Monday, August 31, 2009

My fellow Americans

I spent half an hour in line at the post office today. You know, people are always bitching about the post office, but I've decided the problem isn't the post office, it's the customers.

We are talking Morons on Parade. Little old ladies in tennis shoes who act like they're mailing a letter for the first time in their lives, bozos wanting to mail packages in boxes that look like they've already been run over, idiots who can't understand why if their packages are sealed with Priority Mail tape (or are Priority Mail boxes) they have to pay the Priority Mail rate . . . and through it all the clerks kept on smiling and patiently trying to explain to these fools just what they had done wrong.

I kept having this feeling that I'd wandered into a scene from "Idiocracy" by mistake. If this group was a cross section of the US populace as a whole, the country's in even more trouble than I thought.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why does this not surprise me?

In today's Washington Post:

Blackwater Founder Accused in Court of Intent to Kill

The founder of Blackwater USA deliberately caused the deaths of innocent civilians in a series of shootings in Iraq, attorneys for Iraqis suing the security contractor told a federal judge Friday.

The attorneys singled out Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who is the company's owner, for blame in the deaths of more than 20 Iraqis between 2005 and 2007. Six former Blackwater guards were criminally charged in 14 of the shootings, and family members and victims' estates sued Prince, Blackwater (now called Xe Services LLC) and a group of related companies.

"The person responsible for these deaths is Mr. Prince,'' Susan L. Burke, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. "He had the intent, he provided the weapons, he provided the instructions, and they were done by his agents and they were war crimes.''
h/t Blue Gal

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Adventures in bureaucracy

The new director at Large Nameless Agency held an all-hands meeting today. Various heads in the bloated levels of upper management have been rolling since he came on board in mid-June -- the standard joke has become "who'd he fire today?" -- while rumors circulated about "reorganization."

Well, today we got the good news/bad news, depending on one's perspective. Our center is disappearing. Various functions are going to be absorbed by other pieces of Large Nameless Agency, the various communications specialists (writer-editors, graphic artists, whatever) will go back to working directly for different divisions within LNA instead of serving as internal contractors. Whether this is good or bad depends, I guess, on whether or not a person's current position carries a job title like "branch chief." It's hard to be a chief when the branch vanishes.

I don't think it's going to affect me. The journal will continue to be published no matter what, so there may be changes in division names and the hierarchy above me but my actual job should stay pretty much the same.

Besides, this is a bureaucracy. It's going to take awhile to disassemble a center that employs hundreds of people. The Director may want it gone, but it's not going to happen overnight. If it gets done at the usual speed at which the government functions, I'll be retired long before the string of names (Large Nameless Agency/Coordinating Center/National Center/Division/Branch/Team) that describe my current location on the organizational chart changes.

Book review: Your Inner Fish

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish is one of the best science books I've read in a long time. Shubin manages to explain paleontology, human anatomy, evolutionary theory, and geology in terms the average semi-literate reader can understand -- and does it all seamlessly in a fairly small number of pages. Your Inner Fish had been on my "must read" list since it was published last year, and now I'm wishing I had gotten around to it sooner.

Shubin looks at various parts of the human body -- the hand, the bones of the inner ear, and others -- and explains how the fossil record shows those body parts evolving over time. It's fascinating. Who would have thought that the auditory ossicles started off as part of the jaw and moved over millennia?

While he's doing that, he's also throwing in personal anecdotes about the joys of field work (he's been doing his in the Arctic so the hazards he gets to deal with include polar bears), explaining geology, casually explaining genetics and mutations, and describing both how fossils form and how paleontologists decide where to go looking for them. It's a great book for anyone who has any interest at all in the how and why of science.

This book was one of those rare ones, too, in nonfiction where you pick it up and get sucked right in. It's actually fast, fairly easy reading. I zipped through it in a couple evenings. I spent actual money on this book instead of looking for it at the library, and it was money well spent.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fort Larned National Historic Site

The photo from the small town in Kansas reminded me of Fort Larned NHS, which is no doubt one of the less visited sites in the National Parks system. It's a few miles west of Larned, Kansas, which is on US-56 well south of I-70, so unless travelers feel a need to get to Dodge City they're not likely to go anywhere near FOLS. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent there as an NPS employee updating the List of Classified Structures, but in all honesty don't know if I would ever have bothered to seek it out if I hadn't been getting paid to go count the buildings* to make sure they hadn't managed to misplace any.

