Monthly Archives: July 2011

Keep the Penny?

I watched a rerun of a 60 Minutes episode last night on our nation’s economic state.  I found the last segment, “Should We Make Cents?” really interesting.  The interview was with the head of the US Mint, and the main question was, Should we keep making the penny?

Here’s a boiled down list of pros and cons for the beloved copper (really made from zinc) penny:

Against the Penny:

1) Each year the U.S. Mint creates  8 billion new pennies (12 pennies/second), totaling $80 million in legal US tender. But, the problem is, since it costs nearly two cents to make a penny, the actual cost to the US government for creating $80 million worth of pennies is $134 million.   (Just for a side note, it costs nearly a dime to create a nickel!)

2) The one cent coin is “out of date” and because of it’s low worth, it has essentially no buying power.  Additionally, not enough people actually use them; they simply go in a jar or piggy bank at the end of the day, perhaps to be rolled and cashed in on some later date.

For the Penny:

1) It showcases Abraham Lincoln, one of the most beloved US presidents. The penny is simply part of American culture:  “A penny for your thoughts;” “A penny pincher,” etc. In other words, we simply have an emotional attachment to the little copper coin.  Rebuttal to this point is as follows:  just like the rotary phone and carbon paper, the penny is now simply out of date and no longer economical.

2) It’s argued that, if the penny is done away with, producers will round prices up to nearest nickel, therefore putting a strain on buyers – especially those people to whom the penny is actually important, that is the people of the lowest economic class who actually utilize the penny for their everyday spending.  However, the counter-argument to this claim is:  the calculation process to the final price is too complex to simply say prices would be rounded up to the nearest nickel.  For example, retailers could actually round down on the sicker price ($1.95 instead of $1.99); plus, the existence of sales tax makes the final price too random to worry about which way (up OR down) the sticker price would be rounded; additionally, the fact that people often buy more than one item at a time randomizes the direction of rounding.

3) Charities make millions of dollars per year simply by having boxes in stores that ask people to donate as little as a penny (hoping that the customers’s loose change will go in the charity’s box instead of the coin jar at home).  So, if the penny is discontinued, charities will lose a substantial amount of money.  Rebuttal?  Charities will simply ask for the new lowest denomination of coin: the nickel.

Here is the 60 Minutes segment if you want to watch it yourself.

Also, here is a pro-penny website, and a “retire the penny” website if you’d like to see that I’m not just making this stuff up.

So, what I’m wondering:  what are YOUR thoughts on the issue?  Is the penny a big enough part of our culture to keep it even if it’s costing the US government roughly $54 million annually in losses during this horrible economic climate?  Would you miss it?

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Categories: Politics/Current Events, Random Info | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Groundworks for a Real-Life Invisibility Cloak?

by Adam Frank, NPR.org, (original site)

Hidden in Plain View:  the Physics of Cloaking Time, Space, and Experience

You never experience the world as it is. You only experience it in the way light brings it to you.

And light can be taught to lie.

Last week researchers at Cornell University announced they had created a time cloaking device. Using their machine they could hide an event from detection, even if it occurred in plain view of very capable detectors.

This “time cloaking” experiment comes on the heels of a series of results over the last few years of “space cloaking” technologies in which a stationary object could be made invisible to detectors.

Both experiments rely on the complex realization of a simple truth about our experience of the world. We have no “direct” knowledge of the world-in-of-itself but, instead, are forced to rely on signals carried to us from external objects. If the properties of the signals are somehow changed while they are traveling to us then our experience of the world is changed as well.

We all have experienced the simplest example of this at side of the pool. A long, half-immersed pole appears to bend at its point of entry into the water. This illusion occurs because of therefraction — change of direction — of light as it moves from the water to the air. We are skilled enough in the ways of the world — call it folk physics — to know the rod isn’t really bent.

Nature and light can, however, be manipulated in ways that can make illusions impossible to detect. This is the new physics of cloaking.

Both the space and time cloaking devices require the use of what are called metamaterials. These fabricated blocks of matter are made of subunits in which the sum of the parts — rather than inherent atomic properties — determine how it interacts with light.

Light can interact with matter in a number of ways. A light beam can, for example, be partially reflected and partially absorbed. Metamaterials — composed, perhaps, of repeating hoops of different kinds of wire — are carefully designed to manipulate the propagation of incoming light beams. By dissembling and reassembling light beams, metamaterials can be used to cloak objects (or events) in space (or in time).

Imagine a river (idealized) with a large bridge trestle anchored in the middle. The water approaches the bridge in a parallel stream, flows around the trestle, and then reassumes its parallel flow downstream. In essence, this is how metamaterials force light to behave.

By manipulating the speed of light (slowing it down) metamaterials can be designed to force a beam of light to flow around an object such that any “impression” in the light of that object is erased downstream. If you are the observer looking back in the direction from which the light was traveling you would have no way to know the object was there. It would be “cloaked.”

The same process can work with an “event” — something that happens only for a few ticks of time. When the cloaking device is “on,” light beams that would record the event — by interacting with it — flow around it and are reassembled such that the event disappears from view.

These cloaking technologies have some obvious applications. I will let your own devious mind imagine them (shame on you!). There is a problem, of course, with this kind of cloaking. If you are inside a cloaked device you are also in the dark. No light from the outside world can get to you (which is why you are cloaked in the first place. In addition, massive and perhaps insurmountable technological hurdles must be overcome before an iCloak app makes it to your door.

