You may not be up on this, but you should be

The government of Iran has just leveled charges on the Iranian-American scholar, Haleh Esfandiari, arguing that she is trying to create a "soft" revolution (bringing about change through things like open dialog with other nations, etc.)

Esfandiari is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, and holds dual citizenship in the United States and Iran. Apparently, she was visiting her ailing mother in Tehran in December, had her passports stolen, was detained and kept under house arrest until May and then was arrested and put in prison.

She's not the only scholar who's being held in the country.

The government has also now told all scholars that they shouldn't go to international conferences or communicate with scholars in other nations, because they may be charged with espionage.

For a better explanation of what's happening to Esfandiari see the website set up by her family and colleagues. There's also a petition that you can sign.

Misogynist Pharmacists of Montana

I imagine most of the people who read this blog regularly are already familiar with this story about the Montana pharmacy that's decided-- like other pharmacies around the country-- to refuse to fill certain prescriptions for women customers. A few things make this story especially special-- one, these pharmacists are refusing to fill any and all oral contraceptives for women (not just emergency contraception that some religious wackos mistakenly believe cause abortions); two, a week and a half earlier, the owner of the pharmacy-- Stuart E. Anderson-- signed his name to an advertisment that appeared in the Mother's Day edition of the Great Falls [Montana] Tribune, thanking all of the "unselfish" mothers who gave birth and to ask the culture at large to commit itself to maintaining the rights of "the unborn." Nothing too objectionable there-- the newspaper has the right to print any ad that it deems acceptable, and I assume that they'd also publish advertisements from pro-choice political candidates. However, what's troublesome is that the Great Falls Tribune apparently isn't covering this story, which seems like a pretty big deal to me. An area business is trying to keep women away from the medication their doctors have prescribed for them. How can this not be a major news story?

I suspect I know the answer, though...

Edit: Welcome to all the visitors from Shakesville, and thanks to Melissa for spotlighting this post.--Brian

Brownback backpedaling?

I'm not completely sure what to make of this piece in today's NY Times by Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, other than to say it sounds like he's trying to make himself more suitable for prime time, and that I worry that it will work.

Brownback, you may remember, was one of the three Republican presidential candidates who raised his hand when asked if he didn't believe in evolution. He did so unhesitatingly, which makes me question the honesty of his argument in this Op-Ed, because it's full of nuance and side-stepping, and the question of belief in evolution is a pretty straightforward.

A brief aside--I hate the term "belief in evolution," because it reduces an area of scientific study to a level on par with belief in fairies. One does not "believe in evolution"--one understands, or does not understand it. It happens whether one believes in it or not.

Back to the Op-Ed. Brownback begins by whining about our sound bite political culture--a culture he's benefited from, I presume, in Kansas, because I can't imagine a sane group of people voting for him based on his stances on issues--and then says he's going to deal with this subject with the seriousness it deserves. Translation: there aren't enough mouth-breathing creationists to get me the nomination, much less the general election, so I need to stake out a middle ground. And he tries:

The premise behind the question seems to be that if one does not unhesitatingly assert belief in evolution, then one must necessarily believe that God created the world and everything in it in six 24-hour days. But limiting this question to a stark choice between evolution and creationism does a disservice to the complexity of the interaction between science, faith and reason.

It seems pretty clear what he's trying to do here--he's trying to let the large number of people who don't completely understand evolution or who want to balance science and faith that he's one of them, and not Kirk Cameron. I can't fault him there. But there's a major fault in his last sentence--he talks about an interaction between faith and science, and if science is done right, there's no interaction, and there's good reason for that.

I don't want to board an aircraft built by engineers who have faith it will get into the air and stay there until it's supposed to land. I don't want medical treatment from doctors who have faith that prayer will help cure my illness. I want hard science backing up that sort of thing, and I want faith as far away from it as possible.

Brownback's argument is fairly typical--science and reason deal with different kinds of truth and so there need be no contradiction. It's the same argument Richard Dawkins responded to ably in The God Delusion. It's full of the same old straw men as most arguments of this type:
Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose.

It does not strike me as anti-science or anti-reason to question the philosophical presuppositions behind theories offered by scientists who, in excluding the possibility of design or purpose, venture far beyond their realm of empirical science.

The unique and special place of each and every person in creation is a fundamental truth that must be safeguarded.
The first is insulting, as it assumes that people who are not believers (and with Brownback, you can be sure he's talking about the Christian god) cannot understand values, meaning or purpose, a triumvirate of they-mean-what-I-want-them-to-mean abstracts if there ever were any.

The second is a strawman because the scientists who dismiss design or purpose do so for very good reason--there's no evidence for it. I'm a little out of my depth in this specific discussion, as I haven't been in a science classroom for over a decade, but this guy is pretty good at writing for the lay person, and I highly recommend his work.

And the third is frankly damaging to Brownback's own belief system. Each person has his or her own special place in creation, huh? And in case there were any doubt that he was referring to individuals, he wrote in the same paragraph, "I firmly believe that each human person, regardless of circumstance, was willed into being and made for a purpose." You know what's coming next, don't you? What is George W. Bush's purpose? And what kind of God would put innocents in his path? What is Dick Cheney's purpose? To cause death and destruction on multiple fronts--environmental, social, military and otherwise? The list of people who do evil things--many in the name of their faith--is longer than I could ever hope to compile or would wish to. But they were willed into being for a purpose.

No thanks.

In the end, I don't think this Op-Ed will do much for Brownback's chances at the nomination. He's a low-profile Senator from a low-to-medium state in the middle of the country and hasn't had a lot of success raising money, and he doesn't have the quirkiness of a Ron Paul to keep him afloat. He's got the personal endorsement of James Dobson, but it's questionable how much that'll get him in the primaries.

On Sexual Immorality

There's nothing like watching a bunch of naked gay guys frollick in the pool to take your mind off the likes of Tom Delay and Newt Gingrich-- two men who are, apparently, no longer particularly close, if you're to take Tom Delay's recent criticism of Gingrich-style adultery ("eatin' ain't cheatin'," as MC Chris would say) in his new book at face value. It turns out that Delay feels that it's best to cheat on your wife earlier in your marriage/ political career, in order to have a clean conscience when you later try to impeach the president for the same thing. I'm not convinced, and neither was Emily when I suggested that now might be the perfect time for me to get started with my own infidelity.

Our recent trip to Key West served to remind us that we're not the only ones who find this obsession with sex and "immorality" just silly. The day that the Huffington Post reported Delay's criticism of Gingrich's inability to project a "high moral standard, a high moral tone," Emily and I found ourselves surrounded by people at the Atlantic Shores resort who, quite frankly, don't tend to concern themselves with the far-right's repressive (and inherently hypocritical) views of sexuality.

That's not to say that the people who frequented the Atlantic Shores (a motel with a clothing-optional beach and pool area that traditionally catered to gay men and women) are immoral-- the regulars, from what Emily and I have seen, are fun, friendly people who are very inclusive-- but not overbearing or intimidating-- of the open-minded breeders who enjoyed the place. And that's not to say that adultery isn't immoral-- if you betray someone you've promised to love and honor, of course that's a terrible thing.

However, the "moral standard" that so many Republicans prattle on and on about has less to do with issues of respect within a marriage (or other long-term, monogomous relationship) and more to do with an obsessive preoccupation with-- and shame about-- physicality and sexuality. When someone like Gingrich or Delay has an affair, I suspect that the guilt that results comes not from the realization, "Oh no-- I've just betrayed my wife and potentially hurt this other woman whose only crime was having sex with me," but, rather, from the thought "Oh no-- once again I could not control my physical impulses. Why am I so weak?" Sure, it's stil guilt, I suppose, but the latter is a much more self-centered, less empathetic type of guilt.

As someone who's recently lived in the midwest and whose family is overwhelmingly Republican, I would say I've lived most of my life in Delay and Gingrich's world of shame and hypocrisy. To look at me now you probably wouldn't know it, but as a teenager I felt tremendous guilt over what I thought of as "my double life": altar boy and bright student by day; anxious, sweaty sex fiend by night (and, let's face it, sometimes late afternoon). And, as you can suspect, this shame only fueled my obsession with sexuality, to the point that-- even now-- I'm the person most of my friends turn to when a phrase or word like "pegging" or "glass-bottom boat" or "salad tossing" appears in Savage Love, and they require an explanation.

