Sep 30, 2006

On The Archaic System of Congressional Pages

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Florida Rep. Mark Foley Left: Florida Rep. Mark Foley; photo courtesy of AP

Florida Congressman Mark Foley's resignation amid revelations of an exchange of lurid e-mails to a teenage page is only the latest in a series of sex scandals involving underage employees in Congress. The attention brought by Foley's purported transgressions should prompt the country to a larger discussion of the reform - and possible abolition - of this antiquated system.

The practice dates back to at least 1839 in the US Congress, but the term itself harkens back to the medieval period. There are many variants of page in Romance languages (for example, paggio in Italian, pagem in Portuguese), and pages served knights, royal courts, and acted as apprentices for artisans. Mercutio, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet , provides a brief glimpse of the historical role of pages in Act III:

Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch;
Marry, 'tis enough.
Where is my page?
Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
Foley, as previously noted, is not the first politicain to engage in questionable behavior with congressional pages. Rep. Dan Crane had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female page in 1980, while Rep. Gerry Studds admitted to a similar affair with a 17-year-old male page in 1973.

It stands to reason that these public scandals are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, since victims of sexual harassment and abuse often keep hidden their trauma. Moreover, given the considerable power wielded by members of Congress, victimized pages have likely kept their silence on such matters out of fear.

The actions of Foley are particularly galling in light of the fact that the congressman had been chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, and recently sponsored legislation to crack down on Internet child pornography sites.

Yet perhaps it is the archaic system of congressional pages itself that needs to be addressed. We have no way of knowing in advance which legislators wil cross the line into reprehensible behavior, but we can certainly better protect children by abolishing the page system, or restricting the position to persons over the age of 18.

Perhaps Congress - so keen to enact legislation to "protect" ordinary Americans - can best lead by example, and start by ensuring that no child will ever be abused by Congressional predators.

The Quote Shelf

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

My sorrow, when she's here with me, thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be; she loves the bare, the withered tree; she walks the sodden pasture lane.
--Robert Frost

Sep 28, 2006

Google Earth and My Backyard

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Google Earth image of my backyard(Toledo, OH) For some of you the website and software offered by Google Earth is not news. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this product, this free service allows you to view any patch of the planet as seen from satellite.

The software is now used by over 100 million people, and it combines satellite images, maps, and local information to display geographical data.

The picture on the left is of my house as it might appear some 841 feet in the air.

The software made the news yesterday as spotters poring over satellite images discovered what appears to be two topless sunbathers in the Dutch city of The Hague.

Google makes this service available by inducing advertisers to put flags locating their businesses on the images, but they can be easily minimized by users.

At any rate, the site and software are fun to poke around with and kill a few extra minutes.

Sunset on Sylvania Avenue

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(Toledo, OH) This shot is blurry as hell, but I was stunned by the sudden reappearance of the sun from behind storm clouds last night about 7:30 pm.

I was compelled to pull over, dig out my digital camera, and capture this panoply of color.

The purple, orange, magenta, and blue hues created a surreal effect on the canvas that was the sky at dusk. For a moment the sun burst out like a ball of fire, and then it retreated behind another bank of storm clouds.

In the time I had reviewed the two pictures that I snapped, it had disappeared again.

Here and gone.

Weighty Matters

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Standing on my scale and monitoring my weight loss (Toledo, OH) Over the past decade my weight has gradually crept up from the 200 pounds I consider to be my ideal weight (I am 6'5"). I was once a person who possessed the sort of metabolism that seemed to annhilate any amount of food I consumed, but my more sedentary life in the world of academia has contributed to my expanding girth.

I made a vow at the beginning of the year to get serious about weight loss. Alas, it is late September and I have only managed to go from 230 to 224.

My new plan is to count calories every day, and I intend to keep my daily caloric intake under 2000 (my ideal intake is about 2500, according to the various calculators I found online). For the past two days I have been at 1850 and 2100 respectively. I was doing fine until my wife did some late night grocery shopping, and then I caved and ate about 400 calories worth of Pringles. Damn those addictive chips!

I have also begun a moderate increase my level of physical activity, making sure that - at the minimum - I walk a few miles a day.

At any rate, I am looking for tips on weight loss. What has worked for you?

Sep 27, 2006

Report: Terrell Owens Attempted Suicide

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Terrell Owens with Cowboys owner Jerry JonesLeft: Terrell Owens with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

(Dallas, TX) Early reports indicated that Terrell Owens, wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, was hospitalized Tuesday night after what was called an "allergic reaction" to pain medication prescribed for for his broken right hand.

Station KDFW/Channel 4 in Dallas, however, obtained a police report that said Owens attempted suicide. The report indicated that Owens was depressed and took prescription pain pills.

A copy of the report is available at this WFAA link.

A female companion apparently observed Owens - known popularly by the initials "TO" - putting two pills in his mouth. The police report notes that the woman said the prescription of 40 pills was filled on September 18 and that only five pills had been taken prior to the incident.

Owens was asked by officers if he had taken the rest of the prescription; Owens reportedly said: "Yes." According to the report, police also asked if he was trying to harm himself, to which Owens replied : "Yes."

Owens was treated at Baylor University Medical Center. A news conference is scheduled for later this afternoon.

Developing...

The Quote Shelf

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

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.

