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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


I had the weirdest experience yesterday, a definite first for me. I fainted. I was out cold for at least a minute, maybe longer.

Fortunately, I was already close to flat on my back when it happened. If a person's going to faint, I'm guessing in a Red Cross donation chair is a good place for it to happen. I've had a few moments in the past while donating blood where I started feeling a little light-headed, but passing out cold was a new one for me. I probably shouldn't have looked when the phlebotomist was switching from the bag to the test tubes.  Blood doesn't faze me much when it's someone else's, but when it's my own. . .

In other news, it turns out I'm not the only person who spends time pondering life's most important questions, like when the hyphen can drop out of a compound word. Large Nameless Agency actually invested several hours recently in a training (workshop?) devoted to just that question. Well, not just that question -- we also looked at commas, semi-colons, and the infamous en dash. Heretic that I am, I think en dashes should go the way of the dodo, but my fellow editors apparently love them. (There's something very spooky about witnessing adults wax so enthusiastic about punctuation. I appreciate a well-placed comma as much as the next person, but there are limits. I'd say they'd been sniffing the wite-out too long if we still used the stuff.) Bottom line: language changes all the time, hyphens will drop out, but we editors will not be the ones to decide that burning question. We will instead be as conservative as humanly possible, dragging our feet and kicking and screaming whenever it's suggested that grammar is mutable. Or at least my colleagues will -- I'm not nearly that hardcore.

Tomorrow I'll be escaping from Large Nameless Agency for a few days. The S.O. and I are heading for Texas to celebrate Thanksgiving with the Younger Daughter. It's odd how quickly some things become routine -- we will be going up to Natchitoches again on Saturday for the annual craft show that's part of that city's Festival of Lights and it's feeling like a family tradition after only two years. Maybe this will be the year when we get the family photo taken with the alligator, even if the 'gator itself is rather a disappointment (discovered last November that it's not very big and has its mouth duct-taped shut). Weather permitting, on Friday we're going to pack a picnic lunch and visit the dog cemetery -- it's somewhere up in northern Sabine County and is apparently the resting place of beloved fox hounds. We won't lunch at the cemetery; the plan is to go over to one of the recreation areas on Toledo Bend where there are picnic tables.

I finished reading Dr. Zhivago yesterday. Up until I picked up the book at the library on Saturday, the only thing I knew about Dr. Zhivago was that Omar Sharif had starred in the movie, which I've never seen. Oh, and "Lara's Song" (aka "Somewhere My Love"), which definitely hints at a plotline entailing multiple Kleenexs being expended if viewed on the big screen -- although the S.O. tells me he fell asleep when he tried watching it in a theater back in the 1960s, so who knows? I do know Dr. Zhivago is a typical Russian novel, replete with the usual multiple names all referring to the same person depending on who's doing the speaking, multiple odd subplots kind of working their way around each other, and a narrator's voice that at times has a person wondering just how autobiographical some of the details were for Pasternak. It's also, of course, given that it's set during the Russian revolution and the Russian civil war, remarkably depressing. On the other hand, I read it in less than a week, making it surprisingly light reading for a Russian novel. I had thought it would last me past Thanksgiving; now it's looking like Alice Walker and the latest Bitch will be going into the suitcase instead.

[We will not be deep frying our turkey -- it's going into the oven to be cooked in a very traditional, low-risk manner.]

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Weather and politics

It's raining this morning.  No real news there -- the drought broke quite a few months ago, and it's rained a lot in Atlanta lately.  Of course, since the record rainfalls and flooding in September (when the above photo was taken), every time rain is predicted now there's a lot of musing on local news about whether or not there might be flooding again. 

There will be, of course.  The only real question is whether or not anyone will have learned anything from the last time.  Probably not.

I finished reading Storm World recently and am currently reading a  theme issue of Mother Jones that focuses on climate change and environmental disaster. It's scary stuff.  California's Central Valley, long viewed as an agricultural Eden, is turning into a dust bowl due to lack of water for irrigation -- and there's no water for irrigation because the snowpack in the mountains irrigation relies isn't as deep as it used to be.  Farmers are clamoring for water and blaming government policies for their woes, but it's real hard to give the farms something that no longer exists. Island nations like Tuvalu and the Maldives are facing possibly vanishing if ocean levels rise very much.

