29 December 2006

REALLY learning to read

So I stumbled through the first two years of attempting to memorize enough words to actually get through blockbusters like Dick and Jane (ugh).

Then one day when I was 7 or 8 I stayed home sick. I went into the center of the cavity for your legs in a huge rolltop desk we had in a spare room, pulled in blankets and pillows and then barricaded the front with sofa cushions.

I wanted to look at the old fashioned illustrations in a big musty book of historical heroes in my little fort where no one could bother me, so I even drug in a lamp and hooked it up.

Mainly I was looking at the pictures, especially one of the Inca Atlahualpa stretching as far as he could on tiptoes to show the Spaniards the level of the room he would pile with gold if they would release him. As I pored over the pictures I began to look at the text. Some of the words I could recognize, like 'see,' 'and,' 'the' (See Spot run. Run Spot run!). Then a strange thing happened - I could suddenly see the little words I could pronounce as parts of big words I had never seen before - words like 'Pizarro' and 'Atlahualpa' and 'massacre.' I spent most of the day puzzling through more and more of the story with more and more exctitement. For the first time I felt like I was actually reading, and for my own pleasure and enlightenment.

In one fell swoop, or so I remember it, I became a reader, and an historian.

Learning to read

After writing these posts on books I began to think of the whole process of reading. There are times when I think that the kids I teach are in a post-literary state - no more reading books or anything longer than a short short story or a longish blog post. There is hope though - the Harry Potter craze! I love watching 11 year olds ripping through those 600 page tomes just as fast as they can. And it gives me something fun to talk about with my niece Mulan.

But how did I learn to read? As I remember it, when I was in kindergarten (only once a week because that was the one day my grandmother could take me to town), it began to dawn as I watched people read to me that they must be recognizing words from the neat little squiggles on the page. Then I thought that I would have to recognize each complicated little squiggle for each word. That would mean that I would have to memorize hundreds of different tiny characters (that simply being the biggest number I could conceive of). I was horrified. Think of the effort!

Then came the first day of reading in the first grade. The teacher wrote RED on the board and said that sign meant 'red.' Then BLUE, and said it meant 'blue.'

Oh no. It was true! I was going to have to memorize hundreds of signs. Maybe more! How many words did we speak, anyway? All I could see was years of mental drudgery.

Which was pretty much true. Even though we were drilled in something called 'Phonics' - which could have been Sanskrit grammer for all I could understand, I was still learning to recognize each word in its entirety, as if it were a Chinese character.

Other Christmas Gifts

As I think I said, Joey Sobrino's sister gave me Andrew Sulllivan's The Conservative Soul which I started reading yesterday. Very thoughtful and well written - it might make me a conservative yet, once we figure out what that means anymore.

Carmen, my wife, gave me a CD by 'Medieval Babes' entitled 'Mistletoe and Wine.' She never heard of them before but loved the name 'Medieval Babes.' Has all the top hits of the twelfth through 14th century, including 'Gaudete', one of my favorites (Gaudete, Christus puer natus est). She also got me 'Seven Samurai' by Akira Kurosawa.

'Seven Samurai' has to be one of my all time favorite movies. I think it is the consensus of critics that it is the best action adventure ever filmed. I once showed it to a class on peasants in world history. At first they were pissed that I was going to make them watch an old b&w movie in Japanese with subtitles that went on for 3 hrs! We saw it spread out in three episodes. By the end of the first hour they couldn't wait to see the rest and when it was over some had so identified with one of the characters that they were upset at his fate.

As for the subtitles, one blurted "What subtitles?"

It should be no surprise that one of the classic westerns is 'The Magnificent Seven', based almost scene for scene on the Japanese epic.

28 December 2006

Books, good and otherwise, and the Middle Ages

This last semester I had my students in the Medieval History class read The Gothic Enterprise by Rober Scott. It is a good read and pulls together a lot of info on the whole Gothic experience, but Scott is an amateur and it shows. He's done a lot of reading on the subject, but doesn't know the latest stuff or how to put it in context - he is still quoting Georges Duby without realizing that much of Duby's work has been severely criticized in recent years. Still, he has some sharp memorable scenes that students may actually remember which will allow them to get a purchase on Medieval society in a way more accurate scholarly work might not.

