Jun 30, 2006

Backyard Visitor

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(Toledo OH) What I thought at first glance was a cardinal turned out to be a type of house finch near one of my bird feeders today.

This male house finch has bright red plumage; his female counterpart lacks the distinctive ruby red feathers. Unlike many birds by my feeder, he allowed me to get quite close before taking flight.

House finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) were originally native to the southwestern US, and became prized by eastern bird afficianados for their complex, beautiful songs. They were illegally marketed as "Hollywood Finches," and were released by pet shop owners in order to avoid posecution for violating wild bird ordinances.

In the wild they began to spread into the rest of the country in the early- to mid-20th century, and have displaced eastern Purple finches in many areas.

Click here for a sample of the male house finch call.

The Quote Shelf

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The truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering the more you suffer because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt. --Thomas Merton

Jun 29, 2006

New Feature: "John Watch"

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prostitute Left: A female on Champlain near Mulberry beckons to passing cars on June 29, 2006 at 5:23 pm

(Toledo, OH) A few weeks ago a fellow Toledoan suggested that bloggers might use their websites to highlight neighborhood crime, bringing attention to ongoing problems through citizen journalism.

The result of this brainstorming is "John Watch," in which I will document street-level solicitation in Toledo neighborhoods.

Left: Male driver of the pictured vehicle drives away on northbound Champlain with the woman, 5:25 pm

I am in the process of refining this series, and I will likely bring a driver in the future. I found it difficult to simultaneously drive, take photographs, and catch all the pertinent details.

The Ohio license plate of the light-green sedan had a vanity phrase "XXXXXXX." Note: I am removing license plate numbers from this series under legal advice.

I did not get a good look at the driver of the vehicle, and I was not able to recognize the brand and model of the vehicle. Perhaps a more savvy reader will be able to pinpoint the type of vehicle.

I am desirous to get feedback on improving this series, as well as problem areas that could be highlighted. Think of this as an interactive series that is akin to TV's COPS, only in a blog format.

Middle East Veers Toward Wider War

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Empty Palestinian parliament Left: Portraits of detained Hamas politicians in the empty Palestinian parliament; photo courtesy of Muhammed Muheisen/AP

(West Bank) Israeli troops arrested Palestinian ministers and lawmakers from the ruling Hamas party on Thursday, while simultaneously pushing forward with a military campaign in Gaza designed to win the release of an Israeli soldier held by militants.

Israel reoccupied areas of southern Gaza yesterday, bombing bridges and an electricity plant in an attempt to pressure Palestinian militants to free abducted soldier Gilad Shilat. Electricity for half of Gaza has been severed, and supplies of fuel and food have been halted to the region.

Israeli jets also flew over the summer house of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad yesterday. The move was ostensibly a show of force against a country that has been accused of harboring senior members of Hamas in the past.

State-run Syrian television said two Israeli fighters had flown over the country’s Mediterranean coast in an “aggressive act and a provocation," claiming that “national air defences opened fire in the direction of the planes, and they dispersed."

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned of the danger that the conflict in Gaza and the West Bank will spread across the Middle East.


"The Israeli government has a responsibility to protect its citizens, but it has to do so with restraint and, of course, it is understandable that they would want to go after those who [had] kidnapped the soldier," he said. "But it has to be done in such a way that civilian populations are not made to suffer."

The Israeli human rights organization Btselem warned that cutting eletricity would jeopardize water supplies and health care for civilian non-combatants.

"Israel has the right to all legal measures to free the abducted soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit," the group wrote on its website. "However, Israel must refrain from using measures which contravene International Humanitarian Law, which categorically prohibits all sides to a conflict from attacking 'objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.'"

A Hamas official described Israel's detention of the Palestinian legislators as "hostage-taking," but would not discuss whether Hamas would turn over an Israeli soldier for the release of the arrested politicians.

"It is premature to discuss this matter," Osama Hamdan said. "If the Israelis want to trade them [the Hamas politicians] for the soldier then let them say it frankly and then we will react."

Also, a body found early Thursday near the Gaza town of Ramallah was identified as that of 18-year-old Eliyahu Yitzhak Asheri, a West Bank settler seized by Palestinian militants.

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What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy? --Mahatma Gandhi

Jun 28, 2006

WSPD's Fred LeFebvre Equates Finkbeiner with Hitler

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Carty Finkbeiner(Toledo, OH) In the latest war of words between News-Talk WSPD 1370-AM and Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, morning host Fred LeFebvre repeatedly compared the mayor with Adolf Hitler.

LeFebvre said that the mayor's "dictatorial" style was the reason he equated the two, citing the confrontation between ex-police chief Jack Smith and Finkbeiner as the latest in a series of examples of supposed mayoral tyranny.

Several callers phoned in to complain, but LeFebvre continued to make the comparison.

"Fred - how many people did the mayor kill?" asked one caller.

"None!" replied LeFebvre before hanging up on the guest and reminding listeners that they need not call the show if they were going to excuse Finkbeiner's behavior as "passion" for excellence.

