Global Warming Opposition is the New Religious Right

Today I received a email forward from my Uncle John that contained an anti-global warming press release from Sen. James Inhofe's Environment and Public Works committee. Inhofe, of course, is one of the Senate's chief skeptics that human actions are contributing to negative climate change. So as a parting shot from his committee chair, he released the rather screedish report, "A Skeptic's Guide to Debunking Global Warming Alarmism." It's a good title, but it also explains a lot about how the global warming opposition defines itself. Just like the Religious Right of the 1990s, their identity is shaped by the people they dislike. Here's how I responded to my uncle:

Dear Uncle John,
What you sent over is a press release written by Sen. Inhofe's committee staff, so it's obviously very biased towards his perspective.
I think most scientists agree that there are hiccups in the theories that try to explain global warming, and that skeptics shouldn't be muzzled. Science, after all, thrives on a healthy debate and discussion. It is the most self-correcting profession that exists (far better than politicians). But I'm afraid Sen. Inhofe is trying to make a round Earth appear flat. The vast majority of scientists who work in climate change fields, probably over 95%, believe that humans are contributing to global warming and that it's a problem. And when Sen. Inhofe holds a comprehensive hearing on global warming, 75% of the scientific experts he invites are skeptics about the human race's role in increasing global warming. That's like opening a French restaurant and hiring 5 Scottish chefs and a Maitre'De from Quebec--not very representative of reality.
I am not sure why so many conservatives have an ingrown fear of global warming. I can understand why oil and coal companies don't like people to talk about it--their profits are directly correlated to rising carbon dioxide levels. But I'm noticing an increasing anti-global warming gut reaction from conservative news sites and pundits that seems to exist for the simple reason that people like Al Gore and Leo DeCaprio are on the opposing side.
It reminds me of the knee-jerk rhetoric that once roiled the debates over prayer in school and creationism. Conservative christians clung to those cultural issues because they helped them define who they were in opposition to--mainly so-called secular humanists and atheists. But when one examined the basis of the religious right's main arguments (ie. school violence, abortion, and Satanism have increased because kids no longer pray before homeroom) -- they were plainly ridiculous and non-sensical.
When Sen. Inhofe decided to focus his last hearing on the "media conspiracy" promoting global warming, he showed that
climate change skeptics, who lack any scientific weight or consensus, seek to define themselves by those they are against. It's the same silly smokescreen as Pat Robertson complaining about how Madalyn Murray O'Hair drove God from the public schools back in 1962. And I think it is an endgame ploy of a side that lacks the standing to make an argument.


Hoping to find James Kim

If you've ever watched a CNET.com video review of an MP3 player, you've probably seen James Kim. He's the senior editor in charge of the popular digital media department, and his upbeat informative videos are a great way to compare and contrast an iPod with a Sanyo or a Samsung. Now we are waiting to see if James Kim will survive an unbelieveable ordeal that started as a simple family roadtrip.
Kim and his family, his wife Kati and two young daughters, have been missing since late November somewhere on the road between San Francisco and Seattle. On Monday afternoon searchers using helicopters found Kati and the two kids by their car, but James is still missing, having ventured into the snowy wilderness to seek rescue 2 days ago. News reports say that James kept his family's spirits up by making their plight seem like a camping adventure, even as he burned the tires on their station wagon to keep them warm. Soon we'll know if the efforts he took to safeguard his family have also protected him.


Why my history isn't necessarily yours

Is your concept of American history the same as mine? I doubt it. Our versions of history were influenced by the era and regions that we grew up in. This morning I listened to an interview on NPR with Kyle Ward whose new book History in the Making shows how malleable history can be. Ward described how textbook treatments of the Mexican War have changed over the past 150 years from a Biblical battle of races in the 1850s to the modern version as an unpopular war forced by a desperate president. But I don't have to go back a century for evidence--I've witnessed the massaging of history in my own brief time in school. Like most elementary school children, I learned a mythical version of our history--that George Washington had wooden teeth but could never tell a lie--before I began to learn a version of the truth. In 3rd grade I learned that the Civil War was very bad. By 8th grade my teachers explained it was a necessary war to wipe out slavery. In 10th grade the cause became insurtmountable economic conflicts over cotton and tariffs. And in college the crisis was explained (mostly by Lincoln's writings) as a moral crusade to anchor America's reality within the ideals of its founding.
History changes with environment, too. I remember visiting the third grade classroom where my mom taught school in an inner-city neighborhood of Akron, Ohio. Posters on the walls of her classroom showed the familiar images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver--the same African-American heroes who briefly paraded through the textbooks in my entirely white hometown of Hudson. We didn't have posters of them, of course. But in the Akron classroom there were also posters of Dr. Mae Jaminson, Sojourner Truth, Matthew Henson, Thurgood Marshall, and Ralph Bunche--notable African Americans I had never heard of. This scene played out in reverse in the "inner city to Ivy League" book, A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind. In the book, a freshman student named Cedric Jennings had recently arrived to Brown University from a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC. As he browsed through the campus bookstore he came across a table covered in books featuring a stern-looking bald man on their covers. Cedric had no idea who this man was, so he picked up one of the books and flipped it open. "'Winston Churchill,' he said to himself. I've got to remember who he is." Suskind, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, intended that scene as an indictment of the Afro-centric curriculum of Cedric's high school that taught about more about the ancient stone cities of Zimbabwe than who won World War II. Of course manipulating history isn't a conservative or a liberal trait--it's a universal trait of people who are uncomfortable with messy edges that don't align to their liking. Conservatives Lynne Cheney and David Horowitz are as guilty of this offense as shock professors like Ward Churchill and Leonard Jeffries. All of them don't realize that it's the messy edges of history--the shadowlands of motivations and events--that make our past so interesting. Perhaps one day kids won't learn the myth that George Washington wore wooden teeth--unless it's for a lesson designed to scare them into regular brushing.


Gaining admission

If you want to attend a college like Penn, Harvard, or Duke--you're going to have to work pretty hard. But that's a good thing. If admissions officers ignored merit and drive, as they did before the advent of the SATs and the eradication of quotas, the system would be in shambles. Right now it's as good a meritocracy as could be expected, and the recent trend to eliminate early action/decision will make it even more fair. If a high school senior knows how to draft a successful college application--he's got a good shot at getting in. In fact, little else in life is as systematized as applying to college. But how does he know the right stuff to put in his application? Aha! That simple information gap is creating two different realities for students across the country. For those high school seniors that somehow know, or can pay private counselors to tell them, the code for success is simple to follow. But for those students who have no one to advise them, and can't afford extra help, the process of self-promotion can be a bewildering disaster. 'Do I send in copies of my artwork?' 'Do I write that essay about a struggle or a success?' 'Which teachers do I choose as my recommendation writers?' The result is that two very unequal applications--one from the savvy student, and one from the amateur--can land on an admission officer's desk. Even if the two students behind the paper stacks are more equal than their applications show, most admissions workers won't be able to tell. Only the savvy student will receive the fat envelope in the mail. Creating applications and essays that effectively translate your accomplishments will get you in. If you sell yourself short, you will likely fall short. That's why I want to organize free seminars in the Lehigh Valley to provide local students with successful college application strategies. If you're interested in attending a seminar, or learning more, please send me an email at jason-at-jasonstevenson.net.


