Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What goes around . . .

I'm listening to Robert A. Caro's, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, right now (have been since July--it's huge okay, but two more CDs and I'm done), and if there's one thing I've learned about LBJ (besides the fact that he knew he wanted to be president before he could walk), it's that he was studiously careful, during those years that he was "Master of the Senate," not to do things, as a senator, that would set a precedent he might find restrictive and unpleasant should his ultimate ambition be realized. Today's news makes me wonder if Obama has read Caro's book.

Prions Revisited

Remember that whole thing about prions as the cause of Mad Cow and the accompanying analogy to Vonnegut's ice nine (see Prions and Ice Nine)?

Well, according to an article in today's news, it turns out that Mad Cow may be caused by a virus after all, and the prions could just be the effect, not the cause.

I'm not convinced though, and neither are the doctors/scientists just yet. My first question would be whether or not there are known varieties of virus that nothing seems to kill, as is the case with prions and Mad Cow, CJD-V, etc. Nor autoclave, nor alcohol, nor chlorine, nor you name it shall keep the mal-formed protein from its appointed rounds. Can a virus do that? Serious question. If you know, leave a comment, please.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Blogs on the War, from those in the middle of it

When I was in Afghanistan, (in fact, I returned four years ago today) I sent out an e-mail a night, more or less, to a small list of friends and family back home. I didn't know about blogs back then, even though a buddy in the Operations Center was frequently reading one of the first major blogs, Instapundit. Had I understood blogs, I might have gone that route. At any rate, many have, and if you're interested in reading about what's going on over there, from the guys in the middle of it, I'll be posting a short list. There are other long lists out there already, so I'll try to be selective rather than inclusive.

The first one to make the list merits inclusion if for no other reason than its strong appeal to the English professor in me through a damned fine epigraph and title. We'll see how it holds up, but I have high hopes.

Gregory who?

I am:
Gregory Benford
A master literary stylist who is also a working scientist.

Which science fiction writer are you?

And here's one of those things Wikipedia is good for, just in case anyone else is still just as in the dark as I am on which science fiction writer I am because, like me, they've never frippin' heard of Gregory Benford.

Hat tips: deVille, via Campbell

Sunday, January 28, 2007

From PETA to abortion, the death penalty, and Darfur

Occasionally, comments on posts become more interesting than the posts themselves, and when they do that and diverge sufficiently from the original topic that they risk being lost to all but the most ardent comment-surfers, they deserve a spot of their own. So it is with a thread spawned by Nate's comment on the PETA controversy. You can find the original post and its full comment thread here. Following is an edited summary of the relevant comments that led up to this post, and then my own response (which had to be a new post, I learned, because HaloScan commenting has limits on links).

Nate said:
An interesting query...for those who support PETA, what is their view on abortion? And the death penalty? And the starving, persecuted children of Darfur? My guess -- 1) Cool with it, 2) Not a supporter and 3) What?Isn't that ironic? Maybe I'm just a sarcastic cynic, only I'm not. Nate Flint Email 01.27.07 - 7:47 pm

To which Barry responded:
Nate, not a PETA supporter here, but couldn't resist your quick political quiz:Abortion - Against it for reasons of personal belief; as a matter of policy would prefer for it to remain legal, as the outcome of making it illegal is already known-bad. Don't want my tax dollars paying for it. Don't feel I have a right to impose my personal moral judgments on this particular issue on others, beyond that very narrow extent.Capital Punishment - Support the idea of it in theory, don't like its current implementation, since statistical analysis seems to suggest that the main deciding factor as to whether you get the hot shot or not is the race of the person you kill. The way to fix this problem, incidentally, is not to abolish the death penalty, but to raise the legal system's perception of the value of the lives of minority victims and encourage them to execute more people who murder minorities. In other words, I'd be for it unreservedly if death-penalty states offed more people and the distribution looked better.Darfur: It's an awful situation there; too bad it's "just" human suffering and there are no natural resources there that anyone elsewhere in the world might want, in which case the human suffering would then make a nice fig leaf for intervention. As it is, nothing's going to happen there in the near future except more genocide. Barry Campbell Email Homepage 01.28.07 - 4:17 am