Besides, I am beginning to think that it is as much what we misunderstand or misjudge that is as important to advancing scholarship as what we have gotten right. Since we have gotten very little 'right' this is fortunate. Most of what we 'know' about the past is merely little nuggets of facts and factoids embedded in a matrix of what we 'know' about the world around us in the here and now.

When it comes to history, like much else, we are still trying to break free of the mentality of the 19th century, as remarkable as the intellectual achievements of that period were. It was the 20th century where humankind really went off the deep end. We must have killed a billion people, one way or another, mainly in trying to bring the fruits of 19th century theories into actual practice.

God only knows what we will mange to do in the 21rst Century.

And another thing about books!

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game was also mentioned by several people as a science fiction work that should be regarded as real Literature. One person even said he had read it 20 times! I, on the other hand, had a hard time getting through it as a recorded book. It just didn't strike me as convincing on any level. Apparently taht is a minority opinion.

Card, however, has redeemed himself by writing an essay confirming one of my deepest personal prejudices: that post-modernism is total bull-whaa. And he should know - he was working on his PhD in English when introduced to it in '82 and did extensive reading in the field. He even read an entire work by Jacques Derrida*. Anyway, his essay is worth reading.

BTW, if anyone out there disagrees about Ender's Game I'd love to hear from you. My wife read the whole Ender series and liked them.

*which makes me feel even sorrier for him than the guy who read Ender's Game 20 times.

27 December 2006

An addendum to that last post on books

Once I started thinking of books, I read some comments on another blog wondering what works in science fiction would qualify as Literature (evidently with the capital L). Lots of people said Heinlein - I wouldn't. Certainly not Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land. For one thing, how could the same author write both books and believe in the message of both? For another Heinlein, who was a good story teller, suffered from a certain emotional immaturity that marred his work. Poul Anderson, who I loved to read once upon a time, suffers from the same problem.

Several mentioned Isaac Asimov, another author I once loved. On the trip down here to the port city, my wife and I started listening to I, Robot. When I was a teenager I read it, and almost everything else Asimov wrote but as we listened to it I was genuinely taken aback. The stories were emotionally and technologically ... well, immature to use that word again. The characters are always yelling, balling up their fists, gulping, and threatening to beat their robots into submission or to turn them into junk heaps. As for the technology - it is startling to realize that Asimov never saw the computer age coming. Computers, other than the positronic brain used in the robots and which is never explained, make no appearance. His mathmaticians use pencil and paper for complex calculations - in the year 2040! Even in The Foundation Trilogy the most sophisticated machine used by the psycohistorians is a glorified calculator of the sort Texas Instruments quit making decades ago.

Time to get back to Gene Wolfe. Or Edward Gibbon!

A challenge!

Claw of the Conciliator has challenged his readers to come up with their list of best books read in 'aught-six'. Having a failing memory, I will have to wait until I get back to the mountains and dig out my list of books I've read (if I can remember where I left it). There are a lot.

Certainly Peter Heather's Fall of Rome, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol iii, will be on it, as well as Cervante's Don Quijote and perhaps even Gomes' The Good Book. I would also include The Bartemeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud which I listened to on tape. I am never sure that my appreciation of recorded books is because they are great books, or because the reader is so good. I would probably have to include some of Steven King's Dark Tower opus in this list too.

I'll get back to you on this.

What I did for Christmas

Mostly, I ate. It has become a Clemens family tradition. First, a big brunch over at Carmen's family. Then home for a quick nap. Then a midafternoon dinner at my sister's house with the whole family. Then home for a longer nap. Then a late supper at Carmen's family once again, this time the Cuban traditional pork with black beans and rice.

At each place we distributed and received gifts. I got two bottles of cognac - very nice ones. I alos got a copy of Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul which I will start reading soon. The obligatory, but much needed clothes, and some edible goodies and a gift certificate to 'Total Wine.' There seems to be a theme here. No pens or inks. I guess they're trying to get me to break the habit.

But now I have lots to read. Last night I finished Olympos by Dan Simmons, which was a good read. Then I picked up Sword of the Lictor - read the first page and realized that as good as Olympus was I was dealing here with a genius of a different order. I also am reading selections from Bernard Lewis' From Babel to Dragomans.

My sister-in-law read some of my posts here, especially the one where I mispelled Mormons and said "And this guy has a PhD?!!" What can I say - it's a genetic condition. And I am the best speller in my family!

