Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Deportees

Originally uploaded by verbavolant
Photo by Verbavolent

Just finished a book by one of my favorite authors, Roddy Doyle. If you haven’t heard of him, you may have seen the film based on his first novel, The Commitments. His The Woman Who Walked Into Doors is a masterpiece and the sequel, Paula Spencer, ain't bad either.

This new book, The Deportees, is a collection of short stories about the wave of immigration that hit Ireland in the last ten years as the Celtic Tiger suddenly found itself in a bath of unexpected wealth. Doyle wrote the stories for a newspaper run by two Nigerian immigrants, so he set himself the additional challenge of creating them in 800 word chapters.

There are funny stories, and serious ones (and even a ghost story). The title story is a sequel of sorts to The Commitments in which Jimmy Rabbitte the manager starts another band, made up of only immigrants. “No white Irish need apply,” he writes in the ad, with no irony.

“Home to Harlem” is about a young Irish man with an African-American grandfather who gets disgusted with what he sees as his countrymen’s smugness about their culture and decides to prove that the great Celtic writers were influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

And, if he couldn’t do it, he’d cheat; he’d make it up. Yeats had died clutching his copy of THE NEW NEGRO. Beckett never went to the jacks without THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLKS under his arm.
But my favorite story is “57% Irish,” about a young man with a half-baked scheme to measure how Irish a person is by measuring their physical reactions to a famous soccer goal. “He’d written his conclusions monhs ago; he was just rounding off the numbers now, picking his evidence.”

When the government hears about his work they hire him to adapt it for use in deciding which immigrants get citizenship – and they want to cook the results.
Our hero has a personal stake in immigration. His ex-girlfriend, Stalin, is Russian. “Stalin wasn’t his girlfriend’s real name, just her temperament.”

Doyle is often funny and sad at the same time. At one point this story made me laugh at loud. And then I took a look at the phrase in question: “the poor man’s suicide.” And that is not a metaphor, like “opium of the masses,” it refers to a character’s death, but it cracked me up. Amazing writer.

One note. The book is full of what an American character calls “The Irish and their famous profanity.” She is promptly given a verbal slapdown for stereotyping, but be aware that the language is rough.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Not Crying Over Sour Milk

Originally uploaded by pwenzel

When we got married one of our wedding presents was a yogurt maker. It came with four heavy plastic cups. You poured in the milk and starter and after about six hours you had four cups of yogurt that tasted better than anything commercially available.

Nice stuff, but fussing with those cups was too much trouble. When the machine busted we didn't bother replacing it.

But lately I have had a craving for the real stuff, homemade yogurt. Somebody, I figured, must be making a machine that makes a quart or more at once.

A year of looking didn't come up with anything that looked practical. Then, about a month ago I found a Yogourmet model on the shelf at the Bellingham Community Food Coop. The box said it makes one or two quarts in about five hours.

And guess what? It works.

They want you to buy their starter, which is pretty expensive - about ten bucks to make six quarts. But after we got a good batch (our second try) we saved a cup in the fridge and used it to start the next batch. So far, that has been working fine. We also find that since we use low fat milk we have to add milk solids.

For many years my standard breakfast has been Rainforest Granola and Stonyfield Farms nonfat French vanilla yogurt (no longer available in Bellingham, alas). The homemade yogurt is so good I put it on the granola plain, no sweetener, no flavor needed.

Yogourmet. At my house, it's what's for breakfast.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Saluting General Powell

Colin Powell
Originally uploaded by deneyterrio
Photo by deneyterrio

This is not a political blog. I don't want to talk about elections, endorsements, or debates. But I have to thank Colin Powell for saying what nobody in either party seems to have had the guts to say:

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian.

But the really right answer is, "What if he is?" Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?

Thank you, General.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Making Money

Photo by BidWiya

Originally uploaded by BidWiya

I have written here before here about Terry Pratchett's fantasy/satire series called Discworld. I just finished his most recent book (and most likely one of his last - he has been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's). And I have to say, it feels frighteninly prophetic.

Making Money is about Moist von Lipwig, the rogue who was rescued from the gallows to take over the post office of the largest city on the planet called Discworld (in Going Postal). Having rescued the postal system from disaster by a variety of original ideas, unethical schemes, and sheer gall, Moist is now placed in charge of the Royal Bank.

You see, there is a banking crisis on Discworld. There isn't much confidence in the system. It probably doesn't help that Moist begins his term of office by announcing that he wants to get rid of all the gold cluttering up the vaults, and rely on newfangled paper money....

Of course, even Pratchett can't make up anything as bizarre as what is going on in our world. We don't have trolls, werewolves, and guilds of assassins, but we have conservatives demanding government bailouts for industries, and executives begging for taxpaper money while they go off to spas.

Personally, I find it easier to believe in the trolls.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pedaling to a special interest

crowd with bicycles
Originally uploaded by bellyanz1
I just read a fascinating article in the New York Times. Apparently I am a special interest. Who knew?

After the bailout package failed last week Congress started sticking every molecule of pork they could find in it in the hopes of sweeting it enought to get the dozen or so votes they were missing. And they succeeded.

Turned out one of those sweeteners was the Bicycle Commuter Act which gives biking parity with car parking and transit. In other words, employers can give biking employees a reasonable monthly reimbursement and take it off their corporate takes.

Interesting part is the bill's sponsor, Congressman Earl Blumenauer, couldn't bring himself to vote for the bailout that contained it. Talk about bittersweet, huh? Blumenauer represents Portland, OR, the most bike-commuting city per capita in the US.

