Monday, July 23, 2012

Good night, and good luck.

“Witch trials in America” isn’t exactly what you’d call a hot topic these days.

If pressed about the topic, most folks would likely mention the Salem witch trials, which took place in Massachusetts between February of 1692 and May of 1693. The number of people affected by the trials was actually pretty small - only about 150 people were arrested, and only 19 were actually executed.

In spite of the fact that they seem like a mere blip in our history, the witch trials of long ago have had a very significant effect on our country. For starters, they reinforced the importance of separation of church and state to our Founding Fathers. They also provide a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, lapses in due process, and governmental intrusion on individual liberties.

Believe it or not, “witch hunts” in America didn’t end in 1693, but they’ve continued under other names since that time.

Richard Nixon had his “enemies list” in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, which functioned as a witch hunt, but the most prominent example of “witch hunts” during my lifetime center around the man pictured below:

“The junior senator from Wisconsin” was first elected to his position in 1946. After three largely undistinguished years in the Senate, he suddenly rose to national fame in 1950, when he asserted that he had a list of members of the Communist Party who were employed in the State Department . His charges of Communist infiltration (all of which were unfounded) eventually spread to the administration of Harry Truman, Voice of America, and the United States Army.

Due to his actions, careers were destroyed, and lives lost, but he met his match when he tangled with the man pictured below:

Edward R. Murrow’s broadcast of “See it now”, on March 9, 1954 sealed McCarthy’s doom, and McCarthy’s rebuttal on the same program, on April 6, 1954, only made matters worse. The Army-McCarthy hearings started on April 22, and added further fuel to the fire. Finally, on December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to condemn the actions of Senator McCarthy.

Exactly one month before the vote of condemnation, the Gallup Poll found that his approval rating was 35%, significantly higher than the current approval rating of Congress, which is 17%.

Although he continued to serve in the Senate for another 2 and a half years, he was largely ignored by his fellow senators, and died of complications related to alcoholism on May 2, 1957.

The most recent victim of a witch hunt is the man pictured below:

Being the Attorney General of the United States is a position that is fraught with peril. Most of Eric Holder’s predecessors have come under fire for a variety of “misdeeds’” , which usually didn’t turn out to be fatal to their position.

In Mr. Holder’s case, he has become a recurring target for conservative anger due to (1) his investigation into Bush-era torture allegations, (2) using the civilian court system for terrorism cases (3) refusing to defend a law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage and (4) challenging (successfully) Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. However, THE most important reason for their anger is the Justice Department’s role in invoking civil rights laws to block voter ID measures.

Prior to 1965, laws that were designed to suppress voter registration were called “Jim Crow laws” , and they were deemed illegal by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Unfortunately, the Jim Crow laws have come back to life again:

Poor people and minorities aren't the only groups that are being targeted by the new laws. In 2008, college students voted for Barack Obama by a 2 to 1 margin over John McCain. To quote Heather Smith, head of Rock the Vote:

"You think your vote doesn't matter? Then why are they trying so hard to take it away from you?".

The House oversight committee, chaired by Representative Darrell Issa of California,, seized on an operation known as Fast and Furious as s a tool to discredit Mr. Holder, and voted to hold him in contempt on June 21, even though the Department of Justice had already turned over 7200 documents related to “Fast and Furious” to the committee.

The day before, Chairman Issa admitted that his investigation had uncovered no evidence, and now had no strong suspicion, that Mr. Holder had known about, or authorized, the Fast and Furious operation.

Issa’s committee has demanded EVEN MORE documents, and the executive branch finally decided that “enough was enough”. President Obama has invoked executive privilege for any documents produced after February 4, 2011.

Significantly, FOX News was the only cable network to carry the hearings live for an extended period of time.

Operation "Fast and Furious"actually started under the Bush administration. In its early stages, it was known as Operation Wide Receiver, and one of its chief coordinators was a man named William Newell, who was the ATF agent in charge of Phoenix.

Operation Wide Receiver was shut down in October of 2007.

Almost exactly two years later, the operation was resurrected again, this time as “Operation Fast and Furious”. The man responsible for the new program was William Newell.

The same William Newell.

