Thursday, December 28, 2006

Another Progress Update

Well, it's been a while, but I have now added dictionaries 9 and 10 to the table. Number 10 is Beth's hardcover dictionary that I had previously mentioned as being misplaced. Beth unearthed it while cleaning in preparation for a small party to celebrate her birthday. Note: It's not the current edition (third has now been updated to fourth). I do intend to check the fourth edition one of these days. For now, this will serve just fine. I was quite impressed by how well it performed on my little test.

More impressive still is number 9, which I would rank as my current top pick. It is the new leader in the hit count, and the color illustrations are quite nice. Number 9 missed on ninjutsu and Scientology, but it was the first to hit on habanero!

I've copied the table to this entry so that you don't have to scroll down to the previous entry if you've been following the progress of the project. If you haven't been following the progress, I would certainly encourage you to scroll down and read the entry from November 21, 02006 to learn what this is all about.

We're holding steady at zero hits on my bonus word. I'm hoping to be able to somehow get data on the full version of the OED, but for now I'm losing hope that I will be able to find any dictionary that has it.

dictionary comparison table, aardwolf, aitch, anhedonia, Baha'i, bumf, capybara, cavy, curmudgeon, em, epistemology, Fuji, full nelson, Gadzooks, goombah, habanero, Jainism, Kilimanjaro, nappy, ninja, ninjutsu, Orinoco, pariah, schadenfreude, Scientology, Sufism, zorilla, kayfabe

1. Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Copyright 2003
2. Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. Copyright 1993
3. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright 1993
4. The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition. Copyright 1988
5. The Oxford American Dictionary. Copyright 1980
6. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
7. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2001
8. The American Century Dictionary. Copyright 1995
9. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
10. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. Copyright 1997

Monday, December 4, 2006

Another Progress Update

I added two more mass market paperback dictionaries tonight (numbers 7 and 8) to the table below. They both outperformed the previous mass market dictionaries, but neither was able to reach 10 hits in 26 tries. Early indications suggest that I'm just not going to be able to recommend any small dictionaries. They all seem to be pretty lousy, in my view.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Progress Update

Just in case anyone is tracking my progress on the dictionary comparison project, you might be interested in knowing that I have added two more mass market paperback dictionaries to the table: numbers 5 and 6. As might be expected, they both fall short of any of the hardcovers I've checked so far. Nevertheless, they are both far superior to the original dictionary that sparked this little endeavor.

I've also started checking two additional mass market paperbacks, both of which show early promise of ending up with higher hit counts than the two I've added to the table today. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Some Photography (and Happy Thanksgiving!)

It seems that quite a large percentage of the hits that my blog has been getting recently have come from people who found my bleeding heart photograph in Google and apparently wanted to see a larger version. Well, for all you photo nuts out there, I've decided to post a few more of my favorite shots from the last several months. Enjoy!

Zion formation

Flower tower

Zion formation


Zion formation

White flower

Black water waves

Natural tangle

The plants are from our garden, the waves are from a pond in New Hampshire, and the rock formations are from the Zion area of Utah.

I'm no botanist, so I don't know the identity of any of the plants. If you can identify any of them for me, I'd appreciate it.

Note: If you're interested in using these images for your own purposes, please ask permission first. I'll probably be very happy to grant it and I'll certainly appreciate the courtesy. And keep in mind that I do have the originals, so if you want higher resolution, I can provide it. Whereas, if you just swipe it from the web, you'll have a maximum of 431 pixels in width to work with. Also, some of these are cropped, so the originals might contain additional image area that may be of interest to you.

All I'm likely to want in return (depending on the application, of course) is a photo credit and maybe a web link.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Dictionaries, part 1

We own multiple dictionaries. I wouldn't say it's a collection, as such, but we're in possession of at least 5 different dictionaries, and we actually have two copies of two of them. One of those that we have two copies of is a miserable mass market paperback with a cover that brags:

The #1 New York Times Bestseller
Over 25,000,000 Copies in Print!

This is, of course, Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

I'm a bit fuzzy on why we landed on this particular dictionary the first time. All I recall is that we wanted a dictionary in the car. I suspect that very little thought went into a selection process at the time. The second copy was purchased in an airport, and despite my knowledge that it's so pathetically lacking, I bought it because it was the only dictionary available at said airport.

I was recently dismayed to discover that this dictionary does not include the word curmudgeon. It may not be the most frequently used word in the English language, but it's certainly in common parlance. This absence is quite disturbing to me.

Besides my own desire to know just how good or bad the various dictionaries in my life are, I am occasionally asked by customers at the bookstore, "Which dictionary is best?" That's really not what they want to know. What they really want to know is "Which affordable, portable dictionary will suit my kid best in school?" But that's beside the point. I've decided that I'm going to come up with something (a guide, if you will) that I can point to to say "I've carefully considered this question, and here's the conclusion I have reached."


On a couple of car trips, I have looked in the awful car dictionary for words that I thought would stump it. I was astonished at how incredibly easy it was to do so. I would estimate that of the words I tried, I had a successful stump rate of between 50 and 75%.

I have compiled a list of 26 words (plus 1 bonus word--which I have not found in any of the dictionaries I've checked so far) that I was unable to find in said dictionary. And I am now in the process of compiling a table of how various dictionaries perform on this list.

I have so far checked two other mass market paperback dictionaries on my lunch break at the book store, plus I've checked three of the four larger dictionaries we have here at the house. As for the fourth larger dictionary, I seem to have misplaced it, so I'll have to wait until it turns up. Others will be added, as time permits.

dictionary comparison table, aardwolf, aitch, anhedonia, Baha'i, bumf, capybara, cavy, curmudgeon, em, epistemology, Fuji, full nelson, Gadzooks, goombah, habanero, Jainism, Kilimanjaro, nappy, ninja, ninjutsu, Orinoco, pariah, schadenfreude, Scientology, Sufism, zorilla, kayfabe

1. Webster's New World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Copyright 2003
2. Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. Copyright 1993
3. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Copyright 1993
4. The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition. Copyright 1988
5. The Oxford American Dictionary. Copyright 1980
6. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
7. The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition. Copyright 2001
8. The American Century Dictionary. Copyright 1995
9. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Copyright 2006
10. The American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. Copyright 1997

A note on the words chosen:
I would consider all of these words to be in reasonably common parlance, although it's surely fair to say that some are more common than others. I wouldn't say that any is a technical term. Some of the words deserve a special note of their own:

Fuji, Kilimanjaro, Orinoco: These are in a particular class of word. They are geographical entries. I'm willing to accept their absence, as long as there is a consistent policy that seems to be at the heart of the absence. So I find it absolutely forgivable that the New Shorter Oxford excludes them, as it also excludes geographical definitions of Amazon, Everest, Nile, and McKinley. Whether you, dear reader, choose to be as forgiving of this exclusion is up to you. Where I find deficiency is in a dictionary that is spotty in its handling of such terms.

full nelson: In some cases, this shows up under nelson. I'm willing to accept this. But if neither nelson nor full nelson has a keyword, it's a miss.

habanero: I'm looking for reference to the chili pepper. I've found multiple dictionaries with habanera (a dance), but that's not what I'm after, so for now I've marked them all as misses.

nappy: I'm looking for a definition that specifically pertains to hair (kinky). Other contexts, while numerous, are considered misses, for my purposes.

ninjutsu: I'm willing to accept ninjitsu.

Scientology: Whether you view this as the best religion, a legitimate religion, or a ridiculous joke, I think reasonable people can agree that it's a widespread enough phenomenon that inclusion in a modern dictionary is a reasonable expectation.

zorilla: I'm willing to accept zoril.

One more quick note: Thanks to my darling Beth who suggested bumf, Gadzooks, and goombah.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Finally, Some Elvis Pics

As mentioned a while ago, Beth and I went out to Vegas for wedding anniversary #3 to get our vows renewed with Elvis. Here are some pictures from that occasion:

Elvis presiding

Elvis and us

Suki Suki

The beautiful bride and that fella she loves

Graceland Wedding Chapel

All very tasteful, no?

Saturday, September 2, 2006

In Memoriam, Mark Cassorla

We just got back home last night from another vacation, this one to Texas. This vacation was interrupted by a side trip I had to make to bury my cousin Mark, who decided that he needed to kill himself on Monday morning. It's hard to express all of the feelings this has drudged up. But I feel as if it's somehow my responsibility to try to say something appropriately solemn.

