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November 30, 2007
Comics without superheroes
Posted by Avram Grumer at 05:35 PM * 79 comments

In the Watchmen movie thread, there’s been some discussion of what other comics are worth reading, aside from stuff Alan Moore wrote twenty years ago. Most of what people have been bringing up are just the more respectable superhero comics, and while I occasionally like me a good story about underwear perverts clocking each other in the chops, there’s a lot more out there on the shelves of a good comics shop. (And if you’re in NYC and looking for a good comics shop, check out this Google Map.) Here’s some stuff you may not have heard of:

Ongoing series

by Carla Speed McNeil
self-published through Lightspeed Press

Finder is my pick for best ongoing comic series currently being published. It’s a black-and-white science fiction series centered on Jaeger Ayers, a charming wanderer, and the various people whose lives he wanders into. Jaeger himself is a half-breed member of a nomadic low-tech culture, a sin-eater, a member of a secret society of trackers, and has some biological quirks that have yet to be explained. The world he travels through is set in the distant future, dotted with arcologies, ruled by genetically-idealized clans, and full of weird cultures. The people are utterly convincing. McNeil not only knows what makes people tick, but can bring it out in dialog, posture, and facial expression.

Finder is published two pages a week as a free webcomic, and then collected into paperback volumes. I find it works much better in big batches, so I ignore the webcomic.

edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Flight’s an ongoing series, not a self-contained book. But that’s OK, because it’s an anthology, and each story within is self-contained. The fourth volume just came out, and the earlier ones are in print pretty continuously. It’s a mixed bag, like all anthologies, but consistently has an above-average proportion of beautifully illustrated work.

Scott Pilgrim
by Brian Lee O’Malley
published by Oni Press

Canadian slacker Scott Pilgrim isn’t very bright, but he’s good at fighting. Lucky for him, because his new girlfriend (a delivery girl who skates through a subspace shortcut in Scott’s subconscious) has a Legion of Evil Ex-Boyfriends who Scott has to fight. This combination — a bohemian slacker pals around with his friends and sometimes turns into a video-game character — combines tropes of the American indie comics scene and Japanese manga, and O’Malley’s artwork does the same, with the simple, wide-eyed character designs you expect from manga, but the rough linework you often see in indie comics.

by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
published by Vertigo

When a chunk of the US decides to secede from the union, the dividing line in the new civil war runs right through New York City. The island of Manhattan becomes a demilitarized zone, which we see through the eyes of a young photojournalist.


by Dylan Horrocks
published by Black Eye Books

Imagine a small New Zealand town where everybody’s into comics. That’s Hicksville. There are several interwoven stories here, about a successful comics creator who everyone hates but nobody will say why, and a woman who’s been translating a theory about comics and maps by a cartoonist from a fictional eastern European country, and a comic-within-the-comic supposedly sent to Horrocks by an unknown correspondent.

Horrocks’s art is a bit scratchy and simplistic, not the polished work you see in mainstream comics. But he has a good sense of layout, and he’s deeply interested in what makes comics work as a medium, as well as in the history of the form. He’s also creating a sequel, Atlas, set in that eastern European country, that’s seen two issues in six years.

Pulpatoon Pilgrimage
by Joel Priddy
published by Adhouse Books

Not only haven’t you heard of this one, you probably won’t be able to find it. Though I did see a few copies at this year’s MoCCA festival. This small yellow book is (I think) Priddy’s first work in comics, and it’s amazingly polished, with considerable amounts of formal play at the illustrative level. It’s about a trio of pilgrims — a minotaur, a plant man, and a robot (who’s possibly a fish) — on a quest, and their dreams and backstories.

American Born Chinese
by Gene Yang
published by First Second Books

OK, you might have heard of this one, since it was a National Book Award finalist last year. It adapts Monkey’s Journey to the West to a modern, three-layered story about racism and self-hatred. Yang’s artwork is clean and engaging.

Same Difference and Other Stories
by Derek Kirk Kim
published by Top Shelf Productions

A collection of stories — mostly slice-of-life, with some broad comedy — informed by Kim’s experiences as a Korean-American. Kim has a beautiful clear line style. The title story in this collection used to be available online, but the chapters don’t load. Still, that’s a lovely title page.

by Craig Thompson
published by Top Shelf Productions

Thompson’s autobio comic about growing up in a strict Christian family, and the teen romance that broadened his outlook on life. There’s not a whole lot of story here, but the book’s pretty fat regardless, because Thompson takes his time telling it with lush, beautiful brushwork and original, personal iconography.

by Joe Sacco
published by Fantagraphics

Going a step beyond autobiography, Sacco produces journalism in comics form. Sacco visited Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip in the early ’90s, and this book (one volume or two, depending on which edition you get) documents his experiences. Sacco works from photographs, with a style that’s heavy on cross-hatching, and slightly exaggerates the people’s features, producing art that reminds me of Robert Crumb’s more realistic drawings.

Bonus: Last December, on my LiveJournal, I wrote little quickie reviews of the forty-odd webcomics in my browser’s bookmarks menu.

Hostages in Rochester
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:02 PM *

It’s going down right now in Rochester, New Hampshire. A gent walked into the Hillary ‘08 campaign office, said he had a bomb, and took hostages.

Cops are in position across the street. So far, no violence reported.

More when I know more.

Update 1:

Live video from the scene

Update 2:

Story at WMUR (Manchester):

ROCHESTER, N.H. — An armed man has taken two campaign workers hostage at the Hillary Clinton campaign office in Rochester, police said.

Officials with the campaign confirmed that there were two workers taken hostage in the office on 28 North Main St., and NBC News reported that the man demanded to speak to Clinton.

Clinton, who is not in New Hampshire, canceled a National Democratic Committee meeting in Virginia.

A woman and her baby told workers at a neighboring business that she was released by the hostage-taker.

“A young woman with a 6-month or 8-month-old infant came rushing into the store just in tears, and she said, ‘You need to call 911. A man has just walked into the Clinton office, opened his coat and showed us a bomb strapped to his chest with duct tape,’” witness Lettie Tzizik said.

Witnesses described the man as in his 40s with salt-and-pepper hair. There are several police officers in the area with guns drawn.

Update 3:

1509: Two hostages have just been released. Reportedly there were only two hostages. SWAT team is still on scene.

Update 4:

Person is “locally known” to be mentally unstable, and told his son, today, to “watch the news.”

Update 5:

17:23 Perhaps three more hostages are inside the building. Hostage taker presumably has access to TV, radio, and internet.

Update 6:

1815: Hostage taker is getting arrested right now.

SFWA: The Suicide Note
Posted by Patrick at 08:45 AM *

Charlie Stross says it all here. John Scalzi adds his own perspective here. Cory Doctorow links to both, summarizing the backstory, here. SFWA President Michael Capobianco stumbles into the furniture here.

On her LiveJournal, John W. Campbell Award-winner Elizabeth Bear expresses an attitude increasingly common among younger SF writers:

Yeah, I know, the emergency medical fund is a nice idea. And because of that, I think I shall be donating my $75.00 a year to the Haven Foundation. Because I don’t think you could pay me to rejoin SFWA at this point.

I hear rumours SFWA used to be an effective trade organization, before it started worrying about how we all kept our lawns mowed and whether we were painting interior walls offensive colors. But now…well, remember the e-piracy flap? It looks like they did something about it.

The Bush administration would be proud.

So far, the general attitude of onlookers is best summed up by commenter Stephen Granade on Charlie Stross’s blog, who writes: “I keep thinking SFWA will run out of bullets with which to shoot themselves in the foot, and then they go and buy a truckload of surface-to-foot missiles.”

UPDATE: My Elves Are Different.

November 29, 2007
Through Darkest Boston….
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:06 PM * 71 comments

…with Car and GPS.

The other night I went to a High School Reception. In Boston. But to tell this story properly I must go back a month or so.

Last month we went to my elder daughter’s wedding. This took place in Pennsylvania. (See also: The Vanishing Gibson.) On the way down, I picked up one of those little after-market stick-on-the-windshield GPS navigators. I’d originally planned to pick up a Tom Tom (at the Staples in Littleton, on my way south), but when we got there we discovered that the Nextar x3-02 (which had been the same price as a Tom Tom the last time we’d been by there) was now a hundred bucks cheaper at around $200, so we got that instead.

The trip to Pennsylvania and back went smoothly enough, and we played with the device. It was pretty good on superhighways and in major metropolitan areas. When we got up to Colebrook, though, it sort of fell apart. A big problem seems to be in the maps that it relies on. Those come from Navteq (which apparently supplies the maps to a wide variety of automobile GPS systems), and in my little rural area there are missing roads, roads with wrong names, roads out of position … it’s a mess. I’ve been feeding in corrections at their website in an effort to make the thing useful around town, but it’s a slow process. No matter how hard I try, it won’t accept my actual home address. To find Home I punch in Center of Town and go from there.

Which brings us to last Tuesday. Last month I’d gotten an invitation to a reception for my old high school (Archbishop Stepinac), for alums who live in northern New England. The event was to be held at the Boston College Club, 100 Federal Street, Boston, 5:30-8:30 pm. I said I’d go. So, to test out the navigator, I just punched in the address and took off, with an hour of slop time built into my departure.

Down Rt. 3 I went in northern New Hampshire, with the little Nextar x3-02 telling me to make a U-turn if possible in 2.2 miles … 1.1 miles … half a mile. (It has a very cute little text-to-voice synthesizer.) “What da hey?” I thought, because there’s only one way to Boston from up here, and it’s south on Rt. 3. The point it was suggesting I turn around at arrived, and suddenly it was telling me to continue south on Rt. 3. (I wonder if, had I made a U-turn, I’d still be driving up and down Rt. 3? This morning, while testing it further driving from Colebrook to Canaan, VT (only one way to do that, and it’s north on 3) it kept telling me to make a U-turn if possible until I reached the point where it thought I should make the turn, then flipped and told me to continue north.)

Down the road I went, and it followed the route that I’d have chosen to get to Boston the fastest way. Rt. 3 to I—93, and I-93 the rest of the way. At Tilton, off to the east of the road, I saw the absolutely loveliest double rainbow. South I went. Rush hour commenced. Yes, I was going to hit downtown Boston right at the height of rush hour. Boston, famous for its—bizarre—roads and astounding drivers. I had deliberately not looked at a map in order to make this a challenge. Combat testing.

The test came very soon. I entered the Big Dig, and promptly lost satellite signal. The last instruction showing was to exit I-93 at Exit 23. So I did that. At the top of the ramp came a choice of Right or Left, with no cue from my little windshield-mounted device of which way to go. I chose Right, and went with the traffic while waiting for it to re-acquire and give me some guidance. It did, and told me to get on I-90 West, and take an immediate right. The entrance ramp to I-90 (the Mass Pike) was right in front of me. I got on, but there was no immediate right.

Westward I went. Eventually it told me to get off at Cambridge St. It sketched out a complicated way for me to get back onto I-90 East. I tried to follow it, but wound up being told to take a left when I was in the far-right lane, waiting at a light. This didn’t appeal, so I hung a quick right following the signs for Storrow Drive, which I figured would head me back toward where getting off at Exit 23 on I-93 would have placed me.