--Will Durant

Sep 26, 2006

Dodging the Lawn Mower Blades

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Common American toad Bufo americanus (Toledo, OH) While cutting the lawn this afternoon I saw a brown blur dart past my feet. My first thought was that I had disturbed a mouse, but upon closer inspection I found that my lawn maintenance efforts were bothersome to a small toad.

It took some time before the creature would sit still long enough to get a good photograph. Out of 30 shots only a few were worth saving, and this is the pick of the proverbial litter in my attempts to document the American toad, Bufo americanus.

I played with the hue and brightness a bit to compensate for the midday sun, which obscured the toad's colors. I also splashed him with a little water to make the creature more vivid; between his hopping and the bright sun I wound up with many blurry shots.

I made sure to wash my hands after the amphibian photo shoot, not because I buy into any urban legends about warts, but because the irritated animal doused me with toad urine.

Note: no animals were harmed in the production of this blog post.

Sep 25, 2006

On Books and Their Value

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Stack of random books (Toledo, OH) I have been a reader of books dating back to a time that I can no longer remember from my childhood. With a book in hand I can journey around the planet and visit distant lands through the eyes of a talented writer.

While I have books to which I apply the label "favorite," I do not possess any for which I have a strong material attachment. The bound format itself is not what transfixes me, but rather the words themselves.

I have been one to be quite generous with books over the years, and I occasionally feel that I am being directed by an unseen force to guide a person to a particular book. On many of these occasions I have simply passed the book on, knowing that my time with the text had passed.

Likewise, there are some people in my life whose suggestions to read a particular book I always follow, because their recommendations are uncanny in their ability to connect readers and books that seem destined for each other.

While helping a colleague move a few months back, I carried some particularly heavy boxes into his apartment.

"What, are you bringing in a collection of bricks?" I queried.

The person I assisted moving replied that the boxes contained a collection of classic books that were leather bound and had gilded lettering. The entire collection, I was told, cost my colleague $10,000.

Never having spent more than $29.99 for a book in my life (overpriced college texts excepted), I wanted to see what such a book looked like. I opened the box and took out a copy of Wuthering Heights.

"Whoa - would you mind putting that back?" was the comment from the owner. "Those are really more for decoration and investment."

I placed the book back in its box and folded the lid, surveying a group of boxes that contained a significant amount of knowledge and wisdom. I was saddened that this collective human experience was meant only to sit on shelves, look elegant, and remain locked away from other people.

A book, in my opinion, is merely a useful tool (albeit one that sometimes contains great beauty), and a door through which we might pass into other worlds. The idea that a book can be some prized material possession is foreign to me, and I feel sorry for the people who are afraid to let human fingers run through the pages of their books.

The Quote Shelf

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

I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare - I have no use for him either.
--Sophocles, from Antigone

Sep 23, 2006

Passing Time in Bowling Green

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BGSU marching band warming up the spectators before today's gameLeft: BGSU marching band warming up the spectators before today's game

(Bowling Green, OH) I have lived in Northwest Ohio for about 17 years, and I must admit that I have never traveled to BG to see a football game. We attended the game today at Doyt L. Perry Stadium, and a good time was had by all.

All, that is, with the exception of the BGSU football team, which was trounced by a surprisingly strong Kent State squad 38-3. The Golden Flashes kept relentless pressure on BGSU quarterbacks Freddie Barnes and Tyler Sheehan.

Eastern grey squirrel with nut
My presence near its favorite tree only momentarily interrupted this busy squirrel's efforts to prepare for winter. Being one of many thousands of football fans must have made me seem unthreatening, and the rodent paid me little attention.

The rain held off for most of the afternoon, with only a few fleeting sprinkles dampening an otherwise splendid day to hang out in Bowling Green and watch a football game, eat popcorn, and spend time with the family.

The Quote Shelf

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

Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.
--Will Rogers

Sep 22, 2006

Still Waiting for a Democratic Party Agenda

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Democratic Party logo My personal politics do not lend themselves to simple categorization, and I hold positions that range from the far right (fiscal conservatism) to the far left (support for slavery reparations). I could, however, be seen as a voter who will be more likely to vote Democratic than Republican this fall. Unfortunately, I see little cause for enthusiasm that the Democrats have developed much in the way of an agenda in the next session of Congress.

Howard Dean's Wall Street Journal op-ed column contains much of the same tired rhetoric found in many of the current leaders of the Democratic Party, and his column boils down to this statement: "We are not the Republicans."

Dean cheerfully tells me that the Democrats "will restore honesty in government," and that they will "dramatically expand support of energy independence." The Democrats, writes Dean, "will have a jobs agenda that includes good jobs that stay in America," and that they "will have a defense policy that is tough and smart."

Howard Dean Dr. Dean, I am underwhelmed by your lack of specifics, and your editorial is rife with lots of feel-good phrases such as "retirement with dignity" that say absolutely nothing about policy.

The early polls seem to indicate that the Democrats stand to gain big this November, and that they might also recapture both houses of Congress. Perhaps they have made a collective decision that by focusing on the failures of the Republicans, they do not need to deliver a more delineated agenda, akin to the 1994 Contract with America that the Republicans so successfully marketed.

