Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Biker Blues

Well. The weather's warming up, and it's almost time to get my bike out of the storage shed. This winter I didn't get it put away in time before it snowed, but I juiced it up real good with WD-40 so it wouldn't rust too bad. As you can tell already I'm not a bike aficionado or a dedicated biker by any means, but still I used to bike around quite a lot.

Before this one I had an old ten-speed with knobby tires that I rescued after someone had thrown it out in the trash. It was the worst bike in the world. The front fork was bent so it didn't track right. The seat wouldn't tighten up, and the brakes didn't work even after I fixed them. In fact, the only redeeming feature of this two-wheeled wonder was the fact that it didn't have any, and I didn't have to worry about anybody stealing it.

I used to snicker at the chumps with their $600 mountain bikes at the bike racks, wrapping them up with yards and yards of tow chain and Fort Knox-like padlocks. "Look at this," I told them, "if you had a piece of junk like mine you wouldn't need all this security!" Wherever I went I would just hop off and lean the bike up against the closest wall. Talk about freedom. It was great. No messing around with bike racks and combination locks. Then one hot summer afternoon I came out of Barnes and Noble, and lo and behold, it was gone.

I was in shock. I couldn't believe that anyone would ever want such a thing. I walked down the sidewalk a ways and found the old vinyl bag that I had looped around the handlebars to tote a water bottle in. Then I looked up, and far off in the distance, way at the end of the parking lot, I spotted a kid pedaling away like crazy on my bike. I remember thinking, this either must be one desperate kid or one totally lacking in self-respect. If he ever shows off his new acquisition to his friends they'll laugh his butt off. Then I thought, geez, I hope he doesn't need to stop real quick.

I eventually replaced the stolen wreck with a 10-speed Walmart $35 on-sale special, or 15-speed, or whatever it is, but then I installed a pair of those old twin newspaper baskets that I got off another old bike in a dumpster. Now my new bike is so heavy it takes a couple hundred yards before I can get up enough speed to shift into third gear.

I know it's the green thing to be biking around. But think of this, the more you bike, the more calories you burn, the more you have to eat, the more food you consume, the more gas the tractors and combines have to burn to feed you, so it all evens out. Maybe I won't get it out of the shed this summer after all.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

More on Morning People

Since Blackbird has led off on a rant about Morning People, (http://black-bird-sings.blogspot.com/2009/01/morning-people.html) and Ray of Sunshine concurs, I feel it's incumbent to pile on...maybe together we can crush these "morning" tendencies once and for all. I'm a committed Night Person, too. Of course for me it all started out in my younger days hanging out with artists and musicians on the weekends, bull sessions that went on into the wee hours playing guitars and discussing life's ultimate meaning.

I came to love the backdrop of starry nights, the weirdos and drunks on Friday and Saturday nights in Denny's at 3 a.m., and the semis grinding through their gears as they started up from the truck stops. In the days before paid programming on antenna tv, the coolest shows were always on after midnight. And the coolest people never went to bed -- one night close to four a.m. my friends and I arrived home after a 150-mile drive to a rock concert to find that our neighbors had invaded the house and were playing pool on the pool table in the livingroom. (Yes, in those days it was quite normal to have a pool table in the living room.)

Needless to say, I loathe sunrises. The sight of that big old ugly red ball rising over the horizon makes me physically ill - I get nauseous just looking at it. On the days I'm forced to arise that early I always wear mirror sunglasses and chug Pepto-Bismol. These chirpy happy people that jump out of bed the first thing to greet the sun and the day should have their own continent. Leave us Night People alone!

...All joking and ribbing of Morning People aside, though, just recently there was an interesting article by Robert Boyd of McClatchy Newspapers you can read on Yahoo News at http://news.yahoo.com/s/mcclatchy/20090205/sc_mcclatchy/3161423/print, about the internal clocks that control all biological organisms, including trees and plants and even down to the simplest entities like blue-green algae.

