Thursday, December 23, 2010

Don't Tax You, Don't Tax Me, Tax That Man Behind That Tree

Much is the chatter this week about "net neutrality rules. "I see the issue framed not in the argument of government vs. corporate control, but in the age-old dichotomy between authoritarian and democratic ways of thinking.
There is always somebody (sometimes a frightening large number of somebodies) that thinks that everything should be controlled "from the top."

At the same time a few of the more perceptive "talking heads" are warning about unfunded mandates (like pension obligations) precipitating a crisis in state and local governments in the near future. So it is only a natural progression of things to say, "Let's just tax the Internet." A twofold benefit would result. (As our founding fathers knew, "The power to tax is the power to destroy.") Taxing the Internet would allow the government to control content, in a beneficent way to be sure. And at the same time, the tax could yield a great deal of much-needed revenue!

Far-fetched? Some time ago I made the mistake of going to work for a "taxing agency." Someone (with a degree of authority, too much perhaps) came up with the idea of taxing websites. They wanted us to comb the Internet for local businesses advertising on line, and devise a scheme to quantify their websites and assess a tax accordingly.

I maintained strongly that a website is not a tangible "thing," but something that can be created or deleted with the few strokes of a mouse, and therefore outside of the reach of the local taxing authorities. And in any event a website can be construed a free speech, thus protected, etc.

Needless to say with that argument I sealed my own fate as not being a "team player."

But if anyone thinks there aren't people (on the taxpayer's payroll) planning ways to tax (and therefore control) the Internet, that's OK. Maybe you'd be interested in this bridge we have for sale . . .

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cowed by the Nurses

Now the inpatients are easy, they’re cowed by the nurses
[In your case the angels] and they know what’s what in the set-up.

It caught my eye, this thing about angels in that poem. Sure, some of them are angels, or the earthly equivalent thereof, maybe even most of them. But I don’t know. At one time I was thoroughly convinced that at least two of them were trying to kill me.

Ten years ago, around Christmas time, despite a few premonitory symptoms I overindulged myself on a huge amount of food, including a half-dozen homemade Mexican burritos, a half-gallon of bourbon and eggnog, and at least six “Manhattans.”
Waking up in the night knowing something was wrong, I stubbornly spent two days sipping ginger ale and slowly slipping into a delirium, saying, “I ain’t going to no hospital,” making it inevitable that I ended up at the local, small, close-by hospital, where the only guy who could operate the CAT scan was off for the holidays, and even if he were still in town and could be located, he would most likely be too drunk to be of any use.

Ere long I woke up with stitches from sternum to pubis, and tubes coming out of various locations. I was still, thank God, alive, but severely indisposed. The surgeon had convinced himself of the presence of a “mass,” and had pulled just about everything out for an exploratory look. The intestinal blockage or kink relieved itself as soon as he got me “open,” but he performed a resection anyway.

The operating theater of that hospital didn’t have a reputation for being totally antiseptic, a situation they circumvented by giving the patients what might be considered to be extremely high doses of antibiotics as a precaution. They also had me on a morphine drip. The surgeon left for a week’s vacation in Miami.

For a day or two I actually felt OK. The morphine took care of any great pain I might have been having. Someone brought me a book to read: Robert Graves’s I Claudius. I started reading it, and got to the part where Caligula is secretly poisoning Germanicus, when I started to notice that my skin was starting to look yellowish. Then one nurse I called “Roundface,” sort of a Kathy Bates from Misery clone, only fatter, came in the room while I was sipping a small cup of water. “What’s this?” she said, and dashed it out of my hand. WTF? She came back a few minutes later and taped a piece of paper to the door with the letters NPO on it. They had been taking blood samples every few hours, and without telling me anything had determined that I now had pancreatitis. No more food or liquids until it cleared up. NPO stands for nihil per orem, nothing by mouth. Of course Roundface couldn’t be bothered to explain any of this. She just stared at me like I was a dog about to be kicked. In the meantime I was getting sicker and sicker. She’d occasionally burst in and find fault with something I was doing. Another nurse named Karen arrived about the same time. They both acted like my being there was my own fault, and although I couldn’t even get up by myself, they acted like I was some kind of a threat.

Because of the goings-on in the book—Romans poisoning and killing each other-- and the fact that I was partially delirious, I became convinced that Roundface and Karen were going to kill me. The local newspaper provided free copies to the hospital, and every day that I was there someone my own age appeared in the obituary columns. More than likely they died at the same hospital and on the same floor!

Around New Year’s Karen came into the room in a particularly foul mood, and started slamming things around. Her breath reeked of liquor. She announced it was time to take out my nasogastric tube, and that she would be back at the end of her shift to do just that. The damn thing had been in there for days, and it had rubbed the inside of my nose raw. I couldn’t wait to get it out. I was sure she was going to inflict the maximum amount of pain possible by the way she talked about it.

I tentatively pulled at it to see what would happen. Sure it hurt a little, but it seemed like it would be such a relief to get rid of it that I went ahead and pulled the whole thing out. I put it in an empty paper bag I had and put it under the bed. It felt so good to get rid of it, that I had a smile on my face when Karen came back in the room. “What are you smiling about?” she asked. “What’s so damn funny?” My suspicions were beginning to be confirmed. I didn’t say anything. She busied herself putting on rubber gloves, and then she noticed. “Where’s the tube?”

I smiled and pointed to the paper bag. “It’s down there.”

“What? You took it out yourself? You can’t do that!” She was furious. My suspicions were justified. She’d been robbed of a perfect opportunity to hurt me, and she was furious. “You won’t get away with this! I’m telling the doctor!” She stormed out.

Fortunately that was the last I saw of Karen. Roundface still came around, usually to ask embarrassing questions when I had someone visiting me. “Have you had a bowel movement? What color was it?”

Eventually the pancreatitis cleared up and they let me go home. I went without food for two weeks, and lost a lot of weight. Yes, you might chalk my paranoia up to the shock of the operation, the subsequent sickness, and the effects of the morphine. But I don’t know. They sure acted like they wanted to do me in.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Damp November of the Soul

Was it my imagination? Ever since the time changed earlier this month I’d been feeling sort of blah---no energy, wanting to take a nap in the afternoon, difficulty focusing on work and projects, craving for sweets, putting on a lot of weight, no desire to go out and deal with other people---“social withdrawal.”

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off -- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

--Melville in Moby Dick

OMG, these are classic symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that occurs in relation to the seasons, most commonly beginning in winter!

SAD was first systematically reported and named in the early 1980s by Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., and his associates at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Rosenthal was initially motivated by his desire to discover the cause of his own experience of depression during the dark days of the northern US winter. He theorized that the lesser amount of light in winter was the cause. Rosenthal and his colleagues then documented the phenomenon of SAD in a placebo-controlled study utilizing light therapy. A paper based on this research was published in 1984. Although Rosenthal's ideas were initially greeted with skepticism, SAD has become well recognized, and his 1993 book, Winter Blues has become the standard introduction to the subject.

It’s hard to believe that the amount of ambient light reaching your retinas during daylight hours would have such an effect on your mood, but it does. Think about the number of animals that go into hibernation or “winter sleep.” Who is to say that a residual effect of this impulse doesn’t occur in modern humans?

Although they say it doesn’t affect everyone, Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, a milder form of SAD, is experienced by an estimated 14.3% (vs. 6.1% SAD) of the U.S. population. The disorder may begin in adolescence or early adulthood. I remember my first twinges of it at that age, just before moving to Florida (from Vermont).

It’s said that the blue feeling experienced by SAD sufferers can usually be dampened or extinguished by exercise and increased outdoor activity, particularly on sunny days, resulting in increased solar exposure. Certainly Florida living with its warm weather and outdoors lifestyle cuts down of the endocrine, hormonal (or whatever) effects causing Seasonal Affective Disorder. But I’ve known people even there who were “victims” of this malady.

