Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Blog's 5,000th Anniversary

I started blogging in 2007 and it was mainly a personal pursuit.  I like writing but I needed something to motivate me.  I definitely operate on "inspiration of deadline" that Larry Heinemann (novelist and one of my writing teachers) refers to. Without a deadline, I don't write. I am not like Toni Morrison who claims she writes at every waking opportunity, like on the subway and in line at the bank.  I need a push.  So a blog title that implies that I will blog everyday gives me that push.  I tried blogging everyday, not only didn't I have time but most of the posts were not very good or quite mundane.  I do learn something new everyday but most of the time it is not something that worth blogging about. So if you read the earlier blog entries you will notice that they are quite different than the newer entries.  Also, I decided a couple of years to personalize it more, so the newer entries have more about me than the older ones.

My blog (this blog) just reached 5,000 hits.  This is amazing to me.  Thanks to the tools on Google's Blogger, I monitor the number of hits and where they come from.  Below are the stats for all time, since I started in 2007.  This is only the top ten.  I have seen also hits in Yemen and Nigeria and in a lot other far away places.

United States
United Kingdom

Most people hitting my blog are using Microsoft's Internet Explorer in Windows (over 70%). Only 11% are using Macs and 4% using IPhones, hopefully not while driving.

My most popular post (with over 400 hits) is the entry I made on Neil Degrasse Tyson and the Titanic.  I attribute this to the film being released to IMAX last year.  Dr. Tyson is popular but somehow I think the film is the reason for these hits.  

It is interesting the second most popular post (with 229 hits) is an entry I did the same month as the Titanic post, November of 2011, the posting about the He's Dead Jim message that appears in Microsoft Windows when you power down your PC.  I remember being very annoyed with the stress that this message caused a friend of mine.

The most common search terms used to get to my blog is "shore of Tripoli reference."  This will bring you to my blog entry about the reference to the shores of Tripoli in the Marine's Hymn. My guess is that this entry is popular because of the events going down in Libya this past year.

The entry which I have gotten the most grief over is the posting I did about population growth back in 2010. If you look at the entry, you won't see all the comments I received about this post, this is because I got them on Facebook.  I share my blog with my friends and I get separate comments there.  I don't know if those hits are even counted by blogger.  Every person that commented on that entry is someone that I know that has kids.  It ended up being a pretty good discussion with the exception of the one woman who accused me of wanting to kill her kids which I chalk this up to either my lack of clarity or possibly a literacy problem. Nothing about killing any one's children appeared in the entry.

Going forward, I hope to hit 10,000 hits in a shorter time period than five years. I do realize that hits don't necessarily mean that someone is reading it.  Someone may get to my blog and then not even read it.  But since there is no way to measure actual readers, I will assume that most of them are actually readers.  

Saturday, September 29, 2012

They Might Be Giants

The difference between insanity and imagination is that insanity believes and imagination only considers.  At least, that's what I learned by watching the film They Might Be Giants.  This 1971 British film stars George C. Scott as a man, Playfair, who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. He wanders the streets of London solving mysteries with his psychologist in tow, Dr. Watson (portrayed by Joann Woodward). It is not a great film, but amusing.  Like many films it makes mental illness into something to laugh at. The option in bad film seems that the mentally ill are either laughable or terrifying.

This film is a little better than that.  It at least attempts to make a distinction between the insane and the imaginative. In the film, Playfair references Don Quixote saying that the famous character from fiction was insane for thinking that the windmills were giants. He explains that insane people take things too far, while the imaginative mind only considers the possibility of the windmills being giants, doesn't believe it. Without the imaginative mind, we would probably still think the world was flat and would never have considered the possibility that the mold on bread could be used as medicine. The two characters in the film are a lot like Don Quixote and his travelling companion, Sancho Panza.  One delusions charismatic character on a quest with one grounded character that looks to the delusion with awe or in the case of the film, with love.  It is a case for charisma over logic, imagination over reality ... not different from how a groupie looks to their idol.