To make cloaking work, the elements of the metamaterial must be smaller than the wavelength of light being manipulated. Most experiments to date have been carried out with microwaves with a wavelength of centimeters, or more. Visible light has wavelengths that are the size of molecules, so good luck building anything useful in that regime soon.

Still, a new result is a new result. In principle at least, our dependence on signals from the outside world leaves us vulnerable to manipulation of those signals. Someday exploiting this vulnerability may be as common as the shimmering reflections off the surface of a pool.

Categories: Politics/Current Events, Science/Technology | Leave a comment

The Big Wooden Desk

I was sitting behind my desk.  Yes, the big, wooden desk that all business men (and women) dream of.  Well, I like to say it that way.  Because I bet you got the impression that I’m the boss of my company didn’t you?  I’m not.  But hey, wording is everything.  I learned this the hard way.  You see, my life’s not going so hot right now.  Ok, niceties aside, my life is pretty shitty at the moment.  Oh, it used to be the great, ideal, “perfect” life you dream of.  I had a house in the suburbs, a nice-paying job and a beautiful wife.  Hell, I even had a golden retriever.

But then…and there is ALWAYS a “but then”. So, but then, my brother came to me with that crazy idea.  One of those bizarre get-rich-quick schemes.  You know what I’m talking about.  And I guess it didn’t matter that I was happy and the thought of kids had even come up in some conversations between my wife and me.  It didn’t matter that I was already making enough money to live very comfortably on.  I wanted more.  Like always.  So I agreed to help my little brother.  I had to.  It was the big brother thing to do.  The main set back was that the “job” was in New York City.  We lived in Nevada.  But, I told my wife I’d be back every weekend, and I’d call her every night, and not to worry, “We’re going to be rich!” (That’s what my brother said.)

That was two years ago.  I now live in New York.  I have no wife anymore.  And guess what, I am NOT rich.  But hey, shit happens, right? At least that’s what Forrest Gump said.  You just have to roll with the punches.  And my brother was still promising the “big break” was just around the corner.  I had given up on that and gotten myself a normal job behind a desk.  The big wooden desk that all business men (and women) dream of.  Hmm, looks like I’ve made a circle.

On this particular day, on this particular cold, wet, dreary day, I was a nervous wreck.  My brother seemed to have gone missing two days earlier.  At first I just dismissed it as another one of his many long nights out on the town.  He was a lady’s man, and well, he was always off doing his thing.  When he wasn’t “working”.  I hadn’t really figured out what the job was.  But I’m pretty damn sure it’s not legal.  That’s why I bailed out a while ago.  That and the fact that I didn’t get rich quick.  But, since we both live in the same apartment, I noticed quite quickly when he didn’t come home two nights in a row.  So, of course I called his cell phone, blah blah blah, all of the usual stuff you would do if you were wondering where your brother was.  I left him close to a million voice-mails and then just quit worrying.  He was a big boy.  He could handle himself.  Or so I thought.

Just about ten minutes ago, my secretary let me know in her horridly screechy voice that “You have a call on line one.”  Oh fun, dealing with clients.  So, I pick up the phone.  This was definitely no ordinary business call.  It was some guy, who judging by his voice, looked like the main character from The Sopranos.  It’s funny how at such an urgent time like this, I could still make that connection. Maybe I do watch too much T.V.  Anyway, it was your typical ransom call.  This big brute of a guy (and his cronies I’m sure) had my little brother…and they wanted money.  How original.  They tell me the price and where to meet them.  And of course there was the “Tell no one, you hear me?!  You betta not call no cops, or Ill kill yo baby brotha, alright?!”  Icing on the cake.

I put the phone down and leaned back in my leather chair.  The one with nice smooth rollers.  The chair that all business men (and women) dream of.  Then it hit me.  Wait, let me re-phrase that.  Then, it HIT me.  HOLY SHIT!! They had my little brother!  After all that kidding around about his job, and now it was true.  Why hadn’t I stopped him when I bailed out?  Whoa, too many questions.  No answers.  And no time.  I looked down at my fancy (and fake) Rolex.  I had almost 8 hours to get…dear God, that just hit me, too.  Two hundred thousand dollars.  I am sad to say that my first impression was, why two hundred thousand?  It was such an odd number (well, technically it’s even, but I meant weird).  I mean, usually it’s one hundred thousand, or five hundred thousand.  Hell, this guy should have gone ahead and asked me for two hundred million dollars.  I had no where near two hundred thousand dollars.  And who would have known my brother was worth two hundred thousand dollars?

I felt sick.  If I didn’t some how get these guys their money, there was no doubt in my mind that they would kill my brother.  Wait, now I feel really sick.  Where’s the trash can?!  Phew, that’s better.  I’ve got to get this damn tie off.  I look at it in my hands.  Geez, this is so cheezy! I really wear this?  Crap! My brother, right.  Well, I couldn’t give them any money. So I needed another plan.  I did have a gun.  I’m not sure what kind though.  It’s black.  I had seen it on movies.  I think they said something about “a 9”.  9 what, I don’t know.  But I did know how to shoot it though.  Haha…Oh…There was that time I had accidentally shot it off in the apartment.  They called the cops and everything.  Made some huge deal about it.  I didn’t kill, or even hit anybody.  Somehow I had managed to get off.  Come to think of it, I think my brother handled that for me.