Fred LeFebvreLeft: WSPD's Fred LeFebvre

The dispute stems from earlier comments made by Finkbeiner alleging that LeFebvre was a "liar" who dispensed "half-truths" during a heated debate about a proposed bike path in South Toledo.

In response, WSPD afternoon host and program director Brian Wilson "banned" Finkbeiner from appearing on air. The mayor then "banned" WSPD from press conferences, and mayoral spokesman Brian Schwartz denied entry to WSPD reporters at a later press conference in which city officials - not the mayor - were speaking.

Such exchanges do not benefit the city, but as a journalist I must add that the drama that seems to follow Carty Finkbeiner means that many local news people need never worry about steady work.

Hookers, Rats, and Drugs: Life at 901 Colburn

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901 colburn (Toledo, OH) Lillian Barringer is fed up about the house at 901 Colburn.

“I almost can’t stand to be here any more,” she said. “The mice and rats from that place are bad enough, but there are people going in there to do drugs. Sometimes they set up shop and sell them right out of the house.”

Barringer said that her complaints bring no response from the city.

“I have called every city department to get something done about that place, but nothing ever happens,” she said, noting that the two-family house has been vacant for at least four years. “Why should my granddaughter have to grow up around a dangerous building like that?”

Angry residents in the vicinity of South and the Trail have been talking about taking matters into their own hands, said Barringer.

“I am afraid that somebody will decide to burn the place down to get rid of it,” she said. “I don’t want my house to go up in flames at the same time, but it wouldn’t be the first time that people solved a problem by burning down an abandoned house.”

The property is owned by an Inkster, MI man named Nelson White, and efforts to contact him were unsuccessful. Neighbor Angela Morgan said that she is not surprised.

“This person is the typical absentee landlord who invests nothing in the property and lives far away,” she said. “He doesn’t care what goes on in the place, and no one’s been out here to work on it in years. This would be a great street if it wasn’t for that house.”

Morgan said that prostitutes have been known to frequent the building, and that feral cats are in the house.

“The dog warden said that they won’t come out for cats,” she said. “It’s like a jungle on the outside of that house, and a zoo on the inside.”

On the day the ABLE Squad visited, two windows and one door were unsecured, providing easy access to intruders. Clothing, empty food and beverage containers, and a radio provided evidence of recent inhabitation by unauthorized persons.

Morgan is concerned that local children may be in danger from the property.

“There is a rope hanging from the tree in back, and we are constantly chasing away kids who want to play there,” she said. “I worry that one of those kids might hurt themselves on that tree or in the garbage that’s in the yard.”

This article is part of a regular feature I write for the Toledo Free Press called the ABLE Squad - "Abandoned Buildings Looking for Entrepreneurs."

Jun 27, 2006

On Flag Burning, Desecration, and Unctuous Politicians

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burning flag (Toledo, OH) I watch with disgust as members of the United States Senate waste time trying to outdo each other with versions of legislation concerning the "desecration" of the American flag.

The GOP seeks to get a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning and other physical acts that "desecrate" the flag, while Senate Democrats produced an alternate amendment with similar language.

As an American I have been raised to respect the flag, and I treat my own flag with the honor it deserves. I would never consider burning or marring the symbol most representative of American ideals.

The American flag, however, is not "sacred," and thus cannot be "desecrated." It is a secular icon conceived by political leaders who sought to embody certain philosophical beliefs in an easily recognizable form.

Nothing more.

The providential idea that God somehow worked through the fingers of Betsy Ross to create a sacred object in the American flag is derisible, as well as just being bad historical analysis. Religious extremists can believe what they want, but they should not be allowed to hijack the US Constitution for their own delusional fantasies.

If protesters decide that they can best communicate their points with a burning flag, so be it. I will boo them loudly and go about my business knowing that they have likely turned off 95 percent of people who might otherwise listen to what they say.

Moreover, the forbidden fruit syndrome is likely the unintended consequence of banning flag-burning, as the very fact that something is outlawed will, in turn, bring about more of the repulsive behavior.

Much like the failed "Marriage Protection Amendment," the flag protection amendments are the worst sort of cheap electoral politics, and are also of dubious legal standing. Senators, however, are keen to show voters just how patriotic they think they are, rather than addressing the problems for which we ostensibly elected them.

Dear U.S. Senate: Get to work on substantive issues, and cease with the transparent demagoguery. You can best demonstrate your patriotism by acting like responsible legislators instead of mealymouthed rogues.

Toledo Police Chief Jack Smith Resigns

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Left: Police chief Jack Smith; photo courtesy of Owens.edu

(Toledo, OH) Only six months into his role as police chief, Jack Smith will be returning to the position of captain tomorrow morning.

The soon-to-be ex-chief got into a "heated" altercation with Toledo Mayor Caty Finkbeiner this morning. When the exchange veered toward a physical confrontation, another unnamed city employee stepped in and separated the men.

One of my contacts in police headquarters said that he is surprised that Smith lasted as long as he did.

