May 31, 2007

On Blog Advertising and Double Standards

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Chart detailing daily growth of blogosphere courtesy of Technorati

I have received more than a few emails and comments about my decision a few months ago to accept blog advertising on this site. Most of the feedback has been negative, but I sort of expected that. Advertising is annoying, and no one actually likes to surround themselves with ads, save a few Madison Avenue wonks.

I suppose I have been most puzzled by the blogosphere purists who hold on to idealized notions that sites such as this should somehow remain "above" the seedy world of competition for ad dollars. The blogosphere, goes the argument, should be a world untainted by commercialization, perhaps the last refuge of pure communication.

Of course, such people access other media on a regular basis, yet they do not lambaste television and radio stations, newspapers, or magazines for accepting advertising dollars. When was the last time you saw a group of concerned viewers protesting a TV station for making a profit?

There will always be a part of me that wishes the world was a place of plenty, where no one had to work and everything humans needed grew on trees.

We do not live in such a world.

Thus, like everyone else, I am forced to accept compromises in my life, and one of those satanic handshakes involves blog advertising. Were I not able to justify the hours I spend on producing blog material in some fashion, I doubt that this site would still be around, or at least not in the form it takes.

Besides, has my perspective been changed in some manner - or has my writing been corrupted - by the inclusion of advertising? I write what I want to write, irrespective of the sensibilities of any advertisers who might surf here. True, if I dislike a product that I am paid to review I am not going to describe it as "the most vile piece of human-inspired excrement since the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus song 'Achy Breaky Heart,'" but I also do not smack my boss upside the head if I disagree with her, either.

May 30, 2007

Gas Prices Mean No Vacation This Year

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rising gas pump prices cut into vacation plans (Toledo, OH) Rising gas prices have certainly cut into our budget, especially given my underemployed status at the moment, but it looks like the outrageous prices at the pump will mean that our family will have to forego any lengthy travel.

I initially thought that we might return to the Outer Banks, which is one of my favorite travel destinations. Gas alone, though, would likely add up to nearly $500 for a trip there and back, which is at least $150 more than in past trips to the coastal Carolinas.

For us that is like 1-2 nights at a condominium, or at least three meals out with the kids.

This is not to mention what the jump in pump prices means to us on an annual basis. At a conservative consumption of 1400 gallons per year, this is several thousand dollars more that we are shelling out for gas. So it looks like we will have to settle for one of the area campgrounds if we are to plan any sort of family vacation.

Sunrise

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resplendent sunrise (Toledo, OH) I also posted this image on my photography blog, but the sublime resplendence of this morning's sunrise here in Northwest Ohio needs a wider audience.

Perhaps it is just the fact that I downed a cup of coffee at 6:15 am, but this particular sunrise seemed to be in a rarefied class of natural elegance.

I stood outside for about five minutes gazing into the sky, and I am not sure if there is a better way to spend time than skywatching.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't.
-- Anatole France

U.S. Quarantines Citizen with Deadly TB Strain

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Image of XDR TB bacteria courtesy of World Lung FoundationImage of XDR TB bacteria courtesy of World Lung Foundation

(Atlanta) The United States has made the unusual decision to isolate a traveler who may have exposed fellow passengers and crew on two May trans-Atlantic flights to a tuberculosis strain that is especially difficult to treat.

This was the first time the US government has issued such an isolation order since 1963, when quarantined a smallpox patient, according to a press release from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"In this case, the infected patient traveled on two trans-Atlantic air flights and, in doing so, may have exposed passengers and crew to XDR-TB," the agency said. "A federal quarantine order has been issued and CDC is currently collaborating with U.S., state and local health departments, international ministries of health, the airline industry, and WHO (World Health Organization)."

The patient, a US citizen from the state of Georgia, is suffering from the drug-resistant form of TB known as XDR TB. This strain resists virtually all antibiotics, and because XDR-TB is resistant to first- and second-line drugs, treatment options are quite limited for patients with the disease.

The infected patient flew to Europe via Air France Flight 385, departing from Atlanta on May 12 and arriving in Paris on May 13. The as-yet unidentified man returned to North America on May 24 aboard Czech Air Flight 0104 from Prague to Montreal, and then drove into the United States.

The CDC is recommending that crew and passengers seated in near the patient aboard any of the named flights be evaluated for TB infection.

While considred relatively rare, XDR TB has infected at least one half million patients worldwide, acording to WHO. Only 49 XDR TB cases have been reported in the United States between 1993 and 2006, and 17 of those have been diagnosed since 2000.

Approximately two million people die from all forms of tuberculosis each year.

May 29, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: JEJUNE

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

jejune (djeh-DJOON) adj.. Lacking in nutritive value; devoid of any significance or interest; Lacking maturity; childish; lacking matter; empty or devoid of substance; insipid.

Jejune comes to us from the Latin jejunus, meaning "hungry," "fasting," "scanty," "meager," or "weak." As indicated above, there are a wide variety of possible uses for "jejune." In general, it is important to know that almost every connotation of jejune is associated with a negative tone, so you can be sure that refering to someone as "jejune" is likely to result in sleeves being rolled up and fisticuffs commencing.

I came across the word jejune in Antony Lentin's Russia in the Eighteenth Century, from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great. He described the launching of Moscow University's twice-weekly journal Moscow News as "a journal vastly more informative than its jejune namesake and forerunner."

Looking for Mechanical Advice

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Left: The bane of my landscaping existence

I have a Toro gas-powered weed trimmer that will start right up, but which dies within seconds of starting. It seems like the blasted machine is not getting gas, and the problem seems to happen whether or not I am revving the throttle.

