Monthly Archives: March 2006

March

Parkinglot

The end of our rainiest March just about ever, as seen in the Kragen Auto Parts parking lot at Martin Luther King Jr. Way and University Avenue, where by city ordinance no one’s ever supposed to work on their car.

April Fool’s is next, and I’ll be out on my bike from sunup to sundown. More about that later.

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Rain, Rain

Heard on the street on my walk to work as clouds rolled in from the west and swallowed up our brief morning sunshine: “Rain, rain, g–d–n m—–f—–‘ rain.” Except my fellow stroller didn’t use the dashes.

Although I’m coming perilously close to a weather whine, our March rain has mounted into wetness of historic magnitude: We’ve had 23 days of measurable rain this month. If it rains today or tomorrow — and that’s almost certain — that will set a new record for most rainy days here in March. As my friend Pete pointed out the other day, forecasters say some large-scale global weather patterns have kept it wet here for weeks (and will for at least the next week, it looks like).

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Today’s Favorite Toy

Another Google Map application: Google Census. This one combines Google Maps with 2000 U.S. Census data. It’s simple and has its limits. The demographic information that’s available on the site is somewhat limited, and the ability to refine the area you want to search is, too. But the ability to click just about any point on a map of the United States and get both a quick profile of the population and housing stock is pretty impressive.

Googlecensus

The site looks like it’s a demonstration by an outfit called AnalyGIS (GIS is the acronym for “geographic information systems”) that seems focused on providing mapping products to a variety of commercial customers.

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Rambunctious, Rumbustious, Rumbustical

One spends a semi-absurd amount to subscribe to a resource like the Oxford English Dictionary — more precisely, subscribes to the OED, because there is no resource like it — because one wants answers, if not certitude. For instance, when the word “rambunctious” happens into your mind. Wait a minute. Where did it come from? Surely it’s an invented word from Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll.

The OED produces a fine definition: “Of a person: … exuberant; boisterous, unruly; flamboyant; of an animal: wild, high-spirited.” The earliest citation it offers is from 1830, from a publication called the Boston Transcript: “If they are ‘rumbunctious’ at the prospect, they will be ‘riprorious’ when they get a taste, for a ‘copious acquaintance’ with Vinegar.”

But as to how the word came to be, only this: “Origin unknown.” A pointer is offered to another entry, rumbustious (“boisterous, turbulent, unruly, uproarious”; a related form is rumbustical; the words are probably alterations of robustious). Robustious in turn is merely a combination of “robust” with the adjective ending “-ious” (robust is from the Latin word robur, for strength).

So there: No Lear or Carroll or any other sole practitioner shows up in the story.

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The Conscientious Objector

Blackfive, one of the military blogs I follow to try to understand that perspective on the war in Iraq, mentions today the passing of Desmond Doss, 87, who won theMedal of Honor for his World War II service in the Pacific. What was unique about Desmond Doss and his recognition for bravery: He was a noncombatant, having enlisted in the Army as what he called a “conscientious cooperator” because of his pacifist beliefs. He served as a medic.

Before Doss ever saw a battlefield, he had to overcome the hostility of his officers and fellow recruits. He was a Seventh-Day Adventist, and refused to train on Saturdays. He declined to carry weapons. He was a vegetarian. Accounts of his service note that he was ridiculed and harassed by other soldiers; the brass, meantime, tried to throw him out of the Army as unfit for service, a move he resisted.

Eventually, Doss’s unit shipped out to the Pacific and wound up fighting on Guam, in the Philippines, and finally, in April and May 1945, on Okinawa. His Medal of Honor citation tells the story:

DOSS, DESMOND T.