I always thought of Mark as "Marco". I'm not really sure whether this is because I grew up hearing other people calling him Marco or not. As I've mentioned before, I'm cursed with a horrible memory. So I honestly can't say whether anyone else ever called him Marco, although in my mind's ear, I can pretty clearly hear it rolling off his father's tongue. I'm also not sure whether I ever called him "Marco" to his face or whether the nickname resided strictly in my head.

What I can say is that in some sense I always felt closer to Mark than I ever felt to any other relative. I don't know how to explain it except to say that I thought of him as someone with whom I shared a certain spiritual kinship. We hadn't talked much in quite a long time. The last two times we saw each other were a few months ago when we buried his father (see my post from June 19, 02006) and on my wedding day almost three years earlier. The worst of times and the best of times.

We never really did spend a whole lot of time having deep and meaningful talks. But I always felt this bond with him. Maybe it was just that I looked up to him so much. I respected the hell out of him and I admired him. When it was time to pick a college, I think I was in my own way trying to follow in his footsteps by choosing Penn, where he had gone.

Listening to what other people were saying about him this week, it's clear that he was an absolutely brilliant man. I was always aware that he was extremely intelligent. But it's fairly odd to hear so many people, who in actual point of fact probably knew him better than I did, describe him as the smartest person they knew. Not odd in the sense that it comes as any true surprise, but odd in the sense that whenever I was around him he never made me feel stupid. Surely he could have done so. (I say "surely" because given what I heard this week it's fairly obvious that he was not only my own intellectual superior, but probably the intellectual superior of everyone he ever met.)

So I knew him as smart, but not arrogant. I knew him as someone with a terrific sense of humor. I knew him as someone who seemed always to be smiling or laughing. And I knew him as someone who was kind and generous.

In the summer of 1989, Mark was a college graduate with a Masters degree. His next stop was UCLA to get his Doctorate. I was a high-school graduate who had been accepted to college, figuring on going into mechanical engineering. I had chosen to defer matriculation for a year in an effort to get my head on a little straighter.

As it happened, Mark needed to get his car across the country to L.A. And he had a fixed date by which he needed to get there. Mark had a little manual-transmission Subaru and I had only ever driven an automatic. So I took a train up to New York state, where his father gave me a weekend lesson in driving stick. A few weeks later, Mark came and picked me up in MD and we spent a couple of weeks taking turns driving that Subaru across the country.

We veered this way and that. We did some touristy things along the way--visiting a theme park or two, spending a little time in the Great Smoky Mountains, visiting the Grand Canyon, playing some miniature golf here and there, going tubing somewhere in Appalachia. Mostly, we drove. We saw some nature, some vast plains, some big mountains. I remember we took a picture at Voda Road (in Kansas, perhaps?), which for some inexplicable reason struck us both as funny.

The thing about that trip is that it was exactly what I needed at that point in my life. I was extremely depressed at that point, having fallen in love with someone who just didn't feel at all the same about me. One thing that's true of me is that when I fall in love, I do so deeply. (Lucky for me, it hasn't happened often.) And so, to have it be so thoroughly unrequited was absolutely devastating to me. I was miserable, and while I'm not going to go so far as to say that Mark saved my life by letting me come along with him, I am willing to say that letting me come along was exactly what I needed. I needed to get away, and Mark gave me that opportunity. We didn't do a whole lot of talking, as I recall, and what talking we did was not of the heavy "affairs of the heart" sort. But getting away, travelling across the country, was probably the best sort of therapy that could have been given to me.

A few years later, Mark (and Kate, now his widow) came to my rescue again, when I was at art school in a seedy area of Los Angeles and the riots hit. Much of L.A. was burning, including the camera store that I had walked to to buy my first SLR. So where was my safe haven? Where did I escape to? I took a bus out to Santa Monica and slept on Mark and Kate's futon. As it turns out, I would have been safe staying in the dorm. The closest fire I learned of was about two blocks away at a Jack-In-The-Box. But at the time I fled, nobody knew just how bad things were going to get. I, with my naïve faith in mankind, started out initially thinking it would all blow over within a couple of hours of its starting. Turned out I was dead wrong on that one and it got a lot worse before it got better. A lot worse than I ever would have guessed.

So here I am, feeling as if Mark came through and rescued me at the two times in my life when I most needed rescuing, and wondering why I wasn't able to return the favor this time. I know this guilt is all part of the grieving process. And I know that the anger I have towards him for doing this one stupid, stupid, cruel, and stupid act is too. So he's leaving behind three beautiful, wonderful, strong, intelligent kids who now have to finish growing up without their father. And he's missing out on watching them grow up. He's leaving behind a mother who had already endured too much loss in the last few years. He's leaving behind a bunch of people who loved him. It's just not fair. It's just plain wrong.

I remember two specific conversations that I had with him. One was when he told me that to get a PhD in Mathematics (which he was working on at the time), basically you have to do something that nobody else has ever managed to do. This awed me, and I was so proud of him for doing it when he had done it. (I guess it turns out that his doctoral work has since been found flawed, but it was good enough to convince the reviewers, and I'm guessing that very few people on the planet have enough of a grasp of the subject to understand what it was all about, let alone where he went wrong).

The other was when Kate was converting to Judaism, and Mark was studying along with her and said that he found it interesting. He said it in such a way that I gathered that he was fairly surprised at how interesting he found it. And I got the impression that his interest at the time was more as an intellectual interest than anything else: Here's something that's fascinating to study, rather than You know, there's truth here. Given that, I was never really sure whether he had become a true believer or not. I could only guess, based on how they chose to raise the kids. But whatever conclusions he had reached, I trusted him to believe what was right for him. He was too smart for anything else, right?

And on that note, I'm going to draw this to a rapid conclusion. I'm not sure whether confusion/bewilderment is one of the stages of grieving or not. But that's what I'm ultimately left with, when I get past the anger and the denial and the guilt. How in the world could someone so smart come to suicide as the only available option?!?

So long, Marco. You'll be missed.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Another New Adventure

Let's add to the list of "things I know, from experience, to be difficult": Learning how to ride a unicycle.

As my big birthday present this year, I got a brand new unicycle. We assembled it, disassembled it, cut a few inches from the the seat post, and reassembled it so that it's the proper height for me. That was almost 20 days ago.

Since then, I have tried practicing, or practiced trying, or just spent some time on most days trying to make some incremental progress towards being able to ride the thing. As it turns out, it's a fairly exhausting process. While I haven't been timing my sessions, I think it's safe to say that I don't likely manage to put in more than about 10-15 minutes of practice in any given day. I can say with a fair degree of confidence that I am doing better than when I started. I feel even more confident in saying that I'm really not very far along at all.

I'll get there eventually. But for now, it's a slow process and I'm still leading up to whatever I will consider to be my first milestone.

I'm open to advice from anyone who's been through it. I'm also open to words of encouragement from anyone who wishes me well. In the meantime, for anyone who wants to see photos of me riding, you'll just have to wait.


Oh, and to the gentleman who got my campaign business card today as I was leaving the book store for lunch, you have my apologies for the scotch tape. I didn't have a clean card on me, so I pulled that one from the face of my locker.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

NaNoWriMo is Coming Again

Last year, probably around this time, a couple of sentences popped into my head, and I knew that these would form the opening lines of my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month. The sentences were as follows:

Angelique was thin in a way that resembled tall. Her husband, Laszlo, was short in a way that resembled broad.

I had no title in mind, nor did I have a premise. All I had was two sentences. I was confident that they constituted a fine start. True to the spirit of the exercise, I did not commit those sentences to paper (nor did I type them into a computer, nor did I utter them aloud) until November 1. And that's where my journey began.

I am plagued by a terrible memory, and so I knew that there was a high likelihood that by the time November 1 rolled around, I might well forget those sentences. They might be superseded by something better (or by something worse). Or I might just start NaNoWriMo with a blank mind, having to manufacture a whole new start when November began.

But whatever was to become of those sentences, I was quite sure that I was going to try to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November, 02005.

When November started, I came up with a working title. As the month wore on, I scrapped that title in favor of another and then scrapped that replacement title for yet another. I ran out of steam a couple of times and had to dig deep to figure out how to keep going (in terms of narrative direction, more than in terms of inspiration or will to continue).

As it happened, those opening two sentences remained intact in my mind until November 1. They were the first sentences I typed in my attempt, and they still stand as the first sentences on what is now a mere first draft. I did not reach my goal of 50,000 words. Instead I managed just over 40,000. I still think those sentences are strong. And I managed to come up with many other passages of which I am proud. In fact, overall, I'm pretty proud of what I did manage to accomplish. While I fell short of the 50,000 word goal, I think I did manage to compose a cohesive work of fiction. "Cohesive" is apparently something that escapes the grasp of many NaNoWriMo winners.