Also, the problem occurred after it had been running for about 15 minutes, which makes it even more strange.

I tried yanking the plug and cleaning it, but I am looking for advice on my next move. By the way, in an unrelated note , here is a quick plug for Cunningham golf cart parts, if you happen to be repairing a golf cart. Quality merchandise from a reputable firm.

The After-the-Holiday Confusion

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Even when I stay at home for the holidays, like I did this weekend, the return to the "normal" week never fails to disorient me. There is something about the process of disconnecting from established routines that I find to be a bit confusing.

It usually takes me a solid week to regain my bearings after I return home from a vacation, as I sort through the mail, listen to accumulated phone messages, and catch up on the news. There are the inevitable home maintenance items that need attention, and trips to the grocery store or other errands that need immediate atention.

Even after a long weekend at home, though, I still feel a sense of the surreal when dreaded Tuesday hits and I have to jump into workweek mode. I think that the implicit obligation to be productive once again is the source of the unsettled feeling, seeing everyone driving off to work and getting the urge to do something, anything, so long as it is work-related.

Now, it's not as if I sat home all weekend and flopped on the couch for the duration. We went to the Toledo Zoo on Sunday, saw Pirates of the Caribbean Monday, and I finished planting the rest of my seeds. I finished a book for one of the classes I am taking this summer, and even worked on my syllabus for a world history class I am teaching in the fall.

I think I'll don a pair of Wiley X sunglasses and filter out all those incoming "get busy" vibes I keep feeling.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

No man needs a vacation so much as the man who has just had one.
-- Elbert Hubbard

On the Chaos of Multiple Part Time Jobs

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(Toledo, OH) Over the past six years my schedule has forced me to become a member of the Many Hats Club, and my work life has revolved around balancing between two and four part-time jobs to pay the bills.

While I appreciate the fact that there are employers willing to work around my academic and family obligations, I do long for the day when I can return to the world of working one full time job. There is something to be said for the reduction in chaos associated with juggling multiple positions, and of course I will appreciate once again working for an employer that offers health benefits.

True, I could be working a full time job that does not suit my personality, such as marketing pens or working retail, but there is a certain security and peace of mind with full time jobs that is lacking when one must contend with multiple part time work.

Plus, with a full time job I will then have a schedule than better suits... getting another part time job to pay the bills.

May 27, 2007

Summer Budget Vow: No Home Air Conditioning

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(Toledo, OH) Given the fact that our employment prospects for the summer are - so far - somewhat limited, my wife and I made a pact: at no time will we break out the room air conditioners this summer.

In summers past we have watched our electric bills jump $100-$150 per month when the air conditioning is turned on, so we decided to tough it out and save perhaps as much as $500 in money that would otherwise be marginal profit for Toledo Edison and FirstEnergy.

All right, no smart-aleck comments from FirstEnergy engineers about peak demand and overtaxed power grids.

If I get desperate, I can always tool around the block utilizing my auto air conditioning, or spend an hour minutes at the mall sucking up the complimentary coolness. And then there is always the option of hitting the JCC/YMCA pool in Sylvania, which never fails to bring relief during those 90+ degree days.

We have already seen some positive results, as the monthly bill we just paid was only $120 - our lowest in recent memory. Given the handful of hot days already racked up in May, I think we have saved about $40 this month.

Now, if I can just train the kids to turn off lights and the TV when not in use...

Return of the Messy Desk

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Gad.

Even by my own less-than-organized standards, my desk is a wreck today. Strewn with books, papers, journals, network cables, and car parts, I feel a compulsion to drag in a trash can and shovel in the entire mess.

I find it difficult to write when I am staring at such a conglomeration of clutter, so I suppose I should spend ten minutes and make my workspace more conducive to work.

Must... get... coffee.

May 26, 2007

Flea Market Pet Food: Cutting Corners or Risking Pet Health?

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pet food recall merchandise may be showing up in flea marketsLeft: Bargain-basement prices and suspect quality; click for larger image

(Toledo, OH) While passing through a flea market today I noticed a vendor selling - among other consumer goods like laundry detergent and toys - a variety of cut-rate pet foods. I snapped a photograph and moved on, initially a bit curious about the type of people who would feed their pets the absolute cheapest food they could get.

Some of the canned pet foods were marked down to $.20 per can, while the 50-lb. bags of pet food were as little as $4.00. Quite a deal, right?

It later dawned on me that the reason this pet food might be so inexpensive is that this merchandise represents items rejected even by the discount stores. The DG brand, for example, is Dollar General, and I am making the assumption that if Dollar General will not stock the food on their shelves, this flea market merchant is selling food rejected by the discount outlets.

Several of the brands pictured are also on the list of recalled pet food products due to contaminants in vegetable proteins imported into the U.S. from China that have been used as ingredients in pet food.

In some cases cats and dogs have died from suspected melamine poisoning, and the FDA noted that over 14,000 complaints have been filed from pet owners with pets they believe to have been sickened by the tainted pet foods.

My suspicion is that some merchants are pawning off rejected pet foods in under-regulated settings like flea markets as a means of profitting from the glut of recalled merchandise. I also would not be surprised to learn that there is a considerable underground market in reselling this recalled pet food.

At any rate: I urge pet owners to exercise caution before feeding their dogs and cats "bargain" pet foods, as they may be saving a few dollars at the expense of the health of their beloved companions. Be sure to check expiration dates on the packages, and compare the production lot numbers on containers with the FDA list of recalled pet foods.