To all of which, I have the following to say:

Is it really the race of the victim that's determinative here, or is it the race of the perp (which has always been my understanding)? Not that I've seen so many freshman essays on the issue that I finally (in contradiction of my general rule against universals) outlawed it as a topic, more for their protection than my sanity--far too complex and emotionally charged an issue for most of them to do a mature or rational job on. The question is far more complex than race (regardless of which end of the barrel or blade one is on). There is also money and its effect on the quality of the defense. I think OJ alone will serve well enough to illustrate that point and cast some doubt on your original position.

Darfur: see, in the Reading Now window in my sidebar, Shake Hands with the Devil, by the Canadian commander of UNAMIR during the Rwanda genocide. I'm reviewing it for War, Literature & the Arts. At this point, the opening sentence of my review is likely to read something like:

As a scholar of Cormac McCarthy, and as an English professor who has taught his masterwork, Blood Meridian, in class, I've been involved in more than one discussion about the meaning of his enigmatic ending to that book. Not the Epilogue itself, for I think I've pretty well elucidated at least the source of those 207 words if not their meaning (see my article in The Cormac McCarthy Journal). What I mean here are the closing words of the novel itself. His stating of its unforgettable judge that, "He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die." From this point forward, I'm going to abjure explanation. Instead, I'm simply going to give the confused--be they colleague or student, soldier or civilian--a copy of Dallaire's book. It is as close as one can come to a non-fiction elaboration of the judge's immortality, and a far better answer than I will ever be able to give.

So, as for Darfur, we've been here before. And I'll offer to Dallaire, perhaps as balm for his tortured soul and whatever unjustified guilt he feels, a slightly altered version of the words I've so frequently used myself--not as an excuse for inaction, but as a balm for ineffectiveness against the action or inaction of others: "There is only so much inhumanity one man can prevent." Again, we should never not try our utmost. But neither should we beat ourselves up when the judge prevails.

As Barry points out, in a roundabout way, had broccoli been the principal export of Kuwait, the Kuwaitis would be nearing the end of their second decade as part of Iraq. Not that I was against that intervention at all. Wholeheartedly in favor of it. I just prefer to be honest about motives, most of the time.

Pan's Labyrinth

Saw Pan's Labyrinth last night. I'm still processing the imagery, the allusions, & the message. Dark. Very dark. Wonderfully well acted, directed, and filmed. And the special effects were great. In fact, the son of our very good friends in California contributed to that. We even got to see his name up in lights as the credits rolled. If McCarthy were going to write fantasies . . .

Friday, January 26, 2007

"It is the world's blog."

Wikipedia was the topic when Professor Alan Liu closed a long post with those words.

I seem to be working my way backwards here, and doing it in some haste, because I get wordy when I wax professorial. But, this seemed an appropriate topic, considering that I frequently link to Wikipedia articles in these posts. Don't think, however, that I do it without a good solid knowledge of that resource's strengths and limitations.

To that end, I encourage the interested to investigate the two following links.

The first is to an article from Inside Higher Education, a publication that, despite my no longer spending much of each day in the classroom, I remain subscribed to, at least electronically. Titled, "A Stand Against Wikipedia," it details some of the problems faced by those of us who (forgive me if I slip into present tense) strive to teach students the difference between a good and a mediocre or sometimes even bad source. Wikipedia can be, emphatically, all three. As with so many things, it depends. Thus the title of the second post, Liu's, "To the Student, Appropriate Use of Wikipedia" (the key word being appropriate). Some years ago, when I directed the entire freshman comp course at the school where I taught, I strongly discouraged my colleagues from outright outlawing of just about anything. Judgement, it seemed, was one of the things we were striving to develop in our charges, and a healthy skepticism of universals was one of the first steps toward developing that judgement. Universals, like stereotypes and prejudices, short circuit the judgement process. And Liu, studiously avoids that pitfall.