I haven't yet gotten all the way through on my first pass at proofreading. That will come with time. I'm sure of it.

The feedback I've gotten from the few people who have provided such has largely been encouraging, and I'm pretty sure a small gem can be pulled from that first draft. But now, as the summer is winding down, I find myself not so interested in revisiting that first attempt. Instead, I am looking forward to NaNoWriMo 02006.

I have not fixed on an opening yet. I have had some ideas bouncing around in my skull. But none has jumped out as an imperative. At the moment, I can't recall a single one. But I'm confident that in the next few months, something will begin to congeal--or at least some idea will make itself persistent. And when November starts, I will be ready to go once again into the vast expanse of literary wilderness that is NaNoWriMo.

And you're all invited to play along! If you're interested, visit and sign up.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

More Minor Tragedies

I've been thinking for some time about some of the little things in the world that count as (or that should count as) tragic. (See my previous post about "Walking on Sunshine".) Note: These are not seriously tragic issues that are about real human suffering. They are minor things that don't have any really major implications. They are minor tragedies, with the emphasis on "minor".

Tops on my list: Churches that have "hours of operation". There is something horrible about the notion that churches and synagogues (and mosques, I assume) have locks on their doors and that certain people hold the keys and that the doors are sometimes locked. It's a symptom of the world we live in, and I understand it. However, I believe in my heart that this is a very sad state of affairs. These places should offer sanctuary. They should be places of refuge. That's not a part-time endeavour. To my way of thinking, it's an all-or-nothing proposition. (All-or-nothing in terms of when this sanctuary is offered, not all-or-nothing in terms of what the refuge should be offered for.) I firmly believe that criminals should be brought to justice, and that means that a church should not offer protection from the law. However, in terms of offering refuge from the pressures of the world, I believe that a church should serve its function at 3.45 a.m., just as well as it should at noon or at 2.54 p.m.

Next on my list: Ronnie Spector's vocals on The Ronettes' version of "Frosty the Snowman". I can't really explain why, but it's absolutely heartwrenching to me. The song is kind of a happy song, filled with all that childlike wonder and Christmastime joy. And Phil Spector's "wall of sound" is almost the very definition of "joyful noise". How could something so positively exuberant possibly land on my list of "minor tragedies"? I'm not really sure. But what I am sure of is that that vocal just kills me every time! No kidding: it brings me to the verge of tears.

And last for now: The third part of the bell ringer joke. For years, we've been hearing that the third part of the joke is a major letdown after the pure comic genius of the first two parts. Nobody who had heard the third part would ever even tell us the third part, because either (a) "it's so bad that it isn't worth repeating" or (b) "it was so bad that I forgot what it was". In previous posts, I've mentioned two uncles. This "I forgot it" excuse was offered up by uncle #3. Well, a couple of days ago, Beth got it into her head to try to track down the third part on the internet. What she dug up was so abominable that it lived up (down?) to all the hype (anti-hype?). So I forwarded it to my uncle, who responded that not only was it not what he had heard, but that it was actually better than what he had heard. So he did some digging of his own and produced an alternative third part. Frankly, both versions are so horrible that they can't adequately be described. I'm hard-pressed to judge which of the two is worse. In either case, the third part of the joke is third on my list of "minor tragedies".

What the world needs, I think, is something along the lines of the Ansari X Prize, but with the goal of getting a genuinely funny third bell ringer joke. It may take a few years of our finest minds working towards the solution, but I think it can probably be done. It's a noble goal. Too bad I'm not independently wealthy!

Friday, August 4, 2006

An Update and A Random Observation


So it's been a while since my last post. In the intervening time, we took a little vacation to Las Vegas and surrounding areas (Zion and Bryce in Utah, and a quick trip into California to visit my aunt and uncle). Zion and Bryce are spectacular. Vegas is a spectacle. And California was on fire! (We saw lots of smoke from wildfires and were close enough that we actually saw a dump of fire retardant from a helicopter.) Fires notwithstanding, California was inspirational, as we passed by (through) a huge wind farm. How people can say that those windmills are an eyesore is completely beyond my comprehension. I think they're beautiful, partly because of the pure aesthetics and partly because of what they represent.

While in Vegas, we renewed our vows on our third wedding anniversary with a giant Elvis as the officiant. (Perhaps I'll post a picture or two sometime.)

Since then, we've had our first official house guests in the new house. Chris and Petra came to visit a week ago. They had just gotten engaged after the start of their road trip. (We were at the tail end of their trip.) So I guess we got the honor of being the first people "from back home" to see the ring on Petra's finger. Congratulations again, Chris and Petra!

Otherwise, I've just been working too hard.

So that's the Update. And here's the Random Observation (for the purpose of easing me back into the swing of blogging without too much straining):

I think it may be an (tragic?) accident of history that I haven't heard "Walking on Sunshine" at all this summer. This may just be because I haven't been tuned in this year to whatever I had been tuned in to in all those previous years. The song had seemed inescapably pervasive for so many summers. I now find myself wondering whether perhaps I haven't heard it this year because nobody wants to say "Katrina and the Waves" (or to even think it) in the aftermath of the sinking of New Orleans.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Things Heard on the Radio

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to NPR and I heard reporter Libby Lewis giving a report in which she mentioned Lewis Libby. Not especially interesting, but I thought it was mildly amusing.


Yesterday, I listened live to G.W. Bush's press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi. I believe this was within a couple of hours of the U.S. Supreme Court essentially saying that Bush's plan for his captives (or are we supposed to say "detainees"?) in Guantanamo Bay is unwarranted and illegal. Before he started taking questions, he did some speechifying. During this segment, he said the following (in regards to having spoken with a Japanese woman whose daughter was apparently (from what I gather) abducted from Japan and brought to North Korea in what was surely an illegal act):

It also reminded me about the nature of the regime -- what kind of regime would kidnap people, just take them off offshore, you know[?]

Note: I've copied this quotation directly from the White House web site ( And you can tell it's not been cleaned to make Bush look better. (Note the "sic" in the first paragraph if you choose to visit the transcript.) The question mark is mine. The transcriptionist decided to use a semicolon and follow it with some more rambling that I've omitted in my block quote above.

Of course, he said it with all of the heartfelt sincerity that someone like him can muster. That is, he said it without any indication whatsoever that any sense of irony was warranted. Today, we call that "heartfelt sincerity" where in other--better--times, we might call it "dimwitted numbskullery".

He's "hosting" how many people in Gitmo? With charges having been brought against how few? And how many of them were "persuasively invited" (we don't say "abducted" in this circumstance, of course) within 6,000 miles of where they're being "treated to a little bit of American hospitality"? (Might as well commit to the euphemisms, right?)

I'm not a big fan of the profanity and I like to be kind in speaking of others. But sometimes I just want to scream out: "Schmuck!"

Sunday, June 25, 2006

A Family of Loons

Yesterday, Beth was working and I was not. After I joined her for her lunch break, I swiped her car, loaded it up with my kayak and gear, and went out to Grafton Pond. I spent about an hour and a quarter on the water. As I was heading back to shore, I came across a family of two adult loons and one baby:

Adult loon, swimming.

Adult loon, stretching its wings.

Adult loon and baby loon.

My photographic skills are not quite brilliant, but I'm happy enough with these shots that I'm willing to share them.

I believe these are the first loons I've ever seen in the wild. Awfully pretty birds, they are.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

T-Shirt Designs

Last weekend, we went to MINIs On Top 2006. We went up on Friday and I was wearing a t-shirt of my own design. I got several compliments on it, so I'm taking that as an encouragement to mention my t-shirt designs here. These are available through cafepress, in case you're interested. The two designs I'm offering at the moment couldn't possibly hold much interest for anyone outside of New Hampshire. Perhaps future designs will appeal to a wider audience. I'll be sure to post new designs here as I produce them. As with everything I post, I welcome your feedback.

If you refuse to live free, I may be forced to kill you.

Live free or die. The choice is yours.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Obscure Music (to answer your question)

On Tuesday or Wednesday of last week, I stopped in to the local supermarket. Beth had asked me to pick up some deli meat and as it was being sliced, I found myself in conversation with a couple of the guys who worked there. The younger-looking one (who I'm guessing is somewhere between 14 and 18 years my junior) asked what kind of music I listen to and all I came up with was "a wide variety of stuff".

