Archive for May, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

May 30, 2011 3 comments

We’re fighting three wars now – that we know about. I couldn’t even guess how many wars there have been on our beautiful little planet, during the brief time I’ve been on it. It’s a seriously crazy way to live. So to speak.

My dad was in the US Navy in WWII, but his war stories were mostly about clever engineers and craftsmen. He was in the Seabees, and it was their job to build infrastructure to extend the reach of US power after the fighting forces had “cleaned out the Japs”. He drove trucks, and his stories were mostly about construction and life on South Pacific islands.

“You could tell how long someone had been there,” he said, “in the mess hall. The first week they’d see bugs in the food and lose their appetite. Second week, they’d pick out the bugs. Third week, they ignored the bugs.”

I guess tropical islands aren’t necessarily paradise.

Someone once described space travel as “hours and hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” War is like that, I guess, though some people get more than their share of terrible moments. My dad recounted the story of a new guy who was blustering about some combat he’d seen. Fair enough, but then he turned to an older man who was listening quietly. “What did you do in the last war, old-timer?” he challenged.

“Oh, I was around,” the man said.

Somebody found out later through other channels, that the old man – who operated a pile driver at the base – had been in a number of firefights in WWI. Hardly anybody had come back alive. Apparently he didn’t want to talk about it for one-upsmanship of some young sailor.

One story my dad told was about discovering that a fuel truck built without proper internal baffles requires extra care when coming to a stop. He’d pulled up to a stopsign, took his foot off the brake, and about three thousand pounds of sloshing fuel rammed his truck right into the back of the Jeep stopped in front of him. Sorry sir. It won’t happen again, sir!

My dad got the boredom, other men got the terror. My father-in-law was also a sailor. He spent considerable time in the water, waiting to be rescued while sharks helped themselves to the menu. The memory… tortured him.  For the rest of his life.

Dana Hunter’s dad was in Vietnam.  She recounts some of his stories:

He’d been in Vietnam. Infantry, United States Army. He’d gotten drafted while switching colleges (never let it be said grades aren’t important: they can keep you from getting shot, for instance). And it was a hard year. That year changed his life. He went to war. He lost half his hearing when someone shot a .45 near his ear in a tunnel; he’d had his jaw broken by a bullet; he still has bits of shrapnel working their way out of his chest from a grenade wound he took to the ankle. He still won’t sit with his back to a door. And for years, he could only allow bits and pieces of that year to surface. He’d talk about it, but only in fragments. Some of it he barely talked about at all.

There are happier stories, like the time they mistook a pig for VietCong and wound up having roast pig for breakfast. And crazy stories like the Ammunition Santa Claus.

She recounts the time when the Moving Vietnam Memorial visited. Her dad couldn’t face it; he sent her to get rubbings. She recognized names from the stories.

War doesn’t stop with the generations that live in it.  The survivors go on to raise another generation.  It’s all too easy to remember the stories and miss the lessons of course.

War is crazy; it is crazy-making. It drains reason out of what passes for civilization. The stories matter. They let us know about courage, who have never been there. And yes, many wars should not ever have happened. The stories punch holes in the fantasy that it’s all some kind of glorious video game. If we’re going to do this to human beings, let’s be damn, damn sure there’s a real reason.

Let’s keep an eye out for those reasons and head them off at the pass before they ever become a cause for war. We need to learn to think ahead, past the current tension and most importantly of all, see the humanity we have in common with our enemies. It is exactly that humanity – or at least the realization of it – that war must first destroy.

I have a crazy theory that if we work harder at seeing the humanity in our enemies, it will be easier for them to see it, in us.


