Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Brief book review: Paula

I just finished reading an amazing book, Isabel Allende's memoir, Paula.  I am not normally keen on memoir as a genre, but this book is an exception.  Allende began it as a letter to her daughter, who at the time was in hospital critically ill.  Allende writes about her childhood in Chile, her own naivete about politics despite being the niece of Salvador Allende, her family's life in exile after it becomes clear that if she remains in Chile she'll be murdered by the Pinochet regime, and her evolution from a jornalist to novelist.  It's fascinating, it's lyrical, and, although it's occasionally sad, it's not depressing.

There were a few sections where I did feel as though as she was a little too full of herself, but when you're both a best-selling novelist and drop dead gorgeous into your 50s (at the time the memoir was written), a bit of ego is understandable.      

Bring on the tinfoil

C-SPAN. Phone calls. Stupidity. It's like one of life's great certainties; doesn't matter what day of the week, month of the year, or even the topic, C-SPAN gives the tinfoil hat types a place to verbalize their bizarre worldviews.  This morning seems worse than usual, though, as I haven't heard anything vaguely sane yet.  When I hear stuff like "Obama is shoving health care down our throats without any debate" when we've just lived through almost a full year of Senate hearings, House hearings, townhall meetings with constituents, more Senate and House hearings, floor debates in both the Senate and the House, and the Senate bill actually being read aloud in the Senate chamber, I really do have to wonder just what planet those people are living on.

And then we have the underwear bomber.  It's astounding what a nation of absolutely spineless sniveling cowards we've become, perfectly willing to cower in a corner in total fear because one guy with a customized Depends slips through security.  Grow up, people.  There's no such thing as absolute safety, total security, this side of the grave.  Worry about things that have a better chance of killing you in air travel, like substandard maintenance done in Guatemala* or stressed out, underpaid pilots screwing up because airline management isn't willing to pay union wages in this country, instead of the extremely remote possibility a fanatic or two is going to evade current security screening technology.  The fanatics are always going to succeed in the end -- everyone is freaking out now over a guy who got on plane in Nigeria and then changed planes in the Netherlands to get here while conveniently forgetting that back in September 2001 the hijackers boarded domestic flights and were armed with boxcutters, not explosives. 

In any case, this latest fanatic apparently trained in Yemen, and now it's becoming all Yemen, all the time in the news media discussions.  Yemen is apparently a country with major internal security problems, including an on-going civil war, so am I wrong in thinking we're looking at the next place the U.S. is going to be sending troops?  We've already got "advisers" and aircraft there, including tactical aircraft being used to bomb Al Qaeda sites in the country, so can the actual war be far behind?  And if Al Qaeda is now doing most of its training in Yemen, why are we still in Afghanistan?

[*A number of U.S. air carriers really do outsource their major maintenance to facilities located in Central America instead of doing it in-house or at a U.S. FBO.]   

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas in Texas

We're in Sabine County for the week, hanging out at the Younger Daughter's house and generally enjoying not being in Atlanta.  It's been remarkably quiet here this week, although no doubt some of the weekenders from Beaumont and Houston will show up for New Year's -- the families that share the place next door have, if I recall correctly, a fondness for fireworks and do have access to lakefront for shooting them off.  This neighborhood is a mix of recreation homes (weekend or vacation), retirees who are here year round, retirees who are snowbirds, and folks of working age who live here all the time.  It's a fairly new subdivision (under 50 years old) because the reservoir is a fairly new lake.  Tammi rented here out of desperation -- it was literally the only rental advertised when she arrived in this part of Texas to start her new job -- but it's turned out to be a nice place to live.  (Photo above is the view from the kitchen window.)

