Friday, August 26, 2005

states picking up feds' slack

I read something yesterday that I found utterly fascinating. According to a recent article in The New York Times, nine Northeastern states have taken the initiative of enacting new restrictions on emissions. In doing so, they have joined a number of the larger U.S. metropolitan areas in getting on board with the goals of the Kyoto accord, which President Bush refused to ratify on the grounds that it would be inimical to American interests.

Air pollution in general and emissions specifically are the most significant items of interest in the ongoing discussion on global warming and what to do about it. Virtually everyone except the president and his administration acknowledge that manmade pollution is heating up the earth's atmosphere and effecting climate change on a massive scale.

It's ironic that this movement is happening now, during the Bush administration, not just because it shows how out of step Bush is with a large segment of the voting population, but because he unintentionally or inadvertantly has reminded us of a great truth I think most politicians would rather we forgot: We have the power within ourselves to effect change, even when they won't do it for us.

Bush, whose administration has more ties to the oil and energy industry than I have unmatched socks in my drawer, has been about as unsupportive of the environmental movement as you can be without actually clubbing baby seals. He's expanded the timber industry's access to the forests in our national parks, targeted the Alaskan Wildlife Preserve for oil drilling, put oil industry executives on the task force that helped develop our national energy policy, loosened the fuel efficiency requirements for auto manufacturers, refused to ratify the aforementioned Kyoto accord, and has granted coal-burning power plants leave not to clean up their acts, leaving East Coast states like New Jersey to deal with the acid rain caused by Midwest power plants. Oh, and he also issued an executive order countermanding one by President Clinton that would have required toilet manufacturers to design commodes that use fewer gallons per flush.

All told, while the Bush administration has been a boon to business and industry, it's been quite the opposite to the environmental movement. It's been bad enough that former New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, who could hardly be described as an environmentalist for her eight years as that state's chief executive, resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency when she could no longer support his environmentally unfriendly policies.

But Bush is out of step with much of America on this issue, and I think we're going to see more evidence of this as time goes on. Environmental groups are applauding the Northeastern states' actions, because they think other states are going to follow their initiative and take similar steps to curb emissions from power plants, industry, and automobiles.

ant problems

Does anyone know how to get rid of ants with boric acid?

I ask because we're having a continuing ant problem in the kitchen and the bathrooms. Usually they're the itty-bitty ants I've heard called water ants, but on occasion I've seen larger models too. When we had an apparent nest inside a potted plant, it was easy to wipe them out with some dish detergent in water, but I can scarcely do that here.

I used the boric acid to great effect with a flea problem we were having earlier this summer, but my attempts at ant control weren't as successful. (I was told to mix it with sugar, get it wet, and soak cotton balls in the mixture. The ant would be drawn to the sugar and killed by the boric acid.) Ant traps also have been ineffective.

Raid and other sprays work on ants where we can see them, but I'm after something the ants can take back to the nests with them and kill the queen, so the whole colony will die. I'd also rather not spray poison around the kitchen.

So, any suggestions?

Thursday, August 25, 2005

happy birthday to me

We had a wonderful time on my birthday yesterday. My wife gave me a couple cardboard boxes and newspaper that the girls put presents inside, and they thought it was tremendous when I put a bubblewrap mailing envelope on my head for a "birthday hat."

The presents from the girls included a JMS Spider-Man trade paperback that reinterprets the death of Gwen Stacy, and reveals that she had children before she died, and a Simpsons Seaon 5 DVD set. Very nice, though I've been thinking lately how much I don't need more CDs or particularly need birthday presents.

Being married to my wife and having those two girls made this one of the best birthdays I can imagine.