Fine Vodka - Minnesota style

Well, it looks like the big ethanol plant up in Benson is turning out a new product. Vodka. What the heck, fermentation is fermentation. It's called "Shakers" (don't know if that has religious connotations) and goes for $33 a bottle. "You don't want to get it down to $11 . . . or nobody will like it," Willis [a local shareholder and Shakers drinker] said. "You get that price on the East Coast or West Coast and nobody will buy it."

Apparently the locals like it when they go ice-fishing.


25 December 2006

Shaymalan meet Gibson?

The National Review of all places has a thought provoking essay on what would happen if M. Night Shaymalan were to collaborate with Mel Gibson. It treats the work of both respectfully while pointing out their weaknesses. A lot of the negative hype about Apocalypto was just that, hype, and Gibson realized long ago that hype is hype. Here, Thomas Hibbs does a bit better than that.

24 December 2006

Quick update on la Noche Buena

It's Christmas eve. My lady and I are safely in our little townhouse with sister-in-law, our dog, her dog, and three cats* down here in the steaming urban swamp I call the unnamed port city to our south. We have just finished our Christmas shopping - most of it done today in one long rush. Traffic, lines, and people seem much thicker, longer and more numerous. Yesterday at the local Borders (yes, the port city finally got some decent bookstores) we noticed the parking lot was full, the line to check out was backed up all the way across the store and every cash register was going full tilt boogie.

Hopefully this means everyone has taken el Prez' wartime advice and has gone out to shop! Support the war effort.

*There are actually three more cats, but they have been boarded for the sake of Christmas sanity.

The Mistakes in Iraq

For years now I have had a running debate with my friend Budweiser down here in the unnamed port city to our south about the original mistakes made in Iraq by the Bushies. I have always felt that with everything that was at stake it was pathological for the Bushies to cheap out (among other problems). This analysis by Kenneth M. Pollack, Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy in The Middle East Review of International Affairs won't win the debate for me, but it does tend to back me up. The key paragraph:
If Iraq does slide into all-out civil war, the Bush Administration will have only itself to blame. It disregarded the advice of experts on Iraq, on nation-building, and on military operations. It staged both the invasion and the reconstruction on the cheap. It never learned from its mistakes and never committed adequate resources to accomplish either its original lofty aspirations or even its later, more modest goals. It refused to believe intelligence that contradicted its own views and doggedly insisted that reality conform to its wishes. In its breathtaking hubris, the Administration engineered a Greek tragedy in Iraq, the outcome of which may plague us for decades

The article then goes on to examine what it calls the Seven Deadly Sins of Failure. It's certainly worth a read.

All of this puts us in a hard position. It is difficult for people like me to keep in mind that we should
want, and assist in any way we can, for the Bush administration to succeed in Iraq. We will all benefit if the administration's last two years are successful enough to make Bush look good. I would like to damn him and his abettors to Hell for at least a weekend or two, but I want him to succeed.

I just am out of ideas how this might yet happen.

19 December 2006

Random factlets

From the Chicago Trib: One day after its release the report of the Iraq Study Group reached the No 2 spot on Amazon.com's best seller list, edging out Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

From the Washington Post: Wikipedia has to delete more than 100 entries a day, every day, many of them autobiographies from newly registered users.

I wondered what happened to my entry on Clemens. All they have now is a dumb article on some old writer who wouldn't even use his own name.

From The Nation: One third of Americans believe, according to polls, that the 9/11 attacks were a US government plot.

CEO Pay and Performance or: Do we pay people for this?

Yes we surely do and the CEOs are worth every penny - just ask them or the board member who approve the salaries.

Here's some proof of what you're getting for that pay (and if you buy a product or a service in America - you are paying their salaries).

For instance, Terry Semel of Yahoo was paid $53.3 million last year. During that time his company's stock lost 32.9% or its value. Heck of a job Terry!

CEO Richard Packer of Zoll Medical was paid a grand $530,019 last year while his company's market value almost doubled.

Now the really interesting part of this is you have to have a Harvard MBA for these figures to make any sense.