Fort Larned was established 150 years ago, in 1869, to protect freight traffic, wagon trains, and the mail service along the Santa Fe Trail. (One of the fort's features is a piece of land that still has original trail ruts visible.) Troops stationed at the fort included the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers. This year's 150th anniversary celebration will include a Buffalo Soldier Cavalry Drill on Labor Day weekend as well as Buffalo Soldier living history programs on October 10. After the fort was decommissioned in the 1880s the site was privately owned for many years. Fort Larned NHS was established by an act of Congress in the 1960s. The Park Service has restored many of the buildings, and has a really nice little museum on-site. In addition to the museum that's part of the Visitor Center, they've restored a number of the buildings, including outfitting the interiors to look like what they would have back in 1870 when the fort was fully manned. As the above photo shows, when you look into the barracks there's bedding on the bunks, uniforms hanging on hooks, and so on, right down to oil cloth on the tables. The blacksmith shop has an interpreter doing living history (i.e., actual blacksmithing), and the setting overall really conveys a sense of what the fort was like 140 years ago.

Of course, part of the integrity of the site lies in the fact it's far enough outside the town of Larned, Kansas, to be safe from development. The viewshed is empty enough to help a visitor forget which century it is. Overall, the Fort is a great example of just how good the National Park Service can be at preserving historic sites.

It's also an interesting contrast with a state-managed site, Fort Hays State Park located in (of course) Fort Hays, Kansas. Fort Hays (pictured below) has, if I recall correctly, two buildings left. The park sits on the edge of town, it's next to a busy street, a golf course abuts it, and in general there isn't a whole lot there anymore that's especially evocative of the nineteenth century. Exhibits are pretty minimal, although the interpretive signage is good, and the overall integrity of the site is rather dismal. It's almost as much of a disappointment to a knowledgeable visitor as the park's buffalo "herd," which when I last saw it consisted of three animals.

I don't mean to suggest that state parks are always less well-done than NPS sites; I've seen some great examples of state historic parks over the years. It's just that in this specific case the difference between the two sites is particularly striking.

[*Seriously. My job involved making sure that what was listed in a database inventory of historic structures matched up with what was on the ground at the parks.]

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I love Google

Anyone else notice Google's design today? It's the 400th anniversary of Galileo's telescope.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thinking about housing

MSN has an article up at the moment about today's suburbs becoming tomorrow's slums. It's kind of an odd piece -- if the traditional buyers of those tract mansions give up on them because costs of commuting get to be too high, or the owners decide to downsize as they get older, why on earth would today's urban poor move out to the fringes of Cobb County (to use an Atlanta area example) to turn those McMansions into multi-family housing? They could afford the commute even less, and would have absolutely no reason to move that far away from where all the jobs are. Seems like a far more likely fate as the population of the urban cores climbs again would be for the McMansions to simply moulder there abandoned indefinitely, the 21st century equivalent of the abandoned houses from the 20th century that a person sees now when driving in rural areas. Society changed, and no one needed those houses, either out on what used to be a farm or in the small towns that have shrunk over time, and owners eventually just abandoned them to collapse on their own.

I've actually been thinking about something similar in a vague way lately. I watch a lot of HGTV. I know. It's a sickness, but at least it's a fairly benign one. One of the shows I watch a lot is "House Hunters." And one thing I've noticed over and over and over is that 99% of the househunters want brand-new construction. They want to move into a place where the paint is still wet and nothing's been used. At all. They want to be the first persons to slide a bottle of overpriced merlot into the pretentious wine rack in the kitchen (which is almost always located in the worst possible place for storing wine, someplace hot and bright, but that's a digression), the first persons to use the ostentatious multi-head shower that's big enough to service a high school football team, the first persons to discover that they've just spent way too much money on a house that has so many rooms they'll never use half of them. . . Once in awhile there's an exception, but not often.

Well, one thing that hit me is that every single one of those househunters also talks about re-sale value a few years down the road. Apparently it hasn't occurred to them to ask that if they're not interested in buying a "used" house, why should they expect anyone else to be? If a house from the 1990s seems too dated and too old, how is a house from 2009 going to come across to buyers ten years from now? I can see it now: "OMG. All that stainless steel. That's so passe. And those hideous granite counter tops. . . they're going to have to go. And this shower? What was the builder thinking? Hadn't they ever heard of water conservation?!"

I used to think mobile homes, trailer parks, were the ultimate in disposable housing. Maybe not. Maybe the real disposable housing is sitting out in the high dollar 'burbs, but that just hasn't become obvious yet.

[Photo is from a small town in western Kansas somewhere between Fort Larned and Fort Hays. We could tell that at one time it had been a fairly prosperous little farming community that covered the equivalent of 12 blocks or so and had had a commercial strip several blocks long. When we drove through in 2006 there was no longer a single business open, nothing. The residential area was still looking lived in, but we all knew that wasn't going to last much longer.]