Now that we are living in North Carolina, it’s come back. As soon as I realized what might be happening, I started spending more time outside in the sunlight during the morning. Yes, it does seem to be working.

In some northern areas people use a light box. It seems a little ridiculous to picture someone eating their breakfast next to an array of 100 watt light bulbs, but they say it works. And for those who suffer from this syndrome, it enables them to ward off depression.

There was a businessman from Connecticut, who may or may not have been a SAD sufferer, but when he became successful, he built an indoor pool with banks of sunlamps and tropical foliage. There he drank his morning coffee, before the sun even came up. I really think he had the right idea.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Oh, It Counts, All Right . . . .

. . .But sometimes you have to wonder who is doing the counting. It's a lesson we should have learned in 2000, when the country waited two months to find out who would win the presidential election, during which time "hanging chad" worked its way into the American vocabulary.

Many people were concerned when the "fix" seemed to be computerized voting machines that would record the votes electronically. "Technology to the rescue." They pointed out that the only sure way to maintain the public trust was to have a printed ballot, which provide a concrete paper trail. Anyone who has any experience with computers know that a whole database can be extinguished by the click of a mouse or a surge of electricity at the wrong time.

As long as there's a paper trail, election officials can do a recount, even if the ballots are scanned optically by machine. Devices like the Accuvote system proved themselves in numerous recounts, with close to 100% accuracy.

Of course as long as there are politicians, there will be someone who will find a way to gain the upper hand in an under-handed way. In a not-too-distant primary election, someone sent back an absentee ballot which had the box to be filled in next to two of the candidates' names, but nothing next to the third guy's name.

The elections people quickly and quietly corrected the mistake, but left some of us thinking. "That was just an honest mistake, wasn't it?"This year in another election in a different state, yet another disturbing issue came up. The voter signs an affadavit attesting to his identity and right to vote. The affadavit contains a bar code. The voter brings it to another table in the polling place, where a clerk gets out a paper ballot which also contains a bar code. The he scans both bar codes, and hands the blank ballot to the voter.

The question is: does that mean that they can find out how you vote? The official answer is, "No, of course not. They wouldn't do that anyway."

But the computer types we have talked to say, "It'd be a piece of cake." Not every jurisdiction has a political machine that might, say, tinker with the property assessments depending on how someone voted. But it's enough of a threat just thinking that someone could find out, if they wanted to, to have a chilling effect not only on free speech, but on your right to choose your candidates.

It's something to think about. As a retired lawman who was in a position to know once told me, "Free elections are our last bastion of freedom."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dry Bite

A story related by a friend, found at the bottom of the shoebox:

As an (undergraduate) student of botany I was fortunate enough to take part in several excursions to the Caribbean islands and Central America. One such trip took us to Panama, where an international non-profit organization maintained a research facility strategically located between coast and mountains.

Although we were primarily there to work and learn, I was looking forward to a promised midweek excursion to the nearest town, which would be a chance to have an informal conversation with our professors and visiting graduate students, some of whom were attractive females (but I digress).

After a long day of collecting and cataloguing samples of the native flora, a van and driver appeared to take us into town. In the tropics there is little of what they call twilight in northern zones. By six o’clock night had already fallen. As we made our may down the rough, darkened path to the van, one of the graduate students complained that someone had let a branch snap back on the path and hit her. She thought she might be bleeding.

As we drove into town over the bumpy road, the driver turned on the overhead light in the van for a minute and turned around to look. Something had scratched her above her tank top, right alongside her breast. He snapped off the light and kept driving.

A short time later we arrived in town, where there were lights and the promise of beer. The graduate student was still carrying on. “Boy, that hurts,” she said to no one in particular. “If you’re bending a branch to get by, the least you can do is give the person behind you some warning.”

“No, Señora, that was not a branch,” said the driver, turning to address her. “That is the bite of a fer-de-lance. There is a type here that climbs in the bushes at night.”

“Oh, my God!” she said. “What are we going to do?”

“Nothing,” replied the driver. “You see, they do not always inject the venom. They just bite. We call this a "dry bite." You can get some Neosporin to put on it, if you want to.”

“But are you sure it’s a dry bite?” She was starting to panic.

Pero sí,” he said. “If it wasn’t, where you were hit, you’d have been dead by the time we got to town.”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Viva, Viva, La Democracia!

So here's a dilemma: which congressional candidate to vote for.

--A long-term incumbent Democrat who has a good record of bringing federal dollars into the district. A large number of local working families benefit from the jobs made possible by this federal largess.

--A nice, "country club" Republican who promises to cut spending, taxes, repeal Obamacare, issue school vouchers, kill the inheritance tax, and make government smaller in general.

--A Libertarian whose platform seems eminently sensible (with a only few small exceptions), but who doesn't have a chance; a good way to "send them a message," but a vote for him may tip things toward the Democrat.

Tough one, eh? There's no doubt the public is in an anti-incumbent mood this year, and you hear a lot of "throw the bums out" talk. But is it a matter of relacing Tweedledee with Tweedledum? Quite possibly it is.

Most political action in English speaking countries revolves around two parties. Other countries may have several splinter parties that come together in a Parliamentary coalition, but the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have two parties. If a third party arises, it usually is based on a single issue or personality, and it's eventually absorbed into one of the major parties.

Once a congressman gets to Washington, he (or she) will have to align himself with one of the major parties, even if he was elected by third party. It's not as if some of the Tea Party-backed start-ups are really going to change anything, assuming they are elected. They'll be expected to pay their dues and "go along to get along" like everybody else.

So who does one vote for? The guy that will get an influential committee assignment? The challenger because change is good? The third party because "they" need a reminder that the "working man" is still out there, and he votes (sometimes)?

And then there's the problem that virtually no one is talking about the real issues. Jim Kunstler, perpetual predicter of doom, has summed things up today better than I ever could.

The proud winners of seats in congress and the senate might as well put on clown suits and little pointed hats on Wednesday morning and drive around the Washington monument in toy cars. There will be a desperate need for a new politics in this country, for people unafraid to tell the truth and act in the genuine public interest. If we can't generate it from the saner quarters of this country where people think thoughts that comport with reality, I'm afraid we could see some generals step into the picture.

Hoping, seemingly against hope, that we will somehow muddle through.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Are We Wondering About This?

On Sept. 27, retired U.S. Air Force officials disclosed that on multiple occasions over the last 30 years, structured craft displaying flight characteristics inconsistent with any terrestrial technology appeared over diverse U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons facilities, while simultaneously nuclear missiles at the various sites were alternately armed and disarmed--not under the control of the facilities.

It seems that enough of these people with solid credentials--after all, they were in charge of our nuclear arsenal--have come forward, that we ought to be wondering what it all means. One retired Air Force man, since deceased, maintained that, although there were some "true unknowns," there had been "no meaningful contact." The story of nuclear weapons being remotely disarmed at the same time unidentified aircraft are seen certainly falls into the category of meaningful contact.
We can speculate endlessly about where they came from, how they got here, and what they're up to without ever coming up with a logical, reasonable answer. One thing should be obvious however: if we don't blow ourselves up, the next thirty years are going to be an extremely interesting time.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

On Mindless Boosterism and Babbitry

We are living near a small rural town, the type of place where people are friendly, down-to-earth, and decent. As of late the town fathers have been presenting their plans for future growth. The economy has slowed things up recently, but during the go-go years leading up to the latest "adjustment," plenty of farmers made megabucks selling their cotton fields and pastures to developers.

The town built infrastructure for the coming real estate boom that didn't happen--yet. You'll see fire hydrants along country roads out in the middle of nowhere.

They're talking about attracting young people and new businesses. Mainly they were talking about franchised businesses. One fellow, who likes to voice his opinion on everything (he's a retired schoolteacher), said he would really like this-and-such a fried chicken franchise to come in. "It's a shame we don't have one of those, and a few others."
Who doesn't like progress? But the problem is, that if even one more franchised restaurant came within easy commuting distance, the first thing to happen would be that the good old boys' favorite breakfast places would go under. They're struggling to stay open now.