Eric Holder’s office first became aware of the operation in July of 2010, and on November 8, 2010, he testified in a Congressional hearing that the operations was “flawed in its concept and flawed in its execution”.

After Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed on December 12. 2010, the ATF bureau decided that the program no longer made sense, and it was shut down on January 25, 2011.

If you’re a regular listener of the Rush Limbaugh show, of course, you’ll recognize that the whole purpose of the program was to create hayhem, which would allow the Obama administration to take away everybody’s guns. A view, incidentally, that is also shared by Darrell Issa and Wayne LaPierre.

If you're a regular listener of Rush, you're also likely to believe the theory that the recent theater shooting in Colorado was a plot by the government to give President Obama the cover that he needs in order to sign the U.N.Arms Trade Treaty.

If you have any doubts at all about the fact that the Executive VP and CEO of the NRA is a raving lunatic, read (or listen to) his speech at the NRA convention in St. Louis earlier this year:

are you nuts?

Incidentally, the idea that the Democrats are out to "create mayhem" isn't a new idea. In 2000, LaPierre said President Bill Clinton tolerated a certain amount of violence and killing in order to strengthen the case for gun control and to score points for his party.Clinton White House spokesman Joe Lockhart called it "really sick rhetoric, and it should be repudiated by anyone who hears it."

Due to Democratic candidate John Kerry's history of authoring and supporting reasonable gun control legislation, LaPierre actively campaigned against the senator in the 2004 Presidential election.

Surprisingly, even the majority of the NRA members don't agree with Mr. LaPierre either, so it's just a matter of time before he gets forced out of his position.

(Incidentally, the folks who don’t want any restrictions on the sale of guns and ammunition are also the same folks who passed voter ID laws in the last two years).

Purely by coincidence (?) Darrell Issa’s committee voted to hold Eric Holder in contempt eight days after the Department of Justice sued the State of Florida for its illegal attempt to purge 182.,000 voters from its polls. The vast majority of those voters, incidentally, were minorities, who are far more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.

In the last 2 years, 18 states have passed voter ID laws, ostensibly to reduce “voter fraud”, which is virtually non-existent throughout the country. Although the laws may seem like a good idea at first blush, they serve to disenfranchise voters who are minorities, low-income persons, senior citizens, voters with disabilities, and students.

In all, 33 states have passed laws requiring identification for voting. If you think that all those laws are intended to eliminate voter fraud, consider the words of Mike Turzai, the majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives:

Listing the accomplishments of the Republican-controlled legislature, he said “Voter ID - which is going to allow Mitt Rommey to take Pennsylvania - done”.

Surprisingly, progress HAS been made against the more restrictive voting laws. A state court in Wisconsin ruled that Photo ID restrictions were in strict violation of their state Constitution, and court challengers are currently underway in Florida, Texas, and Minnesota.

If election officials were REALLY serious about voter IDs, they would follow the example of Mexico, and issue EVERYONE a biometric ID card.

At the conclusion of Edward R. Murrown’s broadcast on March 9, 1954, he said this to his viewing audience:

“His primary purpose has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation in not proof and that conviction depends on evidence and due process of law.. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason., if we dig deep into our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world., but we cannot defend freedom abroad if we cannot defend it at home. The actions of the junion Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it - and rather successfully”.

Some of his words still ring true today.

Eric Holder is being convicted without evidence, and Wayne LaPierre is creating a situation of fear in order to further promote the spread of firearms in a country where we already have far too many.

If you’re still tuning in to FOX News to get the facts about Eric Holder, or Fast and Furious (or pretty much anything else) all I can say to you at this point is this:

“Good night …

and good luck.”

Saturday, July 14, 2012

This coffee tastes like @^#* !

Our daughter went to China in February of 2002 to be ( at the age of 22) a college level English teacher, and I switched to the same occupation in December of 2003.

Roughly halfway through the time of Kelly’s arrival and mine, the SARS epidemic hit southern China, which eventually resulted in the deaths of 916 people worldwide.

Ultimately, the cause of the virus was traced to the human consumption of palm civets, one of the many varieties of animals the people in southern China called “wild flavor”.

Palm civets are also known as civet cats, and they popped up again in the news recently, but for a very different reason. As it turns out, the civet cat can be a major factor in reducing the world’s level of greenhouse gasses.