So, that’s what I’m going to do.  Be the hero.  I had no other choice.  Couldn’t call the police.  Didn’t have the money.  Plus this would add some excitement to my life.  But of course, my brother’s life hung in the balance.  I put my hands firmly on the desk.  The big wooden desk that all business men (and women) dream of.  I got up and walked across my office, leaving my cheezy tie and my old jacket lying on the floor.  I walked out the door and told my secretary that I was leaving.  Then there was that horridly screechy voice, “Alright”.

I raced out into the cold, dreary day, now wishing I hadn’t left my old coat in that office.  I’m glad I left that cheezy tie there.  I jumped into my old, used car.  I had a Volvo.  It was beige, boring.  But, everyone in the suburbs had one.  I mean, who cares if it was a boring sedan, it was a Volvo!  But I had to get rid of it.  I am NOT rich.

I speed along, cussing at people and flicking them off whenever possible.  Notice I said whenever possible, not necessary.  Cussing and shooting birds has become a habit of mine.  No, not a habit, a hobby.  Yeah, a hobby.  Most of these New York jerks need it though.  No skin off my back.  Was that the saying?…Ah, who cares.  Focus, damnit!  Oh, here I am, home already.

Through the lobby, up the elevator, get out the keys, open the door, and into my bedroom.  I get out the gun from my nightstand.  I head back out the door, but stop before I leave my room.  I turn.  And smile.  There it was.  A mirror.  Ooooh yeah.  I raised the gun so I could see it in the mirror along with me.  Now I really wish I would have brought that old coat.  It would have looked cooler than no coat.  But still, I’m glad I left that cheezy tie.  I cocked the gun like they do in the movies.  The “chick-chick” sound was so cool! I tried to do it again.  But it wouldn’t.  I probably broke it.  Oh well.  I looked back in the mirror and got all serious.  All business.  “So tell me, punk, do you feel lucky?”  Was that how he said it?  Something tells me no, but I couldn’t think of how he really said it.  Oh, who cares, you’re not Clint Eastwood, you’re YOU.  So, I say it again. “So tell me, punk, do you feel lucky?”  Wow. I looked good.  I was no 007 or anything, but for a stressed out business man with no coat, I was cool.

So, I go get back in my car. Still, it was no Volvo.  But, I was NOT rich.  I drove awhile, flicking people off and cussing.  Finally I arrived at the docks.  How unoriginal can you get?  I mean, why not meet on top of a building, at an airport, maybe at a cafe’?  But nooo, it’s at the dock.  And I was right.  As soon as I pulled up, the guy from The Sopranos comes walking up.  Ok, not the real guy, but you know what I mean.

I have to admit, I am nervous.  NERVOUS.  Maybe this isn’t a good idea.  Yep, in fact I’m sure of it now.  This is a bad idea. BAD.  But, Mr. Soprano yanks open my door. “Come on.”  I give him my serious-yet-casual business man nod.  I hope he didn’t notice that I almost peed on myself.  I reach over and get out “the money”.  Ha! It’s really just my empty briefcase.  Oh shit.  Wait a minute.  How unoriginal was that?  An empty briefcase?  Now this was a horrible idea.  HORRIBLE.  I get out and “come on”.  I’m following Mr. Soprano when I remember that the “9” (maybe it can hold nine bullets?) is just sticking out of the back of my pants.  My boring, old, blue pants.  So, being the suave genius I am, I just untucked my shirt and covered the gun.  I mean, would James Bond go into a deal with his shirt tucked in? Actually, he probably would.  Damn.  He’d probably even have a coat, too.  But not a tie.  Especially not a cheezy tie.

So, he lets me into some old wooden room.  And, God, it smelled.  What exactly did it smell like?  Phew! Sweet Jesus, that is horrible!  All of the men were staring at me.  Whoa.  I pull it together and nod at all of them.  Mr. Soprano shuts the door and walks around to join the other guys.  There are four of them.  And there’s my little brother.  Tied and gagged. Just like the movies.

“So, you got it?”  Man, straight to business.  “Yeah,” I sneer.  I was a bad-ass. Hell, I was an international bad-ass.  I chunk the briefcase on the table.  I guess I should mention here that it was a cheap briefcase.  I am NOT rich.  The briefcase pops open, revealing the non-money.  Oops.  The Sopranos all look down at the empty briefcase and then back up at me.  I think I might have just lost my bowels on myself.  I know my heart is pounding like a jack-hammer.  Wow.  I’ve messed up, I just realized.

“I thought I told you to bring two hundred thousand dollars?!'” There it is again.  Two hundred thousand.  I couldn’t think of anything to say, except…”Sorry.”

“Sorry?!”  I’m pretty sure he was mocking me.  But just in case he was serious, I said “Yeah” again.  Turns out he was mocking me.

He pulled out his own “9” and shot my brother.  Shot him right in the head.  I blinked.  Then it hit me.  Let me re-phrase that.  Then, it HIT me.  HOLY SHIT!  Son of a bitch!  God damn! Whatever profanity you can think of, it ran through my head.  I only didn’t say it because I was in shock. I heard a siren in the background.

“You called the cops?!”