Confusing Road Sign

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(Toledo, OH) This sign can be found at the five-way intersection of Tremainsville Road, Sylvania Avenue, and Jackman Road in West Toledo. For those familiar with the neighborhood, the sign makes sense, but I would imagine that a luggage-laden traveler who came upon this sign for the first time might be confused.

The sign looks more like a diagrammed football play than a traffic control device. Feel free to provide a caption or an alternate simile for this sign in the comments section.

May 25, 2007

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Dirty Dee, you're a baddy daddy lamatai tabby chai!
-- Pootie Tang

On Price Gouging and Bad Laws

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Reps. Bart Stupak, D-MI (right), Peter Welch, D-VT (left), and Christopher Carney, D-PA try to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside; photo courtesy of AP

I read with some bemusement the text of H. R. 1252, also known by the name "The Federal Price Gouging Prevention Act", which purports to offer American consumers some protection from the corporate greed of multinational oil conglomerates. It has been a long time since I have seen a piece of legislation so ill-conceived and dripping with false sincerity that will accomplish nothing, save perhaps the creation of long lines at the gas pump due to the effects of the implicit price controls inherent in the bill.

Moreover, the very concept of "price gouging" itself is quite murky, and the anecdotal examples provided usually involve local merchants seeking to capitalize on a short-term crisis, like the convenience store owners who start charging $20 a bag for ice during a power outtage.

In addition, the bill is riddled with vague terms like "unconscionably excessive" pricing and sellers who take "unfair advantage of the circumstances related to an energy emergency to increase prices unreasonably." Imagine trying to sort through this confusing, overly relative terminology in a court setting.

Ostensibly the Federal Trade Commission FTC is the body responsible for policing price gounging of petroleum distillate, but the bill adds another twist: enforcement at the retail level by state Attorneys General. So now we would face the prospect of 50 ambitious, demagogic AGs chasing down alleged perpetrators of the "crime" of price gouging in addition to the federal bureaucrats.

Now, don't get me wrong: I readily concede that multinational oil conglomerates are enjoying record profits during this period of insufficient production capacities and global instability (read: Middle East on the verge of widespread war, or "Bush's Iraq War made things much worse"). But this shallow law will only exacerbate our energy woes should the Senate lack the common sense to kill this bill.

Want to lower gas prices? You can: a) reduce global demand for petroleum products; b) increase global production capacity for petroleum products; or c) reduce the global instability that makes investors jittery and drives up the price of oil.

None of which involve ridiculous laws that ignore basic economic forces like supply and demand.

Contest: How High Will Gas Get?

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Left: Speedway station at Secor and Laskey, Thursday May 24, 2007

(Toledo, OH) Given the fact that there is not much we can do about the rapidly rising price of gas, I thought it might be entertaining to hold a blog contest for site visitors to guess the highest price of gas this summer at the Speedway station I pass every day at Secor and Laskey.

To sweeten the deal, let's throw in some prizes: First place (price closest to the actual high for the summer ending September 4, 2007 at 12:00 am) wins a $20 Speedway gas card. Second place wins a new (or nearly new, if I like it and read it) book sent to me by one of the many publishing houses who want me to review texts.

In the case of a tie, I will flip a coin.

I will not be participating in the contest, as I am the sole judge, but I will say now that I believe this station will hit a high of $3.89 a gallon some time this summer.

I will update the site with a new post every time the station hits a new high, and keep a running list of participants. Use the comments section to post your guess, and may the luckiest reader win!

A few rules: One entry per person, and entries must be posted by Wednesday, May 30. I have post-dated this entry so that it will stay at the top of the blog for the next seven days, thus giving everyone a fair shot at seeing this post.

PS - if you do not have a Google or Blogger account, please use some identifying name in the post comments section. You can email me at mbrooks AT utnet DOT utoledo DOT edu so that your email is not posted in the comments section.

PPS- Any links to this post would be appreciated, especially since I am forking out the magic $20 card. My sneaky ulterior motive is to hope that this post gets picked up and I benefit from the link love and increased site traffic.

May 24, 2007

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Well, you can't be a pimp and a prostitute, too.
-- Jack White
(The White Stripes: "Icky Thump")

May 23, 2007

Bush Finally Finds His al Qaeda-Iraq Connection, Albeit Post-Invasion

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President Bush boarding Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, AP Photo/Caleb Jones

President Bush, desperate to make the case that that Americans face an ongoing threat from terrorists, disclosed today that Osama bin Laden was working in 2005 to set up a unit inside Iraq to hit U.S. targets.

"Osama bin Laden calls the struggle in Iraq a 'war of destiny.' He proclaimed 'the war is for you or for us to win. If we win it, it means your defeat and disgrace forever,'" Bush told reporters. "We are determined to stop the world's most dangerous men from striking America with the world's most dangerous weapons."

Of course, this revelation involves a purported plot that occurred two years after the United States invaded Iraq, deposed Saddam Hussein, and destroyed the infrastructure of the Iraqi government. This is akin to laying off garbage collectors, allowing trash to pile up, and then pointing to the requisite members of the species Rattus rattus as "proof" of a pre-exisiting rodent problem.

Sorry, Mr. President. The presence of al Qaeda in Iraq is a direct result of your failed policies, and any radicals in Iraq who associate themselves with the loose al Qaeda network merely took advantage of the post-invasion chaos to entrench themselves.