Friday, August 21, 2009

Garbage in my In Box

There are days when it doesn't pay to check the In Box for my Hotmail account. Or, for that matter, my work e-mail. For some reason, several different friends and relatives of the right-wing Faux News indoctrinated persuasion decided to forward a piece of crap about the "gold plated" free coverage that politicians enjoy. Apparently it reallys chaps their collective ass that President Obama, members of the Senate and House of Representatives, and various others who collect federal paychecks actually have employer-provided health insurance.

In fact, those politicians have the same employer-provided coverage that I do: they also fall under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan. And you know what? It's not free. It's not gold-plated. And it's not a single "government run" health plan. It's a smorgasbord of private insurance and HMO plans, including Kaiser, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and a bunch of others. Like every other private plan functioning in the U.S. today, the plans in the FEHBP have premiums, co-pays, exclusions, deductibles -- all the same stuff every other private plan entails.

Is it better than what a person can get if a person is working in the private sector? Maybe, maybe not. From a purely personal perspective, the best health insurance we ever had was while the S.O. was working as an aircraft mechanic in the 1980s -- since then it's been steadily downhill in how much insurance costs and what all it will cover.

I do know, however, that it is truly bizarre that I am getting these e-mails from (and there's no polite way to put this) dumbfuck cousins who don't see just how incredibly stupid it is for them to fear a theoretical government-run health plan when the family tree is full of relatives who have struggled with medical bills for many years. My idiot cousin Wayne, for example, got to watch his sister totally stress out over her inability to pay her bills while she was dying of breast cancer. On what planet is it more acceptable for a dying woman to have to beg friends to put on spaghetti feeds and hold bake sales to raise money to pay her bills than it would be for her to have access to a system that would eliminate the bills to begin with? And this was a woman who had a decent job (school teacher) and the health insurance that came with it. So much for the private sector always doing a better job than the government.

One of the other people who sent me the anti-government health plan propaganda is a woman who's also dealing with cancer -- and she's past 70 now so her bills are all being paid by Medicare.

The stupid, it burns.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

St. Ronnie

I'm listening to C-SPAN and feeling a tad queasy. Reagan's latest set of hagiographers are busy babbling away about his statesmanship and visions for world peace. Right.

I used to think the apologists for Nixon were bad. I was wrong.

When I think of Reagan what comes to mind are things like the way he normalized greed, demonized the poor, exacerbated racism, and managed to convince ordinary people that slitting their own economic throats was a good idea. His insistence that it was possible to get something for nothing is still resonating today, as is his most pernicious idea: that when the government collects taxes it's somehow taking money from the public.

I've said it before. I'll say it again. Taxes are the price we pay for not living in a country like Somalia. We have highways, sewer systems, clean water, good (for the most part) public schools, a technologically advanced (if not always equitable in terms of access) health care system, and a whole slew of other benefits because we pay taxes.

St. Ronnie was an elitist prick who pretended to be one of the people, as well as being a total hypocrite to his core. He railed against government handouts while quietly collecting his Social Security check (in contrast with another wealthy president, John F. Kennedy, who donated his entire presidential salary to charity). He talked big, but as soon as the U.S. was challenged ran like a scared rabbit -- he must have set some sort of land speed record for jerking U.S. forces out of Lebanon after a barracks was bombed. His administration repeatedly broke the law, negotiated with drug dealers and terrorists (Iran-Contra), and supported dictators world-wide.

On the other hand, listening to half an hour of delusional Reagan worshippers credit St. Ronnie with being the sole person responsible ending the Cold War does beat listening to tin foil hat callers ranting about Kenyan birth certificates and death panels. I guess there are indeed degrees of how much the stupid can burn.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The move is over

I'm in the new office. No one is ever going to sneak up on me again -- and no one can see the VDT from the hallway. No more having to fake working -- now I'm free to be an active slacker.

I kid, of course. I work hard. I exceed production goals -- my biggest problem has never been not getting stuff done. It's been learning to slow down so my co-workers don't kill me for showing management that quotas are set too low. Still, it is going to be nice to be able to see who's coming before they're right next to me, and to actually close a door and have a private phone conversation if I need to.

And now back to my Sudoku game.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Historical ciphers

I just finished Alison Weir's The Children of Henry VIII. The book discusses the Tudor kids, Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward, and their relationships with each other.

Once again, I was struck by just what a complete blank Edward VI, the youngest legitimate child of Henry VIII, is compared to his sisters. Granted, he was a child king who died, apparently quite hideously, from tuberculosis before his 16th birthday (none of that quiet fading away from consumption; the court physicians kept records, and it's clear poor Edward suffered from extrapulmonary TB and experienced a whole host of secondary opportunistic infections -- he literally rotted to death), but it's still odd that so little personality emerges from the archives. Various of his writings survive -- correspondence with his sisters and others, for example -- but there's no personality there.

