Dec 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

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To everyone, wherever you are, I wish the glad tidings for the upcoming new year.

May 2007 find all of you happy, healthy, and worry-free.

See you next year.

Racist Thug Hal Turner Facing the Wrath of Hackers

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Hal Turner I have been watching a strange cyber-drama unfold over the past eight days or so involving neo-Nazi podcaster Hal Turner, who has found himself the object of retribution by a loosely-confederated group of hackers called the "Legion of Anonymous."

Turner, for those unfamiliar with his brand of hate, uses his website and podcasts to advocate the murder of "savage negro beasts," immigrants, Jews, gays, congressmen, the President, and pretty much everyone else who does not fit his narrow definition of "human." His greatest claim to fame was calling for the murder of federal district judge Joan Lefkow. The FBI later interviewed him following the murders of her mother and husband on February 28, 2005, but did not find reason to detain him further.

The drama began when Turner published home telephone numbers of some minors who prank called his radio show earlier in the month. After the thick-headed Turner refused to remove this information, the offended pranksters went on the offensive, seeking the assistance of friends on sites such as 4chan.org, 7chan.org, and Digg.com.

In retaliation, they began a campaign of DOS attacks and bandwidth flooding against Turner's site, causing him to shut down the site many times over the last week. Lunkheaded Hal, though, appears to be his own worst enemy, as he continues to egg on the hackers. He published a bloody photo of one of the "attackers" last week - claiming the hacker was the victim of a brutal beating by skinheads allied to him - but it turned out that Hal simply Googled "bloody head" and posted a heisted photo.

Hal now faces a tough decision: shut down the site, thus losing the $40,000 to $60,000 he claims to make from listener donations, or keep the site up, and pay the bandwidth fees to the company that hosts his site.

One might almost feel sorry for the not-so-bright Turner, given his seeming inability to learn from experience.

Almost.

Given his penchant for promoting violence, Hal will not be missed should this be his last gasp. We are witnessing - in real time - Hal Turner spinning downward, swirling counterclockwise into the virtual sewer of Internet hate, caused by a group of teens with PCs and some serious hacking skills.

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.

At a certain point one ceases to defend a certain view of history; one must defend history itself. --E. P. Thompson

Dec 30, 2006

Eastern Arborvitae

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Eastern Arborvitae, also known as the Northern WhitecedarEastern Arborvitae, also known as the Northern Whitecedar

(Toledo, OH) Among the eclectic group of trees on my property is Thuja occidentalis or Eastern Arborvitae, which is an aromatic member of the cypress family.

Its distinctive, effervescent wood is perhaps one of the reasons some people believe it to be a member of the cedar family.

This particular tree has been gradually developing a curved trunk over the past few years. I believe that its close proximity to the foundation of my house is causing the trunk to bend. I am not sure if this will adversely affect the lifespan of the tree, which is one of my favorites.


Instead of leaves, this tree has foliage that fans out into flat groupings of scaly leaves. It keeps its foliage year round, and the fruit of the Eastern Arborvitae is small and berry-like, giving off an especially pungent odor when they are crushed.

The leaves contain high levels of Vitamin C, and have long been recognized by by Native Americans and European explorers as a cure for scurvy.

I enjoy sitting under this tree during the evening hours, reading a book, greeting neighbors out for a walk, or petting whatever dog wanders over. It has grown from a bush-like plant to a tree over 25 feet in height since I moved to this home in 1993.

On the Death of a Dictator

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Photo of body of Saddam Hussein courtesy of Iraq state television

I woke this morning to the inevitable media blitz offering video of the hanging of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. After watching a video of the decapitation of American contractor Nick Berg last year, I have decided to take a sabbatical on snuff films, although my understanding is that the released video has the actual hanging edited out.

Give YouTube and The Smoking Gun a few hours; someone in the Iraq government will gladly sell the death scenes for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver.

Hussein reportedly clutched a Qu'ran and refused an offered hood as he quietly walked to the gallows in handcuffs, the symbolic end of a reign of state terror that saw thousands of Iraqis brutally murdered by official and paramilitary thugs.

I should note that I am no admirer of capital punishment in any form; I find the practice repugnant, barbaric, and more about vengeance and the state exercising terror muscles than a legitimate method of deterring crime. I hope to one day live in a world in which state-sanctioned murder is outlawed across the globe.

The killing of Saddam Hussein, unfortunately, will likely lead to a new wave of violence in Iraq. Moreover, many Muslims are going to be highly offended by the decision to hang Hussein during Eid al-Adha.

As I write this, I struggle to find anything positive in the hanging of Saddam Hussein, and the bloody year of 2006 closes with the especially gruesome image of a dead dictator.

May God have mercy on our souls.

On Loans and Personal Debt

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With the holidays almost past, many families are facing financial difficulties. While I would personally advocate thrift, sacrifice, and starvation before adding debt, some people find that consolidation loans can help ease their financial burdens.

If you are such a person, please consider visiting these links to learn more about secured loans. They offer information on personal loans and mortgages, and Loanwize was kind enough to sponsor this post.