  • Les Jenkins’ Thoughts on Memorial Day: “Sometimes it’s a necessary evil, but too often it’s not and we should beware anyone who talks of going to war in a cavalier manner as though it’ll be cheap and easy and painless. It’s never any of those things. I hold onto an optimism that humanity may someday be able to reach a point where they can work out their differences without having to kill each other in the process, be we’ve still got way too far to go before we’ll see that day.”
  • Cujo359 Memorial Day 2011, beginning with an areal view of the section of Arlington cemetery set aside for soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan war…
Categories: Uncategorized

Risking It All

May 30, 2011 Comments off

Check out this 34-second promo for Al Jazeera’s Risking It All:

Bear with me a moment; I’m going somewhere with this…

When I was a kid the scariest thing about W.W. Jacobs’ classic 1902 horror story The Monkey’s Paw wasn’t the supernatural curse on the shriveled appendage. No, it was something that was completely real and commonplace in Jacobs’ time. The holders of the paw had wished for two hundred pounds – that’s the supernatural part – but what happens next was simply life in Victorian times:

She brought the stranger, who seemed ill at ease, into the room. He gazed at her furtively, and listened in a preoccupied fashion as the old lady apologized for the appearance of the room, and her husband’s coat, a garment which he usually reserved for the garden. She then waited as patiently as her sex would permit, for him to broach his business, but he was at first strangely silent.

“I–was asked to call,” he said at last, and stooped and picked a piece of cotton from his trousers. “I come from Maw and Meggins.”

The old lady started. “Is anything the matter?” she asked breathlessly. “Has anything happened to Herbert? What is it? What is it?”

Her husband interposed. “There, there, mother,” he said hastily. “Sit down, and don’t jump to conclusions. You’ve not brought bad news, I’m sure, sir” and he eyed the other wistfully.

“I’m sorry—-” began the visitor.

“Is he hurt?” demanded the mother.

The visitor bowed in assent. “Badly hurt,” he said quietly, “but he is not in any pain.”

“Oh, thank God!” said the old woman, clasping her hands. “Thank God for that! Thank—-”

She broke off suddenly as the sinister meaning of the assurance dawned upon her and she saw the awful confirmation of her fears in the other’s averted face. She caught her breath, and turning to her slower-witted husband, laid her trembling old hand upon his. There was a long silence.

“He was caught in the machinery,” said the visitor at length, in a low voice.

“Caught in the machinery,” repeated Mr. White, in a dazed fashion, “yes.”

He sat staring blankly out at the window, and taking his wife’s hand between his own, pressed it as he had been wont to do in their old courting days nearly forty years before.

“He was the only one left to us,” he said, turning gently to the visitor. “It is hard.”

The other coughed, and rising, walked slowly to the window. “The firm wished me to convey their sincere sympathy with you in your great loss,” he said, without looking round. “I beg that you will understand I am only their servant and merely obeying orders.”

There was no reply; the old woman’s face was white, her eyes staring, and her breath inaudible; on the husband’s face was a look such as his friend the sergeant might have carried into his first action.

“I was to say that Maw and Meggins disclaim all responsibility,” continued the other. “They admit no liability at all, but in consideration of your son’s services they wish to present you with a certain sum as compensation.”

Mr. White dropped his wife’s hand, and rising to his feet, gazed with a look of horror at his visitor. His dry lips shaped the words, “How much?”

“Two hundred pounds,” was the answer.

Got that? In 1902 it was OK for a company to have body-crushing machinery in the open where it could snatch up a worker, and then face absolutely no consequences at all. (You only need to look at photographs of Victorian factories – infernal belt-driven hells of exposed gears and presses that they were – to visualize this.) They could “disclaim all responsibility”, and “admit no liability at all” and consider themselves virtuous if they sent a year’s wages to the survivors. Dust hands, that’s a wrap, hire replacement. The story doesn’t even comment on that aspect as being at all unusual.

Chilling, when you think about it.

OSHA was signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon, and Conservatives have been trying to dismantle it ever since. With only about 2000 inspectors they try to protect 125 million workers, saving an estimated 40,000 lives a year to say nothing of preventing injuries.

Oh, right – I was going somewhere with this! Yesterday I watched an episode of Risking It All, in which truck drivers plied the incredibly dangerous Lowari mountain pass in Pakistan. It is harrowing stuff.

I just wanted to recommend the show to you – there’s a whole bunch of episodes on the show’s home page. They cover jobs that make Appalachian coal mining or Alaska’s “Most Dangerous Catch” look like being a hotel door man. Each one will make you love your job more, whatever it is. It’s also a window into other cultures, into the terrifying mixture of poverty and work.  As Dawoud, the driver profiled in this episode, says; “When you are poor you have no choice.”