Children's books with a great message

When I dropped off several 'books on CD' at the library last weekend, I took my usual amble through the children's book section. Why? Because there are certain books that have timeless lessons for the grown-up children who read them long ago. Funny enough, these same books are often banned or the subject of controversy. I've started a list below of children's books that fall into this category--the teaching books that make kids think well beyond their own world:
Danny the Champion of the World - by Roald Dahl - an ideal portrayal of childhood adventure, inventive pranks, and father/son relations
The Pushcart War - by Jean Merrill - a thoroughly enjoyable David vs. Goliath story where business competitive stands in for class conflict
Island of the Blue Dolphins - by Scott O'Dell - reassuringly addresses a great fear of all children - 'What would happen if I was left all alone?'
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH- by Robert C. O'Brien - a terrific rescue story that teaches the values of creativity and volunteerism
Bridge to Terabithia - by Katherine Patterson - so often banned for a few bad words, but what other book pulls a child in so many new directions?
Where the Red Fern Grows - by Wilson Rawls - a classic for any animal lovers, but also a great lesson for youth faced with responsibility
A Separate Peace - by John Knowles - a sophomore-year favorite that reveals the depth of jealousy and competition among even friends
The Twenty-One Balloons - by William Pene du Bois - an old-fashioned European adventure that strands its characters on a rumbling Krakatoa volcano
The Mad Scientists' Club - by Bertrand Brinley - an ensemble cast of small town geeks prove to readers that it's okay to be a little nerdy
The Great Brain - by John D. Fitzgerald - as the younger brother to a great brain, the charm of this series easily captured the reality of kids at play
The Westing Game - by Ellen Raskin - before the arrival of Lost and CSI, this twisting narrative taught kids that all is not what it appears
Tom Swift - by Victor Appleton - Cold-War era simplicity and machines that always work don't detract from the wonder that this series imparts


Orwell on Writing

Whenever I want to remember what writing is all about (which is often, as my days are filled with endless rounds of editing), I turn to two essays by George Orwell. The first is rather transparently titled, "Why I Write," and mixes Orwell's account of his own affair with words and ideas with an accurate appraisal of why people chose this career. Their motivations, he states, are: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose. What instrument do you and I play in this media quartet? The second essay, "Politics and the English Language," is a more difficult read, but also a more useful tool for writers interested in both style and substance. In this essay Orwell mixes advice such as "Never use a long word where a short one will do," together with the warning that "political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible." He loves words but also places them at arm's length because of their power. In the 57 years since his death Orwell has been claimed by both conservatives and liberals--but he can always, and should always, be claimed by writers who love their craft.


Keep your eyes on the prize

There's not much to watch on TV these days that doesn't leave me with a guilty feeling. Guilty that I could be doing something more meaningful... like eating paint chips. But then there's PBS. On the past two Monday nights The American Experience has run portions of the intensely moving civil rights documentary, "Eyes on the Prize." Now that icons like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King are no longer with us, their voices can only come from archival interviews and footage of the actual events. And on Monday nights they, and dozens of other leaders from peaceful battlefields like Selma, Nashville, Birmingham, and Albany, GA, are able to say their history aloud on PBS. Already it feels like ancient history, especially with the outdated suits with thin ties, frilly hats, and classic cars that roll through the footage. What isn't lost is the shock of the hatred and violence that occasionally spills across the screen. Would you kick someone hard in the spine just because they wanted to order food at a lunch counter in Nashville? Watch this show and you'll know that many people would, and did. You'll see their bodies snarled in hatred and stare disbelieving that this once happened. Not even "once, long ago," by "once, 45 years ago." Some day the civil rights era will get the "Greatest Generation" treatment - perhaps in a few more years when people realize that the soldiers in this third American revolution are vanishing into the grave. And even then, "Eyes in the Prize" will be just as powerful to watch and learn from.


Backpacker skills videos online

I work for a paper-based magazine, but the editors at Backpacker realize that the Internet is how people get their information these days. To target this audience, we are posting videos of the skills and gear that we review in the magazine on our website. The first round of videos are now online--including 3 "SkillsCasts" from the December 2006 issue. You can find them at the Backpacker Skills Center. There are also reviews of GPS devices, tents, and digital cameras by Jon Dorn, Kristin Hostetter, and other editors at Backpacker. Over the last week our office has sometimes felt more like a high school theater production than a national publication--but we're all excited about what we can do with videos and podcasts to help our readers. To access the full roster of videos and podcasts at Backpacker, visit our online Video Center.


New email address starting now

I'm transitioning to a new email address over the next 2 weeks. Last month I bought the domain name www.jasonstevenson.net, and over the weekend I began using the email address (jason-at-jasonstevenson.net). In time, I'll transfer all of my email and web-hosting services to this new site and keep it, well...as long as I need it.
Yesterday I was trying to remember when I got my first email address. It must have been around 1991 or 1992. It was the rather long-winded: "brillo@hobbes.polymer.uakron.edu." I used this email address to post on numerous protian newsgroups (in the time before the WWW), including a real fierce one called "misc.education.home-school.christian" which was ground zero in arguments about the religious right's impact on public education. I considered all of my postings to be entertainment, like a more dynamic op-ed page, and I never considered the eventual role the Internet and the WWW would play in my life. I even remember using Mosaic, the first web-browser from Netscape. I bet there were about 1,000 websites in extistence back then. Now I realize that my early exposure to the Internet was like taking a joy-ride in the first Model T Ford - a glimpse of things to come.


Harvard is a betting game

People who say that eliminating early action and early decision--which Harvard and Princeton have done over the past week--fails to improve the college admissions climate, don't think about two important facts: logistics and teenage hormones. To prove this point, let's look at Harvard.
In late 2005, 3,872 students were motivated enough to apply Early Action to Harvard by the November 1st deadline. About 813 of these early birds were admitted on December 15th. That's a success rate of 21 percent to fill almost 40 percent of the freshmen class. Most of the 3,000 who didn't make the cut are rolled into the regular admissions pile--along with 19,000 more students who procrastinated until January 1st to mail in their applications. On April 1st, Harvard chose another 1,311 students from that pile of 22,000 applications. The late-comers faced a much more daunting admissions rate of 6 percent.
The difference in the time and attention that admissions officers could give to individual applications was also considerable. For the early action students, workers reviewed an average of 86 applications a day (3,872 applications / 45 days). For regular decision it doubled to 162 applications a day (22,000 applications / 135 days).
I don't bet money, but I know good odds when I see them. The kids who "slept in" and didn't get their essays and transcripts polished by November 15th, lost 15 percent on their admissions odds, and had their applications read twice as fast. These 19,000 students who waited for January 1st practically lost the race before they began it.
What about the argument that "smarter" kids apply early? It's true, they do. But it's not the right kind of "smart." Either these students, or their ambitious parents and for-hire college advisor were savvy enough to realize that hitting Harvard's early action program is the single, easiest thing you can do to improve their chances to get in. Often it's not the students who realize this. I had many classmates at Harvard whose parents wrote, compiled, and sent in their child's applications without the student even lifting a hand to sign their name. Most teenagers, especially seniors in high school, usually can't be bothered to stay awake for a 9:15am class. How are they going to complete a 20-page application and three 1,000-word essays two months before the real deadline? Only those applicants who know the importance of applying early will make the extra effort to do it. And those applicants usually come from elite backgrounds, high-priced schools, and have siblings or parents who attended these competitive schools. The regular folks are lost in the crowded field of 19,000 applications due January 1st.
But are these early action admits also "academically" smarter than their peers in the regular decision program? I don't think so. Harvard could fill 4 or 5 classes of equally intelligent freshmen each year. What they got with early action, were the kids (
38 percent of the incoming freshmen class) who were smart enough to play the game right. What they lost, and will hopefully regain next year, are the best students from the entire pool of applicants.
Ten years ago I applied early action to Harvard. I started my college essays over the summer. I met with my guidance counselor during the first week of school. I requested my transcripts weeks before the deadline. I arranged my college interview with an alumni couple who knew my political work. I took my SATs and visited college campuses during my junior year. I was lucky that I knew how to play the game. But I still don't think arbitrary systems like early action and decision are the right ways to determine who gets to win.