So if you love Wikipedia, or if you hate it, you're likely to learn something either way by following those links and listening. And if you have to choose, I'd go with Liu's piece first--it's good advice for anyone. The other, on the problems of academics (the two-legged variety; not the topic as a whole), is more interesting to, well, academics.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


That was what my spousal unit said tonight when she came home to find a new HD LCD TV on the mantel. I'd blog about something important, but I'm still in shock. They drew my name out of a hat at a meeting tonight. :-o I kid you not.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

State of the Union

And lest I be accused of being all too serious, here is truly the most interesting thing I found when I went to the PETA media center to see if they had anything to say for themselves regarding their dumpster-dumping, puppy-killer, perps.

An all-to-appropriate post to close the night, and perhaps a frightening harbinger of what at least one freshly announced candidate for president might one day employ as an "attention" step in some future SOTU address. Or, undress, as PETA would have it.


Is it possible that a quarter century in uniform has made me hyper-sensitive to the efficacy of disinformation? I tend not to think of myself as a label wearer of any sort--political party, religion, etc. That doesn't mean there aren't things I believe, and strongly. It just means that I eschew labels, vehemently when applied to me, and as a general principal most of the time. I could write a whole post on this, but, another time.

I had intended this post to be about PETA, or about disinformation, or about, what? What it's really going to be about is skepticism. I tend to think of it as healthy. Then again, I am in a job (not to be named here, but familiar to those who actually know me) where a healthy dose of it is mission essential. After a while, it becomes habit.

Thus it is that when my inspiration for blogging in the first place (see Enrevanche) posts an article on PETA, sans comment, I find myself wondering whether it's being taken at face value or not. I can't take it that way. Not that I'm the least shocked by the actions for which some PETA folks are facing trial in NC, but I find myself highly skeptical that their actions fairly represent the organization for which they are being held forth as poster children. And so, I dig a little. What I found when I did was that the organization giving this so much publicity strikes me as being in the same club with all an oil company lobbyist trying to convince us that global warming is a myth. Yea, right.

For the record, here is the operative admission, honestly enough put forth on their About Us page. "The Center for Consumer Freedom is a nonprofit coalition of restaurants, food companies, and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices" (emphasis added). Translation: "we're about protecting the profits of the first two groups by ensuring the freedom of the third to contribute by any and all means." "Defending enjoyment is what we're all about!" Uh-huh. I could deconstruct that entire page, but that would be overkill. The operative principal behind this "Center" is pretty much summed up by my favorite quote from Al Gore's movie (and I'm paraphrasing here): "It's difficult to get a man to recognize the truth when his livelihood depends on his not recognizing it."

(And yes, most of my friends think of me as a Republican, and yet I just quoted Al Gore. Feces occurus when you eschew labels.)

So, did two PETA employees kill animals in NC? Probably. Is that what PETA's really all about (along with brainwashing our children and sucking our wallets dry)? Well, only if you believe that trans-fats aren't really all that bad after all, and the whole mercury thing was overdone, and CSPI is just out to scare you about everything.

Skepticism. I highly recommend it. And when all else fails, follow the money. Who stands to gain if you believe one way or the other? No one is ever wholly disinterested. And that statement, like all universals, including this one, should be treated with skepticism as well.

I leave you with a paradox: The only rule to which there are no exceptions is that there is an exception to every rule, and it is an exception to itself.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Library Thing

I'm not fully decided on this Library Thing quite yet. I still cringe a little every time I share something about myself on the web. But this seems a pretty cool tool, and some time spent surfing for privacy concerns surrounding it didn't turn up anything untoward, so . . . for a while, we'll give it a try. You'll find a new window on the right margin with some info from my own library. I entered only a few things for now. Enough to play with the sites capabilities and report back. So, more to follow.