And if you are lucky enough to have one of OSHA’s overworked inspectors show up at your workplace, be very nice to him/her. All those safety regulations seem annoying, until you think about it.


    The US version of this show would be Discovery Channel’s wonderful Dirty Jobs show. Comparing the two shows is… educational to say the least. 

  • Queen Victoria died in 1901 so technically, Jacobs’ story fell just outside that era. But society made no sudden changes on her passing.
  • Ol’ Tricky Dick also signed into law the EPA, and normalized relations with China. I’d choose him in a heartbeat over George Bush.
Categories: Uncategorized

Flash Flood Warning

May 25, 2011 1 comment

It’s been an eventful evening weather-wise.  We had a tornado and 0.9 inches of rain in 15 minutes, after an event this morning that dropped .87 inches.

As @313C7 Nick tweeted, “When the NWS issues a tornado warning that covers 9 counties, you get the f*** underground.”  We did and luckily the county’s visitor seems not to have touched down.  Our son is out on his bicycle so presumably he holed up somewhere.

Meanwhile, since water runs downhill, all of Central Illinois is under a flash flood watch.  So here’s this:

Rain-X on windshield after rainstorm

SUBMERGED - all a matter of perspective. I suppose to fish, we're all submerged in horrible, deadly air instead of lovely life-giving water

Here are a few thoughts on flash flood survival.  Click through and be sure to scroll down far enough to see the two pictures of the water running across the road, and what the “road” condition was under the water.  Keep that picture in mind when driving.  And remember it isn’t just rural areas: urban areas concentrate water by design.

Categories: Uncategorized

The daughters of popular culture

May 22, 2011 8 comments
Dolls at Wal-Mart

Princess dolls at Wal-Mart. It would make a pretty good Twilight Zone episode for a mom and dad to constantly give their daughter Princess stuff, and then one day she really does turn into a cartoon and they can't get her back.

There’s a whole website devoted to making fun of “The People of Wal-Mart” – shoppers, mostly women, usually overweight in tasteless clothing, going about their business.  But I can’t sympathize with the impulse to mock others for being funny-looking and this picture, also taken in Wal-Mart, is the reason why.  Because this image is what we constantly tell the daughters of our culture they should be.

This is probably some Little Princess from some damn Disney movie or other.  It’s sort of Barbie’s close-up: clear skin, big eyes, full hair, pink lipstick, and smiling, always a happy smile.  Because we expect everyone to be happy, all the time.  Something’s wrong with them if they are not!  Especially little girls.

Aren’t you happy?  Come on, give us a little smile.  That’s better! That’s daddy’s little girl!

Princesses come with a story: she’s ignored, or unappreciated, but actually quite beautiful and a man comes along and makes her life meaningful.  There was one Princess story – Mulan – that almost, almost! broke that mold.  Early in the movie I thought for just a moment she’d be the first lesbian Disney Princess.  But in the predictable end it was just her and some armored lump of a guy.

Expecting our kids, male or female, to fit into a cartoon stereotype, is hoping they’ll grow up without an identity of their own.  Of course the narrative encourages our boys to grow up tough and manly, but I think there’s more pressure on little girls.  For every strong female character they will encounter in a movie, they’ll see a dozen or so strong male characters.

If you aren’t blessed with all those attributes, and especially with the happy smile all the time, you have not measured up.  And heaven help you if you develop an eating disorder (the most common one is called; “being American”) and type 2 diabetes, and you don’t get a great job, your relationships fail and you are aging much faster than you thought you would, and one night you’re in Wal-Mart and some jackass takes your picture and puts you on a website to make fun of you.

Want to make fun of someone, America?  Make fun of the arrogant and purposefully stupid.  Make fun of that second-coming guy.  Make fun of Newt Gingrich.  Make fun of Texas Governor Rick Perry. And leave the badly-dressed overweight person in Wal-Mart, alone.  I bet his or her feet hurt.