The Democrats might very well win the election with a collective campaign that emphasizes Republican failures, but they certainly cannot effectively govern with such a strategy.

My suspicion is that the divisions within the party are simply being shelved in favor of the greater goal of recapturing Congress.

Dear Democratic Party: We, the citizens of the United States, demand more than just booting out the old GOP Congress. If you offer us a legislative agenda that is either Republican-light, or worse - bereft of substance - then you will find your victory to be of both a one-term and Pyrrhic nature.

And, be advised - we might just get motivated enough to throw our support behind a viable new third party in 2008.

Sep 21, 2006

Loafing in the Autumn Sun

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Sheltie, or Shetland Sheepdog(Toledo, OH) While the fall equinox does not technically begin until September 23, 2006 at 12:03 AM EDT, it has been chilly enough the last few nights to qualify - in my mind - as "autumn."

Pictured is our goodnatured Sheltie, whose name is Jimmy. The pooch decided to occupy a patch of Le Château Brooks that until recently was an active cucumber and potato patch.

Beneath him there are perhaps a dozen tubers that I have yet to unearth. If I forget about them I will have quite a crop of red-skinned potatoes sprouting next spring.

I should take a few lessons from my dog about enjoying the warm sun while we still have it.

Understanding Our Days of Chaos

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Planet Earth as seen from space The coup in Thailand, the Hungary protests, and the UN speeches of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez are only the most visible of events that seem to portend a world on the verge of plunging into a maelstrom of unpredictability.

Or maybe I just need to get more coffee brewing.

Still, it has been difficult to make sense of the sudden appearance of so many simultaneous incidents and accidents, to borrow a line from Paul Simon. The global historian in me is always looking see if there are connections between disparate phenomena, seeking to develop some overarching theory to explain and categorize.

Hungarian protester stands against water cannon outside the Hungarian State TelevisionLeft: Hungarian protester stands against water cannon outside the Hungarian State Television, courtesy AP.

I have nothing to offer at the moment, except an extension of the theory that a United States bogged down in Iraq means that political actors in other areas have less to fear from the American colossus.

Beyond this somewhat obvious assessment, I will sit and watch these chaotic events unfold and - with every other world observer - to make some sense of the ball of confusion that is the Earth today.

And I will check on that coffee now.

Sep 20, 2006

The Quote Shelf

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

Life is just one damned thing after another.
--Elbert Hubbard

Sep 19, 2006

Sweet Basil, Cool Afternoon

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Sweet basil (Toledo, OH) One of the many benefits to planting a garden is the ability to graze on the food growing in one's own parcel of nature.

Today I sampled some cherry tomatoes while munching a few sweet basil leaves, creating sort of a fresh pomodoro sauce as I wandered around my backyard. I followed up with a fresh green pepper that I ate straight from the plant - damn the microbes.

Of course, considering that I consumed many unhealthy foods yesterday, I am hardly making headway on either: a) losing weight; or b) lowering my cholesterol.

But for the moment I am sure my body appreciated the infusion of fresh-grown produce.

Sep 18, 2006

Thoughts on White Bread, Added Sugar, and Population

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Slice of white bread Some related thoughts on a variety of topics that I have been mulling over and trying to connect; feedback is always appreciated.

My children love white bread, and why shouldn't they? Loaded with added sugar, white bread has more in common with pastries than healthy foods.

Most of the vitamins naturally occurring in wheat are removed along with the germ, or become destroyed during the bleaching process. The USFDA requires that white flour must be enriched with the addition of vitamins to replace those lost by bleaching. Critics, however, claim that valuable trace minerals removed by bleaching are not replaced in the artificial re-enrichment process. In addition, most commercial white bread contains little dietary fiber in comparison with bread that retains the bran.

The bleaching process itself is also fraught with unhealthy practices. Modern white bread is bleached with potassium bromate or chlorine dioxide gas to remove yellow coloring; the bleaching process extends shelf life, but introduces toxic chemicals into our food (albeit in small doses).

Human fixation on white bread has a long history. Wealthy Romans preferred the more expensive white bread that was made from sifted flour. Whole wheat bread, conversely, was seen as the food of the poor, and gained the unfortunate sobriquet of panis sordidus ("dirty bread").

White is a color long associated with "purity" in Western traditions, and European elites continued the tradition of class-based distinctions in bread consumption. In the eighteenth century, items such as tea, sugar, and white bread - formerly the province of wealthy aristocrats - became commodities for the masses as global trade networks, sugar plantations, and improved agricultural techniques lowered prices.

The diet of English urban workers, in particular, became built around white bread, sugar, and tea by the end of the eighteenth century. One might argue that the physical demands of the modern factory required a steady infusion of easily-digested calorie sources and stimulants by factory workers.

Ebenezer ElliottLeft: Poet Ebenezer Elliott

The British enacted a series of protective tariffs in 1815 called the Corn Laws that were designed to enhance the profits of domestic landowners, but which hurt the laboring poor in the form of higher prices for their bread. An 1831 poem by Ebenezer Elliott on Corn Law-era life for poor families captures the struggles:
“Bread-tax’d weaver, all can see
What that tax hath done for thee,
And thy children, vilely led,
Singing hymns for shameful bread,
Till the stones of every street
Know their naked little feet.”