There's no point in saying anything about that, though. You'd get labeled a trouble-maker, or anti-development, or a Jim Kunstler type. What they don't realize is that what they have now is much better than any plasticine "miracle mile" seen outside every major American city.

Of course, American homogeneity seems to be what the public wants. But it's a shame some of the locals don't remember what their grandma used to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

A Christian pastor who I know and admire once remarked, "I can't imagine allowing a yoga class in a Christian church."

I'm thinking to myself "did I hear that right?" He must think it's some kind of Eastern religion. I mean, I've practiced yoga exercises, even taken a few classes. I've known yoga teachers--even the late, celebrated physical education guru Ruth Bender, pictured on the book cover above. In all that time I never heard anything incompatible with "Christian doctrine." Our church even had classes in Tai Kwon Do for a while.

Yoga may have come out of Indian culture, and aspects of it did come out of Hindu tradition, but the simple stretching and breathing exercises associated with the yoga of American popular culture are basically just that. Moreover, it's a good idea, especially for an aging population.

But now Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler says the stretching and meditative discipline derived from Eastern religions is not a Christian pathway to God.

I've read many articles by Dr. Mohler in the past and generally agreed with him and found his messages to be inspiring. No, yoga might not be a "pathway to God," but that doesn't mean that it's not a really good way to make sure our bodies stay relatively limber into a ripe old age. Maybe if we called it "Christian Calisthenics" it would be acceptable to him.

Now the press has picked up on his putting his foot into his mouth--figuratively that is. If he practiced "Christian Calisthenics" he might still be able to do it literally. And bend over to tie his shoelaces without grunting and groaning.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dogs, Boats, and Politics

Bunch of the guys I worked with liked to go down to the Keys, when they got some free time. Capt. Gabby, who was “between jobs,” had two large skiffs sitting behind his trailer on an island just north of Key West. The guys needed a couple boats, Gabby needed money; we made a deal.

We spent the day snorkeling and fishing along the reef, where the shallow waters of the back country ease off into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the bunch, a nice enough guy by the name of Russell, brought along his dog, a husky. We let the husky run along the beaches on one of the islands, hoping to tire it out. It was young and excitable.

After the guys had a cooler full of fish, crabs, and assorted collectibles, Gabby, who had decided that the life of a fishing guide was not for him, shouted “I’m heading back!” He had his wife and some of the girls, who had had enough sun, with him. “You know the way!”

We knew the general direction, but without a chart finding our way through the basins and banks of the back country wasn’t going to be easy. We had only out been there a few times before. There were six of us on board, plus the dog. We hadn’t gone but a couple of miles, before it became apparent that we were lost. And after another mile or so of looking for a channel deep enough to get back in the general direction of Key West, we were out of gas. Thanks, Gabby.

As we sat there pondering what to do next, the dog began to run from one end of the boat to the other. I had been swimming with an old pair of Dacor fins. There was a sharp edge that always dug into the joint on my big toe. I usually brought along a pair of socks to keep this from happening, but hadn’t done that this time. “I sure hope that dog doesn’t hit me on the toe,” I thought. Sure enough, the next time through, he stepped right on it. I let out a yelp. To make things worse, the bottom of the boat was filled with sandy grit and oil. Every time the dog ran by he would step on my toe. As if it was working some intentional, insidious torture, every time it ran by, its long sharp middle toenail found its way into the place on my foot, grinding sand and oil into the wound.

After a while I thought, “This is going to be inevitable. That dog is going to nail me every single time, and there is nothing I can do about it but sit here and quietly endure the pain.” So that’s what I did. After a while somebody pulled out a bottle of rum. We passed the bottle around and swapped stories. That helped a lot.

The present mid-term political campaigns, with candidates leveling outrageous charges against each other and diatribes coming from the left and right, remind me of being in that boat with Russell’s dog’s grit-coated nail finding the hole in my foot every time it ran by.

Eventually a young kid in a small skiff came by and towed us in, wisecracking all the way about how stupid we were. When we told him where we were going and that it was Gabby’s boat, he got quiet and acted scared. I just read recently that that “the northern end of [that island] has developed a negative reputation and come to be known as ‘Little Beirut.’” Some things never change.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

War Is Hell

"It is only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded ... that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation." --Sherman

A friend arrived home yesterday after a 36 hour trip from an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. He's a reservist who served a short four-plus month hitch this summer. He looked tired, but very glad to be home. No one pressed him to talk about what he saw over there. He volunteered that his base had been attacked just before he got there and one man was killed. He said that he heard the sound of bombs in the distance almost every night. He believed that the period he was there saw the heaviest fighting since our involvement in that region had begun.

Suddenly the reality of the war was brought home. For a number of reasons we don't see nightly clips of the fighting. Our network news seems filled with meaningless fluff about female celebrities going into rehab. Pundits and polemicists handing down pronouncements on stimulus funds, bail-outs, and government spending seem filled with Yeats's passionate intensity. But we see very little about the guy that is actually doing the dirty work.

Whether we're pro-war or anti-war in general, we have to realize that we are involved in a fight with a rural commonality halfway around the world and an enemy that threatened both our security and our way of life. And those fighting for us are our neighbors--regular working people. They don't make the rules, but they do the tough stuff. For the most part, like our friend, they handle their job quietly and competently.

No one knows how long it will take and what price must be paid to achieve a satisfactory level of stability in the world. Looking back at the last century, it's fair to say that somehow we did a lot better in the second half than in the first. War is really Hell. And we're glad that our friend is home safe.

"You will hear of wars and rumors of wars . . ." -- Matthew 24:6

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Point of View

A number years ago I was working on a construction project in a foreign (non-US) country. Among the subcontractors on the job was a Israeli company, doing some of the mechanical work. The Israelis ran a tight, businesslike operation. One of their go-betweens was a normally jolly fellow by the name of Joseph, who coordinated the use of cranes and heavy equipment with us.

Someone had hung a strip of toilet paper on the wall of our office. On every piece was printed a picture of the president of the United States. (An approximation of what it looked like is posted above.) It had been hanging there along with notes and memos for some time, before I even noticed it. To me it didn’t seem much more scurrilous than other avant-garde political cartoons of the time. I mean, look what we did with Nixon.

But the it had apparently caused a stir among our non-American coworkers. One day an extremely agitated Joseph burst into our office and pointed out the presidential toilet paper.

“I cannot believe that you allow this outrage!” He said. “A thing like this is a disgrace! It is a terrible insult! Yet you leave it there on the wall, for everyone to see it!”

I looked at it again, trying to see his viewpoint. To tell the truth, I couldn’t imagine who from “our side” would have put it up there. Our boys’ conversation tended toward beer, babes and baseball, not current affairs or politics. “Well, you see,” I said (this was back in the day), “a lot of construction workers are Democrats . . .”

“Then you would just leave it there? I cannot believe you would put up with such a thing!” he said, storming out, before I thought to explain that partisan mudslinging has been an American tradition going back the expiration of the Alien and Sedition Acts. We left the toilet paper up for a while as a mute paean to the First Amendment.

Sometimes it seems–as in the present climate–that the stridency of partisan voices goes too far. But who would limit them without endangering our basic right to freedom of expression?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Igor and Them

Igor became the fourth hurricane of the season Saturday evening as it headed farther west over the open waters of the Atlantic. The storm has since intensified rapidly, reaching powerful Category 4 status Sunday afternoon.

Still being waylaid, so to speak, and absent from the tropics (having gone back to the land in North Carolina: more on this later) we’ve been again neglectful of putting up our annual, strictly nonscientific (but highly accurate) hurricane predictions. And here we are already at our ninth named storm!