The Hat is Real

A friend brought the hat back from one of many trips made to save the world as the millenium approached. Could've been my best Halloween costume ever.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Changing the view

I beg your indulgence while I search for the most readable template. In the old one, visited links were a little hard to see. I liked the colors, but this is all about readability, so . . . we'll try this for a bit. Doc.

Curse of the Psychedelic Colors

We saw Curse of the Golden Flower last night (and just for the record, regarding the link, I know there are lots of movie databases out there with more detailed info than Yahoo--but I love the "view trailer" feature at Yahoo, so that's the link I'm likely to include for most movies--you can navigate yourself to your own favorite).

Three words: What the hell?! Bill Engvall says, if you want to feel better about your own family, just go to the state fair. Better yet, see this movie.

We loved Hero and House of Flying Daggers, (the brilliance of the color in the latter truly merited the word "breathtaking." So, this newest movie from director Yimou Zhang seemed a good bet. But . . .

In truth, any confusion about the actual storyline is a fault that probably lies with the viewer. Perhaps, to a Chinese audience, this story is as familiar as Paul Revere's ride is to Yanks and needs little introduction. Not so for a western audience though. I'm still not sure how Jai dies at the end. By his own hand? the hand of the guard behind him? his father's?

And while the color was just as vivid, it was also, unfortunately, over the top. Even if I could be convinced that such pigments existed at the end of the 10th century AD, I wouldn't want to be so awash in them. If "brilliant" is the operative word for the colors in the earlier two works most likely familiar to western audiences, then "psychedelic" seems the more appropriate term for this newest venture. They set the mood, I'm sure, but I'm not sure what mood that's supposed to be exactly. Excess? Overindulgence? What, exactly?

So, my bottom line: B-. That high, because, as usual, Zhang's direction, Gong Li's and Chow Yun-Fat's acting, and a cast of non-computer-generated thousands, can hardly help yielding a feast for the senses. But it lost points in my book for confusing me more than once (again, probably my fault) and for overwhelming my eyes with too much color in too psychedelic a palate. The nearest analogy I can think of would be ending an evening by drinking way too many fancy martinis from the drink menu at 15C--each would be a rather astonishing thing in its own right, passing over the tongue, but when they all merge at the south end of the esophagus, the final result is likely to be queasy at best, emetic at worst.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Come Ride With Me

. . . because according to new results from CSIR, published in an AP article I read this morning, I'm nearing the end of the safest
decade I'll ever have.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Recent Comments

If you've commented on an earlier post, and those comments have disappeared, my apologies. I upgraded the comments feature to use HaloScan, mainly because it gives me the ability to include the "Recent Comments" sidebar you should now see to the right.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Prions and Ice Nine

An article in today's paper about Kurt Vonnegut prompts me to recommend a book. Two actually. First, Cat's Cradle. If you haven't read it, it's worth the time, even if only as the key to my second recommendation, Deadly Feasts, by Richard Rhodes. The second is really what this post is about.

Published in 1997, I made the mistake of picking up Rhodes's book in the library while doing research for a dissertation on Cormac McCarthy. I couldn't put it down. Mad cow was relatively new then, and still somewhat mysterious. Not after I'd read that book. It was downright terrifying.

I recommended reading Vonnegut first because, in the end, it's Ice Nine that Rhodes uses as an analogy for how prions work, how the proteins can exist in the body and not be perceived as foreign. The reason: they aren't. They're simply a new shape to a pre-existing protein, but one that, like Ice Nine, is preferred. What's needed is a seed crystal. That's why it's infectious. Having taught Vonnegut's book in college classes, I found Rhodes analogy immediately vivid.