The economic historian Roger Koeneker argued that bread was a Giffen good in for the working poor in 1790; that is, bread became a product for which a rise in price makes people buy even more of the product. Giffen goods are named for economist Robert Giffen, who was credited as developing this idea by Alfred Marshall in his treatise Principles of Economics (1895).
As Mr. Giffen has pointed out, a rise in the price of bread makes so large a drain on the resources of the poorer labouring families and raises so much the marginal utility of money to them, that they are forced to curtail their consumption of meat and the more expensive farinaceous foods: and, bread being still the cheapest food which they can get and will take, they consume more, and not less of it.
Most Americans have never known real hunger, the kind of gnawing madness that would make a person eat tree bark. Yet we may be only a few decades away from facing a national and global food crisis.

If current population growth, domestic food consumption and topsoil depletion trends continue, the US will cease to be a net food exporter by 2025 because domestic production will be needed to feed Americans. The US is currently the world's largest food exporter, and such predictive models suggest that we are overdue for serious global discussions on carrying capacity and sustainable growth.

I know that I should force my 12-year-old to eat the healthier whole grain breads, but sometimes we must choose our battles wisely. Besides, the whole grain bread is about double the cost of the white bread of which I have such nagging doubts.

I hope that my children's children will grow up in a world where food choices are like mine, and not those of the world of scarcity depicted by Ebenezer Elliott in the industrial London of 1831, or like those found in the some of the world's most populous cities today.

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

Independence is my happiness, and I view things as they are, without regard to place or person; my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
--Tom Paine

Sep 17, 2006

Book Review: God's Playground - A History of Poland

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God's Playground Davies, Norman

New York: Columbia University Press, 1327 pages in two volumes


Norman Davies is a Polish historian of Welsh descent who was a student of controversial British historian A.J.P. Taylor. He received his doctorate at the Jagellonian University in Kraków, and his books were among the first significant Western studies of Polish history. Some historians have accused Davies of a "Polonophile" perspective in his treatment of particular historical conflicts involving Poland; most notably Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz decried what she believed to be a minimization on the part of Davies in Polish complicity during the Holocaust, as well as post-WWII pogroms against Jews by Polish nationalists.

The fallout from the charges by Dawidowicz and other activist historians included a denial of tenure for Davies by Stanford University. He lost a related lawsuit against Stanford in 1991 when the California Court of Appeals ruled against his case. Perhaps anticipating the criticisms of Holocaust historians, Davies included the following passage in his discussion of the history of Poland in the Second World War:
Jewish investigators tend to count Jewish victims. Polish investigators tend to count Polish victims. Neither side wishes to stress the fact that the largest single category of victims was both Polish and Jewish. Not everyone, it seems, is content to count human beings.
God’s Playground follows a chronological approach in its treatment of Polish history, with major divisions following the history of the chief political events. Within these chronological groupings, however, Davies examined a wide variety of thematic topics in separate chapters. While a synthesis, the book is heavily footnoted, and is useful for both students and researchers. Both volumes contain many maps, charts, and illustrations for greater comprehension of the assembled material.

Davies disagreed with the traditional historiographical explanation for Poland’s failure to thrive as a nation-state, which is based on the idea that the location of the Poles on the Northern European Plain between perennial rivals Germany and Russia somehow doomed Poland to near-constant invasion. The author noted that Germany, for example, is sandwiched between France and Poland; if geographic location in northern Europe had such a deterministic quality, argued Davies, Poland and Germany could then be expected to share similar, rather than dissimilar histories.

Instead, Davies maintained that a number of unique geographical anomalies prevented the growth of Poland as a major European power. The Plain narrows from a width of 800 miles on the Bug River to a mere 200 miles on the Odra, while glacial depressions (pradoliny) “provide natural passage ways parallel to the mountain and coastal barriers.” Finally, the existence of extensive marsh areas and morainic lakes in the north prevented easy access to the Baltic for Polish mercantile and military needs.

Polish-Lithuanian Union Left: Map of Polish-Lithuanian Union at its height

Davies traced the Polish tradition of political liberalism and a weak central government to the reign of Louis of Anjou (1370-86). This Angevin monarch failed to father a male heir, and he was forced to strike a deal with Polish nobility on his successor. Davies argued that the generous privileges he granted “put the political initiative into the hands of the nobility at a moment when the cement of social and constitutional structures was starting to set.” In addition, this Polish trend toward political decentralization occurred at a time when many European political units were gradually increasing central authority. Davies also dismissed the iconic reign of King Stefan Bathory as “largely personal,” arguing that the Republic “was floundering once more in the same quagmire of chaos” that Bathory inherited.

Another reason cited by Davies for the inability of the Poles to develop a strong centralized government was the sheer size of the Polish noble class. At the time of the 1569 Poland-Lithuania union there were over 500,000 nobles, which represented 6.6 percent of the total population of 7.5 million. By the eighteenth century this figure jumped to approximately 10 percent; by comparison, French nobles comprised about one percent of the population, English nobles about two percent, and Spanish nobles about five percent. The bloated Polish nobility and its lock on political power, argued Davies, made the eighteenth-century Partitions an inevitability; this “emasculation of the Republic” left Poland ill-prepared to defend itself against the imperial aims of such European powers as Austria, Prussia, and Russia.

