Jun 30, 2007

On Living Free, Dying Hard, and Just How Much Debbie Schlussel Hates Muslims

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I went to see the premiere of Live Free or Die Hard, and found the film to be an enjoyable thriller, even if at times the ability of John McClane to defy death borders on the absurd; witness his plunge from an out-of-control F-35B and walking away with a few more cuts and bruises.

Still, the ability of the film to convey the extent to which the United States remains vulnerable to attacks on its electronic infrastructure is quite credible, and should be a wakeup call to those who remain blissfully unaware of our dependence upon computer networks.

And then there is the quasi-racist take on the film by far-right nutjob Debbie Schlussel, who - while generally praising the film - took its producers to task for not making Muslim terrorists the film's antagonists:
As readers know, I've been down on Willis for a number of reasons and down on this movie because its cyberterrorists are not Muslim. I remain steadfast in that reservation and note that this movie would have been even more fabulous if they were.
Uh, Debbie? It's a movie, all right? And besides, not all terrorists are the bloodthirsty Islamofascists you so love to fear and depict; we only have to travel back to the anthrax scare and the Oklahoma City bombing to remind ourselves that terrorists come in a wide variety of creeds, colors, and ethnicities.

For those unfamiliar with Schlussel, she is somewhat like Ann Coulter, but with a more limited vocabulary, no anorexia problem, and reportedly a larger penis.

Now, I know that Debbie's shtick revolves around whipping up a frenzy about those Islamofascists who she believes lurk behind every brown face, but I doubt that the decision to create a homegrown terrorist in Live Free or Die Hard was a politically-correct Hollywood move, as Schlussel implies.

In fact, one could argue that the potential for domestic terrorism hiding behind the pale, smiling faces in Everytown, USA is even more troublesome than the cartoon-like Evil Muslim Hordes that keep Schlussel awake at night. Heck - Bruce Willis is a Republican, for Chrissakes, but his card-carrying GOP self is still not good enough for the rabid Schlussel.

At any rate, dearest Debbie: crawl back under the xenophobic, paranoid rock out from under which you slithered, take your Lithium, and let the rest of us enjoy some escapist summer fun without hearing any more of your racist drivel.

Book Review: Stalin as Revolutionary, 1879-1929

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1902 Mugshot of Josef Stalin, Joseph Stalin, Iosef Djugashvili Tucker, Robert C. New York: Norton, 1973, 518 pages

Left: 1902 mugshot of Stalin

Tucker’s book, which is the first of a trilogy on the life of Stalin, uses a psycho-history approach in its attempt to explain the legacy of Iosif Djugashvili, known to the West as Josef Stalin. Tucker argued that Stalin’s personality was greatly influenced by his childhood, his years in a Georgian seminary and through his hero-worship of Vladimir Ilych Lenin, and that a complete understanding of this period of Russian history necessitates understanding the psychology of Stalin. While some attempts to analyze historical figures using psychology seem dated, Tucker’s work for the most part does not overreach, and the book remains an important contribution to Stalin-era Russian historiography.

One of the unique features of this work is the refusal by Tucker to follow conventional forms in writing biographical history; writers often begin biographies in a chronological fashion by describing the birth and early life of the book’s subject. The character of Stalin does not appear in the text until the third chapter of Tucker’s work, and the author spent the first two chapters detailing the rise of a Russian revolutionary movement to provide the context for the life of Stalin. Because of this approach, the reader gains a deeper understanding of the social and political milieu in which Stalin came to prominence.

Tucker argued that Djugashvili’s childhood had a profound effect on his personality, and the relationship with his father Vissarion in particular was pivotal. Stalin’s father was a brutal, drunken shoemaker who frequently lashed out at both his wife Ekaterina and son Iosif; Tucker argued that the relationship between Vissarion and Iosif led to “the vindictiveness that would characterize him [Stalin] later in life.” This dysfunctional relation also, according to Tucker, led Stalin to later become “a rebel against paternal authority in all guises.”

Another factor in the development of Stalin’s personality was the Georgian seminary school that Djugashvili attended from 1894 to 1899. The author argued that conditions in the school had “long been turning out young Georgian revolutionaries,” and that Djugashvili was merely one of a tradition of socialist activists. The school’s insistence on Russian as the language of the seminary bred discontent among Georgian students, but the administrators of the facility actively attempted to destroy all traces of Georgian language and culture among the seminarians. As a result, Djugashvili matured in an environment that fostered his hatred for the existing imperial authority, and helped develop the ruthlessness that would mark his career in revolutionary and Soviet politics;

Djugashvili’s adoption of the more Russian-sounding name of Stalin (“man of steel”) around the year 1910 intrigued Tucker. One explanation given by the author, that “Stalin” was similar to “Lenin,” is quite plausible, considering the high esteem in which Djugashvili held Lenin. The author, however, gave an additional rationalization that Djugashvili was somehow expressing his disgust for all things Georgian, since the kingdom was “weak because of its smallness” and “a perennial victim in the centuries-old contest among the powers of the area.” This is perhaps the most overstated argument in the book, and one for which Tucker had little documentation to support. Furthermore, the author did not consider the idea that Djugashvili might simply have seen a name change as a pragmatic way to better blend in with the Russian Marxists. Also, given his numerous arrests, prison terms, and periods of exile, a name change might have been Stalin’s method of achieving some distance between past and present. At any rate, the “man of steel” felt a deep internal drive toward self-perfection; Tucker called this an “intolerance of anything short of perfection in himself,” which not only spurred him forward but also made him blind to his own blemishes.