Following instructions I got off Storrow at Copley Square, thence to Commonwealth Avenue (an area I was more-or-less familiar with from going to Arisia at the Park Plaza all those years). Right on Arlington … when you get close to a turn the little map zooms to a close-up, with bar-graph on the right-hand side telling you how close to the turn you are … then “Turn left on Route 2 East.”

Route 2? What? There’s a Route 2 here? Oh, they must mean Boyleston Street… but by then I was past it. Recalculate the route … hey, that little text-to-voice synthesizer sure has an unusual idea of how “Essex Street” sounds.

Long story shorter: Got to the place, having burned the entire hour of slop time I’d built in. Pretty good for going somewhere I didn’t know how to find in rush hour Boston. There was a parking garage at the end of Federal Street, and that’s the first place in my life I ever had to show picture ID just to enter a public parking garage.

Up the street a ways, there was 100 Federal Street. Had to give my name to the security guard in the lobby. I was on a list he had. Elevator to the 36th floor, and there, in the Library of tthe Boston College Club, was … an open bar, and hot-and-cold running waiters with hot and cold meat-on-a-stick and mini-crab-cakes, and I don’t know what all.

Apparently some Men of Stepinac have done pretty well for themselves. There were around fifteen or twenty guys there by the time the evening was over, including one I recognized, my class. I rather liked high school, you must understand.

I was the only one there (other than Father Tom Collins, the golf coach) who wasn’t wearing a business suit (I was wearing squad pants, lumberjack boots, and an Aran sweater). I was one of two with a beard. No one else had a ponytail. I guess I’m an artist after all.

The big talk was about sports. (One of the fellows there was a retired NFL pro football player, y’see, and apparently sports is a big draw for new students.)

From the official Stepinac webpage: Varsity Football team defeats Christ The King in the CHSFL AA Championship Game.

I guess you had to have gone to Catholic School in order to understand that at first glance. (The link is actually to a screenshot from Miss Teresa’s “Xtreme Jesus” particle-link site.)

While I’m sure sports are important, for me the debate team was more important. Did I mention the theater? That’s really nice. The Major Bowes Theater (Gift, I suspect, of Major Bowes, of the original Amateur Hour). It’s a full proscenium stage, with theater seats and a balcony. Not just a stage at one end of the gym. Really good productions of good material. The extras in Child’s Play (with James Mason) all came from Stepinac.

For years Father T. J. McCaffery was the drama coach. People who know me will have heard T. J. stories. Some of our graduates who went from the Drama Club to acting were Alan Alda and Jon Voight. T.J. taught Religion. I recall his comments when he went to see Jon’s movie Midnight Cowboy, back when it came out. Basically—he praised the acting.

Other famous graduates: Captain Lou Albano.

Right now enrollment is 620, they’re trying to build that up to 750. A year at Stepinac costs around $7K in tuition, books, and fees … a bit less than half of what Iona or Fordham Prep cost. Everyone’s happy that we’re operating in the black. Stepinac students have a 98% acceptance rate into college.

Which gets to the next bit. Where folks were talking about where various teachers are now. (A surprising number are still there. Including Electron Ron Tedesco. Hey, I still have my copy of Basic Radio…!) But no one seemed to know where Vinnie Straka was.

Vincent Straka was my junior-year English teacher. Some years ago, I visited Stepinac one summer, with my wife, my elder daughter, and my god daughter. I walked in and said, “I”m back, and I brought women!” Well, I asked around then, and no one knew where Vinnie Straka was then, either. No students were around, just some of the teachers. Someone thought he was in New Jersey. No one knew anything else.

Let’s see… I tried on-line searches. No luck.

I dedicated The Apocalypse Door (my most overtly Catholic novel, as opposed to the others which are all Crypto-Catholic) to him. That was in 2002.

Well, yesterday I went on line again and Googled on Vincent Straka. Three hits from sites that weren’t written in Slovakian. All from this year.

First, from the Pequannock Township Board of Education, in January:

RESOLVED, that the Board of Education, upon recommendation of the Superintendent, approves a paid medical leave of absence for Vincent Straka….

That didn’t look good. The next didn’t look much better. From February, Township of Pequannock:

MOMENT OF SILENCE - In Memory of Vincent Straka. … [Mr. Vulcz] also told how students and faculty were saddened by the death of long-time English teacher Mr. Vincent Straka.

Third, this very brief obit, from February 1st:

VINCENT A. STRAKA, 62, of Butler died Monday. He had been an English teacher at Pequannock High School, where he worked for 26 years, and was a member of the New Jersey Education Association and the Morris County Education Association. He was a graduate of Fordham University, where he also received earned a master’s degree. He was a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society and a volunteer at the Patch Center, Pompton Lakes. Arrangements: M. John Scanlan Funeral Home, Pompton Plains section of Pequannock.

But I didn’t find that out until yesterday.

Getting out of Boston was simple. Out of the parking garage, hung a right, then another right, and straight on toward South Station. Followed the signs for I-93 North. I was already on I-93 before the GPS found a satellite lock. I drove home through an increasingly cold night; the rain that had given me the rainbow in the afternoon had turned to freezing rain, then snow. Driving got tricky. Franconia Notch was hellacious. I got home about an hour later than I expected, and slept late yesterday. Then I hit the web, researched as above, and now write this post.

Bottom line: The GPS is an amusing toy; next time I’ll get a higher class one, though this one is serving my simple needs. And this copy of The Apocalypse Door that I’ve been saving in case I ever got Vinnie’s address so I could sign it and send him a copy, so he’d know that I’d stayed awake in class … y’know, he must have been just 24 or 25 back when he was teaching me.

I don’t know if he has any family. None’s mentioned, though there are some hints. A Straka, Robert, of Pequannock, NJ, US, patented a high-bran snack food. A Vincent Straka, Jr. is searching for relatives of Valentine Andrew Straka and Margaret Molchan who left Lipany for the United States around 1916. There was a Mass Remembrance on June 10, requested by the Kalan Family. I could find out.

One more note: Over at, June 17th, someone named Lizzie says to someone named JoMo (a student at Pequannock) “yeah i loved what you said about straka, i think your speech was 10x’s better than the super’s
haha he talked about toasters for twenty minutes.”

JoMo’s 19. Must have been graduation.

Maybe JoMo can tell me something.

November 28, 2007
Custodieting the custodes
Posted by Avram Grumer at 11:02 PM * 260 comments

Warner Bros has a blog for the upcoming Watchmen movie, and it’s getting me all excited. I know, I know, Hollywood will probably get stupid all over it, but dude! Check out these photos of the backlot, showing gritty old 1985 NYC recreated in Vancouver! If anything, it’s grittier than I remember, more like the NYC of the ’70s. But it does really look like New York City, which Dave Gibbons’s drawings never quite managed.

You can click the photos for larger versions. This one shows Alan Moore’s favorite character, the newsvendor, at his stand. Look at the details: the poster for Tales of the Black Freighter, and over on the wall you can see one for the Pale Horse concert. (Though I also see that they’ve gone without the alternate-historical car designs, and have moved the newsstand to Grand Central from north of Madison Square Garden.)

The other photos show the Gunga Diner, the Treasure Island comics shop, and a Nixon re-election poster with some familiar graffiti.

(Via Curbed.)

November 27, 2007
Could Bush have done good?
Posted by Avram Grumer at 09:45 PM * 70 comments

This analysis piece in Haaretz, by Avi Issacharoff, claims that Arab support of the Annapolis Summit was due to (relatively) moderate Sunnis (led by Saudi Arabia) being afraid of a more aggressive Shia Iran. If he’s right (and the International Herald Tribune seems to agree), then the summit does wind up leading to a lasting normalization of relations between Israel and her neighbors, and a working sovereign Palestinian state (and that’s a big if, with the Palestinians still wanting East Jerusalem for a capital), it’ll be in part because the Bush administration invaded Iraq, greatly emboldening Iran. Not that that was their original plan — in fact, it’s the exact opposite of their original plan — but if it works out, at least they’ll deserve some credit for recognizing the opportunity.

Whether this will avert, hasten, or otherwise affect the coming Iraqi Civil War, Part 2 (Al Anbar Boogaloo), remains to be seen.

(Warning: Haaretz isn’t very picky about what web-ads they run. I once had one toss up a fake alert box and try to tempt me into downloading a dubious executable. I used an ad-blocker, and haven’t had a problem since.)

The 12 Days of Kitschmas, 2007
Posted by Teresa at 04:44 PM *

This is now the Third Revised & Expanded Version of this post, and with any luck the last one, assuming that Ship of Fools stops moving stuff around.

Setup: I’m a great fan of Ship of Fools’ Gadgets for God section. Kitschmas is one of its regular year-round categories, but most years they also compile special Christmastime lists.

The Kitschmas 2005 list was a doozy. I’m going to start there because it contains my favorite ghastly Xmas artifact: the Flogging Jesus Christmas lights. They inspire that dizzy sense of wonder I get when I try to imagine how someone could possibly have thought this thing was a good idea. Also, the lights are animated, and have a sound track.

That’s #1 on the 2005 list. The other items are the: 2. Mosque Clock; 3. Narnia Bookends; 4. Crucifix Mirror; 5. Jesus Poker Chips; 6. iBelieve Lanyard; 7. Miracle Wheel; 8. Nativity Kitchen Timer; 9. Cross-Shaped Playing Cards; 10. Wait Wear; 11. Mood Cross; 12. Jesus Beaded Curtain; and 13. “Heroes of Atheism” Darwin Mug.

Moving on to the equally classic 2003 Kitschmas list, we have the: 1. Fairy Jesus Tree Topper; 2. Crucifix Cellphone Covers; 3. Bobblehead Virgin Mary; 4. Lord of the Kings Jigsaw Puzzle; 5. Blessed Teresa Figurine; 6. Jesus Ashtray; 7. Inflatable Flying Cathedral; 8. Glow Grave; 9. Well Done, Dude!” Statuette; 10. Nail Ornament; 11. Frisbee of Faith; and the 12. “Jesus Saves” model billboard.

From the 2000 Kitschmas list, there’s the: 1. Last Supper Musical Pillow; 2. “Birth of Christ” Tribute Guitar ; 3. Buddy Christ Dashboard Ornament; 4. Communion Refrigerator Magnets; 5. Bible Message Camera; 6. Jesus & Mary Switchplates; 7. Light-Up Musical Jesus; 8. Photo Face Angel Doll; 9. “Wash Away Your Sins” Soap; 10. Mosque Clock; 11. Devotional Candles; and the 12. Granite Ten Commandments.

And from the 1999 Kitschmas list, there’s the: 1. Archbishop (Carey) Bear; 2. Worshipping Santa; 3. Virgin Mary Mix’n’Match Fridge Magnet Set; 4. Mother Teresa Barometer; 5. “Ye Little Angel” Dog Wings; 6. The Punching Amish; 7. “Jesus Christ in Majesty” Hearth Rug; 8. The Full Armor of God Playset; 9. Moses Nutcracker; 10. Jesus Snowstorm; 11. Mother Teresa Singing Doll; and a 12. Twelve Apostles Beer Mug.