The day after Christmas we decided to drive down to Beaumont and Port Arthur to check out the Museum of the Gulf Coast (it reportedly had Janis Joplin's Porsche on display) and to see if there were any deals to be had at the mall.  After seeing Port Arthur, I can understand why Joplin was from there -- I have a hard time believing anyone wants to live there now.  It probably wasn't nearly as bleak back in the early '60s -- surely there must have been at least one functioning business back then? -- but even at its liveliest, it would not have been a particularly attractive town. 

The museum does have a Porsche that looks like Joplin's car.  It is, however, a reproduction.  The original is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  They do have some real Joplin artifacts:  bricks from her family's home (on sale for $25 each in the gift shop, each neatly stamped with seals of authenticity), a high school year book open to the page with her senior photo, and several paintings by Joplin.  When she off to college in 1960, it was as an art major.  The paintings are visible in the background above the front end of the car:  a portrait of her sister, a couple of typical art student studies, and a paint by numbers Jesus.  That made it worth the trip.

The museum overall falls into the "not bad" category.  It has some interesting exhibits on local history, including the 3rd order Fresnel lens from the Sabine Bank lighthouse, and the admission charge is remarkably low. 

Of course, like every museum, the Museum of the Gulf Coast got stuck with setting up a display of godawful-ugly collectibles amassed by a generous benefactor.  In this case, it's glassware.  There is a room dedicated to a person who I assume was a local bigwig, and that room contains various items that must have been a personal collection of high dollar bric-a-brac:  carved ivory dust collectors from 19th century China, for example, some Meissen porcelain pieces, and glassware.  The glassware includes an item that has to set the record for the ugliest, most godawful piece of decorative glassware I have ever had the misfortune to see displayed in a museum case:

The photo does not do it justice -- the colors are much more vivid in person.  And, yes, the handle is indeed a salamander. (Or possibly a Gila Monster; given how ugly the piece is overall, I lean towards the latter.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ten years ago

I've been wandering down Nostalgia Lane this week, going through a stack of old 3.5 inch floppies ("legacy technology") and transferring the contents to CDs or DVDs.  My personal computer no longer includes that size drive, and it occurred to me that it wouldn't be long before I wouldn't have access to one though work either.  I had files going back to my grad school days on those floppies, so I decided to go through them and see if there was anything worth saving.

Turned out there was, and I just don't mean the 17 or so "back up" copies of the dissertation. I found copies of letters I wrote back in the '90s (and I'd like to thank my younger self for reminding me so vividly of why I don't miss teaching snot-nosed undergraduates all that much), personal photos taken in the early days of digital cameras, and other gems. 

The above photo (which the S.O. is going to be annoyed that I used before he could) was taken almost exactly ten years ago, in early winter of 1999.  I must have used the digital camera I had the use of during my brief tenure as the editor of a limited circulation monthly newspaper (a contract job that lasted, if memory serves me right, for four issues).  The camera was huge, not a whole lot different than trying to tote an oversized brick around, and used actual floppies, the 3.5 inch ones.  At its highest quality setting, a person was doing good to take more than 2 photos before running out of memory.  But it was great for desktop publishing -- straight from the camera to the computer with minimal hassle. 

We were living up on the tundra that year, trying to stay warm in our aging shoebox of a mobile home, while we both lurched from temporary job to temporary job.  The editing gig came along right about the time my unemployment checks were running out, so it was good timing even if it didn't last long.  It meant being able to avoid driving up to Houghton to re-register with the temporary employment pool at Michigan Tech (not that I ever minded any of the various temporary jobs I've held at Tech -- being the football coaches' temporary secretary for approximately six months was more fun than any office job should ever be) while keeping my fingers crossed I managed to find something more permanent.  Being unemployed in upper Michigan is one of those things that qualifies as a mixed blessing:  it sucks being broke, but it also means not having to be outside busting through snowdrifts before dawn.  Our road never got plowed before either I or the S.O. had to leave for work -- it's been the last one cleared for many, many years. 