On the other hand, the little bit that does emerge suggests it might have been a good thing he didn't make it to adulthood. When it came to religion, Weir hints that Edward was as much of a fanatic as his oldest sister but in the other direction (vehemently anti-Catholic where Mary was passionately pro-Rome). He also comes across as having had all of his father's ego but none of his sense of humor or love of life. Religious fervor and humorless -- not a good combination.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Odd book titles

Saw this at CVS yesterday. Talk about titles that make you stop and go "Huh?" My first thought was "How does anyone have a successful heart attack?!"

I had time to kill while waiting for prescriptions to be filled, so I decided to flip through the book. Learned a few interesting things rather quickly. These two surprised me:

1. One of the early (and most often overlooked) symptoms of congestive heart disease is unexplained weight gain. As the heart becomes less efficient, you become edemic. Peripheral edema (swollen hands and feet) is fairly noticeable, but fluids also build up throughout the body, including your abdomen.

2. You find yourself eating less, because you're feeling full sooner (fluid buildup in the abdomen pressing on the stomach), but you're not losing any weight, and your clothes are feeling tighter.

The other symptoms are more obvious -- you get tired faster, find yourself feeling exhausted after doing something (climbing stairs, walking to the bus stop, going for a bike ride) that you never had any trouble with before, or have shortness of breath after not much exertion. Of course, a lot of those symptoms are also things it's really easy to discount as just being part of getting older so a lot of people ignore them until something more dramatic happens.

I did buy the book -- I figured that when my calendar now includes regular visits to a cardiologist's office, I am part of the demographic the author is targeting. If nothing else, maybe the next time the word "ablation" comes up in conversation in an examining room, I'll be a little better prepared to deal with it.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunday, August 9, 2009

My afternoon

Local peaches from Publix.
Despite the label, I think the "local" was actually South Carolina. Close enough.
Turned out peeling peaches (something I'd never attempted before) isn't any harder than peeling tomatoes, and you use the same technique (quick scalding in boiling water, then into ice water, and the skins slither right off).
Crushed peaches prior to cooking bear a disturbing resemblance to something you'd find Sunday morning on the sidewalk in front of a frat house.
End result -- six jars of peach jam.

And I still have enough peaches left to make a cobbler. Life is good.

The recipe, from a USDA extension booklet that's at least 50 years old (it was my mother's):

Peach jam with powdered pectin

3 3/4 cups crushed peaches (takes about 3 pounds peaches)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 package powdered pectin
5 cups sugar

Sort and wash fully ripe peaches. Remove stems, skins, and pits. Crush the peaches.

Measure crushed peaches into a kettle. Add the lemon juice and pectin and stir well. Place on high heat and, stirring constantly, bring quickly to a full boil with bubbles over the entire surface.

Add the sugar, continue stirring, and heat again to a full bubbling boil. Boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly.

Remove from heat; skim and stir alternately for 5 minutes. Ladle jam into hot containers and seal immediately.

Makes about 8 6-ounce glasses.


It's Sunday morning. In a few more minutes I'll be turning on the tv and treating myself to three hours of tinfoil hat telephone calls in to C-SPAN. And I've been thinking about Bill Maher and his comments on how unbelievably willfully ignorant Americans can be. I think Maher understates the case.

Americans as a society aren't just stupid. We're proud of it. We brag about it. The latest wave of ignorance, the mobs screaming about the supposed Obama health care plan, provides more proof. These people are so unbelievably ignorant that they're busy freaking out over something that doesn't yet exist. There is no One Giant Plan. There are Multiple Proposals. Open the dictionary, people. There is a difference.

I'm not even going to get into the bizarre spectacle of people ranting about socialism when they don't have a clue what the word actually means, or screaming that they don't want government-run health insurance when most of the ones doing the yelling in the news clips look more than old enough to be on Medicare now.

I am, after all, not particularly surprised that the senior citizens of this fine country are dumber than the proverbial box of rocks. I have spent time in a classroom. I have suffered in the trenches trying to persuade ignorant 18-year-olds, kids who were theoretically among the brighter specimens this nation has to offer (Michigan Tech is relatively selective as to who gets to wander its snow-covered campus) to stop being sheeple, to stop parroting garbage and cliches, and to actually think for themselves.

It was an uphill battle. How do you teach people who are dead set on remaining ignorant? And if you can't get 18-year-olds to stop and think before leaping to conclusions about anything, what possible hope is there of getting some geezer who thinks Ronald Reagan walked on water to admit that just maybe things aren't quite as cut-and-dried as he thinks they are? And then when you add in that other piece of classic American thinking, the completely irrational belief that it really is possible to get something for nothing, . . .