“Rank and organization: Private First Class, U.S. Army, Medical Detachment, 307th Infantry, 77th Infantry Division. Place and date: Near Urasoe Mura, Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, 29 April-21 May 1945. Entered service at: Lynchburg, Va. Birth: Lynchburg, Va. G.O. No.: 97, 1 November 1945. Citation: He was a company aid man when the 1st Battalion assaulted a jagged escarpment 400 feet high As our troops gained the summit, a heavy concentration of artillery, mortar and machinegun fire crashed into them, inflicting approximately 75 casualties and driving the others back. Pfc. Doss refused to seek cover and remained in the fire-swept area with the many stricken, carrying them 1 by 1 to the edge of the escarpment and there lowering them on a rope-supported litter down the face of a cliff to friendly hands. On 2 May, he exposed himself to heavy rifle and mortar fire in rescuing a wounded man 200 yards forward of the lines on the same escarpment; and 2 days later he treated 4 men who had been cut down while assaulting a strongly defended cave, advancing through a shower of grenades to within 8 yards of enemy forces in a cave’s mouth, where he dressed his comrades’ wounds before making 4 separate trips under fire to evacuate them to safety. On 5 May, he unhesitatingly braved enemy shelling and small arms fire to assist an artillery officer. He applied bandages, moved his patient to a spot that offered protection from small arms fire and, while artillery and mortar shells fell close by, painstakingly administered plasma. Later that day, when an American was severely wounded by fire from a cave, Pfc. Doss crawled to him where he had fallen 25 feet from the enemy position, rendered aid, and carried him 100 yards to safety while continually exposed to enemy fire. …”

There’s more, actually, about his own wounding. Doss’s tale is told in a book (“Unlikeliest Hero,” 1967) and a documentary (“The Conscientious Objector,” 2004). The Seventh-Day Adventists have reported a theatrical film based on his story is in production.

The religious component to the tale is not to be downplayed. This guy had a lifelong conviction that taking life, of any kind, was wrong; it was a belief intertwinted with his view of the Ten Commandments and his living relationship with his god. One of the stories about Doss on Okinawa has him calling his unit together and praying before the assault on a cliff; his unit was said to have suffered no casualties in the ensuing attack — and the believers hold that fact out as proof of a god extending a hand of protection over those devoutly seeking aid. Of course, I’ve got no problem believing Doss was devout, that his faith was sincere and suffused his whole being; on the other hand I have a little problem conceiving of a god who extends a hand of protection in the midst of a rain of violence, chaos, cruelty and death in which many, many other prayers go unanswered; unless, of course, the god is Zeus, Poseidson, Apollo, or Athena.

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‘Most Americans Believe Iran Is Building a Nuclear Weapon’

WSJ.com: Most Americans Believe Iran Is Building a Nuclear Weapon.

My headline for the story might be, “So what do you expect?” The Wall Street Journal reports the results of a Harris Interactive poll finding that “a large majority of Americans believe Iran is using its uranium research program to build a nuclear weapon.” Is that belief a surprise, considering the fact this is precisely the message that government and media are giving citizens, readers, viewers and listeners every time the subject of Iran comes up?

Let’s take a look at what Harris Interactive said Americans believed about Iraq in March 2003: Among other findings reported on March 6 of that year — 13 days before the war began — Harris reported 80 percent of Americans “believe Iraq has or is making nuclear, chemical or biological weapons”; 78 percent believed “believe there is at least some link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.” Lost in the mists of time is the finding that, even with those beliefs about Saddam and Iraq, only a plurality of Americans (45-36 percent) said they favored an attack at the time.

The point of all the above being: If people are bombarded day and night by the same set of “facts,” that’s bound to affect their thinking.

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Down the Path to Democracy

By way of Volokh and the Chicago Tribune:

KABUL, Afghanistan — Abdul Rahman told his family he was a Christian. He told the neighbors, bringing shame upon his home. But then he told the police, and he could no longer be ignored.

Now, in a major test of Afghanistan’s fledgling court system, Rahman, 42, faces the death penalty for abandoning Islam for Christianity. Prosecutors say he should die. So do his family, his jailers, even the judge. Rahman has no lawyer. Jail officials refused to let anyone see Rahman on Monday, despite permission granted by the country’s justice minister.

The issue came up in the State Department’s daily briefing yesterday — a great opportunity for the administration that has decided to make its mark by spreading the light of freedom around the world to make a statement on the extreme intolerance and anti-democratic nature of our Afghan allies’ behavior. Here’s what spokesperson Sean McCormack had to say, in part:

“… We are watching this case closely and we urge the Afghani Government to conduct any legal proceedings in a transparent and a fair manner. Certainly we underscored — we have underscored many times and we underscored also to Foreign Minister Abdullah that we believe that tolerance and freedom of worship are important elements of any democracy. And certainly as Afghanistan continues down the pathway to democracy these are issues that they are going to have to deal with. These are not things that they have had to deal with in the past. Previously under the Taliban, anybody considered an apostate was subject to torture and death. Right now you have a legal proceeding that’s underway in Afghanistan and we urge that that legal proceeding take place in a transparent matter and we’re going to watch the case closely. ”

Down the path to democracy? At least he has the direction right. That summary reminds me of the old National Lampoon take on a high school U.S. history book (“The American Spectacle: 1492 to the Present”), with chapters titled (something like), “World War I: Pothole in the Road to World Peace.”