Notes for Clemens and Sobrino: a new brandy

There is a new style of brandy from Peru beginning to make the rounds in American bars. For some reason US News & World Report devotes a whole article to it. The style is called pisco and it is the pride of Peru. Now a Peruvian-American business woman is marketing her own brand here in the US. She calls it Macchu Pisco. It is the only brand of pisco you can get in this country that is true Peruvian pisco.*

Dealing with US law was a problem. "It was like penetrating 50 countries to deal with federal, state, and local licenses" (that's what makes this country so great).

So far only 17,000 cases of any type of pisco has been sold here in 2004. You need to compare that with 40,000 cases of Korean soju (nice stuff, btw) or the 1.4 million cases of Tanqueray gin.

I really like brandy and would love to try some if I can ever find it. For now though it sounds as if it's only available in the most sophisticated, and expensive, lounges and bars in the major, and expensive, cities. Don't think it will be coming to Lykesboro or Crockett anytime soon.

*There is a Chilean brand called Capel, but mentioning that to a Peruvian would be like mentioning Polish vodka to a Russian (or vice versa).

Mediaeval Women

There are a number of stereotypes out there about life in the Middle Ages. Some of them are true, or rather, true some of the time. Of course, we all know that women had no rights back during the Dark Ages (even though there were no Dark Ages) and were merely prizes to be handed over from one family to another, however the men of the clan saw fit.

Yet we read in the late seventh century formulary of Maraulf (a book with model paragraphs to be plugged into suitable documents - in other words, boilerplate) of an example where a father states that the custom of preferring sons to daughters as heirs is "impious" since all of his children are God-given and he loves them all equally. He therefore wishes to divide his property among them equally, thus making his daughter the equal and legitimate co-heir of her brothers.

No telling how often this happened, but at least some fathers obviously felt this way or the formula wouldn't be in the book. And the late seventh century would be the heart of what is supposed to be the Dark Ages.

"Los desaparecidos of Pakistan"

There is a Pakistani journalist whose work I admire with the wonderful name of Ardeshir Cowasjee. He writes for the English language newspaper Dawn. In his latest column he writes about the excesses of both Pinochet and Castro and compares the situation under their regimes with present day Pakistan. His final paragraph:
The state is duty-bound, and honour-bound, to protect its citizens and to prevent and punish crimes and acts of terrorism, and to bring to justice the perpetrators of crimes and transgressions of the law. It is not supposed to discard the laws of the land in its own peculiar interests and it is not supposed to indulge in the gross violation of human rights guaranteed under its own and international law. It is not supposed to stamp its booted foot on the dignity of mankind.

Even if you don't believe that his view is typical for a Muslim country in some disarray and under the rule of an "authoritarian" leader, you have to admit - he lives in a country where he can say it in print.

18 December 2006

Islam, Iraq, and one more Historical Analogy

If you can resist falling asleep, Andrew Sullivan has a good essay comparing the developing situation in Iraq to the Thirty Years War. Since I am just getting ready to read Simplicius Simplicissimus, a novel written during that war, I found it interesting, despite the rather smug swipe at American ignorance of history at the outset.*

Any way you slice it, and any era in history you look to for insight, what is shaping up in Iraq is threatening and terrible. But then, see my earlier post.

*made rather more distasteful by its evident truth.

17 December 2006

Free at last! And sick, too!

I am free - finally graded the last exam, and then spent hours desperately trying to post the grades through our rinky-dink campus computers. The college server was "under attack," whatever that means, and consequently wasn't functioning at a time when several hundred people were trying to input their grades. Total virtual chaos.

But I finally did it - so I'm free.

And, of course, promptly got sick. Right in the middle of watching "Apocalypto." No, it wasn't the gore and blood, but a stomach virus. I stayed and watched the movie through to the end, ducking out to the bathroom on occasion so I missed a few key scenes. Maeréad's dad drove me home -I wasn't up to it.

So what did I make of the movie? It's an exciting film that puts an interesting and much neglected people front and center. I live in a community where some of our residents actually speak Mayan and it was a real kick to hear a whole movie where every character uses it. The violence and blood are real but I don't understandd the critics' reaction to it. They raved about "Sin City," and other movies about as bloody. They generally don't get too upset over routine gorefests like "Hostel." Or at least the don't question the film maker's sanity.

And in our society at any rate film makers are usually not criticized for making lots of money.