"Both men are extremely hard-nosed, and as much as I like Jack, the relationship was doomed from the start," he said, requesting anonymity. "It was only a matter of time before this happened, because Carty has no diplomatic skills."

The argument apparently centered around gang activity in the North End. Captain Smith defended his department's actions with regard to gangs after the mayor challenged the department's effectiveness.

More as this story develops...

Iran Rejects Talks With US

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Left: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, courtesy of GlobalSecurity.org

(Tehran) Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran does not need talks with the US over its controversial nuclear enrichment program because the nation would gain nothing through such aforum, Iranian state television reported today.

Washington has said it will join EU states in talks with Iran if Tehran agrees to halt uranium enrichment, but Iran appears to be holding the line on gaining recognition of its right to produce enriched uranium.

"Negotiations with the United States would have no benefit for us, and we do not need them," state television quoted Khamenei as telling Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. "We do not negotiate with anybody on achieving and exploiting nuclear technology. But if they recognize our nuclear rights, we are ready to negotiate about controls, supervisions and international guarantees."

US officials believe Iran is enriching uranium in order to produce nuclear weapons, but Tehran claims it is only interested in peaceful energy purposes. A a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is entitled to pursue such technology.

Iran has yet to reply to the incentives package presented on June 6. The package offers the lifting of some sanctions and other economic incentives, as well as a promise of US and EU nuclear technology for Iran.

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You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others - something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.
--Albert Schweitzer

Jun 26, 2006

Colombia Deadliest Country for Trade Union Leaders

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(Washington, DC) Colombia remains the deadliest nation on earth for trade unionists, according to a new report by the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center.

“The report reveals a reality for Colombian workers that is riddled with threats, violence, illegal detentions, impunity, legal limitations, abuses of hiring laws, illegal dismissals and a system of governmental authorities that fails to protect workers from further violations or to remedy the existing ones,” said Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.

The report estimates that 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since the mid-1980s, with more than 2,000 victims since 1991.

According to Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), 70 trade unionists were killed in 2005, while another 260 received death threats. In addition, 56 Colombian union leaders were detained without cause, seven survived attacks in which explosives or firearms were used, six were kidnapped, and three disappeared.

Olmert Vows Retaliation for Seized Soldier

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Left: Abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, courtesy of Reuters

(Tel Aviv) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave the Hamas government of Palestine 48 hours to bring about the return of a captured Israeli soldier, or face what he described as a "comprehensive and protracted operation."

Olmert also said he held the entire Palestinian leadership responsible for the safety of the soldier, tank gunner Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was seized in a cross-border raid early Sunday. Two other Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack on outposts.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the attack was a joint operation between his organization, the Popular Resistance Committees, and a group calling itself the Islamic Army.

Zuhri said the coordinated action was revenge for Israel's "massacre of our children and for its assassination of Popular Resistance Committees leader, Jamal Abu Samhadana."

Neither side seems likely to back down at this juncture, as the stakes have been raised to such a level that any concessions are likely to be viewed as a sign of weakness. Without immediate intervention from neutral diplomats, I can forsee no outcome beyond the war-like scenario hinted at by Olmert.

The Hamas government, already reeling from the US-led effort to deprive the infusion of cash to the Palestinian authority, may view the attacks as a way to unify Palestinian factions in the face of an imminent Israeli threat. If Hamas caves in to the Israeli demand - a big "if," as political chaos in Palestine is high at the moment - the party will be seen as traitors by many of their supporters.

Israel, on the other hand, cannot idly sit back and allow its troops to be attacked without reprisal. Olmert and his Kadima party can ill afford to be accused of being soft on terror by right wing war hawks in the Knesset.

About 40 hours remain before the deadline passes.

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I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.
--George Eliot

Jun 25, 2006

Timberstone Group Hopes to Restore Deveaux Village to Former Glory

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(Toledo, OH) High profile commercial renovation projects such as Southwyck and Westgate have dominated the news in recent months.

The Deveaux Village Shopping Center, however, has quietly entered a period of renewal that its new owners hope will restore the area to its former prominence. The center is located on the corner of Sylvania Avenue and Douglas Road in West Toledo.

The Timberstone Group purchased the primary commercial strip in 2005, and plans to complete the exterior renovation by the end of summer, said Gary Yunker, spokesman for Timberstone.

“We have committed about $2 million in exterior and interior improvements to the site,” he said. “We are currently working with a company that owns a sports pub that wants to move to the front corner, and we have also received a number of intriguing queries from potential tenants.”

The group owns three of the six parcels on the site, which has been a retail destination since 1959. Yunker said that the group intends to also acquire the vacant FoodTown building.

“That site was one of FoodTown’s best locations before the Spartan deal,” he said of the 2000 merger between the grocery firms. “We are talking with a major grocery chain at the moment, and hope to put together an incentive package with the city to lure them to this location.”

The surprise closing of the FoodTown store in 2003 – which was a result of restructuring by a debt-ridden Spartan Stores, Inc. - saw the beginning of a period of decline for the center, said Yunker. The center also suffered from the loss of the Blessed Sacrament Community Center in 2004.