The alternative rock band, They Might Be Giants, got their name from this film. This doesn't surprise me much.. With songs like I Palindrome I and Particle Man, they do seem to straddle the line between creativity and insanity. It is probably this line straddling that allows them to make such good children's music.  Their CD Here Come the ABCs contains some of the best children's music I have heard. Because the songs are entertaining for both adults and children, they are the perfect music a young family to listen to.  The songs are fun, entertaining and quite ... imaginative.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Loneliness and the Radical

In hindsight, you have to wonder if the friends and family of terrorists see it coming.  Did Timothy McVeigh's friends sit around expressing concern over Tim's recent radical interests?  We know it was Ted Kaczyngski's brother who turned him in.  Imagine the thought process and soul searching that one would have to go through to come up with the conclusion that one's own brother is the Unabomber.  At the heart of these lost souls is loneliness. They are outsiders, but how did they get that way?  If it takes a village to raise a child, then what happens to that village when the child grows up? We abandon them at age 18 and send them to the wolves as under developed rugged individuals, easy targets for every wackjob paranoid group out there. They reach out, looking for a connection and cling to whatever sticks. Loneliness is the problem, not moral deprivation.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut said many times how he'd would have liked to cure loneliness.  He thought if we cured loneliness, solutions to much of our other problems would fall into place. If you google Vonnegut and loneliness you'd come up with a good many quotes.  It is a common theme in many of his books.  His novel Slapstick (Lonesome No More) is not one of his better books but it is perhaps his funniest. He saw humor as a form of curing loneliness, connecting with a stranger and sharing joy.  The absurdist plot involves a pair of twins, Eliza and Wilbur, who are geniuses when they are near each but complete idiots when they are separated ... not many better descriptions of loneliness than that. Once elected president Wilbur attempts to end loneliness by assigning every citizen a new middle name and a number, like Daffodil-11, so wherever you go you have an extended family. Forever an idealist. He wrote this novel shortly after losing his sister and adopting her children. I guess he knew what he knew a little about loneliness.

Vonnegut may be oversimplifying, but may be onto something. His education was in anthropology. His absurdist extended families are similar to the clans of the Iroquois league. This league was like a United Nations of Native American nations which included the Mohawk, the Seneca and the Cayuga among others. The league once stretched from the southern Mid-Atlantic throughout New England and Eastern New York into southern Quebec. Within each nation there were clans the wolf, the turtle, the bear, the sandpiper, the deer, etc. If a Seneca member of the turtle clan traveled into Mohawk territory, they'd always had a place to stay with other members of the turtle clan. Very little in our culture compare to this. Strangers are feared, regardless of their names. The less different they look like you, the more they are feared.

Would we have a radical fringe if we were better at solving loneliness? Is it that simple?  Probably not. Perhaps we'd have less people walking into shopping malls and high school with their own personal armories, but it certainly wouldn't prevent the political radical. Or would it?  Is political alienation just another form of loneliness, caused by a lack of connection with the bigger picture or loss of investment in one's community. The McVeigh's or the Bin Laden's of the world may be beyond most of our reaches, but they weren't always that way. What should one do if someone you care for is all of sudden expresses interest in the Michigan Military or in the John Birch Society? Do you have such an effect on the people you know and/or love that you can change their minds? It is my experience that this is very hard work and involves lots of failure and headaches.

Many Middle Eastern cultures are famous for their extended family connections still identifying with tribes far more so than with nationality or occupation like those of us from the West. Yet political radicalism seems to be metastasizing.  Osama bin Laden's childhood was not an isolated one, his household was teeming with children.  He was the only child of his father's fourth wife. When Osama was a toddler, his father divorced his mother on a whim and gave her to one of his employees. Osama went from a household of many children to one where he was the only child. Three step siblings followed later but he was much older.  Both families were members of the Kendah tribe which has over 100,000 members.  When he was 14 his parents noticed his interest in religious had vigorously changed.  He stopped watching his favorite show, Bonanza, he prayed five times a day including at 1AM, he stopped playing soccer and became obsessed with news from Palestine. In high school he discovered the Muslim Brotherhood. If not for them, perhaps his radicalness would have been just a phase.  In 1994, while he was still in his 20's, the country of his birth, Saudi Arabia, had turned their back on him and his family had disowned him.  How many people in the family of several dozen or in a tribe of 100,000 tried to change his way?  If only they would have succeeded. How depressing it must be to be one of those people he knew when he was young that gave up on him ... like I would have done.

