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Shit hot header photos by Paul, w/assistance from "The Thing?"

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Copyright 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 by Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

Birds & Bikes

chicks

Click for larger

One of our hummingbird chicks flew away yesterday. As of this morning the second on is still in the nest. This was our second storage hook hummingbird nest of 2014.

The mother hummingbird is wary and flies away when she sees us. The chicks don’t know any better and stay calm when we’re around. This particular nest is over the breezeway between our house and garage, just a few feet from the kitchen door. Donna and I are in and out of that door several times a day. I always say hello to the chicks when I walk underneath their nest. My voice probably sounds like booming surf to them … I hope they find it comforting and familiar.

We think mother hummers build nests on these hooks because they’re tucked up under the patio overhang, out of view of predators. The worrisome part, though, is that it’s a long drop to the hard concrete patio floor below. In 2009, the first year we started observing hummingbird nests on our patio, one chick did wind up on the concrete. I found it there and very gently put it back in the nest, but it was dead when I checked on it half an hour later.

We’ve watched over several generations of nesting chicks since then and haven’t seen a repeat of that tragedy … actually we’re pretty confident the mother of the chicks in the photo is one of the chicks we watched grow up and fly away last summer. We’ll just have to trust Mother Nature to know what’s best for these tiny creatures.

I rode the Goldwing over to Ed’s garage yesterday. As regular readers know, Ed’s my maintenance guru and riding buddy. We looked the bike over to see what needs to be done before my September cross-country through Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and southwestern Colorado. The list isn’t long: new tires, new front brake pads, flushing and replacing brake fluid, fresh oil and a filter. Replace standard wear items and stay on top of periodic maintenance and a Goldwing should last just about forever, one of the many reasons I love my Honda.

Motorcycle tires are crazy expensive and wear out fast. The new set of Bridgestones I ordered yesterday cost $300, and that’s a bargain price. The last set (also Bridgestones) lasted about 10,000 miles; the best I’ve ever done was a set of Dunlops that made it to 12,000 miles. When the tires and brake pads come Ed and I will put them on. Motorcycle shops in this area charge $75 an hour for labor (while paying their mechanics not much more than minimum wage), and I’ve learned they can’t be trusted to do good work. I’m blessed to have a friend like Ed. I should carve a little plastic figurine in his likeness and glue it to the front fender of my Goldwing … he’s my patron saint of motorcycling, my Saint Christopher.

I probably mentioned in an earlier post that my original plan was to ride by myself to Sturgis for the annual Black Hills rally, which starts next week. Sturgis is a hellaciously expensive proposition, but it’s a pilgrimage every motorcyclist must take some day. What changed my plans was that my son wanted to go on a cross-country ride with me and September was better for him. I’d much rather go riding with my son, and September is cooler than August, so I was happy to change my plans. Sturgis can wait until next year, or the year after.

We settled on a ride to the mountains in southwestern Colorado, an easy two-day trek from Las Vegas. I asked my friends Bruce and Tamara in Ouray if we could stay with them a couple of nights in September. They said sure, so now I have to carve two more plastic figurines for the front fender!

The current plan is this: I’ll ride to Las Vegas on Thursday, September 18. Gregory’s borrowing a BMW; we’ll ride from Vegas to Moab on Friday the 19th. We’ll take mountain roads to Ouray on the 20th and do some day riding in the San Juans on the 21st, stopping in Silverton and Durango. We’ll leave Ouray for Cedar City on the 22nd, then ride back to Vegas on the 23rd. Depending on how sore my ass is, I’ll ride home to Tucson on the 24th or 25th.

It’s entirely possible it’ll snow in the San Juans in mid-September, but we are nothing if not flexible. We’ll at least get as far as Moab, and that’ll be fun too … the annual Moab Film Festival is on the weekend we’re passing through, as I discovered when making hotel reservations.

Back to watching hummingbird chicks now. I think the second chick will try to fly today, and I hope to see it.

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An Unfashionable Position (Updated)

PX*5850600Over the past two days my sympathies with regard to Israel and Palestine, which were initially with the Gazans, have started moving back in a pro-Israel direction. I keep asking myself what my country would do in similar circumstances. I hate what’s happening, but I can’t bring myself to condemn Israel.

Moreover, some European pro-Palestine protests have begun to take on an anti-Semitic tone. That ugliness is always somewhere close to the surface, and it’s beginning to bubble up through the cracks in places.