Mmm, mmm, mmm.

This brings us to the joyful and triumphant Kitschmas 2007 list. This year, lucky us, we get the:

1. St. Sebastian Pincushion. I’ve been faunching after one of these.

2. Blessed Virgin Mary USB Drive: she only holds 512Mb, but when you plug her in, her red LED heart starts beating. She also has a halo inscribed with the deeply traditional prayer, “O Maria keep my data safe.”

3. Huggable Urns. Why store your loved ones’ ashes in an overpriced bit of crockery when you can tuck them inside a big squooshy huggable plush bear?

4. Coffin Glamour Calendar. The Romans have a way with these things.

5. Vatican: The Board Game. Start as a cardinal. Deal with challenges and intrigues. Become papabile.

6. Holy Ghost Glossolaliac Tees.

7. Christ on a Bike—which, I’ll note, is part of a product line that I Particled on 17 November of this year.

8. Pope’s Cologne, from Pio Nonno’s own private recipe. Says Ship of Fools: ‘Which of us, hand on heart, has never thought, “I wish I could smell like a Pope”?’

9. Jerusalem Compass, guaranteed to always point you-know-where.

10. Hip Flask Bible, for those especially dreary meetings.

11. Holy Toast. Says Ship of Fools: ‘as the Revised Screwed Up Version puts it: “On the night he was betrayed he took bread, popped it in the toaster and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take. Eat. This is my mother…”’

12. Thongs of Praise: holy images, naughty underwear.

13. Walled Nativity, a didactic spoilsport of a creche set.

Yes, Virginia: someone has to have thought each and every one of these things was a good idea. Fortunately, it’s not the same someone in every case, or we’d have to kill him.

Some last things to be remembered: Fun with Ian Hislop: a 2002 news quiz from Have I Got News for You, featuring three items from the SoF 2002 Kitschmas list. Second, an essay: The Unbearable Kitschness of Christmas, in which Rev. Dr Giles Fraser, vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, laments that modern Christmases aren’t nearly as materialistic as they should be.

New York Times to science books: Drop dead
Posted by Patrick at 10:20 AM * 121 comments

You probably didn’t notice, but sometime in the last few years, the New York Times restructured its annual “Notable Books” list, eliminating the genre subcategories. This was disappointing to those of us in the salt mines of category fiction; being deemed a “New York Times Notable Book” could be helpful to the paperback sales of some good SF and fantasy books that hadn’t sold well in hardcover. Mind you, the Times still occasionally includes a category book on their list, but just as we no longer have Gerald Jonas’s regular SF review column, our genre also no longer has a guaranteed five or six slots on the “Notable Books” list. Bummer.

Still, I can see arguments for the direction the Times has taken. What’s more remarkable, and harder to defend, is that—as Chad Orzel points out—the Times’s “100 Notable Books of 2007” contains not one single science book. There’s plenty of fiction, politics, public affairs, and “a memoir about waiting tables at the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant Per Se,” but not a single book about any aspect of science, not even a biography like Walter Isaacson’s widely-praised Einstein: His Life and Universe.

You can probably write your own viewing-with-alarm essay about this, complete with obligatory reference to C. P. Snow. All I can say is, what an impoverished mental landscape the people who drew up this list must inhabit.

November 23, 2007
The Vanishing Gibson
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:57 PM * 428 comments

My favorite mixed drink is the Gibson.

Here’s the recipe:
2 oz. Gin.
2 drops vermouth
1 pearl onion

Here’s the story the way I heard it: There was an American diplomat named Gibson. At embassy bun-fights he had a method of staying sober while everyone else got looped. He’d be drinking plain water out of a martini glass. To mark which one was his, the bartender would put an onion in the glass rather than an olive.

On one occasion, someone asked for “Whatever Gibson’s drinking.” The bartender, thinking fast, just made a martini and put in an onion. Thus was the drink born.

The Gibson (a martini with an onion) is my favorite drink. How to tell if I’ve been there: look at the bar tab. Is there a Gibson listed?

So. Of late there’s been a problem. There I was at my daughter’s wedding last month. There I was in a Holiday Inn in western Pennsylvania, in Williamsport. I ordered a Gibson at the bar.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the bartender. “We don’t have any onions.”

Tonight, here I am in Timonium, Maryland (for Darkovercon), at the Holiday Inn. Friggin’ bar in the friggin’ lobby is called “The Martini Bar.” And you know what? No onions. “We haven’t had any in ten years,” says the bartender.

What’s up with that?

Out in Williamsport I walked over to the Wegman’s down the road and bought a couple of jars of onions that I donated to the bar. Am I going to do that here? Am I going to have to carry a bottle of cocktail onions with me?

These days they have all kinds of “martinis.” Sour-apple martinis. Lemon martinis. Chocolate martinis. Anything they can put in a martini glass, they call it a martini.

Why can’t I get a Gibson?

[Recipe Index]

November 22, 2007
Jon Singer’s Turkey Algorithm, 2007
Posted by Teresa at 12:04 AM *

Says Jon:

“For a turkey of greater than ten pounds, the roasting time should be equal to 1.65 times the natural log of the weight of the bird in pounds, cooked at 325 F.”
If you’re not a person who normally calculates natural logs, go to Google. Say you have a 20-pound turkey. Type in natural log 20 and hit the search button. Google will tell you that the natural log of 20 is 2.99573227. Multiply this by 1.65. The result will be 4.9429582455, or five hours.

Last year we went to Montreal to visit Jo Walton and Emmet and Sasha, and thus didn’t have Thanksgiving, though we were scarcely deprived, and the company was excellent.

This year we have Jim Macdonald and Debra Doyle with us in Brooklyn, along with their daughter Pippin and son Alex. They brought the pies down from New Hampshire—blueberry, cherry, pumpkin, apple, and an additional apple pastry. I’m doing the turkey.

So what are you up to this year?

UPDATE: Courtesy of Kieran Healy, some Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

[Recipe Index]

November 20, 2007
Vial of Life
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:07 PM *

“Life” here stands for Lifesaving Information For Emergencies.

The Vial of Life is a nationwide program. All USA EMTs are trained to look for one. Where we expect to find it: In your refrigerator.

What it is: an info sheet for your friendly local EMTs to use if they come to your house and find you lying on the floor, unable to answer questions about what your medical conditions are, what meds you’re on, what your allergies are, your DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) status, your date of birth, doctor’s address and phone number, and other Helpful Information. A recent photo wouldn’t be a bad idea so we can be sure that the information we’re working from matches the unconscious body on the floor. (Even if you live alone, maybe there’s a guest over. It’s nice to be sure.) Insurance numbers and the usual stuff they’d ask at the hospital at the registration desk if you were capable of answering questions goes on the form too: It’s coming with you.

The big things that need to be there are your name and date of birth (since I can’t start the paperwork without ‘em), your allergies (so I won’t accidentally kill you), and your medical history (since most people come down with HIBGIA: Had It Before, Got It Again). Please write down your medications, please spell them right, and please write neatly. If you don’t speak English I want to know what language to try instead. Typing is a big plus.

If you happen to be a DNR, please put it on the form, and please tell everyone around you. It’s heck going to a house for a little old lady on the floor, where her caretaker doesn’t know what her DNR status is, but maybe her son might, and he lives in another state, and all you get is his answering machine. If you didn’t want to be resuscitated, too late, because we’re already going to be doing it instead of standing around playing phone tag while your brain cells are dying.

The Vial itself can be anything. The usual things are Baggies with papers inside of ‘em, or a large pill bottle with the paper folded up inside of it. Make sure the Vial is labeled “Vial of Life” in big letters. A Star of Life or a red cross on it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Make it stand out.

Some people tape the Vial to the outside of the refrigerator. If you don’t want to do that, put it inside the refrigerator. One of the door racks in the main reefer or the freezer works fine. Some people tape or rubber-band the Vial to the bottom of the top shelf. You then place a sticker or magnet on the outside of the refrigerator directly over the spot inside where the Vial is located.

Put another sticker or magnet on or near your front door, or in a front windowpane, and that’s it. You’re done. Remember to update as necessary.

Some people keep a duplicate in their car’s glove box. If you have a potentially life-threatening condition consider wearing medic-alert jewelry.

How to encode emergency information into your cell phone: Put in a speed-dial link to ICE. That’s for In Case of Emergency. Have it connect to someone who’s a) usually available, and b) knows you and your medical history. Emergency responders do look on cell phones for clues to unconscious people’s contacts, and if they’re labeled “Bobby,” and “Store” they aren’t as helpful as they might be. “Home” may just ring and ring, because you’re lying there in the hospital and can’t come to the phone. (Important safety tip: If you have your cell phone set to “vibrate” and if that cell phone somehow gets lodged in your nether passageway such that a visit to the emergency room is required to retrieve it, do not give that number to the ER staff as your contact number. Just sayin’.)

Links to stickers, magnets, and suggested forms below the cut.

Copyright © 2007 by James D. Macdonald

I am not a physician. I can neither diagnose nor prescribe. These posts are presented for entertainment purposes only. Nothing here is meant to be advice for your particular condition or situation.

Creative Commons License
Vial of Life by James D. Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.

(Attribution URL:

November 19, 2007
“It’s the apocalypse.” “Again?”
Posted by Patrick at 11:53 AM *

Teresa over on Boing Boing, with some observations about online behavior, forum moderation, and so forth. I liked this:

I’ve done my time and then some on Usenet. If learning to moderate online forums is like studying trolls and demons, then hanging out on Usenet is like living in Sunnydale: if you survive long enough, you’ll eventually come up against one of every kind of monster—and after a while, your reaction will change to “Bored now.”

Yet Another Reason Why Torture Doesn’t Work
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:30 AM * 39 comments

Air Force Reserve Col. Steve Kleinman, a longtime military interrogator and intelligence officer, talks about what using torture loses you in a ticking-time-bomb (or any other) scenario:

It’s not just what a subject says in an interrogation that an interrogator needs to watch for clues, Kleinman said. The way in which he expresses himself is significant: does the subject fidget? Does he shift in his seat? Does he gesture, or suddenly stop gesturing? All of these non-verbal clues — “clusters, groupings of behaviors,” Kleinman called them — provide interrogators with valuable information to observe what a detainee is like when he’s lying, when he’s being uncooperative, and when he’s being truthful, or a combination of the three.

But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then “I don’t know whether he’s shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating,” Kleinman said. That degree of abuse “takes away a lot of my tools.” It’s one of the clearest explanations in the public record about what torture costs professional interrogators in terms of actionable intelligence, as the debate is so often set up as what a lack of torture ends up costing national security.

Via The Carpetbagger Report

November 18, 2007
574.8 km per hour
Posted by Patrick at 04:57 PM * 150 comments

Remember the future? They’re having it in France.

(Thanks to Charlie Stross for the pointer.)