I, personally, am an advocate of getting a second or third job when times are tough, and would rather eat Ramen noodles five nights a week than to take on more debt. Since we began to eschew credit cards and buy used cars over the past seven years, my wife and I have been able to save a great deal of money, while finding ourselves owing money on our mortgage and a few student loans.

This is in spite of the fact that our combined annual income has decreased by over ten grand in the same period. Still, my personal austerity measures are likely anathema to the credit-addicted masses, so if you find yourself in need of a loan, consider visting the Loanwize website.

Dec 29, 2006

On the Worship of Presidents

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Gerald Ford Photo of Gerald R. Ford courtesy of MSNBC

I was saddened to see that former President Gerald Ford died this week, as I view him as a decent sort of person who seemed to be just the right man to calm the ship of state after the tumultuous Nixon years. I disagreed with his decision to pardon his predecessor, but on the whole I think his short term in office was beneficial to the United States.

Yet I am once again puzzled by the outpouring of adoration that borders on a form of worship for the politicians who become American presidents. Even the disgraced Richard Nixon received a hero's sendoff when he died in 1994, and we as Americans continue to exhibit a tendency to deify (or at least beatify) our leaders.

US flag at half staff for Gerald Ford Photo of US flag at half-staff courtesy of ABC News

I must admit that, as a historian whose inclination is towards social history and a person who frequently demonstrates an iconoclastic attitude toward elites and celebrities, I am apt to dismiss all forms of hero-worship. Still, one might make a strong case that the American fixation on the lives of its presidents and ex-presidents borders on a form of monarchophilia.

We build museums, memorials, and libraries as shrines to our ex-presidents, even for those with very short periods in office. The inauguration of a president has become a weeklong series of events that more resembles a coronation than a welcoming into elected office.

I do not wish to take away from those who mourn the passing of Gerald Ford as a decent man and a calming presence in a time of turmoil. Most presidents, however, have little long-term effect on the world and the lives of everyday people, and those we think of as particularly noteworthy simply happened to be in the right place at the right time, riding existing social, political, or economic waves like a surfer hanging ten through a tube on the Banzai Pipeline.

Dec 28, 2006

Waxing Gibbous Moon - Toledo, Ohio

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(Toledo, OH) It took several hours of experimentation, but I finally took a decent shot of the moon tonight, which is in its waxing gibbous lunar phase.

The key seemed to be to combine a faster shutter speed (1/500 second) with exposure compensation that keeps priority on the center of the frame.

That, and patience. I took over 100 photos before I got a decent one with fine detail of the moon's surface. I used PhotoImpression to sharpen the image and adjust the contrast a smidgen.

Like climbing a difficult mountain, photographing the moon is one of those rites of passage that people feel compelled to undertake. There is something about the moon that draws humans, something etched deep in our collective memory.

On Air Inflation and Motorist Irritation

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compressed air machine (Toledo, OH) Since taking the graduate student vow of poverty a few years ago (a phrase, by the way, I believe I have coined - check Google), I have had to make some concessions in my lifestyle. One of these has been the obvious decision to forego new vehicles in favor of used.

Friends, I drive hoopties, and I am a certified hooptiholic (think I coined another one - I'm on a roll). Alas, though I love the trusty-but-rusty genre, they do require a lot of additional attention.

My current hooptymobile is a Saturn SL, and I believe that the acronym stands for "Slow Leak," as it always seems to need five or ten pounds of air in one of its tires. I drove to the 7-Eleven store on Secor and Laskey Roads yesterday with two quarters in my pocket to fill a tire that had wasted away to an especially dire 15 pounds of pressure.

Imagine my surprise when I saw that air had jumped from 50 cents to 75 cents some time in the past two weeks (vacuum services jumped from 75 cents to a dollar). Imagine, too, my irritation when I drove across the street to Speedway, only to find that they had also joined in on the seemingly collusive behavior.

Now I had to drive back home, beg a quarter from my wife, and drive back to the scene of the highway robbery. Had I not been in a hurry, I would have taken out the foot pump I have in the trunk and pocketed the coins.

I can remember a time in the not-so-distant past when air was free, and a friendly service offered by gas stations to its customers. Without delving into a long-winded Marxist analysis about the commodification of air and the inherent vampirism of capitalism, it certainly irritated me that the profit-minded air merchants have ratcheted up the economic pain on the working poor or, in my case, the working not-quite-poor-but-still-pissed-about-a-quarter.

Dec 27, 2006

On Burglary, Robbery, and Rage

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Broken window from a burglary (Toledo, OH) A friend of mine - a fellow UT graduate student who has taken the doctoral student vow of poverty - traveled to Michigan to visit relatives over Christmas.

He was away for two days, and when he returned, he discovered thieves had broken into his house. Gone were most of his worldly possessions with any value - TV, DVD player, and a small amount of cash and jewelry.

The burglary occurred near Jackman and Sylvania Avenues, hardly a high crime neighborhood, but an area I know well as a crime victim. For nearly a decade I operated some retail businesses in West Toledo, and over that course of time my businesses experienced dozens of robberies, burglaries, and visits by short-change artists, bad-check scammers, and just about every sort of human debris imaginable.