A better Lincoln match

Perhaps a better Lincolnesque match to President Bush's 9/11 rhetoric comes from Lincoln's February 1860 Cooper Union speech. In this address, Lincoln marshalled the words and deeds of the Founding Fathers to demolish the "do nothing" attitude toward slavery of his rival, Stephen Douglas. A terrific speech that captivated thousands in audiences in New York and across New England, this address galvanized Lincoln's nomination for president three months later. Here is how he ended the speech, leaving his listeners whooping in delight:
"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
And again, the conclusion to President Bush's speech from the five-year 9/11 anniversary:
"And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free."
It seems that everyone wants to be in Abraham's bosom these days...



Echoing Lincoln in times of grief

Last night, as President Bush concluded his 9/11 address to the nation, I caught of few mystic chords of memory flowing through his speech. His writers, I believe, borrowed a cadence of words from the best politician-poet of our history - Abraham Lincoln.
Among presidents in wartime, none rose to command respect and achieve success like Abraham Lincoln. The rail-splitter from Illinois is already big, but he's just going to get bigger in the next three years. The 200th anniversary of his birth is February 12th, 2009, and legions of his admirers are working hard to make sure that a Lincoln-loving festival is in full swing by the time that date rolls around. Steven Spielberg is even making a movie, with Irish-born actor Liam Neeson cast as the president, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent 2005 chronicle,
Team of Rivals, which illuminates Lincoln's masterful political touch.
But back to the speech. Last night Bush concluded with this sentence:
"And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free."
Good Bible study and Old Testament stuff, with the rhythym of a civil rights preacher. Bush has echoed this theme in several prior speeches, including his 2003 State of the Union address. It's also a cadence that is a complete departure from his normally disjointed and unpunctuated speaking style.
And to conclude his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Lincoln said this:
"we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--and that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Lincoln's oration is immortal, and so are certain phrases and sounds from this speech. I don't fault President Bush from standing on the shoulders of history, he needs as much additional perspective as he can get. I just think his speech last night is yet another example of how Abraham Lincoln, although not one of the original Founding Fathers of our country, is the son who made, and continues to make it, a great nation.


Nothing better than fresh compost

Last weekend I put the finishing touches on my new compost bin by attaching the swing-down front gate. I started this project three weeks ago when I found two cargo pallets along the side of the road. I squeezed them into my car and brought them home. It took one weekend to tear apart the pallets (lots of nails in those things), and another weekend to build the bin. It's solid wood all the way around: about 3 feet deep, 2 1/2 feet tall, and 2 1/2 feet wide. And it weighs about 95 lbs. - requiring me to roll it into place by the side of my house. But now it's full of fresh dirt and yard waste and happily composting away. Check out photos of the bin here.


A battleship on the NYT frontpage

It was nice to see a battleship as the main image on the New York Times website this morning, even if it's only a "pocket" battleship, and a Nazi one at that. But the story of the Admiral Graf Spee is one of the best heroic/tragic tales from World War II.
First, there's the duplicity of the Germans to build a series of battleships in the early 1930s half again as massive as the Treaty of Versailles
restricted them. The Nazis claimed the Graf Spee's displacement was 10,000 tons, when it was actually closer to 16,000. And since battleships fight like boxers--slugging it out until one is too battered to go on--a ship's size matters.
And then there's the role of commerce raiders--the German warships who operated singly against Allied merchant shipping all over the globe. The captains of these raiders knew the entire British navy was out to sink them, forcing them to hunt, strike, and disappear. The Graf Spee sunk or captured nine Allied ships during her two month run in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans before the Royal Navy finally caught her.
But the greatest aspect of the Graf Spee story is the Battle of the River Plate, fought December 13, 1939 off the coast of Uruguay. Three Allied warships led by the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and including the light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles surprised the Spee in the merchant-rich waters near the estuary of the River Plate. The early morning battle left the Exeter in shambles after numerous 11-inch shells from the Graf Spee knocked out her turrets and power, but the Allied warships scored enough hits on the German battleship to convince her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to make for the safety of Montevideo's port.
And here's where the story enters a diplomatic wrangling game between British officials in Montevideo, the Uruguayan authorites, and the German navy. After delaying the Spee's departure for several days, the British managed to convince the Germans that a phantom naval force waited out at sea in ambush. No such force existed, just the worn out Ajax and Achilles. Believing he faced certain destruction if he sortied, Langsdorff cabled to Berlin to ask if he should seek internment of his warship, or attempt to scuttle it. In a rare occurrence, the Nazi's didn't ask him to fight against impossible odds. Berlin replied: "No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled." On December 17th, a skeleton crew sailed the Graf Spee into the estuary, and after explosive charges were set along the keel, and the crew evacuated, it blew up and burned for several days. A few days later Captain Langsdorff committed suicide in his Montevideo hotel room, wrapping himself not in the Nazi swastika flag (unlike most naval officers, he was not a committed Nazi), but a World War I imperial naval ensign similar to the one he had fought under at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. And there ends the story the battle, though the recovery of the wrecked Graf Spee, and especially its Nazi-era emblems, is what inspired today's New York Times story.


A new home on the Web

The domain - www.jasonstevenson.net - will eventually be my new home on the Web. Over the weekend I signed up for this new domain name. Right now it just mirrors the webatomics.com/jason site, but it will eventually take over as my chief web host. And I'll switch my email to --I've just need to take care of a few technical issues first. I wonder if we will ever develop a system so that every person gets a permanent email address at birth, like a social security number? Or will websites eventually become 3-dimensional entities, like a living room that you can walk into? Sounds like something I remember from Fahrenheit 451.