The author provided an extensive bibliography, divided into primary and secondary sources. In addition, the 14-page index was thorough and detailed; I could scarcely think of a subject that was not covered in the cross-referenced index. Footnotes were annotated and located at the bottom of the page for easy reference. Tucker, however, relied too heavily upon the works of Freud and Weber, ignoring later 20th-century theorists.

One theme that Tucker briefly mentioned, but could have been further developed, was one of the conflict between the Marxist interpretation of history in contrast with the powerful personage of Josef Stalin. Marxists, of course, adhere to some version of historical materialism, or the idea that it is the clash between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that drives history. However, Stalin and, to a lesser extent Lenin, ran somewhat counter to this proposition; these were seemingly larger-than life figures whose force of will could change the course of history.

Jun 29, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: HEORTOLOGY

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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.

heortology (He-ore-TAH-loh-gee) n. The study of the origin, historical development, and significance of the seasons and festivals of the ecclesiastical year.

Derived from the Greek words heorte ("festival") and logos ("knowledge"), heortology specifically refers to the study of sacred festivals, especially understanding the history of their origin and how they have evolved over time. Christmas, for example, did not become a part of the Church's ecclesiastical festivals until the fourth century, and has its roots in earlier pagan winter festivals.

The word is typically used in a Christian context, but could also be used in an analysis of the festivals of other faiths.

On Concepts of "Family"

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One of my all-time favorite jobs has been my work as a tutor. I help university students develop their writing and language skills, which fills my desire to give back to other people. In a more selfish way, though, I enjoy meeting people with a wide variety of experiences, and I get the opportunity to learn from people who have traveled to Toledo from around the entire planet; I have worked with students from countries ranging from Vietnam to Ghana to Chile, and all points in between.

This afternoon I was in a session with a student from rel="no follow">Kuwait, who described for me as much as he could remember from the 1990 Iraqi invasion of his country, and he mentioned that he came to the United States in 1992 as a child.

"Did you emigrate here with your family?" I asked.

"Oh, no," he replied. "Only my mom, my dad, and my brothers and sisters came. Most of my family stayed in Kuwait."

This was a moment of sudden awareness for me, as I asked the question with the mental concept of the American nuclear family in mind. For this student, "family" meant cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and extending outward for several levels of connections, and just a small segment of his "family" came with him to the United States.

And as I later think back and ponder this exchange, I begin to recognize just how atypical is the American nuclear family within the context of world civilizations. For most of human history and in most current societies outside of the United States, "family" has meant something much larger and more important than it does in much of America.

In much of the world - and not just in developing countries - it is not uncommon for several generations of a family to live under the same roof. Moreover, in many cultures it is typical that newlyweds move in with the parents of one of the spouses.

In the United States, we tend to think poorly of a new couple who lives with one of their parents, as though they are somehow dysfunctional or unsuccessful. This is a land of people obsessed with individual home ownership, and a husband who took his bride to live with his parents would be seen as a failure.

And yet, think for a moment of the benefits of living together in larger extended family networks. More people per home means a decided economy of scale in the cost of living; take your average monthly residence expenses and divide by four, and then compare the results if you divide by, say, ten or more.

Consider also the pooling of experience and wisdom in a larger household, especially that possessed by the oldest members of a family. I love my grandparents and parents, but I see each of them on average less than once a month, and my children even less so. Would they not benefit from more frequent exposure to those in the family who have lived so many more decades?

As I look around the current state of affairs in the United States, I have a difficult time believing that this culture we have created based upon the nuclear family is necessarily "better" than other filial structures around the world. Are we really living more fulfilling lives by creating these atomized and isolated families, or can we learn from the success of other cultures?

Or will we as Americans - as we so often do - just assume that larger families are merely evidence of the "backwardness" of people in other cultures?

Jun 28, 2007

Open Letter to an Obnoxious Motorist

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Traffic was heavy this afternoon, yet I was all set to turn left through onto the busy thoroughfare thanks to the kind soul in the rightmost lane who stopped to let me in.

And then you came along, silver BMW gleaming in the June sun like the tungsten in an incandescent bulb.

You stopped your car in such a way that I could not complete my turn, and then you had the gall to peer at me with a blank look for a moment before turning your head and staring at the car in front of you.

You have no excuse for your piggishness, and it really looked like you deliberately prevented me from making a left turn. Moreover, even if you just tuned out and happened not to see me inching into the road, you could have backed up that mere ten feet and let me in.

But you didn't choose to do so.

Now, my period of inconvenience was only 60 seconds or so, and I will spend at least fifteenfold that amount of time penning this missive. Was it really necessary, though, to act like a self-centered, luxury-car-driving putz, seemingly incapable of the tiniest courtesy to other drivers? After all, the next person who came along as your lane started moving saw no problem in letting me complete my turn.

I am a firm believer in karma, and these sorts of behaviors will bring forth similar fates ahead for you. While I wish you no harm, I think you might want to re-examine your priorities, for you gained nothing through this brief exchange beyond boosting your own twisted sense of self-importance.

Oh - and have a nice day, sir.

Department of Goofiness: Virtual Fortune Cookie Site

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Nearly every aspect of human activity has been transfered to a new form on the Internet, so I should not be surprised that there are now sites dedicated to providing virtual fortune cookies.

The site for which I provided a link offers you the opportunity to exchange your fortune for one that better suits your desires. My first snippet of wisdom was this: "Simplicity and boredom are your themes in dress," which hit a bit too close to home for this Goodwill-wearing geek.

