Saturday, December 30, 2006

The most vigilant Sentinel of all

I can't find the item online, but according to the Christmas Eve edition of the Cumberland Times-News, Dave Christopher of Cumberland, Md., has not missed a single Fort Hill High School football game in the past 50 years. For more on Sentinel football, click here -- or just ask Dave.

Tree Christmas O, Tree Christmas O ...

Check out the upside-down Christmas tree in the home of Patty and Joe Hess of Augusta, W.Va. "This is my hardest tree to decorate," Patty Hess told the Cumberland Times-News. "I'm on a step stool most of the time."

Maryland's greatest spy

Are schoolchildren in Maryland taught about the exploits of Allied spy Virginia Hall in occupied France during World War II? I hope so, and not just because she named her wooden leg Cuthbert.

Teddy Roosevelt on the estate tax

From Teddy Roosevelt's message to Congress, Dec. 3, 1906:
I feel that in the near future our national legislators should enact a law providing for a graduated inheritance tax by which a steadily increasing rate of duty should be put upon all moneys or other valuables coming by gift, bequest, or devise to any individual or corporation. ... The prime object should be to put a constantly increasing burden on the inheritance of those swollen fortunes which it is certainly of no benefit to this country to perpetuate.
From Roosevelt's speech on "The New Nationalism," Osawatomie, Kan., Aug. 31, 1910:
No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar's worth of service rendered -- not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective -- a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.

Well, I swear

That the election of a Muslim to Congress -- a Muslim who, naturally enough, wants to swear his oath on the Quran, not the Bible -- should be controversial is a pretty sad thing in a free country, but the controversy has had a couple of beneficial effects. For one thing, a lot of people have been prompted to read, for the first time, the unequivocal Article VI of the U.S. Constitution:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
For another, we have been usefully reminded that not even all U.S. presidents have sworn their oaths of office on a Bible. John Quincy Adams swore his oath on a law volume, bless his Unitarian, contrarian soul.

Another win for Harry

A year's supply of butterbeer to the Georgia Board of Education, which sided with the Gwinnett County school board against anti-Harry Potter crusader Laura Mallory, a.k.a. the Professor Umbridge of Loganville, Ga.


Another reason to have voted against Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich in November: According to The Washington Post, he introduced inflatable Santas and snowmen to the governor's mansion.

Three gargoyles

A fellow tourist snapped this photo of me at Notre Dame in 1991, on my first visit to Paris.

Scary Duncan's Bar & Grill flier

As far as I know, I have no family connection to Duncan's Bar & Grill in Frostburg, so I'm not to blame for this flier, which appeared up and down Main Street before the holiday.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The decline of newspapers is old news

Those who care about newspapers should read this Jack Shafer article in Slate:
A good three decades before the newspaper industry began blaming its declining fortunes on the Web, the iPod, and game machines, it knew it was in huge trouble.
I worked at a good, 100,000-circulation daily newspaper from 1986 to 1993, and throughout that time, my peers and I had endless conversations about all the ways our newspaper, and every newspaper, needed to change: completely overhauling the outdated beats, the arbitrary section divisions, the pointless “personal columns,” the endless grip-and-grin shots, the unreadable and, indeed, unread daily updates from the meetings of the Zoning and Sewerage Maintenance Subcommittee Boards -- all of them still staples of the daily newspaper. Newspaper owners just have been too successful and too complacent to want to change anything. And most of them still are, especially the owners of small and medium-sized newspapers -- which still tend to be cash cows, thanks to local coverage, however piddling, that Fox News and Google can't match. But their day, too, will come, if they keep sitting on their classifieds and legal notices, and doing nothing.

Children of the Atomium

Fans of futures past will love this marvelous website devoted to the Atomium, built as the astonishing centerpiece of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium. The name may not be familiar, but once you've seen it, you'll recognize it.

Sorry; orbs aren't enough

I've always loved ghost stories and the folklore of hauntings, and the parapsychology buffs who lug equipment into old cemeteries and prisons and manor houses for overnight "investigations" amuse me no end -- though I'm generally annoyed by the wholly uncritical coverage given such expeditions by local newspapers and TV and radio stations, and I invariably marvel over the lame "evidence" these folks bring back. To me, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and simple photographs of "orbs" -- the anomalies that can be caused in any photograph, especially nighttime photographs, by dust, pollen, precipitation, etc. -- simply don't count, unless you're already a true believer. I was beginning to think I was alone in my anti-orb grumpiness, but now Stephen Wagner, the Paranormal Phenomena editor at (whose news roundups I recommend), states the case very well in a column titled "Enough With the Orbs Already":
So at this point I am willing to dismiss all orb photos as non-paranormal anomalies. There seems to be no compelling reason to consider them as anything but dust and such. ... Let’s not waste any more speculation on orbs. Enough already.