If you don't think you can stomach the Vonnegut, I still recommend the Rhodes. As non-fiction goes, I've never read another "page turner" quite like it.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Timing is everything

On more item from today's print news and then I'm done for the day. This just in: Military suspends Playboy-model Sergeant. (With hyphens, placement is everything.) And lest you think this only of interest in a military town, the NY Post ran the story on Saturday, with a photo.

Personally, I'm thinking that if the Air Force were trying to grow, rather than "Force Shaping," the Staff Sergeant might merit a medal. So it goes. I'm a little challenged, though, to figure out just exactly which Core Value she's failing to comply with. Integrity First? Service Before Self? or, Excellence in All We Do?

"I'm sorry, I didn't understand your response."

I hate automated answering services. Period. For the most part, I refuse to use them. My usual response, for the voice-activated versions, is to speak in tongues that would make me a celebrity in a revival tent. I find that gets me to a living human attendant faster even than repeatedly pressing zero.

There's hope though. According to an article in today's Gazette, some businesses are seeing the light.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Purely physical prayers.

In the "How's that again?" category, last weekend our local fishwrapper, The Gazette, ran an article on a new Christian-acceptable version of yoga, called "Praise Moves." Now, my spouse is a certified yoga instructor and takes great pains to insure that her classes not offend any religion, for she has students that run the gamut. Yoga, per se, is not a "religion," but I can understand why some fundamentalist churches are frightened by it. So I don't mind that they feel a need to set up and advertise classes for Christians that are hyper-sensitive to the spiritual aspects of such a practice. But tell me, am I the only one that notices a conflict between the closing two sentences in the following quote:

Second Baptist’s fitness center in west Houston offers 'flexible strength' classes as an alternative. Teachers make sure that it’s understood the class is purely physical, he said. Bible passages and prayers are generally used.

Run that by me one more time.

Friday, January 12, 2007

And the answer is: a Zork

Don Sebastiani and Son's wrote a nice response to my post/e-mail below. The thing (the plastic, not-cork) is called a Zork, and though you would never know it from the Zork site, the winery was quite honest about the problems they'd had with the first couple iterations (that bottle we bought was from the first vintage that used the zork). (Mind you this is not a synthetic cork. Those have been around for years and seem to work just fine. This is, well, something else.) Maybe they've got it all worked out now, but all the same, I think I'll give them a few more years. It's like a new model car. Some of the best advice I've heard on that point was that the third year was the right time to buy--all the kinks had been worked out by then. Judging by what the DS&S had to say, I'm thinking it's about the same for new sealing methods in the wine industry.

Monday, January 8, 2007

What do you call that thing?

I sent a letter to Don Sebastiani and Son's tonight that I want to share. LBV is le bon vin de la Napa Valley, a label of The Other Guys, a division of Sebastiani (albeit as far removed, apparently as Plato's shadow on the wall of the cave.)
Thought you might want to know this.

We're not cork snobs. I understand all of the reasons screw tops are actually better. But . . .

We opened our first bottle of LBV Chardonnay, Vintage 2004 today. As soon as I popped the ? (what do you call that thing), an overwhelming smell of vinegar assaulted my nose. "Oh . . . this is bad," I thought. I smelled the--okay, we'll call it a cork for lack of a better word--and wow, vinegar, strong vinegar. I put my nose to the bottle. Vinegar again. But, I thought, maybe this is just something about this particular corking method . . . maybe the wine is okay. So I poured some. It was fine. I was surprised. So was my wife (who's face when she'd put her own nose to the bottle . . . well, let's just say the culprit here wasn't my sense of smell).

Bottom line: good wine.

Real bottom line, let me quote my better half here: "I don't think I'd buy this again."

"The cork?" I asked.

"Yeah. That was just weird."

I had to agree.

So, bottom line, even those open-minded about the right way to seal a bottle of wine don't want to have flashbacks to dieing Easter eggs when they open a bottle. That plastic thing that's not a screw top and not a cork . . . also not cool in our book.

I just thought you'd want to know.