So once again we've managed to contact our old time prognosticator "Typhoon" O'Connor (who otherwise refuses to be named or depicted) for this year's belated reading on the thickness of caterpillars’ fur, the direction in which land tortoises are crossing the road, near and offshore water temperatures, and a general sniffing of the tropical breezes leading to an uncannily accurate prediction of what will come.

“This is one a them La Niña years,” he says, “and as such, th’ hexperts say there’ll be more storms than usual. But knowin’ as how th’ Titanic was built by hexperts, and th' Ark was built by amatoors, I’ll be going with the amatoors this year. Thems as have dipped their dainties in th’ local waters tells me, th’ water’s on th’ cool side this year. That means, for whatever reason, th’ hooricanes-- what there’ll be of them-- will be stayin’ offshore. Do pull down your coconuts, and doon’t be cancelin’ your inshoorance, but doon’t be chewin’ your nails neither.”

So that’s it. The pressure’s off. Now, we wonder if that’s what we were thinking just before Wilma? Still, October it’s over, isn’t it?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The African Student

At one time I was friendly with a fellow freshman college student from Africa. He was older than most of us by a dozen years He'd never seen snow. "From the pictures we thought it looked like sugar!" he said. It was interesting to talk to him--he had a different perspective on things.

One day, while visiting his room, he brought out a book to show me. "Have you seen this?" It was a brand new-looking version of Hitler's Mein Kampf. I took it and looked inside the front cover. Sure enough, it had been printed in 1933 by such-and-such a Verlag in Berlin.

"Wow, man! Have you got any idea what you have here?" I said. Not realizing that the Nazis had printed as many of them as the Chinese did with Mao's "Little Red Book," I was thinking that it might be a really rare item. Worth a few bucks to some collector. "This is really something!" I was startled by his reaction.

"Please! Please!" he said. "I did not know!" I really wish I could duplicate his accent.

"Excuse me?" I said. "What are you talking about?"

"I did not think. I did not know." He took the book back and set it down like it was a ticking time bomb. "I beg of you! I beg of you! Please!"

"Wait a minute!" By this time he was on his knees. "I don't get it! What's the problem?"

"Of course I should have known!" he wailed. "I did not think, when I brought this thing with me from Africa! I should have known that here it is forbidden!"

"Forbidden?" I said. "No, you can have them here. I just thought it looked like an original version. Some people pay money to collect things like this." His eyes widened in incredulity. He was sweating and shaking.

"Are you sure? Are you sure?"

By this time I was getting a little "creeped out," so I said good night and left. A couple of days later I saw him, and he explained, "I--all of a sudden--realized that of course, your country had defeated them in a war, and anything like that book would be illegal!" Apparently when I left, he was certain that within minutes jack-booted thugs would be breaking down his door, to haul him off to an American gulag.

"No, there are a number of things that our government doesn't like us to have, but books, thank God, are not one of them."

Much later I heard that my friend had gone on to become "speaker of the house" in his home country, and after that, minister of tourism. Hope some of what he learned over here enabled him to do some good over there.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Look On a Man's Face

A recent article suggested that there might be irregularities in the upcoming elections. Let's hope not.

Something happened to me years that reminded me once and for all about the value of free and fair elections.

Some friends had talked me into becoming a poll worker. You had to get up early and be ready to open the polls at 7:00 AM. The polls closed at 7:00 PM, after which we would complete some paperwork and deliver the ballots to the election headquarters downtown. It made for a long day. Most of the other poll workers were retired people. Some of their stories were amusing. Still, after a few years I’d had enough and decided that the presidential election 1992 would be my last. Then something happened that changed my mind.

A friend of mine, who had managed to leave Cuba with some of his family a few years before (despues, despues de Mariel, he would assert–he was not one of that bunch), came in to vote, along with his mother. Both were naturalized citizens. His brother, a radiologist who had somehow been allowed to come from Cuba to visit his family in Florida for a short time, was with them. He waited outside while the others went in to vote. I tried chatting with him in my high school Spanish. It went something like this:

“Well, today we’re choosing a president.”
“Yeah, sure you are.”
“So, by tonight we should know who it’s going to be.”
“Yeah, sure. Of course that’s not really what is going on here.”
“Sure it is. You watch TV tonight, and you’ll find out which way it went.”
“But there are no guns. No police.”
“Uh, well, there were a couple of police officers here earlier, but after they vote they have to leave just like anybody else.”

I can’t really describe the look that came over his face as he realized that, yes, we were actually choosing the next president of the United States right then and there, and that his brother and his mom were actually part of that process. I suppose “amazed” might be a place to start, but it can’t come close to convey the way he looked.

After that I decided that the long day at the polls was a minor price to pay to take a small part in a critical process, which most Americans take for granted. Some of us don’t even exercise a basic right that most of our fellow travelers on this planet can only dream of, a lesson I learned from the look on a man’s face.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hey, We Do Tune-Ups!

Many a reminiscence calls for a modicum of discernment. The internet has removed time and distance from the arsenal of discretion. I’ve been receiving Facebook “friend requests” from two individuals I had on a long-abandoned e-mail list, both of whom departed this mortal coil years ago. So, in a way, the internet grants its own kind of immortality.

Still, I think enough time has elapsed to recount the following yarn.

Capt. Bill was a bit of a character. He’d pursued multifarious careers, ranging from police officer to bricklayer. For a number of years he lived on a somewhat dilapidated houseboat anchored just north of Key West, and spent a lot of time hanging around a jet ski operation run by Big Charlie, a semi-retired biker from Ft. Lauderdale.

The jet ski rental was adjacent to a large motel frequented by tour groups from Miami and points north. There were usually one or two tour buses on the grounds, and lately they’d taken to parking them where they not only blocked the view of the jet ski operation from the main street, but also where their exhaust pipes were a scant ten feet from the small kiosk where Big Charlie and Capt. Bill hung out. Blocking the jet ski place from the street was bad enough in itself, but they would also leave the buses running, presumably to maintain the air-conditioning. The gentle, prevailing southeast summertime winds wafted a steady stream of diesel fumes right into the offended nostrils of Big Charlie and Capt. Bill.

“Hey, brother,” says Charlie, putting on his best-possible hail-fellow-well-met behavior. “Would ya mind moving the bus over to the other side? You’re blockin’ my view, and you know, the fumes . . . ”

The driver, reportedly a Hispanic fellow, merely looked at him blankly, locked up the still running bus, and walked away.

“What the hell?” says Charlie, going back to the kiosk. “Did you see that?” His brother, who had financed the operation, wouldn’t be happy having to bail Charlie out on an assault charge. Remember, he was a retired biker. “What can we do?”

“Let me borrow a jet ski,” says Capt. Bill. He runs out to his houseboat and returns a few minutes later with something wrapped in a handkerchief. Reaching up under one of the front windows of the bus, he toggles a hidden lever and the passenger door swings open. “I used to drive a bus myself,” he says. He takes a small glass vial from the handerchief, and carefully places it on the second step up into the bus, and shuts the door. “Now we sit back, have a cigarette, and wait.”

In a while the driver and passengers show up. The driver opens the door, and the passengers start to board. Two or three manage to get on without stepping on the vial. Eventually someone crushes it noiselessly underfoot.

According to what Capt. Bill said later, the people on board began to open the windows and fan the air. Then they realized that something was drastically wrong, and started to get off, causing a pushing match with those still trying to get on. Eventually they realized what was going on, and all of them got off the bus. The driver had to tell them to go back to the motel, and after a few hours the company was able to get them on another bus for the trip back to Miami.

After that the buses were left on the other side of the parking lot.

“I still don’t see why the driver couldn’t have been a little more reasonable about it,” someone said. “He could have saved himself a lot of trouble.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Capt. Bill. “But, hey, we do Tune-ups.”