I don’t know.  Did I?  I sure don’t remember it if I did.  I didn’t care.  They had just killed my little brother! Right in front of me!  And I couldn’t move.  I blinked again.  I was numb.  Wow.  My mind would not wrap around the situation.  My brother, the only family I had left was now dead.  Was there a point in living?  I don’t know.  I don’t know anything.  Wait, scratch that.  I did know ONE thing.  The Sopranos were about to pay.  I pulled out my gun

Now, I must be honest.  I’m not sure why they didn’t react.  I like to think that it’s because I was moving with super-human speed like Neo from The Matrix.  Damn, Neo had a coat.  A really cool one.  But, I doubt I was moving too fast to see.  Maybe it was because they too were in shock. Only they were surprised to see a boring business man with a “9” of his own.  Or maybe they were just dumb as dirt.  All I know is that they didn’t move.  Oh well. No skin off my back.  So, I shot them.  All four of them.  Not in the head.  I’m not that good of a shot.  But these guys didn’t miss many meals, so they were an easy target.  That and we were standing only feet apart.  Wow.  I had never even seen a dead person before and now here were five of them.  And I killed four of them.  The other was my brother.  The other was my brother.  The other was my brother.

Wow.  I was still in shock, I guess.  I didn’t feel anything.  I was numb.  That scared me.  But, I knew the feelings and emotions would come later.  Welp, here’s later.  Sadness, remorse, loneliness, guilt, grief, confusion, anger, disgust, horror, fear.  What was that noise?  Sirens.  Oh, and there is splintering wood.  I turn around and there are cops, pointing guns at me. Great.  More guns.  I believe another “Oh shit” is needed here.  Because now that I think about it, here is a room full of dead people, all of them shot mind you, and here I am, holding a gun…a “9”.

Well, I got a free ride in a police car.  They cuffed me and took me down town.  Just like in the movies.  They didn’t waste any time getting me to trial. They didn’t believe my story.  But, I didn’t care.  I didn’t have anything else to live for anyways.  But, I do wish they would let me dress differently.  This jumpsuit is very unflattering.  I want to wear a nice suite and a nice coat.  But not a tie.  Especially not a cheezy tie.

Anyway, here I am sitting in the courtroom.  The jury is already back.  Everything was a blur to me.  Supposedly I was on the witness stand for a little while, but I don’t remember it.  But, now, I was focused.  Now I would get my sentence.  The Judge pounded his gavel.  Silence fell.

But my mind wandered.  Oh, how I wish I could be that Judge.  Free.  Free to sit behind that desk.  That big wooden desk that all Judges (men and women) dream of….

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The Big Wooden Desk by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Entertainment, Ideas & Philosophy | 1 Comment

NPR: Potter Wanders into History

Two cartoons from NPR about the last of the Harry Potter films:

by Gary Varvel:

and by Mike Smith:

Link to the original site:

http://www.npr.org/2011/07/19/138473448/double-take-toons-potter-wanders-into-history?sc=fb&cc=fp

Categories: Entertainment, Humor | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Prince of What?

About 45 minutes from my house lies a town even smaller than mine.  And actually not much sets Plains, Georgia apart from all of the neighboring small towns except one thing:  it’s home to the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.

I hate to admit that, even after I became engrossed in History about six years ago, I had never visited Plains to see President Carter’s boyhood farm, his high school, or his current home.  My family and I had been talking about it for a while and we finally went to visit some friends there this weekend.  That’s when we found out the Carters were in town for the weekend.  In fact, he was going to be teaching Sunday school at his hometown church just outside of downtown Plains.  Cue the adrenaline and excitement!

So, we all woke up early this morning, and I have to admit that I had a moment where I had to stop and think, “What do you wear when you go to see a US President?”  We arrived at Maranatha Baptist Church ( www.mbcplains.org) early, went through the Secret Service security, and finally got our seats:  second row.  As someone told us what we could and could not do when President Carter arrived, I wondered to myself:  What would Mr. Jimmy, the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, and the president who founded both the Departments of Energy and Education, teach about?  I couldn’t picture him being a fire-and-brimstone type.  Would it be more of a biblical history lesson?  Defining morals?

The door opened and two secret service agents walked in, escorting the 86 year-old (though not so feeble as one might think) “Jimmuh” Carter.  He walked directly to the middle, explained away his cane (he just had knee surgery) and then asked where we were all from.  A good 20-25 states were represented, and there were also guests from Poland, Spain, Mexico, South Korea, Bosnia, the Netherlands, and France.  And then he started his Sunday school lesson.

The words he used were eloquent and his Southern accent dignified and sweet.  He opened by addressing a topic that I myself have both wondered and written about: the vast difference between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible (my particular interest is the difference between the god of the Old Testament, God, and the god of the New Testament, Jesus). He began by asking if it were possible to find missionaries in the Old Testament when it seemed that the Old Testament seemed to focus overwhelmingly on anger and violence, the destruction of entire towns, the assassination of women and children after war, and other such gruesome scenes.  He went on to admit that most Christians preferred the New Testament over the Old, mainly because the Old Testament focused on minutia, tiny and unimportant details of daily life.  “It lays out how many times we should wash our hands before eating, how many steps we’re allowed to take on the Sabbath, things that just aren’t important,” Mr. Carter told us.  “It paints a picture of God up there diligently taking account of every single thing that we do all day long.”  I half expected him to add, “And that’s not a very pleasant God, is it?”

But instead, he went on to tell us that Jesus came on the scene in the New Testament and changed everything.  He provided a new understanding, one which holds that God is love.  Actually, I’m sure that you can find the God of love periodically throughout the Old Testament, but it wasn’t until Jesus came along did the everlasting love and forgiveness aspects take the foreground.