All this is to say that the reason the Atlantic Shores has been our preferred vacation spot the last three times Emily and I have felt like going out of town is that this is a place where people know that obsessing over the physical impulses that motivate us all is a ridiculous and destructive waste of time. Often, when people have asked why Emily and I would choose to stay at a clothing-optional, mostly-gay resort, I've replied, "Because there are no kids there." And that's part of the charm, sure-- if I'm drinking and smoking cigarettes, I don't really want to feel like I'm contributing to anyone's delinquency through my bad example. But the truth is, even though I don't personally have much desire to frollick with naked gay men, I really prefer the company of those who do-- or, at least, those who find nothing objectionable in such frollicking. And where else can you really be surrounded by fun, friendly people who love life and live without shame?

Sadly, the Atlantic Shores is closing today. In fact, I'm pretty sure that yesterday was the last day the beach and pool were open. This summer, they'll demolish the whole place in order to build a "family-friendly luxury resort." The sad part is, such places-- with their red state obsession with customer service and bland, cookie cutter, one-size fits all notions of just what is "luxurious"-- are decidedly unfriendly towards families like the Bradley-Isaacsons. But you can't fight progress-- the Atlantic Shores had, apparently, been losing money for years. It's easy to imagine that, once, it was a haven for people who were mocked and shunned in other places because of their sexuality. As society's become more progressive and understanding, such havens have been less and less necessary.

So, in that sense, it's hard to see the closing of the Atlantic Shores as a bad thing. Though I'll certainly miss the place, and will always imagine Tom Delay vacationing in Key West, hoping to do some fishing and jet skiing. A less-than-competent staff member makes a reservation at this "resort" without actually looking the place up on the web... I think such a mistake would be very good for him.

Posted (almost) without comment


Hat tip to Shakesville

Three reasons I'm glad I'm a Democrat

So Fred Thompson is filing his papers to form something called a "testing the waters" committee, which would make him the 11th old white guy to join in the Republican chase for the nomination, and if Newt "Sucking ain't Fucking if you're a Republican" Gingrich gets in like it seems he will, that'll be 12.

The Democrats have their share of old white guys running--Joe "I never met a story I couldn't ruin by bloviating" Biden, Chris "I'm Chris Dodd, Chris Dodd is my name" Dodd, Dennis "I was Ron Paul before he was" Kucinich, Mike "you people are all crazy" Gravel, and John "I'm older than I look" Edwards.

And then there are these three, two of whom are battling it out for the lead in the national polls, and the other who, in any other campaign year, would be getting huge press for his experience and ethnicity.

I have to feel bad for Bill Richardson. He's got to be saying to himself "what do I have to do here? I'm the first major Latino presidential candidate, and I can't get any face time." He's got a terrific amount of experience both as a legislator and an executive, and he's got diplomatic credentials out the wazoo, but he can't get any air because the African-American and the former First Lady get more press.

And as a voter heading into the primaries in 8 months, that's great news for my party. If we don't wind up with at least one of these three people on the ticket in some way, if we wind up with yet another ticket of two old white guys against the Republican two old white guys, then shame on us. And if we can wind up with two of the three on the ticket, even better.

The danger of the "sophisticated palate."

A couple of weeks ago, I went a little crazy on the subject of beer. Well, I came across an argument today that made me laugh. The article itself is innocuous enough--it's about how Anheuser Busch has been losing market share with its own beers and so has turned to selling imports like Stella Artois and Beck's to try to regain its crown. It was this bit that got me laughing:

"I chugged way too much Bud and Miller in college, and I like to think my taste is more sophisticated now," said Joe Manahan, a 26-year-old logistics planner for an import/export firm in Atlanta. "These beers like Heineken and Beck's, you want to sip them and really appreciate the flavor."

It made me laugh because the signature Heineken taste that Joe appreciates is what is commonly known as "skunked beer." It used to be caused by exposure to light and heat in the green glass bottles during Heineken's trip across the Atlantic, but now it's something done to the beer deliberately in order for the beer to taste the same everywhere.

However, in Joe's defense and in defense of Heineken drinkers everywhere (which include plenty of people who came to our party Saturday night and even me, since I'll no doubt be drinking the leftovers over the next week or two), Heineken does have a unique taste, and not a bad one either, and if, like me, you spent your college years chugging cheap beer--I was more in the Natty Light/Milwaukee's Beast socio-economic spectrum--then Heineken is a major step up in terms of flavor. And anything that helps a palate become more sophisticated is a good thing in my book, because it helps bring the cost of good beer down.

My Brother's Wedding

Too Little, Too Late?

I hope so, though I've learned to never underestimate entrenched power and unimaginable sums of money. The traditional music industry is seriously reeling now, thanks to their ham-handed manner in dealing with their consumers and their unwillingness to accept the realities of the digital age, and I can't say I feel sorry for them.

Part of their problem is that they refuse to acknowledge that their primary format is dying, even though sales figures have shown it to be so for years.

Despite costly efforts to build buzz around new talent and thwart piracy, CD sales have plunged more than 20 percent this year, far outweighing any gains made by digital sales at iTunes and similar services. Aram Sinnreich, a media industry consultant at Radar Research in Los Angeles, said the CD format, introduced in the United States 24 years ago, is in its death throes. “Everyone in the industry thinks of this Christmas as the last big holiday season for CD sales,” Mr. Sinnreich said, “and then everything goes kaput.”
And anyone who has paid a modicum of attention for the last five years has seen what killed the CD. Convenience.

If you're a person who listens to music a lot, who buys it and goes to concerts, who wears band logos on hats and t-shirts and the like, the bane of your existence for the last 30 years (if you're that old) has been making your music portable.

The Walkman was an incredible jump because it made your music personal, and because cassette tapes were easier to carry around. The loss of music quality from LP album was acceptable because you didn't need a turntable to hear your songs, and the recordable format made it possible for music lovers to not only share music, but to make their own "best of" albums. The only drawback, though we didn't really see it as a drawback at the time, was that it was a pain to carry more than a handful of tapes at a time (and replacing batteries every day got expensive).

The introduction of the CD changed that a bit--the music quality got better, and once portable CD players got cheap enough, they really took off, but until the rise of Napster and the inexpensive CD burner on the PC, the music industry had their control again. But even then, carrying more than a handful of CDs was a pain.

But now there's a generation of music lovers who have grown up with control. Napster (and all the programs that rose as it died), CD burners, and now especially the MP3 player, have given this generation full control over what they'll listen to and how, and all packaged into a machine that you could nearly swallow with a glass of water.

And yet, the music industry might have survived, even thrived, if they hadn't gone after users with lawsuits. Right now, among the people I know under the age of 22 (and as a teacher of college freshpeople and sophomores, I'm in contact with a number of them), there may be no greater bogeyman than the RIAA. Those four letters inspire hatred and venom at an unbelievable level. Even politicians who talk smack about video game violence don't get their blood as hot as the RIAA does.

Other cultural critics have said that part of the problem is the quality of the music coming out, that there's nothing exciting or new, that it's all been corporatized to hell and back, and that may be accurate, but that's the same criticism that's been leveled at music companies for decades. You always have to search for new and exciting music, because the major labels didn't get to be major by taking chances--they got major by following the herd and smoothing the rough edges off of exciting music and thereby blanding it for public consumption.

But in the end, it's the RIAA that will have killed the music industry, if indeed it dies. Lots of people warned that the Napster lawsuits would backfire, but few listened. Maybe that will wind up being a good thing.

We have a new toy

So we went camera shopping yesterday. We do have a small digital camera that we bought a couple of years ago to take snapshots, and it's okay. But I've generally refused to give up my beloved 35 mm camera.

However, in the event of our little jaunt this week to Key West, and my trip starting next week to Japan, Bradley suggested that now would be the ideal time to get a good digital camera.

The one art class I took in college was photography, so I fancy myself a bit of a photographer (I'm totally not, but I fancy myself that way anyway). I also get excited about bells and whistles. Our new camera has many of those. (It's a Canon PowerShot S3 IS - even the name sounds bells- and whistle-y)

I haven't figured everything out quite yet, but it has all sorts of cool settings to adjust the light appropriately, settings like "Snow," "Sand," and "Fireworks."

My favorite that I've figured out so far is "Color Accent" - only the color that you've set shows up in the picture. The rest ends up in black and white. It's super cool.

I've Been Collecting Footage for a While...