And, as is customary for our marriage, I made dinner and baked my own birthday cake.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

the rise and fall of the american empire

A friend of mine from my biweekly D&D sessions sent me a lengthy piece from CTheory that analyzes political, social and economic trends in the United States today, and looks ahead to the next fifty years. It's a fascinating essay, but I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure what to make of it either. It's fairly lengthy and not as readable as one would wish for something this complex. I definitely see the power to what the author is saying, though, on several points:
  • America has become a nation of consumers rather than producers. Our industry has been outsourced to other countries, and many "American" businesses are, more truthfully, multinational companies with assets so widely scattered it's hardly fair to say that they're American in the sense that originally would have meant. Our factories are in Mexico and China, our tech support comes from India, and plenty of other intellectual services, such as architecture, have been outsourced to places like Egypt, where the knowledge comes more cheaply than from a place here in the U.S.; and even our food is grown all over the world. It makes shareholders happy when the bottom line is blacker, but it makes us progressively less capable to provide for ourselves. As fuel costs continue to soar, we can expect the price of the goods we consume to rise also, and we'll have little alternative,since we've shut down our factories, developed our farms, and outsourced everything else.
  • Our economy is riding an inflated bubble, and we're probably facing another Depression in the next ten years. Savings reached zero percent this year, and people are borrowing like crazy to get everything. It's a "standard of living" issue, but our standard of living is preposterous, with the things we "need." The writer notes -- and I agree -- that we've inverted the Protestant work ethic that made our nation what it is (or was). Instead of working hard with a delayed gratification, we've opted for a model of instant gratification where we get what we want now, even if we don't need it, and spend the next twenty or thirty years working our way out of debt. We do this not just with houses, but with cars, education, appliances, entertainment and pretty much everything else we buy. That's unsound economics, as anyone who remembers Black Friday in 1987 will attest.
  • We're ignoramuses of our own history and culture. I actually thought this was an interesting stament in the piece you sent, since the author makes the point that our pop culture is recycling itself, with remakes of old TV shows, movies and TV shows as movies, a la "Dukes of Hazard." Part of this is the dimming of the American mind, to be sure, but it also hearkens back to the lost tradition of storytelling, where people would retell familiar stories from one generation to the next. What I gleaned from this point was that our new mass storytelling isn't connecting to our cultural heritage -- our history, Shakespeare, antiquity, the Bible -- it's connecting to recent stuff instead, and most of it fairly lightweight, like superhero movies or "Dukes of Hazzard." Rather than wrestling with the deep and troubling stories told by Shakespeare, Victor Hugo or Moses, we're going for the simple-minded morality tales of Batman fighting the Scarecrow, and the Duke boys getting the upper hand on Roscoe P. Coaltrain.
I'd have to say that I think a lot of the analysis here is dead-on, and it makes me think of a line from Alex Ross' "Uncle Sam" comic with Vertigo a few years back. Brittania, talking to Sam, recalls when she fell from glory and then adds: "Of course, when you fall, it's going to make what I went through look like a bloody cricket match."

And as the writer interprets from current events, it's not that the United States is going to fall. We've already started to topple.

Friday, August 19, 2005

alan moore's "swamp thing"

I don't know if you've ever read Alan Moore's run on "Swamp Thing," but if you haven't, I recommend it. In fact, even if it's available at the library, I'd go out and buy a copy. It's that good.

The only other Moore work I know from the 1980s is his "Watchmen," which I've never been able to submerge myself in completely, even though I recognize its importance to the medium and even though I can enjoy the artistry in some ways. (I'm guessing I don't have enough angst and despair to enjoy the darkening tone of the pirate comic, especially when it's buoyed up by Dreyburg's depression, the Comedian's nihilism, Rorshach's endless hostility and Dr. Manhattan's disinterest.)

"Swamp Thing" is just incredible. As the D.C. Universe goes, he's probably a C-string character, slightly more interesting than the Elongated Man, but not as engaging as Green Arrow or Etrigan. I know him mostly from the movie, where Alec Holland was working on some sort of growth formula to enhance plant growth, got covered in the stuff and became the anthropomorphic embodiment of swamp plants. Plus he had a guest shot in "Aquaman" while Peter David was writing it, and Neil Gaiman wrote a couple Swamp Thing-related stories that appeared in "Midnight Days."