So it was with a high degree of empathy that I listened to my friend express his frustration at being the victim of this crime.

Over the years I became quite bitter about the relative nonchalance that this type of criminal exhibits toward the human beings that their crimes affect. I canot fathom how someone could live with themselves after causing harm to another person.

While I do not condone crimes against large corporations or the government, I can at least understand how someone could rationalize this behavior. Cheat the IRS out of $500 on taxes: "Eh, the government has enough of my money." Rob a bank: "They are insured, and they make millions of dollars anyhow."

Such people, while engaging in crime, at least have elevated themselves above the reprehensible lot of thugs who would bring harm to another person (I am setting aside the ancillary issue of shareholders and taxpayers in my examples, as losses are spread across thousands or millions of "victims").

Cash money But I digress, as my more pressing concern is my own peace of mind. I consider myself a fairly even-keeled person, not prone to rash actions and one who abhors violence. And yet, I pray that I never actually meet someone face-to-face desirous of committing a crime against me or my family.

For despite my dozens of experiences as a crime victim, I have rarely met the perpetrator. As a business owner, the robberies, burglaries, and scams happened to my employees, and I arrived after the fact.

My biggest fear is that - if directly faced with a thug bent on illegality - I would not be able to exercise sufficient self-control, and that my pent-up rage would cause me to dole out an indictment-worthy ass-whooping.

Or worse.

About ten years ago I stopped at a gas station in Toledo, and some punk-ass rode up on a bike right next to me and snatched out of my pocket my paycheck. I had just climbed back in my car on this sunny afternoon, and my first instinct was to "run this motherfucker over." I threw the car in reverse and hemmed him in between the fence and my car.

A tense standoff occurred. He had a check, which would take some work for him to cash. I wanted my check, because I did not want to wait two weeks for a replacement. Finally I cooled down enough to accept his "offer" of the money in my wallet, which was a whopping $15 or so. He got some fast cash, I got my check back, and nobody got injured or killed. That time.

Robbery suspect I am not sure I will be so lucky in the future, should I be faced with a similar scenario. What I really fear was that impulsive rage inside me, the righteous fury that made me want to run over some skinny drug addict over a stolen piece of paper.

By the end of my career as an entrepreneur, I got to the point that I used to stash objects around the store when I worked late nights. I was so sick of being the target of crime that I almost wanted some stupid fool to try and pull a robbery on my watch.

This was not misguided heroism - it was a burning desire for raw vengeance. Time has mellowed me a bit, but I found myself cracking my knuckles and tasting a smidgen of that malignant bile when my friend described his recent burglary.

May I continue to be the victim of crimes in which I do not meet the perpetrator, for their welfare and mine.

Dec 26, 2006

Eastern Gray Squirrel

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Eastern gray squirrel, Sciuridae carolinensisEastern gray squirrel, Sciuridae carolinensis

This squirrel eyed me suspiciously from his perch about 18 feet in the air. I am getting used to the ability of my new camera to capture objects at greater distances with clarity, although one of my zoom lenses would likely have given me a better picture.

I enjoy feeding the squirrels in my yard, but this has not stopped members of the Eastern gray squirrel family from raiding my bird feeders.

Nighttime Traffic

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Blurred traffic shot with lower shutter speed (Toledo, OH) The arrival of a new camera means hours of enjoyment for the owner of the device.

It also means that those around such persons are subjected to a flurry of experimental photos.

Thank you for indulging me while I play. This photo was taken at the intersection of Secor and Laskey Roads tonight. I've always liked those shots of moving traffic at slower shutter speeds, as brake lights turn into multi-colored laser beams, while cars become almost invisible.

People gave me strange stares as I stood on the corner with my camera and tripod, perhaps thinking I was some sort of traffic enforcement officer. One carload of young women pulled up, asked "what are you doing?" and gave me odd looks when I mentioned I was taking photos of traffic.

To each his own. There was once a day when my youthful nighttime pusuits were similar to theirs, cruising around in someone's parents' car.

By the way, consider entering Photography Corner's Photograph of the Year contest. They were kind enough to sponsor this post, and anyone with a digital camera can enter. With over $14,000 in prizes available to win, this can be an easy opportunity to win some fast cash.

Visit this link for information about the contest, and good luck!

Under the High Level Bridge

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High Level Bridge, Toledo Ohio(Toledo, OH) I intended to drive to downtown Toledo today and take some pictures of the High Level Bridge, which connects East Toledo to the rest of the city by spanning the Maumee River.

The formal name of this span is the Anthony Wayne Suspension Bridge, but no one besides a few local engineers refers to the bridge by that name.

I was distracted, though, and decided to focus on the view from under the High Level Bridge, and develop a sort of a "bridge less traveled" post.

View of downtown Toledo, Ohio from under the High Level BridgeThere is a much different view of downtown from under the bridge than I was accustomed seeing. I was surprised by the amount of jetsam and flotsam along the shore, which contained a wide variety of natural and manmade debris.