So much spin! I don’t doubt that 90% of what we read and see here in the States is meant to make us hate one side or the other. But not all of it is spin. There is a historical truth that is not at all difficult to discern. There is one side in this conflict that would cheerfully commit genocide against the other. That side is not Israel.

I have to go with my gut. My gut says Israel is doing what it must. I know this is an unfashionable position, but I’m standing by it.

Update (7/30/14): A friend asked me to clarify some of my remarks. Here’s my response:

Dear ________, if you monitor Israel/Gaza chatter on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll see why I said taking Israel’s side is unfashionable. I meant to chide those who call Israel an apartheid regime; after writing my post I posted links to it on Facebook and Twitter, hoping some of them will see and read it. 

I was initially sympathetic to the Gazan civilians, as any warm-hearted human would be. I still am. But as always happens with a new Israel/Palestine conflict, my thoughts quickly came back to what the Palestinians would do if they had the weapons, organization, and discipline of the Israelis, and I was soon re-grounded.

The Muslim/Arab nations’ end goal is the elimination of Jews. They’ve said it so emphatically and often, one has to take them at their word. I think the chattering classes on Facebook and Twitter will eventually realize their warm-heartedness is leading them to embrace a genocidal cause, but it’s going to take a while, particularly if there’s a cease-fire and Israel goes right back to building settlements.

One last thing: I have Jewish friends but no Arab-American or Muslim friends. Honesty requires me to say so, and to acknowledge my friends’ influence on my opinions.

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Paul’s Book Reviews

“I hesitated for just a moment. Some part of me wanted to see the creature, after having heard it for so many days. Was it the remnants of the scientist in me, trying to regroup, trying to apply logic when all that mattered was survival? If so, it was a very small part. I ran.” — Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

annihilationAnnihilation
Jeff VanderMeer
4_0

I haven’t read Lovecraft, but halfway through Annihilation I began to think of it as Lovecraftian. Now I’ve finished the novel and glanced at some of the reader reviews, I see I’m not alone. The first thing I did upon finishing Annihilation was to download the second novel in VanderMeer’s trilogy, Authority. The second was to pre-order the third, Acceptance (set to release this September). The third thing I’m doing right now, reminding myself in writing to start reading Lovecraft!

I’ve always felt that if we ever encounter something truly alien we won’t be able to understand what we’re seeing; our minds will instinctively reject it and we might not even be able to force our eyes to look at it. Such is the case with whatever is growing inside Area X.

Other reviewers have offered summaries, so I’ll keep mine short. On the edge of a nation that seems a lot like ours … a modern Western nation only slightly removed from the present day … a coastal region has been enclosed by an incomprehensible (incomprehensible in that alien sense I alluded to above) border which repels people and keeps them from entering. This is Area X. A secretive government agency has figured out how to insert teams of investigators, hypnotizing them so that they can get through what normally would repel them, and has sent several expeditions into Area X. All have ended badly: some teams simply disappeared, never to return; some committed mass suicide; some turned on one another; some emerged as empty shells with no memories of what they encountered inside. Still, some information about Area X has accrued: it is known that the topography inside Area X is the same as it was three decades ago, before the border appeared; plant and animal life is abundant but no humans remain; there are some hand-drawn maps showing major features, including the ruins of a village and a lighthouse.

The narrator of the story is a biologist, a member of the 12th expedition, a four-woman team whose other members include a psychologist, a surveyor, and an anthropologist. Once they emerge from hypnosis inside Area X, they find what they expected to find: hills and forests, the previous expedition’s base camp, the ruins of the village, marshes and reeds with brackish canals; in the distance dunes, the coast, the lighthouse. Then they begin to find the unexpected, things that aren’t on the map, and an unseeable alienness becomes apparent. In less than a day only three members remain; a day later just two; by the third day only the biologist remains. That is all I will say about the story itself.

Wow, what a setup. The biologist is aware that whatever is growing inside Area X is changing her own body at the cellular level. She is frightened but her curiosity is stronger; despite her growing sense of dread she digs deeper and deeper, finally encountering the truly alien. She cannot comprehend what it is she’s not quite able to see, and VanderMeer conveys this in a masterful way … I shared the biologist’s sense of dread, which grew stronger page by page, as did my own curiosity. I wanted to encounter the alienness inside Area X; when the biologist and I did, I too could not comprehend it. And I sensed that larger alien forces are at work there too, slowly combining with, or incorporating, the human members of expeditions sent into Area X.