Polish Partitions Left: Map of Polish Partitions

The large numbers of Jews who immigrated to Poland created a fifth social class in early modern Poland, joining the clergy, the nobility, burghers, and peasantry as components of Polish society. Social mobility in Jagiellonian Poland was limited, argued Davies, although Jewish merchants found ways to evade laws that were favorable to Catholic burghers. The position of Jews as economic competitors in Poland, like in much of Europe, was a factor in Polish anti-Semitism, but the fact that Jews constituted about 10 percent of the population in Poland made the likelihood of conflict even greater.

The profitable rise of what Davies referred to as the Grain Trade – using the Vistula River as its corridor and terminating in the Baltic port of Danzig (Gdansk) – proved to be a mixed blessing for the future of Poland. The great magnates profited from the surplus grain marketed by Danzig and Amsterdam merchants, but spent much of their wealth on foreign manufactured products. The Polish monarchy derived some income from tolls on the Vistula and port dues in Danzig, but ignored the possibilities available in taxing the profits of landholders. Davies argued that the “really big money sped abroad in the profits of Dutch entrepreneurs, or stayed in Danzig in the coffers of financiers, manufacturers, and merchants.” This inability of the Poles to keep wealth in the country ultimately inhibited the growth of domestic industries, while gradually manifesting itself in the form of Polish nobles that became the debtors of Danzig patricians.

The Polish nobles, so desirous of protecting their traditional rights under the Republic, were also one of the groups most likely to suffer after the Partitions. Davies noted that nearly 80 percent of the Polish nobility had been eliminated by 1864, and petty nobles were among the hardest hit by the changes in Polish society. The average serf, argued Davies, fared better than many of the zaścianki, and many sank into the ranks of the peasantry. The author wryly commented that, in modern Poland, “nowadays, everyone, and no one, is a nobleman.”

Bohdan Khmelnytsky or Bohdan Zenobi Chmielnicki Left: Bohdan Zenobi Chmielnicki

Davies considered the Chmielnicki Uprising to be a pivotal event in the history of Poland, arguing that it “provoked an orgy of destruction of life and property commensurate to that of the Thirty Years War in Germany.” The author took a conservative estimate of the number of Jews killed in the violence, noting a figure of 56,000. Davies viewed Chmielnicki not as a Marxist “champion of social conscience and protest,” but rather more simply as an insurrectionary with deep personal grievances against magnate and military commander Jaremi Wiśniowiecki.

Davies, above all, demonstrated formidable literary talent in this synthesis, and the text is rife with memorable passages that display the author’s skills as a writer. In discussing the possibility that Poland – after over a century of post-Partition domination by foreign powers – might never be able to reconstitute itself as a sovereign nation, Davies succinctly and viscerally summed up the prognosis:
In the nineteenth century, the Poles had been faced with a life of deprivation. In the twentieth century, they were faced with extinction. If, somewhat fancifully, Poland had once been compared to Calvary, it now became, in reality, Golgotha.
Written before the fall of the Soviet Union, God’s Playground is thus in need of an update, and the text includes little information about the role of labor groups such as Solidarność and their important roles in weakening the Communist government of Poland; only one chapter was devoted to the history of post-WWII Poland. While Davies made extensive use of Polish archival material, documents in Soviet archives likely possess considerable value to historians of Poland. Still, Davies produced an excellent English history of Poland that provided an alternative to the state-influenced, doctrinnaire Marxist texts that Polish historians have generated since the 1950s, and the text should be considered an essential component of any Polish historical collection.

Sep 16, 2006

Labor's Fruits: The First Edible Watermelon of the Season

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Sliced watermelon on my kitchen counterLeft: Sliced and ready to eat

(Toledo, OH) A few weeks back I picked my first watermelon from my garden. Carrying it into the house, I lovingly washed and dried it, set it on the counter, and sliced into the fruit, hoping to enjoy a cool slice of melon on a blistering August afternoon.

Alas, it was white on the inside and completely inedible, fit only for the compost pile.

This morning - with wisdom derived from greater patience - I picked my second watermelon. Like the proverbial child at Christmas opening a present, I was excited to find that this fruit was red, juicy, and quite sweet.

In past years my efforts to grow watermelons have been thwarted by mischievous children, poor choices in planting locations, and opportunistic fungi.

Lessons learned:
* Wait until the ground spot on the melon is cream-colored.
* Full sun and less watering (especially in July and August) make a difference.
* Wait until the tendrils near the melon have begun to brown.


Some melon growers insist that they can hear a difference between ripened and unripened fruit when you "thump" a melon, but mine sounded the same. Perhaps it is only the trained ear that can discern the difference.

Sep 15, 2006

On Papal Rhetoric and Muslim Anger

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Muslim activists burn an effigy of Pope Benedict XVI during a protest in Srinagar, IndiaMuslim activists burn an effigy of Pope Benedict XVI during a protest in Srinagar, India, courtesy AP

As a Catholic I read with chagrin the ill-conceived and regrettable comments made Pope Benedict XVI at an address in Germany yesterday. The Pope read quotations from a book that documented a conversation between 14th century Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and a Persian scholar on the respective truths of Christianity and Islam.

"The emperor comes to speak about the issue of jihad, holy war," the pope said. "He said, I quote, 'Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.'"