Timberstone incorporated in July 2003 as a construction company , later adding real estate development and construction management divisions. The firm uses a mix of bank loans and private equity to fund its projects, although Yunker declined to provide specific figures on annual investment or development activity by Timberstone.

Among the more prominent projects the firm has recently taken on include the Bartley Lofts condominiums at Washington and Ontario and the Talmadge Town Center at Talmadge and Sylvania.

The center had been owned by the Charles Johnson family until the sale last year. At one point the land was an unincorporated area known as “Johnson’s Island” before the city annexed the land.

Timberstone has plans to expand the available retail space in the center.

“We plan to construct a building on the outlot next to the old Friendly’s,” he said, referring to the vacated restaurant and ice cream business. “We have also subdivided some of the larger units in the strip into smaller spaces.”

Yunker said that the group intends to keep the Deveaux Village name for the immediate future.

“At some point we might entertain a name change, but the Deveaux name is synonymous with the area,” he said.

Candidate Claims the Devil is Against Him

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Left: John Jacob, courtesy of Deseretnews.com

(Salt Lake City, UT) A candidate for the Republican nomination for a Utah congressional seat believes that Satan is behind a series of recent setbacks that he has faced.

John Jacob, a businessman challenging incumbent Rep. Chris Cannon, said that he cannot find another explanation for his woes.

"There's another force that wants to keep us from going to Washington, D.C.," he said. "It's the devil is what it is. I don't want you to print that, but it feels like that's what it is."

His efforts to finance his campaign through business deals were the first sign that a demonic presence could be undermining the run for Congress, said Jacob.

"You know, you plan, you organize, you put your budget together and when you have 10 things fall through, not just one, there's some other, something else that is happening," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I don't know who else it would be if it wasn't him. Now when that gets out in the paper, I'm going to be one of the screw-loose people."

Jacob, a member of the Mormon Church, has made the claim on at least two occasions. He told the Tribune that the purported satanic intervention is a function of his pure motives.

"We have a country that was created by our Heavenly Father and it was a country that had a Constitution and everyone who came to America had strong faith. If that can be destroyed that would be the adversity," he said. "Whether you want to call that Satan or whoever you want to call it, I believe in the last eight months I've experienced that."

Jun 24, 2006

On Greener Pastures and Happiness

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(Toledo, OH) A person I know has made a decision to leave her spouse and children for another relationship. The details are unimportant, as similar stories have been told many times, and this person is unlikely to read these words.

I write, however, for those who might be on the fence, blinded by the infatuatory rush of a new love that hits the nervous system with a kick greater than any opiate.

I have screwed up more than a few things in life, but I have learned at least one thing from my mistakes: happiness can be achieved no matter where you are. It is an individual, conscious decision to find reasons to be glad for the day.

I had a perfect moment today while my children were splashing at a community pool. A red-bellied woodpecker landed about ten feet away, staring down at me from a nearby tree. The bird preened, looked about, and flew away about a half-minute later.

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about the event, and yet I knew that I had momentarily achieved that elusive state of kensho taught in Zen Buddhism.

Perhaps if you invested an equivalent amount of time and effort in your current relationship you might find that life with your significant other is not such a burden. Better still, look for the redeeming qualities in your relationship instead of dwelling on petty faults.

For one moment, consider the fact that your decision to end a relationship may have long-reaching consequences that affect many other people. Can you honestly say that any children in the picture will benefit from a divorce or separation? If not, your decision might be selfish in nature, and maybe you might want to think about putting other people first.

I know that there are some abusive people on the planet, and I am not advocating that people should be forced to stay in a situation that is dangerous or unhealthy.

Such scenes, however, are not the norm, and most of us know at least one relationship that broke down because one (or both) parties became so self-absorbed that the union collapsed under the weight of inflated egos.

Remember: the relationship is not always about you. When is the last time you gave your spouse a back rub, or cooked a favorite meal for that person? When did you last walk up and whisper in your lover's ear: "I think you are REALLY sexy today!"

Finally, consider that kindness extended to others without expectation of reward can be a path to happiness itself, and that taking steps to improve the lives of others is the mark of the divine.

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Soy un perdedor
I'm a loser, baby,
So why don't you kill me?
--Beck

Jun 23, 2006

On Terrorist "Wannabes" and al-Qaeda

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Left: Sears Tower, courtesy of CBS News

(Toledo, OH) The news that federal agencies rooted out seven suspected domestic terrorists should have caused me to breathe a sigh of relief. After all, people with plans to create an event "just as good or greater than 9/11" - including the destruction of the Sears Tower in Chicago - must be just the sort of terrorist thugs we want removed from danger, right?

Yet as I sit in my middle class home with my middle class family in the middle-sized city in which we live, I cannot help but wonder if the self-congratulatory words of Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez ring hollow.

Are these legitimate terror threats, or a group of morons with delusions of grandeur? Worse still, perhaps these men have been deliberately enticed by foreign terrorists as easily-spotted decoys, drawing attention away from "real" terrorists.