Revisiting Bigfoot

As a kid, I uncritically devoured dozens of books and TV shows on all paranormal topics, especially cryptozoology. My favorite legendary creatures, unsurprisingly, were the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot, and I well remember the hairs on the back of my neck prickling whenever I saw the infamous "Patterson film," more accurately known as the Patterson-Gimlin film, which purported to show a Bigfoot ambling through the California woods. It sure convinced me!

Now that I'm older, I'm a lot more skeptical, as are a number of people who have studied the film, and a number of people who claim to have insider knowledge of a hoax perpetrated by -- or, perhaps, ON -- filmmakers Roger Patterson (who died in 1972) and Robert Gimlin (who's still alive, and whose only concession is that someone, perhaps Patterson, conceivably could have played a hoax on him). Here's a fine Wikipedia summary of the claims, counterclaims, counter-counterclaims, etc. While no one has proven the film's Bigfoot is fake, certainly no one has proven the film's Bigfoot is genuine, either.

Far less impressive than the Patterson-Gimlin effort is the latest alleged "Bigfoot photo," taken in the El Dorado National Forest in the High Sierras, notable only because the photographers have helpfully pointed out Bigfoot's "male organ." Bet you'll click the link now!

[NOTE: I revised my above comments on the Patterson-Gimlin film after my favorite cryptozoologist, Loren Coleman -- a regular contributor to the Cryptomundo website, which I highly recommend -- wrote me pointing out severe problems in the claims of the Patterson-Gimlin debunker whose comments I had linked to before. So I substituted the above link to the Wikipedia article as a far more objective (and detailed) guide to this fascinating story. Thanks, Mr. Coleman.]

The online Jap Herron

Here's another reason to love the Web: a 234-page pdf of Jap Herron, the short 1917 novel that Emily Grant Hutchings claimed was dictated to her from the Other Side by the late Mark Twain, via a Ouija board. It has a lengthy introduction by Hutchings, as well it should. Thanks to Jason Offutt's blog, From the Shadows, for the link.

First the effect, then the cause

I enjoyed this Seattle Post-Intelligencer article on physicist John Cramer of the University of Washington, who plans to test whether photon signals can be sent backward in time.
Roughly put, Cramer is talking about the subatomic equivalent of arriving at the train station before you've left home, of winning the lottery before you've bought the ticket, of graduating from high school before you've been born -- or something like that. ... "People tell me it can't work," Cramer says, "but nobody seems to be able to explain why it won't."
Besides being a scientist, Cramer -- whom I met, briefly, when he visited Clarion West 1994 -- is a science-fiction novelist, an Analog columnist, and the father of prominent sf/fantasy editor Kathryn Cramer.

At the end of the article, Cramer says, "If this experiment fails in reality, maybe I'll write a book in which it works." This is the Will Jenkins approach. Jenkins, the lifelong inventor who wrote science fiction as Murray Leinster, used to say that if he decided an idea could work, he patented it; if he decided it couldn't work, he wrote a story about it instead.

After the solstice

My apologies for the long absence. Sydney and I rushed home to South Carolina on Tuesday, Dec. 12, because my mother, age 83, had taken a turn for the worse. My mother hung on longer than anyone expected, but on the ninth day of our bedside vigil, she died -- about 9:20 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. I am told that after the winter solstice, the days get sunnier, and I trust that this is true. I'm sure I'll write much more about this later, but for now, I'm a bit burnt-out on condolences, and I welcome comments on any other topic. My mother would agree; she always loved to change the subject.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Seminoles rock

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is buying the Hard Rock Cafe -- all 124 restaurants, plus the Hard Rock hotels, casinos and concert venues, and the world's largest collection of rock 'n' roll memorabila.

I'm impressed. I might even be willing to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe now. Anything Native Americans come up with to take white people's money, I support.