And then, Jimmy asked a peculiar question:  Who are the chosen people?  Someone answered, the Israelites, and a woman behind me yelled out, Christians.  Jimmy nodded his head and repeated the answers slowly like any good teacher does (so you don’t feel foolish), and then said, “I don’t think so.  But let’s take a look in the Bible and see…”

That actually brings up another topic – namely that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways.  And how a man interprets the Bible says a lot about him.  (But I’ll leave that alone for now…)

Mr. Jimmy read about a prayer that King Solomon offered up to God, and from that he came to the conclusion that “everybody on this earth belongs to the chosen people if they live their lives by Christ’s principles.  But now I guess we’ve got to define Christ’s principles, don’t we?”

And this is where I got a little nervous.  Was he going to go with the same old routine that I had heard before, the “No one is saved or good enough unless they say a particular prayer and go to a church”?  Or was he going to choose a more humanitarian path?  The answer came in the form of a question:

“Jesus.  He was the Prince of what?”  There was a mumbled answer from the congregation, but “peace” could be discerned.  “Exactly right:  Peace.  He was the prince of peace,” said teacher Jimmy, flashing a wide and genuine smile.  I breathed a sigh of relief and looked forward to hearing more from the old man with twinkling eyes up front.

“Can you imagine a world,” he asked “in which everyone followed Christ’s central message – that is, loving your neighbors and your enemies as yourself…treat others how you want to be treated.”  If I’m not mistaken, this was what Jesus called the second greatest commandment, only behind loving the lord with all your heart.

    Mr. Jimmy (he just didn’t seem like “President Carter” sitting there in front of us, talking so sincerely about love and peace) went on to spur us to imagine a world in which even governments followed Christ’s principle of peace.  And then he paused for a moment and said, “I don’t want to offend my own country – and I served in the Navy for 11 years – but it seems that the American government is all too willing, maybe even eager to use its military might to solve problems.  I’ve seen lately too often that our leaders use our military force instead of negotiation or diplomacy or other peaceful means to get things done.  Just go somewhere else in the world and ask someone if America is a peaceful country.  They’ll just laugh at you.”

Mr. Jimmy’s message (I guess I could compromise and call him Mr. Carter) reminded me of a night in class back in college.  The professor was – is – one of my favorite people in the whole world, and most certainly is one of the most brilliant and wisest human beings I have yet to run across (several of us still believe that his mind is so powerful he can turn troublesome students into a quarter to help buy himself a Diet Coke).  He is a professor of philosophy and during a “Philosophy of Christianity” course I was surprised to find out that he was also a minister.  When someone asked, “You’re a Christian?!” the professor explained, “Yes, a lot of people don’t consider me a Christian because I don’t believe the Bible literally.  I don’t think Jesus actually rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion.  But, I do consider myself a Christian in that I have dedicated my life to the message of Christ:  recognizing the humanity in everyone, showing love and compassion, even to those I don’t feel deserve it.”

I had never thought of it that way before, but I loved that definition of “being Christian.”  In fact, it was one I could get behind.  That definition of “Christian” wasn’t exclusive; it didn’t exclude other peoples – people who were loving and compassionate people – just because they didn’t pray a certain way.

It actually makes me think of a quote by Mahatma Gandhi:  I dont reject your Christ, I love your Christ.  Its just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.  

I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that Mr. Jimmy would agree when I say that we in this “Christian nation” better start acting like true Christians and following the message of Compassion and Peace.

*****

    I thought about finishing up there, but I do have a few other things I would like to make available.  First, I’ll add that after the church service (where the Carters sat a few pews back, just sitting among the other church members), both Mr. President and Mrs. Rosalynn stuck around for about half an hour to take pictures with anyone who wanted to.  So, our family – affectionately known as Mama’ernem, which will have to be explained in a later post! – got our picture taken with the Carters before we headed for Sunday dinner.

Now I’m going to do a little PR for Plains.  Because of the horrible economic times, the small town of Plains is suffering the fate of many other small towns around America – it’s slowly shrinking, and it may look a little bleak at first.  However, for anyone interested in politics, history, or Smalltown, USA, a day trip to Plains is well worth it!

Main Street has a number of antique shops to browse through, and you can even stay at the gorgeous historic inn (www.plainsinn.net).

Just call “Miss Jan” at (229) 824-4517, or email her at pinn@sowega.net for information.  Besides being a wonderful host, Jan has been friends with the Carters for her whole life, so she’s got plenty of stories to tell that you won’t hear on TV!

The US Department of the Interior has taken over Jimmy Carter’s boyhood farm and has turned it into a national park.  You can visit Jimmy’s bedroom, see the backyard that he played in, and sit in his front porch swing.  Check out www.nps.gov/jica for more information on the farm.

There is also only one place to eat in Plains, and that’s Mom’s Kitchen.  I’ve eaten there twice in the last two days and let me tell you, the food is awesome, fresh and homemade.  You won’t be disappointed if you’re looking for genuine Southern cooking.  However, if you’re one of those types that count their calories, you better skimp on your meals for about a week in advance, because as any good Southerner will tell you, we’ll eat most anything deep-fried.  Another advantage to Mom’s Kitchen:  the Carter’s have been known to drop in for supper when they’re in town.

So, if you live in the area, take the time to go explore Plains.  Even if you’re not from here and are just making a tour of the South, Plains is an excellent spot to stop for the night.  It’s humbling to see the house where Jimmy grew up without electricity, knowing that he went on to spend four years in the White House, help make peace between Israel and Egypt, and then later win a Nobel Peace Prize for affecting the entire world in a positive manner through his efforts at the Carter Center.