Maher was too kind.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Pulitzer Project: Arrowsmith

My trek up the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners list continues with Arrowsmith, the 1926 winner written by Sinclair Lewis. Lewis must have been a bit of an odd duck, because he refused to accept the prize, although he wasn't as shy about accepting a Nobel for literature a few years later.

But then Arrowsmith is an odd book. In terms of readability, how well it's stood the test of time, and other criteria, it falls in the middle of the pack of the early prize winners (1918-1926) I've read so far. It's not nearly as good as the Willa Cather work, but for sure it's head and shoulders above Ernest Poole's His Family. Still, it felt a bit incoherent, like Lewis wasn't really sure just what it was he was shooting for when he wrote it.

Its main character, Martin Arrowsmith, is, to say the least, exasperating, one of those guys who kind of bumbles along cluelessly, full of insecurities, fearing he'll be viewed as a hick or a rube but at the same totally convinced of his own superiority, and in the end baffled as to why nothing he does turns out quite the way he thought it would. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, this poor sap is an Aspie! As written, Martin is classic Asperger's syndrome: highly intelligent, tightly focused on the one thing that fascinates him, and absolutely lost when it comes to social interactions and having some insight into what other people might be thinking or feeling.

Brief plot synopsis: Martin Arrowsmith is a fellow from a small town in a fictionalized Minnesota. I'm not sure why the author makes up a state rather than coming right out and saying Minnesota when the one he does make up is clearly geographically and politically improbable (bounded by Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan), but he does. Martin's hero as a boy is the town doctor, an aging bachelor alcoholic who in his sober moments extols the glories of science to Martin and inspires him to go to college and medical school.

Martin's parents both conveniently die just before he leaves for college, a state university, so he has a small inheritance to help support him through school, but not much. He lives on a pretty tight budget. He spends his summers working (one year he's on a crew putting in a telegraph line across Montana, another he spends as a waiter at a resort hotel), and the school year engrossed in his classes and engaged in awkward interactions with fellow students. When he enters medical school, he pledges the medical fraternity and moves into the frat house even though he doesn't have much use for any of his fraternity brothers. He has a roommate that annoys him by being noisy, rude, and generally inconsiderate, but instead of moving out or asserting himself at all, he suffers in martyred silence because when it comes to personal relationships he's too insecure to speak up.

And so it goes. We're shown Martin's life from Martin's perspective, and the combination of total naivete and smug superiority tends to be a little off-putting. I had a hard time getting through the first half of the book. It wasn't easy getting interested in a character who was as completely self-centered as Martin Arrowsmith. He's so totally convinced that he's right (after all, science is on his side) that he's incapable of understanding why other people don't Get It. His faith in scientific evidence is absolute while his people skills apparently are close to nonexistent, so it's no surprise he's a failure as a small town GP in North Dakota, despite being the son-in-law of the town banker. He does a little better when he gets a position as an assistant public health officer in a large city in Iowa, but blows that position by once again being so narrowly focused on the science he neglects the people who count.

Eventually, through the sheer dumb luck of having one of his former college professors in a position to help him, he ends up in a research position at a private scientific institute in New York. One assumes the fictional institution is loosely based on the Rockefeller Foundation. Martin is finally in a place where he can devote his energies 100% to basic research, and he does. He makes a remarkable discovery -- he finds phages, viruses that kill bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus -- and is pushed to publish quickly. Naturally, he decides to be stubborn and not submit a paper until he's absolutely sure there are no questions left, demonstrating that he could be as naive about science (there are always more questions) (every published paper concludes with a variation on "additional research is needed") as he is about people. Just as naturally, another scientist makes a similar discovery, getting the credit and, in the process, annoying the institute's directors so Martin's hopes of a promotion (more money, bigger lab, more assistants) vaporize.

The real drama in the book comes toward the end -- Martin has been tasked with investigating plague and attempting to find a cure. Plague was still a major health issue in the early part of the 20th century, despite the cause being well known, and Martin's assignment is to find a cure or a preventative -- or both. In the 1920s antimicrobials like penicillin were unheard of; the focus in infectious disease prevention was on vaccines and type-specific sero therapy (i.e., using antibodies obtained from a survivor of a disease to cure patients ill with that disease; sera were developed by passing the disease through animals [lab rats, monkeys])*. The bacterium responsible for plague, yersinia pestis, has been known since 1894, along with its vectors (fleas carried by rodents). Martin thinks he's close to a break-through, he has a serum that seems to work, and then he's pushed to use it before he's sure it's ready.