But I finally got enough last night to do this:

Top Five Things I Learned at Last Night's Party

5. Don't eat a big dinner before one of Brian and Amy's parties-- there's good food waiting for you there.
4. Rum is bueno (I'd learned this before, actually, but I sometimes like to review stuff I already know).
3. Cats are afraid of me.
2. Lots of stuff rhymes with "Raaahhhhhrrrrrr!", making zombie poetry relatively easy to write.
1. In "Drinker's Time," there is actually a time of day referred to as "eleven o'clock in the afternoon."

A post-party photo essay
No fancy, schmancy video for me, but I think this selection of post-party photos sums up the reason my head hurts this afternoon.

This is where we kept the beer. I take full responsibility for the choice.

This is where the beer bottles are now. We did not actually drink the spaghetti sauce, though if the night had continued, there's no telling what might have happened.

This is the wreckage of the bar. We didn't hit this as badly as we might have, though the rum was certainly a casualty.

This is the leftovers of the beer and water. For the record, no bottles of water were actually consumed at the party. I drank one of them while setting up the palm tree cooler, and that's the only one missing. Not pictured--the several bottles of wine sacrificed to the evening.

We had a great time hosting. Much thanks to everyone who came.

Great Party

Thanks to everyone who made it a crisp and refreshing success!

Jedis, Pirates, and Random Ten

Yesterday was the 30th Anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars. I realize it's kinda cheesy to admit to still liking the Star Wars movies, but I think if you asked most men my age, they'd tell you that the original trilogy had a profound impact on their childhoods, and that-- deep down-- they still have some fond memories of watching the movies, playing with the toys, bashing their little brothers' heads in with a stick during a "lightsaber duel." I'm not about to go to a convention or start writing fan fiction or anything like that, but I still kind of appreciate those movies. They make me nostalgic for a time when encounters with aliens seemed totally feasible, when "good guys" and "bad guys" were easy to distinguish, and when someone else combed my hair for me.

We went and saw the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie yesterday-- which tries so hard to be Star Wars, but doesn't seem to have had the same impact on America's 7-year-old boys. That's too bad-- Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Bill Nighy, and Keira Nightly are better actors than Harrison Ford, Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher, and that guy inside R2-D2. But if you like the Star Wars movies, chances are you like the Pirates movies too. Also, Emily assures me that the movies are quite entertaining if you're madly in love with Johnny Depp.

I like Johnny Depp well enough, and I didn't think the movie was bad by any stretch. The acting's good, and the huge explosive special effects scenes are really exciting and well-done. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff between ships firing at each other and swashbucklers swinging from mast to mast is kind of... dull. And while I realized going into the movie that I was going to be seeing magical sea creatures and ghost pirates, there were times when some of the exposition coming out of the characters' mouths really strained credibility.

There was a scene in the third Lord of the Rings movie where the good guys are planning some type of attack or assault or something, but they realize they're hopelessly outmanned. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, one of the characters says something like, "Oh, did I neglect to mention that there are a bunch of ghost soldiers nearby who will help us?" Then they go and get the ghost soldiers, and go on to win the battle, and the whole situation is so poorly set-up and so obviously convenient for the heroes that it effectively pulled me out of the movie as I started thinking things like, "You know, if they'd referred to these ghost soliders in an earlier movie, or even hinted at their existence prior to the very moment the narrative needed them to exist, I wouldn't be rolling my eyes right now." Anyway. A lot of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie felt like that to me. Lots of convenient, lazy exposition in order to rescue our heroes from the dire circumstances the filmmakers invented for them.

The last hour or so is pretty bitchin', though. Lots of well-choreographed fighting and impressive, natural-looking CGI effects. It's not a bad way to spend an afternoon by any stretch.

Anyway, here's my Random Ten, which I didn't get around to doing yesterday:

Solomon Burke-- "Don't Give Up on Me"
Shakira featuring Wyclef Jean-- "Hips Don't Lie" (shut up-- it's good workout music)
Everclear-- "So Much for the Afterglow"
Prince-- "Soft and Wet"
O.A.R.-- "Love and Memories"
New Order-- "Bizarre Love Triangle"
Shane McGowan and Sinead O'Connor-- "Haunted"
Pete Yorn-- "Life on a Chain"
John Cale-- "Fear is a Man's Best Friend"
Bob Dylan-- "Like a Rolling Stone"

Yes, In Fact, Your Opinion Can Be Wrong

So I'm doing my usual Saturday morning thing-- surfing the Internets with MSNBC on in the background-- when this FBI profiler comes on my television to talk about some horrifying murder that's happened somewhere far from where I live. So that's all groovy, until the guy-- at the end of his interview-- very quickly throws out his ideas about the Rosie O'Donnell "controversy." Seriously. Knowing that his time was almost up, he started speaking really quickly about a totally irrelevant subject with which he had absolutely no expertise.

His opinion, if I understood him correctly, is that everyone has-- as he put it-- "fifteen seconds of fame," but that "the media" (which he apparently doesn't realize he's affiliated with) should not put people like Rosie O'Donnell on television.

Meanwhile, on the Internets, almost 60% of South Floridians responding to a Sun-Sentinel poll say that public schools should create special classes for "bullies" to keep them segregated from "good kids."

And, in related news...

The Smell of Vasectomies

Ye who know Brian and I well enough to know what goes on in our knickers (and given our general openness about this and all things, that means, "ye who have had the misfortune to while a beer from brim to bottom in our company...") know that we've been working on getting his vasectomy reversed.

Vasectomy itself is a simple, apparently (and counter-intuitively) painless procedure that a surgeon can perform in an outpatient facility, its duration measured in mere minutes. It is also, by medical standards, cheap: if you have insurance, it might as well be free (as it basically was for Brian 15 years ago). The patient strolls out of the office snipped and good to go, without even needing pain-killers.

Vasectomy reversal, on the other hand, is somewhere on a sliding scale from pretty-to-very complex and painful, often requires hospital facilities, and takes half to all of a surgeon's day to prep, perform, clean up, etc. -- and all of that adds up to, yep: expensive. Usually between $6000-$8000, from the estimates we got. After the surgery, the patient is incapacitated for a couple of days, and sexually incapacitated for quite a bit longer.

The cost daunted me, while the cost and everything else daunted Brian, until we found a fellow online who claimed he could do the job for under $4000. Oh yes we were suspicious. We read all the fine print. We determined that the "fellow" was indeed a qualified surgeon. We also discovered that he travels all over the state of Florida doing low-cost vasectomies for poor men in need of family planning (the price gets lower the poorer you are and the more kids you have: work for minimum wage and have 8 kids? This guy'll snip you for free!) ... and this gave us the do-gooder narrative we were looking for. Being do-gooders ourselves, we are always particularly attracted to this narrative.

So this afternoon, we drove up to meet the doctor and get a pre-surgery consultation. He was in WPB working in another doctor's office, doing those low-cost vasectomies. The building was quite a ways back from the road, but we were able to spot it because there were hot-pink poster-board signs at the driveway that read, "Low-Cost Vasectomies, Here, Today!" -- Looking a bit like an ad for a garage sale.

Uh oh, I thought glancing protectively at my one true love's beloved crotchital region, perhaps we should've held onto that suspicion. As we approached the building, I noticed it looked a bit like an apartment building -- uh oh, I thought, gripping his upper thigh, it's a bathtub kidney operation! But as we neared I saw small signs for medical offices and those lock boxes in which they store medical samples for pick up. I relaxed a little until we got yet closer and I saw that the boxes were rusted out, and a baggie with a medical sample lay on the sidewalk.

Any surgery makes one nervous, but some are more nervey than others. Brain surgery. Spine surgery. Boob surgery -- esp. boob removal. One's reproductive organs. And then, coming in a sound fifth, right before my eyes and a full heart-lung transplant, my one true love's birch-like nexus of physical affection. It's in that order. So I was nervous.

The waiting room had four other men in it when we got there, and three other women, at least one of them very pregnant. One of the men was giggling uncontrollably. One looked like his woman had marched him into the place in a headlock. The one with the very pregnant friend looked guilty and ashamed. And that last guy, sans woman, sat grinning in sun shades, looking just like Glen Quagmire.

It was an hour before we got in to see the doctor, but just think of that pace! Another man permanently prevented from procreating every 15 minutes! Each strolled out looking somewhere between entirely at ease, and, at worst, a little surprised. Finally, it was our turn. The doctor welcomed us with a hearty wave before his nose: "whew! It smells like vasectomies in here!" I took a little sniff -- oh, is that...? "all cauterized skin and sweat!" he said, and laughed. I was smelling it. Yes, a bit like burning skin, and ball sweat, and a little something extra -- burning hair? But just the faintest whiff of it in the air. Apparently he'd kept up that pace all day: a better fixer than any vet!