College rankings don't matter that much

On Friday U.S. News & World Report will release its annual college rankings--a lucrative ploy that not only sells tons of magazines, but also inflates the reputations of certain colleges and universities. These rankings (and U.S. News is not alone in them any more) convince many students that a college's reputation will have a marked affect on their education, their future job prospects, and maybe even how much they learn.
All of those results will depend much more on how hard a student is willing to work (and how many 9:00am classes they will bother to attend), than the ZIP code or the ranking of their college. I'll admit that there's a difference in the education a student will receive from a struggling community college and a wealthy liberal arts school like Amherst or Bates. But the community college student can transfer after 2 years to a state school and achieve more intellectually than an unmotivated prep school kid who doesn't know why he's at college except that its a waystation to the better life he's promised.
Though I've not done this, I bet that if you plotted the results of the
U.S. News ranking compared to how old and how big an endowment a college has, you would fine remarkably parallel lines. I wish I did well enough in my sophomore-year statistics course to remember how to run a regression analysis. Ranking top colleges is like ranking the popular kids in high school--satisfying but otherwise meaningless.
When I made my college decision on a May afternoon over 10 years ago, I weighed vignettes from campus visits, memories of sitting in on random classes, conversations with students and recent graduates, raw numbers of financial aid offers, and most importantly--the swirl of three names running through my head: Harvard, Yale, and Brandeis. But the question that I repeated to myself most often, and which I remember well, was "Can I turn down Harvard?" As it turns out, I couldn't and I didn't. I don't wish I would have gone elsewhere because of the great friends I made there (and it's hard to wish them away), but I wish I had understood what's really important about choosing and using a college education when I was still in high school.


All aboard to Montreal

On Friday night I attempted to fly from Newark to Montreal--a silly notion in the face of the fierce thunderstorms that typically roll through here on summer afternoons. But on that day, the cumulonimbus towers contained much fury, but little staying power. I arrived to Newark airport to find clear skies, but unfortunately, no planes. The brief storm had scared them away.
"Sunday afternoon," the harried AirCanada gate agent flatly told me. The first flight I could take to Montreal to see my fiance Jackie would depart when I was supposed to be returning. So there was nothing to do except bond with a couple of stranded Montreal businessmen and decide to drive to Canada. My '93 Subaru Legacy wagon took over from a Boeing 727. and my new Quebecois friends Claude, Alfonso, and Richard played equal parts captain and passengers for our journey. We arrived to Montreal 7 hours and 2 tanks of gas later and at the 3am hour when the strip clubs and bars on Sainte Catherine were just closing. It took us 10 minutes to convince the puzzled Canadian customs agent why a car with New Mexico plates owned by a Pennsylvania man was filled with 3 Canadians, one with a Swiss passport, and another Venezuelan-born with a secretive import-export business.
"I wouldn't have done what you did," admitted the border agent in heavily accented English. But why not? Mishap and mis-direction are the best opportunities to meet people you never would.


Driving on the left

The smallest roads on Scotland's Isle of Skye are less than a lane wide as they squeeze between ancient jumbled stone bridge abutments. The largest roads are are two-lane blacktop ribbons which roll along the island's sinuous coastline. I drove on both last week during a refreshingly uncomplicated trip to Scotland with my fiance Jackie. And we kept telling each other every time we got behind the wheel, "Remember to drive on the left."
A tour guide told us that the Brits drive on the left because it allowed right-handed horseman to swing their swords at the oncoming traffic. The left-handed Napoleon, the legend continues, ordered his armies to march on the right side of the road so that his own sword could be at ready. Colonization and war spread those two customs around the world. Australia and Malta drive on the left, while Canada and Madagascar prefer the right.
Perhaps that's just another anti-French story from the British isles, but it's fun to think that the centuries-old decisions of army commanders and fortunes of war determine the frustration levels of modern-day tourists like us. I am sure there is a great deal else that we take as standard today that can be traced back to a simple memo by some unnamed bureaucrat. April 15th as tax day, for instance, or Tuesday being election day. Routines fit the world as well as they fit individuals.


IKEA Nation

On Sunday I ventured into an IKEA store for the first time. My purpose was to buy a new kitchen table, but I also wanted to experience this Scandinavian furniture phenomenon that many of my friends revere. And after a two-hour foray inside this giant big-box slice of Sweden, I think their appreciation is well-founded.
At first the names of their products--a bed named "HORESUND" and a lamp called "PULT"--can be off-putting. But after you realize how well-designed and durable these space-saving and solid wood furnishings are, you think of those odd names as just Old World charm. It's Beowulf, but for your kitchen and bath.
And I like IKEA's DIY system of shopping. First, you write down the aisle and bin numbers of your chosen artifact from the maze of showrooms. Then you retrieve it from a warehouse that rivals the storage room in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It makes a lot of sense when you consider the alternative of waiting on a sales staff to find and move your order.
Building my new furniture took about an hour in the evening, and required no more expertise or special tools than what one would use to hang a picture. One unique thing is that IKEA furniture never comes with extra screws or washers. You use everything they give you. I wonder how much money they save by doing that? A colleague of mine suggested that if IKEA ever decided to make a car--it would come in cardboard box the size of a large pizza and require only a screw driver and an allen wrench to assemble. I don't doubt it, but would it be big enough carry home a nice-looking BJORKUDDEN table?


Snakes and Gators

There's something about snakes that makes me jump. But I don't think I'm alone in that reaction. This spring I've seen more snakes than normal--including a New Jersey timber rattlesnake that I almost stepped on, and king snake as thick as my calf. And then there's the dolphins I saw while paddling off Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia, and the alligators I watched in some South Carolina swamps. Ohio's wildlife proved to be the least dramatic and life-threatening: a small-mouth bass quite peeved to be hooked on a fishing line. Photos of these encounters (except the dolphins - they were too quick) can be viewed on the latest album I've uploaded to this site. Check out my Three States Wildlife Tour.


Longest days

I saw a lightning bug as I biked home last night--my first such sighting since returning to the East a few months ago. A furious thunderstorm had just ceased pouring down rain, giving me a few minutes to pedal home and stay dry. These are the longest days of the year now. And that subtle shift of 1 or 2 minutes more light each day is still imperceptible even if the wonder of a wide-open summer hasn't changed since our ancestors invented myths to explain it.



When I traveled through Europe six years ago, I naturally went to Normandy to see the beaches made famous by the D-Day invasion. I rented a stiff and uncomfortable bicycle in Bayeux, the town where I was staying at a wonderful hostel, and set off for the English Channel several miles away. My riding companion was an Australian guy I met at breakfast. And though he was 20 years older than me, he quickly left me in the dust. We covered 30 miles on a blustery late-September day, pedaling past the landing zones where the Americans, Canadians, British, and French soldiers came ashore. Flags of the Allies fluttered outside almost every building, while the beaches seemed eerily serene for monuments to such violent events.
But then I remembered that these beaches were only made battlefields by humans--and that by nature they are rhythmically calm places where water meets land. There had to be flags, and graves, and rusted tanks there to tell me that this platonic scene was once the site of a great battle. Without those reminders, I would have considered the beaches of Normandy to be a stirring place for a picnic.


Going coastal

This year for Memorial Day weekend I'm heading south to Savannah, Georgia and the wedding of two good friends from my time in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have not seen Joslyn or Brian for several years, and I am delighted to be there this weekend when they get married. We will do a lot of catching up, and also guessing about the future. Which makes sense - because there's nothing like a wedding that is so much about the past and the future at the same time. Not only do I hope see old friends, kick back to some good southern hospitality, and tuck into tasty BBQ--but I also plan to venture to the coastline and do some low country kayaking and hiking. After all, that kind of stuff is job-related now.