Which is, of course, one of the reasons we owned a snowplow ourselves.  We pay Baraga County for driveway plowing every year (including this one, even though they got told they don't have to plow because no one's at the farm this winter) so we can stay on the list (once you're off the list, you can never get back on), but even with the county keeping the driveway open, when you live in an area that gets, on average, over 300 inches of snow per winter, it is good to have a personal plow, even if it is mounted on a piece of junk like that Jeepster.  The plow itself was not a particularly good one, if memory serves me right.  The S.O. didn't notice the missing roof much.  He kept himself warm with curses, either at the plow or the plow vehicle.

A year from now he'll be back at it, out there in the cold shoving snow around with a vehicle that looks like it should have gone to the crusher a couple years ago.  The major difference will be we'll be retired, no ties to the U.P. that would keep us there all winter.  I wonder how many plowing days it will take before he decides being a snowbird isn't such a bad idea after all?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Proof Winter won't last forever

This was in the mailbox yesterday:

A Shumway's catalog actually arrived last week, which amused me no end -- Winter hadn't even officially arrived yet, and the seed companies were looking forward to Spring.  I loved getting seed catalogs when we lived up north where it's good to have reminders it's not going to 20 below with six feet of snow on the ground forever.  Here I don't need that psychological boost quite as much, but they're still fun to read.  I always fantasize about having an amazing garden up on the tundra -- one of these years it may actually happen.  And I really love the Shumway catalog with its drawings instead of photos.  It's like instant time travel back to the 19th century:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sunday morning tinfoil hats

I made the usual weekend mistake of listening to C-SPAN.  Once again, the teabaggers and their ilk demonstrated just how unbelievably stupid they can be.  The Senate appears poised to pass their version of a health care bill (a version I'm personally not too happy with it, but that's a different story).  Naturally, the tin foil hat crowd was calling in to regurgitate talking points.

One of those talking points, of course, goes back to last summer:  no one knows what's in the bill, no one's read it.  Apparently Beck, Rush, et al, hadn't come up with an appropriate spin yet for Republicans Force Reading of Health Care Bill.  It was read, word-for-word, out loud in the Senate chamber.  There may be a lot of good reasons to vote No on the bill, but ignorance of its contents is no longer one of them.  (I'm not happy with the bill as written because overall it appears to be a gift to the insurance companies with the few vague benefits to help us peasants all being things that kick in so far in the future they're close to meaningless.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Holiday spirit

Less than a week to go until Xmas, so I'm expecting to see Easter decorations in the stores any minute now.  Seems like the retailers started pushing Xmas crap back before Labor Day -- no wonder I'm burnt out on the season.  I exhausted my supply of Christmas cheer shortly after Halloween. 

Of course, I've never been a big fan of the holiday. Didn't care for it when I was a kid, don't much care for it now.  It used to be a fairly low-key holiday in the Christian calendar and retained its pagan overtones with the associations with Saturnalia and other solstice celebrations for enough centuries that the more austere varieties of Bible-banging denounced it as sinful. Not anymore. Now all the Bible-thumpers come out in full force demanding that we ignore every other holiday that falls around this time of year and focus 100% of our attention on worshipping at Walmart and buying gifts by the truckload.

The cartoon reminded me of the days back when we were living at the farm (aka the retirement bunker) in Upper Michigan. We were about 10 miles out of town, out in the boonies where apparently the townsfolk of L'Anse figured everything and anything was fair game because it was more than 5 minutes drive from where they lived. When it got to be December, they'd start showing up to steal Xmas trees.

We never had anyone pull something quite as blatant as taking one from right by the house we were living in, although one of our neighbors did (she looked out and someone was cutting down a tree that couldn't have been more than 20 feet from her front door). We did, however, surprise one of the local bankers in the act one year. The fellow was a vice president at the bank in town, and had come up with a car load of kids from his (and this is the really good part) Lutheran church Sunday school class.  The farm has a long, curving driveway, but there's no doubt it's a driveway on private property and not a county road.  He drove in to about 300 feet from the house and pulled up next to what we called the Little House, a small cabin that the S.O.'s parents had lived in when they first married (his grandparents had the big house on the farm).  At the time no one was living in the Little House, but you couldn't tell that just by looking at it from the outside. 