The writing perfectly matches the mysterious, threatening environment of Area X. Humans are an intrusion; we don’t know their names, just their functions … yet we learn a great deal about the biologist’s very human personality and past, and want to learn more about what she’s becoming.

Oh, I am so ready to read the second two books of this trilogy!

bleeding edgeBleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
3_5

I waited a couple of days before attempting to review this novel. The longer I waited, the more trivial Bleeding Edge seemed … trivial in the sense of lacking meaning or import … but that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy reading it. I read the early Pynchon novels (The Crying of Lot 49, V, Gravity’s Rainbow) in the 60s and 70s, when he was writing the new literature of a new generation, the David Foster Wallace of the day. A few years ago I picked up Mason and Dixon and couldn’t get past the first two chapters … my tastes had changed, and I now found Pynchon too contrived, artificially playful and dense … a showoff, in other words … and didn’t come back to Pynchon until Bleeding Edge.

Gee, Thomas Pyncheon is well into his 70s now, pushing 80, but Bleeding Edge took me straight back to the Pynchon of the 60s and 70s, and apparently my tastes have flipped once again, because this time I didn’t mind his showing off so much.

One reason I liked Bleeding Edge is that I initially found the central character, Maxine, relatable. She seemed real at first. Another is that I felt Pynchon captures the state of the dot com industry as it was circa 2000-2001. His description of New York City’s Silicon Alley culture at the turn of the century feels right and jibes with my own memories (except for all that “deep web” nonsense, but that fits in with other paranoid conspiracy themes Pynchon explores in this novel — Montauk, the 9/11 truther stuff, the Mossad and the CIA, Gibsonesque hints at the possibility of a virtual life separate from the physical one).

As I read on, however, Maxine became less relatable and less genuine, more of a foil for Pynchon’s verbal playfulness, always ready with a quip or a pun, always present at key plot points, critical bits of secret intelligence coming her way as if by magic whenever the story needs to be nudged along. She’s a plot device. The paranoid conspiracy stuff, which Pynchon injects into the story in turkey baster sized doses, is never resolved. And overall, apart from the 9/11 terror attacks, nothing really happens. There’s no closure, no tying up of loose ends, life goes on. The story opens a window into a specific time and place, immersing you into Pynchon’s infinite mental storehouse of pop cultural references and love of words and wordplay … and then someone draws the shades and the story is over.

Bleeding Edge is an exercise in writerly virtuosity and playfulness, great fun to read if you’re in the right mood, but ultimately unsatisfying. I feel like I just ate a bag of the best Cheetos I’ve ever tasted, a special vintage batch prepared for a very select clientele. I wolfed them down, but they were empty calories. I’m still hungry and now I feel vaguely guilty.

darknessDarkness, Take My Hand
Dennis Lehane
3_0

This was a monthly book club selection. We wanted to read something in the hard-boiled detective/noir fiction genre, and several reviews applied those labels to this novel.

One of the characteristics of noir fiction is a flawed protagonist. Patrick Kenzie is certainly that, so, yeah, noir. Now I don’t know where this is written down, but to me a central characteristic of hard-boiled detective fiction is the dispassionate, literal presentation of facts: “She reached for her gun. I shot her. ‘You bastard,’ she said, as she crumpled to the floor.” That sort of thing.

Hard-boiled detectives don’t lose sleep wondering why the bad guys they’re after are so bad. Badness is a given. Hard-boiled detectives don’t moon over broads and puppy dogs. Hard-boiled detectives don’t share pillow talk or tell you about the sex they’re having with their girlfriends. Patrick Kenzie must have Mike Hammer spinning in his grave. Patrick Kenzie is a lightly poached egg, runny and dripping, not even remotely hard-boiled.

What Darkness, Take My Hand really is is a serial killer thriller, and, like every serial killer thriller I’ve read, it’s massively overwrought and strains credulity. How do back-alley Beantown numb-nuts dropouts turn into Moriarty-like criminal masterminds with almost supernatural powers? How did they get to be so goddamn smart? You don’t see that in real life, and that’s my biggest objection to this book.

Well written, yes. Good characterization, at least when it comes to Kenzie and Gennaro. Good Boston vibes throughout. Noir … but not hard-boiled. What Patrick Kenzie really needs is a good therapist.

polivrPolice: a Harry Hole Novel
Jo Nesbø
2_5

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if that sort of thing freaks you out.