I was also intrigued to find that there is an actual "shore" along the Maumee upstream. I knew, of course, that the dredging and artificial embankments must end somewhere, but had never actually stopped to think about where that point might be.

Illegal dumping under the High Level Bridge in Toledo, OhioThere are a number of places where scofflaws have decided to dump trash under and around the bridge. This particular pile looks like it was created by someone renovating a house.

The relative obscurity of the area under the bridge likely makes it an ideal dumping ground. There is little traffic around, save for that going over the bridge, which was built in 1931.

Despite the presence of trash, there is a great deal of natural beauty under and around the bridge. Just upstream are several stands of trees and marshlands, home to many birds and waterfowl.

A lone Canadian goose flew over my head toward the river, long wings gracefully flapping as it let out a solitary honk that echoed off the bridge moorings.

Numerous V-shaped groups of water birds headed for unknown parts as I wandered around under the bridge.

The area also appears to be a hangout for local teens, as the bridge is marked with a variety of gang graffiti.

Gangstas (or wannabes) from the South Side appear to be the most recent visitors. The area is littered with liquor bottles, burned logs, and other evidence that indicate the bridge offers teens an ideal party zone, away from prying eyes and irritated neighbors.

The cars passing overhead make a clickety-clack sound as they pass over the metal expansion joints in the 3,215-foot length of the bridge, and rainwater drips down every few yards on the heads of unwary passersby.

From Ottawa Street the High Level Bridge rises majestically above the Maumee River, and remains one of Toledo's most important visual landmarks. A jogger ran along the edge of the well-manicured Owens-Corning property, less than a hundred yards but seemingly worlds away from life under the High Level.

Under the bridge, though, there are different views to be seen, not all of which city leaders might want broadcasted. Still, this is a small slice of life in the middle of the Rust Belt, and I ambled through this blighted world on a cold December morning, finding myself alone along the riverbank.

Dec 25, 2006

Christmas Ducks

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Group of ducks in Tifft Creek(Toledo, OH) As I enjoy watching the growing colony of ducks at Foxglove Meadow park, I took my new camera to said municipal recreation area to practice taking photos, and trying to get used to the abundance of confusing buttons and settings.

The group has grown from two pairs in May to a total of 69 ducks that I counted this afternoon.

Neighbors to the park - and duck lovers like me - have taken to providing food for the water fowl.

A pair of male Mallard ducksThere is something about the color scheme of Mallards that I find particularly striking; the greys, greens, and browns contrast with the yellow bill and orange feet in an aesthetically-pleasing way.

I am also intrigued with the relative comfort with which Mallards maintain around people. While they can be skittish, these ducks have become fairly acclimated around humans, and it takes a deliberate effort by people to cause Mallards to leave an area.

Two Mallards with a hybrid duckThere is a newcomer to the group, a dark-colored duck with a white patch on its chest. It does not seem to match up with any of the ducks in the bird identification guides I have consulted, and I suspect that it is a hybrid.

Some texts mention that domestic ducks bred for color and taste sometimes reenter the wild, and produce these unusually-marked birds.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Eid ul-Adha, Rapturous Yule, and a Festive Kwanzaa

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Harvest cornucopia (Toledo, OH) I wanted to pass along glad tidings to all of the people who pass by this site during this holiday season, and I hope that whatever form your celebration takes, you will find this time to be restful and blessed.

This is a time to set aside those concerns that weigh us down, and for families to rediscover the bonds that keep us from wandering through the world alone.

I will be experimenting with my new camera today - Santa brought me a Kodak P850 12X-IS (5.1 megapixels). It is a considerable upgrade from my old point-and-click digital, and Santa also provided some zoom lenses, filters, and an assortment of accessories.

May the New Year bring even better fortune, health, and happiness your way!

Sincerely,

Michael Brooks

Dec 24, 2006

Crescent Moon in the Night Fog

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Waxing crescent moon in the night fog - Toledo (Toledo, OH) I was out for a night walk and decided to catch a photo of the moon, which is in a waxing crescent phase.

The fog that came in this evening created a sort of halo effect around the moon. Despite the festive atmosphere in our house - with visiting relatives and roast turkey - a look above at the heavens felt like a scene out of a Washington Irving or Stephen King novel.

The tripod helped with the photo, but I was not in the mood to play with the aperture or shutter speed to get a sharper image. Besides, I think the fuzziness adds to the mysterious aura in tonight's sky.

Good thing Rudolph's nose is so bright...

On Dressing Up Dogs and Las Vegas, Nevada

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Sheltie with a sweaterLeft: Jimmy, our Sheltie, looking a bit forlorn

(Toledo, OH) When I was younger I never much cared for the lengths to which people would dress up dogs in sweaters. I thought of the activity as a sort of cheesy, anthropomorphic trait undertaken by pet owners with too much time on their hands.

Moreover, I always owned large dogs, such as my dearly departed Hershey, a chocolate Labrador retriever who was the ultimate in outdoor dogs.

It was thus with a gimlet eye that I observed my wife displaying little outfits that she purchased for our small dogs.