And if you’d like a chance to meet President Carter, he teaches Sunday school most of the time when he is home. You can check out his Sunday School schedule HERE.  Take the time to go hear his message; I’m sure it’ll be an inspiring one.

Don’t know where Plains, Georgia (31780) is?  MapQuest it; or if GoogleMaps is more of your thing, use it.  You can also visit the town’s website at www.plainsgeorgia.com.  Or if talking to a person suits you best, then give Jan a call (number above) – she’ll be able to tell you anything and everything about Plains.

*****

    I think I will end with a quote from another wise man, Albert Einstein:

“Peace cannot be kept by force.  It can only be achieved by understanding.

Categories: History, Politics/Current Events, Religion, Travel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Conquest of Nature

David Blackbourn, The Conquest of Nature:  Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006).  Paperback:  $13.46 at Amazon.com

Awareness of environmental issues has grown more prevalent in the last half century and as a result, many historians are beginning to focus their attention on the environment as well.  In the past, while historians claimed that they focused on both time and space in their works, the consideration of time (moments in history) always seemed to outweigh that which was dedicated to space (nature and landscape).  David Blackbourn’s The Conquest of Nature attempts to reintroduce landscape into the history of humanity.

While Blackbourn’s book is an environmental history, he argues – rather convincingly – that there is no such thing as an environmental history that is separate from a history of politics, economy, military, or society.  In a way slightly reminiscent of Fernand Braudel, Blackbourn depicts how the environment helps to shape the course of human action.  Unlike Braudel, however, Blackbourn only feels that landscape helps to shape the actions of man, because, as his book points out, very rarely in history have humans simply settled for the land that Nature provided them.

The chapters of Blackbourn’s book are arranged both chronologically and thematically.  Each chapter covers roughly one century and focuses on a particular hydrological project that was prominent during the time.  The book opens with Friedrich the Great’s reclamation of the vast Oderbruch swamps during the eighteenth century.  Blackbourn points out that, despite Friedrich’s claim that “I have conquered a province in peace” (pg. 40), the purpose of the land reclamation was for its colonization by Prussians.  Furthermore, the shape of the project (as were nearly all land reclamation projects) was incredibly militaristic; over one thousand workers had to be protected by nearly as many Prussian soldiers from local villagers who opposed the project.  In the remaining chapters, Blackbourn goes on to discuss Johann Gottfried Tulla’s “taming” of the Rhine River (the mighty river was straightened, shortening it to a quarter of its original length), the large scale dam projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the environmental policies of the National Socialist regime, and ends with the present day situation in Germany.

One point that is made clear throughout the book is Blackbourn’s assertion that politics (the world of man) and nature never exist in separate spheres; they are in constant interaction.  Those in power control the reclamation projects, and thus the land itself.  Under the Nazis, the connection of people to the land (Blut und BodenBlood and Soil) was made explicit and given a racial twist.  Furthermore, for the National Socialists and their supporters, the conquest of land was always tied with the conquest of peoples.  However, the book shows how the environment can also have an effect on politics.  Blackbourn first demonstrates that larger and older geographical developments (he points to the last ice age and the development of Jade Bay) greatly influence exactly what humans can do.  In a more specific example, he argues that the horrid environmental situation in the German Democratic Republic helped bring about its eventual downfall.  Most recently, in disputes over waterways and dams, Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic have called on the European Union for mediation.

However, more enlightening than the facts provided within the book is Blackbourn’s argument that the prevailing attitudes towards “the conquest of nature,” (that it is a sign of marvelous human progress and, adversely, that it is simply the expansive destruction of nature by humans) are both over-simplified.  Despite claims from more modern environmental movements, the mindset of the past two hundred years, namely that nature was something that should be “shackled,” “tamed,” or “conquered,” led to environmental projects that were not all destructive.  Draining of marshes significantly lowered the threat of some diseases such as malaria, while the rerouting of rivers offered flood protection; both projects created more arable land which granted a better food supply.  Of course, conversely, such projects also had negative consequences that their champions did not foresee: biodiversity shrank or disappeared as native species died off or fled; this also had consequences for humans, such as fisherman who made a living on fish that were no longer there; by the eighteenth century, bears, lynxes, and wolves in Prussia were hunted to extinction in attempt to rid the reclaimed land from vermin; the swifter moving waters of northern, “tamed” rivers only meant more frequent floods for people living to the south.

This tug-and-pull, two-sided approach is not simply a way for Blackbourn to avoid choosing a stance.  It is his way of demonstrating that the course of history is never simple.  In his own words, it is Blackbourn’s attempt to put the friction back in history.  More importantly for this particular book, Blackbourn hopes to accurately portray “the contradictions of Germany’s passage into modernity” (pg. 13).

Another point that Blackbourn stresses throughout his book is that the idealized notion held by Romantics of a lost, pristine Nature was just that, idealized.  Blackbourn poses a short, yet significant question:  Just how “natural” was Nature?  He succeeds in his attempts to show that humans have never existed outside of “Nature” and humankind has affected its environment for all of its history.  The unadulterated Nature – the rolling hills and virgin forests – that Romantics longed for was but a snapshot in time, a snapshot that, though the Romantics themselves did not admit or even realize, was also a product of human intervention.  Blackbourn then ties this idea into his discussion of the current German attempts to “renaturalize” nature, that is, to restructure rivers into their “natural,” meandering shapes, reintroducing marshes and wetlands.  He argues that while such tactics may have positive effects (as well as negative consequences), the very concept – and even the vocabulary – of “renaturalization” is problematic because it suggests a “natural” state that never existed.