Categories: Uncategorized

Consumerism and attachment

May 21, 2011 1 comment
Wall clock, quartz, four dollars at Target

Wall clock, quartz movement, four dollars at Target

My dad used to restore antique clocks and guns.  Not because he was concerned with time or shooting, but because he was fascinated by clever machinery.  Our house always had various pendulum clocks running and his workbench usually had a new project taken apart with the elaborate movement submerged in the buzzing ultrasonic cleaner.  He’d start with some old neglected timepiece and by the time it was done, the wood looked deep and rich, the face was restored, the movement worked perfectly and – well worth opening the back of the clock to see – was a gleaming tribute to the Victorian habit of decorating even hidden mechanisms.

One of his favorites was a majestic Regulator clock, which stood six feet tall and had glass sides so you could watch it work.  Its pendulum, designed to stay the same length even as room temperature changed,  tocked off the seconds with stupendous regularity.  It had electrical contacts inside that once delivered a pulse to client clocks in classrooms of a wealthy school boasting advanced, Edisonian technology.  Once upon a time it was the very latest thing.

Alas in a lonely time of depression, he sold all his clocks, and died not long after.  It is probably just as well that he sold them, because I could not properly care for them.  But some vestige of his fascination lives on in me.  I wear a self-winding watch with a transparent back.  Sometimes, through a magnifying glass, I marvel at its jeweled precision; how it stores the energy of wrist movement to perform its work.  The escapement wheel works on exactly the same principle as a pendulum, but in any orientation; its invention was a major advance in navigation.

Today I needed a clock to put in view of my treadmill.  I bought this example for four dollars at Target.  It is made of plastic and has a quartz movement.  I won’t be winding it once a week; it runs for a year on an AA battery.  Its “pendulum” is a quartz crystal, oscillating 32,768 times as many per second as that old Regulator clock.

It’s a good clean design, instantly readable.  My experience with clocks like this one is that it will last about ten years, which works out to $1.10 per year including replacement AA batteries.  If I move, I probably wouldn’t even bother packing it.  When it quits working, I won’t take it to a “clock shop” to be repaired; I’ll toss it in the garbage and get another one.  It’s a fine clock, yet unworthy of any attachment.

Attachment, said the Buddha, causes suffering and no doubt that’s true.  We are after all, ephemeral, and even attachment to life makes us fearful of death.  But as attachment causes suffering there is also pleasure in it.  Using a thing that is finely designed and crafted is an abstraction of fellowship with humans who bring that very human capability to bear.  I feel a little relief for almost every possession of which I unburden myself.  But paradox is life too, and there is so much beauty in the work of craftsmen. Utility isn’t everything.  Perhaps it is enough that I know such clocks once existed.

Categories: Uncategorized

It’s a dirty job, but…

May 16, 2011 7 comments

Here’s “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe, testifying to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. In five minutes he makes the case for celebrating skilled work:

I didn’t do well in high school; the only classes I got A’s in were art and shop. So of course I took a lot of both. The shop building in our high school was equipped with what looked like surplus WWII equipment from Boeing. I learned how to measure, cut, machine, weld. rivet, bend, temper, and forge steel, along with a few other skills. And while I didn’t become a tradesman, some of those skills have helped me keep food on the table from time to time. At the very least they helped me appreciate the people who plan, build, and fix the artificial* environment we enjoy.

Many years later almost all the high schools in our area closed their industrial arts programs. One district superintendent told the local paper that “hobby classes” were not part of the schools’ core mission. It’s understandable, if rather short-sighted, living as we do in a community dominated by the world headquarters of two insurance companies, plus two universities. Kids get the message: a “proper job” means going to the office every day.

I remember being puzzled by the superintendent’s definition of “hobby”, living as he does in a house that is warm in winter, cool in summer, has electric light on demand, clean water and working sewers, a clothes-washing machine, and appliances in the kitchen. Maybe all the people who made that stuff happen for him were just doing it for a hobby.