Plague hits an island in the Caribbean. The institute sends Martin and a colleague to the island with instructions to do whatever they can to stop the devastation. Martin wants to administer the serum as a controlled experiment, i.e., just give it to half the plague victims so he can compare survival rates; his colleague says their duty is to give it to everyone. In the end the colleague dies, followed not long after by Martin's wife (a woman who Lewis should have described as wearing a halo along with her cotton dresses, because it doesn't matter what Martin does, she supports it), and Martin Arrowsmith goes slightly mad -- and injects everyone he can. Whether or not the serum actually made a difference becomes impossible to tell, because plague tends to run its course naturally. The outbreak could have been at its peak when they arrived, and the serum may not have made any difference at all.

Still, the institute takes the credit for getting the outbreak under control, Martin gets handed a promotion (bigger lab, more underlings) when he gets back to New York, and he bumbles along awhile longer. He even acquires a very wealthy wife, a woman who initially loves him because of his devotion to science but ends up alienated by the amount of time he spends in the lab.
The book ends with Martin more or less happy -- he's in the lab where he's always wanted to be -- but basically alone. I'm not sure just what point Sinclair Lewis was trying to make. Good scientists aren't motivated by money? It's not possible to do science and deal with people, too? Most people are idiots with tunnel vision? Rich people are essentially shallow?

Sinclair Lewis is one of those authors I've been hearing about for years, a major figure on the American literary scene whose books fall into the "of course you're read. . . " category when the reality is that unless they're assigned in a college class almost no one picks up a copy of Babbit, Elmer Gantry, or Arrowsmith. We know the titles; most of us have never read and never will read the actual books. Will I read the others now that I have read Arrowsmith? I don't know. Arrowsmith was readable, more or less, but when I find myself reacting to a book by thinking "I've read worse," that isn't exactly high praise.

Arrowsmith was made into a movie in 1931 starring Ronald Colman and Helen Hayes. In typical cinematic fashion, the movie apparently compresses the time line for Martin's life considerably. An on-line synopsis describes it as "one of the most prestigious films of its time," which is generally code for "doesn't stand up well." I'm not sure I have any interest in ever seeing it, at least not going by the cheesy poster photo of Helen Hayes dying in Ronald Colman's arms. It definitely hints at lots of melodramatic over the top ham acting -- and it does fall into that time period when actors were still making the transition from the exaggerations necessary in silent films to being able to be more subtle in talkies.

Next up on the list: 1927 and Louis Bromfeld's Early Autumn, another book I'd never heard of before looking at the Pulitzer winners list. It's going to be another Interlibrary Loan Request because DeKalb does not have it in its catalog.
[*This is a technique that's still used today, especially with novel or rare pathogens. Doctors will transfuse plasma from recovered survivors of a disease to current victims. If it's done early enough, it can work.]

Friday, August 7, 2009

Movie Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Actually, it would be more accurate to call this a rave rather than a review. I watched this movie last night and loved it. I liked it so much, in fact, that I'm thinking about renewing it so I can watch it again in a day or two instead of taking it back to the library tomorrow.

It's a biopic, the story of the young Che Guevara and a road trip he undertook with a friend in 1952. They started from Buenos Aires, Argentina, on a not especially reliable Norton 500 motorcycle, and six months later arrived in Caracas, Venezuela. The settings are spectacular, the acting appears to be first-rate (hard to tell for sure when you're reading subtitles), and Che's evolution from a middle class med student whose biggest goal in life is to get into his girlfriend's pants into a revolutionary is fascinating.

This is an engrossing and entertaining movie. It begins in typical road trip fashion, a buddy comedy, two young guys out for adventure while taking a break from the university. It's pretty light-hearted initially, despite the difficulties the guys have along the way (not much cash for buying meals, for example, and the motorcycle keeps breaking down), but gradually Che and Alberto begin to recognize the extreme poverty and hardship around them, the disparities between rich and poor in South America, and a more serious tone emerges. You can see Che changing, and you can also see that he and Alberto are going to go in separate directions once the trip ends.

One of the cooler parts of the movie is right at the end when as they're rolling the credits they include the original photos Che and Alberto took along the road.

The one downside is it is in Spanish, and subtitles can be distracting. I personally find subtitles annoying because I like to be able to do needlecrafts while watching television, and having to keep up with subtitles makes quilting awkward.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

It's official

Finally got the paperwork for the promotion. It took about two months longer than everyone said it would. The only thing left now is to see if the powers-that-be make good on their promise of getting me out of a cubicle and into an actual office.

The cool thing about an actual office, of course, would be that I could arrange my work space so the monitor screen wasn't visible to passers-by. . . .because I am the Sudoku Queen. I could sit facing the door and no one would ever sneak up on me again.