There is, however, Gibson's twisting of history. Even criticism of this, though, seems wrongheaded, or at least besides the point. Did anyone care that most of the 'history' in "Gladiator" was bunk. Besides, as I saw at least one reviewer point out, Gibson was bending the historical details to suit his own little morality tale. There is actually a message behind the gore.

But that will have to wait for a day when I am feeling better.

And I don't want to spoil the end, but when we finished watching the movie one of my friends who teaches Spanish history said "Is Mel Gibson Catholic?"

The Future of Iraq (and a few other parts of the Islamic World)

Apparently the word is out that Bush has decided to double-down in Iraq. ABC is reporting that he is going to send in 30,000 more troops to regain control, at least in Baghdad, while Andrew Sullivan thinks it might be 50,000. Sullivan in particular thinks that the 50,000 minimum would cause him to support the effort - anything less would not be serious.

Why is Iraq worth all this? Partly because the world simply cannot afford to have a Muslim country become a disfunctional state taken over by Jihadists and terrorists of the Al Qaida ilk. I think this is a valid point.

By the way, have you noticed that this scenario has already happened in the past year while Bush and the boys were diverted by Iraq?


Some Political Humor

No, I am not talking about the late Congress.

"I don't want to say that George Bush is a lame duck, but this morning, Cheney shot him". Bill Maher.

And someone is going around with a bumper sticker that says "Bush Deserves a Fair Trial"

After being sick for the last 24 hours, these vastly improved my state of mind.

14 December 2006

Conan's Revenge

No - it's not the current state of California. If you were not introduced to Conan the literary character as an adolescent male you will probably never understand what the fuss is about.

13 December 2006

Mormans, politics and Mitt Romney

This question occurred to me again today after I spoke - briefly- to two nice young Morman* missionaries at my door.

How many of you out there consider Mormans as Christians?

I ask, because apparently Mormans themselves do, but other Christians don't. It might be a political issue in Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency. In many ways he is a very attractive conservative candidate. He seems, however, to be positioning himself to appeal to the 'family values' conservatives and I don't see how that will work.

It is my guess that about 50% of such voters do not think he is a Christian since he is Morman and will not vote for him on that reason alone.

Any other ideas?

*When I told them I was an Episcopalian they seemed puzzled by what that might actually mean!

Illegal Immigrants and the Law

In a move that might make Joey Sobrino happy (or maybe not), the Dept of Homeland Security (those wonderful folks who brought you the Katrina fiasco), have unleashed their forces against illegal immigrants at six Swift Company meat packing plants. "Operation Wagon Train" nabbed nearly 1300 alleged illegal workers and whisked them off to undisclosed locations without the benefit of legal advice. Apparently lots of kids were left here and there without parents, or any means of finding out what happened to them. A small price to pay for keeping our homeland safe and pure. After all, they are lawbreakers.

Except that it just keeps nagging at the back of my mind, why hasn't the Swift company been charged with anything?

Especially since they publicly admit that 40% of their work force could be effected if this continues!

Another thing to notice here, aside from the detail that these people are all innocent until proven guilty, is the different techniques of law enforcement for working class people and their... 'betters,' shall we say? Mass arrests, heavily armed police with SWAT equipment, removal to undisclosed locations, no chance to talk to lawyers or see about their children. Compared to people like Dick Cheney and JonBenet Ramsey's parents who get to schedule when they will be willing to talk to the police and can show up in their chauffeur driven limos.

The Saud family summons Cheney for 'talks'

Or, as CNN puts it, to "read him the riot act."

Just a little chit chat between friends, really. Don't you wish they weren't setting on top of something we desperately need to power our civilization, so we could just wish them lots of luck, and get the hell out.

It has become a cliche that the Islamic world needed a 'Protestant Reformation," but we should keep in mind that the Reformation was followed by Counter-Reformation which was followed by the aptly named "30 Years War." That war, by the way, simply devastated Germany and killed off half its population. And now we are facing an Islamic "30 Years War" with modern weapons.

12 December 2006

That's it! No more tofu for me!

You learn the most amazing things on the Net, like just how pernicious soy products are. It's all explained by Jim Rutz on WorldNetDaily. Soy contains massive amounts of estrogen which, as we all know, is the female hormone. Here's the ultimate effect of eating too much soy:
Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That's why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today's rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products.

Consequently Rutz concludes logically that homosexuals are formed by human action, not by God's creation.