Monday, August 23, 2010

Coyotes in North Carolina

Originally uploaded by Mangrove Mike
Coyotes are now established in every county in North Carolina, as well as Virginia and Tennessee. They have been known to prey on household pets and smaller livestock like sheep and goats.
A friend of ours has a small farm along the banks of the Yadkin River in North Carolina, where he maintains a herd of up to 200 Angus cattle. One day his son, who lives nearby, showed up towing a trailer with the latest local fad in anti-coyote devices, a donkey.
"It'd be a shame if you lost a calf to the coyotes, Dad," he said. "Put this donkey right in with the cows. No coyote will dare come into that pasture--they know they'll get stomped."
Our friend had his doubts, but thought, "Well, what harm can it do? No point in looking a gift donkey in the mouth, so to speak."
He put the donkey in with the cows and went about his business.
After a while, he forgot it was there, even when the phone rang a couple of weeks later. It was one of the neighbors, asking if anyone had seen his dog. It was missing. "No, haven't seen him around here, but I'll sure keep my eyes open for him," said Harry. Nope, no dog around here.
A couple of days later he was driving his tractor through the pasture and saw something unusual off to one side. He drove over by it. Sure enough it was a medium sized brown dog, or what was left of it. It had been stomped flat.
Harry decided that maybe it wasn't such a good idea to have that donkey in the pasture. His son was a little disappointed when he called him and told him to bring the trailer back and pick up the donkey. It took him a few days to get around to it, and they say Harry found at least one more trampled canine before his kid got that donkey out of there. OK, maybe that one was a coyote--it was stomped so hard that you couldn't tell for sure. In any event no one called about it.
Moral: Apparently donkeys are good protection against coyotes. But it would be a good idea to keep your dog out of the field at the same time.


Harry visited this weekend and put a different spin on things.
"A lot of little dogs that belonged to the people around the farm went missing last year. 'Cause I said something about them getting after the calves, some of them thought that I had something to do with it somehow.
Later on we found a coyote burrow, and I swear there were 8 to 10 little collars outside it. Those coyotes will go after anything, a calf, a little dog, a skunk even.
That's what got all those dogs. It wasn't my donkey."

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bottle Wall: End of an Era

Not long ago I was surprised to see a letter to the editor in Key West's muckraking, bottom-stirring-up, irreverent Blue Newspaper from a former neighbor, local legend Carolyn Gorton Fuller, usually identified as the Bottle Wall Lady.
Back in the eighties, or earlier, she had started constructing a "wall" out of old bottles in front of her house, located on a sharp turn near the celebrated historical Key West Cemetery. Occasionally a car would crash into it, and it would reappear later in slightly different form. Over the years it became a tourist attraction and artistic motif.
One day it simply disappeared. Inquiring about it, I was told, "I went down to La Te Da, and after having two martinis started thinking about it. I had one more martini and came home and just knocked it down with a sledge hammer. I got tired of rebuilding it."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Georges, a neighbor of hers hired me to rebuild a fence between his property and hers. Knowing her idiosyncratic tendencies, I sent my helper, a high school dropout by the name of Tim, over to her for an hour every morning to see what she needed done.
"What have I gotta do that for, man?" he'd be asking.
"You gotta do that in the morning," I explained, "so we can do this for the rest of the day."
A short investment in time kept her at bay for the rest of the day. She was in her dotage even then, and more than slightly pixilated in the tradition of many an elderly Key West grande dame.
When I saw her letter, I was glad to see that she was still around and raising hell as usual about something after all these years, and all the more shocked to see that she had died the very next day!
She had an interesting write-up in the local rag. Interesting to see that they didn't gloss over her, ummm, original personality.

Update: Since there's been some degree of interest in the Bottle Wall and its creator, we've snagged another photo and added a couple of links to some pertinent stories. Carolynophiles, enjoy!

On "cashing in her chips" . . .

On the demise of her marvelous autumn-mobile . . .

Friday, August 6, 2010

Blessed Assurance

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.
Oh, what a foretaste of Glory Divine
Not far from the home of my youth was an old graveyard which I visited occasionally, checking out old headstones, some of which were of historical interest, or had interesting inscriptions. I remember one epitaph in particular: They died in certain expectation of a glorious resurrection.

It’s interesting, I thought-- here lies a couple who had no doubt that when they died, they would continue to live in another form, presumably altered and improved, of course.

In my mind there was something oddly biblical about that rural area: sheaves of wheat, barns full of hay, fields of cows, century-old white clapboard churches, but 19th century reality couldn’t have been much different from our own time. People got sick, people died, people were killed in wars. There were good times and bad. Were they so devoid of intellectual curiosity that they could avoid any doubt that things would work out pretty much as their religion indicated?

Oh, to have that same kind of certain assurance in this day and age!

But even in biblical times eyewitnesses to the miracles described in the four gospels still doubted. They were there when Jesus reportedly fed four thousand people. They saw him heal people. Some saw him walk on water. Three of them saw the “transfiguration.” Yet when the chips were down, they scattered like scared rabbits. And when he appeared to them after he “came back,” one who wasn’t there refused to believe it, until he himself had seen him in person, the original “Doubting Thomas.”

To me, Doubting Thomas’s position seems perfectly sensible. Let’s have a little honest rational skepticism going here. That’s why the position of atheism, as opposed to agnosticism, seems to be more of an emotional, rather than an intellectual argument. Based on solely scientific and deductive reasoning, agnosticism seems to be the only purely logical world view. Things of the spirit can only be perceived “through a glass darkly,” as Paul theorized.

There’s no logical way to prove or disprove the existence of God. Belief always requires a leap of faith. We just can’t know one way or the other.

I am a Christian because of a series of personal “slaps upside the head,” that left me, like Thomas, saying, “My Lord and my God!” I admit to a certain paranormal, and for lack of a better world, emotional undertone in my reasoning.

Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

Atheism requires a certain emotional edge in my opinion. In a way atheists are pushing their own conclusions on others in a manner oddly similar to the “Jesus Saves” crowd. The determination of the atheist, whether it’s a college boy trying to shock his peers, or a well-known writer touting a book or article, seems to me to be a cri de coeur, “Prove that I’m wrong. Show me that I’m wrong. Please! Please!”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Can y'all dig it?

So I stumbled on this from one of the many other blogs out there.

When I was a teenager someone showed me a page printed in this "new language," Interlingua. At first it seemed like gibberish, but after looking at it for a few minutes, it was--amazingly--understandable! Here's a more recent sample from the article linked above:

Interlingua es un lingua auxiliar international naturalistic basate super le vocabulos commun al major linguas europee e super un grammatica anglo-romanic simple, initialmente publicate in 1951 per International Auxiliary Language Association (IALA).

Interlingua es le resultato del labores de 15 annos de un equipa de linguistas.

Le labor pro crear Interlingua habeva le start in Europa, a Liverpool in 1936 e le fin a New York in 1951, le equipa de linguistas ha extrahite le vocabulario international del linguas europee.

In 1967, ISO (International Organization for Standardization), que normaliza le terminologia, ha votate in unanimitate proxime de adoptar Interlingua como le basa pro ille dictionarios.

Interlingua = “International Lingua” es intendite que illo debe devenir un lingua commun del mundo pro succeder in servir le humanitate, ma non un solo lingua comun.

Apparently a team of linguists constructed the "language" from words common to several European languages--thus the fact that it's relatively understandable to speakers of those languages.

"Wow, this is great," I thought. "Now there'll be no real need to learn a foreign language!" But, alas, artificial languages may be useful for scientific papers, but, lacking the nuances and slang of an everyday living language, they can never become a substitute for authentic, natural human language. Things just don't work that way. (Sorry, kids.)

In fact, if I understand the above article correctly, the originators hoped it would develop into something useful, but had no illusions of it becoming a single common world language (un solo lingua comun, dig it?).

For better or worse, thanks to the internet, English has now become as close to a world language as any other, despite its odd and antiquated spelling "system", a fact that has allowed most Americans (in spite of the influx of Spanish speakers) to remain abysmally ignorant of other languages.