And, as it turns out, it appears that there is actually a physical cause for a person's tendency to be either a "night" or a "morning" person: Boyd informs us that "People's clock genes may set their sleep patterns. Last summer, Sarah Forbes-Robertson , a British researcher at the Swansea University School of Medicine , reported that she can tell whether a person is an early riser or a night owl by inspecting a gene called REV-ERB in his or her DNA, taken from a swab on the cheek. A low level of gene activity is associated with sleep, a high level with wakefulness, she said."

"If your peak is earlier than 4 p.m. it would indicate that you are a natural early bird,'' she said. "If you peak later than 5 p.m. , then you are more of a night owl.''

I've got a funny feeling that I might not have any activity in my REV-ERB genes at all.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Gearing up for another semester

Another semester beckons, and is fast approaching! If I'm able to stick to my schedule, this is the next-to-the-last-one for me. To complete my philosophy minor, I'll be taking Will Cowling's PHI 425 History of Modern Philosophy. I just took PHI 301 Critical Thinking under Will in the fall, which served double duty as an LIS elective and a required philosophy minor course. Will supervises his classes from his home in Oregon. As an online instructor, it's not necessary that he be on the UIS campus anymore than the rest of us. When we speak of UIS's Global Campus, it is truly that - we even had a student in 301 living in Sweden, a 9-hour time difference between Scandinavia and the American west coast!

Under Will's direction, the Critical Thinking class took on a new dimension this fall. We applied the critical thinking skills we were learning to the recent presidential election debates through posts on our discussion board. It was surprising the extent to which we picked out the hyperbole and fallacies of the campaigns' rhetoric even after only a few weeks into the course.

I'm also going to be following up on CSC 321 Intermediate Web Design with CSC 319 Computer Programming. The class project for 321 involved creating a website. This was an opportunity to get going on a site I have been wanting to do for quite some time - a website for my late father's WWII artillery battalion. Although there was only time in the class to get the site set up in its preliminary stages, over the holidays I've gotten it uploaded onto its own webserver (http://203fabn.bravehost.com) instead of the UIS servers. It's now in its final phase ready to add content, scanning in photos and documents.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lincoln-Douglas Redux

Andy's posting about convention burn-out inspired this one: For our first homework assignment in Critical Thinking, we were asked to watch the conventions and then post our comments on the speeches, basically analyzing them the best we could based on our readings in the first chapter of our text.

My point about the conventions is that in this setting you aren't likely to hear any clearly-defined substantive propositions. Political conventions have evolved into carefully staged media events. Their mission is to place the candidates in the best possible light to sell them to the voting public. Any propositions have to be tailored to appeal as much as possible to the common denominator without alienating the party's supporting base. For most people, general topics instead of details will suffice.

The question is, when you take off your partisan hat in order to be a well-informed and discerning voter, how do you get past the platitudes that the candidates feel forced to say for public consumption, the scurrilous attacks their campaigns make on each other, and the hype that their campaigns have surrounded them with, to get at the real core of what the candidates believe and what they are likely to do once in office?

Let's face it, the so-called tv debates that have been around since the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 are a joke. The only thing you can learn from these things are how well the candidates' staffs have prepared them to answer any off-the-wall question thrown at them by network journalists and anchors. To be sure, Nixon's swarthy appearance, Al Gore's sighs, and Lloyd Bentsen's great barb about Dan Quayle being no Jack Kennedy were fine fodder for next morning's water-cooler gabfests, but were totally immaterial to the issues at hand.

I saw Newt Gingrich commenting on this very same issue on one of the political talk shows recently, lamenting the shallowness of the debating process these days. Pushing Newt's political views aside for the moment, Newt as a former history professor and historical author has a good perspective on all this: for comparison, he brought up the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when Lincoln was challenging Douglas for one of the US Senate seats from Illinois.