And how are we, as in humanity in general, dealing with the growing body of evidence that's announcing loud and clear that the climate is changing, and changing in unpredictable ways? Even the deniers, the folks who say humans have no influence on the climate, have switched from "it's not happening" to "it's part of a natural cycle."  The way people always cope with bad news:  denial, willful ignorance, and procrastination, both as individuals and as governments.  And then when we do notice, we Americans tend to think we can shop our way out of environmental disaster:  buy a Prius instead of  Hummer, look for the energy star on new appliances, get reusable shopping bags, stop buying bottled water and get a Pur filter for the kitchen faucet.  There are exceptions, like the folks involved with,  but not as many as there should be.  Politically, of course, the Obama administration isn't doing much better than Bush did -- the big difference seems to be that Obama is at least smart enough to make some noises like he takes climate change seriously.  Doesn't mean the US will do anything substantive, though, because even if Obama wanted to, Congress is going to throw up roadblocks. 

On a purely personal level, the retirement bunker in upper Michigan is looking better all the time.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adventures in bureaucracy, 2009

The internal blog here at Large Nameless Agency did a question of the week recently asking people to provide their favorite Dilbert or Dilbert-like quotes or experiences. There were some doozies. Managers who said things like "We're LNA. We don't do science." (Definitely a head/desk moment for anyone hearing that one.)  Managers whose solution to complaints about excessive paperwork was to generate still more forms and procedures.  Co-workers who responded to e-mail requests with answers like "send me your e- mail address and I'll get that information to you."  

My own favorite "Dilbert" moments didn't happen here at LNA.  They all happened back when I was working as a part-time clerk in the office for the married students' housing at Michigan's toughest university.  Our manager, the equivalent of the pointy-haired boss in Dilbert, could have stepped right out of the strip.  He was also one of the cheapest people on the planet.

We all took turns bringing goodies for the break room (cookies, brownies, donuts).  We always knew when the boss had brought in the snacks:  the packages had the prices crossed out with black magic marker because he'd gotten them at the Metz bakery outlet store.  He always "forgot" Secretary's Day -- he'd bring in flowers, but a day late -- that way he could get the sale roses.

I could go on -- the man's basic cheapness and desire to shortchange his subordinates went well beyond stale donuts -- but suffice to say that's one job I've never regretted walking away from. (Walking?! Not exactly. I ran.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Controversy du jour

Breast cancer screening. 

It's been interesting watching the uproar.  Once again the American populace is demonstrating its inability to understand simple English -- a recommendation is not the same thing as a requirement -- and its capacity to contradict itself.  Last week the airwaves were still full of bloviation about rationing if the government gets involved in health care so we must trust the private sector; this week the airwaves are full of bloviation about the evil, evil insurance companies and how they'll use the new guidelines as a reason to deny services.  (Of course, a few people are ranting about this being an example of what we can expect under Obama-care, irrationality in action.)

The airwaves are also full of people rattling off their personal anecdotes, some of which actually serve to confirm that the new recommendations might be spot on.  Women, for example, who argued for sticking with the annual mammogram while simultaneously describing how they found their cancer accidentally, i.e., noticed a lump, and then had a mammogram -- so the mammogram saved their lives.  Which is probably true, but it wasn't an annual screening mammogram; it was one they asked for after noticing something that for them was abnormal.  (The most prominent example of that particular experience is probably Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.)  Good Morning America just gave air time to a woman in her 20s who's arguing for annual screening because a mammogram found her cancer, totally ignoring the fact that young woman was not yet in the age group affected by the recommendations. Obviously, routine screening was not what found her cancer. 

I'm not a big fan of using anecdotal evidence myself -- the plural of anecdote is most definitely not data -- but if I were, I'd trot out the handful of breast cancer sufferers I've known and point out that not a single one of them had her cancer detected by early screening, either mammogram or routine breast self exam.  In several cases, a sexual partner noticed something odd, in others, the woman herself spotted something while showering or putting on deodorant.  Oddly enough, none of the cancer survivors the MSM have trotted out so far have named routine screening either. . . they all went for a mammogram after noticing something didn't seem right, not before. 