I don't purport to have a solution to radicalism. When I read over this, I notice that I have more questions than answers.  I just know that in the information age, a lot of ideas are out there ... a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones. Our support networks are more important than ever. This month's Harper's magazine had a bunch of quotes from the surviving members of the Jones Colony.  All of them talked about how alienated they felt from society at large before they met Jones, how lonely. Reverend Jones made them feel loved. The lonely are vulnerable.  Those scary people that shoot up crowds, they are not evil, they are not the "bad guys" as the media likes to call them.  They are us. I invoke Vonnegut again "God damn it, you got to be kind."

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Why I'm Voting for Obama

A few years ago my wife and I went on a river cruise on the Danube in Europe. The cruise was English speaking so the passengers included people from around the English speaking world: Americans, Canadians, British, Australians and a New Zealander. We'd sit with a different group of people throughout the week at each meal and had some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had.  We met a Kiwi widow, an Aussie Episcopalian minister, and an Aussie artist among others. I wasn't expecting to enjoy the cruising portion of our cruise. I was expecting the day trips into Prague, Nuremberg and Vienna etc. to be exciting and the highlights of the trip, but I had no idea how much fun the meals were going to be. The bottomless glasses of wine certainly helped.

This was during the end of George W. Bush administration.  I don't think I heard one positive thing from a single non-US citizen about him on that trip. Genuine distaste was the prevailing impression you got whenever the subject came up.  The words "buffoon," "privileged," and even "retarded cowboy" were used. My usually response was, "I voted for Gore."  Much of the political talk was about Hillary Clinton and whether we thought she would win. At the time it seemed she was going to, but I remember telling some folks about a Senator from Illinois called Barack Obama. I got some blank stares. At the time he was a long shot and his name was out of the ordinary. I must have sounded like a weirdo.

I have to say that I was fairly excited about Obama when he first came on the scene.  He had the right message at the right time, but I was not a Pollyannaish about him.  I didn't think he'd become president and change everything overnight.  In the US the head of our executive branch doesn't have a lot of power.  The presidency has gained a lot of power over the years, but still limited. Because of that, change comes in increments, for the most part, this is a good thing. Presidents also have little control over the economy.  I wish people would stop blaming him for the bad economy.  Clinton didn't deserve praise for our booming economy, Bush didn't deserve blame for our crashing economy and Obama shouldn't get grief for its slow recovery.

I am closer to 50 years of age than I'd like to acknowledge.  When you get older your political views sharpen. The broad all reaching idealism of my youth has died.  I expect so little of my federal government that I have become a one issue voter.  Yet my one issue, the environment, is broad.  Environmentalism crosses-over a lot of other parts of our government: education, energy, health care, housing and labor. Government is not the solution to everything, obviously, but the environment is one of those issues where the Federal Government is perfectly suited to resolve. In a two party system, when I have to pick one party over another, the choice is obvious.  The Democrats are not perfect on this issue, but certainly win out over Republicans ... no contest.  It is difficult even to find a Republican who will even acknowledge that global climate change is being caused by humans, never mind to expect one to find creative solutions.

Before I start complaining about Obama, let me at least talk about his successes.  The big success of this presidency is Obamacare (really called The Affordable Health Care for America Act).  He spent much of political capital on this very early in his administration.  Most presidents, since Nixon, have tried to do something about our screwed up health care system.  He is the first to make any progress.  For those of you who say that the President should have tackled the economy before health care, you are wrong for three reasons.   (1) The first reason is what I already stated, presidents have little affect on the economy.  They can help it a little, they can hurt it a little ... but little is the key word here. (2) The second reason is that he had to tackle health care early because he had a Congress that was basically in his favor.  Historically, mid-term elections usually work against the incumbent President.  Considering how hostile and obstructionist the Republican party is, it is very impressive that he passed anything. (3) Health care is an economic issue.  A huge chunk of our economy is related to health care.  It affects everyone.  As a health care professional, I know how much money health care providers write-off because of the uninsured.  Also, you just have to visit an emergency room to see our health care problem in action. People without insurance, those who cannot afford it, know that they will not be turned away from the emergency room. So our ERs are full of people who don't have emergencies or if they had insurance, would have went to see a doctor before they had the emergency.   If you don't like paying for other people's health problems, well I got news for you, before Obamacare, you were already paying for them.  You were paying for them when the Federal and/or State government bail out of a failing hospital with your tax money and you were paying for them with higher and higher insurance premiums.  Obamacare is not perfect, but it would have been closer to perfect if we didn't have one political party obstructing progress.