Not that it's willful ignorance by any means. Some Dutch people I knew, who settled in West Virginia, were often told, "Ya know, y'alls language can't be all that different from ours. We can almost understand some of what y'all say!" Problem was, they were speaking English.

Monday, July 26, 2010


While on vacation last week we caught a late night discussion between Bill O'Reilly and John Stossel (both of them well-paid broadcasters and political pundits) that left me with a really bad taste in the mouth, so to speak.
They were discussing some Republicans' reluctance to vote for extending unemployment benefits for out-of-work people. (Granted, part of the issue was the fact that further unfunded benefits add to the national debt.)
Stossel seemed to be saying that during the Great Depression, unemployed workers left their homes and moved to "Hoovervilles" outside of cities. (The picture above is actually the "Bonus Army" encampment outside of Washington, DC, but it's the same general idea. You left home and you're camping out looking for work.)
Stossel said "relief societies" took care of these peoples' wants and needs, and did it in a far more economical manner than any government.
The real facts are that--obviously--neither Stossel or O'Reilly has ever had to draw unemployment. And probabably neither one really knows anyone who has. They're smug and affluent, and their theorizing is in danger of approaching the "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche" level.

Unemployment Compensation is one of the best things to come out of the post-Hoover era. An employer pays a small percentage into a fund as Unemployment Compensation Tax. When an employee is laid off, the employee can collect a small amount from the fund for a stipulated period. In this manner, the beneficiary can feed himself and his family, does not have to give up his living quarters, and can retain a modicum of dignity while looking for alternative employment.
The payoff for society is that we don't have families camping in vacant lots or living in vehicles.
Sometimes you wonder if the Chinese didn't have a good idea in rounding up the bureaucrats every few years and making them work in the rice fields. Might be good therapy for some of these pundits who are telling us what is good for us.

And while we're at it, I think we've had enough of this "let's go back to the Twenties" mentality. It's no secret that the "Middle Class" is going bye-bye. And through the magic of compound interest the rich are getting richer. All this is fine if you're talking about creating jobs, and so on, if that's what's really happening.
But now we're hearing that some people who really ought to know better are still touting a "Flat Tax" or "Fair Tax." Despite our national pluralism and diversity we're still in danger of ending with something less than a middle class republic.
Is there anybody out there talking sense these days?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Yadkin River Blues

The stock market surged yesterday after aluminum giant Alcoa posted better-than-expected earnings. As Wall Street applauded, more than a few people in North Carolina were scratching their heads. They're in a legal battle with Alcoa over the use of the Yadkin River, which flows south from the Blue Ridge Mountains, through central North Carolina, eventually becoming the Pee Dee River and exiting to the sea in South Carolina.

Years ago Alcoa build four hydroelectric dams on the Yadkin and used the power to run a smelter which is now closed. They would like to renew their fifty-year lease on the river, but some locals and politicians say "no."
If the state misses this chance, it won't get another one for 50 years. Meanwhile, Alcoa will have perfected a perfidious kind of globalism: It still generates power from the Yadkin, and the power is still linked to industrial jobs—only the jobs are in Iceland.
The only certainty is that lawyers in Washington and Raleigh will be haggling about this for a long time to come.

But back to the Yadkin:

Years ago our friend Glen leased a small farm along the banks of the Yadkin. Glen was never a small man, and some say he topped the scales at well over three hundred pounds at times. North Carolina can get hot in the summer, and this year's no exception. It's always cooler in the shade by the river.

One summer I went down by the river to cool off. The fish wasn't biting and after a while I got to feelin' kinda lazy. I said what the hell, ain't nobody around, so I got off all my clothes, left 'em right there on the bank, and got into the river. The water was warm and I just floated on my back lookin' up at the blue sky and the clouds.
It was so relaxin' just floatin' there thinkin' about nothin' and after a while I just drifted off to sleep.

I still don't know how long I was asleep, but some time later I bumped up against something--it was a bridge piling--and I woke up. "Where the hell am I?" I musta floated almost two miles downstream. There was a highway with cars goin' over the bridge!

"Holy s--t! What am I gonna do?" This was gonna be hard to explain. I waited for almost half an hour for the traffic to slow up. Up by the bridge there was a couple of posters for a county fair that was comin' up. In between cars I ran up and got both of 'em, and positioned 'em fore and aft, so to speak.

It took me almost two hours find my way back to where I'd left my clothes. By then it was late, but not dark yet. I still don't know how I made it back there without anybody seeing me.

....Those were the days, my friend. We thought they'd never end....

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Life Examined

The Seablogger has died. Future historians may comment on how, toward the end of the 20th century, the internet changed the nature of human communication through the proliferation of "web logs," now more commonly known as blogs.

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune of stumbling on (another internet-coined phrase) Alan Sullivan's blog Fresh Bilge, immediately recognizing him as a Zeitgenosse: same age, same education, raised in the same region of the country, with some of the same interests. There was one critical difference, however. Three years earlier, still in the prime of life, he'd been diagnosed with a dangerous and ultimately fatal illnesss.

It's said that man is the only animal that has awareness of his own mortality and the ability to contemplate it. Alan had already laid out much of his life story on his blog site, along with his photos, writings, musings and poetry.
His daily observations of things which interested him attracted a huge following of internet users, many of whom joined in a lively on-line discussion of facts and opinions.

His ongoing web Chatauqua soon became a daily habit with me, joining probably a couple hundred other "lurkers" and, as he termed them, "rare readers." The subjects under discussion included current events, politics, geology, weather, volcanism, travel, weather, poetry, medicine, his own health, and later, after an "epiphany on the beach," his transition from agnosticism to Christianity.

The man's knowledge and energy amazed us, as he contined his daily postings and his final work--a retranslation of some of the book of Psalms-- right up to his final trip to the hospital. Alan's friends and rare readers have eulogized him far better--and in more ways--than I could. I never met the man in person, and if I had, quite possibly might not have gotten along with him. But somehow, through cyberspace, I think he has shown us a little glimpse of heaven.

"The unexamined life in not a life worth living," said Socrates.(ὁ δὲ ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ.) You examined yours well, Seablogger, and we are all the richer for it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Key West's "Christmas Tree Island"

If you've visited Key West, Florida, you probably saw Wisteria Key. It's the Australian pine-covered island across the harbor from the waterfront hotels and Mallory Square, home of the famous "sunset celebration."

The island was originally a "spoil bank," consisting of rock and sand dredged up a century ago in order to deepen Key West harbor. It came to be called Wisteria Key or Island after a ship that sank behind it. Eventually salt loving Australian pines took root, and the name Christmas Tree Island seemed more appropriate to locals.
Over the years the island has been home to hippies, vagrants, boat bums and the just plain curious. At one time someone wanted to put a campsite for handicapped people out there, but the local politicians saw that as a ruse and nixed the idea.
Now comes a more serious challenge. The island's owners and their partners want to put a real estate development out there. A citizens' group is saying "enough," claiming that they've known for years what they could and could not do under the county's long-term comprehensive plan.
So the battle lines will be drawn over individual property rights vs. sticking to a plan devised to preserve a unique area with limited land space.
The issue also raises the question of whether allowing development of this island will permit the development of the many other offshore islands, most of which contain flora and fauna found only in this part of the USA.
And of course there's the logistical problem of water, electricity, sewer connection and police and fire protection. The above picture is of a burning trailer on another offshore island, one of several torched by juveniles a few years ago. In that case there was no fire or police protection.
Coffee shop gossip says that the details of water, electricity, and sewer have already been worked out for Wisteria Island.
Here's a link to a recent article on the island.

Update! The plans have hit a ripple. If history is any indication, they'll be back to try again, but this summer's efforts have been a bust. The natives are restless, and after the recent school board and land trust scandals, are "out for blood."