We noticed the car pull in by the Little House when the dog started barking, so we were watching from the kitchen window. At first we thought they were just going to turn around because they'd realized they were lost. Nope. They parked the car and piled out -- and started after a small spruce that had been planted next to the driveway.  The S.O. throws on a jacket and heads out, yelling obscenities as he goes.  They all scramble to get back into the car -- and then they get stuck.  (Eventually they managed to dig the car out of the ditch; we did not offer to help.)

Whenever we'd tell that story up on the tundra, we'd get to hear about what a "nice guy" the thief in question was.  After all, he wore a suit, looked clean cut, and must have had a college degree in something that qualified him to sit in an office at Commercial National.  Right.  "Nice guys" don't vandalize other people's yards.  But he was an upstanding member of Trinity Lutheran, was willing to help out with Luther League, and had even volunteered to take the kids out looking for an Xmas tree -- how could he possibly be a thief? 

Pretty easily, apparently, because a year or two later he changed jobs, went to a bank downstate, and not long after that a news blurb caught my eye:  he'd progressed from white spruce to green cash and gotten busted for embezzlement.    

Woodie Guthrie once wrote "Some will rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen."  And when it's winter in the U.P., the tool of choice is an ax.

Below:  the target tree, 30 years after it almost wound up lashed to a car roof.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Hey, George, it's not high school

Good Morning America's only been on for about 10 minutes, and I'm already sick of listening to George Stephanopolous blather on about President Obama's poll numbers dropping.  So what?  Does this mean Barack won't be able to sit at the cool kids' table anymore?  No doubt if the poll numbers were climbing it would make it easier for various pieces of legislation to make it through Congress, but dropping poll numbers at this point in a presidency isn't exactly unexpected.  Every President enters the White House blessed with high approval numbers -- obviously.  There's always a honeymoon period.  Then the numbers inevitably drop as the public figures out that there isn't some magic switch in the Oval Office that the new guy can flip and instantly solve all our problems. 

Gin and Tacos has an interesting post up comparing Obama's numbers with St. Ronnie's -- the curves look very similar at the same points in time.  One difference, though, one that we can all look back on with true longing:  back in the Reagan era polling data was collected monthly, not on what appears to be the current practice of minute-by-minute, so the MSM wasn't able to obsess about trivia quite as much.  Maybe the '80s weren't so horrible after all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Pulitzer Project: Scarlet Sister Mary

Scarlet Sister Mary earned author Julia Peterkin a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1929.  It is, by today's standards, a curious book. 

Of course, it was no doubt viewed as a curious book when it was published.  It is set in a small black rural community in South Carolina in the early 1900s.  The setting is, in fact, a cotton plantation where the people live in cabins that are obviously the former slave quarters. 

As Peterkin tells us, the Big House has been abandoned since the Civil War, but the descendants of the slaves are still on the plantation, still farming (either as hired hands or share cropping, the book never makes that clear) and managing to make a decent (by their standards) living for themselves.  Every major character in the book is black, and much of the dialogue is written in dialect meant to convey the actual speaking patterns of the people.  One synopsis I read described them as speaking Gullah; I wouldn't know, but will note that, although some of the dialect struck me as odd, it wasn't distracting.  Peterkin writes with sufficient skill that the speech patterns seem more poetic than patronizing.  I've read a number of books where authors attempt to have characters speak in the vernacular, and it comes as across as stilted or condescending.  Not here.  Peterkin definitely had a poet's ear for language.