The fact is that Iraq was a stable, though dictator-headed, nation when the United States invaded in 2003, and the result of that invasion has been an unqualified disaster. There have been nearly 3,500 U.S. troops killed during this conflict, tens of thousands of wounded military personnel, and perhaps as many as 600,000 Iraqi civilians killed in war-related deaths.

There is something almost pathetic about the decision by President Bush to trudge out the tired old specter of Osama bin Laden for consideration. Mr. Bush seems so dispirited, so bleak, so miserable; we are reduced to watching this President's ineffectual efforts to summon a ploy that has long since worn out its punch.

Rapid Rhetoric: NOUMENON

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

noumenon (NOO-meh-nahn) n. the intellectual conception of an object as it is ubto itself, not as it is known through the process of perception; an object that is perceived by intellect or reason alone; an object which is perceived by the mind apart from the senses; an object of cognition.

Noumenon comes to us from the German, thanks to Immanuel Kant. He derived the word from the Greek nooumenon, which is the neuter present passive participle of noein, meaning "to perceive by thought." Kant used used noumenon interchangeably with the phrase "a thing in itself" (Ding an sich). The plural form of the word is noumena, while the adjectival form is noumenal, and I have seen the word with the alternate spellings of numenon and nuomenon.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that human understanding is buit upon "concepts of the understanding", or innate intellectual categories that the mind uses to make sense of raw unstructured experience.

This related to his argument that a priori knowledge is transcendental, or based on the form of all possible human experiences, while a posteriori knowledge is empirical, based on the content of an individual's experience.

And that is about all I can dredge up about Kant from the Intro to Philosophy course I took years ago.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow. --Friedrich Nietzsche

May 22, 2007

On Urban Agriculture and Stretching Dollars

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(Toledo, OH) Over the past few summers I have become more focused on what I call my experiments in urban agriculture, based in part on my love of the outdoors as well as my decision to take the graduate student vow of poverty.

So far I have planted six varieties of peppers, four types of tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, and eggplant. Over the course of the next few days I will be adding the rest of my seeds with the hope that 2007 will be the most bountiful of harvests.

There is an old saw that goes something like this: "For $20 in seeds, I can generate $200 worth of produce with only 500 hours worth of work." While the cynical gardener who first uttered this line was onto something, there is much to be said for the money that can be saved through judicious home gardening.

In the past I have tried to grow almost every vegetable in the spectrum of plants that will survive our temperate Ohio weather, even delving into oddities such as okra and casaba melons. This year, though, I vowed to only plant those crops I have been able to successfully nurture in past years.

So no more attempts to grow my own corn, especially when you can get a basketful of eared corn at Kroger's for just a few dollars. Ditto for the green beans that continue to bear ugly black fungus spots in my yard, and the pumpkins that take up many square yards of real estate for a handful of pathetic-looking fruits.

In addition to the above plants, I will focus on snap peas, dill, cilantro, cucumbers, zucchini, basil, and a few other items that slip my mind. Oh, and sunflowers over every available sunny space in my yard.

Fostering a Shelter Dog

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Those who visit this site know that my wife and I are softies for shelter dogs, and we picked up a dog today that we will be fostering for a few weeks until he recovers from surgery.

Meet Dr. Bombay, a friendly Schnodle who marched right in the house when we got home as though he has lived here forever. Due to some neglect issues, the folks at Planned Pethood had to have Dr. Bombay shaved to clear up some skin and nail issues, but he is doing pretty well considering all he has been through.

We are not sure if Dr. Bombay is a "forever" dog yet, but he seems to be getting along well with our Sheltie mix Jimmy and our Westie mix Candy.

And, for those of you thinking about getting a dog, please consider adopting a rescue pooch. Every resuce dog we have taken in has been housebroken, good-tempered, and loveable. For more information on adopting rescue dogs, see The Toledo Area Humane Society, Planned Pethood, or Petfinder.com.

On Urban Living and Sunsets

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Sunset in Toledo, Ohio (Toledo, OH) The colors in the Northwest Ohio sky were spectacular tonight, and I wanted to capture them for my photography blog. Unfortunately, I could not seem to find an open space that was free from billboards, buildings, and electrical lines, so I had to settle for images like this one.

Urban living often takes the form of such compromises between nature and development, and city dwellers sacrifice a great deal of access to the natural world in the name of "progress." Of course, that to which we are "progressing" might not necessarily be an improvement in the long run, but we seem to have difficulty thinking beyond the next fiscal year or election cycle.

I am not by any stretch an ecological radical, yet I recognize that economic development exacts a heavy toll on our connections with the natural environment. Many people can appreciate the beauty of an Atlantic sunrise, or the sublime feeling of standing at the base of a snow-capped mountain, and yet most of us have to travel to experience such spectacles without the incessant intrusion of the commercial and the industrial.

And even then, to be sure, one is sure to come across fast food containers littering the otherwise pristine wilderness.

I looked again through the dozens of images I collected this evening, and there was nary a picture that could be cropped in such a way as to limit the presence of urban sprawl in my photos. Once again I had to watch this beautiful sunset through the distorted lens of human progress, and once again I longed for a closer relationship with the natural world.

May 21, 2007

Stalin's "Special Settlements" the Focus of New Book

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Lynne Viola is a specialist in twentieth century Russian history, focusing on political and social history. Her research interests include women, peasants, political culture, and Stalinist terror. She is the author of some thirty articles and two books, and has edited quite a few texts on Russian history.