Westie in a sweaterLeft: Candy, our Westie mix, seems more comfortable wearing clothes

It took a few weeks, but I have become used to seeing my dogs dressed up in goofy dog clothes. I am still more likely to take them off the dogs when no one is looking, but I no longer have the scoffing, anti-bourgeois attitude I once held toward pet clothing.

But if designer dog clothes show up in this house, I am going to raise some serious hell. No dog of mine is going to be a walking advertisement for abject, Las Vegas-like commercialism, or suggesting that people visit websites offering information on Las Vegas real estate.

I have standards, and I there are certain lines I will not cross, although I am thankful that this post has been sponsored. Harumph!

That is, unless I could take the dogs to Las Vegas and get them a gig at one of the casinos, competing with the likes of David Copperfield and Celine Dion for a spot on the strip. Yes, my dogs could garner quite a following at places like Harrah's, the Tropicana, or the Mirage.

Yes, the dogs and I could march down the strip, fighting off Las Vegas paparazzi while sipping those drinks with the little umbrellas in them. Of course, they would be doggie cocktails, and I gave up booze years ago, but we would still be living the high life, Vegas-style.

Dec 23, 2006

Searching for Vulcan, Ohio

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Vulcan, OHLeft: Mapquest image featuring the long-disappeared village of Vulcan, OH

(Toledo, OH) I am a map afficianado, and I like to study maps to get a geographic sense of the places in which I live and visit. Even as a child I used to love being the navigator on trips, and I would read them for hours on end.

Over the years I have noticed the place name "Vulcan" on maps of Toledo. This was an unincorporated village that grew up around the Vulcan Iron Works near what is now the area by Dorr Street and Westwood Avenue in Toledo.

Vulcan Iron Works, ToledoLeft: An empty lot is all that is left of the Vulcan Iron Works facility along the Toledo Terminal tracks

Vulcan Iron Works was a national firm that set up operations throughout the country. Vulcan operated a number of facilities in Toledo, including a large plant on the Maumee River.

I set out today to try and find a "piece" of Vulcan, if there were still any to be found.

Little remains of either the Vulcan Iron Works or the area known as Vulcan. A few maps continue to reference the village, and some city deeds still contain references to "Vulcan" in plat descriptions.

Vulcan Iron Works Little Giant ExcavatorLeft: The 'Little Giant' excavator produced in Toledo by Vulcan Iron Works in the late 19th and early 20th centuries

There are references on the Internet to documents related to the Vulcan Iron Works, such as this 1911 lawsuit over the purchase of a steam shovel.

A 48-ton Vulcan steam shovel was used in 1887 to dig the Stewart Tunnel in Belleville, WI.

Beyond these vague refences, plus a few scattered mentions on pages devoted to railroad history, little can be found on the Web about the village of Vulcan.

The Toledo Terminal tracks are no longer used by trains to visit the area that was once Vulcan, OH. There are now a few dozen trailer homes in spaces once occupied by industrial firms and a train depot.

Stop signs are posted on the northern and southern end of the tracks, should an engine for unknown reasons find itself in the vicinity of what was once Vulcan.

Rotted ties, rusted rails, and weeds are all that remain of the Vulcan station on the Toledo Terminal line. The nearby light industrial businesses butt up against the rail line, but are situated in a way that one might view them as turning their backs on the railroad, a form of outmoded transportation for smaller firms that now rely on trucks.

A bitterly cold wind blowing out of the west whistled through the trees and the brush, and for a moment it sounded like ghostly voices whispered behind me as I walked along the tracks.

I drove away from what was once Vulcan, Ohio, knowing little more than I earlier did about the vanished village.

On Essays, Post Titles, and the Act of Writing

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A regular reader wrote in and asked about my proclivity to label essays with straightforward titles that begin with the preposition "on."

I subconsciously - and later in a conscious sense - began to use this format in emulation of Michel de Montaigne, a sixteenth-century French writer often credited with inventing the literary genre of the essay.

I also like to use such titles as a consistent, easily-recognizable cue when I delve into this sort of personal reflection on a given topic, both to forewarn readers who visit the site for hard news, and to keep myself moored to the theme of the post.

Essays, for me, are a way to sort of think out loud, to put down some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head before I lose them in the many distractions of the hyperactive modern world. In a selfish sense I also use essays to get feedback, seeing if readers spot glaring holes in an argument, or if I seem to have struck some sort of chord with my writing.

In some ways I find essays to be my favorite form of writing, as there are no limitations other than those of the imagination. If I choose to deliberately break a grammatical or stylistic norm, I can feel free to do so in an essay, whereas in writing designed for a journalistic or academic audience I have to follow the particular forms and rules for those genres.

Finally, to me the essay is one of the purest, most natural forms of writing I can fathom. It succinctly represents my thoughts - albeit in a far more organized fashion than the relative chaos normally found in my head - and gives the reader a momentary snapshot of where my befuddled brain is.

Dec 22, 2006

On Watching Pirated DVDs

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Pirated DVD of Borat (Toledo, OH) A relative of mine came back from New York City the other day (her identity will be protected in this post), and she brought with her some DVDs of films currently in the theater.