Pope Benedict evidently believed that by merely repeating a derogatory quote about Islam that he would not be misinterpreted.

He could not have been more wrong.

Muslim leaders around the world are expressing outrage over the perceived offensive comments. Mohamed Mahdi Akef, head of the Egyptian-based Muslim Brotherhood, argued that Islamic countries should break ties with the Vatican if the Pope does not apologize.

"The Pope has aroused the anger of the whole Islamic world and strengthened the argument of those who say that the West is hostile to everything Islamic," he told reporters.

Federico Lombardi, the Vatican Press Office Manager, said that the Pope did not intend to offend Muslims.

Pope Benedict XVI
Left: Pope Benedict XVI


Lombardi added that Benedict wanted to “cultivate an attitude of respect and dialogue toward the other religions and cultures, obviously also toward Islam. It is opportune to note that that which is at the pope's heart is a clear and radical refusal of the religious motivation of violence."

Unlike Pope John Paul II, the current Pope has not demonstrated the sort of media savvy necessary to excel as a 21st-century world leader. His comments, while probably not meant in a spirit of attack, nonetheless demonstrate that His Holiness continues to struggle with public relations on the world stage.

During a May visit to Auschwitz, he seemed to minimize the role of ordinary Germans in the horrors of the Holocaust in the following comments:
"As a son of the German nation over which a band of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people were used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power (…) I have come here today to implore the grace of reconciliation, first of all from God, who alone can open and purify our hearts, and from the men and women who suffered here."
Certainly some of the Muslim criticisms have been a bit overblown, especially the comments of Salih Kapusuz, a deputy leader of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party, who said that Benedict will go "down in history in the same category as leaders such as (Adolf) Hitler and (Benito) Mussolini," and that the Pope has a "dark mentality that comes from the darkness of the Middle Ages."

Still, one would expect that a leader as authoritative and powerful as the Pope would exercise greater tact.

The Quote Shelf

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

You're alone above the street somewhere
Wondering how you'll ever count out there
You can walk, you can talk, you can fight
But inside you've got something to write
In your hand you hold your only friend
Never spend your guitar or your pen

--Pete Townshend

Sep 14, 2006

On the Killers that Lurk Among Us

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Kimveer GillLeft: Undated photo of Kimveer Gill entitled "Trench is so tired"

(Montreal) The news of yet another disturbed gunman on a rampage - while shocking - failed to arouse my interest yesterday. It was not until the release of the name of Kimveer Gill that I began to research this young man.

His website at VampireFreaks.com has been removed, although a Google cache of the page is still available.

As I write this there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of unbalanced people like Kimveer Gill walking around with thoughts of violence in their heads. Most do not act on these thoughts, and struggle through life in the throes of deep depression, paranoia, or other mental illnesses without harming other people.

A few fall into the abyss of Columbinian violence.

I am torn between outrage over the shooting of innocent victims and sorrow that no one was able to recognize the depths to which Gill had sunk. Surely someone in his life could have seen this tragedy coming.

Granted, hindsight is that most perfect of visions, and reading back through almost a full year of posts by Gill one sees a young man crying for help. What seems obvious now - that he had been obsessed with death and violence for a long time - might not have been noticed by those around Gill, and his online friends at VampireFreaks probably assumed that this was just part of Gill's virtual persona as "fantasy666."

Look around you and take inventory of the lonely people in your life. While there might not be a way to prevent another Kimveer Gill from grabbing a Beretta CX4 Storm semi-automatic carbine and going out in a hail of bullets, each one of us might unknowingly have the power to save lives.

Maybe - just maybe - the kind words you extend to those around you will bring enough hope to give a person like Kimveer Gill a reason to live for another day, or buy just enough time until that disturbed person gets professional help.

"Like Romeo and Juliet -or- In a hail of gunfire"

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Tombstone of Kimveer Gill Left: Image of mock tombstone from Kimveer Gill's homepage

(Montreal) The headline refers to the manner in which trench-coat wearing Kimveer Gill indicated that he wanted to die, and it appears that he got his wish.

Gill, 25, opened fire yesterday at a college in downtown Montreal, slaying a young woman and wounding at least 19 other people before police shot and killed him, according to witnesses and authorities.

Gill's site at VampireFreaks.com has been pulled, but a cached version is still available at this link. The writings of Kimveer Gill, who lived in the Quebec city of Laval, paint a picture of a young man clearly focused on death. In the hours before his shooting rampage, Gill referred to his mood as "Crazy," "Postal, and "Dead."

From his numerous posts in the days and hours leading up to September 13 it appears that Gill had been drinking heavily, and his writing is filled with comments such as "Have I mentioned that i like to drink" and "Whiskey taste good, yes?" Gill ominously used the screen name "fatality 666" at VampireFreaks.com, and he often wrote about the problem of school bullying, such as this post on September 12:
It's not only the bullies fault, but the principal's fault for turning a blind eye ... it's the police's fault for not doing anything when people complain (ooooops) my mistake, the cops are corrupt sons of whores, so it's not like they can do anything about it. Fuck the police.


Photo of Kimveer GillLeft: Photo of Kimveer Gill from his homepage

Gill also displayed considerable paranoia in his posts, with comments such as this: "I wonder why my household has been under surveillance by law enforcement for 6 years now? Makes no sense to me!!"