Peterkin was born in the South Carolina low country, and spent her adult married life there.  She was intimately familiar with the region and the people she describes in Scarlet Sister Mary.  She also obviously had tremendous respect for her characters.  At a time when African Americans were generally portrayed in fiction in terms of racial stereotypes (Mammys, Sambos, and so on), Peterkin did something radical:  she described a group of people who were simply that, people, men and women going about their daily lives as best they could and experiencing the same problems as everyone else:  love, romance, worrying about their children, and hurrying to get the house looking nice when they realized company was coming.  They're not some exotic Other; they're just ordinary folks trying to live their lives the way they always have while coping as best they can with the resources they have.

The title comes from the heroine of the book, Mary.  She's Sister Mary because she was baptized into the church and therefore is a sister, and she's scarlet because she messed up.  Her initial sin was dancing on her wedding night, but she added others as the years went by.  Her scarlet status gave the church deacons an excuse to expel her from church membership, although it's clear that being kicked out of the church for sinning and being able to keep right on attending the meetings are two different things -- it's not unusual for someone to be expelled, rejoin, and get expelled again on a regular basis.  The big difference with Mary is that having been expelled as a teenager, she doesn't try to rejoin again for many years.

And that's where I had my biggest problems with this book -- the religious element.  Mary had a conversion experience when she was about 12 years old, was baptized, but then is expelled for the sin of dancing.  She has no use for God again until many years later when she's hit hard by a personal tragedy.  Then, emotionally devastated, she has another conversion experience.  No doubt to a believer, it would come across as a wonderful, uplifiting ending.  To an atheist, not so much. 

Overall, though, this was a fun book to read.  Peterkin had an anthropologist's eye for capturing folkways.  Her descriptions of the church services, with the formal service followed by the women's shout, a tradition that had obvious roots in African tribal culture and rituals; the birth-night celebrations (again with women chanting and stomping in a circle); funeral customs that dictated that a coffin could not be placed into a grave until sunlight had touched the bottom of the grave and that the burial itself took place right after sundown; and various folk cures and superstitions all help ground her characters.  As the story progresses, you can see change to the old folkways creeping in:  a burial society is formed where before no one thought one was necessary, more of the children start going to school and learning to read and write, more machinery is being introduced resulting both in a higher risk of injury and fewer workers being needed, the boll weevil makes it so hard to survive farming cotton that more and more of the young people leave to find work in the cities.  But that's primarily background -- the focus is always more on Mary's emotional life, what's happening with her, her relationships with the people around her, and, ultimately, her relationship with God.

One thing that really struck me while reading Scarlet Sister Mary was how much it resembled Zora Neale Hurston's book Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937 and is, at least as far as I'm concerned, one of the most overrated and unreadable books I've ever had the misfortune to pick up. (It's also one of the rare books that I simply flatout could not finish.) I've never been able to figure out why it's garnered so much praise over the years (the novelist Alice Walker, for example, loves it and has written numerous essays proclaiming it's one of the best books of all time), and I'm even more convinced now that Hurston has been over-hyped. 

Although I wasn't too thrilled with the denouement turning out to be whether or not Mary  found Jesus again, overall I enjoyed reading Scarlet Sister Mary.  Julia Peterkin could write.  I'm really surprised I'd never heard of her before I started this Pulitzer Project; she's a lot more readable than some most of the Southern writers that have received a lot more page space in literature classes and critics' commentaries. 

Next up on the list, another one that's an unknown:  Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge.

Friday, December 11, 2009


I saw the physical therapist for the last time this week.  The back specialist sent me to him to learn "trunk strengthening" exercises after figuring out I had a pinched nerve aggravated by my sedentary lifestyle.  I've spent way too many years sitting at a desk so all the muscles that help to support the spine are, to put it mildly, weak.  Other than that, though, I was apparently in decent shape when it came to things like range of motion and balance, so Steve (the physical therapist) was confident I'd have no problems mastering the various exercises that strenghtening the abdominal muscles entailed.

He was definitely overly optimistic about my desire to exercise. 

On the other hand, pain can be a powerful motivator. 