Backpacker wins an Ellie

For the 98% of the population that has no idea what a national magazine award is, or even that the magazine industry hosts an annual back-slap confab to reassure themselves that color/glossy print journalism still matters... well, it all happened on Tuesday night in New York City. And Backpacker, the small service-poetry magazine that I recently joined as an associate editor, won an award for best section - the front-of-the-book Basecamp section. Michelle Hamilton, now a senior associate editor at Runner's World, held this job before me, and she and the other editors who helmed Backpacker throughout 2005 did so much to earn this honor. And I hope that we can repeat the feat for next year.


Red ripe tomatoes

This morning I walked over to the first of the summer's weekly farmer markets in downtown Emmaus. The parking lot of a local bank served as the site--sprouting dozens of tables and awnings to attract hundreds of produce shoppers, and the necessary kids and spastic dogs for the occasion. A farmer's market is rather natural in this part of Pennsylvania. One only has to drive (or bike) a mile in any direction from the town's squat stone city hall to encounter long wavy lines of split-rail fences and acres of pasture guarded by solid-looking silos. For the first time I'm living in a place that goes from city to rural and bypasses suburban. What a joy that is. I bought some tomatoes (violating a rule of mine to never eat tomatoes I don't grow - but they looked so delicious), kale, and soft Italian bread. Next week I'll buy my tomato seedlings there as I move into my new apartment and put in a small side garden.


Far cry from adobe

I've settled on a new place to live in Emmaus, PA--a second floor apartment in a 'Queen Anne'-style house on the edge of the downtown business district. The house's towers, gables, and dormer windows are a world away from the angular adobe walls and jutting vigas that dominate architecture in Santa Fe. Plus, there's a lawn (with real grass) in the back just right for a tomato garden. My office is a 1/2 mile walk or ride away, and along the way I pass stores where I can buy Indian spices, fresh-made crab cakes, .22 ammo, and even get a tattoo.


Hitting the culture nail on the head

Sometimes, and perhaps with greater frequency now, reporters at the New York Times catch a cultural phenomena at its birth. These are the articles you read not because you already know about the topic--but because they are utterly fresh and enticing. And I am not referring to those articles that attempt to cast a survey of your close friends as a massive cultural shift, like the September 20, 2005 article "Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood," which, quite appropriately, got shredded.
But in an article dated April 27th, Styles reporter Warren St. John wrote about how MySpace.com profiles are becoming virtual shrines to people who have died tragically young. Okay, so most New York Times readers are probably vaguely aware of the Internet social community fad, and sites like MySpace.com-- even if it's from what their children tell them. And reporters have been trying too--the Times has run 86 articles in the last six months that mention Myspace.
But St. John's article, "Web Sites Set Up to Celebrate Life Recall Lives Lost," takes that extra step. He zooms in to examine 150 profiles of deceased people among the 70+ million that MySpace claims to have online. He highlights one website in particular that tracks these dynamic obituaries--http://www.mydeathspace.com/. A quick purview of that site enables you not only to anonymously visit the Internet "bedroom" of the deceased, but also see their friends and understand how they are reacting to their loss. It is microscopic, macabre, and universally fascinating. And I think it's good journalism.


Harvard - it's in the name

A few weeks ago Gene Plotkin, a 27-year-old Wall Street trader and 2000 graduate of Harvard College was arrested by the FBI for allegedly running a global insider trader scheme based on tips from the printer proofs from Business Week magazine. And over the weekend, the Harvard Crimson reported that Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore whose new novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life netted her a $500,000 advance while she was still in high school, plagiarized several passages from previous teen angst books by Megan McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan and YM.
Duke University has received worse press coverage in recent weeks, but Harvard students and graduates aren't belting out the school's fight song in public, especially if these allegations turn out to be accurate. I don't believe there is anything particularly noxious about going to school in Cambridge, Mass. that encourages breaking the rules. Harvard is a college like any other. Students work hard or slack off, or alternate between a combination of the two. Students cheat, and they also get caught. Cheaters might be exposed at higher rates than other schools because Harvard professors use high-tech computer programs to catch plagiarized words and computer code. Most students cut corners to keep from falling behind. Those that cheat and succeed don't talk about it.
But more than having your roommate write your essay, or getting an early look at an exam, Harvard's main problem is the slow seep of entitlement that all students there absorb. Dining hall conversations are conducted through a warped prism that focuses all attention on this school and its importance in the world. Students learn that they are to be the best, first, and smartest in everything they do. At first most of this self-importance is imagined. But as the Harvard name and diploma works its magic, the bestowed authority becomes more real. It can also influence behavior. 'You are already the best,' the internal rationalizing goes. 'What you do to stay the best is not cheating, but your own cleverness.' Some people take this entitlement too far and blur the distinction between right and wrong or legal and illegal. It's easy to cheat when you consider yourself on a different level from everyone else.
But not all of this ego is cultivated inside Harvard Yard. Many people are quite willing to give Harvard extra attention, for both its triumphs and follies, which nourishes an already strong self-absorption. And as long as the rest of the world continues looking, Harvard students will continue to be seen--for both good and bad reasons.


Backpacker Isle

I'm learning that the archipelago of magazines resembles the Galapagos islands and its unique finches. Like those famous finches, magazines and their editors evolve in isolation to accomplish similar goals and overcome similar challenges. Darwin's birds have specially adapted beaks depending on the island they inhabit, while magazine editors develop tools to plan, edit, proof, and design that are specific to the attitude and needs of their home-publication. The balance of emphasis can be slightly different as editors weigh the importance of fact-checking, brainstorming, and even the internal sections within a magazine. In some places the difference is lingo. Printer proofs are all the same, but can be called "Blue Lines," "Proofs" or "Last Looks."
On the Galapagos, a finch who migrated to a new island would find an entirely different species with no connection to him. But in journalism, an editor who leaps to another magazine finds a world that's like a new map laid upon a something familiar. The destination is the same, but the routes and street names are different, and the new grid takes a little while to figure out. This is all becoming apparent to me as I start my new job at Backpacker and learn the environs of this new magazine island.


Day Four: Home stretch

Today Jackie and I will drive from Akron, Ohio to Morristown, New Jersey--the final 450 miles of this road trip, and a journey between two homes for me. I grew up in the town of Hudson, a satellite suburb of Akron, and my parents now live in the Garden State greenburg of Morristown. My Subaru, which sports a "Learned Owl Book Shop" bumper sticker (the independent Hudson bookstore where I worked during high school), will bring its exotic New Mexico license plates to Soprano country. And this 2,000 mile trip out of the desert will end with a Passover seder of matzo ball soup and gefilte fish.


Day Two: Arrived in Saint Louie

After two days, 1100 miles, and countless gallons of nearly $3 gas, I've arrived in Saint Louis. A few moments come to mind from my road trip thus far.
Just after merging onto I-4o East at Clines Corners, NM, I looked back and for a few minutes could see all the peaks in New Mexico that I had climbed or set foot upon, including Hermit's Peak, Santa Fe Baldy, and the snow-capped teeth of the Truchas ridge. I had never seen those mountains arrayed so splendidly, and I am glad that I looked back one last time.
In addition to a dozen CDs, my companion on this trip has been an MP3 version of the "9-11 Comission Report" -- read by a computer-generated female voice. Besides pronouncing the CIA as "seeya" and "NGO" as "ngoo" (not to mention the numerous and colorful Arabic names), this free MP3 version has been a great way to get into that report, which provides a terrific chronology on al Queda's decade-long and increasingly destructive war on the United States. I'm learning a lot of new things.
I am also remembering humidity. Cool mountain air was just a memory last night as I walked through Okalahoma City's "Bricktown," a warehouse district re-done as a trendy food and entertainment venue. A giant outdoor jumbotron showed the Red Sox playing in Fenway, and the moist night breezes felt oddly comforting to me, like an old familiar friend being re-introduced.