Then, of course, we have the conspiracy theory, in which a government hell-bent on maintaining a state of fear finds suckers who travel a little too close to the zone of zealous criminality, and entraps them in a fuzzily-constructed "plot" to commit domestic acts of terror.

I was also intrigued with the information that the would-be Miami terrorists sought an advance of $50,000 from the government informant who posed as an al-Qaeda operative. I have a nagging suspicion that these "terrorists" might have been trying to shake down al-Qaeda for some fast cash.

These days I no longer know what to believe.

The Miami case bears considerable similarity to the case of the Toledo terror suspects arrested in February this year. Both cases involve a group of men who allegedly talked the game of terrorism, but whose plans did not seem to have progressed beyond rhetoric.

The government trumpets these cases as terror plots "nipped in the bud," and perhaps they are correct. A part of me - the part that has listened to blithering idiots on the next barstool, or nutty coworkers with crazy schemes - wonders if these groups of arrested men truly represented a threat to our nation, or if they were a group of two-bit nobodies talking smack.

Dangerous Staph Bug Traced to Unlicensed Tattoo Artists

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Left: Human MRSA infection

(Atlanta, GA) The popularity of unlicensed tattoo artists is being linked with outbreaks of the potentially deadly bacterial infection methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

MRSA is a strain of the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium that has developed antibiotic resistance to all drugs in the penicillin family.

44 tattoo customers in Ohio, Kentucky and Vermont developed skin infections traced to 13 unlicensed tattoo artists in the last two years.

Symptoms of MRSA infection range from skin boils to necrotizing fasciitis, sometimes referred to as "flesh-eating disease" in the popular press. MRSA infections have been combatted in the past decade with the antibiotic vancomycin, but vancomycin-resistant staphyloccocus has increasingly appeared in the past five years.

MRSA infections can be transmitted from person to person by contact with draining sores, through contact with contaminated items, and in some cases from animals infected with MRSA.

Occasionally staphylococci can enter the body and cause serious and sometimes fatal conditions such as blood infections or pneumonia.

The CDC found that the unlicensed tattoo artists did not practice necessary hygiene practices, and that instead of doing the work in tattoo parlors, the body art was done in the homes of the tattooists or the recipients, or in public parks.

Unlicensed artists have increased in popularity due to their ability to charge lower prices than licensed commercial tattoo operators.

Rapid Rhetoric: ADSCITITIOUS

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This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

adscititious - adj. derived or acquired from something outside; not inherent to a person or object.

The word is of Latin origin - ad + scire ("to know"), which later evolved into adsciscere, which means "to admit" or "to adopt."

Jun 22, 2006

Hilarious - but Sobering - Quiz

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Left: Who said it?

(Toledo, OH) At the risk of validating Godwin's Law, I submit to readers a quiz that compares the statements of Adolf Hitler and Ann Coulter.

Follow this link to take the quiz. I was only able to attribute 9 of 14 quotes to the correct person.

Thanks to the ever-brilliant Paula Czarny for the link.

Film Review: Syriana

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128 minutes, rated R for violence and language

Those who are looking for pleasant films with tidy, heartwarming endings need read no further. Syriana has none of what you seek.

The film is a disturbing, intelligent work that examines the geopolitical struggle for oil in which we find ourselves. Syriana depicts a world where multinationals compete for limited petroleum supplies, governments curry favor with the corporations, and most of the people on the planet live out their lives trying not to think too hard about the ugly truth.

Those dig too hard for the truth wind up bitter. Or dead.

There are no heroes in the film, as every character exhibits contemtible personality flaws; the business of oil seems to corrupt everyone involved.

This is not a great film, as director Stephen Gaghan's love of interwoven storylines sometimes makes the plot hard to follow. Too often the characters revert to stereotype (greedy CEOs, soulless government operatives, violent Islamists), and the occasional subtitles during Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu conversations tend to be annoyingly placed over bright backgrounds, making dialogue hard to follow.

Still, Syriana is an important work, if for no other reason than for its ability to spark debate. It is bleak, it offers no simplistic solutions, and it is a film that you should rent tonight.

Just don't look to the film as a few hours of escapist diversion, because the questions implicitly asked in the film will stick with you for a long time.

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If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.
--Mark Twain

Jun 21, 2006

Waiting Out the Storm

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Left: Toledo radar image from 7:45 pm courtesy of Intellicast.com

(Toledo, OH) Lucas County is experiencing its first tornado warning of the year, and as I write this I am cooped up in my basement with my children.

They were a bit reluctant to heed the admonishment to take cover, but did so with a minimum of complaining. They have been brought up in an era when schools reinforce weather drills, and intuitively know that tornado warnings should be taken seriously.

The screaming emergency sirens, however, made the issue a moot point.

My new laptop has an excellent battery, and has only lost 21% of its power in the past 30 minutes. I have been able to track radar, follow the National Weather Service broadcasts, and blog while waiting for the warning to be lifted.

The ability to access up-to-the-minute weather information is much preferred to the old method of waiting for radio stations to provide data in between commercials and programming.