Montreal police said the department received the first call about the shooting rampage at Dawson College during lunch, at 12:41 pm. Witnesses reported seeing the man shooting students near a school entrance without provocation.

As the police arrived, witnesses said, Gill entered the building, continuing to fire randomly as he made his way toward a crowded cafeteria. At least six of the victims are in critical condition in Montreal area hospitals.

Postal 2 Left: Video game "Postal 2"

Among the obsessions in the life of Kimveer Gill was the video game Postal2, in which players assume the role of 'The Postal Dude', a tall man with a goatee, sunglasses, and a black leather trench coat. The object of the game is to go through as much of the day as possible without going "postal" and gunning down innocent bystanders. Gill wrote the following about Postal2 on September 10:

Wish they make Postal 3, like really really good. Postal 2 Share the Pain was o.k. but too childish, i want them to make a game so realistic, that it looks and feels like it's actually happening...Postal dude was sad before he became angry and psychotic, that's the part we're never seen in the game. He was normal, but the world made him the way he became, gotta show that in the game and movie too.

Gill's image gallery depicts the young man in various poses holding a Beretta CX4 Storm semi-automatic rifle while wearing a long black trenchcoat and combat boots.

Perhaps Gill took it upon himself to show us - in his demented way - his real-life vision of the Postal Dude.

Sep 13, 2006

Vandals Tag Empty Theater

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Movie theater marquee with graffiti Left: View of marquee from southbound Secor Road

(Toledo, OH) Graffiti is not unusual in this Rust Belt city, not is its presence on commercial streets particularly noteworthy.

I did find, however, that the graffiti on the marquee of the former Showcase Cinemas on Secor Road - some twenty feet in the air - to be a bit unique, as well as the fact that the graffiti taggers managed to deface both sides of the sign.

I refuse to call them "artists," since the vandals only used lettering. Feel free to sue me for being insensitive to the plight of graffiteers.

Movie theater marquee with graffitiLeft: Marquee as viewed by northbound traffic

The act of vandalizing these signs took a fair amount of daring, as Secor Road is one of the city's busiest surface streets. Even at night there is a steady stream of traffic in the area.

While the taggers used that annoying faux gangsta script, making legibility an issue to the non-initiated, the messages do not appear to contain any overt gang references.

Then again, what do I know? I have never been a gang member, and the last seminar I attended on local gangs was several years ago. Perhaps there are new groups whose nomenclature I do not recognize.

"SAYL" is probably the acronym for "sorry about your luck," but beyond that I am open to the interpretations of readers on these messages. I have also posted these photos to give a certain results-oriented mayor a friendly reminder about the high-profile nature of this particular eyesore, a short hike from the soon-to-be-christened Costco.

The Quote Shelf

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

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
--Abraham Lincoln

Sep 12, 2006

Extra Bloom

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Yellow Rose (Toledo, OH) Although our roses generally bloom in May and June, we occasionally get a few bonus gifts of color later in the year.

This yellow rose was about the only ray of gold available in dreary Toledo today, as we have been experiencing a steady downpour. Despite the fact that my lower lumbar region is giving me fits, the moment that I paused to stop and breathe in the aroma of this solitary bloom was joyous.

Rapid Rhetoric: RECHAUFFE

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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.

rechauffe - (ray-shoh-FAY) n. a warmed, leftover dish of food, or anything that has been rehashed or reworked.

The word is of French origin, and is the past participle of the verb rechauffer ("to reheat"). Sharp readers will also recognize that the root word - chauffe - is also shared by the English word "chafe."

OTA Links

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(Toledo, OH) As a member of the Open Trackback Alliance, I highlight sites and posts that I found to be noteworthy.

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

I have just started following Charleston Daily Mail columnist Don Surber's blog. He is right of center, but not obnoxiously so, and devotes more space to non-political posts than to the political.

Other interesting OTA blogs I visited this week: TMH's Bacon Bits, the unusual Quietly Making Noise, the wretched hive of scum and villainy at Pirate's Cove, Canadian-style politics at Grandinite, the good fun at 7 Deadly Sins, and my regular trips to Liberal Common Sense and Glass City Jungle.

Sep 11, 2006

Legacies of 9/11

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The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 changed America.

As I read the above sentence my first instinct is to hit the backspace key and write something more erudite, something less clichéd, something more profound. Writers strive for creating prose that is original and that sets them apart from the rest of the mundane pack.

And yet no sentence better captures the considerable legacies of the events of 9/11, for that day marked an end to our collective innocence. Terrorism was no longer a term used to describe events in some distant land, with unknown victims and place names familiar only to the learned.

Terror was here.

Thousands of American families (and families from around the globe) lost loved ones that day, and many tens of thousands of people were directly affected by the terrorist attacks. The rest of us sat glued to our television sets on September 11, and the news coverage etched the events forever into our minds.

I was at work that morning, and a coworker grabbed me just before 9:00 am to see the news about the first plane striking a tower. On live television I watched as the second plane hit, not knowing what I was witnessing, but understanding that the world was suddenly very different.

As the news unfolded that the attacks were of a terrorist nature, I wanted to run to my children's schools, take them out of class, and bolt the front door of my home. All I could think of was to try and control something, to try and reclaim a piece of "normal" again.