From there we got down to business, and I have to say that (in part not despite but because of his sense of humor) he came across as very competent. My worries about him abated and new worries emerged: the odds of success are not good. He pulled out a chart of his past patients and their success rates: getting sperm, not getting sperm; getting someone preggers, not getting someone preggers. And Brian is right in the "dark spot." If he'd gotten this done a few years ago, his odds would have been much better. But a 15-year-old vasectomy is a surgery pretty set in its ways, it seems, and it does not want to be reversed.

What are the numbers? Well, in a nutshell (sorry), he's got a 70% chance of getting some sperm back and only about a 30% chance of getting someone (uh, hopefully, me) pregnant. Over the long term, there is usually damage to the epididymus, from extended exposure to the white blood cells that attack the sperm that flows out into the body (where it goes because it's no longer flowing -- er, erupting -- out the ol' standpipe o' love)... and he mentioned that in some rare cases there might be nodules that would indicate the infection's been going on higher up, sparing the epididymus, and that could mean a better prognosis... "but that's very rare," he said again.

Let me not get too graphic, dear reader, but if you've come this far, you like it, you know you do, so just quit pretending, stop blaming me, and just sup it up. :-P Needless to say both he and I had knowledge (intimate knowledge one might say) of nodules fitting just that description. The doctor's exam confirmed not just the nodules but also a soft (un-hardened) epididymus: another good sign. He felt and felt to confirm it: "yes, yes," he said, "we can add a couple points to your odds because of this!"

And I was so overjoyed I thanked him and shook his hand.

With which he'd just performed the exam.

And I had to wait until I got to my parents' house to wash it.

But boy, were they happy to hear! :-)

Maxine Hong Kingston on Bill Moyers tonight

This is kind of late notice, I suppose, but I just discovered that Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior and... other stuff that's not quite as well-known (to me, anyway) will be interviewed on Bill Moyers Journal tonight at 9:00 on PBS. The topic for the evening, according to the PBS website, is "War and Poetry," which sounds like it might be of interest to some of the contributors and readers of this blog.

So pop open a bottle of Merlot, sit back on the couch, and watch PBS at 9:00 on a Friday night. There's no better way to feel like a liberal intellectual elitist jackass.

Give Dodd his due

Okay, maybe I'm just being nitpicky here, but I think MSNBC did Chris Dodd a disservice here in the subhead.

Clinton, Obama vote 'no' on Senate Iraq bill
Other presidential candidates: Dodd joins in 'no' vote; Biden votes 'yes'

Yes, Clinton and Obama are the front runners while Dodd languishes in the margin of error of most polls, but Dodd was the one candidate in the Senate who was out front on this issue. He's been calling for a no vote for more than a week while Clinton and Obama hemmed and hawwed their ways around the issue before having the "courage" to vote no on a bill that passed 80-14. Easy to say no when it won't be your vote that kills the bill.

Don't get me wrong--I'm glad they voted no, and I wish they'd gotten 37 of their colleagues to join them, but the story is wrong. Dodd didn't join in the no vote--he led the no vote. Obama and Clinton joined him.

Oh yeah. This is the 1,000th post for the blog. It's been a cool 3+ years for me, and with the new people posting regularly, I'm sure it won't take as long to hit 2,000.

Can we read our students' minds?

This morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education includes an article on the Florida commission on campus safety. (It’s a premium article, so you have to be a subscriber to read it).

Here’s what The Chronicle says about the general findings:

“In a report issued on Thursday, the commission, assembled by Gov. Charlie Crist in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, pointed to crisis-management teams at the University of Florida and Rollins College that identify and talk about specific students who are considered ‘at risk’ of being a danger to themselves or others as a ‘best practice’ that all institutions in the state should follow.”

This, of course, goes in the face of what the Virginia Tech officials are insisting about privacy laws. Hipaa and Ferpa regulations disallow sharing of information about students, with the exception of clear, imminent danger to self or others. Some mental health professionals argue that without a very clear imminent danger, they would be breaking ethical rules of their profession as well as licensing codes by sharing confidential information.

I’m not up on all the intricacies of the laws, so I’m not sure that I can really comment on what these laws do and do not cover, though I’m willing to trust mental health professionals on this.

What does bother me more in the commission’s finding is their clear suggestion that faculty members should be able to spot some of the “warning signs.”

Again, from The Chronicle:
“The Florida commission clearly comes down on the side of sharing information, even without a student's consent. ‘Faculty, staff, and students will frequently observe behavior that is beyond the norm,’ the report says. ‘For instance, essays and term papers submitted by an affected student may contain disturbing and threatening remarks and be early indicators of a problem.’”

Obviously, I haven’t read the whole report, and they may be more specific in other “beyond the norm” behaviors. However, this statement about essays and term papers puzzles me, particularly in conjunction with the frequency with which we apparently see it. The claim that we “see things” in the essays places the burden on the humanities, where more papers are assigned, and most of all on English classes.

The bigger question I have is what exactly do they think we’re going to see? What constitutes “behavior beyond the norm”? Would a student who writes about a violent subject in a piece of literature be considered beyond the norm? Even if the commission means that we’re only supposed to “turn in” students who make threats in their writing, what constitutes a threat? Does it have to be specific, against self or specific other people? Or can it be a more general “obsession” with violent acts? What if a good student consistently writes about acts of rape or murder in literature (since there’s already an awful lot of it)? What about graduate students?

I wondering about this, because I'm guessing that some people will see threats that others don't. I do realize that the VT case is an aberration, and that the professors did find this student alarming. But what constitutes this? What if there's a student who is just rude and annoying? Or even petulant to the professor, but not a real threat? What's the difference between the student who is aggressive in the grade grubbing and the student who poses an imminent threat?

I've certainly had students who made me uncomfortable, but since I've never witnessed someone who is actually threatening, how can I know that those students weren't really a threat?

Perhaps I’m overreacting to this a bit, but I’m frustrated by the assumption that we can “see into” our students’ heads through their term papers.

What's not being said in the current immigration debate

It's easy to get caught up in the furor surrounding the current immigration debate. Lou Dobbs sounds more and more like Tom Tancredo every day, and the further you head down the wingnut scale, the frothier the drool coming out of their rabid mouths. But lost in the xenophobia and all the "secure the borders" rhetoric is this little piece of data that popped out last year and seems to have disappeared from the debate as quickly as it came in.

Most undocumented workers aren't crossing the border illegally. Some 40% or more of people here illegally come in on work visas and simply don't go home, and the US government does a really crappy job of tracking them once they're here.

This immigration bill is a classic piece of legislation--the only people it makes happy are employers of low-wage workers.

Employers of people in lower-paying jobs, meanwhile, generally welcomed the bill. Florida's service-heavy tourist industry, and the state's expansive citrus and cornfields, would be likely to find more legal workers to fill slots. But some farmers weren't sure how they would hold on to good workers in short-term, migratory jobs.
The xenophobes don't like it because it's too harsh. Progressives don't like it because it makes the path to citizenship ridiculously complex and doesn't solve the problem of worker exploitation. (It also makes it less likely that those workers will become citizens, and by extension, voters.) Big business is talking like they don't like it, but an increase in H1-B visas can't disappoint them too greatly, since it allows them to import what would normally be high-wage jobs for US grads from India and the like.

But the rhetoric on tv is all about the borders. If you were simply to go by what you see on tv, you'd think that 12 million people crossed the Rio Grande every year and we were just letting it happen, and there's a reason for that.

Neither the government nor big business really wants to stop illegal immigration. If they did, they could put money into some key places and slow it to a trickle. For starters, the federal government could put real resources into tracking people on work visas, could start fining companies who allow workers to overstay, and deporting people who overstay. They could also start putting real oomph into their enforcement against companies which knowingly hire undocumented workers. Put a CEO or two in jail and hammer a company or two and you'll see the situation change. And third, move to fair trade over free trade. Stop importing goods from countries which use slave and prison and child labor, or at the very least, put restrictive tariffs on their goods. Get rid of the Marianas Islands loophole for Made in the USA goods. Require higher labor and environmental standards for our trading partners, including the right to organize. In short, give immigrants more reason to stay in their home countries.

Of course, it's not that simple. It never is. The problem in this case is that all three of those solutions requires taking on business, and in this political climate, you might as well ask for a pink polka-dotted unicorn with wings.