Monday, August 3, 2009

15 Books

Blame this one on (((Billy))) the Atheist.
Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.
So here goes:

1. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein. Back in elementary school this book got me hooked on science fiction, a genre that's turned into a lifelong love. I loved all of Heinein's "juveniles" (Have Spacesuit, Will Travel; The Rolling Stones; Rocketship Galileo . . . ) and most of his adult books -- until he went off the deep end into dirty old man senility with the last two or three.

2. A Boy and His Dog, Harlan Ellison. Okay, technically it was first published as a novella, not an actual book, but that's a minor quibble. I'd probably add a couple of Ellison's short story collections, too, because gems like "Shattered like a Glass Goblin" and "Pennies Off a Dead Man's Eyes" are still sticking with me over 30 years after I first read them.

3. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath. Along with I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green it was one of the two "must read" books for adolescent females in the late 1960s.

4. The Royal Road to Romance, Richard Halliburton. Halliburton was an adventure traveler in the 1920s. He bummed around the world on tramp steamers and wrote about his experiences in far-off places.

5. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. An amazing novel.

6. Jeeves, Jeeves, Jeeves, P. G. Wodehouse. Technically three novels (How Right You Are, Jeeves; Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves; and Jeeves & The Tie that Binds) but again a minor quibble.

7. A Fine and Private Place, Peter S. Beagle, and

8. I See By My Outfit, Peter S. Beagle. Two early works by a gifted author, #7 is Beagle's first novel, #8 is autobiographical, a description of a cross-country motor scooter trip taken by him and a friend in the early 1960s.

9. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, Hunter S. Thompson. No explanation needed.

10. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, Randy Shilts. Examination of the AIDS epidemic and a devastating take-down of the American public health system and the Reagan administration that was quite willing to ignore disease until it became clear heterosexuals and kids could die from it, too.

11. Danny and the Boys, Robert Traver. A fun book by the author of Anatomy of a Murder.

12. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, Walter A. MacDougall. There's a reason this one won a Pulitzer for history.

13. Can You Forgive Her?, Anthony Trollope. The first of the Palliser novels, and the one that turned me into a Trollope fan.

14. Two Years Before the Mast, Richard H. Dana. Fascinating true account of two years Dana spent as a common sailor in the 1830s on a ship that sailed from Boston to California.

15. Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature, Thor Heyerdahl. An account of the year Heyerdahl and his bride spent on Fatu Hiva in the 1930s. Heyerdahl's observations there influenced his scholarship and later work, particularly the Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947.

I think #3 is the only one I have no interest in revisiting. It was memorable at the time, but once was enough.

As of today

exactly 9 months to go. . .

Book review (sort of)

I have found a new (to me) author to love. John Ringo.

I have been a science fiction fan since about the 5th grade, and I've always been a fan of the hard core stuff, actual science fiction in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers. I am also, for various reasons (maybe it was the influence of Heinlein on me in my formative years), a fan of military science fiction.

A few months ago I stumbled across a series of co-authored books (March Upcountry, March to the Sea, March to the Stars and We Few) co-authored by David Weber and John Ringo. I liked the series. So I figured I'd go looking for more -- and I'd also try out the individual authors and see what I thought.

Well, I read one book by David Weber writing solo, and was not impressed. It felt flat, and left me with no desire to go looking for any others. So then I tried John Ringo, A Hymn Before Battle. I was hooked instantly. Gust Front is the second in a series of (thank you, book gods!) twelve titles related to the Posleen wars.

There is, of course, almost no chance genre fiction like this will ever be considered great literature, even though Ringo is a highly talented author. Still, the prose flows nicely on the page and the books respect a reader's intelligence. He is treading familiar ground: an alien threat that isn't taken seriously until it's too late, military officers intent on fighting the last war instead of the one they're confronted with now, various nefarious machinations happening in the background (including a group of what can only be summarized as Benedictine ninjas that make Dan Brown's fantasies about Opus Dei look positively trite in comparison) to tease the reader into wondering into just who is actually allied with whom and when will the ultimate betrayals be revealed -- in short, it's all wonderfully entertaining, mind candy at its finest.

I'm almost done with Gust Front, and am giving serious thought to actually driving tomorrow to the branch library that has When the Devil Dances (book #3) on its shelves instead of doing my usual request for it to be delivered to Brookhaven.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday morning

C-SPAN. Coffee, toast, the endless entertainment provided by the delusional right-wing faithful. Life is good. I am a creature of habit, I like having a set routine -- stalkers would give up on me through boredom; I'd be too easy -- and this morning definitely followed the usual script to lull me into a cozy feeling that life is proceeding as usual: Obama's a socialist, Social Security is teetering on the brink of insolvency, we're all doomed as long as the Democrats insist on dragging civilization down into the abyss.

Not surprisingly, the looniest calls, the one where describing the caller as a "few fries shy of a happy meal" doesn't really cover it because it's real clear the poor sap never even made it to the drive-through window, were all from the South. Is it the kudzu? Does it emit fumes that kill brain cells?