Oh yes. It also cause leukemia in children, cancer, and is likely responsible for the sudden rise in obesity.

I just thought you should be warned. One can't be too careful, especially when the size of your penis or sexual confusion is at stake.

11 December 2006

Alas, the poor Congressman II

Just a few quotes from this article so you can catch the full horror of what has happened to some of our Congressmen:
Since losing re-election last month, Rep. John Sweeney has played hooky in Congress, skipping votes, dodging reporters and avoiding his new make-shift office in a basement cubicle set up for lame ducks.

He is all at loose ends, angry and bitter, and who can blame him. Those ungrateful voters kicked him out of office for trivial personal stuff, like the 911 call to police that he was choking his wife and pushing her around the house. You've got to feel sorry for him, especially in light of this:
"There's a lot of upheaval in his life," Weldon [R-Florida] said. ""It's one thing if you're behind for six months and see it coming," he said of Sweeney's election loss. "What do you do now? How do you feed yourself and your wife?"

But, in case you are concerned about how Sweeney will feed himself and half-strangled wife, consider his job prospects as an ex-US Representative:

Rep. John McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, Jefferson County, a close Sweeney associate, said his friend is "not limited by lack of opportunities." ... "A good number of people have come forward and talked to him about opportunities," McHugh said. "He's built up enormously important contacts ... He'll have options to take him in different paths. As to knocking him down, if you land a lucky punch, you don't keep him down for long."

I'll leave the exact nature of those 'contacts' to your imagination.

The War on Terrorism we refused to fight

I vividly remember the following incident, retold here by Christopher Hitchens. It left an imprint in my mind because I regard Washington, DC as my real hometown.
Just a short walk from my apartment in Washington, D.C., is the memorial at Sheridan Circle to the murdered Orlando Letelier, a Chilean exile and former foreign minister who was blown up by a car bomb in rush-hour traffic on Sept. 21, 1976. It did not take very long to establish that this then-unprecedented atrocity on American soil, which also took the life of a U.S. citizen named Ronni Moffitt, was carried out on the orders of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Indeed, we have the testimony of his own secret police chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, that such was the case.

This was a blatant act of state sponsored terrorism committed in the capitol of our country against a legal guest and an American citizen.

The response from our government: NADA.

But, you can wander over to National Review and see their encomia to the late General Pinochet. If I remember correctly, he was the only world leader to attend the funeral of that other famous Latin general to betray his country and his civilization: Francisco Franco.

I guess there is terrorism, and then there is terrorism.

Will Demos match Repubs?

In general I absolutely despise Robert Novak, but even a blind chicken gets some corn as the old saying goes. Now that the Demos have taken control of Washington again, K Street is not closing down, it is simply changing political affiliation. Here's Novak asking the pertinent question.

I am afraid that the title to his column, 'Democrats can smell the pork' may be all too accurate. But then, there is always '08!

10 December 2006

Gibbon and Muhammad

About two months ago I read the sections in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that dealt with the life of Muhammad and the rise of Islam (currently I am finishing his last chapters on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks). Consequently I was delighted to find the following quote from Gibbon's autobiography quoted in a work by Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, that I picked up to reread today.
Mahomet and his Saracens soon fixed my attention, and some instinct of criticism directed me to the genuine sources. Simon Ockley, an original in every sense, first opened my eyes, and I was led from one book to another, till I had ranged around the circle of Oriental history. Before I was sixteen I had exhausted all that could be learned in English of the Arabs and Persians, the Tartars and Turks, and the same ardor urged me to guess at the French of De Herbelot and to construe the barbarous Latin of Pococke's Abulfargius.

The man was a born historian.

Lewis then goes on to explain who all these authorities were and what they had done to advance the study of the Arab and Muslim world during the Enlightenment. It was a time when Europe was thirsting for knowledge about other societies on the globe, and with less of the assumed superiority that would mark much of their work in the century after the publication of Gibbon's study of Rome.

Factlets about Road Kill

Here are some little facts, or factlets (or factettes?), about the dangerous intersection of nature and roads.

In the US roads cover an area equivalent to 100,000 football fields - per state.

In the US, as early as the 1960s, estimates suggested that cars kill a million animals a day.

Not surprisingly, a study found that the heart rate of female bighorn sheep increased notably when nearing a road, regardless of whether there was traffic or not.