In his first issue on "Swamp Thing" -- and it always feels funny to write about a personally new discovery that's actual twenty years old -- Moore reinterpreted the Swamp Thing's origin, much in the way that JMS later reinterpreted Spider-Man. I don't want to say much about it if you haven't read the volume in question, but it's fascinating. It completely redefines the character without really violating anything you've understood about him, and in some ways it even explains some of the impossibilities of his origins -- although as I noted to Natasha, you can't really do that without creating more absurdities, since you're trying to make the impossible seem believable.

Still, he redefines the character, and then follows that through brilliantly, creating a four-part horror story that works precisely because it deals with real horrors like the environmental devastation we've perpetrated in the last several decades. After that comes another three-part horror story that is also good, partly because of the thematic elements, but mostly because of those freaking twists and turns Moore puts his stories through in terms of expectation and plot. His stories can get so complex, it's fun to go back and re-read them just to see all the pieces lining up ahead of time.

I wish I could write that well. (Come to think of it, I wish Moore still wrote that well, but the "Tom Strong" books I've read have been a disappointment, and even "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" wasn't as good as this.)

And of course, as a "Sandman" fan, I got a kick out of realizing that Matthew Cable is none other than the pre-deceased Matthew, who became Dream's Raven in "The Doll's House." I had read that somewhere else, I think on an annotated Sandman web site I visited a couple years ago, but it was still neat to make the connection, and also to recognize a quote that Gaiman borrowed for "The Wake": "The night can make a man more brave, but not more sober." Ironic, I thought, that a comic book character was quoting to Matthew a line from a comic book where Matthew nearly killed himself while driving drunk.

Anyway, "Swamp Thing" is good stuff. I must remember to use my Barnes & Noble card to snag a copy at 20 percent off if the opportunity presents itself. (And for another good horror comic, check out "30 Days of Night," one of the all-time chillingest horror comics I've read, although it didn't give me nightmares.)

attack of the macrocephalites

I took the girls to the pediatrician on Tuesday. Evangeline needed a chicken pox vaccination before school starts, and Rachel needed a couple vaccinations herself before she can start preschool. That went fairly easily, despite their trepidation over getting shots -- Evangeline had just had four shots the previous week, one of them quite painful, and my attempts to get her in a positive state of mind by having her sing "I want to get a shot / Right in the butt" to the tune of "You Can't Get to Heaven" were ultimately unsuccessful.

I don't remember our last pediatrician doing this, but the nurse on Tuesday took a tape measure and measured the circumference of Rachel's head. When the doctor came in a few minutes later, she had a worried look on her face, and measured Rachel's head again herself.

"Let me guess," I said, "her head is bigger than normal."
"Well, yes," she said.
"In fact, it's off the chart."
"Yes," she said.
"And you're worried that she might have hydroencephalitis," I said.

The doctor started to laugh a little, since this was obviously familiar territory for me. Maybe she had noticed the size of my own head, which has been mistaken in the past for a three-story building.

"Well, hydroencephalitis or other related problems," she said. "Has her head always been large?"

"My wife thinks so," I said. "And she would know best. She calls it the Learn family head, and it is big enough for an entire family. She gets that from her father."

It turns out that Rachel, while she is only in the 25th percentile or so for height, is off the charts for head size. The doctor showed me the standard distribution for head size on children her age, and Rachel was well outside the norm, meaning she looks something like MODOK in the old Captain America comics. Still, as the doctor noted in the exam, Rachel was engaging in healthy imaginative play, responded to complex requests, had tremendous fine and gross motor skills, and was in no way impaired in her language ability.

In other words, she's a macrocephalite -- a fancy way of saying she has a big head, just like her father. Let's just hope she doesn't get the figurative big head that goes with it.

Also, as of Wednesday afternoon, I am one tooth lighter than I used to be. Now I'll agree I need to lose weight, but my mouth is not where I would like to lose it. Still, I had a broken molar and the dentists decided either they couldn't repair it or (I think more likely) my insurance company or their DMO policy said they couldn't repair it because they could just remove it instead, more cheaply. Worst of all, the smegheads wouldn't let me keep the tooth to put under the pillow and get a lousy 25 cents from the tooth fairy.