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Paranoia Strikes Deep

Probably most people are aware of the "Facebook Revolt" by now. And then there's a story that Google, in taking pictures for its "Street View" photos, was actually also collecting information about WiFi signals in the area!

Ironically, the admission comes following outspoken criticism from Germany's Federal Data Protection Commissioner Peter Schaar, who was "horrified" to learn that Google's Street View car cataloged private WiFi network data like Mac (Media Access Control) addresses and SSIDs, in addition to snapping pictures of public streets.

I say it's ironic because a man with whom I used to work, who was a child during pre-World War II Germany, told me what it was like there in those days. "We could get only two radio signals. One was from Paris and the other was from Berlin. It was against the law to listen to the one from Paris, of course. But sometimes people would do it, because the music was better. But there was a truck with an antenna that came around the neighborhoods, and they could tell if you were tuned into the Paris station, so we never listened to that station. Only Berlin."
Of course this "begs the question," what happened if you were listening to the Paris station and they found about it?
"Well, they say that happened to a family up the street," he said. "One day they were just gone. We never saw them again."

I'd been going on a paranoid jag even before these events came to light, having realized that I couldn't continue to write some of the stories I'd been writing without changing the names and places in such a way that would distort the original essence of the tale, for fear of offending those still living or their relatives, some of whom I actually heard from. The cyber-world had become too large, or too small, or both.

Through Facebook, Google search, and other programs and applications it's simple enough to track down people you haven't seen in decades. In many ways this is good, but like all innovations, it can be a two-edged sword.

When I worked for a county in Florida years ago, I had to put up with a private detective sending me phony e-mails in an attempt to "catch" me in a real estate solicitation. I'd innocently left remnants of a web site up that led to the supposition that I was still in business, even though I'd given up my license a couple of years earlier.

Of course I'm now old, and unlikely to be employed by anyone but myself ever again. The young, however, might be will advised to curtail their impulses to put every thought and photograph out there, where the world will be able to look at them for the next 100 years or more. From recent reports it seems the smarter ones are beginning to catch on.

Futurists predicted years ago that there would be a reactive "privacy movement" in this decade, and I hope we are seeing the beginning of it. It's great to be able to contact old friends over the internet, but every new development seems to bring problems along with promise.

The trick is to harness the information age in such a way that it serves us, and does not hasten the coming time when all those who want to take part in any commerce will be tagged with "the mark of the beast," and privacy becomes once cherished but now long-gone right.

Don't think there aren't people out there who would hasten that day. It's much closer than we think.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Burn, Baby, Burn! *

Now they're trying to burn off the oil spill. Not a bad idea actually, according to the linked article. With the light, sweet crude that has leaked from this well, the burning in situ process is expected to get rid of up to 90% of the oil. Of course there is the problem of air pollution and disposing of the remaining 10%.
There's also talk of lowering a dome to contain the oil, and then pumping it out from there.
In the meantime there'll be a public relations battle over the incident. The oil companies will insist that there are thousands of rigs like this one that operate perfectly safely, and they'll be right.
And who among us does not rely on fossil fuel for most of our energy needs, not to mention a host of other products? Try as we might, the need for oil is going to be with us for a long time.

* Full circle on the alliterative slogans: Burn, baby, burn (Credit: Los Angeles rioters) morphed into Drill, baby, drill (Credit: former AK governor Palin and/or speechwriters), thence Spill, baby, spill (Credit: Seablogger) and now Burn, baby, burn seems appropriate again.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spill, Baby, Spill!

Ironic, isn't it? Just as the president throws his critics a curve ball and opens up a huge area of US coastline to oil drilling, we're now facing the biggest potential oil spill disaster since the devastating Exxon Valdez incident of March, 1989.

It was the Exxon Valdez incident, as well as other well-documented pollution problems in the past on both coasts, that led to the public outcry against offshore drilling. Similarly the near disaster at Three Mile Island, along with movies like The China Syndrome, and the actual meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear facility, led to a de facto moratorium on nuclear power facilities in the US.

And all this is happening at a time when it's become obvious that relying on foreign oil is a major mistake, politically and economically.

Prediction: even though these oil leases weren't going to become operative for a number of years, the public outcry (aided by politicians eager to hop on the newly-revived save-the-environment bandwagon, like Florida governor Crist) will put the kabosh on offshore drilling for the foreseeable future.

Despite the blandishments and assurances of some of the oil companies regarding the safety of modern equipment, there's unfortunately no guarantee that there won't be a spill like the one happening now. And it also seems that the equipment necessary to control such a spill hasn't been developed.

And if you think the the "envirowackos" have a momentary advantage now, just wait until that spill works it way onshore. You ain't seen nothing yet.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Road Rage and Retributive Justice

Road Rage: a symptom of our times. Who hasn't at one time or another been subject to road rage, whether as a victim or perpretrator? And what is there in the human condition that sometimes makes us raging monsters when behind the wheel of a powerful vehicle? I read recently of a man who was sentenced to life in prison, after running over three people and killing a fourth.
And who hasn't had the experience of being in front of a driver madly expressing his frustration with our supposed dawdling along, when in fact we're unable to go any faster than the vehicle or vehicles in front of us? For whatever reason I decided long ago that it's better to arrive somewhere fifteen minutes late than to risk life and limb to get there immediately. A type B driver gets there in almost the same time, and with his blood pressure down to life-enhancing levels. I've tried to convey this philosophy to anyone would listen. After all, what're a few minutes in the scope of eternity? Better to chill out and arrive alive.
And as for taking out revenge or “getting even” with someone behind the wheel of another vehicle, I can hardly think of a better way to court disaster. Better to take things philosophically and pull over at the first opportunity, letting that steroid- or coke-enraged madman on your tail go on to this own individual destination–or destiny. Let the laws of karma deal with the situation. Sometimes they work quicker than we'd think.
A number of years ago I was driving my old ‘74 Peugeot north out of Key West to visit some friends up the Keys. That afternoon there was one of the famous toad-strangling thunderstorms that the Keys are famous for. The visibility ahead was maybe 60 feet, in between sweeps of the wiper blades. I slowed down to what I thought was a reasonable 45 miles per hour. Suddenly in the rear view mirror I see a huge pickup truck, honking its horn and flashing its lights. I’m thinking I can’t even see the shoulder to pull over, and this guy’s following so close I don’t even dare slow down to try to pull over or he’ll run right into me.
Soon the road opened up to two lanes, and as the truck passed, the driver gave me a traditional one-fingered salute. I’m thinking that guy must be out of his mind. There’s an inch of water on the road, and even worse, he’s towing a huge utility trailer full of stuff. And he’s doing well over 60.
A few minutes later the rain began to abate, and I noticed what looked like a pair of lights in the mangroves ahead off to the right. Sure enough, it was Hurry Harry: his rig had hydroplaned on the watery highway. He’d lost control, the trailer had jack-knifed, and the whole rig spun backwards into the brackish swamp, with the truck facing the road and the trailer at a very odd 90-plus degree angle off to the side.
I gave the fellow a tip o’ the hat as I drove by. And oh yeah, I called the highway patrol when I got where I was going. Told them they’d need a wrecker to pull the guy out.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Haiti: How to Rebuild?

Above is a recent photo of a house in Belize that we rented for a few months back in 1983. This house is around 40 years old, and is still in good shape. It sits on a concrete slab, but the house itself contains no concrete and no lumber. (The only wood products used are a few light pieces of trim around the windows and doors.) The house is made of light-weight metal studs, some of which you can see protruding from the gable end on the left side. The roof is metal, the outside walls are thin cement-based composite board with an even thinner coating of stucco. The inside walls are gypsum drywall. The total package is strong, light, waterproof, and wind- and fire-resistant.