Then he asked whether I listened to any really obscure bands. I was still kind of in a daze from Monday and I don't think all of my synapses were really firing at full strength, so I just kind of fell into letting him know that my favorite band is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and that I also really dig Morphine and Pixies.

I think all three are fairly obscure. He was unfamiliar with Nick Cave, but something in his appearance led me to believe that I shouldn't steer him away from investigating. (I did get the impression that he was actually seeking recommendations for what to seek out rather than just making idle conversation.) As much as I love Nick Cave, I simply can't recommend him to everyone. Beth hates him. I'm sure my sister would last about 2 seconds with a Bad Seeds album. Frankly, when I first started listening (to an album called Henry's Dream), I just didn't know what to make of it. There are two things I can say with a fair degree of certainty about this band:
  1. The average music listener simply does not have an appropriate frame of reference in which to put this stuff. Given this, it's certainly disorienting (and frankly, offputting). This was certainly the case with me, initially. But for some reason, I decided to keep listening until I "got it". (I'll freely admit that my first instinct was to simply give up and chalk it up to being "not my taste".)
  2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are just not for everyone. For some reason, for me, Henry's Dream did click after a day of repeated listening, and I've never looked back. I think that most people could listen and listen and listen some more and still never "get it". That's fine. If you can't "get" Stevie Ray Vaughan, then I think you're missing something fundamental. If you can't "get" The Beatles or Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or Robert Johnson, then I think you're missing something fundamental. But if you can't "get" Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, so be it.
As for Morphine, if you haven't heard them, please make a point of it. Get your hands on a copy of their second album (Cure for Pain) and give it a listen. Will it change your life? Probably not. But it will show you a possibility you probably hadn't ever thought of. If you don't dig it, that's OK. But it's worth a shot. I mean that. It's REALLY worth a shot.

And as for Pixies, here's what I can say: If you're in the 16-24 age range, Pixies should be for you what The Velvet Underground should be for people in the 32-40 age range. What do I mean by that? (a) It's under the radar of lots of folks. (b) It's edgier than its contemporaries. (In the case of the Velvets, edgier, for example, than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys. In the case of Pixies, edgier than whatever else was happening in the late 80s and very early 90s. (Frankly, I was very out of touch with that pabulum at the time, and I haven't gotten the sense that I was missing much. I was heavy into the classic rock then, and Pixies are what broke through.)) (c) To some degree it's what gave birth to what you probably grew up considering the most meaningful music out there. (Without Pixies, there is no Nirvana. Without Nirvana, some might argue, rock is dead by 1995.)

But I need to get back to what I really started this blog entry for. The question was intriguing. Especially if we rephrase it as follows:

"What music do you know of that's really worth tracking down, for a 20-ish person who's interested in expanding his/her musical horizons?"

I've been pondering this for the better part of a week now. And I have some ideas. I'm hoping others will add to this list with comments of their own, because I think it's a valuable exercise:

So, here's what I've come up with. The degree of obscurity is, I'm sure very variable. But I think overall, this is probably a bunch of stuff that most "kids" these days are pretty much unaware of:

  • Get your hands on anything by Blast Off Country Style. (No, it's not country music!) It's sort of really good bubble-gum pop, believe it or not. Teenage music. (Themes include being a high school nerd looking forward to getting into a top college.) Not angsty, really. Fun. Catchy. Just a good time!
  • Get your hands on Professor Longhair's Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo. It's a spectacularly clean, crisp recording of an old dude playing rock and roll like you've never heard before. There's nothing abrasive about it. It's not making a statement. It's not anti-establishment. It's not cutting-edge. It's just plain perfect. Listen and learn.
  • Find a copy of Candy Machine's A Modest Proposal. Here's where you'll find an edge. It's hard and it's fast, and it might just make you wonder why Soundgarden and Alice in Chains ever got press. Okay, so maybe it was a little late to the party, but it has more of a punk attitude and an altogether better sound than any of that stuff.
  • Listen to Clifton Chenier, especially Bayou Blues. Think the accordion is for polkas? Think again! This record rocks, and you'll be hard pressed to find a more perfectly plaintive vocal than what Clifton laid down on "The Things I Did For You".
  • When I was a kid, I was always aware of Chuck Berry. He was just sort of a part of the landscape. His time had come and gone, but I always knew he was the true King of Rock and Roll (Elvis wasn't even court jester. Elvis wasn't even in the castle. Elvis was just a drunk clown, wishing his money and fame could make him worthy of kissing Chuck Berry's ring.) My fear is that Chuck Berry has dropped out of the collective consciousness of people younger than myself. I really hope not. Whether you think you know Chuck Berry or not, find some really old Chuck Berry and listen to it. My favorite tracks are "Jaguar and Thunderbird", "Anthony Boy" and "Jo Jo Gunne". But it's all good.
  • I happen to like a band called Daisy Chainsaw who had a bit of a hit with "Love Your Money" about 14 years ago. The last I heard, the lead singer, Katie Jane Garside, had decided to pursue a career in opera. I don't know how that worked out (or even whether it's true), but I know it was her girly-girl vocals that really kicked this band into a different orbit. Sonically, I think of them as being really sort of Brit-Grunge. But I don't know whether the Grunge community wanted anything to do with them.
  • Less obscure than lots on my list is Lyle Lovett. The country community seems to have disowned him long before it disowned Dixie Chicks. (Too odd, too quirky, too versatile, too clever?) You may know him more as the former Mr. Julia Roberts than as a musician. (You may also know him from several movie appearances. He has a face that, shall we say(?), isn't easily forgotten.) But the bottom line is: This guy can write a song like nobody's business. He's the only musician who I consider to be a country artist who I thoroughly enjoy listening to.
  • And the best new song I've heard in the last year is a little ditty entitled "slung-lo" by Erin McKeown. I guess the song is actually about three years old, but I just discovered it a few months ago. It goes down really smooth. (This is one I can easily imagine my sister really enjoying.)

Monday, June 19, 2006

On Burying My Uncle

Last week started very badly, with the news that my much beloved uncle, Elie, had succumbed to the cancer he had been fighting since late last year. The burial was on Monday, and so Beth and I drove down to Long Island to be there for that. It was nice seeing family (some of whom I hadn't seen in a couple of decades), although the circumstances for bringing us together were the saddest imaginable.

I am very thankful that we now have a GPS device that gives us on-the-fly directions to where we're going. The trip was estimated at 4 1/2 hours. With the NYC-area traffic thrown in, it took us just 5 hours, which gave us plenty of time to get there early and have some lunch before heading to the cemetery. (This in contrast to a few years ago when we missed my grandfather's funeral because the mapquest directions we had printed were wholly inadequate and got us so very lost that we never did find the cemetery. On that occasion, we ended up heading home thoroughly disheartened just by the fruitless effort. This time, we're strictly devastated by the loss.)

Beth only met Uncle Elie once, at our wedding, but she ended up doing a lot of crying at his burial because (1) it meant the world to her that he came a couple of thousand miles to our wedding when my own father wouldn't even make the trip a couple of dozen miles and (2) she knew how wonderful a person he was, how much he was loved by so many people, and how unfair it was that he should have to die so young.

What I found at Uncle Elie's burial was that I felt compelled to participate quite heartily in the shovelling. For some reason, the possibility of letting the cemetery workers and their machinery put the dirt over him was a bit too unbearable to accept. I felt it needed to be done by people who knew him and who loved him instead of by strangers just doing their job.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Going to Town Meeting or, Rediscovering Direct Democracy

On May 9, Beth and I attended our first town meeting. This seems to be a peculiarity of life in New England. Once a year, the town has a meeting in which residents are welcome to speak their minds on various issues and to vote. It was an interesting process.

I was disappointed by the low turnout. In a town of over 6,000 people, I don't think any of the Articles received more than 325 votes. That's pretty sad, especially to someone who cherishes the idea of democracy and who thinks that direct democracy should be considered a nobler system than representative democracy.

The way things worked is that there were five uncontested elections and two or three other Articles that were voted on by paper ballot without public discussion. The balloting for these issues was open all day, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. At 6 p.m., the town meeting began.

I don't believe that the room had more than 250 people in it at any time during the meeting. For each of the remaining Articles, there was public discussion. Anyone who wanted to say their piece on any particular issue was invited to come forward to speak into the microphone in front of the stage. When everyone who wanted to speak to a particular issue had done so, we voted on the article in question. It was all Yea or Nay. A couple of Articles were voted on by secret ballot (dropping a "Yes" or "No" card into a box), but most were voted on by the raising of voter cards to signify our "Yea" or "Nay". Some results were obvious and were not tallied. Others were less apparent and were tallied.