I'm a Scientific Atheist and the Random Ten

At least, that's what the quiz says. I'm not exactly sure what the difference is between a scientific atheist and the rest of them, but there I am.

You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


Spiritual Atheist


Angry Atheist


Apathetic Atheist




Militant Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Here's the Random Ten--put your computer's music player on random and post the next ten songs that pop up. No fair removing or adding songs to improve your chances of not being called a music snob. We've all heard your story about finding that Captain Beefheart album in the bargain rack at Sears already.
1. Arleen--Widespread Panic
2. B-Boys Making With the Freak-Freak--Beastie Boys
3. Angel From Montgomery--Susan Tedeschi
4. Cherry Bomb--John Mellencamp
5. Vivrant Thing--A Tribe Called Quest
6. Backstabber--The Dresden Dolls
7. Como Ves--Ozomatli
8. First Night--The Hold Steady
9. Stickshifts and Safetybelts--Cake
10. Mama's Got a Girlfriend Now--Ben Harper & Innocent Criminals

So, what kind of atheist are you?

Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guess My Name

I have a very low threshold for stories about people putting their babies in microwaves. That’s the odd thing about me—I stayed awake during my own biopsy once and even asked to see the lump of bloody tissue the doctors removed from my neck, I force myself to watch gruesome footage from the occupation of Iraq so I can feel informed, and I tend to watch violent and gory movies more often than a man with a PhD should. In short, I don’t think my sensibilities are particularly delicate. Nevertheless, the coverage of the Joshua Maudlin story turns my stomach in a way nothing else does—in fact, last night Emily and I were talking about the story, and I had to ask to change the subject because I was afraid I was going to throw up.

Nevertheless, I want to write about some of the more bizarre aspects of this case and the public’s reaction to it. I’m particularly struck by young Joshua and his wife’s response to what he’s done. Joshua’s initial explanation for why he did what he did was simply “I was stressed.” (Presumably, watching a baby rotate has the same soothing quality as watching fish in a tank). Later, Eva Marie Maudlin claimed that, in fact, her husband was not responsible for the abuse—Satan did it through Joshua, because Joshua was a committed Christian who was looking to establish himself as a preacher. “He [Joshua Maudlin] would never do anything to hurt her,” Mrs. Maudlin told reporters, adding that she plans to stand by her man and try to regain custody of the infant (Good luck with that, by the way).

I don’t mean to perpetuate the discussion of a story that already seems sensationalized and blown out of proportion by the mainstream media (really, a couple of religious crazies in the middle of Texas abusing their kid aren’t really going to have any impact on any of us), but I’m struck by Eva Marie Maudlin’s understanding of Christianity, and how in her conception of the universe, people are not responsible for their own sins. The Bible (and Milton) tells us that God gave human beings free will, and the ability to make sinful decisions with dire consequences. But, it seems to me that Eva Marie Maudlin illustrates a particular type of fundamentalist mindset that says that Christians are only capable of doing good—unless Satan comes around and takes control of them. In which case, it’s still not really their fault, is it? In fact, one could say that Christians sin not because they’re flawed, but because they’re so perfect Satan just has to ruin them.

Now, to be fair, the Evangelical community is not rallying to this guy’s support—I haven’t heard of any Focus on the Family types proclaiming that this woman is absolutely right, and that this guy is Satan’s innocent dupe, so free him already! It seems that most fundamentalist Christians still believe in free will, and the accountability inherent in the concept.


I don’t mean to be flippant here, but many of these people who—through their silence and refusal to come forward and support him-- indicate that they believe that Joshua Maudlin needs to be held accountable—that his professed faith does not absolve him of his responsibility—don’t seem to hold the president of the United States to such high standards. George W. Bush received 78% of the white Evangelical vote in 2004. Though he’s not nearly as popular now as he was then, he still enjoys the support of the Pat Robertsons and the James Dobsons and their followers—despite the fact that his bad decisions have resulted in death , injury , and disfigurement on a much, much larger scale than anything Joshua Maudlin might have imagined while his kid was “stressing him out.” How, I wonder, can people of such strong moral fiber turn a blind eye when the sins of one of their own result in so much suffering and anguish?

The Joshua Maudlin story makes me nauseous, but if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that this occupation and the people who allowed it to happen are much more sickening. And the worst part of it all is that we can't blame this disaster on some type of mythological, supernatural force of evil carrying a pitchfork and walking on cloven hooves.

Speaking different languages

I'm rarely surprised anymore by the various ways different groups will use religious symbolism to get their points across, or the way responsible parties will use language to deflect their own guilt, but I was struck by two stories today I saw nearly back to back during the news roundup on Democracy Now this afternoon.

Here's the first. Greenpeace is building, on Mount Ararat, a new Noah's Ark to try to raise awareness of the potential dangers of climate change. It's an interesting idea, and while Greenpeace will no doubt be criticized by global warming deniers (who by this time deserve to be considered as stupid as Young-Earth Creationists), the decision to use this imagery is an inspired one. There's a flood myth in pretty much every culture, and the Noah story is not only a part of major religions, it's a warning story that the human actions have consequences. It was human wickedness, after all, that caused God to destroy the world the first time, according to the story, and it's our mistreatment of the environment that may well lead to our own destruction. A new report out claims that 1 billion people will be displaced by climate change by 2050. That's pretty freaking significant, and given the human penchant for having to step in our problems before we start to look for solutions, I'd say we can use all the symbolic motivation we can get to start the process a little earlier this time.

And then there's the Pope. Pope Benedict pissed off a lot of people in Latin America last week when he said the indigenous people there had been "silently longing" to be raped and murdered by Catholic soldiers converted to the Christian faith. So he apologized today. Sort of. The headline of this piece, originally in the NY Times, is a little misleading. The headline reads "Pope acknowledges 'injustices' by Christian colonizers of South America," but the Pope really didn't do that. He played the passive voice game.

ROME - Pope Benedict tried Wednesday to quell anger in South America over his recent comments on the conversion of native populations there, acknowledging that "unjustifiable crimes" were committed in the European conquest of the continent five centuries ago.

Speaking in Italian to a weekly audience in Rome, the pope said that it was "not possible to forget the suffering and the injustices inflicted by colonizers against the indigenous population, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled."

Notice what's missing--the perpetrators of those "unjustifiable crimes," the people who trampled the fundamental human rights of the indigenous population. It's an old trick, but it still works, and it's something I point out to my freshpeople in classes. It's the classic way a person can apologize without taking a large-scale hit, and it's become so common that most people don't even realize it's happening anymore. It's become so common, in fact, that when a politician apologizes for something and it's not in the passive voice, it seems shocking.

Remember when John Edwards, when beginning his current presidential run, wrote in the Washington Post apologizing for his Iraq War vote? Whether you believe his sincerity or not (and I think he's sincere, though he still showed bad judgment in the first place), you still have to acknowledge that he didn't chicken out and play the "mistakes were made" or the "if I knew then what I know now" game. He said "I was wrong," and that made headlines all across the blogosphere because it was so unusual. (None of this should be taken as an endorsement of John Edwards's candidacy.)

I guess what I find most interesting part about this conjunction of two stories is that Greenpeace, not known as an evangelical haven, is using a Biblical narrative to push a secularly driven movement, while the Pope is further harming the credibility of his church by refusing to accept that he said something stupid and that his church did some horrific things in the past. If secular groups can really learn to tap into the mythology of the past to motivate actions, and if churches continue to stay in this belief in their own infallibility, we might see some change in the way humans view the world around them.

For the record, I do not watch the view...

But for the record my friend Don does! (Oh, I have totally OUT-ted you!) :-D

And this is, as Don said, one of these rare seemingly "real" moments on television -- and it's therefore disturbing to, yes, to feel the discomfort of the studio audience, yes, to see the discomfort of the other people on stage, but especially to see how (even to YOUR eye) television favors the wrong-headed, shrieking, irrational shrew... because, after all, what great SKIN and HAIR!

Why I Love Early Modern Guides to Life

In reading for my dissertation, I come across all sorts of wacky explanations of how people should be good Christians and good members of households. This is, by far, my favorite explanation of how to be a good Christian by keeping Jesus in mind at all times:

"So wee Christians in the building of our spiritual Tabernacles, in building of our saluation vpon the Rocke Iesus Christ, in framing and leading our liues according to Gods holy will an his word, must do al things, frame out all our actions and works according to that sampler, which Iesus Christ our Lord & Master did shew vs in the mount of Calvary, where hee was crucified for vs, that is, according to the passion of Christ, we must always haue a bloody passion of Christ in our minds, as a frontlet betwict our eyes, as a ring vpon our fingers, and as a nosegay betwixt our breasts." Thomas Fosset, The Calling and Condition of Servants (1613)

It's important, this text says, to keep Jesus in our minds and, most importantly, in our accessories. Or, as my good friend Holly suggested "How Would Jesus Smell?"