Blackbourn utilizes a wide range of sources that extends beyond the typical archival papers that historians often rely on; his inclusion of diaries, works of literature, novels, and even post cards portrays the impact of nature on German culture and folklore, which, indeed is an important theme in his book.  This wide range of sources, combined with Blackbourn’s eloquent writing style, allows this history to read more like a work of literature itself.  The Conquest of Nature serves as a masterful example of how historians in the future should approach environmental history and integrate it into History at large.

Categories: Book Review, History | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

I’d Build You an Empire

One of my favorite songs from my favorite band.  I like the music, but I love the lyrics.  Here’s Angels & Airwaves’ “Secret Crowds”:

If I had my own world
I’d fill it with wealth and desire
A glorious past to admire
And voices of kids out walking dogs
Birds, planes, trees, cleanest cars
If I had my own world
I’d love it for all that’s inside it
There’d be no more wars, death or riots
There’d be no more police, packed parking lots
Guns, bombs sounding offIf I had my own world
I’d build you an empire
From here to the far lands
To spread love like violence

If I had my own world
I’d build you an empire
From here to the far lands
To spread love like violence

Let me feel you, carry you higher
Watch your words spread hope like fire
Secret crowds rise up and gather
Hear your voices sing back louder

If I had my own world
I’d show you the life that’s inside it
The way that it glows when you find it
The way it survives with its families
Friends or it’s enemies

Let’s make this a new world
I swear you can go if you want to
I know that you have that within you
Inventing the first clean and usable
God’s greatest miracle

If I had my own world
I’d build you an empire
From here to the far lands
To spread love like violence

If I had my own world
I’d build you an empire
From here to the far lands
To spread love like violence

Let me feel you, carry you higher
Watch our words spread hope like fire
Secret crowds rise up and gather
Hear your voices sing back louder…

Categories: Entertainment | Leave a comment

Marriage vs. the Ph.D.

It’s funny because it’s true.

 

Categories: History, Humor | 1 Comment

Navigating Your Way Around

I just thought I might take up one post with a few words about the website itself and how I’ll run it.  First of all, the newest post will always show up on top when you go to the site (acuriouswanderer.wordpress.com).  Older ones will be pushed further down, and eventually onto other pages.  It’s not much of a problem now, since the site is still new, but if later on you’re looking for an older post, it may be easier to use the right side of the homepage.  There you’ll find two ways to browse through posts:  by month, and by category.

Next, I have a “Pages” section, which appears on the top right of the homepage.  There you will find some different information.  Currently I have three separate pages:  About Me, Favorite Quotes, and then Useful Links.  The last one is probably my favorite – that’s where I’ll keep a lot of fun or interesting websites.  Right now I have links to some different news websites, some of which are foreign, but written in English (it’s always good to get as many different perspectives on a story as possible – and that doesn’t mean just CNN and Fox – check out what they’re saying across the oceans!)  I also have a section for other blogs that I like, and if you’re reading this one, you might like them, too.  As I come across more, I’ll add them.  And I also have a random “Food for Thought” section, filled with odds and ends.  My favorite, because it’s one of the most fascinating sites on the web – even thought it’s pretty simple – is the World Clock.  It’s so much more than a clock!  Check it out; it’s awesome!

And, a few words on the posts themselves.  You can read the posts directly from the homepage.  However if you want to leave a comment, either click on the title (bolded in beige at the beginning) and scroll down to the end, or simply click “Leave a Comment.”  If you’re commenting as a guest, you have to put your email address in – but don’t worry, I do not get that address.  It’s simply WordPress’s way of making sure that you’re not a spamming computer.  Also, you are not obliged to give your real name if you don’t wish to.

And, at any given time that you want to go back to the homepage, simply click the picture at the top, and you’re be brought back.

Lastly – the Internet is an awesome place for writers.  Your work can be read instantly around the globe; your audience is almost boundless.  However, it is also easy for anyone even slightly versed in computer use to Copy & Paste anything.  As someone who will eventually make a living from what I write, I sometimes fear placing my words onto the Net where they can be taken and passed off as someone else’s.  So, in an attempt to combat that I will place a license on a few certain posts.  This license will not actually stop anyone from copy&pasting, however when you see the “CC” emblem at the bottom of the post, please respect my wish to keep that text authored under my name.

But let me clarify:  I do not mind anyone sharing my website with anyone – in fact, please do share if you’re interested.  And if you like a particular post, I have no problem with anyone, or everyone, sharing it.  But if the CC license emblem is present, please don’t try to use it and pass it off as your own.  I do appreciate it!

Now that business is taken care of, I think I’m going to go and find something to eat for supper (yes, I’m from the South, so that means I say “supper.”  “Dinner” is saved for Sunday at noon!)

Categories: Random Info | Leave a comment

HUMAN BEAUTY

“ I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature,let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again. ”

– Stephan Grellet –

"The Circle of Life." photo courtesy of Dr. Matthew Richard, VSU

Humanity.  It is such an intriguing topic.  It has captured my attention ever since the moment when I really became aware of its existence; the moment when I realized that Nationality, Race, & Religion are just lines in the sand – and in the sky; simply differences that we assign to ourselves and place upon others.  This process of self-differentiation, of creating We & Us and Them & They, is a process that strips other people of any connection to ourselves, and thus robs them of their very humanity.