So I've been doing them -- not as consistently as Steve was probably hoping I would, but enough to make a difference -- and will probably continue on a sporadic basis.  I still fantasize about Isle Royale camping trips, hiking in North Cascades, and other excursions that would be difficult to complete if I can't walk.  And that is the effect of the pinched nerve -- pseudoclaudication, aka leg pain, while standing or walking. 

I've also been thinking about health and fitness in general.  As I've aged I'm managed to acquire a number of what clinicians like to call co-morbidities (and insurance companies label as pre-existing conditions), hypertension being the most recent addition to the list.  When it was diagnosed, two things happened:  the doctor first wrote me a prescription for a drug (Benicar) and then told me to exercise more and drop a few pounds.  The drug works, but you know what its side effects are?  Extreme fatigue and weight gain.  I believe there's a phrase for that:  pissing in the wind.  My body eventually adapted, so the fatigue is no longer much of an issue, and I was lucky and didn't experience the weight gain (I actally lost a few pounds, despite having all the strength of the proverbial wet noodle)(I'd have days when I wondered if I was going to manage the walk to or from work without collapsing from exhaustion mid-way) . . . but it did occur to me that it would really suck to have to listen about lectures about exercising or watching what I ate when the drug the jerk in the white coat had given me left me too weak to walk more than 10 feet without having to rest. 

Some of Benicar's other side effects?  It can raise cholesterol levels.  Well, guess whose cholesterol is now up into the zone where prescriptions get written?  You got it.  More pissing in the wind.  Take one pill to lower blood pressure to reduce risk of heart attack, take another pill to deal with the problems the first pill created, then take yet another to try to cancel out the effects of the first two. . .  I really wish I owned stock in pharmaceutical companies.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Major news flash

It's snowing in Buffalo, New York, and it's cold in Nebraska.  And, wow, it's only December.  Who would have thought that the country would actually experience cold weather at this time of year?  So much for global warming. . .

Maybe I should have begun with a sarcasm warning, but one of my pet annoyances with the news media is when they decide to waste air time on stating the obvious and treating something that isn't exactly news as if it's something truly earth shattering, a unique event we're never going to see again.  And they do it every year.  I was quite willing to view the snow falling in Houston, Texas, a few days ago as a news event, because you don't expect it to snow there.  But snow in Buffalo?  But that turned out to be the lead story on the evening news.  Unreal. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Celebrity hubris

By coincidence, while the news media are busy obsessing about Tiger Woods and his apparently endless supply of assorted girlfriends, I've been reading a biography of Oscar Wilde.  The two scandals aren't quite the same -- among other things, Wilde never enjoyed the wide spread approval by the public that Woods did before scandal broke.  Wilde was the object of numerous attacks (bad publicity?) in the press long before he ran afoul of England's anti-homosexuality laws, beginning almost as soon as he started to emerge as a public personality.  His lecture tours were greeted with equal parts of enthusiasm and derision, and even his most successful plays opened to bad reviews from the critics.  It wasn't until the 1890s when his play Lady Windermere's Fan became a huge hit with the public that Wilde enjoyed financial success as well as notoriety. 

Still, Wilde could easily serve as the exemplar for every celebrity scandal that's broken since then.  The more famous he became, the more successful his plays were and the more money he made, the more the line blurred between his private life and his public persona and the less concerned he seemed to become about the possibility of potential consequences.  Once he decided to drop the pretense that he was not homosexual, he progressed fairly rapidly from discrete affairs with young men with social backgrounds similar to his own to patronizing teenage rentboys and doing so in a rather brazen manner, e.g., renting rooms at "good" hotels rather than using the 1890s version of a hot pillow motel.  The most surprising thing about Wilde suffering legal consequences for his behavior isn't that it happened (a number of his contemporaries found themselves sitting in prison as punishment for their homosexual behavior), but that it took as long as it did. 