Scenes from literature
Posted by Patrick at 02:16 PM * 59 comments

Tom Gauld’s illustrations for the Guardian Saturday Review letters page get funnier every time I look at them. In fact, nearly everything on the web site for Cabanon Press (Gauld and another artist, Simone Lia) is wonderful. (Thanks to Liz Gorinsky for showing it to me.)

The MySpace Suicide
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:52 PM *

Just hitting the mainstream press this week, with the story hitting the top headline on CNN on Saturday the 17th, we have this intensely sad story. There was a nice young lady named Megan Meier, age 13. She was, or thought she was, overweight. She had ADD and was on medication for it. Various other problems, including depression and low self-esteem. She’s in therapy.

Young Megan had a MySpace page. Her parents had the password.

Let’s try this as a timeline.

Summer, 2006
Megan is going to start going to a new school for eighth grade come autumn. She drops one of her old friends, a young lady who lives down the street.

August, 2006
Megan meets a boy named Josh through her MySpace account. He tell her he’s sixteen and that he likes her. His photo shows that he’s pretty cute.

September, 2006
Megan and Josh get on well. Everything’s spiffy. She’s happy.

October 15, 2006
Megan gets message from Josh: “I don’t know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I’ve heard that you are not very nice to your friends.”

The final message he sends is reportedly: “Everybody in O’Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you.”

Megan hangs herself, and, despite bystander CPR, dies in hospital the next day. Four to six minutes without oxygen to your brain will do that for you.

End of November, 2006
Megan’s parents are informed by a third party that “Josh” never existed, but was the creation of the parents of one of Megan’s friends from her previous school, the one she’d dropped that summer. Everyone involved not only lived in the same neighborhood, but on the same street, knew one another, and vacationed and/or carpooled together.

Those parents’ motive appears to have been to get Megan to gossip with “Josh” about their own daughter, to find out what she was up to. Several people allegedly had access to the “Josh” account and contributed. One of those persons was the teenaged daughter of the person who informed Megan’s parents of the state of affairs.

End of November, 2006
The persons who created the fake account had been storing a foosball table in Megan’s parent’s garage. Megan’s parents destroy it and dump the pieces in the others’ driveway. The dumpees call the cops and make a complaint about destruction of property. At this point the authorities get involved. As reported:

The police report - without using the mother’s name - states:

“(She) stated in the months leading up Meier’s daughter’s suicide, she instigated and monitored a ‘my space’ account which was created for the sole purpose of communicating with Meier’s daughter.

“(She) said she, with the help of temporary employee named ——— constructed a profile of ‘good looking’ male on ‘my space’ in order to ‘find out what Megan (Meier’s daughter) was saying on-line’ about her daughter. (She) explained the communication between the fake male profile and Megan was aimed at gaining Megan’s confidence and finding out what Megan felt about her daughter and other people.

“(She) stated she, her daughter and (the temporary employee) all typed, read and monitored the communication between the fake male profile and Megan …..

“According to (her) ‘somehow’ other ‘my space’ users were able to access the fake male profile and Megan found out she had been duped. (She) stated she knew ‘arguments’ had broken out between Megan and others on ‘my space.’ (She) felt this incident contributed to Megan’s suicide, but she did not feel ‘as guilty’ because at the funeral she found out ‘Megan had tried to commit suicide before.’”

Sometime in 2007
Megan’s parents separate and are divorcing. (This is very common among parents who lose a child, especially to suicide.)

March, 2007
Megan’s father allegedly drives his truck across the other parent’s lawn. He is charged with misdemeanor property damage.

October, 2007
One of Megan’s relatives…

… placed signs in and near the neighborhood on the anniversary of Megan’s death.

They read: “Justice for Megan Meier,” “Call the St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney,” and “MySpace Impersonator in Your Neighborhood.”

November 12, 2007
The St. Charles Journal (Suburban Journal) reports the story, but does not name the parents down the street.

November 13, 2007
Followup story in the St. Charles Journal:

It does not appear that there will be criminal charges filed in connection with Megan’s death.

“We did not have a charge to fit it,” [Sheriff’s department spokesman Lt. Craig] McGuire says. “I don’t know that anybody can sit down and say, ‘This is why this young girl took her life.’”

The Meiers say the matter also was investigated by the FBI, which analyzed the family computer and conducted interviews. Ron said a stumbling block is that the FBI was unable to retrieve the electronic messages from Megan’s final day, including that final message that only Ron saw.

The Meiers do not plan to file a civil lawsuit. Here’s what they want: They want the law changed, state or federal, so that what happened to Megan - at the hands of an adult - is a crime.

November 14, 2007
Prosecutor To Review MySpace Suicide


A St. Charles County teen commits suicide after being targeted by an online attack, but those who instigated it face no criminal charges, or could they? The county prosecutor says he never saw the complete case file. He doesn’t want to give anyone false hope, but he says it’s not yet case closed.

“Me personally, I’ve never seen anything on this case,” says St. Charles County Prosecutor Jack Banas. He says from what he’s heard he knows hearts are broken, but he doesn’t believe laws were.

Banas never saw the report but wants to see all the evidence now, but based on what he’s heard he believes what happened was cruel, but not criminal.

“It’s just a system that isn’t regulated much and it’s difficult to regulate it,” Banas says of the internet. “it’s just so easy to just type something out, send it out there and not know what the consequences of that message is going to be.”

“If this can’t be prosecuted criminally, hopefully it’s a message to people out there about what their words can do. Can we police the entire thing? I don’t know.”

November 16, 2007
Local laws considered to stop online hoax that led to suicide…
DARDENNE PRAIRIE, Mo. (AP) - It’s too late for a 13-year old girl who committed suicide, but officials in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, are trying to enact a local law to prevent Internet harassment.

The teen’s mother calls the hoax “absolutely vile,” and says police couldn’t fit the case to any existing laws. So, local authorities are trying to create an ordinance that would protect children.

What the law might be, I’m at a loss to say: Don’t pretend to be something you’re not online? Don’t be a jerk? I wonder if the advocates of a new law have considered what might happen if a law is written and someone who doesn’t like them decides to use it against them.

The Meiers have requested that no one attempt extra-legal retribution against the parents who created the false MySpace account.

Here’s what I can say :

  • There are no secrets. Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t want want to hear read on the Six O’clock News with your name attached.
  • Don’t play games with other people’s heads.
  • What happens online is real.
  • Reach out to others when they’re hurting or when you are.
  • Never commit suicide if you can do something else (e.g. move to Lubbock and get a job in a hardware store).

Is this the first or only time this sort of thing, all the way to suicide, has happened? I’ll bet you anything the answer is “no.” Suppose “Josh” were real—would Megan be any less dead? Again, no. Are there all kinds of fake people hanging out online? You betcha.

Many years ago my elder daughter used to go to IRC chat rooms under one name or another, and just sit there, for half-an-hour or forty-five minutes, not saying anything (while she was physically off doing something else). Then, as her first comment after all that time, she’d send “I wonder who’s the FBI man?” and watch how fast the room would clear out. Folks would scatter. It amused her.

If you happen to be a nice young lady, assume any cute boy you’re chatting with is actually a forty-year-old perv sitting around in his underwear. And if you’re a forty-year-old perv sitting around in his underwear, assume that any nice young lady you’re chatting with is actually a cigar-smoking cop who’s taking very thorough notes. It’s the only way stay out of trouble.

That wonderful Bush plan to “speed up” holiday air travel?
Posted by Patrick at 07:31 AM *

You’ll be amazed to hear that it’s total bullshit. I know, I know, personal initiative of George W. Bush, who could possibly have guessed? James Fallows has the details.

November 17, 2007
Screwing curry to the sticking-place
Posted by Avram Grumer at 08:19 PM * 24 comments

Yesterday, I was picking up some bagels at Fairway, and I saw something new (to me) in the dried-fruit and bagged-nuts department: curry cashews. Picked up a bag, and they’re pretty tasty, if expensive. “Organic” curry cashews, $7 for a 10-ounce bag. If they’d had non-organic ones for less, I’d’ve happily bought those.

Anyway, I’ve got plenty of plain cashews that I haven’t been doing anything with, and I’ve got some curry powder, so I figure I can make my own curry cashews cheaper than buying them at Fairway, and even ramp up the spice content and heat level. But I’m at a loss for how to make the curry powder stick to the nuts. The bag lists three ingredients: organic cashews, organic curry, sea salt. Nothing there looks particularly sticky. Unless maybe they’re using curry paste. Anyone else got any ideas?

They have met the enemy…
Posted by Avram Grumer at 07:17 PM * 14 comments

Thomas E Ricks, writing for The Washington Post:

CAMP LIBERTY, Iraq — Senior military commanders here now portray the intransigence of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government as the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias.

Wait, I thought Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government was an Iranian-backed militia. Anyway, we’re continuing our strategy of arming the Iraqi people to fight each other:

The U.S. military approach in Iraq this year has focused on striking deals with Sunni insurgents, under which they stop fighting the Americans and instead protect their own neighborhoods. So far about 70,000 such volunteers have been enrolled — a trend that makes the Shiite-led central government nervous, especially as the movement gets closer to Baghdad.

[…] The year-long progress in fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq could carry a downside. Maj. Mark Brady, who works on reconciliation issues, noted that a Sunni leader told him: “As soon as we finish with al-Qaeda, we start with the Shiite extremists.”

The Bush administrations current plan is probably to hope that the inevitable escalation in violence holds off long enough that it’ll look like the next president’s fault.

Oh, and here, the IOZ post that got me reading the WaPost article to begin with.

Tom ’n’ Me
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:46 PM *

McCain came to town today. 8:30 am at Howard’s restaurant. I missed it (I’d seen him before, back in 2000). My friends who were there said the place was packed (he’d made the Chronicle although he missed the deadline for the News and Sentinel).

I didn’t go to Whitefield yesterday, either, to hear Bill Clinton, even though the Hillary campaign called me on the phone to tell me about it (technically, to tell me about his event in Gorham—I learned about Whitefield (which is closer to me) when I checked Hillary’s web page to find the location). I didn’t go because we had a Winter Storm Warning, 5-8 inches of snow forecast, temperature hovering right around freezing. Driving an hour to Whitefield and an hour back in blizzard conditions to see someone who isn’t even a candidate didn’t appeal.

But today I went to see Tom Tancredo, because he was in town and having a Town Hall Meeting not 200 feet from my house, and he’d sent me a postcard inviting me. What could I do?

The man himself appeared. A quick count showed that the number of journalists and campaign staff handily outnumbered the audience (six folks, not counting me).

Here’s my impression. Charisma is lacking. He seemed tired. Western Europe, he says, is “lost” since the Islamic inhabitants of same reproduce far faster than “real Europeans.” His main points seemed to be these: Since the Iron Curtain worked so well for the Soviet Union we should have one for ourselves; and, The US should be at war with Islam in general. This guy is an also-ran, right out of the box.

The journalists left early.