I hesitate to continue, wondering if it’s possible to capture certain emotions or ideas and then force them here, into the physical world.  I did not sit down with the intention to ask why humans always divide themselves; to ask why there always exists an Other.  I’ve done that before, but no answer seems capable of explaining why it is so difficult to truly recognize the humanity in people different from ourselves.

Too often we are afraid to take a bite from the Apple, to open our eyes to the common thread that connects all human beings around the globe.  Certainly, it is much easier to sympathize with and care for those who are most like us.  But is it actually that much more difficult to empathize with someone who may pray to a different deity, has a different idea of marriage, or perhaps has totally different ideas as to what constitutes as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’?

Can we not look beyond the veil and see that the woman underneath loves her children just as deeply and passionately as our own mothers love us?  And what of the person who prays to no god?  He fears for his family’s safety just as any God-loving man does.  And what of the peoples who still nomadically roam their land?  Surely the hunger that they may feel is the same as ours.

The embrace of a loved one brings a smile to a Muslim face just as it does to a Christian face, does it not?  Isn’t the love between a man and his partner just as powerful as the love between a man and his wife?  And can we not agree that when Iraqi parents lose a child, their pain is just as piercing as an American family’s when their child dies in the war?

Before someone is Buddhist, atheist, a socialist, a foreigner, black, or white, they are first and foremost human.  That is our connection; we share so many of the same worries and fears, but we also share many of the simple pleasures of life.  Both laughter and tears are languages that cross all boundaries.

Humanity has an unquestionable hold over me.  It has, at times, brought me such anguish, and yet other times, filled me with an immeasurable joy.  But in particular, it is the human duality – humanity’s capacity to create such destruction and pain, and at the same time harness such understanding and compassion – that holds me spellbound and deeply moves me.

It is reading the story of a young boy who was pried from his life by the indifferent and obedient hand of History and placed into a bloody war; who was robbed of his father’s strong embrace, the smile of his brother, and his grandmother’s stories.  It is the story of a child who once spent his days playing soccer, but was forced to murder until it felt unnatural not to kill.  It is then reading this child’s words when he earnestly states that he would go through it all again – the killing, the months when sleep would not come to him, the migraines that he felt sure would finally relieve him of his burdened life – if only it would assure that no other child would have to experience such pain and loss, such confusion and sorrow.  Yes, that’s what moves me.

It is far too easy to focus only on humanity’s shortcomings.  Indeed, they are in no short supply.  But, it is important to realize that there exists a sincerely beautiful side of humanity, as well; a side that is too often pessimistically portrayed as disappearing in today’s world.  But, one mustn’t wait to read of a far-off war to witness such displays of compassion.  These acts of beauty, these acts of inspiration and raw honesty, are all around, if one will but see them.

Last week I witnessed an awesome act.  It was awesome in its simplicity and beautiful in the fact that it was mundane.  I noticed a librarian helping a blind girl to an empty space at a table.  I then watched in amazement as the girl pulled a laptop from her bag, put in earphones, and then proceeded to check her email and surf the Web.  That was it; nothing more.  It is a simple act that millions of people do several times each day, but I only wish that this girl knew how her act gave me an entirely different perspective and deeply transformed me.

My first reaction towards anyone with a ‘handicap’ was always one of pity, and that seemed like the appropriate reaction.  But I see now that pity (though meant with good intentions) still places the other person on a different, sub-standard level.  By pitying someone, we focus too much on their difference and in doing so, sometimes forget they are actually a whole person, capable of loving, hating, and everything in between.

So, as I watched this girl perform such a mundane act, realization washed over me.  It was as if I was seeing the girl – indeed, the world – through brand new eyes.  This girl was not sitting at the table thinking, “I’m blind, but I’m going to use my laptop anyway.”  She was simply a teenage girl, who happened to experience reality differently than I, but who was a complete and full human being nonetheless.  And so the act of checking her email was, in fact, nothing astonishing, but routine.  But that mundane act transformed the way I saw the world, and in doing so, became both beautiful and extraordinary.

Today I beheld yet another vessel of human beauty.  I was sitting at a table when something caught my eye.  I looked up as a young woman walked by, draped head to toe in the flowing, ebony fabric of a burqa. I had seen her once before, but only for an instant, and the image of her had lingered in my head for weeks.  But today, as she walked past, she seemed to simply glide effortlessly over the floor.  And although I could only see the golden skin around her stunning eyes, I found myself overwhelmed by her inexplicable beauty and grace.  Perhaps it had something to do with her strength.  To wear that shield of black cloth in this land, where it is neither forced or the Norm, must require amazing confidence and dedication.  I found myself wondering: Where does she come from? What is her story?  Her story, no matter its contents, has made her who she is.  That story, to me, is Beauty.  Her exoticness and our common human bond is Beauty.

We all have to wake up on some mornings when all we want is to sleep in.  We all have days when the world is against us, and we all have the capacity to be resentful and even hate.  But every one of us – even the person at work or at school, who we think has no heart at all – has something that brings pure, unadulterated joy into our lives.  We all have the capacity to overlook demographic differences and truly see one another.  To acknowledge the common thread of our existence is to show Compassion.

That is why I have come to believe that Humanity’s greatest attribute is not necessarily Love or Hope, but instead, Compassion:  the act of recognizing the Humanity in another.

This life is very short and fragile, but I find it quite comforting that one can find such solace in something as plentiful as the smile of a child.

Creative Commons License
Human Beauty by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Categories: Ideas & Philosophy | Leave a comment

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