Si, se puede

My last 'Santa Fe moment' might be my best one.
On Sunday afternoon I got caught up in a pro-immigration march in Santa Fe --a few thousand people coursing through downtown streets wearing white shirts and singing and chanting.
I originally thought the march was some sort of religious procession--it being Sunday, everyone dressed in white, and Santa Fe being a predominantly Catholic city. But then I saw the signs and banners, mostly in Spanish, with fiery pro-immigration slogans.
I was in the Plaza along with hundreds of bewildered tourists watching the boisterous marchers when an olive-skinned man standing next to me leaned over and asked, "What are they shouting?"
Huh? From a quick glance, I had taken him to be Hispanic, and was surprised by his request for me, an obvious Anglo, to translate the Spanish chants. But then I realized that he was an Indian from one of the pueblos (reservations) that surround Santa Fe. He didn't speak Spanish.
"I think they are saying 'Si, se puede,' " I told him. "It means 'Yes, we can.' "
The man nodded and thanked me, and then walked away with his friends past the famous portal where Indian artisans have been selling turquoise and silver jewelry for over 100 years.
I later did some research and learned that the slogan, "Si, se puede," has been borrowed by the immigrant rights community from Cesar Chavez's United Farm Worker (UFW) campaign from a few decades ago. Ironically, the UFW opposed illegal immigration, as incoming low-wage workers threatened the unionized jobs they were trying to protect.
Only in Santa Fe...


Five boxes

That's what is sitting on the archive shelves in the basement of the Outside magazine offices. In those boxes are enough facts, hopefully accurate, to float a battleship. It's rare to see my two years of my life compartmentalized like that - but sometimes it's possible. Five years from now when those five boxes are carried away and destroyed, I wonder where I will be, and if their fate will ever cross my mind.


Thinking about a move

I'm discovering that the logistical hurdles of moving across the country can obscure its real-life impact. These days I'm buried deep in a bullet-list dedicated to relocating to Pennsylvania--arranging a mover, finding enough boxes, deciding what to keep and what to give away, and planning final gatherings with my friends. But I need to think beyond my lists.
I'm realizing that the challenge of my new job and finding a place to live can block out the regret of what I 'm leaving behind. What is fresh eclipses what is familiar. And once you leave a place, you can't go back to the way it was before. Moving is like driving a brand-new car off the dealer's lot. That new car, like your old home, won't be the same the instant the tires hit the street. I learned this when I went back to Edinburgh, Scotland a few years ago. The ancient streets and stairways were still there, but my friends were not, and so the city seemed more foreign than I remembered it.
I don't know when I will return to Santa Fe, or what occasion it might be. But I should know that even though the mountains will still be here, along with my memories of climbing them, they won't feel as familiar as they do now.


Reading Lincoln

The gist of Doris Kearns Goodwins' new history, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is that our 16th president's success was not the result of lucky timing, his melancholic empathy, or an unhappy home life. Instead, she highlights Lincoln's persistent efforts to impress and eventually master all those men he needed to support his cause. For the most part these were men who were more famous, esteemed, and educated than Lincoln--but they never matched his political cleverness.
Lincoln was also ambitious--running (and losing) his first campaign for state legislature at the age of 23. In speeches he was concise, in appearance he was awkward, and in depressive moments he was remote, but in seeking support for his political ambitions, and those of his friends, Lincoln never lacked action and energy. In an age where self-promotional campaigning was unknown, Lincoln sought support through private channels and ensuring that his speeches were printed and circulated in newspapers and pamphlets. Goodwin, like other biographers, quotes his many letters to influential politicians and friends. Here is what he wrote to a potential supporter before his first congressional campaign in 1843. "Now if you should hear any one say that Lincoln don't want to go to Congress, tell him... ...he is mistaken."
History books tend to portray Lincoln as an inevitable 19th century political icon--the self-made, log cabin-born president. They neglect the fact that Lincoln was a political fighter--a ferocious party man who knew just which levers he had to pull to advance his chances for higher office. If Lincoln ran a political campaign in 2006, I think we would do well. He was just that smart about politics.


Newark goes primetime

Finally, people are paying attention to Newark. NJ. Okay, so maybe only until the May 9th mayoral election. But I'm not complaining. Even the New York Times has devoted a blog to this big-top race between 20-year incumbent Sharpe James, and his baldy earnest challenger, Cory Booker. It's just too bad the media treats this city of 280,000 as the delinquent step-son to New York--a broken, corrupted city good for laughs when nothing funny is going down in Brooklyn.
Though everything about me begs the question--I've watched Newark closely since 1998 and know it better than any of the cities I've lived in. Here's what the media coverage of this race is missing:
First, Sharpe James is a former boxer. He plays with the press like a heavyweight toys with a bantam. And most reporters, with a few exceptions, gleefully submit to his pummeling. It's far easier to report a story about Sharpe James riding a bicycle down the 3rd floor hallways of City Hall to deliver his candidate petitions than to count the number of laws the city broke by siphoning Port Authority payments into capital projects like the downtown arena. I mean, the guy was wearing a straw hat and a tank top for christsakes! And since none of their readers actually care what happens to Newark, it makes for great entertainment. I mean, it's Newark afterall.
Cory Booker isn't that much different. Fresh off-the-plane reporters like to anoint Cory Booker as the incorruptible candidate and the city's next generation savior. The most excited are already counting down to the 2024 presidential primary when Booker would be a ripe 54 years old. He's Yale, Oxford ( Rhodes Scholar thankyouverymuch), Stanford and more earnest to accomplish good than Mister Rogers on Mother's Day.
Cory Booker started as a bright, young thing in Newark. In 1998 he knocked on thousands of doors to beat long-time Central Ward councilman George Branch--an old-style pol who never knew what hit him. I lived in Newark during the summer of 1998 and I remember passing newly-elected Councilman Booker several times on the sidewalk as he walked from his apartment in Brick Towers to City Hall. He smiled as he walked by.
Two years later I saw him again--and he had changed. "He's not in right now," his secretary told the line of Central Ward residents who waited outside his City Hall office hoping to see him. But he was in. I saw other guests, those with more "important" issues than shut-off water or broken traffic lights, enter through a secret side door to see Booker. He hadn't turned into a Sharpe James or copied the most repulsive habits of his fellow council members, but Cory Booker was no longer so bright and new. He got beat in 2002's mayoral election because he thought his shine was intact, and because Sharpe James bused in former Newark residents from South Carolina and Florida to vote.
The 2006 re-match is Booker's race to lose, and he knows it. He's more cautious than a Prudential employee at the corner of Broad and Market streets. Booker is smart enough to know that Sharpe James is throwing out phantom jabs and playing to the crowd. But James is just playing. If the mayor actually tries to seek re-election, Newark voters will resent being toyed with. Booker knows that James can't win the election, but that he can lose it by saying the wrong thing. Booker will continue playing the straight man in the race until it widens in his favor, or he gets really desperate.
Whenever someone asks me to explain what's the matter with Newark I start talking about toilets. I talk about specific toilets--the public restrooms located on the 3rd floor of Newark's city hall. The bathrooms for the council members and the mayor are immaculate, five-star affairs. I saw them when I was doing my interviews for my college thesis. But I also the saw public restrooms located less than sixty feet away. In there I found broken tiles, busted spigots, stalls drapped in caution tape like a crime scene, and urinals backed up all over the floor. Both facilities share the same plumbing, water source, and design plans--but one is for the people in power, and the other is for everyone else. Ever since I encountered this 'tale of two toilets, I've known that the symbol of Newark's failure to address its problems sits a dozen paces from the mayor's own gilded "throne."