November 16, 2007
Posted by Patrick at 09:34 PM * 10 comments

The fine people at Hosting Matters appear to have successfully migrated us to a new server, for which many thanks. The only immediately-evident ill effect is that we seem to have lost a few new comments. If you posted in the last hour or two and your comment has vanished, please repost. If you responded to a post that now seems not to be there, please recontextualize. Yes, it does occur to us that this is an opportunity for creative retconning. Wail with it.

Posted by Teresa at 07:10 PM *

Resolved: that the Mead (or Cambridge) one-subject notebook, 8-1/2” x 11”, action planner format, side bound, double wire spiral bound, side perforated, 80 pages, 20 lb. bond, white paper, rule lines printed in gray and maroon; catalogue number 06064 or MEA06064; or the Cambridge Executive Action Planner Limited Notebook, otherwise identical, Cambridge catalogue number 20568208—

is the One True Business Notebook.

Imminent downtime
Posted by Patrick at 03:23 PM *

Our hosting provider will be moving us from one server to another at around 7PM EST. It’s possible we’ll be down for a bit, and afterwards, it’s possible some things will break, because as we all know, some of Making Light’s bells-and-whistles are seriously kludgy. Here’s a thread for posting about any problems.

The move is prompted by the fact that evidently we continue to be a target of industrial-strength spamming, compounded by my own failure to stay up-to-date on countermeasures. As our hosting service has pointed out, it’s not fair to the other clients on our shared server. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done around here to make this site work better and consume fewer resources, and Movable Type has grown way too complicated for me to stay on top of it all. We need to figure a bunch of stuff out.

Flying With the Spaghetti Monster
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:50 PM * 182 comments

The FSM has hit the mainstream. According to CNN today: Religious scholars mull Flying Spaghetti Monster

(AP) — When some of the world’s leading religious scholars gather in San Diego this weekend, pasta will be on the intellectual menu. They’ll be talking about a satirical pseudo-deity called the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whose growing pop culture fame gets laughs but also raises serious questions about the essence of religion.

The appearance of the Flying Spaghetti Monster on the agenda of the American Academy of Religion’s annual meeting gives a kind of scholarly imprimatur to a phenomenon that first emerged in 2005, during the debate in Kansas over whether intelligent design should be taught in public school sciences classes.

Supporters of intelligent design hold that the order and complexity of the universe is so great that science alone cannot explain it. The concept’s critics see it as faith masquerading as science.

An Oregon State physics graduate named Bobby Henderson stepped into the debate by sending a letter to the Kansas School Board. With tongue in cheek, he purported to speak for 10 million followers of a being called the Flying Spaghetti Monster — and demanded equal time for their views.

Henderson did not respond to a request for comment. His Web site tracks meetings of FSM clubs (members dress up as pirates) and sells trinkets and bumper stickers. “Pastafarians” — as followers call themselves — can also download computer screen-savers and wallpaper (one says: “WWFSMD?”) and can sample photographs that show “visions” of the divinity himself. In one, the image of the carbohydrate creator is seen in a gnarl of dug-up tree roots.

It was the emergence of this community that attracted the attention of three young scholars at the University of Florida who study religion in popular culture. They got to talking, and eventually managed to get a panel on FSM-ism on the agenda at one of the field’s most prestigious gatherings.

The title: “Evolutionary Controversy and a Side of Pasta: The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Subversive Function of Religious Parody.”

“For a lot of people they’re just sort of fun responses to religion, or fun responses to organized religion. But I think it raises real questions about how people approach religion in their lives,” said Samuel Snyder, one of the three Florida graduate students who will give talks at the meeting next Monday along with Alyssa Beall of Syracuse University.

The presenters’ titles seem almost a parody themselves of academic jargon. Snyder will speak about “Holy Pasta and Authentic Sauce: The Flying Spaghetti Monster’s Messy Implications for Theorizing Religion,” while Gavin Van Horn’s presentation is titled “Noodling around with Religion: Carnival Play, Monstrous Humor, and the Noodly Master.”

Using a framework developed by literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, Van Horn promises in his abstract to explore how, “in a carnivalesque fashion, the Flying Spaghetti Monster elevates the low (the bodily, the material, the inorganic) to bring down the high (the sacred, the religiously dogmatic, the culturally authoritative).”

Folks who can’t make it to the American Academy of Religion’s meeting can still download, print out, and make a paper-model Flying Spaghetti Monster at home.

Balloon tech crew
Posted by Patrick at 08:12 AM * 118 comments

[Cory Doctorow casting out the serpents]

Teresa’s not actually depicted in today’s XKCD, but you can probably guess why we laughed very hard over one particular detail.

(It’s the final strip in an epic five-parter. Start here.)

November 15, 2007
Non-Canonical Pumpkin Pie
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:44 PM *

Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

Remember Elizabeth Moon’s Holiday Feasts for Beginners? Do you remember her very first piece of advice?

1) Avoid all expert shows. Ignore Martha Stewart (she has staff) and all the chefs on TV who want you to do something new! creative! different! fantastico! for your turkey dinner. Just turn them off, tune them out, and pretend they don’t exist. You aren’t cooking for a TV audience: you’re cooking for friends and family (if you’re cooking for enemies and strangers…well…I can’t help you).

If you want to ignore Ms. Moon’s totally sensible advice that Thanksgiving Dinner is not the time to try something new, different, and fancy that you’ve only seen described…. Well.

Should madness seize you and make you want to try something ditzy:

1 envelope plain gelatin
¼ cup cold water
1 and ¼ cups mashed cooked pumpkin (canned pie-pumpkin — the kind where the can says, “Ingredients: pumpkin” — is okay, but emphatically *not* “pumpkin pie filling”)
¾ cup evaporated milk
½ cup water
2 egg yolks, slightly beaten
¾ cup brown sugar (scant), firmly packed
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cinnamon
2 egg whites
½ tsp vanilla
1 cup shredded coconut, toasted
1 baked 9” pie shell
½ cup whipped cream

Soften gelatin in the ¼ cup cold water.
Combine pumpkin, milk, ½ cup water, egg yolks, ½ cup of the sugar, the salt, and the spices in top of double boiler. Cook over boiling water 10 minutes, stirring constantly.
Add gelatin and stir until dissolved.
Remove from boiling water. Chill until slightly thickened. Beat egg whites until slightly foamy.
Add remaining sugar gradually to egg whites and continue until stiff.
Fold stiffly beaten egg whites, vanilla, and ¾ cup of the toasted coconut into pumpkin mixture.
Turn into cold pie shell.
Chill until firm. Top with whipped cream and reserved coconut.

This pie does not travel well.

[Recipe Index]

That topic
Posted by Teresa at 12:32 AM * 317 comments

If y wnt t tlk bt brtn, d t hr.

November 14, 2007
Of Fire, Fire, Fire I Sing…
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 11:21 AM * 43 comments

I’ve just read a marvelous book, Under A Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown.

The subtitle is “The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894.” On Saturday, September 1st, 1894, the nineteen-man fire department of Hinckley, Minnesota, faced a wall of flame five miles wide by two hundred feet high, backed by hundred-knot winds, advancing toward them twice as fast as a man can run. Bubbles and sheets of hot gas floated up and ahead of the fire front to explode on touching oxygen, thousands of feet in the air.

Mass fires also generate enormous winds, often of hurricane velocity. Sometimes these winds begin to rotate and become cyclonic, creating fire vortices—tornadoes of fire that may advance well ahead of the main flaming front. Because of the tremendous updraft in their convection columns, mass fires typically pick up thousands of flaming and glowing firebrands—some as large as burning logs. They may carry those as much as 18,000 feet into the air before throwing them miles ahead of their fronts, spawning spot fires wherever the firebrands land in fuel. And because mass fires consume their fuel so rapidly, they often exhaust all the available oxygen in the air before they have finished burning all the carbon and volatile gases that they have released from their fuels. As a result, they produce vast clouds of black smoke, black because it’s carrying a heavy load of unburned carbon. As this superheated black smoke rises, it eventually encounters enough oxygen to allow combustion to resume, and flames arc in sheets across the sky. To people on the ground it appears that the sky itself is on fire. Most spectacularly of all, glowing bubbles of the gases released by fire—bubbles that may be as big as a car or even a house—may float some distance ahead of the fire like gigantic balloons dancing in the sky before igniting suddenly over the heads of horrified onlookers.

The fire department had one steam-fired pump with 2,000 feet of hose, and a well for their water supply. They were, the entire town was, in a word, screwed.

Brown has done a lovely job of pulling together contemporary accounts, building a coherent narrative, and setting it in the social conditions of the time. (Scandinavian immigrants, the Pullman strike just ended, the lumber and railroad barons, company towns.) As the disaster develops he goes farther afield to other great fires, forest and otherwise (Peshtigo, Sundance, The Coconut Grove), fire science, forest management, burn physiology, and crowd behavior.

Heroic engineers stand by their throttles, waiting until Almost Too Late in order to load as many people as possible into their cars, as the paint blisters from their engines. Plucky telegraph operators stand by their keys. It’s all good stuff.

An ad hoc combined freight/passenger train with a locomotive coupled to each end is standing on the tracks:

Crouching in the doorway of his cab, trying to keep out of the worst of the heat, and calculating the odds, [engineer] Bill Best watched the people streaming toward him from the village. He hopped down from the cab and started to jog the length of the train to talk to [conductor Harry] Powers about how long they should stay, but [engineer Ed] Barry, in his cab at the far end, suddenly gave two sharp whistles—the signal to pull out. The train slowly began to back up. Best raced back to his cab, climbed in, and set the air brakes so the train could go nowhere. Again Barry sounded two whistles, but Best continued to stare out across the town. Barry’s conductor, W. D. Campbell, ran the length of the train and bellowed up to Best in his cab, “Barry will cut off his engine and pull out!” Best looked at him and said, “I guess not.” Again two whistles. Men he did not know jumped up onto the locomotive and shouted at Best, “Back up! Back up, or we’ll all be burned!” Best leaned out of the cab and said, “Boys, don’t get excited. We’re all right yet.” But even as he spoke he could see people in the village dropping in the streets, crumpling like rag dolls as waves of superheated air caught up with them. A few were already engulfed in flames, staggering, falling, rising again, taking a few more steps and falling again, flailing their flame-enshrouded limbs on the ground. Best’s brakeman, O. L. Beach, climbed into the cab and shouted, “Barry says to let the brakes loose!” But looking down the line Best could see both Powers and Campbell were still helping people up into the boxcars. Again two whistles. Best turned to George Ford, his fireman, and said, as if astonished, “Good God, George! Will I sacrifice the train at last?” Finally, Best climbed down to the bottom step of the locomotive one more time and peered down the length of the train. Then he resumed his seat in the cab and released the air brakes, and the train started to back out of town slowly, lumbering toward Grindstone Bridge.

Then the fire is over, and we move on to the rescue and recovery operations, and the medical treatment of burns (past and present), with notes on PTSD (not understood at all at the time). The dead are buried in four long trenches in the town cemetery.