So now my mouth is lopsided because I have no lower right rear molar, but on the upside, my head is as big as ever.

a cardinal sin

Well, I did it again -- I have committed a cardinal sin in the world of homeschoolers, by failing to show proper solidarity with the party line. (And I bet you thought that happened only when teachers opposed the National Educators Association.)

I broke the first rule last year, when we decided to enroll Evangeline at an area charter school for first grade. I get a little touchy about this because I've encountered not once but several times a pervasive, defensive attitude among homeschoolers. We have to believe that homeschooling is better than school education, that our children are smarter, better adjusted socially, happier and just plain better off. With a few exceptions, there's a lot of resentment toward any insinuation that homeschooling is anything less than the best choice for every parent. Starting out as a homeschooler and then stopping -- that's just unacceptable. (I usually handle such reponses by asking them if they agree that the fundamental tenet of homeschooling is that parents know what is best for their children's education. Once they agree to that, I ask them to explain why they're faulting my decision when I'm the parent in question.)

Well, Thursday afternoon, I broke the second rule. I was at a park get-together with other homeschoolers, and somehow discussion turned toward the regulations in different states. New Jersey is one of the most generous states where homeschoolers are concerned. If I were to educate Evangeline all the way through 12th grade, all I have to do is send a letter to the school district, saying that we intend to educate her at home, and at that point, the burden of proof lies on the district to prove that I'm not educating her rather on me to prove that I am. There are no rules governing training or certification for me to homeschool, no rules stipulating what curricula I must use, and no evaluations of what my children actually do learn. I said that I think New Jersey is probably a little too lax on the rules.

About half the other parents there either took it in stride, or silently agreed with me. Who can tell, when they say nothing? The other half, though, wanted to know what I thought was wrong with the way things are, why I thought it would be good to have any sort of oversight, whose business was it what people teach their kids, and so on.

The thing is, I wasn't even discussing regulation as a means of catching people like the Jacksons, who allegedly abused or neglected foster children in their Collingswood home and used "homeschooling" as a means of avoiding detection at school. I did cite the Jacksons example, because they claimed to be homeschooling their kids and weren't. The alleged abuse is a different story, and the state Division of Youth and Family Services should have caught that abuse when its caseworkers supposedly visited the house. I'd say we have an obligation as a society to look out for the welfare of our children, and that includes making sure they're being educated. "Am I brother's keeper?" (Yes, Cain, you are.)

How you would evaluate, I don't know. I can't think anyone should object to a child mastering concepts faster than they would at school, and as noted, that's one of the biggest points of pride where homeschoolers are concerned -- how advanced our kids are, compared to the public school kids. So maybe there should be some sort of evaluation done -- though of course you run the risk of bias affecting how the evaluation is performed, and there's also the variation among children regarding their progress and development. Evangeline knew how to read before she was 5; other children don't want to learn until they're 6 or 7, which an anti-homeschooling administrator could see as a parent's failure. And of course there are "unschoolers," although I have to admit I'm a little suspicious of a Summerhill approach to education myself.

Part of the reaction -- and I'm speculating wildly here, so this part shouldn't be taken too seriously -- could stem from the individual's reason for homeschooling. Some people have a separatist motivation for homeschooling, a sort of "The district will teach my child horrible values and lead them away from the truth" thinking. Others, and I believe I lie more in this area than in the former, see it simply as a better means of education; i.e., "Public schools are going to fail my kids badly. They'll be better off if I homeschool them."

So I am falling rapidly from grace. The only thing left to do is to join the NEA.

that says it all

"In this world of sin and sorrow, there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."
-- H.L. Mencken, quoted in "The Portable Curmudgeon"

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

getting feedback, and other events

I was talking to a friend last night who's on my "A Messy Faith" mailing list, and he told me had found my story about Daedalos to be haunting.