(The nosegay would be used as something to smell to avoid the nasty smells of London and to prevent catching the plague. Life before germ theory is pretty interesting).

Fosset's text also suggests that the best example of servitude in the Bible is Abraham, but not because Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac. Instead, Abraham was so obedient to God, he was willing to circumcise himself. Self-circumcision.

This is one of my favorite texts about how to run the household in early modern London - it's also a rare example of one of these books that actually addresses the servant, not just the master.

War, Words, and Why Television Pundits Need to Pay Attention in Freshman Comp

I can't quite figure out how to create links yet (nor provide a proper title for my blog entries), but I thought I'd direct your attention over to the latest posting on Ted Remington's blog "The Rhetoric Garage," ( ) wherein Professor Remington discusses the current rhetoric surrounding the occupation of Iraq, which-- as the author points out-- is not actually a "war" as we traditionally understand the word. Basically, Professor Remington talks about how this rhetoric of war has warped our understanding of what's actually happening in the Middle East, all to the Bush Administration's advantage. After all, most Americans would probably agree that "ending the occupation" is a good idea, but they're a lot less inclined to say so if you frame the issue so that such an "end" would be tantamout to "losing the war."

Ted Remington, for those of you who aren't aware, is a rhetorician who became something of a celebrity a few years ago when Sinclair Broadcasting vice president/ cretin commentator Mark Hyman singled him out in one of his "The Point" commentaries as a typical pinhead elitist university professor that folks like Bill O'Reilly and David Horowitz would like to protect us from. Professor Remington's alleged crime was being "soft on plagiarism"-- this charge, of course, turned out to not be... what's the expression? ah yes... even remotely true by anyone's standards; Hyman himself was later forced to issue an apology for his lies. You see, Remington's real "crime" was operating a blog called "The Counterpoint," dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies, manipulative language, and flat-out lies spewed out on a nightly basis in Hyman's "The Point" commentaries.

Mark Hyman later retired from public life-- apparently, he got tired of having his ignorance exposed on the Internets on an almost-daily basis. I don't know where Hyman is these days, but I like to imagine he lives in a cave, alone, toothless, drinking corn whiskey when he can scrape up the money and sobbing a lot. Probably not, but hey-- it's my fantasy. Leave me alone.

The Mark Hyman story is a good example for students in freshman composition, actually-- obviously, Mark Hyman didn't learn the basics of logical argumentation when he was 18 and-- presumably-- taking comp himself. Later, that lack of knowledge came back to embarrass him. The lesson? Pay attention when your instructor is explaining terms like "ad hominem attack," "red herring," and "intellectually dishonest." Otherwise, your fiercest critics-- who, by the way, are much smarter than you-- will continue to have a voice in public political discourse long after you've retired to your cave in disgrace.

Oh, the horror!

Michelle Aarons needs a cocktail. Seriously. Anyone who gets this worked up over this needs a stiff drink or two at the very least.

A new addition near the Hollywood ArtsPark has created a few more giggles from children on the playground, but some city officials and parents aren't laughing.

The gigantic blue billboard is designed like a name tag -- with a particularly interesting name.

"Hello, my name is Hugh Jass," the sign announces. Children read it and laugh.

Parents complained to City Hall.

"I can't believe they would put that near a park," said Michelle Aarons of Hollywood, who brings her two children to the park once a week.

Here is the offending billboard.

Come on, now. It's barely snortworthy. And any kids who are going to be traumatized by that joke has bigger problems. Like their parents.

They ought to replace it with one that says "Hello, my name is Heywood J'Blowme." That would at least raise some interesting questions around the dinner table.

Today's New York Times is running an article about the shift in rhetoric that the anti-choice movement has taken. Over the last decade, the anti-choice movement has moved from arguing that the fetus is completely separate from the mother, and therefore worthy of protection to arguing that abortion is never in the best interest of the woman. This is an appropriation of the rhetoric of the reproductive rights groups that support a woman's right to choose.

I find the appropriation both typical of the extreme conservative movement (i.e. "But affirmative action is discrimination"), and absolutely frustrating. They're using this argument despite the fact that 30 years of research suggests that most women have no long term effects from the abortion (psychological or physical) It continues to infantilize women, suggesting that adult women cannot make medical decisions on their own, and cannot live with the repercussions of those decisions. Certainly, electing to abort a fetus can be devastating to a woman, but as Jessica Valenti points out in her recent book, noone's really talking about the effect that the protests in front of abortion clinics, and the general move towards stigmatizing women who have abortions, has on women who elect to have this procedure.

(Does this remind anyone else of "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Men doing their best to help a woman, no matter the devastating cost?)

This argument was at the center of the recent defense of the "Partial Birth Abortion Ban" lawsuit, in which the supreme court upheld the ban on the procedure (nevermind that there's not actually a procedure called this, and the law itself is really vague). Fortunately, Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissenting position that “The court invokes an anti-abortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence.” At least some of the justices understand the importance of actually using factual evidence rather than just annecdote and emotional manipulation that insults reasonable people and infantalizes women everywhere.

If you're like me-- and I know I am-- you probably kinda wanted to hate Michael Bloomberg when he first appeared on your radar. A disgustingly rich guy attempting a broad, populist appeal? Puh-lease. And maybe it's because I only smoke when I'm drinking, but I always find people who crusade to ban smoking in bars unbearably sanctimonious. "Wanna ruin your liver while attempting to lower your inhibitions enough to have unprotected sex with a stranger? Fine. But keep your lungs pure."

(The mostly non-smoker in me realizes that the issue is more complicated than that-- that it's more of a worker's rights issue than a "protect you from yourself issue." But it's hard to remember that when I've had four beers and am dying to light up).

Nevertheless, over the years, I've found myself appreciating Bloomberg more and more. Maybe it's because Hizzoner-- the former mayor and police brutality-apologist-- has turned into such a shill for his party's reprehensible agenda. Bloomberg has to look good in comparison. Or maybe it's stuff like this:

From today's NEW YORK TIMES:

"NEW YORK (AP) -- The city's yellow taxi fleet will go entirely hybrid within five years, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Tuesday.

"'There's an awful lot of taxicabs on the streets of New York City,' Bloomberg said. 'These cars just sit there in traffic sometimes, belching fumes.


"Nearly 400 fuel-efficient hybrids have been tested in the city's taxi fleet over the past 18 months, with models including the Toyota Prius, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, the Lexus RX 400h and the Ford Escape.

"Under Bloomberg's plan, that number will increase to 1,000 by October 2008, then will grow by about 20 percent each year until 2012, when every yellow cab -- currently numbering 13,000 -- will be a hybrid."

This is just an across-the-board good idea. Would it be nicer if the change could happen more quickly? Sure. But it would also be nicer if the auto industry hadn't scrapped the electric car, if the Supreme Court hadn't appointed George Bush president, and if the guys from ABBA hadn't continued to try to have careers in music after their wives divorced them. It's not a perfect world, but plans like this go a long way towards improving it.

The sad state of south Florida's public transportation system

When we lived in San Francisco, Amy and I took the Muni and BART systems all the time. Amy had her truck, but my Jeep started dying on the trip there and was good only to donate by the time we were settled in The City, so I just did without. It was easier than moving cars around twice a week to avoid parking tickets, and I didn't really need it anyway.

This comes up because of the latter half of this post at Obsidian Wings about Rep. Tim Ryan's goal of surviving on the typical food stamp allotment for a week, and how he's down to nothing but cornmeal after 5 days and a brush with the TSA at an airport. Hilzoy describes the public transportation system in Phoenix, and except for the lack of afternoon rainstorms, it sounds a lot like Broward county. Irregular service, hot weather, and not many routes.