She paid $5 each for the discs from a street vendor near Times Square, and they turned out to be pirated versions of the films. Having never knowingly watched a pirated film before, I was all game to view the discs.

The overall quality of each of these films - Borat and The Pursuit of Happiness - was laughably poor, as both were produced from cameras set up on tripods in theaters running the films. In The Pursuit of Happiness you could see the tops of the front seats, the camera was set at an oblique angle, and there was a recurrent sound of rustling papers throughout the film.

The sound quality in Borat was very poor, and it had Spanish subtitles where the protagonists spoke in faux Kazakh. This pirated DVD was filmed with a digital camera that had some sort of autofocus function, and every time the scene changed there was a one-second visual anomaly as the lens readjusted.

I am not sure what sort of consumer would be satisfied with such poor quality DVDs, but I suspect that there are enough tourists in places like the Big Apple to keep these vendors busy.

As for me, I am too much of a purist to enjoy the sacrifice of quality over a few dollars in price, or beating the official release of a DVD by a few months.

Dec 21, 2006

Album Review: Nick Drake - Pink Moon

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Island Records, 1972

Drake was a British singer-songwriter whose work is often lumped in the category of "folk," but which defies simple characterizations. He battled depression most of his adult life, and died in 1974 of an overdose of the antidepressant amitriptyline.

Pink Moon highlights Drake at his finest, and is a record featuring only Drake's voice, guitar, and the occasional piano overdub. This was the last complete record released before his death, and the songs are dark, bordering on the dirge-like. Little hope can be heard in Drake's subdued voice, and speculation among some devotees is that this was a sort of audio suicide note, albeit composed two years before his death at age 26.

His work as a guitarist is often overlooked by casual fans, and Drake used some unusual tunings that give his songs a unique feel. The songs "Which Will" and "Ride" feature a C-G-C-F-C-E tuning that is so impossibly low that your speakers will rattle, and he made frequent use of the capo to raise some of these tunings to keys not normally visited by most pop stars. "Parasite" features an A-string that is almost, but not quite, in tune, and the slight dissonance adds an eerie touch to an already-disturbing song.

Drake's lyrical tendency toward introspective songs turns fully inward on this album, and it is clear that this is the voice of a person hanging - just barely - onto his last threads of hope. One hears not just the pain of human misery, but the sound of a person singing from beyond the edge of sanity. The four-line song "Know" is exemplary of the deep abyss into which Drake was falling:
Know that I love you
Know I don't care
Know that I see you
Know I'm not there.
Beautiful melodies, exquisite instrumentation, and haunting lyrics are the stuff of Nick Drake, and all are in abundance on Pink Moon. For those who enjoy happy, easy-to-digest corporate pop music, this is not your record. For those able to handle the harsh realities of listening to a life about to end, Pink Moon offers an aural trip that is sublime, forlorn, and unforgettable.

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.

Deep, unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state. --Ira Gershwin

Dec 20, 2006

On School Zones and Toledo's Muslim Community

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(Toledo, OH) I pass the Toledo Islamic Academy on Secor Road at least a dozen times per week during one of the restricted time periods in which flashing yellow lights inform motorists of the 20 MPH speed limit.

Invariably, I see many motorists ignore these particular traffic signals, zipping merrily along at 45 MPH or more.

By comparison, I do not see the same number of scofflaws at other nearby school zones, such as Trilby School on Secor Road. I have arrived at the conclusion that at least some of these speeding motorists consciously disregard the speed laws because they have problems with either the school or with Muslims in general.

I would love to pontificate about how much I love all children - and put their welfare above my own need to get to work on time - but I have to admit my first thought is the expensive tickets associated with speeding in a school zone.

Still, I do not differentiate between public or parochial schools or, for that matter, between Christian, Muslim, or Jewish schools. I drive 20 in all of these zones to keep from getting nailed with a pricey citation.

My suggestion to the city of Toledo is to set up some targeted speed enforcement in the vicinity of the Toledo Islamic Academy, as there appears to be quite a bit of untapped revenue in the form of inconsiderate motorists who seem to feel that speed zones near Islamic schools are less important than those by other Toledo schools.

Blogger Beta Bites Big Bananas

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I apologize for the eight hours or so that this site has been down. I attempted to swtch to the Blogger Beta platform today, and all I got out of the experience was frustration.

Multiple emails to Blogger Support went unanswered. I finally received a form email from Blogger informing me of their collective incompetence:
Thanks for your interest in the new version of Blogger. An error has occurred that has prevented us from switching your account at this time. Our engineers have been notified of the issue, and your blogs and Blogger account should not be affected.
Uh, Blogger? My blogs and Blogger account were affected, and I learned that Blogger should not be trusted to provide reliable service.

This is a good reminder to myself that it is time to migrate to a real domain name, and to switch to a platform with actual human support. Any suggestions?

Dec 19, 2006

On Used Bookstores, Popular Literature, and Curmudgeons Like Me

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(Toledo, OH) With a few minutes to kill today I made a trip to A Novel Idea, an excellent used bookstore in Sylvania, OH. For a little more than $18 I walked out with an armload of classic literature, ranging from Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, to W.E.B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folk.