So .... anyone for a bike ride?

These are true factlets, vouched for by Discovery Magazine, not mere factoids.

09 December 2006

A fact not a factoid, or, - the Linguistic Turn

In fact, linguistics is turning in its grave even as the Merriam-Webster folks prepare to award their coveted Word of the Year Award to .... (drum roll, please)... "Truthiness!'

And, since anything connected with Stephen Colbert is funny by definition, so to speak, read about it here.

Ah, Conrad, we hardly knew you

This may be seen as a cheap, petty, return to the Spirit of Ball's Bluff, but it came as a bit of humor in the midst of my grading angst. I really didn't know much about Conrad Burns, a Republican senator from Montana. This constituent, however, seems to know him well enough. Have a read. And rejoice that he is on the way out.

Next election - Democrats!

07 December 2006

Mary Cheney's Blessed Event

Mary Cheney is pregnant and she and her partner Heather Coe are reportedly ecstatic.

Needless to say this causes some of her father's political allies to go ballistic. Here for example is what Townhall.com columnist Kevin McCullough to say about it:
This development prompted some important questions...

1. How did the exclusive sexual union of these two women bring about this conception?

2. What does it mean, from a biological nature to realize that a man WAS in fact necessary for this conception to take place?

3. What does it mean to the supposed "intimacy" that "two people share" which was intended by the Creator to be a function that creates life, to be forced to include a third party?

4. Doesn't it make a rather strong statement that biologically speaking, the sexual union these two women share - is in fact, scientifically speaking - inadequate?

5. Is it healthy for a society to celebrate inadequate sexual unions that lead to everything except what it was designed to be?

6. Knowing from scientific data that children excel best when given the full and natural parental structure of one mother and one father, is it moral to bring a child into such a scenario - purposefully, simply to stroke one's own desire to have a child - sort of like a new handbag, or pair of shoes?

As a wishy-washy Episcopalian (and no, that is NOT redundant) I find this absolutely fascinating. I presume that Mr McCullough is writing a critique from the point of view of his Christian faith. All well and good, but there are some assumptions in these questions that puzzle me, not being at all clear on matters of such faith.

If I understand this right, Mr McCullough is unaware of artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization, at least for #1 to make any sense (I assume that Ms Cheney did not get drunk one night with the wrong person or was raped or anything like that). #2 seems to be a given, and one that no one has raised any doubts about, yet. For #3, I assume Mr McCullough doesn't believe that human couples have ever been forced to accept "a third party" as he so carefully puts it. And that the only reason for sex is for procreation. #4 - yes, biologically- and scientifically- speaking. But somehow this seems to make one something of a ... oh, I don't know... a materialist?

Most of that is simply a conservative statement of official Catholic and apparently Evangelical beliefs. I suppose that is fine for Catholics and Evangelicals, at least of the conservative and official sort (although I have some doubts about #3). It does not have much to say to me though. Points no. 5 and 6 are a bit more intriguing.

5. "
Is it healthy for a society to celebrate inadequate sexual unions that lead to everything except what it was designed to be?" Hmm. An inadequate sexual union? I don't think he means couples who have difficulty with sex as a process. He seems to mean sexual unions "that lead to everything except what it was designed to be" (for which see #3). Well, since my wife and I got married late in life and children were out of the question, Mr McCullough would seem to hold that our union is inadequate and should not be celebrated*. Same goes for all you others out there who are "uniting" without the expectation of children. Could be very unhealthy.

"Knowing from scientific data that children excel best when given the full and natural parental structure of one mother and one father, is it moral to bring a child into such a scenario -" Not sure what to make of this, since I am not sure about the scientific data. On the other hand I know lots of single mothers, and one or two single dads, who seem to have managed. There is, however, a clear implication to this question: if you have children and opt for a divorce, for whatever reason, you are not making a moral choice. I mean since you are damaging the future of the children and all since single parents are inadequate by scientific data. And if they remarry, there's that third party Mr McCullough is so worried about (see #3 again).

Obviously, I keep coming back to number three. If people want to publicly condemn Mary Cheney because she is a homosexual, and they feel this is immoral because of their religious beliefs about homosexuality, they are certainly free to say so. To go beyond that fact though raises a host of assumptions about the rest of us. Perhaps they should say that too.