This was my first Harry Hole novel, and in fact the first thing by Jo Nesbø I’ve read. I read a glowing review of Nesbø’s Harry Hole series somewhere, and from it learned the Norwegian movie Headhunters, which I had seen and thought brilliant, was either screenwritten by Nesbø or based on one of his novels. Well, I have to read this guy now, I thought.

Maybe I picked the wrong novel to start. This is the tenth Harry Hole novel, and I came into it cold. From the first pages it was apparent that in the previous novel legendary Oslo Detective Inspector Harry Hole had either been killed or put into a coma from which he was unlikely to recover. Since there was an unnamed man in a coma in a hospital room, it was most likely the latter. I wondered briefly why Nesbø was going out of his way to keep the coma victim’s name a mystery, but I pressed on.

Nesbø’s coyness with the coma victim’s identity should have set off warning bells. A few chapters later, when Nesbø suddenly revealed that Harry Hole was not only alive but teaching at the police academy, I actually put the book down for a second and spoke out loud to my dog. What I said to my dog was, “What a cheap trick.”

The novel is full of such tricks, one every few pages. Characters seem to be in imminent danger, but the murderer lurking in the shadows turns out to be an innocent colleague, holding not a gun but a cup of coffee. The dead body found concealed in a false ceiling turns out to be … a badger. The criminal mastermind Nesbø spends fully half the book building up turns out to be an irrelevant sideshow, dropped from the storyline after he serves his purpose. Suspect after suspect is set up as the cop killer, each one coming out of left field. Nesbø takes the reader to the brink again and again, only to spring yet another surprise and zag off in an unexpected direction.

Another reviewer said he thought this novel was manipulative and gimmicky, and I agree … in fact I found Nesbø’s tricks so very manipulative and gimmicky that I simply could not imagine any part of this story happening in real life. Toward the end I actually found myself flipping pages to get to the next surprise twist, knowing what I was reading at the moment would turn out to be yet another false tangent.

Overwrought, gimmicky, manipulative. That sums it up. Why two-and-a-half stars, then, and not two? Because the translation is excellent, I suppose. Because I did finish the novel, after all. I kept thinking that if Nesbø had only put his well-developed characters into a realistic plot, investigating the kinds of crimes that actually occur in real life, this would have been a damn good police procedural. Instead, he chose to show off.

Will I read more by Nesbø? Yes, but no more Harry Hole … this one just burnt me out. I’ll try one of the other novels instead.

sea of fireSea of Fire
Gregory Shepherd
2_0

My fascination with North Korea is such that I will read virtually anything that purports to be about that forbidding country and its bizarre society. Sea of Fire is proof of that.

This novel is virtually unknown. There are no Goodreads reviews. Even though I read the Kindle edition, it’s no longer listed on Amazon. It never had a Library of Congress number. I can’t even remember how I learned of it.

First, the good, and the reason I gave it two stars: it’s digestible. Gregory Shepherd’s prose is solid and the edition I read was pretty much typo-free, something that cannot be said for many ebooks by well-known writers. As for the story, if you can ignore the ridiculousness of it, it’s a page-turner with plenty of suspenseful threads to be followed to the end.

The bad? I mentioned ridiculousness. The villains are transplants from an Austin Powers movie; the hero — an American Zen cowboy with a secret past as a CIA assassin — seemingly stepped out of a James Bond movie. The bad guys are comically evil; the good guy gets away with things that would be impossible even for a high-ranking North Korean, let alone a foreigner. There is almost nothing in Shepherd’s story that could happen in real life; it is contrived nonsense.

And sucker that I am for stories about North Korea, I read it. What is wrong with me?

Books I Didn’t Finish

cubedCubed: A Secret History of the Workplace
Nikil Saval
0

Another of my book club’s monthly selections, Cubed appears to be a well-written and witty look at the history of the modern white-collar workplace, the sort of thing Mary Roach might write. I found myself so antagonistic to the subject, however, I had to put it down. A few years back I burnt out in a managerial job I hated right down to the center of my soul. I couldn’t warm to Saval’s subject and abandoned the book after finishing only the introduction and first chapter.

To Nikil Saval I have only this to say: it isn’t you, it’s me.

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Tuesday Bag o’ Sweat

sweat bagSure, making fat cry is a laudable thing, but no one wants your sweaty fat teardrops on the equipment at the gym, and that’s why they have those handy wipe dispensers on the walls.