  • Yes, we enjoy our artificial environment. Observation suggests that when we pretend to like “natural” things, we mean the ingredients in our snack foods. Of course, rattlesnake venom is “all-natural”, so it’s possible to carry that too far.
Categories: Uncategorized

Those who can, teach

May 14, 2011 1 comment
Those who can, TEACH.  Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching

Those who can, TEACH. Those who cannot, pass laws about teaching

MrsDoF and I found ourselves at McDonald’s this morning for breakfast, talking about our week.  A substitute teacher’s assistant, she sees more different schools and classrooms than most principals.  She said;

“You have twenty-four different personalities and sets of abilities, and you’re supposed to focus them all on this one, all-important objective,”  (makes converging gesture with hands) “and all on the same task at the same time.”

What are schools really trying to do?  Or more precisely, what does the state want them to do?  Train independent thinkers?  Foster productive citizenship?  Well yes, it’s nice if that happens but the primary objective, the outcome which school funding incentivizes, is a certain percentage of kids making a certain score on standardized tests.

Mind you, ADA rules require “mainstreaming” autistic and developmentally disabled kids into the classroom.  Many kids are poor and have fractured home lives.  Some have attention disorders or just never receive any positive reinforcement at home.  And you, the teacher, have to focus all these beams of light onto a single spot.

Anyone who doesn’t think that is real work is welcome to try it. That includes politicians who want to make teachers somehow responsible for outcomes with multiple variables which they cannot possibly overcome.  And when they want to look really tough, they put corporate leaders who have never been teachers, in charge of school districts.

Good luck, teacher.  And remember, you’re a lazy, greedy public employee and the state budget crisis is all your fault!

(h/t Bis Key Chronicles for the picture which I shamelessly stole.)

Categories: Uncategorized


May 14, 2011 2 comments

“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.
- Proverbs 22:6

Or to put it another way, tell a child any damn thing, no matter how unfortunate, and it will be almost impossible for him to un-learn it later.  Cultural assumptions are like fast-growing vines: they cover everything and they’re a devil of a job to remove if you regret planting them. Punishment is one of those assumptions.

From the time we’re little children, we learn that if you break the rules (or  “do something bad” – it’s the same thing) that you should be punished.  The bigger the rule you break, the worse the punishment, and there’s no other way to be sure people won’t break rules.

You can test this deeply-rooted moral assumption by suggesting in almost any forum that you can be a moral person without believing in God, or a good Christian without believing in Hell.  (Once you light that fuse, stand well back!)

American politicians also know better than to propose shorter prison sentences, better prison conditions, or any measures to stop prison rape.  There’s simply no political capital to be gained from it.  Every election cycle is marked by ever more draconian punishments against “criminals”.  We hear about “victim’s rights” and “coddling” criminals.  Prison should be brutal; dehumanizing, a grinding endurance test.  Make it so terrible they’ll live in fear of ever returning.

You might think that a three-year recidivism rate of more than fifty percent would make any rational person doubt the usefulness of this model but sadly, no; we go on training our politicians to propose ever-harsher punishments.  State spending on prisons has quadrupled in just 20 years.  That’s a growth industry and then some – and unsurprisingly the private prison industry is bravely standing up for more incarceration.

We don’t question cultural assumptions.  How often do you hear a politician ask; “What if retributive justice is actually making the problem worse?  What if our need to punish is actually punishing… everyone?”

I must admit this article blew my mind: Norway’s controversial ‘cushy prison’ experiment.  Norway already enjoys one of the lowest recidivism rates in Europe – just 20 percent.  So eighty percent of their criminals presumably go back to work and become members of society again.  It made me wonder; what in dog’s name are they doing to those poor guys so that only 1 in 5 ends up back in prison?  Norwegian prisons must be awful!

Well not so much: they’re clean, well-run, and have counseling and vocational training.  Norway not only has no death penalty; they don’t even have life imprisonment.  Their maximum sentence is just 21 years.

But somebody in Norway decided that 20 percent recidivism was too high and started experimenting with an even less punitive model.  Bastoy prison is on an island and is nearly self-sustaining; prisoners live in cottages, have Internet access, grow most of their own food, perform jobs and take university courses.  It is one of Norway’s cheapest prisons to run and has a 16 percent recidivism rate.  The inmates include drug offenders, murderers, and pretty much anything else.  Norway is planning to build more prisons like it.

Beware of crazy-sounding questions: the answers might leave you wondering if you know anything at all.