*although when I had to get married in a Catholic church they sure seemed to be celebrating. And the priest who counseled us was positively delighted that we couldn't have any children. Of course, he did have a nervous breakdown, and had to be replaced for the ceremony itself. I don't think it was anything I said. Long story.

Federal Employees should now be drafted!

A little noticed recommendation of the Baker Iraq Study Group would have a dramatic effect on the civilian work force. Here it is, Recommendation No. 74:
In the short term, if not enough civilians volunteer to fill key positions in Iraq, civilian agencies must fill those positions with directed assignments. Steps should be taken to mitigate familial or financial hardships posed by directed assignments, including tax exclusions similar to those authorized for U.S. military personnel serving in Iraq.

So if we don't have enough troops to send to Iraq, we can always force bureaucrats to go and force the Iraqis to fill out forms in triplicate to satisfy the Federal requirements for doing anything!

On the other hand, it might be better than the absolutely clueless political hacks we sent over to staff the Coalition Authority.

06 December 2006

Alas, the poor Congressman

Currently our illustrative Congress works a two day week. Apparently the new Democratic Congress wants to work a five day work week (partly, one suspects, to try to deal with all the important unfinished business our current bunch are busy deferring). Here's what one outraged Republican has to say about this

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) -- one of the worst from the old GOP Congress -- on why working for a living is against family values: "Keeping us up here eats away at milies. Marriages suffer. The Democrats could care less about families -- that's what this says."

Imangine. A five hour week.

We clearly aren't paying these people enough.

The Bible as Fashion Statement?

Or "Does Jesus Love Porn Stars?"

The Wall Street Journal has a great story about all the differnt types of Bibles available these days. Apparently the Good Book is now a fashion statement, with new versions such as "Bible in a Bag." My favorite is a waterproof version called "Immersion"!

05 December 2006

Obama and the Evangelicals

E. J. Dionne, Jr has an account of how Barak Obama got invited to the Saddleback Valley Community Church, an evangelical megachurch headed by Rick Warren, to give a talk about the AIDS crisis. What Obama had to say is certainly worth noting, but it is Rick Warren himself that I find most interesting. And the reaction of his congregation to the speech.

Dionne concludes with:
If you read Obama's speech, you'll realize he demonstrates a much truer Christian spirit than the GOP masterminds who have recently tried to push people away from Obama by pointing out that his middle name is Hussein.

But read the whole thing. Warren sounds like a breath of much needed fresh air.

03 December 2006

Finances, like politics and war

Financial planner Greg Fernandez of McLean says the smartest people are prone to error precisely because they're so brainy. "Their egos get in the way," says Fernandez. "They can't stand losing, and that makes it worse. Once they lose money, they become more wedded to whatever it is; they can't believe they are losing."

From today's Washington Post.

I am retreatinig - sort of

Next semester I will be on sabbatical for the semester. That means I teach no classes, grade no papers, attend no department meetings. Instead I will haunt the libraries, research arcane topics, think deep thoughts while seated at the desk in my study - yeah, right. Well, it could happen. I will have no responsibilities until next August.

At school I have become the lamest of lame ducks, having a difficult time concentrating on doing anything. I think that is why my department chair realized I needed a little break. It may also be one reason why I've let the better part of the week go by without any posts.

So I have decided to try a big experiment - go on a spiritual retreat at a Trappist monastery. Or rather, as they are now known, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (which sounds a bit too much like the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility). After some investigation and thought I selected Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, the heart of Mosby's Confederacy and only about twenty miles from where I grew up.

In January I will spend the 8th through the 12th in the abbey's guest house in an unstructured retreat. I am looking foward to it, much more than I thought I would when I first thought to do it. If any of you have done anything like this before, and would like to give me some advice, I would greatly appreciate it. It would be especially helpful if you have any suggestions for books to take with me - I am not going to take any novels or even any history books. I want to be as far removed from my daily life as I can be.

Since the monks go to bed at 7:30 pm and get up at 3 am, I think that last point is a given.

02 December 2006

Why we are too broke to do much of anything?

Last year our Congress set aside $20 million to help celebrate the return of our troops from Iraq in a national "Day of Celebration." That didn't quite work out, so Senate Republicans thoughtfully pushsed it forward as an expense for the 2007 defense authorization bill.

In case you were wondering what that $20 million could have been used for this year, check this out.