Some guy wasn’t wiping down the machines after sweating on them at Anytime Fitness this morning, and it fell to me to be the gym Nazi and point out to him that his behavior was inconsiderate and anti-social. He looked at me like I had three heads, walked out the door, got in his car, and drove away … without going back to wipe down the leg extension machine he’d just slathered with disgusting liquid fat residue.

From now on I’m keeping my iPhone on my person so I can take photos of people who do this and email them to the owner of the gym, a friend and former F-15 pilot. I’m going to suggest he put up a bulletin board of sweathog shame and pin violators’ mug shots to it.

Some folks are just assholes. At least I’ve discovered who it is that sets all the wall-mounted TVs to Fox News. Has to be him, am I right? Of course I am, and you know it.

Speaking of disgusting, look at this sweaty mess a neighbor of mine left in my Gmail inbox last night. I don’t get a lot of anti-Obama chain mail and it’s the first time I’ve seen this particular example, but apparently it’s been making the rounds for years. I took out some odd, apparently purposeless indentations, but left line breaks, capitalization, and errors intact. I love how the author hints that his letter is not about Obama but only about Christianity … before diving head first into the anti-Obama cesspool. Ready? Here we go!

I know there are some of you that are Democrats, and love Obama, but this is for Christians first, politics later. I do pray that it doesn’t offend anybody with the truth of the message, but it has to be sent. If you love your Lord first and your politics later, then you will appreciate this message and you just might appreciate it anyway. If you don’t, I’m sorry I judged you incorrectly.

When we get 100,000,000, that’s one hundred million willing Christians (or like minded people) to BOND together, voice their concerns and vote, we can take back America with God’s help, Become one of the One hundred million. Then let’s get 200 million. It can be done by sending this email to your friends. Do the math. It only takes a willing heart and a fed up soul. God Bless America and Shine your light on Her..

In 1952
President Truman
Established one day a year as a
“National Day of Prayer.”

In 1988
President Reagan
Designated the
First Thursday in May of each year as
The National Day of Prayer.

In June 2007
(then) Presidential Candidate Barack Obama
Declared that the USA
“Was no longer a
Christian nation.”

This year
President Obama
Canceled the
21st annual National Day
Of Prayer ceremony
At the White
House under the ruse
Of “not wanting to offend anyone”

BUT… On September 25, 2009
From 4 AM until 7 PM,
A National Day of Prayer
FOR THE MUSLIM RELIGION
Was Held on Capitol Hill,
Beside the White House.
There were over 50,000 Muslims
In D.C. That day.

HE PRAYS WITH THE MUSLIMS!
I guess it Doesn’t matter
If “Christians”
Are offended by this event -
We obviously
Don’t count as
“anyone” Anymore.

The direction this country is headed
Should strike fear in the heart of every Christian,
Especially knowing that the Muslim religion
believes that if Christians cannot be Converted,
they should be annihilated.

Send this to ten people
And the person who
Sent it to you!…
To let them know that
Indeed, it was sent
Out to many more.

The first two items, about the origins of the National Day of Prayer, are factual. Everything else is false.

Obama never said the USA was no longer a Christian nation. What he said was this: “Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.” Now you may hate it that he included nonbelievers and Muslims, or maybe you think Hitler was right and we should round up the Jews, but what Obama said was factual, correct, and totally in line with America’s vision of itself as a religiously tolerant nation.

Obama never canceled a National Day of Prayer ceremony at the White House or anywhere else, this year or any other year. There’s nothing to cancel. There’s no such thing as a “National Day of Prayer ceremony,” no requirement that the President or any other government official observe the National Day of Prayer. In fact President Obama does observe the National Day of Prayer. He does so privately. Can you imagine the hue & cry that would ensue if the President of the United States issued an executive order canceling the National Day of Prayer? I think even a shut-in like me would have heard of something like that!

There was no “National Day of Prayer for the Muslim Religion” on September 25, 2009. There was an event that day called “Islam on Capitol Hill.” It was organized by a prominent Muslim-American attorney and was meant to bring other Muslim-Americans to the national capitol to pray for America and express support for the nation, to show that they are patriotic Americans too. In fact tens of thousands of Muslim-Americans did show up in Washington DC that day to pray for America. The event was not sanctioned in any way by the White House (as implied in the chain letter), and President Obama did not attend.

President Obama does not pray with the Muslims. Apparently this one has its roots in a photo of Obama removing his shoes before entering the Blue Mosque in Istanbul during a state visit. It’s what you do before entering a mosque, and when you’re paying a state visit to a Muslim nation, you’re going to enter a famous mosque or two.