And the worst part is that it's not even worth taking if you own a marginally fuel efficient car, even though gas prices are at an all time high, even factoring in inflation (heard that last bit on NPR this morning). For instance, to get a round-trip Tri-Rail ticket from Fort Lauderdale to Boca Raton costs $5.00. Even with the Employee Discount plan, that's $60 a month. But Amy and I carpool, so make that $120 a month. My car gets 26-30 mpg depending on how much I run the AC, and a round trip is 24 miles or so, so figure 2 gallons per round trip roughly. Right now, that means it costs me about $6.50 a day round trip to go to and from work. Fortunately, I only work in Boca 2 days a week in the summer, and will be there 3 days a week this fall, but even so, Tri-Rail is only a deal if I'm the only one going in, and only if gas stays this expensive, and even then it's only a marginally better deal, certainly not worth the aggravation of using public transportation. (If I want to get picky, I can factor in driving to the train station, since it's not convenient.)

And forget the bus, unless I want to be on it for 2-3 hours one way every day, and no, I'm not exaggerating. I've had students who depend on it, and you wouldn't believe the horror stories.

So I drive, because I have no other real choice, much as I wish I did. I'd use Tri-Rail if it were even close to being reasonable, but right now it makes no sense, and there's a part of me that believes it was designed that way, designed to fail so south Florida would remain a driver-only metropolitan area.

But hey, there's still talk about a taxpayer funded stadium for the Florida Marlins.

Welcome Emily and William!

Mark Helprin is full of teh dumb

Okay, that's really unfair. What he really seems to be full of is greed, I guess, because that's about the only way I can explain this Op-Ed in today's NY Times.

He's trying to make the argument that a copyright ought to be treated just like a house or a business or some other form of durable good that can be passed along to one's children or other inheritors, but he's missing what I think is a crucial part of the equation here.

WHAT if, after you had paid the taxes on earnings with which you built a house, sales taxes on the materials, real estate taxes during your life, and inheritance taxes at your death, the government would eventually commandeer it entirely? This does not happen in our society ... to houses. Or to businesses. Were you to have ushered through the many gates of taxation a flour mill, travel agency or newspaper, they would not suffer total confiscation.

The problem here is that Helprin is just plain wrong. If you don't pay your property taxes, the government will indeed seize your house, no matter how long you've had it paid off. Same goes for your business.

But there's even more wrong with the comparison. Novels don't require upkeep like a house does. Books of poetry can and often do remain unchanged after publication. But if you don't modernize your flour mill, you won't be in business long. If you don't keep the termites out of your foundation, you won't have a house to pass on. There's good reason for treating creative works differently from concrete objects.

And then there's the major reason that copyrights are meant to be temporary. Creative writers in particular often use what has come before as an integral part of their own works, riffing on them or integrating them in some form or another. Limited copyright length encourages that practice, and allows us to take chances without having to worry if we're going to be held liable for the work.

Then there's the silliness of his comparisons:
The answer is that the Constitution states unambiguously that Congress shall have the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (The italics are mine, the capitalization was likely James Madison’s.)

It is, then, for the public good. But it might also be for the public good were Congress to allow the enslavement of foreign captives and their descendants (this was tried); the seizure of Bill Gates’s bankbook; or the ruthless suppression of Alec Baldwin. You can always make a case for the public interest if you are willing to exclude from common equity those whose rights you seek to abridge. But we don’t operate that way, mostly.

Right. Limited copyright periods are just like slavery, censorship, and the nationalization of private wealth. I'm just glad he didn't throw some sort of Nazi comparison in there for good measure.

Copyrights are limited--as are patents--because the reasoning is that a person should be able to exercise control over his or her work long enough to reap some personal benefit from it, and then the society as a whole gets to share in the bounty. That's the deal we make when we get into this line of work. The deal has the added benefit of forcing us to continue to produce as opposed to allowing us to rest on a single success (though these says, a single success can set a writer for life if it's big enough).

It's also interesting to note that Helprin completely ignores the reason why Congress continues to extend the copyright length. It has nothing to do protecting the individual artist and everything to do with protecting Disney Corporation's control of Mickey Mouse. They've been behind every copyright extension in the last fifty years, and will be behind every future one as well. It's because of them that filmmakers have trouble using documentary film footage whose copyright owners have been lost to time. It's because of them that books which should have entered the public domain are still out of print and are then lost to memory. Nobody's benefiting in those circumstances, and I would argue that we are all losers as a result.

Helprin concludes his Op-Ed by claiming that "No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property," but his argument fails simply because real and intellectual property are so significantly different that you cannot honestly equate the two. Real property requires continued maintenance and expense in a way intellectual property does not, and further, is subject to the very confiscation that Helprin claims it isn't. I want copyright protection like any other writer, but I don't think it should extend forever. Why should my descendants reap the millions my poetry will no doubt bring? Let them write their own.

An addition to the blogging

Amy and I would like to welcome two co-bloggers to the joint here. During a night of moderate to heavy drinking, our friends and colleagues Emily and Bill agreed to join us at this venture here. Please welcome them once they've done their postings, and check out their blogrolls as soon as I get them up. I certainly will be.

Is China trying to poison the world?

A bit of hyperbole in the title there, but this piece in the NY Times raises some unpleasant questions about the safety of stuff coming out of the country we fear most economically.

Diethylene glycol, a poisonous ingredient in some antifreeze, has been found in 6,000 tubes of toothpaste in Panama, and customs officials there said yesterday that the product appeared to have originated in China.

“Our preliminary information is that it came from China, but we don’t know that with certainty yet,” said Daniel Delgado Diamante, Panama’s director of customs. “We are still checking all the possible imports to see if there could be other shipments.”...

Diethylene glycol is the same poison that the Panamanian government inadvertently mixed into cold medicine last year, killing at least 100 people. Records show that in that episode the poison, falsely labeled as glycerin, a harmless syrup, also originated in China.
It's not that I think China's government is intentionally allowing this kind of stuff to happen as part of some master plan to take over the world. It's more like I wonder if their economy is growing so quickly that they're not monitoring the quality of goods being processed closely enough. Is this China's version of our own Robber Baron era, where the safety of workers and consumers and environmental damage was as secondary concern (if it was a concern at all) to the push for greater profits? Considering the amount of goods the US imports from China, we should worry, especially since we've lost a lot of our manufacturing infrastructure in the last thirty years. If for some reason we had to severely curtail our imports from China for health and safety reasons (not that I think our government would ever actually do that), we'd be hard-pressed to get things up and running again in the short term.

Bankruptcy Blogging

Amy said I ought to write about this, and I shied away at first because of the stigma still attached to declaring bankruptcy, but then I saw this article in tomorrow's NY Times and I figured I'd respond to it, because there's some similarities to my situations, and some very real differences as well. Also, there's not much in the way of blogging on the subject that I've found, outside of some faux-blogs put up by law firms hoping to drum up some business, so I'll give as much of the broke guy's perspective as I can.

Let me begin with the article. I'm willing to bet right now that the response to the article on the Letters page is going to be "these people are the reason we need even tougher bankruptcy laws." They're a couple who got themselves into a lot of high interest debt in various ways, and they haven't been the most conscientious about paying their bills on time.

Behind closed doors, the decisions families like the Moellerings make about their debt — when to pay it off, when to shuffle it to lower-interest sources and when to let it revolve and build — can determine how much their salaries are worth. Like many others, the Moellerings have run up avoidable penalties and occasionally spent themselves into more debt or higher interest rates, even as they have tried to juggle other balances to bring down their monthly payments....

On March 27, Mr. Moellering used a debit card rather than a credit card to make nine purchases, ranging from $5.38 to $48, hoping to avoid finance charges. But he miscalculated their checking account balance. Each purchase incurred an overdraft charge of $32, or a total of $288 in penalties, more than the $221.82 cost of the purchases. (After some pleading, the bank, National City, forgave four of the charges, leaving the Moellerings with $160 in penalties, plus interest on both the fees and the principal.)

Every two or three months they send in a payment late, running up a late fee of $30 or more.

So yes, there's a lot of personal fault here for this couple, no question, but let's look briefly at the whole situation. Between the two of them, they earn about $66K a year gross, along with about another $21,200 they receive as foster parents. $87,000 a year for a family of four ought to make for a comfortable living. And from the looks of the article, they're living okay despite this level of debt. It causes them stress, but they also have some luxuries, like a 42 inch television.

But as the article mentions (almost in passing), this is hardly the only way to get one's self in crushing debt. “One [friend] was off his insurance for a couple weeks and he broke his arm, and they’re out 25 or 30 thousand." And medical expenses are the primary reason for bankruptcies in the US.