Viola just finished editing The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements, and she will be posting every day this week on her trip into the previously closed archives of the central and provincial Communist Parties, the Soviet state, and the Soviet secret police, as well as her journey working on this book.

The text examines Stalin's forced resettlement of two million Soviet peasants in the 1930s, detailing how failed Soviet policies and autocratic regional administrators destroyed untold numbers of Russian lives. I am looking forward to getting my mitts on a copy to read and review, but in the meantime be sure to follow Viola's posts on the Oxford University Press blog.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can not expect an apostle to peer out.
--Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

May 20, 2007

Down and Out in Toledo

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(Toledo, OH) At first pass I thought the sleeping young man on the bench at Secor and Laskey was waiting for the bus, although the actual bus stop is some thirty feet south of the ill-placed advertising benches. After several hours elapsed, though, it became clear that this person was sleeping on the bench because this had been his home for the night.

A closer examination of my photographic subject reveals a few details, like his multiple layers of clothing and his use of extra clothes as a pillow. The young man's boots appear to be laced with clothesline, and his generally disheveled appearance suggests that his clothing has been more than a few days without going through a washing machine.

This person has a number of open sores on his skin, and you can see one just above the bracelets he has on his right arm. Such skin infections are the hallmark of methamphetamine addiction, though we of course cannot jump to the conclusion our subject is a meth addict.

My efforts to strike a conversation with the slumbering man were unsuccessful, and I decided the best course of action was to let him sleep off whatever was fueling his heavy somnolence, and I found the advertising slogan above the young man's head to be bitter irony.

May 19, 2007

Carter: Bush is the "Worst in History"

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AP photo of former President Jimmy Carter by Charles Dharapak

Former President Carter told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that President Bush’s administration has been “the worst in history” with regard to international relations, in particular criticizing its policy of pre-emptive war and the poor results achieved in Middle East diplomacy.

Carter also excoriated outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair's support for Bush's policies, which he described as "Abominable. Loyal. Blind. Apparently subservient."

Strong words from the former President, whose public stature as a statesman has risen since his own term in office as the 39th American chief executive. I have to admit, though, that I find it hard to disagree with Carter's assessment of the damage that the Bush administration has wreaked on the international reputation of the United States.

With the continued phasing out of British troops this year, the U.S. will soon be standing almost alone in what remains of the Coalition of the Willing, unless you count such military powerhouses as Albania (120 troops) and Mongolia (100 troops) to be making a significant contribution to the pacification efforts.

And, for those who thump their chests and argue that international opinion of the United States is unnecessary, remember that U.S. citizens make up about 4.5 percent of the world's population. That's a whole lot of "dem" and not so many "us," dudes.

The ill-planned and poorly-reasoned invasion of Iraq in 2003 has been an abject failure, and has brought only death to innocent Iraqis and Coalition troops. Yet Bush stubbornly continues to push his "New Way Forward" (read: troop surge) as the only option for an American nation - his last pocket of international support - that is increasingly unwilling to foot the bill for what is widely viewed as one of the biggest debacles in modern history.

Hanging in Detroit

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Image of Wayne State University courtesy of WSU Admissions

(Detroit, MI) I traveled to Wayne State University today to present at a writing conference entitled Computers and Writing 2007: Virtual Urbanism. Depending on my ability to access wireless - and whether or not the sessions I attend are riveting - I could be either prolific or nonexistent in the blogosphere today.

For me the conference is an opportunity to cross disciplines, as most of the panelists are composition and literature academics. As a historian, my work certainly involves writing, but I am intrigued by the areas in which English and history intersect.

I am also interested in bringing history to a wider audience than the narrow world of academia, and those who visit this site with some frequency understand that I like using the Internet to break down traditional barriers to knowledge.

My presentation has the working title of “Maintaining the Human Connection with Virtual Tutoring Clients,” an examination of the differences between face-to-face and virtual tutoring drawing upon my experiences as a writing tutor.

Conferences are a useful way to learn about new research, as well as a method to gain feedback on one's own work, but I would prefer to be tilling my gardens today.

May 18, 2007

On Wolfowitz, Nepotism, and Business as Usual

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Outgoing World Bank President Paul WolfowitzOutgoing World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz

(Washington) World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz agreed to resign yesterday after weeks of controversy over his handling of pay increases for his girlfriend. His resignation will take effect June 30, and Wolfowitz managed to negotiate a toothless statement by the World Bank board of directors that "a number of mistakes were made by a number of individuals" in the saga.

By all accounts Shaha Riza - Wolfowitz's significant other - is a talented administrator, speaking Arabic, French, Italian, Turkish and English. Riza majored at the London School of Economics and received her master's degree in international relations at Oxford.

Still, a series of pay increases changing Riza's pay from $133,000 to $193,000 in just under two years is bound to raise a few eyebrows. This is especially problematic when her new assignment to the US State Department - while still being paid by the World Bank - pays Riza more than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who earns $186,000 per year.

Admittedly, Wolfowitz has a small point in his claims that the outrage over the nepotism scandal is politically motivated, but this does not excuse the fact that he got his hand caught in the proverbial cookie jar. What I find particularly telling is the Washington insider attitude that Wolfowitz displays in his efforts to downplay the issue of favoritism toward his girlfriend.

After all, Wolfowitz surely reasons, this is how the game is played in D.C., and he likely feels unfairly singled out for behavior that happens all the time in our nation's capitol. The offices of government, lobbyists, and foundations are revolving doors with the friends, relatives, and lovers of the connected Washington elite.