Going East

Yesterday I accepted a new job as an associate editor at Backpacker magazine--part of the Rodale group based in Emmaus, PA. Besides requiring me to change the title of this Web site (how does "Buckeye Bounced To The Keystone State" sound?) I will be moving back east in a few weeks time. I am looking forward to new challenges at Backpacker, and the chance to make new friends and acquaintances. In the past few days I've realized that there are a lot of little choices in everyday life--but only a few decisions that have the weight of years upon them.


The Traveling Inferno

I was in transit this weekend. I was heading east across the country when thunderstorms over Chicago turned O'Hare airport into a pack of frustrated humanity worthy of the former "Hog Butcher for the World." I was trapped there for several hours as a participant/observer to this impacted chaos. They called it an "Air Traffic Control" delay--which I believe is the aviation equivalent to driving slowly when a downpour turns your windshield into a semi-opaque waterslide.
As I trekked through the concourses to find my departure gate, I noticed the curious transformation that occurred. The deeper I ventured into the airport, the more the architecture began to reflect the desperation of the stranded passengers.
I started beneath the gleaming glass and steel struts of the airport's newest terminal. I passed by Wolfgang Puck, Hudson News, Chile's and other denizens of the jet-set. Cyborg-like business travelers, electronic gear dangling from their earlobes, sipped coffees and beers with the confidence of frequently-delayed travelers. Plus, it's easier to be calm when you aren't paying for flights and meals. Here I glided along walkways under glowing fluorescent tubes.
But as I journeyed deeper into the airport, the wide corridors gave way to construction littered hallways, blind corners, and broken escalators draped in yellow tape. The information monitors announcing the arrivals and departures changed from crisp flat-screens to dinky RBG monitors dangling from the ceiling.
I left Wolfgang Puck behind, and found myself in the realm of Cinnabun, greasy pizza, and a forlorn Starbucks besieged by long lines of caffeine addicts. The air conditioning died out, leaving crowded hallways hot with unhappy people. Soon I noticed passengers splayed out on the floor like-war wounded waiting for the end to come.
From my quick study of the in-flight magazine map, I knew my gate was located at the far end of a long corridor. But when I reached the end of all paths--it wasn't there. Then I noticed the stairs going down. My gate was one of those basement departure zones--the cattle yards of airline travel. I saw people camped out on the stairs, their bags forming a hasty perimeter around their bodies.
I had little hope as I started my descent.


Real genius

The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal has a fun article describing how the chess team at Miami Dade Community College topped the best players from Harvard, Yale, and MIT to make the final four of the collegiate chess championships last December. Most of the community college's players hail from Cuba; a country, I learned, with a strong chess tradition. Miami Dade has done well in past competitions, but I believe this is the first time its Cuban chess superstars have been profiled in the national press.
The article described one player, Alberto Hernandez, as "a brawny 40-year-old security guard who studies English part time at Miami Dade." Hernandez arrived to the U.S. in a raft from Cuba in 1994. One of his opponents in the national competition was a 20-year biochemistry student at Harvard.
The article reminded me of a book--The Man Who Knew Infinity--about the 25-year-old Indian clerk named Ramanujan who was a self-taught mathematical prodigy. In 1913, Ramanujan sent an unsolicited letter containing several math proofs to G. H. Hardy, a prominent English mathematician. The undeniable genius of Ramanujan's equations impressed and puzzled Hardy, who arranged for the young Indian to come to England. Like a Good Will Hunting story authored by Evelyn Waugh, Hardy and Ramanujan worked together for five years, turning out incredible mathematical discoveries. But the young Indian felt isolated and homesick in England, and returned to India in 1919 where he died of tuberculosis a year later.
This story has always made me believe that the world's greatest celloist is not Yo-Yo Ma, but a child in Vietnam tending rice paddies who has never seen a cello. The best movie director is not Steven Spielberg, but an orphan living in the Rio's "City of God" who knows real anger and passion. The greatest writer on the planet is not sitting in a Starbucks with a laptop computer, but an East African boy herding bony cattle across the savannah whose only stories are the ones he dreams under the wide sky. Because of stories like Ramanujan and Miami Dade's chess players, I believe that there is much more genius in this world than there is time or luck to be discovered.


Another thinker moment from the BBC

An essay on this morning's broadcast of BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent" described two back to back political protests in Egypt. The first was led by moderate academics from Cairo University who called for more political freedoms and less corruption. It attracted about 50 protestors and about five times as many riot police. The second protest was composed of university students from the Moslem Brotherhood, an quasi-banned Islamic fundamentalist group that made gains in recent parlimentary elections. This rally drew 300 students to the square in front of Cairo University, who shouted similar reform slogans , but also held up copies of the Koran. Non-commital students watching from outside the ring of riot police criticized the first protest, stating that the academics were going too far, and also neglecting the importance of Islamic values.
That highly-organized, tightly-bonded hardline Islamic parties are winning elections and gaining supporters across a gradually awakening Middle East should not be a surprise. After all, the U.S. civil rights movement was led by African-American churches, and the ANC struggled for decades as a highly centralized and idealogical guerrilla organization before the collapse of South Africa's apartheid regime. The least corrupt, and most passionately organized groups will be the best at attracting followers who suddently find themselves free to hold political opinions. And in the Middle East, those parties are almost always religious. Policy planners who wished for agnostic political revolutions and election results in the Middle East similar to the hued models of Ukraine and Georgia forgot the vast differences between Kiev and Cairo.
But in a wink to real-politik, those Cairo protestors who adopted a religous mantle to their slogans also must realize that governments who require the backing of Muslim authorities to rule are much less likely to club and imprison moderate protestors holding up copies of the Koran than those holding up law books.



Requiem for a device

The nearest thing to my pride and joy died last week: my Cowon iAudio U2 digital music player. It's demise was unexpected, and rather... shocking. You see, it was static electricity that did it in. I was listening to my Slate.com podcast while biking to work, with the iAudio u2 stashed safely in my coat pocket. Arriving at my office, I took of my coat and ZAP - the invisible voices were silenced forever. A rogue bolt of blue lightning turned my podcast carrier/voice recorder/airplane savior/sleek black beauty into a 0.8 oz. plastic paper weight. It was the battery, I think. It's lithium core jolted into blue jello by a few extra volts flowing the wrong direction. Damn this low-humidity, high-mountain air. No amount of firmware updating, reset-button pushing, or tech support harassing could bring it back. It was dead as Windows 98. I was pissed because not only did this device entertain me, but it was an invaluable work tool as well. I used it to record dozens of phone calls and interviews for Outside, and also to capture my family's old-time stories and histories at a December 2005 reunion. I used it often and therefore I miss not having it.
So last night I went on Amazon.com and bought a new digital music player. This new device runs on AA batteries. I hope it's more grounded.


