came to a full stop. Huh? The Washington Post article which reported this didn't notice anything wrong with that statement, but others did. Neither France nor any other European country practices anything that even remotely resembles that. Both Time Magazine and the New Republic mentioned it on their blogs.

The closest thing anyone can find to the seven-year marriage is a plot element in the 1992 science fiction novel The Memory of Earth by Orson Scott Card. It might seem like a stretch to suggest Romney might have picked this idea up from a fifteen year-old novel, but there are some tempting connections here. Romney is a known science fiction fan. He recently named L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth as his favorite book. Hubbard is, of course, the founder of Scientology, a religion that is regarded as a cult by far more than the religious right. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon who has grown increasingly conservative in recent years. His book The Memory of Earth is the first volume of the Homecoming saga, a science fiction adaptation of the Book of Mormon. Added together, it seems very likely that Romney is familiar with Card's novel.

If Romney can't tell the difference in his own mind between the planet Harmony and France, we may have a problem. What's next; will he confuse Nevada with Mordor? One thing I'll say is that Romney keeps this up, I'll have to revise my appraisal of the possibility of him staying quietly on the side and stepping in as the compromise candidate. It looks like he's more likely to end up fighting it out with Tancredo and Brownback for the title of most entertaining loon in the race.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Not dead yet

Whenever I'm unemployed, I tell myself that I will use my time to achieve great things. The one thing that I hate most about a regular job is that it dominates my time so completely. I don't have any nice big blocks of time to devote to my own projects. Work gets first claim on my time and I get what's left. Because I carry that frustration around when I'm working, I actually look forward to a little unemployment from time to time. Sadly, It never works out the way I hope and this time was no different.

Because my employer gave me notice of my current unemployment, I had time to plan for it. I expected to have a well organized job search that would allow me a nice chunk of time each day to devote to working on all of those delayed projects: working ion the yard, fixing up the house, and doing some serious research and writing. Instead, unemployment crept in like some deadly garden fungus to choke off all creativity and directed energy. Anytime I think about starting something else, the unemployment specter pops up to say, shouldn't you be doing something to make money or find a job. Even when I've exhausted my leads for the day, the guilt lingers and I'm reduced to distracted puttering. This is good for cooking and cleaning, but not for much else. It's deadly for blogging.

I think most people, especially those who have been graduate students, have experienced this kind of painful procrastination at one time or another. Fortunately, this week I was tossed a few hours of paid work from my old employer. It's amazing how a little positive reinforcement works to break the logjam. Just knowing that my talent is recognized enough to pay for (if not enough to keep around) does wonders for my frame of mind. Now that I've given them my best, I can also give it to you, my readers. Give me a few minutes to go through all of these scraps of paper with blog ideas and see what's not hopelessly outdated and I'll get something up for your reading pleasure.

But first, I feel a sudden need to wash the dishes and take out the recycling.