Reporters pressed McCormack to say why the administration isn’t simply calling for an end to the trial instead of merely insisting on judicial transparency; they even asked asked whether he would term the trial troubling. McCormack parried all questions with the response that this is a matter for the Afghans to work out under their constitution and that the administration has made its feelings known — in private — to the government. It’s just not the kind of restraint we’ve come to expect from a group that has dedicated itself to putting all the world’s ne’er-do-wells on notice.

[The update: Bush today says he is “deeply troubled” by the trial. And the Afghan government is having second thoughts about prosecuting Rahman. Not because its law is an expression of religious extremism, but because Rahman may be crazy. From the AP: “… Prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari said questions have been raised about [Rahman’s] mental fitness. ‘We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn’t talk like a normal person.’ Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to President Hamid Karzai, said Rahman would undergo a psychological examination. ‘Doctors must examine him,’ he said. ‘If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped.’ “]

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Vice President Colbath, Part I

Consider for a moment — there’s no reason it must be this moment, but here it is anyway — the life of U.S. Vice President Jeremiah Jones Colbath. No — not a household name. In fact, if you look at a list of all the men who have served as No. 2, from John Adams to the current incumbent, you won’t find him. But he did serve.

When I was tapping out those president and vice president posts last month, I mentioned at one point being surprised at the number of vice presidents who had died in office. One of those was Henry Wilson, who was the second of Grant’s vice presidents. He suffered a stroke while in the Capitol in November 1875. Wilson was taken to the vice president’s suite, near the Senate floor, and died nearly two weeks later, on November 22.

The official biography includes a wonderful quote from one of Wilson’s eulogizers: “He was not learned, he was not eloquent, he was not logical in a high sense, he was not always consistent in his political actions, and yet he gained the confidence of the people, and he retained it to the end of his life.” The trust of the people, the Senate writeup suggests, came from his tireless habit of sounding out everyone he encountered about the issues of the day. “Confidence of the people” might be a little bit of a stretch, considering candidates for the U.S. Senate were elected by legislatures rather than popular vote until well into the 20th century. Reading about Wilson, you get the picture of someone who rose above the station that lack of learning, eloquence and logic “in a high sense” might have reserved for him — perhaps that of a modestly successful political hack. He had more than enough ambition, drive and smarts to play the game and become a master operator. A 1964 journal article on him was titled, “Henry Wilson: Unprincipled Know-Nothing,” a reference to Wilson’s abandonment of his stated anti-slavery stance in the early 1850s to secretly join the nativist, racist Know-Nothings in order to win support in an election.

Henrywilson
That started him on the path to prominence in Republican politics — he became a leader of the party’s radical wing during the Civil War and unsuccessfully campaigned for measures that would ensure racial equality after the war. When he died, the Senate was moved enough by his passing that it commissioned a bust eventually executed by Daniel Chester French, better known for sculpting the statue in the Lincoln Memorial, The Republic, a centerpiece of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. and the Concord Minuteman in Massachusetts. Among others.

[It’s late; to be continued.]

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The Wind

Saturday was the day of the San Francisco Randonneurs 400-kilometer brevet. That’s 250 miles in American Distance Units. Far enough that unless you’re very strong and very fast, you face the reality that you’re going to need to sit on your bike all day and a good part of the night to finish. Without going into all the particulars of the ride — the stuff that always lasts in my memory is the landscape, whatever the landscape happens to be — the dominating factor on the ride was the wind. A storm blew through early Friday, and Saturday was dry. But as often happens after a storm passes, the wind along the coast and in the Central Valley blows hard from the north or northwest. Our route included a 60-mile leg that turned out to be more or less straight into a fairly fierce post-storm breeze. It’s hard to describe how implacable a force it turns into when you realize you’ll be facing it for four or five or six hours or more. The best thing that the wind did, though, was encourage riders to group up — riding together offers some protection if you can organize a paceline to share the work of leading the pack. That happened rather spontaneously on Saturday, and I spent most of the ride with four or five other riders. And of course, the best thing about a headwind is that it becomes a tailwind if both you and it persist long enough. At sunset and during twilight on the way back to down the Sacramento Valley, we just bucketed along. Here’s a little report on the day’s chief meteorological feature that I wrote up for my fellow riders:

Poking around some National Weather Service data, I can’t find any data from along our route. But reports from the west-central Sacramento Valley and the foothills just to the west show sustained winds in the high teens to mid 20s (mph) most of the afternoon with gusts in the low to mid 30s. The National Weather Service wind speeds represent a two-minute average ending at the time indicated; the gust speed is the highest speed recorded during the two minutes.