I clicked again, and found this bit of random silliness: "The voice that should mean the most is not the talking magnet." Ah - now THAT'S good advice, my friends.

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.

For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
-- Nelson Mandela

Slap in the Face: Blair to Become a "Peace Envoy"

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Let me get this straight, and if I am missing something, please chime in:

Tony Blair, second only to U.S. President George W. Bush as a champion of the bloody debacle known as the Iraq War, is about to become an "envoy for Mideast peace".

Hmmm.

Blair's new job after resigning as British Prime Minister will be to represent the so-called Mideast Quartet: the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations. Blair will purportedly "focus on ways to strengthen Palestinian institutions for a future Palestinian state."

I would laugh out loud about the irony and idiocy of appointing Blair as a "peace envoy" were the stakes not already so high. Having Blair oversee peace in the Middle East is like having Jeffrey Dahmer conduct autopsies on Milwaukee cadavers.

Macabre humor aside, this arrogant decision is an insult to the British military personnel who have died as a result of Blair's support for this colossally stupid war - not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians - and his appointment will likely generate waves of protest throughout the Muslim world. Moreover, just how seriously can Blair be perceived by political players in the Middle East when this war hawk is one of the people most responsible for much of the destabilized mess in the region, and his support for the Iraq War was one of the reasons for his forced resignation?

Jun 27, 2007

New Blog on Scam Artists

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I have created yet another blog, and this site will be dedicated to documenting Internet scams, especially of the email variety.

My goal in creating SCAM TRACKERS is to provide a sort of clearinghouse for the latest email scams that arise, with the hope that I might prevent a handful of people from getting ripped off.

If you have any of these scams you'd like to forward, feel free to email them to this email address. If you'd like to be a contributor to the site, which would essentially entail cutting-and-pasting a scam once it hits your email box and adding a snippet of information about the scam, contact me at my main email, which is on the sidebar.

At some point I might evolve the site into a "lash-back" destination, akin to the hijinks at Ebola Monkey Man, but for the moment I am concentrating on documentation. I may have to seek out additional Dell memory for this project, as there seems to be no end to the scammers.

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.




We all resemble more or less
our Mother Eve: we're never falling
for what's been given us to take;
to his mysterious tree the snake
is calling us, for ever calling --
and once forbidden fruit is seen,
no paradise can stay serene.
-- Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin

Jun 26, 2007

Rapid Rhetoric: JEUNESSE DORÉE

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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.

jeunesse dorée (zhe-NOOS doe-RAY) n. French: "gilded youth;" the privileged offspring of social elites, used especially in the sense of spolied rich youth; a youthful 'jet set.'

One might conjecture that a modern equivalent of jeunesse dorée would be Paris Hilton, though I suspect that members of a given set of jeunesse dorée would be expected to have at least the knowledge of noble living, of which it appears the tacky Ms. Hilton sorely lacks.

I came across the term in a book about Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who was described by Walter Arndt as receiving the "mundane education of a playboy in the St. Petersburg jeunesse dorée."

The term is occasionally spelled as jeunesse d'orée, which sounds the same but implies something more like "youth on the edge." There is a Peter Hammill song with the title "Jeunesse D'Orée" that describes a group of club-crazed partiers for whom the dream of a gilded world leads to a life of jaded despair.

Ohio BMV: License Plate Purgatory

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(Toledo, OH) I was disenchanted this morning when I saw that the Miracle Mile office of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles was closed for remodeling. This meant that I had to drive to Sylvania, OH to the next closest branch.

And when I arrived, I was greeted by a line of about twenty people waiting to perform their license and registration obligations, while only three clerks were working. Figuring five minutes per transaction, that meant at least a 30-minute wait.

Making matters worse were a slew of "problem" patrons, ranging from those with incomplete, missing, or improper documents to those whose mental inadequacies would disqualify them should the BMV ever institute IQ testing as a licensure criteria.

Add to this your collection of screaming toddlers, diots talking in a loud fashion on cell phones, and those in need of deodorant, and you have the makings of over an hour's worth of purgatory. Ah, what I would have given to have been instantly transported to, say, a Massachusetts bed and breakfast at that moment.

Luckily, I had my Social Security card with me, or I would have been banished from the line. The Ohio BMV deputy registrars now require your state-issued ID plus your SS card to conduct business. Thus, 75 minutes later, I obtained the license plates I needed to operate my gas-saving 1995 Hyundai, and I left with an even lower opinion of the value of trips to the BMV.

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.

And the pain was enough to make a shy, bald, Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder. -- The Smiths, "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before"

Jun 25, 2007

Update on Blog Gas Contest

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

This is a quick update on our contest on gas prices, which is into its second month. Contestants are bidding for a $20 Speedway gas card that I am awarding to the person closest to the highest pump price between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

So far the highest price I have seen for 87 octane is $3.46 which occurred in late May (I can't remember the date; sue me). If I think about it I'll throw in some logo pens or something for the runners-up.

Here are the contestants and their entries:

Suss (Toledo) - $1.00 (thought he was on "Price is Right")
Michael (Toledo) - $3.59
Screaming Nutcase (Toledo) - $3.65
Kooz (Toledo) - $3.69
Jaan Kanellis (Toledo) - $3.76
Kurt (Toledo) - $3.79
Roo (Toledo) - $3.89
Historymike (guessing, but not eligible) $3.89
MadJack (Toledo) - $3.99
Historychic (Toledo) - $4.01
Humboldt's Clio (New Mexico bound) - $4.09
Darkseid (Toledo) - $4.09
Linda P. (Toledo) - $4.10
JD (San Antonio) - $4.19
Timothy (Toledo) - $4.24
MAF (California) - $4.49 (premium - I'll chop off a dime)
Kat (Toledo) - $4.50
Microdot (France) - $6.24

So, to date it looks like the low-bidders are in the driver's seat (pun intendeded), although all we need is a nasty hurricane or a couple of Iraqi pipelines to blow to send oil skyrocketing. If I skipped anyone, let me know and I'll update the entries above.