The Associated Press reminds me that the Seminole Tribe was the first tribe to get into the gambling industry, back when I was in high school, with a single bingo hall in Hollywood, Fla. Florida tried to shut 'em down, but Florida learned, not for the first time, that the Seminoles don't take any mess. All the other federally recognized tribes followed suit, and that's why, today, little old ladies all over America can look forward to boarding the tour bus each Saturday morning and playing the slots all day.

Here's my only Hard Rock Cafe story. Back in the 1980s, I went to Washington, D.C., as a chaperone for a vanload of high-school students from Greensboro, N.C., all members of the local Journalism Explorer Post. Beforehand, I made a list of every possible tourist attraction in D.C., and asked everyone to vote on what they most wanted to see in our nation's capital. The overwhelming winner, more popular even than that perennial write-in favorite, "the hookers," was the site of the future Hard Rock Cafe. It was, at the time, a big hole in the ground full of construction equipment, but the savvy owners had rented a narrow storefront next door and already had the shelves stocked with "Hard Rock Cafe Washington DC" merchandise. The line when we arrived, I am not kidding, was the longest tourist line we saw in Washington that spring; hundreds of tourists, mostly teenagers, were lined up in an orderly queue that stretched for blocks, just to buy a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt. That was the '80s. Dang, I sound like a VH1 special.

The Dunbar Poets

I was started to read that one of the teams competing Saturday for the state 1A football championship is the Poets. The fighting Poets? Laudable, but unusual. So I looked it up and found that the Poets are, naturally enough, the teams from Baltimore's Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, named for the great poet who lived in D.C. toward the end of his too-short life. Go, poets!

God's Politics and the Christian Coalition

In abruptly leaving the Christian Coalition, which he was to have led as president beginning Jan. 1, the Rev. Joel Hunter says he's more interested in fighting poverty and protecting the environment, areas the old guard wants nothing to do with. He tells Time magazine:
The emerging constituency, especially the 20- and 30-year-olds' generation, are not prone to the old categories, they don't care about Republican or Democrat, they don't care about conservative or liberalism, they say let's just do what's right to love our neighbor. I went into the Christian Coalition thinking maybe we can turn one of these traditional narrow organizations and broaden it into these compassion issues. But it didn't work.
One wonders whether Hunter has read Jim Wallis' excellent book God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. Someone should get Hunter and Wallis together. Time notes that Hunter is "now floating the idea of a new mobilizing organization to lead the Christian community into the future." That organization -- Wallis' organization -- may already exist.

Battlefield ghosts

Jim Goldsworthy's Dec. 3 column in the Cumberland Times-News is about battlefield ghosts. He cites an unnamed friend, a Civil War re-enactor, who was on a tour at Manassas, Va. The guide asked a group of children whether they knew what a Zouave uniform looked like.
"One little girl said they wore baggy red pants and blue jackets and funny red hats. When the guide asked how she knew that, she pointed to a cannon at the top of a nearby hill and said, 'One of them was standing up there.' We looked, but nobody was there," said my friend. ... My friend described a photograph taken by one of his buddies at a Georgia battlefield. It shows three mounted cavalry troopers that no one saw, and there had been no re-enactors on horseback present that day. He says the photo looks exactly like an old painting he's seen.
As is usual in the field of the paranormal, we move easily from "This happened to a friend of mine" to "This happened to a friend of a friend of mine." Often, too, as here, the related experience is claimed to be just like a previously mediated experience -- a painting or movie or photo we saw, a story someone else told -- which always makes me wonder how much of the related experience is just an unintentional Xerox of the "original."

Goldsworthy contributes an experience of his own:
When I made my so-far only visit to the Antietam battlefield at Sharpsburg 35 years ago, I actually could smell the blood. I know what blood smells like, and it wasn't my imagination.
I've never been to Antietam, though I've never smelled blood at the bloody places I have visitied, such as Gettysburg, and Normandy, and the Tower of London. I can, however, recommend to Goldsworthy and his friend and his friend's friend the American Battlefield Ghost Hunters Society, based in Charlotte Hall, Md., the only such specialty organization I know of.

Not-so-mad scientists

I really like this Wesley Haines photo from the Cumberland Times-News, of fifth-graders doing a science project, but why is the headline "Mad Scientists"?In what sense are these kids mad? Are they mad simply because they're doing science? Because all scientists are mad? Because science itself is mad?