If you follow my links, you’ll see I checked the chain letter’s anti-Obama assertions with both “liberal” and “conservative” fact-checking entities: factcheck.org, politifact.com, snopes.com, and urban legends.about.com. The nutters got tired of having snopes.com waved in their faces whenever they tried to revise history or make up their own facts, so years ago they launched a chain mail campaign to neutralize snopes.com by labeling it a liberal propaganda site (need I even say the assertions in that chain mail are also false?). Today, if you answer conservatives’ arguments by quoting snopes.com, they’ll wink knowingly at one another and say “Sure, buddy.”

Oh, I know I’m wasting my time. When it comes to chain mail, one enters a fact-free twilight zone. In that twilight zone, a Kenyan child was groomed and trained from birth to run as a Manchurian candidate and win the American presidency, at which point he was to turn the country over to the Islamic Caliphate (which explains why there’s a mosque sitting where the Twin Towers used to be). Patriotic Christians have been herded into FEMA camps (so that’s where your neighbors went). Boys and girls are forced to pee next to each other in unisex restrooms (no wonder Johnny’s turning out gay). The Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem have been outlawed (it is known).

Short of simply not wanting to have a black president, I don’t know why anyone would want to live in that twilight zone, but there it is, and it has plenty of willing inhabitants.

And one of them left a sweaty, fatty, smelly mess in my Gmail inbox. It’s gonna take a fistful of wipes to clean it out.

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Thinking About Twitter (Updated)

I don’t use Twitter the way I use Facebook. Maybe because I’m old and came to social media late in the game? Whatever, for me Facebook is about friends and family while Twitter is about news and events. Facebook friends are people I know. I’ve never met the people I follow on Twitter and probably never will.

Who do I follow on Twitter? Journalists, bloggers, authors, experts in various fields. Through them I follow what’s going on in the world. The 300 or so people in my net have nets of their own; when they read something interesting they retweet it. In effect, then, I follow thousands.

Twitter’s great for breaking news and events. I learned about bin Laden’s capture and execution on Twitter a full twenty minutes before the first television news alerts. Ditto the latest events in Israel and Gaza, ditto the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine. Twitter’s also good for getting the feel of how ongoing events affect people on the ground: through retweets I read first-hand reports from men and women on the street, soldiers, statesmen, refugees, protesters, counter-protesters … well, you get the idea.

You’re probably about to warn me that tweets from sources like these are rarely objective, that the “news” I get from Twitter is slanted, incomplete, partisan, propagandistic, sometimes intentionally false. Don’t worry, I’m aware of that. I’m also aware that the “news” we get from conventional media sources is likewise slanted, incomplete, partisan, propagandistic, sometimes intentionally false. I hope you know that as well.

I’ve found that Twitter, in addition to being a great heads-up source for events conventional news will soon be reporting, is helpful in filling in the gaps in conventional news reporting. Obviously you have to use your critical thinking skills when you’re reading tweets about fast-breaking events like the Israeli invasion of Gaza or the Malaysian Airlines shootdown, but you quickly develop a feel for what’s real and what is not. When you can’t tell, you step back.

OB-XE787_aphack_G_20130423132512

This credible-looking Tweet caused a stock market slump last year; it was a hoax.

Or take the current crisis in Israel and Gaza. So many tweets, from partisans on both sides, some quite hysterical. What is true and what is not? Israel says it went into Gaza to find and close tunnels used by Hamas terrorists. But according to several tweets posted by Gaza residents last night, the IDF also knocked down a geriatric hospital in Gaza. This clearly doesn’t square with official statements about the purpose of going into Gaza, but did it really happen? Remember the reports of invading Iraqis stealing baby incubators from hospitals in Kuwait during the lead up to Desert Storm? Those reports turned out to be bullshit, so I’ll remain skeptical until I learn more.

Early yesterday an NBC reporter delivered an emotional report about the bombing deaths of four Palestinian children whom he had been playing soccer with on a beach just moments before; later in the day, according to tweets from news industry insiders, NBC pulled that reporter and flew in Richard Engle to replace him. When I watched NBC news last night, there was Richard Engle … and no mention of the previous reporter being replaced. More info has come out on Twitter today; it’s said that NBC executives felt the previous reporter might get them in trouble with pro-Israel interests … call me a cynic, but this bit of background detail has the ring of truth.