Review: The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia

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Grousset, René (translated by Naomi Walford)

New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1970, 687 pages


Grousset first published his masterpiece on Central Asia in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War, and perhaps his emphasis on military and political history is a reflection of the turbulent times in which he lived. This sweeping synthesis covers a geographic area from the Iberian to the Korean Peninsulas, and a time span from the Hellenic era through the eighteenth century. Grousset sought to provide readers with an authoritative text that captured the history of nomadic and sedentary peoples across the Eurasian steppes, while creating a work that possesses a lyrical flair.

The author was influenced by historians of the Annales School, as he incorporated research from fields as diverse as archaeology, geology, and linguistics into Empire of the Steppes. Grousset, for example, opened his text with such information as a survey of temperature extremes in Mongolia and a discussion of the effects of the semicircular Altai and Tien Shan mountain ranges on the climate of the steppe. While never reaching the ideal of l'histoire totale so enamored by Braudel, Grousset nonetheless pushed the boundaries of Asian historical discourse in directions previously ignored.

The book follows a chronological schema, beginning with the early history of such groups as the Huns, Scythians, and Samartians and their interactions with cultures that developed written scripts; the author divided the next two sections into the arbitrary categories of “The Jenghiz-Khanite Mongols” and the “Last Mongols.” Grousset used a topical approach within each section to group information, and readers can make use of the detailed table of contents and index to quickly find specific information about a particular group.

The author used a wide variety of European, Arabic, and Chinese sources in his research, and the text reflects this wide reading. The journey of Marco Polo, for example, merits only five pages of summary, a loud signal that Grousset was unconcerned with relying on traditional European sources for his examination of the history of the steppe. His use of linguistic research provides readers with a wealth of useful knowledge, such as the use by Europeans of the term “Cathay” to describe China is derived from a poor transliteration of “Khitan.”
Left: Mongol Empire, circa 1300 CE

A theme that Grousset weaves throughout the book involves the interaction between nomadic peoples – often referred to as “savages,” “hordes,” or “barbarians” - and sedentary cultures. The Chinese and Western European civilizations, in the eyes of the author, were both terrorized by and simultaneously rejuvenated by contact with peoples of the steppe. Grousset claimed that, once “touched by the grace of the bodhisattva,” nomadic peoples of the steppe lost their “Turkish vigor,” “native belligerence,” as well as the ability to defend themselves. The author, however, failed to consider that, despite their nomadic status, the ability of a group such as the Khitan to assemble a 50,000-man army and destroy the imperial forces of China in 936 CE implies a level of sophistication incongruent with a term such as “savage.”

Readers of the text should keep an atlas at ready reference when reading this work, as Grousset’s use of geographical landmarks can be confusing for scholars who do not, for example, know the difference between the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya. The text also suffers from archaic spellings of place and ethnic names; the Uighur are spelled “Uigur,” and the Jurchen become the “Jurchid” in the text. The 1970 English translation, while correcting mistakes from the original, nonetheless did not incorporate material from the previous three decades, and the text has become less reliable in the ensuing period of time.

The text also suffers from an over-reliance on extraordinary historical personages such as Attila, Tamerlane, and Genghis Khan. While such individuals certainly merit inclusion in a historical treatise, a deeper analysis of the source materials could have provided readers with a much more rich social history than the elite-dominated political and military history that fills the pages of this book. Still, the text serves as an excellent outline of and reference to Central Asian history, and should be a mainstay on the shelves of historians and knowledgeable general readers.

Toledo Graduate Looks Forward to West Point

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(Toledo, OH) One Toledo area graduate will be changing from the uniform of an all-girls’ school to that of a military cadet in a few weeks.

Catherine Gibbs, who recently graduated from Notre Dame Academy, accepted a prestigious invitation to West Point.

In addition to a 4.4 GPA, status as a National Merit finalist, and recipient of scholarships from schools such as MIT and the University of Michigan, Gibbs is also the only female student in the Toledo area to be selected to the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Only about 15 percent of the Academy’s 4,000 undergraduates are women.

Gibbs said that her decision to accept the candidacy at West Point was a simple one.

“It sounds clichéd, but I really chose the Academy in order to serve my country,” she said. “I believe it’s an opportunity to give back to the country that has given me so many opportunities.”

Gibbs, who plans to major in mathematics or engineering, said that she does not worry about the possibility of being assigned to a combat zone.

“I am prepared to go and do whatever I am asked to do,” she said. “If I am asked to serve in a war zone, I willingly accept that responsibility.”

Catherine’s parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Gibbs of Temperance, MI, stand behind their daughter’s decision.

“It was her choice, and Catherine worked on the lengthy application process for over a year,” said Elizabeth Gibbs. “Just when you thought every possible step had been completed, there would be another two forms.”

One of the most important steps was the endorsement of a Congressional member, and Gibbs was nominated by Michigan senator Debbie Stabenow. Mrs. Gibbs said that her daughter also received an invitation signed by Vice President Dick Cheney to join the Naval Academy.