Yet the classic literature, even in this setting, comprised but a small section of the store's contents. By far the largest component of this store was the area taken up by romance novels.

There were countless rows of this literary fluff, and the Harlequin series received its own subsection. I briefly glanced at a random book in this genre to see if anything had changed since I tried to read one of my grandmother's romance novels in the 1970s.

Nope. Still as formulaic and forgettable as ever.

And yet, as I watched people browsing through the romance section, I began to feel guilty for mentally berating what must be a considerable audience for these books.

And, frankly, who am I to turn up my nose? Danielle Steele certainly outsells the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and at least these folks are reading. What is the harm in reading sappy, predictable novels that get churned out by the millions?

None, that I can see - except that these books provide little in the way of intellectual stimulation - but if they bring some escape and pleasure to someone's life, then I ought to mind my own damned business and quit being an intellectual snob.

Still, if only they would pick up a copy of Crime and Punishment, or maybe Moby Dick...

Toledo Free Press Moving to Sundays, Free Home Delivery

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Toledo Free Press (Toledo, OH) In a move that is bound to shake up local media and advertising circles, the Toledo Free Press announced today that it will begin production of a weekly, home-delivered newspaper after the first of the year.

The move will give TFP more copies in its distribution area than any print publication in Northwest Ohio, and most of the weekly copies will be distributed to single-family homes in Lucas, northern Wood, and southern Monroe counties.

Fifteen thousand copies of the free paper will still be available for pickup at free stands in more than 500 locations.

"Reader and advertiser input is the only reason we're doing it," said Tom Pounds, Toledo Free Pres president and publisher. "Our five-year plan was to get to 50,000 [copies], and here we are two years later going to 150,000."

The move will likely have adverse effects on the Toledo Blade, Toledo's only daily newspaper. The Free Press will offer approximately 20,000 copies every Sunday more than the Blade and - while Pounds did not disclose advertising rates in his statements - the Free Press has been very aggressive in its ad rates during its first two years of operation.

The Blade - which has ongoing labor disputes and locked out a number of its union members this year - can ill afford to lose the lucrative Sunday advertising revenue that TFP is likely to siphon away.

Full disclosure note - historymike is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the Toledo Free Press on many occasions.

Dec 18, 2006

On Troop Surges and Cutting Losses

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President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney President Bush has been floating the idea of a "surge" in US forces as a strategy to bring an end to the civil war in Iraq. The infusion of 40,000 or more American soldiers, goes the theory, will restore order and quell the violence.

In the business world this type of thinking is called "throwing good money after bad," except in this case we would also be sacrificing more American soldiers.

There comes a time when, in any futile human endeavor, we need to just acknowledge that the activity is a failure, and then move on. The United States is at that point in Iraq, and sending tens of thousands more troops only means that the insurgents will have more targets.

The decision to topple Sadaam Hussein's regime through an invasion of Iraq created this civil war. While a brutal despot, Hussein ruled over a functioning government, and the destruction of the Ba'athist bureaucracy led to a power vacuum that has been filled by local militias and political factions.

The idea that 180,000 troops could better police a nation the size of France with 26 million people than could 140,000 is absurd. I suspect that it would be difficult for those 180,000 troops to effectively police Baghdad at this point.

The insurgency was driven by the presence of US troops on Iraqi soil, and the insurgency will not die out until US troops leave. The Iraqi security forces have become dependent on the US military, and they will not evolve into a sustainable police force so long as the Americans remain the primary decision makers.

Those who support the surge plan believe this is the only way to "win" the war, but -like Vietnam - this is a war that cannot be won. The Iraqis are fighting an internal civil war of a political nature, and the US military cannot "win" a political struggle.

Critics of bringing home the troops also argue that a "cut-and-run" strategy shows that America is weak. To those people I say that we survived our losses in Vietnam just fine, and life went on. Perhaps, too, we as Americans might stand to learn a lesson or two about rushing off to war.

There is nothing "weak" about admitting mistakes, learning lessons, and moving forward. I think this process is better described as "intelligence."

Bring home the troops in 2007.

Dec 17, 2006

Book Review - A Short History of a Small Place

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A Short History of a Small PlacePearson, TR

New York: Linden Press


On occasion I am introduced to the work of writers who, after I delve into one of their books, I am amazed that I never encountered them before; how could I have missed their brilliance in almost 40 years of reading.

Such is the case with T.R. Pearson and A Short History of a Small Place , which has been collecting dust on a shelf in my house for several years. Echoing equal parts of William Faulkner, John Kennedy Toole, and Mark Twain, Pearson's narrative about the fictional town of Neely, NC is a tragicomic tour de force of the goings-on in this quirky Southern burg.

Told through the child's eyes of the young Louis Benfield, the book is part satire and part social commentary, though never becoming overly judgmental in its examinations of issues such as racial relations and provincialism.

I laughed out loud many times while reading A Short History of a Small Place, generating inquisitive looks from my wife, who was trying to sleep (it's one of those books you just don't want to put down). Pearson's deadpan humor and ability to concoct uproarious situations make this book an entertaining read.