Clearly there’s much more to the story than what is being reported by conventional news sources. Twitter … so long as I remember to take my daily grain of salt … helps me understand what’s really going on. Certainly I feel better informed than I would be if my only news sources were NPR and NBC.

The downside to Twitter is mob rule and public shaming. From the poor woman who lost her PR job for tweeting an insensitive joke about AIDS, to Michelle Shocked who tried to fight back as the Twitter tide turned against her (she is no longer on Twitter), to the multiple casualties of the Mia Farrow/Woody Allen wars, Twitter has claimed many a scalp. The place is a witch hunter’s paradise, a haven for trolls and racists. This is the chaff, though, not the wheat, and it’s easy enough to ignore … as long as you stay out of the various fights, which are sometimes good entertainment.

Now if I can just figure out how to say all this with 149 characters (including spaces) I’ll turn it into a Tweet.

Update (7/19/14): A friend read this via a Facebook link and commented that he wouldn’t trust many people to apply skepticism or critical thinking to what they read on Twitter, particularly with regard to emotional topics like Israel and Gaza. I agree. On Twitter, everyone immediately took either the Palestinian or Israeli side and then retreated behind ideological barricades. If you’re not following people on both sides you’re stuck in an epistemic bubble. In this case conventional news sources trump Twitter: on MSNBC last night, for example, Chris Hayes conducted a spirited interview with an Israeli spokesman; anyone watching would have gotten a much clearer view of where each side is coming from.

I try hard to avoid becoming epistemically isolated. I follow a few conservatives and libertarians (same thing IMO), even when they piss me off. The only people I block outright are the stupids and the racists (ditto); they have nothing to contribute and shouldn’t even have a seat at the table.

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Death by Cubicle

I always feel bad when I don’t finish a book, especially when it’s kind of an assignment, as in the book club selection I gave up on last week. Book club selections are by majority rule; sometimes I’m in the minority and the book is one I wouldn’t have read on my own. Other members don’t seem to have a problem not reading books they’re not interested in (we haven’t had a meeting yet where every single one of us finished that month’s selection), but when it’s me I feel I’m letting the team down.

I’m good for July’s meeting. We decided to read a hard-boiled detective novel, so we picked Dennis Lehane’s Darkness, Take My Hand. I didn’t think it was all that hard-boiled, but I did read it and am ready to talk about it this Saturday. It’s the August book I gave up on, Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by Nikil Saval. Saval really gets into his subject: the evolution of office work from the days of Bartleby the Scrivener to today; how poorly paid clerks became well paid white collar workers; how the introduction of women into the office changed business and society. He writes about it in a witty, breezy way, and you could very well read it as a companion piece to a marathon Mad Men rerun watching session. It’s a good book … and I think if Saval had written about almost any other subject I would have enjoyed it cover to cover.

cubicles

But office work? Sorry, can’t. If the only two labels I had to choose from were blue collar and white collar, I’d have to say my working life was primarily white collar, but what I actually had was a profession. For most of my working life — two and a half decades – I was a military officer and fighter pilot, a profession that requires extensive and specialized education, a profession that demands expert application of mental and physical skills. It’s somehow both blue and white collar, and neither label is really satisfactory.

After I retired from the Air Force I went to work as a contract instructor, training fighter and reconnaissance pilots at bases in the US and overseas. Yeah, more white collar than anything else, but during those eight years I was basically a free agent. I built my lesson plans at home, occasionally dropped by the home office in Memphis to coordinate with my bosses and the other instructors, but mostly traveled and taught. Then I wound up managing a team of educational developers and graphic artists, responsible for producing lesson plans and study materials for A-10 pilot training at Davis-Monthan AFB. I was finally stuck in an office — where I quickly grew to hate the white collar life. By the time I quit that job, four years later, I never wanted to see the inside of an office again. I went to work as a school bus driver, then as a handicapped van driver for the VA hospital in Tuscon, blue collar all the way. And though the driving jobs paid only a fraction of what I’d earned before, I enjoyed the work. I knew I was doing something of value, something fundamentally more important than anything I did in the four years I worked in that office. When I finally retired for good, I think it’s telling that I decided to volunteer as an air museum docent, a job that keeps me on my feet, leading walking tours and talking to museum visitors, almost the very opposite of an office routine.

When I started reading Saval’s book, everything bad about my four years in a cubicle came rushing back: the politics, the meaningless meetings, the make-work, the politics, the back-biting, the politics … and I just couldn’t read another damn page. I lived it; no amount of humor or good writing will ever make me want to revisit it.