Obama has had some other successes that I am happy about.  He opposed the Tar Sands Pipeline, signed the Lilly Ledbetter law, ended the war in Iraq and has approved of gay marriage.  But overall, his administration has been a disappointment. I despised the Bush administration. Obama's administration has been too much like Bush for me to stomach.  Like Bush his stimulus package contained too many tax cuts, and we're still in Afghanistan. Obama campaigned on openness but his administration is probably the most secret administration since Nixon. He has the infamous "kill list" which is not only unlawful and immoral but sets an awful precedent for the future.  He has not revisited the Patriot Act and hasn't closed Guantánamo .  All this being said, I'll be voting for him, but  I won't be writing him a check like I did last time. Romney doesn't seem that bad of a guy but the planet can't survive with another Republican in the White House. It doesn't matter what he believes, he has already made it clear that he will cow-tow to the crazy far right wing of his party and nowadays that is most of the GOP.  If Romney gets elected we're all screwed.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Why I Love Vermont

Back in July I blogged about a street sign in my neighborhood that had a spelling mistake.  The word "Sight" was spelled incorrectly.

This sign is on the street on which I live but over the border in Essex, the town next door.  So I wrote a letter  (an email) to a select board member that I found on the Essex town web site, someone named Pat Scheidel, to see if I could get it fixed.  The skeptic that I am, I did not expect anything from this.  I didn't heard back from Pat so it was surprising when I drove by this sign today and saw this:

In little over a month it was fixed.  At this point, I cannot think of a better, happier place for a hyper-vigilant person like myself to be living than in Vermont.

I come at this from a fairly jaded point of view.  I have lived in only two other states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. You could say that getting anything done from the government in those other two places was significantly more difficult.  I lived in the Boston area for ten years.  Once when I lived in Brighton, I discovered that there was a mailbox that wasn't getting picked up. It was full. I called my local branch to tell them and they informed not to use that mailbox, it is a "dead box." But my payment to my credit cards are in this mailbox?  Aren't you going to deliver the contents of this mailbox? Of course not, it is a dead box.  I had to pay late fees, write new checks and cancel the old ones.  This was a time in my life that I didn't have a lot of money.  Very frustrating!  That box was full for some time.  Was it too much to ask for them to put a sign on the box or remove it?

I cannot imagine something like this happening in Vermont or if it had, someone would have fixed it and/or apologized for it.  Vermont is where apathy comes to die.  A few years ago, in Monkton Vermont, my wife and I went off the road into a ditch.  We were okay, just stuck.  Every car (or at least 90% of them) stopped to check to see if we were okay.  You could say I fell in love with Vermont that day, this happened just a few years after being on the T in Boston while having an attack of vertigo and not one person would give me a seat when I asked them.  Most of them wouldn't even acknowledge I was talking to them even after I got quite loud.

A friend was visiting Vermont a few years ago and heard me gushing. She asked if there was something that I didn't like about living here. To be fair, I had no problem coming up with this one. It is something plagues every small community. I said people tended to be provincial here. I have heard a number of times  that you are not a "true Vermonter" unless your family has been here for three generations. So be it that I am not a true Vermonter. It is my home and I love it however some of the locals want to treat me. Anonymity is something that I miss about being in a big city. Every few days, my town's email forum gets sent to my yahoo account.  It is usually a pleasure to read about a neighbor who has a goat for sale or about sightings of black bears and such.  But all too often there is an email about "suspicious" activity that just doesn't sound very suspicious to me.  Someone stopped their car on the road and walked up and down staring into the woods.  This doesn't seem suspicious to me, just someone being human.  Unexplained activity doesn't equal suspicious activity in the big city.  Anonymity can be quite liberating.  It makes me wonder when I pulled over to take a picture of these streets signs if there was someone watching thinking I was acting "suspiciously."  I guess you have to take the good with the bad.