The Martian spring

To the latest hints of water on Mars, Tim Radford in The Guardian applies a necessary, uh, splash of cold water:
Since 1996, orbiters and landers have been crashing down on Mars (in some cases, literally) every 18 months or so and mission scientists have announced the discovery of water on Mars at least half a dozen times in the past seven years. But, in each case, they haven't actually discovered water at all: just indirect evidence, either that it must once have been there, or that it could still be lurking furtively below the arid Martian dust, waiting to sneak out and leave a gully, a wadi or a wash as teasing evidence of its fleeting presence. ... The Martian water torture will continue until somebody actually lands on Mars, drills a borehole, taps into an aquifer and then makes a cup of tea with the stuff.

Holiday, Ollieday

This lead illustration in a newspaper insert encapsulates everything I love about Ollie's Bargain Outlet, a 48-store retail chain based in Harrisburg, Pa., whose advertising approaches South of the Border or Pigman's Bar-Be-Que grandeur. Note the goose (or duck?) in the background crying, "Cheap! Cheap! Cheap!" The late Ollie Rosenberg, a backer of the chain when it started in 1982, was presumably less moth-eaten in real life than his Ollie's avatar. We discovered the Ollie's in LaVale, Md., soon after moving here, and I am in fact a card-carrying member of Ollie's Army. My card:

Must be karma

Seeing this ad in the Cumberland Times-News made me realize that while I wasn't paying attention, both a 1,700-year-old Sanskrit text on the arts of love and a 1980s swimsuit model whose out-of-date calendar image once adorned the closet door of my first apartment in Greensboro, N.C., have become pillars of the U.S. economy.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Could it be ... Satan?

This saga of Lisa Jensen's Christmas wreath is my favorite holiday story of the season so far. In brief: Jensen, who lives in Colorado, put up a Christmas wreath shaped like a peace sign. Her homeowners association -- which deserves to be named: It's the Loma Linda Homeowners Association -- told her to take down the wreath or suffer a $25-per-day fine. The problem with the wreath, they explained, was that it could be viewed as a divisive antiwar protest and, possibly, a symbol of Satan. In response, Jensen did exactly what she should have done: Told the homeowners association to stick it in their yule log, and then spread the word far and wide, so that every English-language news organization on Earth (by my rough estimate) has now covered the story. Countless strangers contacted Jensen, offering to pay her fine throughout the holiday. The nearby town of Pagosa Springs put up an identical wreath to show its solidarity. After a few days of global derision, stunned by their new awareness of this divisive, possibly Satanic device called "The Internet," the Loma Linda Homeowners Association sent Jensen this note:
We had a misunderstanding with your Christmas decoration and for that we apologize. We withdraw any and all previous requests for removal of your decoration.
By "misunderstanding," they mean, of course, "We failed to understand that our pettiness and ignorance would make us the laughingstock of millions." One wonders why they didn't just say that. Oh, and the wires report that two of the three homeowners' board members have had their numbers changed; the third isn't answering calls.

Gruber's Almanack

I picked up a copy of J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack without realizing this Maryland annual is the second oldest continuously published periodical in the United States. Gruber's almanac first appeared in 1797 -- the year John Adams was inaugurated, Lord Nelson lost his arm, and Mary Shelley was born -- and still is published by the descendants of its founder, the titular John Gruber.

No longer, alas, does Gruber's almanac sponsor its annual Woolly Bear Contest, which once offered a $100 prize for the biggest woolly bear caterpillar. The goal was to examine the width of the black bands on as many woolly bears as possible to determine the severity of the coming winter; according to folk belief, the more black on the woolly bear, the worse the weather will be. In the last years of the contest, the number of woolly-bear entries had dropped off to practically nothing. (After all, when was the last time you went looking for woolly bears? J'accuse!)

I'm pleased to report, however, that the almanac still will predict the sex of your next child for a mere $5. This service is provided using the signs of the Zodiac according to the formula established by Hagerstown's own "Aunt" Lydia Cline, a retired nurse who died in 1973. The editors are careful to point out (on Page 61 of the current edition) that the prognostication works not with a first child, but only with successive children. Send the birthdate and gender of the first child, plus the aforementioned $5 and a self-addressed stamped envelope, to:

"Aunt Lydia"
c/o The Gruber Almanack, LLC.
1120-C Professional Court
Hagerstown, MD 21741-0609

"While we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the predictions," the editors note, "be assured that 'Aunt Lydia' still maintains an accuracy of other 80%!"

Since you asked: The oldest continuously published periodical in the United States is The Old Farmer's Almanac out of Dublin, N.H., which first appeared in 1792. What blog will beat that?