So should we stick with annual screening and pushing BSE anyway?  I don't know.  I'm enough of a nerd that I did the research for myself years ago (family history, various risk factors, comparisons with survival rates here and in Europe where the screening schedule is different), and decided no way in hell was I putting my tits in a vise as often as my doctors were recommending.  Two years apart?  Heck no, I've decided three sounds good.  But that's me.  My body, my life, and my choice to avoid a test I view as (for me) an uncomfortable waste of time.  Someone with a different family tree and risk factors might look at the available evidence and make a different decision.  But whatever decision anyone makes, it would be nice if it could be made dispassionately and not colored by MSM-generated hysteria.

UpdateScience Based Medicine has a good post up now on the topic.

Monday, November 16, 2009

I should have listened to my mother

I'm feeling like a walking cliche this morning.  It hasn't been that many years since I mocked my elders for seemingly having nothing to talk about but their health -- the various operations, the specialists they were seeing, the battery of medications they took -- and now it's payback time.  I've become one of them.  The pill bottles are proliferating, and conversations with friends focus way too much health issues. 

The latest for me is my back.  It's betrayed me.  I would have halfway understood having back trouble if I did anything that was remotely strenuous.  Screwing up my back while I was still working for the Park Service and scrambling in and out of boats, bushwhacking trying to find abandoned buildings, or doing something -- anything! -- that required some effort wouldn't bother me much.  Ditto if I'd managed to screw it up at home, even if it was by reaching for something on a closet shelf.  No such luck. 

What's done my back in is several decades of office work.  Eight hours a day in front of a computer while sitting in chairs that don't fit right coupled with a lifetime of poor posture.  End result:  pinched nerve and strange pains.  No, that's not quite right:  End result -- multiple visits to a physical therapist in an attempt to unlearn a lifetime of bad habits and learn some "trunk strengthening" exercises. 

I definitely should have listened to my mother when she kept nagging me to sit up straight. 

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sniveling cowards

I've believed for a long time that most conservatives are thoroughly craven, cowards to the core, and afraid of their own shadows.  They're terrified of change, terrified of anyone who doesn't look like themselves, and indeed are even terrified of their own neighbors.  Watching C-SPAN this weekend didn't change my mind.

The news that shaped much of the discussion, both by the on-camera experts and pundits and the folks calling in, was the announcement that the US Justice Department will place Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four alleged co-conspirators on trial in federal court in New York City on charges they were involved in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. I swear every single right-winger, both on camera and via telephone or Twitter, was practically paralytic with fear. 

Fear of what?  Another terrorist attack if we put these guys on trial, among other things.  Will not trying Mohammed et al. prevent another terrorist attack?  Obviously, no.  There are always going to be fanatics out there, some in this country and some overseas, who decide they hate something or someone (the government, family planning clinics, banks and/or bankers) and then act on that hatred. 

I've always thought we as a nation have made a huge mistake in the way we dealt with the 9/11 attacks.  We elevated a group of low-life thugs to the level of being military equals instead of labeling them as the criminals they are.  We helped turn Al Qaeda into heroes, freedom fighters protecting Islam from the Christian crusaders, when they should have been framed as common criminals who got lucky.  (Osama bin Laden is on record on saying they never thought the towers would fall; they also didn't believe they'd succeed in hijacking all four planes.)  We helped legitimize them within the Muslim world when we should have been doing the opposite.  Trying Mohammed and his fellow lowlifes in criminal court instead of in front of a military tribunal is a good first step towards changing their image. 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Who says there's never any good news?

From the New York Times:
Lou Dobbs, the longtime CNN anchor whose anti-immigration views have made him a TV lightning rod, said Wednesday that he is leaving the cable news channel effective immediately.
Yesterday's show was his last.  Anyone else want to bet he's on Fox by Monday?

Update: The Onion has the reason why Dobbs departed so abruptly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Epistlatory novels

I just finished reading another epistlatory novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society*, and was struck again by the conceit of that particular writing technique.  For some reason, it always strikes me as the lazy way to write a book.  Cobbling together a novel by stringing together letters, journal entries, or blog posts allows the author to skip over the messy bits that can prove troublesome:  describing the setting, for example, or creating believable dialogue.