Until very recently, the world’s most expensive coffee was Kopi Luwak, and it can cost as much as $600 per pound in some countries. You can read about THE most expensive coffee at the link below:

if you pay $50 for a cup of coffee, does that make you a Dumbo?

In the shade-grown coffee trees of Indonesia's rainforest, a wild civet cat (also called the luwak) is said to use its long fox-like nose to sniff out only the best-tasting red berries. Coffee connoisseurs say the seeds of these berries, or coffee beans, taste even better after they've been through the luwak's digestive system. Luwak stomach acids and enzymes that work on these beans create a highly prized aromatic, bitterless cup of coffee. Some New Yorkers will pay $30 for it. However, the most enticing reason for encouraging Indonesian farmers to produce coffee from cat scat is because it may be on the menu for reducing the world's levels of greenhouse gases.

Northern Arizona University Ecological Economics Professor Yeon-Su Kim with the School of Forestry said the link is community forests. She said providing communities with incentives to protect rainforests could slow the destruction of these important carbon-storing ecosystems.

Indonesia is the world’s third largest tropical forest country, and it contains half of the world’s tropical peat lands. These wet, deep layers of organic matter have accumulated for thousands of years and hold a lot of carbon. Some go as deep as 11 meters.

According to Professor Kim, Indonesia's peatland holds 132 gigatons of carbon dioxide, a little less than the largest rainforest, the Amazon. As Indonesia's peatland is being destroyed (due to the harvesting of timber) , there is a massive carbon release, so much so, that through the destruction of forests and peatlands, Indonesia has become the third largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. It's only behind the United States and China, where greenhouse gas emissions are tied to economic development from vehicles and industry.

Professor Kim is developing a partnership between NAU and the University of Mataram (on the Indonesian island of Lombok) that involves teaching sustainable forestry, biodiversity and ecotourism, along with conducting climate change research. It also includes the exchange of collaborative experiences between organizations such as the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU, the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership and Lombok's multi-stakeholder group.

As a result of this partnership, local citizens get paid for protecting forests, and simultaneously collecting shade-grown coffee, cacao, bananas, and kuwak coffee beans.

Somehow, it seems fitting that the most expensive coffee in the world comes from the country that has the most Muslims, who were the group that introduced coffee to the world way back in the 9th century:

Muslims and the dancing goats

When I was in the National Guard in the 1970’s, I used to think that the coffee tasted like, well, you know.

I’ve guess we’ve come a long way, baby.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

My wife has blue balls

The earliest clothes dryers were made in England and France in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Known as "ventilators," they were large metal drums with ventilation holes, powered by hand cranks, and used over open fires. Their invention can't be traced to any one person, but perhaps no one would have wanted the credit, since the clothes always smelled of smoke, were often covered with soot and sometimes caught fire.

An American inventor named George Sampsoncame up with a better idea late in the 19th century, and he was granted a patent for his improved version (which used heat from a stove instead of a fire) in June of 1892.

Since hanging clothes outside to dry in the middle of winter is about the LAST thing that any of us would want to do, it’s not surprising that a man in frigid North Dakota, J. Ross Moore, developed an electric clothes dryer, which first went on sale in 1938.

After WWII, clothes dryers started to become more popular, but even by the mid-1950’s, only 10% of American households owned one, in part due to their cost. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of a dryer in 1955 would be around $1600, which would make it a BIG luxury for a lot of people.

One of the problems associated with clothes dryers is a phenomenon known as “static cling”, which causes clothes to stick together.

An early solution to “static cling” were liquid fabric softeners.They were developed by the textile industry in the early 1900’s, and by the late 1950’s, had spread to home use.

One DISADVANTAGE to the use of liquid softeners is that the chemicals that they contain are not compatible with detergents, so they can’t be added to wash loads until all the detergent has been removed during the rinse cycle. As a result, it was often necessary to run up and down stairs to add the liquid softener at the proper time of the washing cycle.

In order to save his wife all those trips up and down stairs, a man named Conrad Gaiser invented a product that he called Tumble Puffs, which were actually the first known dryer sheets. In 1969, he received a patent for his invention, and shortly after that, he sold the rights to Proctor and Gamble, who started marketing the product as Bounce dryer sheets.