I don't know if this will effect my family. The university doesn't pay corporate taxes and they already subsidize my transit pass (if the weather turns stinky I can put the bike on a bus rack), and my wife's employer already pays their staff a reward for not driving to work (and thereby saving parking spaces for the customers).

But it's interesting to be part of a successful pressure group. Guess I'll sit around and look powerful

Friday, October 10, 2008

VERIFY: News That Stays News

doctor bag 0215
Originally uploaded by brtpropshop

On October 7, 1916 a librarian named Frank Place, Jr. published an article in the New York Medical Journal that is just as relevant today as it was 92 years ago.

The title was " Verify Your References: A Word to Medical Writers." Place was not the first (nor heaven knows the last) to complain about bad, incomplete, misleading, or downright fraudulent references (alias footnotes, endnotes, or citations) in scholarly papers. But few have done it so eloquently.

Place laments that: "Articles that mean nothing are ascribed to mythical authors; journals are quoted that never will be published, and dates are indicated that none of us will ever live to see."

And as one who has spent some time tracing the evolution of an error from one article's citation to the next, I heartily agree when he says that some authors: "so far forget science as to quote articles that it is plain they have never seen, but have lifted bodily from some other list. Certainly there should be some distinction between the article read and one known only by hearsay."

Place argues that verifying your footnotes "is of the spirit of the scientific method. Substantiate your statement by proof, either of your own or by the work that others have done before you. We work with the tools that others have made and placed in our hands, and we hope to make tools to place in the hands of others who follow us. If our predecessors have experimented and have left no record in material objects or written description, their works profit us nothing."

According to the Web of Science, Place's article has been cited in 11 articles since 1990. He would no doubt be depressed but not surprised to learn that one of those citations gets the volume wrong, while another (an article specifically about citation accuracy) screws up the page numbers. The more things change the more the meme chooses.

Here are a few more thoughts from my new favorite medical librarian:

"Give authorities [ references ] as they are printed, not as you would like to have them printed."

"Should not the scientist be as truthful and as accurate in recording his help as in giving his own work?"

"Verify the reference that your best friend gives you. Verify the reference that your revered chief gives you. Verify, most of all, the reference that you yourself found and jotted down. To err is human, to verify is necessary."

Place, Frank Jr. "Verify Your References: A Word To Medical Writers." New York Medical Journal. 104 : 697-699. October 7, 1916.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Street Fight

Awesome Desk
Originally uploaded by walindsey

Dear constituents;

You have made it clear that you want an explanation of my vote on the so-called bailout bill. As your representative I have always felt it was my duty to listen to your voices and then to give you the benefit of my best judgment, and that is what I did on this issue.

I know you had strong opinions on the bill. Everyone in my office knows. One of my office staff, after hours of taking your phone calls, burst into tears and quit. But that particular staffer had an adjustable rate mortgage, so he'd been under a lot of pressure lately.

As I sat at my desk (which once belonged to Reymund Puccell, who I'm sure you agree was one of the finest governors our great state ever produced) and studied the bailout proposal this is what I was thinking. Is it giving too much to Wall Street without providing any help to Main Street? I called a meeting with my economic advisors, who have degrees from some of the finest community colleges in our beloved congressional district, which I have done my best to represent honestly and honorably for so many years, as I'm sure you will remember in November. But while I waited for them to arrive I began to ask myself if we were phrasing the question broadly enough.

Wall Street and Main Street are important, of course, but what about Martin Luther King Boulevard? The African-Americans have suffered a great deal under the housing crisis and I don't think the bill does anything for them. And what about Madison Avenue? I know that in the largest city in my district Madison Avenue is a quaint and atmospheric location full of wonderful antique shops, but as a metaphor it refers to the advertusung intdustry, and more broadly to marketing. Is the bailout bill going to effect our ability to market, and therefore to sell our goods, including the many wonderful products produced in our district, some of which have been finally finding a welcome overseas, due to the dollar being so woefully undervalued?

And then there is Hyacinth Crescent. The suburbs are hurting and my beloved middle-class constituents have been calling, writing, texting and emailing to insist, quite rightly, that we mustn;'t forget about how they have suffered from the housing crunch, the education follies, the health cost fiasco, and the gas orgy. And speaking of gas, the Interstate is another street that has made it's point of view clear. The truckers and others in the transportation industry have spoken with commendable force and clarity.

I mustn't forget the rural routes too. My farmland constituents have let me know loud and clear that they expect me to act on their behalf. I know how vocal they can be; the last time I had a staffer leave in tears was during the run-up to the farm bill. But that's neither here nor there.

The message from all sides has been clear and remarkably consistent. Do something immediately. Don't vote for the bailout. But save the markets. But not with this plan. This plan is unacceptable. Voting against it would be disastrous. And act now!

Personally I was hoping the gutless leeches on the other side of the aisle would show some bipartisan spirit, but my faith was misplaced.

And that, in short, is why when the vote came up in the house I decided to crawl under the Governor Reymund Puccell desk (built out of native maple a century ago by some of our state's finest craftsmen) and stay there. Not hiding, as some of my opponents have claimed, but adopting a pose of watchful waiting. And so I missed the vote.

It is now up to the wisdom of you, the voter, to judge my actions. Next month you will decide whether you want me to continue doing my best to represent your interests here in our nation's great capital, or call me home, where I will no doubt spend my time in your coffeeshops, boring you over and over with stories about my glorious career, and whining about the disloyalty of those I served so well.

The choice is yours. All I can say is, as the time to go the polls approaches and you think about your choices, if you find yourself wishing you could hide under your own desk, perhaps you will not judge me me too harshly.

I remain, for the moment,

Your congressman.