If you can do it, kids, train for a profession where you’ll use both your body and your brain.

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Air-Minded: PASM Panoramas

I’ve been teaching myself to make panoramic montages from single photos. Lest you think this requires mastering some arcane art, I’ll admit up front that it’s actually easy.

I’ll start at the beginning, when I discovered the camera in my iPhone has a panoramic mode. The iPhone makes it easy; my first thought was “How can I make it harder?”

Actually, what I wondered was whether my big DSLR camera also has a panoramic function. It doesn’t, but the camera came with photo stitching software that helps to assemble single photos into panoramas. You use a tripod to keep the camera level as you take a series of overlapping photos from left to right or right to left, and you don’t change focal length in midstream. Later, you select the photos you want to stitch together on your desktop and set the software loose on them. The results, as you’ll see, are impressive, and I’ve only barely begun to learn how to do it. Wait’ll I get good at it!

I took approximately forty photos at the Pima Air & Space Museum Sunday morning and created seven panoramic montages. Some are composed of three individual photos, some use as many as six. I uploaded them all to a new Flickr photo set, where you can view them; I’ll include three here to give you the idea.


F-15, F-4, F-105

USAF fighters

Navy Fighter Row

USN fighters

Navy/USMC Fighter/Recce Row

USN/USMC fighter-bombers & recce


The photos I posted here link to the originals on Flickr. If you view them at full size there, and if you look very closely, you might see one small stitching error in one photo. I’ll let you look for it!

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You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

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YCRT! Arizona News:

More on Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, an elected official who is one of the key figures behind the infamous Tucson school book bannings of 2012 (a ban that is still in effect, by the way). Turns out that from election day in 2010 right up until about three weeks ago, Huppenthal had been trolling the comment sections of online political and education forums, posting under false names, acting as a sockpuppet in support of his own policies, and hating on Mexican-Americans. Caught red-handed, he tearfully apologized but refused to resign. As I write, he is still in office.

Typical of Huppenthal’s pseudonymous comments (in addition to “Falcon9,” he also hid behind the name “Thucydides”) is this one:

However, we are now going to see the dark side of controlling immigration – fewer jobs for caucasions. In an improving economy, free flowing immigration creates more jobs for caucasions, not fewer. Economic growth is one part productivity growth and 2 parts population growth. Caucasians aren’t reproducing themselves, so all population growth has to be immigration.

We are condemning ourselves to a second rate future if we don’t reestablish the melting pot with a strong flow of immigrants engaging in economic activity, not crime.

We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English….

I don’t mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English.

And, I’m not being humorous or racist. A lot is at stake here.

It’s hard to understate the damage officially-sanctioned bigotry like this is doing to public education in Arizona.

YCRT! National News:

Kansas City officials, after a busybody neighbor’s complaint, shut down a nine-year-old boy’s sidewalk lending library. You’ll be happy to know that after national ridicule, the city backed down and Spencer’s Little Free Library is back in operation.

Daunting path to publication: a new history of Ulysses and censorship.

Adolescent humor deemed inappropriate for adolescents; high school production of Spamalot cancelled.

A librarian’s story of being “steamrollered” into removing a children’s book from the shelves. Appropriately enough, Flat Stanley makes an appearance!

Judy Blume on why parents shouldn’t worry so much about what their children are reading.

YCRT! Mini-Rant:

Public school districts typically have policies and procedures for responding to parental book challenges. Increasingly, though, nervous superintendents and principals are yanking books from school libraries and reading lists after just a single parent objects, negating established review procedures and robbing students and other parents of any choice. Two such stories have recently come to my attention:

  • Pasco (Florida) school drops The Fault in Our Stars author’s book after parent’s email
  • Cape Henlopen (Delaware) school board pulls The Miseducation of Cameron Post from the Blue Hen reading list after a single parental complaint

In neither case did school officials bother to read the challenged book, far less follow school district policy for reviewing books parents complain about. This aligns with almost all the other cases of school-level book banning I’ve reported on in recent columns. Parents, as the author of this editorial points out, have the right to object to books their children are assigned to read. Public school officials, on the other hand, do not have the right to arbitrarily ban books or impose one parent’s reading choices on the students of all the other parents. There are procedures for reviewing challenged books, and school boards should follow them. Central to those procedures is actually reading the book parents want banned.

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