I was intrigued, since I haven't been getting much in the way of feedback on the list lately, and its membership hasn't swelled considerably yet. Not completely surprisingly, Brian didn't quite get the idea behind the story. He saw it as being about a man who had been courageous, lost his courage when he realized that he wasn't as in control of his life as he had thought, and then finally committed suicide.

That wasn't quite what I was aiming at. The ending was meant to be at least a little jarring, since you really don't know what's going to happen next, whether the wind carries Daedalos away from where he's been languishing, or if he's going to plunge to his death. I can see where he could get that interpretation, though I had thought the wind was a rather obvious symbol for what I had in mind.

Ah well.

Things continue as they have been, otherwise. We just got back from a weekend trip to visit family in Atlantic City, and are taking a slightly longer trip to D.C. this Friday afternoon, where we will visit my brother and take in the sights of the capital. We won't be going to visit the White House, alas, but we will see some of the other monuments, and let the girls see their first-ever protests outside the White House, I'm sure.

Just checked out a bunch of graphic novels from the library. As predicted, most of the Batman graphic novels were a disappointment. They've replaced Jim Gordon with a new police commissioner (Gordon retired), which makes for an interesting tension between Batman and the Gotham police; and for a few issues at least Batman had a female Robin sidekick, since Timothy Drake was grounded from superheroics once his father found out. A couple of interesting developments and changes, but the comics still lack any vision or drive that made Miller's Batman stand out. Heck, they're not even as well developed as Jeph Loeb's Batman, and I never thought he was that interesting.

On the other hand, I also checked out Alan Moore's "Saga of the Swamp Thing." First time I've ever read a Swamp Thing story (aside from a short story or two by Neil Gaiman), and it's by Moore, too. Does it get any better than this? It's an interesting read, and from what I can tell, it completely reinvented the Swamp Thing story, with a whole new interpretation of its origin. I'm still processing it, and will undoubtedly reread it a few more times before I return it. It's not due until the end of the month, like the others, but they're going back tomorrow.

Been re-reading Straczynski's "Rising Stars," too. More on that later.

Friday, August 12, 2005

killer gas prices

Dear Mr. President,

Maybe you haven't noticed, but the price of gas is getting cripplingly high for many of us in America. It's reaching the point where we're reassessing not just recreational travel plans, but how much we use the car at all. It's driving up the costs of food, clothes and everything else that has to be transported from somewhere else to here.

It's bad enough for the middle class. I shudder to think of what it must be like for the working class and the unemployed who already are struggling to pay their bills. This isn't the time to drill for oil in the Arctic, or time to hope that freeing Iraq from Saddam Hussein so that Shi'a clerics can establish a harsh theocracy is going to bring new fuel into the country. We're at the point that we should be using heavily fuel sources that require fewer fossil fuels or none at all.

Think you could spare a thought for us working families, instead of for your friends and campaign donors in the oil industry?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

concering church membership

I had the following e-mail exchange today with the good people at The Wittenburg Door:

Dear Doorkeepers:

I am hoping you can help me resolve a quandary I am in, regarding church membership.

I recently talked with the pastor of a church I am interested in possibly attending. The last time I applied The Wittenburg Door litmus test to a pastor, he was excited to learn that you were still publishing, and it ended up being the best church I ever belonged to.

To my dismay, this new pastor has never heard of The Wittenburg Door. Should I rule out attending his church?

I await your response.

David Learn

Very slowly, so as not to arouse a fight or flight quandry, place a copy of the magazine in his cage and see if he:
(A.) tears it to shreds
(B.) urinates on it
(C.) Doesn't notice it
(D.) smiles

If it's anything other than (D.) go back to your old church.

In all seriousness, this new church seems intriguing -- for starters, it's based right here in the city where we live, so it'd be easier to get involved -- and I plan to attend one of their small groups next week, to see how it goes. If it doesn't seem like a good place, we'll stick with Zarephath Community Church a while longer.

But I hope The Door publishes my letter.