Of course, it definitely didn't help Wilde at all that he decided to deny the obvious -- he was indeed engaged in a multiple-year love affair with a man -- by suing his boyfriend's father for libel when the man denounced the two of them as sodomites. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Requiescat in pace, Bemis

My cat Bemis died during the night.  She was old, she'd been obviously fading for awhile, and when she lost interest in cat treats I knew she wasn't going to be around much longer.  My own fear had been that I'd end up having to make the euthanasia trip to the veterinarian with her, but that didn't happen.  As it turned out, the cessation of begging for treats and the cessation of life in general was less than 24 hours.  She curled up in the cat condo sometime during the night, went to sleep, and never woke up. We should all be so lucky.

Bemis joined the household back in my grad school days.  She was born feral in my dissertation advisor's garage in Blacksburg, Virginia, and was apparently the only kitten in the litter that survived long enough to be live-trapped and placed for adoption.  We got her when she was barely six weeks old, but the feral ancestry still showed.  She was never a cuddly cat, hated being held, and tended to be more than a little paranoid.  For years she refused to walk across the middle of a room -- she'd hug the walls -- and on those occasions when she got to enjoy being an outdoors cat was never the type that would amble casually down the middle of a driveway.  She liked small, enclosed spaces, and was the only cat I've ever owned that I didn't have to fight with to get into a cat carrier -- or at least not much.   

She was generally a quiet cat and managed to be rather unnoticeable much of the time, although, like all cats, she had a knack for being annoying in small ways.  For awhile after we moved into this apartment I was convinced she was trying to kill me by always being underfoot as I stumbled down the stairs first thing in the morning.  She also possessed the domestic longhair's talent for depositing truly disgusting hairballs or puked up cat chow where you were guaranteed to step in it when you least expected it.

I had been hoping she'd make it to spring so she could exit this world from the farm in Michigan and not from Atlanta, but that didn't happen.  Goodbye, Bemis, I'm going to miss you.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Science and climate change

I've been picking up on ripples of climate change denial in the news and the blogosphere lately.  There's been a kerfuffle of some sort (I'll be honest -- I haven't been paying much attention) over hacked e-mails and some research institute in the United Kingdom and climate change deniers trying to use it as evidence that all science is bunk.  I just looked at the timing and got immediately suspicious:  the big conference in Copenhagen is about to happen, policy makers from all over the world are going to be conferring, and the results coming out of that conference are likely to be ones that Exxon-Mobil et al are not going to be happy with.  It's pretty much standard operating procedure for the corporate spinmeisters to find something to use to color a process when they think they've got something to lose otherwise.

Still, two things struck me:  one is that most people truly do not have a clue just how messy science is, and the other is that the deniers' favorite claim ("People aren't changing the climate; it's all just part of a natural cycle") does not, as they seem to think, constitute an argument for the status quo.

Looking at the second point first, lots of things are "natural" or part of a natural cycle.  That doesn't mean we ignore them or pretend they don't exist.  Forest fires are natural, at least when they're caused by lightning strikes.  We still send out firefighters to try to stop them, encourage property owners to reduce fuel loads, and generally try to change the conditions that make fires worse.  We're not always particularly successful in those attempts, but for sure we don't go the other way either:  no one's out there encouraging home owners to use creosote bushes as foundation plantings or telling them to hose down their cedar shakes with kerosene.  People who live in earthquake zones now have to live with building codes that dictate how structures are constructed to prevent them from falling down, and folks in areas prone to tornadoes are  encouraged to have storm shelters.  So why, if climate change is natural and it's going to happen no matter what, do we have the deniers responding with the equivalent of screw it, it's natural, we'll just let whatever happens, happen?

It's a bizarre response.  It's the equivalent of hearing that a fire's coming, but it's not worth your time to bother hooking up a hose.  Natural stuff happens all the time and we don't react by pretending that there isn't a damn thing we can do about it; we prepare.  So what makes a warming planet different?