Two different things have reinforced the image of the South as the bastion of the mentally challenged: one is the "birther" movement, the other is health care. Both just floor me. They're both so far over the "how fucking dumb are you?!" line that they're well beyond "the stupid, it burns" point.

The birther movement, which anyone with even a modicum of intelligence can see is a proxy for racism -- Barack Obama could have been born under the US Capitol rotunda with both houses of congress witnessing the event and there'd be closet Klan types howling that he's a foreigner (and this is the part they won't say out loud) because he's black. Because, of course, as far as they're concerned the only people who actually qualify for elective office are white males and an occasional token white woman.

That said, the amusing part of watching the birthers in action is seeing just how unbelievably ignorant they are about how birth certificates are actually issued, and what counts as one. They actually get into debates over supposed differences between a "certificate of birth" and a "birth certificate." It goes beyond moronic. You know, when I applied for a driver's license here in Georgia they insisted on seeing my "birth certificate" so they'd know I was a U.S. citizen. You know what it says across the top? "Certificate of birth." (It's also kind of funny seeing just how many there are who don't seem to believe Hawaii is a state, so even if President Obama was born in Honolulu it doesn't count, but that's a different issue.)

And then there's health care. . . this is a part of the country that has some of the lousiest health outcomes in the nation. Quality of care sucks big time, lots and lots of people have no health insurance whatsoever, and they're worried about socialized medicine? Get a grip, people. Socialized medicine would have to be an improvement over none at all.

Of course, one of the funnier things to emerge from the South in the past week was reading about one of the fine citizens of South Carolina who got up at a town hall meeting and ranted about not wanting the government to mess with his Medicare by replacing it with a government program. When the Congress critter whose district it was tried telling him that Medicare is a government program, his constituent started arguing with him.

It's got to be the kudzu.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Yard sale score

I am not normally a cookbook collector, but when I spotted this gem on a yard sale table this morning I could not resist. After all, how often do you find recipes for coconut blancmange with dark cocoa sauce,

blueberry kissel, and Scandinavian fruit soup?


After reading the killer cattle post and seeing that I still dream of cows, the Younger Daughter called to ask if I was serious about getting cattle after I retire.

Well, to be honest, no. I love Ayrshires -- they're a very elegant cow, as dairy cattle go, and they are on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy watch list, but when I'm being realistic I know there's no way I want to be interacting with them on a daily basis. We hobby farmed in the '70s. I've known the joys of being cow-kicked while sitting on a milking stool, getting slapped in the face with a urine soaked tail, and having a case of contact dermatitis that had my hands itching for months on end. One of life's little ironies is that much as I love cows, I'm allergic to them. Besides, as the MMWR article made clear, a full-grown cow can kill a person without even meaning to. A mature Ayrshire can weigh 1100 pounds. All she has to do is sidestep unexpectedly, shove you up against a barn wall, and you've got cracked ribs or worse.

I would, however, like to treat the farm, the retirement bunker in Michigan's upper peninsula, as an actual farm. I like the idea of having some chickens wandering around, maybe some geese, and perhaps a few goats. And whatever we get, I'll try to pick it from the endangered livestock breeds lists, which is what a person who hobby farms should be doing anyway. The heritage breeds can tolerate the unpredictable conditions of a hobby farm where the breeds used for modern industrialized agriculture cannot.

When most people think of endangered species, they don't think of Pineywood cattle or Gloucestershire Old Spots pigs, but, thanks to industrialized agriculture, quite a few livestock breeds have either gone extinct or are close to it. Most dairy operations are 100% Holstein (the classic black-and-white cows in the Chik-Fil-A ads; which is another irony, using dairy cattle instead of beef to encourage people to eat chicken). Many of the other dairy breeds -- Ayrshires, Guernseys, brown Swiss, milking shorthorns, even Jerseys (Elsie the Borden cow is a Jersey) -- are harder and harder to find.

Same thing is happening with poultry -- Tyson and the other industrialized operations have bred varieties of chickens and turkeys that could not possibly survive on a traditional "family" farm. The emphasis on breast development in turkeys has meant that for many years the birds sold by Jenny O and the other big companies have had to be artificially inseminated -- the birds lost the ability to reproduce without help several decades ago. Ditto chickens -- breeding for lots of breast meat results in birds that can't mate naturally.

So I'll get a few chickens, some white Chinese geese (tempting though it is to get the gray Africans instead -- the Africans we had back in the '70s were the only "watchdogs" we've ever had that prevented Jehovah's Witnesses from getting out of their cars), and some goats to serve as brush cutters. Life will be good, albeit regretfully cow-free.