It also means, of course, that it's easy to pad out the page count -- lots of white space in the breaks between the letters (see novel mentioned above for a great example of that tactic) -- or to blame choppiness or uneven quality on deliberate authorial choices rather than weak writing skills.   Additionally, it can be a little off-putting to read, as I have in some novels, letters that contain information that no one in his or her right mind would have included in a letter sent during the historical era when the novel is set.  Chelsea Quinn Yarbro seized upon the letter-writing device a number of years ago for her St. Germain vampire series, and, let's face it, it calls for a tremendous amount of willing disbelief on the part of the reader to ignore the obvious insanity of characters discussing the downsides of being undead in letters being carried by messengers in Catholic Europe in the Middle Ages, especially when those letters are supposedly written in Latin, and the characters writing them are described as already paranoid about being spied on and/or suspected of heresy. (Fortunately for readers addicted to St. Germain since the publication of Hotel Transylvania in 1978, Yarbro salts the letters throughout the novels like the calendar pages one would see in old movies to indicate the passage of time rather than relying on them alone to carry the work.) 

One of the advantages of the epistlatory technique is that it supposedly eliminates the omniscient narrator from the story.  I'm not sure that's true.  After all, someone is picking and choosing which letters, newspaper reports, journal entries, and other material to include to tell the story -- the narrator is always going to be present in some form.  The big question actually isn't the technique -- it's does the narrator, i.e., the book,  have a story worth telling? Some epistlatory novels do, some don't.   

[*Brief review: 100% mind candy; despite its 1946-coming-to-grips-with-the-aftermath-of-WWII setting, the book is basically a piece of lightweight fluff ideal for reading on an airplane or while sitting in a doctor's waiting room. It could have been published by Harlequin.]

Addendum -- total digression:  I am now giving serious thought to changing my profile picture. The Victorian lass above looks a lot better than the demented woman with a pen I have been using.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tunnel vision

Maybe I should have subtitled this post, "It's not all about you." 

We Americans really seem to be lacking the ability to do big picture thinking.  I was listening to C-SPAN this morning and once again was struck by the incredible tunnel vision way too many people display.  Over and over I heard the complaint that health care reform is going to drive up the costs for small businesses so they won't be able to compete.  Several callers, in fact, claimed to be business owners who said having to pay for health insurance would drive up their labor costs and thus they'd lose their competitive edge.

Edge against who?  Who is the competition?  I can understand complaints about labor costs going up if you're manufacturing widgets to sell to Walmart, because then the competition is child labor in a third world sweatshop working for pennies a day, but if you're a construction contractor?  A hotel owner?  Someone who runs a local grocery store or tire shop?  News flash for those folks:  everyone else's costs are going to go up, too.  The playing field will actually be more level than before -- because the employers who had been trying to offer health benefits, i.e., the small business owners with some compassion and/or sense of decency, willl no longer be competing with businesses whose idea of health benefits had been keeping a box of band-aids in a desk drawer. 

The complaints about health care costs, the mandatory insurance payments, remind me a great deal of the same complaints small businesses engage in every time there's a discussion about raising the minimum wage.  They all howl as though their individual business is the only one that is being forced to raise pay rates -- they behave as though their roofing company or restaurant or local supermarket is going to so screwed because everyone else will still be paying the old wages.  It never seems to occur to them that if they're being forced to do something, so is everyone else.  Nothing's changed in terms of competitive edge.  If there is an added cost, it's industry-wide.

It's a good thing I'm not a C-SPAN moderator.  I would never be able to resist the urge to tell people to STFU and stop sounding like whining teenage prima donnas. 

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Looking for a land that never was: Whitopia

I just finished reading a brief article on white flight, the growth of the homogeneous exurbs flourishing in Utah and Idaho, in the October 2009 issue of American Prospect.  The author of the piece, Rich Benjamin, has written a book on the topic -- Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America -- that, to be honest, I'll probably never read.  Normally I eschew judging books by their covers, but I have a hunch Mr. Benjamin is simply retelling a story that's an American classic:  the grass is always greener (or the neighbors more like you) someplace else.

As for Whitopia, I've lived there.  I grew up there, spent most of my formative years in the upper Midwest where the only people of color a person ever saw were the Pullman and dining car attendants working on the trains that rolled through town and the Native Americans who back then spent a great deal of time busily denying they were Native American (easy to do when your last name was Heikinen or LaFernier).  No doubt to folks burnt out on urban life and looking for a nostalgic, safe, family friendly place to live it looked great.  It probably still looks great to anyone fleeing diversity -- last time I was home there was a fair amount of discussion revolving around the shocking fact there were now at least three (count 'em -- three!!) black prison guards working at Baraga Super Max. 