Highlights:

–The recording station at Corning (Olive Capital of the World, 57 miles north of Williams) recorded a 23 mph wind from the northwest gusting to 35 at 1:50 p.m.

–At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, near Willows (Gateway to Elk Creek, 28 miles north of Williams), wind speeds were recorded at 21 or 22 mph, gusting from 30-32 mph, for every hour between 9:40 a.m. and 2:40 p.m.

–Further east in the Valley, winds were a little less extreme: Marysville (Where Yuba City Looks for Thrift-Store Bargains) had sustained winds up to 18 mph (1:50 p.m.) and gusts up to 28 (at 10:50 a.m. and 1:50 p.m.). Chico (They Have a Peet’s There Now) reported an 18 mph wind at 1:50 p.m. and gusts as high as 31 (2:50 p.m.)

–At Brooks (Gambling Mecca of All Yolo County), sustained wind speeds were lower, in the low to mid teens, but were gusting up to 26 mph.

–Thomes Creek, in the hills west of Orland (Home of the Famous Highway 32 Dog-leg Turn), had the same pattern, but with wind gusts up to 33 mph.

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Finn and His People

In honor of the day:

Finn

(from “At Swim-Two-Birds,” by Flann O’Brien)

“… Finn Mac Cool, a hero of old Ireland, came out before me from his shadow, Finn the wide-hammed, the heavy-eyed, Finn that could spend a Lammas morning with girdled girls at far-from-simple chess play. …

“Too great was he for standing. The neck to him was as the bole of a great oak, knotted and seized together with muscle-humps and carbuncles of tangled sinew, the better for good feasting and contending with the bards. The chest to him was wider than the poles of a good chariot, coming now out, now in, and pastured from chin to navel with meadows of black man-hair and meated with layers of fine man-meat the better to hide his bones and fashion the semblance of his twin bubs. The arms to him were like the necks of beasts, ball-swollen with their bunched-up brawnstrings and blood-veins, the better for harping and hunting and contending with the bards. Each thigh to him was to the thickness of a horse’s belly, narrowing to a green-veined calf to the thickness of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was wide enough to halt the march of warriors through a mountain-pass.”

His People

“… Relate then the attributes that are to Finn’s people. …”

“I will relate, said Finn.

“Till a man has accomplished twelve books of poetry, the same is not taken for want of poetry but is forced away. No man is taken till a black hole is hollowed in the world to the depth of his two oxters and he put into it to gaze from it with his lonely head and nothing to him but his shield and a stick of hazel. Then must nine warriors fly their spears at him, one with the other and together. If he be spear-holed past his shield, or spear-killed, he is not taken for want of shield-skill. No man is taken till he is run by warriors through the woods of Erin with his hair bunched-loose about him for bough-tangle and briar-twitch. Should branches disturb his hair or pull it forth like sheep-wool on a hawthorn, he is not taken but is caught and gashed. Weapon-quivering hand or twig-crackling foot at full run, neither is taken. Neck-high sticks he must pass by vaulting, knee-high sticks by stooping. With the eyelids to him stitched to the fringe of his eye-bags, he must be run by Finn’s people through the bogs and marshes of Erin with two odorous prickle-backed hogs ham-tied and asleep in the seat of his hempen drawers. If he sink beneath a peat-swamp or lose a hog, he is not accepted of Finn’s people. For five days he must sit on the brow of a cold hill with twelve-pointed stag-antlers hidden in his seat, without food or music or chessmen. If he cry out or eat grass-stalks or desist from the constant recital of sweet poetry and melodious Irish, he is not taken but wounded. … One hundred head of cattle he must accommodate with wisdom about his person when walking all Erin, the half about his armpits and the half about his trews, his mouth never halting from the discoursing of sweet poetry. One thousand rams he must sequester about his trunks with no offence to the men or Erin, or he is unknown to Finn. …”

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