I don't know enough about the other issue, the controversy over the Climate Research Unit hacked e-mails, to say anything about it -- but I will note that the CRU is only one research institute at one university (and, oh Maude save us all, open phones on C-SPAN just got into global warming and deniers and New World Order tin foil hat sporting lunatics are crawling out of the telephone) . . .  In any case, the CRU may be an influential center, but it's hardly the only one on the planet that's concluded climate change is happening, and human activities may be influencing those changes.

I think the line graph above says it all -- we're in an upward climb when it comes to the planet as a whole.  Now the big question is how we respond to it.  The graph is from, which also has a long explication of the whole e-mail "controversy" and the MSM's usual horrible job of reporting on it.

Personally, I don't find the fact that scientists reportedly "derided climate change skeptics as idiots" particularly shocking, especially in informal communications like e-mails.  If the journal I work for, or its parent agency, for example, was to receive material from scientists who wanted to revive the miasmic theory of disease,* I've no doubt those people would be tagged in personal communications as "dolts," "morons," and "nut jobs" (or worse) unless they could provide really solid empirical evidence to support their claims.  Unfortunately for the skeptics, right now the evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of the climate change accepters. The paradigm has shifted, and the deniers are now on the wrong side of the line. 

[*Miasmic theory -- the idea that illnesses such as yellow fever or malaria were caused by foul odors, like those from decaying vegetation or rotting corpses]

Friday, December 4, 2009


It's Friday afternoon, there's still an hour to go before I can escape from LNA, and I should be proofreading an article that describes syphilis reemerging on a Caribbean isle.  But I need a mental health break -- it's been a long boring week, and the classic STDs are simply not that exciting, even if they do beat out H1N1 influenza for human interest.

I had planned to post something about the Thanksgiving expedition to Texas after we got back, and I sort of did, but over on I See Dead People, not here.  That's not a commentary on the holiday -- it was nice, got to see more of the local area in east Texas, including the famous dog cemetery.  And then I was thinking about ranting about politics, mainly Afghanistan and Obama's idiocy in deciding to sink more troops into that useless endeavor, but couldn't work up the ambition.  Ditto climate change, hacked e-mails, corruption in science, cuts to Medicare, paying for healthcare, mammograms, who won the Atlanta mayoral election, and Tiger Woods mattress hopping.  After awhile apathy starts looking good. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

More weirdness

Had two interactions with DeKalb County's finest last night, thanks to AT&T.  Our landline started acting up shortly after I got home from work, both phones connected to it kept making strange noises and the DSL became extremely erratic.  Disconnected everything, but it was late enough that I knew we weren't going to see a service technician until the following day regardless of when we called so otherwise didn't worry about it.

Around 1 a.m. someone knocking loudly on the front door woke me up.  Opened the window to look out before heading downstairs (yelling out a window being less energy intensive than putting on a robe and actually opening the door), and discovered two patrol cars sitting in the parking lot.  The officers said there'd been a 911 call made from our phone.  Bizarre. 

They looked a little skeptical when I said I had no clue why that would have happened because the S.O. and I had both been sound asleep for at least an hour, but eventually they believed me.  I connected one phone to demonstrate the loud staticky noises, and, after following SOP to ensure that there really was no one in distress (no hostages locked in a closet, no recently demised spouse sprawled in a pool of blood in the bedroom), they left.  Two hours later we got treated to a repeat performance:  same thing, report of a 911 call with the dispatcher reporting it was an open line (which implies someone desperately dialing and then keeling over before being able to say anything).  This time, because it was a repeat performance, they didn't bother coming in the house.

First thing this morning I did call AT&T; the technician was here before noon to check things out and apparently found a bad ground -- but he had no explanation for why our telephone would decide to call for help on its own.  Definitely very strange.

And I am really, really happy that we lead a remarkably boring life -- no hash pipes on the coffee table, no whips and chains in the bedroom.