Me? I just bought a used 1995 Hyundai to take the edge off of my gas bills. 30 MPG in the city and 40 MPG on the highway sounds good to me, even if the machine has no air conditioning.

Victory for Big Money in Campaign Ads Case

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Left: Who's your daddy?

(Washington, DC) The U.S. Supreme Court today loosened restrictions on corporate- and union-funded television ads that air close to elections, thus watering down a key provision of the 2002 campaign finance law. Corporations, labor unions, and special interest groups will now have more power to run broadcast ads before elections, contrary to the spirit of campaign finance reform.

I suppose that I should not be surprised by the 5-4 verdict, given that I am cynical about the state of affairs that I like to describe as an American corporatocracy. Still, when even the tepid reforms passed in 2002 - often referred to as the McCain-Feingold Act - cannot withstand a Supreme Court challenge, one begins to wonder whether campaign reform is worth the fight anymore.

Associate Justice David Souter, writing for the minority opinion, reminded us that not everyone in Washington is a money-sucking sleazebag.

"After today, the ban on contributions by corporations and unions and the limitation on their corrosive spending when they enter the political arena are open to easy circumvention," he wrote, being joined in taking the high moral road by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

This ruling should be proof positive to any politically-minded person about the role of big money in politics, and people who yet hold onto romantic notions about the sanctity of American democracy just received a two-by-four upside the head.

Folks: today's verdict was a slap in the face to grassroots activism of all stripes, and a victory for those supply the money that buys American elections. I will remove my cordless phone battery, bury my head in my pillow, and may
the wholesale buying and selling of the American political process resume!

On Private Property and Used Car Sellers

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(Toledo, OH) I used to own a group of retail businesses and I was often plagued with a special kind of pest: the folks selling used cars who feel it is within their rights to park their vehicles in private lots near busy thoroughfares.

The pictured vehicle of this scofflaw, I should add, is parked in front of an empty building, so his "crime" does not pose a negative impact on a business, but I think the way he parked in the middle of the lot says something about his arrogance.

Many were the days when I would have to call owners to retrieve their vehicles from my parking lots, and occasionally people would get testy: "I'm in the CORNER of the lot! It's not like I am right up in front of the door."

R-i-i-i-ght. It never dawned on them that my business might have needed the parking spaces on busy nights (it did), or that the appearance of a full lot might mean that some customers would turn away, thinking it was too crowded to get decent service.

I ended up posting signs (at my expense) and calling a tow truck when I ran into the persistent pests, as the friendly phone calls did not dissuade people from parking in my lots. Even worse are the people who buy and sell used cars as a small business, but who are too cheap (or small-time) to open a legitimate business in a commercial area. They park used cars all over the place, moving them when people complain. Maybe these people should invest in collaboration software for their pseudo-businesses.

Or is it just me? Should people be allowed to park cars for sale wherever they want?

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.

I have discovered that all human evil comes from this: man's being unable to sit still in a room. -- Blaise Pascal

Jun 24, 2007

Why Was I Dreaming of Mayfield, Texas?

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I woke up this morning with vivid recollections of a nightmare I dreamt last night. The particulars of the dream are unimportant, revolving around some of my neuroses, but central to the mental narrative was a city in which the nightmare occurred: Mayfield, Texas.

Prior to this dream I had never heard of this place, and the only Mayfield I can recall is the fictional city in the old television program Leave It to Beaver. So I woke with a determination to find out why this place in the middle of nowhere entered my head in the dark hours of the night.

The first permanent settlers arrived to the Texas panhandle in what would become Mayfield in 1865, and at one point there were 278 students in the local school. By the 1980s Mayfield began to disappear from maps, and there were only twelve Mayfield residents as of the 2000 census, and I am assuming that the area is bereft of condo hotels or other signs of a booming tourist trade.

No help there; that leaves me with only the Beaver reference, or perhaps the Everytown-sounding quality of the name "Mayfield" as sources of inspiration for the location elucidated in my dream.

Or maybe my overactive imagination - churning terrifying thoughts for which my somnolent self could not turn off - simply created the name as a convenient setting for the tormenting story that continues to unsettle me even in my conscious state.

Unless this, too, is a dream...

Jun 23, 2007

Ottawa Hills: A Kakistocracy?

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Sign in Ottawa Hills reading OTTAWA HELL WE'VE STILL GOT KAKISTOCRACY(Toledo, OH) This sign is evidence of the long-running feud between the village of Ottawa Hills and residents of a home on Bancroft Street.

Reading "OTTAWA HELL WE'VE STILL GOT KAKISTOCRACY," the sign is either: a) freedom of speech; or b) an unsightly, defiant nuisance in this wealthy Ohio village. Kakistocracy is rule by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens in a society, and one witty soul interpreted this as "rule by the s**theads," given the scatological implications of one of the word's roots.

You can find a lengthy summary of the legal filings related to Ottawa Hills v. Afjeh at this link, which details the Afjeh family's last appeal. The original dispute was a matter of property maintenance, and the Afjeh family upped the ante a few years ago by declaring the used toilet and empty 55-gallon drums they placed in the front yard as "art."