9/11 also marked the beginning of an era of war, as the campaign to root out terror has evolved into a regional war with fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan; this war threatens to drag the world into a much wider conflict that, with each passing day, has less to do with "terror" and more to do with regional and global hegemony. The unified America in the months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon has given way to a nation deeply divided over the actions of its leaders.

The desire to root out terrorists and prevent future terror attacks was an understandable legacy of September 11. An unfortunate result of that noble goal has been the steady erosion of civil liberties, as well as an executive branch of the federal government that has consistently ignored the rule of law in its zeal to preclude terror.

As we today remember the victims of the terrorist attacks, let us also pause to consider the ways in which this nation has changed since that point, and, in the areas in which our ideals have been tarnished, let us work to restore the good in the United States.

Sep 10, 2006

Confessions of a Fantasy Football Addict

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Bombers logo (Toledo, OH) I am, without a doubt, hopelessly addicted to fantasy football. I obsessively read football stats online, watch televised NFL games while clutching my laptop, and cannot sleep on Monday nights until all of the scores are in.

This year, however, I have restrained myself and joined only one league, a group of fellow afficianados who have played in a league that is celebrating its twelfth season. At $70 per owner, the fees are reasonable, and the $175 for winning the fantasy Super Bowl is not exactly like winning the lottery.

It's all about the bragging rights, as every fantasy owner knows.

My team, the Brooks Bombers, has dominated the league the last two regular seasons, and my 30-18-1 record (.648 percentage) over the previous two campaigns is impressive. However, my teams have folded in the playoffs each of the last two years.

The Brooks Bombers are much like the Indianapolis Colts: great regular seasons and toothless tigers in the playoffs.

Tiki BarberLeft: Pinning my Super Bowl hopes on Tiki

I had one of my best drafts ever this preseason, and I enter the year with a balanced 18-player team that has considerable depth. My running back pool of Tiki Barber, Steven Jackson, Reuben Droughns, and Kevin Jones should insulate me from the injuries that have plagued me at that position the last two years.

I am banking on a healthy Randy Moss to bounce back and become a premier wide reciever again, and I am projecting Jake Plummer (with the addition of WR Javon Walker) to jump to being a top-five quarterback.

Thus, it is now time to scan the last-minute injury reports and prepare to watch the Bombers defeat division rival Cold Blooded, whose owner is still pissed about a few trades we have made ( I conned him out of Peyton Manning last year after the Indy QB had a slow start).

Sep 9, 2006

A Walk in the Woods

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Algae-covered poolLeft: Algae-covered pool in the woods

(West Bloomfield, MI) I took a detour through the West Bloomfield Nature Preserve today on my way home from a trip to Michigan. The 162-acre parcel is in the middle of some of the priciest real estate in southeastern Michigan, and is home to a wide variety of plants, animals, and landforms.

The pictured cedar swamp is at the bottom of a deep ravine, and the croaking frogs provide a constant soundtrack to passersby.

Wild berriesLeft: Come on - just try one!

Although these bright red berries beckoned to me like cherry candy, I did not partake in them. They did provide a brilliant crimson contrast in the shadows of the forest.

It's a good thing that I didn't eat them, as they may have been poison ivy berries or perhaps the fruit of the deadly nightshade. I am open to suggestions from a more knowledgeable woodsperson about the exact nature of these berries, but they are certainly eye-appealing.

Goldenrod and wild astorLeft: Unexpected bursts of color appear throughout the preserve

Although goldenrod and wild astor are common wildflowers, their colors jumped out at me from the edges of the forest. The flash of my camera startled three black squirrels who chattered off deep into the forest.

Further up the trail I also disturbed a skunk, and I was lucky not to have gotten sprayed. The animal ran surprisingly fast, although I must admit my previous familiarity with observing a running skunk has been limited to viewings of Pepe Le Pew cartoons.

Great blue heron Left: A great blue heron stalks its prey

The Preserve is a noted great blue heron rookery, and visitors do not have to wait long to see one of these magnificent birds. I was not able to get a good photograph of this bird in flight as it soared overhead with a squirming object in its beak. The 7-foot wingspan of the great blue heron is indeed impressive as one of these aquatic raptors circles overhead.

Visitors to this unique preserve should be prepared to walk several miles, and should also be forewarned that there are steep inclines as one enters or leaves a ravine. The substantial biodiversity here - which also includes deer, red fox, coyote, muskrat, and mink - make this particular wildlife area memorable.

Lamb's Ear - or is it Stone Crop Sedum?

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Stachys byzantina or Lamb's ear (Toledo, OH) One of my favorite pernnials is Stachys byzantina, commonly known as "Stachys byzantina." My wife planted one of these about seven years ago, and the plant has gradually multiplied to occupy one-third of a decorative garden we have in the front of the house.

The plants have velvety leaves and are fairly hardy, exhibiting resistance to drought. They bloom throughout the month of September and sometimes provide a burst of fuchsia well into October.

This particular morning a lazy honeybee meandered about the plants as I snapped some photos. His leisurely pace reinforced the notion that Saturday mornings were meant to be a time for unhurried reflection.

The Quote Shelf

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

Whatever you are by nature, keep to it; never desert your line of talent. Be what nature intended you for and you will succeed.
--Sydney Smith