Categories: Uncategorized

An open letter to “talking on cellphone while driving a loaded dumptruck” guy

May 9, 2011 8 comments

Dear guy,
You might not realize that we saw you today, talking on a cell phone while executing a left turn onto Fort Jesse Road going East, driving a dump truck fully loaded with dirt.

Don’t worry, I understand. You were packing eighty thousand pounds of steel and dirt, and even the biggest, baddest SUV in the world wouldn’t mean diddly to you in a collision. Hell, you could take on a school bus and barely even feel it. You’re the king of the street and anyone with any sense at all will just stay the hell out of your way.

But if you did know that someone saw you, it’s possible you would worry about being thought unusually irresponsible at the wheel of a ginormous truck in an equivalent condition to .08 blood alcohol. It could seriously mess with your image as a good person, a good family man, or even as a good American.

Again, don’t worry; I’ve got your back here. If those whining Nervous Nellies think you don’t have a good reason to give less than full attention to herding a vehicle that is capable of crushing any modern car like a Dixie cup, I can explain it to them. It’s very simple really: you were standing up for your freedom. For everyone’s freedom including theirs, in fact.

You weren’t saying that your conversation was more important than the lives of the mother and her children in that minivan in front of you – that would be silly! No, your statement was bigger than life: you stand tall for the freedom to live like nothing bad can ever happen because you didn’t mean for it to.

America’s economy depends on that attitude. Nobody believes the executives who pushed the BP Macondo Prospect well until it exploded meant to spill millions of gallons of oil into the gulf of Mexico. Or that the owners of Massey Coal intended to kill 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine.  Or that the beef producer who uses antibiotics to fatten up his cattle wants to create unstoppable bacteria that could bring down some toddler in under a day.  He’s just living the dream, making a profit and cutting a heroic figure against the sky, like the entrepreneur that he is.

Don’t give in, guy. Don’t listen to those hand-wringers and pearl clutchers; you probably won’t have an accident and even if you do, your insurance company will put the blame on whoever you crushed. Because there are always two sides to any story, and as the survivor you get to tell both of them.

You like lawyers, don’t you? They’re here to help you live like a real Free American. With their help you can just not give a damn about anyone or anything.

Besides, millions of other Americans do it. You see them all the time, yakking, texting, sitting at green lights while the people behind them honk their horns. Enough with the liberals and their concerns already. Just because your vehicle weighs more than twenty times what an average car does, is hardly reason for anyone to expect you to make the sacrifice.

All I can say is; for your sake there better not be anything to that old “karma” concept. Because if there is, you could end up running from it for a long, long time. Just sayin’.

Sincerely, a couple people in a regular car. Who saw you.

(And before anyone asks, no; I didn’t get a license number.)

Categories: Uncategorized

10-minute climate science

May 7, 2011 5 comments

I’m fascinated by the minds of people who worry about the economic effects of global climate change mitigation. They’re worried that alternative energy and various lifestyle changes might hurt economic growth (even though new technologies have a pretty good track record of expanding economies). What do they think flooded cities, the collapse of oceanic fisheries, expanding desertification of arable land, water shortages and droughts, and unprecedented refugee problems will do to the economy?

The science, summarized in this video, is solid. If there was this much evidence that an enemy was about to attack us, we’d move, brother. We wouldn’t let it happen. But we are twiddling our thumbs in a fog of well-funded denialism.

Especially important is the chemical signature of the carbon dioxide emissions; we know the increase is coming from fossil fuel. Which is to say; it was locked away from the biosphere and we’re putting it back, after millions of years. The effect shows up in thousands of ways, from animal migratory patterns and other biological markers, radiative heat measurements, glacier movements, sea level, sea chemistry, precipitation and storm events, and the movement together of atmospheric chemistry and average temperature.

There are a lot of things we need to do but step one is to quit denying it’s a problem, and quit wishing it would all just go away. We just spent three trillion dollars because of 9/11 with… questionable results. Here’s a much bigger, scientifically verified existential threat and we’re still arguing over light bulbs. We need to open the closet door and face it.

(h/t Orac)

Categories: Uncategorized