I went in expecting just to listen, but I ended up going up to the microphone a few times. Much to my surprise, even Beth went up to the microphone once. The issue on the agenda that was of most importance to both of us (and which we felt most strongly compelled to speak out about) was an early item on the agenda. It had to do with whether the town was in favor of moving towards a municipally run curbside trash removal and recycling program.

While this town has very much to be proud of, its current recycling rate should be a source of great shame. I wasn't trying to make anyone feel ashamed, but I did want to make a point of fostering a sense that a much higher recycling rate is very easily attainable and should really be a community goal.

After a while, Beth and I were both pretty famished, as we hadn't eaten before going to the meeting. Beth's legs were also falling asleep from sitting for so long. So when the few issues that seemed most vital had been dispensed with and the next couple of items scheduled were the least interesting to us, we took the opportunity to leave for a dinner break. After eating, Beth wanted to go back home. So she drove us home and I headed back out to catch the tail end of the meeting.

I spoke up on another issue or two towards the end. Beth watched on the TV. (As mentioned before, this town has a lot to be proud of. One such thing is that it has its own television station that broadcasts various meetings (annual town meeting, zoning board meetings, town select board meetings), among other things). I haven't yet caught a rerun of the town meeting. Perhaps I will someday. I would like to. Partly because I think it'd be fun to point and laugh at myself, but more because of the discussion that I missed while we were out to dinner.

In general, I subscribe to the point of view that a single vote is pretty irrelevant in terms of making a real difference. Of course, if you've read my campaign web site, you'll know that I still very strongly believe that the act of voting is extremely important. Saying "here I am and I count" is generally more meaningful than is the content of any individual vote. But here's the thing about what I missed:

We, as a voting body, were somewhere between the size of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. This means that we were really quite a small number of people making our decisions. This was direct democracy, and I hope that someone who didn't attend this year's meeting (either here in Newport or in some other town) will read this blog entry and decide, based on my next sentence, to attend next year's meeting.

If I had been present for the votes I missed, and if I had voted "yea" for one of them, my vote would have been the vote that pushed the balance of the Article from a losing tie to a winning majority.

How's that for a wake up call as to the importance of participation?

As I said, I would like to catch a rerun of the town meeting. I'm very interested now in hearing the debate on that Article that lost by virtue of a tie. I will probably come out of it thinking what I thought going in: I really don't have any strong opinion on it either way. Or I might discover that I would have been opposed to the measure anyway, and not feel at all bad about not breaking the tie. But I might (and here's where the possibility is extremely interesting) end up kicking myself because by missing that vote, I missed out on a chance to do some real good.

Now, it may be woth noting that we really weren't dealing with the world's most weighty issues. We weren't voting to enact or repeal any laws. Basically, we were deciding things like whether we were interested in raising our own taxes in order to better equip our fire department. (I'm proud to say that we pretty overwhelmingly were--and that's the only result that I'm going to report here in this blog entry. (If you want to know what else we voted on and how we decided, I'm sure it's matter of public record...and announcing voting results really isn't my point here))

The point is: When you have a chance to participate in democracy, you should take that chance. Your participation might just be more important than you ever expected.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bleeding Heart Flower Photo

Bleeding Heart Flower

Here's a photo of a flower that's growing on our lawn. I've been mowing around it instead of chopping it down. It stands alone. When I first saw it, I assumed it was some sort of orchid. It seems I must have been wrong about that. It's apparently something called a bleeding heart, for obvious reasons, I think. Beautiful, no?

Saturday, May 27, 2006

On Time...Awfully Late...and Not There Yet

Well, of course it's been a lot longer since my last post than I ever intended. In case you were on the edge of your seat, you have my apologies. I think what I need to do is to start actually making time to blog instead of what I've been doing: merely hoping to find time to blog. If I wait for the time to arrive, it slips by, as there's always something that seems more pressing (even if that "something" amounts to nothing more than trying to reduce my sleep debt).

The day after my last post, the new issue of Make magazine arrived in my mailbox. This, of course, thwarted my efforts to quickly get through that Scientific American special issue that I mentioned in my last post. I highly recommend picking up the Scientific American issue, as it's fascinating. But I recommend taking a look at Make, even more strongly. When the fourth issue came out, I didn't think it was possible to produce a better issue of a magazine. Since then, I've been astonished to find that the fifth and sixth issues have been just as good, if not better.

I have finally gotten through the Scientific American issue. I haven't fully read all of the articles, but at least I've read all of the ones that are most important to me and parts of all of the others.

This got me interested in picking up a book that I had long ago started reading and never got around to finishing. So this morning, as we were headed out Essex, MA to take care of some preparatory stuff for this year's Minis On Top, I grabbed the book from the shelf. The book in question is Stewart Brand's The Clock Of The Long Now. It's terrific stuff, very much worth a read, particularly if you're interested in what the future holds or in making a positive contribution to the future or just interested in knowing why you should start to take a longer view than what you're used to.

I finished the book in the car today, and I'd like to share an excerpt here because I think this is one of the loveliest stories I've come across in a very long time:
[The] island, Visingsö, in the Swedish lake Vättern, has a gorgeous mature oak forest whose origin came to light in 01980 when the Swedish Navy received a letter from the Forestry Department reporting that the requested ship lumber was now ready. It turned out that in 01829 the Swedish Parliament, recognizing that it takes one hundred fifty years for oaks to mature and anticipating that there would be a shortage of timbers for its navy in the 01990s, ordered twenty thousand trees to be planted and protected for the navy.

Note: The five-digit year format is a consequence of the long-view thought process that informs the book and inspires the Long Now Foundation. Reading what I read this morning has inspired me to put out a feeler to see whether there's a way for me to change the date format on my blog to conform to this format. If I get a satisfactory answer, you'll see it reflected in my blog entries in the future. (Actually, it will probably propagate throughout my blog.) If not, perhaps it's enough to simply go on record now as saying: I think this is a good idea, worthy of consideration.

Having finished reading the book this morning, I was reminded of something that I had read in it a few years ago on a much earlier page. It's something that I think is worthy of commentary, and so I'm going to comment on it:
When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by the year 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.

Frankly, I think this quotation, particularly the last sentence, may be among the most profound statements ever uttered. It's attributed to Daniel Hillis, 01993. Hillis now apparently goes by "Danny" instead of "Daniel" and he's one of the founding members of the Long Now Foundation. That quotation, along with the few sentences that follow, is credited with being the inspiration for the Foundation and its grand project: The Clock/Library of the Long Now.

Sadly, I think the quotation will largely be lost to time, as a great portion of its profundity was stripped from it as the calendar rolled over on 1/1/02000. Now, the future is perhaps more nebulous than ever before. Advances are happening at such a breakneck speed that it's almost impossible to make meaningful predictions beyond just a few years. Frankly, I think it's not only difficult to make meaningful predictions, but it's very nearly equally difficult to make hopeful predictions.

"The future" is ever closer (as it hurtles towards us faster than we can keep up), even while it is ever more distant (as it's so far beyond our grasp). To make long term predictions, it's helpful to have a sense of continuity. It's helpful to have confidence in the fairly reliable accuracy of near-term predictions. That is, it's easier to predict what will be there ten years down the road if we have a pretty good sense of what will be there two or five years down the road. Think back five years. Did you have any idea at all about what your assumptions about the state of your world would be today?

If we forget the larger geopolitical issues, and focus on just small-scale stuff, I'm still astonished at what the last few years has wrought.

As an example, I told Beth just a couple of years ago (three years at most) that if I ever become one of those guys who has meaningful conversations about the features of his cell phone, she should shoot me. I guess it was about a year ago that I noticed there was actually a magazine on the rack at the book store about cell phones.

I'm not in a position to look at job applications, but my suspicion is that if it hasn't happened yet, the following scenario will start to happen soon. I have a notion that someone will list "cell phones" as a hobby, to show that he/she has interests outside of work and that he/she is a well-rounded person. And I further have a notion that the hiring manager will know what "cell phones", listed as a hobby, actually means.

To me, these notions are deeply disturbing.

I still hold firm to my assertion that Beth should shoot me if I ever get there. But I suspect that my resistance of that societal trend will very soon make me seem very much like a premature dinosaur.

I still haven't gotten to where I wanted to get in this blog. But that's enough for tonight. See you soon, I hope.

Sunday, May 7, 2006

The Time is Coming. . . .