It doesn’t wrap up neatly—such things never do—the town of Hinckley is still there but never fully recovered. For years afterward skeletons turned up in the woods—hunters, trappers, lumberjacks, itinerants, Native Americans. Eventually the last survivors died of old age.

Human stories. We’re defined by story. To understand humanity, find stories of humans in extreme circumstances.

[Railroad porter John] Blair himself said little that evening, but when asked earlier how he had remained so calm when others were so panicked, he had said, “I just resolved I would not lose my head, and if I had to die, I would do it without making a fool of myself.”

Good book. I recommend it.

(Also available in hardback.)

See also: Go Bags and Tips for an apocalypse.

(The title line on this post is the first line from “London Mourning in Ashes,” a ballad about the London Fire of 1666.)

November 13, 2007
Ron Paul Redux
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:09 PM * 229 comments

I’m just back from a Ron Paul House Party.

Watch out for this man. He has weapons-grade charisma.

I’ve met an awful lot of presidential candidates face to face. John McCain served me barbecue chicken with his own hands. Paul has charisma equal to or greater than the best of them. [Ron Paul and Me]

He’s nutty as a bedbug, and his supporters do not blink. (One of them told me, word for word, “I’ve researched everything he’s ever done. He’s the only politician who’s never told a lie.”)

I asked Paul to say, point blank, “Americans do not torture.” He waffled. I asked him why Bush hasn’t been impeached. He waffled. But he waffled to general applause.

This is the guy on the white horse.

Stand the [bleep!] by.

(See also: In An Asylum Full of Napoleons, He’s the One Convinced He’s Joan of Arc)

In other news, just before I went to the Paul house party, I got a lengthy push-poll clearly from the McCain folks. A nice young lady with a strong sub-continent accent asked me if I was familiar with Mormon teachings, ‘mongst other things. (I said “No.”) Then she asked if I knew that Mormons consider the Book of Mormon to have more authority than the Bible, and now that I knew this would I be more or less likely to vote for Romney? She asked whether I knew that Mormons baptize dead people, and now that I knew this would I be more or less likely to vote for Romney? And so on. Then she turned to McCain. Was I aware that he is a war hero? Does knowing this make me more or less likely to vote for him? And thus on for so long that I asked her if she had a lot more questions, because I had other things to do.

The whole thing was laughably transparent.

November 12, 2007
The Exciting Ron Paul Phenomenon
Posted by Patrick at 08:26 AM *

If you think “the elitist, secular Left has managed to convince many in our nation that religion must be driven from public view,” that “the notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers,” that “the collectivist Left hates religion,” and that “the secularists [are waging] an ongoing war against religion…Christmas itself may soon be a casualty of that war,” gosh do I have a Presidential candidate for you! His name is Ron Paul.

The fact that, in the Republican debates, this guy comes off as the most reality-based of the bunch is mostly indicative of what a bunch of bug-eyed head cases they all are. It doesn’t mean Rep. Paul isn’t Upton Park, merely that he’s the one inmate who displays occasional moments of lucidity.

Dave Neiwert has more on Paul’s views, including lots and lots of fresh, piping-hot support for corporal punishment, banning abortion, preserving the Electoral College, and other freedom-y causes. It’s liberty-icious!

Strike plate
Posted by Patrick at 08:05 AM * 450 comments

One of the minor annoyances of my life is that I’m exactly the right height to be constantly snagging my belt loops on those little tongues of metal that door latches snap into.

As I was just now remarking to Teresa, who’d agreed to mend a yet another torn belt loop for me. (Thanks again.)

“Strike plate,” she said. “It’s called a strike plate.”

So it is. I never knew that.

Okay, I’m sure everyone else reading this has known the term “strike plate” since they were five. But I wonder. What other commonplace objects of daily life do we not know the word for? (Yes, I know that’s like saying “Name five counties you’ve never heard of.”) Discuss.

November 11, 2007
Remembering the Great War, 2007
Posted by Teresa at 03:06 PM *

Making Light, “Ghosts of the Great War,” 2003, 2004, 2005.

This year I was going to post a link to the sequence from Porco Rosso where he tells Gina about the day his whole squadron was killed in a massive dogfight, and what he saw afterward. Unfortunately, that piece of video’s been taken down from YouTube. You can still watch it in Spanish or Catalan. The words aren’t so important. All you need to know is that they go off without him.

(Update: Chuckling found us a clip of that sequence in English.)

The War Art of Otto Dix, who served in the German army. Tolkien wasn’t the only one who felt he’d been one of the orcs.

And speaking of Tolkien, two bits of silent film: the Lancashire Fusiliers in the Sunken Lane at the Somme. The Lancashire Fusiliers again, in a longer compilation of footage from the Somme. The pertinent fact is that they’re all about to die. About twenty minutes after these photographed few moments, they’ll do what everyone does at the Somme: go over the top and advance at a measured pace through machine-gun fire, deep mud, shell holes, and uncut barbed wire. British and Empire troops will take over 58,000 casualties this morning. Only fifty members of this battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers will survive the attack.

2006, remembering a conversation with Mike Ford:

We were talking about the way the military on both sides kept trying mass “over the top” charges into the no man’s land between the trenches, and taking staggering losses. Doing that a few times would have been bad enough, but in WWI, both sides kept it up for years.

I said, usually if a general plans and conducts a major battle that winds up taking a pitifully small amount of ground, and gets hundreds of thousands of his troops killed, he’s relieved of command.

Mike said, after a while, all the generals had fought battles like that. If you went on doing the same thing, at least it was something you knew. You wouldn’t do any worse than any other commander. But if you tried something different and it didn’t work, then heaven help you.

That is: a mistake everyone makes is no one’s fault. But if you try something new and it doesn’t work, then it is your fault.

This post will be accreting further material.

An old Pathe Newsreel of factory girls modeling the helmets they’ve helped to make.

I don’t know why color photography seems so much more real and immediate than black and white, but it does. There are some scraps of colored movie footage from WWI. You can see most of it in this compilation. It has a loud soundtrack, but you can turn that off—it’s all silent film anyway.

Johnny Cash sings When the Man Comes Around over a montage of WWI footage. No one’s posted Chumbawamba’s version of “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire,” which would go well with it.

At any given moment you can generally find an entire documentary series or six about WWI, cut up into segments and posted to YouTube. I’m not going to link to anything specific, because they always get taken down as copyright violations, and new ones always take their place. The only trick is knowing they’ll be there. If you’re interested, type “WWI” into the YouTube search box and watch for videos marked 4/6, 3/8, et cetera. When you spot one, click on the name of the person who posted it. The other segments should be in his or her list of posted videos. I recommend The Great War in Color.

I’ll admit, I’m particularly vexed by the absence of one set of YouTube videos. A user who went by the name of Chromium2007 had compiled all kinds of archival footage from the war. It’s all been taken down “due to terms of use violation.” I’d like to know who the copyright holder was that requested that.

One notable documentary which has (so far) survived this process: a user named Rainbase put up a four-hour documentary series, The Great War in the Air, in 49 segments. It starts here. If you want to watch it in order, the sequence of the segment numbers is: 101-09, 111-116, 118, 201-204, 206, 208-210, 212-213, 215, 301-302, 304, 308-312, 315-316, 402-405, 408, 410-411, 413-16, and the end credits.

Faces of War is a fascinating and horrifying article in Smithsonian about the 3rd London General Hospital’s Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department, known to wounded Tommies as “the Tin Noses Shop.” The war was long on head injuries—most often, men shot while peering up over the edge of a trench—and the new technologies of war added severe chemical or conventional burns to the menu of military injuries. The facial restoration clinic was an attempt to restore some measure of normal appearance to men who’d suffered catastrophic facial injuries so that they could live as humans in human communities.

The Smithsonian site appears to have trimmed the photos off the article when it was archived, but you can still see one of the before-and-after tin nose prostheses here. The site also has a very substantial film clip of the department at work, with men demonstrating their new prostheses.

The Past Informs the Present: an interview with the author of the story, discussing attitudes at the time, the loss of WWI military records in the Blitz, and current developments in facial reconstruction and prostheses for soldiers in the Iraq war.

Another site that covers the same subject is Project Facade: Faces of Battle. The site’s remained unfinished for a long time now, but the bits that are there are well worth a look: basic information about the clinic, and their collection of individual case studies are compulsive reading.

Note: one WWI veteran whose nose was shot off was mathematician Gaston Julia, inventor of the Julia set fractal.

November 10, 2007
Andy Paiko glass
Posted by Teresa at 05:11 PM * 64 comments

It’s mad scientist sculptural glassware. Gracious living for alchemists. The supply source for compotes, cakestands, bell jars, and other objects—for instance, an absinthe fountain—in the style of Edward Gorey illustrations.

The main site.

Looking at Andy Paiko’s glassware makes the worldbuilding corner of my brain think that magic and alchemy must actually exist. Why else would you manufacture complex instruments out of glass, unless you needed its odd and specific properties? And if so, what are you measuring with a glass seismograph, or with an accurate glass balance (incl. weights)? What kind of beast is vulnerable to a glass caltrop? What are you administering with a glass syringe that’s five and a half feet long? What fiber, what yarn, requires a fully functional glass spinning wheel?*

When I was young and first encountered the concept of someone holding a professorial chair (viz. the Regius Chair of Physic), I imagined it was an elaborate piece of furniture. Clearly, there’s a university where this is true, and here’s the siege perilous to prove it. The enclosed object at center top is a rhesus monkey skull; the legs contain a spiny murex shell, the complete skeleton of a rat, a piece of octopus coral, and the skull of a mountain lion. I can’t make out the engravings on the chair seat.

Enclosed remains are something of a theme. Consider Canis auribus tenere, an elaborate alchemical jar holding a gold-plated coyote skull hermetically enclosed within memories. Andy Paiko also makes intricately inscribed jars containing spines, and object jars (note inscriptions) containing more miscellaneous specimens. There’s a story behind this one, but I’m not sure I want to know it.

My favorite instruments are the two “Pseudoelectrical devices.” I’ll start with the second:

This device also fits inside a large bell jar. It runs on infrared light. It was designed to answer any questions you might have. Yes, that is a radiometer.
This is the one I like best:
This device is displayed inside a very large gold and clear bell jar. It runs on ultraviolet light and is designed to make you ask questions. Yes, those are Tesla coils.
Tesla coils make everything better.

You can’t say Paiko’s work is steampunk. Ornate, finely turned scientific instruments, and devices that play with electrical fluid, hearken back to an age before the ascendancy of the steam engine. This is geek rococo.

(Link courtesy of Elise Matthesen, who got it from Marie Booth.)

Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:21 AM * 123 comments

As promised…when you ask the kids what they want for supper and the answer is “Not tuna!”


(This is very much an item from the things-in-cans, what-am-I-feeding-the-starving-hordes-tonight school of cookery. )

1 can cream of mushroom soup
½ soup-can milk
1 box elbow macaroni
2 cups grated extra sharp Cheddar cheese
½ cup diced green peppers
½ cup mayonnaise (the real stuff, not Miracle Whip or fat-free mayonnaise)
1 small can sliced mushrooms
Fresh-grated black pepper to taste

Cook macaroni according to box directions. It won’t hurt to have it a little underdone, since the baking will cook it further. Grate cheese and dice peppers. Combine all the ingredients, and pour into a 13x9 pan or casserole dish. (Or you could make two 8x8 pans, and freeze one for later.) Bake at 425° for about 25 minutes or until the top is lightly browned and bubbly. Let stand for five minutes before serving.