“We are very proud of what she has accomplished, and I know she will be successful at West Point,” she said.

Like the other military academies, West Point has had some problems with hazing and sexual harassment of women cadets in the past. Gibbs said that these are issues she is not worried about.

Left: West Point Military Academy

“The Academy has very low tolerance for inappropriate behavior, and there is far too much to lose for people to risk their appointments by acting stupid,” she said. “West Point has worked hard to address sexual harassment and hazing, because they know that soldiers won’t follow someone they don’t respect.”

Gibbs attended a seminar at the Academy between her junior and senior years in high school, and was impressed with what she saw at West Point.

“The cadets who run the program are very respectful and work hard to make people feel welcome,” she said. “I look forward to the challenges I will face next year.”

Like anyone entering the military, Academy cadets must go through basic training. Gibbs will arrive in West Point June 26 for the 6-week training, and she discussed the challenges candidates face.

“You are pretty much cut off from the world at first, and you are only allowed to write home – no email, no cell phones, and just an occasional call home,” she said. “They tell us that about the only thing we will be allowed to bring are changes of underwear.”

A few acquaintances, said Gibbs, have expressed reservations about her decision.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the military academies,” she said. “Most of my friends and immediate family have been supportive, but a few relatives had some doubts. All I can say to them is that this is the right choice for me, and that I believe in serving my country.”

Jun 20, 2006

New Laptop

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(Toledo, OH) After receiving an overdue check in the mail today I traveled to Office Depot to check out laptops.

Although I was disappointed with the troublesome A/C cord on my previous Compaq Presario, I could not resist the $455 price tag on a Presario V2000 notebook.

It was a demo, so the sales rep knocked it down from $569.

I lose a little in size, but the machine is about one-half the weight of my Presario 3000.

I know Matt Sussman will be booing the decision, but at $455 (plus a $30 mail-in rebate) I chose economy.

Besides, I am looking for speed, memory, and wireless, and do not need much in the way of video or audio capabilities. Just allow me to type and blog, and I'm golden.

Pythian Castle: Toledo

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Photos by historymike

(Toledo, OH) One of my favorite historic buildings in Toledo is the Pythian Castle, located on the corner of Jefferson and Ontario.

The building derived its name from the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that built the structure in 1890.

The building has been vacant since the 1970s when it used to house an art and music community.

The building needs a roof, and much of the interior has been stripped for scrap metal. Yet the Pythian Castle remains one of the most beautiful buildings in Toledo, and awaits an owner with the cash and vision to refurbish it.

Left: Ornate details abound on the exterior of the Pythian Castle

On the day I visited the Castle there were three men completing some sort of transaction on the front steps. They eyed me suspiciously, but continued to conduct business as I took photos.

Dealers and addicts are just temporary visitors to the Castle. Perhaps I will live to see the day when the Gothic structure is once again a thriving building, and when its 185-foot turrets gleam in the summer sun.

Rapid Rhetoric: TARRADIDDLE

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This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

tarradiddle - n. 1. petty falsehood, lie, or fib. 2. Silly or pretentious speech or writing.

The etymology of the word is murky, but it began to pop up in British literature in the 18th century.

Today's word was passed along by Mac at MacDonald's Animal Farm, an acerbic political cartoon site. He suggested the use of the word to describe the writings of Ann Coulter.

OTA Links

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(Toledo, OH) On Tuesdays, I perform my duties as a member of the Open Trackback Alliance and highlight some sites and posts that I found noteworthy on the sites of other members.

Follow this link to learn more about the project, which was developed by Samantha Burns.

Other interesting OTA blogs I visited this week: TMH's Bacon Bits, the unusual Quietly Making Noise, the wacky Mental Rhinorrhea, the wretched hive of scum and Villainy at Pirate's Cove, tales and observations from the Beatnik Samurai known as Stray Dog, the good fun at 7 Deadly Sins, and my must-visit, thrice-daily trips to Liberal Common Sense.

Jun 19, 2006

North Korea Reportedly Fuels Intercontinental Missile

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Left: North Korean test of Taepodong-1 missile in 1998

(Pyongyang) The US and Japan warned North Korea today against a missile launch that some sources believe is capable of a test flight that could reach as far as Alaska.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned that "it would be a very serious matter and indeed a provocative act" if North Korea continued its test with what is believed to be a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile.

The United States is meeting with members of the UN Security Council on possible responses if Pyongyang tests such a missile, said UN ambassador John Bolton.

"Right now we are in consultation with various members of the council on what steps might be taken because it obviously would be very serious," Bolton said. "But in any event we are just now in the preliminary consultations phase."

North Korea has often used saber-rattling tactics to gain trade gain concessions from the West, but missile experts believe there is a "90 percent chance" that North Korea fully intends to continue with the launch. Siphoning out the rocket fuel is considered to be a dangerous practice, and leaving the corrosive fuel in the rocket will destroy internal seals.

While there exists a threat North Korea of delivering chemical, nuclear, or biological weapons in the Taepodong-2, some believe that the greater danger in a successful test is that North Korea will be able to market the missile to other countries.