Despite the obvious advantages of dryer sheets over liquid softeners, the sales of liquid softeners are currently about $700,000,000 a year, considerably more than the $400,000,000 of dryer sheets.

When I lived in China, I discovered that clothes dryers (due to the amount of energy they use) are a rarity. Virtually every high rise that I saw “in country” had outside balconies, where lines of clothes could be seen flapping in the breeze.

The house where we live in Flagstaff has a fenced-in backyard AND a clothesline - which I use virtually every week for my sheets and towels. I still think that backyard clotheslines are a good idea, as do a number of people who have read the article posted below:

string ‘em up, Harry

Admittedly, it’s a bit tedious to hang up all my socks individually on the clothes line, so the second load of the week generally gets thrown in the dryer . To her credit, my wife is not a fan of the chemicals used in either liquid softeners or dryer sheets, and has discovered another way to prevent static cling.

They’re called dryer balls.

She has two of them, and they’re blue.

The original Dryer Balls were apparently invented by a man named Dean Kruger in 2006. If you’ve never seen them, they look like the picture below:

In addition to the website shown above, dryer balls are readily available to numerous locations., and they DO represent a more environmentally friendly solution than using liquid softeners or dryer sheets.

Because they are made of PVC plastic, they DO make more noise than the alternative solutions, and that ‘s OK. If saving the environment means that it sounds like you have a pair, it’s a small price to pay.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The grapes of wrath

Most of us are pretty familiar with John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the Grapes of Wrath, and it’s possible that a few of us may have even seen the 1940 movie, with the same title, starring Henry Fonda.

Most of us, including me, have forgotten that John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. His comments can be seen below:

meet Tom Joad’s inventor

Having said that, though, how many of us have actually wondered, “what exactly ARE the grapes of wrath?”. A partial clue can be found in the link below:

the story behind the story

When Steinbeck was finishing his novel, he was having trouble coming up with an appropriate title, and eventually selected “ Grapes of Wrath” at the suggestion of his wife.

The title is actually based on the Battle Hymn of the Republic, which was inspired by several verses in the Bible (Isaiah 63:2-3, Joel 3:2-13, and Revelations 14: 17-20.

Broadly speaking, the message of the “Grapes of Wrath” is one of deliverance, which applies very well to the Joad family of the 1930’s, as wall as numerous other families struggling with the Great Depression.

My parents were part of that large group of people who managed to survive some very tough times, and their story (and others) were captured by Bruce Springsteen in his famous song, roughly 50 years later:

The ghost of Tom Joad

However, this story isn’t about the grapes of wrath - it’s about the grapes … of Mass.

There are NUMEROUS reference in the Bible to the consumption of wine at various locations. For a lot of us, that isn’t much of a problem, but there ARE some folks who don’t believe in drinking alcoholic beverages. It’s easy to make grape juice, but without the preservative effects of alcohol, how can the resulting juice be preserved so that it doesn’t go bad?

The next time that you are in a church service, and you decide to drink Welch’s grape juice instead of wine, you may be interested to know that the grape juice was the creation of an Englishman named Thomas Welch, who died 4 days after Christmas, more than 100 years ago.

Welch and his family were members of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, an organization that did not believe in the consumption of alcohol. At the age of 19, Thomas Welch graduated from the seminary, and became a Wesleyan Methodist minister, a job that he likely would have held for a long time, except for one problem - he lost his voice.

He later became a physician, and started his practice in New York. For reasons lost to history, he decided to move to my old home state of Minnesota, and in 1856, he became a dentist.

Eight years later, he moved to New Jersey, where he started to work on a pasteurization process to better preserve the non-alcoholic juices that his church had been using up until that time. He finally found the right combination in 1869, and he slowly started to market “Welch’s grape juice” to local churches. The company that eventually became the Welch’s Grape Juice Company, however, really didn’t grow until his son Charles, also a dentist, got involved in it.

Despite the fact that the company (Welch Foods Inc.) now has sales approaching $700 million, Thomas Welch never received a penny for his investment.

The next time that you enjoy a little shot of Welch’s grape juice in church, you will likely be one of the few people at the service that knows that it came into being because an old Englishman had a sore throat - and the drink itself has a connection to the Flintstones.