[Recipe Index]

November 09, 2007
I made this half-hawk half-dove monster to please you
Posted by Avram Grumer at 07:33 PM *

Talk about disappointing headlines. It had me primed for something like: “They all said my health care plan was a work of madness! Now I’ll show them madness….”

Update: I was so busy checking Jonathan Coulter Coulton lyrics I didn’t get around to actually reading that NY Times article before I posted. It’s about the Clinton campaign setting up a new website specifically to rebut anti-Clinton disinfo and rumors. Oddly, the article doesn’t give the site’s URL, or even its name. I think it’s The Fact Hub.

The war on photography
Posted by Avram Grumer at 07:01 PM * 82 comments

Back in the ’80s, my parents (who are Balkan folk dance enthusiasts) visited what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a Communist nation. While there, my father photographed a picturesque lake. He snapped off a shot or two, and was interrupted by a government official who told him that photographing that lake was forbidden, due to the presence of some militarily sensitive facility (I forget what; a power plant or something). My father put the camera away, and that was it. They didn’t confiscate the camera or the film, didn’t make him expose the roll to the light, didn’t haul my parents off for an interrogation. A print of the photo hung on my parents’ wall for years; no sort of industrial facility is visible in it. It’s just a photo of a pretty lake.

Compare that with the treatment this Japanese tourist got at the hands of Amtrak and the New haven police:

The train is a half hour west of New Haven when the conductor, having finished her original rounds, reappears. She moves down the aisle, looks, stops between our seats, faces the person taking pictures. “Sir, in the interest of national security, we do not allow pictures to be taken of or from this train.” He starts, “I….” but, without English, his response trails off into silence. The conductor, speaking louder, forcefully: “Sir, I will confiscate that camera if you don’t put it away.” Again, little response. “Sir, this is a security matter! We cannot allow pictures.” She turns away abruptly and, as she moves down the aisle, calls over her shoulder, in a very loud voice, “Put. It. Away!” He packs his camera.

Within a minute after our arrival in New Haven, two armed police officers entered the car, approached my neighbor’s seat. “Sir, we’re removing you from this train.” “I…;” “I….” “Sir, you have breached security regulations. We must remove you from this train.” “I…,” “I….” “Sir, we are not going to delay this train because of you. You will get off, or we will remove you physically.” “I….”

[…] The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. “The conductor asked this man three times to discontinue. We must remove him from the train.” The traveler hears the translation, is befuddled. Hidden beneath the commotion is a cross-cultural drama. With the appearance of police officers, this quiet visitor is embarrassed to find he is the center of attention. The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, “is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

More stories in a similar vein can be found through the War on Photography blog. For example, one photographer was detained and questioned for taking photos in a state park, and another was thrown off a bus in Denver for taking a photo of an advertisement. And some people taking photos of a bridge in NYC were detained for two hours of interrogation by the cops, who deleted their photos and told them their names were being added to a terrorist watch list.

So that’s the USA today, making Communist Yugoslavia look good.

Update: According to this collection of rail transit photo policies, Amtrak’s official policy does not ban amateur photography on their trains.

November 08, 2007
Stealth Candidate Giuliani
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 10:52 AM * 70 comments

Last Friday, presidential wannbe Rudy Giuliani made a trip to the Colebrook region. One of his stops was at The Balsams, not twelve miles from where I’m sitting right now. But I didn’t go to see him. Why not? Because his staff didn’t bother to let anyone know.

This is part of the editorial (by Karen Ladd) The News and Sentinel ran yesterday:


We have come to expect the presidential hopefuls and their campaign teams to be completely out of touch with life here in Rural America, so it was no surprise when history repeated itself last week: we learned on Wednesday that a major candidate would be in the area on Friday. Sigh.

It would have been nice to let readers know about it in last Wednesday’s issue, but we little weekly papers are not on these folks’ radar. In fact, if there’s a significant step below being on someone’s radar, that’s where we are. Now, we do get lots and lots of communiqués from these campaigns, just not anything of real use.

The only information about which we really give a rat’s patoot is whether the candidate himself—not his kids, or his cousin, or his dog—is actually planning to set foot on Upper Coös soil. In the meantime, we have to shuffle through e-mail after e-mail about Candidate A’s statements on illegal rodent immigration, or that the New England Association of Professional Hog Hoof Trimmers has heartily endorsed Candidate B.

Rudy’s had problems like this before, for example when he snubbed the farmer family because they didn’t make enough money.

Who’s he campaigning to?

November 07, 2007
I’m Dreaming of a White Ziti
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:28 PM *

What’s for dinner tonight: a non-tomato-sauce pasta thingie.


1 pound box of dried ziti
1 pound spicy pork sausage filling
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained (squeeze out as much moisture as you can, using paper towels)
1 16-ounce jar Alfredo sauce
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese


Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Cook and drain the ziti according to the directions on the box. Set aside.
In a skillet over medium heat, cook the sausage until evenly brown.
Drain, and mix in the spinach and the Alfredo sauce. Season with pepper.
Continue cooking until the spinach and the sauce are heated through.
In a bowl, mix the Cheddar cheese, ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, and egg. (Be sure to use a large enough bowl to hold everything including the meat, the sauce, and the ziti.)
Add the cheese mixture to the spinach-sauce mixture. Mix.
Add the cooked ziti. Stir to combine.
Put it all into one 13x9 pan or two smaller square pans, and top with mozzarella cheese.
Cover, and bake for 45 minutes in the preheated oven. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

This freezes well. Reheat covered at 375° for one hour, or until bubbly.

[Recipe Index]

November 05, 2007
Penny for the Guy
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 01:54 AM * 251 comments

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Ever should be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys,
Let the bells ring!
Holloa boys, holloa boys,
God save the King!
A penny loaf to feed the Pope,
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him,
A pint o’ beer to rinse it down,
A faggot o’ sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say the Pope is dead.

November 04, 2007
Retreat Along the Wabash
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 03:50 PM * 83 comments

‘Twas November the fourth in the year of ‘91
We had a strong engagement near to Fort Jefferson
Saint Clair was our commander as it may remembered be
For we left nine hundred lying in that curséd territory.

St. Clair’s Defeat

powered by ODEO

It was the worst defeat under arms ever suffered by the US Army. Out of some 1,100 men who answered muster on the night of November 3rd, 1791, only 27 were unwounded at sunset on the 4th. 90% were dead. The camp followers, the artillery, all were lost.

In just over three hours on that bloody morning General Arthur St. Clair lost 60% of all the men then under arms in the service of the United States.

St. Clair was no bumbler. He had been recognized for valor on the Plains of Abraham, where Britain took Quebec from the French. When the Revolution broke out he was a magistrate in Pennsylvania, where he raised a regiment. He crossed the Delaware with Washington. Shortly afterward he came up with the plan, and led the column, that took Princeton in a daring night march around the British lines. After the war, he became the 9th President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. As President, he put down Shays’ Rebellion. He convened the Constitutional Convention that gave us our current Constitution, and sent that Constitution to the states to be ratified.

So, what happened?

Out on the Western Frontier of the United States (as it was in those days) there’d been peace between the Europeans and the Native Americans for quite some time. Then the Revolution happened, and when it was over the new United States felt that any treaties between King George and the Indians were no longer valid. The Indians, as you’d expect, were all “What the hey?!” about that.

Low-Intensity Conflict (as we’d call it these days) broke out in Ohio. Henry “Hair Buyer” Hamilton, Lieutenant-Governor of Canada at Detroit, offered bounties for European scalps, but none for living prisoners. He also supplied the native forces with powder and firearms.

St. Clair’s wasn’t the first army to go west in an attempt to end the situation. General Harmar had tried in 1790 with spectacularly bad results. (Among other things he sent a detachment forward; it ran into an ambush. He refused to send a relief party or make an assault himself. Some said that he was drunk at the time.)

President Washington sent for his old friend Arthur St. Clair to clean up the situation. St. Clair, with a militia, was to make his way northwest from Kentucky. He had been ordered to cut his way through the forest and build a fort after he had defeated the Indians; for this purpose he had been issued just 15 hatchets, 18 axes, 12 hammers and 24 handsaws. The troops had light-weight uniforms and tents. Much of the money that had been appropriated for equipping the militia had instead been spent on land speculation by Henry Knox, then Secretary of War.

The militia itself was poorly trained. Many of the men did not even know how to load and fire a musket. The horse-master “had never been in the woods in his life.” St. Clair spent the summer of 1791 training them, and on 17 September, with the weather deteriorating, headed out from Ft. Washington (near present-day Cincinnati) to find and destroy the Indian forces.

The march was plagued by cold weather, desertions, and the friction between St. Clair and his second in command, General Richard Butler (the man who had received Cornwallis’s sword at Yorktown). By the evening of the 3rd of November the two men were not on speaking terms. When Butler heard the word from the scouts that a large band of Indians was massing nearby, he neglected to tell St. Clair.

General St. Clair himself was old, tired, and sick. He made the march being carried on a stretcher due to his gout. He made errors. First, he divided his forces, putting half on one side of a river, half on the other. He had send off a strong party of his most reliable troops to round up deserters and supplies. Second, he placed his artillery where it couldn’t support his line (an error made earlier in Scotland by General Sir Henry Hawley at Falkirk and by General Sir John Cope at Prestonpans with equally bad results). These two things, elementary errors as they were, didn’t ensure the disaster. His failure to build breastworks and stand-to at first light (despite his experiences at Trenton and Princeton when he’d been on the offensive) left him in a very bad position indeed.

Before dawn on the 4th somewhere between 1,400 and 2,000 Miamis (under Little Turtle), Delawares (under Buckongahelas), and Shawnees (under Blue Jacket and his adopted brother Tecumseh) attacked the camp, taking it by surprise.

Says Colonel Gibson to his men, my boys, be not dismayed,
I’m sure that true Virginians were never yet afraid;
Ten thousand deaths I’d rather die, than they should gain the field,
With that he got a fatal shot, which causéd him to yield.

The powder the American militia had (provided by William Duer, described as “an unscruplous New York financier,” and Henry Knox’s partner) was woefully bad. A soldier described musket balls striking the Indians and bouncing off.

Says Major Clark, “My heroes, we can no longer stand.
We must strive to form in order and retreat the best we can.”

Forming in order proved difficult. Retreat turned into rout then into headlong flight. Men threw away their arms and equipment in order to run faster. The Indians only chased the army for three miles or so—about a half-hour.

When the news reached the capitol in Philadelphia, President Washington called together all his advisers. Some say that occasion marked the first Cabinet meeting. There was an investigation—the first time Congress ever investigated the Executive branch. President Washington invented “Executive Privilege” for the occasion (a precedent that has haunted us to this day), making secret documents that touched on state security, and claiming that among those that were handed over to the legislative branch that only copies—not the originals—would be submitted.