Buy it - you will not be disappointed.

Dec 16, 2006

Lilac Trees in the Winter

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Gnarled branches of a lilac tree(Toledo, OH) We have a pair of lilac bushes that have grown over the years into full-fledged trees. In the springtime the purple lilac flowers fill the air around our house with a sweet aroma that lasts for a few weeks.

In winter, though, the twisted lilac trunks and branches stand like silent wraiths, almost glaring at you with a hint of menace, as if they might reach out and grab you if you got too close to them.

In the daylight of December these trees are less threatening, more like seeing a Halloween mask in the store, or walking through a graveyard on a Sunday afternoon.

Gnarled branches of a lilac treeBut after dusk the gnarled lilacs can take on the shapes of whatever demons come to your mind, branches creaking in the night chill, straining to hook a limb under your neck, or bending forward to slash your face.

The intertwined trunks of the lilacs grate against each other and make sounds not unlike those of creaking doors, or the planks of an old oak floor as persons unknown walk above you.

Run along and do not dither beneath the lilac trees, friend. Their patience has worn thin in the icy cold, the charm of their springtime blossoms has long since withered away, and that which lurks within the lilacs is about to break free.

Dec 15, 2006

On Race, Being a Kid, and Growing Up in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s

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Firemen putting out a fire in the 1967 Detroit riotsTime magazine photo of firemen putting out a fire in the 1967 Detroit riots

(Toledo, OH) I am not sure why I started reminiscing this morning about growing up in Detroit. Once the memories began to bounce around in my head, I decided to jot some of them down for posterity.

Or, perhaps, so they will quit bouncing around in my head.

I have few memories about the 1967 riots, as I was a wee lad more interested in running around the backyard and digging holes in the lawn with a shovel. I know that my dad - who was a Detroit Police officer - was away from home a lot, and I have a vivid memory of seeing Army trucks on Plymouth Road while I was eating an icecream cone in front of the Dairy Queen at Mettetal and Plymouth.

Racial tension was an everyday fact of life in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, and yet I somehow grew up white in Detroit without getting sucked into the vortex of hate that enveloped more than a few white Detroiters.

Hearing the slur nigger was commonplace at that time, but I had nebulous ideas about the word as a child. I knew that it was associated with African Americans, but the blacks I knew certainly weren't niggers.

Piano keys I remember Mrs. Lola Johnson, my music teacher from third through fifth grades at Leslie Elementary School. She was an older black woman who had a passion for music, and went out of her way to encourage those of us who wanted to experiment with the piano, the autoharp, or any of the sundry musical instruments around.

I remember how her nimble fingers would fly through Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee," and I remember the funny way how, when students would act up, she would stand and begin her chastisements with: "Hear me now!"

You didn't mess with Mrs. Johnson, but I loved being around her. I remember that she had special shoes she kept in a closet that she only wore when she played the piano. She would sometimes ask a child to get her shoes for her, and when she asked me once, one of the third-grade thugs whispered to me: "EWWWW! You are touching that nigger's stinky shoes!"

I, of course, hadn't even considered that Mrs. Johnson was a "nigger" - she was just my teacher, and I wasn't sure anymore what to think about that word.

Detroit protesters against busing I can remember when desegregated busing affected my school. The first day that bussed students were to arrive at Leslie was one filled with wonderment. We had heard that "niggers" were going to be sent to our school (which, of course, already had some black students), and a few goons shouted "Niggers Go Home" when the busses pulled up.

What a surprise when some of the students getting off the bus were white and Hispanic, in addition to the black kids. Were the white and Hispanic kids "niggers," too?

One of the new kids was named Carlton Whitsett. He sat next to me in Mrs. Calloway's fourth-grade class. Mrs. Calloway, I might add, was another excellent role model who happened to be black.

Carlton and I listened to the same songs on CKLW-AM, the biggest, baddest radio station in the world. 50,000 watts of Top-40 music from, of all places, Windsor, Ontario. Little did we know back then that "The Big 8" could be heard all over the eastern half of the United States. We just knew it played all of the cool songs.

CKLW logo By the way - follow this link to hear some incredible clips of jingles from CKLW's heydays.

Oh, yeah - Carlton was a black kid. I almost forgot to tell you that.

I just thought Carlton was a funny kid who liked a lot of the same things that I did: good music, the Detroit Tigers, and the Three Stooges. Nobody told me that Carlton was a "nigger," at least until one of the racist seventh graders straightened me out on the playground one day.

"If you hang out with them niggers, you're a nigger-lover," he told me, adding a new term to my growing vocabulary of racist nomenclature.

I had to hide my friendship with Carlton after that, at least on the playground. It sure was a confusing thing to never know who the "niggers" were.

I remember one day trying to pretend I didn't see Carlton running over to me on the playground when I was near the racist bullies. He was smart enough to figure out what was going on, and we never talked about it, but I knew that I had hurt my friend by being too chicken to hang out with him that day.

Carlton - if you ever read this - I am sorry, man. I did not have the guts to do the right thing that day in 1974.