And you know what? In one sense Wolfowitz is right: he was only operating by the established - albeit unwritten - rules of Washington politics. Wolfowitz is merely one small example of the incestuous, corrupt world of the highest levels of the federal government, and $60,000 in raises to Shaha Riza ain't much when compared with the biggest Washington leeches.

Another Summer of Underemployment

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As has been my lot in life after taking the graduate student vow of poverty a few years ago, I am about to embark on another summer trying to stitch together enough decent-paying part-time jobs to make ends meet.

The academic world continues to see graduate students as 9-month employees, meaning we have to find alternate employment for the three months in which they deem we are expendable.

I have a few irons warming in the fire, but if you know of anyone looking for a fairly bright graduate student to work June-August, drop me a line at mbrooks AT utnet DOT utoledo DOT edu.

Thanks!

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own. --Margaret Mead

May 17, 2007

On Blogger, Vanished Posts, and Al Gore

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I spent an hour on a lengthy essay about Al Gore, reason, and democracy, but Blogger ate my post. I suck worse than anything that has ever sucked in the history of suckiness.

I am now depressed, and have no inclination to try and recreate what I thought was one of the best essays I had written in weeks. A pox on thee, Blogger!

I remember a cool metaphor I came up with: "the gangrenous infection on the body politic by the virulent contagion of special interest campaign cash," or something close to that. Witty, pithy, and GONE FOREVER.

Anyways, read the excerpt from Al Gore's The Assault on Reason. It is much more important than my deceased essay.

(goes off to corner to chant the mantra: "I will repeatedly save my work... I will repeatedly save my work... I will repeatedly save my work...")

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Literature is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none. --Jules Renard

May 16, 2007

Downward Mobility in Toledo

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The empty shell of the former Haughton Elevator Company on Spencer Street in Toledo Left: The empty shell of the former Haughton Elevator Company on Spencer Street in Toledo

(Toledo, OH) It was with a tinge of sadness that I stopped by the old Haughton Elevator Company headquarters on Spencer Avenue today. The building has been empty since 1989, when Swiss elevator maker Schindler Group AG - which bought Haughton in 1979 - moved the remaining operations out to the suburbs.

The final demolition of Haughton Elevator will bring to an end another chapter in the industrial history of Toledo, a city that once boasted a thriving tax base but which now has trouble attracting businesses even with generous tax abatements.

They do not call the Upper Midwest the "Rust Belt" without good reason, and the demolition of Haughton Elevator merely adds an exclamation mark to Toledo's experience as a center of industrial devolution.

Spencer Street entrance to the former Haughton Elevator facilityLeft: Spencer Street entrance to the former Haughton Elevator facility

Founded in 1865 by Civil War officer Nathaniel Haughton, the Haughton & Kniesser company was a foundry and machine business. The firm changed its name to the Haughton Elevator & Machine Company, and in 1888 began producing elevators.

The current site had been home to Haughton Elevator since 1901, and the company was once the third-largest elevator manufacturer in the country.

For neighbors of the shuttered manufacturing facility, I suppose the demolition of Haughton Elevator represents the elimination of a prominent hunk of urban blight, but to watch a former industrial anchor fall to the wrecking ball is indeed a depressing sight in Toledo.

Perhaps the city will get lucky and entice a check-cashing firm and a big-box drugstore to the site, as those seem to be the most successful enterprises these days in the middle of the American industrial wasteland.

On Annoying Pranks and High School Seniors

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Left: A sample of the scene that greeted me this morning

Now, let me say up fron that I like a creative prank, especially one with some inventiveness in which the recipients can at least shake their heads in admiration.

The high school seniors where my wife teaches, however, have repeatedly targeted the homes of the teachers for special treatment in an annual ritual known as "prank night." I suppose I should be grateful that they did not cover every square inch of my yard (like the students did last year), but it sure is a pain in the arse to clean up wads of soaking toilet paper.

(switches out of grouchy old man mode)

Back when I was in high school, the school itself was the target of the senior pranks. The seniors a few years before my class graduated let loose a dozen chickens in the school, which I thought was kind of funny.

Our class had a much more brilliant ploy: we hid a bunch of alarm clocks and egg timers in the library and set them to go off at random times, with the goal of tormenting the autocratic library nun for whom absolute silence was the most important feature of a well-run department.

Sister Celine Marie: if you are still alive, my belated apologies for what must have been a hectic day trying to find and defuse the sound bombs that lurked among the shelves.

True, some seniors carry the hijinks against their schools a bit far, like the Ottawa Hills students in 1998 who unleashed hundreds of Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the hallowed halls of Ottawa Hills High School. I, however, am of the opinion that senior pranks should be limited to the facility, and that the private homes of teachers and administrators should be off-limits for such annoyances.

Besides, throwing around a half-dozen rolls of toilet paper is completely without creativity. How about posting a bunch of yard sale signs around the home of your marks, advertising a non-existent "8-family sale" that is sure to send 100 cars to their house? At least that shows some ingenuity, instead of the ho-hum TP attack.

Now, back to the cleanup...

May 15, 2007

Will Michael Bloomberg Run in 2008?

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New York mayor Michael BloombergMichael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York

(New York) Rumors are running rampant that New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is weighing a third-party run for the presidency. Publicly Bloomberg continues to deny a Presidential run, but the billionaire politician uses rhetoric that leaves open the possibility that he might change his mind.

Fanning the flames of the rumor-mongering about a possible Bloomberg campaign is Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, who sees a Bloomberg-Hagel ticket as the antidote to what ails America.