While I was on my lunch break from the book store today, I wandered over to the Periodicals section, thinking that I would track down one of those magazines about living off-the-grid (power-wise, not technology-wise) and browse through it. [I'm terribly interested in the possibility of setting up a windmill for home electricity use, or possibly putting up a solar panel on the long south-facing side of our roof.] I got sidetracked, however, as my eye was caught by a special edition of Scientific American, devoted to the topic of time. I flipped through it a bit and I bought it. It seems like a very interesting read from what I've seen so far.

I'm going into it with my own preconceived notions. Chief among them, time always moves forwards, never backwards. What happened already has happened and will forever be in the past. It is not possible to go back to before a previous occurrence.

Reading this magazine may turn out to dispel these notions. I doubt it, but I'm keeping an open mind. I'll let you know if it succeeds in this regard.

This whole notion of time is something that I find fairly fascinating. I have been thinking about it for quite some time. It seems to provide a fairly inexhaustible opportunity for mental exercise for those who choose to ponder it. I find it's a sort of "thought toy".

I'm going in believing that time may be relative. Time may pass more quickly or slowly depending on perspective. It's an interesting concept and I don't doubt that Einstein was right on that count. What I haven't seen yet is any convincing argument that the jump from "slowing down and speeding up of time" to "the reversal of time" is a reasonable jump. Surely it's conceivable and it makes for interesting science fiction (at least sometimes). But I don't yet believe it's plausible.

In the meantime, I've been slowly working on an animated demonstration of what I believe to be the main point of impossibility (or EXTREME unlikelihood, anyway--shall we say "stumbling block"?) which would preclude the possibility of human time travel into the past--and no, it doesn't have anything at all to do with the usual "paradox" that's been discussed a million times before.

I don't find myself with much time available for this pursuit. That lack of available time, combined with my not necessarily being a master of the tools at my disposal, means that the illustration/animation and accompanying explanation will take me some time to post. If I've tantalized you with this come-on, you'll just have to bear with me. I hope it'll be worth the wait. (Sure, I could simplify my illustration and crank something out in Illustrator or Photoshop, but it's been a while since I've really tinkered in my 3-D software, and this seems like a perfectly good excuse.)

I also mentioned in my second blog entry that I intend to post something about "Designing and implementing the first ever meaningful time-travel experiment." Of course, it's been fully designed in my mind. I haven't yet implemented it, but when I do, this blog will be the place to find out about it. You'll probably be astonished at how simple an idea it is and how easy it will be to set in motion. It's just a matter of choosing the appropriate moment. (Of course, you might be terribly disappointed at just what the experiment is set up to do, but I have confidence that it's a good methodology for what it's meant to test.)

Monday, May 1, 2006

What of this Immigration Reform Brouhaha?

Well, I figure it's about time that I get around to saying something about this. My delay is certainly not from a lack of things to say. If anything, it's from an overabundance of things to say. This has led to a bit of paralysis, as it's been difficult to try to distill my thoughts down to a blog-entry-sized object. (I think most of my entries are probably too long anyway, and this one has the potential to be a monster.) As today's the day of the "Great American Boycott" and protests in the streets, I might as well take this opportunity to yammer along with everyone else. Here goes:

On the maternal side of my family, my mother is a first-generation native-born American. On the paternal side, my father is either first- or second-generation (depending on which of his parents is counted as the precedent setter in such matters). So what that means is that I come from immigrants, and not from all that long ago. Three of my four grandparents were born in foreign lands. It is of absolutely no consequence to me whether they all came here legally or not. The truth of the matter is that I have no idea whether any of them were illegals or not. I'm sure it would be a simple matter of making a quick phone call to my parents to find out. But I think it's important to go on record as saying that what follows are my opinions on the debate, untainted by that knowledge. . . . And to furthermore go on record as promising you, gentle reader, that if/when I find the answer to that question, it stands no chance of influencing how much I appreciate their sacrifices or how glad I am that they made their journeys. Nor does the answer hold any transformative power over any opinions I am about to express in the following paragraphs.

These people who are saying "a person can't be illegal" are making an absurd point. Likewise, the senators (McCain, Kennedy, etc., . . .) who keep saying "I wouldn't call it amnesty". Blah, blah, blah.

If they want to argue semantics, they make no headway.

Don't want me to say "illegal alien"? How about "criminal trespasser?" Does that have a nicer ring to it? I don't think so. Frankly, I think "illegal alien" has a much softer tone to it. It's nice and gentle. Not quite so hostile. And so I find it to be a preferable term. That doesn't make it any more accurate in its description. Either way, coming here illegally is a crime.

Don't want me to say "amnesty"? Try coming up with a bill that says something other than [paraphrasing here:] consequence-free environment. If a person's first act on American soil is to commit a crime by stepping onto American soil, then that person is a criminal. Period. Just like I'm a criminal because sometimes I speed. Now, that's an entirely separate issue from whether it's a felony or a misdemeanor that I'm committing. The point is that when I break the law, I accept that there are potential consequences. I live in a society that says, "If you speed, you might get fined. You might get points added to your record, the cumulative value of which might eventually make it illegal for you to operate a motor vehicle at all." I accept that. And I weigh the value of that risk against the value of committing the crime. I expect that when I get caught, there will be consequences (and I do make a conscious effort to keep within the posted speed limit). I don't expect a cop to let me off with a warning, and I have enough of a conscience that I will refuse (on principle) to contest any speeding ticket if I was, in fact, speeding.

This is the dance of the criminal, no? Weighing the risk against the reward and deciding whether it's worth it? This is anarchy. It's how the world works. And it keeps most of the people within generally accepted societal norms most of the time. That's the best we can hope to do.

Depending on the severity of the punishment (which is largely dictated by how much the society abhors the act (or at least that's how it should be)), fewer people step outside of the major boundaries than step outside of the minor ones. If we, as a society, say "if you've broken this law, then we won't make any effort at all to take you to task for it"--which is exactly what the McCain/Kennedy bill proposes to say--then we, as a society, are offering amnesty to criminals. It really is that simple. Exactly that simple. No more, no less. Period.

It doesn't depend on "what the definition of is is". (And while I'm here, I might as well go back an administration to say this: If she came into contact with your naughty bits or if you came into contact with her naughty bits, and if that contact was for the purpose of either procreation (which it apparently wasn't) or to provide at least one of you with physical pleasure (which it apparently was), then YES, OF COURSE it was sex!!!! That there has ever been anyone who stood on the other side of the fence on that issue is an astonishing bit of evidence that our society is way on the wrong side of the mountain, and not on its way up.)

Looking back on my life, many of the longest-lasting relationships I have had (not counting family) have largely been with people who were born outside of this country. And it's probably fair to say that I consider several of them to be among my best friends--the people who, in large part, have meant the most to me over the years.

There are a few points that should be noted here:

1) I didn't travel abroad to meet them. They came here (from Nicaragua, from Vietnam, from Korea, from Canada, etc., . . .).

2) I never asked any of them whether they came here legally. That's not my business. I wasn't employing them. Instead, I was sharing my path in life, to one degree or another, with them. I got to know them as people. And that's what enriched me along the way.

3) My assumption upon meeting people is to trust that they are not up to no good. My assumption as regards foreigners: If you've come here, you've come here legally.

I like to believe the best in people unless/until given reason to believe otherwise. Maybe that's just my nature or maybe it's something in the American mindset. (Note: I really hope it's the latter. I like to think this trust and appreciation for what others can bring to the table is a shared American experience. I like to think it's among the best qualities that we, as a people, can aspire to exhibit.)

4) If I were hiring these people, you bet I would consider it my responsibility to get the appropriate documentation as evidence that it's legal for me to hire them (and legal for them to be hired). That's among the responsibilities of a business owner. Follow the laws of the land.

I'm a white guy. (My wife told me a few weeks ago that I'm the whitest guy she knows, which frankly disturbed me a bit.) I don't have a foreign accent. I speak like someone who has spent his entire life here. I walk the streets as if I am entitled by birthright to walk the streets (as opposed to acting like I'm afraid I will be exposed as an interloper). I mention these last few points to demonstrate one thing: If you were to meet me in person, you would have absolutely no reason to believe anything other than that I am a citizen. And yet, I have never received a "pass" on the citizenship paperwork issue when getting hired for a job. My expectation is that if I had been unable to provide that documentation, I would have been turned away. That's how this system is supposed to work.