I find the sign amusing, although I admittedly do not live nearby, and I might have less tolerance for its prominent placement on Bancroft Street were I to live in Ottawa Hills. I'm not sure what type of market research has been conducted on the topic, but I suspect that these folks are not alone in their assessment of village officials.

BJ Farm

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(Lambertville, MI) I'm not sure just what kind of establishment they run up at the BJ Farm in Lambertville, MI, but I wouldn't hold it against somebody if they drew the wrong conclusion.

This is especially true given the fact that they sell straw, which I presume is for the consumer who is also looking for a roll in the hay.

Listen - I just find the weirdness, take the pictures, and post this stuff, so don't shoot the sophomoric messenger, and no jokes about their methods of fixed asset accounting, please.

Jun 22, 2007

On the CIA, Dirty Laundry, and American Freedoms

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CIA Director General Michael Hayden, making us feel better about domestic surveillance

News that the Central Intelligence Agency violated its own charter for 25 years by conducting illegal wiretapping, domestic surveillance, assassination plots, and human experimentation should come as no surprise to most Americans.

CIA Director Michael Hayden put a positive spin on the dislosures, arguing that the documents "provide a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency."

Reading the documents, such as the so-called Family Jewels Memorandum of 3 January 1975, provides a chilling glimpse of the inner workings of the CIA. Yet it is important to remember that this material represents only what the CIA felt it had to disclose in response to Seymour Hersh's 1974 story in the New York Times of the CIA's illegal domestic operations.

My suspicion is that Hersh uncovered only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and that the CIA has many, many more skeletons in its Langley closets. Moreover, anyone who believes that the CIA is somehow "reformed" and no longer participating in such activities as the plotting of assassinations or domestic surveillance of innocent Americans is a blithering fool.

I am sure that, in some dusty filing cabinet or perhaps on a few megabytes of hard drive space, my name and picture take up a bit of space in the FBI and CIA files. I say this not because I am special, but because I am not particularly unique: I have attended protests, written critically about the government, and have friends who are political activists.

I remember paticipating in one protest in the late 1980s against the opening of the Detroit municipal incinerator, an environmental timebomb in the middle of a megalopolis. Men in suits with cameras took pictures of protesters and the license plates of vehicles in which they drove to the protest, and what was most interesting (and scary) was the fact that these nameless faces actually smirked when I asked them what they were doing.

Were they FBI? CIA? Michigan State Police? Who knows, but I highly doubt that they were Detroit cops, since I knew a ton of them being the son of a Detroit homicide detective. They were... different, they did not belong, and they were creating a database of images and surveillance for some government entity.

But, heck - that was twenty years ago, right? The world is a different place, we've learned from our mistakes, and gosh - it's okay to trust the government this time.

Honest.

The Importance of Keywords on Your Blog

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Image of Blogger Beta logo courtesy of Blogger and Google This is part of a series of posts on improving the search engine optimization and traffic counts of individual blogs. Previous articles focused on SEO and using imags to generate site traffic.

Before I paid any attention to the importance of keywords in Internet searches, I used to link pages from which I quoted with a simple hypelink like this. Being a historian by training, my first concern was to cite my sources, rather than maximize my site's search engine optimization.

I have since learned the necessity of making my writing conform a bit to the nature of unthinking search engine programs, and I especially keep an eye trained on the Google search algorithm.

Google offers a keyword tool that helps you determine keyword selection that will rank higher in searches. Typing in George W. Bush to the Google keyword tool gives you some obvious variations, such as "President Bush" or "George Bush," but also provides some alternatives that have high rank, such as "9 11 Bush" and "George W Bush war" that you might not have considered. Remember: not everyone thinks just like you.

The code for addding a keyword is simple; just follow this example below:

HTML code for adding a keyword using a href

Even if you prefer, like me, to freestyle your keywords, be aware that your choices in keywords will affect how your site shows up in searches. The use of the keywords Paris Hilton might bring you a short term burst of hits from a blog search, but you will be buried in the search engines behind hundreds - and maybe thousands - of higher-ranking pages. Instead, focus on unique combinations of keywords that might yield some long-term results, such as Paris Hilton's incarceration, Paris Hilton back in jail, or Paris Hilton's medical condition.

Remember, too, that keywords are vital in the title of your posts. As a writer, I prefer something witty and erudite to hook people toward my work, but search engines have no feel for word play. Instead, they give greater weight to pages that contain a higher ratio of keywords to regular text, and you should by now notice that I have used the terms "keyword" or "keywords" over a dozen times in this article. This concept is known as keyword density, and is a part of the algorithms of the major search engines.

While the artist in me cringes at the repetitive overuse of a given word, the realist in me knows that I have to follow a few rules in order to get noticed on the Internet. Now, if you write on your blog simply for you and your eleven friends, keywords are not important, but most of us feel the need to send our thoughts out to the blogosphere with the hope that they will be read by like-mided people, and keywords are an important tool in the blogger's toolbox.

Be forewarned, though, that overuse of keywords can carry with a grievous penalty. Known as keyword stuffing, this is a practice whereby spammers attempt to load their pages with certain keywords in order to fool search engines. While there is no "safe" maximum, I have found that two-to-three uses of a keyword per paragraph has not caused any of my pages to be delisted.

Thus, use keywords to help search engines know your site has useful and relevant content, but avoid overkill. Notice that there are four hyperlinked phrases above containing a variation on the term "keyword," and each of them is unique. A spammer would use the same hyperlinked phrase many times, so I limit myself to one combination per post to avoid the appearance of stuffery.