"I think Mayor Bloomberg ... should seriously think about this," Hagel said. "He is the mayor of one of the greatest cities on earth. He makes that city work. That's what America wants."

And if you thought Ross Perot and his candidacy offered hope to independents and moderates, imagine what a more media-savvy figure like Bloomberg would mean to the 2008 race. I often hear people calling for the combination of a fiscal conservative with socially liberal sensibilities, which might appeal to a wide swath of the American electorate.

Best quote of the day, from former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner:

"Bloomberg is H. Ross Perot on steroids," he said. "He could turn the political landscape of this election upside down, spend as much money as he wanted and proceed directly to the general election. He would have resources to hire an army of petition-gatherers in those states where thousands of petitions are required to qualify a third-party presidential candidate to be on the ballot."

Watching this closely...

Gonzales Points Finger at Outgoing McNulty

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(Washington, DC) U.S. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, second-in-command to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and a central figure in the scandal over the firing of federal prosecutors, resigned on Monday citing personal family issues as his reason for submitting his resignation letter.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared to be sacrificing McNulty as the person solely resposible for the firings:

"In this particular case, Mr. McNulty was a former colleague of all of these United States attorneys, and so he would probably know better than anyone else about the performance and the qualifications of these -- of our United States attorney community," he said. "My understanding was was that Mr. Sampson's recommendations reflected a consensus view of the senior leadership of the department, in particular the deputy attorney general."

Can you say "thrown under the bus?" Sure. I knew you could, neighbor!

May 14, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: SFUMATO

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

sfumato (sfoo-MAH-toe) n. An artistic technique of blurring or softening of sharp outlines by the gradual blending of tones; using outlines, colors, and shading in such a way as to give a misty appearance.

Sfumato is most recently of Italian origin, formed from the past participle of sfumare ("to evaporate" or "to fade out"). Sharp-eyed readers will also recognize the Latin fumare ("to smoke"), which can also be found in the equivalent Spanish verb fumar.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is noted for its innovative use of sfumato techniques, and da Vinci is often credited for bringing the term into widespread use.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century. --Mark Twain

May 13, 2007

A Tale of Four Oaks

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My neighbor across the street has four majestic oak trees in the front of her property, and I often pass the time on my front porch watching the natural activity in and around these trees.

I also wonder about the relationships between the trees, and to what level these living organisms interact with each other. I have to pause here and note that I am not trying to anthropomorphize these oaks, affixing some sort of new age pseudo-spirituality to a group of plants.

Yet as I watch these trees sway back and forth in the wind, I cannot help but get the sense that there is more here than meets the eye. Certainly on a chemical level trees can communicate, but to what extent is a tree self-aware? Are a group of trees - or those in a forest - aware of their collective existence, and to what extent do trees communicate with each other?

Watching these oaks I know that there is much happening beyond my current knowledge, and I wonder just how much humans really know about the trees around us.

Happy Mother's Day

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For all of you who are mothers, I wish you a restful and happy Mother's Day. Far too often we take for granted the work that our moms do for us, and it is good that we remember those who brought us into the world and taught us not to wipe our mouths on our shirtsleeves.

So moms: sit back, enjoy the day, and only let your family memmebrs turn on the NBA game (Go Pistons!) if they cook you breakfast in bed and cater to you all day.

May 12, 2007

Springtime Dragonfly

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Four-spotted Skimmer, Four-spotted Chaser, Libellula quadrimaculata This impressive dragonfly posed for me in my backyard today, perhaps the earliest I have ever seen a mature dragonfly in the city.

I believe this particular insect is an example of the Four-spotted Skimmer, also known as the Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata).

This dragonfly was approximately five inches in length, with a comparable wingspan. While trying to identify this Four-spotted Skimmer, I read that dragonflies are the world's fastest insects, so file that away for your appearance on Jeopardy.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much as you propose. If, to-day, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, “I see no probability of the British invading us” but he will say to you “be silent; I see it, if you dont. --Abraham Lincoln

May 11, 2007

Word Verification

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I'm probably going to regret this, but I yanked that annoying Blogger word verification. Again.

This will probably last until the next time I get nailed by some spambot or insane manual spammer.

Confessions of a Radical Apostrophist

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Left: Screenshot of a recent Drudge Report headline with a misused apostrophe; click for larger image of the apostrophe abuse

I am admittedly a person who places a high value on the written words, and over the past decade I have worked hard to hone my skills as a writer. Still, when I come across most grammatical and spelling errors in the writing of other people, I usually pay no attention to such mistakes; after all, it has been only a few years since I have "arrived" as a writer.

And then there is the apostrophe.

Nothing brings me greater consternation as a reader than stumbling upon an improperly used apostrophe. I gnash my teeth, growl, and declare to the heavens that civilization as we know it is doomed unless people begin to grasp the relatively simple rules regarding apostrophe usage.

There are just three basic uses for the apostrophe in writing:
1. To form possesive nouns: "the boy's hat," "the dog's bone";
2. To show the omission of letters: "don't run in the house," "three o'clock";
3. To form plurals of lowercase letters: "mind your p's and q's."
Now, I recognize that there are a few issues related to apostrophes that can be confusing, like whether we should write "Jesus' disciples" or "Jesus's disciples" (go with the first). But I find there are many writers who feel a compulsion to use apostrophes every time they see the letter S:
Barry ran outside to help bring in the pizza's and bottle's of pop.

or

Sheila liked to play with her doll's, stuffed animal's, and crayon's.
And the most abused apostrophe of all is without a doubt the insertion of this mark in the personal pronoun its: The dog lost its bone.