Illegal immigrants are criminals, by definition. The question for employers then becomes: Will you choose to join them in that classification or will you do what the law says you are supposed to do? And the question for our society becomes: Will you condone these crimes or not?

And that's really where this current debate stands.

It's sort of like an inverted ex post facto, no? For me, there's where the real fascinating point of the whole brouhaha lies.

Fourth: (And this is where I am most passionate about this issue. . .) I can't for the life of me figure out why we haven't established an official national language!* I believe we should. (Actually, I believe previous generations should have done so long ago, but given that it hasn't happened yet, isn't it about time?)

We've come a long way in fighting discrimination. An employer can't legally discriminate on the basis of skin color or religion or sex (or, I'm happy to be able to report, here in New Hampshire (although this state is sadly in the small minority) on the basis of sexual orientation). I think we're a stronger and better country because we've outlawed these kinds of institutional discrimination. There is absolutely no reason why any of these forms of discrimination would benefit us.

But there is one area where I can unhappily forsee our trajectory going. If we reach it, we've gone too far: I don't ever want to wake up knowing that employers in this country are required to hire people who can't communicate in English because it violates some wrong-minded anti-discrimination law. I firmly believe that we need a common tongue for our nation to continue to thrive. We need to be able to communicate with each other. Where that ability breaks down, so does our nation.

I guess I've gone on long enough for tonight. And I haven't even touched on the notion of what we symbolize to the rest of the world:
[Are we widely considered to be the land of opportunity or is that phrase meaningful only to our own national self-identity? How and why has (or hasn't) this meme spread throughout the globe? Shouldn't we be combatting it, not by restricting the opportunity here, but by promoting opportunity elsewhere? Couldn't making the rest of the world feel less downtrodden help to decrease anti-American sentiment? Wouldn't that help our national security more in the long term than would building a wall?]

Oh well, maybe another day. For now, I'm hungry. It's time to fix myself a meal.

* To be more accurate, I would have us establish two official languages: English and American Sign Language.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Kayaking, Part 2

Loaded Up

As "promised" in my previous kayaking post, here's a picture of our (Beth's) Mini loaded up for a kayaking trip. Pretty silly looking, eh?

Well, we went out again today, this time to McDaniels Marsh. This body of water covers well over twice the area of Grafton Pond, although it's extremely shallow. I remembered to take a GPS unit this time. We paddled together to about 1.25 miles away from where we parked before Beth decided to stop for a rest while allowing me to go on for a while alone. I got to what I believe was pretty much the far end of the marsh, at 1.65 miles from the car.

We saw a painted turtle, some small fishes, and a few ducks. I also spotted a couple of amphibians (newts or salamanders, I'm guessing), a kingfisher, and a healthy looking snapping turtle.

When we got back to shore I flipped my boat to try draining it, and (much to my surprise) discovered that there were about a dozen (maybe more) leeches attached to the hull! Which leads to my question of the day: Does anyone out there have advice for the best way to humanely remove a leech from a kayak's belly?

I'm really quite bewildered as to why they would have attached there in the first place. Surely, they didn't find it loaded with any tasty juices!

The best approach I was able to come up with for removing them was the "grab and pull" technique. This was fairly easy in the case of the smaller ones, but the larger ones really had quite a good grip on the boat and weren't too keen on letting go. I have nothing against the leeches (although I really don't want to transport them around the state) and I have no desire to cause them any harm. I can't help but think that the amount of squeezing I had to do to maintain my grip must have been uncomfortable, if not downright damaging, to the poor creatures. Perhaps I'm underestimating just how hardy they really are. They certainly turned out to be less squishable than they look!

After getting my hull cleaned, We flipped Beth's kayak and found leeches there, as well. She had fewer of them, which I'd tend to attribute less to the color difference in the boats than to my having gone farther into the marsh than she went.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Random(ish) Collection of Thoughts

I've been listening to public radio quite a lot recently and I've been reading Robert Reich's blog. These have stimulated in me some thoughts that I think might be worth mentioning here in my blog:
  1. Why are Americans so adept at electing presidents who are either incapable or unwilling when it comes to properly pronouncing the word "nuclear"? It's just three syllables. The "E" is long. There's only one "U". And the "C" is followed by an "L" with no vowel between them. How difficult is that?
  2. If there are any high school teachers reading this who might have a bit of free time to run a simple experiment, I'd appreciate the following:
    • Have your students take out a sheet of paper.
    • Ask your students to each write 20 complete sentences of varying complexity. Stress that the goal is 20 complete sentences. The subject matter is irrelevant. There is no requirement to tell truths. There is no requirement that the sentences be grouped into paragraphs.
    • Request that your students not copy from each other or confer or seek advice. The hope is that each student will do his or her own work.
    • Provide a sufficient amount of time for completion of the task.
    • Collect the papers.
    • "Grade" the papers. Basically, this is a pass/fail experiment. The goal is to figure out how many of your students are capable of completing the assignment with no preparation.
    • We're looking for two things: (1) Different sentence structures. (That is, a page full of "I am sad.", "I am bored.", "I am tired.", "This is dumb.", etc.,. . . does not pass.) (2) Complete sentences. (No fragments, nothing that lacks a subject or a verb, etc.,. . .)
    • Let me know what percentage of students passed. If you'd like to forward me the papers, I'd probably be interested in reading them, but that's not essential to my request.
    I bring this up because I was listening to some people discussing the state of our educational system and what needs to be done to fix it. For a few years, I've been hearing rumors of employers having difficulty finding employees who are capable of writing. And I have a notion that this test is a very simple, very quick way of determining, to some degree, which students really should be identified as being in desperate need of intense help. I happen to believe that if someone is in high school and can't pass this test, that student has cheated the system (or been cheated by the system) for too long. As an absolute minimum, inability to pass this test should be a guarantee of no diploma.
  3. On Tuesday, Diane Rehm had a guest opining about how wrong it is of these retired generals to speak their minds about D. Rumsfeld. I believe the guest himself was a retired general, although I may be mistaken. Among the things he said was this: "If the president supports him, then I support him." I wonder whether to interpret this as "If the person who occupies the office of the presidency supports him. . ." (in which case, this is blind faith in leadership and it reflects a troubling lack of thought). Or perhaps it should be interpreted as "If George W. Bush supports him. . ." (in which case, this indicates faith in someone who has proven to be unworthy of trust, let alone faith.) Either way, it makes me worry.

Monday, April 17, 2006

New to Kayaking

After half a year on layaway, Beth and I finally completed the transaction and took delivery on our new kayaks this past weekend. We learned or were reminded of several good lessons:
  • What is known in New Hampshire as a fairly small pond is the equivalent of what would, in Maryland, be known as a pretty substantial lake. Our first outing with our new boats was to a beautiful body of water known as Grafton Pond. It has apparently grown from its original size as a result of damming, but it's still considered to be pretty small. In Maryland, there are no natural lakes. (A fact I learned years ago from Beth, who knows many things.) This means that our Maryland-oriented sense of inland bodies of water is pretty warped. In a sense, these lowered expectations are good for us. They keep us from taking for granted the comparative grandeur of our new environs.
  • When the wind kicks up, a flat body of water can become surprisingly choppy, surprisingly quickly.
  • There are places (for example, one particular area I found myself in while trying to complete a circuit around a little island) where paddling against the current is a fairly futile exercise. Sometimes, it makes sense to just let the current do with you as it will for a while. When the view is nice and there's no rush to get anywhere quickly, this can be a most enjoyable approach.
  • It is wise to carry a GPS device with you when kayaking. Covering pretty good stretches is really quite easy in a kayak, and without a GPS device handy, it would be easy to lose track of where you put in. As Grafton Pond is not very big (by local standards), and as we were eager to get out on the water, we had neglected to pack a GPS device with us. So, once out on the water, we made an early decision to not go into the various coves and out-of-the way areas of the pond. Instead, we made sure to keep the access beach in pretty plain sight. This, of course, detracted from what the expedition could have been, but we had a wonderful time anyway.
  • Mini Cooper + roof rack +kayaks results in an assembly that's too tall to fit though our garage's doorway. So, while we can attach and detach the rack to and from the car inside of the garage, we have to load and unload the kayaks to and from it outside. The overall appearance of the whole assembly is fairly comical. (I'll try to remember to take and post a photo on our next trip.) We got ourselves some pretty short kayaks. Had we gotten the Pungo 120 model instead of the Pungo 100, the boats would actually have been longer than the car.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Thanks, Science Guy

I've said before and I'll surely say again that in my view, my generation is as much defined by Ultraman and Kung Fu Action Theater as by anything else. This may well define me as the lone member of "my generation". I'm not sure about whether that's the case or not. There may be others out there.