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.

If I'd written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people - including me - would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism. -- Hunter S. Thompson

Rapid Rhetoric: WROTH

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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.

wroth (rawth) adj. Extreme anger; condemnatory; vehemently incensed; indignant; full of wrath.

Derived from the Old English word wrāth, the archaic word wroth is indeed related to the noun wrath. I came across the word whilst reading the King James Version of the Gospel of Matthew, specifically chapter 18, verse 34 in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
:
And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
In addition to its spiritual benefits, the King James Version of the Bible offers a wealth of late medieval and early modern words like "wroth," and acts as a sort of linguistic history to the English language, oh ye of little or no faith.

:-}

Jun 21, 2007

High Class Lowlifes

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(Toledo, OH) In my neighborhood walks I see considerable evidence that there are local drivers who operate vehicles while consuming alcoholic beverages: Budweiser cans, whiskey bottles, and containers from those fruit-flavored malt beverages can be found almost any day on the side of the road.

But I have yet to see an empty bottle of a quality wine, at least until today.

Pictured is a tossed bottle of Sterling Vintner's Collection Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, which retails between $11 and $15. The wine was described in the following manner on Wine.com:

An inviting deep ruby-red color. This is a very aromatic wine, offering dark fruit, cassis, dried herbs, cocoa powder and vanilla. Flavors are of more blackberry and other dark fruit, black olives, caramel, root beer and vanilla. The wine’s tannins are round and chewy, offering great balance and a lingering toasty and fruity finish. A great match with red meats and pastas.
Add to that: "Pairs well with automatic transmissions, car sex, and Cheetos." All this person needed was a set of Callaway golf clubs to practice his drive at passing cars on the freeway and he'd be living large.

Another Misleading Drudge Report Headline

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I find the Drudge Report to be a useful site for breaking news stories, but I find myself getting irritated over Matt Drduge's tendency to issue misleading headlines. Today I clicked on the site to find the following headline screaming at me:

THE GREAT DIVIDE: REPORTERS GIVE DEMS MONEY OVER REPUBLICANS 9 TO 1!

Ah, I thought: is the this smoking gun that points out the supposed liberal bias in the media? I clicked to learn more, curiosity piqued.

The hyperlink led to this story by MSNBC's Bill Dedman, an investigative piece that found 144 people linked with the media who donated to political campaigns, PACS, or political parties between 2004 and 2008.

And yes - the ratio of this pool of contributors is indeed 9 to 1.

Yet given the tens of thousands of people who work in American media, the sample size is quite small, while those on the list of journalists with political contributions worked in a wide variety of positions, including graphic artists, film critics, fashion editors, and sports copy editors.

Thus Drudge hooked me again, giving me a deliberately sneaky headline to an article that - while interesting - hardly proves anything, except that the vast majority of journalists avoid donating to political causes, and that the headlines on the Drudge Report should never be taken at face value.

Jun 20, 2007

Precision Marketing, or Annoying Debris?

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(Toledo, OH) The light blue plastic bags get tossed by a person in a car over the weekend, and these packets of advertising flyers clutter the streets of my neighborhood.

The Toledo Blade calls this service Precision Marketing, and it is designed to put ad material in the hands of consumers who do not receive the Blade on Sunday.

Unfortunately, I would hazard a guess that most of these ads go unread. Moreover, they serve as a bright blue beacon to criminals about the houses that are currently unoccupied, as the owners are not around to retrieve the accumulating bags.

The Toledo Blade in not the only culprit, as other vendors deliver material in plastic bags. However, it is my experience that the people who deliver the Blade's bags in my neighborhood make no effort to do anything more than drop these at the street.

And the "precision marketing" soon becomes a soggy pile of mud-covered rubbish that seems to serve no purpose beyond adding to local litter problems.

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.

Good advice is something a man gives when he is too old to set a bad example. -- François de La Rochefoucauld

Saving Money on Utility Bills

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(Toledo, OH) Our first electric bill has arrived in this, the summer we have enacted a domestic ban on air conditioning in our home, and the results are encouraging. Our electric consumption dropped from an average of 57 kilowatts per day in June 2006 to a mere 42 kilowatts per day in 2007.

This occurred despite the fact that the average daily temperature was seven degrees higher this year than last year, so I am assuming that we would have used even more electricity in 2007 had we kept those mothballed air conditioners in action.

We are certainly on pace to save at least $130 a month on electricity this summer, and - coupled with our decision to hang our laundry on the clothesline - we are ahead of our goal to save $500 on utilities this summer. Add to this the gallant soul who sent me $40 via PayPal last week in a random act of kindness, and my summer of underemployment is looking rosier.

Still, I had hoped we might break the elusive $100 barrier in total electricity costs this month. We still have areas for improvement, like the kids who leave on the LCD monitor or the television set when no one is using these items, but we'll take whatever savings we can scrounge.

Jun 19, 2007

On Salman Rushdie and Royal Stupidity

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Pakistani protesters burning an effigy of British author Salman Rushdie; photo courtesy of AP/ Shakil AdilLeft: Pakistani protesters burning an effigy of British author Salman Rushdie; photo courtesy of AP/ Shakil Adil

I have never been a fan of monarchies, believing them to be anachronistic perpetuators of inherited hierarchy, so I will be up front with my biases. Still, there is something especially thick-skulled - and perhaps arrogant - about the decision by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II on Saturday to award Salman Rushdie the dignity of Knight Bachelor.