Which brings us to my situation. I went through credit hell during my marriage and afterward. My ex and I were at the point where we were borrowing from finance companies, but we paid them off and after I finished my undergraduate degree (by which time I was divorced), I'd qualified for a low-line, high interest Visa card.

I moved to Arkansas, started grad school, and my credit improved. I was making regular payments, staying within a budget, and using student loans to supplement my meager TA income. Side note: I will not denigrate the student loan program, as they offer low fixed rates and if they're used wisely, can improve your future earnings immensely. I wouldn't have my current job without them. Plus, they helped me support my daughter while she lived with me and kept me from picking up a job outside school.

Here's where the problems started. My credit lines started getting high, often without my request for them to do so, until only abut 18 months after beginning graduate school, I had more in unsecured credit than I made in a year. I didn't own a house, and I drove a beater (a 1990 Ford Taurus SHO with major suspension problems), but somehow I qualified for five figures in credit card lines. But I kept them current and didn't max them out. I even managed, over the course of the next 2 years, to pay a couple of them off.

Then I moved to San Francisco for the Stegner Fellowship, and that was a step up in expensive living. Even though I worked outside the fellowship, and Amy supplemented our income with her own student loans and worked too, I still started falling behind. I was making minimum payments now, and a couple of the card companies started dropping my credit lines. I guess they sensed the problems.

And then the health problem started. It was my teeth. Years of numbing the pain with whiskey (because I couldn't afford dental care) caught up with me, and I spent the better part of a year in the care of a student dentist. That had to be financed as well, and even at the lower prices of a dental school, the work eventually cost more than $4,000. And that was the clincher. I could either make the payments on my tooth pain or on my credit cards, and the choice was easy. The cards got dumped, and I resigned myself to another 7 years of credit hell, calls from companies looking to get something out of me, and another rebuilding project.

And now today. South Florida isn't quite as expensive to live in as San Francisco as far as housing goes, but other things more than make up for it. For instance, in Florida, I have to have a car. That means insurance, gas and upkeep, not to mention the one time expense of buying one (because financing one isn't an option)--in The City, I spent less on a Muni Fast Pass than I do on insurance on a 1999 Hyundai Accent here. Food is pricier, as there aren't any local bodegas where you can buy produce by the metric ton for five bucks. So even though I have a good job, earning more than I did in San Francisco, my expenses are nearly the same, which means no money for paying back those other debts.

But why bankruptcy? Simple. I got sued and now have a judgment against me. So it's the bankruptcy route for me now. Most of the extra money I'll earn this summer for picking up an extra class will go to a bankruptcy lawyer to clean my slate as much as it can be cleaned (including some of that debt for my teeth). The seven year clock will crank up again sometime late this year or early next year when this all gets finalized.

I have hopes this time will be better, because of two factors. I have a better, more stable source of income, and no plans to move again any time soon, which is a massive expense that tax deductions help with, but don't really make up for. And I have insurance now, including dental as an option. As long as that holds up, I should recover, but I focus on the should. There are no guarantees on this.

So far (and if you're still reading at this point, bless you), I've learned this about bankruptcy. You need to keep copies of everything. If I didn't bank online and get my pay stubs the same way, this would be far more difficult. And bankruptcy is expensive. It'll cost me nearly $2000 to get this done. If I weren't working this summer, I don't know what I'd do to make it happen, and the truth is, it probably wouldn't. I'm certainly not the first person to simply look at the situation and consign myself to never owning a house or buying a new car. The new bankruptcy laws have made this chance to start over more difficult--the couple mentioned in the above piece almost certainly wouldn't qualify for Chapter 7, as I'd imagine they make above the median income in their state for a married couple.

Anyway, I've only started the process, and I'll update this as the process moves along.

Stupid gun laws and the Random Ten

It would be easy to imagine, given my other progressive stances, that I'm a major gun control advocate. I'm not, at least not in the straw man sense that the right likes to portray progressives as. I'm more in favor of the states judging individually what gun laws they ought to have, as not all states have the same issues with guns. Howard Dean said much the same thing when he ran for President--Vermont has different things to deal with than New York does, and the argument can even be extended to city versus rural areas. And as long as the courts continue to read the 2nd Amendment as not extending a personal right to bear arms (a situation very much up in the air right now), I think that's a sensible solution.

But sometimes, states just need to be slapped upside the head.

A blind man who has concealed weapons permits from North Dakota and Utah says he's not a danger to society, even though he can't see the gun he's shooting.

For starters, kudos to Minnesota for denying this guy a concealed carry permit. He's freaking blind.

Let me repeat this, in case you missed it. He's freaking blind.

This is not an issue of dismissing the rights of the disabled. This is an issue of public safety. A gun is a dangerous machine, and we limit the ability of people to use other dangerous machines. We require people to prove they're capable of operating motor vehicles--and they have to be able to see in order to do that. That's not discrimination. That's good public policy and a recognition of certain peoples' limitations.

I realize there aren't as many people living in North Dakota and Utah as there are in Minnesota, and maybe that has something to do with those states' decisions to allow such a ridiculous permit, but seriously, there's got to be a limit somewhere.

Here's the Random Ten. Put your computer or iPod on Party Shuffle and post the next ten songs that pop up. No cheating to make yourself look dorky.
1. Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian--John Prine
2. Cold Brains--Beck
3. Meanwhile, Rick James...--Cake
4. Feeling Like I Do--Superdrag
5. Lord Is It Mine--Supertramp
6. Heart of Glass--Nouvelle Vague
7. When I Fall--Barenaked Ladies
8. The Late Late Blues--Milt Jackson and John Coltrane
9. Tonight, Not Again--Jason Mraz
10. Hoarding it for Home--Mates of State

Don't shoot anybody.


According to the New York Times, the people resettling on rich people's land in Venezuela are "peasants."

The violence has gone both ways in the struggle, with more than 160 peasants killed by hired gunmen in Venezuela, including several here in northwestern Yaracuy State, an epicenter of the land reform project, in recent years. Eight landowners have also been killed here.
I find it upsetting that for the last 30 years Central and South America's poor have been enslaved and murdered by right-wing governments who've taken all the land for US baby food profits and their own empowerment, and the US has minimized the issue and silently helped the rich and militant.

But I find it yet more upsetting that, when a left-wing government is elected in Venezuela, and they begin reversing the process, suddenly it's a big deal, and the US government is all "on" that shit. (See, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised")

Now I know that the literal English translation of the Spanish word "campesino" is "peasant." I also know that any good dictionary warns that the literal translation, in English, carries other, offensive, connotations, and that "campesino" is better translated as "farmer" - its main Spanish connotation.

But I still can't help but see that the NY Times is calling the poor "peasants" (not to mention "squatters") while the rich 5% who own 80% of Venezuela's land are described only has having learned their English at US universities.

Which means even they wouldn't call the campesinos "peasants."

Huh. Didn't know they'd started this already

Let me begin by saying I'm a big fan of the dollar coin, and wish they'd dump the bill in favor of it. It's mostly an aesthetic thing for me, though I'd also rather deal with coins in vending machines (in the rare circumstances when I use them these days) than with getting temperamental singles to go up the reader. Anyway, here's my point. The John Adams dollar will be coming out soon, and while I'm certainly not convinced that it will be the savior of the coin--William Henry Harrison's dollar will be new in circulation nearly three times as long as he served in office, for example--it does add a bit of novelty to the long disparaged coin.

And I'm sure conservatives will lobby to get Reagan's coin moved up--maybe they'll even try to get him on a five dollar coin all by himself.


The city so mean even the babies are packing.

It will probably be quite a while before Bubba Ludwig gets to use his Firearm Owner's Identification Card.

Bubba, whose given name is Howard David Ludwig, is just 10 months old but has been issued the official State of Illinois gun ID. The application was filled out by his father, newspaper columnist Howard Ludwig.

The ID card arrived, complete with Bubba's toothless baby picture. The card lists the baby's height (2 feet, 3 inches), weight (20 pounds) and has a scribble where the signature should be. Ludwig said he never thought the gun permit would be approved.

The ID card program is administered by Illinois State Police. A spokesman for the department said there are no restrictions under the law regarding the age of applicants.

The kid just had to be nicknamed Bubba, didn't he? I shouldn't be surprised, actually--the kid's grandfather bought the baby a 12-gauge Beretta as a gift. What kind of people, outside of those who would nickname a child "Bubba," buy a ten-month old child a shotgun as a gift? I grew up with some Bubbas, and I believe they all had to at least be able to walk before they got their first guns, and even then it wasn't a 12-gauge.

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