The bottom line on that definition probably amounts to little more than this: For better or for worse, my cultural awareness is and will likely always be something that (at least in part) is tinted by the influence of television. Whether that's ultimately a good or bad thing is not something that I'm interested in discussing at this point. (At least not during this blog entry.) However, I have mentioned it as simply a noteworthy scrap of information. Having said as much, I am willing to go on record as saying that neither is this truth a cause for great celebration nor is it one of the world's great tragedies. I'm quite certain that it falls somewhere on the line between those two extremes.

I bring this up as a way to getting to Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

A few nights ago, I was flipping between channels, when I happened to stop for a few minutes of Countdown With Keith Olberman (in which the part of Keith Olberman was being played by some other fellow whose face I didn't recognise and whose name I didn't catch). His guest for this segment was Bill Nye. They were discussing this fossil find (Tiktaalik, link 1, link 2).

Bill Nye said something that struck me as being very important, and I am extremely grateful for his having said it (even if it didn't reach nearly as large an audience as it needs to). I don't have the exact quote, so I'm paraphrasing here:
This notion of evolution as "improvement" is wrong. Improvement is a human idea and it has no bearing on the processes of evolution.

I bring this up because I think it's a very important concept. It is, in my view, one of the most fundamental concepts in our understanding of the universe.

"Evolution" does not equate with "improvement".
"Evolution" does not encompass "improvement".
"Evolution" does not engender "improvement".
And "evolution" does not imply "improvement".

The idea of improvement plays no role in the process of evolution. And I think that one of the great failings of our science education has been the failure to make this concept crystal clear.

This is one of the biggest problems I had in my high school biology class. Evolution is obvious. It makes sense. But to me, it always seemed that "improvement" was generally considered (if not outright taught) to be a strong overtone or a deep underpinning (take your pick) of the theory of evolution. And this always struck me as wrong, wrong, wrong.

It took me a while to come to terms with this discrepancy. And what I came up with all those years ago is exactly what Bill Nye said. In essence: I was not wrong in my understanding of how evolution works. My thought process was not at odds with science. Logic is logic, and rational thought is possible. The disconnect was merely an error of word association.

If you associate the word evolution with the word improvement, it won't make sense.

The reason: That association of words is nonsensical and illogical.

Thank you, Bill Nye, for saying so publicly.

It is fair to say that a fruit fly is just as evolved as a human being is. In fact, by some measures, it may be fair to say that a fruit fly is more evolved than is a human being. Certainly, a fruit fly's lineage includes many, many more generations than does a human being's. It takes us a long time to reach sexual maturity and to reproduce. In fact, it's probably fair to say that the human reproductive cycle is among the slowest in the animal kingdom. This does not mean that fruit flies are any better or worse than we are. We coexist. That's evidence of only one thing: Neither species has gone extinct yet. That is an observable fact. And there's no value judgement involved in saying so. By the same token, we are no more highly evolved than gorillas or chimps or monkeys or dogs. We have simply evolved along different (divergent) paths.

The idea that evolution is about adaptation is misleading. The idea that evolution is a process that is heading towards something (perfection?) is misguided. And the idea that evolution is about improvement is inaccurate.

Evolution is not about anything. It's just a natural process. It's simply the way things happen. And it is utterly indifferent to qualitative assessments.

Monday, April 10, 2006

About a Random Conversation...

I ran into John yesterday while I was on my lunch break from the book store. I hadn't seen him in a few weeks, and I hadn't ever discussed politics with him, as I had previously only spoken with him while we were working--and, of course, the company has a policy that discourages talking politics. Well, as this was my lunch break and as he's moved on to other employ, I asked him whether he had heard that I am running for president.

Almost immediately, he said, "I'll vote for you."

My instant response was, "Don't vote for me unless you're already not going to vote for someone else."

Interesting, this, because John knew nothing about my politics and I knew nothing about his, but he turned out to be exactly the sort of person at whom my campaign is aimed. In describing himself as someone who has opted out of the voting process, and in describing his reasons for having done so, he made it very clear that my target audience is not just a theoretical quantity. It is a living, breathing segment of the population.

This, of course, is something that I knew, but it was nice to hear it described so precisely by someone other than myself.

John used the term "puppet" where I have been known to use the term "bozo" (see my candidacy announcement). But that's just a matter of semantics, no?

Since I started this campaign, I have been deeply (almost troublingly) surprised by two things:
  1. How terribly easy it is to say "I'm running for president."
  2. How often the response is "I'll vote for you."
Add to this list my recent revelation about how easy it is to come across people who either are in my target audience or who are teetering on the edge of falling in. I'm generally very much an introvert. I don't do a lot of talking in general, and I do especially little talking with people I don't know. But every once in a while, I hand someone one of my campaign business cards or tell someone about my candidacy. My experience with John was the second similar experience in a week. The first was a discussion with a young waiter in a restaurant in MD. I don't think he was quite at the stage of having opted out, but he was clearly frustrated by the political system as it currently operates, and very encouraging to what I told him of what I'm doing.

As for the first, I have described this phenomenon as follows:
This would be a dangerous piece of knowledge if only I had actual aspirations of getting elected or if I thought for a second that I might extend my great experiment beyond these four years.

As for the second, I see three possible explanations:
  • People view me as extremely trustworthy. (I hope)
  • People just think it might be cool to vote for someone they've met, no matter what that person represents. (I fear)
  • People are so very bothered by the status quo that they figure I can't be any worse than what they already get. (I suspect)

Friday, April 7, 2006

Population Density

Below are two satellite images. One is centered on our old house in Maryland. The other is centered on our new (much older) house in New Hampshire. We used to live in a "town" (in quotes because in reality, it's nothing...not a city, not a town, not a village...really just a "rough idea of a place") that's ten square miles with a population well over 50,000 people. We now live in a town that's 40 square miles with a population between 6,000 and 7,000 people. I'll let you do the math. (What you'll come up with is that there's a lot less crowding here than there.) I figure what's pictured below is less than 4/100 of a square mile of ground in each case. And in case it isn't obvious, what you're looking at in the top photograph are two cul-de-sacs, surrounded by townhomes (or "row houses", depending on where you're from).


If I've done my figuring correctly, I've scaled these two images to show a land mass that's just about equal. (I figure ten seconds of latitude is the same distance no matter where on Earth it is. If you know otherwise, please let me know.)

Thanks to the USGS for making this sort of imagery so easily accessible. To get your own, go here:

Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Big Lottery Win

Well, I mentioned earlier that it would probably take me a while to get really ramped up on this blogging thing. But so far it seems both easy and enjoyable, so I think I'll get there without losing interest along the way.

Here's the latest news to report:

  1. After getting home from the movie tonight, I checked my lottery tickets from the $150+ million Powerball (4/1). Zero hits on ticket 1. Zero hits on ticket 2. And a big $7 win on ticket number 3. I believe that effectively doubles my lifetime lottery winnings.
  2. Beth took me to see V for Vendetta tonight. I thought it was fantastic! I'm only a few pages into the book (Beth's more than halfway through). We're both enjoying it so far. She tells me that the book is quite different from the movie (or vice-versa). But even if the book turns out to be much better than the movie, I'm not going to let that detract from my opinion of the movie. I'm funny that way.
  3. Yesterday evening we returned home from a few days spent back in MD. Work had me come down for a few days in-office to break the monotony of my telecommuting and to meet the folks who have been hired since we moved north at the end of August. The "excuse" for the timing was to attend the annual meeting at the start of the new fiscal year. Sadly, while the fiscal year started on schedule, the meeting has been postponed until some as-yet undetermined date. The days in the office felt much less productive than days spent here. But it was good to see the folks I knew and to meet the folks I didn't.
  4. Sunday we got to see family. Monday evening, we got together with Jim and Suzanne and their home zoo—including a couple of octopus hatchlings. On Tuesday evening, we got together with Joan and Carl. All of that visiting was really nice. That's what makes us wish we could stay longer.
  5. On the other hand, we missed our own little beasties. It was nice getting back to them yesterday. Newton, having messed in his box a little (which was expected) seems unfazed by the experience of spending a few days without us (unexpected). Sherman, on the other hand, was really quite clingy last night.
  6. Beth, formerly frightened of flying, is now seemingly completely at-ease with the whole process. On the way back, she got to be picked for a random search. I'm not sure whether that beats my lottery win, but it's certainly up there.
I guess that's enough for tonight.