Admittedly, I have only read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, so perhaps I am not in a position to assess the relative excellence of Sir Rushdie's claim to knighthood. I found his prose to be brilliant, but his tendency to float into lofty metaphorical realms had me yawning at times.

Britain's reputation in the Muslim world is already in a shambles after a short-leashed Tony Blair allowed himself to be led into the debacle known as the Iraq War by the pooch-walking President Bush, and this statement does not even consider the effects of several hundred years worth of British colonialism in the Islamic world. For the Queen and her advisors to even think about awarding knighthood to Salman Rushdie is astounding, but to have the fatuity to carry out this diplomatic blunder boggles the mind.

Again: I am not questioning the relative merits of Rushdie as a writer. I am more concerned here with the astonishing lack of awareness exhibited by the British monarchy in this latest public relations debacle.

This boneheaded move by an increasingly irrelevant British monarch does not excuse any acts of terrorism that might follow, especially those that involve innocent British citizens. Yet I sit here at my keyboard grasping for any explanation at how a sovereign could be so unable to foresee the consequences of this act.

Unless, of course, the answer to that question is that the British monarchs are a swaggering group of doddering fools.

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.

Never continue in a job you don't enjoy. If you're happy in what you're doing, you'll like yourself, you'll have inner peace. And if you have that, along with physical health, you will have had more success than you could possibly have imagined. -- Johnny Carson

Jun 18, 2007

Remembering Daniel Pearl

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I attended a screening this evening of the upcoming film A Mighty Heart, which is a docudrama that examines the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Set for release June 22, A Mighty Heart avoids sensationalism in its retelling of this disturbing saga, and provides a realistic account of the attempts to free Danny Pearl and find his kidnappers.

Like most screenings, there appeared survey personnel to collect audience reactions, but what do you say about a film in which you know going in that one of the main characters is long since dead?

"Hey, great! I loved it!" or "One of the year's ten best!" seemed inappropriate to utter, and I managed only to come up with "Disturbing..."

This is one of the better performances I have seen by Angelina Jolie, who plays Pearl's journalist wife Mariane Pearl. Admittedly, I have never been much of a fan of Jolie as an actress, so this might not be a compliment, but she is convincing in the role of the grief-stricken widow who holds out hope until the end that her husband would return.

As a journalist, I expected to see more of the work and life of Daniel Pearl, so the picture's focus on his wife was an unanticipated surprise. The film's title implies that we will see something heroic about Pearl, and certainly one has sympathy for the character, but he almost becomes something of a minor player in the hands of director Michael Winterbottom.

As a person of Jewish descent, Pearl might have been doomed from the moment he was kidnapped, and the film notes the rumors circulating at the time that he was an agent of Mossad or the CIA. Ultimately, though, Daniel Pearl stood for truth, and his death is a reminder of the sacrifice made by many journalists who have been killed by those who fear truth.

While not an epic film, A Mighty Heart is an important film, and those who struggle to understand geopolitics and the role played by radical Islamists. I recommend the film as a source of enlightenment, much like I did 2006's Syriana, but you will not leave this picture with a warm, fuzzy feeling.

Fiercely Independent, Fighting Against Time

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Left: Chuck Maples on his back porch of his lower Michigan home

He has lived in the same house since the early 1940s - even on the same street since 1937 - and he is loathe to move into an assisted living facility. Yet the proverbial clock keeps ticking, calendar pages continue flipping, and Chuck Maples will not live forever.

This Second World War veteran - who served in the Seabees in the South Pacific - is still able to operate his car, although he finds difficulty with night driving. Maples, however, finds the idea of living anywhere but his house to be unsettling.

"It would be like living in a prison," he says.

Recently his wife June suffered congestive heart failure, and she had to be hospitalized for five days. Though she is much improved, perhaps this latest health struggle opened both of their eyes to the realization that time waits for no one.

Maples still has a sharp mind for a man in his early 90s, and is quick to recognize contradictions in American society.

"They say we have the best health care in the world, but hardly anyone can afford it," he noted, adding that he pays over $600 a month for health insurance but lacks prescription coverage. "Who cares if Canada has 'socialized medicine' - at least everyone is covered."

Until he can no longer drive - which will probably occur some time in the next five years - my grandfather refuses to move.

"We have everything we need right here, and our neighbors check in on us every day," he said. "Besides - why would I want to live with all those old people?"

Touché.

The Return of Premium Posts

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A semi-regular feature in which I link the most intriguing blog posts I came across this week. Part roundup, part link love, with the ultimate goal to simply increase awareness of the work of some excellent bloggers I have met.

I fell behind on Premium Posts, and I promise to catch up and keep this a more regular feature. No jokes about Metamucil, please.

University of Michigan professor and noted Middle East analyst Juan Cole has a thoughtful post on the PKK and Turkey that is must reading. I already linked it once, but Mike's Points has an excellent post on the Google's efforts to attack paid links that raises some important questions.

Humboldt'sClio examines the issue of parallelism in history and fate that made my tired brain cells holler today. Feathers, fur, and dust are all flying at Glass City Jungle over the issue of trying juveniles as adults and perceptions of the privileged buying better justice (can you say Paris Hilton, anyone?)

Matt Sussman at the Futon Report wonders why the clubhouse fight between Roman Colon and Jason Karnuth over an iPod was ignored for so long by the Toledo Blade. Finally, Hooda-Thunkit asks the tough questions about Brookside’s crooked Medicaid billings. And one last item - if you are looking around for bathroom vanities, check out this link to HomeLivingStyle.com.

:-}

Got a post you'd like to recommend? Email me at mbrooks AT utnet DOT utoledo DOT edu.