The Cartoon Riots

How can crudely drawn cartoons spark riots and demonstrations from London to Jakarta? It's easy, actually. After all, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which lasted for two years and killed thousands, is traced, at least in historical mythology, to ordinary bullet cartridges.
Once the Indian soldiers, known as Sepoys, discovered that the cartridges for their Lee-Enfield .303 rifles were coated in pig and beef grease--their British colonial masters were in deep trouble. The soldiers, after all, had to bite through the tops of the cartridges before loading them into their rifles. And for devout Muslims and Hindus, respectively, the fat of pigs and cattle is not something they should be chewing on. Not that the Lee-Enfield company really cared, though.
But ignorance, more than cartoons and bullets, is the real factor at play in the current outbursts and reactions over depictions of Mohammed. It's ignorance about how people live and what they believe. Freedom of press is as foreign to Iranian students as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed are to a stockbroker in Chicago. And this ignorance allows radical leaders, especially in the cities where the riots have taken place, to exploit the mindless energy of the masses to consolidate their power, and improve their credentials. These leaders thrive in places where the young men lack both economic opportunity and a global comprehension--a description that can be applied to many big cities across the Middle East.
How big is the barrier between the West and the Islamic world? Won't globalization and the promise of democracy break down even that high wall? Today's cartoons show that these two worlds, increasingly intermingled, still know as much about each other as they did in the 19th century.
One ironic counter-example that reporters on the ground in Iran and Pakistan like to point out is that teenage protesters shout "Death to America" on the street, and then approach western journalists with whispered pleas to help them get a US visa. What does this show: Perhaps that many of the world's marginalized societies are hedging their bets--playing both radicalism and westernism to see which one will win. Plenty of Americans can relate--after all, even if we badmouth our boss to co-workers, we'll still kiss up to get a raise.


Six more weeks of mild... spring?

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is a long way from New Mexico, and so I don't fault Phil for today's forecast of a prolonged winter. Since we haven't had winter yet in Santa Fe, I imagine that we are in store for six more weeks of 55F days and cloudless blue skies.
But more seriously, the lack of snow (or of any precipitation) has increased fears that the national forests will be closed this spring and summer due to fire dangers. Two summers ago rangers blocked the road to ski basin--cutting off all access. So I am planning, with some co-workers, to do more hiking and camping in February and March--before the fire restrictions arrive. The nights might be a little chillier this early on--but the views will still be worth it.


New addition - photo albums

I've begun to add my photo albums to this site -- starting with the Outside Magazine gear testing trip to the Grand Canyon last December. Check them out by clicking on the Albums button above.


On the way to Montreal

Free Wifi Internet access in public places is still somewhere between a nice trick and a useful tool. The idea of sending e-mails from a lovely park in the center of a city is tantalizing - but when I am actually in that park and can send e-mail - I can think of a dozen other things I would like to do (including traditional park activities like people watching, and doing nothing).
So here I am in Albuquerque's airport (or, as they rightly call it, the "Sunport"), and I've sent a few e-mails to my co-workers about magazine stories I browsed in the book shop. I've also checked the New York Times headlines to read about Oprah's retraction, and President Bush's party photos with Jack. But now I'm ready to close my computer and pull out a magazine. After all -- I spend ten to twelve hours a day socketed into a high-speed Internet connection. Sometimes I relish the chance for a break.
On my way to Montreal for the weekend.


The BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent"

Since I began "podcatching" a few months ago--that is, listening to podcasts downloaded from the Web, one of my favorites has become the BBC's "From Our Own Correspondent". For fifty years the "Beeb" has allowed its foreign reporters to let off steam or tell a story through these spoken-word personal essays. "FooC," as its fans like to call it, provides listeners with revealing, eye-level perspectives on regions of the globe where U.S.-based reporters never tread--the lost Hejaz railway in Arabia, a re-born school in Monrovia, the wind-swept Kazakh capital of Almaty, and the teeming streets of Mumbai. The world listens to these reports--one correspondent recalled being summoned to the office of the late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir after he described her legs as "stumpy" in his FooC broadcast. I listen to the segments to keep up with news from around the world, and to discover good ideas for Outside magazine to cover. If you want to take a wider look around, check it out.


A matter of altitude

On Saturday afternoon I played tennis outdoors and went skiing. Only in Santa Fe, I might add. The tennis courts sit on Old Taos Road, where the radio towers that mark the location of the ski mountain are visible 16 miles and 2,500 feet in elevation away. The winter sun, still strong even at its weakest angle, heats the town to over 50F degrees by noon and makes possible a quick tennis match. The same sun divides the ski runs into shadow and light, and warms the long, slow chair lift up the mountain. Lack of snow this year has allowed only the lower mountain to open, though the bright, balmy days have moved up spring skiing to January. More snow is forecast for tonight and tomorrow, and all skiers hope to wake to a white-shrouded world in the morning. But the last few weeks of unchallenged blue sky and sun -- and tennis and skiing in the same day -- have their appeal too.


Starting to write

Now that writing has become something of an occupation for me, I've learned to ask other writers how they go about it. When faced with a blank computer screen or piece of paper--where do they go for the inspiration to fill it? What do the first random words of a 4,000 word article look like? Is it better to outline, or just dive into an opening scene? Do they need a deadline and a badgering editor, or can they write to completion on their own? I get dozens of different answers, although coffee shops, rough outlines, and harassing editors are common themes.
I'm facing one of those empty pages as I start a feature story on my family's farm in Pennsylvania. I try to think back to previous articles I wrote, but my memories of the first drafts are always swallowed up by the stronger impressions of the final revisions. I can never remember that magic moment when my sentences and paragraphs cease to be fragmented ambitions, and merge to become the hot, spinning core of a story. Each time, it seems, I must rediscover how to write.


Always archiving

Growing up in Ohio, every Sunday night I would sit on the family-room floor and cut out stories from the three newspapers we received at home: the Hudson Hub-Times, the Akron Beacon Journal, and the Sunday New York Times. By the time I graduated from high school I had assembled several thick folders of clippings--mostly about the church-state and First Amendment issues that rocked by hometown during those years, but also about important national issues like the Gulf War and the collapse of Communism. Nowadays I don't subscribe to a daily newspaper, so my kitchen scissors are replaced by digital cut 'n paste on my laptop. I maintain dozens of virtual folders stuffed with hundreds of articles on topics ranging from Science to Books/Literature to Media. I don't know why I collect these articles--I've referenced them only a few times over many years of archiving. But I still keep gathering them, perhaps adhering to the midwestern motto: "Might come in handy some day." So anytime I see an article on topics that interest me--from the evolutionary connections between animals through time, to analysis of important Supreme Court decisions--I always clip and save and wonder when I will use it again.