According to the "Lincoln-Douglas Debates," edited by Robert W. Johannsen, "Lincoln traveled over four thousand miles through the state, delivering sixty-three major speeches. Douglas exceeded Lincoln's mileage by some nine hundred miles and delivered fifty-nine speeches, each one lasting two to three hours, and seventeen shorter speeches." Although sound systems and tape recorders hadn't been invented yet, fortunately we have the verbatim record of all of their seven joint debates, outdoors between August and October - at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, Illinois - because the Chicago newspapers sent reporters to the events to take down the candidates' words in shorthand.

The format for the debates followed this schedule: one of them would open with a 1-hour speech; the other would rebut with one of his own for 1-1/2 hours (which of course couldn't be written out because he had to respond to everything his opponent had just said), and then the opening speaker would do a rejoinder for another half-hour. To thumb through these pages and see the breadth and depth of the knowledge about the issues of the day these two men had, and how they could speak at such length on these issues, is absolutely astounding.

This fall, I'd like to see Sens. McCain and Obama recreate this format, each with just hand-written notes, no talking points, and no teleprompters. How much of a chance do you think this has of happening.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Along with 29 other students - in what now looks like a closed class - I'm getting ready to start HIS 479 "From Vikings to Hackers: A Pirate's World History." I especially wanted to get into this class because it's a 4-credit ECCE in Global Studies which I needed, but the subject matter appears to be quite interesting too. One of the books on the required reading list is Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island," which I know I've got but I haven't found yet. Searching for this lost book got me to thinking about the general fascination with buried treasure.

I'm not sure just how widespread this practice really was with the buccaneers of the Spanish Main. Of course, banking practices being what they were at the time, or lack of them, might have instilled the notion that burying a wooden chest full of jewels and gold doubloons six feet down in the sand on a deserted barrier island would provide the equivalent security of, say, a modern-day bank vault. But it wasn't as if you could readily access this plunder, given the rickety old tubs they were sailing around in, and the fact that after a couple of hurricanes the barrier islands might not even still exist.

Still, the prospect of buried treasure holds a tremendous attraction. Whether it's Jean Lafitte's booty down in Louisiana, the Lost Dutchman Mine in Arizona, or the Knights of the Templar's holy grail at Oak Island, treasure hunters are always on the prowl for the big payoff, just like all the people at the gambling boat in Peoria.

Why anybody would voluntarily bury valuables underground is beyond me. Just the thought of having to do something with a shovel makes me break out into a sweat - a cold sweat. It's a hideous thought involving using muscles that aren't designed for such strenuous exertions, as least that's my belief. I guess the southerners had to bury their silverware when the Yankee raiders and scavengers showed up during the Civil War, but that's probably only because they hadn't invented plastic forks yet.

In my family, Uncle Charlie had the reputation of being a tightwad. It wasn't true, of course, but he secretly enjoyed the razzing and even promoted the notion that he had jars and jars of coins buried out in his back yard and down in the cellar. One day at a Yankees-White Sox game he turned the tables on his detractors. When the hot dog vendor showed up on his rounds, Uncle Charlie said, "No thanks - brought my own" - and pulled a fully wrapped and mustardized dog out of his coat pocket. I realize this is an old and oft-repeated joke but according to Dad it really did happen.

This brings up modern-day treasure hunting with metal detectors. A friend of mine caught the bug and went out and bought one of the top-of-the-line models, I think it was around $1500. It was so powerful it could detect mercury fillings in a mummy in a tomb under one of the pyramids, that is, if the ancient Egyptians practiced dentistry along with trepanning. After a few times scoping around an abandoned railroad bed, which required a long, sweaty hike out into the middle of the woods, my friend uncovered a couple of highly-sought after and valuable rusted railroad spikes. I think he put the detector back in the closet and returned to his cave to start watching the entire DVD set of Benny Hill, which suddenly held more interest than metal detecting.