Your Basic Redneck Campfire

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(Taylor, MI) No, this is not a pile of junk, folks. This is a carefully-designed domestic appendage, a circular array of eclectic furniture and conflagratory materials in a rustic exterior setting.

Yes, folks - this here's your basic redneck campfire pit.

Several minivan bucket seats join an oversized truck tire in a semicircle around the fire proper. Pieces of scrap metal line the pit; safety first, don't you know, and a truck rack provides storage for essential whatnots, like fire pokers and such.

Entertainment is chiefly provided by the roar of airplanes overhead, lying as this property does under one of the flight paths of Detroit Metro Airport.

A wheelbarrow offers easy access and transport for combustible materials, such as branches, scrap wood, and old newspapers, as well as any trips back to the house to lug the necessary cases of beer and bags of potato chips across this acre of exurban Detroit property.

A fella could get pretty winded, I reckon.

Jobs are kind of scarce 'round here, and nature's beauty is infringed upon by a truck yard to the east and a gravel works to the south, but that's no reason for the living to be hard. Grab a seat on that there Astrovan chair, mister, and poke that fire.

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.

In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.
-- Edith Wharton

Jun 17, 2007

Three Things I'll Bet You Haven't Done With Your Blog

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Image of Blogger Beta logo courtesy of Blogger and Google This is part of a series of posts on improving the search engine optimization and traffic counts of individual blogs.

Most bloggers are not SEO experts like Andy Beard, and they go about their happy blogging lives wondering why traffic is so hard to generate, and why Google assigns them a low PageRank. Now, I am far from Andy's league in my knowledge of SEO, but this site bounces back and forth between a PR of 5 and 6, so I am doing at least a few things right.

At any rate, here are a few specific tips I have learned that have improved my site's performance (my apologies to those for whom this is old news):

1. Tell the search engines you exist. You can sit around and wait for Google, Yahoo!, and MSN to find you, or you can go deep into the servers of these search engines and shout about your site. Spend a few minutes at places like Google Webmaster, Yahoo! Search, MSN Live Search, and DMOZ. You will see improvements in your traffic within days of submitting your site, and if you produce quality material, eventually this will translate into inbound links from other bloggers who recognize your unique genius.

2. Tell Google that your site has images. You need to register with Google and list your sites, which you can do under Webmaster Tools. There is also a "Enhanced Image Search" function that is critical: be sure to check the box marked "I would like to enable enhanced image search on my site and am authorized to opt into this advanced service." Immediately after doing this I saw a jump of about 100 visitors a day.

3. Do not be afraid to use the "No Follow" tag on outbound links. You get penalized by Google every time you have an outbound link. That being said, linking to high-ranking sites is much, much, less of a penalty than linking to sites witha PR of 0 or 1. I took a considerable PageRank hit on this site when I launched my photography blog because I provided quite a few links early on to build traffic and rank. This site went from 6 to 5 in PageRank, but my photography blog jumped from 0 to 4 in three months. Anyways, the "No Follow" tag tells Google (and any other search engines that recognize it) that this link should be ignored. Here is a quick example:

Example of using the REL=No Follow Tag in outbound links

There are, of course, certain limits you want to place upon REL=NO FOLLOW usage. After all, the Internet is built upon the concept of interlinked websites, and theoretically no one would have any PageRank if every hyperlink carried this tag. Thus, don't be a mercenary, sticking REL=NO FOLLOW on every link, but don't be a fool, either, and allow your site to bleed PageRank just because you are unaware of the penalties associated with wanton outbound links.

Besides, every once in a while you'll want to make a nickel and promote quality products like discount furniture, making sure that website gets the full link value, right?

:-}

Jun 16, 2007

Google Launches Plan to Attack Paid Links

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I started writing about this topic, but came across a well-written post at Mike Driehorst's site. It seems that Google is concerned about website owners buying links to improve PageRank, and has developed a sort of anonymous tip page to encourage the ratting out of buyers and sellers of links.

For those unfamiliar with the concepts of search engine optimization and the value of links, I'll give you a 30-second explanation: Search engines such as Google use links as a means of determining the relative "worth" of a website. More links equals a higher PageRank (Google's term for this complex algorithm), and links from a higher-ranked page are much more valuable than from a lower-ranked page.

Read Mike's post for a lengthier discussion of Google's plan to sniff out link selling, but I have a few questions: a) how does Google plan to "punish" those it deems are participating in this behavior? b) if I am paid to review a product, and in essence "sell" a link, will I too be branded an algorithm scofflaw? c) will Google also attack its own AdSense program, perhaps the largest buying and selling of links on the Internet?

Seems like the height of hypocrisy to me on Google's part; perhaps Google executives are just jealous that they cannot monopolize the valuable commodity known as Internet links. Besides, just how, exactly, is Google going to tell what is a paid link and what is not? If, for example, I talk about term life insurance in a post, how can Google tell this is a paid link or not? For all the Google algorithm knows, I might be friends with the good folks at any given site.

Besides, if a product (let's call it the WidgetThingy) is a poorly-designed or overpriced item, there will be more than enough negative publicity about it on the Internet to swamp the handful of links its manufacturer might purchase. At best a company can buy some short-term gains in the search engines, but ultimately consumers will prevail.

Besides, as a wise old man once said to me: "It don't matter how much shoe polish you put on that shoe, boy: if it's got dog s**t on it, it's still gonna stink."

Full disclosure: the author of this post sometimes accepts compensation from third-party companies that link bloggers and advertisers. More inormation about this on my disclosure statement.