I can see where for some stressed out white dude looking at the White House and wondering where his country went, Baraga County, Michigan would seem like a utopia.  All those white people, small churches, sense of community, . . .  all very bucolic and reminiscent of kinder, gentler, whiter times.  Everyone thinking just like him, looking just like him, sharing the same values. . . 

It would be pure fantasy, of course.  The small towns I lived in until I went wandering off to college and the military way back when may have looked like Mayberry, RFD, but they were no more safe havens, trouble-free rural paradises, than today's small towns are.  Most murders are committed by acquaintances, so moving to Whitopia isn't going to stop your spouse from killing you.  Besides, serial killers live in small towns, too -- just ask the Wisconsites who remember Ed Gein.  Most burglaries are committed by teenagers, the kids down the street, so your garage is still going to get broken into.  Amazing amounts of domestic meth are manufactured in small towns -- ask the law enforcement folks in Iowa and Wisconsin who are dealing with that headache now -- so you're not going to be able to leave that particular fear behind by loading the U-Haul and getting out of L.A. or Phoenix.  You can't escape reality by running from it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Another reason for looking forward to retirement

and getting out of Georgia:

Forbes Magazine has rated Atlanta as the most toxic city in the country. 

Part of me is thinking, well, no shit, Sherlock. Then I realized the article is referring to the physical environment, not the politics or the crime rates.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Should I feel guilty?

Should I be feeling guilty because my reaction to a co-worker being gone all week on funeral leave is relief? The woman is noted for her snark and annoys the bejesus out of me, so should I feel bad instead of relieved that I'm getting a 5-day break? 

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book review: Why Evolution is True

This is one of those great science books that the people who need to read it the most will never touch.  It is, as the dust jacket blurbs promise, a succinct and thorough evaluation of evolutionary theory written in terms a nonscientist can easily understand.  The author, Jerry A. Coyne, summarizes the Charles Darwin's 19th century work in early development of evolutionary theory, lays out the theory's key ideas -- evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and the recognition that processes other than natural selection can cause evolutionary change -- and then explicates in detail each of those concepts.  The book explains evolution clearly, concisely, and stacks up so much supporting evidence it's guaranteed to make a creationist's head explode.

Coyne begins with the basics:  what is a theory in science?  One of the mantras of the creationists is that evolutionary theory is "just a theory."  Saying that labels the speaker immediately as someone who lacks a basic understanding of science and how science works.  Of course evolutionary theory is just a theory, just as gravitational theory is just a theory; so what?  In science a theory is a possible explanation or collection of related explanations used in an attempt to understand a fact or phenomenon.  Evolution is a fact; the evidence is all around that organisms evolved and continue to evolve; evolutionary theory explains evolution. 

But more than explain a phenomenon, a scientific theory has other properties:  it has to be testable, or potentially falsifible.  In the case of evolutionary theory, when we're surrounded by ongoing, continuous evidence of it happening (pandemic influenza A(H1N1) 2009 being the most recent example to spring to mind), what would falsify it?  Finding fossils known to be from organisms that lived in one distinct geologic era embedded in rock side by side with organisms from another could do it.  An obvious example would be fossilized mammals, which first appeared about 250 million years ago, embedded in geologic strata from a much earlier time period, like the Silurian (over 400 million years ago).  This is one reason some creationists will go to extraordinary lengths to try to prove that humans co-existed with brontosaurs (they apparently think The Flintstones was reality tv). 

Another way to disprove a theory is to use it to make predictions -- and if the predictions don't come true, then the theory may be fatally flawed.  Unfortunately for the doubters, evolutionary theory to date has proved remarkably accurate in its predictions.  A criticism of evolutionary theory used to be that various transitional forms did not exist, e.g., if, as scientists claimed, creatures like whales evolved from land mammals then there should be fossilized whales with legs.  I know a few folks who were quite proud of making that argument 20 or 30 years ago.  Bad news for them:  paleontologists have found a veritable plethora of legged whales, the transitional forms between land mammals and marine.  Evolutionary theory predicted not only that such forms would be found, but in what geologic era.   

In short, Coyne's book explains evolutionary theory and provides numerous examples to support it. The book is extremely readable and loaded with interesting tidbits from the history of science and the natural sciences.  Unfortunately, as Coyne himself admits, even though one would think so much compelling evidence would help to change a few minds, it probably won't.