Summer Reading

Once reason I was happy to see the end of the spring semester, besides getting a few more credit hours under my belt, was I would get to read what I wanted in my spare time. Originally, I intended to continue the readings that we didn't have a chance to cover in the textbook for Aesthetics (PHI 439), "Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art," by Lamarque and Olsen. Meanwhile, new books continued to accumulate from library sales, thrift stores, and church rummage sales - bargains I just couldn't pass up, even being extremely choosy, as I've already run out of room on the bookshelves. This meant I was only able to quickly browse through the new acquisitions. I did stick to a couple, though, through at least past the half-way mark.

Jimmy Buffet's "A Pirate Looks at Fifty," is an amusing sort-of-a-memoir in the light-summer-reading genre, centered on a tour around the Caribbean in his personal seaplane to celebrate his 50th birthday. One of the best parts of his life story revolve around his tale of his earlier seaplane crash in Long Island Sound. He credits his survival to a week's worth of Navy survival training that he had to go through to ride an F-16 out to an aircraft carrier. The problem is the book is over ten years old so now he's a pirate looking at sixty or more. And, I don't think there's room in the world for any more sixty-year old pirates, because Keith Richards of the Stones already holds that title.

Witold Rybczynski (wish I could use his last name in Scrabble when I get a tray full of consonants, but proper names are against the rules), professor of architecture at McGill University, produced a gem of a little book in "The Most Beautiful House in the World." In it he traces the evolution and construction of his own house south of Montreal. Along the way he makes these pleasant side excursions and forays into the historical precedents of architecture and building, and ties the whole thing together into one neat package.

"Socialism in America" by Irving Howe, is a small hardcover library discard that I came across, tracing the history and implications of the movement in the USA. In the early years of the 19th century, especially in the west and midwest, during the era of Big Business, Big Railroads, and the Big Trusts, the little people in the factories, mines, and out on the farms were being squeezed unmercifully. Socialism was a booming and wide-spread populist reaction to all of this, concurrent with the translations of Marx and Engles' works into English in the late 1890s. Socialist rallies matched the temperance and religious revival movements in attendance and enthusiasm. Howe continues on to analyze the movement and why it hasn't succeeded here, and what it will take for it to succeed.

Last but not least, there's "Italian Baroque and Rococco Architecture," by John Varriano. I think I like this book not just for its content but because of the gold 19th-century typeface on its cover and its oversized glossy pages, which give a softcover like this a feeling of quality. My, how times change. It's hard to believe that the expansive Baroque architect, Borromini, now considered a brilliant designer, had no influence in his own time and was actually reviled, called "a complete ignoramus, the corrupter of architecture, the shame of our century" (54). Funny how one century's fool is another century's genius, and vice versa.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Parked Blue Van - Part I

As I've already noted, I don't have an old blue van parked in my yard. But somewhere I'll bet somebody does. I imagine it's probably on the outskirts of some little out-of-the-way southern town: a faded, pale blue '68 Chevy van with a snub-nose out behind a falling-down barn, rusting away amidst tall scraggly weeds and half-covered up with kudzu vines. Of course, one of its wide-track '60' rear tires is missing, the wheel held up by a couple of concrete blocks, and the windshield's cracked from a stray .12 gauge birdshot blast (the result of a long-ago and long-forgotten night of inebriated revelry.) One of the van's side doors is partly open - the hinge is broken, and it won't shut anymore - and up front, in between the cracked vinyl bucket seats, the engine housing cover with its faux wood-grain drink-holder lies crookedly askew. There's still an 8-track tape player in the dash, and scattered on the floor are a couple of the square and boxy 8-track tape cartridges bearing legendary names like Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band. In the back, the wooden bed frame is exposed under a missing mattress, and the paneled walls are peeling off in strips. There's a lot of trash back there on the damp and moldy shag carpet, including some empty Lucky Strike packs and an empty bottle of Southern Comfort...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

No, I don't have...

...a blue van parked in my yard. After half-dozen of proposed aliases were rejected by Blogspot as already taken, in frustration I growled, "Probably something as offbeat as, say, 'The Parked Blue Van' is already taken, too." Lo and behold, much to my surprise, it wasn't. Well, that's as good a name as any, let's go with it and get this blog up and running!