It's can only mean one thing, the contraction form of "it is."

Yes, given the problems the human race faces, improper apostrophe usage must rank somewhere near the very bottom of the list, but if we all pull together as a team... (apologies to Pink Floyd).

End rant.

Prosper Learning: Post-Secondary Courses for a Virtual World

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While I am less than enthusiastic about the rapid growth of online post-secondary education organizations, I have to admit that some groups are offering unique courses unavailable elsewhere. Moreover, the flexibilty of smaller educational institutions can actually lead to the creation of courses that satisfy demands not met by large, traditional universities.

I read with interest an article on Prosper Learning, a company that offers such classes as stock market online investing and e-commerce. Prosper Learning has already helped over 30,000 students improve their business skills, and every week the company conducts 1,700 one-on-one coaching sessions in 76 different countries through a variety of media, including Web-conferences, telephone conferences, online chats and small-group coaching sessions.

As someone who prefers traditional lectures in a university setting, I have my reservations about online education, but it appears that Prosper Learning has carved an importnat niche for itself in return-on-investment-based learning systems designed for e-commerce.

May 10, 2007

On Vandalism and Rush Limbaugh Billboards

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Vandalized billboard of Rush Limbaugh I don't have much use for Rush Limbaugh.

There. It's out in the open.

I listen to the program on occasion, but I find his brand of political discourse to be distasteful: more time is spent trashing supposed enemies on the left than discussing ways in which Americans of all philosophical persuasions can better coexist.

Admittedly, I find shout radio of all political bents to be annoying, and even if I disagree with the topics being discussed on NPR, at least the conversations are generally thoughtful and focused on issues rather than personal attacks.

That being said, I think the recent vandalism of a Rush Limbaugh billboard to be an ill-conceived act that will not persuade other people of the justness of any cause.

Sure, vandalism is a method of expressing one's political statement in a manner that is difficult to ignore, but I think the gut reaction of most people is that such tactics are the province of the impulsive. More minds would be swayed by a well-written article, or an inspiring speech, than by a group of thugs with cans of paint.

To the defacers of Limbaugh's billboard: given your obvious political passion, why not start a small newspaper, or create a politically-chrged website, or get a radio gig on a low-power FM station? As a good friend used to say: "You catch more flies with honey than a RPG-29 tube-style rocket launcher."

All right, I made up that last bit, but you get the point, right?

On the Junking Up of the Blogosphere

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When I first became intrigued with the emerging media of Internet blogs several years ago, I was amazed at the wide variety of perspectives one could come across simply by clicking on the "Next Blog" function that Blogger provides. I could be instantly transported from someone writing in Singapore to a blogger in Los Angeles to a person opining on the elections in São Paulo.

Increasingly, though, I find this method of surfing to be a source of annoyance, as spammers have developed methods of positioning their blogs at the top of the Blogger "Next Blog" queue, either through a perpetual republishing program or with some tricky template script.

Thus, when I wanted to surf today, less than 25 percent of the blogs upon which I landed seemed to have some purpose beyond spam. I managed to land on the same "Net Money Earning" and "Learn English Online" and "Enjoy Deals" sites over... and over... and over.

I suspect that I will have to switch to using the blog search functions to find specific topics, but one of the joys of the random search is the process of stumbling upon a completely unexpected post. These days a random search is more likely to pull up Viagra ads than substantive writing.

May 9, 2007

On the High Costs and Declining Quality of American Health Insurance

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Left: Graphic illustrating the continuing erosion of employer-provided health insurance

My wife came home in tears the other day, frustrated by her employer's efforts to pass along rising health care costs to the full-time employees. She received a two percent raise, amounting to approximately $600 per year, while being told that health insurance premiums were rising by 10 percent, meaning that her raise was just wiped out.

Worse still was the fact that her employer also went from a 70-30 share for the costs of the benefits to a 50-50 split, meaning that her monthly cost will jump by nearly $200. Thus, to stay at her current position - which she has worked for nearly eight years - she will actually take a cut in pay of several thousand dollars per year.

As a math teacher in a private school, she is one of those people who truly love their jobs, and there is certainly a quality of life consideration for those who work in such a setting. Still, the prospect of making an additional $10-$20 thousand in salary and receiving better benefits has her searching for a new job in a suburban school district not so scrapped for cash.

My wife, however, has a few choices, considering her advanced education and the demand for math and science teachers across the country. Many Americans find themselves being held hostage by a health care system that is spiralling out of control.

45.8 million Americans do not even have health coverage, which is 15.7% of the population. Many millions of others are forced to work jobs they dislike for fear of losing benefits, while simultaneously being forced to pay higher premium rates, higher deductibles, and an ever-increasing share of the total premium.

Each election cycle we get more empty promises from politicians on both sides of the aisle, yet the problems never seem to get resolved. Perhaps due to the orchestrated attacks against the last serious attempts at reform by Bill and Hillary Clinton (who can forget "they are gonna socialize our health care!!! or "who elected her to fix health care?!?!"), our elected officials seem unwilling to address the failures of the American system of health insurance.

So we continue to suffer with a health care industry that is increasingly beyond the reach of many millions of Americans, while those of us who actually have some substandard, horribly expensive policy look out our windows and thank God we at least have something.

But hey - the free market will fix it all for us, right? All we have to do is click our heels three times and say: "Invisible hand... invisible hand... invisible hand" while bowing to our portrait of Adam Smith.

There! Don't you feel better now?