The situation in Haiti: hundreds of thousands of people are now homeless. The UN has decided, wisely, that providing tents for these people is a waste of money. Instead they're trying to provide them with metal roofing to construct makeshift shelters. Ultimately the answer may be structures like the one pictured above. A metal roof supported by a metal framework would provide durable shelter from the rains which will be starting by June, and would also be light enough not to present a threat in the event of another earthquake.

As long as the walls were firmly anchored, the floor could be an afterthought, installed later when the owner had enough time and resources to do so. Even the walls could be temporary, eventually replaced by a lath or hardboard covered by a type of tabby.

Given a workable design and a few basic materials, coupled with the average Haitian's ingenuity in scrounging scrap materials, which should be available in abundance, there's a chance that this type of construction might be the answer to Haiti's need for permanent, safe housing. Just a thought....

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Haiti: Hope and Horror

At left, ruins of the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A number of Americans were among those killed or injured in the collapse of the venerable structure. Still missing is volunteer Walt Ratterman of Knightsbridge International, a California-based charity, who was working on a solar power project in Haiti.
(At one time we lived for several months on the street leading up to the Montana. I remember that Mike Wallace, the TV newscaster, had a house on that street, although we never saw him. We'd talked about going back to Haiti earlier this year, and we would have stayed at the Montana, however briefly, for old time's sake.)
The horror of the situation has been widely reported to the world, and teams of aid workers from all over the planet have arrived and performed miracles of service and sacrifice. At home and abroad people have opened their wallets, and food and medical aid are now coming into the country. There have been a few problems: the specter of food riots, and Haitian bureaucrats holding up food and medical supplies at the airport with their ubiquitous red tape and desire to levy some kind of a "tax", seemingly oblivious to the suffering of their countrymen.
It's to the advantage of those still suffering that the international press is present, although now that some of the horror of the situation is no longer novel, the New York Times has actually run an article on Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta's choice of clothing.
Gupta in particular should be commended for staying behind at a field hospital, when UN authorities had ordered all medical personnel to leave the wounded behind, for purported security reasons.
Cooper got a minor "reality check" later in the week, reporting "on the ongoing process of an apparently organized effort run by local authorities to gather up the bodies littering the streets, collect them in dump trucks, then transport them out of the city, where they would be dumped in mass graves. The mass graves are shown as mounds of dirt in the hills outside the city, appear to be relatively shallow and hold no information to identify the dead other than the bodies themselves."
Grilling a (female) Haitian official American press-style on the situation, he was unable to elicit a "straight" answer.
If he'd been briefed on the details of Haitian folk culture, he would have known that many Haitians believe that bodies must be properly buried and remembered by relatives and family so their spirits can pass on to heaven. In Voodoo, some believe that improper burials can trap spirits between two worlds. A proper burial is necessary for a certain life-force to leave the body gradually, lest the soul be trapped in a sort of underground limbo. (This belief was described in ethnobotanist Wade Davis's book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, which was made into a movie several years ago.) It would be unthinkable for a government official to admit that such a thing had been allowed to happen, even in the interests of sanitation and prevention of disease.
As the relief efforts continue, we can sure that unforeseen problems will crop up. We can only hope that somehow the Haitian people, including expatriates, will summon up the courage and wisdom to straighten out their country themselves.
And let's fact it--thirty years ago Haiti was already overpopulated and an ecological disaster. Europeans and North Americans have been sensibly limiting the size of their families for years. It's neither racism nor flouting God's law to suggest that it's high time for Haitians to do likewise.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Earthquakes in Haiti

I discovered an old book, Geologie d'Haiti, that I bought in Haiti around 1981. It appears to be a textbook for an introductory geology course. In light of recent events the section on seismology was interesting. It begins with a brief description of a seismograph and a definition of earthquakes in general, then gives a description of earthquake damages to be expected according to the Rossi-Forel scale. The language is a little quaint, translated from French.

There are devices for recording earthquakes. They are seismographs, which are essentially a sheet of paper wound on a cylinder that rotates. A needle draws a line on the cylinder. In times of calm, this is a straight line, but when the earth trembles, it becomes sinuous.
Earthquakes, like volcanoes, are due to internal operations of the globe. Earthquakes correspond to ruptures of equilibrium in different compartments of the earth.

Degree one and two: shaking recorded by some devices.
Degree three: tremors felt by people at rest.
Degree four: tremors recorded by all, with noise from doors and windows (shaking).
Degree five: in addition to previous effects: cracking ceilings, furniture oscillating.
Degree six: sleepers are awakened by the uproar and clock pendulums stop.
Degree seven: the walls have cracks.
Degree eight: old houses topple and contents are damaged.
Degree nine: panic -- buildings collapse and oscillate. Fires.
Degree ten: complete disaster: the destruction of buildings, bridges, drying up of wells.
Degree Twelve: uplift and subsidence of parts of mountains, breaking land, complete destruction.

Then it goes on to give a history of seismic events in Haiti from 1701 to 1953.
Quelques tremblements de terre historiques d'Ha'iti Some earthquakes of historic Ha'iti

In his book "Geology of the Republic of Haiti " (1924), the American geologist Wendel Woodring writes: " Earthquakes are frequent in Haiti. At the time of the colony and of the Republic, disastrous earthquakes, from time to time, have caused the complete or nearly complete destruction of Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitian, and other cities."

Indeed our country is often the seat of earthquakes whose disastrous consequences are intensified in the cities because they are generally built on alluvial land (soft ground).

November 9, 1701. It caused the destruction of the plain Leogane (degree VI).
From November 21, 1751 to December 8, Port-au-Prince, which had just been founded, undergoes a series of shocks. It is reported that after the first shock of November 21, one house remained standing, but was in turn destroyed by the earthquake that took place on the second day (degree VIII and IX).
June 3, 1770. New quake Port-au-Prince, in the plain of Cul-de-Sac. 200 deaths in the city of Port-au-Prince. Petit-Goave and Leogane were destroyed (IX degree).
May 7, 1842. One of the most violent. It completely destroyed the cities of Cape Ha'itien, Port de Paix and Mole St. Nicolas. There were 5000 deaths in the city of Cap Haitien alone, and no building was left standing in Port de Paix (degree X).
April 8, 1860. It was felt throughout the whole southern peninsula. (V degree).
September 23, 1887. It spared nothing in Mole St. Nicolas, and its effects were felt very far to South (Jérémie, Anse-d'Hainault) (IX degree).
March 20, 1910. It shook the whole North and North-West of the country causing extensive damage (degree IV).
August 3, 1910. The whole Republic was shaken, but with a particularly marked effect in Jérémie (VII degree).
August 21, 1911. The whole country was shaken with different intensities. Gonaives, Mole St. Nicolas, Pilate, Cap-Haitien. Gros Morne were the cities hardest hit (VIII degree).
October 6, 1911. The shock was particularly strong in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic, but it seriously damaged the city of Cerca La Source (degree X).
6 and September 7, 1912. It was general, but particularly reached the towns of Plaisance, Limbe, Grande-Riviere-du-Nord and St-Michel de I'Atalave (degree. VIII).
July 31, 1914. Very intense shock affecting Port-au-Prince and its environs. It lasted 50 seconds (VII degree).
July 26, 1917. Very strong shaking in Port-au-Prince, Cap-Haitien, Limonade (degree VI).
4 February 1918. It caused partial destruction of the Mole St. Nicolas (degree VII).
From 1909 to 1920. Several series of shocks, fortunately weak one, recorded at I'Anse-a-Veau (level III).
January 15, 1922. Quake which shook all the southern peninsula: from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince and from Jacmel to Cayes. (degree VI).
1953. L'Anse-a-Veau is again the seat of a series of tremors, but their effects are fairly localized (degree IV to VII).

Thus we see that things had been fairly quiet there for the last fifty years. Amid their many other problems and other disasters, most people had forgotten that threat from earthquakes was still a danger. On the scale given above, it looks as if the quake this month was a ten. Interesting that they don't have an eleven; at that level of destruction the details are moot.