On Rove, Truthout, and Journalistic Ethics

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(Toledo, OH) I read with interest the column by Joe Lauria in yesterday's Washington Post. He detailed how reporter Jason Leopold used his name in getting his "scoop" that Karl Rove had been indicted in connection with his role in leaking CIA officer Valerie Plame's name to the media.

Rove, as it later turned out, was not indicted, and Truthout.org looked mighty foolish in running Leopold's story.

Lauria details some of Leopold's sordid past, which makes for titillating reading, but I was more struck by a comment that was attributed to Leopold.

"A scoop is a scoop," wrote Leopold in his memoir, News Junkie. "Other journalists all whine about ethics, but that's a load of crap."

As a working journalist I have been privy to more than a few stories that have been shelved because there was no way to corroborate the information. Journalists who choose to do otherwise sink to the level of gossip columnists, or worse, paid character assassins.

I am no fan of Karl Rove, but he deserves the same treatment as any other subject of an investigative journalist. Leopold, however, is sticking by his story, despite the fact that Fitzgerald publicly denied Rove will be indicted.

He speculates that a federal case numbered "06 cr 128" or "Sealed v. Sealed," is really an indictment of Karl Rove. Of course, Leopold has not actually seen the documents in the sealed case, but assures us that the fact that teh case was filed by the same grand jury hearing the Plame case is "proof" that Rove will be indicted.

Hmmm. I have never worked for an editor who would touch such an unsubstantiated story - no documents, no sources, just intriguing coincidences. Truthout and Leopold have sunk to new lows for themselves, and continue to lose credibility by printing rumor disguised as truth.

Jason Leopold - what price for your soul?

The Quote Shelf

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A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.

--Samuel Johnson

Jun 18, 2006

Film Review: The Aristocrats

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89 minutes, not rated (NR) for its extremely obscene language

Yes, the film came out in 2005. So sue me - I rarely make it to the theater for first-run films anymore, and I am never in a hurry to see films when they arrive on DVD.

Comedy veterans and film creators Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza interviewed over 100 comedians about an old vaudville-era joke. Some of the comedians retell the joke, others dissect the joke, and a few are exposed to the joke for the first time.

The joke itself is designed to shock and disgust the audience, and viewers should be warned that the humor in the film is based upon some of the most vile acts of human degradation one could imagine, including incest, scatalogical humor, and bestiality.

Those whose sensibilities are easily offended should stay far, far away from this film. Don't say that you weren't warned.

The film's strengths are to be found in the analysis of the joke's origins, the examination of the comedic process, and in observing how a variety of comedians approach the joke.

One of the funniest scenes occurs when Billy the Mime tells the joke through pantomime. Gasping for air as I laughed, I had to replay it three times to catch the details I missed. Through the entire skit Billy keeps the same painted smile on his face, and the expressions of people passing by on the street are beyond description.

I also enjoyed Kevin Pollack impersonating Christopher Walken telling the joke and Gilbert Gottfried's infamous rendition of the joke at a celebrity roast for Hugh Hefner, shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

The joke itself is vulgar, offensive, and not really that funny. The humor is to be found in how comedians try to out-shock each other, or how they turn the joke's format in unusual dirsctions.

Jun 17, 2006

On Tiger Lillies and Time

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Photo by historymike

(Toledo, OH) Walking in my garden today I was greeted by the season's first tiger lily, whose orange burst opened in the moonlight as I slept.

These lillies are among my favorite flowers, as they require little maintenance and bring many years of pleasure. You just plant the bulbs, give them a little water, and watch them multiply.

I think of tiger lillies as a July phenomenon, though. Perhaps it is just my middle-aged brain deceiving me, but I associate them with the Fourth of July.

It is only in the last two centuries or so that humans have become dependent upon mechanical devices to keep track of time. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when mass production of consumer goods became possible, watches and clocks were a sign of wealth, rather than a necessity.

Concurrently, the mechanization that accompanied the Industrial Revolution forced humans to become slaves to time. The time on our watches needs to be synchronized with that of the timekeeping devices of our employers, or we face disciplinary action.

I have worked for employers in which tardiness in excess of five minutes meant an immediate writeup. Such an obsession with punctuality seems almost dehumanizing, but far be it from me to tell that to an employer.

We are not far removed from the days when the blooming of a particular flower such as a tiger lily held great significance to the humans who lived in its vicinity. They might mark this event by planting a particular crop, or using it to gauge some other seasonal milestone.

I have become more attuned to the natural flow of time in the last few years as I have begun to devote myself to what I like to call "experiments in urban agriculture" (although I am still ostensibly a slave to mechanized time).

The annual arrival of raspberries happens near my son's early August birthday, while our lamb's ear plants bloom near the beginning of the school year. The appearance of our roses usually occurs on or around Memorial Day weekend, and is my signal that summer has officially begun.

As I look at my watch, I see that it is 11:47 am. I have to run a lot of errands and knock off quite a few items on my to-do list, but for the moment 11:47 is just a couple of meaningless numbers.