General St. Clair demanded a trial by courts-martial to defend his honor. Washington refused to convene one, instead dismissing St. Clair from the Army.

The Indian problem on the frontier continued, but it was obvious by now that the militia (raised on each occasion for a specific purpose then disbanded) wasn’t up to the job. Congress created a standing Army, and, under the command of General Anthony Wayne, that army headed west two years later, in 1793. Wayne, taking a page from Caesar’s book, built a road as he went and built a fort every night.

The army finally came face-to-face with the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (20 August, 1794). The fight was one-sided. The Indians fell back seeking entrance to the British fort at Fort Miami. The British, their allies and suppliers up to then, turned them away. It isn’t hard to understand why, from the British point of view. Detroit was a long way off, England farther still (when St. Clair was defeated along the Wabash it had taken a full seven months for the news to reach London), and relief and reinforcements were unlikely to arrive, while Mad Anthony Wayne might prove perfectly willing to reduce a British fort, he was there, he had the capability to do so; no need to give him a reason. Wayne went on to build the fort on the Maumee River as St. Clair had originally been ordered to do.

And that, my friends, is why Fort Wayne, Indiana, is called “Fort Wayne” rather than “Fort St. Clair.”

That too is where we got a standing army, and where the doctrine of “Executive Privilege” comes from.

Tell the truth to a man you trust,
The truth to a man you fear.
Lie to a woman because you must.
But since whatever you do or say
He’ll never believe you anyway -
Lie, lie, lie to a General
Lie to a Brigadier.

—Martha Keller

November 03, 2007
Blow, blow, thou wanker wind
Posted by Patrick at 03:32 PM *

What the hell is wrong with the people in this thread? Boing Boing is a blog. Its authors occasionally use it to talk about projects they themselves are involved in. Like that’s unusual.

As Cory points out, out of the last 55 posts he contributed to Boing Boing, one was about his latest Guardian column, one was a link to a comic strip that referred to him in its punchline, and one was about a fan translation of one of his stories into Swedish. How this amounts to justifying the charge, levelled in the universally-recognizable, 100% phony-baloney voice of the concern troll, that “BoingBoing seems to have become for you mostly a PR vehicle for your stories”, passes all understanding. Cory’s response, far politer than its target deserved, evidently occasioned more and longer complaints about the inadequacy, injustice, and unfairness of the free ice cream. Holy crap.

Boing Boing is a compilation of links to stuff its authors find interesting. It’s been so successful that, for some people, it now feels like part of the Internet’s basic furniture. As a result, a certain kind of person feels entitled to try to guilt-trip the Boingers into not talking about their own projects and enthusiasms, as if Boing Boing’s eminence means its authors no longer get to indulge themselves the way EVERYONE ELSE ON THE INTERNET DOES EVERY DAY AND THREE TIMES ON WEEKENDS. This is the nastiest side of any sort of fame, even microcosmic fame: a certain number of people simply assume that if they start out with a forelock-tugging explanation that they’re “one of your biggest fans,” they can then go on to deal you a load of the most astonishing vileness, because as One Of Your Biggest Fans they obviously own you. In fact, of course, they don’t own you, and you should no more pay attention to what they think than you would to what a spammer thinks.

The real fact of the matter is that Cory Doctorow is, in basic temperament, an enthusiast. This makes him an excellent impresario of the interesting, but it also means that some people jump to false conclusions about him. (For instance, assuming that he’s an uncritical advocate of technological change, when in reality a great deal of his fiction is about tragic near-future consequences of exactly that.) It also means that there’s a certain kind of person who’s evidently compelled on an almost pre-conscious level to take Cory down a peg, because it’s just intolerable that anyone should be smart, widely admired, successful, and obviously having fun. Those people are poison, and whatever it is they tell themselves about what they’re doing, their effect on the rest of the world is evil.

November 01, 2007
Dashing Through the Snow
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:01 AM * 154 comments

It’s getting to be that time of year when snow, frost, sleet, blizzard conditions, flurries, freezing rain, slush, ice, and “wintery mix” (See also: How many words for snow do the Eskimos have?) make driving even more hazardous than it was before.

The tires on your car are the single most important element in winter driving. They’re the interface between the vehicle and the road. The friction at that interface is what makes the car move, stop moving, and changes the direction of its movement. The more effective the friction, the better off you are.

The first thing you should know is that “all weather” tires aren’t. They’re actually all-weather-except-snow tires.

Snow tires have tread patterns and are made of rubber compositions that are markedly different from all-weather tires. Your all-weather tires are optimized for increased gas mileage. Your snow tires are maximized for friction.

Which reminds me of a joke: A couple of guys die and go up to heaven. Saint Peter meets them at the gate and says, “We’re renovating right now and your rooms aren’t quite ready. So you’ll get six more months on Earth, and you can be anything there that you want to be.”

The first man says, “I want to be a glorious golden eagle, soaring above majestic scenery,” and Poof! he’s gone. The second man says, “I want to be a real cool stud,” and Poof! he’s gone too.

Six months pass, and St. Peter calls an angel to go get the two guys. Peter says to the angel, “The first one will be easy: he’s an eagle at the Grand Canyon. The second one will be a challenge. He’s on a snow tire somewhere in Detroit.”

So, if your local jurisdiction allows it, consider studded snow tires. They really work (though the sound when you’re driving on dry pavement can be annoying). If you don’t have studded tires, or if you do, (or if you’re going to go with those all-weather specials), pick up a set of chains to keep in the trunk, and practice putting them on.

There are three kinds of friction failure that your tires can suffer. One is failure in a straight line: failure of acceleration. If the tires spin you don’t go forward. (Note: if you’re spinning your wheels, stop right now. All you’re doing is digging yourself in deeper, and making the hole you’re digging smoother and slipperier.) You can do this on dry pavement too: “smoking” your tires

Failure of braking is also a straight-line failure. That’s when you put on the brakes and keep going anyway. You can see that on dry pavement, when you get skid marks on the highway. Note: skid marks are straight. The curved marks that many people call “skid marks” are actually yaw marks, and are caused by a failure of steering.

If you find yourself skidding, take your foot off the brake and allow the vehicle to coast. Continued braking can turn a skid into a yaw, and the world will turn to dung before your eyes.

The third failure is failure of steering. Normally when you turn the wheel the front wheels turn to left or right. Wheels roll perpendicular to their axes; there’s less friction to overcome if the mass of the auto goes in that direction too. But what if the friction of the road surface is diminished? You crank over the wheel and the difference in friction isn’t enough to overcome the momentum that’s making your car tend to move in a straight line. Well, you continue in a straight line too. As you plow ahead the front end of the vehicle slows while the rear end continues at speed: the whole vehicle starts to rotate around its vertical axis and you lose any say in where your car will end up. Someplace soft would be nice. Into a tree, or into oncoming traffic, is a bit less nice.

Here’s far more on how to recover from the situation when the rear wheels aren’t following the front ones: Know How To Recover From a Skid.

Note too that if your brakes don’t exactly slow your tires at the same rate, the rear of the car will tend to rotate. Flat spins aren’t much fun. The best way to recover from a spin is not to get into one. Slow down.

(Sometimes, whilst driving around in the ambulance, some Jehu passes us. We wave cheerfully and say, “See you later!” Often enough, we do….)

Many American two-wheel-drive vehicles are actually one-wheel drive. One front wheel or one rear wheel. That too is a source of unbalanced forces that can lead to spinning out.

“How about four-wheel drive?” I can hear you ask. Four-wheel drive is great, but can get you going too fast for conditions and provide unwarranted confidence. Remember that all cars are four-wheel-drive when they’re braking.

Now to the driving itself: Slow the heck down. For guidelines, in a storm, on an Interstate, pretend that the speed limit is 45 MPH regardless of what the signs say. On a US or state highway, 40 MPH. On rural or lightly-traveled roads, 35 MPH. Be ready to go slower. All the way down to zero. (In whiteout conditions, get off the road and turn off your lights so the clown who’s following your lights doesn’t rear-end you.)

Ask yourself: is this trip really necessary? Be realistic. Be ready to pull over and stop at a motel if things look too hairy. Don’t only think of your own car and skill: Think of the cars and skills of the other lunatics who are out there in the middle of a winter storm.

Okay, let’s say that it’s really necessary to go, you’ve got winter tires, you’ve got chains, and you head out for the highway. Call 511 (in the USA) for travel information. Stay updated.

Drive slowly. Better late than never and all that. Leave lots of space around your car—three car lengths or more if you can. Accelerate slowly, brake slowly, and do not even consider using Cruise Control. Try to limit your travel to daylight hours. Give highway maintenance and emergency vehicles a wide berth.

Keep positive control of the wheel at all times. When you’re coming out of a turn it’s easy to just let go and let the front tires straighten themselves while the wheel slips through both your fists. In winter that can kill you. Black ice happens. For most turning, you don’t need to switch hand position at all. For larger turns, here’s how to do it: For example, in a left turn, loosen your grip with your left hand while still keeping it around the wheel. Move the right hand toward the left, with the wheel sliding through the left fist. When your hands come together, clamp down with your left hand, loosen the right, and slide it back over to the right. You may need to repeat the movement several times for a very large turn. Practice this during good weather so that it becomes natural and habitual for you.

You know those signs that say “Bridge freezes before pavement”? Believe them. Other places to watch out for ice: where a single tree shades the road while all around is sunny and bright, in a road cut with a bare rock face, and everywhere else.

“What should I keep in the trunk of my car other than those chains?” you ask. A tow strap, a sleeping bag, some of those orange-reflective safety triangles or a set of flares, and a big bag of sand. Not your smooth sandbox sand, your rougher beach sand. (Strips of carpet also work.) An extra gallon of windshield fluid. A container of “dry gas.” A flashlight. Batteries for that flashlight. A folding shovel. A windshield brush/scraper. Consider spare clothing/hat/boots.

Back when I was a Cub Scout Leader we used to make car kits in a single tin cup. The kits had:

In a tin cup:

  • yard-and-a-half of toilet paper
  • three fathoms of parachute cord
  • small jack knife
  • two heavy-duty plastic bags
  • chocolate
  • three teabags
  • three bouillon cubes
  • note paper
  • pencil stub
  • matches
  • match strike-strip
  • $0.25 phone change
  • compass
  • whistle
  • two nails
  • two needles
  • ten feet fishline
  • four fishhooks
  • four sinkers

The cup with its contents fit into a sandwich-sized Baggie. The entire thing went into the glove box, where it could be ignored until needed.

Here’s Field and Stream’s Altoids-tin survival kit, which can similarly be put together, put in the glove compartment, and left until needed.

Bottom line:

  1. Tires
  2. Speed
  3. Control

All else is commentary.

Promoted from the comments:

#27 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 01, 2007, 08:49 AM:

This was a year ago, but it’s certainly appropriate:

Youtube video of the Portland ice storm and billiard-ball cars

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